A Change of Pace – Chapter 48

<A line, really…come on,> Daisy grumbled as she walked down the hall towards her classroom.

The off-white linoleum of the hallway had been recently polished, so the light reflected upwards from the few sections that weren’t scuffed beyond repair. It reminded Daisy a little bit of a cloudy day. The sun was able to poke through the cloud cover occasionally, but for the most part people lived under the overcast sky. That summed up her mood, and the emotions swirling around in her head pretty much perfectly.

Daisy got in the back of the line and waited, just like everyone else. She ignored the stares she got. It was past the middle of December, so it was chilly out, but nothing compared to a New York winter. Since her body and mind still remembered the much more frigid temperatures of the north, she was wearing much less clothing than most of the other girls in line. She was still in a pair of jeans, heeled boots, and a thin sweater. That was less when the other girls were in parkas.

“What?” the single word sent eyes looking anywhere but at her.

“You’re in a mood today,” a familiar voice answered behind her.

A smile replaced the scowl on Daisy’s face as she turned to face Laurie. The middle-aged mother looked back at Daisy with a lopsided grin. Her hair was pulled over half of her face, but even that didn’t hide the shiner that she was sporting.

“What the fuck happened?” the brief uplift in Daisy’s mood vanished.

“It’s nothing,” Laurie waved it off.

Daisy could tell it wasn’t nothing, and judging by the bruise, it had happened relatively recently. The trained Hero’s mind assessed the situation and came up with multiple scenarios. It also revealed some saddening facts. Daisy had been taking 20th Century History with Laurie for nearly the entire semester. Other than a few assignments here and there with other students, she’d exclusively spend her time with the older-looking woman. In all that time, Daisy realized that she didn’t know anything about Laurie’s home life.

It was an uncomfortable way to learn about someone’s domestic situation, but Daisy wasn’t going to let anyone push around a big part of her emotional recovery. “Did your husband, or boyfriend, do this?”

Laurie looked her dead in the eye…and laughed.

It was the kind of laugh that you’d expect to come from someone a little unhinged; not something from a possible victim of domestic violence. Laurie laughed long and hard, she even she even had to wipe away a few tears. Daisy ignored the stares they were getting from the other students in line, and watched her friend to see if she was deflecting. After a solid thirty seconds of laughter, Laurie finally calmed down enough speak.

“That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in the last ten years,” this subject wasn’t a joking matter, but Daisy was definitely off the mark on her assessment.

“I’ve got to get my husband worked up to spank my ass in bed, and then it’s a weak love tap at that,” Laurie dried her last few tears of laughter. “That man couldn’t hurt me if he tried.”

That put Daisy at ease a bit. She didn’t want to insert herself into a domestic situation, and to hear the confidence Laurie had was a breath of fresh air. That crossed the worst case scenario off the Hero’s list, but that black eye had come from somewhere.

“Your hubby is submissive,” Daisy gave the fact a nod. “So who smacked you around?”

“Some little punk jumped me in the parking garage,” Laurie showed Daisy her scraped elbows. “He shoved me down, hit me, and tried to steal my purse.” Laurie reached into the purse in question, and removed a sizable can of pepper spray. She shook it, clearly showing that it was near empty. “I introduced him to my good friend Mr. Jalapeῆo here, and he ran off like a little bitch.”

Now it was Daisy’s turn to laugh.

Laurie might be an older woman, and a weak Super, but there was a fire in her gut that Daisy wished some of her freshman students had. Here was someone who could totally be dominated by an opponent, but she kept a level head in an emergency, and came out on top. It was downright admirable.

“Did you file a report with campus police?” Daisy would need something on record with the campus if she decided to unofficially look into it. The DVA couldn’t get their panties in a bunch if she was doing a simple investigation for the benefit of the university’s student population.

“I’m headed there after the final if you want to tag along,” Laurie replied, replacing the large bottle back in her bag.

“Are you good to take it? I’m sure you could get an extension.” Daisy voiced her concern.

“I’ve got shit to do instead of waiting around for our wonderfully exuberant professor to work in a makeup test time. No, I know the material and my head doesn’t hurt too badly. I’ll take it now and get it over with.” That was that; Daisy wasn’t going to argue with a woman who’d made up her mind.

Five minutes later, the previously mentioned professor arrived and let everyone in. They all hustled to their assigned seats. Most sat down and tried to do a last few minutes of cramming. Daisy had been around long enough to know that it wouldn’t work. If you didn’t know the material already, trying to push it into your brain right before the test wasn’t going to get you anywhere. A person’s mind just couldn’t assimilate the information. It needed time.

Daisy and Laurie did crack open their books as they waited for the professor to get organized. Instead, Daisy thought about other things. There were several emotions whirling around in her head as the professor pulled out a thick stack of papers from his briefcase. The first one was anxiety. It had been a half century since Daisy had taken a final exam, and if she was being honest with herself, she hadn’t studied enough. Things had been too hectic for her to spend too much time preparing for a class she was only auditing as part of her therapy. She’d been able to get together once, for two hours, with Laurie; but that was it.

While Daisy might be anxious, she was also glad. She was glad that Dr. Johnson’s little experiment was coming to an end; and even happier that it was a success. Daisy honestly felt that her taking this class had reintegrated her more into the non-Hero community. Sure, most of the people in the class she wanted to strangle, or bash her own head repeatedly against the wall; but a few of them were pretty cool. The people she was protecting were less of an abstract concept now; she could put faces and names to those she would put herself in danger for.

Daisy was anxious and glad, but she was also a little sad. Spending time outside the HCP, coming to class with Laurie, had been a welcome change of pace; especially when things with her job got crazy. She was glad the experiment was over, but she was also going to miss it. They were contradicting emotions, she knew that, but that didn’t stop them from existing.

Lastly, Daisy was stressed. This was the last little bit of free time she’d have for awhile. It was the end of the beginning of the end. She’d had a romantic evening with Topher earlier; they’d talked some stuff out, and reaffirmed their commitment together. She still hadn’t jumped into bed with the man, something that must be driving him crazy, but if he was the right one then he’d suck it up and wait. All Daisy had left was this final, which didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, and a little extra time with Laurie. After that she was going to get buried alive under this HCP final. It might only be three hours for the students, but the professors would be analyzing, cataloging, and making decisions off those scores for the next few days. They were the types of decisions that would change young people’s lives, or kill their dreams. Then they had to talk to those kids, and build or break them. It was a burden that they were all ready to bear.

Once all the grades were in, and decisions made; Daisy had a little trip to take. She had an advanced mind to visit. Since he was about a hundrd years old, Daisy needed to make sure she didn’t get violent with the old fart. It was going to be a bittersweet reunion, but one that needed to yield answers.

“Ladies and gentlemen please put everything away,” the professor’s monotone was something Daisy had gotten used to over several months. “This is your final exam,” he started handing out the thick packets. “There are one hundred multiple choice, twenty five fill in the blank, and three short answer questions.” He explained how the test would be graded in a lot more detail than Craig and she had.

Unlike her students, Daisy would know exactly how she’d arrived at her grade on this test. It was comforting for her to be able to look at everything and deduce the reasoning, but she knew the HCP did it a different way for a reason. Uncertainty was a staple of the profession, and all the potential Heroes needed to get used to having things that were out of their control.

“You have two hours,” the professor looked at the clock. “You may begin…now.” Daisy noted the time and started the exam.

Two hours, one minute, and a whole lot of brain cells later; Daisy and Laurie walked out of the classroom with tired grins on their faces. Physical workouts were one thing, mental workouts were another. Since her episode during Hurricane Sandy, Daisy hadn’t undergone the grueling, multi-day long mentally taxing missions required of Heroes. Sure, her tasks at the HCP were still tough, but Daisy could usually count on going home and sleeping at least part of the night. The former Hero distinctly remembered earlier times in her career, going days, and on one occasion, nearly a full week by chugging coffee and popping stimulants. If there hadn’t been a healer nearby afterwards that mission could have gotten pretty ugly.

<I’m getting soft,> the lightheaded feeling she was experiencing from exercising her mental faculties told her as much. <Fuck me; I need to get back into the field.>

She knew that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, so she settled for walking with Laurie to the campus police office. A nice young officer ushered them both back into a small office to take her statement. He didn’t mind that Daisy tagged along.

“Did you know the person? Had you seen him before?” the officer asked some follow up questions after taking Laurie’s statement.

Daisy had been listening closely, cataloguing all of the information her friend was giving. The description she’d given was a young man, college aged, a few distinguishing tattoos, medium height and weight, and not much else. He hadn’t jumped in a car, so there wasn’t any license plate to follow up on, just the description.

“We’ve been having problems with gang violence; especially in the parking garages,” the officer looked ashamed at the admission.

The parking garages were on the edge of the school’s property, and that property ran right along the edge of known gang territory. Usually, the two communities didn’t interact much, but it seemed someone was getting some bad ideas about jumping people in a school with an HCP.

“We’re installing lights, and stepping up patrols,” the officer reassured Laurie. “But I suggest you travel in groups, and try to park somewhere else if you can.”

“Fat chance at that,” Laurie’s scoff caught the officer by surprise. “I’ve got the basic permit. If I try to park anywhere but the lot then I’ll get ticketed. You might be stepping up patrols in the garage, but I guarantee that if I sit in one of those coveted lots for more than ten minutes I’ll have the big orange ticket on my windshield.”

Daisy snorted, and tried to cover up her amusement with a cough. The officer just looked surprised. Laurie had always been a “take not shit” kind of person.

“Um…well…then I suggest you travel in a group until we sort this situation out. And please be careful,” the officer added as he closed up his notebook. “The gang is a Super gang. You might have run into a normal thug today, but it could be someone with powers tomorrow. We’re putting in a word with the local hero team to look into it, and this report will help.”

“I’m glad me getting my face messed up was worth something,” Laurie was a little miffed, but she nodded her thanks.

“Thank you officer,” Daisy thanked the man out loud for both of them.

<Jackpot,> Daisy thought as she left the office with Laurie. <If they’re putting in a word with the Protectorate I’ll have Galavant give me a heads up.> A regular gang might not fit into her job description, but a Super gang was fair game as far as she was concerned.

Daisy smelled a stakeout in her near future, but near was a relative term. She had the freshman final to get through before she could even think about sitting in a car with takeout food for an entire night.

<Maybe I’ll invite Topher,> doing police work in his time off was probably the last thing her boyfriend wanted to do, but Daisy had ways to talk him into it.

“Why are you grinning like you just got laid,” Laurie popped Daisy’s bubble. “Did you?” the older woman wiggled her eyebrows.

“No,” Daisy was proud that she didn’t blush. “Just thinking about my end of semester plans.”

“I hope they’re better than mine. The kids are back in town, so I’m back to housewife mode. Maybe you could stop by and rescue me. A beauty like you might actually be able to get my little hooligans to clean their rooms.”

Now Daisy blushed. “That actually sounds like fun.” After everything was done it might be nice to kick back and relax with Laurie.

“You’ve got my number,” they’d reached a Y-intersection. Daisy needed to head left to get to the HCP, and Laurie was going to go right.

“I’ll call you in a few days,” the two women exchanged a brief hug before heading their separate ways.

<A stakeout, time with Topher, a day with Laurie; this might not be such a bad winter break,> Daisy allowed herself a small smile at what lay ahead. <But I’ve got a job to do first.>

Daisy put on her game face as she headed to the nearby lift. She stopped being student and friend Daisy Meyers, and became Professor Meyers. The change was noticeable when she stepped on a lift that was already occupied by a handful of her freshmen.

“Gilford, Scarborough, Romanoff,” all three women involuntarily gulped when their alternative instructor got on the lift. “You ready for this afternoon?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they answered in shaky voices.

“You better be more prepared than that,” she shot all three of the girls stern looks. “This test is going to chew you up and spit you out if you’re not on top of you game. I trained you better than that.”

“Yes, ma’am,” there was a little more backbone in their second reply.

“Good,” Daisy kept her face composed, but she was smiling inside.

<Let’s do this.>

 

***

 

Mason stepped into the lift, and then forced himself into the back corner so everyone else could get aboard. It seemed everyone had the same idea as the strongman; get down to the HCP early, do some last minute prep, and avoid the rush. So now everyone was rushing down at the same time just earlier.

“Hold the door,” Mason’s recognized Becca’s voice as she came though the tech genius fake wall, and ran toward the full elevator.

“Take the next one, Whitfield,” Simon Skylar, who was barely able to fit inside stated.

“No I can fit,” Becca did just that, squeezing underneath Simon’s shoulder.

It looked like a master Tetris player had organized the lift when the doors finally closed. Hopefully nothing broke, because if it did they’d all be in for a claustrophobic, BO filled afternoon.

<It was still a good idea,> Kyoshi thought from where she was crammed up against him. They were closer now than most nights they slept together.

Most of Townhouse #117 was taking this lift down early; Mason, Kyoshi, Angela, and Becca had made it onto the ride. <You have a plan?> Kyoshi asked, shifting slightly so his elbow wasn’t jabbing her in the boob.

<Well I was thinking about teaming up with the really hot telepath. That way we’ll have brains and brawn to win this final.>

                <You might want to ask her soon. She’ll probably get lots of offers from other students who want to get on her good side.> Despite the angle, Mason saw the corner of his girlfriend’s mouth turn upwards in a grin.

<I have it on pretty good authority that I’m already on her good side,> Mason grinned too, but kept his eyes straight ahead.

Normally he wouldn’t have been worried about the physical reactions to his and Kyoshi’s mental conversations, but the last few days he’d encountered more paranoid HCP students then he thought possible.

<And Angela is on this elevator,> Mason thought to himself. His dorm mate had an unnatural talent discerning people’s thoughts from their body language. With him and Kyoshi both grinning he might as well be shouting to the shifter that they were planning on teaming up. Although, it was commonsense that they would be.

<Should we ask Becca or Angela?> Mason posed the question to his more insightful girlfriend.

<Becca’s going to be teaming up with Anika,> Kyoshi answered matter-of-factly. <Together they’ll have strength, lots of speed, limited telepathy, and kinetic blasts. They’ll be tough opponents if we ever come up against them.>

                <So you’ve been listening to people’s thoughts?> Mason asked.

<Of course,> Kyoshi replied quickly. <Normally I don’t, but this is our HCP combat final. We need to use every tool available to get as much information as we can on our opponents. This is going to be a chunk of our grade, and going to determine where we end up next semester. There isn’t much off limits at this point.>

                Mason saw Kyoshi’s point, and he even agreed with the logic, but that didn’t stop the feeling that it was an invasion of people’s privacy and borderline cheating.

<I haven’t been able to get a read on Angela, but I don’t think she’s going to want to partner with anyone; at least not at first,> Mason was about to ask why, but his girlfriend’s explanation beat him to it. <She’s already number one, and teaming up with anyone will only dilute her points. She’s going to want to test herself too. My guess is she’ll take on multiple people alone, see how she does, and then form a team once the amount of people gets whittled down a little. It’s not like anyone she wants to form an alliance with is going to say no.>

Kyoshi had a good point, and Mason silently agreed with it. He’d had the same line of thought when he’d thought about how he’d fare when teaming up Kyoshi. He was always going to team up with his girlfriend; to not do so was a betrayal Mason couldn’t deal with. As much as he wanted to do well in the final, he also wanted to protect her. He was the brawn, he could take hits, and she couldn’t. Even though her power was really awesome, one hit from someone with advanced strength and she would be down for the count. Mason wouldn’t allow that to happen.

In terms of points they actually matched up pretty well. Mason was still outside the top five in the number six ranking. Judging by the coaches’ explanations at the beginning for the year, there had to be a significant point difference for the top five ranked students. Or else why all the fuss about not being able to challenge them unless you were number six, and then only number six being able to challenge number five. It was a big assumption Mason was taking, but his gut told him he was on the right track.

Kyoshi was currently ranked nineteenth, so she was just above the middle of the pack. Together, they should be able to rack up a comfortable amount of points. <But so should Becca and Anika,> Kyoshi’s insights allowed Mason to think of them as a competing team for the first time. With Becca at number twenty-nine and Anika at number seven they’d achieve an even more favorable point spread.

<We might need to go up against Anika and Becca,> Mason voiced his concern, and got a nod from his girlfriend; a nod that ended with her resting her head on the top of his shoulder.

Thankfully, the door to the lift opened and disgorged the occupants into the sci-fi looking halls of the HCP. They all started on the long trek from the far lift to the gym. Mason peeled away from Kyoshi at the entrances to the locker rooms and gave her a quick kiss. They’d see each other in five minutes, but with the surprises the HCP had sprung on him this semester, that wasn’t set in stone.

Mason shrugged out of his civilian clothes and squeezed into the black HCP freshmen uniform. Throughout the semester that uniform and undergone a beating, but every day it was clean, shiny, and brand new looking. It always took a little work to stretch the tight fabric across his bulk, but it always ended up fitting just right.

“Interested in teaming up, Mason,” Carson Long approached Mason with number thirteen ranked Liam Garrison and number twenty-five ranked Isaac Mosley.

Carson used to be the highest ranking of the threesome at number ten, but now that he was number sixteen he fell behind Liam. The powerful boxer was still the leader of the group, even if he wasn’t the highest ranking.

Mason considered the proposal, but quickly dismissed it. Four ways was too many ways to split the points; especially with two people ranking above twenty.

“Thanks for the offer, Carson, but I gotta pass,” Mason politely declined. “I’ve got my own team already set up.”

Carson reacted better than in his previous conversations with Seth, but it was pretty clear the guy wasn’t used to hearing no.

“Do you really think you and your girlfriend could beat the three of us?” Carson’s fists clenched as he puffed up.

Mason was nearly a foot taller than Carson, and half again as wide; so the powerful puncher puffing up didn’t amount to a lot. “No,” Mason’s answer surprised the riled up rival. “But I do think I can hold off the three of you while she takes control of you, and then together your possessed body and I can kick the crap out of these two,” Mason gestured his thumb at Liam and Isaac. “Then when we’re done with them she’ll have you stand still while I break your arms.”

Carson paled visibly at the breakdown of his defeat. “Well…we’ll see about that,” Carson didn’t have a comeback, so he just walked away.

“That was brilliant,” Sean Perez, the number thirty-one ranked tech brilliance super, grinned. “I’d offer my services to you and Kyoshi, but I don’t think I’d be much good other than another body to split points between.”

Despite not being ranked at the bottom, Sean’s power was not combat-oriented. The tech genius’s biochemistry specialty was great when given time to plan and prep, but in a hand to hand fight, Mason’s classmate wasn’t going to stand much of a chance. Still, Mason liked to be nice to everyone that wasn’t blatantly trying to intimidate him.

“I’m sure you’re going to do fine, Sean,” the other Super smiled at the well wishes. “I’m sure you’ve got something up your sleeve that none of us will see coming.”

Sean just grinned as he zipped up his uniform. “I’m sure some people know what’s coming, but definitely not everyone.” The tech genius walked away, leaving Mason more fearful of what that super-brain could concoct than what Carson’s fists could dish out.

Mason shrugged it off, and made a mental note to keep an eye out for the little guy. He finished getting ready, closed his locker, and joined the group of freshmen heading towards the doors to the gym. The only problem was that the doors were locked.

“They’re locked,” Carson voiced what everyone was thinking. He smacked it with his fist, leaving a small dent and showering the guys near him with sparks.

“Please don’t damage school property,” every guy in the class spun to find Coach McMillian standing behind them.

“Um…it’s locked, Bro,” Oliver Carpenter, the number eighteenth ranked technopath who sat next to Mason in ethics answered lamely.

“I know,” the speedster rolled his eyes. “Everyone follow me.”

A semester of dealing with their coaches made them react without hesitation to the command. They followed Coach McMillian out of the locker room in a single-file line, but they stayed hyper vigilant in the process. They knew that the final was a free for all combat scenario, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t started the minute they left the locker room and they didn’t know it yet.

No black garbed instructors jumped out to attack them, and no signal was given for them to engage in mortal combat in the HCP halls. The only thing that occurred was they boys were joined by the girls being led by Coach Meyers. The two coaches led them in an awkward, nerve-filled procession to a section of the HCP that they hadn’t been to before.

Mason found himself wondering just how big the entire facility was when they came to a set of lift doors. They opened as the group approached. “Everyone in,” the coaches said in unison.

The two lifts were huge, easily able to fit the entire boy and girl congregation with plenty of room to spare. They were silent for the short ride, and when it ended their jaws dropped. The room the lifts opened up into was big. It wasn’t as big at the gym they usually trained in, but it was tall; definitely several stories of empty space that disappeared into blackness. But that wasn’t the surprise; the surprise was the amount of people scurrying around the room.

“This is the arena vestibule,” Coach Meyers stated, not bothering to pause as she strode toward a small section in the front where there were two set of bleachers. “This is where you will receive your initial briefing and where you will return after you are eliminated from the final. Everyone sit.” They’d reached the standard metal bleachers, and they quickly complied with the order.

Mason couldn’t help but let his attention wander. There were dozens of people running around. He saw the Dean, and the few other HCP professors he knew, but he also saw people with DVA badges, and the entire crop of healers the HCP was training. Last but not least, there were a small handful of costumed Heroes lounging over by a refreshment table. Mason felt his nerves immediately triple.

“Welcome to the annual Battleball freshman first semester final,” the Dean announced, his smile brighter than usual. “Today, you will display the skills you’ve learned over the past semester. You will be evaluated, and the course for your path to being a Hero will be charted.” The older Super’s eyes swept the crowd, and his face softened. “Don’t pay attention to all the people here. They’re here to make sure everything is conducted safely, maintain the integrity of the arena, and of course to see how you all perform.” He inclined his head toward the Heroes across the room. “But don’t let that deter you. Go out there and show us what you are capable of.”

With his speech completed the Dean went off to join the rest of the Heroes, and Coach Meyers stepped in. “We’re going to start by issuing all of you your balls. Please form a line and proceed to the racks over there,” the pointed where they needed to go, and they executed.

Ten minutes later they were all sitting with a silver, basketball-sized orb hovering above their right shoulder. For some weird reason, Mason got the image of himself dressed in a pirate costume and the orb was his talking parrot. He tried talking to it on the way back, but it only stared at him through its eyeless reflective sheen.

“Everyone protect your balls,” a juvenile grin escaped Coach McMillian’s lips, and Mason couldn’t help but smile. Even at the most important moment in Mason’s short life, the close combat instructor felt perfectly normal making a penis joke. The HCP was an interesting place.

“You know the rules from our last conversation,” Coach Meyers continued, ignoring the 6th grade humor. “The ball is the most important thing you will take into the final beside your power. lt will observe, record, offer automated evaluation, deduce probable reasons for actions, act as a time keeper, count points, and be points in your final exam. The points are calculated based on your actions in a super computer much smarter than all of us combined; even you Perez,” the class chuckled as the coach singled out their smartest member. “This is a free-for-all battle, so anything goes. Lethal force is not authorized…” Mason listened intently to Coach Meyers’ spiel. It had the same substance as the information before a ranking match, but was just longer winded with bigger words. He wondered if that was because there were a lot of DVA people running around.

“That’s that,” a few minutes later the briefing was completed. “You all have ten minutes to talk amongst yourselves. After that time has passed you have another five minutes to find you door on that board and get there,” flashbacks of their first ranking matches surfaced in Mason’s mind, but this time he wasn’t worried. This time he was ready.

“Your time begins now. Good luck.”

As Coach Meyers walked away, Mason stayed exactly where he was. He didn’t need to be right next to Kyoshi to talk to her, and there was no use giving away any information to anyone who didn’t suspect they would be teaming up. It also gave them two views of what everyone else was doing, and allowed those who might be nervous to approach them individually.

People started moving, making plans, and changing plans when those plans didn’t work out. Kyoshi stood their silently with her eyes closed listening to a lot of those plans, while Mason watched to see who might be interested in an alliance sometime in the future, and scoped out the groups who could threaten them.

<Ok,> Kyoshi’s voice brought his attention fully to his partner. <This is what we are going to do.>

 

***

 

Dean Ditmar watched as the freshmen milled around before they started their final. It was always interested to see how the cliques and groups filled out over the first semester. He watched as those in relationships teamed up, ignoring others that would get them more points; or groups of friends moving off to one side to discuss strategy, and ignoring other students who would be powerful allies. He sighed as he watched all of this, but he wasn’t surprised. They were still first semester freshmen. A lot would change in the next few years if they could cut it.

“How’s it shaping up?” Daisy stepped up beside him, her back to the students.

“About how we predicted?” the Dean turned his attention away from his students and to his colleague. “And I assumed Jackson and Schultz are communicating.”

“I’d bet my paycheck on it,” Daisy smiled, accepting the bottle of water he offered her.

“Nothing is going to play out here that we haven’t already guessed, and the balls will pick up the rest. Let me introduce you to our guests.” The Dean led the way to the gathered Heroes, who all perked up when Daisy approached.

“Daisy!” Galavant was present, and had a big chunk of a Reuben sandwich in his mouth.

“Always nice to see you Galavant,” Daisy hugged the young Hero, but made sure to avoid getting any of the sandwich on her clothes.

Galavant was engaging in the time honored tradition of stuffing his face whenever possible. Heroes tended to get called when they were either eating or sleeping. It was a weird, unexplainable phenomenon; but it still happened.

“Let me introduce you to some of the other members of the Protectorate,” John motioned toward two other heroes standing behind Galavant. “Mr. Morningstar and KaBoom.”

“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Daisy,” KaBoom answered in a low baritone that would have sounded like his codename if he shouted.

John had only known KaBoom, real name Marcus, for a few years. The kinetic absorber was the newest member to the Protectorate beside Galavant. As far as power went, KaBoom was a midrange kinetic absorber; nothing even close to what Daisy was capable of. He’d only made it through the HCP due to his tactical acumen. Nevertheless, John was glad to have the talented strategist in Orlando.

KaBoom was also a good counterpoint to the second member of the Protectorate present. “A pleasure to meet you,” Mr. Morningstar gave Daisy a slight bow before extending his hand.

Unlike KaBoom who was dressed in a blue and black skintight costume that showed off his large, powerful muscles; Mr. Morningstar looked like was stepping out of a Victorian Era opera house. The older, leader of the Protectorate was dressed in a traditional black tuxedo, complete with coat-tails and a top hat above a white mask with a slightly bemused expression.

“Morningstar, that’s an original name,” Daisy cocked an eyebrow at the older Super’s bow.

“It’s actually quite old, biblical even,” John couldn’t see it, but he knew the Hero was smiling beneath his mask.

Mr. Morningstar was an advanced mind that rated fairly low on the telekinetic power charts. He was a decent enough telepath, but he wouldn’t have made it through the HCP many years ago without his special talent. The old Hero had the power of compulsion. It had its limits, and it wasn’t very effective against those with strong wills. But the Hero had saved many lives over his career by convincing criminals to give up. He was a good fit to lead a small town team, even if he was stuck in his traditional ways.

“It’s nice to meet both of you,” Daisy’s face remained polite, but John could tell she was itching to get the final started.

“Just one more person I want you to meet,” he deftly pulled her away from the three Protectorate members, and guided her toward the only remaining Hero.

The lone remaining Hero was a small man in a red and gray costume. It was baggy, the opposite of KaBoom, and the guy looked like he could gain a few pounds.

“Jackhammer,” John clapped him on the shoulder. “It’s nice to see you outside your shifted form. This is Daisy.”

The man smiled slightly, and it was obvious why. The normally pint-sized John looked downright intimidating next to this 5’4” skinny Hero in a baggy costume. “So you’re the one I lost the alternative job too,” Jackhammer gave her a head to toe assessment.

“I guess so,” Daisy did the same, and they both shared a good-natured smile that John knew Daisy wouldn’t have been capable of four months ago.

“No hard feelings. Craig tells me you’re a badass, so I won’t whoop your ass in front of the kiddies.”

“Jackhammer is a local independent Hero. He works the entire state, but I know he likes to hang around here the most,” John filled Daisy in.

“It’s all the tourists,” Jackhammer replied, but didn’t offer any other explanation.

“It was good to meet you, Jackhammer, but I’ve got to get back to work,” Daisy gave him a friendly nod.

The alternative instructor walked back toward the freshmen to get them moving to their assigned starting points. As she walked away, Jackhammer leaned in close.

“How good is she,” despite the pleasant exchange, John could tell the other Hero was a little sour about not getting the job.

“She’d destroy you, Gary,” John gave the slightly smaller man another pat on the shoulder. “So sit back, have some food, and enjoy the show.”

John left the traveling Hero with a frown on his face. He wasn’t going to beat around the bush when other Heroes asked about Daisy. Eventually they’d find out who she really was, and he didn’t want anyone thinking less of her when they did. But all of that was for future John to worry about. Right now he wanted to concentrate on his favorite time of the year.

<Battleball virgins stepping into the ring for the first time,> it always filled him with pride. <It never fails to be interesting.>

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