“So what’s the plan?” John asked, not looking up from the quick frying that he was doing.
“It’s a surprise,” I said calmly without looking up from my chopping.
“Well, I just figured that since you were leaving early–”
“Three number ones,” Brenda called out.
“–then were meeting up with Jenna to do something while the three of us handled the Christmas rush on our own, you might wanna give me a hint.”
Yes, Kathy and I had a plan, but… “Do you ask the magician how he does his tricks? Do you read the last page of your books first? No, you don’t. That’s why I’m not gonna tell you.”
“Good man,” Kathy said cheerfully. Her voice shifted instantly to more serious. “How much longer on those mushrooms?”
“Fifteen.” I was getting surprisingly good at it. I’d cut up a ton this morning, and we’d made a ton of noodles, but we were saving as much as possible for the Christmas Eve rush. Since it was a thing that most people didn’t cook at home, it put a ton of pressure on the restaurants, and with two of us not going to be working for the majority of the rush, we were trying to make it as gentle as possible for Emi, Brenda and John later.
As soon as I passed off the mushrooms, John was already dogging me again. “So, I noticed that you’ve been going hardcore on your training again.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Are you going to tell me that you’re not pushing yourself?”
“What, you suddenly expect me to develop something against lying?” I asked quietly.
“Burn,” Kathy said just as quietly. “And ease up on him, man.”
“I’m not going to ease up,” John growled. It wasn’t an angry growl, it was more of… frustrated. “I’m worried about you, Hideki.”
I’m worried about you, Jordan. Her voice was so very, very concerned.
I froze in place, my eyes going wide. After a moment, I relaxed, not quite sure why I paused in the first place. “Relax. I’m not pushing myself as hard as I could be. In fact, I think I’m going to pass on any training tonight.”
“Only ‘cos we’re going to be working so hard,” Kathy said with a grin.
Emi moved into the back to join us, getting some more noodles warmed up. “Can you at least tell me if I’m gonna have to wait ’till morning to see what you two are fuckin’ about with?”
“You’ll see it tonight,” Kathy said with a grin. “At least, assuming that we can get out of here early enough.”
“After we get done we’ll come back and help out,” I said with a nod, not looking up from my work. “That way, we can get everything cleaned up faster. In fact, if Jenna wants to show you while I clean up, I don’t mind.”
“Oho,” John said, looking over to me with a grin. “And thus, a hint is given!”
I knocked at the door, glancing at my watch. Only two hours before I had to be back at Angel Grove. I was definitely operating on a time limit, here. Fortunately, I was pretty sure that I’d given myself enough wiggle room to handle it all.
Nexus opened the door, instantly turning and walking away. “I know you’re short on time, so let’s do this.”
I stepped in, closing the door behind me. This new hideout was… Well, it wasn’t like the other one. He’d spent a long time setting up the other, and this one felt more… spartan. There were only a couple of chairs upstairs as he lead me to the stairwell down.
Two stories down, though, it was a different matter. I would have thought that he would put all of the expensive furniture upstairs, but there were countless plush chairs pulled up to fancy desks, hallways showing amazingly comfortable surroundings. Apparently, he spent more on the comfort of his employees than he did on his visiting guests.
“How long did it take you to build these basements?” I asked curiously.
“The basic construction took two days,” he said proudly as he lead me along. “Gravity para, specializes in compression. She does amazing work.”
I frowned a moment as old reports trickled from the back of my head. “And how many counts of murder is she wanted for?”
“Fifteen, I think.” He shrugged. “People with lethal powers shouldn’t be backed into corners.”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, I get that. You don’t scream and charge at someone holding a gun unless you want shot.”
“Exactly. She’s… Well, she’s not the best of people, but she tries.” He looked back to smile at me. “Give me a nasty person who honestly tries over someone who just fakes it any day.”
What the hell was I supposed to say in response to that? “How very glass half empty.”
That got a laugh out of him. “Which is why I surround myself with people who don’t need to try or fake it.” With that, he opened a door and stepped through.
Three women, dressed so simply that I thought they might be rags, looked up to us as we entered. One of them scowled at me, another smiled pleasantly, and the third rose to her feet. “You must be Jordan,” she said pleasantly.
“Oh, hi.” Crap, I wasn’t here to socialize.
“I was just telling him about making the new HQ. Amaia, how long did it take me after the earth was compressed?”
“Two weeks,” the white-haired scowling woman said. Her voice matched her scowl. I was starting to wonder if she wasn’t actually displeased and that was just her natural expression.
The friendly woman moved to shake my hand. “I’m Solly. This is Amaia, and her twin sister, Beth. Be thankful that they have different expressions. I wouldn’t want you to get them confused.”
Identical twins? No, no. Amaia was more well-developed in her upper body, most likely from using a meelee weapon of some sort. Beth had more of a sprinter’s physique. Sure, the two probably only had five to ten pounds of weight difference between them, but how could anyone possibly confuse them for identical? I didn’t get it. Every time that someone claimed that people were identical twins, I could always tell them apart instantly.
“Nexus has been wanting us to meet for quite some time,” Amaia said flatly.
I flashed her an apologetic smile. “Then I really wish that I could stay and chat, but I’m going to have to get going rather quick.”
“Teleporter,” Nexus said, making a gimmie motion. I quickly unsnapped it and handed it over. It only took him a moment to hook something up to it. “Habib made me a quick charge that’ll work for me. I figure, he knows your teleporter probably as good as the person who made it, right? It would probably be easier.”
“Now if only we could figure out what his specialty is.”
Nexus laughed. “I know! I’m thinking that it’s reproduction, but that doesn’t seem quite right. I know that he can make original gear, but it’s pretty rare. Drives me mad.”
I nodded awkwardly as silence filled the air. “So, uh…”
“Your teleporter is down to 20%,” Nexus said, glancing up. “It’s better to get it charged before you go flying off. The charger should handle multiple charges, so don’t you worry about that. So, in the interest of keeping you safe, we’ll wait, mmm?”
Damn, he made a good point. I sighed, trying not to fidget.
Solly spoke up again. “Nexus tells us that you’ve been hunting down corrupt Wardens.”
I chuckled a little, shrugging. “It’s… Okay, I’ll be honest, it’s something to do. I need to keep myself sharp, I’d like to maintain a positive income, there’s people who need to be taken down. Win-win.”
Amaia snorted. “Said like someone who enjoys the fighting.”
“I do like the fighting,” I confessed. “But I don’t like hurting people. That’s why I usually ambush them while they’re asleep or something.” Okay, sometimes when I glanced at the dossiers, I was more than willing to punch them in the face a few times. The armor’s knuckles were very nice. “But contrary to popular belief, I’m not a psycho looking for blood.”
Beth raised an eyebrow, but it was Solly who laughed and spoke. “You haven’t been paying attention to the papers, have you?”
I shook my head as Nexus laughed, deep and from the belly. “Oh, ladies! This is Jordan we’re talking about. He’s probably too busy training, studying parahumans, fretting over the state of humanity…” He put a hand on my shoulder and leaned in close. “…And feeding poor abandoned orphans until they can be taken to the Orphanage to read the paper.”
His tone was… disturbing. “I don’t lactate,” I said flatly.
“See! And he’s honest, too!” Nexus paused. “Or is it humble? I can’t remember.”
I looked to Solly. “Is he always like this?”
“Only when he talks about you,” Amaia said flatly. “I’m starting to think that he has a crush.”
Nexus put his free hand on his hip, tilting his head at her. I couldn’t see his expression. “Oh, please. You… Yeah. Anyway! Jordan is more of… Well, he’s more of who I wish I could have been, so of course I’m always thrilled to see him!
“Anyway, Jordan, there’s practically a feud going on over if you’re a devil or a misunderstood saint.”
Amaia made a displeased face and Nexus winced. “Sorry, but you have to admit, it gets the point across quickly.”
“True,” she conceded.
“Anyway! I got everything that you asked for, Jordan my boy! The metal, the three pretty dresses, three sets of jewelry and the best makeup kits that I could get my mitts on, one phonograph and the entire works of Elvis, and one home brewery kit. Lemmie tell ya, the records were the hardest to get my mitts on. Oh! And the robes! I didn’t gift wrap those.”
“It’s appreciated. Is everything outside?”
He shook his head as he handed the teleporter back to me. “Nope! We’ve got a room for that!”
With a wave of his hand, he lead me out the door and back down the hall, the women trailing behind. We definitely weren’t underneath the house that posed as a figurehead for his operations. He lead me into another room… and what a room. It was a cube, so far as I could tell, and the ceiling was as tall as both basement levels. In the middle, he’d not so much of stacked everything in there as he did wedge it in.
I let out a low whistle. “Holy crap, that’s a lotta metal.”
“It’s heavy!” The four of us looked at him, and his face fell. “Ugh, I can tell when a joke falls flat. But yes, I got you as much as I could. I don’t hear from you for months, and then you finally pop up on my doorstep asking for iron ingots? Then iron ingots you get!”
“It’s probably more than I can take,” I said with a frown. “My teleporter doesn’t reach that far.” Far enough for five people and an assortment of bags, but this was… quite a bit more than that.
He frowned a bit, then shrugged. “Whatever! I can find a use for anything you don’t take.”
I turned to him. “How much do I owe you?”
Beaming with pride, he held up a single finger. “One job that you can do solo!”
My eyes went wide. “This is worth way more than one job! I owe you, like, five or–”
“Nope!” he interrupted, practically squirming with delight.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” Amaia said with a frown. “We prefer to live simply, but we’ve learned better than to fight him on presents.”
Nexus sobered. “You’ve let me do the kinds of things that I can’t quite call on the ladies here for out of respect for their own reputations an ability to operate in concert with the Wardens. If I could afford to, I’d pay you four or five times what you get out of me, if not more. Most of this, I was able to get via thankful contacts and clients. I only paid about two or three what I pay you for a job.
“It’s Christmas, Jordan. I know what that means for Orphans like yourself. Let me return the favor that you are showing others, alright?” He paused a moment, reaching out to smooth my shirt… right before smacking me in the chest and grinning. “Consider it my thanks for taking their product off the market and making legit people outta them, alright? Besides, by helping you spread some joy, I get to spread some joy! I win!”
I sighed softly. “Fine. Let’s do this.”
Michelle burst through the door, shotgun in hand. I only saw her because the stacks of ingots had fallen over, being unbalanced due to the way that the crates had been cut open during teleportation. Which was a good thing for me — I didn’t have to climb over them again.
“Hi,” I said cheerfully, moving to hunt make sure that the presents weren’t crushed.
“What the hell?” She took a step forward, her eyes wide, shotgun still ready to be used.
“Oh, right. Well, I didn’t want you all to worry about me, so I thought I’d drop by with some more supplies.” I patted five of the six pouches on my hip. “And pay!”
She looked around again, shaking her head slowly. “I’m… It’s gonna take hours to get this sorted before you can teleport out.”
“I’ll go somewhere else,” I said offhandedly. “No worries.”
Everything seemed to be in order. “Hey, listen, where are the others?”
“Uh… I’m the only one here. Everyone else is at home, ‘cos, y’know, Christmas. I just stuck around because I figured that if you’d come…”
“It’d be today. Good thinking.” I unhooked the coin purses and set them down before grabbing one of Michelle’s presents. With some difficulty, I made my way over. “There’s more for yourself and everyone else, but…” I held out the box, grinning. “Merry Christmas!”
Carefully she set the shotgun next to the door, trying not to shiver in the cold as she took the package. No snow at least, but that meant that she missed out on a white Christmas. Curiously, she undid the ribbon and opened it. After a moment, she took out the dress and held it up to get a better look at it.
“Boss… This is nice. I… You didn’t have to–”
“Yes,” I insisted. “There’s dresses for the other two in there, too. I have rules, very firm rules. Rules that I don’t budge on. One of those rules? Pretty girls get pretty things. Doesn’t matter if you’re my–”
I was interrupted by Michelle slamming into me as she wrapped her arms around me tight. After a moment, I realized she was crying.
“I don’t have anything for you,” she said into my chest.
I smiled warmly and put my head on top of hers, as uncomfortable as it was to do so. “You just gave me the best gift.”
I was very nearly out of breath as I began beating on the door. C’mon, I knew they were home. I’d seen motion behind a window upstairs. I adjusted my stance and began to beat on it like it was a speed bag. Come on… Kathy and I had just been here a couple of weeks ago.
The door opened, and I found Fenix staring at me, and Habib behind him, armed with some Tinker-made weapon.
“Is everyone going to greet me with a gun?” I let out an exasperated sigh. “Seriously! It’s Christmas.”
“Sorry, Don.” Fenix stepped to the side. “C’mon in.”
“We were not expecting you,” Habib said, setting the gun on the counter.
I frowned a little as Fenix closed the door behind me. “I said that I’d be here on Christmas.”
“We figured you meant either a few days before, or on Christmas Day itself.” Fenix moved for the back door. “When you didn’t show up, we just sort of… I dunno. And then… I mean honestly, it’s kinda late.”
“Yeah, sorry.” That did make sense. “Time zones are a bitch, I guess.”
Habib frowned at me a little. “When I first met you, your language was very clean. You curse a lot more now.”
I winced, rubbing at the back of my bald head. “Yeah, I… I was trying to be a goodie-goodie all my life. Part of that meant watching my language. Even when I was mad, I may have thought it, but I didn’t say it. Now I worry more about just being me than my mouth. I’m sorry if it offends you.”
Habib gave a bark of laughter. “No offense taken! Some of our customers use more vulgarities than punctuation! I just realized it. Little things.”
“Yeah. Sometimes the details make all the difference.” I smiled a little. “Especially when I’m dealing with powers. I’m always trying to catch the details.”
Fenix came back out, three pre-gift wrapped thick bundles in his hands, setting them on the counter. “Be happy that you all paid in advance. This is primo stuff. Hard to believe you can still get your mitts on artisanal anything these days, let alone this. It’s worth a pretty penny.”
I frowned a little. “Do I owe you anything?”
“Pfft, no.” Fenix rolled his eyes and shook his head. “We’re still trying to move some of that load of Tinker gear you brought us. You’re fine, trust me.”
“If you say so.” I moved the brick-sized packages so that one was trapped between the other two before picking them up with both hands.
“Jordan,” Habib said pleasantly. “Please have a good Christmas.”
“Oh,” I said with a grin, backing towards the door. “I plan on spreading plenty of good cheer. By the way? Merry Christmas.”
I jerked my hands up before pulling the two outer packages apart, sending the middle brick straight up into the air. My grin only grew wider as I gently lobbed the gifts to my friends, snatching the third present out of the air as I spun around and walked towards the door, my back a little straighter.
I heard Fenix laugh behind me. “Merry Christmas, man! You’re one of the good ones!”
I flashed him a wave without looking back as I hit the door.
I breathed out as Kathy moved up next to me, looking at my breath. I knew that it was basically just heat and moisture against the cold air, but it seemed strange. Like I had my own little micro-power, to make breath visible. A micro-power that Kathy also had as she leaned against me.
“Any minute now,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.
“Thank you for this, by the way.”
I briefly glanced down at her before looking back at the door, listening to the revelry on the other side. “For what?”
“It’s hard, you know? I light the menorah by myself because the others aren’t interested. All of my rituals for this time of year… They aren’t shared. Not here, at least. It was a little better in Burlington, with Chris there. He doesn’t have faith, but at least he understands Christmas.”
I chuckled a little, burying the twinge of sadness. “Folks used to think we were crazy with how ape we’d go over Christmas. Scurrying around, laughing. Sweeping people’s steps, hanging wreaths, that sort of thing. Doing everything we could to do it right. Heck, sometimes we used to joke that the real reason he offered Burlington free power is so that we could do it right.”
I paused a moment. “You were there when it first started, weren’t you?”
“Mm-hmm.” She nuzzled into me more. “I don’t remember it much, but… The Orphanage was a depressing place back then. They were still setting up, trying to figure out what to do with all those kids. And we were, you know, understandably miserable. The Matron tried her hardest to keep our spirits up, but…”
She shrugged a little. “Eh, the details are fuzzy. I remember the basics, though. It was the second Christmas that it really started. We were still pretty low on supplies, but the Matron lead the charge, Aiden trailing behind her. The Patron was handling another group of kids. But we went out and practically stripped every damn cedar tree that we could find to make the wreaths. And I hated it.”
I glanced down at her, and she laughed. “Seriously. I hated that year so much. By the time that you came, what was it? Two years later? Still hated it. By the time that I left the Orphanage? Still hated all the work that we put into it. That first Christmas away? Oh, hell, I thought I was going crazy. All that time of hating it, and the moment that I’m free of it, I realized how much I needed it. I literally put myself out of house and home going all out.
“Ever since then…”
She trailed off as the doors opened. “You wanna do the honors?”
I smiled warmly and handed the remote over to her. “You got this.”
She flipped the cover off the tube, hesitated as a good fifteen people came out of the community house, and hit the switch.
I wished that I could have said that it was instant, but it came in waves. Buildings began to light up, as the lights we’d hidden on the roofs came to life by our wireless signal. We’d spent weeks setting them up in the dead of night, and then the last hour had been spent finalizing it, running the colored lights down the corners of people’s houses, setting up windowsills or doorways when we could.
We’d spent over a grand on this, a third of what the average person made a year in New Brockton. She’d paid for almost all of it. I’d tried to pay, but she’d honestly threatened to bash my nose in, and I believed that she’d try, too.
First we were rewarded with gasps of surprise, followed by shouting into the community house. People came running fast as I wrapped an arm around Kathy’s shoulders. I couldn’t make out any individual sound, it was all wonder and amazement. For how much the city produced for the rest of the world, it was still a down-to-earth place. They were content living without too much that was frivolous. They tended to look down at people who wanted bigger housing, or even a house with more than three rooms, let alone a second story.
Christmas lights were beyond them for the most part, so this was a special treat.
“Merry Christmas, Hideki.”
“Merry Christmas, Jenna.”
My feet hit the catwalk a little harder than what I would have liked. I hurried down the steps, hunched over, trying to keep to the shadows. Nobody. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to get trapped again. As I moved through the darkness, I quietly reconnected the charging unit. It’d get me back to Angel Grove again before it ran dry.
I knew the way, and took it as quickly as I could, burying everything else as it came up. Now wasn’t the time. Now was exactly the opposite of the time for recollection. The last thing that I needed was to burst into tears again. But even the knowledge as to why I needed to bury it the moment that it reared its head soon faded from my mind, just the knowledge that I had to remaining.
It didn’t take me long to reach the house. The Christmas lights were on inside, giving me a chance to do some recon through the window. My eyes were already adjusted to the dark, so it was easier to glance around the living room. If anyone was there… Well, they must be hiding behind the couch, which would be uncomfortable to say the least.
I moved to the door and got to work. I dimly remembered the movies that I half paid attention to, where someone would hunker in front of a lock for only a few moments before the door opened. That wasn’t anything like the reality. I was getting good at it, and it still took me between five and ten minutes, carefully working each tumbler until it stayed in place. I had no idea how Kathy did it with her eyes open, though; if my eyes weren’t closed, it took me twice as long.
She said that a snap gun, a small mechanical powered lockpick tool, would get it done even faster at the cost of noise. Which was precisely why none of us had one.
Finally, after what felt like ages, the tension bar worked, the lock clicked, and I gently opened the door. A simple in and out job. I moved to the tree, opened my bag, and set out five packages. I could seriously get in trouble for this, but some things just had to be done.
As soon as I was finished, I was back out the door, making sure that it was latched behind me. I turned around and made it five steps before someone stepped out from the shadows. It didn’t take a genius to realize that they were in armor.
I turned to bolt, but the voice called out to me. “Wait,” the woman said, trying to both project and keep quiet at the same time. “Jordan, you aren’t under arrest.”
I paused, my fingers toying with the empty leather bag. Slowly, I turned back to her. I wasn’t armed. I hadn’t brought a gun or anything. The armor appeared light, what little I could make out of it. The stupid Christmas lights had played hell with my night vision.
“This is going to be hard for you to understand,” she said slowly. “And it’s a conversation that I’d rather not have on the street.” She took a slow, careful step towards me, like she was trying not to startle a feral animal. “But I’d like you to come with me to the office.”
I shook my head before realizing that she might not be able to see it in this light. “Can’t.”
She paused. Her hands were up at chest height, palms towards me. “Even though I’m not going to arrest you?”
I took a slow breath. “Careful word choice.”
She debated that briefly. “Nobody’s going to arrest you.”
“You could be lying.”
I heard her sigh as she dropped her hands. “Is there anything that I can do to convince you? Anything that I say could be a lie, and I’m kind of drawing a blank on what I can do here.”
I stared at her for a long moment before standing up straight. “Alright.”
“Alright?” she asked, confusion in her tone.
“Alright, yeah.” I took a hesitant step towards her. “I mean, if you were gonna arrest me, see this as your big chance, then you’d try harder. You’d get all soothing, assuring me that you wouldn’t arrest me, tell me about how you weren’t lying, or how nobody else was at the office. You know, get me into your confidence.
“Instead, you’re acting like you kinda expected this. Like, I dunno, you’ve given up already. Besides, the weakest point of any armor is the joints, and from what I can see, yours looks pretty weak. I’m pretty sure that I can at least make you regret it if you do anything.”
“How mercenary of you,” she said dryly.
I spread my hands and shrugged as I walked towards her. “I am what I am.”
“Didn’t figure you for reading philosophy.”
What? I pushed it out of my mind. It didn’t matter. I’d ask John later; he seemed the type to read that kind of stuff.
As I got closer, I could make out more of her armor. I was far from able to see it clearly; it was different shades of dark against a dark background. But I could, at least, see that it looked like a majorly stripped-down version of the Dragon’s Teeth armor. Not nearly as bulky, but there were certain design similarities in the helmet and shoulders.
“Lead the way.”
She didn’t have to be told twice. I didn’t recognize the route we took — it wasn’t leading to the guards office and jail. That had a nice POLICE sign over it. Instead, she lead me to a newer building, one that I couldn’t identify, one that didn’t seem to have windows. Though I could hear a windmill turbine nearby. Interesting.
As she opened the door, I winced and raised my hand at the bright light inside. As my eyes adjusted enough for me to peek through fingers, the occupants all cheered out. “Merry Christmas!”
Fuck me, these were a lot of Dragon’s Teeth. At least a full combat squad, maybe two.
“Come on in,” one man said cheerfully. “You’re letting the heat out.”
I wasn’t entirely sure why I stepped through the door, but it closed behind me, trapping me with a bunch of people in DT uniforms, and a couple in armor. So far, this night was going smashingly.
“What’s going on?” I asked as my eyes continued to try and adjust.
“We’re wishing you a merry Christmas,” a woman said.
“Hey,” a man said, grinning from ear to ear. “You like peppermint schnapps in your hot chocolate?”
“What?” That one word was becoming frustratingly common tonight.
“Relax,” one man said, his voice odd. As I focused on his face, he could have passed for an Endless. It was deeply scarred, only the scars seemed… I wasn’t sure. There was something off about them, the way that they wrapped around his whole head. Something unreal. “You’re in no danger here, son.”
“I’m a wanted criminal, last I checked.”
“Are you? I’m not so sure that you’re wanted here.”
I chuckled weakly. “Uh, yeah? I mean, I fled the scene of a crime. You all are pretty cut and dry about that.”
That made this man, apparently the local leader, frown a bit. “See, that’s the thing. You can say that, but I can’t arrest you for it without any evidence. The Wardens have the entire bundle of New Fairfax under wraps, so the Dragon’s Teeth aren’t even sure if you were even there are not. Now, I could hit you for resisting arrest, since we know that you’ve done that, but…” He shrugged a shoulder. “If it’s an illegal attempted arrest, you’re allowed to resist under Wardens rules.”
“What about your rules?”
“The same basically applies, but with far more paperwork. The question is, were those attempts at arrest illegal?”
I frowned. They weren’t. I had been at New Fairfax, and I had fled a crime scene. I was a possible suspect, and the Wardens were technically in their right to try and arrest me for it. At least, I was pretty sure of that. But on the other hand, I was surrounded by Dragon’s Teeth, and a few of them were in sleek, form fitting… armor… that looked disturbingly familiar now that I was seeing it in the light.
One thing at a time.
“I’d rather not say.”
“Then there’s nothing that I can do, now is there? Besides, I’m pretty sure your brother would be upset if I were to arrest you and immediately transfer you to a high-security containment facility. So instead, I’d suggest answering Miki’s question.”
“Zwah?” I wanted to avoid saying what yet again.
“Peppermint schnapps in your hot chocolate?”
I snorted, then laughed. “Yeah, sure. Hit it strong.” I liked peppermint, I liked hot chocolate, so why not?
A tension that I hadn’t even realized had been there left the room as everyone began smiling. The woman who had brought me in slapped my arm playfully. “Big fan of your work, Jordan. Both with the New Brockton thing, then with what you’ve been doing with the Wardens this year.”
“Uh, thanks. Just, uh… Just be forewarned. If I find out a place where you all are stationed is corrupt, I’ll go after them, too.”
“Awesome,” she said, pulling off her helmet to let me see that she was smiling, too. “Glad to hear it. I’m anti-corruption, period. I’m a working girl; I don’t like to see other people get ahead while I’m working legit for it.”
I smiled a little, but I couldn’t resist. “That’s Chris’ work, isn’t it?”
The scarred man spoke up first. “Mr. Acone, Dragon, and Defiant. Chris is supplying the cloth armor, and they’re designing around it. We’re field testing all of the designs that they come up with.”
“And I gotta say,” the woman added. “I’ll take literally every design that they’ve come up with so far over the traditional stuff. That stuff killed my knees.”
There was a chorus of agreement from everyone as a mug of potent-smelling hot chocolate got pushed into my hands. I was still suffering from a sort of disconnect from it all, though. “Chris is working with Defiant?”
The leader nodded, his voice taking on a more gentle tone. “He made one appearance here, right after you fought that squad of Warden cadets. But some agreement was made, I know that much.”
I smiled softly, even though there was a pang of regret there.
Another man in armor spoke up. “We’ve got some gear for you!”
“Huh? I… You don’t have to do that!”
“It’s fine,” another woman said, sitting on the edge of one of the desks as another man hurried off. “Literally, your brother gave it to us to give to you if we ever saw you. You’ve been doing a good job of flying under our radar, though.”
“Actually, that’s not quite true.” The leader took a seat in a chair. “We have noticed you on occasion, but we either haven’t had the opportunity to approach you, or thought that it would do more harm than good. A few days after fighting Wardens, for example, might make you more inclined to lash out in fear if we tried to talk. We get that.”
I needed a distraction. “Mind if I ask a question?”
He nodded. “Feel free.”
“Are you Endless?”
That made him break into a wide grin. “I used to be, yes. But, like Corporal Light said, my knees couldn’t handle black ops any more.”
I grinned a little. “I always thought it was so strange, the most elite of the black ops in the DT, and they’ve all been on the seriously wrong end of powers.”
He laughed. “I’ll be honest with you, there’s a whole bunch of rhetoric about it, but I never paid attention. I was just happy to still be someone worthwhile, instead of being shunted into a sympathy job or being forced to retire.”
I nodded, grinning from ear to ear. “I can imagine. So you went from Endless to guarding the middle of nowhere?”
“This is far from the middle of nowhere,” a guy said. He looked at their leader. “Sorry, sir. Didn’t mean to butt in.”
“No, that’s fine. This is informal, and to be honest, I think that we should all be able to speak our mind tonight. As you were — Mr. Jordan deserves an explanation.”
The guy nodded a little and looked back to me as I took a sip of my drink — not too shabby. I could feel it in my nose.
“Your brother’s particular talents are in high demand now. There’s been a few people trying to get their mitts on him already, and to be honest? We’ve expected more heavy hitters. Fyrtorn, Teacher, Red Miss, Bratja–”
I shook my head. “One of their top people in encouraging Tinkers to work for them was close to the three of us. If they went after Chris, he’d either let him go, or stand to the side when I went gunning for blood.”
“Huh! Well, alright then. But you get the idea. As soon as the New Brockton facility came online, a lot of people came snooping. A lot of them are above the board, too. Your brother’s been at it hardcore. He’s got a full staff now, housing’s expanding, and uh, these dipshits,” he waved his hand at three people, “they’re engineers, helping the locals to expand the city. Now that people know that Burlington exists, they’ve got a huge demand.”
I looked over at the three, who looked rather tired. “You gonna let him call you that?”
“Dip,” one said, somehow sounding like an idiot.
“Shiiiiiit,” another said, sounding stoned. That got a chuckle out of everyone.
“I’m rather disappointed by your crotch,” someone else said. I looked at him in confusion. “Well, after that stunt that you pulled with Agamemnon, I was expecting you to need a wheel barrel for your balls.”
“Oh, well, uh… They’re detachable. I need a wheel barrel for each one. Makes walking hard.”
I took another gulp as people laughed. I hated being the center of attention like this, but at least they were letting me pass the buck onto them.
I still wasn’t sure where that phrase came from. Passing deer? No sense at all.
“So, how’d you all know that I was here?”
“A combination of an energy spike outside the city and closed circuit cameras we have set up on the walls. As soon as we ID’d it was you, we woke everyone up.”
Now I frowned. “I don’t wanna sound like I’m complaining or anything, but… Can I ask why?”
“Pictures!” one guy cried out, holding up a camera. “We all want pictures with ya! I mean, seriously. On top of everything else, I don’t care if what they’re doing or not is illegal, mad props to anyone who can evade as many capture teams as you have, I wanna get a picture with.”
I bet he talked with Chris a lot. Both of them used awkward sentences.
I glanced around them, and realized that the majority of them looked… oddly hopeful. “I’m not getting out of here without pictures, am I?”