Seth prowled in a circle like an angry tiger, and across from him was the devil. Actually, it was Coach Meyers but that was basically the same thing. Or at least near the end of a gym class it was.
Seth was tired, sore, and had been humiliated more than once by the alternative instructor. <Heroes don’t give up,> he thought to himself and almost laughed. <That sounds like something Angela would say. I just want to land one punch on her smug fucking face.>
Seth remained expressionless as he continued to move. He stayed light on his feet ready to dip, dive, duck, or dodge whatever the woman was going to throw his way.
And his fists were ready for payback.
“One two.” Coach Meyers moved in with her practice gloves raised.
Seth concentrated, throwing a quick jab with his left hand meant to catch an opponent off-guard and then a powerful right cross. He made sure to rotate his back foot with the punch which added more power to the blow. In a perfect world the right cross would take off her head, but it thumped against the training glove losing all momentum like it was hitting a brick wall.
“One one two.”
The new combination added a second jab meant to catch your opponent off-guard if they were looking for the cross on the second punch. Coach Meyers wasn’t caught off-guard.
<Not yet.> Seth kept his feelings to himself as he continued executing the boxing combinations.
The combinations weren’t even the real training. They were a good workout, but Seth already knew all of them, and could execute them in a fight. He had already shown that. This training session was about multitasking. His goal today was to do the combinations but prepare a secondary attack to catch Coach Meyers unaware.
Seth wanted to score a hit with his fist or power so badly he could taste it. It tasted like blood, and Coach Meyers had made him bleed more than once today from mistakes.
“Pick it up, Abney. Two three two.” She moved in more aggressively.
It was a good combination to use if an opponent was being aggressive and trying to get in close. There wasn’t any time to set up the jab, so Seth threw a right cross followed by a left hook and then another right cross. Coach Meyers side-stepped the first right cross, ducked under the left hook, and back peddled away from the second cross.
“Come on Abney, show me what you got.” She smiled as she threw her own jabs, hooks, and crosses for him to dodge.
She was baiting him. Seth knew she was baiting him. She was trying to get him to strike before he was ready. A few months ago Seth’s ego might have driven him to strike early, but he’d learned. He’d attack when he was damn good and ready.
“One six three two.” The combinations got more complicated, but Seth kept his composure.
As the two Supers continued to exchange blows Seth slowly gathered his power. The entire alternative class was in the main gym today. Practicing a variety of different techniques with their powers in the open space between the pull-up bars and the pool. Coach Meyers had given all of them something new to try. Of course, Seth didn’t get off as easy as some of his classmates. He got singled out to box with the fearsome woman.
<If you just wanted me to sit around and box all day you could have left me in the close combat training.> Seth let his concentration break for a split-second as his attention shifted to the close combat class across the gym. They were basically doing the same thing he was.
He paid for the distraction with a gloved slap to the side of his head that made his ear ring. “Focus, Abney, or you’re going to run until you puke.”
Coach Meyers was dancing from foot to foot with an expectant look on her face.
“Let’s go. One two five two.”
<I hate you so much.> Seth rifled off a jab-cross-left uppercut-cross combination. His fists hit the practice gloves with loud slaps, but that was it. <Fucking kinetic absorbers.>
Seth had figured out the alternative coach’s power, which only pissed him off more. When she trained students like this she absorbed their effort. The fact that Seth was punching and making her stronger was infuriating.
Three more combinations and Seth couldn’t take it anymore. <Try this!>
For the last five minutes Seth had been gathering and shaping a thin ribbon on water from the pool. He hadn’t done much training over the winter break, but being on the beach gave him time to play around with his hyrdokinesis. He still wasn’t as strong as he was with other elements, but he’d worked on his abilities tactically, not just summoning a small tsunami.
He’d condensed the water until it was as hard as any solid object, and then he sculpted it into a whip. A water whip was a great weapon to have. Several Heroes fought with water weapons, with the most powerful able to cut through solid metals. Seth’s wasn’t that powerful, but he’d be able to leave a welt.
“Running out of time, Abney. One two three.”
Seth waited until he was throwing the left hook to strike. His plan was to hit her when she was most vulnerable, and that would have been when she was ducking under the hook. Seth’s water whip lashed out like a viper striking its prey.
Instead of ducking, Coach Meyers moved.
Coach McMillian was the only speedster among the faculty, but damn Coach Meyers could move when she wanted. The alternative instructor turned her duck into a diving leap. She moved out of the way of Seth’s striking water whip, and did a handspring to reorient herself.
Not that it was necessary.
Seth had gambled on the strike. It was a gamble because there wasn’t enough time for him to move out of the way if he missed. And boy did he miss.
The water whip leapt forward and smashed into Seth’s chest. It should have knocked the wind out of him and smacked him straight onto his ass, and it did all of those things. What Seth didn’t expect was the electrical shock that went along with it.
It was only a mild shock, but that still made his whole body go rigid. When your whole body is rigid you can’t break your fall. Seth fell like a plank of wood onto his back, smacking his head hard enough for him to see stars. And then he rolled over onto his face, scratching his nose on the hard gym floor. He had to lay there, face down, for a moment before his body stopped twitching and feeling returned to his extremities.
<On the bright side I didn’t shit myself.> But that was just barely true.
“Nice try, Abney.” Coach Meyers walked nearby. Strutting with the confidence of an alpha predator. “But I saw the water attack coming a mile away.”
“How?” he grunted as he rolled over and examined his bleeding nose.
“You’ve got a tell,” she answered matter-of-factly.
“Wat is it?”
Seth thought he would get an answer; after all she was his teacher. Instead, Coach Meyers just laughed at him.
“Figure it out, Abney. I’m not going to tell you.” With nothing more to add she walked away to the rest of the class.
“Your face is pretty busted.” A white uniformed senior healer walked up to Seth. “It’s superficial, but I wouldn’t want to get seen around campus all scratched up like that. Looks like you got into a fight with a weed whacker and got your ass kicked.”
“Yeah I get it,” Seth grumbled. “Heal me up.”
The senior did, and Seth cursed. <He’s one of those ones.> The skin on Seth’s face healed, but it itched like a bitch now.
“Don’t scratch it and you’ll be fine.” The senior walked away to tend to other patients.
“Sure, don’t scratch what itches. What great advice captain fucking obvious,” Seth muttered under his breath at the older Super’s retreating back.
Seth’s attitude was rapidly deteriorating, and Coaches Meyers’ third embarrassment of the day wasn’t the whole reason.
Things were off with Liz.
<Since when did your mood depend on a woman.> Seth rejoined the rest of the alternative class, who were now recounting their progress to Coach Meyers.
<Since you fell in love, idiot,> he reluctantly admitted.
<What I don’t know is what’s wrong. We had a great vacation, no…not great, fucking magical. It couldn’t have gone any better. And now we’re back and she’s acting all weird. She is only over once every few days, she looks exhausted, and she’s not talking to me. I know it isn’t school. She’s way too smart to get stumped by freshman-level classes. Is she cheating on me?>
The thought pulverized Seth’s heart. He quickly thought of something else, anything else.
“Hey, Seth.” Seth jumped at Kyoshi’s comforting tone. “Are you ok?”
The gym was emptying out. Physical training was over for the day, and he was just standing there like an idiot. “I’m good,” he grunted, and stalked towards the boy’s locker room.
“Seth!” Kyoshi called after him. Her face was conflicted. She could feel his pain, anger, and distrust. She clearly wanted to help, but Seth wasn’t going to accept it.
<I’m going to find Liz, talk to her, and figure out what the fuck is going on.> He almost skipped showering in favor of going straight into the search, but it probably wasn’t a good idea to confront your wayward girlfriend smelling like gym socks and crotch sweat.
Seth quickly showered, changed, and applied liberal amounts of body spray. No one said a word to him while he changed with a purpose. If Seth stopped and actually thought about it he would have realized everyone was rooting for him.
Rumors traveled fast in the HCP, especially when you lived with gossip queen Becca Whitfield. Everyone who’d seen or met Seth and Liz knew there was something there. Everyone wanted things to get better between them. Not just because Seth was finally getting some friends in the HCP, but also because no one wanted him to go back to his old ways. If he went back to his old ways, there was little doubt he’d never be able to make it as a Hero.
Being powerful didn’t make someone a Hero. A Hero needed to be trusted to have his team’s back, and be there for others. Old Seth, and Seth in a funk, didn’t have those attributes.
“You need anything?” Mason’s deep voice asked as Seth grabbed the doorknob.
Seth didn’t even answer, he just left.
<Where would you be?> Seth took the lift to the surface, and passed through the mesh that hid the elevator.
It was dinner time, so Liz would either be at the townhouse waiting for him. <Not likely.> The dining hall. <More likely.> Or back at her own dorm. <Kinda likely.> He pushed aside the thought that there might be another guy there with her.
Seth couldn’t think that, because if there was he wasn’t sure he could restrain himself from beating the asshole to within an inch of his life.
Pushing those bad thoughts and feelings aside, Seth began his systematic search. He had to waste a meal to swipe into the dining hall only to find she wasn’t there. He doubled back and checked the student center, but she wasn’t at one of the smaller eateries near the HCP lift. He checked the other eateries scattered throughout campus, foregoing eating himself despite the rumbling his stomach was making.
He eventually dragged himself to her dorm room. He knocked hard, harder than he’d intended, and that brought an angry looking Goth chick to the door.
“What the hell do you want?” The girl was hot in a leather-wearing creature of the night kind of way. But she looked small, pale, and pasty compared to Liz.
“I’m looking for Liz Aretino,” Seth tried to ask politely, but he couldn’t stop from grinding his teeth.
He saw men’s clothes on the ground.
“Who?” The girl was pissed, but a deeper more primitive part of her was telling her to be careful.
Seth was radiating hostility, especially when he saw those pants.
“Liz Aretino!” He barked, forcing her to take a step back. “She lives here.”
“Chill asshole.” Seth saw her hand reaching toward her back pocket where he phone was. “I’ve seen my roommate like three times since the semester started. Last time she was here was two weeks ago.”
<Around the time she started to act weird.> Seth put the clues together but didn’t relax.
“Did she ever have anyone else over?”
“What are you her father?”
Seth glared a hole through the Goth girl’s forehead.
“Geez, no she hasn’t had anyone over.”
“Thanks.” Seth spun around and left without another word.
“Fucking psycho,” he heard the girl mutter behind him. She was probably calling campus security, but he’d be long gone before they got here.
<What happened two weeks ago?> Seth wondered as he returned to the townhouse.
He didn’t have a clue. He couldn’t remember doing anything. One second they were fine and the next she was being weird. He pushed the door open and walked quickly past Anika and Becca. The blue-haired speedster shot him a concerned glance, but he ignored it. Anika just watched impassively.
Seth soon figured out why.
He arrived at his door and heard someone moving around inside. <Of course she’s here after I searched the entire fucking school for her.> He fumed, but then caught himself. <Calm down, relax, kicking down the door is only going to make things worse. I’m going to go in there and talk to her calmly and rationally.> That was easier said than done.
He pushed open the door and came face to face with Liz. Seth was momentarily dumbstruck. He hadn’t seen her for so long that he forgot how beautiful she was. But there was something else.
“Hey,” he greeted lamely.
“Hey,” she replied just as awkward.
She had dark circles under her eyes and she was tense. He could see it in her body. She was full of adrenaline despite looking exhausted.
“Can you move please? I have a study group to get to.” Liz tried to move around Seth but he didn’t budge.
“Are you fucking some other guy?”
<So much for tact.>
Liz just stared at him open mouth for a second, before her open palm caught him across the left side of his face.
<Damn she’s fast.> Seth hadn’t even seen it coming.
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t ask me that.” Liz’s eyes were full of rage and pain, but above it all were tears. “Because if you ask me that again I’m going to cut off your balls and beat you to death with them. Do you understand me Seth Abney?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Seth replied instinctually.
They stood there awkwardly for a few moments, neither willing to move.
“Just trust me, Seth. I’m working through something and it’ll be done soon. Please just be patient a little while longer.”
Seth found himself nodding. It wasn’t the threat of removing his manhood, or the tears in her eyes. It was the pleading. Liz was pleading with him. Seth had never seen her plead for anything.
<She still loves me.> Seth’s spirits picked up, but not enough to make him smile. He stepped aside so she could leave.
She had a few changes of clothes packed in a gym bag. “I’ll be back soon.” She didn’t look back as she said it.
Seth just stood there for a minute, not sure what to do. Possibilities whirled through his head. Thankfully, her riding some other guy like a bucking bronco wasn’t one of them.
After that minute he started moving. <I trust you. But that still doesn’t mean I’m going to sit by while you do whatever it is that is tearing you apart.>
One minute was enough of a head start that Liz didn’t see him coming out the door after her. She was already far down the street walking with a purpose. Seth followed at a safe surveillance distance, sticking to the growing shadows. He watched her turn into an alley not too far from the townhouse. He gave it a couple of extra seconds before he followed.
The alley was dark, but it was a clearly a dead-end.
Liz was nowhere in sight.
Angela watched and evaluated.
The coaches still saw that she possessed superior hand-to-hand combat skills than the average freshman student, so her training was a little different. She still had to fight. This was a physical training class and not doing any training would just lead to her getting fat, lazy, and sloppy.
The first half of class she joined in with her classmates who were able to turn their powers off. She went through the drills with them. While they learned the basics of Brazilian jujitsu, boxing, Krav Maga, and half a dozen other martial arts disciplines that the HCP incorporated into their training; Angela used it as a refresher and warmup. After the instructional period came the sparing where she wiped the floor with anyone she came up against.
<Well not everyone.> Angela put her ego in check. <Romanoff is pretty talented in Systema. That was an interesting fight.>
Angela had still won, but she walked away with a black eye and a busted lip.
The second half of class was very different. For the second half Angela acted as a pseudo-instructor. She watched over the HCP Supers who we just learning to fight. She corrected them on their forms, drilled them, and made sure they didn’t hurt themselves more than was necessary. Pain was a powerful learning tool, and the people in the class needed to feel that pain as part of their HCP education.
She didn’t watch over the inexperienced HCP freshmen all the time. Sometimes Coach McMillian wanted her to get a real workout. So she shifted into her angelic form and faced off against the strongest of her class.
Mason’s fist came within a few inches of her face, but she side stepped it. Even if he had connected it wouldn’t have knocked her out of the fight.
“You’re getting sloppy, Mason,” she chided, as she threw two jabs and forced him to backpedal. “Pause.”
The big man acknowledged the stop to their fight with a nod of his head and a ragged breath.
Angela had noticed a flaw in Mason over the last two weeks of training together. When the big strongman got tired he got sloppy. He relied on his natural strength to carry the day instead of fighting smart. It was a mindset that might prove fatal one day.
“Your crosses and hooks are getting sloppy.” She set herself up so Mason got a side profile of her. “Make sure to pivot those back feet on those crosses, and rotate that core on your hooks.” She demonstrated the proper technique, but Mason already knew it.
“Yeah, thanks,” Mason sighed, wiping sweat from his brow. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Make sure that you do.” Angela put a little edge to her voice. She didn’t want to call out one of her few friends, but she wanted him to be able to fight better than any criminal he would come up against.
“You might want to do some extra cardio or endurance drills.” Angela toed the line between encouragement and insulting. “It might help.”
Kyoshi’s boyfriend wasn’t stupid. He knew what Angela was getting at. “I will, thanks.”
Physical training went on for another twenty minutes, and Mason made sure to properly execute those moves. It made him slower during their sparing, but it increased his power significantly. The one hit he got on her put her straight on her ass, and rung her bell pretty good.
“Coach McMillian!” Angela called out as the class wrapped up and everyone started heading for the lockers. “I’d like to issue a ranking challenge.”
It had been two weeks since the start of class, and Angela knew that everyone was waiting for her to make the challenge.
“And who will you be challenging.” The speedster had a sly grin on his face. He knew who she wanted to challenge, everyone did.
“I’m challenging Jason Cook for the number one freshman class ranking.”
“I accept.” Jason wasn’t too far away, and it was only a formality. The number one ranked student couldn’t realistically turn down a challenge.
“Does next weekend sound good? A little extra time for our two freshman titans to prepare?” The close combat coach asked.
“That sounds reasonable.”
A lot of other freshman would have been trash-talking each other at this point, but not Jason or Angela. They were beyond that kind of behavior.
“I’d like to make a challenge too.” A lot of the class grimaced at the sound of Carson Long’s voice.
Long had fallen from grace within the freshman class over break. After the final Kimberly Goodman had broken up with him. It hadn’t been pretty, and any loyalty she felt towards him had been shattered when he bragged about their bedroom activities. Both of those two could play with fire. Kimberly spilled the beans on him, and now no girl in the class would come near him with a biohazard suit and a recent shot of penicillin.
“Who are you challenging Mr. Long?”
In addition to falling from female favor, Carson had also fallen from the number ten rank to the number twenty. Something he was righteously pissed about, and he let everyone know that.
“I’m gonna challenge Seth Abney for my number ten spot.” He practically sneered.
Seth was already halfway to the locker room. He looked like he was in another world, but he gave a thumbs up over his shoulder.
“I’ll set that up for the same weekend,” Coach McMillian confirmed. “Now everyone get out of my gym.”
Angela was already moving. She had somewhere to be, and not a lot of time to get ready. She showered quickly. Her hair was still cut short, so it didn’t take long to comb it. In her locker she found a charcoal grey pants-suit. She quickly put it on, smoothed out a few wrinkles, and headed for the lift.
She only had half an hour to get downtown, and that would be a challenge at this hour.
Seth had been kind enough to lend Angela his car, but the sporty Porsche speeding through the neighborhoods around the college looked a little out of place. She felt bad for asking, especially with his and Liz’s current relationship troubles, but she was desperate.
She made the trip in twenty-eight minutes. She dropped it off with the valet, made sure she was presentable, and calmly entered the restaurant. She quickly surveyed the scene and found who she was looking for. He was already seated at a table.
To say Angela tried to sneak up on her father was only partially true. She wanted to be discrete and see if she could do it to the legendary Subtlety Hero. It was also payback from the dinner last year where he left her hanging with Mr. Aretino.
“Hello, Angela.” He’d spotted her when she was still ten feet away and approaching from directly behind him. Even as a child she’d always thought he had eyes in the back of his head.
“Hello, father.” She abandoned her attempt and circled around to take the seat opposite him. “How are you?”
“I’m well. I’m glad to hear you finally are ready to take on Mr. Cook.” The statement was coded enough that no one would think he was discussing internal HCP happenings.
Angela didn’t care about that. She cared that he knew she’d issued the challenge when the challenged had only been issued forty-five minutes ago.
“Don’t be dull, Angela,” Hunter admonished her. “I was a guest lecturer and I know most of your teachers. They’re keeping me apprised of your progression.”
It made sense. Angela had always thought Coach McMillian liked to play things closer to the vest. <Well.> She really thought about that assumption, and the more she considered it the more she realized Coach McMillian would do something exactly like this. For a Hero, the close combat instructor liked a healthy amount of chaos.
“That is not why I asked you here tonight.” Hunter got back on topic, forcing Angela back on the defensive. “I’m here tonight because you initiated a background check on an Alec Mitcham.”
The statement caught Angela off-guard, and her face showed it.
“Why did you initiate the check, and what is your connection to this Alec Mitcham?”
For a second Angela’s mind froze. It froze because she didn’t know how to answer the question. She knew she needed to keep her mouth shut, but for some reason it had a mind of its own at the moment.
“Alec…um..he’s um…a friend.” It sounded as lame she felt saying it. There wasn’t a more cliché response than that.
Hunter stared back, unblinking, waiting for more.
“I initiated the background check because he approached me. He wanted to get closer to me, to study with me, and I thought he should be vetted first. The check came back clean. We’ve struck up a friendship.” That sounded better, but Hunter was already onto the scent.
“An initial check might have come back clean, but I will initiate a separate investigation. I cannot have my daughter…studying…with a boy we know nothing about.” Hunter’s eyes scrutinized her, but Angela thought she saw something else behind those soul-stripping eyes.
<Is he worried about me?> She almost automatically dismissed the alien thought. <No…maybe…yes?> Confusing emotions passed through her mind.
“If the secondary check comes back clean I will meet this Alec and verify him myself,” Hunter stated.
Angela desperately didn’t want that, but Hunter had already made up his mind.
<Please be a terrorist or something.> Angela felt bad for her study partner. Her father had a knack for being intimidating, and it wasn’t going to do their friendship any favors. It would be easier for Alec if he was a criminal and her father just hauled him off to jail.
“Let’s order.” Hunter waved over the waitress. “And after we eat I’d like you to come back to my place with me and offer a new set of eyes on some case files.”
Despite the ongoing awkwardness of the evening, Angela’s face lit up. “Yes, sir,” she answered with enthusiasm.
The opportunity to look at some actual DVA case files, and get some real-world experience was invaluable. She ordered quickly, waited impatiently for the food to arrive, and then scarfed it down like a sumo wrestler after a diet.
She couldn’t wait to get started on those files.