Once upon a time, Dragon had all but asked Colin to violate her. Later, she had begged him. But in the end, it didn’t change the fact that he had. No matter how noble the reason, no matter how necessary, no matter how much she loved him for it, he had done it. He’d done it with respect, with growing dread each time, but he’d still done it.
She didn’t hold it against him. She loved him for it. The things that he’d done to her were a source of guilt for him, and he’d spent years beating himself up for everything that he’d done. The fate of Pandora, the old backup of her that he’d unleashed to forcefully help her, caused him pain. Pandora’s death had struck him deeply, an echo of what Saint had done to Dragon. That was… desperately sweet, in a way.
But it was still violation. She couldn’t get past that one simple fact. No matter how necessary it had been, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how much good it might have done for her, it was still violation. It was low on the order of magnitude, but it was still there.
The single-story building that the two of them approached looked like just another home with storage attached to it. It looked absolutely no different from anything else in the city. At least, as far as any human would be able to tell. Thankfully, he had many other forms of sight.
The walls were both reinforced and insulated; it could have survived even a blast from the Pendragon. Independent circuits hummed with power within those walls, far more regularly than a normal home; no doubt part of an advanced security system of some sort. Below their feet, a multistory complex sprawled out in every direction. It was hard to tell how big it was, but she guessed that it could theoretically have a hundred people in there.
It was possible that it was the largest source of employment in the village.
Colin stepped up to knock on the door. It was almost immediate that it opened — the circuits and insulation had kept Dragon from seeing behind it. The woman looked like a thug, but she bowed her head politely and motioned the two of them into a storage room of some sort. As soon at the door closed, she moved to the one deeper in, opening that as well.
This was more of what Dragon had anticipated, though the floors still amazed her. Heavy iron joists, metal plating, and then wood and carpeting. This building had been designed with an attack in mind, despite the more opulent decor up here, or the two minions that lurked in the background.
Decor that seemed out of place with the young man in his late twenties sitting on the couch, or the hard-faced woman that sat next to him. The man was disheveled — his clothes had been slept in, his light-brown hair was a mess, he hadn’t shaved, it was obvious that he’d been crying. He looked up at the two of them desperately.
“Please tell me you have him,” Cesar Young, AKA Nexus, quietly pleaded.
“No,” Colin said, his voice hard.
“Why not?” the woman with the platinum blonde hair growled. Dragon was still running through databases to figure out who she was.
“Amaia,” he said softly.
Amaia. Amaia Gramon. She, her sister Beth, and Solly Quanfington composed a group of ultra-religious mercenaries. They tended to appear in times of need to fight, and then slip away after the situation was over with. They were in turns both brutal and gentle, but very well respected in the world for their generosity and dedication. The Dragon’s Teeth were surprised that they worked for Nexus, noting that the alliance would never last given his other business, and how his agents would frequently be on-scene to make investments as soon as they left.
“No,” Amaia said firmly before looking back to Dragon. “It’s been three days. If we can figure out where his hideout is, and had it communicated to us by radio, then you know it. We know that you have the capabilities.”
Fuck, they knew.
Colin drew a breath before speaking. “We can’t show our hand yet. We’re working–”
“Whatever your hand is, it does no good if he’s dead!” Amaia seethed, her fists clenching. “We know that you claim to be hunting Jordan, but you’re only interested in his past. You don’t seem to care about where he is right now, or else you would have gone to the town where he’s spending his downtime, or where he’s been hiding out. You’ve been chasing other leads on New Fairfax, so somehow I seriously doubt that you’re trying to pick him up.
“So what good does it do to leave him suffering, possibly dying?”
Her words hurt both of them. Colin’s body was tensing, and Dragon understood why. Guilt. Neither of them liked the path that they were walking right now, the path that they were forcing Jordan to walk. Now simply wasn’t the time to act, though. They needed something big to happen first. But that didn’t make the situation any more pleasurable.
“You’re right,” she said quietly. “We know where his safehouse is.”
“He took a wagon,” Cesar said quietly. “Well, the others took a wagon.”
Nexus had an agent in the village, keeping an eye on the safehouse. Dragon knew this because of how she kept an eye on the communications network. Despite Nexus’ power, they did a lot of communication by the network — mostly details. It was thanks to this that Dragon knew that three days ago, they had rented a wagon and two horses in a dead panic, bought supplies, and headed out with Jordan in the back.
Dragon bowed her head. “Yes. We believe that we know where they’re heading. We’ve already met with a cyborg Tinker and arranged him to be in the area in order to ensure that Jordan will be properly cared for. Analysis of the video shows that he should make it, and that with treatment, there should be few long-term effects.”
“But you let him suffer needlessly in the meantime,” Amaia hissed dangerously.
“We do,” Colin said, his voice still even and measured. He might be feeling emotional turmoil over this, but outwardly he was the bastion of firmness in a chaos of guilt, anger, and whatever it was that Cesar was going through. “But we can make sure that he’s treated, that he has everything that he needs, and that his future is better.”
“This bothers you deeply,” Dragon said in a sympathetic tone.
Amaia looked to Cesar. After a moment, he nodded. “I don’t… I don’t think either of you two understand just what Jordan represents, and how much of a tragedy him triggering would be to those of us who believe that he’s innocent.”
“We know that he’s a special individual,” Colin said confidently. “We know that he’s a good person who is also powerful and capable. That he has a strange, rough charisma to him. We–”
“No,” Cesar said with a weak chuckle. “I didn’t think that you would. If you know his past, then there’s the hope that things will get better. That no matter how bad your position, you can struggle to something more, even if your finger nails get ripped out as you claw yourself there.
“But you’re old guard, from before. You’re part of the problem. We have… We have a segregation. In society. That’s why the U.S. is so appealing to so many communities. Without them, who can your town turn to if they have problems bigger than they can handle? The Wardens, or the Dragon’s Teeth.”
“And that’s a problem?” Colin asked.
Cesar nodded. “Segregation. If your community throws in with the Wardens, you’re basically saying that if you aren’t triggered, you shouldn’t be handling things. That only paras should lead. But… The Dragon’s Teeth are great. Wonderful. You’ve done a great job in helping them, and they’re a fantastic organization.
“An organization that only grew because after Gold Morning, there was a lot of resentment against paras. The Dragon’s Teeth are a group of untriggered people, for untriggered people, geared to fight paras. There’s a definite anti-para twist there, even if they have official rules against active discrimination.”
Dragon hated it, but she could see it. A line in the sand, are capes better than you, or should they be segregated? “I see what you mean. After St. Louis, where Jordan worked hand-in-hand with his sister… She did most of the talking, but was always speaking up about how she wouldn’t have lived without him. Always stressing how he had been in charge.”
Cesar smiled weakly. “Exactly. He represented the ability for paras and untriggered to work together in harmony. That’s… That’s something that we need. I… I’m at the top of my little organization. But I make it clear that paras and untriggered have an equal role, and that you’re only promoted by skill and the virtue of your hard work. And I live that. That’s as much of my, heh, my empire as anything.
“But Jordan… If he triggers, that’s undone. If he joins the Dragon’s Teeth, that’s chosen his place on that line. So long as he’s out there, doing good… He’s a good guy, out there doing amazing things. And he thinks that they’re normal, mundane things. To him, saving a village is… It’s Tuesday to him. And we need that.”
Cesar rose to his feet, took a deep breath, and smiled broadly. All of his listlessness was gone in the blink of an eye as he hurried over to the two of them, a bounce in his step. “So! I play up the happy, the energetic! I force that energy up! Nice armor, Defiant. That spear, it folds up? So cool!”
He spun to Dragon, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Look at you! Oh my gosh! This is an android body? Is that a suit over it, or part of the body? It looks so real! I never would have guessed that you weren’t human!”
He bounced back, giggling like a madman as he danced in place, in apparent glee over the situation. But that energy faded slowly, leaving him empty again. A disheveled man, who looked like he was fighting just to remain upright.
“I don’t have to act much. Not really. I really am a fan, and it is a thrill to deal with him. I just… put a bit into it when I met him. And, when I meet him again, no matter how I’m feeling, I’ll always put it in. Because we need that. We need people like Jordan. And this smear campaign that the Wardens are putting up… It isn’t helping that matter. I don’t know why they’re doing it, but…” He shrugged.
“Because they need him to run,” Colin said. Despite everything, he hadn’t changed his outward stance. Still the rock that everyone could rely on.
“And you’re helping,” Amaia pointed out. “You’ve been going to old allies under the impression of chasing him. Setting up the fact that you’re after him. Encouraging him to stay one step ahead rather than run the risk of having to face his hero in shame.”
They needed to change the topic or else they’d get into things that couldn’t be discussed. Dragon stepped forward, putting her hand on Cesar’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Cesar shook his head. “I thought he could handle it without problem. He’s handled so much worse like it’s nothing. Instead, I treated him like meat instead of muscle.”
Colin shook his head. “I’m not familiar with that.”
“It’s mercenary slang,” Amaia said, just as curt as ever. “You work muscle. You chew meat, you swallow it, you spit it out.”
“You shit it out,” Cesar said. He looked to Amaia apologetically. “I’m sorry, I know you don’t like it when I use that sort of language, but… If you’re gonna explain it, do it right.”
She nodded a little.
Colin nodded. “These things happen. People run into unexpected complications, fights that should be easy go sour. That happens. It’s part of a leader’s duty to understand this, and understand that each time that you send a person out there, it could go badly for them. I felt that way whenever the Wards under my command came back hurt. It didn’t happen often, but I was always worried about it.
“But I knew that they understood. I knew that everyone under my command knew and accepted the risks. And Jordan accepts those risks. He acknowledges them, even welcomes them, because if he’s putting himself under those risks, then someone else isn’t.”
Dragon gave Cesar’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “We’re a lot alike. I hate seeing people suffer. And I know that Jordan is out there, suffering, and there’s nothing that I can do about it.”
“I can’t reach him,” Cesar moaned. “He isn’t answering.”
“He’ll be fine. His cybernetics–”
“Were glowing,” Amaia reminded them. “You cannot forget that.”
She just wasn’t willing to help, was she? Was her concern over Jordan, or was it over Nexus?
“You’re right, they were. But they were designed to protect him from anything, including energy or radiation attacks.” Dragon turned her attention back to Cesar. “If we find out from the cyborg Tinker that Jordan needs more help, then we’ll intervene. We’ll take him to Mother’s Hospital to get fixed up. And, should he and his companions decide to run, we’ve made sure that Riley will have a convenient escape route for him.”
“He’s welcome there?” Cesar asked, looking up to her.
“Of course. Riley likes him. She’s worried about him, just like all of us are.”
Cesar spent a long moment debating that before nodding. He was getting some of his strength back. “Alright. Just… Just let me know, alright? As soon as you know anything, I want full deets.”
“I’ll radio them in. I promise.”
Cesar nodded again before pulling himself up straight. “You’re… going to ask me to tell him that you’re after him, aren’t you?”
“No.” Dragon looked to Colin, surprised that he said anything at this point; just a few short months ago, he would have let her do all the talking. “We were, but not now. You’re right, he has enough pain. Instead, I wanted to ask you to try and give him more jobs like this one.”
Cesar’s eyebrows lifted. “Excuse me?”
“Find more corrupt Wardens, get whatever evidence you can. Send him against them, and then leak it to the press. Fight that smear campaign. Any job that you can get for him that involves him doing some good and getting it into the public eye, pitch it to him, then sell it to the public.”
Cesar shook his head a little. “You really think he’ll want to deal with me again?”
Dragon smiled. “His companions might not, but after taking on corrupt Wardens like that? He’ll be back. He wants to do some good in this world. It’s written in his bones. He’s a hero. He’ll be back, hoping for more.”
“I’ll admit that I’m worried about something happening to him again, but…” Cesar chuckled. “He’ll try and find something anyway, won’t he?”
Most people would have expressed surprise that a crime lord was so worried about something like this, but Dragon knew that people weren’t so two-dimensional. Amaia was more than willing to deal with someone like him, and her little group was bound by a religious code of ethics. His other squad of mercs were a little more dubious in nature, but still did good things. And after some great tragedy would befall a village, some representative would come into town, representing a mysterious investor, helping to get them back on their feet and helping them to prosper again.
Nexus might be a dirty name, associated with drugs, but the man behind them had noble enough goals. Like a less psychotic Accord in a way. Means to an end. While she couldn’t always stand behind the brutality that he occasional showed in his drug operations, she could at least represent his goals. The fact that he was starting to see a return on his investments in other areas might hopefully mean that he could afford to leave the drug trade some day.
An idealistic man willing to do dirty things to accomplish lofty goals. He’d get along with Jordan, so long as he continued to offer good deeds. If he offered more nasty things, it would fall apart quickly.
“Well,” Cesar with a chuckle. “Now I feel bad about you coming out this way. If that was all…”
“It isn’t,” Dragon confessed. “We were hoping to make a deal.”
Cesar’s improved mood dampened, replaced with a more businesslike expression. “Alright. You’re in the right place, at least — deals are what I specialize in. What can I do for you?”
“You’ve made quite a name for yourself here in the North American multiverse, but I was hoping that you could expand some of your operations overseas.”
Cesar raised an eyebrow. “I have a couple of agents in France, but transporting product there to help spread my influence is hard, and getting more legitimate trade is harder. I have to wonder, though, what your angle is.”
Dragon was only aware of one agent in France. Except that they were married, perhaps the husband was also an agent? Or maybe he only considered the husband to be an agent of Nexus, even though the man didn’t have a solid connection? It was hard to say.
“We recently routed out a couple of Students in the Dragon’s Teeth in China.”
Now Cesar was purely business as he moved back to the couch, settling down. “You want me to expand my operations so that you can root out more of them?”
Colin nodded. “We understand that Students were involved in your triggering, and that you’ve dedicated quite a few of your resources towards hunting them down. And that you can empower agents to find them.”
Cesar looked to Dragon, a sympathetic edge entering his professional expression. “I heard about the attack against you in New York. I take it that Teacher is after you again?”
“He never stopped,” Dragon confessed. “There’s plenty of times between attacks, but he’s never actually stopped. We’ve had to take measures to protect myself from him.” Like have her commit suicide at a moment’s notice. It was a scary thought, but it was ultimately better than the alternative. She would not be violated again.
Cesar shook his head. “I’d like to help you, but I’m not sure how much I can. Understand, it takes time and resources to build any network, and creating one that can help you… Transporting product is only part of it. We need to know the market, need to know… so very much. And on top of that, I need to personally empower the person, and it’s by their permission only.”
“We can help with that,” Dragon said. “I have access to all the intelligence within the Dragon’s Teeth. I also help establish transport if you need it. Completely off the books.”
“There’s also the language barrier–”
“Jordan learned Danish within a week at a conversational level with a program that we designed.”
“But,” Colin interrupted. “Before you commit, perhaps I can give you an alternative. We give you the linguistic programs and help to arrange in-person visits to various Dragon’s Teeth facilities, perhaps under the cover of establishing a group to help coordinate equipment and facility feedback to us for improvements?”
He was learning. It was a slow process, but he was paying attention to when she negotiated with people. Sure, he could have phrased it better, but the fact that he was trying… She was so proud of the progress that he was making.
Cesar was thoughtful for a long moment. “I can’t rely just on my own people. If the two of you could help me find people? Fifty, a hundred or so? And arrange it with the Dragon’s Teeth, of course. I might also use them for information…”
“That’s fine,” Dragon said, her client body smiling warmly. “Expanding your operations there only helps us put the squeeze on Teacher. When the time comes, if you want to empower more people, we’ll handle transportation.”
Cesar rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And I can do whatever I want with the language programs?”
“Other than resell them, you can do whatever. We’ll also provide a couple of specially built computers to provide maximum effect. The Dragon’s Teeth use similar programs, but this is an improvement.”
“And Tattletale and the other Undersiders won’t interfere?”
Dragon shook her head. “With the death of Imp in the last attack against Teacher, they’ve lost their desire to directly attack Teacher. Strangling his resources should please them.”
Of course. Imp’s death had resulted in her power erasing her from everyone’s memory, save for those who had recorded reminders of her, or who had other methods. “Don’t worry about it. Does this sound good to you?”
“Can I have a month? I need to do some surveying of agents, and discuss it with the bean counters.”
It was sad on every level. The town was destroyed, utterly and completely. Dead bodies littered the area. More people would die in the coming days, weeks or years, and not just from their injuries. Some would simply lose with will to live, either violently or on a deeper level. Life in this town was over. People would move away again, filtering to other places. The age of rebuilding was over, and humanity had lost its taste for it. Most preferred to just move to a new area.
But even still, spirits were high here. People were glad, even gleeful. This was an achievement. Most of the village was alive. Only around a quarter had died, and nobody had been kidnapped. A reason for joy and celebration. Even the villagers felt that way, despite their losses.
It said something when people were willing to celebrate the destruction of their way of life, because they were so keenly aware that Fyrtorn could have gone so very much worse.
A woman walked up to Colin as he knelt next to a corpse, a pleased grin on her face. “Your boy did good.”
“Jordan isn’t my boy,” Colin said absently. “And he was empowered.”
The woman frowned a little. That wasn’t the response that she wanted. Dragon felt for her. “Regardless, I think he would have made a huge difference in this battle if he hadn’t have been. He’s… following your footsteps nicely.”
Dragon pulled off her helm, smiling. “Do you really think so, Vista?” She used the name for a reason.
And Colin did react, looking up sharply. “Missy?”
That made Vista smile. “Yeah, though I pretty much only go by Vista anymore. It’s been a while, Armsmaster.”
“Colin,” he said, slowly rising to his feet. He didn’t want this distraction, but he was putting up with it as best he could for the moment. “I… Um, you… You look good. I honestly didn’t know if you’d made it.”
Missy bit her lip for a moment. “Um, this is going to sound stupid, but can I hug you?”
It was good that Colin was wearing his helmet, so she couldn’t see the expression that he gave her. But he nodded, and she moved in for a quick hug. As she withdrew, Dragon opened her arms in an offering, which Vista quickly took. Unlike Colin, they hugged for a few moments.
“Thanks for taking care of the big lug,” the woman whispered.
“I wouldn’t not.” Vista’s reaction wasn’t surprising, not to Dragon. In her memoirs, Vista spoke about how much of a subtle impact Armsmaster had on her when he’d been the leader of the Protectorate of Brockton Bay. How he’d treated her as an equal to the other Wards despite her younger age, expecting equal performance.
To others, he’d been hard on her. To her? She’d relished it. She’d been in the Wards the longest, and he treated her with respect. His demands were welcome, anticipated eagerly. He’d had a soldier’s visage, moreso than even Miss Militia, creating an emotional rock for her. She hadn’t realized just how much she’d needed him as a child until she was an adult.
Now, she was with someone that she viewed more as a father figure than her own father. And under fairly good circumstances, too.
But Vista quickly went back into business mode. “They took a collection of deactivated and broken Tinker tech with them when they left. Chevalier isn’t happy about that — this is our first chance to get a good look at it. Valkyrie is running interference.”
Colin nodded. “He’s got access to a Tinker. We believe that the Tinker’s specialty is in reproduction, repair, and modification of existing devices. We’ll go through one of our contacts to see if we can get reproductions if Chevalier needs them.”
“I’ll pass that along,” Vista said, genuine appreciation in her voice. After a moment, she settled down again, looking back at the corpse. “Can I ask what you’re looking at?”
“Building a timeline of the wounds inflicted. This was all Jordan’s work, and most likely this woman was dead before the two of them crashed to the ground.”
Vista shook her head. “Must have been some impact.”
“No.” Colin sighed sternly. “The woman tackled him mid-air, disrupting his flying ability. He responded by shattering her eye socket a moment later, breaking four ribs, cracking her pelvis, and then snapping her neck. Post-mortem, he drove his hand into her neck, and then before they hit the ground, he angled her head to impact first so that the neck was snapped in another direction.”
Vista winced a little. “Can’t say she didn’t deserve it, though. If she is who I think she is, she killed twenty people. Slowly.”
“But it isn’t Jordan.” He frowned. “This wasn’t just an attack of anger. This was methodical, purposeful. He made the conscious decision to mutilate these people.”
“Psychological warfare is still warfare,” Dragon said, reminding him of one of Jordan’s favorite lines.
Colin took a couple of slow breaths, thinking before speaking. “That’s how he’s justifying it to himself. He’s trying to show Fyrtorn that he isn’t to be messed with. He’s channeling his anger management issues — innocent people are hurt, so make those responsible pay in a way that will make those responsible think twice in the future. Deeper, though, he’s lashing out. His bitterness over his situation is flowing over.”
Dragon laid a hand on Colin’s shoulder. They both had a hand in this situation. They were, on some level, responsible for what was happening, and they knew it. They had to fix this, sooner rather than later. The Pendragon VI was finished, and they were on a new armor design. All that they needed was the final piece to fall into place — something major had to happen, and it was only a matter of time.
Vista, though, was frowning thoughtfully. “Well, maybe I can help? We have a gal who was in the fight, but she’s… Well, we thought that it was a combat stress reaction. Now, though… She was Jordan’s friend at the Orphanage, apparently. But if she’s like this…”
“Like what, exactly?”
Vista shook her head. “She’s in legal, but she’s good pretty much anywhere we put her. Pure Thinker. She thinks a little faster so that she perceives time as moving little more slowly. On top of that, she’s an extreme multitasker — her normal state is that she can focus on twenty things at once, and she can up it further from there. Talking to people is painful for her because she gets so horribly bored. It leaves her brilliant, maybe one of the smartest people in the Wardens, but always irritable and aggressive.
“So, when I say that she’s only doing one thing right now, and that’s staring at the sky, it should give you an idea as to why we thought that the lights were on but nobody was home.”
Dragon frowned, nodding slowly. “We’ll talk with her. See if we can help her at all.”
“Thanks.” Vista smiled sadly. “She’s valuable to us. We need her here, and we’re bound to lose some people from this. Not just Wardens, either, but villagers. We’ve already singled out a couple of them that we think are shutting down completely in the head. Survivors of G.M. So if we can keep her going…”
Dragon nodded. She’d be more than happy to comfort the poor woman. Colin might be willing to talk to get some more information about Jordan’s mental state, but Dragon just wanted to help. Even free, some things never changed.