His costume felt tighter than it had yesterday, in the safety of a training room. More claustrophobic. The mask practically seemed to be squeezing his head so hard it might make him pass out. Every single time his heart beat, Brett could feel it in his ears. He’d gone into dozens of matches during his HCP career, faced off against strong opponents who he knew could hurt him if things went awry, so why was the idea of taking a single step forward causing him so much stress? Deep down, he already knew the answer: because this was the end of training and the start of something real. Once he walked out there, it wasn’t just his body on the line. If he messed up, innocent lives could be lost. But if he stayed here, if he did nothing, then he wouldn’t even have the opportunity to help them, and that was much scarier than the anxiety filling his brain at the moment.
“Yeah,” Barrier replied. “I’m ready.” He started forward, toward the sunlight at the end of the alley where Danny had dropped them off. It was a bold, determined stride that would have been quite impressive and hidden his nerves, if only Bloodfyre hadn’t grabbed his shoulder to halt him after two steps.
“Not quite.” Bloodfyre gave his shoulder a squeeze and the point immediately hit home. “Boss’s orders, remember? Shield up at all times.”
With a small bit of effort, Barrier willed the blue glow into being around his body. It felt familiar, this was the way he always went into battle, and the knot in his stomach unwound slightly. Bloodfyre gave him the thumbs-up, and then moments later red energy began to swirl around his mentor’s body. His wasn’t a stable shield, more like the rolling flames of a well-kindled fire. It flickered, expanding and contracting constantly, making Bloodfyre far more eye-catching.
“Mine won’t stop things the way yours does, but like this it will partially disintegrate most ranged surprise attacks. If I get any sort of warning, I can dial up the intensity so even a high-powered bullet wouldn’t reach me, though I don’t like walking on patrol like that. The look is a little too intense for civilians, plus I cause damage to the sidewalk and any buildings I get too close to.”
Both men now covered in glowing energy, they walked forward together, stepping out of the alley and onto a sidewalk in a business district of Port Valins. Barrier tensed the moment they appeared, waiting for something to leap out and strike. Instead, he saw people in suits and slacks staring at them, whispering a few words and then walking a little faster. Some paused to snap a photo, and to his surprise Barrier realized that Bloodfyre was smiling and posing for the shots.
“I thought you were the kind of Hero who went for fear and intimidation,” Barrier said. There was little chance of being overheard, even the people on their side of the street were giving them a wide berth.
“That’s when dealing with criminals.” Bloodfyre gave one last thumbs up as the pictures ended before turning to his student. “Remember, we can make the bad guys afraid, but not the regular folks. Even if they don’t love us, they shouldn’t fear us. We’re more than their protectors; we’re the representatives for all Supers. Our existence is a huge part of what makes peace between humans and Supers possible.”
Barrier had gotten the speech from Dean Silva in his senior year classes, he knew that part of the reason Heroes existed was to put a friendly, palatable face on the sudden emergence of people who had powers that humans could never match. It had seemed more like philosophy than anything practical at the time, though. Apparently it factored into a Hero’s daily life more than he’d expected.
“You’re still really scary in videos and stuff,” Barrier said. The two of them began walking carefully down the sidewalk, never coming up too fast on the normal pedestrians and keeping to the side so no one had to get close enough to brush against their respective energies. “Doesn’t that put people off?”
“Not as much as you’d think. Turns out people are okay with their Heroes seeming like monsters, as long as we’re their monsters. Besides, with all the charity work Panic has pulled the team into over the last few years, even my image is getting softer. Hard to look like a heartless beast when you’re posing alongside sick kids.” Bloodfyre gave another wave to someone who’d pulled out a cell phone and was trying to covertly take a picture. “Barrier, start giving people waves and smiles. You’re new, so they’re going to be curious about you. This is a chance to make a good first impression, and it’s solid training.”
Barrier did as he was told and gave a stiff grin, suddenly thankful for the mask covering so much of his face, tight fit and all. “I get the image part, but how is this training?”
“Remember what Unseelie said: you don’t have practice watching for advanced signs of an attack,” Bloodfyre told him. “Keeping an eye out for people taking pictures is a good way to work on being constantly aware of your environment, which is a big necessity during patrols, as well as battle. And to be frank, when people dip their hands in their pockets, I never know for sure if they’re going for a phone or a gun. So I’m ready to react to either. The ones with phones get a smiling wave to remind them that no matter how sly they might try to be, a Hero sees it all, and the ones who pull a weapon… well that response varies depending on the exact situation and how many bystanders there are. Suffice it for now to say they don’t get the friendly version of Bloodfyre.”
The idea of someone pulling a weapon on a Hero seemed ludicrous, but Barrier did as he was told and began paying more attention to the normal people they were passing. Were any of them hiding some weapon? Laboring under the delusion that anything as simple as a handgun was enough to stop a trained Hero? Didn’t they have any idea the sort of training and power-development it took to earn this title? No… actually, they probably didn’t. After all, the HCP was secretive by nature and necessity. Plus, if he were honest with himself, a gun could stop Barrier in the right circumstances. When he and Bloodfyre were in the alley, if there had been some crook lying low, one shot before his shield was raised could have ended his career before it began. Same with Angela and Justin, or even Bloodfyre. Catch them off-guard, with their defenses down and powers not in use, and they’d be just as vulnerable as any human.
Barrier’s eyes scanned every person more carefully now, watching not just their movements, but also their overall expression when they noticed two Heroes walking down the street. This wasn’t a skill he’d previously trained, however that stopped now. He had a lot to learn about being a Hero, there was room to improve on something as simple as taking a stroll down the sidewalk, and he was determined to give everything he had to even the simplest of tasks.
Hopefully, that meant he wouldn’t come up lacking when the big moments arrived.