“A vote?” Emi growled. “Fucking seriously?”
John sighed softly, straightening his back and putting on his aristocratic air again. “I believe that, despite our company, this is the right time for it.”
What was going on? I looked between my friends, then to Defiant and Dragon, then to Sarah. Brenda was still curled up with her head in John’s lap, nursing her Thinker migraine. Kathy was sitting next to me, looking down at her lap, echoing Sarah who was on the other side of the small fire. On the other side of me, Emi was glowering like she wanted to strangle John. John himself was very dignified, but his jaw was also set. He was determined.
Defiant… I couldn’t read him at all. I’d had the same problem when I’d known him as Nathan — he tended to wrap himself up so tight that it was hard to get a good read. It had been better towards the end, when he’d gotten more comfortable with me, but now…
Dragon was watching us, concerned. It was funny, but her body language was the easiest to read. She was worried about how all of this was going to go down. I wished that she’d at least tell me what exactly was going on.
“There was a lot that we didn’t know when we started down this path,” John said carefully. “Had we known about Jordan’s involvement with Dragon and Defiant, we might have reconsidered our plans. Had we known just how closely he was being watched, again, it might have changed things.”
Emi shook her head. “I’m getting so much bullshit today. Look, you didn’t complain when the Wardens were just coming after us–”
“Indeed,” he said with a sage nod.
“And now that Valkyrie’s pretty much given us the go ahead to keep on, business as usual… And she pretty much tells us that we won’t have to worry about fighting anyone more dangerous than cadets so long as we don’t hurt them to bad? Now you’re asking for a vote on this?”
“It’s more than that,” Dragon explained patiently. “It’s because of what we did.”
John nodded slowly. “Precisely. When we’re merely a group of rogues and cads, fleecing some pinks and shaking down thugs, there are only so many eyes upon us. We were bylines in the news, perhaps a mere mention in the overall narrative that was growing around Jordan. But now that we have this Relentless business going on, we’re going to get dragged into more and more.”
He looked directly at me. “He won’t let us keep from getting dragged in. We’ve already seen that, multiple times.”
Wait… Were they talking about leaving again?
“You’re right,” Sarah said, looking up at John. “I’m not a member of your group, but you’re right about that. I know my brother well enough to know that he can’t back down from being Relentless. Even if you all keep doing what you’re doing, any chance he gets to be Relentless, he’ll take it. Bro’s always been a hero, and you can’t stop him from being one.”
John nodded slowly. “And then there’s the matter of the price on his head.”
“Taken care of,” Defiant said. We all turned to look at him. “That… That didn’t come out right, did it?”
Dragon smiled a little. “It wasn’t us. Last month we went to talk to Mrs. de Fer and her business partner Miss Cagle, the two women who issued the bounty, and they informed us that a woman named Serafina had come and convinced them to retract the bounty. They’d done so shortly after the incident that you had with the bounty hunters who briefly captured Jordan.”
John gave her a look that I couldn’t quite read, and Dragon shrugged. “Valkyrie kept us in the loop on a few things. Though she didn’t know the name, she rather approved of our Relentless project. From the very start, when Jordan had stayed with us, we decided that we would offer a place to him, especially as we took a more active role in world affairs. The plan changed when he ran away from us into what it is now.”
“Well,” John said, more as a statement than anything. “I suppose that it’s time for a vote.”
“‘stain,” Brenda moaned.
John smiled sadly as he gently stroked her hair. “Of course you do, my dear.”
Emi squared her shoulders back. “Well, I’m sure as fuck staying.”
All eyes turned to Kathy. John had made it obvious where his vote was.
“Listen,” she said, finally looking at John. “I know that what Valkyrie said has you spooked. You’ve always been protective about your past, who you are.”
That only made him glower at her. She’d hit a nerve by saying that much.
“But the thing is… I don’t like the fighting. I don’t like… I don’t like the killing. But look at everything we’ve done already. We helped stop Fyrtorn from sacking a city. We helped fight an Endbringer. And if what I’m guessing is right? Valkyrie is willing to let us keep doing what we’ve been doing.
“I didn’t like giving orders like that. I didn’t like feeling… responsible for the people who died. But you know what I did like? Being part of something so huge. So important. I could have been shooting and still felt… I don’t know. Something more than just being me, you know? So even if I don’t always like what we’re doing… I’m voting stay.”
John sighed dramatically. “Then I suppose it’s settled.”
“Doesn’t Jordan get a vote?” Dragon asked.
“He’ll abstain,” Sarah said, the slightest hint of a smile on the corners of her mouth. I nodded eagerly at that.
Emi snorted. “Even I knew that was coming.”
We lapsed into a silence, nobody really sure what to say. I hated silences like these. Rather than try and think of something to break it, I dived into my food. After it was half gone, I pointed at it with my spoon. “And, uh, this… This is just stuff for…”
Crap, what was I supposed to call him? Defiant? Colin? Nathan?
Thankfully, he nodded. “I don’t need much food, and my digestive tract has been replaced to be more efficient. Just one bowl is worth about five meals for me at this point.” He paused for a moment before finally pulling off his helmet, smiling a bit. “I preferred eating that over a real meal. I actually forgot what real food was for a while there, until suddenly some kid showed up on our doorstep and I was reminded that it isn’t all bad.”
I ducked my head a bit. “Sorry.”
That made both him and Dragon laugh. “That isn’t something to apologize for.”
He flashed me a displeased look, but that just made Sarah grin. “Give up. When he gets in these apologizing moods, you can’t win. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
“You want mine?” John asked. “Even with what we were able to scrounge up here in the wastes, it’s a little too bland for my palate.”
I quickly finished my bowl and took his.
Sarah finally spoke up. “You know, after that first… Well, after Burlington, when these two armored fools walked into Chris’ workshop, I was sure that you were utterly and completely screwed. I mean, I can’t imagine you ever fighting these two.”
Defiant chuckled. “Trust me, getting that video was like pulling teeth. Nothing that I did could get a rise out of him. I had to threaten the others to get him to actually fight me.”
“Wait,” Sarah said quickly. “Back up, what the fuck?”
Dragon reached over to lay a gentle hand on her arm. “The current iteration of the Relentless program is based on plausible deniability. If we just showed up with Jordan in the Relentless armor, then everyone would know. Everyone still knows, honestly. But when we showed up with video of Jordan genuinely fighting Colin, one that would hold up to scrutiny, it puts an element of doubt there.”
“Why Relentless?” I asked. “I mean, I don’t really see myself as… I mean, I don’t think that I have all that willpower, you know? People talk me into stuff all the time.”
“Because you’re too nice,” Sarah said. “Seriously though, Bro, you have no idea. You get talked into stuff, sure, but once your eyebrows start to go together, it’s easier to knock you out than it is to get you to stop.”
I reached up to touch the fuzz between my eyebrows, which only made her laugh. Dragon let her calm down before speaking up.
“There was also the matter of communicating what was going on with Chevalier and Legend. We’d talked to Valkyrie about the plan, but we hadn’t gotten to talk to either one of them. We couldn’t be sure that she’d filled them in on all the details. Before Chevalier joined the Wards, though, the newspapers referred to him as Relentless.”
“I get it,” Emi said slowly. “So you were letting them know that you were pulling a Defiant, not to let the cat outta the bag and all that jazz.”
Defiant’s eyebrows raised. “I didn’t know what happened was that infamous.”
Emi pointed at me with a comically serious expression on her face.
“Point taken. How much did he talk about me?”
Kathy shrugged. “He pushes himself far too hard. Getting him to talk about you was one of the few ways that we could make sure that he took a break. There… isn’t a lot that he takes interest in besides training, but talking about you makes his face light up.”
“Get him talking about training and he does the same,” Sarah said teasingly.
“Don’t we know it,” John said with a sigh. “Truly, the man has a penchant for working himself to death, and might do the same for us.”
“Only because you’re lazy,” Kathy teased. “Really, what he puts us through isn’t so bad, and those energy drink things that he gives us before we start help out a lot.”
“Energy drinks?” Sarah asked, raising an eyebrow. “That’s new.”
I shrugged a little. “They aren’t used to it like we are?” I hesitated. “Were? I don’t really…”
“Still do,” she said with a nod. “I’m still working on being the best that I can, and the brass can see it. My willingness to not throw a fit over how they breeched protocol to make sure that you ran helped with that, but I’ve got to be on the top of my game if I’m going to live up to the standard we set.”
“And she’s doing good at it,” Dragon said. She sounded… prideful? “She’s permanently attached to a response team as their leader, at least for now. Her tactics scores weren’t the best, but she pairs with others well. There’s been some talk about a promotion to one of the other response teams. If she does well there, she might get attached to work with some of the more notable figures.”
I frowned. “You relied on me too much for tactics. I should have taught you more.”
“Oh, shut the fuck up.” Sarah was grinning, though. “Don’t give me that. Especially not with… I mean, look at you. I remember when half of what you’ve been doing would have you blowing chunks.”
“He actually hasn’t thrown up in quite some time,” Kathy said. “I mean, he still looks queasy now and then, but he’s doing really well.”
“See? There you go. You didn’t have me to lean on, and suddenly you’re spreading your wings.”
“I… wouldn’t quite call it that.” I shifted uncomfortably on my log. “I… I mean, I’m dong good, but–”
“Dong good?” Sarah asked with a smirk.
I rolled my eyes and cleared my throat. “Doing good. Happy? But… I almost lost it walking in there. At least, until everything started, and then I was so wrapped up in it that I couldn’t really… Uh, I couldn’t really, you know, think. I just did.”
“That’s normal,” Defiant said with a nod. “I got flustered my first few times in command.”
Sarah nodded. “Butterflies in your stomach is normal. Still, I’ve been keeping up to date on everything. That stunt that you and She-Bitch of the Universe pulled was… Seriously, Bro, what did it feel like?”
“What did what feel like?” I really wished people would be more direct.
Sarah took a slow breath. “Gina, the last time you saw her. How’d it feel like?”
I shrugged. “It felt alright. I wish she would have had been better news and all that, but we got the imposters taken care of. I haven’t heard anything more about anyone…” I paused as I started to put it together. “Wait a minute… Are you trying to hook me up?”
Sarah shook her head. “No…”
“She is,” John insisted, a strange tone to his voice. I glanced at him, and he had a strange expression on his face that I couldn’t place.
Sarah nodded once before shrugging a shoulder. “Okay, maybe a bit.”
I groaned, rolling my head back. “Why are you trying to hook me up?”
“Well…” She chuckled a little, then looked to her left.
“Don’t look at me!” Emi raised her fists. “I’ll knock your block off!”
I groaned a little. “She could turn you into paste. Her strength boost is passive.” I focused on Sarah again. “Seriously, why?”
She sighed a little. “Well, because you’re the last one of us who–”
“You have a boyfriend?!” I was leaning forward suddenly, grinning from ear to ear.
That got her to wince. “No…”
My enthusiasm didn’t drop in the slightest. “Girlfriend?!”
“Jesus, Bro! Can I just have a stable fuckbuddy?!”
“Oh.” I deflated a bit at that.
“Why are you so eager for me to hook up?”
I shrugged. “I want nieces and nephews?”
She put her head in her hands. “You’re worse than Mom and Dad. Good gift, by the way. Mom’s probably read every damn article that mentioned Grandma multiple times.”
Kathy cleared her throat. “Speaking of Christmas, Jordan told us a bit about that. Is it just me, or was there something weird about the way that the Dragon’s Teeth treated him?”
Dragon nodded. “Commander Van Dorn has a vested interest in both Chris and Jordan. Chris, because of what he can offer, and Jordan, because of politics. All Dragon’s Teeth are under orders to treat both with the utmost care. Since the Dragon’s Teeth aren’t aware of what the actual situation with Jordan is, they also have outstanding orders to offer Jordan amnesty and assistance if he asks for it.”
John blinked. “Amnesty?”
“It probably extends to the rest of you, too, but Valkyrie has no desire to allow the Wardens to arrest you for any crimes you’ve committed. To be honest, the biggest threat that you have from the law right now is local law enforcement.”
I suddenly felt guilty — I’d been paying so much attention to Sarah that I had barely said anything to Defiant and Dragon.
It was so strange. On one hand, they were old friends, though with different names. They were Nathan and Taylor, people who I’d lived with, eaten meals with, trained with and worked for. I’d gone dancing with Taylor once. I’d forced Nathan to buy Taylor a Christmas present.
And yet… Defiant and Dragon! How… How was I supposed to even process the fact that they were sitting right here, talking to me like an equal? They were so far above me that it wasn’t even funny!
“Hey,” Emi said suddenly. “Since you two got all the answers, you know if the Machine got what’s coming to ’em? ‘Cos I got some balls to rip off and overies to punch for the folks they hurt going after Jordan.”
Dragon shook her head. “There’s several places where the Wardens and Dragon’s Teeth don’t dare go, even if a wanted criminal is there. It would cause too many political problems, so of course their leadership set up there after your altercation.”
Emi frowned deeply. “And you two didn’t bust some heads?”
Dragon’s head drooped a little. “No.”
Defiant finally spoke up. “Due to our… history with him, we can’t afford to interact with anyone who has a connection to Teacher. The leadership of that gang is believed to have strong ties to him, so we won’t go near him. Plus, it could cause problems for the Dragon’s Teeth.”
“We can discuss if we’d like to go after them in private,” John said. He did look to Dragon, though. “But let us suppose that we were to decide to engage in some degree of primeval justice for a moment.”
She nodded. “We’re rebuilding Jordan’s armor as we speak. We can upload the information his armor, and that can transmit the rest to everyone else’s. That way, you have everything that you need to make an informed decision.” She paused for a moment. “I won’t say that I would like it if you’d find out if they’re involved with Teacher or not, but I’d caution you. He’s more powerful than you think, and I’ve had to go to extreme lengths to protect myself from him.”
Kathy nodded. “I can respect that, but… I might not know him as good as Sarah, but I know him enough. You said that you’d like it, so Jordan’s gonna do it now, even if we’re not involved. Just like Nexus.”
That made Sarah’s head snap up, her eyes wide. “You took on Nexus?!”
I chuckled weakly. “Uh, not… Not exactly?”
Her eyes narrowed.
Defiant came to my rescue. “I’ve seen people like him. I didn’t agree with it, but the Protectorate would sometimes allow people like him to exist. They might be on the wrong side of the law, but they were by far the lesser of every other evil. Nexus may not necessarily be a good person, but he’s a principled person, with strong moral beliefs that he uses to justify his actions. The ends justify the means, and his ends are rather a lot like our own.”
Dragon nodded. “No doubt, you’ve heard of all the times that Jordan took on corruption within the Wardens. Each time, with evidence. Who do you think the evidence came from? And who better to root out corruption than someone who makes a living off of vice?”
Emi nodded. “Plus, Nex wants the D.”
“What?!” Sarah practically yelled, staring at Emi in horror.
“She exaggerates quite crudely,” John deadpanned. “Well, for the most part, at least. Nexus does give one the impression that he would gladly engage in fellatio with Jordan if given the chance.”
Sarah shook her head. “Next thing that you’re going to tell me is that you guys have a direct line to Number Man.”
We glanced at each other before Kathy spoke up. “Jordan kicked Lung’s ass, does that count?”
“I-I-I didn’t kick his ass! It… It wasn’t so simple as that!”
Emi turned to Sarah, who had gone pale. “So, we’re sitting there eating, and Lung comes in. Jordan refuses to fight him, so Lung carries him outta there. But Jordan had a teleportation blocker, so Lung couldn’t skip back to wherever he was going. So Lung just walks out of town with Jordan. A while later? J-man comes walking in like it’s nothing. He’s a bit scuffed up and dirtier than when he left, but yeah. He’s just trying desperately not to make a big deal out of it.”
“Jesus, Bro…” Sarah shook her head. “The rumors don’t do you justice.”
I smiled nervously and shrugged. What else was I supposed to do?
Another awkward silence ensued for a long moment, broken by John. “So, I do believe that you hinted that we were allowed to keep the armor that you made us. Is that right?”
Defiant shook his head. “We need to do some repairs and adjustments, install the soft AI for user control, and instal the user manual. And should we find out that you use them for anything illegal, we won’t hesitate to shut them down. But should you want to do something positive and not have the low-level Wardens not be able to raise a fuss about trying to arrest you, then I’d suggest using it.”
John nodded thoughtfully. “Be criminals on our own time, but Relentless and his crew are the heroes that the world deserves.”
Defiant chuckled a little. “Something like that.” His amusement drained out slowly, though. “However, that does leave a few questions on our own end. Such as, what were you doing when we found you?”
Great. We were going to explain a grift to Defiant. Fuck my life.