My staff collided with the other several times in rapid succession before I heard Sarah bark “Sparrow!” I dropped instantly, and heard her power go off, almost overlapping with the sound of the impact. I was straightening up when I heard another power going off right behind me. Without looking, I reached behind me, snagged my new attacker before they could actually do anything, and tossed them away with ease.
They were laughing the entire time.
The key to battlefield awareness is breathing. When a person doesn’t breathe, they begin to develop tunnel vision, and with any sort of tunnel vision going on, situational awareness plummets. It didn’t matter how aware you were normally, it was dangerously easy to forget to breathe normally on the battlefield.
I only had a moment’s notice to bark out “Hawk!” before scrambling to my left, narrowly avoiding a stream. Immediately I was back to Sarah, performing a low sweep of my staff to force her latest attacker to back off as she dealt with the flyer. I repositioned immediately, my shoulder lightly touching hers, as I engaged another opponent, my staff impacting with his face and neck several times in quick succession.
I spun, only having a fraction of a second to process before not quite catching my previous opponent midair, redirecting his flying jump kick into the sturdier opponent. As I heard that power, yet again, I once again didn’t bother looking before spinning, my staff dipping low to collide with the back of her knee and sending her straight to the ground with a sqeal.
“Enough,” Defiant called out as he untangled himself from around John. In the distance, I saw Dragon take flight again. By the time that she’d landed, I’d already helped a grinning Emi back to her feet. “I’ll be honest, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a pair work together as well as the two of you, not without choreographing it.”
Sarah was breathing hard as she beamed with pride. “We… practiced a lot. Bro… was insistent.”
I smiled, but inside I was frowning. Why was she breathing hard? My heart wasn’t even pounding.
Colin laughed. “If I could have had the two of you back on my team back in the day…”
I was worried that it would lead into a talk about the old world for a moment, though Defiant was probably the only person that I’d gladly listen to tell them. Thankfully, though, Dragon spoke up. “Are you sure that we can’t convince you to leave the Wardens?”
Sarah shook her head. “Been…” She sucked in a deep breath and held for a moment it in order to regain control. “Been preparing for this for far, far too long to turn away. And Bro here would kill me.”
“No I wouldn’t!” I whined.
“Maiming isn’t killing,” Emi said with another giggle. She had far too much fun being tossed around like a rag doll.
That made Sarah laugh. “Hush, you. I’m not used to someone with a wit sticking up for him.”
“Then you’ll be sorely disappointed,” John said, his voice returning to normal as his density did the same. “Despite Jordan’s best efforts to adjust our disposition, we remain people of the mind first and the body second.”
Defiant nodded. “That I’ll agree with. The way that the four of you just ran with your roles was… Well, it was impressive to say the least.” He looked to Sarah. “We told them that they’d be playing as members of Jordan’s team on the way, so not only did they have to deal with that, but they had to deal with accepting that we’d be facing the Simurgh, that they’d have to play special forces, and new armor and designs all at the same time. And on top of that, I didn’t reveal the names until I was presenting them to everyone.
“The deck was stacked against them, but they were even more convincing than I’d expected. They were perfectly in-character as if they’d always been exactly as I’d said.”
“We’re con men,” Kathy said with a smirk. “We had time to plan.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Dragon said with a proud smile. “Calling out a character archetype and instantly knowing to show hints of a deeper and more complex relationship is less common of a skill than you’d think. It takes some improvisational actors decades of practice to get to that point.”
Emi smirked, folding her arms and leaning back against me. “That’s ‘cos we. Are. Bad. A–”
She squealed and stumbled as I took a step away. We locked eyes for a moment, her glaring and me smiling, before she burst into a giggle. “Jerk.”
“You’re the one who taught me.”
Sarah gave a bark of laughter, shaking her head. “Oh, damn… You all have no idea how much I wish that I could join the lot of you.”
Brenda made another peek from her headband before taking another few cautious steps closer. I stepped away and offered her my arm, which she took. She hadn’t participated in our sparring session because her head was still killing her. “You sure?” I asked.
She gave me a jerky nod. “I don’t… wanna be on the sidelines for this. I can’t see, but I wanna still…”
“I got it,” I lied. She felt that this was important to her on a personal level.
I didn’t catch what Sarah said, but Kathy and Emi burst out into laughter.
“Brenda,” Kathy said with a jerk of her thumb. “I have rules.”
“And I won’t be with a guy that I have to climb like a mountain,” Emi added.
John snorted. “And not my type.”
Wait. I caught on to what Kathy must have asked and flashed her a glare. She had a shit-eating grin in return.
“Former,” Brenda said. I jerked to look at her. “What? Seriously? Did you seriously think that all that dancing was just because I enjoyed dancing?”
I frowned a little. “Yes?”
That made her laugh briefly before halting with a wince. “A big, strong guy who wants to hold me in his arms? You might not be anything close to a looker, but you’ve got the body, you’ve got the personality, and you’ve got… I dunno. You’ve got a charm to you, Jordan. You could get anyone if you really wanted to try. There’s just something about you that screams ‘hold me’ that’s adorable, while also hitting the ‘I will tear apart a pack of wildlings with my bare hands’ vibe going.
“But it was just a crush, don’t worry. I’m happy with how we became just friends. Actually, I think it’s better this way.”
Wait, she just turned sixteen that winter. Ew. Ew. Ew. Just… Just no. I was glad that she’d grown out of it.
“Hey,” Emi said, turning to Sarah. “Can I get some alone time with you for a few. I wanna get some juicy stories about J-man here.”
“Hey,” I whined.
Sarah and Emi shared a weird look for a moment before she grinned. “Don’t worry, Bro. I won’t tell her anything too embarrassing. C’mon.” She put a hand on the back of Emi’s neck, leading her off. Great, just what I needed.
I didn’t have time to fret about it too much, though, as Kathy was speaking up to Defiant and Dragon. “Thanks again for helping us with the plates.”
John grinned. “I will confess, it was fun listening to them shriek and scramble.”
Dragon had scoped out the area with her drones to confirm the forgery plates, and Sarah had stayed in the Pendragon (seriously, what kind of a name was that?) while the seven of us had assaulted the facility. It could have been a bloodbath had the people involved been even the slightest bit prepared to fight. Instead, screaming and panic had ruled the day, with most of the injuries being self-inflicted.
Defiant pulled off his helmet, grinning. “I’ll be honest, it felt really good to be back in the middle of things. It felt… right. Besides, a con like that is one that I can stand behind.”
John grinned. “And the Secret Service paid out nicely, too.”
“Actually,” Defiant continued. “I honestly expected all of you to drag Jordan into more… questionable actions than what you have.”
Kathy shook her head. “When we first picked him up, we had a talk and realized that his sense of morals was too strong to go for more normal cons.”
“Plus I threw up a lot,” I added sheepishly.
“That, too.” She grinned a little. “It took him a while just to get used to threatening bad guys without arresting them or something. But we’ve also found that we can make a lot of money from people who don’t want to report it to the authorities. The less attention that we draw to ourselves the better.”
“With one notable exception,” John noted.
I winced a little. “Yeah, that one. Listen, I’m going to check with Nexus, see how much intel he can get us on The Machine. If they really do have links to Teacher, maybe we can nab their leadership for them. The intel would be nice for everyone, and I’m more than happy to stick it to him.”
“I’d rather sit that one out,” Brenda said sheepishly. “He was the boogieman in my cult, and… I’ll be honest, he scares me more than the Simurgh does.”
“I’m… the same way,” Dragon confessed. “I understand completely.”
“It’s something that we’ll have to discuss,” John said. “But I will admit that we do owe you a little bit for the gear that you’ve given us. It’s just a shame that if we do grab their leadership, we can’t use it.”
“Why not?” Brenda asked.
“Because you have a legitimate beef with them,” Dragon explained patiently. “They attacked Jordan, and so Jordan can retaliate. It helps that he’s a wanted fugitive. As Relentless, due to his attachment to the two of us and our involvement with the Dragon’s Teeth, his team getting involved would cause as much problems as if the Wardens or Dragon’s Teeth were to become involved.”
“Politics are a bitch,” John simplified. That much, at least I could respect without actually understanding it.
Dragon turned to me, smiling softly. “Thank you, Jordan. I…”
“It’s my honor,” I said warmly. It really was, too. The chance to try and help out Defiant and Dragon a little bit was more than enough to make me happy. Getting some revenge on Teacher for everything he’d done to them by messing up whatever his plans might be? Oh, hapy days indeed. I could completely stand behind that.
My warmth ebbed out, replaced by a cool anger. “And I still owe them for what they did in that town. Open gunfire like that, they deserve whatever they get.”
Defiant spoke up. “If you don’t mind me asking, what were you doing there, anyway?”
I blinked, adjusting to the teleport and frowning slightly to myself. There was an odd pressure in my gut. Nothing bad, but just… odd. It wasn’t caused by the heavy bag over my shoulder. Strange…
“Hey Jordan,” I heard a voice call out in a weird tone. A moment later, I turned and looked at my fifth employee. Name. Name. Name, name, name.
Ah, right. “Hey Cheryl.”
John and Kathy shared a look before John spoke up. “Cheryl, I’d you to meet Dragon, Defiant, and Sarah Abrams. They’ll be our guests for a while.”
That made Cheryl’s jaw drop, even as Dragon approached her with an open hand. Neither Defiant or Dragon were in armor right now. We didn’t want to spook the neighbors. “You must be his smith.”
She was growing pale as she took Dragon’s hand. “I, uh… Yeah.”
“You’ve done excellent work,” Defiant said in his powerful, matter-of-fact tone. “Some of what you’ve created is being used in the house that’s being built for us in England G.”
“I…” Cheryl stared at the two of them in shock. “But he’s… He’s a criminal? A murderer?”
“Is he?” Sarah asked. “I know my brother, and I’m not so sure. And from what little I know about what happened in New Fairfax, it’s insanely complicated.”
“There is another matter,” John said, almost lazily. “Not even you believe that.”
We all turned to look at him.
“At least, not deep down. Otherwise, you’d be gone already. But I think that you love, and trust, your husband. A rare thing in this age of cynics. I think that you genuinely believe that he would not endanger you, or your wee child, to the presence or employment of a man who was a mass murderer, or worse! So a part of you believes what all you’ve been told–”
“Some of which we can confirm has been blown out of proportion,” Dragon added.
John nodded. “But your heart, ah… I believe that it holds the truth. That Jordan, while perhaps a dangerous man, might not be the bad man that he’s been made to be. I believe that you honestly hoped that he would have responded with confusion when you called his name, that it was just a cruel joke by your husband.”
Cheryl looked lost and confused as she glanced between us, trying not to look at me.
“Look deep within your heart, my dear. Look at the man who gleefully helped you in your forge. Does that speak to you of a man who takes gleeful joy of the slaughter of innocents? Or does that speak of a man who deeply desires a more simple life, where he is not constantly fraught with danger, and would much rather be helping you than fighting?”
Really, I did like helping her, but that was more because plotting and planning another con was horribly boring. I knew enough to keep my mouth shut about it, though.
Cheryl looked down, shaking her head a little. “I don’t know.”
“Take your time,” I said confidently. “Think about it. I don’t want you to work for me unless you’re comfortable with it. I won’t force you into anything, and if you choose to quit, that’s fine. If you take…” Damn it, what was his name? “…your husband with you, again, I can understand that. All that I’d ask is that you didn’t betray us.”
“Would you hurt us?” she asked weakly.
I blinked. I honestly didn’t understand the question. Why would I hurt them? I… couldn’t process it.
Emi grinned a bit. “Brenda might–”
“Smack her,” Brenda deadpanned, her hand still on Kathy’s back.
“See? Violent! But we’d sit on her. Real talk, though. We don’t go after people unless they got it coming to them.”
“Is that how you met Jim and the others?” Cheryl asked.
“Everyone makes a mistake,” Kathy said. “The key is finding the right people who deserve a second chance.”
Cheryl said nothing, leaving us in a brief awkward silence. Brief only because Defiant suddenly announced, to nobody in particular, “I’m going inside.”
I nodded, heading for the door. “Me too. I’m useless in these conversations.”
“I don’t know,” John said, hot my heels. “I think you’re quite skilled at them.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh, please, Mr. Silver spoon.” As I opened the door I called out. “Hey everyone!”
“You might lack the lingual skills, but you do have the heart.”
“I agree,” Defiant said thoughtfully. “You’re like Chevalier that way. He can’t tell speeches like Legend can, but he can make you understand how deeply he believes the things he says. You’re better at speeches than I am.”
“Neither one of you gives yourself enough credit,” Dragon said with a slight smirk. Maybe they were learning the weird way that we operated. Cheryl needed time to think, so we’d let her think and deal with any problems that might arise later. There was nothing to be done about it right now.
“Bossman!” A woman… Name… Not Michelle, that was the other one. Name… She looked happy to see us as she entered the kitchen, only for her to pause when she saw Defiant, Dragon and Sarah. “Oh. Company.”
Emi jerked her thumb to each person. “Dragon, Defiant, Jordan’s sister, Sarah. Don’t get awestruck, Cheryl already beat you to it.”
Auroch… No, that wasn’t it. The woman whose name I was sure started with an A gave us a slightly nervous smile. “Well. Any friend of the bossman is a friend of ours. Should I get Dave to–”
“Pancakes,” Brenda growled, finally entering with Kathy.
Defiant frowned. “You realize that each bowl of that soup contained–”
“Pancakes,” John echoed.
“I heard the call of pancakes,” Dave said with a grin as he hurried into the kitchen. “Oh, a crowd.”
“I’ll get more syrup,” Michelle said from the other room. I only caught a brief glimpse of her through the doorway as she hurried out.
Sarah grinned at me. “I take it they’re good?”
“You have no idea, Sis.”
“Then let’s get this gear squared away and eat.”
I frowned at the map. “And you’re sure this is accurate?”
Michelle nodded. “It was, at least. I have a friend who ditched the Machine after you tangled with them, and she swears by it. Cost a pretty penny–”
“I’ll reimburse you.”
“–But she says that it’s what the HQ looked like. I thought it might be wise to grab if you wanted to bust some heads as payback.”
Sarah looked at me. “What are you thinking? Full assault?”
I shook my head. “They’ll start shooting if they know I’m in town. We’ll go the opposite route. We’ll do a stakeout, me outside of town. Come nightfall, I’ll infiltrate. John and Emi take the second floor, Kathy and I will slip in through either this door or this window, and Brenda will do whatever’s best. We’ll take it slow, neutralizing anyone that’s awake. After that, we’ll have John and…” I frowned. “Let’s go with Kathy. One at each door, taking down anyone who shows up. If the leadership isn’t there when we infiltrate, then we’ll wait.”
She nodded. “Smart. Safer than the full frontal, and it minimizes the chances of civilians getting hurt. Your kind of plan.”
“Mm,” John said, reaching for his belt.
“Smoke around the baby and I’ll remove your arms,” Sarah said, and he put his hand back on the table without comment. “Do you need some backup?”
“You’ll be back with the Wardens before then,” Kathy said firmly. “We’re waiting a week at least before we do this.”
We both frowned at her.
“She’s right,” Defiant said, nodding thoughtfully. “As much as I hate to admit it, she’s completely right. You’ve fought the Simurgh, then fought the forgers… To be perfectly honest with you, I’m surprised that you’re still going as well as you are.”
“This is nothing,” Sarah said with a grin. “Compared to St. Louis? We could keep doing this all week.”
Kathy nodded. “And if you’re able to keep up with him? I’ll believe it. But the rest of us? We aren’t as good as you two. We’re tired. We need time for R&R. Besides, we purposefully try to keep from letting your brother work that hard. Not since… Well…”
Sarah looked at me. “Yeah, I can see that. How are you holding up, Bro? I saw the video from when you took on that Tinker.”
“They patched me up nicely.” I shrugged a shoulder. “It only hurts when I have high levels of radiation nearby.”
That got a corner of her mouth to quirk upwards. “You’re more of a smartass than you used to be.”
“Someone rubs off on me.”
“Guilty as charged,” Emi said with a grin.
“I do have to admit, you’re doing better than I figured. Look at you, a bunch of loyal employees and everything.” Sarah looked to Michelle. “How was Christmas?”
Michelle’s face could have lit up the night. “He got me the most beautiful dress ever. I was crying so hard.”
Jim chuckled. “Jordan’s a good boss. He said that he doesn’t want to get us involved with anything, and he’s done everything in his power to keep that promise. He’s always checking in on us, always trying to help us out, when it’s our job to be helping him. Plus, I’m almost to the point where, if he decides that he doesn’t need us anymore, I could get a new job as a frontier doctor.”
“You need some more education first,” I said quickly. “There’s stuff that reading alone won’t teach you.”
Dragon nodded. “The equipment that I set up in the basement to fix their armor has interdimenional transmission capabilities. I’ll go ahead and download all the medical files and videos I can to help you with that.”
Dave nodded. “Seriously, though. Your brother’s the kind of guy I’m glad that I work for, and not just because he almost made me crap myself when I was on the other side. It looks like we’re lazy for the most part, but just putting out feelers and stuff is a lot of work, and the research that we’re doing takes up hours at a time. And that’s before all the stuff that we’re teaching ourselves. We don’t gotta, I mean, we’re not scared of him anymore, but…”
“We feel better,” Aurora finished for him. “We feel more useful. More capable. More… I dunno. And every time that he’s come back and needed our help? It’s always been because he was doing something that really needed to be done. I’ve figured out that you all might not be completely legit, but there’s a huge difference between not completely legit and bad. These guys are actually good.”
Sarah sighed. “Damn it, Bro. Why’d you have to decide to spread your wings after you left?”
“Sorry,” I said, ducking my head.
“Relax. I’m just–”
She was cut off by her armband chirping at her. Dragon was frowning before Sarah got it up to look at it. “Damn. They’re calling me back already. I’d hoped for more time to spend with you.”
“While the cats away the mice will play,” John said in a sing-song voice.
As Jim took his daughter, Sarah turned to look at me. “March third. Here. By hook or by crook, we meet up, alright? I’m not spending another year worrying about you.”
I nodded. Hopefully the others would help me remember.
With that, she looked to Aurora. “Gimmie a week or so, then reach out to Chris Abrams in Burlington Gimmel. Well, his fiancée.”
That made my face light up. Chris was getting married?!
“Tell her that you wanna sell them some metalworking. They’ll know who it’s from.”
Aurora nodded. “Right, yeah. That makes sense. A good way to establish a cover for if Chris wants to come here. We’re known in town as businesspeople, and Tinkers are known to be a little odd anyway. No offense.”
“We are a little odd,” Defiant said confidently. He and Dragon rose, but he paused to look at me. “Jordan, before we take your sister back, I just wanted to say… About the Orphanage and the first time you saw me…”
His stance was uncomfortable. I couldn’t read his expression in the slightest, and the fact that he paused made me feel even more awkward about it. Like I shouldn’t be here, talking about this.
Finally, he spoke again. “I’m sorry. I… didn’t think that me going there would be… Would have an effect on anyone. I should have gone back again. Everyone, not just you, probably would have liked it, and it probably would have made things easier for all the kids back then when things were harder. Maybe we could have gotten to know each other better under other circumstances.”
That… was a surprise. Not that he was apologizing, but what he was apologizing for. I couldn’t help but smile a little. “Forgiven, a thousand times over.”
He nodded, still looking uncomfortable.
I didn’t have time to think about it further, because Sarah was already hugging me tight, a hug that I returned. “Take care of yourself.”
“We’ll take care of him for you,” Emi said. “At least, as best we can.”
As we parted, I grabbed Sarah’s head with both hands and pulled her forehead against mine. “Keep living the dream, alright?”
“Once you pop and we get all this bullshit figured out, we’ll be beside each other one way or another.”
We pulled away, and she flashed me a handsign. Middle and index fingers down, the other three spread out. I returned the handsign as she moved for the door.
“Keep some of your gear handy,” Dragon said as Sarah said goodbye to the others. “If something comes up, we’ll be in touch.”
“Sure.” It was impulsive, but she seemed to have the same thought as we moved to hug each other. “Take care of yourself, Taylor.”
“You too, Tobias.”
As the three of them moved for the door, Kathy smiled. “Anyone else get the feeling that a new chapter of our lives is starting?”
Nope. Just the opposite, actually.