Sarah ran a hand through Jordan’s hair, tsking softly. “You got some blood in here. We’ll have to wash it out before we get back to Twain. Hard to believe this is our last trip.” His smile was a little thin. She immediately nodded, looking down at the wildlings. “I know. I’m going to miss them, too.”
It was funny. Unlike her, Jordan had never had an interest in animals. He’d always been too focused on people. Sarah loved just about any animal she met, but her brother had always more focused on things like get more training, or study, or harassing anybody he could to get more of those things. But here Jordan was, a wildling tucking its head under his chin, his hands gently resting it on its side. He didn’t even really understand how to properly pet them, but Suzie didn’t seem to care.
Then again, they were resting in a dead city, surrounded by empty piles of clothes that had been worn up to the very moment of their occupant’s deaths. In an oppressive atmosphere like this, she could easily buy that a person might seek out any comfort and companionship that they could. She wondered, idly, how he was holding up after over two weeks here.
Sarah scooped up Greenie into her arm, a large smile on her face. Babies of any sort brought a smile to her face, but these guys were strangely cute. The patterns of their fur were interesting, and their faces were simply adorable. Though, that was true of all this breed of wildlings. If things panned out and everything went awesomely, she wondered if they’d let the two of them name these things.
She glanced back to Jordan. He seemed to be doing alright, that soft smile on his face, but it was impossible to tell for sure with him. She was far more vocal about things that bothered her than he was, and it wasn’t always obvious what was going on in his head.
Still, she was glad they had the wildlings. The last two weeks would have been pure hell without them. What would have taken the two of them months had been achieved in such a short period of time, all thanks to these little beasties. The critters also done a lot to help keep them sane. Surrounded by hostiles, all on their own, no real place where the two of them could be sure they were safe. Especially not after that one bunch of wildlings had come up through the toilet. She tried not to remember those ones.
She grinned a little, pausing in her rubbing of Greenie’s earless head. “Hey, Bro. Remember when you were practicing your free running shit, right before you messed up your knee, trying to jump that gap and busted your head open?”
“No?” Both she and Greenie tilted their heads in unison. That was adorable. “How the hell don’t you remember that? Everybody thought you’d killed yourself!”
“Yeah, about that.” He smiled sheepishly. “I don’t actually remember any of that day at all. I remember the next day, when the healer finished with me, but not any of that. Concussions do that to a person, Sis. It’s the weirdest thing.” His smile turned into a teasing grin. “You should try it some time. You might learn a thing or two.”
She rolled her eyes. He liked to think that he could distract her, but it was more of her letting a conversation drop. He didn’t like to talk about the blows to his head he’d taken over the years. He preferred not to think about it. Hell, he was really good at not thinking about stuff, so it was up to her to think about it for him. One of these days, he was going to take a strike to the noggin’ and find that he couldn’t move as well, if at all.
She had to be the one to think about a lot of things.
It bothered her, how hard he pushed himself. He’d always been like that, though, and there was nothing that she could do to stop him. She knew it, but she didn’t like it. Once he put his mind to something, unless you could convince him that he was in the wrong, he didn’t stop. The mental image of him dragging himself along by his fingernails to get revenge on some S-class threat for insulting her was all too believable. Which was precisely why she always stopped him.
Bah, depressing thoughts, when she had a little cutie in her arms. “So what are the plans for when we get back?”
It was a nice little house they’d stopped to rest in, grab a nap before heading out. Jordan looked better, but the bags under his eyes… They’d been here for so long, and he’d probably only getting cat naps in, keeping that a secret from her. He looked like you could pack clothes in those bags on his face. The small scar at the corner of the one didn’t help matters any.
Jordan looked up at her frowning a little. “Haven’t had time to think about it. Most of my time spent is spent-”
“Time is spent,” Sarah cut in. “You said spent twice.”
“Right, sorry.” He looked back down to his beastly friend. “It’s spent trying to figure out stuff for the debriefing, looking out for other things we might be able to take back, trying to find a good tactical position, that sort of thing. Our wildlings are distracting.” Suzie looked up at him. “Not you, you’re cool.” The wildling went back to trying to tuck its head under his chin.
“So, nothing then?”
He sighed softly. “I mean, there’s some things. Like, take a nice, long bath. A hot meal. Wash down my armor, clean my weapons…”
Sarah frowned at him. “And how many times have you cleaned those already?”
“After every use. But battlefield cleaning isn’t the same thing as proper cleaning.” He paused for a moment. “Seriously, though, our armor probably reeks on the inside.”
“I’ll start my bath in the armor,” she said hesitantly. “That should help. I hope.”
He smirked briefly before settling against Suzie a little more. “But once we get back to New Brockton, I’m probably going to spend some time with Amy. Then… I dunno. I’ll probably have something to do.”
Time to let the truth out. “Actually, that’s what I was fishing for.”
Jordan looked up at her. “You really wanna have this conversation?”
“Yup.” She crossed her arms as best as she was able to with Greenie in them, a spur of anger flaring inside. He was trying to avoid the subject, and damn it, he didn’t get the choice to. Not if she had anything to say about it. “How serious is it between you two?”
“I dunno,” he confessed. “C’mon, Sis, you know I’m not used to this.”
“Yeah, and I know you’re the kind of dork who would go with something even if you didn’t feel it. So you tell me, are you feeling it, or are you going with it?”
He made his way to his feet. “Well.” He paused trying to find the words. “She really took me by surprise, you know? She said that she was over it, then turns out she wasn’t. I don’t get that. Why do that?”
“Because…” Sarah sighed and dropped an arm, frowning a little. He could scare a person to death if he wanted, he could tell you how a person was hurting so easily, but there were the strangest gaps in his ability to deal with others. She’d never understand it, and it made explaining things damn hard.
“Because she was scared. What if you rejected her? Seriously, it can be scary as fuck, so sometimes you do stupid things to protect yourself. Pretending that you’re over it to see if you stand a chance isn’t as stupid as some things that you could do.”
He frowned. He obviously didn’t get it. “I guess.” And there was the polite lie.
“Getting off target, Bro.” He wasn’t the only one who could be a bloodhound.
“Fine. I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s kinda awkward, you know? But at the same time, making out with her feels so good, and makes my chest feel about three sizes too tight. Holding her, I feel, I dunno, alive.”
She’d missed out on the girlfriend. She’d missed out on more than she wanted to. Hearing this, though, was nice. Pleasant. She liked hearing about the happy things that happened to him.
Sarah wasn’t letting up, though. “Yeah, but do you love her?”
He stared at her like she’d grown a second head. “After what I just said, you’re still asking me that?”
“Yes!” Sarah walked up to him, her face stern. “Because that’s just biology bullshit. I’m not asking you about biology, I’m asking you about you and her. You’ve got this damned tendency to overthink everything, even when it’s on the spur of the moment. You make a decision and suddenly you’ve got a hundred reasons why it is or isn’t a good idea. But you never talk about your gut. What’s your gut telling you?”
He let out a long sigh. “I don’t know.”
“Did you feel anything for her before she kissed you?”
He looked down. “Maybe. I’m not sure. I mean… I always thought of her as a friend, but that could have been just me thinking that I just didn’t have a chance and was, you know, walling myself off. Or something.”
Now there was a tightness in her chest, her pulse going at a million miles an hour. “And what about after Alcott answers your questions? What then?”
Jordan threw up his hands, letting out a frustrated sigh. “Gall dangit, Sis, what do you want from me? An itemized list of everything that I’m going to do with my life?” He shook his head, a defeated expression on his face. “I don’t know. The plan doesn’t change, not in the slightest, but… I dunno, it depends on what Alcott says. If we can advance the plan in a month, then we go off of that. Longer? Then we go off of that. But I don’t actually know until I know. So what’s the point in stressing about it?”
It really wasn’t like him to snap like that, even if he did it quietly and politely. Sarah looked down, frowning. She’d either crossed a line she didn’t know had existed, or he was far more exhausted than he was letting on. It didn’t help the feeling of unease, but it did make her feel about two inches tall. “Sorry, Bro.”
He ran a hand over his face, suddenly looking worried. “No, listen, I’m the one who should be sorry. I didn’t-”
“Oh, shut the fuck up, will you?” Sarah looked up at him with weary eyes. She was not about to let him take the blame this time. He was always fucking doing that, protecting her from the most stupid fucking shit ever. “I’m just… worried. We’ve been walking this path for a long, long time now. We’ve got a possible end in sight, where we can finally do what we want, and…” She wrapped her arms around herself again, making the baby wildling squeak. “I got selfish. I thought, what if he decides that he doesn’t…”
She let her words trail off, shaking her head. You walk a path, you have to own it, for good or ill. She never would have chosen this life if it hadn’t been for him. There was a lot of things she never would have done. But Jordan had infected her with his dreams, damnit. They were as much hers as his now. She didn’t want to let them die like that.
The idea of doing anything else scared her now. She couldn’t say it, but there it was all the same.
“Hey, hey.” He stepped up to her, wrapping his arms around her and gently pressing his head against the side of her helmet. “You’re right. We’ve been walking down this path, one way or another, for as long as I can remember. You and me. Always, sis. We’re a team. Nothing’s ever gonna stop that.
“You never got to see me before. Not in a relationship. This is your first time, and it’s only natural. You got worried that I’d throw it all away for a girl.” He pulled back a little, smiling softly. Sarah didn’t dare meet his eyes. “Hey. It’s okay to get scared of something like that. But let me tell you this; I’ve never stopped. My last relationship just meant I got a little less sleep. I still pushed forward. And I always will.”
“I should have trusted you,” she said quietly. Why did him comforting her hurt more than if he’d just get angry? She didn’t understand it at all.
“Nah. I’d rather have you double check with me than have you, I dunno, think that I’m perfect or something. I make mistakes, same as you. We all do. But you don’t know if I’m going to go crazy over a girl because you’ve never seen it with your own eyes. So, yeah, your worries? They’re fine. Don’t stress it.”
Don’t stress it. Bastard. No matter what she did, he always brushed it off as nothing. When she broke his training dummy thing, he told her not to stress it. Whenever she hurt him, bruised ribs or gave him a concussion, he was so damn fast to tell her that it was okay, that he should have been good enough to roll with it. She almost gets him killed by making a wrong choice, don’t stress it.
Just fucking once, would it kill him to get angry and yell at her? Even when he snapped at her, he was so very gentle about it. Goddamn annoying. Almost insulting. Did he think that she couldn’t handle it? Was that it? Did he think that she was some fragile fucking flower that couldn’t take anything? Fuck that shit! Was that why he was so quick to defend her even from an imagined slight? Fucking…
Sarah screwed her eyes shut, taking a deep breath. No, she couldn’t fall into that trap again. She’d almost broken his jaw with shrapnel the last time she let those thoughts get out of control. No.
He wasn’t protecting her from them. He was protecting them from her. He worried that they might piss her off, so he’d get angry to the point where she had to intervene. They’d never talked about it, but she’d thought about it years ago and had come to that decision.
From the get-go, ever since she triggered, he’d been there for her every step of the way. The memories from back then were hazy at times, but she could vividly remember him with that stupid little smile that almost reached the eyes, trying to teach her how to breathe. Standing between her and anybody that dared try to bully them, fists clenched, body rigid. Helping her with her homework as he practiced what Greg had taught him that day, going through the motions until he literally couldn’t stand any more.
It was more than that, though. She was older, but he’d been guiding her their entire lives. Whenever she wanted to kill, maim, destroy, he was the bastion of calm and reason. Whenever she got greedy with the business aspect of their lives, he so casually reminded her that there was always a human element. Whenever she felt weak or rejected, he lifted her up. When she was down, he was his usual goddamn ray of sunshine. Whenever those urges came up, he was the one to keep her calm just by being there.
They were, in many ways, mirrors. And as much as she was afraid of what might happen if he abandoned her, she worried about what would happen when she fell in love. Without him there next to her, what would happen? Would whomever she fell in love with be able to keep her in check?
The time he’d been away at school had been hell; keeping from getting into fights had been a daily challenge. And not when someone did something that would have sent Jordan into a fury had he been there. She legitimately didn’t mind that shit in the slightest. For some reason, she kind of enjoyed it. No, it was the little things that got under her skin, like going out to eat and someone scraping their fork against their teeth. She’d barely avoided jail time more than once.
Sarah’s thoughts were broken as Greenie squirmed in her arms. The little wildling struggled to climb up between the two of them until it finally was able to wrap its forepaws around her neck. Jordan pulled away, smiling a little. “That’s adorable.”
Sarah flashed him a smile, hoping it looked real. “Go on back to yours. Once we’re moving again, we’ve probably only got an hour before they decide they can’t come any further with us. Might as well spend what time we can loving up to them.”
She’d been a little off on her estimation. It was an hour and a half before the wildlings started to whine and fall behind them. The critters were smart; they’d learned that when they did this, the humans would find a place to stay before parting.
Sarah shared a glance with Jordan. He was already looking heartbroken. She didn’t feel far behind. She wished, and not for the first time, that Mom wasn’t allergic to cats, or would at least let Sarah have a puppy. The five babies had wormed their ways into her heart, and the adults weren’t far behind. She didn’t care if they were wildlings or not, these little things were about the most perfect little critters imaginable.
She stopped in her tracks and turned around to look at them. They all were shuffling around, looking from the humans to the various buildings. Trying to figure out where the humans would hunker down after splitting up.
Sarah closed her eyes, thankful that her helmet’s faceplate was down. Seeing them like this, hearing them whine and pace… The babies were the heartbreakers. She looked back to Jordan; unlike her, he hadn’t turned around, despite a look of pain on his face. Damn him. Still, everything about his stance said that turning around would be more painful than just standing there.
She let go of the wagon and took a few steps forward before lowering herself to one knee and spreading her arms. Immediately, the wildlings rushed her, knowing that she was offering them all love and affection. Love for creatures who she’d seen engage in brutal savagery… It was an interesting paradox. For how fearsome they were, they just wanted love.
She was reminded, oddly, of Dragon. They’d talked a bit before Jordan had returned. For an artificial intelligence, Dragon was a hell of a woman. Shut down by Saint so that her code could be violated by Teacher, and yet she still was so damn friendly.
Reportedly, Saint had shut Dragon down because he’d viewed her as a threat to humanity, overstepping the limitations her creator had set into her code. If it had been the complete truth, Sarah could have respected that completely; safeguards should be taken, and if she was overstepping her bounds, then hell yeah, shut her down. But the fact that Saint turned out to be one of Teacher’s thralls had sullied that view. Now, after dealing with her, Sarah wasn’t sure what her view was anymore.
Sarah had suggested to Dragon that she spend time talking to Jordan, that it would make his entire life. She didn’t, however, warn her that he’d be so awkward about it all. Still, Dragon had figured out quickly and turned it into a conversation that Sarah could barely follow. She’d gotten the distinct impression that Dragon desperately had needed to talk to someone, to have more human contact. Before the collapse, Dragon must have reached out to talk to thousands of people through electronics. Now… She had to be lonely.
Just like their wildlings were lonely.
“We have to go,” she whispered as the wildlings swarmed over her, vying for a little physical contact. “I want you all to take care of yourselves. Grow strong. Grow smart. Be plentiful. Breed. Maybe some day…”
Her throat burned too much to speak any further. She’d been given a precious gift, having these cuties with them. And now she had to let it go. They couldn’t take them back to Twain, and it wasn’t even right to try it. This was their home, and they had no right to take them from a home they obviously wanted to stay in. Besides, Twain’s automated defenses would probably slaughter them.
Even with all of the reasons, she still hated letting go.
Slowly, Sarah rose to her feet, watching those delightful faces change from joy to confusion. It honestly hurt to turn away, grab the handle, and keep walking. Each step felt like a betrayal, as the wildlings whined behind them. That whining only got worse as she and Jordan put distance between them, going from whining to outright crying.
She was happy her brother was there beside her. Otherwise, she might have never left that hellhole. Not with the stabbing in her chest.
They’d moved in silence, depending on hand signals again as they fell back into pure avoidance. In a way it was easier, going back to the home base like this, someone watching her back. On the other hand, having two people drew more attention, making it harder to avoid the wildlings. What should have been a two hour march had turned into over three hours. Still better time than they’d had when they came into the city the first time. At least they hadn’t fallen into any pits or anything.
As soon as the Tinker-built walls came into view, however, her brother broke out into song. That’s what she’d been missing. With his nerves on end, he hadn’t been singing at all. Sarah had come to depend on that weird, wordless music he sang. It was good for keeping a beat, good for taking her mind off of everything that could go wrong. She could detach a little from the situation with that music, figure up the details of the next story she’d tell.
Which reminded her, she’d have to see if they had the latest book in the Necroputer series; it was a good one for stealing plot bunnies out of.
As they drew nearer, she could hear Francis call out. “Ahoy ahoy! You’re free and clear!” She couldn’t actually see him, though. Annoying. Some Blasters got a boost to their vision when they triggered. She wasn’t so lucky; it would have synergized with her powers nicely, but no, she’d gotten the shaft when it came to secondary powers. Sans lube, even. Her trigger had technically been a heavy one, a fair amount of property damage and plenty of injuries, but it had been rather light. None of the guilt from killing people when she triggered, but with it came all of the screwjob problems that people who survived heavy triggers suffered with their powers.
Jordan had taught her that passengers could alter the minds of parahumans, especially when they triggered young. She hadn’t seen any of that in herself, and if that was because of her heavy trigger, then she was happy that her passenger was a little retarded.
As the gates opened, she could see Armando waving at them, all smiles. He was friendly enough, she supposed, but she didn’t actually like any of their mercenaries. Maybe it was because they hadn’t spent much time together, or because she hadn’t been there when they’d had to fight flying wildlings, but nothing about them struck a cord with her. Phil was cute with those dimples of his, sure, but that was about all that he really had going for him.
“You two done?” Armando asked as they got closer. She noted that his thin upper lip was clean. If he had a razor blade, she wished he’d share it with Jordan. She worried that her brother might get his knives mixed up and use Chris’ special.
“Last trip,” she said proudly. Jordan had always been the quiet one of the two of them, leaving Sarah to do most of the talking. That suited her just fine. She preferred being the one in the spotlight. Sure, she didn’t mind handing it over to other people, not when it was her choice. But for her, being the focus of everyone’s attention was best. Especially when the other person was Jordan. It let him think and figure things out as he needed to.
“Hot damn. Get everything you needed to?”
“Yup. The last of the data, a whole shitload of computer stuff done for the Dragon’s Teeth, everything for our brother, and plenty of booty.” She paused, grinning at him. “You all have your contact info with Twain? We’re gonna have a bonus for you when all this is done.”
“That we do,” Phil said with a nod. “Tell you what, why don’t you two rest a bit before we head out. We’ll handle the loading.”
“I’ll cook you something warm,” Armando said quickly. His collared shirt was so dingy now. He wanted to be seen as professional under his leather armor, but he would have been better served removing it while they were out here and switching it for something else. A dirty shirt didn’t make a person look like a pro. “We still have a bit of rations that aren’t wildling. I’d imagine you’re a little tired of it by now.”
“A little, yeah,” Jordan admitted. Sarah felt the same way, though they probably felt that way for a different reason than what Armando expected. Meat was meat, and they’d eaten plenty of wildling in the St. Louis zone. But that was meat of their enemies. Right now, with the memory of their own wildlings and the cries as they’d left so fresh, the idea of gobbling down what they weren’t sure hadn’t been wildlings desperate for love was a little… awkward.
Francis hit the gates as soon as they were inside before taking the wagon from her. Phil did the same for Jordan, moving to the covered wagon to load up.
Jordan set his halberd against one of the wagons, running his hands over his face. He’d lost some weight on this trip, a good amount of it. Even with the salt and the suit’s recycling system, he’d probably sweat a good portion of it out from nerves. It made him look tired, frazzled. The grime on his face, the scratches and traces of dried blood here and there, they didn’t help matters any. If he didn’t look so pathetic right now, with his poor attempt at facial hair and emotional exhaustion, he’d look frightening.
She made a mental note. When they got back to New Brockton, she’d have to grab both her brothers and spend a night with the two of them. Sleep with two warm bodies was just what the doctor ordered.
Sarah leaned against the covered wagon and opened her helmet, pulling it off completely for the first time in ages. Almost immediately, she was aware of an ache in her scalp that hadn’t quite revealed itself to her. A good ache. Her eyes closed for a long moment before she opened one and looked at her brother. “How bad to I look?”
“We’re both desperately in need haircuts.” He paused for a moment, and they both began to laugh. It wasn’t that funny, but it felt good to just… relax and laugh.
As she began to itch her scalp, Phil approached Jordan. “I’ll put the last of those papers away if you want.”
Jordan didn’t say anything, just reached into a pouch on his pack and handed it over. He’d gotten way too good at using these new packs. Sarah was envious. He worked so hard at damn near everything that he made the things he did look easy. She was willing to train, but not to that level; she wanted to live on occasion, after all.
Phil wandered off again, leaving Francis to finish unloading the wagon. She’d expected more smiles, more questions. They’d always had a thousand questions whenever she’d come back to their little fortress. Maybe they’d finally run out of them. On one hand, she was happy to be done with answering things that she didn’t want to deal with, but she still felt weirdly disappointed.
For ten glorious minutes, though, she got to rest and simply relax. After hours of being purely on edge with no distraction, she got to simply lean against something and enjoy the moment. Ten glorious minutes that ended with the delightful words of “Food’s up!”
Jordan moved first, bringing a hint of a smirk to her face. Despite their talk earlier in the day, he was still in good spirits. And, as usual, hungry. He rarely complained about wanting to eat, but if you put food in front of him, he’d eat as much as he could. Always had. She pushed herself off the wagon to follow him, wanting to get a little bit of grub in at least. Armando moved towards him with a plate in both hands, and her brother glanced back at Sarah with a grin, only for it to drop like a stone.
Someone grabbed her arm, and she felt something cold and metal press against the side of her head. Fuck.
Jordan turned instantly, his hand snapping up and sweeping. Armando let go of the plate, reaching for Jordan’s head, only to have both hands knocked away by Jordan’s sweeping hand. Jordan’s other hand grabbed the collar of the shirt and twisted before bringing his knee solidly into the mercenary’s groin, hard enough for the connection to be louder than the plate clattering on the ground. Armando might have had leather covering his junk, but by his eyes bulging he would have been well-served by following Jordan’s example and wearing a cup.
Francis came around the far side of the wagon, drawing his pistol. “Stop!”
Sarah couldn’t help but smirk as Jordan’s free hand smacked into Armando’s eye, followed by a quick rake. As the merc’s hands went for his face, Jordan slammed his knee into the groin again. What was it with that boy and hitting people in the groin, anyway?
He took a step, re-positioned and slammed Armando into the ground in the span of two seconds, never letting go of that collar. Almost instantly, Jordan was on top of the idjit, knees pinning the fool’s arms to the ground. In the span of another heartbeat, he was giving Armando’s face and neck a flurry of blows with his gloved fist. She could tell that they were meant to cause and keep Armando occupied, not to wound; if Jordan had wanted, he really could have hurt the guy. He was still breathing, after all. Still, it looked damn brutal.
And here all that she could do was watch. Idiots! What bothered her wasn’t that they were being betrayed. Fuck, she’d kind of expected that in a way. No, what pissed her off was that she was forced to watch all of this, unable to do anything without risking a bullet to the head.
And they’d done it dumb — she might have enhanced strength, but she was still a Blaster. She worked at range. Her brother worked up close and personal. Having a Striker try and subdue him? Stupid. Better to have Armando use his power on her, then force Jordan into compliance with a gun to his head. Jordan had taught her better tactics than something stupid like that.
After almost a half a minute of beating on Armando, Francis finally fired his gun, making her jolt a little. The horses also jolted, but they didn’t have anywhere to run to. The round impacted solidly into Jordan’s side. Again, idiot. Her brother barely even looked up as he quick-drew his revolver and fired a single shot. The leather armor wasn’t enough to stop the bullet from going into Francis’ chest, sending the man onto the ground.
Fucker got what he deserved.
And there was her little brother, holstering the gun and going back to smacking Armando around like he hadn’t just put someone down. As the fucktard beneath him began to try and fight less and less, Sarah caught onto what the real purpose of the blows were. One part distraction, one part show. He was keeping Armando focused on the pain he was experiencing, and making everybody else see what looked like the beating of a lifetime. The way his head was ducked, and the way his arm that gripped the collar was held, he’d been protecting himself in case Francis shot at him, expecting the armor to absorb the blow.
The hand on the collar. She would have grinned if there hadn’t been a gun to her head. Jordan was cutting off the blood flow, knocking Armando out. Clever bastard. Jordan had demonstrated that on her once or twice. Now that she was seeing it in action, in real combat, she regretted not practicing it.
Jordan had picked up a saying at some point. “Psychological warfare is still warfare.” He believed that making your enemy think that they were done for effectively made them done for. He rarely got the chance to use it, but by how Phil was trembling as he held her, she couldn’t argue what was happening. All that she had to do was wait for now…
Jordan suddenly got off the now-limp body, rolling it over. “He’s still alive,” he said in a dark tone of voice as he got out his handcuffs. “So’s your brother. For a brief period of time.”
“Francis?” Phill called out behind her. The only response was a soft gurgling noise.
“He’s been lung shot,” Jordan continued as he worked the hands together before getting out the second pair. “There’s slower deaths, more painful deaths, but those you can be saved from.” He got to work connecting one of Armando’s legs to the pair that held his hands. “A lung shot, though? You’d need a good hospital, and even with that nifty feed, there’s no way the horses would get there in time.”
“Fucking bastard,” Phil growled.
His back still to them, Jordan unholstered his pistol… and then tossed it away. Only then did he rise and look at them, his expression dangerous. Those same things that had made him look exhausted before now made him look like he could tear Phil limb from limb with his bare hands and not even break a sweat. The merc began to retreat backwards, dragging Sarah with him. Jordan matched them pace for pace.
“You come any closer, I’ll blow her fucking brains out!”
“If you so much as hurt her,” Jordan said quietly, “and I’ll make sure you suffer twice as bad before you die. And you will die. You will die, you see. Because you fucked up. We trusted you, we were going to share the wealth with you, and you betrayed us. What would God say about that, hmm?”
“Fuck you, man!” Phil kept moving, both trying to give himself distance and keep from getting cornered, dragging her with him. She went easily — fighting now might get her killed.
Jordan wasn’t letting any distance be made, though. Instead, he got out his multitool, slowly flipping up a hex bit. “Running won’t help you. There’s nowhere to run to. You need a free hand to activate the lever and open the gates. The moment you reach for it, I’ve got you. Nowhere to go, nowhere to run. Just a slow, painful death like Francis. You’re trapped, Phil. Your cunning plan has backfired on you. And it wasn’t even that smart of a plan.
“Those papers, the ones that are so invaluable to the Dragon’s Teeth? We need to deliver them personally. You have no idea who we made that deal with, do you?” Jordan’s lips twisted into a feral sneer. “It’s Dragon.”
“You’re a fucking liar,” Phil barked. “Dragon doesn’t come around anymore!”
Moments like these were where Jordan’s constant subtle posturing came to shine. Everything that he did outside of straight up combat was just a little more impressive than necessary. The way he held himself, the way he’d frown. He’d taken acting classes hoping to learn how to maximize his expressions and posture to inspire awe or fear. In the end, he’d fallen back to watching movies with her and Chris. The single acting class just didn’t teach him fast enough.
Now, looking at the way he held himself, the expression on his face, one could easily imagine him being a monster who would dismember a person for fun. It was terrifying. It was beautiful to watch, if you knew who he really was.
“How untrue. She just has more important things to deal with than plebs like you. She’s a very lovely person, very intent on justice. I liked talking with her. She’s one of my personal heroes, you know? I’m looking forward to our next meeting, too. After this job is done, I’m going to introduce her to my brother, and see what the two of them can do for her Teeth. And, even more importantly, getting the world back on track. That’s why she’s been so quiet. She has projects that are going to go live soon. And one of them is retaking Saint Louis.
“But I want you to think, for a moment. If you show up anywhere, selling items from that city? And we’ve conveniently disappeared? Oh, she’s going to come looking for you, for that intel. And if you show back up in Twain, saying that we bit it? She’s going to question you before you get the chance to leave. And some of her programming lets her see through any lie. Even Thinker or Stranger lies. You’ll be caught. And a whole lotta people are going to be very unhappy with you.”
Phil was hyperventilating. Good. Jordan was getting to him. Putting him in a panic, and panicked people made mistakes. He’d finally worked himself into a corner, both literally and metaphorically. Unable to go anywhere without getting closer to Jordan.
“I’ll kill her! I’ll do it!” He pressed the gun into her temple a little more, making her tilt her head a bit. It didn’t hurt, she didn’t need to wince, but she did it anyway. Just because.
“Congratulations,” Jordan said evenly. “Your death just got 25 percent more painful.
“So, let’s tell you how this goes down. The moment you pull that trigger, while you’re still dealing with the recoil, I’m going to stab this into your eye.” He hefted the multitool. “It’s not even long enough to scratch the back of your eye socket, but it’ll do the trick, because you’ll be too busy dealing with the recoil to get a bead on me before I can do it. Then I’m going to break your arm, then your leg. After that, I’m going to break as many bones as I can. Not enough to kill you, but enough to hurt. Each time you pass out from the pain, I’ll wait until you wake back up and start again.
“Then, when I’ve run out of bones I can safely break, I’ll go ahead and cut off your fingers and toes. I don’t want you to bleed out, so I’ll keep it at that. Maybe mess up your face a little. I’ll take a horse out, activate the walls, and put you in one of the wagons we brought from the city. And I’ll give you a push from a good fifty feet away. And you’ll get to hope that your little crippled body will roll in that wagon all the way to the walls. Because otherwise? If it stops moving and the wall doesn’t blow you to kingdom come?
“That’s when you get to wait for the wildlings to get you. You’d better hope that the wall ends you before that.”
Jordan drew himself up to his full height. She’d always thought that the shoulder pads on his armor were stupid, but right now, they helped to make him look bigger, like he had an extra twenty pounds of muscle. Like he’d run out of fucks to give an hour ago, and now he just wanted to destroy anybody in his way. Holy shit, she loved seeing him get serious like this.
“Just remember that. If you kill her, what I’m going to do to you. Because with no hostage, what do I have to hold me back? I’ll just have… fun. It will take days. Your screams will-”
The pistol moved from her head, pointing at her brother. At the same moment as it fired, Sarah’s forearm impacted with his groin, hard enough that she felt the fluid layer in her armor solidify and crack, hard enough that the reinforcements that Chris installed to protect her made her arm ring in pain.
Jordan hadn’t even flinched when the shot rang out, but his hair had moved. Too close for her comfort.
Phil fell to the ground, not even able to scream. Gagging noises were the only thing that could escape his form right now. Idiot. Armando should have taken her out of the equation.
After a moment, Jordan relaxed, moving up to her quickly with a worried expression. “You okay, Sis?”
“Fine.” She rubbed her arm a bit, testing it. Nothing broken, good. “Nice act, by the way.”
His wide nose wrinkled. “Thanks for catching onto what I was doing.” He looked down at Phil, frowning a bit.
Right. “They’re both Christian,” she lied as she removed her pack. “Not sure of the denomination, but whatever. I’ll handle him, you take care of Francis?”
Jordan nodded and moved off quickly. Slowly, she knelt over Phil, crossing herself. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit….” A quick glance showed that Jordan was far enough away, already focused on giving the annointing of the sick. She turned to look back down and spoke in a quiet whisper. “You done fucked up.” She wasn’t even sure if he could hear her — he was going pale awfully fast.
“It’s kind of funny, you know? That stuff Jordan said? It was just to freak you out. Hell, he didn’t even break Armando’s nose when he was beating on him. All show. He’s nice like that. Too weak to hurt someone in that way. Right now, he’s hoping that your brother’s God will forgive the fact that it ain’t a priest giving the rites, so the fucktard can go to heaven. And he wants me to do the same, even though you made it a point not to look when Francis was reading from his bible. Like I said, he’s nice.”
She clamped a hand over Phil’s mouth before taking one of his fingers, twisting until it snapped. By the muffled sound, he could at least feel that. “I’m not. Me? Because you tried to kill my brother, I’m all about making you suffer. And we’ve probably got four, five minutes of it. So don’t you die on me yet. Because I’m going to fucking enjoy this.”
The sad part was, it was true. Whatever part of the human psyche it was that kept people from feeling joy from this sort of vengeance, she’d been born without it. When someone wronged her, wronged her family, she enjoyed getting revenge. It was one of the very few things that was better than sex for her. Hell, even when taunts and insults didn’t bother her in the slightest, she didn’t want to stop Jordan from attacking them. She loved that almost as much. But after the first few times, when he’d gotten in so much trouble, she’d decided to protect him from it.
The fact that he also felt guilt whenever he attacked someone didn’t hurt matters any. She envied him for that, actually. That spark of vitality that made him feel guilt, sing, and laugh so vibrantly. Sure, she could feel those things, but not with the passion that he did. She’d actually piggybacked on his dreams, on his life goals, and made them her own. He made every part of her better, driving her to new heights, and making her think that the impossible could be done. This trip had been proof of that.
People often thought they were an item, as disgusting as it was. Maybe she did feel a different kind of love for her siblings than most people did, but it wasn’t romantic, and it was far from sexual. No, it was something… greater. More pure. Which made her enjoy these moments of revenge that much more.
“If there is a hell, you’re going to burn in it. And your brother, up in heaven, is gonna wonder where you’re at. After all, he got that annointment thing.” She flashed him a smile, staring down into his hazel eyes. “And I’m going to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Because even his perfection will be marred. Marred by the fact that you two got greedy. I’m none too keen on your brother’s bible, any god that would allow Scion doesn’t deserve to exist, but last I checked, greed was a sin. So it’s only right that in heaven, his paradise should be marred.
“But you, you never bought into that either. I’m guessing when your brother found God, you thought him a fool. That’s fine. I can respect that. But you still fucking support their choices as best you can, you waste. That’s what siblings do. But you… You all but openly mocked him. And because Jordan didn’t see that, I can do this.” Another finger snapped, causing a much softer moan out of him.
“We trusted you to watch our backs. Hell, we were going to go above and beyond whatever you were being paid, just for surviving and helping us out as much as you did. And you fucked that up. A year, maybe two years worth of pay. All gone, just like your life. I’d tell you to think about that, but I don’t believe you can think about much right now, can you?
“The funny part? If you would have given up? You would have lived. I wouldn’t have cracked your pelvis. At least, I think I broke it. I would have done everything in my power to make sure that your sentence was short, too. Yeah, you would have lost your brother, and that would have stung something fierce, but hey, it would be your suffering, knowing that he died because one of you three decided to screw us and talked the others into it. I think that’s fair, really. But now?”
She drew the knife from her belt. There probably wasn’t much time. “Goodbye.” Her strength spiked a bit as she drove it into his forehead. A bit harder than she had intended, enough so that it slid in all the way to the hilt, even causing a large depression as the skull caved a bit.
Sarah stayed like that, silent, for maybe another half a minute, until she could hear Jordan moving towards her slowly. After a moment, she turned, looking up at him, flashing him a sad expression. “I think… I was still angry, and… I used too much.”
Jordan looked down at the knife for a moment before giving her a comforting smile. “It was an apricot.” What the fuck did that mean? “He didn’t feel a thing.”
Damn. After she retrieved her knife and slid it back into her belt, Sarah got into her pack, getting out her Chinese-style entrenching tool. Truth be told, she was glad that Jordan didn’t know about this dark side of her personality. She was glad that it was so important to her that she hide it from him, keep from hurting his feelings. It meant that she wasn’t a psychopath.
“C’mon, Bro. Let’s get these two buried and figure out what we’re gonna do with numbnuts.”
“Woah! Woah! …Stop! Please stop! Oh… Okay.” Sarah’s wagon rolled to a stop far easier than Jordan’s. His horses picked up on his nervousness, making it even harder for him. The fact that they weren’t the best horses in the world didn’t help matters any. Apparently whomever had sold them hadn’t wanted to sell or rent good ones for a suicide mission.
Jordan looked at her before nodding to the bridge ahead of them. “Last bridge. We’ll be at the combat zone soon.”
She nodded and set down the reins before sliding the faceplate down. Might as well get it done. She hopped off, Jordan carefully climbing down a minute later, halberd in hand. Instead of joining her, though, he moved to dig in the wagon.
Slowly, she made it to the rear, their passenger coming into view. There hadn’t been enough room in the wagon to fit Armando in, so he’d made the ride back tied to what was effectively the bumper. Apparently it was enough to leave him a little green in the gills as he raised his head to look at her, something that made her feel a pang of sympathy. Had he thrown up at some point? She’d rather not think about it.
“Alright,” she said in a cheerful voice, pushing it aside for the time being. For some reason, she was in a playful mood. “We’re coming up on Twain, so we’ve got some decisions to make. Namely, you. See, while we were burying the dead, we got to talking. There’s all sorts of ways this could go. First, we could just take you in, tell them what you did, and then let the law handle it. A great boost for our rep, mind you. But that’s the thing. Letting the law handle it means a trial, which means we stay in Twain and not doing what we’ve got to do. I’m not a fan of that one.”
Armando didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure if that was smart or not.
“Now, see, we’re at one of those channels that Scion cut. You know, the ones that boiled the aquifer, caused earthquakes, blah blah blah. So our next option is to kill you and dump your corpse in there.” That got a look of fear out of him. “But we aren’t cold-blooded killers. Unlike your friends.”
“You…” He swallowed. “You weren’t supposed to die.”
“Oh, please. If you would have taken our weapons and left us there, even if you hadn’t tied us up or anything, we still would have died. The blood just wouldn’t have been immediately on your hands.” She rolled her eyes before remembering that he couldn’t see it through the faceplate. Awesome armor had its downsides, apparently. “Anyway. Option three is to let you go. You run, going anywhere but Twain.”
Armando’s brows furrowed as he thought it over. “Wouldn’t that leave me in the same way that it would have left you?”
“Aha!” She pointed a finger into the air. “He learns quick!” She lowered her hand, putting it on her hip. “Yup, you might not die from us, but exposure or wildlings would probably get you soon enough.”
Sarah moved directly in front of him, leaning forward until she was at eye level. “The last option is that Phil and Francis got axed right after we left the fort. A wildling attack, they were pulling rear for both wagons, and while we killed the wildlings, they didn’t make it. Got ripped to shreds. You got roughed up, but your power saved you. We buried them, moved on. You tell the lie, you walk the walk, we sing your praises, commend you for surviving after a wildling pounced you and all that. You sing our praises to anybody who will hear them, talking up how badass we are after seeing us in action. You get your pay, and after we leave Twain, we never see each other again.”
“I like that one,” he said quickly.
“Funny enough, so do I! Of course, since I’ve got a helmet, you’ll be sitting next to me the rest of the trip. And my brother there will be keeping an eye on you. If he doesn’t like one single thing that you do, he liberates you from this mortal coil. I mean, you can’t really blame him for being paranoid. You did try and waylay us.”
She glanced at Jordan, who had a blank expression on his face. Really, it was always kind of freaky to see him with any expression other than a smile, his mock-fearsome act, or his game face.
When she turned back to Armando, he was shaking his head vigorously. “No, no, I get that! Yeah. I fucked up, now I’m paying the price. It’s really a kind offer, honest! All for it! And anything that doesn’t end in him racking me more!” Pah, he was just trying to save his skin. Though she was amused that he was more concerned with his groin than the eternal flurry of punches.
It took her a few moments to untie him, followed by another few to get the one pair of handcuffs off of him. Almost instantly, Armando was rubbing at his wrists. Yeah, must have hurt, but probably not as much as his swollen face. Her brother may not have done any real damage, but that many blows causes swelling no matter what.
Jordan approached, holding out a shotgun. “If you’re riding with her, might as well have the weapon for the part.”
Armando hesitated before taking the gun. He didn’t check it, or raise it towards them, just gingerly held it. Smart boy. Not that it really mattered. The shotgun wasn’t loaded. Just because they were willing to play nice with him didn’t mean that they were completely trusting fools.
“C’mon,” she said, giving his shoulder a gentle slap. “Let’s get moving.”
It wasn’t even an hour later before the massive walls of the Twain Defense Battery came into view. The largest collection of tinker weapons that Sarah was aware of. The area north of Twain never got above the seventies, but the ground here was always warm to the touch even in the most bitter of winters. Or so they said. Sarah had to admit, it was an impressive array of guns, beam weapons, artillery and anything else one could imagine.
Of course, she’d also heard that about a quarter of them weren’t even operational. But that was only rumor, and if she bought into every rumor about Twain, everybody there was one of Teacher’s students, except for when they were Dreamers, unless, of course, they were counterintelligence spies operating on the behalf of the Wardens. The city had a freakish obsession with spy fiction, and she loved it all.
Were there specs floating above it? Sarah squinted, but couldn’t make anything out. “Bro? Can you grab your scope and check something for me?”
“N-no!” Fucking pussy. His knuckles were probably white from how hard he was holding the reigns.
“I got it,” Armando said quietly as he got out a pair of binoculars. Sarah suddenly felt a pang of frustration; they should have picked up some while in St. Louis. “Uh… It looks like… Dragon’s Teeth?” That was odd. “And, uh… It looks like they’re coming this way!”
That was double odd. “Straighten yourselves up, and get ready. We might be in for some shit.” For Sarah and Armando, that just meant straightening their backs and keeping their heads high. Jordan took as confident of a pose as he could while trying to hide his terror. It was a little successful, but not much.
It didn’t take long for the Dragon’s Teeth to come into view, and an even shorter time for them to form a flying circle around the wagons. Sarah had to work a little to get her wagon to a halt. Jordan had to work a little more, with the mare fighting him before stopping. Within moments, the Teeth had landed, one approaching between the wagons.
“Jordan and Sarah Abrams?” the man in tinkertech armor asked.
“Sir,” Sarah said, giving him a nod.
The man turned to her before tapping the side of his helmet. The visor flickered for a moment before becoming almost transparent, revealing the face of a man in his late thirties. “Commander Gillis of the Dragon’s Teeth, Twain contingent. We were charged by HighCom to keep an eye for your return, and escort you in if there was any sign of trouble.”
Dragon’s doing, no doubt. A small thank you for what they’d done. Sarah kept her tone professional, thankful that they couldn’t see her irritated expression. “Is there trouble?” Thanks could come afterwards.
“A few packs to the west, moving in this direction, but nothing major enough that the Wardens can’t handle it. They’ll be leaving to intercept shortly. We’d rather offer unneeded backup than leave you in the cold. You look like you’ve already seen a rough go of it.”
Sarah inclined her head a little. “We’ve lost two people, yes. Thank you for your assistance.”
“You alright?” she heard another trooper ask, far off to her right.
“N-no, ma’am.” She turned her head slowly to look at her brother, her eyes burning with frustration. Goddamnit, Jordan. Here she was, trying to increase their rep, and he was making himself look like a fucking pussy. “I’ve never done this before, driving horses I mean, and after everything we’ve been through…”
“Shit,” the trooper muttered. “Sir, requesting permission to assist.”
“Granted,” Gillis barked. As the woman climbed onto the wagon to take the reigns from Jordan, the commander moved closer to Sarah. “He’s never…?”
Fucking A, Jordan. She wanted to laugh. Without meaning to, he’d given them a chance to look even better. “I gave him some basic instruction before we left, but no. Horses aren’t his thing. He’s adapting well, but it’s exhausting for him to learn on the go while keeping vigilant for wildlings.”
The commander looked to Armando, who quickly shook his head. “I know how to drive, but they thought I might’ve gotten a concussion when the wildlings slammed me off the wagon. We all agreed that until I get checked out, it wasn’t smart for me to be driving it. To be honest, with the packs that tried chasing us, I’d probably be in the same state.” Good boy. She’d actually give him a bonus for that one.
Gillis smiled a little before wandering over to Jordan, reaching up to pat his leg. “You’re in good hands now. You don’t have to worry any more.”
Jordan smiled a little, quickly falling back into his usual self. Funny how quickly he could do it. “I’m not worried, sir. The only thing that I am right now is in desperate need of food, a bath and shave.”
“You look like a good forty winks could help, too. I’ll see to it you get those things as soon as you get back.” Gillis turned back to Sarah, taking her for the leader. “You’re in for quite the reception, I’m afraid. As soon as it was announced that you two were actually making it back, everybody came running. I wouldn’t fault the three of you for taking a moment to clean yourselves up.”
Immediately, the three of them dug for washcloths and water bottles. With how bad her hair was sticking up, she’d have to wear her helmet, but Sarah could at least have her visor up. As she worked, she spoke up. “Could you radio ahead and see if John Inmann could receive us? I’d imagine there’s paperwork involved with our return.”
Gillis shook his head. “I’m pretty sure that the chief dockmaster was planning on it. You two are kind of celebrities now.”
“I understand that. Just like I understand that he threw the responsibility of sending us out on an underling because of how many have gone out and never returned. I get that.” She paused to rub at her mouth a bit before continuing. “However, since Inmann was the one to see us out, it’s only fair that he be the one to see us back.” She paused, choosing her words carefully. “The chief dockmaster can have his photo op with us soon enough. I’d like to pay my respects to the man who spoke plain to us, give him something to tell his kids about.”
The commander grinned a little. “You know the political game well.”
“Not really,” she lied. Now was an excellent time for humility. “But I had some coaching before we left. That said, after we get bathed and my brother has a first meal in him, I’d like it if we could have a proper dinner with you and your squad. We owe the Teeth dearly for everything they’ve done for this mission, and a photo op and maybe a kind word to the papers probably wouldn’t hurt.”
She’d paid attention to the things that Dragon had let slip. Or maybe, had let slip on purpose. Tattletale had done work convincing the Teeth to help, but had made it sound to the two of them that she’d bankrolled all of this mission, and was doing the Teeth a favor with the debriefing. The fact that it was probably always part of the bargin didn’t sit well with Sarah.
Nor did the fact that Tattletale had lied about their odds. Jordan probably hadn’t picked up on that, but she had. It wasn’t enough to sour the deal, but it was enough to leave a bitter taste in Sarah’s mouth.
Gillis bowed his head a little. “Much obliged, Miss Abrams. I’ll radio in as soon as we’re airborn. Once you’re secure, the Wardens and I have teams on standby to guard your cargo. Just let me know when you’re ready. You and your hus-”
“Siblings,” Sarah and Jordan said in near unison. The commander took a step back, and Sarah quickly explained. “Different fathers.”
“Ah.” He looked between them for a moment before chuckling. “I do see the family resemblance. Forgive me.”
Sarah smiled warmly. “It happens. Nothing to forgive.”
“Anyway, you and your brother are in good hands from here on out.”
After the three of them got cleaned up enough to be presentable, the Dragon’s Teeth took flight, save for the one helping Jordan. It was impressive, seeing these untriggered people in their tinker armor moving in such precise formation, forming a circle around their little caravan. On one hand, it meant that they didn’t have the majesty of coming in on their own. On the other hand, having an escort like this was more than a little impressive. She could only imagine how they’d look as they came through the gates.
As they rode, the defensive battery didn’t look so impressive to Sarah now. Fearsome, yes. Imposing, sure. But not impressive. They’d defied one in three chance of surviving, they’d fought literally hundreds of wildlings in St. Louis, and done the impossible. As they approached the gate, nothing could compare to that.
As the heavy metal doors opened, she could see the crowds of people inside. Some were in awe, some were cheering. And Sarah? She felt oh so very alive.
Jordan had agreed because he needed those questions. They could have waited, played it safe, but he was desperate for them. Sarah, meanwhile, had agreed for the reason before them. Riding into Twain, the epitome of badassery, nobody would be able to forget it. All eyes were on them, reveling in the fact that they had pulled off the impossible. Cameras flashed, people cheered.
And Sarah smiled. No matter what happened from here on out, their rep was going to explode from this.