Blades & Barriers: Chapter 17

                Despite the excitement of the day prior and the newness of his environment, habit proved to be more powerful than Brett’s desire for rest. Much as he tried to toss about and steal a few more minutes of sleep, eventually he gave up and accepted that a lifetime of training under his father, not to mention four years at the HCP, wouldn’t be so easily bucked. Giving in, he rose from his bed, threw on some sweats, and spared a single glance at his watch to see the time. It was just after five in the morning, the sun wasn’t even up yet.

                For a moment, Brett lingered in the hallway. Normally he would start his workout with a run, but unfortunately, in all the hustle and bustle of the day prior, no one had bothered telling Brett how to slip in and out of the building without getting seen. Leaving a known Hero base before sunrise seemed like a great way to out his secret identity before his Hero name was even officially known, so instead he headed to the gym. Knowing there would probably be a power assessment that day, it was likely for the best if he took it easy anyway.

                To Brett’s surprise, although he quickly realized it shouldn’t have been, he wasn’t the only one squeezing in a morning exercise. Bayou was already there, sweating hard on the bench press while Hammerspace stood over him, arms extended if he needed help getting the bar up. It turned out to be unnecessary, as the loud clang of a heavy bar being set down rang through the gym. The weights were normal, nothing like the huge amounts that Supers with enhanced strength tossed about, but there were still plenty of them racked along the bar. As a man who was proud of his own physical abilities, Brett had to mentally remind himself that he was among Heroes, people who constantly pushed themselves to be better and stronger. He wasn’t going to be the top at anything around here, not without a lot of work and a fair bit of time.

                “Morning!” Bayou called, waving Brett over to the bench press. “We’ve got a few more sets left, but you’re welcome to squeeze in between them if you like.” As he rose from the bench, flecks of perspiration fell from his face, dripping onto the ground. Seemingly only just then realizing how much he’d been sweating, Bayou looked a touch bashful. “I’ll wipe it down for you first.”

                “Thanks, but I was going to do some work on the free weights,” Brett said. “I’m keeping it light, just in case we do power assessments.”

                “You will.” Hammerspace didn’t seem bothered by the moisture on the bench, giving it only a quick swipe with her towel before settling down where Bayou had been moments prior. “Unseelie doesn’t let anyone into the field untested. And now that the DVA stuff is done, there’s time to give you a proper rundown. You should still do your usual routine, though. After all, we’re seeing how you would normally function, and on any other day you’d have hit the gym.”

                “How do you know I work out every day?” Brett asked.

                Hammerspace snorted lightly and shook her head. “Well for one thing, you just graduated from the HCP, so I know you’re in the habit. And for another, you’re up at five in the morning and you came to the gym. That speaks to a pretty well-ingrained exercise ethic.”

                Conversation paused after that as Hammerspace lay back and wrapped her hands around the bar. Neither she nor Bayou had removed a single plate from his last set, and she let out a small grunt of effort as she moved the bar off its rest. That was just about the only noise Hammerspace made as she worked, aside from careful rhythmic breathing. Bayou stood over her silently, his posture a mirror of hers from moments prior, waiting for the instant he was needed. It never came, as Hammerspace finished her reps and dropped the bar loudly back into a resting position.

                “Damn, we both made it. Okay, that’s another five on each side,” Bayou said. He grabbed a pair of small plates from the floor and slipped them onto the bar as Hammerspace ran her towel down the bench again.

                “Are you two competing?” Brett had watched this same dance play out in many a gym over the years, yet somehow he hadn’t quite been expecting to see it among Heroes.

                “Almost always, if not with each other, then with someone else on the team,” Hammerspace told him. “If you didn’t notice when you were in it, the HCP tends to appeal most to people with competitive natures. Those of us who managed to get one of the ten graduation spots had to fight damn hard for them, and that’s not something you do if you aren’t a fan of competition. Besides, having someone nipping at your heels is a good motivator to push yourself that little extra bit harder.”

                Brett stepped closer, momentarily forgetting his plans to hit the free weights. “So who’s the strongest?”

                “On bench? Bloodfyre,” Bayou replied. “For deadlifts the champion is Unseelie, and squats belong to Hammerspace. Panic isn’t much on weights, but she’s got several of the records for speed and dexterity in the obstacle course, with Unseelie holding the rest.”

                It didn’t escape Brett’s notice that none of the titles belonged to Bayou. Now that he was getting used to everyone, Brett was beginning to pick up on certain details, like the way Bayou had gray along his temples, and how he seemed to take quite a while stretching between sets. It had even been said out loud last night: Bayou was the oldest one on the team. That clearly wasn’t enough to slow down his abilities or usefulness as a Hero, however at the same time it was easy to see that Elmer was behind his teammates in terms of pure physical power.

                For the first time, Brett really thought about the interns that had been assembled under this roof. Three new Heroes, two of which had very potent physical abilities and one that presumably held a mind keen enough to handle a focus on Subtlety. While no Hero was required to join a team they served on as interns, invitations were almost always extended. Did Bayou realize that Unseelie was actively scouting Supers to take over his role in the team? He must, there was no way such an obvious conclusion could slip his grasp. Hell, for all Brett knew Bayou was the one pushing for it. Still, it seemed a subject to be careful around, at least until he fully understood the situation.

                “Who has the record for best Five-K run?” Brett asked. “Because if someone could show me a safe way out of this place, I’d like to take a crack at beating it.”

                “Panic has that record, although I’ve been training up a fair bit recently,” Hammerspace replied. “If you can wait until we finish the bench, I’ll take you out for a run. Should be a good gauge for you. After all, if you can’t keep up with me, you’ve got no hope of beating Unseelie or Panic.”

                “Guess we’ll see where I stand.” As much as Brett wanted to feel confident in the results, watching Bayou and Hammerspace settle in for another round at the bench was reminding him to stay humble. For so long in the HCP, he’d thought of being a Hero as the end goal, the finish line.

                Only now was he starting to truly understand that his college education was nothing more than a warm-up lap. Out here, in the real world, the competition was much stiffer. Because as a Hero, being too slow, or too weak, often came with permanent, deadly consequences.