Taylor was in the kitchen as Nathan and I were sitting at the table. He had that sort of piercing gaze that looked right through you, trying to discern everything he could from the barest of clues. The sort of gaze that came from a man used to being suspicious of folks.
Which really helped to put me at ease not at all.
“You said your name is Tobias,” he said at last.
“And a teleporter incident brought you here.”
“Yes sir.” Silence hung in the air for a moment, and I nervously decided to fill it. “I wasn’t paying enough attention to where I was setting it for.”
“Then why not use it again to go where you were intending?”
“That’s a very complicated answer,” I confessed.
“I’m used to complicated answers,” he said bluntly.
Right. Okay, so, this wasn’t going to be easy. But then again, for a member of the Dragon’s Teeth to work so closely with Defiant and Dragon, he had to be sharp.
“I like to keep my teleporter at as close to a full charge as I can. The roads were paved and in good condition. Paved roads are usually a secondary concern between communities. Typically, communities are mostly inwardly focused until a certain level of creature comforts are achieved.”
Nathan nodded. Good. Time to back it up.
“With winter coming, I’d prefer to find work to sustain myself. I have enough money to take it easy, but I’m not that kind of guy. I have to be doing something. At the same time, though, what’s one city over another? I speak a wide variety of languages, so I was hopeful that wherever I ended up, I’d be able to communicate. It’s kind of like an adventure.”
“So you were planning on becoming a guard?”
“No,” I said with a shake of my head. “I’ve got a wide variety of technical skills, so I was hoping that I could find a some sort of-”
“A mercenary with technical skills,” he interrupted.
I smiled pleasantly. “Yeah. My brother’s a Tinker, so I learned to help him. And in case I became a Tinker myself.”
“You were hoping you’d trigger?” he asked, lifting his eyebrows.
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly.
“Even with how common broken triggers are?”
Broken triggers were another name for heavy triggers, but I preferred the term heavy. I didn’t want to make someone feel that they were the ones who were broken.
To heck with it, I might as well tell the full story.
“When I was a little kid, I was… Well, I was pretty messed up.” Most kids my age were when they were little. “But, uh… My caretakers at the Orphanage, they used to put me at the window, letting me look at the countryside. Well, one day…”
I trailed off as the memories came back, just as readily as ever. I smiled sheepishly as I looked down at the table. “One day, Defiant came. He looked like a giant in shining blue and green armor, with the giant spear of his. But holding his other hand was this little girl. And…
“And I knew that this guy was a hero. Capital H. He probably had all sorts of adult stuff to do, and here he was, taking time out of his day to bring this little girl to us. And I kind of decided, that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a hero.”
I blinked, bringing myself back to the present. Nathan was frowning slightly, so I put on a brighter smile. “So, I started studying. Then, one day, a girl triggered near me. She hurt some folks, and apparently she’d seen a jumping trigger at some point, so she was scared to death, so I tried comforting her. We sort of became siblings.
“Ch…” No names. “My brother, we bonded with a few years later, well after he’d triggered. He was going through a real tough time, and we stepped up to help him out. When he found out what we were up to, he shifted his focus a bit, trying to help us out. I helped him as best you can help any Tinker, and we grew close. Close enough that he’s my brother now.”
I could have gone more into it, but I was floundering for words. Much more, and it’d give away too much of my identity. But if we were in Europe, it would be pretty hard for them to ID me, so I was content with how much I’d given away through vagueness.
“I’m not sure that I’d describe Defiant as a hero,” Nathan said quietly.
I shook my head quickly. “I know about his fall from grace as Armsmaster, how he set the events into motion that lead to Skitter’s rise to power. How he caused a whole lot of villains to die for the sake of his own ego fighting against Leviathan. And how from that, he was only allowed to leave house arrest by taking up the persona of Defiant, watched carefully by Dragon, and to hunt the Slaughterhouse 9. A potential death sentence. But how he’d found love with that artificial person.
“How badly he’d been crushed when Saint shut her down. How utterly furious he’d been when Teacher reactivated her, with his own controls at the helm. How, when she’d made her reappearance to the world at large… Well, to North America, it would seem, how he’d been there to assure them that he’d removed Teacher’s blocks that had been installed.”
I chuckled softly, looking down at the table in front of me. “What he became as Defiant doesn’t excuse or make up for what he did as Armsmaster. Nothing ever will. But Armsmaster is dead, and has been for a long, long time. He’s become someone different, better. He may still have the seed that made Armsmaster in him, but…”
I looked back up and shrugged. “He was given a second chance, and he’s worked hard with it. He may not be the best of heroes, but everyone has flaws. He’s tried, and that’s more than most people can say. I have to give him credit for that. If nothing else, there’s that.”
“How noble,” Taylor said, coming back in with two plates. “It sounds like you’ve given this a lot of thought.” She set down a plate of crumbled sausage and pancakes in front of me. A bit late, locally, for breakfast, but I wasn’t complaining. I was half starved. Even if there was no syrup.
“I have,” I said as I picked up my fork. “All my life, people have tried to talk me out of the path I chose. I’ve been forced to defend myself more times than I care to count.” With that, I popped a forkful of sausage into my mouth.
“I noticed that you didn’t mention parents,” Nathan said quietly.
I shrugged before swallowing. “I never knew my birth parents. Sometimes I have dreams about my mother, but… They’re just dreams, you know?
“My other parents, when they adopted us, they didn’t like the path that I’d chosen for myself, but they accepted it. They blew a lot of cash on me, to be honest. I spent most of my time at the Orphanage, continuing my education and training. That’s not cheap, even with the discount that Orphans get. They also paid good money to have an addition built to their house, a huge room all my own. I didn’t like how far away it was from my siblings’ rooms, theirs were on the opposite side of the house, next to my parents, but I could deal.”
I paused, then shrugged. “It kind of sucked, spending so much time away from my brother and sister. I missed birthdays, even a Christmas once. One time, I only got to spend a month at home during the summer before I had to head back out to school again. But, again, I could deal. They were helping me with my future, even if they didn’t like it.
“In a way, I don’t really even feel that they’re my parents, though. I know that sounds horrible, but I haven’t really ever spent much time with them. Not like my siblings got to. It kinda sucks, not having that connection that they do, but they were trying their best to help me.”
“I couldn’t help but notice your gear,” Taylor said suddenly, looking at me curiously. “That’s an awful lot.”
“It is,” I said with a nod. “My backpack distributes the weight weird, so I don’t feel it nearly as badly. It’s a rather nice change from how it used to be.”
“Actually,” she said. “I was talking about your weapons. Two knives, a halberd, a pistol, and a rifle seems a little… I don’t know, excessive?”
I smiled laughed a little. “Truth be told? It’s probably more than a little excessive. When I first started being a merc, I didn’t really realize just how heavy it was until my first day of patrol. It took me almost a week before I started to get used to it.
“But, I like having plenty of options in combat. Even if I can’t use them, it’s not like I know what I’m going to be facing in an hour by hour basis, you know? Better to be prepared for anything and discard options as need be than be caught unaware.”
Nathan nodded a little. “A good attitude.”
“Your armor looks familiar,” Taylor mused.
Crap! Right, people had seen me in armor before. “I take it you get newspapers here?” The question was a stalling tactic, though a brief one. I knew it wouldn’t last, but I was going to take what I could get to come up with an answer.
“We do,” she said with a nod. “Even a couple of them in English. Folks here like to keep up to date on world events, since a lot of what they make goes to other communities elsewhere in the world.”
What they make. Okay, that gave me an out. “Cool. I’d be surprised if it didn’t look familiar, then. I picked up one of Jordan’s old suits of armor that they retired. I figure that if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.” Yes, that worked well. Pleased with myself, I decided to have some pancake.
“Oh, so you know the Abrams family, then?”
Poopie. This time, I used the food in my mouth to stall. “Yeah. From the Orphanage.” I desperately needed to make a topic change. I turned my attention to Nathan, giving him a big smile. “So, you work with Dragon and Defiant’s designs?”
He leaned back a little, almost taking a defensive posture. After a moment, though, he sighed and relaxed. “Yes. I take a look at the designs they come up with for the Dragon’s Teeth, to see if they should send them to Masamune for production or if they should be changed.”
I nodded. “Right. And you mentioned earlier that you did that in a non-Tinker capacity?”
“Ah,” Taylor said, grinning. “I see what you’re getting at. No, he takes a look at what systems they have built in place and the overall design of the armor. Defiant would probably make the suits more like his own if he had the chance, but they need their suits to be more dedicated towards particular tasks, some of which Defiant isn’t exactly comfortable with, or that he doesn’t have much experience with.
“Nathan looks over everything to see if something should be trimmed or added, basically.”
“That’s really cool,” I said, grinning wider. “I take it that you were one of the original Dragon’s Teeth, then?”
Nathan sighed again. “Yes. I was… injured, and they offered me cybernetics. I didn’t want to stay with the Dragon’s Teeth proper, so I decided to work for them directly. They didn’t mind. And I was able to bring Taylor with me, which helped.”
Taylor smiled at me. “He’s a big goof who doesn’t exactly socialize with the locals very much. Every year or two, we move on to a new location, usually in Europe or one of the worlds they colonized, and he never bothers to learn the local language. I’m glad they decided to hire me as a representative; it’s easier to deal with someone in front of you than over a computer sometimes.”
“I can imagine,” I lied. It wouldn’t make a difference to me personally, though.
By their age difference, though, and what they said, I was guessing that she was his daughter. He probably had been injured fighting either the Slaughterhouse 9 or Scion, and suffered some degree of PTSD. She’d stuck with her father, but it had put a strain on their relationship. Another situation like Amy and Roger.
So sad that things like that we common. You’d think having a family would be better than that, but with how often I was seeing people driven apart by it… I wasn’t sure. It just seemed to me to be alien and strange. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.
We ate in silence for a little bit. I couldn’t help but feel a bit sheepish as I ate, though. The other two weren’t eating as much as me. I felt even more awkward when Taylor offered me what was left on her plate, and tried to politely decline, but she wasn’t having any of it.
Finally, though, she turned to me, affixing me with a warm smile. “Listen, you don’t have any local currency, and if you try and get it exchanged, it’s going to take a while. Besides, the banks are closed today, and getting a hotel room with whatever money you have will be almost impossible. Why don’t you stay with us for a while?”
“I don’t want to impose,” I said quietly.
“Oh, I’m sure it’s alright,” she said, turning to Nathan.
His face, though, was tight. “I know what you’re trying to do,” he said softly. “Yes, it’ll be alright for tonight, but I believe that we should talk.”
Her smile didn’t budge, but I couldn’t help but feel the tension ratchet up in the room. I was imposing. He didn’t want me here. He was more comfortable with it being just the two of them. That was fine, and I could understand it completely, but that didn’t make it any more easy for me. I tried not to squirm in my seat as I tried to think of something to say.
But Nathan turned his eyes to me. “There’s a computer in the living room. Why don’t you go ahead and use it to study the language for a bit?” And give them a chance to talk without having to worry about me. I could get it.
“Okay,” I said, putting a cheery grin on my face. I bowed my head to Taylor as I rose from my seat. “Thank you for the meal. It was delicious.”
That seemed to make her smile even more. Yeah, he didn’t seem the complimentary type.
I made my way into the living room, easily enough found despite the awkward layout of the house. It made a weird amount of sense that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it wasn’t like most houses that I knew. Usually, it flowed from the front door to a sitting or living room, a hallway to the bedrooms, and a dining room and kitchen off the living room.
Instead, the front door opened to a small room, which opened into a hallway with a stairwell leading both up and down at the end. The first two doors in the hall were closed; I had no desire to overstay my welcome by being nosy. After that was an open door to the living room on one side, and the dining room and kitchen on the other.
I’d left my weapons and pack in the small room, where they seemed to leave their coats and boots. It had seemed… proper, somehow.
I made my way into the living room, that was very nearly spartan. No pictures on the walls, just a couple of chairs, a recliner, a loveseat, all facing a television in such a way that people could all talk to each other as well. Behind the loveseat was a desk adorned with a computer.
As I moved the wireless mouse, the monitor clicked on instantly, the computer coming out of standby. The whole process was far faster than what I was used to, and it was a thick flatscreen. Most computers these days had gone back to cathode ray tube monitors, and computers were notoriously slow according to people who had been alive before Gold Morning. Honestly, I was used to it, so it didn’t make a difference to me.
There were only four icons on the desktop; a circle, a square, and a triangle were there with what appeared to be random letters to give an idea as to what they were. The fourth icon was an A, with the title of “Language” underneath. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what that meant.
I clicked on the icon and the program loaded almost instantly. The opening page seemed to be an introduction, using the mouse an keyboard. I’d learn through sight and sound in conjuncture, both hearing and reading the words, and both speaking and typing my reply.
I adjusted the keyboard in front of me, leaned forward, and clicked the begin button.
“Tobias.” The voice and the gentle hand on my shoulder made me jerk up from my studying. A quick look over my shoulder revealed Taylor smiling down at me. “How’s it going?”
“Oh it…” I blinked, looking around. The light outside was almost nonexistent, and the room was only illuminated by the screen. Strangely, my body had a slight ache to it, and my eyes burned ever so slightly. “Is it night already?”
Her face broke into a wider smile as she ran a hand across her head, moving her straight hair behind one ear. “You’ve been at it for a few hours now.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I said with a chuckle. “It’s going good. Very intuitive, and I’m starting to make jumps and guesses as to what new words might be. I can’t quite pick up what they mean from the contextual clues in a sentence yet, but I’m getting the hang of it. A few more hours, maybe, and I should be able to do it just fine.”
“That’s great news,” she said, beaming.
Her smile, though, faded slowly. “Listen, Nathan and I were talking.” I didn’t like this already. “We’d like it if you were to stay with us while you’re in the city.”
“You don’t have to-”
She silenced me with a raise of her hand. “Just let me finish. Please.” I settled into the computer chair, nodding once. “We’ve already made up a room for you, set up a bed and everything. You won’t be staying for free. While I’m pretty sure you can get on with the satellite production plant, it’s not a guarantee. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Taylor leaned against the loveseat. “But, once you do get a job, you’ll have to pay rent. We’ll also expect you to do your share of the chores around here. And, on occasion, Nathan may ask you for your opinion on armor designs. He doesn’t fight any more, not really, so he isn’t as close to the job as he maybe should be.”
She took a breath, then let it out slow. “Plus, it would do him a lot of good to be interacting with someone other than myself. He might be blunt, but he’s a good man. The more that he deals with others, the more that can come out I think. But he isn’t comfortable with people here; he doesn’t speak the language, and I think he feels that he’ll be intruding on their lives.
“You’d be doing the both of us a favor.”
Why did that sound familiar?
I sighed softly, but there was something else twinkling around in the back of my head. Something Tim had said about heroes. I’d be helping them, and they were doing a lot of necessary good for everyone. And, if I could help with Nathan’s healing process, even just a little bit, it might empower him even more.
That was, if he even wanted it. I wasn’t sure about the conversation that the two of them had, what they might have discussed with each other. Maybe they’d quietly fought or something. Here I’d been, so intent on studying that I hadn’t recognized anything else. Maybe I was only making their relationship worse.
But there was a third factor. I literally didn’t have anywhere else to go. Chris had made sure that I had access to a lot of money, and had even bought me a new pistol, but that didn’t mean that I could spend it here. I was a long ways away from home, apparently in Europe. I wasn’t good at geography, but I knew there was an ocean between us. That made changing out my coin kind of difficult.
I smiled a little before saving my progress and closing the program. “Alright,” I muttered as I rose to my feet. “Lemmie grab my pack and-”
“We already put your things in your room.” Taylor tilted her head, a playful smile on her lips. “I actually expected to work harder to convince you. You’re a surprising man, Tobias. Most mercenaries would stick to their guns more, I’d think.”
“Pick and choose your battles,” I said with a chuckle. “Come on, lead the way.”
As she walked, leading me upstairs, she spoke calmly. “A few simple rules. We don’t lock our front door, but there are doors that we do lock. I’d appreciate it if you don’t even try to get in those. They either deal with my work, or Nathan’s. We’d also appreciate it if you didn’t talk about what our work is with others.”
“Basic non-disclosure agreement and security clearance stuffs,” I said with a nod. “In mercenary terms, at least. No, I get it. Defiant and Dragon put a lot of trust in the two of you, I don’t want to ruin that.”
She nodded. “We also would prefer that you stay out of the basement unless you’re helping Nathan get down there. There’s some telesurgery equipment down there, so Dragon can do maintenance on his cybernetics. They’re good, but they aren’t perfect.”
And they were Tinker tech. Anything built by Tinkers had a much higher chance to malfunction. Even if that hadn’t been drilled into me at school, I’d learned it the hard way with Chris. “And I might accidentally mess something up if I go poking around at it. That makes sense.”
Taylor stopped in front of a door, glanced to me, then opened it. Stepping inside, I was greeted with a twin-sized bed. The bedding smelled freshly laundered. A dresser next to a closet, a small bookcase, and a desk in the corner with a computer on it, with a chain underneath. There was also a nice window, looking out towards the town. The room itself was pretty big; not as big as my room back home, but as big as a master bedroom. I had plenty of free space. I wasn’t sure that I liked the fact that the floors were carpeted, but hopefully they would cut down on the noise as I exercised.
As I moved towards the desk, Taylor spoke up. “It’s adjustable, so you can use it as a sitting desk or a standing one.”
I smiled, nodding. “It’s more than I was expecting. I’ll be sure to pay you back for all of this.”
“Oh, it’s no-”
I cut her off, turning quick to point at her and mock-scowl. “I’ll pay you back.”
She paused for a moment before giving me a patient smile. “Fine. I’ll let you get away with it.” She folded her arms behind her back. “Tomorrow, I’ll take you into town. We’ll see if we can work out some way of exchanging your money, and maybe you can pick up a newspaper if you want. You mentioned them earlier.”
“Yeah,” I said with a slight nod. “That’d be nice.” Maybe the ones in English would let me know how much trouble I was in.
She flashed me a brighter smile before nodding her head a little. “Well, then. I’ll let you settle for a little bit, and then bring you a meal. Nathan’s working, and I should probably take care of a few things myself.”
As soon as the door closed, I moved to where my halberd was leaned against the bookshelf. The blade had dug into the wood of the shelf a bit, scoring it. I carefully flipped it around — tomorrow I’d see if there would be a way that I could mount it on the wall to keep it safe.
I felt quite a bit of guilt over all of this. I was going to drag them into my problems, most likely. Which would cause problems for Defiant and Dragon. I didn’t want that. But until then, I could at least do some good. And having my own space…
I peeled out of the top half of my armor, tossing it on the bed. I’d been slacking today. I didn’t have the space that I wanted, but in a fight, you rarely did. I raised my fists and assumed a stance. Before I got back to work on studying, I wanted to give myself a bit of a workout.