Sleep didn’t come easily that night, and that was probably the point. The instructors left the sophomore HCP class with two homework assignments. Have their lists of classes ready to go tomorrow, and start to consider teams.
It wasn’t a huge surprise that sophomore year was team year. They’d heard snippets from the former sophomores and Kyoshi’s dad had based the summer training around that. Still, it was hard to pick and choose your dream team when you didn’t know how teams would even be selected.
“They’re screwing with us.” Angela sat with her feet pulled up under her. “They want us to overthink the situation. We need to get into a flexible mindset about these types of things. We need to take what’s coming and roll with the punches.” The angelic shifter was scribbling on a sheet of paper.
“You’re definitely going to be one of the team captains. You’re the top of the class. They have to pick you.” Becca was looking at her own sheet as she laid back so her head rested in Anika’s lap. “Ani would make a great captain too.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I lost to Mason in a two-on-one. I don’t think they’ll be picking me anytime soon.” She glanced over her shoulder. “No hard feelings.”
Mason and Kyoshi sat at the kitchen table reviewing their own sheets of paper. Everyone around the room was concentrating on that while making mild chitchat. The papers themselves were plain unordinary things that you could find in any day planner. It was what they represented that had everyone so focused.
They represented the future. These were their schedules for the year, and it would determine their Hero careers moving forward.
Of everyone in the room Angela’s looked the cleanest. She was booked Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from eight to noon with regular classes. It was the opposite method from a normal college student. Normal students avoided early classes like the plague. They needed enough time to recover from a ride on the booze train or a trip to pound town. The normal college student loaded classes up in the afternoon. But not Angela. She was determined to get her morning classes out of the way so she could spend her afternoons focused on what really mattered.
They didn’t have an ethics class this year, much to their relief. They all understood the necessity of being ethical, responsible Heroes but the class could be incredibly boring at times, and people spent a lot of that time worrying about what fresh torture awaited them in physical training.
The first real surprise of the year was the cutback on physical training. The class, which used to take up most of their afternoons, was now only an hour and a half from noon to one-thirty. Kyoshi, Mason, and anyone who wasn’t a speedster secretly hoped that it meant they wouldn’t be running five miles at the beginning of each session anymore, but no one was willing to get their hopes up.
It was what happened after that training that they were all trying to figure out. Whatever their decisions, none of them thought they were going to get off light in the working out department.
“I’m finished.” Angela announced first. Making some final notations and giving the sheet of paper a small nod. “What have you all decided?”
“You show us yours we’ll show you ours.” Anika replied without looking up.
“Close Combat, Weapons, and Focus.” Angela announced.
“Really?” Kyoshi head popped up. “I would have sworn you were going to choose Ranged Combat.”
“Why, because it’s one of my weak points?” Angela replied a little harshly and Kyoshi blushed. “No. It is a valid question.” Angela realized her social faux pas and tried to put the advanced mind at ease. “While Ranged Combat would possibly be beneficial, I simply lack the power set to be truly successful in it. I’ve got counters to deal with ranged combatants, but I ultimately think Focus will be better for me in the long run. With how my ability works, Focus will teach me more skills to deal with ranged combatants than Ranged Combat. Close Combat and Weapons speak for themselves. How about you Kyoshi?”
“I’m still deciding, but Focus is for sure.”
Everyone around the room nodded. An advanced mind not take Focus was like a fish not swimming.
“I’m thinking I’ll stick with Close Combat as well and maybe taking the healing class.”
“Really?” This time it was Mason who was surprised.
“Yeah,” Kyoshi only sounded more confident after Mason’s confusion. “I’ve got skills but I’m not a front-line combatant. In the event of an emergency I think me being able to step in and provide first aid will be just as valuable as the punches I can throw. My mind is my weapon, not my fists.”
The two smiled at each other.
“Well my fists are my weapons.” Mason countered. “So Close Combat it is for me. It’ll try out Weapons to see if I can leverage anything to be useful, but I’m a strongman and strongmen tend to be Close Combat specialists. Lastly, I was thinking about trying Subtlety.”
“You…Subtlety?” It was Kyoshi’s turn to be surprised.
“Like you were implying. Sometimes a mind can be a powerful weapon. Subtlety might shake loose some new ideas with my ability. Fight smarter not harder ya know.”
“That’s wise.” Angela chimed in as she studied Mason a little too much like an opponent for Kyoshi’s liking. “Becca, Anika?”
“Close Combat, Focus, and Subtlety.” Becca replied with a satisfied head bob. “I think I could learn a thing or two just like Mason.
“I’m leaning towards Close Combat, Ranged Combat, and Focus.” Anika was still frowning at her paper.
“Ranged Combat?” Everyone chimed in.
“Yeah.” There was a slight blush under her olive skin. “A lot of people in our class have ranged powers. If I’m spending three more years with them I’m bound to pick up something. I’m already feeling an…I don’t know how to describe it…an itch?”
“I hear you can buy a cream for that.” A voice said from the front door.
Everyone but Anika and Kyoshi jumped a little as Seth made his presence known.
“Can I come in, or is this a special invite only study session?” His S’s slurred considerably as he pulled open the patio door and stumbled inside.
“We’re just looking over schedules for the semester.” Angela answered, her tone neutral and her face watching him closely. “You are welcome to join us.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He plopped on the couch next to Anika and Becca and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid. “So, what’s everyone taking this year?”
“A little bit of everything.” Becca tried to bring a little cheer back into the room. “What are you thinking of, Seth?”
“Ehhh.” Seth waved his hand dismissively which sloshed a little of the pungent liquid onto the couch. “I guess I’ll do Close and Ranged Combat, but I don’t know about the third one. What do you think?”
“I think a little Subtlety would be wise.” Anika barely stopped from glaring at Seth.
“Whoa. Ok. No need for the stink eye.” Seth caught her intent anyway. “But no Subtlety for me. I’m tired of people lying and sneaking around. If you’re going to do something, get up and say it to my face. That’s my motto now.”
“Ok.” Angela got to her feet. “Seth, you’re drunk and making everyone uncomfortable. Please come with me. I’ll get you some water and find you a place to sleep it off.”
“Really…REALLY?!” Seth got irrationally loud. “I’m making your uncomfortable?” He was on his feet now with the bottle’s contents doing even more damage to the upholstery. “I come over here to see everyone together having a grand old time, and I didn’t even get a text. Some friends you are.”
“Hey, buddy.” Mason stepped up and put a comforting hand on the shorter man’ shoulder. “How about we head up to my room?”
“It ain’t your room, Mason.” Seth shrugged off the hand, spun, and the bottle clipped the strongman tricep. It shattered and spilled the whiskey everywhere.”
“Jesus, Seth.” Becca blurred into the kitchen to grab some towels, but Seth wasn’t paying attention to her.
“It ain’t your room.” Seth continued without missing a beat. “It’s your room.” Seth pointed to Kyoshi. “She got you whipped man. You couldn’t come out and have a drink with me even if you wanted to. Forget about playing video games or just hanging out.”
Mason bristled at Seth’s words toward his girlfriend.
<He’s drunk, hurting, and doesn’t mean it. Don’t take any offense.> Kyoshi’s comforting words in Mason’s head helped him relax.
“See!” Seth practically exploded. “There she goes again, man. She’s getting her little tentacles in your mind. Taking you over bit by bit. Soon you won’t even remember what you liked to do by yourself. It’s all about what you do together. Soon you aren’t even going to remember what it’s like to hang out by yourself. Then what? Huh? Then you’re hooked…you’re addicted to her.”
Everyone could tell the conversation had veered away from Mason and Kyoshi and toward a third party not currently present.
“Don’t even start with me!” Seth pointed the broken bottle threateningly at Kyoshi. “It’s you that did this to me…him.” Seth didn’t seem to notice the slip, but everyone else did.
“Fuck you guys. I’m outta here.” He stumbled toward the door, dropping the bottle to complete its destruction, and threw open the door before vanishing into the humid night.
Everyone else just stood there for a moment not really knowing what to do.
“Do we go after him?” Becca had reappeared and was trying to soak up the whiskey that was everywhere. The whole common area smelled like someone had thrown a kegger.
“I’ll keep an eye on him.” Kyoshi concentrated and found Seth’s mind.
It was a whirlwind of emotions within a glass case of despair.
“Maybe we should follow him, but stay back until he needs us.” Mason suggested.
“Maybe.” Kyoshi frowned as she heard a car door open and close and the rumble of an engine. “No, definitely.”
“Stupid fucking assholes.” Seth spat as he hit the button to start his sporty coupe. It roared to life, he threw it in gear, and peeled out. “Clean that up off your street cocksuckers!” The car went from zero to sixty in under four seconds and he put that to the test as he screamed past the line of apartments opposite the student center.
“Call Butch.” He told his car, and the car did as instructed.
The car was good like that: loyal, obedient, and simple. He didn’t have to worry about the car stabbing him in the back.
“Was up?” A voice was barely audible when it answered. There were a lot of voices and music in the background.
“Yo, Butch, it’s Seth.”
“Seth…S-Man. Holy shit, bro. I haven’t heard from you in months.”
“Just busy man. What you up to?”
“Party at my new digs. Checking out the new talent. You want in?” The big lacrosse jock was nothing if not reliable.
“Text me the address. I’ll be over soon.”
“Sure thing, bro, but what about your old lady. She was a ten, bro. Don’t throw an ass like that away.”
Seth stomped on the brakes as a light turned red. Smoke and the smell of burned rubber filled the air. It was the perfect metaphor for his mood.
“I’m through with her. See you soon.” He hung up and a second later an address came through.
He punched it into the GPS just as another car started honking. The light had changed when he was entering the information. The car honked again. Seth stuck his middle finger out the door and stayed still.
“Hey, asshole. Move!”
Seth heard the guy slam his door as he walked up toward Seth’s car. Seth opened the window.
“Hey are you…” The guy leaned over to look into Seth’s car but never got to finish.
Seth grabbed the guy by the scruff of the shirt and pulled. The guy’s head rebounded off the top of the door. Seth felt the satisfying crunch of nose cartilage crumbling just before he fell to the ground crying.
“Nobody fucking tells me what to do.” Seth opened his door but didn’t get out. He put a foot on the ground and felt the earth around him rumble with his power.
He flexed his ability. He remembered it being easier, but he didn’t relent. He pushed until he got what he wanted. There was a slight crack and the sound of leaves rushing through the air before a final CRUNCH. The cherry on top was the wailing of a car alarm as one of the palm trees that lined the road fell and crushed the front half of the other guy’s car.
“Well will you look at that.” Seth felt a burst of relief rush through him. “I’ll let you take care of that.” He shut his door and hit the gas.
The light was red now but he didn’t care. He peeled out again leaving the injured man in a cloud of smoke. Five minutes later he was pulling behind Butch’s new place. It was a large frat house with Greek symbols prominently placed on the front. It was surrounded by other frat and sorority houses on Greek Row.
His sports car got a few appreciative glances from some ladies on the porch, and their expressions brightened when they saw who was driving it.
Seth walked into the house like he owned the place. Judging by the way female heads turned when he entered, he’d have no trouble forgetting a certain someone tonight.
<So this is a frat party?> Izzy stood in the middle of the action.
She’d seen the raunchy comedies from the 90s and early 2000s. She’d laughed along with the other moviegoers and imagined herself all grown up and attending one of those. Now that she was here, the contrast was stark.
First off, no girls were getting drunk and flashing all the guys. Secondly, there were no model/actors here. No one had professionally done makeup. These were real people. That meant the girls that were drinking kept a hand over there drink most of the time. Even the drunkest ones weren’t flashing the crowd. The most flirtatious might pull a guy upstairs for a little no-pants action but they were discrete about it.
The other difference that the movies never quite hit right was the smell. They were in Florida in late summer. It was hotter than hell, which made the whole frat house smell like balls. Cheap beer and BO reeked from everything. Every new entrant into the house got that momentary face pinch of the odor before they powered through it to the keg. Eventually, you got drunk enough not to realize it.
“Yo girl, you havin’fun?” A big hairy man walked up to Izzy and leaned casually against a wall.
She felt slightly trapped next to his considerable bulk, and none of it looked like fat. He was cute in the classic strong jawline way, but the scent of cheap booze and something a little more illegal coming off his breath was a total turnoff.
“My name is Isla.” She replied. She didn’t like being called “girl”.
Unfortunately, the guy took that as an invitation to move a little closer and smile a little wider.
<At least he’s got nice teeth.> She tried to look on the bright side.
Now was about the time she looked around for backup, but all of the other girls were nowhere to be seen. Izzy had only gone to the party because one of her roommates had grown up locally and her boyfriend was on the lacrosse team and going to pledge the fraternity. So he had to be there, and she wanted to be there to support him. Plus, it was kind of their last night being regular college students. Tomorrow they had their ranking fights and then it was off to be a Hero.
She couldn’t imagine what the next few months held. She was still sore from the short fight, running, and pullups.
“So where you from?” Butch had drawn closer while she was lost in her own thoughts.
“Here and there,” she replied noncommittally as she looked for an exit.
She stopped what she was doing and gave the large man-boy a level stare. <What?>
Even in his drunk state Butch was able to figure out he’d said the wrong thing, and his drunken thoughts allowed her to find an escape route.
She scanned the room and found a familiar face.
“Excuse me.” She lithely slipped through a small opening. “Seth!” She called out, remembering the sophomore’s name from earlier.
The sophomore was leaning up against a wall talking to another girl. She was blushing and giggling nervously as he whispered something into her ear. As Izzy approached she couldn’t tell if it was gratitude or annoyance that flashed across the other woman’s face. Seth was clearly putting the moves on her, and Izzy was totally cock-blocking him.
“Sorry, I gotta…” the other woman untangled herself from Seth and vanished back into the throng of people gyrating to music on the impromptu dancefloor. If clothes weren’t involved then in nine months there would probably be a few bundles of joy arriving into this crazy world.
“Fuuuuuuuck.” The word was drawn out as Seth slowly turned to regard her. “What?” He snapped.
Izzy took an involuntary step back, but then straightened her spine and stood her ground. “What? A girl can’t come up and talk to you?”
“There’s a difference between talking and twat-blocking.” Seth mumbled back as he lifted a red solo cup to his lips and drained the last of whatever was inside of it. When he finished he tossed it to the side and studied her. “I know you.” He cocked his head to the side in a classic thinking motion.
“Yeah, I’m Isla. But most people just call me Izzy.” She replied finally smelling the whiskey all over him. “And you’re drunk.”
“How observant of you.” He didn’t seem to care about her criticism.
<Why should he. He’s a sophomore. I’m a freshman. He’s already gone through what I’m about to go through. Why should he care about my judgment?>
“Sorry to break that up.” She motioned to the crowd behind her where the girl had gone. “Just needed an exit from an over enthusiastic frat boy.”
“Butch is actually a pretty good guy. Always there for a friend.” Seth countered, lifting his glass to the big man across the room.
She didn’t even see where he got a new one from. “Well he kind of smelled like a urinal cake. Women don’t usually like that.”
“Then what do they like?” Seth crossed his arms and leaned back away from her against the wall. “Please enlighten me.”
Izzy frowned. “Judging by what I just saw you’ve got a pretty good idea.” She pointed a thumb at the crowd.
“You’d be surprised.”
His reply took her totally be surprise. His casual arrogance was gone. It was filled with pain and regret. Without even thinking she took a comforting step forward before stopping herself.
“Well,” she was nervous now. How does someone reply to that? “I’m not really one to talk. I’m not like most girls.” She didn’t mean for it to come off sounding superior or entitled, just different.
“Now you’ve got my attention.” The sadness was gone replaced by that cool confidence that was a little intoxicating. “What’s your story Izzy Perko?”
“Not really much to tell.” She shrugged. “Didn’t know my mom or dad. I got left on a church’s steps as a baby. I know it’s a little cliché but it still happens in some places. After that, I bounced around foster homes for eighteen years: five different elementary schools and three different high schools before getting accepted here. Some of the foster families were good. Some sucked balls, but I made it through. Now I’m here and going to make the most of my life.”
Somehow during her little biography Seth snagged a beer and handed one to her. “I’m sorry.” He lifted his glass to hers and took a sip. “That must have been tough.”
“Yeah,” she shrugged, sipping tentatively at her own drink. It tasted about as good as it smelled. “But the past is the past. I’m focused on the future.”
That made him smirk, which made her smile.
“Enough about my sob story. What about you?”
His smile vanished. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he replied with a sourness that made her beer look sweet. “I’m the spoiled rich asshole who’s made all the mistakes.” The ending was mumbled into the cup as he drained its contents again.
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.” She reassured him.
She hated seeing people in this much pain. That’s one of the reasons she wanted to be a Hero. She’d seen that look on orphans’ faces too many times. The look when a person thought they were a failure.
“There you are.”
Izzy got cut off by a woman with short blue hair suddenly appearing next to him.
Seth face went from sad to sad and pissed off. “What do you want, Becca?”
“We all want you to sleep it off.” Her tone was bubbly despite the seriousness of the subject.
“Can’t you see I’m having a conversation. Fuck off.” He spat back, which seemed to hurt the blue-haired girl a lot.
“No, you need to sleep it off.” Izzy’s voice was firm. “I’ll help get you home.”
The blue-haired girl, Becca, gave her a suspicious look.
“Don’t worry, I was there earlier today. Got my ass kicked and had to run five miles in thirty-five minutes.” Izzy tried to be vague, and Becca got the intended meaning immediately.
Becca’s face softened and she thanked Izzy for her help. “Come on, let’s get him out of here.”
Together they were able to guide Seth out the back door and into the back of a sporty car. Judging by Seth’s rich boy quip, it was his. They used the GPS to get him home, which was a swanky place not too far away. He was silent the whole way and didn’t bother to thank either of them when they hauled him up to his room. He just grumbled something unintelligible and slammed the door behind him.
That left her and Becca all alone in the hallway. Izzy didn’t know what to say and Becca just looked embarrassed.
“He’s not normally like this.” Becca replied after an awkward silence.
“It’s ok. I’ve seen worse.” More than one of her foster fathers had trouble with the bottle. Luckily, they never did anything.”
“Still. His behavior…” Becca trailed off. Her eyes darted back and forth like she was looking for something, and when she didn’t see it she leaned in close.
“Last year there was this girl,” she started in a conspiratorial whisper.
When she was done, Izzy knew the barebones of Liz and immediately understood were Seth was coming from.
It only made her want to help him more.