It was a beautiful day today, and nobody could really stand to be inside any longer. All the kids had been squirming, demanding that they be let out on the first nice day of the year. After a winter of being stuck inside more than they’d been let out, after the agony of not being able to run or scream as they played, the idea of being doing classes outside had ran through the halls like wildfire.
Not that everyone wanted to be outside. She didn’t like the bright sun, the way that it gave her headaches. She didn’t like getting dirty. She didn’t like the way they lined everyone up to march them out. There really wasn’t a whole lot to going outside that she did like.
Outside was where her parents had died.
She stared at the ground in front of her as they all shuffled out. Missy Em was in front of her, and even worse, Kelly Bee was behind her. That was a recipe for trouble in an of itself. Add to it an impatience to get outside, and she could just feel it coming.
Not today, she silently begged. Please, just be happy with going outside. Just leave me alone. Don’t notice me. Nobody notice me.
A slight bit of pain in the back of her arm. She did her best to ignore it. If she paid it any attention, it would ust get worse. On the second pinch, this time on the back of her neck, she debated telling Kelly off. Why did she have to be so mean, anyway? A third pinch, this time longer and harder, made her press her lips together into a thin line, her body tightening.
One of the adults came walking their direction as they rounded the corner. Some relief, about the only thing that the adults were good for. It wasn’t that they were useless, but they really didn’t get it. They didn’t get anything. Oh, if someone’s bothering you, just tell us and we’ll take care of it. She’d tried that once, and where had it gotten her? Even worse. Giving them a stern talking to just made them realize that adults held no real power over them.
Or, worse, they’d try and remove her from the people who were bothering her, but how far back would that go? How long before she had to be standing with the kids at the back of the line? Stupid. Besides, it wasn’t like she was being included with the other girls now. They were doing a really good job of not letting her do anything.
As soon as the adults weren’t looking, though, she felt things get taken up a notch — something sharp pressed into the small of her back through her shirt. With that, something inside of her snapped. She lifted her arm and whipped around to swipe at Kelly. “Leave me—”
Something else within her snapped. She saw something, something that slipped through her fingers the moment it appeared.
People were flying, wood was crunching all around her. As her arm finished its arc, she felt and heard something crack.
The building wasn’t what one would call beautiful, but they were working on it. The impossibly wide and thick planks that they used for the walls and floor had a certain beauty to them, the wood a deep, rich color. Someone had recently started adding more elegant touches beyond just kickboards along the bottoms of the walls. A pet project, even as the building was being expanded.
And now, what beauty had been in this hallway was ruined. A great arc of broken wood marred the walls, and the floor was littered with splinters, broken bodies that whimpered in pain, and occasional pools of blood.
Last year, she’d watched her parents die last year from a heavy trigger, only for the person responsible to die themselves. And now, as she looked at the ruined entrance hall and the people tossed to the ground like discarded dolls, her eyes went wide.
She was a heavy trigger.
She was going to die. These people were going to die, and then she was going to die.
Her breath came in panicked gasps in her throat, her eyes wide. Her body was going to tear itself apart any minute now. Her arm wasn’t moving, it had already started. Whatever her power was, she was going to break herself apart and kill everyone around her. She could only stare in shock at the limp forms down the hallway.
A deeply tanned boy rounded the corner, moving in an odd shuffle. Large, dark eyes stared through her as he tilted his head a little. It wasn’t like he was staring at a girl who probably just killed everyone, but was trying to figure out why she’d stopped walking.
“Run,” she whispered.
He did the exact opposite, carefully stepping over kids, plaster, and destroyed wood as he walked straight for her.
“No I won’t,” he said in a sing-song voice. He paused in front of her for a moment, unblinking. Unflinching. Even as tears streamed down her face, he just stared at her for a moment. Finally, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pulling her into a hug.
She let out a small sob. “Aren’t you scared?”
“No,” he said in that weird voice of his. “You won’t hurt me.”
She wasn’t sure why, but she wrapped her arm, the arm that could move, around him in a tight hug. She felt something pop under her arm and gasped. “You—”
“You haven’t hurt me,” he whispered into her ear. “And you never will.”
Sarah focused straight ahead as they walked. The weight of the load carried didn’t mean anything to her, even without her power. Tedd was holding the other end of the poles, with Jessica laid out between them.
She felt guilty about how much worse Jessica had it than anyone else. It was Sarah’s fault; she’d been the one to constantly remind Jordan that women tended to be more dangerous, more devious in a fight. It was only natural that when he’d gone into his super-psycho state, he’d made absolutely sure that she wouldn’t be getting back up.
Next to her, Gram and Scott were carrying Dean, who was moaning and complaining the entire time. Good, he had every bit of misery coming to him. Jordan should have done more than shot his leg. He could have done so much more.
“Is it bad that I think that went pretty well?” Tedd asked quietly. It was enough to get everyone conscious to look back at him. “What? I mean, we can totally see that he could have destroyed us. I mean, he really held himself back, you know?”
“We wouldn’t have had to worry if someone would have helped us from the start,” Dean made out through clenched teeth.
Sarah focused ahead again. Fortunately, Gram had her back. “If you don’t shut your mouth, I’ll accidentally drop you.” He scoffed, shaking his head. “Jesus, we wouldn’t be in this state if it wasn’t for you.”
Sarah said nothing. What was there to say?
She couldn’t open up to these people. Up until they’d gotten those orders, it had been her job to guide them through their brief tenure in a response team. Not as the team leader, but as an advisor. She wasn’t here to be their friends, no matter how much she wanted to be. So she had to play the part of the rock, the person who could show them that they suck up the pain, emotional or physical, and keep going.
They all walked in silence for a time. Each step brought them a little closer to the walls. The graveyard was away from the city so that the bodies wouldn’t contaminate the water supply. When Tedd spoke up, it was jarring simply because someone was talking again.
“I don’t think he’s guilty.” She was surprised Scott could talk, especially with how bad the wind had been knocked out of him. Helping to carry Jess was just as surprising. He’d already revealed that his power wasn’t actually helping him regenerate right now. Jordan probably could have explained why, but it was beyond her. “I mean, it just doesn’t make sense.”
“No,” Gram confirmed. “It doesn’t.”
“What the hell are… Agh!” Sarah couldn’t see what made Dean gasp in pain, and really, she didn’t care. “What’s it matter to us if he’s guilty or not?”
Time to suck it up and do her job. “Everything,” Sarah said, her voice coming out harder than she would have liked. Unfortunately, anything else she could have said got caught in her throat.
“Response teams aren’t just to bash heads,” Gram said confidently, proudly even.
Gram reminded her a lot of Jordan. It a lot of ways, they were similar. Idealistic to a fault, thoughtful, and potentially devastating. The difference was that Jordan’s skills and mental abilities made him dangerous, it was Gram’s power that gave him an edge. When she’d been assigned to teaching the team, she’d learned that he’d taken on a wildling pack solo, using his alternate form’s toxins and ability to smother to great effect.
It didn’t help that he’d asked her all sorts of questions about Jordan when they’d first met. He hadn’t bought into the hype, believing that her brother was a criminal. Gram still held ferverantly to the belief that Jordan was a straight-up hero. At first, she thought that it might only be a form of hero worship, but he’d actually had a philosophy behind it.
Gram viewed the separation between the Wardens and the Dragon’s Teeth to be stupid. That it was a form of bigotry. He believed that both groups would be better served if they joined forces, serving together without hesitation. Parahumans would fill roles within a response squad, while those who weren’t triggered brought more versatile equipment to the field.
To him, Jordan represented exactly that. Serving with the Blasters, ordering them around into near-military precision, getting that final shot in on Agamemnon after everyone else had escaped… To Gram, Jordan represented the ultimate goal of his philosophy. No more segregation, both triggered and untriggered fighting side by side without hesitation.
A part of her did wonder, though, if Gram had a crush on her brother. She wasn’t sure about Gram’s orientation, and it would be rude to ask while he was under her. Hell, she wasn’t completely sure about Jordan’s orientation, and Jordan had only gotten girlfriends to date. A part of her had always wondered if it was because only girls asked him out…
Gram was still talking. “We have to assess the situation. It could mean the difference between the guilty party being caught, and an innocent man going to jail.”
“My ass,” Dean growled from his stretcher. “Two thousand people died. Most of them innocent! They…” He paused, and she could hear the agony in his words. “They didn’t deserve to be slaughtered like that! And he just walks away? I don’t care if he’s guilty or not, he has some explaining to do. We might…”
Scott “stumbled,” the jostling shutting Dean up.
Jordan was shit when it came to reading people under normal circumstances. But give him a power to analyze, and he could break someone down in brutal fashion. The same went for fighting — he could tell you more about a person by how they stood than he had any right to, but he couldn’t catch when they looked shady as fuck.
Sarah was willing to bet that he had been a little wrong in his assessment of Dean, though. The twerp might be an ass, but he believed in justice as fervently as Gram held onto his own beliefs. But while Gram was idealistic, Dean was already bitter and angry with the world, suspicious of everyone.
If his dad was a high-ranking member of the Wardens, she could understand why.
She didn’t actually fault Dean for his beliefs, but he would be better served with a more even hand. Yes, someone had to draw the line, but he still needed to learn where that line should be. More experience would teach him, but if the others raised a complaint about him mentioning his dad, he might not have the chance to get that experience.
Tedd spoke up hesitantly. “Can I ask some questions?”
“I won’t stop you,” Sarah said, her voice sounding odd to her ears.
“If we would have let you talk for longer, could we have found out more?”
They were over halfway there now. “Yeah.”
There was a pause before he spoke again. “Like why Jordan ran?”
“No.” Her throat burned with bile, but she kept talking. “He doesn’t know why he ran. Jordan’s very, very good at not thinking about things. Once he locks something off from his own mind, you can approach the subject, and he’ll be like he’s tiptoeing around it, but he doesn’t actually let the subject cross his mind. Sometimes… Sometimes, he can do it without even realizing he’s done anything.”
Like with Mom and Dad.
“You know why he ran,” Scott observed.
“Yeah. And if you think about it, you do, too.”
There was blessed silence as they walked for a little bit. It surprised her when Dean was the one to speak up.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck! God damnit, shit! I fucked everything up, didn’t I?” It might have been the pain he was in, but Dean sounded like he was on the verge of tears.
“Yup,” Sarah said hoarsely.
“I don’t get it,” Scott said. “What… What is it?”
“It’s pretty damn obvious,” Gram mused. “I mean, think about it. Dean here already pushed that button.”
They were silent for a long moment. Figure it out, she willed silently. Put two and two together so I don’t have to spell it out for you.
“He’s protecting you,” Scott said, a hint of awe in his voice. “I mean, if he’s innocent.”
There was a silence before Tedd spoke up. “Someone mind filling me in here? I’m not getting it.”
Scott sighed softly. “Jordan went ballistic because Dean threatened his sister. If he’s innocent, and I’m not saying that I think he is, I’m just thinking of possibilities here. But if he’s innocent, then imagine waking up and finding that you’re the only one who isn’t dead. Two thousand parahumans dead, and you, the untriggered dude, are still alive. It’s the perfect setup. Make him take the fall.
“And the thought of the guilty party punishing Jordan for tuning himself in by attacking, and killing, his siblings? It’d probably play hell on him. If he’s good at not thinking about shit, then he’s probably suppressed it and is just focused on running.”
Sarah kept silent, focusing on how each step brought them closer to the gates of Burlington.
“He’s already lost his fam once. He probably can’t bear the thought of losing them again.”
By the time that she reached the monument, her patience had already run out. She was only keeping it together because she could see Jordan’s prone form on the grass, his face resting on an open book. He’d passed out reading a book again. His own damn fault for hardly sleeping at night.
Chris, though, must have read her expression. He scrambled to his feet, clutching his textbook between his hands. “Sis? What’s going on?”
“The Abrams,” she growled, careful to keep her voice at a normal volume. “They want to adopt us.”
“What?” a nearby girl asked, her face lighting up in surprise and excitement.
Both Sarah and Chris waved their hands to keep her quiet. No need to wake Jordan.
“Aren’t we a little old to be getting adopted?” Chris asked. It was a fair question — she was almost fourteen, Jordan was twelve, and Chris had just had his tenth birthday. Chris was still in the age group where adoption was valid, after you hit ten, your chances plummeted.
“Yeah, well…” She shrugged, trying to keep her anger under control. “They want us.”
“That’s awesome,” the girl said with a grin. “Congrats! Aren’t you happy?”
“No,” she said, dangerously low. Her eyes fixed on Chris’. “They want the two of us.”
His dumpy face screwed up in confusion. He wasn’t fat, not really, but he’d never lost his baby fat. The weight that she’d been gaining over the years meant that she was about the same size as him now.
“They only want the two of us,” she clarified.
The girl’s hopeful excitement turned to sad sympathy as she looked to Jordan. Chris, on the other hand, took a moment to process it before his face started to turn red, fire igniting in his eyes. “Fuck. That. Shit.”
“Language,” she hissed.
“No, nuh-uh. You curse, why can’t I? This is the perfect time to curse.”
He made a point, but still. “I’m older. You can here in a few years. Besides, Jordan doesn’t.” She sighed between clenched teeth, her hands balling into fists. “We aren’t abandoning him.”
“He—” She flashed Chris a scowl. “—eck no. No, I didn’t get a big brother just to lose him again.”
Shit. Chris was sensitive about losing people. When he’d first come to the Orphanage, he’d bonded with an elderly caretaker. Jordan had found Chris right after the old man had died, throwing Chris into a devastating depression. The younger boy had been desperate for someone new to attach himself to, and the two of them had filled that void nicely.
She put her hand on Chris’ shoulder, forcing her own rage down. “It’s okay, Bro. We have the right to say no. If they’re not taking Jordan, then they can piss right the fuck off.” That, at least, made Chris relax.
The girl, however, spoke up. “How do you know all of this?”
She sighed softly. “We had a meeting with them earlier. They also saw a few other kids. After the last group of kids left, I snuck up to listen through the door.” Jordan might sneak out of their room the most often, but she was better at it. Heck, she’d been the one to teach him out to do it.
The scrawny girl frowned a little. “But… Was the Matron there? I mean, I’d think so…” She stole a glance to Jordan.
It wasn’t that Jordan was famous or anything, but with how he’d been when he came to the Orphanage, and how gung-ho he was now, he was pretty well-known. Even more so with the attention that the Matron showed him.
“Yeah,” she admitted. “The Matron was there.” The Matron had been watching over them like a hawk.
The girl nodded. “Then either she’ll explain that you three can’t be separated, or she’ll talk them into adopting him. No prob.”
She looked over to Jordan. He had that hint of a smile on his face even when he was passed out from exhaustion. She remembered when he never smiled.
“Yeah,” she said. They’d all lost a family once. She’d be damned if she, or either of them, lost another.
Sarah went through the door, ignoring the buzz that sounded until it closed. It was a power walk through the reception area and through the hall, until she finally found the workshop. Chris’ face was slack as he sat with his elbows on his knees, staring at the floor in front of him. Karen was hovering nearby, wringing her hands.
“How did it go?” Karen asked softly.
“He’s gone,” Sarah said, trying to keep her voice even. “They messed it up, and he got away.”
Chris lifted his head to look at her, his eyes seeming sunken. “Did he…”
She nodded once. They both knew that he could tear through green recruits like tissue paper. “Nobody’s dead, and from what I hear, Valkyrie herself is coming to heal the wounded. Only two major ones, but it could have easily been more.”
Sarah paused for a moment, pressing her lips together. “It could have been a lot worse, but we got lucky. Some people interfered, and one of them made sure that Jordan cut his offensive short.” Chris winced, so she quickly amended that. “She encouraged them to give up.”
Chris relaxed visibly at that. “Ah. Good.”
“Not good,” she corrected. “Just about the opposite of good.” She ran a hand through her hair. “The people who interfered were on his side. There were four of them — three women, one man. The guy had a New York accent and quoted The Most Dangerous Game. Another one was Asian.”
Chris’ face went pale.
“Almost all of your new employees were helping him.”
He shook his head quickly. “I swear, Sis, I didn’t… I…” His words trailed off as he shook his head slowly.
“I know,” Sarah said, holding up a hand. “I know you didn’t. But you really should have vetted everyone. When word gets out that your employees helped him escape, they might think that you hired them for that exact reason. Especially since you outfitted him before he left. You really shouldn’t—”
“No,” Karen shot at her, angry. “Don’t even go there! What the fuck do you expect? Him to just stand there and do nothing while his brother’s on the run?”
Sarah wrenched her eyes shut. Those words had felt like a stab to her chest. That entire fight, she’d been heartbeats away from jumping in, closer than she wanted to admit. Jordan shouldn’t have had to fight them alone, not with her standing right there. But…
I’m so fucking proud of you.
If you counted “bastard” as a curse word, it was the second time that Sarah had ever heard her brother curse. And she didn’t count that first time; the fucktard didn’t know who either of his parents were. Plus, he’d been taunting Sarah, trying to get a rise out of her, only to get Jordan’s fist in his face.
No, if ever there was an appropriate moment to drop an f-bomb, that was the moment Jordan had chosen. It was inconceivable in a way, but there it was. Pride. Over her standing there and doing nothing. Not lifting one goddamn finger to help her brother, who she’d fought next to, who had bled for her. Almost died for her.
He was proud because only through that, she’d get to live the life he’d always wanted. It was sad, in a way. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted it any more.
“I’m sorry,” she heard Karen whisper.
Sarah opened her eyes and found them to only be a little misty. She’d expected worse. “No. It’s alright. You… You’re right. He couldn’t. And I… Shit, I wish that I couldn’t.”
She wished that when the call came, she would have told them to fuck off. They’d been positioned in Burlington since the weather had started to get better. Then, someone at the Orphanage had given an anonymous tip that Jordan was there, making them have to mobilize with the plan. The plan given to them by higher-ups.
It pissed her off so damn much. It was a bad plan, a horrible plan, one that skirted, if not outright broke the rules. Rules that existed for this exact reason. She should have told them precisely where to shove it. No, she should have shoved it for them, full power, no holding back.
“What are we going to do?” Chris asked. “We can’t just…” His words trailed off and he shook his head.
“If anybody asks, you tell them the truth. They’ll most likely ask, and admitting that you gave him stuff will probably get you into trouble, but less than if you lie. You’ll probably charged with aiding, but you’ll miss obstruction of justice if you tell the truth.” At least, that’s what Sarah would push for him to be charged with if she were in charge. And Jordan was someone, anyone else.
“As for me, like I said, Valkyrie is on her way. She’ll probably want a full debriefing, and I’ll probably get hell for coming to see you first, but there’s nothing that they can do about that. If they push, my defense will probably fight back with how they made me be there. That’ll be enough to keep me safe. Well, safe-ish. I’m more worried about your rep.”
“Maybe we can get a good lawyer for me, tear the prosecution to shreds?” Chris asked, as close to hopeful as he could get right now.
There was the buzz of the door. Damn, Valkyrie was faster than she’d anticipated. She’d have to explain fast.
“Jordan’s friends with that Gina bitch. I don’t know how, but they’re apparently friends.” Not that she personally remembered Gina hanging out with Jordan. “She’s also a lawyer for the Wardens, on top of everything else she does. But she’s close enough that she can probably get out of being on their side. We’ll ask if she can help, or knows someone good enough to help.”
Now Sarah could hear two sets of heavy footfalls growing close, almost to them already. Two sets? It didn’t matter, she was running out of time depressingly fast. “Remember, tell them the absolute truth.”
But Chris wasn’t listening. He was looking behind Sarah, his eyes wide and fearful. Valkyrie had that effect on people. Sarah turned around… only to find that it wasn’t Valkyrie at all.
There were two of them, their armor made not for show, but for brutal combat. Decorated, inlaid with designs, sure, but that only made them that much more impressive and awe inspiring. The design, though, the weapons that they carried… They were kittted for a fight.
She might not be able to read people’s body language like Jordan could, but she could read enough. The woman was relaxed, almost gentle in her stance. She reminded Sarah of the Matron. The man, though, gripped the shaft of his weapon so hard that it trembled. Even hidden by his armor the way that he was, he looked like he was about ready to lash out at whomever said the wrong thing. And that was before the mouthpiece of his helmet opened.
“Where is he?” Defiant snarled.
Jordan was completely fucked.