I blinked at Chevalier. Here to talk to us about the Wardens. Immediately, all the fun that I’d had training had evaporated, and a large, heavy ball had formed in my chest.
“One thing at a time,” Legend said warmly. Why wait? Get the business out of the way seemed like the smart move to me. But then again, there were reasons why I let Sarah tae the lead on this sort of thing. Instead, he turned to me. “The way that you were attacking me, it reminded me of why I couldn’t help clear out St. Louis. Too many fliers attacking me from all angles, and every time I’d get a bead on one, my power would reflexively already be changing my form. Did you do that on purpose?”
Ah, he was going with business. He was sizing us up. “Yes, sir.” I paused. “Well, for the most part. Even with the padded armor, I don’t really have very many opportunities to give it my all. A good portion of my early training was too potentially lethal for my opponents for me to use it too often. I can do the katas, but not really practice against others like I did back then.”
Chevalier nodded. “With who trained you, I can believe it.”
I swallowed, hoping that the comment was a compliment to Greg. He was a good guy. I kept my focus on Legend. “Yes, well… With your power, sir, and the way that it reflexively activates, I could really cut loose and practice against a moving opponent. I’m also having trouble with my precision, so doing a wide range of attacks to see where I could land my blows the most accurately helped me to figure out what the problem was.”
“And did you?”
“Yes, sir. My brain is wired to compensate for old injuries. Now that I don’t have to worry about that, even with the assistance of the neural translator Riley installed to help, my brain itself has to adjust to the new muscles and joints.”
Legend grinned a little. “And maneuvering me into position…”
I nodded. “That was a nice bonus, sir.”
Chevalier spoke up. “I’m impressed with the way that the two of you communicated your plans so succinctly. How long did that take you to put together?”
“Three months,” Sarah said with a grin. “We have probably twenty code languages that we came up with. Jordan came up with the idea, since we can’t always use hand signals. I came up with the first code language, and it became a fun hobby when we’d be walking back to Burlington. Some are better than others, but we’re pretty much of the opinion that we should remember even the less useful ones, if for no other reason than remembering what worked and didn’t.”
“Fair,” he said with an approving nod. “But maybe not the best for larger groups.”
“We have one that works better for that. The code we used in this case is more situational, but it’s also older, so we remembered it better and could react more quickly if the need arose. Given everything that we’ve been through, it was probably best to go with the most familiar one.”
He nodded a little. “Most people wouldn’t think of switching opponents like that.”
Sarah smiled broadly. “We like to keep things fresh. Besides, strengths should match weaknesses. My strengths were useless against Legend’s weaknesses, but might have been good for yours. And Jordan might be able to figure out how to manipulate Legend easier than I could. He has a good head for that sort of thing.”
Legend spoke up again, addressing me. “I have to admit, that takedown that you did on me was rather impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like that.”
“Escrima,” I said with a nod. “I guessed that your power might not kick in for slower strikes that you actively recognized weren’t a threat. With that, and goading you into attacking me, I was able to force you into the moves that I wanted. I, uh, I actually got the idea from the disarm that Chevalier performed.”
Legend glanced to Chevalier, who grinned. “Tracy has been pushing me to add new combat styles to my repertoire. Some of the Escrima moves are… very helpful with my power. I’m surprised that it never got suggested to me sooner.”
“Because you fight primarily with a longsword style,” I answered. Both of them turned to look at me. “Your hand and a half style is very distinctive, no matter the length of your blade. Though excellent in some ways, it has too much flash — a holdover from your training with the Wards and Protectorate, I’d suspect, where making you visible was a concern. Longswords are a difficult style to master, and you’ve done an excellent job of it. People would be hesitant to suggest further styles.
“Escrima would work very well with your power, especially if you have blades that are small, thin, and lightweight that you can use your power to manipulate your primary blade with. Though, I’d also suggest the zweihander for cross training with your power. Once your blade reaches a certain length, no matter how your power applies to your ability to handle it, you’re going to run into stability issues. There are stances and maneuvers with the zweihander that would help compensate for this, and give you more tactical options in a fight.”
Chevalier’s power was his ability to manipulate the properties of items by using other items. The more similar those items were, the easier it was. I wasn’t entirely sure about the specifics, though. However, I could tell that he’d used different pugil sticks to draw from, as well as possibly other items. Sadly, while I memorized as much as I could of the old heroes and villains, I didn’t have a perfect memory, so I might have made a mistake.
“Zweihander, eh?” He rubbed his chin. “That’s… German?”
“German greatsword, yes, sir.”
“They’ve been pushing me more towards the claymore.”
“I never really dealt with those,” I admitted sheepishly. “I can’t really comment on that.”
“That’s fine,” Legend said, smiling patiently. “You’re giving him options, explaining why you’re giving him those options, all without being demanding about it. That’s better than some martial artists that I’ve met, who insist that anybody who doesn’t learn their style is failing.”
“That’s a losing game,” Sarah said quickly. “I’ve seen Jordan struggle with some martial arts more than others. We came to the agreement that what a person learns should fit them, not the other way around. If it doesn’t feel natural to you, then it won’t serve you as well in a fight.”
“Quite right,” Chevalier said with a nod. “The faster that something becomes instinctive, the easier you’ll be able to use it.” He looked back to me. “You seem to have a good grip on tactical assessment and manipulation of powers.”
“I got my highest marks in my parahuman studies back in school. I’m rather fortunate that our parents were able to pay the fees to let me go to the Orphanage.”
“Ah,” Legend said, his eyes lighting up. “And how are your parents? I was hoping we could meet with them.”
Sarah smiled, a hint of genuine enthusiasm in her voice. “They’re good, for the most part. Still some trouble with alcohol on occasion, but their PTSD seems to be doing a lot better. Their jobs pay well, and they’re valued members of the community. Unfortunately, they went home with Chris, or else you would have had the chance to talk with them.”
His expression didn’t change, but I could see small changes in Legend’s posture. A small movement in his shoulders, a loosening of his hands. He was disappointed. I kicked myself inwardly; if only I’d figured out that Chris was going to hurry off to make new armor, I could have stopped him or something. That way, Tabby and Tim could met with him. It probably would have done everyone some good.
Sarah must have picked up on that, too. “Is it true that you knew grandma?”
“We both did,” Legend said confidently. Chevalier gave him a look that made him laugh. “You didn’t know? Standing before us are the grandchildren of Elizabeth Leblanc.”
“Dragon Lady?” Chevalier asked with surprise. My body tensed momentarily as a flare of anger hit, and he must have caught it. “No offense, but yes, we both knew Elizabeth quite well.”
“Believe it or not, the term Dragon Lady is something of an endearment. Not only was she the city head of the PRT, but she was also on several various committees.” Legend chuckled softly. “Many of those committees had a direct line to the head of the Protectorate-”
“And Ms. Leblanc was a very vocal member of them,” Chevalier said quickly. “She had a very good head on her shoulders, and would frequently debate with both of us. I swear, almost an eighth of my emails were from her.”
“Emails?” Legend laughed softly. “You got off lucky. One time, she woke…”
He paused for a moment, and it felt like someone stabbed me in the gut. I knew that pause all too well; that was the pause of someone remembering what they’d lost. It was common knowledge that he’d lost his husband and son to Scion, and that he’d loved the both of them deeply. It was equally common knowledge that their loss haunted him to this day.
He cleared his throat before continuing. “She called me an hour after I’d gone to bed to argue something. It had started civil at first, but quickly degraded into the two of us screaming at each other. We went like that for almost an hour before she simply said ‘okay.’ Like that was that. After that, she supported me to the hilt.
“She’d wanted to see how much I believed in what I was doing, you see. She’d been on the fence about it, and was worried that I’d back down too easily when the politicians began to put pressure on me. But if I was willing to get into a screaming match with a woman known for not backing down, then I’d stick to my guns no matter what.”
“She didn’t back down,” Chevalier said in agreement. “But she also could have her mind changed. And she wasn’t a bigot, even before Capacity, er, Tabitha triggered.”
“Tabby,” Sarah corrected.
“Yes,” Legend said fondly, not entirely in the present. “Tabby. Whenever I’d be in town on business, Elizabeth always insisted that I have dinner with her, that I’d never make it back to New York in time. Like I couldn’t rely on my power for it, or ask a teleporter. I actually respected her for that. She had her kitchen set up so that she could look into the living room and talk while she cooked. Tabby was always so interested to hear stories about up-and-coming people, while Elizabeth preferred…” He took a breath. “Well, she preferred more mundane conversations. At least, until Tabby went to bed. Then we’d stay up all night, drinking coffee and talking business.”
“It’s a damn shame we lost her,” Chevalier said, shaking his head. “She’d probably be the mayor of some community right now, and would be giving people detailed plans on how to rebuild society.” He shook his head.
Adults were like that. Give them a chance to walk down memory lane, and you practically had to drag them back on topic. But both Sarah and I were letting them talk. They probably needed this.
“And Pulsifer,” he continued. “Tim. It’s hard to believe that he’s not a member of the Wardens. I can respect that, but he was another one that we were sure was going to be a big name in the Protectorate. After the New Deli incident, while the rest of us were reeling from Scion killing Behemoth, he was livid that an injury had kept him out of the fight.”
“You got that with every Endbringer fight,” Legend said sadly. “People knowing that the odds had been against them, either being injured or surviving, but still upset that they hadn’t been able to do their part anyway. What little I knew of him, though, said that he was excellent. The right attitude, the skills with others, the right powers… Actually, your parents are the only reason why we don’t have more Wardens watching over your brother.”
That was like a slap to the face. Both Sarah and I were twice as alert now. “Excuse me?” she asked.
Legend lifted his hand, a calming gesture. “Relax, it’s nothing bad. Your brother has a very useful Tinker power. Usually, we like to guide Tinkers like him into larger communities, places where we can help protect them better. There’s a lot of people who would most likely love to get their hands on him. Burlington is a relatively short trip from New Brockton, but it’s still got a healthy response time from Brockton’s Wardens. That’s why we’re building the teleporter. That and the increased revenue it’ll bring the community.”
“Huh,” Sarah said. By her tone of voice, she’d caught something that I hadn’t. I’d have to ask later.
“We’d prefer to have a larger squad there,” Chevalier said calmly. “We’d be willing to take a loss for it, too. But your parents are quite formidable opponents, and we’re worried about offending them. There’s no point in protecting someone if both their family and themselves end up resenting you enough to run away.”
“Chris wouldn’t do that,” I said quickly. “He’d understand.”
“But a few years back, your parents might not have.” Legend smiled sympathetically. “They might have moved to another city, starting the whole process over again. With the good that Chris was doing for Burlington right out of the gate, we couldn’t risk that. So, we trusted your parents, and the Wardens we had in town, to keep him safe. So far, it’s been a wise decision.”
“But we’re getting wildly off target,” Chevalier said. “We’re here to discuss the two of you.”
“Quite right,” Legend said, that wide smile crossing his face again. “Let’s go ahead and discuss the political reasons why we’re here.
“The two of you have recently made very big names for yourselves. Your St. Louis excursion, the blow you dealt with Agamemnon, these things add up in the public eye rather quickly. Normally, this is where we’d ask what your intentions were, what you were planning on doing with yourselves. Not to gauge your threat or try to pressure you or anything, but to adjust our own plans to better accommodate your own.”
Chevalier spoke up. “Your earlier comment, though, tells me that you’re interested in joining the Wardens yourselves.”
“Yeah,” Sarah said with a grin. “We’ve been training for this for almost our entire lives.”
“It shows,” Legend said with an approving nod. “You have very good control over your power, and you seem to have put a lot of work into different uses for it.”
“Most of that is Jordan’s work, to be honest. It’s one thing to have a power, but he spent forever looking into ways to refine its use. I’d never have been able to use a blast as powerful as the ones I used against Agamemnon if he hadn’t taught me some tricks, like how to snap my hand shut while I’m punching. We also have a feeling that I can use other parts of my body for it, but we’ve been hesitant to try them on our own. I was actually kind of hoping we’d have a chance here, while we had a doctor’s watchful eye.”
She looked to Dr. Alcomb, who had approached close enough to overhear. The woman took a few steps closer, nodding slowly. “It’s… doable, depending on what you have in mind. Though, we can discuss that in depth another time.”
Legend was about to speak, but Sarah beat him to the punch. “Excellent. My trigger event suggests that I should be able to use it with more parts of my body than just my fist, but it also broke my arm. That’s why I’ve been hesitant to try it. Jordan was able to teach me how to use my punch better than the other triggered people who tried to help me. He’s very skilled at observing how paraphysics and traditional physics interact, and tries to use that whenever possible.
“As I’m sure you saw him trying to do during the Agamemnon fight.”
“We did,” Chevalier said with a nod. “Both with the parahuman who could summon water, and another pair of parahumans. Though, to be fair, Jordan shouldn’t have been in that fight, let alone on the line of Blasters.”
His tone had been light, casual, but his words put ice in my veins. They also stopped Sarah short.
“You could argue that it turned out for the best,” Legend said. “That still doesn’t excuse lying or disregarding protocol.”
“Jordan didn’t lie,” Sarah said quickly. My head snapped to look at her. “I take full responsibility.”
I opened my mouth, but Chevalier was already holding up his hand. “Everything leading up to the battle was a comedy of errors. Relax, I’m not accusing you. We should have had more people devoted towards explaining what was going on, to make sure that people were properly briefed. The fact that we didn’t arrange for someone to take charge of the line of Blasters didn’t help, we didn’t prepare people well enough for what was happening, didn’t communicate well enough…
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had to fight an Endbringer. Even back then our response was, admittedly, lackluster. We should have operated better back then, and we’ve gotten even more lax now. If I were to start pointing fingers and demanding people take blame for what happened out there, I’d have to start with myself and work my way down from there.
“I don’t actually fault either of you for what you did. You knew your strengths and your weaknesses, and that worked out exceptionally for everyone involved.”
Not everyone, I reminded myself. We couldn’t save everyone.
“You two aren’t Wardens,” he continued. “Despite your reputation, you’re still only mercenaries. Now, had you been full Wardens, I would be much more upset with you. Hopefully, that won’t be a problem moving forward.”
Now it was Legend’s turn. “You’re both skilled, no doubt about it. And you’d be excellent additions to the Wardens, if you’re still interested, and your recent fame hasn’t gone to your heads.”
Chevalier eyed me carefully. “We could use people like you, Jordan. From what I saw, you have the capability to be an excellent trainer for the new recruits. You’d officially be in an advisory position, I’m afraid, but-”
“No,” Sarah said quickly, shaking her head. “We’re a team. We’ve always been a team. We can’t-”
“Join.” I wasn’t sure how the words escaped my lips. They felt like they’d been torn from my chest. Her head snapped to look at me, her eyes wide. I forced a pleasant smile to my face. “Go ahead and join.”
The doctor turned away from us, and quickly set about shooing the people that had slowly been gathering around us. That was exceptionally nice of her, to give us some privacy from ears I only now realized were listening in.
Sarah looked absolutely crestfallen, her eyes searching my face. “But… Our plan…”
I tilted my head a little, still smiling. It wasn’t our plan. My plan, for as long as I could remember, was to join the Wardens, to be a hero. She’d altered the plan, come up with more steps, changed it from me to we. She’d changed my plan and made it into her own. I didn’t mind, and in fact appreciated that she had come up with that good of a plan, let alone wanting to join me, but it didn’t change the facts at all.
“My odds go up if we aren’t together,” I lied. “You know that having a support structure in place hurts one’s chances of triggering. We’ve… kind of been ignoring that, really.” Each word felt like a stab to my chest, but I forced them out. “If we’re going to salvage the plan at all, if the questions with Alcott told me anything, it’s that you need to join before I do.”
Looking at her was painful. To say that she looked devastated would be an understatement. Already, tears were welling in her eyes. “Bro…” Her voice was soft, like she was afraid to speak more loudly.
As bad as I felt for her, I felt bad for Chevalier and Legend for having to see this. But it was good that they were here — they gave me a little bit of strength when all that I wanted to do was buckle and take it back. “This is the best option, and deep down, you know it. Join. Go through the training, do your time with a Response Squad, and make a name for yourself. Do the political thing, become someone in there.
“Then, when I join up, you can help pull me through the ranks until we’re partners again. And when we are, we’ll show Valkyrie just what it means to be awesome.”
Sarah simply stared at me, that heartbroken look on her face. I wanted desperately to come up with something more to say, some set of words that would make her feel better, but nothing was coming. It hurt so very bad to turn her away like this, to push her towards the Wardens.
But it was for the best. She had the seed of greatness in her, and she’d be the one to become someone out of the two of us if she joined the Wardens. If I didn’t push her towards it, she’d be stuck following me. Eventually, she’d come to resent me holding her back because of something that I literally had no control over. She’d be too proud, too stubborn to leave, even as she was miserable. I didn’t want that for her.
I didn’t want a consulting job. That wasn’t what I wanted in the slightest. I knew that I’d be unhappy unless I was actually a Warden. I wouldn’t mind training people, if that’s what it took to be one. But being given hollow honors wasn’t interesting to me. I hadn’t spent fifteen years of my life working towards a singular goal just to be given a shadow of it.
I smiled a little brighter at Sarah, but couldn’t keep the sadness out of my face. “Please.”
Slowly, her face hardened, the professional expression sliding into place. She was wound tight, though, her movements stiff. She was holding back an emotional response as she turned to the two old-school heroes. “Then it looks like I’m joining. I’ve taken the prerequisite classes and passed them all.”
Chevalier’s face, his entire stance, was hard and awkward. “We’ll still make you retake some of them.”
“That’s fine.” Sarah’s voice was an oddly cool and even tone. “A refresher never hurt anyone.”
“Good,” Legend said, a bright smile on his face. “Then I will leave you to discuss things with her.” He nodded to Chevalier before looking to me. “And there’s some things that I’d like to talk about with you. Is it alright if we walk and talk?”
Sarah looked at me. I closed my eyes slowly as I gave her a comforting nod. When I reopened them, she had a grim, sad smile on her face.
Grinning from ear to ear, Legend approached. He clapped my shoulder, guiding me to walk with him. “That flip that you did. That was weird. How does that work?”
That’s what he wanted to talk about? I blinked, trying to get my wits around me from the sudden change of topic. “Uh, well. A flip with one arm is certainly possible, but it’s still kind of hard at times. Getting you to swing at me, building your confidence in the attacks, that was easy. It made you open to the grab. Even if I hadn’t already figured out who you were, you didn’t seem like the kicking type.”
“Mmm,” he said, nodding as we approached the door. “You’re right. Hand to hand combat isn’t something that I usually do.”
“Right. You’re a Blaster and a Mover, so it’s your instinct to stay at range when possible. It gives you more options with your powers. So, I counted on the fact that if I couldn’t goad you into another cross, I could still bring you to the ground.”
We exited the doors into the hallway. So white and antiseptic. Legend was nodding. “And you needed me to cross my arms for the takedown that you did. I suppose I can see that. Though, why that takedown? Was it just because Chevalier inspired you?”
“No,” I said with a shake of my head. “That takedown offers you more control by using both arms as a fulcrum. You can slam them down harder and more precisely. I was only going for the precision, putting your head towards Sarah and giving myself the position to help pin you to the ground better. Power wasn’t important, it was giving myself as many options as possible if you went to your laser form.”
“And you think about that sort of thing in a fight?”
I frowned a little. “Not really? The point of sparring is that you can’t predict an opponent completely. You have to build the instinct and the skills to respond to what your opponent does. The goal is to be able to commit to a plan of attack without necessarially thinking about it, and being able to adjust that plan immediately when your opponent messes it up.”
“That’s pretty much what I’ve always experienced in a fight,” he agreed. He pointed to a door moments before heading through it. I only had a moment to note the sign — Radiology. What were we going in here for?
As soon as I stepped inside, Legend closed the door and turned to look at me. He was silent for a long moment, his expression suddenly serious.
“Jordan,” he said quietly. Instead of pushing forward, he took a deep breath to steady himself. “Listen, you’ve probably had more people talk to you than I can count. Trying to dissuade you from the path you’re walking. People who know you better than I do, who would be better at dissuading you.”
My heart sank. Another one of these talks? But he kept going.
“So I’m not going to bother.”
My eyes opened a little wider. That… was unexpected.
“If Alcott’s numbers say that you have a better chance of triggering if you separate from your sister, then that’s that. She doesn’t lie, not when it comes to numbers. Other things, maybe, but not numbers. But I know what it’s like, to walk away from a loved one and to know that you might not see them again. To try and make sure that you’re leaving them with a better life when you’re gone.”
Legend cut me off with a raise of his hand. “Jordan. Did you ask Alcott what your odds were on dying in your quest to trigger?”
I looked down towards the ground. “No.” It was the truth. One of the few that I’d told on the subject, one of the few that I’d ever tell.
“And I know that you’re smart enough to think about that sort of thing. Maybe not at the time that you were asking them, but still. They’ve probably been giving you plenty of time to rest, and after something like what you’ve been through, the mind tends to linger on things like that. Questions you could have asked, your chances of surviving the next fight. It’s only natural.”
He couldn’t be more wrong, but I wasn’t about to correct him.
“So, I’m going to ask you something else. Chevalier wasn’t kidding when he said we could use someone like you. If you could come up with ways to combine powers that you’d never encountered before while in the middle of a fight, then you obviously have skills that we need. No matter how much the Wardens are an organization populated by parahumans, for parahumans, and to protect people from parahumans, we’re still only people.
“Everyone has things that they’re good at, and everyone has things that they’re poor at. Like me and hand to hand combat. But you have skills, a gift, one that we could desperately use.”
He smiled a little, in a way that I couldn’t quite read. “We’ve gotten better at training people, better than the Protectorate. It’s more structured, yes, but we try and work with them more. But sometimes, we can’t always get the right people to fill a role and have to make due. That includes training, teaching, and preparing them for the life of a Warden.
“But we also aren’t the only ones. The Dragon’s Teeth would be proud to have a man such as yourself serving with them, and you could expect a long and happy career with them.” I fought a frown, but he must have caught it. “Except you don’t want that. You want to serve with your sister. I get that. Family’s important, especially for people like yourselves.”
I bit my lip a little, trying not to look at him and failing. My throat was on fire, but I was holding it together.
His smile was comforting, but his eyes were sad. “I’m not going to ask you to join us right now. You… have your path. You’re an adult, you have the right to walk it, to make your own decisions. Even if someone doesn’t agree with them, you’ve earned the right to make them. And you’ve obviously made yours.
“Instead, give yourself until the end of next year. Walk Earth Bet; people there seem to have a higher chance of triggering. Live under stress until Christmas of next year. Then come back to your family. Let them be with you again. And then consider joining us. It could be that you just need time apart for a passenger to attach to you, and something else will let you trigger.
“But still. I can see what you did, sacrificing your own happiness to try and make sure that she gets hers. I consider that sort of thing to be… less than brilliant, but still with a strange nobility in their intentions.” He reached out to lay a hand on my shoulder. “And I can see how much it hurts you. Which is why I brought you here.”
I gave him a confused look, but Legend just blinked slowly at me. “Nobody will know. They’ll just think we’re sparring more or something. Go ahead. Let go.”
He paused for a moment before reaching out and laying a gentle hand on my shoulder. Here I was, a nobody, the effective mote in his eye, but he was just giving me that sad smile. “It’s okay. Let go.”
For some reason, I couldn’t keep the tears from falling.