The door to the bathroom opened, and John stepped through to sling himself up beside me. “I’m so envious of women,” he grumbled as he set his kit next to one of the three sinks.
“They have to shave a lot more than us,” I muttered as I ran the knife over my cheek. “We just can’t see it on a daily basis.”
He considered that for a moment before nodding. “I never actually considered that. Huh.” He pulled out his straight razor. “Though, I can’t see how you can use your knife like that.”
“I take good care of my gear.”
That got a bark of laughter as he got out his brush and cup. “Good sir, I’m not sure if you’re pulling my leg or not. I’ve seen you use your weapon as a shovel, as an axe, as–”
“And I’m not putting it through a fraction of our original stress tests.” I glanced at him. “The metal isn’t just honed sharp enough that I’d never use my other knife to shave, it’s also formed into… Well, consider it a meta-stable lattice that can somehow conduct electricity without giving up one of its electrons. Honestly? That blade could take way more punishment than what I put it through, take it every day, and not need sharpened for a good fifty years. We thought that it would be awesome for building materials, but he couldn’t figure out how to do it for anything but weapons.”
“More’s the pity. We could have used that on the first bridge that I worked on.” He got to work lathering up his face. “The actual people with degrees were spread too thin, and the quality of the steel wasn’t as high as we were told. I mean, sure, we were told that statistically at least ten of us would die, but we didn’t expect it to collapse while we were all on it.”
“De nada,” he said with a strug.
“Still, I’m surprised that you aren’t afraid of heights after that.”
“I was for about two years.” He carefully slid the blade over his throat. “‘Twas a trial to overcome my aversion, but I did it.” He paused to look at me. “That said, I’m glad that we walked down this road today.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Something to do with our job?”
“In a manner of speaking.” John took a slow breath. “We got you a gift for while you’re in the village.”
I had the sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t going to like this.
I was going to kill them.
A dojo would have been cool. I hive would have been at least a little bit interesting. But as I approached the small building, hood up, all that I wanted to do was to run away. I didn’t want to be here, I didn’t want to do this, I didn’t want this at all. The only, only reason why I opened the door was because they’d spent good money on this, and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste.
The woman behind the small desk smiled at me as I stepped through the door. She was rail thin to the point where I was worried about her, but she was otherwise well-kept as she straightened herself up. “Hi, can I help you?”
“Uh…” It wasn’t too late. I could run. I could run like the wind and just lie about having gone. It wouldn’t be hard. They were giving me the honor system, only relying on my word to ensure that I was here. I could easily ditch this.
“I’m here for an eleven o’clock.”
She looked down at her ledger for a moment before rising from the desk, that pleasant smile still on her face. “Let me see if the doctor is ready for you. I’ll be right back.”
I looked around, finding myself to be the only person in the waiting room. I wondered why they all seemed to try and go for the same design. Chairs against the walls, a small coffee table with some sort of reading material every other chair. So much empty and unused space. Every doctor’s waiting room seemed to be arranged like that. Why? Was it something dating back to pre-Morning? Or was there some sort of purpose that I couldn’t figure out?
I’d just gotten seated when the secretary came back out, a man following behind her. Tall, broad-shouldered, weak musculature and a bit of pudge pretty much everywhere. This was a guy that wasn’t used to working with his body. Rusty hair, glasses. He smiled at me as he thrust his hand towards me. “You must be Jordan.” His voice was rich and deep, and fairly distinctive. “I’m Dr. West. I’m glad that you could make it.”
He said my name in front of the secretary… but she didn’t seem to respond in the slightest. I shook his hand, nodding once. “It’s a pleasure.”
As soon as I let go, he lead me back to the office. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. A desk or something. Instead, there were two plush leather chairs, both facing towards a window that took up almost the entire wall, looking out into a well-kept garden. Between them was a small table that had a pitcher of water, two glasses, and a tray of some sort of thin snack crackers that had seeds on them. I couldn’t help but notice the small wads of cloth on the shelf under the tabletop. Other than that and some potted plants that were still coming fully back to life, there was surprisingly little here.
It actually felt kind of homey. I wouldn’t have felt more comfortable if there were more books.
He closed the door and moved around the chairs. “Take whichever one will make you feel most comfortable, please.”
On a whim, I grabbed the one on the left, mindful of my robes. “I’m surprised that you’re willing to see me.”
“Why?” he asked as he settled down.
“Uh… I mean, you know who I am, aren’t you?”
“Of course. You’re Jordan, man of mystery. Why should that make me unwilling to help you?”
I shrugged a shoulder. “I’m dangerous?” I braced myself for the obvious question as a response.
Instead, Dr. West smiled patiently. “Every day, I try and help people work through their emotional traumas. Every day, I run the risk of upsetting a para to the point of violence, or of walking someone through a trauma and having them undergo a heavy trigger while I’m in the room with them. The job is dangerous, Jordan. Maybe not anything like your lifestyle, but it’s still there.
“If I were to look at each person and perform a threat assessment, I’d go mad. The weight of it all would crush me. Instead, I accept that there is danger, and trust in my ability to keep it from escalating. You’re no different from anyone else in that regard.”
“That makes sense, I guess.” I frowned a little. “So, uh… What… What did they tell you?”
“That you’ve had a rough year and a half. You’ve been through quite a bit, from Agamemnon to today, and that they’re worried about you. They said that you had some trouble this winter, and while you bounced back, they wanted to make sure that you stayed that way.”
I focused on the wood floor, my hands gripping the arms of the chair. “So they think that I have PTSD…”
“No, actually.” The doctor’s voice was light and cheerful. “They were very insistent that they didn’t think that. Hell, they suspected that you’d be one of the last people to suffer from that. But that doesn’t mean that the emotional weight of everything that’s happened isn’t on your shoulders.
“A lot of people tell me that they’re okay, but–”
“I’m not okay,” I admitted. It hurt to admit that, like someone stabbing me in the chest, but… Memories flickered in the back of my head. “As a kid, they used to send me to therapy a lot. I always felt like it was a waste of time, but I was obsessed, among other things. I see that now. It isn’t easy to admit, either, but yeah. I tend to obsess on stuff. And my red rages are still there. I glare at people who insult my friends, ready to attack and hurt them at a moment’s notice if they don’t get the hint.”
“And if someone insults you?”
That was a weird question. I shrugged a shoulder. “Doesn’t bother me much. People can think whatever they want about me, and that’s okay. I just… It makes me so mad when someone insults someone that I care about. I can’t really keep in control, you know?”
The doctor tilted his head a little. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but don’t you care about yourself?”
I winced. “Okay, yeah, that was a bad word choice on my part. Yeah, I do care about myself, but I can take it. It’s just… I can’t stand to see people hurt. And sure, my pain sucks, but I can… I feel like I can handle that. I have tools at my disposal to handle that. But my friends, my family? I just–”
My words caught in my throat as I saw a Warden walking by on the street. The window wasn’t facing the street, but I could see enough of it beyond the garden to see the woman walking in her armor. My hands gripped the chair tighter. I should have brought a weapon.
“Jordan,” Dr. West said in a soothing voice. “Relax. Our four Wardens patrol the town every day. There isn’t anything to worry about. They don’t know that you’re here, and if they come to take you, as my patient, I’m obligated to protect you.”
My head snapped to look at him, my face hardening. “No. That’s not the way this works. You’re a civilian, and a doctor. You swore an oath to do no harm, and I swore an oath to protect people. I’d draw them away, preferably outside of the city so that I wouldn’t have to worry about folks getting hurt in the crossfire.”
He paused for a moment before nodding. “I can accept that. And appreciate it. It… bothers you when people are put in danger because of you, doesn’t it?”
“Well, yeah?” I tried to relax again. It wasn’t easy. “I mean… I’m not an asshole. Everyone’s got enough pain, and I don’t need to be adding to it if I don’t have to, you know?”
“I can completely respect that.” That actually helped me relax a bit. “You were a mercenary, and you wanted to become a Warden. Protecting people is very important to you. It’s a source of your vigilance, but I’m willing to bet that you’re constantly vigilant, constantly looking out for trouble so that you can protect those around you.”
“That, I think, may be a source of your current difficulties. You’re trying to protect everyone, constantly keeping a lookout for danger. However, both the body and the brain weren’t designed to be on a constant state of alert. Are there any times where you aren’t keeping an eye out for danger? A time where you can just relax and be yourself?”
I frowned. There was always a part of me that was on the lookout. It came part and parcel with being a merc, and with doing the caravan runs. It had only gotten reinforced when… When… Well, I couldn’t remember when exactly, but when someone had attacked me. When did I relax completely?
“I’m kinda scared to say it,” I admitted. “I think that it might make me sound crazy.”
I took a deep breath. “When I’m training, I can relax.”
“That actually makes perfect sense. Exercise is a great way to cope with stress. Some people have called it the most natural form of self-medication possible. Your friends mentioned that you spend as much time as possible training, which, in that frame of reference, makes perfect sense.
“I understand that they’ve told you their concerns about over-training, however.”
“And I’ve told them that since they’re triggered, I have to work harder to keep up.” I wasn’t dumb. Kathy would have told the others.
West frowned a little. “I can… understand that. It also doesn’t help that our society puts so much emphasis on being triggered, as if just the act of triggering makes a person better, instead of just giving them tools at their disposal. In response, you’ve had to give yourself more tools.”
I gave him a sidelong glance. “You’re not going to tell me that I’m wrong?”
He shrugged a bit. “Not necessarily. This is our first time meeting each other, so I can’t tell you that for sure. I can help you, perhaps give you some tools to help yourself, but even though I’m prepared to stay here until after it’s dark, I can’t even begin to hope to equip you adequately for everything. It takes time to understand someone, and time for someone to induce changes upon themselves.”
“Yeah,” I said weakly.
“So are you wrong? Maybe. I don’t know. I know that you’re in an extraordinary situation, surrounded by potential enemies, many of whom have tools that you do not. Are you simply compensating, or overcompensating? I don’t know yet.”
He paused for a moment. “I believe that there’s a misconception about psychology. We aren’t like other doctors, we can’t tell you that you can take these pills and you’ll be cured within a week. We can’t tell you that if you come to us for a month, we can cure you of all your ills. It’s a process, and one that relies heavily on the people who come to us. We aren’t the ones who are doing any of the hard work.
“In the end, I can’t promise you, or your friends, that I can make everything better. I can’t promise someone suffering from depression, PTSD, whatever, I can’t promise them that I can help them, because in the end, I can only give you tools. Tools that may or may not work for any given individual, so we have to adjust. It’s entirely up to the patient on how they use those tools. Psychology is one of the few branches of medicine where what the patient gets out of it is exactly proportionate to how much they put into it.”
West leaned back into his chair. “The question is, how much effort are you willing to put into it?”
I looked away, back out the window. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
After a moment, Dr. West spoke with a warm tone. “That’s a good answer. You’re being honest. That’s better than the answer that I was expecting. Usually, when friends all but force someone to see me, the person fights me every step of the way. The fact that you don’t know means that you might be receptive to getting help.”
I forced myself not to react as I saw two more Wardens walking. Away from us this time, at least. The woman was different from before, too.
“Now, I’d like to ask about the other coping mechanisms that your friends mentioned.” I looked back to Dr. West. “They said that you have the ability to repress memories?”
“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “Kind of. Suppression is a better term. A Thinker helped me learn that.”
He frowned a little. “A Thinker? That doesn’t sound right.”
It was true, now that I thought about it. “Sorry. A Striker-slash-Trump-slash-Thinker.”
“Ah, right. That’s what I thought. Thinkers are usually completely internal, not external. Now, I can’t say for sure, but usually we repress those memories because the trauma would interfere with their ability to act on a day-to-day level.”
“But some people can’t do that,” I pointed out. “Some people can’t suppress what happened to them.”
“That’s true,” he admitted. “Some people can’t. Either it doesn’t cross a psychological threshold, or it gets trapped in a loop. At least, in some circles. It’s something that’s still hotly debated. At the same time, however, what your friends described isn’t nearly the same as traditional memory repression. You use the word ‘suppression,’ which I think is a much more accurate choice. I–”
“Do you think it makes me a psycho?” I asked suddenly.
He stared at me for a moment before laughing. “Oh, god no! No, I wouldn’t call you a psychopath, Jordan. You’ve already shown empathy and an understanding of the consequences of your actions. You haven’t displayed any of the hallmarks of psychopathy or sociopathy since you’ve walked in here, and your friends don’t think that, either.”
West sobered, turning serious again. “Do you worry about that?”
I nodded. “I mean, I get it. I go rushing in where other people would be running away. I get that. I mean… That’s what someone who’s crazy does, right?”
“Do you think that police are psychopaths?”
I shook my head. “They’re doing their jobs.”
“Right, but something made them seek out that job path first.”
If frowned. “What about mercenaries?”
“These days, mercenaries and caravan guards are the bulk of my clients. I’ll be honest, some of them do show signs of being a psychopath or sociopath, and I’d imagine that there are some police, or Dragon’s Teeth, or even Wardens who are the same way. They engage in the job because of the violence.”
“I like the fighting,” I blurted out, suddenly feeling very, very self-conscious. “I… I feel more alive then. Like, this is what I was born to do. To fight. To… I dunno, protect people through violence.”
West nodded slowly. “Do you like hurting people?”
I shook my head. “I like fighting Wildlings more. People… I…”
“It’s alright,” he said comfortingly. “I understand. When we’re fighting, our bodies and minds are flooded with various chemicals. Like almost everything else, from drugs to sugar to even hugs, anything can become addictive.”
“I like hugs,” I admitted weakly. “I like… I like touching people. Feeling physical contact. Being close to others. Br…” I caught myself, frowning a little.
“Don’t worry,” West said. “I won’t share what you say with anyone. I take doctor-patient confidentiality very seriously.”
I nodded, taking a deep breath. “Brenda, she’s blind most of the time because of her power. I… I dunno. I like it when she has me guide her. Most people these days don’t wanna be touched, but… I really like it.”
West nodded thoughtfully. “I’d imagine that you being an orphan has something to do with it. I won’t hazard a guess yet, but I’d imagine that there’s some level of abandonment there.”
I shrugged. “I never knew my parents. The Orphanage was always my home.”
“While that may be true, you were also surrounded by people struggling with abandonment issues. And you seem to be sensitive to the pain of others. You may have naturally tuned into that, incorporating the pain of others into your core being. You expect others to be in pain and to suffer when alone. At least, that’s one thought. I can’t say for sure yet.”
“Sorry,” I said, lowering my head. “I keep skipping topics.”
That made West smile again. “You’re fine. Believe me, this is good. You’re addressing your own concerns about yourself, which is a good sign. Like I said, I get people coming in here at the behest of friends and family, and they insist that there’s nothing wrong with them. The fact that you’re open to talking alone may be enough. I got the impression that you don’t really do that a lot with your friends.”
I shook my head. “We’re usually either preparing for a job, doing a job, or they’re… Well, we all cope in different ways, right? They cope by…” I frowned a little. This knot in my gut wasn’t getting any better. “Geeze, this is gonna make them sound bad.”
“I haven’t judged you, and I won’t judge them. I promise.”
I nodded a hair. “They, uh… Th-they live it up. You know. They like to party a lot.”
“They release stress through social interaction.” He shrugged. “If alcohol is always involved, there might be a problem, but if they’re doing it responsibly, then I don’t see any need for concern.”
“When I switched to drinking just to relax and let the fun come from elsewhere, I was having more fun.”
John’s words came back to my mind and I nodded. “Right. I don’t think that they do. I really wouldn’t know.” I hesitated. “I drink a lot, but… My body’s been altered. Multiple times since Agamemnon. I got really drunk after that, but since that one time… I dunno. I can drink an entire bottle of rum now and just get buzzed, no hangover or anything.”
“Do you mind if we talk about that?” he asked. “About your body?”
I shrugged. “About what?”
“Well, you say that your body’s been altered. I’m curious about your feelings on that topic.”
I shrugged a shoulder. “I’m alive, and Riley helped. I got some nifty upgrades out of the deal, too. Except for how much my family spent on it, I’d say that it was a good deal all around.”
West raised a slow eyebrow. “Most people would have some concerns over that.”
I motioned in one direction with both hands. “Dead.” I motioned in the other direction. “Not dead. Honestly, I don’t really know what the big deal is to everyone. I…”
My words trailed off as I noticed another pair of Wardens were visible from the window. They didn’t even glance in this direction, but… “How many Wardens did you say there were here?”
I popped out of my chair. “Sorry, Doc, but that’s five in armor so far.” I reached into the collar of my robes and fished out the ear bud, slipping it into place. “And even if they aren’t after me, that means that they’re gearing up for something. I appreciate your help, and maybe we can continue this later, but right now?”
I turned on my radio. “I got work to do. Take you and your receptionist, get to the safest place that you can. If it’s a fight, I’ll try and direct it out of the city. If it isn’t, then we’ll just hang low, but I’d rather you not get in the crossfire.”
“Jordan,” he said quickly, rising to his feet. “Whatever it is, it probably doesn’t involve you.”
“Yeah, well…” I frowned. “Maybe, maybe not. If it doesn’t, then they might need a helping hand. And if it’s enough that they’re calling in backup, then they need every able body they can get on deck.”
I didn’t wait for a reply, instead heading out the door. By the time that I hurried out of the building, I was already putting my hood up. Another two Wardens, two different ones, were a few blocks down. What would John tell me to do right now?
I snarled, I kicked a rock, jammed my hands in my pockets and began to angrily stalk away from the shrink’s office. Make it look like I just had a bad session or something. Hopefully, that would help. If not…
I only had my chest knife and boot knife on me. I was mostly armored under my robes, but I hadn’t even brought my belt with me. Arming myself, though, wasn’t the highest priority. The others. I had to get to the others and warn them. Even unarmed as they were, it would be easier for us to defend ourselves together than it would be apart.
The Doc might not think that they were after me, but I didn’t believe in coincidences any more. It was only a matter of time before the Wardens quit sending cadets after me and got out their big guns. It was better to be safe than sorry, and I was sure as hell not safe right now.
I’d barely gotten past a green house when a woman lunged out to grab my arm. I twisted out of her grip immediately, but her other arm was going for my robes. I deflected it easy, but her right hand had already worked free from my grip. I tried a quick jab to her face, but she’d already dodged that before I’d even gotten into full motion.
For the next fifteen seconds or so, we continued that strange little dance. She would try and get a grab on me and fail, but every attack that I tied didn’t even come close. She wasn’t in Warden armor, so I didn’t want to go all out, but–
“God damnit fuckface.”
“What was that?”
“I said, you’re a fuck-a-face, fuckface.”
I froze, and she took the opportunity to get a grip on me and haul me into the alleyway, slamming me against the wall. “What the fuck are you doing here?” the blonde girl hissed at me.
“Hi, Gina. I could ask you the same damn thing.”
“Are you here working a job, or something else?” Gina snarled.
“Op. We finally cracked the pattern to when they make their move. Spread too thin, having to protect too many settlements, so all hands are on deck. Got myself on this one because my assistant had a hunch. Keeping it quiet in case I’m wrong.”
She was skipping information, so it had to be a big player. “Who?”
I activated my radio. “I’m at an alleyway behind a green house. Keep it casual, but I need all of you to bring everything we’ve got here right now.”
Brenda’s voice came to my ear. “Everything?”
“Everything!” If Fyrtorn was going to attack, then we all were in for some deep shit. I hoped that the doctor found somewhere safe to hide, but I knew he didn’t. Nowhere was safe now.