Blades & Barriers: Chapter 4

                “Angela, always a pleasure.” Brett began to rise from his chair, but Angela waved him back down. She strolled across the room, grabbed one of the unoccupied seats, and plopped down only a few feet away. There was something about her familiarity in this place that still felt so alien to Brett that grated on his nerves.

                “I was sad to hear about Rabble’s passing,” she told him. “But I have to admit I was pretty jazzed when they told me you were getting on the Wayward Wraiths. I figured it was going to be me or you who ended up being the breakout rookie; with both of us here it’s only going to make the team look better.”

                “Ahem. It’s nice to meet you,” Justin said. He rolled his chair slightly forward and offered his hand, which Angela accepted and shook.

                “I was getting to you, Justin. Needed to smooth things over a little with Brett first though. Can’t very well have a teammate who I’m trusting with my life holding a grudge over which of us won a fight.”

                Both Justin and Brett exchanged a brief look. No one had said Justin’s name yet, but she’d used it as casually as an old friend might. Their glance was far from subtle, and she rolled her eyes so slowly that it was impossible to miss.

                “Come on, do you really think I didn’t wheedle some details out of the others when I found out there were more interns joining up?” Angela asked. “No one would tell me your power, obviously, but I know your name is Justin Greenspan from Korman and your major was Subtlety.”

                Justin opened his mouth to reply, however Angela kept going.

                “I also know there are rumors that the only reason you weren’t at Intramurals with me and Brett is that you declined a spot. Gotta tell you, that makes you way more interesting than the other part,” Angela said.

                Brett looked at Justin in a new light. True, he didn’t seem like much, but anyone past their first year in the HCP knew that didn’t mean shit when it came to abilities. A Subtlety major who’d been good enough at combat to earn a spot at Intramurals, and had turned it down. It was starting to make sense why Justin was on the same team as two graduates with perfect, or nearly perfect, combat records.

                “It was never officially offered,” Justin told her, smiling as though he weren’t fazed at all by her knowledge. “There were just a few conversations, one with Dean Wesley himself, about whether or not I’d be interested in representing our school. When I said I wasn’t, I got removed from the running. It’s not like I defeated the entire class and then refused to go.”

                “Still, if you were even in the running that means you’re a pretty talented fighter,” Brett said. “Korman University put on a good showing last year. Angela and I both had to fight one of their contenders in the semi-final match before we faced each other.”

                “And had you faced me, that would have still been the result. Everyone knew that year’s Intramural was really just an overture to the fight between the two undefeated seniors. The rest of us were merely warm-ups, and I certainly would have been no exception.” Justin was still smiling politely, still radiating that innocuous aura. Yet, now that he was looking for it, Brett realized there was a fair amount of cunning behind those dull brown eyes. Maybe Justin wouldn’t have made a difference at Intramurals, it wasn’t hard to believe Brett or Angela would have beaten him, but he’d still elected not to try. Cowardice was an unlikely motivator in an HCP graduate, which made it more probable that he’d turned down the offer for good reason. Such as not showing the world exactly what he could and couldn’t do, perhaps.

                “Uh huh. You can keep tossing out the false humility all you like, pretty soon we’re going to see what you’re made of,” Angela said. “Spoiler alert: part of your first day’s activities include giving the team a rundown of your powers.”

                “Technically, no one can make us divulge how our abilities work,” Justin pointed out.

                This time, they heard the door swing open, as the person walking in made no effort to conceal their approach. It didn’t swing with so much force that it hit the wall, but the space between them would have been best measured in centimeters. Boots echoing off the polished concrete with every step, in she strode, the unquestioned leader of the Wayward Wraiths and one of the strongest Heroes of her generation.

                Unseelie was tall, though whether it was due to a Dutch background or Super genetics was impossible to say. Her icy blue eyes were an almost perfect match to her hair’s unnatural color, which was cut short and styled in simple spikes. She wasn’t wearing her costume or mask, instead dressed in jeans, t-shirt, and a dark jacket, but it was impossible to mistake her for anyone else. Idly, Brett wondered how on earth this woman blended in among normal humans. One stroll down the street and her identity would surely be blown.

                “Mr. Greenspan is right,” Unseelie said, and this time Justin visibly winced. She shouldn’t have been able to hear him from outside, but no one in the public was ever entirely sure exactly what Unseelie could and couldn’t do. “By DVA statute, a certified Hero’s power is their own business, and no one outside of a formal hearing can compel them to share all the details of how it works, especially regarding their vulnerabilities. With that said, the Wayward Wraiths are a team that depends on trust above all else. I trust my team will cover me, I trust them to carry out their assignments, and I trust their judgement when they have only seconds to act. Part of that trust comes from knowing what they can and can’t do, so that I never ask more of them than they can give.”

                Unseelie made her way around to the head of the table where she pushed her chair back and stood, looming over them. “If I don’t have that information, then I can’t trust myself to task you appropriately. Which means I won’t try to. You’ll be on low-priority responses and PR work for the duration of your time here. Bayou will still instruct you, and the education you receive will be useful, but you will not join this team on any dangerous operations until there is a bond of trust between us. That goes for you as well, Mr. Rhodes. Feel free to complain to Danny or ask for new mentors, I won’t let anyone stop you. This is my team, and I take the lives of its members and the people we protect very seriously. So you’re either all-in, or you’re on the sidelines.”

                Five minutes ago, Brett couldn’t have imagined someone giving a speech like that without it sounding threatening, but Unseelie had managed. It hadn’t felt like she was dressing them down, more like she was giving a factual account of the situation. These were the rules, pure and simple, and they could either play by them or find another game. And as he sat there, staring at her calm face as she waited for their answer, Brett knew without question he didn’t want to leave. Much as he’d dreaded working with Angela, now that he was here he had to see it through. If he walked away, his next step would almost certainly be a downgrade. This was where he needed to be, the team he needed to learn from.

                “I’m all-in,” Justin said, beating Brett to it by a breath.

                “Same here,” Brett added.

                “Glad to hear it,” Unseelie told them. “I don’t want you to think this is a monarchy, however. If at any point I ask you to do something outside the field and you don’t understand the reasoning, I want you to ask me why. You’re not just here to serve, you’re here to learn how to be Heroes, and I will never mind taking the time to explain why I give the orders I give. Ask Angela if you don’t believe me, she’s only been here a few weeks and I’ve had to justify nearly every choice I’ve made to her.”

                If Angela minded at all being called out, it certainly didn’t show on her grinning face.

                “That’s outside the field, though,” Unseelie continued. “When we’re on assignment, you obey in the moment and ask questions later. Even if it seems crazy, you need to trust that I know what I’m doing, just as I’m trusting you to do your jobs. If it seems like I’m drilling that word a lot, you’ve barely seen the tip of the iceberg. I’ve served on many a Hero team in my day, and without exception I’ve found that the deeper the trust, the better they work together. I don’t expect us to have that bond right away, I know it will take time to cultivate, and I’m going to have you all start slow so we can build it.  Now, if you’ve both gotten the message, your mentors are waiting for you in our training area. Angela was right, joining this team starts by showing us everything you can do. Do either of you need me to explain why?”

                It was a surprisingly genuine question, and Brett had no doubt that if he asked she really would stand there and carefully detail why it was part of their orientation. But Brett didn’t need to ask, and evidently neither did Justin, as both just shook their heads.

                “Well then get off your asses, the day is already waning and we’ve got a lot to do.”