Things were so different now.
Sergei sighed, idly spinning the ice in his glass. Fall was right around the corner, and with it would come winter. Most people would think that winter was his time of self-reflection, but that wasn’t nearly the truth. Winter was busy for him, harder. Pavle would demand ways to make up for losses, and he would be working harder than ever. Especially if they brought another bunch of Tinkers to him.
It surprised him not in the least that he triggered in prison. Surrounded by that brutality, someone trying to mark him for life… No, it hadn’t been surprising in the slightest. At 18, he’d gone from someone to be pushed around and punished to someone who was feared. Of gods and men, he’d been someone there.
There wasn’t a situation where there wasn’t danger, but he had advantages. His power worked by touch. Most people with such powers were under the misinformed belief that you had to reach out and touch whomever you wished to use your power on. Fools, all of them. He’d made sure that he always had the most amount of flesh exposed as possible so that he could react instantly. That briefest flash when someone grabbed your shoulder could protect you from a shank.
Within a year in that hellhole, Sergei had become someone of note. Someone to be feared. His tattoos covered his body as he was inducted. None of the prison tattoo artists dared put on a touch of ink that he didn’t demand.
In a way, getting out was a letdown. In prison, he had been someone, a relative king. Two years of being the top dog.
In the Bratva, he was nobody. He had to work his way up just like anyone else. Always on the lookout from the Elitnaya. Once, they had made their way into his apartment complex to eliminate him. He’d gotten the call from a beggar he’d roughed up not a week before warning him that the military’s parahumans were coming for him, and that he had moments.
It had been enough, though. Sergei’s arm and several ribs had been broken, but the warning had given him the right mindset to leave the parahuman writhing on the floor. The parahuman had probably had millions spent on his training and custom gear. After that encounter, they would never walk, never talk or write, and his index fingers would never, ever work. It was a simple message — come after me again, and I will cost you more than you can imagine.
Sergei had given the beggar everything that he could before leaving town. He knew better than to believe that the Elitnaya would listen. Fortunately, there was always more branches of the Bratva that needed someone of his skills.
Most Americans, when they thought of organized crime, thought of the Italians. Fools, all of them. He was sure that the Russians had created it long before them, and the Italians had copied them, though in far less elegant of a form. If you cut off the head of the Italian mob, the organization fell. The Bratva? No. They had evolved to be able to act without a head, growing a new one from their ranks.
It was a brutal organization. It was a cruel organization, dealing in drugs, forced prostitution, and anything else that could make them money. But nobody could claim that, for what it was, it wasn’t an elegant organization.
And then, Scion happened.
Sergei had been fortunate, having taken a trip to the Ukraine to deal with some fools on behalf of other cells. Had he been home, he would have been burned alive like the rest of his comrades.
But he had survived. He had fled before the place where he had been was destroyed by Scion. He had taken a handful of the most hardy, skilled bros with him into the wilderness, fully content to find a quiet place far from anyone else until someone stopped Scion themselves.
And then the girl had kidnapped him. She’d controlled his body completely. And then, just like that, had left him.
Stranded in a foreign land after Scion’s defeat, he hadn’t been the only one. There had been enough of them that they were able to band together. To carve out a place for themselves here. A very brutal place, true. One that held true to who and what they were. But it was a place, a fellowship, and a sense of security. Not everyone was so fortunate.
Once, he’d been attacked by a woman in a black hooded cloak. As he’d clutched the wound in his leg, desperate to find a way to touch her as she prepared to finish him, her skull had blossomed violently. His savior had revealed herself, dressed in the unmistakable black tactical gear that had once caused such violent fear. It was faded, worn and torn, but the woman still walked with a straight back.
He had assumed that it was over for him right then and there. But she dressed his wounds, looked at his prison tattoos, and finally began to talk to him.
She was alone. Cut off from her old masters, not knowing what to do. She had been continuing her mission from before Gold Morning as best as she could, but she was running out of both direction, patience, and will.
Her brainwashing was breaking without her masters around.
That had been eighteen years ago. These days, Iskra’s northern accent was just as strong as ever, leaving most non-Russians unable to understand her even when she did speak English. Sergei found it endearing.
Iskra was just as dangerous as ever, perhaps even more than Sergei. But tonight, she was at home. The most dangerous bitch that he had ever known, who had sworn to keep him safe no matter what dangers he might face, and she had been laid low by a simple illness. There was a lesson there — neither one of them were young any more. He was almost 50, and she had just turned 41.
The bar seemed a little vacant without her watchful presence. It was a quiet night, with no new customers, and only a bunch of bros sipping drinks. As much as he thought that she was a little too suspicious, he always felt a little safer with her watching every single entry point and ready to kill anyone who might attack.
The door opened and he glanced over his shoulder, now glad that she was at home. Four people were walking in, looking dangerous. But Sergei identified the halberd instantly. Even as everyone else tensed, Sergei turned back to his drink.
“Relax,” he said in English. “We will be doing exactly as they say.” He sipped his drink. “The four of you, come to the bar, yes? I wish to drink with you.” He motioned with his free hand. “There is no truth in feet. Sit.”
Jordan was the first to settle on the stool next to him, almost immediately. As the others began to hesitantly move to the bar, a woman next to Jordan, and then a man and woman on Sergei’s other side, Jordan pulled off his helmet, setting it on the bar.
Sergei tsked softly, casting a sidelong glance at him. “Shaving your head? It is not good.”
“It draws attention away from me when I’m in a town,” he said confidently, staring at the bar. The boy… Well, he was more of a man now. He looked good, better than Sergei had ever seen him. No scars, no little hitches to how his body moved. It surprised Sergei that he wasn’t smiling, but whatever. It was good for him to not be smiling for a change. More honest.
Sergei motioned to Alexi behind the bar, then to the four newcomers. The woman next to Jordan spoke up. “None for me.”
Sergei looked at her, wishing that he could see her face. Sadly, the masks that the four of them wore reminded him oddly of the images he’d seen of those Mexican wrestlers. “Please. I insist.”
The woman looked at him, tilting her head a little. “Alcohol makes living too easy.” Her voice was flat measured, not giving away anything of her mood.
“Ah,” Serge said softly. “You remind me of my wife as you are saying that, and even she drinks.”
“How is Iskra?” Jordan asked, staring at Alexi as he mixed the drinks.
“Good,” Sergei said with a nod. “Talking about possibly adopting. But I, ah, I think we are getting to old, da?”
Jordan nodded once. “She’d want someone young to mold them properly. A baby or toddler. It might be hard for you to keep up.”
“Yes.” Sergei paused as he looked at Jordan. There was something odd with his skin, but only when he glanced at him. Whatever. “You are looking good. Strong. Powerful. Alive.”
That brought a small smile to the boy’s lips, but it didn’t extend much past his lips. Then again, his smile rarely did. “You would say that.”
“I would. But that is neither here nor there. I was thinking that you would be crushed by everything that has happened. And yet, here you are, still alive.” Sergei nodded a little as the drinks were set in front of everyone. “So what brings you here?”
“We’re here to relieve you of all your Tinker tech.”
The four bros in the room had been suspicious of Jordan before, but now even Alexi looked about ready to grab his weapon. It was best to end it early.
“If anyone resists Jordan, I will be handling you personally. One way, or another.” He reached into his pocket to retrieve a pair of players, quite purposefully setting them on the table. His power wasn’t the only way that he made people scream. “And should anyone attack me, I am doubting that Iskra will let you live for long. Or maybe she will be making sure that you will be living very, very long. I am unsure.”
That was enough to make people relax, and Alexi go back to serving drinks. Message received, loud and clear.
“How generous of you,” deadpanned the man to his left.
Sergei glanced to him for a moment. “You are knowing nothing.” Instead, he turned his back to the man so that he could look directly at Jordan. “Is that all?”
“Of course not.”
“You are a trusting man,” Sergei observed.
“And you’re practically salivating at the chance.” Jordan finally glanced at Sergei. “Try and tell me that I’m wrong.”
Sergei nodded a little. “I would, but I have yet to lie to you. How are your seizures?”
That small smile finally faded from Jordan’s lips. “I know that I’ve had a couple, but I don’t know.”
That made Sergei frown. “You don’t know?”
“I usually can’t tell if I have them or not.”
“Are you talking about when he spaces out?” the woman two Sergei’s left asked hesitantly.
He spun back around to look at her. “Yes. How often?”
She shrugged, frowning a bit. “It’s hard to say, but I’d guess that it’s at least a couple of times a day. It’s usually worse after something stressful.”
Sergei nodded. “Does he still tear up when he awakens?”
“Yeah,” said the girl next to Jordan. Sergei fought the urge to sigh as he whipped back around. He was going to give himself whiplash like this. “How’d you know that?”
An amused puff of breath escaped Sergei’s nose. “I am knowing him from a young child. We have worked together quite often.”
Jordan nodded, sipping his drink. “You knew me when I was still messed up.”
Sergei wisely didn’t say that he believed Jordan was still plenty messed up. “I am remembering you begging me to touch you.”
Jordan smiled a little, and Sergei couldn’t help but join him. But their smiles faded quickly. “What are you wanting?”
“I dunno,” Jordan confessed. “So much has happened to me, it’s hard to say what all has happened. And I’m not sure what all you’ve come up with since the last time we did anything. So, other than my arms and legs, I’m willing to let you do anything.”
“Jordan,” one of his companions asked cautiously. “What are you doing?”
“It’s fine,” he said offhandedly.
“Let me take a look.” The man next to him placed a hand on his shoulder, probably just warningly, but Sergei paid it no heed as he reached out to touch Jordan’s cheek.
There were two main misconceptions about Sergei’s power. The first was that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the human nervous system. Yes, Sergei could see a lot when he touched someone, but he didn’t know everything. He didn’t know medical terms, he didn’t know how to describe what he saw to anyone else. Sometimes, when he visited the Orphanage to help the afflicted there, they would pull out a model of the brain for him to show. Everyone agreed, though, that it was less than optimal.
The other misconception was that he could change a person’s personality. Oh, his work would be so much easier if he could do that. And he wouldn’t have to just shrug whenever someone asked if he could help with depression. Or to help his wife. Or the hundreds of others that he’d tried to honestly help over the years.
The moment that he made contact with Jordan, Sergei could see everything. The way that Jordan’s brain had been sliced in two — they’d done a good job of repair it, but it wasn’t perfect. The way that it had been connected to the rest of his nervous system, the way that the nerves were aligned — some were facing the wrong direction, even! There were skin nerves buried deep within his body in weird places, not even connected to anything! What exactly had they done to him?!
Not that it mattered. The boy was fearless. He’d walked into whatever had happened.
Instead, he focused on the details. The devil was always in the details. They’d cleaned up a lot of the scar tissue in his brain. Some of Sergei’s previous mistakes were touched on, things that he couldn’t repair. A single, tight nodule that served no purpose had been bolstered. Interesting. He’d previously stolen from that to fuel other changes. He did that for many people. Funny how it only showed up in some untriggered and not others.
The ability to slow down time remained mostly untouched. Nor had the things that he’d done to improve Jordan’s control over his memories. Sergei could do a little more with that one now. And now that he’d touched so many more people, people who had modified their brains somehow, he could do so many other little things.
First thing was first. He spent a moment righting the errant nerves, and then another plucking one out of every four from the boy’s arms and shins. He did further adjustments to the ones on the knuckles as well.
Sergei could see with his actual eyes that Jordan’s face had relaxed, a blissful, peaceful expression crossing it. So many people, even the volunteers, found the experience uncomfortable. And yet the boy had never once even winced.
The pathways to send signals through the body were optimized and streamlined. Where the brain had been sliced was fixed properly this time — no more issues there. The modifications to improve ambidexterity were tweaked as well; Jordan should be able to write with both hands at the same time.
He’d boosted the learning capabilities in the past. Now, he touched them again. Minor tweaks — reading and listening would teach him more easily, as would visualization.
Things were shifting far too easily. But he set that aside for later. Focus.
Despite his looking, Sergei couldn’t find where the source of the seizures were coming from. He always quietly worried that he was the cause, that something he’d done at some point had caused issues with something else. No matter how much he looked, though, no matter how many people who suffered from seizures he touched… Nothing.
With that, he pulled away. In far less time than he should have — Jordan’s brain had been keen to adapt tonight.
“You have been through hell, Jordan. Most people would be dead by now.”
Jordan’s eyes rolled back into place, and that same old smile formed on his lips. “No doubt, thanks to your help.”
“Indeed.” Sergei brushed the hand off his shoulder without touching it before returning to his drink. “But I am thinking that you did not come here for that.”
“No,” said the man next to him. “The rest of us came for what you all have been selling.”
“Ah.” The vodka was a little warmer than he’d thought it would be.
“Ah?” the woman next to Jordan asked. “That’s it?”
Sergei slowly turned to look at her. “That, as you say, is it. I am not stupid. I have been accused of many things, but you don’t survive for as long in the Dno as I did without being smart. Jordan came for me to use my power on him, knowing that I would without hesitation. I always will, without hesitation. But if he brought the rest of you…
“Well.” Sergei took another sip. “You see, my friends, you would not walk into a den like this without a plan. Perhaps without a backup plan. We are nasty people, I know. You would want to take precautions. Ways to take us all down if you have to. It is easier to make more than to fight over it. We would lose, I am thinking. So, we will not fight you.”
He turned to look at Alexi. “Call down to Afanasiy–”
There was a thump at the stairwell door, and a moment later it opened to reveal a woman struggling to remain upright while carrying a large duffle bag and two more large bags. “Afanasiy is indisposed.” Before he could say anything else, she cut in. “He’s alive, but he probably will wish that he wasn’t when he wakes up.”
“Good for him,” Sergei said with a nod. “He is building character. Alexi, please collect everything. Well, everything but the radio.”
Alexi hesitated, but ultimately nodded. The woman next to the man stood quickly. “I’ll watch, thank you.”
“Then Alexi?” The bro paused, looking back. “Mind her, and remember. If you try and hurt her, I will write a pleasant letter to your family explaining.”
Alexi’s frown deepened, but he nodded once and lead the woman off. It was best to speak English right now, even though they usually kept to Russian while upstairs — people wouldn’t be concerned over words that they didn’t understand.
“That’s a nasty job you’ve got down there,” the woman said as she gently set down the bags. Close to Motya, much to his chagrin. Motya had a tendency to blend into the background and be forgotten, even without her power, but she had a bit of a temper. “I’m surprised Jordan knows you.”
Sergei shrugged. “I help where I can.”
“I have a hard time believing that,” she spat back.
“We do things,” Motya snarled. “They are not nice things. But we do them while working. It is not meaning that we cannot be different when we are not? You–”
“Motya,” Sergei snapped. She looked at him instantly, her eyes wide. He rarely raised his voice. “Slovo — serebro, molchaniye — zoloto.” Words are silver, silence is gold.
She got the hint and shut up quickly, but she wasn’t happy about it.
“She does say the truth, though.” Sergei turned back around to look at his drink. “What we do, yes, is unpleasant. But it is also what we do while working. I help people when I am not working because it is the right thing to do. I am not pretending that I am a good man, or a noble man. I do what I do here, and I do what I do at home. Never mixing them. Understand?”
“I’ve heard it more elegant ways,” the man next to him said carefully. “But I’m familiar with the sentiment. Few people behave the same way that they do while working as they do while away from the job. You do… vile things to people while at work, but that’s business. And not everyone is born with the luxury of choosing their lot in life.”
They fell into silence for a long moment, which was for the best. Sergei knew kindred souls when he met them, people who could do terrible things, and yet would try and do good other times. That was natural. That was right. These people were like that in their own way. He didn’t know how, but they were alike.
It was the man who broke the silence as he stood. “She needs help. I’ll be right back.”
Good. He waited for the man to walk into the back room before turning to Jordan. “There is something you are needing to know.” The boy raised an eyebrow. “You are being hunted.”
“The price on my head,” he said with a nod. “I know.”
Sergei shook his head. “Not that. They will suffer for that, the fools that they are. I am not worried about that. This is important. There are people that you are not wishing to fight.”
Jordan turned to look at him, his face even. “Can I get a little more information than that?”
“They went to your home, to the Orphanage, to others. Many others. Defiant and Dragon. They are looking for you. Hunting you.”
The only change in Jordan’s face was a small tick in the corner of his eye. “Thanks for letting me know.”
And a moment later, he relaxed a little, as if he hadn’t been told that his hero was hunting for him. Damn. Sergei should never have modified his brain to make suppressing things easier. The boy was too good at it.
He would have pressed the subject, but the two were coming out of the storeroom. “We’ve got it all, except for the radio.” The man looked at Sergei. “Since you’re being so forthcoming with us, the least that we could do is abide by your request.”
“Ever the gentleman,” the woman next to Jordan said flatly. It was enough to force the corner’s of Sergei’s lips up.
“It was good to see you again,” Jordan said before quickly gulping his untouched vodka. “I’ll try to visit again, under more pleasant circumstances.”
“I would not mind that,” he confessed, nodding. “I am having more ideas that I could try some day. Some of the stranger ones. It might be good for the both of us. Perhaps Iskra will make dinner for the two of us. Perhaps I will even eat it for her sake.”
Jordan smiled a little and nodded before putting his helmet back on. The others were already heading for the door as he stood awkwardly before Sergei, his halberd in his hand. “Perhaps. Until next time.”
“May your travels keep you safe, and bring you back to me in good fortune.” Sergei meant it, too. It took a special sort of person to trust a parahuman with their powers so readily. It was hard to tell how many he had offered that trust to, so many that could destroy him. It left a mark, not only on him, but on people like Sergei as well.
As soon as the boy walked out the door, though, Sergei was getting up himself, despite the complaints that he knees gave him. Nobody said anything as he walked into the back. He was fairly certain that they were all afraid to. But he could feel the presence of Alexi and Motya as he moved to the radio and punched in the coordinates.
“Hello,” he said into the microphone. “This is Sergei. You said that I should contact you, no matter the time?”
“Yes,” the woman’s voice replied immediately. Faster than he would have expected — almost like she’d been waiting to talk to him. “Was he there?”
“He was. I am suspecting Jordan has already teleported out. With much of our wares. Will you keep your end of our deal and replace it all?”
“I’d rather not, but a deal’s a deal, isn’t it?” It was, but she really didn’t seem happy about it. “Did you pass along the message?”
Sergei frowned a little more deeply. “Of course. Jordan is now knowing that you are looking for him, Dragon.”