A Change of Pace – Chapter 16

“Homework in the first week; you would think they’d let us settle in before they dumped all this on us,” Mason was walking with Seth towards the boys locker room on the Friday of their first week in the HCP.

Mason would much rather be walking with Kyoshi, Big O, or any of the other students he’d met in the class, but he felt bad for Seth. His dorm mate was ranked near the bottom, the instructors always seemed to single him out, and people avoided him like the plague. Mason was surprised Seth was still here, so he put up with the guys bitching in the hopes of maintaining harmony within the townhouse.

“What you expect?” Mason tried not to sound exasperated as he opened the door into the boy’s locker room. “This ain’t high school no more.”

The HCP locker room was also not like Mason’s old high school. For starters, the place was probably as clean at the infirmary, and no matter how big a mess they left it was always pristine the next day. <I hope the janitors get a nice Christmas bonus.> he thought as he made his way over to his personal locker.

The individual lockers still needed a code to get inside them, but it was biometric. Mason placed his thumb on the reader and held it for a second. The light on the polished stainless steel door turned green and it popped open. Another way the HCP locker room differed was the smell. It didn’t have the antiseptic smell of the infirmary, but it didn’t have the old gym sock smell either. It was a neutral aroma which gave the room a bland scent. Really it didn’t smell like anything. Mason wondered if it was some sort of technology that killed the bad smells but couldn’t produce good smells. It wasn’t a big deal, and he was more comfortable with smelling nothing at all than some floral jock strap hybrid. He really had more important things to worry about too.

“Yeah, I know,” replied Seth, continuing their conversation from the opposite row of lockers. “But don’t you think it’s a bit juvenile to have to write a ten page paper on your favorite Hero.”

“You know that isn’t the real assignment,” Mason didn’t let his frustration get to him as he pulled out his black uniform.

From what Mason learned from his classmates, each uniform was made of a slightly different material to accommodate their individual powers. Mason’s was extremely durable. It could take the hits from other strongman, and not tear to shreds if he got tossed around a lot. It was a little heavier than conventional clothing, but not as heavy as one would expect. Seth’s wasn’t as durable, but it wouldn’t burn when he did his burning man trick, and Angela’s adjusted when she shifted to accommodate her increased size and armor.

“That’s the basics of it,” Seth pulled on his own uniform.

“It not just about our favorite hero, it’s a comprehensive look at our selected Heroes entire career,” Mason felt like he was repeating what the Dean said not ten minutes ago. “We need to analyze their decisions in major battles and relate them to the ethical discussions we’ve had, and will have. We need to see if they’ve made a difference over their careers, if they’ve improved relations between Supers and humans, if they’ve helped set legal or insurance precedents,” he paraphrased a few more aspects of the assignment. “And we have access to a lot of the DVA records, so we know the real behind the scenes details.” Mason already had an idea who he wanted to do his project on.

“Who you choosing?” apparently Seth was thinking along the same lines.

“I’m from Brooklyn, son,” Mason shot a genuine grin in his dorm mate’s direction. “I gotta pick a hometown Hero, so I figured why not Iron Giant or another member of the Patriots.”

“Aren’t they all dead?” the casual way Seth said it brought a grim expression to the strongman’s face.

“Most of them,” Mason’s response was cold.

“I’m sorry, man. I didn’t think…”

“That’s right you didn’t,” Mason cut him off in a rare moment of anger. He didn’t have that many buttons people could push to really get to him, but this was one of them.

Mason took a couple of deep breaths to get himself under control. He’d lived through that event in New York, knew friends who’d died in the madness that killed all the Patriots but Iron Giant. He didn’t like it when people spoke flippantly on the subject. It was serious. “Let’s go, we’re gonna be late.” Mason finished zipping up his uniform and left the locker room.

The locker room exited into the massive gym not far from the main entrance they’d used on the first day. As he had every other day this week, Mason headed over to the pull up bars to do his twenty repetitions. The bars were sturdy steel, but they still protested slightly under his mass. Since Mason couldn’t turn off his strength, the exercises were easy. He finished them at a nice steady pace, making sure to pause for a second at the top and bottom of every movement. He felt the blood rush into his muscles as they stretched and contracted. At the very least, this was a good warm up exercise for him.

Mason dropped to the ground after he finished and waited for his girlfriend. He still couldn’t believe he got to call the woman of his dreams that, and there had been quite a few dreams thanks to her. He watched her do the repetitions on the pull up bars, and wished he could help as she struggled through the last few. Kyoshi had to do all the physical aspects the old fashioned way, and he knew, from their conversations this week, that she was bone tired and hurting all over.

<She still looks fiiiine,> Mason tried not to stare at the skintight black uniform she was wearing, but the designers obviously hadn’t taken modesty into consideration.

<Close your mouth and keep moving big guy,> Kyoshi gave him a tired smile despite the reprimand. Then her expression became concerned. <You ok?>

Mason was still a little worked up from Seth’s inconsideration, and didn’t realize it was still leaking into his thoughts. <Seth just said something stupid. Don’t worry about it.> He smiled back as they walked toward their two instructors. Kyoshi dropped the subject, knowing all too well how easily their dorm mate could put his foot in his mouth.

The second the clock hit the start time they were moving.. “Run. Go.” Coach Meyers commanded, and they all obeyed immediately.

Every workout this week had started with the five mile run, although the conditions had changed from the initial test the instructors gave them. The seven minute mile pace only remained in place for those who were still getting used to the physical exertion of the HCP. These were the people like Kyoshi, but each and every one of them demonstrated that they weren’t quitters. People who demonstrated they could beat the seven minute mile pace had their time reduced accordingly. Mason was down to a four minute mile pace, which actually mandated some exertion on his part.

So far they hadn’t kicked out anyone who failed to make their reduced time, but that didn’t mean things got easier. If you failed, they set the next day’s run at the time you did achieve. It constantly made you push yourself; forced you to do better than the day before. Mason sensed a common theme with his coaches, they were always moving forward.

Mason felt bad for Becca. Being the only speedster in the class, she got special attention from Coach McMillian. She could already do the whole run in 25 seconds, and although a reduction by a tenth of a second didn’t sound like a lot, it was. On top of that, she got hounded by Coach the whole way. Worst of all, she was running a lot more than the five miles the rest of the class was.

Mason felt the rush of wind as his dorm mate blew past him time and time again. It had bothered him a little on the first day, but it didn’t now. Mostly because he’d hear Coach McMillian yelling at her between sets.

<You got this babe! Keep pushing.> Mason did his best to motivate Kyoshi when he had a break in his own thoughts.

<Dinner tomorrow better be fantastic,> he could sense her gritted teeth through her mind.

Tomorrow was the big day. Mason’s first date with the telepathic woman who’d kind of asked him out. He didn’t dwell on the “who asked who” portion of the moment. What he cared about was the date itself, which Kyoshi promised not to pry out of his mind. That was good and bad. Good because he wanted it to be a surprise, and bad because he was feeling the pressure to impress her.

Mason was not a man of means. He never had been, and due to his career choice, probably never would be. By nature, he was frugal, and often reluctant to spend money at all. When it came to spending on himself it was mostly the latter. All the money he did have went towards tuition, room, board, books, and the multitude of other school-related expenses. His scholarship helped a lot, and ensured he would only be waist deep in student loan debt by the time he graduated. All of this went out the window when he planned his date with Kyoshi.

It was as if some regulator in his mind got switched off when he started to make calls for the evening. First, he’d been able to get some of the last tickets for a comedy club that was in town. Becca had snuck him Kyoshi’s MP3 player, and she had a number of sets from the comic that was luckily in the area. All he had to endure was the fifteen minute “if you hurt my friend I’ll cut your balls off” speech from the petite speedster. Next, he had a reservation at a fancy Italian place. Although he couldn’t order champagne, he did make sure they had chocolate covered strawberries for dessert. To finish off the evening he had planned a casual stroll through a park across the street from the restaurant, where he’d made sure a local street florist was still open until nearly midnight. He made sure he had enough cash left for a dozen roses.

Mason really hoped she liked it because he was going to have to get a job to afford anything more than casual pizza nights for the rest of the semester. Even as he thought this he knew she would. She’d probably be fine with just a fancy dinner, but if he was being honest, she’d probably just be fine with take out. Mason didn’t want to give her just take out though, he wanted to impress her, and show her he could treat her to what she deserved.

<And probably what she’s used to.> Mason hadn’t asked, but he got the impression her family was better off than his, and he was a little self-conscious about the financial divide. <She knows I’m not sugar daddy material,> he chuckled to himself as he rounded the final turn. <Shit!>

                A glance at the clock showed his daydreaming had him a full twenty seconds behind his designated pace. He could feel the ache in his legs from the run, but it wasn’t bad, so he had the energy to blast past the finish line at the 19:59 mark.

He bent over, breathing hard, when Coach Meyers materialized at his side. “Cutting it awfully close Jackson.” Her face wasn’t as hard as usual, but it would still take a jackhammer to crack it. “Thanks for showing us you’re the type of person who likes to slack on the run. You’ll be down at a 3:30 pace on Monday,” he couldn’t help but groan at the statement. “Start trying harder Jackson or I’ll kick your ass into next week.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Mason didn’t have anything else to say as the alternative instructor walked over to begin chewing out another student.

“Anyone who’s finished head over to the next station. You’ve got five minutes until I better see you hitting the bags,” Coach McMillian waved about a quarter of the class away from the track’s edge.

Every day this week they’d been forced to do something different in the open space between the pull-up bars and the pool. This ranged from push-ups to ab workouts to twenty straight minutes of burpees. Today was different. Today there were about three dozen punching bags staggered throughout the space. The problem was that they all looked like pretty standard bags. Mason knew from experience he’d either punch a hole through them, or send them flying, depending on the angle of his hit. Still, the strongman walked over to the area and stood next to a bag.

“You’re with me big guy,” Coach Meyers tapped him on the shoulder as she passed by wearing padded gloves.

This was something Mason was familiar with. Coach Meyers would call out combinations for him to throw into her gloves. He’d been doing these exercises for years with his trainer in Brooklyn. The initial trepidation he felt when getting pulled aside by the famous Hero was slowly transforming into confidence.

“Do I get any gloves?” Mason asked.

“Are you going to be wearing gloves when you fight a supervillain?” it was a no-nonsense question.

Mason could have said yes. He very well could have built gloves into his costume, but he decided not to be a smart ass. After all, he’d never seen a strongman wear boxing gloves in a fight before.

“No, Ma’am.”

“Ok,” she settled into a sturdy position in front of Mason. “Show me what you got…one, two.”

Mason threw the simple combination at about half speed. He knew Reaper wasn’t a strongman type, and didn’t want to hurt her. The punches connected with the training gloves and just ceased. It was an odd sensation. There should have been something there, some reaction to his action, but there was nothing. Coach Meyers didn’t even shake as she gave him a disapproving look.

“I said show me what you’ve got, Jackson. I’ve faced a lot stronger people than you before, so stop slacking. It’s becoming a theme with you. One…two!” Mason didn’t make the same mistake twice.

The sound from the forceful blows echoes throughout the gym. Several people even stopped their own haphazard punching to watch Mason at work. The combinations grew steadily more complex as they progressed. Mason was forced to start bobbing, weaving, and ducking as she began to throw counters. Sooner than Mason would have expected, he was covered in a thin layer of sweat, and was breathing hard.

“Control you’re breathing, Jackson,” Coach Meyers stated calmly, not a trace of sweat on her brow. “You keep this up and you’ll pass out before you land a hit on a mediocre villain.”

Mason did as he was instructed. He centered himself, pointedly ignoring how Coach Meyers was taking his best shots in stride. He focused on timing his breathing, filling his lungs with air, and exhaling as he struck the gloves.

“Good,” she signaled him to stop and get some water.

The cool liquid quenched his parched throat, but he only got a moment to enjoy it before he was called back over to his instructor.

Coach Meyers stood confidently with her hands behind her back. “I want you to try and hit me.” She didn’t even blink as Mason threw a punch straight for her face.

She easily moved her head out of the way so his blow missed by just a fraction of an inch. Her head moved back into place as he retracted his punch. He followed it up with a jab from his opposite arm, and received the same casual dodge. He moved in closer and tried the same combo followed by an upper cut, but Coach Meyers stepped back and to the side, easily avoiding it. They kept up the dance for about a minute. He threw various combinations of strikes while she dodged everything he threw at her. The way she moved reminded him of Angela’s shifted form, but Angela looked clumsy compared to Coach Meyers. It reminded Mason even more of Angela when the alternative instructor swiftly crouched and kicked his legs out from under him. He fell straight onto his side, smacking his head into the ground hard enough to crack it. It didn’t physically hurt, but it was embarrassing.

“Not my floor!” Mason heard Coach McMillian groan from across the room.

Coach Meyers just chuckled as she extended a hand to Mason. He made the mistake of hesitating. “I’m not going to bite you, Jackson. Man up.” He took the hand then, feeling his cheeks heat as his embarrassment grew. “I hope my little lesson today got through your thick skull,” apparently his expression proved it hadn’t.

“You thinking too one-dimensional,” Angela said, stepping up next to Mason.

“Thank you Miss Martin, but I don’t remember asking you,” Angela looked away, her own embarrassment blossoming as Coach Meyers returned her attention to Mason.

“Martin is correct. You are only thinking it terms of boxing. The mindset that your hands are your only weapons is wrong. You need to start thinking of using your feet, knees, elbow, even your fucking head. I wasn’t kidding about that thick skull comment. You’re a strongman, Jackson. Your whole body is your weapon, and you need to start thinking that way.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Mason was grateful she didn’t press the issue.

“Good,” she turned her attention back to Angela. “Martin, shift and do some combinations with Jackson. Maybe he’ll pick up a thing or two.” Angela nodded, and with a flash of light she was the angel who’d thoroughly kicked his ass earlier in the week.

Angela was actually surprisingly helpful. After she’d gotten to throw a few combinations of her own, she started to show Mason how to throw an elbow. “What people don’t realize about the elbow is that it can cut if used correctly.” She showed him how to use it in a downward arc. “The skin right above the eye is thin, and it bleeds like a fire hydrant. A good hit with the elbow there and your opponent is going to spend the rest of the fight trying to blink blood out of their eyes.”

If Mason hadn’t been looking at Angela as a dangerous opponent before, he definitely was now. “Thanks, Angela,” he paused for a moment. “You really know a lot about this stuff don’t you?”

“I’ve been doing it for nearly a decade,” she gestured for Mason to raise the training gloves so she could throw a few more combinations before their time ran out.

“If we get some free time can you show me some extra stuff like that elbow thing,” Mason grunted as her powerful punches made repeated contact with his hands.

“If we have free time,” Mason didn’t have to time to question her about the noncommittal response before they were told to rotate to the next station.

Mason’s heartbeat quickened even before his feet hit the tiled surface around the pool. Of all the stations in the gym, this was the one he hated most. <I’m a kid from Brooklyn, not a merman.>

Mason wasn’t scared of water, he was just scared of drowning; especially since he couldn’t really swim. Any exercise they could give him in this pool was guaranteed to stress him out.

“Thirty minutes treading water…go.” Coach McMillian announced, giving them no break after their previous station.

Mason’s feet hit the cold water and he had to fight down panic. He was already tired from the run, and he was sore from the training with Coach Meyers and Angela. That didn’t bode well for the next thirty minutes. Mason watched as Seth approached the pool with his usual nonchalant attitude. He made a scene by executing an exaggerated swan dive into the water, disappearing below the miniscule waves created by the freshmen’s movement. When I say disappear, I mean disappear. Seth’s human form ceased to exist as he made contact with the water. Mason could only guess if his body broke apart into individual water molecules, or he kept a humanoid shape that Mason couldn’t distinguish from the rest of the pool’s contents. It was a little creepy, and a few of the female students’ expressions echoed his sentiment. Seth already had a reputation, and Mason couldn’t blame them for being skeeved out by the possibilities.

Some of the students talked to each other during the next thirty minutes, clearly not fazed by being neck deep in water. Others kept to themselves. They concentrated on the task at hand, or on the upcoming stations. Mason was one of the latter, but his concentration was preoccupied by keeping his head above water.

“Don’t drown on me, Jackson,” Coach Meyers called from the side of the pool.

Mason was fighting to not choke with every breath. <Only five more minutes.> He pleaded with some higher power to get him through the short time period.

He was spitting out water with every other kick, and wasn’t sure he could make it, when the water went solid beneath him. Mason sputtered as his head stayed above the water, and he gulped in precious life giving oxygen. He was more concerned with getting that air than how he was getting it, that he missed the obvious.

“Abney, quit helping Jackson!” Coach Meyers yelled from her spot on dry land.

The solid barrier beneath his feet held for another few seconds before disappearing. As Mason plunged back into his personal hell, Seth materialized next to him.

“Aren’t Heroes supposed to help people, even other Heroes?” he asked defiantly.

“Yes,” Coach Meyers replied without hesitation. “But you aren’t Heroes, and you won’t be Heroes if you can’t get through the training plan we have established for you.” Her voice was hard as she lectured Seth. “Jackson needs to learn how to swim so that he can rescue people if they were drowning. Can you name a Hero out that can’t do that? No,” she answered the question when she was met with silence. “So stop helping him cheat because it’s only cheating him out of this program.”

Seth didn’t bother to answer, and Mason needed to concentrate on staying afloat, but eventually the thirty minutes were up and the torture ended. <I don’t know why Reaper is riding you today?> Kyoshi’s commented. <Usually she’s not this hard on you.>

<She’s just trying to make us better,> Mason knew it was the reason, even if it didn’t feel like it at the moment. <It’s better if you don’t think too much into it.>

“She’s such a bitch,” Seth mumbled more to himself than anyone in particular, but that didn’t mean a half dozen people around him didn’t move away nervously.

Fortunately, Coach Meyers didn’t hear him, and their jog over to the cardio equipment was uneventful. The cardio equipment station was a test in endurance that Mason was well built for. Today, he was on a stair climber that looked like a small escalator. Only if the escalator moved like it was on steroids. It was just his luck that Coach Meyers turned up his speed. Another thirty minutes running up stairs at twenty plus miles an hour was doing a number on his legs. Luckily, it was an upper body day for the rest of the workout.

The tension Mason felt in his shoulders ever since the pool station lifted as he entered the free weight section. He actually let out a grateful sigh. The next two stations were his realm, the territory of the strongman.

“You ready for today, Mason?” his training partner asked.

Casey Williams was the only other strongman in the class, although she was a strongwoman. Casey had the stereotypical build of their classification; 6’4”, broad shouldered, and block shaped. Unfortunately, Casey hadn’t been blessed with good looks. Her face was scrunched, like she was perpetually smelled something rotten, her eyebrows were big and bushy, and her blue eyes were a little too small for her face. Her facial structure wasn’t anything special, and she’d cut her brown hair too short in preparation for the HCP. It was also unfortunate people tended to judge a book by its cover, because Casey was one of the nicest people Mason had ever met.

“Let’s do it,” he clapped her on the shoulder. “What’s the training plan say?”

“Today we’re on shoulders,” she pulled out the small booklet they recorded their workouts in. “A couple warmups here in free weights, and then the heavy presses and shrugs over in the next station.”

“Stop farting around and get to work,” Coach Meyers yelled at the two freshmen who were some of the strongest in the class.

“Geez what’s got her panties in a bunch,” Casey whispered as they jogged over to the heaviest weights in the station.

Casey might be one of the nicest people Mason ever meant, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t also one of the bluntest. “She’s just trying to make us better,” Mason repeated his earlier argument, feeling a little less confident every time he used it. “Let’s not give her another chance to target us.”

Mason grabbed the 2 ton free weights and did three sets of twenty presses. It was a light weight for him, meant more to get the blood flowing than to actually tax his muscles. Casey did the same exercise with 1 ton weights.

In terms of raw physical strength, Mason was the strongest person in the class. Casey was still strong, probably comparable to Angela’s shifted form, but her true power was her durability. They hadn’t fought yet, but both freshmen knew that Casey was tougher than Mason was. When they did fight, it would be a good one. Casey was currently ranked 14th to Mason 6th. At the moment, all it meant was the Mason was lifting more than her.

After their warm up dumbbell presses they moved into front and lateral raises. They did a few sets individually at higher weights, and then lowered the weight to superset both exercises consecutively. Both ignored the stares of their classmates as they lifted 1500 lbs. weights out to their sides like they were flapping imaginary wings. Mason felt his endorphins fire as blood rushed to his contracting muscles. It felt good, just as good as any drug. After finishing those exercises they moved on to the next station, into the special section where the industrial-sized machines would actually be able to make them sweat.

“We’re just slated to do presses and shrugs today, but we’re going heavy,” Casey informed as she dropped the notebook besides the machine they were starting on. “70% of max weight for ten reps to start.”

Mason nodded, taking his seat between the handlebars. The shoulder press machine was magnetically driven because they simply couldn’t make dense enough weights. The powerful magnets hummed to life as Casey engaged that machine and dialed in the proper resistance. Mason started at 17 tons, and felt the strain of the exercise, but wasn’t really fatigued. That was a good thing after what he’d been through today. If he could take the physical drain from earlier, and still perform at a decent level, it showed his stamina was increasing.

Casey was up next, dialing it down to a hair over 12 tons, and completing her movements in much the same way. Both strongmen were methodical about their form. Backs were straight against the back of the bench, eyes were forward, and they concentrated on the muscle group being worked. They weren’t going to cheat themselves.

“85-90% for the next set, shoot for eight reps,” Casey informed.

“Let’s go for 90%,” Casey nodded, and dialed up another five tons to Mason’s resistance.

This time Mason felt it, and he struggled with number eight, but he got it up. Casey elected to do 90% of her max weight too, but was only able to get to 6 reps before she reached muscle failure.

“Damnit,” Casey grumbled as she stretched her swelling shoulders.

“Last one, let’s do it,” Mason stated, focused on the exercise. “Set it at 25 tons,” he asked.

“We’ve supposed to do six reps…” Mason cut off his training partner.

“I’m only going for four, and then drop to ten tons for an immediate second set to failure,” Casey just shrugged, not wanting to break Mason’s concentration.

Mason felt the resistance immediately, and was already struggling by the second press. He didn’t even have to ask Casey to position herself to help him if need be. He made it through the third rep, but knew a fourth was out of his reach.

“Spot,” he wheezed out, as he struggled to press up the final time.

Casey assisted, and probably ended up shouldering half a ton. The crash as Mason put the weight down harder than expected echoed throughout the gym. “Nice work, Jackson,” Coach Meyers was in between the normal machines and the strongman machines. “Keep it up,” the praise seemed genuine as Mason breezed through fifty repetitions at 20,000 lbs. before needing to stop.

Casey didn’t increase the weight too much for her final set, and was able to get all six of her reps with just a little help from Mason. The pair finished up their work out on the magnetically powered shrug machine, where both were able to hit impressive tonnage.

“Good work,” they high fived each other, both a little out of breath.

“Pull ups and hit the showers,” Coach McMillian announced as the last of the class finished up their exercises on the machines. “Have a good weekend, and stay out of trouble.” Coach Meyers headed to the exit while McMillian watched to make sure everyone finished their pull-ups.

Mason waited for Kyoshi to finish her pull ups before heading to the showers. She was limping slightly, but she refused the hand he offered her.

“You know she likes you,” Kyoshi eyed Casey as the strongwoman entered the women’s locker room.

“Who…Casey. No way, we’re just training partners,” Mason shook his head.

“She doesn’t see it that way,” he might have been imagining it, but he swore he heard a hint of jealousy in Kyoshi’s voice.

“Well, I’ll make it clear to her that I’m with you,” it seemed like the logical response to Mason.

“It won’t help,” Kyoshi’s eyes were still on the closed locker room door. “She’ll say it isn’t true, and that you’re just friends, but she’ll be hurt deep down. Ugh!” the raw display of emotion surprised him. “Why do you have to be such a good guy, Mason Jackson?” Kyoshi limped off into the locker room.

“What did I do?” Mason asked, unable to decipher what had just happened in their conversation.

“Don’t try and understand it,” Mason jumped, when Coach McMillian spoke from directly beside him. “The feminine creature is a mysterious and wonderful thing.”

“What do I do?” Mason looked the older Super for advice.

“Hell if I know,” the coach laughed abruptly, giving Mason a pat on the back, and leaving him even more confused than before.

 

***

 

<It’s been a good week,> Angela mentally played back the physical training sessions over the last four days. They’d been intense, even by her standards, but she was well prepared.

She’d never been real committed to weight training, but Coach Meyers and McMillian were quickly breaking down that barrier. Everything hurt or was sore. All her muscle groups had been worked at least once this week, but it felt good. She knew that the pain and ache would fade with time, and she would be stronger. This made her confident and hopeful that she would finally shed the fat that stubbornly clung to her. She couldn’t help but want that day to come quickly.

Changing in a locker room was a new experience for her, and not something she was comfortable with. She opened her locker and quickly began the routine of pulling off her black bodysuit while wrapping her towel around her. Other girls were chatting, making weekend plans, and taking their sweet time in the disrobing process. She knew it was silly to envy them, since she was the number one ranked freshman, but she did.

Her towel wrapped securely around her as she headed into the showers. Her mother had told her they would be communal, with no barriers separating the bathing women, and she better be ready for that. Luckily, West made some updates in the last few decades, so Angela got to enjoy the peace of a private shower. She didn’t let herself dawdle though, she had stuff to do.

Angela soaped up, washed her hair, and made sure it was properly conditioned before turning off the hot water. She toweled off behind the shower’s cheap curtain, and then wrapped the comfortable cloth around her upper body, leaving her damp hair to fall down her neck. She moved quickly back to her locker and removed her clothes. Her underwear and bra went on before she removed the towel. It was a tricky maneuver, but she’d perfected it over the last few days. She kept her eyes straight ahead while she did this. She didn’t want to see if anyone was judging her. Next up were her shorts. They were baggy with West’s name and logo running down the side of the right leg. She’d bought them at the school store for precisely this situation.

She did glance around as she pulled on her t-shirt, feeling comfortable now that she was clothed. A number of the other women were cramming themselves into a variety of outfits. A lot were donning mostly athletic gear, but much tighter than Angela believed her figure could accommodate. Others had dresses and skirts, mostly from fashionable designers, and obviously for the purpose of enjoying Orlando’s nightlife. Yet another thing Angela wasn’t comfortable with. Her plans tonight revolved around homework and sleep, so she could get an early start in the gym tomorrow morning. Just because it was the weekend didn’t mean that training stopped.

“You’re Angela Martin, right?” Angela jumped slightly when the girl standing beside her asked the question.

Angela had never seen the girl before, and that was probably because she was wearing the white uniform of a senior. The girl waited patiently for a response, taking the time to open her own locker and remove her uniform. Angela turned quickly away, but not before the spike of jealousy from the quick view hit her.

“Yes,” Angela finally replied, once she felt her blush was under control.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Hannah Dixon,” the slim girl extended her hand, which Angela had to turn around to shake. Thankfully Hannah had her towel on by then. “I’d like to invite you to a party tomorrow night, six o’clock sharp, at this address.” She slipped a piece of paper into Angela’s other hand.

“What…I’m sorry but…” Hannah talked right over the stuttering freshman.

“It’s kind of exclusive, top rankings only, so I’m sure your friends will understand,” Hannah was already moving towards the showers. “Can’t wait to get to know you better.”

With a smile the senior was gone, and Angela was staring stupidly after her. <Apparently I have plans tomorrow night,> Angela didn’t want to dwell on the fact that she didn’t really, or hadn’t really ever, had any friends. Heroes had teammates, acquaintances, and family, but no friends. Her parents had never referred to any of the fellow Heroes they brought in to train her as friends. <It will be a good networking opportunity,> Angela resolved, putting off the anxiety she was feeling at the future social interaction for the more comfortable angst of homework.

 

***

 

“…stay out of trouble,” Daisy headed straight for the door as Craig finished his speech.

She walked with her eyes forward, barely processing her environment, all the way to her office. The room looked exactly the same as when she first entered it less than a week ago, except for the pile of files and paperwork on the desk. She knew she should really be getting a head start on the following week’s training plan, but that was the farthest thing from her mind.

<Fuck!> she gently placed her throbbing head on the cool wooden surface of the desk. It did little to stem the headache that refused to leave her alone. She was going on three days, and was at wits end. She’d exhausted every drop of her self-control into not tearing every student a new asshole during that physical training class. Knowing she was in bitch mode didn’t help. <Ugh,> she pounded her head on the desk, not helping the situation.

“You look like shit, Daisy,” Craig was in her doorway now, a look of concern on his face.

“I feel like I’ve been hit by a bus, then it backed over me, then it made sure to park on my head and engage the emergency break,” Daisy was speaking into the wood, but he got the gist of it.

“If you need to ease up on some of the more physical stuff…” Craig began, but got cut off by her grunting laughter.

“Pleeeeease,” she drew out the word for exaggerated effect. “I could do those workouts in my sleep. I’ve just got the worst migraine.”

“Why don’t you head home, take a warm bath, and get to sleep early. Limiting the amount of light or sound that you’re exposed to should help.”

Daisy gave a noncommittal grunt, but got to her feet and grabbed the backpack she’d brought down with her. It had extra workout clothes, but she wasn’t in the mood. Craig was already gone by the time she reached her door, and wasn’t anywhere to be seen as she proceeded to the staff elevators. She didn’t make the same mistake she had during the beginning of the week, and emerged in her bedroom closet. The lights were already off and the shades were already drawn, and that helped a little.

In the privacy of her own home, and thoughts, she finally admitted why she was feeling like shit. <I need a drink.>

She’d replenished her secret stash after John had unceremoniously cleaned her out. She’d told herself it was about respect when she did it, but now she wasn’t quite so sure. If she’d just let it go she wouldn’t be in this situation now. Daisy reached under the bed and grabbed a bottle of vodka. It was stuffed into a small hole she’d cut into the bottom of the mattress. If John found this then he was definitely crossing a line and invading her personal space.

<To drink or not to drink, that is the question. Do I suffer the strings and arrows of outrageous hangovers…> her dramatic mental monologue brought out a chuckle.

She was deflecting, she knew she was deflecting, and it only made her head hurt worse. <I just need some sleep, a sleep without bad dreams,> she was bargaining now, again she knew it, but it made sense in her throbbing mind.

She grabbed the bottle and broke the seal. The smell of the cocktail reached her nostrils and she sighed with relief. For a moment her headache felt better. <One drink to help me sleep,> she poured her equivalent of one drink into a glass on her bedside table. <It won’t kill me. That right is reserved for some bad ass villain that probably doesn’t exist yet,> she grinned as she stroked her own ego, and downed the glass in a single gulp. She was a lot farther along than one drink by the time she fell asleep.

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