Dean Diane Goddard walked into her Ethics classroom and kept her smile to herself. The freshmen were patently nervous; showing amusement on the day of their combat trials would insult them. Today, they were expected to battle other Supers for rank, potentially defining their Hero career from this moment forward. Though she found them cute, the way most people found puppies cute, this beginning was important and deserved respect.
Four of the students especially caught her attention as she took her place behind her podium. The Dean started her scrutiny with Nate Insley. The thin, pale redhead looked darkly mocking beneath his nervousness. With his ability, Nate doubtlessly believed that being a Hero was impossible. She saw in his eyes the certain freedom that came from believing that if success was impossible, then failure didn’t matter.
Beside him, Finn Barnaby gave Nate an odd look before making a funny face. Nate grinned. The black Brit seemed to be the young Dominator’s closest friend, probably the first offline friend he’d had in years. He seemed steady, reliable, the rock of Major Diaz’s quartet.
On the other side of Finn’s desk, Alley slumped in her own chair. In the first week of classes, she’d spent her time ignoring most of the lecture. Instead, Alley amused herself by writing out the comments of students before they made them and passing them to her crew, letting them guess who they belonged to. The Dean tolerated it largely because it seemed to engage the other three.
Jia was, in some ways, a favorite of the Dean. Conscientious, prepared and attentive at all times, every comment Jia made or question asked furthered discussion. A delightful paradox, given she was undoubtedly the brawn of her impromptu team.
“Welcome back from your first weekend,” Dean Goddard said, as the class finally fell silent. “As you’re aware, we’ll be skipping this class period to focus on combat ranking. These take place at the beginning and end of every school year. It helps us baseline your ability as well as chart your progress. Bear in mind, we’re not solely measuring your abilities. Your tactical insight and adaptability are also evaluated. As Professors Matthias and Glee pointed out last week, fitness has saved and doomed more Heroes than any other factor so you’ll be evaluated on that measure as well. Any questions?”
Nate looked around the class, then slowly raised his hand. The Dean nodded his way.
“Um, not all of us have safe…abilities. Will we…I mean, how are injuries going to be handled?”
“Good question.” The Dean gave him an approving smile, which lifted Nate’s spirits almost right out of the chair. “We do have an infirmary fully staffed with a team of healers as well as a pair of teleporters for rapid triage in case of severe injury. We’re blessed to have Doctor Sarah Amherst on our staff, one of the most powerful healers in the world. Trust me when I say you’re in good hands here.”
A sharp snapping sound caused half the class to look in Nate’s direction. He hadn’t made a sound, though. The source was Alexandra Amherst, who sat perfectly rigid. Expressionless, motionless, emotionless. The only cue that something was wrong was the fact that she’d snapped the motion pen to her tablet in half with her fingers alone.
The Dean waited a moment to see if there was going to be an interruption. When Alley made no noise, she continued.
“Now, in a minute we’ll be leading you out to the gym. Once you arrive, you’ll be asked to split into two groups, sorted by gender.” She paused, sighed and pointed. “Yes, Mr. Shaw?”
“Not that I mind fighting boys instead of girls but why the split?” Joe Shaw asked. He was broad-shouldered, stern in visage but with a quick lightness to his voice that made him seem friendly. “Villains come in both sexes, am I right?”
“Yes, Mr. Shaw,” the Dean said. “Bear in mind most of your classmates have little to no formal combat experience or training. We find the best results come when we pair up students against opponents of relatively equal size and mass. Enjoy it while you can. By your second year and through the rest of the program, anyone of any gender or size could be your opponent for training. Now, any other questions?”
Dean Goddard looked around once more and nodded to herself. “Class dismissed.”
Jia walked into one of West Private’s combat rooms and shuddered slightly as the triple-braced steel doors shut tight. Thick slabs of concrete made up the walls, floors and ceiling. Probably steel reinforced. Not that there was any point to using wood support beams on the budget this place had.
Above her, the familiar tiered window ceiling loomed, allowing a viewing platform up top to witness fights below. Jia knew there were half a dozen combat cells at least ringing the central viewing room. The walls also included a myriad of semi-concealed cameras for recording every angle of a fight. Everything she did would be recorded, analyzed, scrutinized and made available to professors and Heroes alike. Just like the recordings of her last year.
She knelt and touched the concrete floor, remembering a far more frightened girl a year ago.
Amara English, Finn’s girlfriend of a week and the same girl who’d painted her toes last night stood about twenty feet away. She looked uncomfortable, and not just because of the black uniform they both wore. Not that Jia could blame her. Fighting friends wasn’t what she’d signed up for either.
“Hey Amara. However this goes down, we’re besties, okay?”
The answer clearly delighted the other girl. Jia took a step forward and offered a hug which was eagerly accepted. It was nice, to have friends again, to feel supported. To be able to support someone else. God’s mercy was big enough for them both, even when duty required them to stand on opposite sides. If God could bring David and Jonathon together, despite King Saul, surely there was room for this friendship too.
At last, they parted and stepped back until about thirty feet of space separated them. Above them, a stern woman in the white uniform of a senior watched and nodded. It was as good a cue as any. Then the woman spoke into a microphone, causing the intercom to say “Begin.”
Jia spread her legs slightly, dropping into a lower more centered stance. She had no idea what Amara’s ability was but it seemed only fair to give the other girl a shot to get ready. It was the least she could do for a friend.
Then the whole room went white. Explosions went off in Jia’s eyes and she cupped her face, reeling from the blinding pain shooting through her head. Blinking furiously, she couldn’t see anything but a crushing whiteness that abruptly fell away into black. Something hot burned into her uniform coat at the shoulder. Jia gasped at the sudden pain and took a step back defensively.
“Give up?” Amara’s voice called out to her from somewhere ahead.
“Why would I do that?” Jia asked, trying to sound light hearted when her head and shoulder ached fiercely. Then her leg felt like it caught fire as something scorched it right through her uniform.
“C’mon, Jia, I don’t want to seriously hurt you if I don’t have-“
Jia heard enough from Amara to fix her location so she shot forward while her friend was in mid-sentence. Arms spread in a double clothesline, she caught something with her left and immediately punched it. Her fist hit something solid.
Then the intercom went off. “Ms. Sun, your match is concluded. You are the winner.”
“Um, thanks. Can I get some help finding my way out?”
Alley walked into her first match with her eyes closed, seeking her center. She stepped into the exact center of the room by feel alone and took in the size and shape of it. It’d been years now since she’d fought in cells like these. Back when climbing to the top meant everything.
How much she’d learned since then.
“Oh, you’re one of Jia’s friends aren’t you.”
“Hello, Dani Wyngarde,” Alley said, not bothering to open her eyes. “Jia’s told me nothing about you. Can’t say I blame her. You’re not really worth paying attention to.”
“So it’s like that, huh bitch? You saw me for a minute last week and you’re up in my face? Fuck you. I’m just holding that bitch accountable for wrecking my brother’s life.”
Alley grinned and opened her eyes, looking at last to the trim figure of the silvery-haired girl. A long thick braid hung down the back of that midnight black uniform. It was a good look. Alley briefly considered flirting but opted against it. Jia’s honor demanded satisfaction.
“You should know. You’re the one who set the terms. Your brother loved her, didn’t he. Enough to get that close in the first place. You’ve got a nephew now, because of them both. And here you are, a pissy little bitch about it when you should be celebrating a new relative. You think it’s Jake’s fault his parents made iffy choices? He’s family. Your family. Now fucking act like it and stop tearing down your nephew’s mom when she could really use your help.”
Whatever Danielle had expected, it wasn’t that. Alley turned slightly, presenting a side profile to the suddenly furious girl. Dani went from angry to white-hot rage in a second flat. The intercom hadn’t even sounded yet, with its inevitable request they introduce themselves, when the silver-haired girl ran right at her.
Alley let her come. She waited until the first punch came in. Faster than the other girl could believe, she drifted past the incoming fist and slammed her elbow into Dani’s face. Her opponent almost fell down right then, clutching her suddenly broken nose. Tears of pain mixed with tears of rage and Alley sighed, knowing what was coming next.
Three punches followed by a lightning fast and nicely executed snap kick drove Alley back. She parried each hit expertly. Telegraphing her own attack, she drew her fist back and swung it into an opening in her opponent’s defenses.
Her fist passed right through as if the other girl wasn’t even there.
Dani’s grin of triumph turned to anguish when she tried for another punch that Alley intercepted, twisted and used to break the other girl’s hand. Ghostlike, Danielle drifted back and stood there panting while Alley threw several predictably useless blows her way.
“Come on,” Alley said gently. “Your brother’s watching now. Make him proud.”
Dani glanced upwards. The shock on her face told everything. Alley just smiled, not following up the way she could have.
Instead, she came in swinging. Two punches flailed through the air. Dani materialized long enough to land a good kidney punch, then knock her down with a kick. Alley hit the ground the way a Hollywood stuntman would, sprawling but largely unhurt. She let Dani’s first kick land, then caught the second. Alley brought her own legs up, wrapped them around her opponent and spun her to the floor.
In a second, she was up with her arm around Dani’s throat. The other girl instantly phased out of her grip and clambered to her feet. Seeing Alley still on the ground, Dani swung her leg back for a kick and lashed out for all she was worth. Alley rolled to the side, caught the leg and twisted. Dani went down screaming from a disjoined knee.
Alley rose over her and let Dani land a punch across the jaw. When the other girl went for a second, she broke that hand too.
Tears streaming, Dani cried out “I give! Goddamnit, I give!”
Then Alley bent down and picked her opponent up in a fireman’s carry. Hauling Dani out of the arena floor, she caught a white-clad healer and set the injured girl down gently. For her part, Dani just looked stunned and confused, half woozy from a body coping with the trauma of so many suddenly broken parts.
“Why?” It was all Danielle Wyngarde could ask as Alley held her hand through the pain of the healer’s ability resetting her bones.
“Why help you? Because I remember what it’s like to burn when someone I loved was hurt.”