<Here we go again.> Mason stopped at the door and took a deep breath.
Winter break had been great. He’d been able to spend all his free time with Kyoshi, he’d been able to really get to know her family, and he was able to see where she grew up. The cherry on top was being able to work out with an upper-tier strongman; and then that strongman said that Mason might one day be good enough for his daughter.
Of course, being told he had the potential to be just as strong as Wilhelm, and putting in the work to achieve that peak physical conditioning were two entirely different things. Mason arrived back at West Private ready to get to work, but unaware that he was going to feel the pain of taking a few weeks off; even if those few weeks involved a couple of intense workout sessions.
The problem was that he never did any cardio.
<You can do this. Get in there and get it done.> Mason steeled himself and then pushed open the door.
The background chatter in the classroom cut out as he was forced to duck through the door. This happened every time he had a new class. Most new students filtered into a classroom largely unnoticed by anyone but the teacher and their friends. Mason was never that lucky. When you looked like you could bench press a truck, and he could do that without even breaking a sweat, you tended to get a little more attention.
Mason ignored the open stares and headed straight for the stairs. What came next was very important. He needed to set the stage for the rest of the semester. He needed people to think he was normal.
He purposefully bumped his leg against the desk at the foot of the stairs and winced. Over the last few months he’d been forced to become a pretty good actor. After the wince he rubbed his leg to work out the imaginary pain, and shot an apologetic look at the girl who’d just had her book knocked to the ground.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, bending down to help gather the sheets of paper that were now scattered everywhere.
“It’s ok,” she had mercy on him. “Just watch where you’re going next time.”
Mason nodded and headed up to the top row of seats. He wasn’t the type of student who would sit in the back of the room and not pay attention; him sitting in the back was a practical matter. People tended to get angry when they couldn’t see around him in class.
Mason found a seat and carefully started to take out his book, notepad, and pencil. A few students around him were unpacking laptops, but he definitely couldn’t afford one of those. Plus, it didn’t make much sense in the class they were taking.
“Welcome to Mathematics 202,” the teacher wheezed from the front of the classroom. “Today we will be…” the door slammed open, and another person just slightly shorter than Mason ducked her way in.
Just like Mason, Kyoshi drew a lot of eyes when she stepped into the room. Half of those were because she was a rather curvy girl, another half was because of her golden eyes, and the final half was because of what happened next.
Mason knew that was too many halves, but Kyoshi was a hell of a woman.
“Sorry I’m late,” Kyoshi was juggling two coffees, her backpack, and a stack of textbooks in her hands.
This was not going to go well.
Mason was half out of his seat when it happened. Kyoshi’s tripped over her own feet on the first step and started to go down. Mason didn’t know how she did it. He’d seen her move with a lethal grace in the close combat cells, but if you asked her to walk up a flight of stairs she’d end up falling on her face. It was an incredibly endearing trait of his girlfriend, and it would eventually dissuade people from thinking she was a Hero. The only difference between her and Mason was that she didn’t have to act.
People scattered as Kyoshi fell. She turned in the air so she wouldn’t fall directly on her face. She dropped her textbooks, because that was a lot more preferable than splashing hot coffee everywhere. Mason silently prayed that the cheap coffee cup had their lids secure. Papers flew everywhere for the second time in as many minutes, but Kyoshi was able to orient herself to fall on her back. Her backpack broke her fall, and not a single drop of coffee was spilled.
“Ow,” she groaned. The backpack might have cushioned the blow, but that still meant she had a stair stabbing her in the back.
Even though Mason was all the way at the top of the stairs he was the first to get to her.
“Oh hey,” Kyoshi smiled up at him. “I brought you coffee.”
The girl who’d showed Mason mercy before was not as kind to Kyoshi. She gave the tall Super a glare and didn’t help them pick up all the notes that had spilled everywhere; and there were a lot of notes. Kyoshi was a habitual note taker.
“Ok then.” The teacher was flustered after Kyoshi’s interruption. “Um…welcome to Mathematics 202. I’ll be your professor, Doctor…”
Both Mason and Kyoshi were used to the first day of college classes by now. They were all pretty much the same. There were introductions, an ice-breaker, and then you went over the syllabus. By the time you finished all that class was over, and the teacher gave you your assignment for the following class.
Mathematics 202 was an eight o’clock class, which broke the cardinal rule of college; no classes before ten. Mason would have preferred to avoid such early classes, but he needed another math credit to fulfill his liberal arts requirement. He could have picked another class, there were plenty the university offered, but he wanted to be in a class with Kyoshi. She wanted this class, so here they were. Mason just hoped that their HCP training wouldn’t put him too far behind. They were in the second semester now, and he was pretty sure things were only going to get more intense.
Angela acted out of instinct when she felt the hand grab her shoulder. She reached up, grabbing the offending hand with both of her own. She grabbed it tightly so her attacked couldn’t wiggle out. Then she pushed up and twisted the arm around so the palm was facing up. All it would take was one jerk and Angela would bring her attackers arm down on her shoulder; she’d break their elbow and probably do some damage to their shoulder too.
“Hey! Oww…oww…oww…” The voice snapped Angela out of her counterattack.
“Geez, Becca.” Angela let go of the blue-haired speedster’s hand. She could feel her heart pounding. “You scared the crap out of me.”
“Christ on a cracker.” Becca massaged her arm and gave Angela a hurt look. “I just wanted to say hi.”
Angela took a few deep breaths to get her breathing under control. “I’m sorry, Becca. It’s nice to see you again.”
Angela’s greeting was half-hearted. Her mind wasn’t back in school-mode yet. She was still trusting her gut and acting on instinct. That’s what she had to do when training with her parents. Anything else and she’d fail miserably.
After a short break for Christmas Day, Angela had been shoved back into training until New Year’s Eve. She wasn’t dropped off in the Adirondacks, or in some tropical rain forest, but she was put into a ring with a number of current or retired Heroes. She’d learned a few new tricks and a healthy degree of respect for even the most mundane-looking Supers.
She was ready to tackle the second semester and take back her number one slot. But it was day one and she was already exhausted. The one thing she didn’t get while on break was a break.
“You look like shit.” Anika appeared next to Becca with a concerned look for her, and a glare for Angela. “When was the last time you slept?” Unlike Angela, both Anika and Becca, looked well rested and ready to tackle their ethics class.
Angela quickly changed the topic. “How was your break?” That did the trick, and Angela got to spend the rest of the walk to the lecture hall hearing Becca gush about their vacation back in Iowa.
The ethics lecture hall was exactly how Angela remembered it. They had the stadium style seating, with each student’s nameplate showing their assigned seats. Angela took her usual spot and waited for the Dean.
<Suck it up.> She told herself as she stifled a yawn. <A real hero can have missions that last days. You can handle a little sleep-deprivation.>
“Welcome back everyone.” Dean Ditmar appeared and took his place at the podium. “I hope you all had a productive break. If it wasn’t, I promise you will regret it.”
The statement wasn’t a threat. The Dean didn’t make threats. It was just a simple fact of the HCP. Anyone who’d slacked off for a couple of weeks was in for a world of hurt. That did not include Angela. If she had to guess she was probably in the best shape of anyone in the class.
“Today we have a special guest here to speak with us.” Angela focused back in on what the Dean was saying. “He is a respectable Hero who has served for over twenty years. He has a wealth of experience, and I encourage all of you to take advantage of his broad knowledge base. Would everyone please give a warm round of applause for Hunter.”
<Of course he wouldn’t tell me he was speaking to my class today.> Angela joined the rest of the class in applauding her father as he entered the room.
It was the first time the Dean had announced the guest speaker before they entered the room, and Angela knew why. A bunch of freshman students just getting back from break, with their skills rusty, was a perfect time for an ambush. Angela was ready, but she doubted most of her class was. The Dean’s introduction put her partially at ease.
“Thank you for having me, Dean Ditmar.” No one could tell if Hunter was smiling behind the African mask he was wearing.
He waited for the applause to die down before continuing. “I want to start today with an announcement.” That got everyone’s attention. “As most of you know, the blackout last December was caused by a large scale attack by the Orlando Super gang known as the Fist. I want to assure all of you that the local Hero team, and myself, are diligently working to combat this growing threat. At this time we do not believe there is any threat to the HCP. On the contrary, we believe they are deliberately avoiding the campus.”
Angela saw some shoulders visibly relaxing at that news. They might all be Heroes in training, but some of them were farther along than others. <And being as tough as a tank helps.> She didn’t fear any low-level Super gangbanger, but some of her classmates might.
“With that being said,” Hunter continued. “It is still important for all HCP students to remain vigilant in their interaction outside the HCP. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the gang could deploy sleeper agents into the student population with the mission of getting close to potential Supers.” Hunter inclined his head toward people like Kyoshi who had obvious Super characteristics. “Please keep your eyes open, your ears to the ground, and report any suspicious activity to your instructors. They will take it from there, or contact the local Hero team.”
“Does everyone understand?” The Dean’s voice was serious. “You are not to engage these suspects. You are second semester HCP freshman, not certified Heroes. I know we had some instances last year, and I don’t want anything to repeat itself.”
Angela didn’t look away from the Dean and her father, but she was sure a number of her classmates shot a glance over in Mason’s direction. Mason was probably trying to sink lower into his seat and hide, but that simply wasn’t possible for him.
“With that out of the way, I want to discuss the reports you did last year on the new supervillain, Wraith.” Angela paid close attention to every word coming out of her father’s mouth.
Just like the Dean had promised, their reports had been looked over by DVA agents and Heroes for any clues they might have missed in their analysis. Hunter congratulated a few of the students by name, surprisingly Becca and Anika, for coming to a lot of the same conclusions as the DVA agents. None of the students came up with anything new, but it was good to see some of Angela’s classmates were thinking along the right track.
“Is there anything new you can tell us?” Becca asked near the end of the class. They’d spent a lot of time discussing Hunter’s career and his part in the Wraith case.
“I can’t say anything more than what I’ve told you all.” Hunter shook his head. “But I’m staying in the area, and if the Dean will have me back I can discuss more of the case as it becomes declassified.”
“And we would love to have you, Hunter.” The Dean stepped in and wrapped everything up.
Hunter didn’t stick around after class. He just shook the Dean’s hand and popped out of existence right in front of everyone. He didn’t even say hi or bye to Angela.
<You’ve got better things to worry about.> she caught herself before she could mope about it. <It’s time to go to physical training and show everyone what you learned over break.>
Angela seriously hoped they did some hand-to-hand combat today.
“Did you think this would be easy, ladies?” There were plenty of guys running around the indoor track, but Coach Meyers just glared at everyone. “I told you about vigilance! I told you about the importance of staying in peak physical conditioning, and what did you all do?” She swiveled her head as people ran around here. “You ruined what we spent several months carefully molding, that’s what you did!”
With a few weeks off, and nothing but sun and sand, Seth had begun to see the wisdom behind Coach Meyers’ training methods. He even developed a kernel of respect for the woman. Now, he just hated her as much as he ever had.
<This is bullshit.> Seth thought as he pulled off to the side of the track and threw up his entire lunch.
His mouth tasted of stomach acid and his stomach did a barrel roll, causing another round of vomit to spew out of him. After that, despite the putrid smell in the air around him, Seth held it together and staggered toward the finish line.
Despite it being the second semester, the initial routine hadn’t changed. In fact, it was more difficult. Every time they entered or exited the gym the number of pullups had increased to thirty, and an equal number of pushups had been added. They still had to do the five mile run at the beginning of each physical training session. The worst part of that was that instead of amending their times to account for the break, those times remained the same.
Seth was beginning to seriously regret his life decisions when he crossed the finish line at the end of his five miles, and he didn’t look like the only one. Spending the break on the beach, eating bad food, and drinking his ass off had been a vacation from heaven; and a lot of that had to do with the angel he spent it with. But despite all the little adventures they did while in the Caymans, Seth hadn’t worked out once. The closest he’d come was his daily bone-sessions with Liz. Although those sometimes left him bruised and sore, it just wasn’t cutting it.
“Hiya, Seth!” Becca blurred to his side with a glass of water.
Even the classes’ token speedster was breathing hard, and sweat had plastered a lot of her blue hair to the sides of her face. But she still smiled and went around the group offering water and kind words.
“Thanks.” Seth grabbed the cup and chugged it. He knew he’d regret it later, but he’d deal with that when the time came.
“That was pathetic!” Coach McMillian appeared in front of all of them. “Martin was the only person to successfully hit her time from last semester. I should make you all run it again.” Seth swore he heard sniffling when the coach made his threat. “Unfortunately, we’ve got a full schedule today; but you’d all better get it together fast or you will spend an entire class running laps.”
Coach McMillian stepped away, shaking his head in disgust, and Coach Meyers took his place. “Ok everyone,” she yelled, motioning for everyone to huddle around her. “As we explained last semester, this semester is going to work a little different that last year. The class will be divided into two sections; close combat and alternative training. One class is not better than the other.” Her eyes swept driving that point home. “Close combat is meant for powers suited for combat roles, while alternative training gives people with non-combat oriented powers a chance to explore, perfect, and adapt their powers to multiple situations.”
This is what a lot of people had waited to hear since they finished their final last semester. There was always talk from the upperclassmen about close combat versus alternative training, and they made it pretty clear. Despite Coach Meyers’ words of wisdom anyone Seth had ever talked to said that close combat was the way to go.
“When I read your name you will be told what your training for the rest of the semester will be. Close combat will form a line here on my left, and alternative training on my right.” She waited for the gathered freshmen to indicate they understood before beginning.
“Jason Cook…close combat. Angela Martin…close combat. Erin Fisher…alternative.” The last one took people by surprise.
It was widely believed that everyone in the top five would go into close combat, but that didn’t appear to be the case. Whispers followed Erin to the front of the group where she started the second line.
“Let me remind everyone that if they wish to contest our decision they may do so, but you’d better have damn good reasoning behind it.” Her eyes scanned the crowd, and Seth felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. For the first time since the end of his final exam he felt nervous.
“Mason Jackson…close combat. Teresa Shaw…close combat. Anna Fletcher…close combat.”
<Shit, what if they put me in alternative.> The possibility had never crossed Seth’s mind until he heard the number three student going into alternative.
“Alexander Webb…close combat. Anika Kemps…close combat.” Here it was, the moment of truth. “Seth Abney…alternative.”
Seth felt like he’d been punched in the gut, but Coach Meyers kept on going. “Lorelei Gilford…close combat. Simon Skylar…alternative…” Seth stopped paying attention.
<What the fuck! Does that bitch have it out for me?> Seth tried to think of why he was in alternative training. <What more do they want from me? I started out pretty much dead last, worked my ass off, advanced through the ranks, and finished off the semester in the top ten.> Seth had been told by other people that jumping over thirty spots in the rankings was pretty rare. <Why the fuck am I in alternative training?>
“Kyoshi Schultz…alternative. Rebecca Whitfield…close combat.” He barely paid attention as the last of the residents of Townhouse #117 got their assignment.
It only took a few minutes before everyone was in one of the two lines, and one of those lines was obviously longer than the other.
“Close combat follow Coach McMillian. Alternative you’re with me.” The close combat students followed Coach McMillian deeper into the massive gym, but Coach Meyers headed toward the door.
“Coach Meyers,” Seth ran around to get in front of her. “I’m going to formally contest your decision to put me in alternative training.”
“I thought you might, Abney.” The woman gave him a tight lipped smile. “Ok, why should I transfer you?” Seth opened his mouth, but she held up a finger. “Think carefully, Abney. Take a few days to get your argument together if you need to. I’m only giving people one chance to convince me. We have training to do. I can’t spend all day hearing you all bitch and moan.”
Seth didn’t need days to craft an argument. He laid it all out for the alternative instructor. It was basically what he’d thought earlier. He’d progressed through the ranks, jumping from the bottom five to the top ten. He’d worked hard, he’d shown his expertise in combat in the combat cells and during the final, and he thought he should continue on that educational path.
Coach Meyers took it all in, and didn’t say anything until he finished. “That’s pretty good reasonsing.” Seth’s face lit up at the woman’s admission. “But that still doesn’t change my mind. You’re staying in alternative training, Abney. Now let’s move, we’re wasting time.”
Seth couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d laid out a perfectly rational argument, and she’d shot him down like it was nothing.
“Is this because of something I did?” Seth felt the anger rising in his gut. “Is this because you don’t like me, or just because you’re an uptight bitch?” Seth regretted saying it the moment it left his lips.
He half expected to get dropped to a vomiting uncontrollable mess by Coach Meyers’ still unknown power, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Coach Meyers spun on her heel and walked back over to him. She got right into his face though.
“Mr. Abney,” her hot breath hit him right in the eye, causing him to blink repeatedly. “I do not make training decisions based on my personal preferences. If that was the case you’d have been out of this program after the first day. You are arrogant and undisciplined despite your powerful abilities. You are categorized as a broad spectrum elemental manipulator, but you might as well be a pyrokinetic when it comes to fighting. Sure, you’ve done a few tricks with air, water, and earth that have allowed you to scrape by, but those small tricks aren’t going to cut it sophomore year.” Seth wanted to wipe some of the spittle from his face, but he didn’t dare move.
“I placed you in alternative training because I want to work with you and expand your abilities, Mr. Abney; so that you can actually be a broad spectrum elemental manipulator. You already have a solid background in self-defense techniques, and the close combat specialty will be available to you if you make it to next year.” Seth was glad to hear that, but Coach Meyers wasn’t done yet. “My decision is not based on my like or dislike for you, it is based on your progression as a Super and how you would fit into the Hero world. I don’t care about your rank. There is no ranking system in the real world. What I care about is making sure you are able to adapt to any situation when push comes to shove, and right now you’d be dead in a gutter if you tried to fight anyone remotely competent.”
Coach Meyers sucked in a deep breath and took a step back. “If that isn’t good enough for you, and you still feel slighted, feel free to leave. The door is right over there. Tell the Dean and we’ll have your memories wiped before dinner. Then I’ll be able to get back to training real Heroes.”
“No, ma’am.” Seth was at least glad that there was no hesitation in his response. “I’m good to go now.”
Coach Meyers gave him a hard look, but then turned her attention to the rest of the group. “Now that Abney is good to go, let’s get a move on. We’ve got a lot to do and not enough time to do it in.”
Seth fell back to the back of the alternative group as they ran through the HCP halls. He thought about what Coach Meyers’ said, and reluctantly admitted she was right.
<Doesn’t mean that she still isn’t a world class asshole.> He looked up and saw Kyoshi looking at him.
All the telepath did was shrug as they boarded the elevator and headed down toward the arena they’d taken their final exam in.
Liz was restless by the time Seth got home. She was so used to spending all of her time with him that she felt lonely when he went off to class. She knew it was stupid, and the feeling would pass soon; but her memories of their vacation definitely wouldn’t.
“Hey…” she cut off her greeting when she saw the look on her man’s face. She’d only seen that look a few times before, and never while they were on vacation. “Everything good?” She asked instead.
“What…yeah I’m fine.” It took a moment for Seth to register the question. “How was your first day back?”
It was clearly a deflection, but Liz played along. “It was ok. Classes were boring, some football jock hit on me, and I wish we could go back to the Caymans.” Liz rolled over on the bed, giving Seth a good view of her boobs. Usually it cheered him up, but not today.
“That’s good.” He replied absentmindedly as he stripped out of the sweaty gym clothes he was wearing. “I’m gonna pop in the shower real quick.”
“What me to join you?” Liz asked seductively, but Seth was already heading out of the room.
“Maybe some other time.”
<Ok, something is wrong.> Liz sat alone in the bedroom for a moment. <He won’t even glance at my tits, and he’d turned down a free ticket to pound town.> She devised a plan as she heard the water turn on in the bathroom. <No one fucks with my man’s head.> She headed out of the room with a purpose.
The door to the bathroom was open. It was because the lock didn’t work, but even if it did that wouldn’t have stopped her. Without any warning Liz threw open the shower curtain exposing naked Seth.
“Jesus Liz!” He must have jumped a foot in the air, and nearly slipped and fell on the slick surface. “What the fuck!”
“Don’t WTF me. I gave you a chance to get all up on this, and you shot me down. So what the fuck is up with you? Spill it now, or you won’t get to touch this fine ass for a week. Spill!”
“Ok.” Seth held his hands up defensively. “It was just a bad class. I thought I was going to be able to do something, something I know I’d be good at, but I got forced into something else. I got chewed out in front of everyone, and the worst part is it made sense not to give me the thing I wanted.”
“Ok, so you didn’t get what you wanted. Put your nose to the grindstone, get it done, and fuck whoever chewed you out. That son of a bitch will regret the day they got in your way. That I know for sure.” Liz’s tough-love speech seemed to work. Seth stood a little straighter, and she could see his posture wasn’t the only thing that improved.
“Maybe I should join you after all.” She didn’t wait for his agreement before she joined him under the hot water.
A good shower fuck seemed to do the trick. When they both got back to their room Seth was his same old self again.
“How was the rest of your day? Anything interesting?” Liz never outright asked about the HCP, but she’d found that if she asked in generalities, Seth would spill the beans. Especially if she’d ridden him senseless not too long ago.
“It was good. One class was boring, but we had an interesting guest speaker.”
“Anyone us lowly mortals would know about?” She joked, but it wasn’t a joke.
“Hunter?” Liz didn’t betray any emotion when he said the name of her father’s arch nemesis.
“He basically told us to watch out around the city. There’s a gang that’s causing a lot of problems. Like the blackout, they did that.” It was common knowledge that the Fist was behind the blackout, but it was good intel to see what the Heroes knew about Squid and his minions. “So you need to be careful out there, ok.” Seth was serious now. “You’re smoking hot, and some low-life piece of shit may try to take advantage of that.”
“That’s sweet.” Liz smiled, before she reached for her purse and pulled out her pistol. “But I can take care of myself.”
“What is it’s a bulletproof strongman?” Seth countered.
Liz kept the smile on her face as she walked over to him and sat down in his lap. “Then I call my big strong boyfriend to come and save me.” Seth’s grin showed she’d stroked his ego just right.
“Anything else I need to know about the big, bad city?” she asked, not wanting to push the subject too far.
“Nothing really. Hunter and more Heroes are staying in the city. They’re looking for someone, helping us out, and providing extra eyes in the city until everything with the gang blows over.”
“Ok, cool.” Liz turned away because she knew she couldn’t keep the look off her face.
<Hunter is in the city.> Fear and excitement washed through her.
That meant she had two options: run or stay. Really it was only one. She and her father were under contract with their employer, and he was not someone you left hanging. Plus, she had Seth, and that wasn’t something she was just going to give up. So that meant staying.
She ran through her options, and a lightbulb went off. She thought it over once, and told herself she was crazy. The second time she thought she might be able to pull it off. And the third time she’d convinced herself it was the right course of action. It would solve all of her problems, and make her one of the biggest villains in the country.
<People will shit their pants when they hear the name, Wraith.> She wanted to laugh, but that would just make her look crazy.
Maybe she was crazy. She was going to go for the ultimate supervillain goal. A goal that had eluded her father for decades.
<I’m going to kill a Hero. I’m going to kill Hunter.>