Colin frowned as he settled into the chair, the Pendragon rumbling as it lifted into the air.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Tess’ client body said, tilting his head.
“How long until we reach…” Colin’s eyes narrowed a bit as the name escaped him.
“Burlington. About five minutes.”
He nodded a little. That should be enough time to vocalize some of his thoughts. “Alright. People don’t learn like that. That spontaneous getting it months after the fact. They made it sound like it went from a simple breakthrough and into a major increase in skill. But they also mentioned that he was having various parahumans use their powers on him. It could easily be a combination of those powers that do that to him, or perhaps his exposure to broken triggers. You said that they sometimes cause unknown side effects in those exposed to them.”
“They do,” Tess said slowly. “But that’s not what I–”
He brought up a hand to silence her. “I know. Just let me finish this train of thought for a moment.”
She nodded silently, a hint of a smile on her face as she leaned against the bulkhead.
“When he approached that broken trigger back home, he had a practiced way of doing it. Soothing tones, approach slowly, smiling. Talk to them the entire time, trying to help them calm down and gain mastery over their mental state. It was different from when you’ve just had training with it — he had experience. I’m willing to bet that he’s been exposed to quite a few broken triggers, more than anyone actually realizes.”
Tess tapped a claw on the bulkhead. “I see where you’re going. The use of powers may have drastically altered his thought processes. Are you going to suggest that we talk to Riley?”
“Not right now, no. It’s a good thought, and I want to, but I think that there’s more pressing concerns. I want to do some investigation in Burlington while we’re there.” He hesitated. He wanted to jump right into the next related topic, following the natural flow of his thoughts, but he suspected that it would just irritate Tess. It would be best to address what she wanted to talk about and then go back to his musing and planning.
Colin sighed, looking away from her client body. “I don’t like that they lied to him about me. I don’t like that they didn’t tell him the truth. He deserved to know the truth. You can’t just let a kid grow up, basing their entire life on a set of lies, modeling themselves after a meeting with a person who was just… an actor, essentially.”
“But didn’t kids used to do that all the time? Taking cues from Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street, shaping how they come to think and act in their early developmental years?”
That… This was going to be hard for Colin to explain. “That isn’t… entirely the same thing. When you’re a kid, you take what you see as reality. But that’s something that changes over time. You learn the difference between television and reality, drawing more personal evolution to the world that you’re exposed to. School, the people that you interact with. That sort of thing.
“This is different. He’s effectively an adult, basing his entire life off of a lie. A well-meaning lie, I’ll admit. Especially in the early days, I don’t blame them in the slightest for having continued it. After he started to grow as a person, after…
“They aren’t blood related, so I’m not sure if sister is quite the right word.”
“It is,” Tess said with a smile. “They think of each other as siblings, so they effectively are. They were adopted as family, which helps reinforce it.”
Colin nodded. It was good to have that clarified. “After her influence came into play and he started to develop as a person under more traditional lines, perpetuating the lie feels… wrong.”
“Even if it gave him a stable foundation for him?” Tess took a breath even though she didn’t have to. The tiny motions that she went through in order to seem more human. “I can understand it, Colin. I may not like it much more than you do, but I understand it. Jordan has a vitality and excitement to him that’s rare these days.”
“He’s a geek,” he observed. It was the most simple thing in the world. “I used to see his kind of energy all the time with geeks.”
“And that’s rare these days. Gold Morning ruined it for a lot of people, wearing them down and destroying that vitality. Kids these days usually don’t have the exposure to give them that excitement. Don’t go outside, there might be wildlings or parahumans. Parents having flashbacks, their neighbors dying due to broken triggers… Kids have a lot of weight on their shoulders, and they’re expected to mature a lot faster. It weighs them down.”
Colin frowned. Being that type of person, the kind of person who drew excitement out of something and wanted everyone around them to feel that excitement… That didn’t seem like it should have changed by the environment. Eventually, a geek would find something to give them that excitement again. He trusted her assessment of people, but in this case, he was pretty sure that she was wrong.
Jordan had his issues, of course. More than Colin could count. At the same time, he had that passion and that drive. He understood focus, and he understood what came with it. Most people didn’t. Most of them just assumed that he was an excitable and pleasant young man, if a little odd.
At first, Colin hadn’t thought much of him, until after Tess had urged him to go outside and spar with him. That’s when he’d realized that the two of them had a lot in common. Despite the boy’s words, he had that need to be better, that continual need to expand his limits. And when Colin had used a toss that Jordan had never seen before, the boy had obsessed over it, not only learning the toss but also how to counter it.
He reminded Colin a lot of himself in many ways. Nobody deserved to be a parahuman, but it was a pity that Jordan wasn’t a Tinker. The three of them might have made an excellent team.
The circle of dots on his HUD suddenly shifted, a new one suddenly appearing. “Tess?”
The body smiled at him. “I’m temporarily putting an instance of myself in this body. There’s a lot of confusing information going on with the communication network, so I want to devote myself to that. There’s also a slight problem with the left-rear thruster, and I want to figure that out just in case. If need be, I’ll use the on-board minifacturing equipment and we can install replacements when we get back.”
Colin nodded slowly. “How long until we arrive?”
“Twenty-five second until landing.”
He nodded and rose, going to retrieve his weapon. He looked to symbols on the edge of his vision, blinking to open a menu. A couple more blinks called up a map of the village, made by the local Dragon’s Teeth. He looked over the waypoints of the map to call up the descriptions; the local office, the landing site just outside of a gate, Jordan’s home, Chris Abrams’ workshop, where the Wardens were tending to their wounded.
Somehow, Colin wasn’t surprised. “How bad did Jordan hurt them?”
“Most of them aren’t bad. He knocked the wind out of one, minor asphyxiation for another, a third has minor bruising. One is suffering a gunshot to his leg, and the fifth is said to have a broken jaw, and her pelvis might be cracked.”
Colin’s eyebrows raised in surprised. “A gunshot.”
“A Trump,” Tess said quickly. “I’m not sure on the details yet. They’ve requested healing, and Valkyrie has said that she will personally attend to them. By comms traffic, I don’t think that she’s here yet. We have a window.”
For however long it lasted. There was still a great deal that they didn’t understand about Jordan. Things that didn’t add up, that he wanted to figure out. He doubted that Jordan was guilty of the slaughter at New Fairfax, but the response of the Wardens was confusing. Jordan’s own response was… unusual. He wanted to get to the bottom of this before they approached Jordan; chances were, he’d have too much hero worship to easily get to the heart of the matter.
As the Pendragon landed, the ramp opened. It had barely touched the ground before Colin had stepped off. The gate guard boggled as the two of them approached, not offering token resistance. They never would have made it in the PRT or the Dragon’s Teeth.
Two blinks and a path appeared in his vision for the house. Hopefully the brother would be there, but if not, seeing the house itself might help to give Colin an idea into Jordan’s mindset. Perhaps not his current headspace, but if Colin could get a better idea as to what his home life was like, then maybe that could be built upon.
It didn’t take them long to get there, partially due to their brisk pace, and partially due to Colin’s long strides when he was in armor. The height had been a tradeoff between a higher profile and increased capabilities. In the end, he decided that having more defenses would compensate for the higher profile, and it gave him extra range.
Colin took the lead, reaching out to knock on the door, but Tess interrupted him. “It’s empty.”
Small favors were good favors. He opened the door and stepped inside. Immediately an overlay appeared showing the floor joists courtesy of Tess. Despite himself, he smiled — she was always looking out for him.
He flicked through the vision filters until he could see the footprints stand out on the floor. A match for Jordan’s boots, and nobody else had been through. It looked like they’d vacated quickly some time before Jordan had gotten there, but he wasn’t sure how long.
They followed the bootprints, but they lead upstairs and then back down again. Wordlessly, Tess released a microdrone, offering Colin the controls. By moving his hands, he had the drone follow the path of the footprints into each of the three bedrooms. The presents left behind wasn’t a surprise, but the messy beds confirmed his suspicions about them leaving in a hurry, possibly around the time that the call had come through about Jordan at the Orphanage.
Only three bedrooms, though. Colin recalled the drone and looked down at the bootprints. They silently followed them through the kitchen, and into the door beyond.
Jordan’s bedroom was larger than any of the other bedrooms, complete with a small kitchenette, toilet, and a small table with three chairs. A small bed, training equipment, a door outside… Jordan didn’t have to leave. He didn’t have to enter the rest of the house at all.
“Colin?” Tess said softly. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he lied. His temper was flaring a little bit as he formed connections in his mind, but he could focus on the task at hand. He switched filters briefly, confirming another suspicion — no basement underneath, and the construction of the walls was different than the rest of the house. This was a later addition to the building.
He switched back, moving to the refrigerator. Nothing had been taken from it. He followed the footsteps through the rest of the room, checking everything that Jordan had. Nothing had been taken at all.
The room was Spartan, to say the least. The only decoration had been a proper halberd mounted on the wall that Jordan had handled. Out of curiosity, Colin lifted it up, revealing some Morse code behind it. Almost instantly, Tess translated for him.
“Gear in workshop.”
Of course he’d come for gear. Jordan wasn’t the type to keep many personal possessions. He was too utilitarian for that, trying to make each piece of gear count for as many things as possible. Even the current halberd was designed in such a way that he could use it as multiple different weapons if need be.
“I’m not psychic,” Tess said softly.
Right. “Jordan didn’t live here, he just occupied it when he was in town. He and his siblings would congregate here, rather than in the living room. Maybe not all the time, but often enough that he felt that keeping three chairs here was mandatory. This was a place for him to sleep, hang out with them, and train.”
He looked to the bookshelf, altering his vision to get a better view of the books on it. “Books to help him with his technical skills, textbooks, books on fighting and parahumans… Not a single fiction book. That fits in with his focused nature — anything outside of him being a hero fell by the wayside.”
“You might almost call it obsessive,” Tess said carefully.
Her words could have been taken as a jab, but he understood. “You could, yes. His entire life revolved around being a hero. There wasn’t time for anything else in it. Everything else is a distraction that he tolerates because he has to. No hobbies, no entertainment. Not unless his siblings forced him into it.”
“But the Orphanage made it sound like he befriended them.”
Colin shook his head a little. “Part and parcel with being a hero in his mind. This person hurts, they need help. It’s his duty and obligation to help them. He’s completely devoted to putting the needs of others before his own. Love and affection are secondary to that. It may have developed, yes, but beyond that…”
He scanned the room again. “They came to love him first. Maybe a part of him desired that connection to others, but he recognized that they wanted his presence, so he stuck around. I’m going to guess that his sister dictated a lot of things for him, setting plans in motion, and he simply went along with it.
“He likes to spar more than fighting. I’m guessing that he enjoys fighting as well, but it comes with guilt over having hurt someone. He’s open to manipulation, not by choice, but because he doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. He has the capability to be a good leader, but he has too thin of a skin to be anything but a follower.”
Colin gestured around the room. “The weapon and the armor in the wardrobe are the only things with any significance to him, any form of emotional attachment. There could be something more, but it was removed from the room long before he got here. He can’t use the weapon or the old armor, so he left them behind. That… I’m not entirely sure. It could say something deeper, but it might not.”
“Gear in the workshop,” Tess repeated. “His brother collected the things that he knew Jordan would take.”
“Forcing Jordan to meet him at another location. The sister’s bed had been occupied within the past few hours. If she was there for the fight, then the brother probably knew about the Wardens’ plans to confront Jordan. He wanted to avoid that, trying to encourage a meeting away from the Wardens. Most likey, where he could manipulate Jordan into avoiding the confrontation.”
People were entering the house. Two of them, male and a female. His cybernetic ears did wonders for Colin. The both of them turned towards the door as a couple approached, a combination of surprise and anger in their faces.
“What are you doing in our house?” the woman asked.
Tess smiled pleasantly as she took a step forward. “Mr. and Mrs. Abrams, I presume?”
Colin gripped his spear tighter. Don’t say a word, let Tess handle it. Right now, he’d only jam his foot in his mouth, and he was running low on Colin is a doofus chits.
“Yes,” Mr. Abrams said. “You’re here about Jordan, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Tess said, soothingly. “We’re investigating what happened. Unlike the Wardens, we believe that he’s innocent and are trying to find any evidence possible to prove it.”
“It’s about damn time,” Mrs. Abrams said angrily, ignoring the hand that Mr. Abrams put on her shoulder. “Maybe if the two of you had shown up before he left, none of this would have happened.”
Colin clenched his teeth. It was taking every ounce of effort to hold back right now.
“I understand,” Tess said soothingly. “And you’re right. We probably should have gone to see him at the hospital. It probably would have changed everything.”
Mr. Abrams nodded slowly. “It’s fine. What’s done is done is done. If you’re trying to help this situation, that’s all that matters now. We just want Jordan back.”
“Bullshit,” Colin snarled. Immediately, all eyes were on him. He’d tried to keep his mouth shut, but that… That had somehow been the final straw. Fuck it. “He was never your son to begin with.”
“Excuse me?!” Mrs. Abrams started, but Colin kept talking.
“You didn’t want him. You never wanted him. You tried to separate him from his brother and sister! You built this room so that you didn’t have to deal with him, so that he was living in his own apartment!”
Mrs. Abrams stepped forward, her tired eyes burning with anger. “You watch your fucking mouth! I don’t care who you are, you don’t get to walk into our home and tell us that!”
“And you don’t get to tell me that I could have stopped this!” he boomed back. “Maybe if you hadn’t shoved him off to the Orphanage instead of giving him a family, he would have been better equipped to handle everything that happened! Maybe if you’d actually cared about him and not just adopted him only because he came with Chris and Sarah, things would have been different!”
“Colin,” Tess whispered in his ear.
“Shut the fuck up!” the woman screeched, tears in her eyes. “You don’t know anything! We might not have been close, but we fucking love him! We didn’t send him to school because we were trying to get rid of him! It was the only way that we knew how to help him! He wanted to be the very best, so we did the only thing that we could think of to help him!”
“And making him stay there for Christmas?! It isn’t much harder to send a person than it is to send presents!”
“We were trying to help him trigger,” Mr. Abrams said, somehow managing to sound sad. “Being without Sarah and Chris, letting him feel alone and abandoned.”
That was pathetic. “Oh, please. You knew that being around parahumans makes a person more likely to trigger, and were trying to keep him away from you.”
Tess stepped in, forcing Mrs. Abrams to step back as she put herself between them. “I’m very sorry about this–”
“Then get out,” Mrs. Abrams seethed. A tear began to stream down her cheek. Crocodile tears. “We may not be the best of parents, and we may not have wanted him at first, but we grew to love him! We didn’t approve of what he wanted, but we tried to help him anyway! You do not get to question how much we loved him!”
“Mrs.” Tess started, but the woman cut her off.
“Gladly,” Colin snarled, turning on his heel to take the door that lead outside. The door that they installed so that Jordan didn’t have to enter the rest of the house.
Tess lagged behind him by a few moments, most likely to apologize. He didn’t care. He was already calling up the map to the workshop. When she caught up to him, she spoke directly inside of his helmet. “What was that all about?”
“Please,” he said as he closed his helmet. It wasn’t a request, but thankfully she accepted it. He didn’t have the words. Not now, not when he was angry like this. He was likely to make things even worse. Besides, he didn’t have the words for it.
How could he even begin to explain? His parents didn’t have time for him, had their own lives, but he could respect that. He’d been alone, but they still supported him. He never thought that they didn’t love him, they just hadn’t had time for him. He’d been fine with being alone. It suited him.
Jordan was different. He needed people, was at his best when he was surrounded by others. He made friends easily and used his almost childlike charm to draw people close to him. No doubt, him being raised in the Orphanage had influenced that.
To adopt someone and push them away… Colin didn’t understand why or how, but it got under his skin and made him tremble with impotent rage. If Tess hadn’t been there, it probably would have escalated to violence very quickly.
Why did this bother him so much?
He didn’t have time to debate it much. The workshop wasn’t very far away from the house, and easily just as big if not bigger than the factories in town.
The front door was unlocked, opening into a sort of reception or meeting area that looked mostly unused. He followed Jordan’s footprints through a door. Now it was looking more like a Tinker’s workshop. The long hallway was flanked with doors that opened into tool rooms, storage rooms, or rooms full to the brim with equipment. It almost reminded him of a factory.
He marched towards the door at the end of the hall, towards the sound of people talking. Beyond the open double doors was the main workshop, full of large machines. As they walked through the door, two women and a boy in his mid to late teens were talking. Well, one of the women was talking, the other two were gaping. When the woman turned to look, her face went pale.
Colin opened his helmet’s mouthpiece to speak. “Where is he?”
Damn. He’d hoped that he’d gotten better control over himself, but that came out far angrier than he’d wanted.
“Colin,” Tess said, firmly but gently as she laid a hand on his chest. She turned to look back to the three. “I’m sorry, he’s upset and he didn’t mean to take it out on the three of you.”
Colin took a deep breath and let it out slow. That, and the guilt from fucking things up again, were enough to make his next words more tired. “I didn’t. And the three of you have probably been through a lot today. I shouldn’t have used that tone with you.”
The boy, Chris, was the first to speak. “You’re Defiant.”
Great, the boy was awestruck. “Yes.” He paused, trying to find something else to say. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
If there was a word for the opposite of smooth, he was definitely it. He was going to run out of doofus chits today.
Tess smiled warmly, stepping forward. “How are the three of you holding up?”
There was an awkward silence as the three of them glanced at each other. Finally, Sarah spoke quietly. “It’s… been a rough morning.”
“I know. I’m sorry. You’ve been through a lot, waking up early and being forced to be in the position that you’re in.” She looked to Chris. “Saying goodbye to your brother.” She looked to Sarah. “Being forced to watch him fight. I wish that I could do something to make it easier for all of you.”
An awkward silence fell. The kids didn’t know what to say, but there probably wasn’t a good way to say anything until they did.
But Chris was a Tinker. With that, Colin did have a way to put him a little more at ease. “Is that what you use to make your armor?” he asked, pointing at one of the large machines.
“Uh…” The boy looked, almost stupefied. “N-no, no. Well, yes. I mean, I make a lot of different cloths with that. It’s set up to make my water filters right now.”
Colin nodded. “I hear that they make water chemically pure.”
Chris nodded, tension fading from his body a little. “Yeah. I’m, uh, I’m working on that. I know that chemically pure water isn’t the same as normally pure water, and that chemically pure can be bad for you. So I’m working on mixing it up a little bit. It’s hard, though. My passenger is being slow and dumb about it.”
Tess nodded slowly. “If you’d like some help with that…”
“No,” the other woman said, suddenly straightening her back and stepping forward. “No offense, but they’ll probably agree. I have to look out for his best interests, and I can’t, in all good faith, allow you to get a good look at his equipment. We have contracts with the Dragon’s Teeth for the water filters, and it wouldn’t be good for business if another Tinker bypassed him entirely.”
Ugh. Business. Colin sighed. “If we make an agreement not to commit any espionage, would that help?”
“I’d need it in writing,” she said firmly. “A formal agreement.”
Tess smiled. “We can do that.”
“What about the armor cloth? I understand that you don’t have an agreement for that yet.”
Chris looked uncomfortable with that. “I, uh… I kind of wanted to save it for Br… For Sarah and Jord… I mean, uh…”
“It’s fine,” Tess said comfortingly. “I understand, you want to protect your brother. I don’t think that anyone could blame you for that.”
“I’d be surprised if you didn’t,” Colin admitted. “Still, I have some ideas. The last suit of armor that you made for him is good, surprisingly good, but it has some flaws. Things that I doubt that your particular methodology can quite help you with. I was hoping that we could come to an agreement. If we could gain access to your cloth for the Dragon’s Teeth, we could work with you to create better armor for your siblings than what even the Dragon’s Teeth would get.”
Now Chris went back to having a stupified expression on his face. “W-what?”
“Back up,” Sarah said cautiously. “You’re being a little confusing here. What are you getting at?”
“Jordan’s innocent,” Tess said. “We all know it, and the oddities of what’s going on… A worthwhile lawyer could tear any case that the Wardens made apart. We may not be sure why he left the way that he did, but there’s no way that he would have killed all those people. He’s an innocent bystander in all of this. And what the Wardens had happen here today… This violated all of the rules.”
She looked to Sarah. “There was absolutely no reason for you to be there. Even if it wasn’t against the rules, it was still cruel and unnecessary for everyone. We’re trying to figure out what happened, and what’s currently going on. We’re trying to help your brother, but we think that there might be some sort of outside influence. Maybe something that made him run like he did…”
“To protect us,” Sarah said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “If they left him alive but killed every other parahuman, then he would have thought that they might go after me if he didn’t play along. They set him up to take the fall for it, and if he proved his innocence, then they might go after his family.”
That… sounded just like Jordan, actually. It was believable, but something still didn’t feel quite right. There was a piece of the puzzle that was missing, but Colin wasn’t sure what it was.
Before he could ask, though, a doorway opened in thin air. Clad in winged gold and blue armor and wearing a helmet, Valkyrie stepped through it before the door closed again behind her. Where were her ghosts?
The more adult Glaistig Uaine looked between the five of them, an almost playful smile on her face. “Oh, good. All of you are here. That makes everything so much easier. Before you get down to discussing business or whatever you were talking about, I believe that we should have a conversation about my investigation, and how Jordan fits into it.”