The cynics of the world would tell a person that the world was against them. That in the end, the only thing that the universe itself could offer you was pain and suffering, and that all of your hopes and dreams were ultimately for naught. They taught that if you left yourself completely open to others, you would only invite even more pain. They were the pessimists, the ones who knew deep down that things would go wrong, be tainted in the end, and only leave you worse off than you already were.
When good things happened to them, they accepted them with controlled surprise, but always expected something to go wrong. Waiting for the other shoe to drop was a popular term. When bad things happened, they had the ultimate defense, fortress walls a mile thick to protect them from pain.
Fuck those guys. Life was beautiful, and was getting even better every single day. That much was apparent by the girl currently kissing him.
If, six months ago, someone would have told Chris that Karen would have been his girlfriend, he would have laughed it off. He’d never met the girl, he didn’t know her in the slightest. Sure, Sarah and Jordan had told him about her. They told him about all the people that rode with them, even the ones who didn’t make it back to New Brockton.
Well, Sarah told more stories than Jordan. Often, he’d be doing pushups or something.
They’d told him that Karen had started out a bit too friendly. She’d been a guard for a warehouse in New Brockton for a year or so before she finally got a spot with the Sons of Bitch caravan. Guard mercenaries tended to be more sociable than caravan mercenaries — on the road, it was far too easy to get yourself killed to get too friendly with the other mercs. Or so Sarah said.
But while everyone else had grown irritated with Karen, Sarah and Jordan had taken her under their wing. Jordan by example, Sarah by frequently pairing up with Karen and explaining things to her. By Karen’s second trip with the caravan (was caravan even the right word?) they were not only friends, but Karen fit in with the group nicely.
But she was still the new girl, so it was mildly surprising when she’d shown up. Even stranger how she’d accepted his hug so readily, or continued to talk and flirt with him. She wasn’t exactly his usual type; a little too lean, and he preferred his girls bustier, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t awfully cute. She had a beautiful smile that showed she still had all of her teeth, a cute button nose, and her cheekbones gave her face a sleek, angular look.
Maybe it was her teasing that made him like her, but he didn’t care. It was just nice to have someone show him attention. Especially a pretty girl who wanted to show him more than just attention, and whose sense of humor matched his own for the most part.
Burlington was lonely. Everybody was so scared that he’d get pissed off and turn on them, or decide that the city wasn’t worth his investment. Which was utter bullshit. Mom and Dad had put themselves way into debt to get everything for him, to modify the house so Jordan would have his own private space. And the city had helped a ton, too. The only reason he had his massive workshop was because they’d built it for him.
But they kept their distance. They were polite, but hands off. Distant. It was maddening, needing that human contact but being unable to get more than passing smiles.
Karen enveloped him almost as fiercely as Jordan and Sarah. More fiercely in different ways. In ways that his siblings never would. It was more than anything that he’d ever experienced before. Even when they weren’t making out, or more, she somehow made him feel more alive. Like there was nothing that he couldn’t do, nothing he couldn’t accomplish with just the smallest effort. Already, he’d had several designs spark in his head, and they were staying there, not fading away.
Though, right now, with her face cupped in his hands and her lips pressed against his, he was none too keen to get back to work.
“Christopher,” a familiar voice barked sternly.
Immediately, Karen was scrambling off of his lap and onto her feet. Chris turned, blinking and trying to regain his breath. “M-Mom, hi. What are… We were, uh…”
Mom took two steps forward, her eyes narrowing slightly. “I could see damn well and clearly what you were doing, because the two of you were doing it in the middle of the street.” She had to shift the heavy bag that was slung over her shoulder so that she could fold her arms.
“I’m sorry,” Karen said quickly, folding her hands behind her back and lowering her head. “It’s my fault.”
Dad placed a hand on Mom’s shoulder before looking at the two of them. He had that I’m not actually very angry at all but I’m going to pretend to be for your mother’s sake expression on his face. “I’m not so old that I don’t remember. I’d say that the both of you are equally to blame.” He took a deep breath. “But we aren’t angry that you two are… making out. But getting that friendly, in public? That’s what we have a problem with.”
Mom’s expression said that she didn’t quite share Dad’s opinion, but she wasn’t contradicting him in public.
“We’re lucky we even stumbled on you,” Dad continued. “But to find the two of you like this… I have to admit, I’m a little surprised.” He settled onto one of the nearby cafe chairs, setting his bag down next to him. Mom followed his lead. “Making out like there’s no tomorrow while your siblings are in Saint Louis…”
“They’re fine,” Chris said defensively. “The numbers are really solid, and-”
“Thinkers can be wrong,” Mom stressed. “No matter who they are, they’re only human.” She’d know, honestly. She’d told stories about her mother dealing with them, and had spent time around them herself as a child.
He wished that he could have met her mother, but she’d held her post at the PRT office, coordinating and passing information until the very end. Mom had seen to it that everybody at the office had received a proper burial, even if there wasn’t very much of a corpse left to bury for most of them.
Chris took a slow breath. “You haven’t seen them fight,” he said quietly. That made Dad wince a little, but Mom’s face was a stone wall. “I have. If you think their training was impressive, it’s nothing compared to when things get rough. Right, Karen?”
Karen nodded quickly. “Yeah, they’re both pretty badass. Our last delivery with the Sons? Where everything went tits up? Jordan knew that wall was going to explode, but he also knew he could take it. He took it just so that he could end the fight quick, without having to hurt John. It sounds insane, but I watched him do it. I’ve never seen anyone be so calm in a fight like that. But yeah, those two? They get the job done, no matter what.”
“And he’s just as cool when fighting wildlings.” Even now, the image of Jordan fighting those beasts was fresh in his mind, plain as day. Sweeping his halberd like it was his own arms, moving just barely enough to do what had to be done. Ducking just enough that the last one’s claws would graze ineffectually against his armor, just enough that the beast tumbled. If Chris hadn’t have shot it, it would have been dead before it had a chance to right itself.
Even under all that insanity, guns going off all around them, Jordan had remained cool and calm. He knew what they were going to do before they did, both the humans and the wildlings. And the way he moved! Training was one thing, but to see him really cut loose? No, Chris had no real concerns about the two of them going through St. Louis, no problem. Maybe a few cuts and scrapes, but nothing serious.
“Yes, but it’s Saint Louis,” Dad stressed.
“They’ll get the job done,” Karen said again. “Believe me, I’m a little worried about them, too, but I have faith in them. Besides, there isn’t a lot that we can do right now, is there?”
“What are you even doing here anyway?” Chris asked. “What about work?”
“We took time off,” Mom said simply. “When you told us what was going on, we agreed to meet with our bosses and explain. Your father got the go ahead, but I needed one more day before I could go. As much as he wanted to get the head start, we agreed to leave together today.”
“Wow,” Karen said with a slight grin. “Did you teleport? It’s too early in the day for a carriage to have gotten here.”
“No,” Dad said, settling back in the chair. “Our powersets both include Mover aspects. Tabby carried me, though — she’s a good deal faster than I am.”
Chris sighed softly. “I wish that you would have told me. I would have already gotten you a place to stay. He shifted in his seat a little, mostly to alleviate a certain pressure, before shrugging. “I’ll see if we can get you a place at the Atlantic Arms.”
Dad’s eyes bulged, but Mom looked like she was about to fall out of her chair. “Christopher! There’s no way you can afford that!”
“Yes he can,” Dad said as he regained his composure. He ran a hand over his beard. “The deal went through, so he can probably afford to buy us plenty.”
Mom looked between everyone, but Chris just grinned. “But first, since the trip was probably a bit tiring for you, why don’t you have a bite to eat?” He waved for the waiter. “My treat.”
Jordan hurried off to catch up with the Warden and Commander Van Dorn. Tattletale turned around and stalked off, giving him only the briefest glimpse of her eyes flicking back and forth. To say that was awkward as hell would be an understatement. Chris privately hoped that it wouldn’t make everything more difficult. He had enough to worry about as it was.
Almost instantly, another member of the Dragon’s Teeth approached him. Her visor turned translucent, allowing him to see her face. “Mr. Abrams? The commander has requested that we escort both you and your supplies to your warehouse.”
Chris blinked for a moment before looking around. “Uh, this all is very sudden…” And quite frankly, his head was spinning. His siblings, whom he just wanted to spend a little time with, barely got back from a dangerous mission, with Jordan sporting a new wound on the back of his neck. Their reunion was interrupted by Tattletale. Who was then interrupted by Commander Van Dorn and a very hostile Warden. Who dragged his siblings off.
Really, he couldn’t keep up with all of this.
The trooper, though, flashed him a patient smile. It was the kind of smile that you gave someone who just wasn’t seeing the obvious. “I understand, sir, but you have a very valuable cargo. There’s plenty of people who would very much like to have their hands on it. The sooner we can get it somewhere safe where we can protect it, the better.”
“We?” he asked.
“We’ll be providing guard for it. It’s better to prevent it from being stolen than to spend time and energy trying to retrieve it all. It would not only make your job harder, but would make the effort your siblings went through for naught.”
Roger coughed softly before speaking up. “Pardon me for interrupting, but do you know where they’d be taking Jordan and Sarah?”
“The Warden’s offices,” the woman said calmly. “From my understanding, that was the plan anyway.”
“Thank you.” The older man put his hand on Amy’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. The poor girl looked crushed, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. Chris felt bad for her. Since she and Jordan had officially hooked up, they’d barely gotten any time together. A little time on the road, a few days here in town, and then worrying herself to death over him.
Chris looked to his parents. “Go ahead. Karen and I can handle this. Why don’t you nab Sarah after they’re done and nab us some grub?”
Dad looked okay with it, but Mom was frowning. She wanted to help guard the goods, but she’d buckle and cave; she wanted time with her daughter, after all. And Sarah would want to parade Jordan sooner or later, set out feelers to look into improving their rep, but this would give the two lovebirds some time to be alone with each other while making the folks feel better. Roger seemed to be on the same wavelength as Chris.
It was annoying, in a way, to see how Sarah pushed Jordan. It wasn’t always immediately noticeable, but she was always nudging him into things that would improve their reputation. Chris was sure that’s why she’d been gung ho for the St. Louis job, only deferring to Jordan to make sure that it was a realistic possibility. And Jordan, so intent on his questions, had agreed without hesitation. He probably hoped that he’d trigger there, too.
All just to ensure that no matter what they did in the Wardens, they’d get posted together. Stupid. The extra respect was understandable, but there were other ways they could make sure to stay a team. But that was their oh-so-precious plan, and there was no dissuading them.
“Alright,” Mom said at last.
Chris smiled and nodded, feeling rather pleased with himself. That was a lot easier than he’d expected. Still, there was one more thing to do, and the folks couldn’t help with that. He stepped up to Amy, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Bro wasn’t ditching you,” he said with a soft smile. “I know him, and he sees a goal and charges for it. Relentless, unending. You’ll get your time with him, I promise. Because I’m sure that, right after keeping the peace, spending time with you is his biggest desire.” That and finding out when he’d trigger.
Amy gave him an uncomfortable smile. “Thanks.”
Right, he’d said something wrong, people were getting uncomfortable, but he had no idea what he’d done wrong. Okay, time to make a quick exit. He turned to the lieutenant, smiling warmly. “Okay! Let’s get this show on the road!”
The woman smiled a little and pressed the side of her helmet again, making the image of her face disappear.
Semi-holographic technology. It was installed on officer suits to allow them to deal with the public, presenting a public face for encounters, he already knew that. But the realization of how it worked caused his passenger to kick in. Either lighting up her face for display, or simulating it. Possibly both. Inefficient, a waste of energy. Two-part chemical structure, one for reception of the image of her face, one for projection. He could see the final product in his head, how it worked, how it could easily achieve the same effect at a fraction of the power.
And then it stopped dead, stalling out without resolving how to actually make it. He looked around quickly, trying to find something to trigger the details. He wished Jordan was here now to guide him to the answer.
His eyes locked on Tim, and the information began to flow through his head again. Sonic molecular alignment. It would allow liquids to set in specific patterns at the molecular level without changing the composition in the slightest. The design burned its way through his mind. He’d made many similar things in the past, which were incorporated into all of his technology, but this was much more advanced and elegant. A far more compact device.
His passenger switched tracks again. A microlaser to detect the exact contours of whatever the liquid was being applied to, a microprocessor to determine the right application. Application sprayer, followed by the specialized sonic emitter. Everything packed into a hand-held device, similar to a gun. Two tubes, one for each kind of liquid. The gun is passed over the outside of the helmet with one spray, the chemical set before the gun finished passing over the face of the helmet. The same for the inside, but with the second chemical. Both set up clear, invisible. A small current would easily activate two chemicals, making the helmet seem invisible.
Chris blinked, took a deep breath and smiled. The designs weren’t leaving his mind. Good. Sometimes, if he couldn’t draw up the designs immediately, whatever he had come up with would disappear immediately, leaving him with only vague impressions of what it had been. Other times, like now, it would retain long enough for him to record it. And the fact that it had given him a new idea for a new, more compact molecular alignment device made things even better.
Now if only it would give him invisibility cloth that wasn’t highly flammable and didn’t pump out electric radiation, he’d be a happy man.
Now wasn’t the time, though. Far from it. He smiled and waved at the parents before moving towards the wagons, only to find that the troopers were already manning them. He couldn’t help but smile to himself. Out of all the groups he dealt with, he loved the Dragon’s Teeth the most. When he imagined the armies of yore, he always compared them to the Teeth.
But as they began to move, he was reminded of another reason he loved hem so. They probably could have had the horses go faster, a lot faster, but they purposefully moved at his speed. There was a different kind of respect there with them that he didn’t get much of from customers. Some were put off by his age, others by his demeanor.
The Commander, on the other hand, was friendly, downright personable. He’d send Chris a message, warning when he’d be in the area and asking if he could drop by for some iced tea. They’d meet up, and probably the first half an hour would be them just… talking. How Chris was doing, about Sarah and Jordan, about his family, or how the Teeth were doing. He’d often have some grunt with him who would be awkward at first, but would quickly relax.
Years ago, William had asked Chris to consider a more contracted relationship between himself and the Teeth. Chris had explained as best he could why he couldn’t, why it would drive him mad. As a way of apologizing, he’d offered to make some blades for the Teeth, and William had agreed. Since then, even if a grunt hinted at it, he’d put the Commander face back on and told them to mind their own business. If Chris had something for them, he’d offer and William would accept quickly. If he didn’t, William didn’t seem to mind it in the slightest.
And the ones who picked things up when Chris had sold stuff were just like these troopers. All polite business when there was work to be doing, but once they were done, they’d gladly shoot the shit for a little bit. Many seemed amused when Chris would race around to refill their drinks, laughing at their jokes.
He wondered idly if these troopers were going to escort them back to Burlington. Hmm. With this many, he’d have to make multiple coffee cakes. He had a Twain-built automated flour sifter, not anything Tinker-made, but still awesome. He hadn’t had a chance to really put it through its paces yet, and the idea of making multiple pound cakes with it was kind of exciting.
He was broken out of his thoughts by a hand slipping into his back pocket. He smiled at Karen, looked into her playful eyes, and felt his heart melt a little. How could he help but wrap an arm around her waist, pulling her closer.
But at the same time, Chris felt a little pang of unease. She was a few years older than him, which was no doubt part of the reason why Mom had a problem with Karen. But with that also came self-doubt.
Sis would urge him to talk it through, kill the unease by simply asking and get the straight dope. He might as well.
Karen seemed to pick up on his mood, her face becoming a little more serious. “What’s up, dump?”
He smiled a little. Her pet nickname for him was based off of dumpling, or so she said. Still. “Uh, why…” Okay, this was harder than Sis had made it out to be. “Wh-why me?”
Her brows drew together in confusion. “Why you, what?”
“You know…” He tilted his head back and forth. “Why… me? I mean, I don’t think I’m hideous or something, but I know I’m not that good looking. And you’re… Well, you could have a lot more choices of guys better looking than me, so I’m just curious. Why me?”
She laughed a little. “Looks aren’t anything, you know.”
“Yeah, but still.”
Karen grew more serious. “But still.” She drew in a deep breath. “Okay, you’ve got to promise me that you won’t take this the wrong way, alright?”
“I promise,” he said seriously.
She nodded a little, looking ahead of them. “There’s two things that I find sexy. The first is simple, and the second is complicated. The first is competence. Back before I realized Amy was sweet on him, I thought your brother was hot as hell just because he was so capable, you know?”
Chris nodded. “I can understand that.” Being able to kick ass was all sorts of manly.
“As soon as I figured out that the bosslady was lusting after him, though, I knocked it off right quick. Besides, it was cute watching them. Especially her, making moon eyes whenever she thought nobody was looking. Anyway, you’re pretty damn competent yourself.”
“She says about the guy who was puking his guts out after the fight.” It really wasn’t his finest moment in the world.
“Hey.” Her voice was stern as she looked at him with weirdly intense eyes. “Knock it off. You aren’t a fighter, and you know it. You’d never shot a gun before then, so you clutching it up and capping a wildling when you’re scared out of your gourd? That’s still competence, okay? It isn’t just being a brave badass all the time, it’s doing your part despite being scared to death. I don’t care if you’re a dude or a bitch, that’s sexy.
“But you’re competent in other ways, too. You’re a good cook, you can keep up with me when I start teasing, you’re good with your Tinker stuff, and staying up for days on end to get something done? I can’t do that. I think it’s pretty damn cool. So suck it up, you’re sexy competent.”
He supposed he could understand that. “And the other reason?”
Karen looked away again, letting out a deep sigh. “I came from a household where… Well, it’s a big family, you know?” She didn’t wait for a response. “But Mom didn’t work. Well, she worked. You can’t have eight kids without working your ass off, but she didn’t have a job. Mom and Dad… They’re ‘women barefoot in the kitchen’ types, you know?”
“That women should take care of the kids and that’s it?” It sounded kind of nice, in a way. He could get the appeal for some — the woman gets someone to care for them, and the guy gets… all that other stuff.
She frowned a little. “Kinda. There was an attitude of… I dunno. You’re supposed to do what guys tell you. They never said that out loud to us girls, but… I was twelve or thirteen when I realized it. What they expected of me, and that it wasn’t the same for everyone. I went to a friend’s house for a sleepover, and saw how she and her family worked, and it just sort of clicked that mine was different. It took me another year or two before I finally got it. Even then, there wasn’t really anything that I could do about it.”
Okay, now it was sounding a little less appealing. Well, a lot less appealing.
“Then along comes a guy who doesn’t treat me like an object, someone that’s supposed to obey him. We hooked up, and hell, there was a point where I realized he liked arguing with me. And he… Well, let me say that it wasn’t a healthy relationship, but it was exactly what I needed.”
“But by then you were already set up to be a merc?” Chris asked.
“Yeah.” Karen nodded slowly. “Yeah, exactly. But… Since then, most of the guys that I’ve hooked up with, they’ve not exactly…” Her face folded into a frown as she fought for the words. “They weren’t like my dad. They tended not to be, you know, all testosterone driven. More… Well, more feminine.”
She looked at Chris for a moment before letting out a breath of relief. Had she been worried about offending him? He didn’t have time to think before she continued.
“See, here’s the thing. You don’t act like you have to control the situation, take care of everything. Like everywhere you go is your domain, and you have to rule us or anything. You’re cool with Sarah and Jordan going out and being badass, while you stay at home and work on stuff. Or act like you’ve got to prove your manliness. It’s like…
“You cook, you clean, you do your thing. You get excited, you go in for hugs. You have no problems just grabbing me and dancing. But at the same time, you’re comfortable with it, like you’ve got nothing to prove to nobody, you know?”
He shrugged. “I am what I am.”
“See? That’s it, right there. You don’t have to be all rawr manly, you can just be you. I don’t feel like I have to, I don’t know, change myself to be with you. You’ll take me as I am.”
Chris chuckled a little. “Um, what’s the point in being with you if I want to change you? Doesn’t that kinda defeat the point?”
“See? You’re doing it again!” Karen grinned a little, before once again turning serious. “You can do all the things that my family thought only women should be doing, without losing any of what makes you cool. And, uh, you don’t seem to mind me being a mercenary at all.”
That got a dismissive snort out of him. “Sarah and Jordan are mercs, so it’d be pretty dumb of me to think you being one is a bad thing. Especially not since they only said good things about you.”
“Cool,” she said with a bit of a sad smile. “Because really? I don’t have very many options to me. I, uh, the folks never sent us girls to school. That boyfriend that I ran off with? He taught me how to write my name. I can make out a few words, of course. Danger, that sort of thing. But I wasn’t even taught how to do anything but the most basic math. I still don’t really get multiplication and division.”
“We’ll fix that,” Chris said without hesitation. “I mean, if you want. No pressure or nothin’. But if you wanna learn math and how to read and stuff, I’ll gladly work with you on it. Fu…” He paused instinctively before remembering that Mom and Dad weren’t around. “Fuck, Sis and Bro would probably help out a bunch, too. Just say the word, and you’ve got it.”
He felt Karen squeeze his rump a bit through his pocket, and he responded by squeezing her waist a little. “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”
He grinned at her, and found the smile returned eagerly. Yeah, he could do this, no prob. After all, she was teaching him plenty. Of course, what she was teaching him, no classroom would ever teach. And he was a very, very good pupil.
It was funny, in a way, talking about such deep stuff in the middle of the street, with a bunch of Dragon’s Teeth right there with them. If they were thinking anything, their thoughts weren’t betrayed by their body language, and the helmets protecting their expressions. For all he knew, they were joking about it over comms. Whatever, he didn’t care.
But it did make him think a little, realizing the situation that they were in. And with that, a question came to mind. “Hey, Lieutenant?”
The woman turned to look at him. “Yes, Mr. Abrams?”
“Who owns these horses anyway?”
The woman stopped in her tracks, tilting her head. He couldn’t read her expression, but he knew the body language — she had no more idea than him.
Chris wasn’t worried, not really. There was no point in worrying, not in the end. Jordan and Sarah always pulled it off in the end. Plain and simple, they got the job done, no matter what, end of story. He knew that better than anyone here, apparently.
Manuel had already gnawed off as much of his fingernails as he could, and was still trying every half a minute or so. Amy was sitting between Roger’s legs as he brushed her hair, trying to keep her calm when she had herself worked up in tight enough knots that she was about to explode.
Rodger himself wasn’t anxious, but he had this dark, distant expression on his face. He’d been an adult before Gold Morning, so he was familiar with all of the old S-class threats. Endbringers. The Slaughterhouse Nine. Ash Beast. Nilbog. The Sleeper. All of them. And he’d probably been “recruited” by Khepri at some point to help fight Scion. The word of an S-class threat probably gave him plenty of dark memories.
Karen, surprisingly, was taking it worse than Chris. Every few minutes she would get up and pace around. After a few minutes, she’d settle back down next to him and put a hand on his knee. Her restlessness was, to be honest, annoying.
It didn’t help that there were so many other nervous people here by the Warden office. So many people nervously trying to cope with their loved ones being out and fighting some sort of threat, with no news back yet about what was going on. His heart went out to them; while he was sure about Sarah and Jordan, he wasn’t so sure about anybody else.
Really, the Office of the Wardens was a bit of a misnomer. Offices was a better term, as far as he could tell. There was one central office where the leadership was posted, then plenty of other two-story buildings scattered around where individual teams were posted. Even team was a poor word, as Wardens often patrolled by themselves instead of with the rest.
The team offices were a combination of office for the daily paperwork, housing, and training center. Each held five Wardens, and possibly their families. The cellular nature of the Wardens was a necessity, as groups of parahumans larger than five tended to break down into infighting. There were plenty of exceptions, of course, but it was better to go by the common theme. It was one of the many reasons why Chris had no desire to live in New Brockton, despite it being a much nicer city with more opportunities.
Still, he had to admit, it was good for Mom and Dad to be doing the Warden thing. Sure, taking care of both heavy triggers was probably a nerve wracking experience for them, and he wouldn’t be surprised if they went back to the bottle for this, but he felt like it would be good for them to be heroes again.
Back in the day, they’d been young people with huge careers ahead of them. Dad had proven himself pretty well in the Wards, a capable and charismatic parahuman. Cloak, was that the term? Chris couldn’t remember. But there had been a lot of talk about him getting a leadership position some day.
Mom, on the other hand, had a brief but illustrious career. She was a heavier hitter than Dad, and had hit every single note right to be one of the cloaks (Cowls? The word was so close!) called in when shit really hit the fan. With her mom’s position with the PRT, it was all but guaranteed that she’d be someone important in the Protectorate. At least, until the whole Scion thing. He didn’t really understand why either of them quit the hero routine, but he accepted it. What else could he do?
A window opened in space, pulling Chris out of his thoughts. Less like a portal like he’d think of one, but more like someone had cut a hole in a sheet of paper, revealing a different landscape behind it. He rose to his feet quickly, a smile coming to his face.
Almost instantly, people started pushing through the portal. Just as quickly, people rushed to meet them, clasping loved ones. Tears of joy and relief flowed. One man had a woman wrapped up in a fierce hug as he told her she was never allowed to do that again. One woman jumped into her partner’s arms, wrapping her legs around the woman even as she gave her a fierce hug.
Chris tried not to pay attention to everyone, but it was rather sweet. Instead, he focused on as much of the portal as he could see through the throng of people. He wasn’t having much success, but he was patient. He’d dive into Jordan, get that hug out of the way quick, switching to Sarah so Amy could have her turn. Yeah, that was good. Excellent, even.
He couldn’t see through the people, but he could see over them. As the halberd came into view, he began to hurry, pushing past people, a giddy grin on his face. Maybe Jordan had triggered in the fight. Jordan would have participated no matter what — with his armor and the halberd, he was as well-equipped to fight as any Tinker. In the field, there really wasn’t any difference between a Tinker and someone untriggered, anyway. If he hadn’t triggered, then most likely he’d have made a name for himself somehow.
Either way, it meant a celebration tonight. He’d have to see if Karen or Rodger would buy something for toasts.
Chris pushed past a family crowding around someone and stopped in his tracks. It wasn’t Jordan holding the halberd. The man had Jordan’s rifle slung over his shoulder as well. He stepped forward slowly, his eyes heavy as he scanned the crowd.
Chris’ smile dropped like a stone. He’d made that halberd for Jordan, and his brother would never, ever leave it behind unwillingly. You’d have to pry it out of his hands. He might entrust someone to take care of it while he did something else, but…
He took a slow step towards the man, and then another. Yes, that had to be it. Jordan had come up with a brilliant plan, but needed to give his gun and halberd to someone else for a little bit. They’d gotten separated, and now the guy was looking to return them. Yeah. That had to-
“Chris Abrams?” the man asked. Chris barely managed a nod, and the man’s face set in stone. The eyes, though, shined with sympathy. “I’m afraid that I have some bad news.”
Chris could only remember crying once in his life. This would mark the second time.