Mason ignored the sounds a rapid humping coming from Seth’s room and focused on the task in front of him. The chorus of passionate love making used to make the big man uncomfortable, but after half a semester of hearing those two go at it like bunnies in heat it was normal. Mason hardly paid attention to it, just like the police sirens or occasional gunshots back in Brooklyn.
The only thing he did do was peek across the room to take a look at his girlfriend. He needed to make sure she wasn’t giving out any signals that she wants to do some of the same. This morning, Kyoshi was too busy to think about sex. Mason turned his attention back to what was sitting directly in front of him. He had some important decisions to make, but he was stuck. He needed help.
“What do you think?” he asked his girlfriend.
Kyoshi turned to examine his dilemma. In one hand Mason had a pair of nice khaki shorts and a short sleeved dress shirt. In the other, he was holding dark slacks and a white button down.
“Where exactly do you think we’re going?” she looked irritated for a moment, but then a smile cracked through the façade.
“California,” Mason shrugged.
“San Francisco,” Kyoshi clarified.
“They’re the same thing,” Mason extended the outfit choices closer to her.
“Not the way you’re thinking,” Kyoshi rolled her eyes. “We’re not going to L.A., Mason. It’s not going to be sunny and eighty degrees at my house. It’ll be high forties, low fifties, with the possibility of rain and gloom.”
“Oh.” Slowly, Mason set down the short t-shirt combo. Kyoshi nodded, smiled, and then gave him a kiss.
“And you don’t have to try and be all fancy,” she added. “We’re not the devout church going crowd that Grandma is.”
“I guess I’ll just have to represent the Brooklyn Baptists all by myself. You haven’t heard me sing yet,” Mason grinned.
“Oh, please God no,” Kyoshi giggled as Mason struck an operatic pose.
“Swing low, sweet chariot,” Mason’s deep voice rumbled pleasantly.
“That’s actually not that bad,” Kyoshi smiled sincerely at the man she loved.
“Thanks. Grandma made me join the choir why I was younger,” Mason shrugged, but he was clearly grinning at surprising her.
“And I bet you did all right with all those good Christian girls,” Kyoshi laughed when Mason’s dark face blushed. “That’s what I thought.” She walked over to him and into arms that immediately encircled her. “You’re a keeper, Mason Jackson,” she titled her head up and kissed him harder than she had before.
For a second, Mason thought that Seth and Liz’s carnal activities had gotten to her, but after a few seconds she pulled away. “You’d better head down if you want to be on time.”
Mason looked over to the clock beside his bed and cursed. He’d lost track of time in assembling his wardrobe for his Christmas with Kyoshi’s parents. They’d already met before, but he was still nervous and wanted to make a good second impression. Sitting down for lunch with Kyoshi’s massive father was one thing, but sleeping in his house and eating his food was something entirely different.
“Make sure you hurry back,” the tone of her voice and the twinkle in her eye let Mason know she’d heard some of his earlier thoughts. “Because there is no way in hell we’re fooling around at my house.”
<Absolutely not,> Mason fervently agreed. He liked his legs attached to his body; especially that important third one.
“When’s your review?”
“Twenty minutes after yours, but I want to finish packing before I head over,” judging by the mountain of clothes on the bed, Mason doubted that was going to happen.
It was already late afternoon and their flight left from the airport in a few hours. They had a two hour layover in Atlanta and then they’d fly straight through to San Francisco. They’d be getting there late, but with California being three hours behind Florida; it would just be dinner time.
“Ok,” I’ll make sure to hurry back and finish packing.” Mason could fit most of the stuff he owned in the suitcase he was bringing, so in typical guy fashion he’d be done in five minutes.
Kyoshi waved him off as she considered two different blouses, so he left without another word. He exited the townhouse and headed for a different one of the HCP’s secret lifts. He didn’t want to go to the student center, and he needed to walk for a little bit to make sure no one was following him. After a few minutes, and several random turns he was confident he wasn’t being tailed. There weren’t many students still on campus, so it was easier than usual to perform his counter-surveillance techniques. He entered the HCP through one of the dorms, and quickly made his way to Coach McMillian’s office.
The close combat coach was waiting with a big grin splashed across his face, and a foot tapping faster than a drum roll. “I’ve been waiting all morning to watch this,” he gestured for Mason to sit as he brought up the strongman’s finals footage.
“You passed the first test well enough,” the coach paused the footage at the spot where Mason was squeezing his considerable size into the small hatch opening; the older speedster’s grin taking on an impish quality. “That was our fault. We’ll make sure to give you room to breathe next time we set up Battleball.”
“That would be nice,” Mason saw the humor in the moment now that he was able to look back on it.
“What I really want to go over is this,” the footage played forward to Mason confrontation at the top floor of the office building.
“They caught me off-guard,” Mason admitted. “But…”
“No…you did fine here,” Coach McMillian cut him off. “You were outnumbered by Long, Garrison, and Mosely. They tried to smoke you out with Garrison, but you used your power and environment to your advantage. Venting the gas was the right idea. What I’m more concerned with is this,” the speedster fast forwarded to the part where Flynn was coming to copy his power.
Mason saw the decision solidify on his face, and couldn’t help but gulp as he leapt from the window he’d smashed earlier. He didn’t realize that Flynn had nearly caught him. Coach McMillian hit the pause button, perfectly capturing an “oh shit” face on the bigger strongman.
“This is what I’m concerned with.” The former Hero pointed at the frozen image.
“I’m not crazy or suicidal or anything, Sir,” Mason got the feeling he was in trouble. “I just didn’t see another way out of that situation.”
“No, you misunderstand,” the coach chook his head. “You made the right decision. You had to jump.”
“Um…ok,” Mason wasn’t sure where this conversation was going.
“I’m concerned about the fear on your face,” Coach McMillian jabbed his finger at the screen. “You’re a strongman, Jackson; I don’t want to see you afraid of a short jump.”
“Uh…I’m sorry, Sir. I’ve just never jumped out of a building before,” this was not going anything like Mason thought it would.
“That’s pretty obvious, but it’s not the jump that’s the problem,” the footage resumed playing. “You measured it right, so you didn’t overshoot; which is usually the first mistake a rookie strongman makes. Your problem is the landing,” with expert precision the speedster paused the footage just as Mason crashed through the roof of the building he’d jumped onto. “You don’t know how to land for shit.”
“In my defense it was my first try,” Mason replied sheepishly.
“I know and we’ll work on that. I’ve got a homework assignment for you over the break,” Mason didn’t quite groan, but the coach caught the sag in his shoulders. “Don’t worry it’ll be fun. I want you to go on YouTube and watch videos of Titan jumping out of buildings. There has to be a thousand clips out there. I want you to study them and learn his techniques, because when you get back you and I are going back into that arena and jumping off some roofs. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir,” Mason didn’t know how he felt about that teaching style, but he could worry about that after break.
“And Jackson,” the speedster stopped to consider his words. “You’re a strongman, so this is the stuff you do. Don’t let your girlfriend’s opinions stop you from doing your job.”
Mason didn’t know how the coach knew about their telepathic conversation, but he did. “Yes, Sir,” Mason repeated, not sure Kyoshi was going to like that bit of constructive criticism.
“Good, moving on,” just like that the coach switched gears and reviewed the rest of the footage. There wasn’t a lot going on until Mason and Kyoshi came up against Kimberly and Teresa.
Mason grimaced as the initial blast from Kimberly separated him from Kyoshi, and he spent the entire rest of the battle trying to get back to her. Mason remembered the pain when that didn’t work out. He saw the multitude of hits he took trying to cross the distance to Kyoshi, but he also saw how he used some of those hits to his advantage. He used their momentum and his own strength to take down Teresa, but by then it was too late; and then Kimberly chocked him out like he was an amateur.
“Do you see the issue?” Coach McMillian rewound the fight and played it again.
“It’s the classic dilemma of close versus ranged combat,” Mason explained to the best of his ability. I couldn’t get Kimberly while she could get me.
“Yes and no,” the Hero responded. “Look closer.”
Mason did, but he didn’t see whatever the speedster wanted him to. “Kyoshi and I should have tried to stay together.”
“No,” the coach sighed. “It’s actually the exact opposite.” Mason didn’t see that coming. “Open your eyes, Jackson,” the coach pointed passionately at the screen. “You spent this entire fight trying to get to Schultz instead of facing the real threat.”
Mason watched the fight a third time and it finally clicked. “There it is,” the speedster saw the light go off in Mason’s brain. “There are a bunch of ways you could have taken out Goodman if you committed to the fight instead of trying to rescue your damsel in distress. Hell, you could have smashed through the building and collapsed it if you wanted to.” Mason got the distinct feeling the close combat coach would be expecting that in some future Battleball game.
“I just couldn’t leave her to deal with Teresa alone.” Mason admitted.
“Schultz is a big girl, Mason,” the speedster reached across the desk to put a hand on his shoulder, but the older man couldn’t reach; so he gave his forearm a pat. “You’re both in this program for a reason, and it’s not to try and rescue each other. You need to focus on the missions and improving your skills; because something tells me that Schultz isn’t someone who wants to be thought of as a weak woman.”
“No,” Mason shook his head adamantly. “No she doesn’t.”
“Overall it was a decent performance,” the close combat coach felt he’d made his point and moved on. “You performed well enough that you’ve moved up to number five.” Mason smiled at his improvement. “You bumped Shaw down to six, so you’ll be safe in the top five for a while. Having your bones crushed by a wildly jumping strongman isn’t something she wants to experience again anytime soon.”
Mason didn’t want to experience getting choked out by Kimberly anytime again, so he doubted he’d challenge the newly minted number four ranked freshman anytime soon. He didn’t hold Teresa’s trepidation against her.
“You’ve had a good semester, Jackson, and I look forward to another good one with you in my close combat class. Your abilities are progressing, but there are some things up here we need to work on,” the coach pointed to his temple. “I suggest you and Schultz have a good long talk about what’s to come, because it could be really hard for both of you.” The last part didn’t sound like a teacher talking to a student, but a man who’d experienced firsthand a Hero’s lifestyle and all the chaos it wrecked on personal relationships.
The single statement took Mason back to the time alone with Kyoshi’s father in the restaurant, and the words that had haunted him. <There will come a day when you need to make a choice, and no matter how much you do not want it, that choice will be between being a Hero and my daughter. When that time comes I will not hold it against you when you break her heart, but mark my words, you will do just that.>
Despite everything the German Hero had said months ago, and what Craig was telling him now, Mason knew he and Kyoshi would make this work. <I have to.> The determination Mason felt in that commitment was the fiercest thing he’d felt in his entire life.
Lilly didn’t have a lot of time. She’d told Seth she was just running out to grab a few last minute things. She left the townhouse with her bag swinging from her forearm, and a smile on her face. This smile wasn’t forced, faked, or part of her deception. This smile was real, and she felt genuine happiness flowing through her veins.
She walked a few blocks before disappearing into an alley and vanishing in a small blast of darkness. She appeared, nearly instantaneously, in her room back at home. A room that was beginning to feel much more foreign than the space she shared with Seth.
<Pull it together,> she took a deep breath and focused.
“Daddy!” she yelled.
There was silence for a few moments and then the echo of padded shoes could be heard approaching. Lilly darted into her closet and grabbed a few lacey garments while she was still alone. That was a conversation she preferred not to have with her father.
“Daughter,” Altair rounded the corner in a pressed red dress shirt and a pair of black slacks.
“Here,” she didn’t dawdle before tossing a small electronic component to her father.
“This took a while to find its way to me,” his face was expressionless, but Lilly knew enough about her father to know that something was always going on underneath the surface.
<He’s testing me.> There last conversation about Seth ran through her mind, and things hadn’t gotten any less complicated since then.
“I had to make sure the Heroes didn’t realize they were compromised. If they did, then that’s no more than a chunk of plastic and circuitry. Plus, Nano needed time to copy and decrypt all the data,” she waved off his pseudo-accusation with well-practiced nonchalance. “Now you’ve got a few weeks to look over it all. Have fun!” She smiled her sweet smile and prepared to teleport back to campus.
“I thought we were going to review the data together,” his voice was hard as he caught the pieces of clothing sticking out of her bag. “That was the plan.”
“Plans change,” Lilly shrugged, but her shoulders remained tense. “I’m going on vacation.”
“Vaca…what?” for a second her father disappeared and the supervillain Hellgate snarled back at her.
“Yes vacation,” she met her father’s snarl with one of her own. It came easily. “I’m the one busting my ass to get all this intel. I’m the one who snuck into a fuckin’ Heroes base and stole that shit. I’m the one who noticed the military grade panic button Anika has on her, and I’m the one gaining everyone’s trust. So yeah I’m going to take a breather for ten days. Plus, it’s part of my cover,” the last part was weak and they both knew it.
“This is about that boy isn’t it,” the snarl that hadn’t reached his emotionless eyes suddenly set them aflame. “You’re letting your feelings get in the way of the job.”
“And you’re letting your need to not feel emotions cloud your judgement about how I should handle this.” Her own eyes were cold and calculating against the heat of her father’s glare. “Stop back seat driving. I’m the one in the field, and you’re the one sitting at home. Get off my back.” They continued to glare at each other until she dropped the bomb. “He loves me. I can use that.”
Instead of putting her father at ease it did the opposite. He only looked more pissed, but that didn’t compare to what she felt. It felt like she’d shoved a dagger into her own gut. The words cut through her leaving sheered flesh and emotions in their wake.
Lilly tried not to let the emotion show on her face, but she knew she failed. She quickly teleported out of there. She staggered and took a deep breath when she reappeared in the alley. All she wanted to do was get drunk and ignore that time bomb she’d planted in her own heart.
“Excuse me?” Kyoshi was caught by surprise.
“Don’t act like you didn’t understand me, Schultz,” Coach Meyers gave the taller, younger woman a hard glare.
“I…just…” this was not what Kyoshi expected.
The advanced mind had been in a good mood before coming down for her final review. She’d finished packing a number of cute outfits for her trip home. She was looking forward to a little quality time with Mason; Seth and Liz had finally stopped their humping right before she left, and she felt confident she’d done well in her non-HCP classes. Everything was shaping up to be a great winter break; and then she sat down across from Coach Meyers.
“You just what?” the alternative instructor was pressing Kyoshi uncomfortably. “You like to be the damsel in distress that gets saved by the big heroic man?”
“What…no! How could you think that?” Kyoshi felt her face heat with anger.
“I can think it because that’s what all this footage shows me,” Coach Meyers hit play and the footage started to stream between them.
Kyoshi had no idea where the coach was coming from. She thought she’d done well in the final. <Sure I could have done better, but I was able to improvise under tough circumstances and get away with a few wins.>
That was more than could be said for some of her classmates. Talk spread after the final was over, and there were plenty of freshmen who hadn’t survived one fight. Kyoshi was happy to hear that Derrick Masters was one of them.
But as she watched the footage, Kyoshi became less and less sure of herself. She’d made it safely to the diner to meet Mason, but Becca and Anika had gotten the drop on her. If they weren’t friends, and she hadn’t been able to stall until Mason got there, she would have been done.
<Ok I guess that doesn’t look good, but I thought being able to talk people down was a desirable skill.> But things didn’t stop there.
Kyoshi saw her and Mason walk straight into Kimberly and Teresa. The blow that separated them made her wince, and then it really dawned on her. <I’m just trying to stay alive long enough for Mason to come and free me. Coach Meyers is right.> Her good mood vanished like a puff of smoke.
Coach Meyers saw the change too, and her expression softened. “You’re a powerful Super, Kyoshi, and you’ve got a hell of a gift. You just got caught with your panties around your ankles.”
A self-deprecating laugh escaped Kyoshi’s throat. “Did I at least make it to the second semester?” Kyoshi felt a ball of iron form in her gut. Despite how counterproductive it had been in the final, she couldn’t imagine getting ripped away from Mason.
Coach Meyers sighed and nodded her head. “Everyone who wanted to stay, and met the GPA requirements is going to be allowed to stay. Your class only lost six people, which I guess is pretty low for this point in the program.”
<Six people!> Low or not, Kyoshi had a hard time believing people would give up after all the hard work they’d put in over the last few months.
“Three of them were academic dropouts. Mr. Flynn is being pulled under Dr. Sanderson’s recommendation. Mr. Masters quit because he is still a child who was sick of people stomping on his overinflated ego. Last but not least, Ms. Jacobsen decided that a Hero life wasn’t the life for her. I’m sorry to see her and Mr. Flynn leave us so early, but the others weren’t going to cut it as Heroes; or even sophomores in this program,” the coach explained with only tiny signs of emotion when it came to Nathan and Stephanie. “But that’s enough about everyone else. We’re here to talk about you.”
Kyoshi gulped. “I’m guessing I didn’t do so great,” it was pretty obvious from Coach Meyers’ reaction that Kyoshi hadn’t lived up to the Heroes expectations.
“Actually, you did just fine,” Coach Meyers shrugged with a rogue grin when Kyoshi’s jaw dropped. “You moved up from number nineteen to seventeen. You handled the situation between you, Kemps, and Whitfield like an experienced negotiator; and you were able to take out Goodman. Since she did really well, you got more points for taking her down.”
“But…I thought,” Kyoshi was struggling to put her thoughts into words; which was ironic for an advanced mind.
“What?” Coach Meyers smirked. “You thought because I was disappointed that you failed your final.
<Kind of,> Kyoshi’s shrug said what she was thinking.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” the stern expression was back on the coach’s face. “You performed well in the situation you were in. My problem is that you shouldn’t have been in those situations in the first place. You relied on the abilities of others too much when you should be relying on yourself.”
“But…” Kyoshi couldn’t even get another word out.
“What? You think because you don’t have big muscles or can’t lift heavy things that you need Jackson to protect you?”
<That’s not what I was thinking,> but even as the thought crossed Kyoshi’s mind she knew she was lying to herself.
“Kyoshi,” the advanced mind noticed the name change along with the coach’s tone. “You can possess other people with your telepathy. Not many people in the world can do that. Your telekinesis is weak, but you’ve shaped it to your advantage. You’re using it as a shield and a pair of superpowered brass knuckles. You can hit harder, and take more hits than many of your classmates. But what gets me the most is that you don’t devalue your abilities unless you’re in the presence of someone physically stronger. All of your challenge matches have been a real insight into your mindset, and you’re good.” The coach took a deep breath before she said the last bit. “You just need to figure out how to act around one man.”
Kyoshi couldn’t stop the surge of anger, even if she knew there was validity to Coach Meyers’ words. So she decided to say nothing at all. The alternative instructor nodded at the silence, knowing that she’d gotten her point across.
“We just have one more thing to dicuss before you can go enjoy your winter break,” Coach Meyers continued professionally. “I want you to describe to me what you did to Goodman?”
That was easier said than done. Kyoshi had lost a lot of blood and had her ass thoroughly kicked by Teresa. She’d just watched Mason get taken out right in front of her, so her emotions were a mess too. She’d just lashed out.
“I don’t know how to explain it exactly,” Kyoshi thought how to put what she remembered into words. “I knew Kimberly was coming. I saw her heading down the fire escape. I was angry. Angry I was going to get taken out, angry Mason had been defeated, and I just wanted to do something. I guess you could say I collected the energy in my head. It was kind of like trying to hold water in your cupped hands; not impossible, but it kept leaking back into my mind. When I thought I had enough, or maybe it was right before I knew I was going to pass out; either way I targeted her mind and just…stabbed.” Kyoshi didn’t know if it was the right word, but it sounded better than “blindly lashed out”.
“We need to keep an eye on this new development,” Kyoshi saw something flash across Coach Meyers’ red iris’.
All the advanced mind picked up when she tried to glimpse into the other Super’s mind was the constant, <Want to hear the most annoying sound…> she already knew how that song and dance ended. But there was something there, something that told Kyoshi that this new aspect of her power hit a personal nerve with the alternative instructor.
“Please do not use this ability again until you can sit down with Professor Livingston and get a firmer grasp on it. She already looked over Ms. Goodman, but there’s always a chance that if you did this while at full strength you could mentally damage your opponent.” Kyoshi understood the severity of that, and quickly nodded.
“Do you have any other questions?” Coach Meyers opened up the floor.
<I did fine on the final, but you’re disappointed in me because my personal relationship influenced how I acted. I displayed another ability that has the possibility to be dangerous, and you all but ordered me to have a heart to heart with the man I love about how we’re going to make our experiences in the HCP work. No, I’m just peachy.>
“No. Thank you for the insight, Coach.”
“That’s my job,” the alternative instructor graced the advanced mind with a small smile. “Now go enjoy your break. You’re only young once.” Kyoshi knew when she was being told to go have fun.
Kyoshi left the HCP and headed straight back to the townhouse. There wasn’t a lot of time before she needed to get herself and Mason to the airport. She’d be home by dinner, and she’d asked her mom to make some culturally appropriate food. The poor imitators that catered to the college population were nothing compared to her mother’s home cooking.
Her mind was still on the incredible sushi her mom was able to roll when she opened the door and came face to face with Becca. “Oh…” she stepped back in surprise. “Hey, Becca.”
The blue-haired speedster looked conflicted, and it didn’t take telepathy to know why. They’d hadn’t had a chance to sit down and talk since the final. Kyoshi knew what Becca was going to say before she said it. So instead of letting the petite woman stew, Kyoshi stepped forward and wrapped her in a hug. When a six foot six woman hugged a woman who was over a foot shorter it looked awkward, but Becca still melted into Kyoshi’s chest regardless.
They stayed that way for a long time, and when Becca finally pulled away there were wet tear stains on Kyoshi’s shirt. “Ah fiddlesticks, I’m sorry,” Becca wiped her eyes with her forearm and then looked around for something to dry the damp fabric.
“Becca…Becca,” Kyoshi repeated the name louder, grabbing the speedster by the shoulders to turn her back to face her. The smaller woman didn’t want to meet Kyoshi’s eyes. “There’s nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.” The words only made more tears leak out of the other woman’s eyes.
“I treated you like poop. You’re my friend and I treated you awfully in there,” Becca folded her arms defensively across her chest. “It was wrong and I shouldn’t have done it.”
“In there it is training,” Kyoshi replied, pointing down. “In there we’re going to have to face each other, and sometimes kick the crap out of one another so we can get better.” Becca’s body language said she didn’t like the sound of that. “But the important thing is,” Kyoshi made sure Becca met her eyes for this part. “When it comes to anything up here, I know you’ve got my back. You’re my best girlfriend and you know I love you.”
Becca was still crying, but her thousand watt smile, that could bring men to their knees if she was into them, was back. “You’re the best girlfriend I have,” Becca smiled at Kyoshi’s remark, wiping more tears from her cheek.
“Don’t take it personally, but I’ve got to keep give Mason the number one friend spot. He’s a lot more fragile than you’d think,” the made the little speedster laugh. Thinking of Mason as fragile was like thinking a mountain was small.
“Someone said my name,” as if on command the strongman descended the stairs, carrying all of their luggage in a single trip. Kyoshi chose to ignore the part where he only had one bag to her three, and he’d gladly carry all of them all day long.
“We’re just talking about how you’re a big softie,” Becca replied, blurring over to Mason to give him a hug.
The image was comical but it warmed both of the larger Supers’ hearts. “Yeah that’s me,” Mason was smiling, but he cocked an eyebrow in Kyoshi’s direction. She just shrugged and smiled.
“Okey dokey, well Ani and I are out of here. We’ve got a long drive home. I love my girlfriend but she drives like my Grammy on a tractor.” Mason’s laughter seemed to shake the house.
“Have a good break, Becca,” Kyoshi pulled her into another hug before she left. “We’ll see you in a few weeks.”
“Bye guys, Merry Christmas.”
The door closed behind the speedster and they were alone. “Anyone still here?” Kyoshi expanded her senses.
“Seth left to do some shopping, and Liz had an errand to run. Angela already left for break, and Becca and Anika,” the statement was punctuated by the sound of a car peeling out in front of the house.
“So…we’re alone,” Kyoshi grinned when she saw Mason’s mind react to the expression on her face.
“Yeah, yeah we are,” he dropped the bags and pulled her close.
With so many people living in the house, and so much going on with the HCP and school, Kyoshi and Mason never really got a chance to cut loose. They were fine with that, but a few weeks of them having to be on their best behavior made them want to have one more afternoon where they could be bad. Kyoshi just hoped she’d be able to walk straight by the time they got to San Francisco.