Blades & Barriers: Chapter 58

                “Welcome to another peek at the sexy, glamorous world of Subtlety!” Justin set the load of files and pages in his arms down directly onto the conference table, with Bayou hauling in another stack just behind him. “If you thought staking out was fun, you’re both going to crap your pants in excitement once you get a taste of today’s project: research.”

                Brett stared at the growing mound of papers, suddenly having flashbacks to senior year when all of his tests and projects were coming due. “Okay, I know this is probably a dumb question, but I’m going to want an answer eventually so I might as well get it out of the way. Why are we digging through a bunch of pages instead of going back to the neighborhood where the killer is? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep hunting for them?”

                “We are hunting for them, in a way,” Bayou explained. “As far as in person searching goes, the odds of us finding our murderer are slim right now. Remember, we scared them away from the scene yesterday, so they know someone is on the trail. Anyone with enough sense to stay unnoticed for this long will go underground for a bit, wait until the heat dies down. But even if that were not the case, we’d still be doing this. Justin, would you care to tell Brett why that is?”

                There was no hesitation; Justin took the metaphorical baton as soon as it left Bayou’s hands. “To put in a nutshell: controlled engagement. Let’s say we did go back to the coffee shop and keep hunting for our target. We might find them on the street again, and when we tried to come after them there would be no shortage of civilians to use as cover or shielding. Even if we tried to trail them back to their hideout, they might spot us and then we’re in the same position. Basically, by going at it that way we’re letting someone else set the terms of the encounter. Now that’s unavoidable in a lot of Hero work, obviously when we react to stop a crime we’re engaging on the criminal’s terms. Whenever it’s possible though, we prefer to dictate the terms of the engagement. If we can figure out who our killer is, then we can get to them when they aren’t expecting it, minimizing the chances of a fight at all.”

                That certainly did seem like a more ideal way to catch a killer, Brett could see the appeal. He just didn’t quite grasp how they were supposed to arrive at that point. “Makes sense, but what can we research to figure that out? Are we looking for some sort of pattern to triangulate the killer’s base?”

                Justin chuckled. “I wish, that would probably be easier, but there’s no way we have the data to pull it off. No, what we’re doing here is using what little we know to find some likely culprits. After that, we start checking them out to see if any of them are our Super. If we find the target, great, if not, well I told you before: Subtlety involves a lot of dead ends.”

                “Seeing as we don’t even know if the killer is a boy or girl, I’m not sure how much we’ve got to go on,” Brett said.

                “We have more than you think.” Bayou began ticking off fingers on his hands as he spoke. “We know the general area that our killer works in, we know the type of person they target, we know a rough estimate of how long it’s been going on for, and we know the method of murder they use. The killer only goes after drug dealers, and only ones within a certain neighborhood. Justin, what does that point to?”

                “Revenge or retribution. The most likely scenario is that our killer lost someone to drugs, be it through an overdose or gang activities centered around dealing. Maybe they’re offing drug dealers to keep the neighborhood safe, maybe they’re hoping to get the one that was responsible and don’t care how many they mow through in the process.”

                “Couldn’t it just be some new Super in town who didn’t want to go through the HCP to fight crime?” Angela suggested. “Those do pop up from time to time.”

                “True, and it’s certainly possible,” Bayou said. “However we’ll see that soon enough. If the killer changes locations, then it’s more likely to be a vigilante. If they keep working in that same neighborhood, then it means they have a personal investment in those streets. Since we can’t research the former very easily, that means our best bet is to focus on the latter. Thus, today’s assignment.”

                Justin was already making the rounds, handing out stacks of pages to each person. “These are coroner’s reports on every gang-related murder and drug-overdose for the past year. Our job is to look into every person’s friends and family, seeing if they have anyone who might possess the necessary skills to take this kind of revenge. Pay special attention to ones that live near the hunting neighborhood or moved there recently. They might not be living openly as a Super, so don’t count on finding that part, although of course if they do have powers on record that makes them more likely candidates. If you’re unsure, put them in the potential pile. We’re going to whittle it down anyway, better we be too thorough than let something slip through the cracks.”

                “A year?” Brett was almost certain they’d said this issue had been limited to the last few months. “That feels like overkill. I trust you have a reason for going back that far, just trying to understand what it is.”

                “Our Super is careful,” Angela told him. “Really careful. Nobody pulls off a scheme like this without loads of planning. They may not have jumped right into drug-dealer murder when the person they loved died. There was probably some time devoted to figuring out how they were going to pull it off.”

                “Precisely.” Justin set the last stack down in front of himself. It didn’t escape anyone’s notice that he’d taken on what was obviously the largest of the piles. “Look, I won’t lie; the odds of us finding our crook this way aren’t great. Subtlety is often a game of taking a lot of failures in stride until you hit on the one success. But when those successes come, they can make a huge difference. Plus, what better way to kill time until we get mysteriously whisked out of the country?”

                Angela tapped her chin a few times before answering. “I mean, a shopping day wouldn’t be the worst idea. I could use some new swimsuits if we’re heading to a tropical nation.”

                “We’re going there to investigate,” Brett reminded her.

                “With the cover that we’re tourists,” Angela countered. “So things like new swimsuits would help sell the image. But hey, digging through old reports sounds fun too.”

                She rolled her eyes at the end, even as she took her own stack and began looking through it. Since there was little else to do, Brett followed her lead and started to read as well. Maybe he’d be lucky and some crazy crooks would try to break into the base. It had to be better than a whole day spent doing homework.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 57

                The frown on Unseelie’s face was enough to unnerve most, yet Danny stayed stalwart as she looked over the page. They didn’t have long before she was due to arrive at the hotel where Iliana and Steven would be waiting. Officially, she was having one last debrief despite the extensive one she’d undergone after the incident at the mechanic’s shop. It was pretense, obviously, but neither Panic nor Hammerspace would complain about it, even if they did have to wait outside.

                “This is nothing, Danny. A religion based on the idea that powers are actually divine gifts, some paltry information from tourists who were clearly restricted in what they saw, a few half-assed conflicting accounts. Is this really all we have on United Avalon?”

                “It’s all I was able to get,” Danny replied. “You’re not exactly the only one interested in a nation run by Supers, but most of what’s been uncovered is being kept close to the vest. It doesn’t help that other agencies aren’t always inclined to play nice with the DVA; you know a lot of department heads don’t think we should even exist in the first place. And since we’re strictly a domestic organization, it’s not like I can kick up a big fuss about us needing information on foreign lands.”

                “Not even when their people are on our soil, getting people to kill themselves?”

                “Your own account supported the fact that Iliana never made a single threat, she only tried to talk to the man. And yes, people tend to be tight-lipped when the person asking for information has turned antagonistic toward diplomats of a country we’re allies with.” Danny let out a weary sigh and ran his hands through his hair. “Look, this is politics. If you’re expecting people to act with the greater good in mind then you’re going to be in for a lot of disappointment. Right now everyone either wants to make nice with United Avalon or be the ones who blow their operations open, but nobody wants to be caught making waves before they’ve got provable reason to. And you, Unseelie, are looking to make a lot of waves. That means you’re going to be mostly on your own until you’ve got something substantial.”

                Unseelie looked at the page for a few seconds longer before setting it aside. “I need proof to get the support, but it’s hard to get the proof with no support. Part of me wishes we’d never gotten this detail, beating up gangs is a much easier task.”

                “I can see why you’d feel that way, but as someone who actually lives in this town I’ll sleep a lot better knowing the Wayward Wraiths are overseeing this,” Danny said. “The good news is that I was able to get your interns a week off for ‘civilian integration and reconnaissance training’ like you asked. There’s no issue with them taking that week to go to UA as civilians either, so long as they use passports and travel through official channels. Just make sure they know that while over there, they are not Heroes. Not in any official capacity. If they break a law, let alone use their powers destructively, the DVA cannot and will not be able to shield them from consequences. They’re just a bunch of kids on a sight-seeing trip inspired by the diplomats they had a chance to work with. That’s the official story, and it had damn well better stay that way.”

                “Thanks, Danny. I know that can’t have been easy to swing. Angela understands the limits of what they can do, and I trust the other two to follow her judgement. Any luck reaching their guide?”

                Danny shook his head. “I routed the request through Dispatch, but she hasn’t heard back yet. You know how he likes to disappear into a job. If we don’t get something in the next few days, I’ll see if we can run him down.”

                “Give him time, let’s not go blowing an operation just to ask him for a huge favor,” Unseelie said. “So the kids are set for the trip and we’re working on the guide. Is there any movement up top after what happened today? Anything I can use while babysitting these two?”

                Another sigh. Now that she looked at him, Unseelie realized Danny had some noticeable bags under his eyes. The guy worked crazy hours as it was, throwing all these extra requests onto his back was probably taking a toll. At least she had a DVA rep who she could work with; Unseelie had heard plenty of tales from teams with much less accommodating ones.

                “Basil was a mechanic in a neighborhood known for chop shops who’d brushed off the cops at every turn. Seeing two Heroes walk in and offing himself… a lot of people are trying to spin it as a crook who knew he was busted and took the quick way out. Yes, I know its bullshit, and they probably do too, but it’s the explanation that keeps things easiest on the most people, so that’s what’s flying.”

                “What about the workers who scattered?” Unseelie asked.

                “No sightings so far, not that we’re looking that hard. No warrants, no records, not even names associated with them, and since Basil was never officially charged with anything they can’t be looked at as accessories. If they go to ground, there’s a good chance we might never find them.”

                That probably wasn’t ideal for a long-term solution, those people had clearly been leaning on Basil to lead and take care of them. Until Iliana and Steven were out of town though, Unseelie had to admit that they might be better off out of sight. She’d put in a request for resources to track them once things with the diplomats were settled, but not before. They might have a damned good reason to hide, and she wasn’t going to be the one to yank them out of the shadows.

                “Have Dispatch let me know if anything changes.” Unseelie rose from her seat, and Danny did the same.

                “Are you really going to stay with those two non-stop?”

                With a visible air of annoyance, Unseelie nodded. “Have to. I can’t ask anyone else to shoulder that burden. I might have you pop me back to the base at night so I can change and shower, but other than that I don’t plan to let those two out of my sight. Whatever is going on, I’ll be there for it. They wanted the Wayward Wraiths, and now they’ve got them.”

                “Be safe,” Danny said, giving her a quick handshake before she departed.

                Under her breath, Unseelie let out something that could almost have been considered a laugh.

                “I’m a Hero, Danny. Our job is never safe. But I’ll be as careful as I can. The last thing I want is to do something as silly as dying and letting those two have their way with my city.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 56

                Unseelie didn’t linger after dinner, only pausing long enough to change clothes and have a brief conversation with her intern. After that, she was planning to be out the door, taking Panic and Hammerspace with her for the night shift. It was decided that keeping the Heroes with interns around for the evening made the most sense, just in case they came up with questions or concerns about the impending trip.

                For Brett, he felt like he didn’t know enough to even be aware of what to ask. A cursory glance at the internet had shown him United Avalon boasted a largely tropical climate, meaning he had to dress for heat, but other than that he wasn’t really sure what to prepare for. Were they going to be walking into a militarized zone with armed men on every corner, or would it present the facade of a tourist mecca with cheap souvenirs and drinks all over the place? There were some tales from tourists online, most of which painted it as the latter. The thing was, United Avalon wasn’t high on many people’s travel destination lists thanks to the civil unrest, and the few who had gone there gave the clear impression that they’d been led along and kept in specific areas.

                The one thing that did jump out at Brett in his research was the fact that every tourist was asked whether or not they had abilities before entering the country. All of the ones posting were evidently human, so he had no idea what happened to Supers who made the trip. Maybe they just weren’t talking about it, maybe they were avoiding the country altogether, or maybe… maybe they weren’t able to come back. Surely that was him being paranoid though. If Supers were vacationing in United Avalon and not returning, their friends and family would make a ruckus, right? Brett really liked to think so, but the longer he worked as a Hero the more aware he became of the dark sentiment many humans harbored toward those with powers. A Super going to the land of Supers and staying might be brushed off by a lot of humans in positions of the authority, the reports never making their way to the DVA.

                Brett shook his head. That was crazy. Even if a few assholes out there held grudges, there was no way every Super who went to UA would vanish without someone noticing. And what was he basing this off of? The mere fact that no Supers were posting online about vacations to one spot. Working with Bayou and Gunk was expanding his horizons, but it was also starting to make him paranoid. Yes, the fact that there were only human accounts online was worth noting, however he needed to let the evidence tell him what the facts were, not try and force the facts to fit his wild theories. Right now, he knew too little to form a real hypothesis about anything. That was true of almost everything involving United Avalon, which was why they were going on this trip to start with.

                The fact that they would be asked if they were human or Super was worth knowing though. If it affected how they were treated, or what they could do within the country, then they’d have to choose their answer carefully. Even more so, they’d need to think of ways to show their gifts without giving away their true identities as Heroes, because demonstrations would almost certainly be needed if they claimed to be Supers.

                It was just one aspect of the trip, and Brett already found himself hung up with indecision. Shutting his laptop, he went back to packing for a while, getting every t-shirt and set of shorts he had into a single bag. This was more his speed, the doing rather than the dwelling. The heavy thinking was probably best left to the ones suited and trained for it, just like they’d leave taking hits to him. Brett still wanted to improve, to learn how to think more like Justin did when time allowed, but when the stakes were real he was more than happy to hand things off to the Subtlety Heroes.

*             *             *

                “You are the strongest of the interns.” Unseelie stood in Angela’s room while the intern was seated in a computer chair, watching her teacher intently. “I don’t say that to flatter you, but because you’re far enough along to understand that such a title is also a burden. Gunk is wilier than you, and Barrier is tougher, yet neither of them can match your capacity for sheer pragmatism. Charon is a survivor, a killer, a ruthless warrior who will do almost anything to survive. Most Heroes need years of practice and training to deal the final blow when a situation demands it. Yet when the time to kill comes, you don’t hesitate. Truth be told, that is one of my least favorite traits about you.”

                “If we’re being honest, same here,” Angela agreed. “I sort of wish I was more on the fence about it, more bothered by the morality. I don’t like killing, I don’t get any sort of pleasure from it. But every time it comes down to someone else or me surviving, it never feels like a hard choice. Killing comes naturally.”

                “Given your pedigree, all the things you’ve seen so early in life, I can imagine such would be the natural course. Still, regardless of where the inclination comes from, it is part of what marks you as capable. Just try to remember that it is far from the only thing that makes you strong. During this trip, you will have a Hero as a guide; I meant that, however you will be on foreign soil in unfamiliar terrain with no easy exits. If anything should go wrong, if the guide is killed or the group is separated, Gunk and Barrier will look to you. I’m not sure even they know it yet, but they would. While I dearly hope it is years before you take up the mantle of true leadership, sometimes life is not so kind. Sometimes it is thrust upon us before we think ourselves ready.”

                Unseelie stepped closer, kneeling slightly to look her intern dead in the eyes. “If it all goes awry, if your mission is compromised, then you will have only two objectives. Keep your team safe, and get home. I know you, Angela. I know the woman I agreed to take under my tutelage. I know that by giving you these commands, I risk seeing devastation in your wake. Survival is your greatest strength, even if the costs are high. So listen to me very carefully, and keep these words with you on the trip: there is no pain like burying the members of your team. None. And when they’re trusting you to lead, it’s all the worse. I don’t want you to hurt innocent people or take the sort of actions that tarnish what it is to be a Hero, but other than that I expect you to come home. All of you. If you have to make trouble to do so, if you have to break some rules, then as your team leader and teacher I will bear the responsibility for that. I find the idea far more preferable than putting more of my team in the ground. Do you understand?”

                “Yes ma’am. I understand.” Angela considered the order carefully, measuring it against her own capabilities. “I don’t know that I’m strong enough to keep us all safe, but I’ll do everything I can. At the very least, I’ll bring back something to bury if it comes to that.”

                “Much as I do like that you’re realistic in your goals, part of me hates that you’ve seen enough to gain such wisdom.” Unseelie patted her on the shoulder once before rising to her feet. “Just remember to look after one another. Beyond the tactics and the training, that is the core of what a team is. That is what will keep you all the safest.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 55

                Upon discovering the mysteriously sliced up corpse of a presumed drug-dealer, Brett had felt pretty sure that his group would have the most interesting story at dinner that evening. That notion lasted only as long as it took for Bayou to finish his report and Unseelie to start hers. Interesting as finding the dead body had been, it paled in comparison to locating a secret Super who’d killed himself as soon as he set eyes on Iliana. As Unseelie finished recounting the tale, wisps of anger peeking through as she explained her decision to keep the team as their bodyguards, heavy silence fell upon the room. This was big. Much bigger than what they’d been expecting, and while none of them knew what the full implications were yet it was clear that this was only the tip of something massive.

                “Okay, hang on. One thing doesn’t make sense to me,” Panic said, finally speaking after nearly a minute of quiet chewing. “If Iliana and Steven get that kind of reaction to being seen, why did they hold the big press junket? Sure, maybe one guy didn’t see the news, but if they have multiple targets then presumably some of them would. It doesn’t make sense to tip their hand that they’re here and coming for old UA citizens.”

                “We talked about that a little,” Bloodfyre replied. “Our best guess is that a lot of the people they’re after have holed up well. They even said that their detectives didn’t turn up much. So when someone is carefully-hidden and protected they’re tough to locate. If you spook them, on the other hand, and make them scared enough to flee their hiding spots, then there’s a bigger chance of them making a mistake.”

                “Flushing them out like rats from a nest.” Hammerspace hesitated, rethinking her analogy. “Except in this case, the rats are the ones doing the flushing, I guess? Iliana and Steven seem like assholes, that’s the point I’m trying to make.”

                No one debated her on that issue, between the secrets and the sudden suicide it was plain that more was going on than they’d been told about. That was bad enough in any situation, all the more so when they were dealing with powerful Supers in hiding.

                “Do we have any theories as to who these people they’re hunting are?” Bayou asked.

                Unseelie shook her head, poorly masking a twinge of annoyance. “We can make some guesses based on what we saw and heard, but calling anything a theory is giving it too much weight. Given that Iliana and Basil knew one another, and the brief conversation they had, my best shot in the dark is that they were both part of the rebellion. But their words also make sense if they were forced into killing by the Republic of Krezic during their time as test subjects. Even if either of those hunches is right about Basil, we don’t know that everyone they’re hunting has the exact same history. That’s one of the biggest problems we’re facing right now: we know so little about their country and how it came to be that there’s no way to substantiate any theories.”

                “I’ll reach out to some contacts to see what they can dig up, but there aren’t many people from United Avalon willing to talk,” Bayou said. “After what you witnessed today, I’m starting to see why.”

                From the corner of his eye, Brett could already see the hand go up. Angela wasn’t waving it or calling attention to herself, she was merely sitting there peacefully, waiting to be acknowledged. Unseelie noticed it too, visibly considering Bayou’s words for several moments before pointing to her intern.

                “Look, I know you didn’t love this idea, but us going to UA is still on the table.” Angela lowered her hand slightly, then used it to gesture to the other interns. “We could see what the place is like, find out the story that their people have been told about their freedom, and most importantly of all maybe figure out just who the hell Iliana really is. I get that you don’t want to send three interns off on their own-”

                “Angela, let me make this abundantly clear,” Unseelie interrupted. “Sending you three into a foreign nation alone would be irresponsible on more levels than I can count. Even if it is technically legal, you’d still be highly at risk, all the more so because you’d have to limit using your powers to avoid discovery. I cannot, and will not, entertain the idea of sending you three off alone to try and find information on foreign soil.”

                Unseelie paused, something in her eyes shifting as she did, before continuing. “However, it has become clear to me that we need to do something to better understand our situation. You three will be the easiest to have slip away for a couple of days without being noticed. I genuinely don’t intend to bring you around the diplomats again, so they shouldn’t catch on that you might be out of town. The rest of the team will need to stay here to avoid suspicion though. Which leaves me with only one viable option: I’m going to have to bring in someone else to act as your chaperone and guide during the trip.”

                 “Ooooh, are you bringing Titan back?” Angela asked. “I would love to storm United Avalon with that big ole bastard at our side.”

                “Strong as Titan might be, he’s not the most inconspicuous of people, even out of costume,” Bayou pointed out. “And given the nature of the mission, you’d be best suited by having a Subtlety Hero leading things. The point of this is not to start any manner of fight. It’s to get in and get out without being noticed. If no one even remembers you were there, that’s the best case scenario.”

                “I’m going to quietly reach out to some people I trust tonight. Hopefully within a day or two I’ll have someone who can give us the help we need. Until then, everyone is to go about business as normal. Bayou and the interns will continue hunting our killer, the rest of you are still on bodyguard rotation. Two of you will have to help cover the night shifts. I’ll still be there but even I need to catch some sleep. Otherwise I’m taking one of the slots at all times. The rest of you might be called on to follow us in secret if needed, we’ll see how much trouble the next visit causes.” Unseelie finished the orders and scanned the table, meeting the eyes of each one of her team members. “Does anyone have other questions?”

                “Tons,” Panic said. “But I don’t think you or anyone else here is going to have the answers. For right now it seems like you’re on the right track. We do the best we can to keep the city safe while figuring out what the hell is going on.”

                Unseelie stood for a moment longer, waiting to see if there would be more questions or comments, but when none came she took her seat at the table. “Everyone remember, we’re going to be playing a lot of things by ear in the days to come. Interns, pack your bags tonight, when the time to go arrives you’ll need to move fast. Everyone else, costumes at the ready and comms on at all times. Whatever direction this goes in, I want us to be prepared for it.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 54

                “No.”

                There wasn’t much Bloodfyre could imagine making the situation worse, but Iliana’s reply looked like it sent a shock through Unseelie, her already narrowed features flashing with fury. In a moment, Unseelie had crossed the room on a crash course for Iliana. Quick as she was, Steven had a shorter distance to cover, planting himself between the two women before they could clash. Unseelie didn’t brush him aside, yet, but Bloodfyre moved into a better flanking position just in case. It didn’t matter what the DVA or government said, if shit hit the fan he would have Unseelie’s back above all else.

                “What do you mean ‘no’?” Unseelie was keeping in control, even as her hands flexed into fists unconsciously.

                “I mean that I will not be providing an explanation for what just happened. I won’t insult you by pretending I didn’t know the man after we just had a conversation, but that’s not the same as reading you in on our entire situation. That information is classified by United Avalon, so it would hardly be the place of a mere diplomat to let you in on it.”

                Unseelie’s eyes wandered from Steven to Iliana, and then back to the dripping mound of metal in the center of the room. “He killed himself rather than talk to you. Basil killed himself rather than talk to you. I don’t know who the fuck you are, but you’re damn sure not just some diplomat. And if you don’t want to open up, I can’t force you. Not until I make my report and get DVA permission. But this trip is done. I’m getting you out of my city before sunset, so go back to your hotel and pack your shit.”

                “Throwing us out would be quite a feat,” Steven told her, holding firm mere inches from her face. “We didn’t commit any crimes here. You heard Iliana tell that man all we wanted was to talk. She can hardly be held accountable for how he chose to respond to that simple request. I’m sure the government that’s been so friendly to our budding nation will feel the same way.”

                As he watched the exchange, Bloodfyre felt his own anger starting to boil. Not just due to Steven’s words, but because of how right they were. What happened here was suspicious, no one would debate that. It wasn’t suspicious enough to cut diplomatic ties with a nation of Supers so close to their borders though. Maybe Iliana and Steven would have to explain themselves to people higher up the chain, however when the dust settled they’d almost certainly walk away with nothing more than a verbal slap on the wrist. They knew that without something concrete, they were untouchable.

                Unseelie seemed to reach a similar conclusion. The fight in her eyes dimmed as she let out a long breath and looked over to Bloodfyre. “We’ll make our report back at the base. Hopefully someone out there is willing to listen. As for you two, this bodyguard shtick is over. Find some other patsies to be your escorts. The Wayward Wraiths are out.”

                “Are you sure about that?” Gently, Iliana reached forward and grabbed Steven’s shoulder, moving him aside. That done, she stepped closer, looking Unseelie right in the eyes. “Think this through. We’re going to be here, in your town, until our job is done. What you just saw Basil do? That was nothing. The barest tip of his true power. I’ve watched him wield a tornado of tanks, firing the massive things like bullets from a gun. And he’s not the only one of our people with such capabilities. The next one might not decide to go quietly. They might opt to try killing us and whatever Hero escorts we have, with no concern for the collateral damage they cause or the bystanders caught in the conflict. As you’ve said, this is your town, Unseelie. Your people. Your streets. Is there anyone more qualified to protect Port Valins from destructive threats like Basil than you and your team?”

                There was a moment where Bloodfyre really thought Unseelie was about to slug an international diplomat right in her slightly glowing face. The tension in Unseelie’s fists sure spoke to an ass-whipping on the horizon. But Unseelie was nothing if not capable of keeping her judgement in spite of emotions, and slowly her hands loosened as she let out a long hiss of a breath.

                “I am still making my report. I am still going to do all I can to get you bastards thrown out of here. And even as I say that, I know it won’t make a difference, but you clearly want us to stay on the job. Much as I hate to admit it, you even have a point. If something like this is happening in Port Valins then I’m going to want to be there to make sure it stays as contained as possible. However, something like this will never happen again. If you want my team, then this was the first and last time you let us walk into a situation blind. Had I known what Basil could do, there were a lot of different ways I might have been able to save him, or stop him if he’s turned violent. You don’t want to read me in on classified history? I can deal with that. But from now on you will tell me and my people what sort of threats we’re walking in on. No more surprise powers.”

                It took longer than Bloodfyre would have liked, but eventually Iliana nodded her head in agreement. “Since that much information reveals little and helps you keep us, as well as the city, safe, I don’t mind providing it. Just be sure your team knows I won’t be answering follow-up questions.”

                “Don’t worry about my team; you’ll never need to deal with them. From now on I’m going to be present during every shift that involves you two leaving the hotel, and I’ll probably stay with you there as well. I’m not sure what in the hell you’re pulling, but I won’t risk my people any more than I absolutely have to. Get used to me, Iliana, because as of this evening I’m going to be a constant in your life.”

                “Why not until the evening?” Iliana asked.

                “I told you: we have a report to make, and I don’t trust you out with anyone else. Besides, I need to bring my team up to speed on the new situation.” Unseelie broke their stare, walking over to the door and yanking it open. “Both of you get in the limo. We’re going back to the hotel where I can drop you off under DVA protection. I’ll be back this evening. If you don’t like it, complain to the DVA and get us taken off the job. I’d welcome an excuse to wash my hands of you both.”

                Iliana took Steven by the arm and began leading him outside. “No, I don’t think there will be any need for that. An afternoon alone isn’t so bad if it means keeping the best the town has to offer in our employ. And I’m sure we’ll need to make a few calls as well.”

                Together, the diplomats strolled outside, utterly unworried about being assaulted. Once they were out the door, Bloodfyre approached his leader.

                “Are we really staying with them after this?”

                “We have to,” Unseelie replied. “Unless you’d rather have them pulling this shit without us there to keep an eye on them. Friends close, enemies closer, you know the drill.”

                “I still don’t like it.”

                For a moment, the fire in Unseelie’s eyes flashed again. “Oh, we’re not going to just take it. We’ll be getting very proactive with this. That’s part of why I wanted to call a team meeting. There’s a lot to discuss and not much time to get things rolling.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 53

               A mechanic’s garage wasn’t an inherently dangerous place, aside from the possibility of self-injury with a tool, but one located in an area of Port Valins that was… economically depressed, had some risks to visiting. Most of those risks vanished from the street as soon as Unseelie and Bloodfyre stepped out of the armored limo. Some had been creeping closer, curious who would drive such a luxurious vehicle to this part of town even in the middle of the day. Others darted off as soon as they saw the vehicle arrive, assuming that anyone willing to drive something like that down here had the necessary power to keep it. But no one wanted to tangle with a Hero, especially someone like Bloodfyre. He wasn’t known for being especially brutal, but by virtue of his power’s destructive nature any confrontation with the Hero would almost certainly end with serious injury. Sometimes it was worth rolling the dice, just not when a Hero whose energy eroded flesh was on the scene.

               It didn’t take long for Unseelie and Bloodfyre to sweep the area. Most of what they were doing was making their presence known, although they did scan for potential threats along the way. It would take a damn stupid criminal to make a run at two Heroes, or a Super who was very confident in their abilities. Both Heroes hoped that showing themselves would ensure the situation stayed peaceful. The best fight was one that never started.

               Once that was done, they broke into pairs. Bloodfyre got the diplomats out of the limo while Unseelie moved inside the garage. Rumor of her arrival had clearly reached the owner and workers before she did, as a bald man with a stern expression was awaiting her inside the door.

               “I don’t give a shit who the cops send, I don’t sell stolen parts and you won’t find any here.”

               Unseelie was taken aback, though she kept her face neutral save for a mild expression of curiosity. “I beg your pardon?”

               “That’s why you’re here, right? Trying to intimidate me? The cops think every garage down here is a chop shop just because this is where we can afford to do business. Well you show me your warrant and then you can search the place, but you won’t find shit. I run a clean business, and once this is done I’m calling my lawyer. Sending down a Hero just to scare me has to be intimidation.” He was staring her down, determined not to show any fear despite the fact that he had to know how powerful she was.

               While she wasn’t completely sure what she’d just stepped into, Unseelie could put the pieces together easily enough. In the span of seconds she decided the best way to proceed here was diplomacy. Force was an option, often a useful one when people started a discussion off with this level of aggression, but it sounded like this man had already dealt with too much of people wielding their power against him. Kindness and understanding were the smarter option, unless he decided to escalate the situation. If that happened, her hands were tied, but she hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

               Extending her hand, Unseelie gave the fuming man in front of her a rare public smile. “I think there’s a misunderstanding here. I wasn’t sent by the police, or anyone else, to search your shop. I’m just acting as security for someone who wanted to visit your establishment. My name is Unseelie, and I hope it will be a pleasure to meet you.”

               He stared at her for a long moment, then at her hand, then at the workers who’d grouped up behind him. Begrudgingly, he finally accepted the handshake. “I know who you are. Everyone who lives here knows who you are. And I don’t trust you, but I’ll play along for now. My name is Basil Linard, and this is my garage. So tell me, Unseelie the Hero, what visitor do you have that wants to come to a place like this?”

               “They should be in any moment, my associate was just waiting for me to let him know everything inside is safe. Which it is, by the way.” Unseelie had left her channel open so Bloodfyre could hear everything she said. Now that he knew they were clear to enter, he should be bringing the diplomats in. Although it was risky, she decided to add a little more clarification. Basil was already defensive; if he was going to react violently to a surprise then better it happened before Iliana and Steven were inside. “Perhaps you saw the press conference yesterday, about the diplomats from United Avalon. They’re the ones who wanted to come see you.”

               The shift in mood wasn’t what she’d expected. Basil, the man who had faced down a renowned Hero without batting so much as an eye, took a step back. He was scared, and so were a lot of the other workers. That was odd. If they were just being offered safe passage home, what was there to fear? Maybe they really didn’t believe that United Avalon had taken control from the old republic and that they were about to be kidnapped. Or… maybe they knew exactly who was coming and were afraid of the diplomats. Basil’s eyes darted about, clearly making note of which exits were close enough to run to.

               “Mr. Linard, is something wrong? I’ve been assured that the United Avalon diplomats are only here to-”

               “All of you, run. I’ll hold them.” Basil’s fear had faded; in its place was a stern look of resolve. Without provoking him, Unseelie adjusted her stance. She had a hunch of where this was about to go and wanted to be ready to react. The other workers were standing still, looking at him in shock, until Basil whipped his head around and screamed at them. “Run!”

               They broke, dashing out the back door, many staring at Basil until they were unable to see him any longer. Unseelie let them go, she didn’t have orders to pursue mechanics. Her only job right now was to keep the diplomats safe, and Basil seemed like the biggest threat at the moment.

               “Mr. Linard, I’m not sure what’s happening, but I urge you not to do anything stupid. I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

               “The rest of them were failures. Tell her that. Tell her there’s nothing to get from them.” Basil raised his hands, and Unseelie noticed a few screws in the corner begin to shake. Was he telekinetic?

               “Tell me yourself, Basil. I like the new surname, it fits you well. But keeping your first made you the easiest to find. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure it would be you.” Iliana had arrived with Steven next to her and Bloodfyre standing before them. “Listen to the Hero, we just want to talk. Don’t get you and your friends into more trouble than necessary.”

               Basils’ eyes widened as he caught sight of her, his outstretched hands trembling slightly. Unseelie almost rushed him in that moment, until she caught site of a nearby car bumper shaking as well. He was on the edge, anything sudden could set him off, and without knowing his power it was impossible to say for certain if they’d be able to protect the diplomats.

               “You look well, Iliana. Much better than when we were living in the dirt. Power suits you. It always did. Not me, though. I never wanted this.”

               “That so? I remember you wielding yours quite effectively when the time came.” Iliana took a step slightly closer, and Bloodfyre moved himself between her and Basil. “We need you, Basil. All I want to do is talk. I swear it upon our very suffering.”

               “I believe you,” Basil replied. “You would sit down with me, and talk, and when it was done I’d come with you. You’d make me believe it was necessary again. But eventually, I’d come to my senses and have to live with whatever I did. So please, leave my place of business now. Don’t force me to protect myself.”

               Unseelie edged a hair closer. Whatever was about to go down, she’d need to act fast when it did. She just wished she had a better idea of the power Basil was wielding. Why hadn’t Iliana told them this man was a Super?

               “What will you do, Basil? Kill a pair of Heroes just to try and take us out? Is that going to ease your guilt?” Iliana demanded.

               “No. Nothing can ever wash the sins from my soul.” Basil’s eyes shut and he lowered his head, as if in surrender. “I only ask that God forgives me for what I must now do.”

               The entire shop turned to chaos in an instant. Everything metal was suddenly airborne, whipping about at incredible speed. It was a wave of destruction, all crashing together and converging on a single point in the room. Unseelie tried her best to stop it, but it was too much. Even she was only one person, one person who could only block so much.

               Finally, it ended. All the lights had been torn from their sockets, so only Bloodfyre’s brilliant red energy, wrapped carefully around Iliana and Steven, lit the room. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to see the aftermath of what Basil had done. Where he’d stood was a lump of fused metal, so tightly bonded that one couldn’t make out a trace of the man who’d previously occupied that spot. It was not, however, so perfectly sealed that blood couldn’t leak out, which was why a pool of red was rapidly spreading across the concrete floor.

               Basil had killed himself. Violently, powerfully, and without any chance for them to stop him. He’d entombed his own body rather than talk to Iliana. Slowly, Unseelie turned to stare at the pair of diplomats.

               “You two had better have a damn explanation for what just happened. And I. Mean. Now.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 52

                Gunk got as close as he dared to the remains of the body as he examined the cuts that had turned a man in a snakeskin jacket into mere meaty chunks. He obviously couldn’t touch anything, this was a murder scene and the police would need to go over it in pristine condition. They still had time to kill as they waited for Barrier and Charon though, so he used the wait to try and figure out what had cause the slices. Every cut was clean, almost inhumanly so, creating a perfect separation from the other pieces of the body. Something was off, however, and it didn’t take long to figure out what. There was almost no blood around the body, or sprayed along the alley walls. Craning his neck to examine a stump, Gunk caught the slight scent of seared meat. Strange. The body didn’t show many telltale signs of being burned, but the wounds had been cauterized as they were made. Not perfectly, however. A few pieces were still dripping, meaning the cut-and-sear technique probably required some manner of focus or concentration. If nothing else, the lack of blood did explain why it was so easy to hide the murders. No blood meant that once the remains were tossed, there wasn’t a crime scene for people to stumble across.

                Finally standing back to full height, Gunk stretched his back and noticed Bayou watching him with a curious look. “Sorry, did I get too close?”

                “No, I’d have stopped you if that were the case. I’m more surprised that you were able to get so near a fresh corpse without any ill-effect. Truthfully I was expecting you to come up after a few seconds, green in the face and looking for a trash can.”

                “Nah, I’ve seen much worse than this.” Gunk paused, realizing how that sort of statement sounded without context, and hurried to clarify. “Pretty much everyone in my family is a doctor of some sort. I spent my childhood getting groomed for that career, going off to special classes and camps to learn the trade. Even shadowed my dad for the summer after freshman year, when he was still trying to talk me into giving up this Hero thing and taking on the family trade.”

                “Seems like an easier path that training to be a Hero,” Bayou said.

                That part was hard to argue with, so Gunk didn’t bother trying. “I’m sure it would have been. But medicine can only do so much, it’s harder to save someone once they’re already hurt. I decided I’d rather be on the proactive side, keeping them from ever needing a doctor in the first place. And honestly, I don’t know if I can handle the sense of helplessness a doctor feels when there’s nothing they can do to save a patient. At least here, there’s always another punch to throw.”

                The mood had grown quickly somber, and Gunk realized he’d opened up perhaps a bit too much in response to a simple remark. It was habit with Bayou, when dealing with his mentor he made it policy to be as forthcoming as possible, but this probably wasn’t the right time or place for that kind of discussion. Luckily, Barrier and Charon chose that moment to jog into view from another alley, dressed in full costume and both properly shielded.

                “You didn’t chase our killer?” Charon asked, barely stopping before she started her probe.

                “We don’t know which way the murderer went, or their capabilities, or whether they were leading us into a trap. So no, shockingly we didn’t charge blindly off leaving a crime scene open to tampering.” Bayou didn’t linger on Charon long, his words had said enough. Instead, he turned to Gunk. “And while we waited for the police to arrive, it seems Gunk has figured out something interesting. Judging from the faces he made while studying the corpse, anyway.”

                Barrier and Charon both looked to the ground, where the body lingered. With a quick hop, Barrier jumped a few feet away, while Charon seemed undisturbed by the sight. Instead, she hunkered down and got slightly closer, keeping the same safe distance that Gunk had.

                “Huh. That’s weird. I know a thing or two about dismemberment and there should be more blood. A lot more blood.”

                “If you look at the stumps and take a sniff, you’ll see some signs of cauterization,” Gunk told her. “My best guess is that we’re dealing with a Super who has some manner of heat based abilities. They could be using them to turn a normal blade into a burning weapon, or creating a weapon out of fire itself, or some other method we haven’t considered. There’s not enough to go on yet for anything conclusive, but those wounds definitely point to some kind of heat being in play.”

                “What if it’s a tech-Super who built a weapon?” Barrier asked. “Wouldn’t that account for the cauterized cuts?”

                Gunk shook his head. “The inconsistencies on some cuts make it unlikely. If this were a tool that a tech-Super built, I’d expect it to work the same during the whole process, especially after they’ve had time to fine-tune it over so many kills already. The fact that some spots didn’t sear speaks to an element of concentration. Basically: tools function the same over repeated use, but a human element has the potential for more mistakes. This is all conjecture; of course, it could be something totally out of left field. Right now all we can do is examine the evidence and play the odds.”

                “That is very astute, Gunk. Well-reasoned indeed.” Bayou walked over and hunkered down next to them, doing an examination of his own. From some distance, they could dimly hear the sounds of sirens approaching. It wouldn’t be long now before the police arrived to take over, freeing the Heroes up for whatever next step Bayou had in mind. “You missed one thing though.”

                Hefting himself up, Bayou walked over to a wall in the alley and pointed to a small section of brick. Everyone clustered near him, straining to get a view. It took a few seconds, but eventually they could see what he was pointed at. It was tiny, less than half-an-inch at most, a small nick in the wall that had been melted.

                “How hot does something have to be to melt brick like that?” Barrier asked.

                “Very,” Gunk replied. “Very hot. Especially to do this sort of damage in the span of a moment, which is presumably how long it made contact with the wall. This looks like our killer stabbed the victim a little too hard and caught a bare tip of the wall. It’s odd though, anything this hot should have left more blatant burns on the wounds.”

                Bayou pointed to the victim’s remains. “There are parts of the body we can’t see without moving it, more may get uncovered when the police arrive. However, between this and the inconsistent cauterization, we can safely conclude that the Super in question is using a method that swings wildly in temperature over short amounts of time.”

                “Cool,” Charon said. “So what does that tell us?”

                “On its own, very little,” Bayou replied. “But now that we know one of our killer’s hunting grounds, we can start setting up surveillance. And thanks to this crime scene, we now know that our top priority should be looking for sudden, unexplained thermal spikes. Whatever tool they are using to make these kills, it should stand out like a beacon when in use. This, my interns, is the first step toward capturing our rogue Super. And we found it by patiently waiting and watching, rather than storming onto a scene.”

                Leaning over slightly, Barrier whispered in Gunk’s ear. “I think I’m starting to see the appeal of Subtlety.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 51

                “It’s a pity the interns couldn’t make it; they were quite delightful young Heroes.” Iliana was smiling placidly from the other side of the limo, looking for all the world like she was making polite conversation. Which she really might be, Bloodfyre had to remind himself. They’d found reasons to be suspicious, but that wasn’t the same as full-blown proof of criminal plans. While this job made the people who did it more paranoid with every passing year, Bloodfyre tried to remember that most people told fibs not because of grand schemes but out of petty desires or insecurities. Iliana was probably such an example. At the very least, he should treat her that way until he had proof to the contrary.

                “It is a shame,” Unseelie agreed. “Sadly, manpower was needed elsewhere. We are trying to keep abreast of any potential threats to your safety during the visit, and that means a lot of bodies to look into possible issues.”

                “Anything we should be aware of?” Steven didn’t speak much, Bloodfyre had noticed, and when he did it was always related to the job they were doing or their security. It certainly wasn’t a crime to shy away from small talk, Bloodfyre himself appreciated the comfort of silence, however it was an odd trait to find in an international diplomat. Talking was, ostensibly, a big part of the job.

                Unseelie shook her head. “Nothing substantial yet. Just a few rumors about potential Super-involvement in the disputes about what people control what territory. The police have the overall situation largely in hand, but it’s not unheard of for people to try and buy up Supers as muscle in these situations, so we’re taking every report of potential Supers very seriously. The interns are helping run down one of those cases. Hopefully it will turn out to be just more bluster.”

                Of the many traits Bloodfyre admired about Unseelie, her tendency toward truthfulness was among the highest on the list. That wasn’t to say she never told a fib, anyone keeping a secret identity was going to have to fudge the truth here and there, but as a whole she rarely resorted to such tactics unless truly necessary. Even in her explanation to Iliana, Unseelie had said only true things. She’d shifted the context and left out a few details, but her words had all been honest and accurate. Probably a good policy when dealing with international diplomats. If this did turn into trouble, they had to worry about the possibility that the government would side with UA over the Wayward Wraiths. Heroes were important, especially ones with a reputation like their team, but Bloodfyre didn’t imagine for a moment that they’d be seen as more valuable than an entire country of Supers to ally with.

                “And what if it’s not just bluster?” Iliana asked. “What if it does turn out to be a threat?”

                “Then I have full confidence they will handle it. Bayou is one of the most skilled, capable Heroes I’ve ever worked with, and all of our interns this year bring amazing gifts to the team. It would take an incredibly powerful Super to defeat all of them, especially working together.”

                A flash of surprise flickered across Iliana’s face. “Interesting. Most Heroes I’ve met, they would have said there was no threat that could defeat their team. But you do consider it a possibility?”

                “Of course. No matter how good Bayou is or how gifted those interns are, there will always be Supers with enough raw power to overcome it. Maybe through luck, force, or wit, but it could be done. There have been Supers who could wipe out entire cities, I’d be foolish to think there was no threat my team couldn’t face. Even if we were all together, working at our best, it’s possible that we could lose.”

                “Not exactly the most reassuring thing to hear right before we’re about to go strolling around what I’m told is a rough neighborhood,” Steven pointed out.

                “Assuming victory as a given is a dangerous mindset, one that is often short-lived.” Unseelie wasn’t giving ground; her voice was as sure and confident as ever. “Every threat has the potential to be the last one we face. If I forgot that, assumed we were so powerful that nothing could beat us, I would grow lax. My surety would sow the seeds of our defeat. Better to know that death is always there, waiting with scythe in hand for the moment I over-estimate myself or my team. We fight smart, hard, and careful, and that’s why our team has such a good record. I’d think you’d prefer bodyguards who took every threat seriously, rather than ones who made needless mistakes.”

                Bloodfyre’s eyes wandered to Steven, taking in the man’s expression. Did he know about Unseelie’s past? It wasn’t exactly a secret, few things that Heroes did ever were for an abundance of reasons, but it also wasn’t something that got talked about a lot. Those questions had gotten dangerously close to the tragedy of Unseelie’s own internship, and while she might be okay talking about it Bloodfyre resented seeing this near-stranger pick at her mental scab.

                Thankfully, Iliana stepped back in, retaking control of the conversation in short order. “I, for one, absolutely appreciate that, Unseelie. To that topic, are there strategies you’d like us to have in place if something does happen? Maybe a code word to have us jump behind the car or run out of sight?”

                “When things go crazy, people tend to forget codes they haven’t had drilled into them. Just listen to Bloodfyre and me, do exactly what we say, and keep your heads down. I truly hope no one out here will be dumb enough to step up against two Heroes with reputations like ours, but there’s no accounting for people’s stupidity. If a problem does occur, we’ll work to handle it as quickly as possible. But, and this part is really important, if you see either of us get killed then you need to bolt. Call the DVA, I’m sure within minutes they’ll have agents and more Heroes teleported in to help, but do it while running. Anyone strong enough to kill us is going to be dangerous, and the further you are from them the better the chances you’ll survive.”

                Despite the slight nod of her head, Iliana seemed conflicted. “I must confess, it goes against the grain of my nature to entertain the idea of leaving someone behind like that. Especially when you’ll have put yourself in harm’s way for our sake in the first place.”

                This time, it was Bloodfyre who replied. “Don’t think of it as running; think of it as protecting the mission. Given our level of training and experience, anyone who can kill us will probably make short work of you two. Better you flee and call in backup to help whichever one of us is still alive at that point. And even if it fails and we’re both dead, if you’re alive it will mean we went down completing our mission. Death is awful, for the ones left behind as much as those lost, and it’s a lot worse when you see someone go out failing to do their job. At least when Heroes die as part of a successful mission, it feels like they went out accomplishing something. So you running wouldn’t just be for your sake, it would be for the ones mourning us as well.”

                “I shall endeavor to keep that in mind if peril appears, although I dearly hope no such situation presents itself,” Iliana said. “If today leads to nothing more than kind words and telling our people they can come home, I would be quite happy.”

                The limo began to slow down, easing to a stop. Through the window, Bloodfyre could see the stares that the vehicle was getting, but this was the armored car that Iliana and Steven had purchased, so they had to make do with it. Together, he and Unseelie exchanged a look before grabbing the door handles.

                “Both of you wait here for a moment,” Unseelie said. “Bloodfyre and I will do a quick sweep, and if everything looks clear then you can exit and we’ll get this job underway.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 50

                When Bayou said they were stepping into the world of Subtlety, Brett had imagined all manner of different potential situations. Hiding on a rooftop secretly listening to a group of criminal masterminds, fighting a would-be assassin in a dark alley, even pouring over stacks of incriminating documents, hunting for the one clue that would crack the case wide-open. What he’d never imagined, however, was that he and Angela would be sitting in a coffee shop’s outdoor area sans costumes, downing their fifth cup each to keep the pushy waitress who wanted to turn the table off their ass.

                It had taken some explaining before Brett grasped he and Angela’s role, coming from a Close Combat major meant Brett had action drilled into him at every turn. All the minutes he wasn’t acting, his enemy was, working and maneuvering to gain the upper hand in a battle. But this was, apparently, a big part of Subtlety. Not coffee specifically, although the job did come with a lot of late nights. It was the act of watching that was important. Blending in, being part of the crowd, and gathering information were key aspects to the start of an investigation. That was how Bayou framed it, anyway. Brett and Angela, as the least experienced members in the art of Subtlety, were the ones tasked with charting the comings and goings of the neighborhood’s various people.

                The coffee shop was a thriving hangout, which meant loads of locals would make their way through before the day was done, but more important than that was the fact that it had key positioning along the main road. This was the heart of the neighborhood, where the most shops and traffic flowed. If someone was going to try and break into the territory, this was a place teeming with customers. And if an unknown killer was hunting dealers, this was a street they’d have to watch over. Today, Brett and Angela were tasked with looking for patterns and familiar faces. Find the ones who showed up a lot, and then look for any who mysteriously disappeared over the coming days. When Brett had commented that it sounded somewhat tedious, Justin had merely shrugged his shoulders and replied that such was the nature of Subtlety. The payoff parts always looked cool, but those usually came after untold hours of toil and research.

                “Snakeskin jacket at your ten o’clock.” Angela barely looked up from her book as she spoke, her eyes only left the page to grab her cup and covertly sweep the street. “He’s been around here on and off since we arrived.”

                Brett knocked a sugar packet off the table and bent down to get it, taking a peek at the target while he was turned. Scooping up the sugar, he set it back into the holder with the other sweeteners. “Could just be a homeless guy making the rounds. He’s pretty scruffy looking.”

                “True, but it’s the kind of carefully styled scruffy that makes me think his barber engineered it. Hipster, not homeless, and you know that terrible haircut didn’t pay for itself.” Angela turned the page in her novel, not glancing away for a moment. Brett had started wondering if she was actually reading the book while keeping watch. “I’m not saying that proves anything, just making a note. He’s not approaching anyone as far as I can tell.”

                She was right; despite the numerous people out and about Snakeskin had yet to chat with a single one. As best Brett could tell, the man just wandered around the sidewalk window shopping briefly, never lingering long enough to block someone’s view, then would head off to another street where their eyes couldn’t follow. He might just be out for the day, having a nice stroll and taking in the sights, but the more Brett observed him the less likely that seemed. Why make so many rotations? Why not go in and buy something? There were plenty of explanations, sure, but it was still curious. And curious was what they were here to make note of.

                “You two, keep watch on the guy in the snakeskin jacket once he leaves the street. We think he’s doing something. Not sure what, just seems suspicious.” Angela kept the tone conversational, as if she were making an off-hand remark to Brett and not relaying information through the communicator tucked in her ear. Bayou and Gunk were nowhere to be seen, yet they were nearby all the same. While Brett and Angela were here to blend in and document as much as possible, Bayou and Gunk were keeping to the shadows, trailing any leads that the coffee shop watchers found. They also had contacts to meet with later in the day; however it seemed many of Bayou’s connections weren’t early risers. Since they were still well into the morning, there was time to dedicate to observation before running down those leads.

                “I see him.” Bayou’s voice came through Brett’s ear loud and clear, despite the unknown distance between them. Brett had tried his best to catch sight of Bayou during their morning, and so far he’d yet to see even a glimpse. That was even more impressive given that Bayou had managed to tail and report back on every target they’d suggested so far. Nothing had panned out yet, but Bayou didn’t seem worried. Evidently this too was part of Subtlety work.

                “Interesting.” This time it was Gunk speaking, he hadn’t quite mastered the calm detached tone like Bayou had. “He’s checked three store windows so far, each one with a display section that the customers can access. Was that his pattern before?”

                “I didn’t catch every move he made, but I think he’s been mostly sticking to the same stores,” Angela replied, looking over at Brett. While the content wouldn’t make much sense to anyone who eaves-dropped, her way of speaking made it seem like she and Brett were having a bored, idle conversation. Between that and picking a corner table, it was the best defense the pair had been able to come up with on short notice. “Does that matter?”

                “Maybe. Depends on how crafty he is. It’s possible that he has people mess with the displays in small ways, maybe moving a hat off a mannequin or a board game onto the wrong shelf, and that’s the code to meet him elsewhere for a deal. Probably somewhere pre-determined, so he can scope them out and make sure it’s not a trap in advance.”

                “That feels like a heck of a longshot,” Brett said.

                “Welcome to Subtlety, where half the job is chasing down one wild guess after another until something pans out,” Gunk replied. “Either way, looks like our guy is on the move, so we’ll keep an eye out. You two keep up the great observation work.”

                That seemed to settle the matter, which was a good thing since the waitress chose that moment to saunter over and ask if they wanted anything else, a not so gentle hint that they were still occupying a prime spot where paying customers might want to sit. Brett hesitated for a moment, then ordered another round of coffee. The team was picking up the tab, so he wasn’t worried about cost, but he’d already downed a lot of caffeine and was starting to get the shakes at the tips of his fingers. A few more and he’d start worrying about a heart attack. His shield couldn’t very well protect him from internal troubles.

                Ultimately, it didn’t matter, because Bayou’s voice spoke in their ears before the waitress returned. “Both of you, pay the tab and then calmly call a car so you can leave. We’ll have Danny meet you with your costumes; it’s not safe to be here out of mask anymore.”

                “Why not?” Angela took a napkin from the table and tucked it between the pages as a makeshift bookmark.

                “We found the snakeskin jacket guy. Or what I think is most of him. In the minute or so between when he left the street and we found him, someone had diced him up cleanly,” Gunk explained. “The killer is here, and they are good.”

                “Not perfect though,” Bayou added. “The work is clearly unfinished, they probably heard us coming and bugged out. Which is why it’s all the more important you get clear. Not only is the killer around, but there’s a good chance they now know someone is on their trail.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 49

                “They know.”

                Iliana ignored the cryptic phrase for a bit, putting the final touches on a new press release that would go out the next morning. Ostensibly, she and Steven were sharing a room, albeit one with separate beds, to make things simpler for their bodyguards. After all, it was easier to defend one place than two. And there was truth to that, but the other reason they always bunked together was one of simple necessity: it allowed them a place to speak in private. True, they had to use a few implements to sweep out and jam the bugs that were always planted, yet even that was short work thanks to the devices whipped up by the tech-based Supers back home. United Avalon’s government embraced Supers of all kinds, especially those capable of crafting useful contraptions. Telepaths and the like were, of course, still an issue, however they were best dealt with through mental training, a few carefully chosen allies, and a very firmly worded treaty between their nations. Even if the USA did manage to overhear something using spurious methods, admitting to it would be a serious crime, which meant as long as they didn’t offer up anything too juicy the diplomats were largely safe.

                “They don’t know anything,” Iliana said when her work was finally done. “They suspect things are off, at the most. If they knew, this night would be playing out quite differently. Besides, even if they do fully catch on it isn’t as though we’ve committed any crimes. You and I are United Avalon’s diplomats, and we are searching for our former countrymen. None of that is false, and we’re doing it with the full permission of the US government.”

                “I still think working right under the noses of Heroes is dangerous, even for us.” Steven walked over to her desk, looking down at the press release and studying it carefully. “It’s a needless risk to take.”

                “Needless? Every time we’re on foreign soil we’re at risk. While we can handle ourselves in most situations, that doesn’t mean it’s not prudent to use other resources when they’re at our disposal. And some of the targets we’ll be chasing are dangerous. If they put up a fight, we might need the Heroes to help.”

                Steven let out a snort under his breath, even as his eyes continued moving down the page. “Is that the claim? That you might need help taking down another Super?”

                “I might need help doing it without leveling a city block. This mission isn’t worth it if success comes at the cost of starting a war with one of our few allies. Especially an ally with a population of Supers already trained up and ready for a fight. Even with our advantages, their numbers and power would probably overwhelm us. United Avalon needs time to settle itself. Time to build up its defenses.”

                “And then what? Go to war?” Steven asked.

                “Not without cause,” Iliana said. “Never without cause. We’ve both seen enough bloodshed to know the toll of conflict. I won’t let our nation be overtaken or subjugated, but I also don’t intend to start picking pointless fights. All of that is moot until we’re actually capable of winning a war in the first place though, which means cleaning up the last of The Republic of Krezic’s messes.”

                Pointing to a paragraph in the lower section of the release, Steven tapped on a sentence. “You need to add a comma here, and you used ‘too’ instead of ‘to’ again.”

                “Thank you. I’ll make those corrections in the next draft.” With one quick stroke of her pen, Iliana jotted down the notes then pulled out a fresh piece of paper.

                “So you don’t want to do anything about the Heroes?”

                “There’s nothing to be done. They’ll figure out what they will and until they get far enough along to make a move we’ll keep relying on them. We can’t very well pick a fight with our bodyguards anyway, nor could they come after us without starting an international incident. Unseelie is smart and methodical, she won’t do anything brash. That’s why I requested her and the Wayward Wraiths in the first place.”

                “Someone we go after might recognize you. Might scream a few tidbits out before we get to them,” Steven said.

                Iliana’s hand was already a blur as she started the new version of the press release, her time as a diplomat had already made such tasks into second nature. “Then we lie if we can, flee if we must, and fight only if we’re cornered. Besides, I don’t think many will figure out it’s me until it’s too late. I at least had the common sense to wear a mask.”

                “You know it’s harder for me to kinetically repel bullets if they hit fabric before my skin, and I couldn’t very well risk getting taken down by a headshot. But they’ll definitely recognize you if you use your power.”

                “Which is another reason why we’re going around the town escorted by Heroes. With luck, they’ll see there’s no point in fighting and come along peacefully. Even if they do start a tussle, there shouldn’t be any threats you and the Heroes can’t handle on your own.”

                Pulling out a chair from the other side of the desk, Steven dropped into a seat next to Iliana. “We’re still taking a lot of risks here. There have to be some places we can tighten things up.”

                “If you find one, I’d love to hear it,” Iliana replied. “Until then, I have to finish a new draft of this, and we have to get some sleep. We’ve got a lot of strings to pull tomorrow, and most of them probably aren’t going to lead anywhere so it will be all the more aggravating. Better that we’re rested and on top of our game, especially on the off chance we do find one of our targets. You should turn in soon.”

                A moment of silence passed before Steven spoke. “Is that an order?”

                Iliana’s hand stopped mid-writing, her eyes turning to him for the first time in their conversation. “Don’t start that. Especially not here. Even our tech can only be counted on so much.”

                “So that’s a no then?” Steven asked.

                “It’s a no. Sleep or don’t, it’s up to you. Just be ready to do your job in the morning. We’re probably only getting one shot at this. United Avalon can’t afford for us to fail.”

                “Then I’ll go to bed.” True to his word, Steven rose from the chair and began to unbutton his dress shirt. “You should consider doing the same after you finish the press release. Just in case you do end up having to jump in, we wouldn’t want you sluggish.”

                “Please, Steven,” Iliana sighed. “We both know that if I have to get involved, there will be far worse issues to deal with than my sleep schedule.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 48

                Due to the team’s bodyguard assignment, it was impossible to hold a meeting with everyone present. Two Heroes would always be on rotation with Iliana and Steven, and if they had interns then those would be gone as well. That evening, it was Hammerspace and Panic who were absent, the latter volunteering for a double shift since she was already somewhat up to speed on the situation. This also had the added benefit of keeping the interns at some distance until the team decided what to do next, a fact that escaped none of them yet remained uncommented on. There wasn’t much to say in the first place, they were all rookies and they knew it, so there was no surprise that their mentors were taking precautions for their safety.

                “Bayou, were you able to get anything?” It was as good a way to kick off the meeting as any, and with dinner done Unseelie had apparently decided to do just that.

                “Shockingly, in the few hours since I was informed of this possible issue I haven’t been able to peel back the potential subterfuge of an entire nation,” Bayou told her. “This is a hard task to start with; United Avalon is notoriously closed off. They blame it on being skittish about how other countries will treat them, and given all the attacks on their diplomats it’s a hard point to argue with. Most of the information we get about UA comes from Iliana and Steven. Some of our higher-ups talk to theirs obviously, but I doubt even the notoriously loose morality of the Subtlety profession will protect me if I try to breach those channels. I’d be going over the head staff of the DVA, who probably wouldn’t sign off on it in the first place.”

                Bloodfyre chuckled darkly under his breath. “Yeah, I think that might create more problems than it solves.”

                “Agreed. Let’s keep the investigation outside the bounds of crimes that could be misconstrued as treason, even if it takes a little longer,” Unseelie said. “But keep digging as best you can. In the meantime, we do our job and guard the diplomats; we just do it while keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.”

                The soft jingle of a short series of notes filled the air, causing Unseelie to pull out her phone. She scrolled through it, staring at the screen for a brief moment before putting it back away. “Panic just texted me that the diplomats are turning in for the night. They’ve been fielding calls from reporters since the press conference and pretty much nothing else. Tomorrow they want to start on the outreach, chasing down a few of those leads from their investigators. I’ll say this much, if they’re playing a part then they’re playing it well.”

                “Assuming refugees are really what their investigators were hunting,” Bayou pointed out.

                “We’re going to be working off a lot of assumptions until someone gets me more information,” Unseelie shot back. “It’s the best we can do for now.”

                Everyone was a bit surprised to see a hand go up in the middle of the discussion, especially given that it didn’t belong to any of the senior Heroes. Angela was the one trying to interrupt the talk, and from the look on her face she knew how unexpected it was. Nonetheless, Unseelie nodded at her intern, giving permission to speak.

                “There is one way to learn about United Avalon no one has pitched yet. We could actually go there. It’s not that far even by plane or boat, and if we used a teleporter it would take no time at all.”

                “I’d expect you to know this already, but Heroes can’t operate on foreign soil,” Unseelie informed her. “We’re a division of the American government, and working in a neighboring country without permission could be taken as anything from a serious diplomatic breach to an act of war.”

                Despite the rebuke, Angela didn’t seem deterred in the slightest. “I know, and that’s why I didn’t say we should go over there and start busting heads. I said we should just take a trip and investigate. If Iliana and Steven are that recognizable to their people, then it shouldn’t be impossible to find out who they are through normal conversation. And as long as we aren’t dressing or acting as Heroes, we aren’t technically breaking any laws. It’s not illegal for us to take an international vacation.”

                There was a moment of silence in the room, one that lingered just long enough to be uncomfortable, before Justin spoke up. “She makes a good point. It’s not technically breaking the law, depending on how we get into their country, and it might give us some idea of what’s going on.”

                “Except that everyone has to be here for bodyguard duty,” Bloodfyre reminded him.

                “Not everyone. Just the Heroes. We interns aren’t part of that package.” Brett was as surprised as anyone else to hear his voice ring out in support of the plan, but this did seem like a chance to get the team more information. Plus, part of him really wanted to see what a country run by Supers was like. “If just the three of us went, we wouldn’t really be missed. And there’s the fact that none of us are very famous yet, so even if we use our powers we might not be recognized.”

                Bayou shook his head. “Charon has a following already, she’d be easy to place. Although simply not donning the armor would be all the disguise Angela needed.”

                “Don’t tell me you’re on board with this idea,” Bloodfyre said.

                “If they’re going to discuss an idea, I at least want them to look at it accurately.”

                “Enough.” Unseelie’s voice wasn’t raised, nor was it especially forceful, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the discussion had reached its end. “It’s a bold idea, and that’s fine, however I am not going to send three freshly graduated interns onto foreign soil for an information gathering mission. Especially when all we have at the moment are a few suspicions and story inconsistencies. Now let’s put that idea to bed so we can move on. Bayou, I believe you have a mystery killer to bring up?”

                “I do indeed. Gunk and I are going to take the early bodyguard shift tomorrow so we can spend the rest of the day investigating our rumored killer who strikes without leaving any witnesses behind. I’m going to need a lot of eyes on the area though, so I would like to request to bring along Barrier and Charon as well. It will be a good chance for them to work on their teamwork.”

                “No issues from me,” Unseelie said. “Bloodfyre?”

                “Barrier will get more experience working the streets with you than babysitting these diplomats with me, so I’m all for it.”

                Bayou turned to the other interns, giving them a weary smile. “Well then, get plenty of sleep you two. Tomorrow you’re entering the world of Subtlety Heroes.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 47

                “It’s thin.”

                Bayou was looking across the table at Reina, who appeared to take no offense at the criticism as she helped herself to a muffin. Gunk wasn’t sure which of the cronies she’d sent to get refreshments for the meeting, but he was having a hard time not picturing them all queued up together, guns still in hand, scaring the hell out of an entire pastry shop.

                “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you wanted to be kept abreast of rumors that had the potential to impact those diplomats of yours, and I foolishly believed a mysterious killer slicing people up unseen qualified. You didn’t tell me you wanted fully-fleshed out files on every threat, along with in person confirmations. Should I don a mask and do that part of your job too?”

                “No need to be mean, I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the tip, but you haven’t given us much to go on here,” Bayou said. “This guy who’s been having the issues, Gustav, do you think there’s any chance he’d be open to a meeting?”

                “Maybe, if I were to vouch for you, although I suspect he’ll be hard to make time with for a while.” Reina leaned in conspiratorially, despite the tenor and volume of her voice not changing one iota. “Word is that he tried to make up for the loss of personnel by expanding into other territories, and Diego… well you know the relationship those too have. As soon as one tried to grow their empire, conflict was inevitable.”

                “Gotcha, on the run, if he’s even still kicking. That makes things harder.” Bayou’s eyes darted to Gunk, probably making sure he was absorbing everything. “Have you spoken to anyone else who’s had these issues?”

                “I didn’t even speak to Gustav in the first place, this is all coming through the grapevine,” Reina replied. “And no one I’ve reached out to has had people suddenly turning up dead without explanation. I think the problem lives in Gustav’s territory, and you know how protective he is of his areas. No one else would try to work there, so if the troublemaker has a specific location then Gustav would be the only person to encounter the issue.”

                Gunk wondered how accurate that was. True, one person at the top of a powerful food chain would keep general order in their territories, but the world was full of people with more ambition than sense. Someone would always try to commit crimes on another person’s turf, even if they never lasted long enough to learn why hierarchies existed in the first place. With Gustav being driven off, the chances of an upstart moving in were even higher, so by now there should be more victims. If there weren’t, then that spoke to a threat whose anger was directed at organized crime rather than crime in general, or perhaps even aimed specifically at Gustav himself. Then again, it was certainly possible there were more victims and they just didn’t know it yet. Maybe the killer had gotten better at hiding the bodies.

                “If that’s true, then the only option we have is to send people in to investigate. Not the best timing for this sort of thing, given that our team is pledged to bodyguard duty.” Bayou was visibly mulling things over, his face drawn as unspoken thoughts bounded about in his mind. “But we’re far from the only Subtlety Heroes in town, so we can outsource this if we have too. In the meantime, Reina, I have to ask you for a favor. Spread the word that even if Gustav is on the run from or caught up in a turf war with Diego, they’re to leave his old territory alone. A mystery killer is bad enough; I don’t need to deal with people trying to stake a claim on top of it.”

                “Bayou, we both know I’m as charming as they come, but I don’t think they’ll leave a spot of prime real estate alone just because I ask nicely.” Reina smiled as she finished off her muffin, and Gunk had to admit it was indeed a winning grin. He had no doubt she’d used that smile to get her way many a time in life, just like he was sure there were other, less charming ways she won people over if a smirk failed. Reina clearly worked hard to make herself easy to underestimate, which was all the more reason Gunk knew he had to view her as deadly.

                Bayou met her resistance with a shrug. “So don’t ask. Play it off as doing them a favor, giving them a heads up that the Heroes are going to be watching the area closely and showing up is a great way to get tossed in jail, and that’s if they’re lucky and we catch them before the killer. Sell the information if you want, just get it out there. This is too complicated already; we have to reduce our variables as much as possible.”

                Picking at the last of the crumbs, Reina appeared to be considering the idea. It was a strange dance to watch as these two talked, both pretending to suggest things that the other had obviously already figured out. They were playing aloof, distant, never quite revealing all of the cards in their hand. It was a necessary step, yet Gunk couldn’t help wondering how much more they could accomplish if they actually talked plainly to one another. Just the time spent in these meetings could be greatly reduced, since they wouldn’t have to beat around so many bushes. But that was the nature of Subtlety, dealing in half-truths and deception was part of the job. A job that Gunk had chosen, and was greatly enjoying even as he made notes of inefficiencies. This approached worked for Bayou, and with enough training it would work for Gunk too. But already he was working on ways to improve, things he might be able to do differently. Every Hero, even those in the same specialty, worked in their own unique way. Figuring his out was just as much a part of this internship as learning everything about Bayou’s methods.

                “I suppose it could work, if I went at it that way,” Reina said at last. “But it would take some time to pull off properly. Meeting you and passing along a rumor is one thing, the pleasure of your company is thanks enough for the time spent. A job like that, on the other hand, is a little more involved, wouldn’t you say?”

                “Got a price in mind? Or do you want more herbs?” Bayou asked.

                “For now, let’s just agree that you owe me. We’ll figure out the details later on, but I promise that they’ll have to be mutually agreeable to both of us. I wouldn’t want a Hero to think I was trying to put him over a barrel.” Another smile, this time one with the plain intent of making sure they knew that was exactly what she’d like to do, even if she could never say it out loud.

                “Given our tight timetable, that will have to do. Just don’t try and ask for a guided tour of the base again. I keep telling you the DVA will never sign off on it, no matter how many forms you agree to sign.” Bayou rose from the table and Gunk mirrored him. Reina, on the other hand, remained seated.

                “Can’t blame a gal for trying, can you? Don’t worry, I’ll think of something else eventually. And have no fear, by tomorrow morning everyone will know that Gustav’s territory is off-limits, unless they want to tangle with a bunch of Heroes.” Brushing the crumbs from her hands, Reina slid the muffin plate over to the side of the table and then got out of her chair, meeting Bayou at eye-level.

                “Just make sure you take care of this, Bayou. Some unseen murderer on the street is bad for all of us, criminal and civilian alike. This city is supposed to be under your team’s protection, so I strongly urge you to get your house in order.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 46

                Angela kept things brief. Given the situation, that was the only real option she had in the first place. As concisely as possible, she summarized how it had felt when Iliana tapped into her abilities earlier, emphasizing that while she was sure Iliana was holding more energy than she was letting on, Angela didn’t actually know how that energy could be wielded. For all they knew, Iliana could just light up a whole city with her power and cause no ill-effects. She didn’t really believe that was all the diplomat was capable of, nor did Unseelie and Panic from the looks on their faces, but it seemed important to establish. This was a delicate situation, and there was no room for misunderstandings.

                “So she might be hiding a different aspect of her power, or she might just naturally take in more light than she lets out, leading to an energy surplus,” Unseelie said. It was her first remark since Angela started, as her attention had been primarily focused on the press conference. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened so far, Iliana and Steven were going through the history of their nation and the humanitarian need for their trip, however as their bodyguard Unseelie was keeping an eye out for even the slightest unexpected development. “It’s not exactly a lie. If a strongman tells you they have super-strength, but they don’t tell you their max-bench, that’s still them telling you the truth.”

                “Although if they were considered among the strongest of their kind, that might be the sort of detail we’d expect included. There’s a level of power where leaving it out is tantamount to deceit.” Panic’s attention was a bit more split than Unseelie’s, as she was also sweeping the area as a whole occasionally, scanning to see if anyone unauthorized was trying to slip in.

                “There’s a big difference between super-strength and making things glow,” Unseelie countered. “Yes, Iliana might have more martial aspects to her abilities than we expected, though even that is unconfirmed. Regardless, Charon’s report doesn’t immediately paint Iliana as a deceiver. It does, however, give us cause to be more cautious about how much of their story we take at face value. Between that and their strange specifications for the press conference, I think we can assume there’s more going on here than we’re aware of. But even that doesn’t mean the DVA isn’t fully briefed; it wouldn’t be the first time they kept Heroes in the dark. For now, our best bet is to do our jobs, keep our wits about us, and talk this over with the others tonight. We agreed to do a job, and so far nothing has convinced me that it’s a job not worth doing. Either of you feel differently?”

                Panic and Charon both shook their heads. Were things off about the diplomats? Obviously. Was there the potential of danger? Sure, but that was part of what they’d agreed to in the first place. Ultimately, most of this was speculative, while the fact that the diplomats could be targeted had been proven over and over. They needed protection, as did the citizens around them, and it was up to the Heroes to provide that. Unseelie had said it herself: keeping people safe was what they did.

                “Good. Then let’s not talk about this again until we’re off-shift, not unless something serious comes up.” Unseelie looked back out to the press conference, just in time to catch the reporters laughing at a joke Iliana had told.

                She had a masterful command of the room, that was apparent at a glance, and even the quieter Steven was holding his own by giving short, yet thoughtful, answers when pressed. Most of the questions they’d heard so far were the sort of standard fair one expected for a humanitarian mission, just with more media coverage. Basics about what they hoped to accomplish, how this would impact the city as a whole, and how long they planned to be there. Softballs, probably ones that had been lined up and agreed upon ahead of time. Iliana was the one choosing who got to ask, after all, and she didn’t seem the type to leave anything to chance.

                “Miss Caras!” A reporter was waving her hand in the air, a disheveled woman whose frizzy hair was already askew thanks in no small part to the city’s natural humidity. “Miss Caras, Eleanor Dudley, from the Port Valins Enterprise.”

                “Ah yes, Miss Dudley. Your work precedes you. I caught your article on the sewage treatment plants skirting EPA guidelines when I was reading up on this lovely city. By all means, please ask if you have a question.” Iliana was positively beaming, even as a few snickers could be heard around the room.

                Eleanor seemed to go red around the ears for a moment, though it didn’t take long before she recovered herself. “Miss Caras, my paper wants to know if you have any sort of special message you’d like to put out into the community as a whole, something you’re hoping will eventually make its way to the former Republic of Krezic citizens who happen to miss this broadcast.” There was tension in Eleanor, the kind that radiated off like heat from a stove. Charon could practically feel it even standing off-stage. Instinctually, her body readied itself. Nerves often came before action, and if such was the case then Charon had to be ready.

                Iliana, on the other hand, was unbothered by Eleanor’s body language. “That is a wonderful question, and I’m so glad you took the time to ask it. Yes, we do indeed have a message for all of our former countrymen. Firstly, that they are no longer citizens of the Republic of Krezic, because such a nation no longer exists. They are all, each and every one of them, part of United Avalon. And our nation is weakened with so many of its parts missing. The second thing we want them to know is that we will find them, no matter how hard the task may be or how much searching is required. It is the very least they deserve, to be seen and talked with personally, and that is what we aim to deliver. The final part is that we want everyone to know that we are here to make an offer, not a demand. Those who have found happiness here, built new lives for themselves, are welcome to stay if they would like. Steven and I have come to spread the truth for those who do not yet know or believe it. Whether they leave this nation or not is entirely up to each person to decide.”

                The press clapped softly, although Angela noticed that Eleanor wasn’t among those putting their hands together. She didn’t blame the reporter, either. Iliana’s tone had been light, and the bit at the end was gentle, but Angela could have sworn there was a threat buried in the middle of the speech. There was no spot she could handily point to or word she could use as proof, it was something hidden beneath the surface of the words. She looked to Unseelie and Panic, wondering if they’d noticed it too, or she was just letting her imagination run away with her.

                “I guess that settles that,” Panic sighed. “They’re definitely here to make trouble.”

                “Looks that way,” Unseelie agreed. “Old grudges, maybe?”

                “Or perhaps there’s more keeping some of their former citizens here than just lack of awareness about the regime change.” Panic glanced down at her phone, scrolling through the contacts. “Could be the Republic of Krezic sent some people out of the country when things started looking grim. I know a few people I can reach out too, but we’ll have to pass the bulk of this onto Bayou and Gunk.”

                Angela spoke up, even as she continued watching the press conference. “Glad as I am to know I wasn’t imagining things there, aren’t we taking a lot from a few lines that might have been poorly worded?”

                “Not at all. This whole thing is a production, you’ve figured that out by now, and Iliana has picked every question and word carefully. Nothing she’s said has been accidental, especially that last part.” Unseelie turned briefly away from the conference to meet Angela’s eyes. “Good rule of thumb: when someone talks about hunting people down, that’s almost never coupled with gentle intentions.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 45

                A lot of reporters had shown up for this. That might have surprised Angela earlier in the day, but after seeing the diplomats purchase an entire hotel and confess to using a network of detectives, Angela had learned not to underestimate their level of influence. She wondered how many of the people crowded into the room were there for the story and how many had come because their boss ordered them too, likely working off the directive of someone higher up in the company who’d gotten a generous donation. It didn’t really matter; there was nothing illegal about paying for exposure, hell that was the basis for all advertising. Still, the thought nagged at her. She didn’t love how skilled Iliana and Steven seemed to be at manipulating things behind the scenes. Especially when Angela’s own mentor was working as their guard.

                Not that things were going smoothly on that front. Unseelie and Iliana had hit a bit of a disagreement over whether or not the Heroes should be on camera. Unseelie had argued that if someone attacked the diplomats they needed nearby protection, while Iliana didn’t want to appear with anyone besides Steven on camera.

                “I’ve told you already, my people are cautious. If they see an American Hero up there with me, they’ll wonder if my statements are truly my own, or if you’re there to make sure I say what I was told,” Iliana explained.

                “I could just as easily threaten you from off-screen, that doesn’t even make sense,” Unseelie countered.

                “We are not dealing with logic today. Steven and I are fighting against fear and paranoia, both of them well-deserved. Yes, some will know that you being there means nothing implicit, and others will suspect me to be under duress regardless of who is with me, however for some your presence would make a difference. They must see us, two of their own people, by ourselves reaching out to them. It is what will compel them to trust us. Even if it means only connecting with one more of our people, I cannot risk losing that person. The entire building is under DVA supervision, and you will be only a few feet away. Let me do this job as it must be done, Unseelie. Trust me, as I trust you with our lives.”

                Angela genuinely wasn’t sure if Unseelie would go for it or not, until she slowly inched her head forward into a nod. “Fine. But if I see anything that looks suspicious, I’m jumping in.”

                “I have complete faith in your judgement.” Iliana touched Steven’s arm briefly, and together the two of them stepped out in front of the room of reporters, making their way to a table practically covered in microphones. It was the first time they’d been away from the diplomats since arrival, and Angela wasn’t inclined to waste the opportunity.

                “When you think it’s safe to talk, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you.” Angela kept her tone soft, but didn’t go into a full-blown whisper. She didn’t know if either of the diplomats were concealing an aspect of their power to enhance their hearing, and she didn’t want to risk tipping her hand.

                “Not to worry. We’re going to have a meeting after our shift is over. There are a few things I’d like to talk over as well,” Unseelie said. “We’re probably on the same boat.”

                “Really?” Angela couldn’t keep the surprise off her face. She hadn’t thought Unseelie noticed the deception.

                This time, it was Panic who replied. “Oh yeah, you caught it too? Iliana keeps pushing the idea of only her and Steven being on camera, saying the United Avalon refugees need to see the face of their own people. But the thing is, until Iliana took this job she was supposedly just another Super test subject. Steven too, if accounts are to be believed.”

                There was something there, a thread that if Angela pulled, she was pretty sure she could unravel. Since they only had so long to talk, though, it seemed more expedient to simply ask someone in the know. “What’s the issue there?”

                “Simple,” Unseelie said. “If Iliana and Steven were really no-name-Supers under the Republic of Krezic, why would any of their escaped countrymen recognize them? They could be actors hired by the new regime to play the part of diplomats.”

                “Crap, that’s right.” Now that Unseelie had pointed out the flaw in their mission, the rest fell quickly into place. “Which means that either they’re not really here for the reason they say, or they weren’t nobodies before the Republic of Krezic fell. Either way, we don’t know the whole story.”

                Panic grinned a little as Angela sorted things out. “Precisely.”

                “I guess that explains why Iliana might be hiding her real power.”

                It was a tad bit satisfying for Angela as both Panic and Unseelie turned to her, surprise on their faces, with the latter letting out a half-whispered reply. “Iliana is doing what now?”

*             *             *

                While most of the team didn’t like to be interrupted for anything short of an emergency during these hospital visits, Bayou had always made it a standing policy that he could be reached nearly anytime. Over the years that had led to many half-eaten meals, a handful of movies left only partially seen, and one particularly inconveniently timed interruption during a sexual encounter with a partner who, understandably, refused to ever take his calls again. But Bayou remained firm in his resolve to always be reachable, and he was working on training Gunk to follow the same path. Being a Subtlety Hero meant jumping on opportunities when they came, because often the windows were fleeting. That was why it was important to always be in the loop, and that was also why Bayou touched his earpiece and walked discreetly into the hallway midway through the hospital visit.

                He returned a few minutes later, carefully and diplomatically extricating Gunk from his current group of admirers and pulling the intern out of earshot. Once they were alone, Bayou broke down the situation for him.

                “I just had a message passed to me from Reina. She’s learned something we’ll be interested in and wants to meet, the sooner the better. I’m going, but if you wanted to stick around here that’s okay. I don’t need backup, you’ve already met her, and days like these really aren’t as frequent as we’d like. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay.”

                “No, I’m with you,” Gunk replied. “Nice as all this is, if I wanted people cheering for me I’d have gone the traditional Hero route. But I went Subtlety because I know where I excel, and it isn’t in places like this.”

                “Could have fooled me. The kids loved you.” Bayou had actually been a little surprised how well Gunk took to the children, most people needed a little time to get used to the situation.

                “I’ve had practice, enough that I don’t need more. What I could use is the experience of being at your side, seeing how you work at every opportunity. So count me on this, please.”

                “It’s your call,” Bayou told him. “If you want to come along, then that’s fine. I just didn’t want to make the choice for you. Everyone deserves a little time away from the fight now and again.”

                “If I get to that point, I’ll let you know.” Gunk tilted his head to the nearest exit sign, a colorful one pointing toward the elevators. “In the meantime, I think we’ve got some unsavory characters to meet up with.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 44

                It had been a very long time since Brett was in a hospital. While it was true that he’d ended up in his HCP’s infirmary a couple of times, those were only to recover from exhaustion and weren’t nearly the same experience as a full blown hospital visit. Growing up with a power that kept him safe made Brett immune to most of the common injuries of childhood. The last memory he could recall of being in a hospital was from early childhood, before his power had manifested. Brett had taken a tumble and hurt his arm, which needed X-rays. It was so far back that if he really focused, he could remember bits and pieces of his mother still there, standing alongside Hank Rhodes nervously waiting for the results.

                Brett tried not to look back at those memories too often.

                Thankfully, this experience was nothing like his other trip to a hospital. He’d been braced for a lot of sadness walking in, after all the idea of seeing children struck with illness didn’t seem like it would be a happy thing to witness, but he’d underestimated the crowd they were visiting. There was a lot of life left in these kids yet, and all of it seemed to come bursting to the top as soon as they laid eyes on the team of Heroes stepping through the doors of their ward. At least half a dozen swarmed on Bloodfyre immediately, and he scooped most of them up in a big, gentle hug before greeting the children by name. Bayou wasn’t kidding; Bloodfyre really must have spent loads of his time doing trips like these.

                While Bloodfyre was unquestionably the biggest draw of the group, Bayou and Hammerspace were both dealing with their own mini-mobs as well. With the initial wash of excitement passed, Brett noticed that not every child had leapt up to run over and greet the Heroes. Some were still in their beds, and judging from the number of tubes sticking out of them it seemed unlikely they’d be getting up anytime soon. There was no doubt in Brett’s mind that eventually Bloodfyre would make his way around to every one of these kids, but until he could Brett decided the best way to use his time was visiting with them. Since he and Justin were the newbies, they were in lower demand, so no one would be disappointed if they walked away from the main group.

                “Let’s go say hi to those kids,” Brett suggested. He glanced over to Justin, who was staring at the room with a half-focused expression. It was the first time he’d seen Justin zone out in any way, usually the guy was all about being on the ball, and the experience was unexpectedly disconcerting. “Gunk, did you hear me?”

                “Huh?” Justin blinked a few times and gave his head a quick shake. “Yeah… yeah. Sorry about that. You’ve got a good idea, let’s go greet some kids.”

                Before they’d even crossed the room, Gunk had shifted into his liquid form, eliciting “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd. He wasn’t done yet though, as the viscous goo produced a set of colorful balls and began to juggle between different undulating tentacles. Brett found the whole spectacle unsettling, but the children seemed to be entertained and that was all that mattered.

                A strange realization struck Brett as he watched Gunk cross the room while putting on his act: this was the first time he’d encountered a group of people that were genuinely happy to see him and his team. Even when they fought crime on patrol, the people they helped were usually scared and upset. These kids were genuinely overjoyed that the Heroes had shown up today, though. Brett hadn’t expected how hard that feeling would hit him, or realized how much he needed it. Today they were working without moral complexity or complication; they were simply trying to bring a little more joy into the world than had been there before. No wonder the other Heroes called this the good side of the job.

                Racking his brain for trick ideas, Brett followed Justin and his growing crowd of on-lookers to start cheering up the bedridden children.

*             *             *

                When Panic and Steven returned to the room, they weren’t alone. A couple of DVA agents had come with them, along with a few people who looked half-frantic and ready to collapse. These, as it turned out, were the production assistants from the various news services trying to coordinate the press conference. Given how little warning they’d gotten about this event, Angela could only imagine what a shitshow scramble setting it all up had been. Evidently they’d pulled it off, however, since they’d come to deal with Steven and Iliana’s makeup before heading down.

                Normally she imagined this was a process done somewhere a little more professional than a suite crowded with Heroes and DVA agents, but working with such high-profile people meant bending when necessary. A small team of make-up specialists, carefully watched over by the DVA agents, arrived and began doing basic foundation on both of the diplomats so that the lights wouldn’t wash them out. Whether they wanted anything more extensive was up to them, this was simply the basic layer needed to appear on television.

                Amidst all the bustle, Angela kept searching for an opportunity to covertly pass along her information to Unseelie. She didn’t like keeping a secret from her mentor, especially not one that might turn unexpectedly relevant at any moment. True, Iliana didn’t seem to be gearing up for an attack, but if she were planning an ambush wouldn’t that also be the case? Angela reminded herself for the fiftieth time that one bit of false information didn’t make Iliana a criminal or a monster, and besides that there weren’t even any worthwhile targets around the diplomats yet. Unless they were aiming to kill their Hero bodyguards, and even then there had to be easier ways to go about it. The whole situation was worrying, especially for a woman who wasn’t prone to playing a double-faced role. Charon had always been an upfront character to play: ass-kicking first, last, and all the way in between. She’d feel a lot better when she could finally pass her discovered secret along to someone with a little more experience.

                That chance didn’t come during make-up, however, and as the last bit was applied another assistant came to the room, rushing in and nearly getting tackled for her efforts, to tell everyone it was almost time to start.

                “Thank you,” Iliana said, rising from her chair. She hadn’t gotten much more than the make-up base done, perhaps with a touch of enhancement here and there. Given that her skin literally glowed, Angela could see why Iliana might not add a lot to it. The effect alone was already impressive enough. “Unseelie, are your people ready to go?”

                “Always and at a moment’s notice.” Unseelie’s reply was as quick as her promised response time. She locked eyes with Panic, who immediately headed into the hall. “Panic will check the first hallways and we’ll start heading down. Ready for your big moment on camera?”

                It may have been Angela’s imagination, but she thought there was a touch of mirth in Iliana’s smirk just before she replied. “And then some. I daresay I have been ready for this for a very long time.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 43

                 Reina stepped over the groaning body of a man with his hands pressed tightly to his stomach. He was covering some sort of wound, gunshot or knife remained to be seen, keeping the pressure on in hopes that he’d last until an ambulance arrived. She liked that, respected someone who could keep their cool even in the brief chaos of a shootout and the horror of seeing their insides try to escape. When this was over, depending on how things went, she might very well offer to patch him up.

                Other leaders maintained their authority through extravagant payments or making their minions afraid. For Reina’s money, however, there was nothing to ensure loyalty quite like salvation. Rescuing the lives of her employees was part of that, it was hard not to feel somewhat indebted when they were yanked back from the Grim Reaper’s clutches. The real chain to bind them was in what seemed like a kind gesture, however: Reina’s willingness to heal their families. Save a man from death, and she’d have earned gratitude. Save their child, spouse, or parent; breathe life into them when every other option seemed lost, and they’d follow her into the pits of Hell without so much as a second thought. And they always had someone who needed help, if not when she met them then at some point in their service. It was a dangerous world, filled with disease, tragedy, and never enough healers to go around.

                Ignoring the groaning man on the floor, Reina kept walking, making her way to a large gentleman who was not clutching any part of his anatomy. That probably had a lot to do with the fact that his limbs were either broken or bleeding from gunshot wounds. She could still save him, if she were quick and motivated, however Reina felt no compunction to be either of those things. While she still considered herself a doctor, there was a large difference in “doing no harm” and simply choosing not to act. She didn’t have to kill him, that part was already done, all she had to do was let it happen. Once, perhaps, Reina might have felt guilt about watching a man die. Nowadays, it didn’t even mess with her sleep schedule. She’d cut out plenty of cancerous tumors in her time, this was just one more incarnation of that.

                “I told you not to store, deal, or traffic in this neighborhood, didn’t I? I was kind about it, I really was. We had a nice dinner, I opened some good wine, and I let you know that I was fine with your enterprise so long as it didn’t spill into any of my protected territories. So why, Gustav, why did you push me on this? Did you think because I offered an olive branch first I wouldn’t be holding a blade in my other hand?”

                “You won’t… get away…”

                “With this,” Reina finished his sentence for him; she didn’t have time to dawdle. “Except I will. My workers are very efficient and extremely adept at using the styles and calling cards of other known criminals. In this case, I think the police will find that the attack matches all the hallmarks of Diego from the north side of town. With that and the well-known animosity between you two, it will be an open and shut case. They won’t be able to prove anything, sure, but they also won’t bother looking for other potential culprits. Now if we can get back to the matter at hand, why did you take a risk like this? I really want to know, I’m looking for constructive feedback, maybe my next negotiations won’t end up so unproductive.”

                “Will… you… save…” Gustav began to cough, spitting up blood in the process.

                “No, I can’t very well do that. Not after I went to all the trouble to get you here. But I can turn off your pain receptors and flood your brain with dopamine. You’ll still die, Gustav, that’s going to happen regardless. The only question is do you want to go slow and full of pain or numb and happy?”

                Reina waited patiently as Gustav finished coughing, checking her watch only once. They still had time. Not a lot, but enough to see what she could get out of this near-corpse. Finally, Gustav nodded and Reina reached over, laying a hand onto his exposed forearm. She did as promised, killing all pain signals his body was sending. While she was working, she also paralyzed most of him from the neck down, just in case he got any ideas about swinging with that broken body of his.

                “Oh god… oh my god that feels so much better.” Gustav was staring at the ceiling, looking like he’d glimpsed the face of the lord himself. “You really are good with that power.”

                “Maybe so, but you don’t have long for this world. I turned off the pain so you could talk, now get chatty. Tell me something good and you get the dopamine. Waste my time and I’ll not only turn the pain back on, I’ll crank it up to eleven.” Reina’s hand stayed near his arm, making the threat as obvious as possible.

                Gustav swallowed as best he could to clear his throat. “I didn’t want to come into your turf, but I had too. Someone has been choking me out of the old territory on the west side. Not a rival or anything like that either. I don’t know what’s going on. My guys just started turning up dead in dumpsters. No demands, no warnings, nothing. I send some muscle to investigate: dead. More dealers: dead. There’s no one dealing there, it’s not about the turf. It’s like they just wanted us gone. You’re scary Reina, but you’re at least a person. Some unseen force killing my guys… how do you even fight that? I needed cash to get more recruits and supplies, so I took a risk. Bad risk, I guess.”

                “Bad risk,” Reina agreed. “Did you find out anything about whoever was cleaning up your men? Cops get involved?”

                A bloody snort escaped Gustav’s lips. “Yeah, I called the cops right after I called the Heroes, gave a nice long statement and everything. Fuck no; I handled that business in house. Never found out anything though, and I called in every favor I could for information. No one knows nothing, no one saw nothing. It’s like fighting a damn ghost.”

                “Mean fucking ghost.” In Reina’s experience, dead men rarely bothered with lying, and Gustav had never been that adept at deception in the first place, which put her in a strange position. She was going to have to accept that he was telling the truth, and that meant some crazy bastard, almost definitely a Super, was wiping out dealers left and right without leaving a scrap of evidence behind. That was some scary shit. Thankfully, she wasn’t as without hope as Gustav. Reina had other options, like a team of Heroes who had specifically asked her to keep them abreast of underworld trouble while they had diplomats in town. Hell, if she played this right she could get this ghost taken care of and have Bayou owe her a favor. It was never bad business to have a Hero in her debt.

                “Anything else?” She wasn’t expecting much, and Gustav didn’t surprise her. He just shook his head, neck wobbling a bit as he did. The guy was bleeding out, he didn’t have a many heartbeats left in this world. Gently, Reina reached down and kept her promise, forcing his brain to release so many chemicals Gustav probably wouldn’t even be able to understand he was dying, let alone be afraid of it.

                With him taken care of, she stood back up and surveyed the remainder of the room. Her people were almost done with cleanup, which was just as well. She needed to get home, shower, and then place a call. After all, Reina had to look presentable when she met with a Hero later on.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 42

                Babysitting diplomats was turning out to be roughly as exciting as Angela expected. Sure, the fact that one of them was keeping a secret made it mildly more interesting, and there was the potential to be attacked at any moment. Until any of that actually happened though, her job was to sit around, wait for the press conference to be set-up, and watch as Iliana and Steven reviewed page after page of documents. Part of her had wondered what it would be like, serving as envoy to another country. She’d even imagined herself in the role once or twice, exploring new cultures with a tinge of danger looming constantly in the air. Then she’d gotten a look at how the job actually went and her half-cobbled daydream withered on the spot. Hero work already had too much paperwork for Angela’s taste, which was a statement that depressed her more the longer she thought about it.

                Eventually Steven and Panic left the room to attend to some details and Iliana took a break from her pages. She walked over to the refreshment table, helping herself to a soda and carefully lowering herself into a seat near Angela. The composed, slightly-glowing woman took a tenative sip from her drink before letting out a soft belch moments later. Iliana flushed from her neck to her ears, turning the light on her skin a slightly crimson shade.

                “I’m so sorry. I wasn’t expecting that. We didn’t have these sorts of drinks when the Republic of Krezic was in charge.” Iliana moved the can like it was a bomb set to go off, gently setting it down on an end table before jerking her hand away.

                “No need to apologize. I’ve heard and done worse just this week.” Angela wasn’t entirely certain that this was comforting, or appropriate, but it was the only thing she could think to say in the moment. “I’m way more shocked that the old regime didn’t allow soda. That seems crazy. What about beer? Don’t tell me you guys never had any beer.”

                “The Republic itself had plenty of both beer and soda,” Iliana clarified. “What I meant is that we weren’t permitted any. Supers were kept under close observation, our diets among the many things that were constantly controlled.”

                “Oh. So, was that all Supers, or… you know what, never mind. I think I was about to go down a very undiplomatic road there, and I’m sorry for even getting close to it.”

                Iliana smiled, a strangely endearing gesture given what Angela already knew about her tendency to hide things, and carefully patted Angela on the arm. “It’s fine. You want to know if they did that to all the Supers, or just the ones they were experimenting on. In other words, you were about to ask if I was a test subject. It’s okay, Charon. You’re not the first to broach the subject, and you won’t be the last. I wouldn’t have been selected for this job unless I was comfortable talking about my past.”

                “That’s quite brave of you.” It was the first time Unseelie had joined the conversation, glancing over from her guard position near the door. Angela had a hunch that if she hadn’t backed off the questioning, Unseelie would have intervened. It was a lucky break that Iliana was being so cool about the near gaff.

                “Thank you, but I do not consider this bravery. Those working hard to build our new nation back home, rooting out the last of those loyal to the old government; they are the truly brave ones. I am only asked to talk and tell my story while living in luxury. Many jobs are far harder than my own.” Iliana paused, her hand creeping over and picking up the soda once more. “To answer the question you were too polite to ask, Charon, the short version of the truth is that yes, I was among the test subjects of the Republic of Krezic. Would you like to hear the longer version?”

                Angela’s eyes darted over to Unseelie, who gave her no expression in response. Iliana had opened the door, whether she wanted to walk through it or not was on Angela. Asking wouldn’t be rude, but it would probably end with her learning something uncomfortable. People didn’t typically provide off-ramps on conversations going to pleasant places. In the end, curiosity won out. Angela was the type to always prefer knowledge over ignorance, even when it made things more complicated.

                “If you’re comfortable sharing, then I’d like to hear the longer version,” Angela said.

                “Then I shall tell you. The truth is that under the Republic of Krezic every Super was considered a test subject. The only ones who lived in any sort of peace were those who managed to hide their powers from the moment they manifested, and even then the government forced Supers with detection abilities to try and root them out. I have met a handful of Supers who lived free during the old days, all of them with weak powers and careful natures. For the rest of us, we were usually scooped up within a week of gaining our gifts.” Iliana was strikingly calm as she spoke, no emotion or tremors creeping into her voice. This was her story, and she’d told it only the gods knew how many times over the years. With a wary expression, she took another sip of the soda, this time without the follow-up belch.

                Angela, on the other hand, was trying hard to stay collected as a fire of rage kindled inside her. She couldn’t imagine being hunted down like that, caged and experimented on because she could do something others couldn’t. Would she have gone peacefully, or died taking as many as possible with her? It was easy to say now, as the woman she’d grown into, but if she’d been child without her grandfather’s teachings it was impossible to guess. She was just grateful she hadn’t ever had to find out.

                “What about Powereds?” Unseelie asked from her spot near the door.

                For the first time in her tale, Iliana’s face flickered with sadness. “Powereds… those poor souls. They were the easiest to find, for obvious reasons, but few could actually be put to use by the government. They were considered the most expendable of test subjects, used for procedures with almost no chances of success. Supers were seen as valuable commodities to be researched or bent to the will of those in charge. Powereds were viewed as disposable, and treated thusly. When the revolution came, we freed all those who remained. There were horrendously few.”

                “No wonder it’s taking so much effort to convince the ones who left to come back,” Angela said. She was trying to keep her mind on the task at hand now, refusing to entertain images of her life, her family, if they’d been born in the same situation as Iliana’s people. Even if she didn’t fully trust the woman, there had to be some grains of truth in this story. The revolution itself and the UN’s investigation afterward confirmed the largest pieces of her tale.

                “It is a difficult task,” Iliana agreed. “And yet one that I must not fail on. So many of our people are out there scared, paranoid, looking over their shoulder at every turn. I need them to know that it’s finally okay to come back. They have somewhere they can be safe at long last. If it takes me the rest of my life, I won’t stop until every last one of my brothers and sisters knows that they have a home.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 41

                “Don’t bother changing out of costume,” Bloodfyre cautioned. “Either of you.” They’d just arrived back at base, their DVA loaner vanished as soon as she’d dropped them off, and Brett had yet to take even a single step in any direction.

                “We doing a team patrol today? All four of us walking the street, smiling at babies and scowling at evil-doers?” Justin seemed more excited than the situation really called for, until Brett remembered that he didn’t do that many patrols. Bayou was more of a working behind the scenes kind of Hero, so his apprentice had to be the same.

                “Not quite. We don’t often get days like this, where we have a reasonable certainty the odds of being called into battle are low, so it’s important we use it well.” Bloodfyre paused, and Brett’s mind filled the silence with possibilities. Would they be training? Hunting down a ruthless crook who’d evaded capture? Some sort of team tournament to see who the current strongest was?

                “I know that look,” Hammerspace said. “You’re going to the hospital.”

                “Way to ruin the surprise. I was going to wait until we got there to explain.” As a devoted intern and student, Brett would never accuse his mentor of pouting. Were Bloodfyre anyone else, however, Brett might have described his expression as at least pout-adjacent. “But yeah, Hammerspace is right. We’ve got the time to do some good, and we’re going to use it. I already had our agents put together a truck full of merch so we’ll have stuff to pass out. There are even a few Charon and Barrier pieces in the collection.”

                Bayou patted Justin on the back. “There will be some Gunk stuff coming soon as well. We just have to get you to a certain demand threshold to justify the first run. It happens slower for Subtlety Heroes, but we get there.”

                “Believe it or not, I’m okay with not being too well known yet,” Justin replied. “The way I see it, the less people who know about me, the better I must be doing my job. If I could retire with a history of doing good and no one knowing my name, I’d be the best Subtlety Hero of them all.”

                For a moment, Bayou looked a bit taken aback, then he was smiling once more. “There are rumors of a Hero, or maybe a group, who works like that, but no one I’ve talked to seems to know for sure. You may change your tune after this though. We see a lot of bad in this job, you’ve both been on it long enough to know that damn well, but there’s also a good side to it. Once you get a look at the faces of those kids being surprised by their Heroes you may decide you want a little notoriety after all.”

                “Wait, surprised? Don’t they know we’re coming?” Brett asked. “It seems like you’d have to coordinate with the staff ahead of time for this kind of event.”

                “Trust me, it’s better if no one knows until we’re there. For safety, as a starter, since there are some pieces of shit out there that would take a swing at Heroes even when we’re surrounded by sick kids. Then there’s the press. By the time we leave they’ll be clumping up at the entrance, and its fine to give them a few soundbites, but if they know we’re coming in advance they’ll sneak into the hospital and disturb the children. We’ve made arrangements with most of the local facilities and they’re okay with us doing drop-ins as long as it’s not too early or late.” Bloodfyre was grinning, not an uncommon sight as the man was more cheerful than his name implied, yet this time it was bigger than normal. Brighter too. Brett realized that this might be the first time since joining the team that he’d seen his mentor genuinely excited about something.

                “When we get there, follow Bloodfyre’s lead,” Bayou suggested. “He’s done more of these than any of us, and that’s without even counting the kids he’s met with for Dream Granters.”

                “He’s in second place for most Dream Granter visits. Can’t seem to catch up to that wrestler guy no matter how hard he tries though.” From the wry tone of Hammerspace’s voice and the smirk she threw Bloodfyre, it seemed this was a common point of teasing.

                “I’d beat him if I had the free time.” Bloodfyre replied so quickly that there was no denying he’d known the joke was coming. “And anyway, nobody is really losing in a contest like that.”

                “Except you. Because, you know, second place is still losing,” Hammerspace shot back.

                A creeping wall of green suddenly sprang up between the two, thick vines cutting off all but the barest glimpses between one another. All eyes turned to Bayou, who somehow managed to look surprised at the sudden growth despite the fact that the vines were coming from his hand. “Much as I’m sure we’d all love to watch you both bicker all day, perhaps you need reminding that our time until the next shift change isn’t infinite. Let’s get it in gear and show these rookies one of the bright spots of our world while there’s enough time to do it properly.”

                There was some grumbling from both parties, but neither Hammerspace nor Bloodfyre looked back at each other as the wall of vines withered and rotted into mere dust on the floor. “Much better,” Bayou said. “Bloodfyre, have your truck start heading over, we’ll meet them at the hospital soon. Gunk and Barrier, come help me carry some pots from my lab. I keep a supply of seeds that sprout into plants that give off therapeutic smells and those always go over big with patients and staff, so we need to bring as many as possible. Hammerspace… I guess just don’t antagonize Bloodfyre until he’s finished handling the truck issue. Everyone has five minutes and then we head out. Objections?”

                No one raised their hand or voice, so Bayou motioned for the interns to follow and headed off down a hallway. Brett and Justin stayed close, not daring to stray too far behind. As they walked, Justin elbowed Brett in the arm to get his attention. “You nervous?”

                “Not really. We’ve seen real action in the field already, after fighting criminal Supers trying to kill me the idea of being around sick kids doesn’t rate too highly on my fear-scale,” Brett replied.

                “Yeah, but criminals are easy. They hit you, you hit them, and eventually one of you stops. This is different. People are going to be looking at you expecting to be wowed and inspired, you’re a representative of the entire Hero community and everything you do or say reflects on Heroes as a whole, at least in the mind of whatever kid you’re talking too. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems like a lot of pressure.”

                “Well it didn’t until you framed it that way.” Brett closed his eyes and tried very hard not to think about the points Justin had raised. “Shit, why did you have to say all that?”

                “Seemed only fair that we both be have the jitters,” Justin explained. “And watch your mouth. If you curse in costume in front of a bunch of kids… between the team and the press I just can’t see a way that ends well.”

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 40

               Iliana was lying. Not about everything, at least not as far as Angela could tell, which might not be very well given what a good act Iliana had put on with that light show. Under different circumstances, Angela might have swallowed it without question; there was nothing about the woman that spoke of deceit. Honestly, Angela wasn’t even sure how she knew Iliana was lying. She’d never met someone besides her grandfather with powers so similar to her own, so this had her in uncharted waters.

               But Angela did know that the diplomat was lying, and there was no part of her that second-guessed what she’d sensed. When Iliana had tapped into her abilities, Angela had felt the depth of the woman’s reserves, the intensity of the light stored within her. She had no idea if she could utilize Iliana’s internal light the way she did the stuff that floated freely through the air, but she could still feel it. And holy damn, was there a lot of it to feel. In the brief glimpse Angela had gotten it had felt like standing outside on a cloudy day, when suddenly a break appeared and the sun shone on everything around her. It was only a few seconds long, yet in that span she’d seen something massive, maybe even incomprehensible, and then the clouds had hidden it away once more.

               There were, of course, any number of good reasons for a diplomat not to announce the full spectrum of their powers. Iliana might have been concerned that the human DVA agents would get startled, or the government might be fearful of letting someone with a dangerous gift entry into the country. Still, Iliana had made a big show of demonstrating what she and Steven could do, which made it curious that she’d keep so much tucked away. Unless the entire reason she’d done the demonstration was so that they’d think they knew what the duo was capable of while keeping their true potential hidden. It wasn’t a bad idea, actually. If not for her power tipping her off, Angela probably wouldn’t have question any of their show. Aside from light, Iliana radiated polite sincerity. In hindsight, that should have been the first sign she wasn’t to be trusted.

               Ultimately, Angela didn’t know for sure what to do with the information. There might be a perfectly harmless explanation, or something more sinister could be afoot. It wasn’t her job to decide what to do though; she wasn’t the leader of the team. When their shift ended, Angela would tell Unseelie what she’d discovered. How they proceeded from there would be up to her, and Angela was thankful for that. She considered herself great in a fight and good with people, but matters of secret powers and international diplomacy were still out of her depth. That was why she’d worked hard to get a mentor like Unseelie in the first place: to learn these lessons so that one day she would be capable of handling them.

               “How would you like to begin your mission?” Unseelie was speaking again now that the others were gone and they could all finally get down to business.

               Iliana looked over to Steven briefly before turning to Unseelie and Panic with her peaceful smile still fixed in place. “We’ll be holding a session with local media in a few hours, hopefully getting the word out will bring many of those we’re searching for to us. Until then, I think we’d like to rest and review our documentation. We’ve hired several private investigators over the last few months to run down as many leads as possible, so that’s where we’ll be starting the search tomorrow.”

               “I see. No one mentioned that you’d employed investigators,” Unseelie replied. There was something in her voice, not quite suspicion but a little less open friendliness than had been there before.

               Iliana either didn’t notice the minor shift in tone, which seemed unlikely given her job, or chose not to address it. “Yes, we’ve learned it’s best to work quietly whenever possible. Obviously for a trip like this such a thing is impossible, but in terms of gathering information we get much better results when the name United Avalon isn’t anywhere near the work. As a high profile personality, I’m sure you can understand the necessity of such methods.”

               She made a point. An official inquiry from United Avalon would be vetted and discussed through multiple levels of government, but slipping cash to a local private eye would get fast answers without too many questions. While Unseelie still probably wasn’t too happy about someone working on the sly in her town, her voice sounded friendlier when she spoke next.

               “There’s a lot to be said for working quietly, I suppose. Did you get many solid leads from your investigators?”

               “A few, though less than we’d hoped for,” Iliana admitted. “Reaching those burrowed in deep will be difficult. My dearest hope is that when they see us, talk with us, they’ll know we speak the truth and that it’s safe to come home. But The Republic of Krezic wielded deceit and misinformation freely as their weapon of choice, I fear just seeing me on camera will not be enough to truly assure all of our people. They’ll need to meet Steven and I in person, shake our hands, look in our eyes and know that we are earnest. Some will come after the story. Others we will have to search out. It’s our hope that the first group will give us leads to the second.”

               “We’ll make sure the message reaches as many people as possible. I’ve got a few friends in the media, and trust me when I say this is a story they plan to run with.” Panic looked quite reassuring, and for no small reason. As the team’s head of media coordination, she wasn’t blowing smoke. Even after only a few weeks with the Wayward Wraiths Angela had seen the amount of pull Panic had. She never seemed to throw her weight around either; favors were always done with a grin and a slap on the back. It was a style of diplomacy that Angela immediately admired and instantly knew she’d never be able to properly duplicate. Panic had an inherent likability that couldn’t be faked, at least not unless someone was a master manipulator.

               Steven stepped forward, drawing closer to Iliana and the team. “We appreciate any aid you can give. Though Iliana is focusing on the positive, you are all clearly smart enough to know what this sort of media saturation means. Anyone with cause, real or perceived, to attack United Avalon will know precisely where we are and how to reach us. Your jobs will not be easy ones, and we commend you for undertaking them.

               Unseelie waved him off immediately. “Like I said, keeping people safe is what Heroes do. Although, if you’ll permit me for saying so, I wish you’d reconsider your choice of location. A hotel like this has lots of other guests that might be collateral damage. We’d be happy to set you up a safe house or give you some rooms at our base to minimize civilian involvement, if you were open to the idea.”

               Steven opened his mouth to reply, but Iliana put a hand on his shoulder and spoke first. “Yes, we considered that possibility. That’s why we’re waiting until this afternoon to alert the press. That ensures that every other guest will have time to check out and be clear of this building. No one will be staying here but us until the mission is finished.”

               A long beat of silence filled the room as everyone pieced together what Iliana was telling them. “Hang on,” Panic said finally, “are you telling me that you rented all the rooms in this hotel and kicked everybody out?”

               “Certainly not, that would be wildly impractical,” Iliana replied. “We simply purchased the entire hotel outright. The details were finalized just before we came here, and right now the DVA is carrying out the transfer and evacuation. It was a bit of an expense, however we are guests in your country and it only seemed proper to risk as few civilian lives as possible.”

               Unseelie and Panic both took the news in stride, but Angela felt her eyes widen a bit at the realization that these two had bought a very expensive looking hotel on what sure felt like a whim. United Avalon, apparently, was not here to fuck around.

Blades & Barriers: Chapter 39

                It was hard not to be a little nervous as the line moved forward and Brett’s turn drew closer. Fighting other Supers was one thing, he’d been trained for most of his life how to handle that sort of situation, but diplomacy and politics were completely different animals. As minds are prone to do, his brain tossing up scenarios of things he could say or do wrong, supplying them as fast as he shoved the old ones away. He got so swept up in the miasma of nerves that he almost didn’t notice that his turn had arrived and Iliana was staring at him. Thankfully, the sudden need to move put him on autopilot, keeping his brain from stumbling over itself.

                “It’s an honor to meet you ma’am. My name is Barrier.” He shook her hand carefully, meeting her eyes as he spoke. She was taller than he’d realized when sitting down, nearly as tall as him, and he wasn’t exactly a short fellow.

                “The honor is mine, Barrier. And please, no ma’am and no titles. Just Iliana.” Her grip was firm, practiced, the kind of handshake he’d expect someone seasoned in politics to give. When it ended he stepped over, moving to greet Steven while Justin took his place with Iliana.

                Steven’s handshake was about the same, but he had little else in common with Iliana. While his expression was neutral, there was a hardness to his eyes that was impossible to miss. This was a man who was on the lookout for trouble and suspected that anyone might be its agent. Despite the visible suspicion, his tone was perfectly controlled and polite when he spoke, clearly he’d put a lot of practice into this. “Nice to meet you, Barrier. Please take good care of Iliana and I.”

                “I’ll give it all I have,” Brett assured him.

                Those hard eyes looked him up and down a single time before meeting Brett’s gaze once more. “You seem well-trained and fit; I hope your gift has been adequately developed as well.”

                “Like all powers it’s not unbeatable, but it’s taken me far and I’ve worked hard to master it.”

                “He’s being modest; Barrier there is a real tough guy to put down.” Angela, who’d preceded Brett in line, had apparently decided that this was a situation where she should chime in. Brett glanced to the rest of the team, waiting for them to quiet her, but no one seemed bothered by the outburst. “I’ve fought him myself, and I guarantee his power is up to snuff.”

                “Is that so? Then I shall lean hard on you should a moment demand it, Barrier.” Steven released his hand and turned to Justin, who was the last member of the team making his introductions.

                Iliana stepped away from her fellow diplomat slightly, taking the attention of the suite with her as she moved. By the time Justin and Steven finished their greeting, she was standing in a central point where everyone could see her easily. She didn’t do anything to signal that she was about to speak, yet Brett knew it was coming all the same. Whether it was the shining skin or diplomatic training, the woman knew how to work a room.

                “While the exchange of names is an important aspect of a first meeting, in United Avalon it is also customary to share the nature of our gifts on such occasions. I understand that here you guard that information closely as a personal secret, however I ask that you indulge Steven and I as we display ours to you. If nothing else, it may be prudent to know what we are capable of in the event we come under attack.”

                Slowly, she raised her arms, the glow coming from them reflecting off a metal lamp on a nearby end table. “As you have no doubt guessed, my gift comes with a physical trait, a marking bestowed on some of our people. Though such is not always the case, for me it is an indicator of the power I possess, the ability to emit light at various intensities. I can fill a room with a gentle glow or make a flash so powerful it momentarily blinds those who see it.” Iliana’s hands turned, her palms facing the ceiling as beams of light shone from them, tight cylinders which grew wider until they cast a shine on everything nearby. The beams soon faded as Iliana lowered her arms.

                “Steven’s gift is more useful in dire situations, that is part of why he was selected for this position. He has the power to alter the velocity of any given object with a touch, sending it off at a direction and speed of his choosing. Steven, if you will?” Although Iliana phrased it as a question, the expectation of compliance was clear even to those who didn’t know the pair.

                Without any objection or hesitation, Steven walked over to the trash bin and picked out Angela’s finished soda can. He set it down on an end table, then did a quick scan of the room. With one finger, he reached out and barely grasped the can’s aluminum edge. Instantly it flew straight upward, banging softly into the ceiling before clattering back down to the floor. Steven reached down, picked the can up, and placed it back into the trash.

                “Thank you for sharing that with us,” Unseelie said, moving to the front of her team in a few steps. “As you’ve said, in our country Heroes don’t openly discuss the way our abilities work, and I appreciate your willingness to respect that. I assure you, we have gifts and training up to the task of keeping you both safe, and everyone here will fight to the last breath against any who try to attack you. Though I, like you, hope no violence will be necessary. Now that introductions are done, would you like some time to get settled, or would you prefer to begin discussing plans for the coming days?”

                “Our time is precious, as I know is yours, so I’d much rather get to work,” Iliana replied.

                Unseelie turned to Bayou. “Panic, Charon, and I will stay behind to start the first guard shift and make plans with our guests. Take the others back to base until it’s their shift, and make sure everyone is rested and ready when their turn comes. If I need you, I’ll call, so be prepared for that too. I don’t think anyone will make a move so soon, however that’s exactly what someone out there might want me to believe.”

                “We’ll be standing by if needed.” Bayou motioned to the others, who followed him over to the DVA agent with the tight ponytail.

                Brett took one last glance at the room, and the diplomats, before the teleporter could send them back to the base. As much as he was intrigued by these strangers from another land, something else drew his attention. It was fleeting, and only happened for a split-second just before the room vanished in another burst of red, but he saw a strange expression on Angela’s face, or rather the parts not covered by her mask. Once they vanished, however, he immediately began to doubt himself. He must have seen wrong, or he was projecting his own fears onto Angela, either explanation was more viable than him actually having seen her expression correctly.

                After all, what the hell could make someone like Angela DeSoto show a flash of genuine worry?