“Ouch…shit!” Anna Fletcher fumed as the red, semi-solid ball hit her hard in the boob. Someone on the other side of the court laughed at her pain, and she gave them the finger.
Becca winced at the sight of her teammate being eliminated. That left Team 3 with only two other players remaining. Team Two was methodically picking them off one by one. It was sweet revenge for the other team, and mildly embarrassing for Becca’s team.
To get the sophomore class back in the swing of things the instructors had immediately planned another team event for three days into the semester. Becca and the rest of the sophomores were still busy finding the optimum route to their new classes when they were unceremoniously thrown into a classic game of dodgeball.
The game had been outlawed at most public institutions throughout the US because people said it allowed the strong to pick on the weak. They were probably right, but sometimes people need to have their ass handed to them to motivate them to do better. It was better to have a relatively-benign ball do that than fists and feet. For members of West Private University’s HCP, a red ball was a welcome change of pace from fists, feet, and super powers that routinely were thrown around the place.
Becca deftly dipped to the right as a ball missed her by inches. For a person that was used to being faster and nimbler than anyone else, this game was more than frustrating. Coach McMillian had laid out the rules before they started, and rule number one was no powers. For some, like Mason and Casey, that was impossible, but most people in the class could control their abilities. The close combat coach was keeping a close eye on the strongman types to make sure they didn’t throw the ball too hard and hurt someone. The students might not be able to use their abilities but he could, and he would be able to get to the person before the ball could.
Becca backpedaled to increase the distance between her and the four remaining players from Team Two: Anika, Teresa Shaw, Liam Garrison, and Emilia Scarborough. Anika had just tried to take Becca out, and it wasn’t to dinner and a movie.
Winter Break had been great for them. They’d split the time between Becca’s family, and Anika’s adoptive parents. They’d laughed, loved, and enjoyed their time to the fullest while still doing occasional training. Still, the first couple days back demanded that they get back into fighting shape.
Becca clutched her ball and considered whether or not to throw it. It was useful to have one to deflect shots. If she knocked away and incoming throw with her ball then she wasn’t out, and giving up that advantage when Team Two had two-to-one odds against them was tough. On the flip side, she needed to give up the protection if she wanted to even those odds. It was interesting how life’s challenges of being stuck between a rock and a hard place were exemplified in such a simple game.
Finally she decided to take a chance. She raced up to the line and looked like she was prepared to return fire against Anika. Her girlfriend backed up, but watched Becca intently. She bent her knees, lowered her center of gravity, and prepared to make the split-second decision of trying to catch the throw to eliminate Becca, or dodge. Right when Becca reached the line she quickly pivoted forty-five degrees and launched her ball diagonally at an unsuspecting Liam Garrison. The toxic obfuscator was busy trying to read what Team Three’s only other remaining player, Carson Long, was going to do. Carson was normally an ass, but his smack talk did the job of distracting Liam perfectly.
Liam still caught the flash of red in his peripherals, and tried to get out of the way, but he wasn’t fast enough. The dodgeball hit him in the shoulder with a loud SMACK.
“Garrison, out!” Coach McMillian yelled as Liam started to slouch off the court.
Becca started to back pedal again when it was her turn to see a flash of red in her peripherals. <Stupid rules!> If she had her speed she would have been able to dodge easily, but without it, it became clear she wouldn’t get away. Even worse…
SLAP! The dodgeball hit her square in the cheek. Becca felt the sting immediately, and was sure it would be red for at least an hour.
“Whitfield, out! Scarborough, no head shots, you know that. You’re out too!” The Coach ordered, and they both complied.
Becca swore she saw Emilia grinning as they both walked off the court. Becca didn’t condone the nickname assigned to Emilia and her group of friends: stuck up bitches (SUBs), but she sure thought she was one at the moment.
Back on the court, it was now two on one. Carson was facing off against Anika and Teresa. Carson still had a ball for defense, but that virtually eliminated his ability to make a catch, which would remove one of Team Three’s players from the game while bringing back in one of his teammates.
Virtually was the key word there as Anika made a throw and Carson went for the long shot. Instead of dodging, he slid into the path of the ball. He maneuvered his own ball to one arm and tried to catch her throw. It would have looked awesome if he succeeded, but Anika was a virtual strongwoman herself, and even though she was backing off her strength, it still meant the ball had some zip behind it.
Carson misjudged the slide and the ball hit him high on the shoulder and rebounded at a bad angle. He reached for it, and got his fingertips on it, but it wasn’t enough. It hit the ground and Coach McMillian called the game for Team Two.
“That’s two-two. It’s the best of three, so next win takes the cake.” Becca was surprised when told there was an actual welcome back cake waiting for them after this training session. She’d be careful when she ate it though. She wasn’t a freshman anymore. There could be a ‘surprise’ training even just when the cake was starting to settle in their bellies. That was something the instructors would do.
The whole dodgeball tournament just seemed too nice.
Mason had dipped, ducked, dived, and dodged around for twenty minutes. People would think at six-nine, with the body of a bodybuilder, he’d be one of the first to go. They’d be wrong. He thought part of it was because people thought they could leave him to deal with later while they tried to get rid of his teams more deadly players. Rowan had proven to be a maniac, and since he was still a relative unknown to the class, he’d been vigorously targeted until finally being knocked out of the game. Likewise, Lorelai Gilford had proven clever and resourceful. She been the last to be knocked out, and left Mason alone to face the remainder of Team One.
Team Four hadn’t gone down easy though, and they’d been allowed for one player to remain in the game after being knocked out because they were down to six instead of seven members. No one talked about how they’d lost their seventh member.
Angela’s team was a worthy opponent, and Erin had made sure to knock out the angelic shifter as quickly as possible. Alex Webb had been tough, along with Natalia Romanoff, but when it came down to the endgame it was the last person Mason wanted to be playing against. It was a battle of the class giants, and most respected couple in the class, Mason versus Kyoshi.
“Don’t get beat by your girlfriend, dude,” Simon Skylar yelled from the sidelines. “You’ll never live it down.”
Mason ignored him and slid to the side to avoid Kyoshi’s throw. She missed, and he immediately returned fire, but she was already moving at the expected counterattack. Despite all appearances, he knew she wasn’t using her power. It was just common sense. She knew him, she was thinking tactically, and she knew he would try and immediately take advantage of her vulnerability. Mason had even tried to foresee which nearby ball she was going to go for, but he must have telegraphed his move, because his throw was embarrassingly inaccurate.
“Come on, Mason.” Rowan groaned as Kyoshi grabbed another ball and they returned to the stalemate that had already lasted close to five minutes.
It was getting old, and Coach McMillian seemed to be thinking the same thing. The winner of this best-of-five match was going to face off against Team Three in a one match sudden death for victory. Mason was about to commit to another assault when Kyoshi beat him to it.
She surprised him by charging the center line, but more importantly, she brought her arm back to make the throw very early, and exposed her chest. Mason didn’t hesitate and stare at the chest like some love-struck idiot. He took action. He half-cocked his arm and threw. He felt a little guilty that he might have put a little extra zing on the throw since he didn’t wind up all the way, but McMillian didn’t call him out on it. There wasn’t any need to.
At six-seven, Mason didn’t think his girlfriend was capable of the maneuver. She had jumped, and while airborne, twisted so that she would not be able to land on her feet. She was going to land hard on her shoulder, and would feel it in the morning, but she clearly wasn’t thinking about that. The gutsy twist-leap made it so Mason’s center-of-mass shot passed in the space between her armpit and hip. That left him totally exposed, open for a counterstrike, but more importantly flat footed. He flexed his knees to dive away, but Kyoshi’s ball was already rocketing toward him. Of course, due to her aerial acrobatics, and her naturally uncoordinated nature, her shot wasn’t completely on target either.
The red ball flew in at a respectable speed and made solid contact with his junk. If Mason was a lesser man he probably would have gasped in pain, groaned, and fallen dramatically to his knees. However, anything short of a .50 caliber round hitting him in the nuts wasn’t going to elicit that reaction. Instead he rolled his eyes and looked at his girlfriend as she landed hard on her side and skidded to a stop.
“Really?” he asked as Team Four groaned in defeat.
She just shrugged, which included a small wince, as Team One rushed the court to help her to her feet.
“Team One wins!” Coach McMillian announced. “Why don’t you walk it off, Jackson.”
“I’m good, Coach.” Mason replied.
“Not that.” McMillian shook his head. “I’m talking about your dignity, man. You just got righteously outmaneuvered by your girlfriend. Go take a lap to earn your man card back.” The Coach’s good-natured smile accompanied the ribbing, but that didn’t stop the rest of the two teams from laughing at their class’ biggest and physically strongest member.
Mason took it all in stride, and even laughed a little himself. Kyoshi would make it up to him later.
“Are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?” Mason finally broke the silence.
All the original inhabitants of Townhouse 117 were sitting in a mostly-deserted corner of the Student’s Center. It was the first chance they had to gather together as a group since the start of the semester. The get together had started with some light bragging from Angela. Team One had gone on to win the face off with Team Three. Teams One and Three had become the two top contenders in the team competition; followed by Team Two, and lastly Team Four. That bothered Mason, and he knew Seth’s absence had something to do with it. It was hard for a future group of Heroes to grasp that they’d been teammates, and even friends, with someone who’d gone as far astray as Seth Abney.
“If by ‘elephant’ you mean traitorous, backstabbing asshole, then sure,” Anika replied. She had never liked Seth, and his recent choices only validated her position in her own mind. The voice of moderation, Becca, remained silent.
“Call it what you want,” Mason could quite bring himself to rebuke Anika. “We need a plan.”
“There is no plan. There’s only the truth,” Becca stated. It didn’t sound like much coming from the good-natured speedster, but everyone present realized she was putting her foot down.
“We’re not saying to lie, or do anything like that,” Kyoshi stepped in since she had a better idea what was on Becca’s mind. “What Mason is talking about is how we move forward from this.”
Everyone had been interviewed several times by the HCP staff, the DVA, and other law enforcement agencies. They’d milked every bit of information out of the small group that they could, but since the events of Winter Break, there was a new schedule of interviews lined up.
“We don’t know anything. We know that, they know that, but they need to keep pressing. When you fail to catch the bad guy sometimes you need to go back to square one and start over again with the investigation. Unfortunately, we’re square one.” Angela laid it out clearly, and everyone nodded.
“There’s a stigma attached to us now,” Kyoshi added, which surprised some of the group. “Not necessarily from our classmates or the HCP staff, but anyone outside our immediate acquaintances comes into our discussions with jaded thoughts and preconceived notions.”
“It’s human nature.” Mason knew a little something about preconceived notions growing up as a Super in NYC after Seif al-Din’s attack.
“It’s wrong,” Becca frowned.
“But it’s reality,” Anika countered, but put her hand comfortingly on her girlfriend’s shoulder.
“It’s meaningless,” Angela put her foot down. “We go into the interviews and tell them what they want to know. We don’t leave anything out and we give them anything that could help them track down Seth. He turned his back on being a Hero, and instead of just chilling as a civilian, he became a villain. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We help them catch him. He shouldn’t be coming to us as character witnesses when it comes time for his trail anyway.” With her piece said, Angela got up and walked away.
“What she said.” Anika followed behind her. Becca didn’t say anything, she just waved goodbye.
“Well, that went well.” Kyoshi leaned her head on Mason’s shoulder and watched the few students who remained in the building go about their business.
“Things aren’t the same as freshman year.” Mason stated plainly, but Kyoshi felt the conflict inside him.
She knew he didn’t think Seth was an evil villain, but that was hard to believe after everything that had happened. Still, it wasn’t her place to judge. People were entitled to their thoughts, and she shouldn’t be prying anyway. She withdrew from her boyfriend’s mind and closed her eyes. The rise and fall of his chest coupled with the thumping of his heart lulled her to sleep.