A Change of Pace – Chapter 14

Kyoshi felt her grip relax the moment the door closed behind Coach Meyers. It wasn’t until the relief washed over her that she even knew she’d grabbed Mason’s hand in white knuckled fear. She gingerly flexed her digits, each popping with reprieve as pressure was released.

<What was that?> Kyoshi didn’t know how to describe what was radiating off their alternative instructor before she walked away into that office.

“Are we ok to go?” she asked a passing healer in training. “We’d like to get back to the viewing room.”

The student, clad in the grey uniform of a sophomore or junior, read over the paperwork quickly to assess Mason’s status. “He’s good to go,” she replied, hanging the standard medical chart on the end of the bed. “If he experiences any headaches or nausea please bring him back.”

“Ok,” Kyoshi grabbed the big man by the hand, and began half dragging him out of the infirmary.

There were many qualities that Kyoshi greatly admired about Mason. She hadn’t seen any of his fights, but she agreed with Coach Meyers that he could be a tenacious man if the situation called for it. There were also some qualities that she needed to work on with him. At the moment, him being blissfully ignorant of the situation was an issue.

Mason was all smiles. She could feel the content and happiness shining off him at the simple gesture of holding hands with her. This was another one of those qualities she enjoyed. He was a sweet man despite his destructive potential. She knew she had a leg up with her telepathy when it came to situational awareness, but she hoped she could train him to be just a little more conscious of what was going on around him. They were halfway back to the viewing room before he realized something wasn’t quite right.

“Are you ok?” Mason asked, his thoughts twisted in concern.

This was not a conversation Kyoshi wanted to have in the middle of the hallway. She dragged him another short distance to a storage closet and forced him inside. His thoughts were now full of concern with an undercurrent of excitement. She took a second to think through what she’d just done, and gave an exasperated sigh. Mason might be one of the sweetest guys she’d ever met, but he was still a guy.

“I need to talk to you,” she emphasized “talk” so there was no mistaking what this secret meeting in a broom closet was all about.

“What’s wrong?” Mason was serious now, and his thoughts echoed the emotion. He was now paying closer attention to his surroundings, assessing any threat to him or her.

She had to keep the smile off her face when his thoughts went to her protection before his own. <Focus, Kyoshi,> she pulled herself back into the moment.

“It’s Coach Meyers,” she began, struggling to find the words to continue. “Did you see anything off about her when we were talking?”

“She complimented us,” Mason jumped on the obvious. “That was pretty weird.”

Kyoshi nodded, because he wasn’t wrong. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. “Do you agree that neither of us knew how to respond to that?”

“I still don’t,” Mason was being entirely truthful.

“Yeah,” Kyoshi still thought her response hadn’t helped the situation. “Did you see what was happening when we didn’t know what to say?”

Mason took a few seconds to pull up his memory of the incident. It hadn’t been long ago, but his attention had been elsewhere. Kyoshi had to suppress another smile as his thoughts turned to her absentmindedly stroking his hand. Mason didn’t suppress anything, and it warmed her heart.

“She got a little stiff, and she frowned a bit,” Mason’s recall wasn’t terrible, and was about what anyone without telepathy could deduce from the situation.

“True,” Kyoshi needed Mason to realize those subtle physiological changes to understand what she’d seen. “What I’m going to tell you doesn’t leave this room.” Mason nodded, his mind no longer focusing on what this cliché supply room rendezvous could have been.

“First, all of the instructors are really good at keeping their surface level thoughts to themselves. They all have different techniques, but they all work pretty well. Coach Meyers repeats a phrase in her head followed by the most annoying sound I’ve ever heard. It hurts my head even thinking about it,” Mason nodded, a sympathetic expression cracking through his serious exterior. “They keep this up a lot of the time so I can’t tell what they’re planning.”

“Makes sense,” Mason agreed.

“Yeah, so when one of them lets down their guard it is usually for a good reason, or they have nothing particularly important that I could pick up on,” Mason continued to nod his agreement. “Coach Meyers dropped her guard when we didn’t know how to respond to her compliment. I doubt it was just that single instance that caused it, but whatever the case, I got a glimpse into her head.”

Mason’s expression didn’t change, but something in his eyes did. He knew who this woman was, more than the rest of the class did, and he could see the possibilities of what she’d seen. Despite his hulking stature, Mason wasn’t an idiot.

“There was so much anger, Mason,” Kyoshi’s voice trembled as she recalled the thoughts and images in their instructors mind, and immediately tried to forget them. “It was laced with frustration, self-contempt, and pain…incredible pain,” the image of a man’s head exploding was particularly disturbing.

Mason placed a hand on hers. It was a comforting gesture, meant to calm her. It helped a little, and Kyoshi appreciated the sentiment. “She scared me, Mason,” Kyoshi was being honest with herself, as much as with Mason, for the first time. “That much anger, it felt like she was going to snap. When I say snap, I mean snap in a homicidal manner. The pain wasn’t quite an “I’m going to kill myself” pain, but coupled with the self-contempt, I know she’s thought about it before. And the frustration,” Kyoshi let out a groan of frustration not even a fraction of what their instructor felt. “Everything is frustrating for her, and our inability to interact with her wasn’t helping.”

“So we need to make sure we interact with her better in the future,” Mason stated the obvious next step.

“Yeah,” Kyoshi’s voice was a whisper. Recalling even a few thoughts and images of Reaper’s past was exhausting.

She was surprised when Mason pulled her into a hug, but didn’t fight it. It wasn’t a hug in the hopes of leading to something else, something more intimate. It was a hug because he knew she needed it. And it helped.

<Maybe he’s not as situationally unaware as I thought,> Kyoshi buried her face into his shoulder, and inhaled his scent.

It was a mix of body odor, sweat, and the slight metallic smell of blood. She was smelling a man who’d just been in multiple fights, and gotten thoroughly beaten in the last. Still, it was oddly comforting, not gross at all. She kept in mind she probably didn’t smell like roses either.

Although she intended this entire conversation to be professional she couldn’t help but feel the intimacy growing between them in this moment. The feel of him against her, and the truthful knowledge of his feelings for her, nearly pushed her into doing what her father feared would happen when he dropped her off at West. And in the heat of the moment, she doubted she would have been as protected as her mother wished.

Luckily, or unluckily depending on your point of view, the closet door opened to reveal two very amused instructors. “There’s always at least one couple who thinks they can sneak away and do the no pants dance when everyone else is occupied,” Coach McMillian had a grin on his face that promised several physical punishment for the compromising position Kyoshi and Mason found themselves in.

“No,” Kyoshi didn’t believe a black man could blush, but Mason proved her wrong. “This isn’t what it looks like.”

While Mason pleaded, Kyoshi looked at the other instructor accompanying the combat instructor. She recognized the woman from their quest to find the HCP entrance the day before. Kyoshi knew she couldn’t lie to her, and even if Mason hadn’t been planning on doing anything, she had. She didn’t dispute this fact as she met the woman’s serious gaze, instead concentrating on what they’d really been discussing. The woman’s eyes widened enough that Kyoshi knew she’d gotten the message.

“I’ll handle this, Craig,” the older telepath cut in. “Return to the ranking matches. I’ll bring these two back shortly.”

Craig raised an eyebrow at his fellow instructor, but didn’t question her judgment. He vanished just as quickly as he’d appeared, leaving a trail of swirling air in his wake.

“You two, my office, now,” the remaining instructor started moving down the hallway, confident that Kyoshi ad Mason would follow.

The two students followed her silently into a section of the HCP they hadn’t been before. This area was lined with private offices. One had the Dean’s name on the door, they saw Coach McMillian’s as well, and Coach Meyers’. They passed their two instructors rooms and entered a room marked, Professor Livingston.

Kyoshi only got a quick gaze at the utilitarian nature of the office space before taking her seat in one of the two chairs before the instructor’s desk. Then she was forced to spend the next minute staring into the dark eyes of another advanced mind. It wasn’t physically uncomfortable, but it was unsettling to know the other woman was probably digging around in her mind.

“As you are undoubtedly aware from the sign on my door, I am Professor Livingston. I’m the Focus instructor at West. Don’t concern yourself with what Focus is,” she cut off Mason just as his mouth was opening. “That is something for your sophomore year. First, you need to prove you can survive the rigors of freshman year.”

Kyoshi tried to get a glimpse of what Professor Livingston was thinking, but all she got was nothingness. Nothingness was the best way to describe it, but wasn’t quite accurate. It was more along the lines of a white void. The void had edges, which was where Kyoshi would surgically insert herself if she wanted to go deeper, but other than that it was the nothingness of the void.

“Please pay attention, Miss Schultz,” the Focus instructor’s voice cut through her thoughts.

“Sorry,” Kyoshi was incredibly embarrassed at being caught in the act.

“It is quite alright,” the older telepath replied. “It is only natural for an advanced mind like you to be curious. You do need to work on your own mental shielding though. It is abysmal, but that is beside the point,” Kyoshi felt the hurt of being forgiven and the insulted all in the same sentence. But the other woman seemed not to care.

“No, Mr. Jackson, what you and Miss Schultz do with each other is your own business. Just do it on your own time,” Professor Livingston answered Mason’s unasked question or concern. “What I’m here to discuss is what you’ve glimpsed of your alternative instructor.”

Mason involuntarily tensed, but Kyoshi knew this was coming. She knew the instructors could care less if two college-aged students engaged in consensual sex. What they were dealing with was far more serious.

“I am aware that you both know of Ms. Meyers’ true identity, and you, Mr. Jackson, have seen her in action before,” they both nodded. Better to let the trained telepath fill in any gaps with their own thoughts and memories then them trying to explain. “Your alternative instructor is a remarkable and unique individual,” Professor Livingston was preaching to the choir. “She has great experience and knowledge that she is willing to share with all of you. She is also one of the best qualified people to have as an instructor, whether she thinks so or not. She is rough around the edges,” the professor shook her head, a tired expression crossing her face. “But that is because she has paid a price for that knowledge and experience. We all have,” Livingston’s expression went from tired to dark. “But her most of all.”

The true nature of Reaper’s situation hit Kyoshi for the first time. Everyone thought the ability to potentially live forever, basically as a fit, attractive, young woman, would be awesome. They didn’t think about having to adapt and conform to the changing times, the loss of those you love, the passing of all your friends and family, and the never ending battle with evil that all Heroes faced. For Coach Meyers it was truly never ending. Other Heroes got old, tired, hurt, retired, or dead. One way or another they got out of the game. Kyoshi knew in the short time she’d been around Reaper that it wasn’t in her personality to just hang up the metaphorical cape. She would die on the job. That was her way. Despite all her years, no, decades of service; she was trying to impart some of that wisdom on future Heroes. But that came with a lot of baggage.

“I understand,” Kyoshi stated. “We’re not going to tell anyone.”

“That’s good,” Professor Livingston cracked a small smile. “Because if you did then I would make sure you were both on the next flight home.” Mason was shocked at the intensity of the instructors’ statement. Kyoshi wasn’t. “We all have dark parts of our past that we have to live with. It comes with being a Hero,” the Focus instructor turned hard eyes on the two students. “You will also have these moments, so try to keep that in mind when you deal with Professor Meyers. But be yourself,” she added quickly, already rising from her chair. “Because if she perceives you are handling your interactions delicately, she’ll make you wish I sent you home today.” Mason and Kyoshi gulped, trying not to think about their upcoming physical fitness classes.

“You two should get back to watch the rest of the combat rankings,” Professor Livingston walked over to the door and opened it for them to leave. “The information you gather there is going to help you throughout the year, and I’ve already put you at enough of a disadvantage.

Kyoshi and Mason hurried back towards the viewing room. They passed their storage closet without a second thought. They both knew there would be plenty of time for them to figure out where they wanted their relationship to go, but there were more pressing issues now. They needed to see who the best in their class was, so they could figure out how to beat them. They were training to be Heroes, and there was no silver medal in battle outside the HCP.

It struck Kyoshi, in that moment, that no one knew this better than Coach Meyers.

 

***

 

Seth wasn’t quite sitting alone in the corner of the viewing room, but that was just because there weren’t enough seats for people to avoid him. The student next to him made do with keeping his back turned to Seth, and not acknowledging his existence.

<This is just fan-fucking-tastic,> Seth was questioning his chosen path for the first time.

Seth was used to being the center of attention. He was the best at anything he did. He was the man that every other man wanted to be, and the man every woman wanted to be with. At West he was dirt. He’d been thoroughly disgraced by the alternative instructor, and then, in an even more embarrassing moment, his dorm mate had kicked his ass. He still had trouble believing the chunky, quiet, but intense girl could transform into a freaking unbeatable angelic fighting machine. Despite his resounding defeat at her hands, Seth desperately wished for Angela to be the number one ranked student. If he had to lose to someone might as well be the best.

Movement by the door caught Seth’s attention, and he saw Mason and Kyoshi return. The two looked a little shaken, and he couldn’t blame them. Kyoshi had been nearly broken by a guy named Jason, and Mason had faced the same punishment Seth had. Although, the strongman lasted a lot longer, and got a few hits in. The two were holding hands as they made their way over to the refreshment bar.

Seth was surprised to feel a pang of jealousy as he watched his two dorm mates. Usually this situation was reversed, with some other guy watching Seth walk off with the hottie. Admittedly, Kyoshi wasn’t his type. She had the curves and legs that made any man’s head spin, but she was almost half a foot taller than him, and the whole being a telepath thing was a bit of a turn off. Still, Seth wasn’t a fan of not getting what he wanted, or even something he might want sometime in the future.

Luckily, no mental retort replied to his though process. The telepath was either still recovering from her beating, or she was enjoying her time with Mason. Either way, it left Seth to stew in his solitary misery, and plan his next move.

<That’s if I even stay at West,> the thought didn’t catch him by surprise, but it was the first time he’d seriously considered it. <I’m not sure what I could gain from my time here.>

                The Dean and alternative instructor’s speech was beginning to sink in for Seth. He couldn’t do the Hero gig for selfish reasons, simply because they wouldn’t let him. They were a step ahead of him, and knew what he was planning. He’d have to fully commit to this if he wanted to get through the next week, much less freshman year.

<I need a goal. I need the carrot, so when they use the stick I have something to look forward to,> because Seth knew one thing for sure, and that was that the suffering the class had experienced was just the beginning. Their instructors were too sadistic for anything other than that outcome. <I just need a big enough carrot.>

That was the million dollar question. What would motivate him enough that the professors wouldn’t ride his ass right out of the program? It couldn’t be wealth, fame or power. He had most of that already, and they’d pick up on his ruse easily enough. It also couldn’t be a more selfless reason because Seth didn’t like helping people. He volunteered to get school credit at a food bank and homeless shelter, but he hated every second of it. The people smelled, they didn’t have the skills to be productive members of society, and no one ever seemed to pull themselves out of the gutter. Then there were the drugs.

Seth absolutely detested them. He lost a friend to a cocaine overdose a few years back, so he had zero tolerance for the stuff. He didn’t even condone marijuana, even though mostly everyone smoked it. He’d seen it lead to hard stuff that fucked a lot of people up.

One thing you wouldn’t guess about the social elite was that drug problems were more common than most people thought. His own mother loved her prescription pills, so the issue hit closer to home than most. It was also something that the alternative instructor had known way too much about.

<Ok, so I guess I could become a Hero to get drugs off the street. As cliché as that is, it is something I can get behind.> Seth felt the resolution building even if that was a secondary motivator.

His real motivation, something he knew he couldn’t hide from the instructors, was he wanted to rub their smug faces in his success. When he succeeded, he wanted to walk up to that insufferable bitch of an instructor and say, “fuck you I made it”. Then he’d probably proposition her, just to see the look on her face. Seth knew his primary motivator was anger; he wasn’t delusional enough to think he could convince himself otherwise.

<I hope that is enough for them,> he wasn’t sure he had anything else to offer.

“Hey,” the voice was familiar, but uncharacteristic somber for the always bubbly Becca.

Seth turned to see his other dorm mate, the only one who he wasn’t currently having issues with. Becca’s arms were wrapped around herself protectively, and her eyes were downcast. You would have to be blind not to see the naked vulnerability on her. Seth couldn’t blame her; she’d been recently violated by a swarm of bugs. That wasn’t something someone shrugged off in an hour, or even a month. The question was how she handled it.

Seth was in this position often enough. A beautiful woman who’d recently been in a fight with friends, or just went through a breakup, confided in him. He had a routine that was nearly 100% effective in getting them into his bed. It would be too easy to do the same with Becca. The problem was, for the first time, he felt scummy even thinking about it. He didn’t know why, he’d never felt bad about getting in a woman’s pants before. It was always a challenging game that had admittedly lost some of its flair recently.

<Maybe it has something to do with seeing her violently assaulted by cockroaches,> Seth struggled to identify his intentions, but really didn’t want to open that Pandora’s Box.

Whatever the reason, Seth simply put his arm around Becca and pulled her in close. She resisted at first, but eventually settled into the embrace. They sat like that for a long time. Watching Angela literally beat the piss out of some guy who could augment his own body with layer upon layer of muscle and bone. He looked like something out of a horror movie, but even his tough exterior couldn’t stand up to Angela’s relentless assault. He did make her bleed though; by shooting darts made of bone from his forearm. He caught her off guard, and Seth took a small amount of satisfaction at seeing the bright red ichor flowing from her wound.

Likewise, Becca took a more savage form of satisfaction when bug girl was thoroughly trounced by Jason. His telekinetic blasts devastated her swarm, and resulted in her being tossed across the room like a rag doll. Her smile at the girl’s misery was very un-Becca.

“Thanks,” Becca removed Seth’s arm from around her and left without another word, a little more skip in her step.

“Sure thing,” Seth muttered after her retreating back, not really sure what to say.

Truthfully Seth wasn’t sure what was happening. His initial plan was falling apart, and no one outside of Becca would even talk to him. He was thinking about being a Hero who fought the drug trade for a living, but most importantly, he hadn’t jumped on a prime opportunity to bone a 10 like Becca. It was all too much for him.

Seth pulled out his phone and opened his recent text messages. The kinkier of the girls from last night had sent him a rather promiscuous picture and text around lunch time. This was familiar territory for him. Tonight. He texted the one word response, and then ignored the flurry of replies that came almost immediately. Usually he didn’t come back for seconds, but he was in the mood to be in control tonight. So much of his life was out of control now. It always helped to have someone who enjoyed being submissive.

 

***

 

By the time Daisy returned to the viewing room she was less angry. She wasn’t quite happy, that was an emotion that had successfully eluded her for the last few years, but she didn’t want to immediately punch everyone she met in the face. Part of this had to do with the fact that new Dr. Johnson wasn’t a giant tool. If she’d had to deal with seeing his brother twice a week then she’d probably break something. The rest had to do with the impending end of the combat rankings. Since she’d left, they had completed everything but the final. This was a relief because she’d reached her daily limit for interacting with teenagers.

“In this corner, standing at five foot nine, but with the ability to become the freshman class’ angel of death, Annngelaaa Maaaaaartinnn!” Craig was getting the students psyched for the upcoming fight, and they were eating it up. “And in this corner, standing at six feet even, with a mind that makes a hurricane look like a fart in the wind, Jaaaaason Coooooook!”

<So Ashley and Anika didn’t make it,> Daisy made a mental note to see what knocked the other competitors out, and to catch up on who the last few participants were.

The crowd of students were cheering crazily now, and Craig was only making it worse by making fist pumping motions with his arms. The room was rapidly descending into chaos, and it was giving her a headache. She didn’t care if Craig got to be the good cop at times; she wanted to get this over with. It wasn’t like the professors were finished with their work when the students’ day ended.

“Listen up!” Daisy’s voice sucked all of the excitement out of the room. “I’d like to offer my congratulations to our two finalists.” Most of the students had the same dumbfounded look Jackson and Schultz wore when she talked with them in the infirmary. This time Daisy made sure it didn’t get to her. “Mr. Cook, Miss Martin, you have both shown that you’ve got a little fight in you, and you won’t kick the bucket at the least opportune moment. From now on you can call me Professor Meyers, Coach Meyers, Ma’am; whatever floats your boat. Although, I’m not a huge fan of the coach crap,” she purposely didn’t smile, knowing her awkward expression would cause more confusion than anything else. “The rest of you still need to impress me, so it’s still ma’am.” She sensed the immediate understanding of the gathered students. Being able to be on a more familiar level with their alternative instructor was a privilege, not a right.

“We’ve got a champion to crown, so MOVE IT!” she couldn’t help but grin as Cook and Martin sprinted out of the room towards their assigned combat cell.

“Way to be a buzz kill,” Craig approached her with a frown.

“Hey, I let them know my name, that has to count for something,” Daisy replied.

“All of them have taken a beating today. What they need is a little excitement not more intimidation. Knowing your name isn’t going to go as far as a genuine laugh,” the comment, although probably true, hurt Daisy more than she would admit. She thought it had been ample reward for those who’d proven themselves.

“Fuck if I care,” Daisy dug in her feet defensively. “If they can’t handle a romp in the little kids sand box then they shouldn’t be here,” she didn’t bother to wait for a response before heading towards one of the side doors.

Daisy heard Craig’s exasperated sigh, but he didn’t say anything. On her way to the door that led to the separate viewing room, she scanned the crowd for Schultz and Jackson. She found them sitting together with Whitfield, and her focus drew Schultz’s attention. The tall telepath met Daisy’s eyes unflinchingly. Not in a challenging way, but in a manner to convey exactly was Daisy expected, respect.

Daisy directed approval in the younger woman’s direction. <Want to hear the most annoying sound in the world…AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH,> Schultz winced at the mental onslaught.

Daisy knew she had to show dominance. Schultz had seen glimpses of her at her lowest moment, and needed to be reminded of Daisy’s strength. You couldn’t instruct someone if they thought you were weak. Daisy went through the door a little harder than she intended. The door made an irritating screeching sound as it closed, signaling some slight warped metal, and a sizable dent on the wall. Craig didn’t say a word as he followed her.

The control room that allowed viewing of the reinforced combat cells a couple floors down was filled with all the professors. Even Dr. Sanderson was there. Daisy made sure to stay on the opposite side of the room, and plopped down into an unoccupied chair next to Maria. The weapons instructor gave her a knowing smile; she’d gone through the rigmarole of freshmen combat rankings many times.

“I’d like to thank everyone for their hard work today,” Daisy could barely make out John’s head among the mass of retired Heroes. “The simulations we’ve run computed that Miss Martin and Mr. Cook were most likely to wind up in this final match. From here it is fifty-fifty on who will come out on top.”

“I’ll start taking the bets as soon as Boss man is finished,” Craig already had a wad of cash in his hand, and a grin on his face.

John took a moment to cleanse the exasperation from his expression. “After the round concludes the students will be released for the day and we can begin our analysis. Most of the data is already compounded and in the conference room, so we can get straight to work. Daisy,” he turned his attention to her. “Everyone else knows their role for the analysis, but your role as alternative instructor will be different. Everyone analyzes the students’ potential based on their specialty. As you are aware, alternative training isn’t a specialty, but a general area for students to discover new aspects of their abilities. Your task is going to involve compiling a list of possible expansions of our students’ abilities based on historical data, the data gathered from the combat trials, and your own feel for the students. Your uniqueness, and breadth of knowledge, gives you a head start in this process.” Daisy wasn’t quite sure how she felt about the “uniqueness” comment. She knew she was a freak of nature; people shouldn’t dance around the issue. She was a big girl.

“Maria,” John acknowledged the person sitting next to Daisy. “I want you to get the ball rolling with Daisy, so she understands the process.” If Maria was unhappy about the extra workload she didn’t show it.

“The analysis obviously isn’t going to be finished tonight,” John was speaking to everyone again. “But I want a foundation for us to build their individualized curriculums on.”

There was only a moment of silence after John finished speaking. “Place your bets folks…bets right here…I’ll give you good odds…” Craig sounded like a bookie from the 1940s.

Daisy tuned out her partner and focused instead on the two freshmen squaring off in the reinforced room. They didn’t look nervous or stressed. They looked determined, focused; exactly what Daisy wanted to see in them. There was a reason they got to call her by her name after all. John was giving the pre-match announcement, informing them of the rules they’d heard half a dozen times today.

<This should be a good one,> Daisy wasn’t going to bet on the match since that hadn’t gone so well last time. <I wonder who is going to win?> she spent the countdown time making her assumption, but it was really anyone’s best guess. <The more important question is how am I going to train them to make them better?> The clock hit zero, and she leaned forward, already on the edge of her seat.

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