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We had three more encounters as we made our way to the hospital. The mercenaries seemed fearless, and it instilled me a bit of anticipation and excitement. Compared to the frantic hiding and terror I felt traveling with Katarina, traveling with this group was kind of nice. Katarina seemed generally unhappy with the mercenary’s bravado. Not only did she not help in any of the fights, but she maintained a frown and remained close to me. Kiera also stayed by my side, all but holding the back of my shirt as she continued silently.

I watched on excitedly as I saw them fight. They did feel like they were unstoppable. I had even considered asking Katarina for her gun, but that would expose that I could use it, and that was one conversation I wasn’t yet ready to have. All I could do was listen to orders, stay low, and watch as they handled everything.

All of the enemies we had faced were in the mutant animal category. We hadn’t encountered any of the feral mutants yet. I didn’t want to have to fight a group of grunts or revenants, but if all of the fighting was being done by this group anyway, it seemed fine. Suddenly, about three blocks before reaching the hospital, Jacques made a gesture, and the group turned into one of the buildings.

Once inside, the Perry Mercenary group. Three of them pulled out weapons and began to comb the building. The remaining two started to build a barrier, blocking the windows, doors, and any other interest in the place. It was at this point I realized we were stopping.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“If we progress any farther, we’re likely to find Beast scouts.” He explained. “This is as far as we go today.”

“What do you mean by that?” I demanded, frowning. “I want to get back today!”

“Today?” He snorted. “Impossible! We must attack the hospital with darkness as our cover. If you want to try to sneak in during the daytime, there are easier ways to die.”

“But…”

“This is my expert opinion on this.” He declared. “We may be following you, but I won’t put my team in danger to rescue you if you choose to ignore my advice.”

I wanted to continue to argue with him, but he appeared to be decided on this. They didn’t plan to launch their assault until tonight. It wasn’t like I could just go alone, even if Katarina would join me. A look at her showed that she didn’t intend to put her opinion in on this conversation. With a sigh, I nodded in affirmation.

“Look, get something to eat, take a nap. I’ve already ordered Snipe and Darling to scout out the place in a bit. We’re talking the biggest score Argos city has seen, so don’t be so over-eager, oui?”

“Yeah, I got it,” I said, leaving the mercenaries to do their job while I found a corner.

Another night in the wasteland, at least. Even if we could take the hospital in a day, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to return until tomorrow morning. Move at day, strike at night, that seemed to be the pattern around here.

“Master, can you please teach me how to prepare food.”

“You don’t need to bow with your head on the dirty ground.” I tried to get Kiera to sit up.

“I’m sorry, Master…” She responded, sitting up pitifully.

“Ah! That’s right. I promised Katarina something good when I came next. I forgot earlier. How about we cook that now.”

I set up the camp cooker and then put out some pots with fresh water. Kiera watched eagerly as I explained how everything worked and the basic nature of cooking. I wasn’t a good cook or anything. My mother and sister usually took care of those kinds of things. However, I picked up a thing or two, and I could make a meal when my life depended on it.

As for the ingredients, these were not canned food, but fresh food. I kept it in a cooling pack, so even though it had been almost 24 hours, the stuff was still cold. It was frozen before and it had needed to thaw, so I wasn’t worried. What I made wasn’t all that fancy. It was just beef stroganoff. Some noodles, some meat, a few spices, and gravy. The gravy was in a can. I didn’t know how to make gravy from scratch anyway.

Once I showed Kiera how to boil the noodles, I began working with the now thawed beef. I did my best to hide any packaging so as not to reveal how these items were stored. As I cooked, the room began to fill with a meaty scent. Katarina had ignored us in her usual pose, lying facing the wall with a mirror in her hand. However, when the scent came, so did she.

“Wh-what is it…” she said, gulping twice just to manage to get the words out. “M-meat? Not fish! How did you get meat?”

“It’s best if you just enjoyed it without questions.”  I gave her a bowl first, but even Kiera was looking at it with envy when she was the one who helped make it.

She took my word and eagerly devoured the bowl in front of her. Her eyes appeared ravenous and she quickly consumed all of the food. I filled her bowl a second time and gave another to Kiera. I felt glad I had made a ton, as I could see already they were going to eat it all. That was a moment before the door shoved open.

“What is that? See! I said someone’s cooking!” Truck said.

The group of mercenaries pushed their way into the room without the least bit of tact. They then began to sit around the campfire expectantly without asking. Katarina didn’t respond, but she wrapped her arm around her bowl and all but growled like she was expecting them to try to steal the food straight off her fork. At least, I got her to use a fork.

“Cooking in the city like this is dangerous.” Jacques chided, but his eyes were on the pot and he was licking his lips. “You can attract all sorts of unsavory sorts.”

“Mm!” Darling nodded. “It’s best to consume it quickly so no smell can remain.”

I let out a little sigh and then looked at the shiny eyes of the mercs. “Would you all like something to eat?”

“If you insist!” Punk reached out, only to have his hand swatted away by Truck. “What?”

He gave a wounded look as Truck picked up the pot. “Fair portions to everyone.”

“I-I always give fair portions… ish…”

“Trucks the supply guy. He distributes.” Jacques leaned back, grinning.

“No gravy… just noodle.”

“There is no meat in the noodles.” Punk protested.

“You didn’t know? Snipe is a vegetarian.” Darling laughed.

The five mercs split up the food equally. That was to say, I didn’t get anything. Katarina managed to get another bowl, so she ended up with three bowls while Kiera only ate one. That was fine with me. I’d eat an energy bar later. I was getting used to the idea of not eating much food in the wastelands. I didn’t want to anyway, with the radiation, the dirt, and God knew what else. I sat back and let everyone enjoy their meals instead.

I didn’t bring nearly enough to feed seven people, especially a guy like Truck, but they all acted like their small bowl was a feast. I wondered if there would ever be a point where I would enjoy the taste of food that much. I hoped that day never came.

After they were finished, Darling stood up with a reluctant grunt while holding her stomach. “Come on, Snipe, let’s check the security on these Beasts.”

“Yes.” He put down his bowl of noodles, stood, and followed Darling out.

Jacques gave the other two a meaningful nod, and they also stood up and left the room. He then turned to look at me. He looked contemplative for a bit but didn’t say anything right away. I started to feel a bit subconscious and sat up a bit straighter.

“At first, I assumed you’re a colonist, but that doesn’t quite suit you.” He spoke slowly.

Katarina, who was busy licking her bowl, stopped for a second and gave him a side-long glance. Kiera had her head down, and it looked like she was sleeping with her head between her knees, but I could have sworn she perked up as well.

“That was fresh food. You can find some if you venture out far enough into the wasteland. Cities don’t get it. Just transportation alone would take too long to deliver anything but processed food. Of course, there is a tradeoff between living off the city and living off the country. There are fewer mutants, but the animals are in greater number and more dangerous. There are fewer places to find cover. Country wastelanders look down on city wastelanders as being weak, and city wastelanders look at the country the same. Both sides look down on colonists.

“I’ve met colonists. Some of them are quite tough, if at times cowardly.” His eyes flickered to Katarina, who frowned. “At least the ones that don’t end up as slaves shortly after leaving. As for you… I don’t know… if I had to describe you, you seem like pre-apocalypse. Yet… I see something else. Desperation. You have the eyes of a man who will do whatever it takes to protect you and yours. You have the look of a man who takes care of his own… and will even cut down others if he needs to.”

“What are you accusing me of?”

“Accuse? Merde, there isn’t a sinless man left in this world. We’ve all done things. Accusations are like calling water wet.” He spat to his side. “I’m just saying, I apologize for earlier. I was watching you when we were killing earlier. I could see you wanted to be gunning down those creatures yourself and extracting those crystals.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that. It was true that I was a little envious at their ability to stand up to the city. While I cowered in fear, they marched around like they owned the place. At home, my family was being bullied by thugs, but this guy and his group wouldn’t even let monsters bully them.  If I could bring them back to earth and sick them on those loan sharks, my problems would be solved in a heartbeat. I had imagined using Katarina’s smart gun and mowing down tons of enemies. I also considered the wealth of crystals I could be earning. Maybe it was the gamer in me that got me thinking like that.

“Come with me.” He stood up, patting himself off before holding out his gloved hand. “I want to show you something.”

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