The Masks We Wear
Chapter 10: The Morning After
Sam woke early, as he always did. Light was creeping in through the cracks around the window shade, there was a comfortable weight on his shoulder and he looked down to see Jacqui’s tousled hair. Her right arm was thrown across his chest, a sheet was pulled up to cover most of her body that let one shoulder peak out.
He glanced around the room and found a glowing alarm clock on the nightstand which read 5:58 AM, just about his normal time to arise. He could feel the pressure of a full bladder but didn’t want to disturb the sleeping girl on his chest. He took some time to look around the room in the dim light, the two roommates clearly had different interests. The side of the room they were on was neat and had several small sculptures and figurines set in various places, ceramic wall hangings were placed here and there, mostly abstract forms to Sam’s eye. On the desk was set a computer with three flat panel monitors, a tablet in a docking station, and a laser printer. On the opposite side of the room were several potted plants and posters depicting images from nature, woodland scenes, and a couple of protest signs instructing those who read it to save the rain forests. The desk was covered in boxes yet to be unpacked.
Sam’s investigations were interrupted when the alarm clock on the nightstand started sounding an annoying ‘beep… beep… beep…” Jacqui began to stir, sitting up suddenly to hit snooze on the alarm. The sheet fell away from her and Sam gazed with the light coming around the shade hitting her skin. She looked down at him as he did and blushed, slowly gathering the sheet around her.
“Good morning,” he said, unsure what else to add. Most of his experience with women didn’t have him waking up in their room the next morning.
“Good morning Sam, sorry for the early alarm, I didn’t even remember I set it before we left for Casino Night. I figured I might forget when we came back and I wanted to get up early to get ready for the first day.”
“No worries Jacqui, I’m used to getting up this early every day for training. I had actually woken up a few minutes before and was trying to figure how to get up and go to the bathroom without waking you.”
“Well we’re both up now and luckily this isn’t one of those buildings that share communal bathrooms so you don’t have to do the walk of shame down the hallway.”
“Oh, I have no shame over last night. Do you?”
“No,” she laughed, “none at all, it was wonderful. Surprisingly wonderful, I don’t think I’ve had many better nights, let alone a first time.” She paused, as if she realized what she just said, “not that there have been that many first times, I mean… oh damn now you probably think I’m some sort of slut. I sleep with you on our first night together, and now I’m talking about other times… I…”
“Jacqui, don’t freak out,” he said soothingly, “it’s OK, welcome to college life I guess. Sex, alcohol, parties. It’s all just part of the experience, right?”
“I guess so,” she answered but she wasn’t looking directly at him, he guessed she was blushing again.”
Sam sat up and cupped Jacqui’s chin, raising her face to look at him. “Really Jacqui, it’s OK. I’m don’t think you’re a slut, I don’t think any less of you. If anyone in this bed is a slut, it’s me, I’m sure I’ve been with a lot more women than you’ve been with men,” he added unashamed. “It’s just part of life.” He looked right into her eyes again, “A really good part of life. Last night was really good, and I’m glad it was you I shared it with.”
“Oh… me too Sam, I… Oh,” she leaned in and kissed him deeply. One thing led to another and Sam found he wasn’t in such a hurry to get out of bed after all.
“What time is it?” Sam murmured in Jacqui’s ear. They were still lying in her bed, he was behind her the two of them spooning in a half doze.
“I’m not sure,” she answered back, “I think you threw the alarm clock across the room when the snooze ended while we were busy.”
“Sorry about that,” he laughed, “I was a bit in the moment. If it’s broken, I’ll buy you a new one.”
“It’s 7:30,” a new voice interrupted coming from the door.
The two of them looked over, Sam pulling the blanket up to cover them as he did. A woman’s form was backlit in the door, as their vision adjusted to the sudden flood of light, he recognized Vicki, Jacqui’s roommate standing there.
“I told Ray that you ended up here when you never came back to your room last night.” Vicki added teasingly. “He swore it wasn’t going to happen. He owes me a treat of my choice now,” she chuckled.
“How did you know you weren’t going to interrupt us in the midst of something Vicki?” Sam asked annoyed.
“The plants,” replied Jacqui, and when Sam looked confused, she added, “It’s part of my powers, think of them as extra-sensory organs for me. I can’t exactly talk to plants but I can get some level of feedback from them. It’s one of the reasons I have a Venus-fly trap,” she added pointing at the plant, “good vibration sense, almost like a microphone.”
“So, you’re not just a shifter?”
“Well… I’m mostly a shifter, the other aspects of my power aren’t very heroic. I guess I could use them to gather information but that’s nothing compared to what I can do as a walking tree.
“Don’t underestimate information Vicki,” Sam said quickly. “Ray has been teaching me a thing or two about the value of information and how to apply it. You would be amazed.”
“Maybe,” she replied, “Ray definitely amazed me last night,” she giggled. “I might not let your roommate have much peace, and look you have a convenient place to stay.”
Sam and Jacqui froze, then looked at each other.
“Uhhh…” said Sam.
“Well…” said Jacqui.
“Hey I didn’t mean to put you guys on the spot like that. I just meant it would be nice if things worked out that way. No pressure.”
Sam and Jacqui both looked like they were both smacked across the face by a two by four. They stared at each other, mouths open, small incoherent noises coming from each of them.
“Look, forget I said anything,” added Vicki. “You know, you two need to get ready,” she continued, “I don’t know when your classes are, my first isn’t until ten and I told Ray I would meet him for breakfast at 8:30. You guys are more than welcome to join us if you can get ready fast enough and have the time. I’m gonna grab a shower, I’ll be quick so you two can get ready too.”
Before she left the room she added, “Umm it sounds like things are still going on in the next room so you might bump into them if not quick enough.” She headed out the door but paused for a moment first as if listening. “I wish they had a couple of plants in there. Oh well.”
Vicki left the room, closing the door behind her, but through the thin walls, the sound of water running in the background joined the continuous sounds from the other room in the suite that Sam and Jacqui had managed to block out until Vicki reminded them of it.
“Umm… Sam…” Jacqui started.
“Look Jacqui…” Sam said at the same time.
They looked at each other and laughed. “You first,” Sam said quickly.
“Well, it’s just last night… and this morning… were great, but…”
“But,” Sam continued at the pause, “Not ready to make it an every night sort of thing like Vicki was implying?”
Jacqui looked at Sam with relief, “No, no I’m not. I like you Sam, and the sex was great, but I barely know you, it’s the start of college, the start of the HCP, I’m not ready to jump into a relationship. Fun is fun but I’m not looking for serious.” The relief on her face turned to questioning, “Are you?”
“No Jacqui, and I hope that’s OK with you. I like you too, and I do want to get to know you better. I’d like to see what happens. To tell the truth, I’m not sure I’d know what to do with a girlfriend. I’ve known a lot of women but… Wow that came out bad didn’t it.”
“I’m not pushing you for details of your past conquests Sam. You didn’t ask about mine and I hope it was obvious you weren’t my first.”
Sam smiled a wicked grin. “Very obvious Jacqui… umm… in a good way.”
Jacqui laughed, “I don’t think you’re calling me a slut, don’t worry about it Sam. It takes a lot to offend me.”
“Thanks. Anyhow, I’ve been with lots of women, it’s part of celebrity I guess and I never questioned it. What eighteen year old guy would really? I had a manager who was smart enough to keep the worst women away from me and make sure I always had condoms and wasn’t stupid enough to skip using them. But, I’ve never had a girlfriend, never had a relationship that lasted for longer than the length of a stop on the ULCL tour.”
“I’ve had boyfriends, I’m sure I’m less experienced than you are, but I’m not looking for that right now. I don’t want to rule it out though. I do like you Sam. But either of us can wash out of the program and then never remember the other one. We have all sorts of new things to deal with, I don’t think a relationship is something to add on to the top of that. “
“Agreed, though I would like to have breakfast with you, if you have the time. Like your roommate, my first class isn’t until ten. How about yours?”
“Yeah ten also, I followed some advice I got about the HCP which was keep the early morning open for personal training. I’m used to jogging right about now. Of course that advice led me to a very packed late morning schedule and couldn’t get Fridays off like so many students seem to like. I have Tuesday and Thursday classes from ten to twelve and Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes from nine thirty to twelve. It’s a good thing we actually get some credits for the HCP or we might not have enough for a degree.”
“I feel like I should ask the typical freshman question now. What’s your major?”
Jacqui suddenly laughed, “You know, not one person has asked me that yet. I guess it’s not the typical thing you worry about in the HCP. I’m a computer science major, focusing on security systems. I figured that it would be good for me since I’m not going to be a frontline combatant to study something that might help with behind the scenes work. It’s also something to actually fall back on if…” she stopped talking suddenly.
“If… you don’t make it through?” Sam finished.
“Yeah,” she said much more subdued. “I mean I will make it through but… well everyone says this is an impressive year because of all the extra candidates they had to choose from. Everyone and their brother seems to have applied to the HCP after Meredith Falls.”
“Not everyone. One of my competitors from the ULCL, actually my last competitor from the ULCL, Muscle Malone, joined Force Ops after Meredith Falls. Apparently they are going to have a big role in dealing with super level terrorism.”
“Yeah well, still the competition is supposed to be very steep this year and I turn intangible. The bad guys can walk right through me.”
“Look Jacqui, I’m not going to give you a big pep talk that you are going to make it through and be a hero,” Jacqui’s eyes dipped down and Sam gently placed a finger under her chin and lifted her face to look him in the eyes. “I haven’t even seen you use your power other than as a new method of ripping our clothes off. But it’s not all about raw power, if it were the heroes we see every day would all be showy strongmen and blasters.”
“No, it’s too early for buts or worries about failing out. We haven’t even had our first day of classes yet. We have no idea how many people dropped out of the program after the rankings. I hear that a good number who are knocked out in their first fight reconsider. Don’t worry about your power level, worry about your dedication. That’s what it’s going to take to get you through the first years and if by then power level is an issue… well time enough to worry about that if it looks like it’s becoming an issue.”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“It is, when you think about it everyone in our class is having similar thoughts except for utterly overpowered members and stupidly overconfident ones.”
“Overpowered like you, Mr. First In Class?”
“I’m not overpowered, I’m just experienced. How many members of our class do you think have ever even been in a fight with other supers, let alone made their living from it?”
“Not many,” she laughed. “Still, you were basically a pro-wrestler on the super level. The fact that you didn’t get taken out by a fear inducer, or someone who could deprive you of oxygen, or a guy who could encase you in tar, is pretty impressive.”
“When did you have time to find out about my fights?”
“Your friend Ray isn’t the only one who believes in the importance of information. I haven’t had time to find out everything but I did learn about your fights and Kerry, the first place woman in our class. She had as interesting a run as you did but if anything beat most of her opponents more quickly and more decisively.”
“Yeah, first she beat a strong woman who promptly dropped out of the program, then she beat me in twelve seconds. It was crazy, I just turned intangible and was moving toward her and about to dive through the floor when my arms and legs just snapped. I think she’s some kind of violent telekinetic but I’m surprised she was able to grab me like that when I was intangible.”
Sam knew Jacqui was wrong in her assumptions about Kerry’s powers but didn’t feel it was right to correct her mistake. It was Kerry’s secret for now. Well Kerry and Ray’s and his too he supposed.
“After me was the fifth rank woman, Pam Sparks, an advanced mind who was her longest fight, just under two minutes. Apparently she could warp her perceptions and made her hard to target with her powers. Next she beat her own roommate, Kellie Hart, who… well, I’m not really sure what she can do she threw a bunch of stuff all around the room, ricocheting it into Kerry and almost taking her out before she crumpled. Finally she beat Natasha Hill, a tactile telekinetic who tried to keep a shield between them and ultimately failed for just long enough for Kerry to crumple her too.”
“Yeah you better watch out for her once men and women get combined into one score. If her power can reach through that walking armor of yours you are going to have trouble fighting her.”
“I actually already met Kerry,” he said, and then hesitantly added, “we… well that is me and Ray and some others, including Kerry… we planned to form a study group of sorts, or maybe a training team is a better way to put it.”
“Now that’s a group I’d love to be a part of.”
“I… well that is…”
“Is there a reason I shouldn’t be around the two of you?” she asked arching one eyebrow inquisitively.
“No… nothing like that that. It’s just a few of us formed this group and agreed to bring in our roommates but it’s already pretty large, there are eight of us and I wouldn’t feel right just inviting another person without running it by everyone.”
“Yeah, I could see how that could be an issue. You could always tell them I offered you incredible sex to be on the team.”
Sam looked shocked for a second and then Jacqui burst out laughing. “You are too damn easy to get Sam. Probably part of what I like about you. You’re so damn genuine.”
“Yeah I suppose so. I just always expect people to be like me. It always surprises me when they aren’t.”
“Give the HCP a crack at you; they’ll knock some of that naïveté out of you.”
“You know,” said Sam changing the subject back to training, “you could always form another training team. Vicki would be great, sounds like Dixie and Bethany might be good additions. Find a couple of other high ranking members of our class and you have a team.”
“That’s not a bad idea actually.”
“I’d probably keep it to no more than eight. It gets unwieldy if it’s too large.”
“Hey shower’s free now and there’s still plenty of hot water,” Vicki interrupted before Jacqui could finish her thought. She came back in the room wrapped only in a towel, “You two still lying about naked? Time’s a wasting.”
“Why don’t you grab a shower here Sam?” Jacqui suggested. “Then we can all meet for breakfast and you can head back to your room to change quickly before your first class.”
“Sure, that makes sense. Do you have a towel I can borrow?”
Jacqui reached down to the side of the bed and grabbed a robe that was lying there. She slid out of bed and slid the robe on in one practiced move, Sam didn’t even get the thrill of seeing anything other than her bare back. She walked over to the closet and pulled out a large towel which she handed to Sam.
Sam echoed her move as he got out of bed, covering himself with the towel to maintain as much modesty as he could. Vicki wolf whistled as he stood up though all she could see was his chest. He was, he knew in great shape, he had to be for the ULCL, it was an advantage for him for more than just the HCP it seems.
He grabbed his clothes from the night before saying, “I’ll be quick,” and headed into the bathroom.
He turned on the shower, one nice thing about all the dorms on campus is they didn’t lack for hot water. The shower was set aside in a niche so roommates could use the rest of the bathroom when someone was in the shower. Sam was running his head under the spray when he felt a feathery touch lower down. He sputtered, opened his eyes, and saw Jacqui coming through the wall of the shower. This time he has a perfect view of her body.
“I figured we could save time showering together,” she said quietly as she leaned in to kiss him.
After finishing in the bathroom, Sam threw on his clothes from last night and Jacqui put on a summery outfit that went well with her dark complexion.
Vicki was waiting for them in the common room of the suite.
“Tick tock people,” she said, “we are supposed to meet Ray in less than ten minutes across campus.”
The three of them headed to the door but before they reached it the door to the other bedroom finally opened. Dixie and Bethany came out, each wearing a short robe and looking slightly disheveled. Behind them came Leo Mack wearing a pair of jeans and a dress shirt which was hanging open to display rock hard abs and over developed pecs.
“Well, look who it is,” Leo said mockingly, “the superstar, Samson Smash himself.”
“Hey, none of that above ground!” Jacqui said chastizingly.
Leo looked and her then over at Sam, and added in a disparaging tone, “You may have beaten me in the rankings Sam,” he conceded, “but I think I have you beat in this arena,” he looked back at Dixie and Bethany with a wicked grin on his face. For their part, the two of them looked like the cat that ate the canary, satisfied with just a hint of guilt showing through.
Sam just shook his head, “No offense to the ladies,” he replied, “but I’ll take quality over quantity any time.”
Bethany and Dixie looked bemused, unsure whether it was a complement for Jacqui, a dig at Leo, or an insult to them. Jacqui giggled into her hand and Vicki laughed out loud, a rich full throated laugh.
Leo stepped forward between the two girls and put himself toe to toe with Sam. “Wanna try it again Sam? Here where you can’t pop that damn armor of yours?”
“Do you think I’m an idiot Leo?” Sam answered quietly. “I’m not going to get kicked out over an SI infraction on day one because some testosterone laden punk thinks he’s better than I am. I’m heading to breakfast. I suggest you guys get ready.”
He put his arm around Jacqui and headed to the door, leaving Leo even angrier. “Oh and Leo, you may not get tired but Bethany and Dixie look exhausted and we have our first day of classes down below. Professor Fletcher said something to me when I met with him after rankings, it was ‘Tired is not a good way to start in my gym class’ and I’m pretty sure he was very serious about it.”
Dixie and Bethany looked at each other with suddenly worried expressions.
“Maybe you want to be a nice guy for once, at least get them some coffee,” Sam added. “You probably aren’t used to sticking around the next morning but that’s part of what gentlemen do for the women they just slept with.”
Sam closed the door behind him and escorted Jacqui and Vicki down the hall.
“You know he’s probably foaming at the mouth right now,” Jacqui said, “trying to figure out how to get even with you.”
“Yeah well I’ve known a lot of dicks in my life,” Sam replied, “he’s small potatoes.”
“He’s going to make trouble for you. You are a relatively easy target you know.”
“Maybe, but I do have an advantage.”
“Ray… that guy is smart, devious, and conniving.” Sam replied. “And for some reason, he wants to watch my back.”
“Yeah,” agreed Vicki, “Ray is a good person to have behind you.”
Jacqui arched an eyebrow at her, “So you said before Vicki.”
Vicki skin turned even darker as she blushed furiously, then she broke out laughing. “Or on top of you or under you,” she added. “Yeah pretty much Ray is a versatile guy.”
Ten minutes later when the three of them entered the cafeteria, grabbed some so called food, and found Ray sitting off in a corner holding a table for them.
The conversation was light, of necessity, too many others around who could overhear a misspoken word or dangerous phrase. Everyone, Sam was glad to realize, remembered to call him Matt instead of Sam. He wasn’t even sure he would remember at this point.
“So it seems like Vicki and I weren’t the only ones to have a good night.” Ray said suddenly, causing Sam and Jacqui to blush yet again.
“No Ray, Jacqui and I had a fine night, good conversation, great company.”
“No details, Matt?”
“A gentleman never kisses and tells.”
“Well you aren’t a gentleman,” Ray chided between bites, “and I wasn’t talking about kissing.”
Jacqui blushed even deeper but Sam just stared Ray down. “As for you Ray, I figure you’ve already started a letter with ‘I never thought it would happen to me…’ and are deciding which sleazy magazine to send it to.”
Ray chuckled at that. “Getting better Matt, definitely able to take it and even dish it out somewhat now.” He wolfed down the rest of his eggs and potatoes and then stood up heading back to the breakfast line for seconds.
“Hey Ray,” Sam stopped him. “What was that you wanted to find out last night? Does the groundcover match the leaves? Did you get the answer you were looking for?”
Ray paused, looked at Sam, then at Vicki, the back to Sam. His mouth opened and he pointed at Sam without uttering a sound. He looked back at Vicki, then Sam, then finally got a grunt of some sort passed the shock before he stalked off to the breakfast line muttering to himself.
Once he turned the corner, Sam, Vicki, and Jacqui all burst out laughing.
“My goodness, that was rich, I can’t imagine him any more floored,” Vicki got out when she was able to catch her breath.
“Yeah now we get to find out if Ray can take it as well as he can dish it out.”
“By the way Matt,” Vicki said with a sudden serious tone.
“It does, the groundcover matches the leaves… of course I keep it neatly trimmed and shaped, kinda like a topiary,” she wiggled her green eyebrows at Sam, “if things don’t work out maybe you’ll get the chance to find out for yourself.”
Sam blushed furiously again, and now it was his turn to stammer while trying to get a coherent thought out. Vicki burst into laughter again with Jacqui who Sam though both seemed to find the whole situation a bit too amusing at his expense.
By the time Ray made it back with his second loaded tray everyone had regained their composure again.
“So what classes do you have this morning Matt?” Jacqui asked.
“Economics 101 at ten and English Literature at eleven, then I just have time for a quick lunch before afternoon classes. How about you?”
“Advanced Logic and Critical Reasoning at ten and then Algorithm Design at eleven.”
“Those don’t sound like freshman level classes Jacqui,” Ray said looking at Jacqui skeptically.
“They aren’t, brace yourselves guys, I’m ‘academically gifted’, I came into Lander with twenty or so AP credits and another thirty transfer credits for college courses I took during afternoons in high school and summers.” The shocked looks on everyone’s faces became even more pronounced when Jacqui added, “technically I’m only a few credits short of being a junior.”
“Pretty impressive Jacqui. I’ll see you in Advanced Logic and Critical Reasoning. But after that I have Criminal Justice then I’ll need some lunch myself, I don’t think breakfast will hold me,” he gestured down at his now empty second tray before standing up and getting back on the food line.
“Damn that boy can pack it away,” Jacqui said.
“He’s in great shape,” Vicki said defensively, “I’m sure he’ll work it off.”
“Gonna help him with that Vicki?” asked Sam.
It was Vicki’s turn to blush, though only slightly and accompanied by a feral grin and a slight licking of her lips. “Why I do believe I will Matt. Jacqui just might have to hold on to you at least one more night.”
By this time the breakfast lines had diminished significantly so Ray was back quickly.
“So Ray, I guess you have a few college credits yourself if you are in Advanced Logic,” said Jacqui.
“Yeah a few. Mostly I tested out of many of the freshman classes. I had… an interesting home school experience on top of high school.”
“Well I guess you and I are just the stupid ones here Matt,” said Vicki, “I don’t have any college credits and my first two classes this morning are basic biology and math for people who hate math.”
“What kind of math?” asked Sam.
“It’s an intro course. Ray may have tested out of starter courses but I didn’t test well in math, so I get to take a remedial course for those of us without much skill or experience at math.”
“Well it looks like we are all going to be busy until lunch and then only have a little time before afternoon classes,” said Sam. “Do you guys want to meet up for lunch?”
“Sure,” agreed Jacqui.
“Sounds great,” said Vicki.
“Guess so,” added Ray a bit less enthusiastically as he polished off the last of his third tray.
Ray pulled out his cell phone and checked the time. “Damn we gotta get moving to class.”
“Crap, I still need to get to the room and change,” exclaimed Sam.
“Yeah, walk of shame and all, heading back to the room in the clothes you wore last night,” said Ray.
“No shame at all,” Sam replied looking over at Jacqui and smiling.
“I’ll head back to the room with you,” added Ray, “I forgot some things.” He stood up and brought his tray over to a conveyer belt which took the dirty dishes away to be washed. “We’ll see you ladies later.”
Sam and the girls stood, Sam looked over at Jacqui a bit unsure and then leaned in to give her a quick kiss. “I’ll see you later,” he said. “Goodbye Vicki, good luck with math for math haters.”
Sam and Ray walked out and headed back for their dorm room.
“Hey what’s with the amount of food you’re eating?” Sam asked as soon as he and Ray were outside and alone. “I’ve never seen you pig out that way in the last few days.”
“Food is fuel my friend.”
“Yeah but you don’t want to get the freshmen fifteen do you?”
“Actually,” Ray answered, dropping his voice to a whisper, “that’s exactly what I want.”
“Too many of our classmates are going to end up looking like fitness freaks, if people knew what they were doing, finding a pair of ridiculously in shape roommates is a giveaway that they are probably both HCP. I can’t do anything about you being in such good shape that you should be in the Olympics, but me, I’m flexible so I figured on bulking up a bit, gaining the freshman fifteen and looking more like the average student.”
“Aren’t you worried it’s going to make you too out of shape for the program?”
“Nah, like I said food is fuel. I’m going to be burning off a ton of what I eat, I need to put on more mass to even keep what I have now let alone make it more. My power can alter my mass but can only add so much. Fat up here in the classrooms becomes muscle down there in the training rooms, I’m not worried.”
“OK, as long as you’re sure.”
When they were closer to their dorm and far from the academic buildings the girls were heading toward, Sam brought up a more delicate topic. “Hey Ray, when we left the cafeteria, well that seemed a bit abrupt. You didn’t even really say goodbye to Vicki and… well after all you did sleep with her last night.”
“Yeah, sorry about that, and I hope it won’t cause issues with you and Jacqui. Vicki was acting a bit clingy and I needed some space. You couldn’t see what was going on under the table I bet.”
Sam shook his head and Ray continued but at a whisper, “Let’s just say it’s a good thing I can control my form or I couldn’t have stood up in public.”
“Yeah well, Vicki seems to want a repeat performance. Apparently you ‘amazed her’ last night. She said something about you owing her a treat of her choice.”
“Oh that stupid bet. You had to go and tell me there was no chance with you and Jacqui.”
“What can I say, apparently I’m charming.”
“It’s that damn integrity of yours, and your naïveté women go all weak in the knees for that shit. I have to work at it. Fake integrity always bites you in the ass.”
The two of them entered their dorm and head up the stairs to their room. After going inside Sam noted the general disarray of the room, especially the area around Ray’s bed.
“Well whatever you did last night seems to have worked on Vicki.”
“Yeah, too well” Ray sighed, “I’m in freshman year of college. I don’t have any plans to lock down with one and only one woman, even if she was a lot of fun. It’s time for me to sow my wild oats Sam and I plan to sow them all over the place.”
“I don’t know Ray, I’m not saying give the girl a ring or anything like that but why throw away a good thing now for the possibility that you might find something better… or even several something betters?”
“Sam, I’m not looking for something better, I’m not looking for something lasting, or my one true love. I’m looking for variety.”
“I guess I’m just not all about that.”
“You aren’t? Weren’t you the one with all the groupies, casual sex, and different girls in every city?”
Sam shrugged non-committedly, “Reading the tabloids again Ray?”
“As noted by the esteemed Agent K in Men in Black, ‘Finest investigative reporting on the planet’, why wouldn’t I read them?”
Sam looked over at Ray and laughed, “Nothing like a good Men in Black quote to completely derail a conversation.”
“Yeah, still my point is valid; you aren’t really one to talk about fidelity Sam.”
“It’s not like I wanted to jump into bed with a lot of different girls. I would have been just as happy with the right girl… happier I think. The ULCL tour was just that, a tour, we were all around the country, I had women throwing themselves at me, I wasn’t going to say no and head back to my hotel room for a cold shower.”
“Sam, you are showing your ignorance again, well and your integrity… you should have a t-shirt that says ‘Chivalry isn’t dead as long as I’m still alive’. Look, blame it on me being a shape shifter if you want, maybe that’s why I like variety. The fact of the matter is I’m eighteen, male, horny, and starting college. I want the same experience as any other guy. Hell I want the same experience you already had.”
“All well and good if you can get variety, I suppose a jock like Leo Mack is used to that but, well Ray you don’t strike me as a lady killer.”
“Well let me tell you something that should be obvious.”
Sam looked at him curiously.
“A shape shifter has no problems when it comes to satisfying women. It’s more about figuring out exactly what they want then it is actually giving it to them; size, staying power, build, look… all of that is easy for a shape shifter. That’s why Vicki is so impressed this morning.”
“It’s figuring out what attracts them and what turns them on in the first place that’s the hard part. That’s the challenge and I am good at it.”
“Yeah and how do you do that?”
“A lot of ways, questions about movies they like can give hints about the actors they find attractive, I can subtly incorporate features into my face and build. I can do it so they don’t even notice the changes. I can vary my voice in timbre and pitch, other changes to find what pleases them, I know what body cues to look for to gauge response.”
“You make it sound so… clinical.”
“Seduction is a science Sam.”
“So that’s it, you make yourself the man of their dreams? That seems cold and calculating, even for you Ray.”
“It’s just as much training as anything else I’m going to do here Sam. It’s using my powers to get what I want or what I need.”
“And if it were telepathy or mind control? Would it just be using your powers to get what you need then?”
“No, but I’m not imposing my will on anyone, I’m just giving them what they want. The choice is still theirs.”
“Sam, have you ever wondered why some guys can get all the girls they want, even if they are complete assholes and dumb as a stump? Even if they treat the girls like shit?”
“Yeah, seeing a guy treat a girl who hung on his every word like that always pissed me off.”
“Well they get what I do naturally. They have the right look, the right quality to their voice. Hell even the right scent, don’t down play pheromones, animals may make a lot more musk but we humans, norm or super, have them too.”
Sam stopped talking for a minute and stared at Ray.
“Ray, can you change that too? Your scent, your pheromones I mean. Can you alter them?”
Ray sighed. “I said more than I should have. Do you want the long answer or the short answer? Either one will probably piss you off but the long answer may give you better understanding. And either way you should finish changing or we will be late to class.”
Sam looked at his alarm clock and realized they only had fifteen minutes to get to class. He pulled out a t-shirt and a pair of jeans and start changing. “The long answer,” he said as he zipped up his pants.
“OK, my power is a lot more flexible than most shape shifters. I’m not just a shape shifter, I’m also an imitator.”
“What does that mean?”
“That’s a subtle difference because with enough training and enough study of their subject almost any shape shifter can learn to imitate their target. For me the difference is when I’m duplicating a specific person, not just creating a new form out of my imagination, it’s automatic and I get changes that are hard to perceive. I get the voice, the walk, the bearing, and yeah I get the scent too. I get scars, tattoos, imperfections, things I can’t see with my eyes, things I don’t even know are there. Hell I even affect my outfit so the clothes I’m wearing shift with me. All from being exposed once to whomever I’m duplicating. Think of it as the difference between getting an actor who studies a particular person to play them in a role, and getting the actual person to play themselves. No matter how good the actor and how good the makeup there are differences that you can detect. I’m as close as you can get to the person without actually being them.”
“So you can become anyone?”
“Pretty much, I just have to be close to them once. And I’ve gone out of my way to get close enough to a lot of people.”
Ray went through a series of shifts becoming, actors, actresses, heroes, villains, their professors, other classmates, politicians, public figures. When he became the president, Sam shouted, “Stop,” and he shifted back to himself. Or at least the form Sam thought of as Ray. He wondered if it was truly what his friend looked like.
Sam just stood staring at Ray, as if only now realizing he was a super. “Do… do the professors know the extent of your powers?”
“I think so… my powers are particularly flexible. There’s even more that I don’t have the time or the inclination to explain right now. But… yeah, if nothing else I’m pretty sure Sean Pendleton knows most of what I can do.”
“Besides teaching the alternatives, he’s the subtlety instructor.”
“I can’t believe how little you know about the HCP Sam,” Ray said shaking his head. “Subtlety is one of the six majors. Close combat, ranged combat, weapons, control, focus, and subtlety. I guess most people don’t learn about that till the beginning of the second year.”
“How do you know that?”
Ray simply winked at Sam. “I have to know stuff like that. I told you before if I’m going to get through it’s not going to be because I can slug it out in a fight… information, stealth, trickery, those are my tools. Beating the shit out of people, that’s your tool. They teach people about using my tools in subtlety; of course I know everything I can about the major. I would guess most students who enter that course without already knowing about it don’t make it through.”
“I… shit there’s a lot I don’t know about this place. Or about the students in it,” Sam added looking right at Ray.
“Listen man,” Ray said his voice as calm and even as he could make it, “I’m gonna tell you something about subtlety heroes. You would learn this eventually anyhow. Maybe it will make you understand where I’m coming from better.”
“Subtlety heroes walk a fine line between hero and villain. It isn’t about public acclaim, moral purity, and righteousness. It isn’t about standing up to the horde and drawing a line in the sand. It’s about outthinking, outmaneuvering, and out-planning the villains of the world. Theft, hacking, seduction, and cons are our means to the end, the way we gather information and obtain access. Subtlety heroes get dirty because the job must be done and a sound moral compass would only get in the way.
Ray started pacing back and forth as he continued. “Someone has to do it, without stolen plans, insider information, and weaknesses to exploit more people are going to get hurt and die. More heroes will lose and fall. It is an utterly needed and utterly despised part of the job of being a hero.”
“So why are you telling me all this,” Sam interrupted.
“Because it’s the part of hero work I am most suited for. It’s where my talents and my powers lie,” he paused and took a deep breath before going on. “And because more subtlety heroes turn to crime than any other type.”
“I still don’t see your point, it seems like you are making my point for me. That misuse… even grey uses of your powers just lead to problems and crime.”
“I told you that a moral compass is a bad thing for a subtlety hero to have because it gets in the way.”
“And I told you that more subtlety heroes lose their way and step off the path of the hero than any other type.”
“Again yeah, what’s your point,” Sam said actually getting a bit angry.
“So the moral compass is still needed. If the hero can’t have it themselves then someone else needs to function as their compass, as their conscience, as their guide.”
“And you think that’s me?”
“I already told you that I think the teachers put me with you as a contingency to help with deliberate attempts to cause you to have an SI infraction.”
“Well don’t you think they might have put you with me as a contingency to prevent me from going too far off the hero’s path?”