Blades & Barriers: Chapter 33

                Having spent a large portion of his childhood in rural Alabama thanks to his father’s outreach work, Gunk was quite familiar with the sight of guns. It was just part of life in the country, people had them in their trucks, homes, and sometimes outhouses in case a particularly impressive buck wandered into view while one was midway through their morning constitutional. Initially, the sight of such frequent firearms had scared him, but over time he’d adjusted to them as just another normal facet of life. The people who had them tended to be well-practiced in how to use their weapons, and in all the years he’d lived there Justin has never seen so much as a close call happen due to a gun.

                However, he was beginning to re-discover his discomfort with firearms as he looked around the room he and Bayou were in. There were dozens of guns out on display, some shoved hastily into the waistlines of pants, others lying out in the open, almost as if they were trying to taunt the Heroes into calling them out on clearly unlicensed weapons. Honestly, Gunk was more worried for the criminals around him than he or Bayou though. There was no way they had any firearms with a high enough caliber to punch through Bayou’s flora-defense, and shooting into a pile of sentient goo had as much effect as kicking it: none. But the overall lack of basic gun-safety being practiced made him wonder how many people in this room had already been taken to the ER for accidentally shooting themselves in the leg, and how many more were destined for that journey before they ended up dead or in prison.

                “I still don’t like that you brought someone new.” This voice came from a man with a shaven, tattooed head and a scowl that looked so perfectly stern Gunk was positive the guy practiced it in the mirror daily.

                “You can feel free to not like it all you want, Tony. But in case you haven’t noticed, I’m in a career where retirement can come swiftly and unexpectedly, so sometimes it pays to have a backup contact you can work with. Reina already knows he’s tagging along, so if you’ve got an issue take it up with her.” Bayou managed to still sound friendly, despite the fact that he was verbally dressing down a man stacked with muscle and holding a lot of guns.

                From what Gunk had gathered, Reina was the boss of this particular outfit, and the woman they were currently waiting for. Bayou hadn’t said much about her, only that Gunk should be polite at all times. Most of the morning had been spent passing messages along through seemingly innocuous and random people on the streets, only to eventually be directed to this worn-out old building that Gunk was almost certain used to be a big-box store, one of the brands that didn’t manage to stay afloat. He was curious about who this woman was, and why Bayou hadn’t bothered covering himself in plants before the meeting. They were both in costume, identities well-concealed, yet neither looked like they were planning on battle. Gunk understood the need to appear peaceful in these sorts of situations; he just would have preferred knowing at exactly what point diplomacy was going to end. For that, he’d just have to watch Bayou and take his cues. Such was the learning method of Subtlety students.

                A loud bang echoed through the building, causing a lot of hands to dip precariously close to those guns before realizing it was just a door slamming. Seconds later, a tall woman whose heels only made her look larger strode into the room. She took one look at Bayou and clapped her hands together, striding over gracefully and giving him a kiss on the cheek.

                “Bayou! So good to hear from you out of the blue. And you brought a new friend along too.” The woman, whom Gunk easily deduced was Reina, was friendlier than he’d expected. She practically radiated warmth, and when she looked over and smiled it was hard not to instantly be charmed. Gunk immediately distrusted her, although he grinned right back and shook her hand. Reina wasn’t the only one who knew how to put on an amiable front.

                “This one is a bit lean I think, next time we meet I’ll have Tony whip up some of his famous cupcakes to put a little meat on those bones. Tell me, new Hero, what do you go by?” Reina had given over her full attention now, and as her eyes moved so did those of every crook in the room.

                “Gunk, ma’am. They call me Gunk.”

                Her nose wrinkled slightly, and for a second Gunk thought she was going to show disgust. Instead, her whole face pinched as she let out a series of short, sputtering laughs. They were incredibly undignified, which only made them feel more sincere, and even finished with a snort at the end. “Sorry, sorry, I know I shouldn’t laugh. But I’ve been around Heroes for a long time now, so I’ve figured out that when they look like a pushover and have a name that silly; it means they’ve got nothing to prove. You’ve marked yourself as ridiculous to the masses and dangerous to those with any sense, and I do love the humor in such theatrics. This is an interesting one, Bayou. He’s got honest eyes and a liar’s smile. I approve, for now.”

                At her words, the tension in the room eased considerably. Gunk trusted his mentor, but it was hard not to wonder what would have happened if Reina hadn’t given her approval. There was probably a plan in place for that, right?

                “Everyone, go find some work to do. I’ve got guests, and it would be rude to have you all eavesdropping.” Reina clapped her hands together once more, and without a moment’s hesitation every flunkie in the room headed quickly for an exit. Whatever her demeanor might be, she obviously had complete control of her people.

                Once the room was empty, save for the pair of Heroes and Reina, she rummaged around behind a few boxes and pulled out a small rolling chair. Taking a seat, Reina looked at the both of them once more. “Alright, the kids are gone so we can ease off on the showmanship a little. How have you been, Bayou? I saw the news a few weeks back, it looked like you were still favoring your knee. Want me to take a look at it?”

                “I’ve seen a few healers since then, it’s back in tip-top shape. I’m just getting older, things break down in the field more easily,” Bayou replied.

                “Pfft. DVA healers no doubt. A quick patch-job here and there, no serious attention to the underlying issues. I bet I could rework the base composition to give you at least another couple of good years out of that knee, instead of you needing a heal after every fight.” Reina seemed genuinely annoyed by Bayou’s issues, a transition in attitude Gunk found curious.

                Bayou took notice of his trainee’s confusion. “Aside from her less-than legal operations, Reina is also a Super, and a former doctor. You’ve no doubt met Supers who can manipulate certain elements before, like my own control over plants. She is in a similar vein, only her medium is flesh. Reina isn’t just some a healer who forces injuries to fix themselves, she actually controls every aspect of a body she’s touching. She can knit bone, regrow nerves, even change the very way certain parts of a body work together.”

                “It’s harder to use than standard healing, but the flip side is that once I learned how anatomy worked, I was able to be far more precise than nearly any healer out there,” Reina added. “If you need a boo-boo patched, the DVA can cover you. If you need to negate long-term damage and scarring to a spine that’s seen countless battles, I’m one of the few options out there.”

                “And you run a criminal organization?” It was a risky move, and Gunk knew that going in, but he took it anyway. If he was to be seen as an equal to Bayou in her eyes, it wasn’t enough to take what he was given. Asking the uncomfortable questions now would establish a precedent for further down the line.

                Reina’s buoyant smile didn’t waver, though she did toss a brief glance to Bayou. “He’s a bold one, isn’t he? Yes, Gunk, I work on the wrong side of the law. I don’t expect a Hero to grasp this, but sometimes the law is too slow to keep up with what’s right. And that’s all we’ll say on the matter for now, because interesting as you are, I don’t trust you yet. Bayou, if you’re not going to take me up on the offer for help with your knee, maybe it’s better we cut to the chase. Do you need something, or was this meeting just to show off your new rookie?”

                “I need something,” Bayou replied, a little more upfront than Gunk might have been given the situation. “Specifically, I need to know about anyone who might have a grudge against diplomats from United Avalon.”

                A long whistle came from Reina’s pursed lips. “I hope you brought a lot of paper, because that’s going to be a long list to take down.”