The apartment was half a mile from the campus, which was for the best. Seth needed space. He needed space from all the judgment he knew was coming. He needed space from the sights and sounds that reminded him of her. He just needed fucking space.
Monday was a federal holiday, Labor Day, so classes didn’t start until Tuesday. Your schedule was what determined when you moved in. Classes tended to break down into Monday – Wednesday – Friday classes, or Tuesday – Thursday classes. The two-class per week breakdown led to longer individual classes, but psychologically it seemed to a lot of students that they weren’t going to class as much; which gave them a chance do other collegiate activities. Like partying.
Seth had been in a bit of a funk when he signed up for classes. He did it late and got stuck almost exclusively with Monday – Wednesday – Friday classes, but that helped him with the first day of school. He didn’t have anything to do but move in on Tuesday.
<And the first day orientation at one.> He reminded himself as he sat up in bed fighting a hangover.
Seth got in late last night, stumbled out of his Porsche coup that was poorly parked in its assigned space. He kicked the beer off the floorboards and into the parking lot as he did it, but he was too drunk to notice. The cops had, but since they didn’t have any proof he was driving, and the alcohol was out of his system, they went for a littering fine.
<Three hundred dollars my ass.> Seth almost crumpled up the neon orange ticket sticking out from beneath his windshield, but he didn’t.
He wasn’t ready to commit HCP suicide just yet, so he threw it in his glove box and tore off toward campus. It was only ten, but Angela had called a class meeting. Since she was still the number one ranked student in the class, she thought it gave her the right. Truthfully, Seth didn’t give a flying fuck about whatever Angela had to say. He was just holding out hope that everyone in the class didn’t hate his guts.
Nothing about the students’ center had changed. The floor looked like someone had polished it thoroughly in preparation for a semester’s worth of scuff marks, but aside from that nothing had moved more than an inch from where it had been in May.
It was packed though. People were streaming through it to get to classes. Those who didn’t have class until Wednesday were moving in, just like Seth had done, and among all that no one cared or noticed a small group of sophomores that were filing into a signed-out room.
“Seth!” Becca bounced over and gave him a hug.
It felt good, better than he’d remembered, but he didn’t let it last too long.
“Whoa, look at the hair.” He put on a façade of cheerfulness.
“I know right.” She moved her head back and forth modeling it for him.
“She always looks great.” Anika walked up beside Becca with a stern look on her face.
He expected to get the most hostility out of her. After all, Liz had kidnapped her, locked her in a hole in the ground, and was prepared to give her over to the asshat that had torn apart the city. All for a payday.
“Hello, Anika.” He couldn’t do more than stand his ground and see what happened.
“Hello.” She held out her hand, making the first move, and Seth took it. “You smell like a sewer.” She released his hand, and he could have sworn her saw the corners of her lips pull up a bit.
“Seth.” A deep voice announced as two human giants walked up behind him.
Mason and Kyoshi looked just as chummy and in love as they always had. It sent a spike of pain lancing through Seth’s heart, but he didn’t let it show. Not that his neutral facial expressions fooled Kyoshi, but at least she didn’t call him out on it in public. Her face did droop a little as she registered the negative emotion, but then Angela interrupted them all.
“Welcome back everyone.”
<Maybe I’m the only one, but does Angela look…fierce?> Seth couldn’t think of a different way to put it.
The teenage shifter had a rich tan going, she was as thin as her naturally muscular body type allowed, which meant she looked ripped.
<She looks like she spent the whole summer training while you spent it killing your liver.> He chided himself as she moved on.
“Some of you might remember from last year that when you first moved in you had a little help. You didn’t know it at the time, but that help was HCP sophomores helping the freshman get settled in. It’s a tradition at West, and the Dean has allowed me to coordinate it this year.” Angela smiled, and her teeth looked exceptionally white against her sun-kissed cheeks. “Since today is the first day we’re all here, and a lot of the students are already moved in, we only have a couple students to help. Actually,” she looked down at her list, “there are exactly fourteen freshmen we’re going to help. That, works out perfectly. Break up into groups of two and I’ll give you each an assignment.”
A year of working, fighting, and bleeding together made that quick and easy…for everyone but Seth. Anika, Becca, Mason, and Kyoshi grouped together, that much was a given, but what also seemed to be a given was the rest of the class avoiding him.
Seth had been reasonably close with a few other classmates. Close enough that they could spend a few hours helping a freshman move in. He’d hung out a few times with Alex Webb, who had the ability to augment his bones and muscles into a creature with enhanced physical attributes. They’d even gone to the bar once or twice when Liz was out studying.
<Studying…> It hit him that every time she said that she was off doing something nefarious.
The hesitation made him lose out partnering with Webb, who paired up with Fiona Richardson, the class teleporter.
<They look pretty cozy together.> He’d missed most of what happened at the end of last year and the beginning of this one dealing with his own emotions.
Next, he tried to grab Oliver Carpenter, a technopath with an affinity for surfing and flipflops. But the sandy-haired, laid back dude sidestepped him and joined up with Danny Mason, a duplicator.
Everyone was pairing up quick, leaving him with only a few options.
“Emilia?” He asked the ice blue-haired, cryokinetic Southern Bell who his parents tried to set him up with. “Want to…”
He never got to finish before Natalia Romanoff grabbed her BFBF, best friend and bitches forever, and walked her away. He didn’t look after them. Natalia could paralyze with a look if she wanted too.
<I see how it is. FUCK ALL OF YOU!> He gave them the mental finger loud enough for Kyoshi to take notice and come get him.
“Angela still needs a partner.” She offered, trying to keep the pity to a minimum.
“Great,” he grumbled, his cheery façade gone as he returned to the small group of people who weren’t treating him like a leper.
“Excellent.” Angela watched from the front of the room. “Now have one of you come up and grab a name and address.”
Seth watched as she tore off sections of the paper that was on her clipboard, and waited for her to finish.
“Seth.” Angela’s tone was flat as she approached him.
Aside from Anika, Angela had the most reason to be pissed with him. After all, his girlfriend had blown up her father. She just hadn’t blown him up enough to kill him. But the degree of blowing a person up didn’t matter much when Angela had thought her father was dead for several months.
“Angela.” He replied, his tone matching her.
Irrational as it was, he was a little pissed at her. After all, it was her father who caught his girlfriend and shipped her off to a maximum security Super prison where she couldn’t have any visitors or interaction with the outside world aside from her lawyer. Seth would know, he’d tried to get a call through when he got over the sea of emotions raging through him. Not being able to connect hadn’t helped things.
“Let’s get moving.” The brief tension was gone as Angela turned and marched out of the room.
“Really. That’s it?” Seth followed hot on her heels, while the rest of the class exited and dispersed to the four corners of campus.
“What were you expecting?” Angela didn’t even turn around as they exited the student center and headed down the line of townhouses on the opposite side of the street.
“Oh…I don’t know. A little cursing at a minimum, maybe a shot to the nuts.” Seth threw his hands in the air.
“And why would I do that?”
“You know why.” His statement caused her to stop and turn to face him.
“I will kick you in the nuts if it makes you feel better.” She replied seriously.
“Why would that make me feel better?”
“I don’t know, but you are projecting your anger and hatred onto others, and expecting to be driven away. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“Cut the psycho-babbly bullshit.” He scoffed.
“That bullshit helped me through at a tough time and it might just help you too.” Angela remained stoic, which only pissed him off more.
“Fuck that,” he spat. “Let’s just do this stupid move-in thing so I can get back to what’s important.” The image of a bottle of bourbon appeared in his mind.
“Ok.” Angela shrugged. “But when you’re ready go find Dr. Johnson. He’s really good.”
She led the way down the row of townhouses lining the street, and for a brief second Seth thought he knew where they were heading.
<One-twenty…one-nineteen…one-eighteen…> He stopped before he crossed the threshold in townhouse 117’s property. <I can’t do it.> The memories were just too painful.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to. Angela turned up the walkway for townhouse 118. The front porch was covered in brown boxes stacked three high in some places.
“Hello?” A voice asked tentatively and a girl emerged from behind a stack.
Seth thought girl instead of woman for a reason. The girl couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. The stack of boxes she was walking inbetween dwarfed her. She was cute as a button though, her face reminded Seth of a kitten’s. Her black hair was cut short and her black eyes stared out at them with a bit of fear in them. Her features weren’t Super enough to draw immediate attention, but if you looked at the black irises for too long there was definitely something Super in them. She seemed like she was deciding between fight and flight for a moment before Angela spoke up.
“We’re here to help move you in,” she consulted her slip of paper, “Isla Perko?”
“That’s me, but I don’t need any help.” She lifted up two big boxes with ease. A little more ease than was common in a girl who was five foot nothing and a hundred pounds soaking wet.
“We know you don’t, but the school gives us volunteer credit if we do. So, we can either help you or we’re going to sit here until you’re done.” He shrugged trying to move the conversation along. “Your choice.”
Isla looked between the two of them, the mountain of boxes, and her watch. “Ok, my roommates are all in class and I need to get this all in and unpacked by twelve thirty.”
“Which room is yours?” Angela picked up a box helpfully.
“Ground floor on the left.”
“Cool, I had the same room last year.” Angela smiled and turned herself sideways to fit the box through the door.
Seth didn’t know what was weirder. Angela saying “cool” or smiling.
<This is going to be a weird year.> He grabbed another box and followed Angela and little Isla.
“I think this is it.” Mason looked down at the slip of paper just to make sure.
The dorm in front of them was easily ten stories tall, had people streaming in and out of it, and half of those people were students carrying boxes. There were even a few parents milling around. Mason only knew a few other HCP students who lived in the regular dorms, and he knew they could be problematic when it came to getting into the HCP. Some of the large residential buildings had hidden elevators down into the subterranean facility, but not all of them. As far as he knew, this wasn’t one of them.
“This is it.” Kyoshi had her eyes peeled and was watching the people. “Aiden Murphy is this way.” She grabbed him by the hand and dragged them through the front door.
The lobby was a masterpiece of linoleum, cork boards with advertisements, and rundown furniture. People were streaming in and out of the stairwell, waiting in line for the elevator, or just milling around talking.
“There.” Kyoshi located their target and cut a path through the other students. It wasn’t difficult, people just tended to move out of the way if you were twice as wide and a foot taller than them.
“Aiden Murphy?” They stopped in front of a guy waiting by the elevator.
He wasn’t what Mason expected. He was nicely dressed compared to the rest of the students in the area, including Kyoshi and Mason. The unofficial uniform of West Private University was t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops. Murphy had on a nice button-down shirt rolled up to the elbows, khaki slacks that weren’t going to last in the Orlando heat, and a pair of leather loafers that had to be accumulating a respectable amount of sweat. His brown hair looked like it had been recently styled and a pair of glasses made him look older than eighteen. He was also big, not Mason big, but a respectable six and a half feet tall. Despite the height, Murphy wasn’t muscular. He looked pretty average underneath the nice clothes.
“Yeah that’s me.” Murphy turned around and Mason and Kyoshi saw intertwining tattoos running down both of his forearms. If they had to guess they assumed he had two full sleeves, which was a bit of a contrast to the business casual outfit he was wearing.
“Hi.” Kyoshi smiled at the freshman. “We’re here to help you move in.”
Murphy gave the two larger sophomores a once over. His eyes immediately went to Kyoshi’s white hair, golden eyes, and Mason’s size. Mason saw him put two and two together. It wasn’t exactly rocket science.
“Sure thing.” Murphy smiled back. “This is actually my last box, but you’re more than welcome to help me unpack.”
“We’ll wait for the next elevator.”
The most recent ride was here, and there was no way it could accommodate Mason’s size and all the other students waiting to haul their belongings up to their new rooms.
<Interesting guy.> Kyoshi sent his way as the elevator closed behind the freshman Super.
<What do you mean?>
<His whole look is a ruse.> She scratched her chin in thought. <He’s putting on an act so everyone around him will associate him with that preppy façade, but that doesn’t mesh with what I felt and heard from him.>
<Anything I should know about?>
Supers didn’t always come from a good home life, and this wouldn’t be the first time Mason got burned by someone who appeared cool on the outside. Liz had rattled everyone she’d been around with her deception.
<No, nothing like that.> Kyoshi picked up on his thoughts. <He’s just really anxious, which is normal, and he wants to perform well today. He’s got a few ideas about what is coming, and he’s right about some of them.>
Mason remembered his first day. He met Kyoshi, and it was a strong attraction at first sight. Then he got the speech from the Dean after stepping into an HCP for the first time, before promptly getting stomped on by Coach Meyers. He couldn’t blame Murphy for being nervous if he had an idea what was coming.
<Any idea what his power is?> If he was ever going to have to face Murphy it was better to have all the intel he could.
<It’s something to do with his tattoos but I can’t tell exactly what?> Kyoshi sounded frustrated. <He’s not trained to deal with telepaths, but he knows not to be thinking about his power all the time.>
<Tattoos…hmmm…> Mason didn’t know what to make of that, but he was sure he’d get to find out sooner or later.
“Come on.” Kyoshi pointed to the stairs. “He’s on the third floor. It’ll be quicker to walk.”
“This can’t be right.” Becca looked down at the address, up at the building, and back down at the address.
When they first got the slip of paper they didn’t have any idea where it was, so they went to the car and plugged it into the GPS. The apartment, more accurately the penthouse apartment, that Scarlett Vaan was renting was a solid five miles from the school in a brand new building overlooking a small lake. The doorman at the front stopped the two young Supers, who were dressed in casual sundresses, because they looked like they didn’t belong.
<We don’t.> Becca kept looking up at the building, which only made the doorman more suspicious.
“Just call up to Scarlett Vaan,” Anika was on the verge or arguing with the man. “We’re representatives of the school sent to help her move in.”
“I assure you Ms. Vaan is being well taken care of. By The Lake Properties is a full-service establishment. Everything that Ms. Vaan needs she receives.”
“Please just call her, Sir.” Becca added her Midwestern innocence to the conversation. “If she says she doesn’t need our help then we’ll be on our way, but we need to hear it from her.”
The doorman’s iron demeanor cracked, and he reached for the phone by his little podium.
“Ms. Vaan…yes ma’am…right away ma’am…” the man tried not to looked upset as he put the phone back in the receiver.
“Ms. Vaan will see you now.” He led them inside to the elevator, swiped his ID card, and hit the button for the top floor. “Have a nice day, ladies.”
“That was weird.” Becca looked at her girlfriend who was frowning.
“Not really, Ms. Vaan is a little brazen with the use of her abilities.” Anika took a step forward. “And not nearly as good as she thinks she is.”
The elevator dinged open and they emerged into luxury. Plush furniture was everywhere. A kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances bordered a giant main room that was set up with a giant 4K HDTV smart TV. At least three bedrooms shot off of the great room, and from one of them emerged a very pretty woman.
<Thanks.> An unknown voice accepted Becca compliment.
Becca immediately put her mind on lock down and pushed the intruding presence out.
“I’m going to tell you right now it is not polite to go snooping around in other people’s minds, Scarlett.” Anika crossed her arms and frowned at the slightly smaller woman.
Scarlett Vaan was very pale, with silver hair that was pulled into a tight ponytail, and matching silver eyes. Those eyes studied Anika and Becca carefully. She fell between the shorter Becca and the taller Anika on the height scale, and had a body that looked like she did yoga regularly.
<She looks tight.> Becca couldn’t think of a better word to describe the woman, who did not look anything like the average eighteen-year-old. Scarlett seemed relaxed on the surface, but just below that Becca could feel the tension. It was like Scarlett was coiled and ready to spring at a moment’s notice.
“Well, first off I’m not eighteen.” She smiled, and Becca couldn’t hide her surprise. “I’m not at West to get my bachelors in whatever, so don’t think of me as a freshman. I’m a doctoral candidate here working on my Ph.D. in neurology and psychology.”
“And you’re an advanced mind, a strong one.” Anika added.
“Thanks.” Scarlett smiled back showing perfectly straight and white teeth. “You have no idea.” The smiled seemed downright predatory.
“Enlighten me.” Anika didn’t back down.
“Fine.” Scarlett shrugged, plodding down on the large sofa in lotus pose. “Every heard of psychic surgery?”
“No.” Becca scratched her head absentmindedly.
“Don’t feel bad. Not many people have, and not many people are capable of it.” Scarlett sounded slightly full of herself. “It’s not a skill that advanced minds can learn, except maybe a few beginner’s steps. It’s a unique power all by itself,” she continued. “I don’t have any telekinesis, so I can’t throw things around. My telepathy is ridiculously strong, but only in a small area, and really for a specific purpose.” She smiled. “Your little mental attempts to keep me out are pretty weak, no offense.”
<Tough not to take offense.> Becca grumbled, and only succeeded in getting a wider smile from Scarlett.
“I won’t bore you with all the details, so I’ll just say I’m a little more hands on than your regular advanced mind.”
Becca felt a shiver pass over her at that tidbit.
“I’ll be working a lot with Dr. Sanderson and Dr. Johnson instead of with the other freshman coaches. So thanks for the offer to help the new girl move in, but I’m good. You’re welcome to stay,” she added. “But I’m just going to watch Netflix until I need to head over for my first day.”
Becca and Anika quickly backtracked out of the apartment, into the elevator, and back down to the lobby.
“We’re out of range.” Anika took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “She’s only got a couple hundred-foot range, and the closer to her you are the stronger she is.”
“I don’t know about you but I got a creep-tastic vibe from her.”
“Yeah, me too.” Anika shook her head like she was warding off bad memories. “But that’s not our problem. Dr. Johnson will straighten her out. He’s a good man.”
“Good.” The last thing Becca wanted was some girl rooting around in her mind that wasn’t as nice and controlled as Kyoshi.
Neither of the Supers knew what psychic surgery was, but it sounded pretty self-explanatory, and not pleasant at all.
“Let’s get back.” Anika led the way to the car. “We have just enough time to grab a bite to eat before we head down to our first day.”
“Eat light,” Becca reminded her girlfriend. “You know what they like to do on the first day.”