A Change of Pace – Chapter 18

Angela smiled as she let the warm water from the shower cascade over her. <This was a good day,> she mentally relaxed, putting the coming social engagement out of her mind.

Friday night had been peaceful after returning from physical training. Becca and Seth had both gone out for the evening, separately of course, while Mason and Kyoshi kept to themselves. This left Angela free to study, and prepare herself for the weekend. She’d been tired that night. It wasn’t all thanks to their physical training sessions, but that did play a part. College was just overwhelming.

Angela found herself juggling schoolwork; she was taking extra classes to free up time in the future, and the rigorous demands of the HCP. These were things she was used to, things she’d prepared for, but they still took their toll. The unexpected hurdles were of a more social nature. Angela had always been solitary. It was necessary with her parents’ careers. She didn’t get to hang around a lot with children her age, so she never had a traditional childhood. Once her powers manifested, she occupied herself with training.

Here at West she was developing friendships. They were developing awkwardly, but they were still manifesting. She’d actually enjoyed herself when she’d spent a little time with Becca at the freshmen orientation party, but that was a bottomless pool of energy she needed to slowly ease herself into. Kyoshi always offered her encouraging words, and had taken a protective role over everyone in the townhouse, except Seth. On top of all that, Mason was asking for training advice. The only one she wasn’t particularly close to was Seth, and she was ok with that.

Now she’d been approached by a senior, and the number one ranked senior at West to boot. She felt a momentary chill spread through her despite the warm shower. You didn’t get to be number one easily; Angela knew that from her own brief time in the freshman combat rankings. To be number one after four intense years, and a virtual shoe-in to being a Hero, was pretty intimidating.

<And I’m going to a party with her, and all the other class’ top rankings in an hour,> the momentary peace the shower offered was quickly slipping away.

Angela was determined to not worry about it, despite the growing sense of dread. The fear that everyone would identify the social cues she was missing, and ostracize her was no small factor. She’d seen what happened to Seth. Although this wasn’t quite the same case, people tended to disassociate themselves from people who were different. Her peers respected her for her power, but everyone tonight would be just as powerful, if not more so than she.

<You faced down a telekinetic who could punch holes in reinforces concrete like it was paper, so suck it up,> she tried to channel a bit of Coach Meyers, and wasn’t sure how well she succeeded.

Angela turned the nob on the shower, having to force the slightly rusted nozzle to the off position. She stood for a moment, inhaling and exhaling the warm steam into her lungs before opening the curtain. Her towels were laid on top of the nearby toilet, but she still had to get out of the shower to reach them. She’d made sure the door was locked before starting her shower; there was no telling what depths of perversion Seth could sink to.

She dried herself and went to work on her hair. She kept it shorter for the HCP; easier to manage in combat and the Florida humidity. She didn’t do much aside form combing it straight before putting it into a ponytail. She pulled on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt before quickly exiting the bathroom for the safety of her room. Only her room wasn’t so safe.

“Howdy, stranger. Haven’t seen you all day,” Becca was sitting on her bed, flipping through a magazine, her cowboy boots dangling a few inches off the floor.

“Umm…I was training,” Angela was feeling very self-conscious because she wasn’t wearing a bra. She did what she could with her arms.

Becca got that mischievous look on her face, and Angela blushed. Luckily, Kyoshi’s voice interrupted whatever was about to happen. “Don’t do it Becca!”

“Drat,” the speedster crossed her own arms over her chest and pouted, leaving Angela to wonder what exactly she’d just been saved from.

Angela knew a tactical opportunity when she saw one, so she quickly disappeared into her small closet. “You want to do something tonight?” Becca called in after her.

“Sorry,” Angela really did feel sorry. “I have plans.”

“You better not be training again,” Angela couldn’t see her face, but if it matched her tone it would have been unhappy.

“Actually no,” Angela replied.

“I don’t believe you.”

“She’s telling the truth,” Kyoshi called back. “She won’t let me past her mental barriers, but she did slip for a second. Someone invited her to a party.”

“Ooooooo,” Becca’s eyes lit up like a fireworks display. “Did a boy ask you?”

“You think too much about boys,” Angela replied, emerging from the closet with her chosen outfit.

Truthfully, Angela didn’t have the slightest idea what anyone wore to a party. So she opted for something she was comfortable with. She laid a white blouse, plaid knee length skirt, and a pair of knee high black socks on her bed.

“Aww heck no,” Becca gathered up the outfit in a blur, chucking it back into the closet. “You obviously don’t think enough about boys if you dress like that.”

“I didn’t get asked to the part by a boy,” Angela replied, irritated.

“I don’t care if a monkey’s uncle asked you to a party, you aren’t going like that,” Becca was already in the closet, tossing out articles of clothing like a wood chipper. “I won’t allow it.”

Angela picked up a pair of jeans from the top of the pile. She hadn’t worn them in years, and she’d gotten huskier since she bought them. “I can’t even fit in half this stuff.” She tossed the pair down, her self-esteem plummeting.

“I’m thinking skinny jeans and a nice top. You’ve got a push-up bra right?” it was a rhetorical question. “We’ll get the girls up, show off your killer legs, and even if a boy didn’t ask you there, you’ll have your pick of the litter.” All Angela could do was groan.

“You don’t have to be a telepath to know you’re pushing her too much,” Kyoshi appeared in the doorway, ducking slightly to keep her head from smacking into the frame. “Take a chill pill, Becca.”

Becca frowned, but she finally noticed the look on Angela’s face, and looked mortified. Kyoshi held up her hand, stopping the slew of apologies that were undoubtedly about to come flowing out. Angela gave Becca an “it’s ok” look, which helped relax the anxious speedster. She knew Becca was just trying to help.

“What is the nature of the party, and who will be there?” Kyoshi asked, beginning to separate some stuff on the bed.

Angela struggled for a moment, weighting the options of hurting their feelings by not telling them, or hurting their feelings by telling them and then saying they weren’t invited. <Hannah never said I couldn’t tell them,> she reasoned with herself.

“A senior invited me to an invitation only party. I guess some other kids from the HCP will be there,” the two girls took it much better than Angela thought they would, merely nodding acceptance.

“Ok. Now that we know what the event is, we need to know if you’re dressing to impress in general, or dressing to impress the boys?”

“Definitely in general,” Angela made sure the tall telepath could recognize the gratitude.

“How about this?” Kyoshi held up a white dress.

It was a simple design, with a bright floral pattern at the center of the bosom. It struck a good balance between causal and what someone might wear to a cocktail party, but Angela was worried about any embarrassing incidents. “We could pair it with a belt?” Angela didn’t know if the telepath was reading her mind, or if her facial expressions were that telling. All of her unflappable stoicism seemed to erode when it came to these social situations.

<Put me in a fight and I don’t even think about it. Put me in a dress and I’m sweating bullets.> Angela took the two items and retreated to the privacy of her closet to change.

“We’re all girls with the same parts. You won’t surprise us?” Becca called after her. “Ow,” Angela didn’t see it, but she was pretty sure Kyoshi punched her for the comment.

<Actually, this isn’t too bad,> Angela inspected what she could see.

The colors didn’t clash with her skin. The belt wouldn’t do a whole lot against any unexpected wind that could lead to a Marylyn Monroe moment, but it offered the illusion of security. She would need to be conscious of keeping her legs crossed, something she didn’t usually need to think about because of the shorts or jeans she preferred. More importantly, it offered flexibility. She could punch, kick, knee, and tackle without restriction; although, it would definitely lead to an embarrassing moment if she was forced into a fight. Of course, that would be the least of her problems at the moment. Overall, the outfit was doable.

She emerged with an exaggerated twirl. “Beautiful,” Becca flushed slightly at her own comment.

“She’s right,” Kyoshi piggybacked on the speedster. “You are beautiful, Angela. I just wish you could see what we are seeing.” Angela flushed an even deeper shade of crimson. This conversation was getting a little too deep for her.

Kyoshi noticed and backed off. “If you need any help accessorizing, Becca and I will be in the common room.”

“Hey, wa…” Becca couldn’t finish before getting pulled out of the room by the stronger woman.

Angela didn’t want to accessorize, or think about the sore subject they’d almost embarked on. Nevertheless, the human interaction felt good. <Friends. Maybe I’ll even make a few more tonight?>

Angela took the remaining time before she needed to leave to finish drying her hair and pack her purse. It was virtually dry by the time she took the blow dryer to it, so it was only a minute or two to finish it up, with another minute to straighten it. Packing the purse was the more important activity.

Constant vigilance had become her new motto since Coach Meyers’ speech. In keeping with that mindset, Angela made sure to carry a small arsenal with her wherever she went. Not enough to draw suspicion, but enough for anyone who looked hard enough to see a girl who had a real grasp of what could happen if she let her guard down. The first thing into her purse was the taser. It was police issue, a gift from her father before she left for school. He’d been more concerned about her getting an SI infraction than bodily harm being done to her by an attacker. Next into the bag was the mace. Despite her size, Angela considered herself a pretty quick runner, and that was only getting better with physical training. The mace offered her a perfect means of escape. In a worst case scenario, it would give her enough time to shift. The last, and most controversial accessory she stuffed into her purse was her pistol. Her concealed carry permit was filled out, filed, and approved the same day she’d been accepted to West. Her mother had been able to grease the wheels and get everything expedited. The small handgun was a last resort, and Angela couldn’t honestly think of a reason she’d be forced to use it.

<Constant vigilance,> she’d rather be prepared than dead.

Angela gave herself a last once over in the mirror, trusting that her friends had her best intentions at heart. With a nod she shouldered her purse and went down to the common room. The only one present was Becca, and she was on the phone. She was laughing at something someone was saying, and although Angela wasn’t versed in it, she was pretty sure Becca was flirting with whoever was on the other end. Angela heard the shower start up again as she crossed the common room towards the door, and remembered Kyoshi and Mason were going on their first date tonight.

<Have a good night!> Angela wished the telepath good luck, and gave a goodbye wave to Becca.

Becca returned the gesture, and then Angela was out the door. It was 5:55, but it was only a short walk to Hannah’s house. Down to the end of the street, take a left, down two more blocks, take another left, and it was the third house in on the right. Angela made sure she knew the route and an alternate route in case she needed to detour. She needed to make sure she was able to get there at exactly six, no matter the circumstances. Hannah had said six o’clock sharp.

The house was better kept than most on the street, but it still had the worn down look of houses rented by college students. The paint was chipped in quite a few places, the lawn wasn’t cut, the attic window had a crack in it, but no windows were boarded up, so that was a plus. The neighborhood was right at the edge of the invisible boundary where the college degraded into gang territory. Angela was pretty sure Hannah’s only concern with anyone from the bad part of town was getting outed as being in the HCP, because that was Angela’s only concern as she walked up to the porch at 5:59. She’d kept her hand in her purse and on the mace the entire walk over.

<Spray and run, or spray, run, and if they pursue, taser. If they don’t stop even then, and I’m not back to the dorm, pistol or shift. Threaten first before taking more drastic action,” Angela mentally ran through her options.

“Hey, Angela,” Jason was sitting on the top step of the stairs leading to the plain, raised concrete porch. “So I guess it is just the three of us.”

Angela looked passed Jason to see Erin Fisher sitting in one of the cheap beach chairs scattered on the porch. She was starring off into the twilight, lost in her own world. Angela still couldn’t figure out why the thin Super wanted to be a Hero. Erin barely seemed to be with it half the time, but Angela wouldn’t hold it against her. She’d seen Erin in action during the combat trails, and her power was impressive. It had to be, she was number three behind her and Jason.

“Good to see you again, Jason, Erin,” the woman who could animate inanimate objects moved her head slightly to the side in acknowledgement, but otherwise continued to stare off into the distance.

The conversation didn’t have a chance to get awkward, but it definitely would have. A nonsocial trainaholic, a girl lost in her own world, and a guy who also seemed to like his privacy, were not a good combination for conversation. Angela was starting to realize this whole evening was going to turn into a nightmare for the freshman class top rankings, but then the door opened to reveal Hannah.

“Good, you’re all exactly on time,” she stepped aside and ushered the three underclassmen inside.

Hannah was dressed pretty much along the lines of how Becca would have dressed Angela. Her jeans were of the tight variety, her top was conservative, but left enough to the imagination, and stuff was obviously pushed up. The senior wasn’t nearly as well-endowed as Kyoshi or even Becca. Sleek was the best way to describe Hannah, like a blade. Angela got the impression she could be used to slice and sculpt, or to stab, whichever the situation called for.

“We’re all friends here, Angela,” Hannah stated as the freshmen passed her into the house. “There’s no need to be afraid or worried. I do like how your mind works thought. You couldn’t have hit your analogy of me any better. Mind if I use it my internship interviews?” Angela automatically threw up her shield of white noise, while smiling politely back at her.

<More telepaths,> she mentally sighed, while keeping the smile on her face.

“Sure, feel free,” she answered Hannah’s question.

“Yes, another telepath,” Hannah replied with a sly smile. “Nice trick with the barrier. It’s crude though, and won’t keep me or anyone above sophomore year out.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” Angela tried to keep the unease out of her voice. “Any pointers on how to keep someone like you out of my head.” It sounded a little rude, but Angela hoped Hannah understood the underlying meaning behind her statement.

“That’s why you’re here,” Hannah left it at that, and led the way into the family room of the home.

There were eight more people there, which equaled out to the top three from every class. Hannah made the introductions, going around the room and letting the freshman know their name, grade, and ranking. Each of the older supers nodded as Hannah gave them the rundown of Angela and her classmates. It was thorough.

“Angela Martin is the number one ranked freshman,” Hannah ended the introductions with her. “She’s a shifter who transforms into an armored angel. She has enhanced strength, speed, durability, she can obviously fly, and she’s equipped with an energy weapon that she can shift at will. The weapon can be used for ranged attacks, but it’s suspected to be limited,” Angela acknowledged her weakness, just glad that her ability to turn off pain, and her mild sonic screams, weren’t common knowledge at the moment.

“If you guys want a beer, or water, of something to eat feel free to grab something in the kitchen. We’ve got quite a bit of finger foods for the occasion,” the guy sitting next to Hannah, with his arm wrapped around her shoulder, added.

<Mark, second ranked in the senior class behind his girlfriend,> Angela recalled the boy’s name, wishing she’d known what his power was.

Hannah had shared all of the freshman’s abilities with the other upperclassmen, but hadn’t offered any of theirs. She’d revealed she was an advanced mind, but that was only in response to Angela’s internal categorization and conversation. Jason got up to grab something, and left the two girls there alone.

Angela continued to study the other Supers, who were studying her right back. None of them had beer, there was no table set up for beer pong, and none of them looked like they were in the mood to get drunk. Erin was clueless, staring absentmindedly out of the window, but Angela was getting the opinion this wasn’t much of a party.

“I’m getting the feeling this isn’t much of a party,” Angela voiced her thoughts, feeling much tenser than she had been on the walk over.

“You’re right,” Hannah replied casually. “There will be a time for partying, but now I want everyone to get impressions of you. Meet you since we don’t cross paths much, and see if we want to let you in.”

“Let us into what?” Erin spoke for the first time Angela could remember.

“This better not be some “haze the freshmen” ritual,” Jason was in the doorway between the kitchen and family room. His expression was hard, and his whole body was tense, coiled and ready to strike.”

“No, nothing like that,” Hannah waved away their concerns, much too casually for the knowledge she had about them and their abilities. “There’s no hazing or anything like that. This whole thing is actually for your betterment.”

“I think we’re the best judges of what is good for us,” Angela replied, feeling her own body tense up, preparing for a fight.

“You know what, you’re absolutely right,” Hannah clapped her hands suddenly, causing everyone to jump. “So let’s get right too it.”

A projector screen unraveled itself from the ceiling, and Mark pulled out an expensive looking projector from behind their couch. It took a moment to set up, and Jason took the opportunity to retake his seat. Once the contraption was up and running it started to play Angela, Jason, and Erin’s fights during the freshman combat rankings. Each of the fights was dissected by the upperclassmen. They pointed out strengths and weaknesses of each of the freshman, offered tactical analysis of the choices made during the fights, and gave possible alternatives. Hannah even went as far as to identify tells each of the freshman had when they were about to do something. Angela didn’t even know the slight twitch in her facial muscles before she altered the shape of her energy weapon, or the way her whole body went ridged when she used her ability to nullify her injury’s pain. The junior number one rank pointed it out, and even hypothesized she had an ability she was engaging at the moment. Angela didn’t offer a reply to that.

The analysis lasted about an hour for each of the three freshmen. When they finally finished up with Erin, Angela got to her feet. “I need a drink.” A few of the Supers chuckled at her response.

Angela felt slightly numb as she grabbed a beer from the kitchen. She didn’t even recognize the brand, popped the top, and took a long drag. It was her first drink. She returned to the room, still chugging the brew, with two more in her hand. She handed one to Erin and Jason, they took it silently, and began emptying them.

Angela couldn’t help but think about what just happened. In no time at all, the older Supers had dissected her entire fighting style. They’d pointed out the good aspects of it, but they also showed how people with certain powers could beat her. They showed how people in her own class, ranked far lower than her, could beat her with the right opportunity and knowledge. Angela came to this “party” with the hopes of possibly broadening her social horizons. Instead she’d been stripped to the core, years of training appearing pointless. It shook the very foundation of who she was. The frailty and vulnerability she felt as a human was now transmitted to her shifted form. The form she associated with power, confidence, and her future as a Hero.

<Fuck,> Angela didn’t bother to chide herself for cursing. She knew Heroes didn’t curse, but she didn’t know what else to think.

“You three need to stop being so hard on yourselves, especially you Angela.” Hannah got to her feet, and stood in front of the three freshmen. “We’ve done this to you for a reason,” she continued. “We’re offering you a rare opportunity to take your HCP training a step further than anyone else in your class. We’re offering you our assistance, our combined knowledge to make you stronger.”

“So, is this some Super secret society or fraternity?” Jason asked.

“Nope. Think of us as a study group,” Hannah replied.

“How did you get your hands on this footage? It has to be confidential at least,” Angela hoped she wasn’t committing a felony by being here.

“I’m a subtlety major,” Angela knew what that meant, but Jason and Erin shared a look of confusion. “They’ll explain the majors to you later in the year. Essentially, I get all this stuff from the instructors, although I don’t think most of them know I’m getting it.”

“Isn’t this cheating?” Erin voice was barely audible.

“No. I’m pretty sure Professor Willis knows I’m doing it, but he hasn’t turned me in yet. We’re using all the information for training purposes, and we dispose of it properly, so there’s no downside. I actually think he might be grading me on it,” her expression became contemplative for a moment before she shook it off. “But that’s beside the point. The point is we want to help you be the best. Will you let us?”

“What’s it going to cost us,” Angela knew better than to think this was all free.

“It’s simple, you pass it on. When you become sophomores, juniors, and seniors then you sit down the freshman and do exactly what we’re doing for you. We’re creating a tradition of excellence at West, and as our class leaders we’re taking on that responsibility.” Hannah took a seat after her pitch, and waited for their response.

“What if we don’t stay in the top three,” Jason asked the question on Angela’s mind. It would be terrible to have all these extra resources only to have them stripped away.

“If you drop out of the top three you’re out,” Hannah’s voice was harder than her earlier statements. “And you keep your mouth shut. We don’t have the time to bring everyone in, and this will give you the motivation to work harder. Basically, if you aren’t in the top three you don’t deserve to be in our study group.” The realization was like bucket of ice water dropped on their heads, but it didn’t change their decisions.

“I’m in,” Angela replied.

<I need to be stronger, I need to overcome my weaknesses, I need to be unpredictable in battle, I need to show mom and dad that I’m the best,> the litany of reasons ran through her mind.

“I’m in too,” Jason nodded, his face determined.

Erin just nodded her head, taking her attention away from the windows long enough for people to know she was serious.

“Excellent,” Hannah clapped her hands giddily. “Now that we have you on board, let’s party.”

The serious faces of the assembled class leaders broke into smiles as they ran for the kitchen and future inebriation. Hannah couldn’t help but laugh at Angela’s face as she watched the stampeding Supers.

“First lesson, Angela,” Hannah walked over and placed her hand on Angela’s shoulder. “You need to take a little personal time every once and a while. I’ve got a sense for what drives you, but I’ll tell you right now that if you don’t ease up you’re going to burn out before senior year and never be a Hero.” The words stung, even more so since they were coming for a HCP senior and not her dorm mates. “Hero life is stressful enough. Take time to enjoy college, study, train, but allow yourself to get close to people. Despite how awesome your ability is, you’re going to be putting your life in someone else’s hands at some point in the future. It’s better that you have trust in them.”

Angela thought over Hannah’s words as the advanced mind telekinetically grabbed two beers from the kitchen and floated them to herself. She undid the top and handed one to Angela.

<If I get drunk, please make sure I get home ok,> Angela sent the mental plea to the senior.

Hannah smiled and nodded her reply, clinking her bottle against Angela’s. No sooner had they finished their first sip than the beer pong table emerged from storage. “Come on, you and I can take these guys,” Hannah practically dragged Angela over to the tables edge where Mark and Jason were setting up their side’s pyramid of cups.

“Don’t worry, I’m really good at this,” Hannah reassured as the cups arranged themselves on their side of the table.

<I hope so, because I’ve never played before,> Angela had a feeling she’d be doing a lot of firsts tonight.

 

***

 

The importance of this moment couldn’t be underestimated. The entire last hour had been building to this climax. Mason tensed, forcing himself to take a sip of Coke, only to realize his hand was shaking. They were clammy too. There was a thin layer of sweat making it difficult to get the cup to his lips without spilling. He couldn’t spill the Coke now. He’d been exceedingly careful not to stain his pants and dress shirt. They didn’t come cheap in his size.

<This is it,> the world moved in slow motion as Kyoshi grabbed one of the chocolate covered delicacies, and brought it to her lips. <Damn she’s beautiful.>

Mason’s date for the evening was wearing a modernized, westernized version of a kimono. He wasn’t educated on woman’s fashion, especially from another country, but he could still admire the splendor. Kyoshi’s dress was a royal blue color that went well with hair, eyes, and complexion. It was strapless, which differed quite a bit from the traditional garb, but was still conservative considering the size of her bosom. It also didn’t end just below her butt like the slutty geisha outfits girls wore on Halloween; Kyoshi had more class than that. It ended just above her knees, and clung in all the right places. She was elegant but still incredibly sexy. She had Mason hook, line, and sinker from the moment she stepped into the common room.

“Mmmmmmm,” Kyoshi’s moan conveyed the ecstasy specifically reserved for chocolate. “That’s good,” she patted her lips with her napkin, careful to avoid ruining her lipstick.

Mason let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, and smiled. “I thought you’d enjoyed it.”

Kyoshi smiled back, and Mason’s heart skipped a beat. <Damn she’s beautiful,> he couldn’t help but repeat himself.

The date had gone great so far. Kyoshi literally jumped for joy when he showed her the tickets to the comedy club. That was a feat unto itself for a woman in heels. The height granting shoes, which matched her hair, made her just his height. He was ok with that. It made his plans for the end of the night kiss that much easier.

Kyoshi had laughed her ass off at the comedian; literally nearly falling out of her chair a number of times during the set. Her laugh was much higher pitched than you would expect from a woman her size, and it was accompanied by snorts at irregular intervals. Mason found it endearing, especially after the frightened look she’d given him after the first one escaped from her. His smile had melted away her fear, and led to her holding his hand for the rest of the set. Except when she needed it to maintain her balance after a particularly funny joke.

The Italian restaurant was just as great. Mason couldn’t pronounce the dish Kyoshi ordered, and the menu being in Italian didn’t help. All Mason knew was that there was a fancy Super chef who apparently made the best spaghetti and meatballs in town, and that’s what he ordered. The chocolate covered strawberries were the icing on the cake, and it didn’t take a telepath to know Mason had sufficiently impressed her.

“So where were we?” the arrival of the desert created a lull in the conversation. Kyoshi devouring half the strawberries only furthered it, but Mason didn’t care.

“Travel,” he replied.

“Oh, yeah,” Kyoshi’s forehead scrunched up in a cute way as she thought. “So I spent a few weeks in China after freshman year in high school,” Kyoshi picked up the conversation of her world travels where she left off. “I saw all the typical touristy stuff; the Great Wall, Ming Tombs, and Terracotta Warriors. I also got to visit most of the big cities; Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and a few lesser known ones but just as huge. Other than that trip, I’ve just been back to Germany and Japan to visit family.” She chomped off three quarters of a strawberry as she finished. “How about you? What magical places have you been too?”

“Nothing as exciting as you,” Mason replied feeling slightly self-conscious. “I made it up to Yonkers once with a friend. Other than that, I’ve never left New York other than to come here.”

If his lack of world travel made Kyoshi feel bad, especially after recanting her numerous trips, she didn’t show it. “New York City is the greatest city in the world; you must have done some exciting stuff there.”

Mason smiled knowingly. Kyoshi was maneuvering the conversation to make sure he didn’t feel bad. As he suspected, she came from a pretty well off family. He’d learned early in their date that her mountain of a father owned a construction company in California. That allowed them to do the trips she had described. Mason’s family was more concerned with making the rent than going to China. Still, Kyoshi effortlessly bridged the social gap between them. She was cultured and he wasn’t, but she made him want to be.

<Maybe we can go someplace together one day,> Mason should have pumped the breaks and banished the thought, but it gave him hope for their future.

Kyoshi was waiting patiently for him to respond. Letting him work through things, and daydream about the possibilities. She even had a small smile on her face.

“Well, I have been to The Block before,” Mason pulled up the most exciting memory from his childhood.

“Where’s that,” Kyoshi placed her elbows on the table and stared intently into his eyes. He had her full attention.

“It’s the headquarters of the New York Patriots. It’s in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan. It’s so awesome,” Mason knew he sounded like a kid eager to show his parents he got an A on a test, but that was pretty much how he felt about the place. “I went there with my class when I was younger. We got to see all the Super history in New York, and even got to meet a handful of the Patriots.” He was beaming like an idiot now.

“Is that when you first realized you wanted to be a Hero?” Kyoshi asked in a whisper.

The restaurant was crowded, the clink and clank of silverware and glasses drowned out a lot of the conversations, and those sitting close to the two Supers weren’t paying attention.

“I didn’t have my powers yet, so it was more a kid’s fantasy of saving the world between commercial breaks,” Mason said.

Kyoshi was grinning. “So you watched those cartoons too,” the two shared a knowing smile.

“Yeah. It wasn’t until I got my powers that I really started thinking about it. I didn’t really commit until most of the Patriots got wiped out,” Mason shrugged, the pain of the loss still a tender scab on his psyche.

“Did you meet Reaper on the tour?” if Kyoshi was whispering before then she was barely audible now.

“I met her a few years later,” Mason thought back to that day in the street, finally able to appreciate how stupid he’d been. “I was an idiot, and she probably saved me as much as the people I was trying to save.”

“So you’ve always been saving people,” there was a twinkle in her eyes as she said this.

Mason just shrugged, cutting the conversation short at the waiter approached.

“How was the desert?” the guy was young, college-aged, and probably went to either West or UCF. His eyes, and question, were entirely meant for Kyoshi.

“It was fantastic,” Mason couldn’t help but smile smugly when she snaked her hand across the table into his.

The young waiter was a professional, and didn’t let his anger or jealousy show. “Can I get you anything else this evening?”

“I think we’re good,” Mason looked at Kyoshi for acknowledgement, and she nodded.

Some women might need a box to bring some of the food home. Whatever those other women’s reasons, Kyohsi wasn’t one of them. She was what his Grandma called “a member of the clean plate club”, and that was no small task considering the size of her entrée. If HCP training was good for anything, it was burning calories.

“I’ll take your plates and get your check,” the waiter gave a small nod to them as he professionally stacked their remaining dishes on his hands and arms.

“So what’s next,” now Kyoshi looked like the eager kid. Mason shared her excitement. Neither wanted this night to end.

“I thought a stroll in the park would be nice,” it was the most mundane of the three planned activities, but Kyoshi’s face still lit up.

“I’d love that,” the conversation was cut off as a man approached the table.

“I hope you enjoyed your meal tonight,” the man’s professionalism and poise made the waiter look like a hobo.

The sophisticated man’s name tag read Maître D’, and Mason confused it for Major D at first. <Why would anyone wear a name tag calling them a major douche,> it took an embarrassing moment for Mason to realize his mistake.

“It was great,” Mason felt like a Neanderthal compared to the Maître D’.

“Excellent,” the man seemed generally pleased at their enjoyment. “Our customers’ satisfaction is our highest priority,” he continued. “Management had decided to take care of your bill this evening, so please enjoy our compliments.” He gave a small bow as he finished.

Mason and Kyoshi both shared a look of confusion. “There must be a mistake. The service was great, the food was great, we’ll pay,” Mason pulled his rugged old wallet from his back pocket.

“There is no need, Sir,” the Maître D’ back away from the table. “Everything had been taken care of. Have a pleasant evening.” Before Mason could even complain the man was gone, weaving his way through the tables.

“Oh,” Mason wasn’t quite sure what to do with the hand holding his wallet.

The dinner being taken care of filled him with mixed emotions. Mason didn’t like taking charity. He worked hard for what he had, and he believed there was value in that. People respected themselves and money more if they worked for it. He briefly thought that Kyoshi might have gotten the bill, but her raised eyebrows showed she was just as surprised as him. Plus, she knew enough about him not to do that. The second emotion was relief. The meal would have been in the triple digits, so he now had a bunch of extra cash. His thoughts immediately went to a bigger flower arrangement for Kyoshi or another date night. The last emotion was confusion. Who would pay for two kids to get a free meal at such a swanky place? A quick glance around the restaurant showed no one familiar.

“Well,” Kyoshi shrugged, coming to the same conclusion as Mason. “You gonna take me on this walk or what?”

The mystery behind the comped meal evaporated as Mason got back on track. He pulled out Kyoshi’s chair so she could rise without hitting her knees on the table. Her dress might be more modest than the mini-things other college students were wearing now-a-days, but that didn’t mean it was built for maneuverability. Once she was on her feet, Mason took her arm in his and led the way to the door.

People stared as the two almost seven foot Supers squeezed through the crowded restaurant. Mason ignored the stares, the judgment, and the leers. People made assumptions based on their appearance; him being black, her white, her hair marking her as a Super or Powered, his height and bulk leading people to a similar conclusion. Kyoshi could probably hear the condescension in their minds, and he could see it plainly on some people’s faces. They both ignored it all, focusing on each other and the moment. That was what was truly important.

The temperature change from the inside of the restaurant onto the street would have been a perfect opportunity for Mason to offer Kyoshi his coat. The only problem with that was him not having a coat, and it being in the mid-70s despite the sun having set hours ago. Instead, and far more preferable from his point of view, Kyoshi eased into him, and they walked into the park in a partial embrace.

The park was lined with street lights for safety purposes, and they illuminated a clear path through the park. Mason knew the flower vendor was at the far end, a decent five-ten minute walk away, so he got to spend the time enjoying Kyoshi’s company. They didn’t talk much as they walked through the greenery, and simply enjoyed the physical contact. They were so unaware of their surroundings Coach Meyers would have kick them both upside the head for being idiots.

The street lights began to wink out all around them. Mason observed the dying sputter, noting how they their power source seemed to be pulled away from them. The choreographed blackness started at both ends of the park, and met in the middle; which was where Kyoshi and Mason were conveniently standing.

Cat calls echoed through the darkness all around them. Profanity spewed from the blackness, detailing how they would sexually humiliate Kyoshi with a wide variety of sadistic acts. More was thrown Mason’s way, mostly of a derogatory racial nature.

<Psychological warfare,> Kyoshi’s voice echoed calmly in Mason’s mind.

Neither of the Supers were frightened in the least. Their unknown assailants’ actions were theatrical so far. They were meant to scare and intimidate. Their threats, perverted comments, and racial epithets fell on the deaf ears of two HCP students. Even so, they continued for an extended period of time before they got the hint their theatrics weren’t working.

They needed to step it up a notch, make their presence known. “Hey baby,” a deep voice announced the appearance of the first criminal.

The teenager was probably used to being the biggest, badest person in the room, and he clearly wasn’t enjoying the fact that both Kyoshi and Mason were both several inches taller than him. He wasn’t able to hide the scowl, which Kyoshi’s condescending glare only made worse. She’d known he was there all along.

“Tall, dark, and handsome; why don’t you ditch the bimbo. I’ll show you a good time,” the second criminal made her appearance.

She was behind them, blocking their path back the way they’d come. Electricity arched between her fingers. It was pitiful compared to what they’d seen one of their classmates do in the combat trials, but it would have been intimidating for a normal person. She was much shorter than her partner in crime, and judging by their appearance, they were probably siblings.

“Do you have to say that in front of me,” the bulkier brother confirmed their suspicions. “I don’t need to know who you’re screwing.”

The electricity absorbing sister laughed at her brother, a broken sound. It was a crude imitation of what a laugh should really sound like. Mason found himself wondering about what the young woman, probably no older then fifteen, had gone through to be like that.

“That’s too much information, Sis,” the third and final criminal stepped from behind a tree twenty feet in front of them, completing the triangle they’d created to box Mason and Kyoshi in.

A quick look at the third man showed Mason two things. He was the oldest of the three siblings, early twenties probably. That made him the leader, and the way the sister and younger brother listened to him reinforced that point. The second was his speed. The leader had whipped out a butterfly knife, and was repeating the action over and over again. It all occurred in a blur, not as fast as Becca or Coach McMillian, but fast enough to be an issue.

“Everybody chill,” Mason put his hands up in a calming gesture.

They’d be able to take the absorber and probable strongman. <Yes,> Kyoshi confirmed his assumption. But throwing a speedster into the mix made this whole situation much more dangerous.

Mason doubted any of the three could do anything to really hurt him, but Kyoshi was a different story. She could outlast the strongman, using her speed, experience, and teamwork until Mason finished him off. If forced to face the sister, Kyoshi’s own meager telekinetic barriers would probably be able to stand up to the woman’s meager lightning strikes until Kyoshi could get close enough to finish her. At a minimum Kyoshi could hold her off long enough for Mason to step in. A speedster with a knife threw a wrench in that whole battle plan. He’d be able to zip in and out, slashing at her. Mason would be immune to the petty strikes, but Kyoshi was too human.

Then there was the little issue of SI infractions.

“Hand over your money, jewelry, and anything else valuable and you get to live,” the casual way the gang’s leader spoke pissed Mason off more than the situation they were in.

Everything pointed to this not being this group’s first robbery, and unless Mason stepped in, it wouldn’t be there last. Kyoshi nodded when Mason looked at her. She was onboard and already taking off her shoes. She shrunk a few inches in the process, but they were still an intimidating pair.

“I’m probably poorer than you, Bro,” Mason looked over the grungy, dirty clothes of the three siblings. “Let’s just leave it at that and everyone walks away from here.” Mason knew the leader wouldn’t back down, he couldn’t.

Backing down would lose the older man the respect of his siblings. His little gang’s dynamic would get thrown off. The sister was a little off, and the younger brother was suffering from the hormonal swings of puberty. Neither of them was capable of being the leader, even if they thought they were. All the younger siblings needed was an excuse, an act of weakness to show their older brother wasn’t fit to lead anymore. That was the reason Mason’s suggestion was met with a laugh, and that was the reason this was going to get bloody.

“Three on two, that’s hardly fair,” a sixth, all too familiar voice, joined the conversation.

Where the three criminals tried futilely to be threatening and intimidating, this sixth voice did it with ease. Mason jumped when he heard it, and Kyoshi did too. Even though she’d been alert, she hadn’t heard the new arrival’s thoughts. The sister squeaked in alarm, and jumped away in an undignified manner. The source of the statement wasn’t more than ten feet behind her.

Mason looked into the shadows the voice originated from, and found a pair of unblinking red eyes. Slowly he began to make out the form of Coach Meyers, Reaper, leaning casually against an unlit street light. She almost looked bored, with her arms across her chest, and her legs crossed so she balanced on a single limb. She emerged slowly, menacingly, from the shadows. She frowned as she kept the three petty criminals in her sight before focusing her attention on the leader.

“Damn,” the younger brother growled hungrily. No one paid him any attention.

“Let’s make this interesting,” Mason knew violence was imminent; adrenaline began to flood his body. “Let these two lovebirds go, and you can try to take my money,” Coach Meyers was already beside Mason and Kyoshi, and was pushing them back in the direction of the restaurant. A stern look kept the sister from moving to intercept them.

“How about we just take everyone’s money,” the leader was still oblivious to the danger he was in.

“Get out of here,” Coach Meyers turned her back on the leader, and shoved Mason and Kyoshi with enough force to stagger them.

You didn’t need to tell them twice. Their alternative instructor was offering them a way out; a way that got rid of the criminals, and kept their secret identities a secret. He was so grateful Mason didn’t even bother wondering how Coach Meyers knew they were in the park.

They were halfway back to the restaurant before Mason heard the sizzling of electricity, but he didn’t look back. Whoever those three were, they were toast.

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