Coldheart and Iron: Part 34

READ FROM THE BEGINNING


For the twentieth time that morning, I groaned and rubbed my face with my hands while muttering to myself, “I am too old to stay up all night.” I looked down at my desk, giving my eyes the time they needed to focus after opening, and felt another part of my spirit die when they finally focused on a sea of paperwork. All of the forms had gone through yesterday so now I had to fill out personnel sheets, submit additional funding requests for the budgets I had to set for their classes, file payment forms with the Wayfinder organization so the new trainees would have access to their money in whatever Enclave they stopped in, and start sending requests for forms from their doctors, their references, and their emergency contacts.

It was going to take all day and every single page had to have my signature on it. Will would be busy juggling schedules, talking to instructors, and preparing an expense report for a class that had graduated a few weeks ago so the Enclave knew we weren’t wasting their money. I could hire someone else to do it, but then I’d need to fill out reports for that person and would still need to review and sign all of these reports, meaning I’d do another two weeks of work to save myself four to six hours of work.

I shook my head, took a drink of water, and got to work. Fifteen minutes later, I tossed aside the paper and stood up. “Will, I’m going for a walk. Tell anyone who comes looking for me that I’ll be back at ten.”

“Sure thing, Captain Marshall.” Will nodded and I walked out of the building, into the crisp cold air. In the Enclave, you didn’t need to wear an insulated snowsuit everywhere. The metal walls hid the heat signatures lower down and they’d mostly dispersed by the time they rose above the walls, so it was relatively safe to go without. Most people wore them anyway, since it was so cold that being outside without heavy gear of some kind would be dangerous, but a brisk walk through the cold to wake up was exactly what I wanted.

I stayed out a little longer than was advisable, so I was shivering as I walked back into my office. I sat down at my desk, wrapped a blanket around my shoulders, and fumbled my way through paperwork until I warmed up again. Once I’d gotten so comfortable that I started to fall asleep again, I repeated my walk.

By five in the afternoon, I’d finished most of the paperwork and probably gotten myself sick from repeated exposure to the cold. I still had to sort the papers, stick them in large envelopes to go in the mail, and address the envelopes to their respective departments within the Enclave government, but that could wait until tomorrow. Will had left half an hour an hour earlier, so I took my time pulling on my snowsuit and locking up the office. We didn’t have any built-in lights or heaters to turn off, but there were shutters to close and a few blankets to fold up. Like most businesses except the ones deep underground, we just kept a bunch of blankets and extra jackets handy instead of trying to figure out how to properly insulate our office so we could heat it safely.

As I slowly made my way through the city–talking to the same people I had the day before, traveling the same route I had the day before, and thinking almost the same thoughts as I did the day before–I fought the urge to scream and pull out my hair. All of the people were friendly, everyone I passed basked in our little traditions formed over months of walking past the same places every day, and I genuinely wished the best for all of these people, but I couldn’t deny that there was a part of me that got excited by the idea of an attack on the Enclave. If nothing else, it would certainly break the monotony of my everyday life.

Once I passed out of the markets and workshops, I stopped at a bench for a few minutes to sort through the jumble of thoughts in my head. I was old and getting older. I’d passed my fiftieth birthday a couple of years ago and I was officially older than my father was the last time I saw him. I wouldn’t be able to keep Wayfinding forever and Camille had been right. We were the oldest active Wayfinders. At least Camille and I were. Natalie and Lucas had officially retired, though Lucas would once again take the lead when he came out of retirement and the only Wayfinder I knew of who was older than him was Natalie.

I couldn’t go a full night without sleep anymore. Even though I kept training and working out, I wasn’t as good as I used to be. There’s a difference between training for something and living it every day. I saw that difference every time I went monster hunting or wound up staying awake all night. Even five years of aging couldn’t have accounted for the difference between when I was an active Wayfinder and now.

It was a sobering thought to realize that, even if I wanted to, I might not be able to go back to Wayfinding like I used to. I picked it over for a few minutes and then pushed myself to my feet. I had another mile to walk and dinner to prepare.

After cleaning up from dinner, I sat down in the lounge to read while I waited for Natalie to come home. Fifteen minutes into failing to stay completely awake, Camille, Lucas, and Tiffany walked in the front door together. After they took off their snowsuits, Lucas and Tiffany disappeared into their rooms while Camille came into the lounge. When she sat down in a chair near the couch I was sitting, I pulled myself away from the precipice of sleep, put down my book, and looked over at her.

“Marshall.” Camille nodded to me.

“Camille.” I nodded back. “What’s up?”

“We’ve got a list of people who might be interested in joining us if we decide to start Wayfinding again.” Camille pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket and handed it to me. “A couple experienced people and a few of the most promising recruits from the classes I’ve been teaching. They’re all up for doing trips based out of the Chicago Enclave. I’m thinking we want to pick two or four of them. Six or eight people total would be the best for the kind of trips we want to do.”

“Yeah?” I scanned the list, barely registering the names as I thought about sleeping in the cold every night and forgetting what it felt like to be warm. Eating whatever we could get our hands on that was light and long-lasting. Watching every direction for signs of bandits or monsters. Being buffeted by the heavy winds as we crossed uninhabitable wastelands where farming complexes used to be. “What kind of trips are those?”

“Lots of supply runs, small-group escorts of one or two people, data relays, that sort of thing. Mostly the stuff without people, if I’m honest. We’ll move faster alone and won’t need to worry about bandits as much if we just focus on deliveries. I don’t think Lucas wants to deal with people that much and all of the retired Wayfinders I talked to just want to get back out there again. I know I’m tired of being cooped up behind these walls all the time, if nothing else. Tiffany is, too.”

“Did you know she sleeps outside the Enclave most nights?” I stopped pretending to look at the list, and glanced over at Tiffany’s door to make sure it was still closed. “She dislikes living in an Enclave so much that she camps in abandoned buildings outside the Enclave by herself most nights.”

“I don’t know if she’s actually by herself most nights.” Camille shrugged and smirked. “She usually brings someone along for company and half my students love getting extra survival lessons from here if they can find her when we go outside the Enclave for a lesson.”

I stared at Tiffany’s door for a minute longer and then sighed. I turned my attention back to Camille and smiled ruefully. “I can understand her desire. I think I’m getting cabin fever as well.”

“Sure took you long enough.”

“What can I say?” I held up my hands, palms up. “I’m old. I don’t mind having a proper bed and being warm now and then.”

Camille chuckled and nodded. “Fair enough. I feel the same. I don’t mind having plenty of blankets for cold nights or having tea around to drink in the mornings. I’ll miss snacks most of all, though. Being able to eat whenever I want instead of on a schedule of breaks, not needing to skip meals when something is happening, and being able to just lazily eat something instead of needing to eat it quickly so I can get on with my duties…” Camille sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “That’ll be difficult to get used to again.”

“Have you made any plans yet?”

“No, we wanted to talk to you first.”

“Well, I still need to talk to Natalie.”

“Of course.”

“But I think it would be alright to start making some plans for once I’ve talked to her. Maybe set up a few week-long trips to places around Chicago that need some attention so we can safely get back into the swing of things and see how these people stack up.” I handed the list back to Camille. “Once I talk to Natalie, we’ll start picking dates and stuff. Maybe we can get everything done in the next few weeks and be ready to go for real right after the next blizzard passes.”

“In six weeks?” Camille raised her eyebrows as she tucked the list away in her pocket again. “That’s a tall order, Captain. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible.”

“Well, let’s try. No sense in waiting a quarter of a year to do our first trip.” I stood up and stretched. “Now I’m going to get ready for bed and get some sleep so I can be awake enough to talk about this with Natalie tomorrow.”

“Good night, Marshall.” Camille stood up and walked toward her room.

“Good night, Camille.” I went into mine and Natalie’s room, got dressed for bed, and lay down. I read for a while, trying to get myself back into the calm, sleepy state of mind I’d been in before Camille and I had talked. I turned off the lights after nodding off a couple of times, lay down, and immediately fell asleep.

What felt like only a few moments later, I woke up as someone settled into the bed next to me. I groggily reached out and pulled Natalie closer to me. I kissed the top of her head and fell back to sleep before I remembered I needed to talk to her. When I woke up the following morning, feeling much more awake and alert than I had any right to so soon after sleeping, I stared at the ceiling of the room, trying to figure out what to say to the woman I loved as she quietly snored beside me while I waited for her to wake up.

When her alarm went off, it scattered all my thoughts and I scrambled to pick them up for a moment before just leaving all my carefully worded arguments on the floor of my mind. Instead, I grabbed her arm as she rolled over to get out of bed and pulled her back to me.

“Hey, handsome.” Natalie leaned over and kissed me. “Sorry to wake you up.”

“I was already awake.” I gave her a squeeze but kept my arms around her. “I think I want-” I paused, cleared my throat, and started again a little more firmly. “I want to go back to Wayfinding.”

“What?” Natalie pulled back a bit, trying to get my whole face into view.

“I want to go back to Wayfinding.” I loosened my arms a little so she could get out of bed if she wanted to, but she stayed where she was so I continued. “Not like we used to, but something based out of the Enclave. Trips between blizzards. Supply runs, messenger runs, that kind of stuff. Maybe a few small escorts. Just stuff to get me back outside the walls again.”

“Are you tired of living here?” Natalie tipped her head a little bit, her eyes searching mine.

“No. Not at all.” I raised and lowered one shoulder. “At least, not permanently. I don’t want to live anywhere else, but I need something to shake up my routines. I got used to the excitement of Wayfinding and sitting in an office is slowly draining me of life.”

“So you’d come back here between jobs?”

“Yeah. And probably only one job per season. Gone for a month or so and then back until after the blizzard. Keep them short so I can always take shelter here instead of finding a place out there unless something goes terribly wrong.”

“Like last time.” Natalie kept her eyes locked on mine.

“Yeah.” I looked away for a moment, a little deflated. “Like last time.”

“Marshall…” Natalie reached up and laced her hands behind my head. “I want you to be happy. If this will make you happy, then I support you all the way. You’ve done the same for me.” Natalie pulled me in for another kiss and smiled. “Just promise me you’ll be safe, okay?”

“I’ll make sure we always come back safe and sound.” I smiled and kissed her again. “We’re not even planning to do anything but move around Chicago on some training trips before the next blizzard. I’m going to see if we can get something set up for right after it, though.”

“We?” Natalie arched an eyebrow in mock severity. “Who is ‘we’?”

“Camille, Lucas, Tiffany, and maybe a few more Wayfinders we’ve yet to pick.”

Natalie gasped and frowned, but I could see the smile hiding in her eyes as she huffed in indignation. “Lucas? But he’s the whole reason we retired in the first place! What a hypocrite. To think, my two best friends and my protege are trying to lure my lover away from my bed, to wander the lawless wastelands with them.”

I smiled, playing into her game. “I will always be faithful to you, my love, so long as I shall live. The empty tundra and the beautiful women accompanying me shall have no power over me so long as I know you wait for me here.”

“See that they don’t.” Natalie gave me a stern look and I chuckled, unable to keep a straight face. “Now, before you go haring off, let me remind me of what you’ll be coming back to.” Natalie’s hands drifted lower and my composure completely broke. “I need to make sure you’re properly motivated to make it back here in one piece.”

A while later, while Natalie got ready for work, I lay in bed and let my mind lazily start sorting through contacts and possible jobs. Thanks to my work over the past five years, I had even more contacts than before and would be able to easily find whatever work we wanted. All I’d need to do is find a few people to replace me at the office here, someone to replace Camille, and make sure the interviews for a position as one of my companions stayed a secret. If word got out, I’d have more people trying to join up than I could handle.

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