Prologue

The moment Finn Barnaby saw the soldier across the airport, he knew there was no avoiding a conversation.

Finn shouldered his backpack as he walked down the seemingly endless corridor from his international flight. The trip from London left him tired, grainy and not really in the mood for company. He ran his hand across the short black stubble that passed for his hair these days. Feeling the texture, he unzipped his windbreaker before stepping aside for a faster moving family obviously in a rush to get their luggage.

He hadn't left the Orlando International Airport and it was already muggy and hot.

Glancing up, Finn saw the man in the uniform of an American military officer still waiting outside of security. Still looking at him, waiting for him. He sighed and took his time getting there.

A slow pace bought Finn the opportunity to size up the other man. Sadly, there wasn't much to tell thanks to the uniform dress code. Oh, the man was decorated at least. A Major in rank judging by the arms. The uniform was in good repair, the face clean-shaven, the head of thick black hair neatly cut short against the tan white head.

Body posture didn't tell him much more. The good Major had been here a while, standing the whole time. He didn't seem either relaxed or tense. If anything, the descriptive word might be 'bored'.

"What's this about then?" Finn muttered to himself.

He didn't have long to wonder. The boy from London walked through security, shrugged and stopped in front of the soldier plainly waiting for him. Finn then stuck out his hand in a clear offer to shake.

"Mr. Barnaby?"

"Allegedly," Finn said with a grin. The Major's expression didn't change. "So we're not friends, right, I can see that clearly now. Finn Barnaby, at your service, sir. What can I do for you?"

"I'm Major Isaiah Diaz," said the soldier, despite the clear label of his name on the front of the uniform. "And we can talk about that on the way."

"Am I in any trouble?" Finn asked, falling into step behind the Major. "I'm a bit foggy on the particulars but isn't holding foreign nationals from England illegal without charge?"

"You're not under arrest, Mr. Barnaby. Quite the opposite."

Intrigued, Finn followed the strange American. After all, this could be the ideal introduction. And isn't that what this whole trip to America was for?

---

It would be night time soon.

Jia Sun let the front door of the family mansion close as she stepped out into the evening air. She immediately leaned back against it, pressing it shut with the slight weight of her body. Not that anyone would follow her out here. No, she just needed the support to simply keep standing.

Cool winds caressed her skin as she looked into an empty sky. The myriad lights spread across the manor lawn made it hard to see the stars, even as it made it easy to spot intruders, fanatics and the swindled from reaching the family estate. Still, she knew God was up there in the sky. Beyond sight or understanding, she still knew.

Two men in uniforms stepped out from beside the matching marble columns supporting the entryway to the Sun manor. Jia waved them off as she slid down the front door until she was seated on the landing, able to rest her head on her knees. They yielded, melting into the shadows cast by the darkening sky. She closed her golden eyes and rested her head, wishing she could rest her heart. At least no one would notice the sobs that gently shook her thin frame.

Somewhere on the second story, a baby's cry suddenly wailed through an open window.

The sound made her cry harder. By the time she looked up into the overshadowed sky, tears streaked her cheeks. Her lips trembled, then spoke words that burned inside her.

"Lord God, I don't know what to do. I'm...I'm too young for this! How can I be a mother when I'm not even twenty years old? What was I thinking, telling my parents I could handle it? They were right." She sniffled, rubbed her nose and said, "Dad was right."

She whispered, "What do I do? Do I stay and let Dad spin me into some morality story for his church? Do I go and let Jake be raised by my parents who'll just make him the poster child I never was?"

While staring up at the sky, Jia heard an approaching car's engine idle down. A comfortable, new-looking brown car pulled up in front of her house. She ignored them, hoping they would just go away. Unfortunately, two men stepped out. The passenger was a tall, handsome black man with a nearly shaved head who watched her with a look of frank curiosity as he leaned back against the passenger side door. Nothing unusual about his blue jeans or his white t-shirt.

The driver, on the other hand, wore a military uniform. All she saw at first was the gleaming brass of his buttons against dark fabric. Then the soldier's deeply tanned face drew near enough for her to realize he'd stepped around the car and walked straight towards her house.

Jia stood at once, one arm folded across her body to hold her other arm for comfort. Security moved to intercept him but she waved them off again.

"Can I help you, sir? Are you here for my father?"

"Jia Sun?" he asked. She nodded silently. "I'm Major Diaz. And I have something urgent to discuss with you."

---

Alley Amherst decided she wouldn't miss these barracks at all.

At this point, she considered herself something of a connoisseur of military barracks. In her short couple of years serving, she'd been in eleven so far. These were old, built of brick decades ago with a dark oak interior that made the whole place a bit depressing. The amenities were nothing to write home about either, not that she especially cared about those. No one enlisted for comfort and it mattered to Alley even less than most.

She packed up her meager belongings into a single carry-on suitcase, most of it extras of her uniforms. Alley took a last look around her room. The roommate she'd barely met didn't have much more so the place looked more like a monastery cell than a place two girls lived. No, nothing of hers left behind. She had her parent's single set of picture frames packed, Mishka's locket around her neck and Iris' promise ring on her right pinky finger. Good to go.

Alley shouldered her pack and walked briskly down the barrack hallways. Nodding once to security on her way out, she saw a brown Subaru Legacy waiting for her. Smirking slightly, Alley approached it directly before gliding to a stop a dozen feet back.

The most beautiful girl she'd ever seen in her life sat in the driver's side. Asian, probably Chinese or Japanese, silky straight black hair worn long down her back. Flawless complexion. Unsmiling, the girl could have been a painting anyone would be proud to hang from their wall. Alley's blue eyes narrowed then. No uniform. What was a civilian doing on base, picking her up?

Craning her neck, Alley looked past the eye candy and spotted a man in the proper uniform behind the wheel. He nodded to her once before inclining his head backwards. Alley didn't need to be told twice. She popped open the passenger side back door and climbed in.

"Major, I fancy your taste of team mates!" The boy sitting across in the back seat was tall, black and sporting a Received Pronunciation Accent. What was a boy from England doing here?

Alley concentrated. Then she sighed and stuck out her hand. "Finn Barnaby," she said, shaking his hand. "Sun Jia. Major Isaiah Diaz. I'm in. Might as well get on the road, we've got a schedule to keep."

"How did-" Jia said from the front, her voice soft and confused.

"That's bloody marvelous," Finn said beside Alley. "Telepath, right? Am I right?" he called forward as the Major Isaiah Diaz started the car forward.

"Telepath? Please," Alley said, rolling her eyes. "Corporal Alexandria Amherst. Call me Alley. That's not a request. I'm also not interested and never will be. Now, let's get down to it." She leaned forward in her seat, speaking to the Major. "Sir, nothing I can say will convince you otherwise so let me just say I think this is a terrible idea."

"Noted, Corporal," Major Diaz said.

"If you don't want to be here," Jia said, just as quiet as Alley expected, "I'm sure the Major would make an exception for you."

"Oh, I said I'm in. I just don't like the Major's choice of our fourth team mate, though."

The Major sighed. "Just sit back and buckle up, we've-"

"Got a schedule, yes sir."

Of course, Alley had already buckled before he opened his mouth. She quit concentrating and pulled out her smartphone. Googling for everything on Nate Insley would make the next minutes of Finn's utterly inane babble at least a bit bearable.

---

The doorbell rang.

Nate Insley naturally was in the middle of a raid on one of the new MMORPG's from Korea. He glanced over the surveillance monitor, wondering if it was broken. Sure enough, someone was on the porch. It took Nate a minute to really process the scene. Then he quickly jotted off his need to leave to his guildmates and closed out of the game.

Finally, he could turn his full attention to the first visitor he'd had in two years.

Nate looked through the surveillance camera, studying his guest. The man was of medium height, not more than six feet tall. Not entirely white if Nate had to guess. A bit of Hispanic maybe? That tan was just a little too even. The uniform made it largely irrelevant, of course. Military men all looked and thought alike from Nate's experience. They didn't usually ring doorbells, though.

Curious, Nate thumbed the intercom to the ground floor of his house. "Hey Sergeant, it looks like we have a bonafide visitor. Do you want to tell me why he's using the doorbell at nine o clock at night?"

"I'll check."

The voice was indistinct, as usual. Nate had never seen any of the soldiers who regularly kept watch over him. His cameras only gave him an exterior view of the house, of the vast green field around it followed by concrete roads girded with caution signs. Over the years, Nate had seen deer, squirrels, all manner of animals and birds. Almost never people, though. And never people who rang the doorbell.

When the military man on the porch stepped inside, Nate panned the camera past him to look at the car he'd left parked. It was pretty much full. A really cute Asian girl in front watched the grass fields with a somber, somewhat wistful look. Behind her was a blonde girl, only pretty compared to the Asian girl's beauty and even less appealing when he realized she was in uniform. That's when he realized the passenger wasn't in uniform. A civilian? Here? Why?

Nate pressed his hand against his stomach, feeling slightly queasy. After so many years of captivity, this was a lot to process. So he pushed his cat Perpugilliam out of his lap and hopped out of his chair. As the cat meowed her annoyance, Nate crossed his bedroom and stepped into the shower for a quick rinse. A few minutes of scrubbing got him clean from raiding in his MMORPG all day. Toweling off, he stopped long enough to shave before heading for his closet.

A pair of jeans, his favorite Doctor Who shirt and white socks completed his around-the-house wear. Although Nate wasn't due to hit the treadmill until the morning, he opted to put on a pair of tennis shoes anyway. After looking at his reflection, he opted to tuck in his shirt and add a belt.

It was a good choice, as it turned out. As Nate finished scrutinizing his looks, someone knocked on the bedroom door. It took him a minute to realize it wasn't the TV that his cat Perpugilliam had on. No one had knocked on his door in years.

"Uh, come in? It's not locked."

The door opened to admit the soldier from his doorstep. Nate smiled slightly at being an inch or two taller. It was the only comfort he had, given how sharply dressed the officer was compared to his own casual wardrobe.

"What can I do for you...Major?" Nate added as he noticed the rank on the man's uniform.

"You're dressed," the Major said with an approving tone. "Good. I'm Isaiah Diaz. I'd like you to take a ride with me."

"Um, what? You're joking, right?" Nate realized the officer wasn't joking and swallowed hard. "Outside, really?" Then he stared at the other man hard. "Wait, you're not planning on shooting me and dumping my body in the woods somewhere, are you?"

The Major only smiled and shook his head.

"I'm not sure I believe you," Nate muttered. "But you're here, in person. I have no idea why you'd take that kind of risk but whatever. Do you know how long I've been under house arrest?"

"Four years."

"And now you want to just take me for a ride? What's this about?" Nate glared to make his point, that he wouldn't be kept in the dark.

"Your team mates don't know much more than you do and I'd rather have the entire conversation once. Grab a coat and let's go. If you say no, I'll have you back in time for bed."

The Major left before Nate could demand a better explanation. He thought about going back to his chair, being willful, but the lure of the open door was too much. For the first time in years, Nate stepped outside of his bedroom and padded after the soldier.

He had to know why the Major was willing to take the insane risk of actually talking to Nate Insley in the first place.

Chapter 1

West Private University had a number of faculty conference rooms for its various departments. Only its Hero Certification Program located their faculty rooms below ground. There were any number of good reasons for doing so, including security, anonymity and minimizing damage to school grounds.

The Dean of West Private's HCP still regretted those reasons. A nice view would have been a lovely distraction from the arguments already filling this conference room.

"We've already admitted a full class," Sam Goddard said. He kept a level tone but his ire was unmistakable behind those lady-killer features. Seemingly no older than his mid-thirties, the Dean had endured all manner of whispers for the past few years since he'd signed on to teach Ranged Combat and Weapons. Why wasn't he still an active Hero? Of course, most concluded he had reason enough to seek a post here since his older sister was the Dean.

"Four more coming in at the Freshman level isn't going to matter much," said Ava Stevens. The small, petite blonde woman was among the kindest, warmest of her Professors despite her prodigious abilities in teaching Control. Disagreeing with Sam was second nature for her, ever since she'd broken off their engagement after he'd cheated on her years ago. The friction occasionally frustrated the Dean but, just as often, it motivated the two professionals to compete for turning out the strongest students. "It does break school procedure, though."

"Exactly," said Elaine Goddard. "You make an exception once and you'll have parents forcing their children into larger and larger class sizes. It's hard enough finding good faculty as it is."

The elegant, perfectly poised blonde instructor looked enough like Ava the two could almost be sisters, though Ava was American while Elaine was English. Their relationship was nearly that close, somehow best friends despite the fact that Elaine was married to Ava's ex, making the English woman the Dean's sister-in-law. Having three of West Private's HCP professors related to her was a headache she dealt with annually, always outweighed by the outstanding results her program turned out. That and Elaine's point; it was damn hard to find Heroes willing to tackle the thankless job of teaching the next generation.

At least, it was hard enough that it explained the fourth Professor here. Paul Matthias was a big man, dwarfing everyone else in the room through his sheer muscular bulk. The expensive suit, vest and tie combination did nothing to conceal his powerful arms or the sense of impending power he could unleash at any moment. Paul was perfect for Close Combat for a number of reasons. Those reasons, along with the Dean's own considerable charms, had been the only reason she'd been able to put him on staff given his history.

"I'm inclined to agree with Professor Goddard," Paul said slowly. His words, while measured, were sharply enunciated. The professor's articulation often surprised people who didn't know him, or only knew him in his former life. "Part of the reason for smaller class sizes is more individual attention. We're not just training the abilities of some young Supers. We're testing their character and forging Heroes."

"Where does this request come from?"

Glee's question silenced the faculty discussion as each professor considered an answer. Professor Glee was an oddity among the staff; the only faculty member who taught under her Hero name. The deliberately relaxed atmosphere Hero Certification Programs was usually an incentive to retiring Heroes to teach. Given Glee taught Subtlety, perhaps her work/home separation meant so much to her that she stayed 'in character' anyway. The Dean didn't much care. Glee was effective, efficient if somewhat whimsical and it was a bit of a coup for students to claim they'd studied under Glee herself.

Dean Goddard waited until everyone looked her way. "Major Isaiah Diaz."

She already had everyone's attention but the name was like electricity let loose in the small faculty conference room. Everyone visibly sat up, minds working. The information had escalated what was otherwise a minor procedural matter into something much larger.

"Wait, does that really change anything?" Sam shook his head. "We're letting Powereds dictate school policy now?"

"No one's dictating anything," Dean Goddard said to her younger brother, her tone silencing the displeasure on his face. "This is my school, my program, my decision. Nonetheless, I respect the Major's ability enough to consider his request. Just as I respect my staff's opinions enough to include you before I make a decision."

"I want to see the students," Glee said.

The Dean gestured to the table, and the tablets sitting next to each professor's binder. One by one, they took their tablets up and found the information she'd sent their way. Dean Goddard leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers and once more wishing for a proper window. In a minute, she'd doubtlessly want to jump out of it.

"Jesus, Nate Insley?" Ava whispered.

Everyone started shouting at once.

The Dean silenced them all with one raised palm. "Enough. If I choose to admit him, he'll be under twenty four hour monitoring by a telepath. I'm just as aware as you are of his father's abilities and what limited research there is on his."

"I can't teach an ability like Nate's," Ava said, shaking her head. "No one can. It's too dangerous."

"Control is a second year program," the Dean said mildly, unruffled by the tension on everyone's faces. "If we admit him, and if he doesn't wash out of Combat or Alternative Training in his Freshmen year, we'll have a much better handle on what he can do. So will he. That said, I plan to personally interview him before he's allowed to train with the other students."

"You have Jia Sun on here," Paul said.

Once more, conversation stopped while the professors reviewed her record. Sam again was the first to object. "She's a washout."

"Which still makes her eligible to apply again," Ava said. "Besides, who knows what her father will do with her if we turn her down. You've heard of Dave Sun? The televangelist?"

"Does she have child care arrangements?" Elaine asked. She peeked at Ava and smiled a bit. "I'd be delighted if she wanted to try again but we lost her because of a pregnancy, right? She can't have given birth more than a month ago. Did she keep it?"

"Her parents have custody of her son, Jake," the Dean said. "Whatever Mr. Sun's reputation is in the community, I expect Jia's parents will do an adequate job."

"Jia was ranked first last year," Paul said. The massive well-dressed man shifted in his seat, leaning back to cross one giant leg over another. "I'm surprised to see her reapply but I'd be happy to have her back."

"So would I," Glee said.

The Dean looked around the room and said, "I think that settles Jia. Any thoughts on Finn?"

"Besides the fact he's a Brit?" Elaine said, smirking. "It took some sorting out for me to immigrate here much less use my abilities legally."

"I assume the Department of Variant Human Affairs approved his visa?" Sam asked.

"Once they understood it was Major Diaz asking, yes," the Dean answered.

"What's his ability?" Ava asked. Then, looking down at her tablet, she scrolled to the right part of the file and made a silent 'O' with her lips. "That mix is a little unusual. I'm willing to admit him if he's all they say he is."

Dean Goddard smiled as she watched the professors slowly work their way towards approval. There was more interest than conflict on their faces at least. She expected Nate would continue to pose questions as the school year went on but that was a manageable situation.

"Huh. Alexandria Amherst?" Paul frowned.

"Where have I heard that name before," Sam said, his face gaining the same frown. "Any relation to Sarah?"

"Ah." Dean Goddard paused, collecting herself regretfully. She'd forgotten the particulars of the girl's case until this moment. Bracing herself, she said, "She goes by Alley."

"Absolutely not," Sam and Paul said at the same time.

Ava and Elaine looked at each other, best friends looking for clues and realizing the other was just as ignorant. For her part, Glee looked merely thoughtful. Little made Glee thoughtful, which both pleased and concerned the Dean.

"Who?" the blonde women asked, as simultaneous as the men.

"She's from Sizemore Tech," Glee said. "Another first in her class. She-"

"She murdered a student two years ago," Sam said, his voice flat and absolute.

"Jesus, what's Diaz thinking putting her forward?" Ava said, looking stunned. "Wait, two years ago? Is she in prison?"

"She enlisted," the Dean said. A black cloud of angered disapproval swept over everyone in the room. "Now now, you all know better. The military took her in and put her to work. From what I see, she's done very well for herself there. I've Major Diaz's personal assurance the...unique circumstances surrounding that situation won't happen again."

One by one, the professors read over the incident on their tablets. One by one, expressions of sympathy and pain undercut the flat refusal that'd been there moments before. Finally, each professor ended up looking to Paul Matthias. For his part, he had the good grace to at least seem uncomfortable about it. Then Paul shrugged his massive shoulders and bent his head.

"Very well then." Dean Goddard unfolded her fingers and placed both hands on the desk. "Ava, you'll make arrangements for Nate. Otherwise, Housing should take care of the rest. The Major requested they share a dorm and I see no reason to deny that request. If nothing else, it concentrates trouble in one place. That said, I expect all of you on your best behavior with them. Except for perhaps Finn, each of these applicants seems to be badly in need of a fresh start. I want them to have that here."

Her voice rose slightly at the end, in tone and sharpness. It produced the desired effect. The Dean's staff nodded their acknowledgement, if not agreement, and filed out of the room one by one. Dean Goddard waited for them to go before spinning in her chair to face the back wall, decorated only with a rather picturesque landscape of a mountain standing over a lake.

Even rubbing her temples didn't help with the headache this year would be. Major Isaiah Diaz indeed. If he was involved...

Dean Goddard allowed herself the luxury of clenching her fist until her knuckles turned white.

Chapter 2

Finn's taxi pulled up in front of Lambert Acres and he whistled at the sight of it.

It was a private off-campus house, obviously sized for parties. Two-story, but surprisingly sprawling with an acre of woodland around it as play. The carport led to a four car garage with attached shop. Someone kept a flower garden alongside the paving stone walkway to the entrance. A wraparound porch provided ample chance to relax on a porch swing or open-backed chair during the hot days of a Florida summer.

Finn took a step outside the car and immediately removed his baseball cap to fan his face with.

"Is it always so sodding hot?" he asked the taxi driver.

"Heh, welcome to Orlando, son."

"I'll be buggered before I make it six steps." Shaking his head in amazement, Finn tucked the baseball cap back on and fetched his suitcases from the trunk. "Thanks for the ride!"

"Planning a few weekend parties?" asked the middle-aged taxi driver, whose scruffy beard and somewhat overweight physique made it unlikely he attended many himself.

"Oh, one can hope."

"Well, make sure you stock up. Can't buy booze on Sundays. Don't be caught driving either."

"You can't drive on Sundays?" Finn asked, stunned at the notion.

"No, idiot, don't drink and drive around here. Cops'll be all over you. They watch anywhere near West Private like a hawk."

"Americans." Finn paid the man and left a handsome tip. "Thanks for the advice, mate."

Without further fanfare, the taxi pulled away. Finn remained in the carport, staring up at the house. No other cars in the driveway. Was he the first one here?

He hefted his suitcases and made his way to the front door, sweating into the baseball cap's headband by the time he reached it. Finn set the suitcases down, pulled open the screen door and tried his key. It worked! Trying to manage the doorknob was tricky with his luggage, though.

At least until Jia Sun opened the door for him.

The slim Chinese woman promptly took his suitcases for him, helping him into the house. Finn eyed the effortless way she handled the dense luggage but kept his speculations to himself. Instead, he took a moment to survey the interior.

Big fancy living room, already furnished. Three couches spanned the window-lit wall, leather and in good shape considering. The opposite wall included a big screen television and ample shelving for a library no one would use. A sunken fireplace lay below the television, complete with a circular brick round for keeping the wood shivers from getting on the carpet while providing space for those who wanted to sit close to the flame.

"Well, this is nice," Finn said. "The Major's?"

"No," Jia admitted, her soft voice barely audible in the vast room. "My father bought it last year for West Private University as a donation, on the condition that I be allowed use of it while I was here."

"It's lovely. Please thank your father for allowing us to stay here."

"Um...okay."

The hesitation in her voice told Finn she hadn't planned to tell him about her roommate situation at all. Finn shrugged. Not really any of his business, especially when she was doing him a favor.

The kitchen lay beyond the living room. A stairway to the right of the front door clearly led to the second floor. Jia silently hefted the luggage right up the stairs, leaving Finn to feel slightly emasculated as he followed.

Upstairs was warmer but the hum of central air promised an eventual relief from the day's heat. Finn looked down a hallway with four bedroom doors, with a fifth leading to the bathroom. One of the left bedroom doors was open, the one closest to the stairs. Jia had plainly claimed it.

"I'll take the right then," Finn said, opening the opposite door nearest the stairs.

He peeked in and nodded approvingly. Queen-sized bed with a lovely window view of the forest surrounding Lambert Acres. He saw a dresser, a furnished desk with matching office chair, and a small table. The room included a closet.

"I'll put these on your bed then," Jia said. She promptly lifted them as if they were made of foam and set them, gently, on the mattress.

"You didn't have to."

"Oh, it was no trouble." Jia smiled shyly.

"Are we the only ones here so far?"

"Mmmm." It took Finn a moment to realize that was a sound of agreement.

"So, this is nice. Do you suppose the Major plans- "

"Shhh!" She silenced him with a single finger against his lips. "We're not to speak of it, he said."

"Do you always do what people tell you to?" Finn asked, amused and curious in equal measure.

"Ah...not always, no."

The way she ducked her head and looked slightly embarrassed said otherwise. Finn was too polite to press the point, though. Thankfully, the screen door slammed open downstairs. They both moved to the hallway and peeked down the stairs.

Alley had arrived in style. The last (and only) time Finn had seen the female soldier, she'd been wearing crisp fatigues and moved like she had a pole up her back. This Alley was stripped down to not much more than a bikini top and a pair of form-fitting bike shorts. Her straw-colored blonde hair was long, now that she wasn't wearing a cap, and tied back in a ponytail that bounced when she moved. As did other parts. Well, to a degree. Her musculature was a model for a women's fitness magazine but she didn't have as much topside as Finn usually cared for.

"Alley, up here!" he called out.

Soldier girl didn't hear him, likely owing to the ear buds plugged into her phone. As she swung her backpack off her shoulders, Alley continued the motion into a spin, both arms raised over her head. She swayed several times, moving to a beat only she could hear. Then she laughed once and popped her ear buds out.

"My bad," she called back up the stairs. "Couldn't hear you. I'm calling the left backside bedroom. Girls on the left, boys on the right. Also, upstairs bathroom is ours. You boys get the downstairs bathroom and shower. No bitching."

"Yes, sir," Finn said, saluting.

"Very funny. Now, I saw the shop. Anyone have plans for it?"

"What, seriously? You're claiming the shop now? Do you plan to assemble soldiers so you can take over America and be President?" Finn couldn't help but laugh at the overpowering assertiveness of his newest roommate.

"Jesus, you think I want his job?" she asked with a grin. "Nah, I was just thinking of putting together a gym for us."

"Alley," Jia said, hesitating to say more until the other woman nodded at her. "I was in the HCP last year. There's a daily gym-"

"Oh, I know," Alley said. "I was in it two years ago before I joined up with the Army. I was thinking more a studio with space for yoga, balance exercises, maybe some aikido space. Gym isn't exactly big on flexibility, you know."

"Neither of you are freshmen?" Finn asked, looking back and forth between the two women. "Blimey, that's humbling. Have pity on the ignorant, will you? My first time in America and I didn't exactly plan to stay for a school year."

"We'll help you," Jia said, nodding swiftly. "Though training our first year is usually individual. I think we're supposed to get into teams second year."

"Then you're on the same team? I mean, you're sophomores right?"

The women exchanged looks. Both shook their heads. Finn thought about prying but Jia's pained expression and the absolute flatness of Alley's pretty face told him he'd be better off interrogating a wall.

Just then, Alley went to the front door and opened it. Exactly on cue, a soldier stepped through carrying suitcases. Finn opened his mouth to protest, only to realize Nate Insley was right on his heels. A second soldier followed the thin, gangly teenager. The last person through was an appealing brunette in a flowery summer dress that very much flattered her figure.

"Christ, Nate, you're like a rock star," Alley said, slapping him on the back. The affection surprised Finn but seemed to surprise Nate more. "Always with an escort. So, Julie's sticking around, eh? Don't bother with the RV option they gave you, Jia will be thrilled to have you stay with her. Go catch up."

"Jia?" Julie looked surprised, then spotted her friend at the top of the stairs. Both women promptly gave an ear-piercing shriek and ran to each other, embracing at the half way point up the stairs.

Bemused, Finn met Alley's eyes and saw her nod once. Noticing Nate standing to the side, Finn said, "Hey, mate, come on up and check your room out. Boys on the right, am I right?"

With Alley's permissive nod, Nate angled up the stairs around the two women talking a mile an hour to each other. Finn stepped back into his bedroom, giving Nate enough room to walk by. The red-headed kid wore another Doctor Who t-shirt that hung loosely over his skinny body, not bothering to tuck it into his jeans. Finn pointed out the bathroom off-limits to them both before opening the door to his roommate's bedroom.

Nate seemed delighted at least. Though he spent an awful amount of time peering around the room looking for something. "Hey, is it cool if I bring my cat?" he asked after finishing his inspection.

"A puss is fine with me," Finn said.

"I love cats," Jia added.

"Whatever rings your bell, Ginger." Alley chuckled at Nate's look of dismay and waved him on.

While everyone else got settled in, Finn went to unpacking his suitcases. Of course, the rest of his effects wouldn't arrive until next week. When he'd come to America to attend the University of Connecticut, he hadn't expected to be drafted into a Hero Certification Program down in Orlando, Florida. In the meantime, he put the clothes he had away, plugged his laptop into the desk and settled the place to his liking.

Pleased, he popped his head out to find Nate in his room doing the same under the supervision of the two soldiers. Alley was in her room already, visible through a crack in her door. She lay across the bed, ear buds back in and a tablet in her hands. Reading something given how rarely she touched the screen.

Finn descended the stairs and spotted Jia and Julie sitting on one of the couches, smiling at his approach.

"Hi Finn, I'm Julie Campbell," said the pretty brunette in the summer dress, rising from the couch and offering to shake.

"Finn Barnaby, at your service, ma'am." He bowed over her hand and kissed the back of it theatrically. She grinned.

"We were roommates last year," Jia said.

"And will be again, if you and Nate are okay with it." Julie looked slightly uncomfortable. "Alley had a good idea there. I'm on evening duty for Nate so I need to stay close. West Private's HCP offered to provide an RV for me to use in the carport but-"

"Nonsense," Jia said firmly. "I picked the biggest bedroom, I have room for another bed. We already know we get along, right?"

"Hold on, what is it about Nate exactly?" Finn saw the pretty girl's friendliness suddenly fold up beneath a professional demeanor but he pressed on. "Seriously, if we're rooming with him, don't we have a right to know?"

"I can't talk about it," Julie said. "I'm sorry. Part of the arrangements for Nate being at West Private is twenty four hour monitoring by a telepath. I've been told there's little risk and, based on what I've seen of Nate so far, I'd agree but-"

"What, you're a telepath?" Finn backed off at once until his heels hit the back of the bottom step of the stairwell. Realizing what he'd done, he scratched the back of his head sheepishly and smiled an apology. "That was rude, sorry. I've just never...well, I've never met a telepath. Are you reading my thoughts now?"

"No, Finn, I'm just here for Nate." Julie's smile was a bit cool but real. She hadn't taken offense at least. "Don't worry about it, most people haven't. You'll have to get used to it, though. Most people more or less talk loudly in their heads so it's almost impossible not to pick up their surface thoughts. Not that you have much to worry about."

"Beg pardon?"

"You're-wait, you don't know?" Julie frowned a little. "How can you not know?"

"Know what?"

"I guess you haven't met many other Advanced Minds. Don't worry, the professors will explain it to you."

"Other Advanced Minds?" Finn took a few seconds to meditate on what she'd said. "You're not saying I'm a telepath too, are you?"

"I guess you'll find out on Monday, won't you," she said with a grin.

Finn gave her an unsteady grin. It almost matched the one he wore on the inside. If Julie believed he was an untrained telepath, others would to.

Exactly the way the Major wanted it.

Chapter 3

Jia woke with the dawn.

She lay in bed for a minute, swathed in blankets against the cooler Florida night air. Blinking sleep out of her golden eyes, she just listened for a moment. The hum of the house's central air provided a faint but pleasant white noise. Beneath its quiet drone, she heard Julie breathing in the almost-snoring way she had the first semester last year when they'd been roommates.

It felt right. This felt right. Jia smiled, feeling for the first time since the Major arrived that things might work out.

She rolled out from beneath her blankets and stopped only to make her bed. Then she fetched her Bible and found her slippers. Quietly, she padded out of her bedroom.

The hallway was quiet and clear. Finn's door was closed but she could hear him snoring softly through the thin wood. Nate slept with his door open for some reason. She gazed at his sleeping form and smiled a little. She didn't know much about why everyone was so afraid of him but he'd never seemed happier than last night. Even now, asleep, it almost looked like he was smiling. Like a baby.

Her chest spasmed, like her heart squeezing tightly. Jia grimaced, closed her eyes against the pain. Then she breathed through it. Jake was better off in her parent's hands for now. At least they could afford to hire a nanny to raise a child, like she'd been.

Alley's door was closed but she wasn't inside from what Jia could hear. Interesting. She briefly wondered if the other girl had gone to the shop after all.

Each step of the stairs creaked a little, which Jia took note of for the future. The living room was quiet and faintly lit by the rising sun. Whoever built the house faced the living room towards the sun and the bedrooms towards the sunset. Jia liked it and wondered if she'd continue to have her morning privacy.

Someone had left the TV on, though. Perpugilliam, Nate's cat, lay curled up on one of the couches, giving every appearance of watching it. Jia found the remote and shut it off, lingering only to scold the Siamese cat for its poor taste.

Since the climate was still mild enough, Jia opened the front door and walked out onto the porch in her slippers. She found the porch swing and took a seat in it, curling her legs beneath her. Resting her Bible next to her, Jia looked around.

The woods were filled with all the wonderful noises of nature. Jia had never been camping beyond last year's Spring Break but she loved the sight of it, the sound and smell of it. Out here, she felt close to God.

Across the driveway, Jia saw a light was on in the shop. Alley must be in there. She considered peeking but decided to respect her new roommate's privacy. Instead, she flipped open the Bible to the Book of Genesis and picked up in Chapter 10 where she'd left off.

---

"Good book?"

Jia was startled into dropping her Bible. Alley bent and caught it in one deft motion. Straightening, the taller blonde handed the text back. "NIV?" Jia nodded. "Thought so."

"You're a Bible reader too?" Jia asked.

"Me?" Alley laughed, stretching both arms over her head. The other girl's limber body flexed as she reached for the sky all the way up to her tiptoes before settling down. "Nah. I mean, I read it when I was, like, fifteen. I wanted to know what it said. I don't really buy it, though."

"Oh." Jia felt her initial elation smolder into the ash of disappointment. "Well, I do."

"I kinda figured," Alley said, sliding into the spot on the swinging bench next to her. "Why else would you be reading it?"

"For the moment...insight." Jia looked down at the closed Bible in her hands. "I'm reading about Abram right now."

"Ahhh, Abraham. Let me guess." Alley squinted slightly. "You're actually reading about Sarai, right? How she followed her husband out of Ur across hundreds of miles, endured the reproach of childlessness and was blessed for her patience by a child from God even though she was, like, in her sixties?"

"You do know your Bible," Jia said, nodding in approval. "But no. I really am reading about Abram. I...well, I can relate to him better. Ur was one of the most prosperous cities in Mesopotamia in its day. Abram's whole family was there including his father, his brother and many relatives. And yet he left the city on the word of God alone. He didn't even get any explanation for why until he reached Haran, a city six hundred miles away."

"I thought his father Terah was the one who led the way," Alley said, looking slightly surprised. "And didn't God talk to him in Haran first, not in Ur?"

Both of Jia's eyebrows went right up. "You know the scriptures better than many Christians do," she admitted. "But you need to look in the book of Acts for context. In Acts 7:2, it shows that God told Abram to leave Ur but only said to leave his land behind and go to the land God would show him. He knew nothing about what that land would be or why. It wasn't for six hundred miles in Haran that he was told he'd make a great nation. He went all that way on faith with no explanation."

Alley held up a hand. "I don't mean to be a buzzkill, Sunrise, but I'm not seeing the point."

"These abilities of mine came from somewhere," Jia said. "Maybe they came from God, maybe they're just a genetic quirk. But I have them."

"I get it now," Alley said. "The HCP is the six hundred mile journey to Haran. It's a long way to go and you don't know why you're doing it. All you can do is have faith that there'll be an explanation at the end."

"Exactly," Jia said, eyes widening. "That's...that's what I've been trying to figure out. You put it perfectly. How did you know that? I thought you said you weren't a telepath."

"Oh, I'm way better than a telepath, Sunrise," Alley said, grinning. "Now, how about you bring your Bible into the kitchen while I make us some breakfast? You get to finish your study, I get the company and we both get fed. Fair?"

Jia nodded and followed her surprising roommate inside.

---

The boys joined them by the tail end of breakfast. Finn was the first to arrive and he begged for breakfast with such eager panache that Alley finally laughed and gave in. Julie and Nate came down the stairs at the same time but both opted for cereal.

Jia started on her dishes and, after a moment's consideration, volunteered to do Alley's since the blonde cooked. For a few minutes, everyone in the house was in the same area. The boys ate at the counter, Julie by the door and the other two girls by the sink. Perpugilliam circled Nate's ankles until he set down his cereal bowl and its remaining milk.

"So, Nate, what can you do?" Alley asked, breaking the morning silence.

A pin drop could have been heard in the silence that followed. Then the red-head ducked his head and mumbled something. Alley just nodded as if hearing what she expected. No one else had the guts to ask Nate to repeat himself.

"What about you, English?" Alley turned her attention to the Lambert Acres' resident black Brit.

"Who me?"

Finn held up his hand. Abruptly, a kitchen cabinet flew open. A glass soared into the air. The refrigerator door opened next, heralding a pitcher of orange juice. Both objects mingled, the juice pouring out into the glass. Then the cabinet door swept shut, the pitcher went back into the fridge and the glass settled in Finn's hand.

"Nothing much," he finished, taking a swallow of the orange juice.

"That's...amazing," Julie said, staring in fascination. "Your control is incredible!"

"I have my moments."

"How about you, Sunrise?"

Alley's question didn't surprise Jia given how they'd made the rounds. Finn's display made her want to show off a little too. Modesty forbid it. Still, Alley's gaze was expectant, even eager. The blonde soldier had shown interest in her Bible reading, even though Alley didn't believe in it. Jia owed her something in return for the consideration.

"In Matthew 17:20, Jesus said faith the size of a mustard seed could move a mountain."

"You're a telekinetic too?" Nate asked, awe coloring his pale face.

"No."

Jia crouched, then sped out of the house. The screen door flung open as she hit it with an open palm. Sprinting across the lawn, Jia arced away from the house until she ran parallel with the thick forest surrounding Lambert Acres. Her hand flashed out once as she lapped the entire house and sped back inside, stopping where she left.

The screen door slammed shut from her original exit a second later. Then, behind her out the window, Jia knew a tree fell over from where she'd cut it in half with her hand. She could see it on the shocked faces of her roommates.

"And that's why she was first in our class last year," Julie said, sighing.

"Really now." Alley's blue eyes gleamed in the early morning sun pouring in through the kitchen window. "Finally, I have something to look forward to."

Chapter 4

Alley hit the showers after breakfast, eager to get clean after her morning workout. The blasting water also did wonders to get a certain Chinese girl out of her head. Sun Jia. God, she was hot. From the moment she laid eyes on the petite golden-eyed beauty, Alley knew she was in trouble. When the Major gave them their orders and put them in the same house with each other, she suspected this might be a special kind of torture. Then Jia turned out to be some kind of super heavy, with the potential to be a nightmare in battle.

Pretty much the perfect storm of lesbian Super fantasy.

"Jesus, get a grip already," she told herself as she turned the water down a notch in temperature. "Remember Iris. And Jia's obviously straight. Get a fucking grip and get your head in the fucking game."

Reassured by her personal pep talk, Alley finished up and toweled off. She glanced over her physique in the mirror. Tight. Years of unrelenting exercise coupled with knowing precisely where her limits were had turned Alley Amherst into a model for peak physical perfection. She liked her figure too, though her cleavage had suffered.

Cupping her meager bosom, she frowned into the mirror and said "You can have boobs when you're thirty and ready for kids."

Clothes for today were ordinary college fare, a light t-shirt tucked into stylishly worn-out jeans tucked into black leather boots. She had a fight later today, assuming HCP still started the first day with it, so no point in wearing anything nice. Alley backed up in the bathroom to give herself room, then lifted one leg up until her heel was over her head. Good. She'd stretched enough to stay fast and limber.

Alley took her morning pills, knocked them back with a glass of water and hid the bottle out in the shop where no one else was likely to come. She'd need to find a local supplier soon, though. A pity her roommates would ask questions they didn't really want the answers to. If Nate could do what she thought he could do, she'd never have a problem getting a supply again.

The lift to the HCP complex under West Private was past the living room, beyond the boy's bathroom and just behind the wall of the laundry room. Major Diaz had left instructions on its use but it didn't surprise Alley to see her roommates approach the elevator somewhat nervously. No one understood following directions like an Army girl. She ushered them all in before punching the right buttons to get them on their way.

"How long until we get there?" Finn asked, once the lift started moving.

"About six or seven minutes," Julie Campbell said.

"That's close," Alley murmured. Louder, she said, "Is there a way of making it go faster?"

"Um, that's pretty good since commute time's like 20 minutes just to reach parking," Nate said. When the others in the elevator gave him a funny look, he shrugged in yet another Doctor Who shirt. "What? I Google mapped it. I Google map everything."

"It'd have been nice to get it under five, that's all," Alley said. Oh well. No help for it.

"So, what should we expect?" Finn's accent made everything he said a pleasure to listen to. The boy had a nice evenness to his temperament that Alley appreciated. He was probably the reliable one in the group. Jia was responsible but clearly conflicted over her past. Nate was a bundle of awkward nerves and unlikely to improve in the near future. As for Julie...

"The first day is orientation," Julie said. "I think each of you have been enrolled in college classes relevant to your interests. Those will take place in the university proper, where the normal students go. Only the HCP classes are underground."

"Let me guess," Nate said. "What happens in Fight Club stays in Fight Club?"

Alley grinned. For a closet case with issues, he had a sense of humor. "Yeah, Ginger, keeping your enrollment and your powers secret is part of the program. They fail you out if you blow your cover so don't brag it up. Don't get into fights either. That's a fail too."

Jia frowned. "We can fight in class."

"Correction: We will fight in class. But getting into brawls with anyone outside the HCP, Super or not, will get your ass booted. That includes unsanctioned fights, Sunrise. They're very serious about that. Trust me."

Alley tried to keep her composure. Two years later, you'd think she was good at it by now. Instead, she got concerned looks from everyone. Two years and her morning pills and she still couldn't even think about it without visible pain.

Then Julie cried out and clutched her head.

"Yeah, I could have warned you about that but I didn't," Alley said. "I wanted to see if you peeked. Protip for the future, girlie: Never try to tune your station to my wavelength. We'll both be happier that way."

Whether or not Julie was likeable, Alley knew she should feel angry for the potential violation. Telepaths had been useless against her ever since her abilities manifested, though. Instead, she just felt heartsick. Some days, Alley wished they could read her mind. A little outrage at breaking-and-entering would have distracted her from the unwanted memories the rules stirred up.

At least Alley was back on top of the group. Jia's jawdropping display had everyone eating out of the Chinese girl's hands all morning. Deservedly so! Now everyone watched her, unsure what she could do. And she'd be a liar if she denied she didn't like being top dog.

The truth, though, was they had a mission. This wasn't Freshman Year 2.0. Someone had to keep sight of the objective and, for her money, it'd be her.

Julie recovered and glared sullenly at her for the rest of the ride. No one said anything. Suited Alley just fine. The lift to the HCP campus let them divert to a surface dorm housing Supers, shortcutting their path to the mundane classes. The group got off the elevator and stepped outside to view West Private's campus. It was already hot, go figure.

"Well, I've got psychology," Finn said, holding up his class schedule.

"Mmmm, I have music theory." Alley glanced at Jia, surprised. The Chinese girl ducked her head. "I'm a voice major."

"Cool," Alley said, her mouth suddenly dry at how adorable Jia looked when those black bangs covered that beautiful skin. "What about you, Ginger?"

"Chemistry," Nate said.

"Me too. Let's go. You coming Julie?"

"No," the telepath said, her voice decidedly icy. So much for that friendship. "Mike Cavil's taking over for me. I have my own classes and training to get to. See you tonight, Jia."

The genuine smile exchanged between the two former roommates made Alley feel like a bitch. Then she remembered she was a bitch. This time, Alley smiled. She had to be, if she was going to get through the school year.

A nondescript sophomore fell in behind them the instant Julie peeled off. Alley's suspicions the guy's name was Mike were confirmed when he suddenly grasped his head and yelled like he'd just put an icepick through his brain. A twofer on telepaths today! Things were looking up.

"Alley, do you know where we are?"

"Huh?" She looked at Nate, then peered around her. With one finger, she pointed and said, "That's McAdams. If the map I read is right, we're looking for Bowers which is over...there? Mike, help a girl out."

"Fuck you."

Alley raised an eyebrow and gave him a serious look. "You're going to sulk because you got busted listening where you weren't invited? Fine, help Nate out."

"Do I look like a fucking tour guide?"

"You're going to look like a prison bitch after I knock your teeth out for being an asshole. You were a freshman once. Have a heart, it's his first day in college."

"Yeah, that's Bowers ahead."

"You're a sport, Mike."

They walked on for half a minute before Nate leaned over and said, "Thanks."

Alley raised an eyebrow at him, then settled for a question. "So, you look paler than a virgin in a Marine's locker room. You been up in Alaska all this time or something?"

Nate ducked his head again. He stuck both hands in his pockets and slouched. For a minute, he seemed nothing more than a geek. Just a kid in shabby jeans, a t-shirt for a show no one watched and frumpy red hair that desperately needed to be a few inches shorter or longer to settle into a good look.

"No," he said, as quiet as Jia could be. "House arrest."

"How long?"

"When you guys picked me up, it was the first time I'd left that house since they caught me using my ability when I was fourteen."

"Jesus." Alley wiped her suddenly sweaty palms on her jeans. There but for the grace of God. "Just how strong is it?"

"Well, it's not like I can really test it, you know," Nate said. "I don't even want to. Alley, I don't know what I'm doing here." He leaned close, as if whispering could hide anything from the telepath behind them. "How am I supposed to be a Hero? Me? I mean, what are they going to do to train me? How can they? I'm basically...uh, do you know what I can do?"

"I have a hunch," Alley said. "And I see your point. If you've got the ability I think you do, it's pretty useless unless you use it, at which point everyone freaks out. Of course it's also pretty subtle. It's not like people can just spot its effects and..."

"If you're trying to encourage him, don't," said the telepath behind them.

Mike Cavil was a tall boy, trim brown hair and glasses but packing a surprisingly athletic build. His polo shirt and slacks screamed preppie. His physique shouted HCP training, though there was a deftness that probably came from playing a sport. Mike spotted her look and shifted his feet. Judo stance? Probably Judo. Alley just looked at him and found 109 ways to knock him out in less than thirty seconds.

Smirking, she said, "You're a real downer, Mike."

"Some things need to be kept down. I'm here for a single reason; a continuous scan. The instant he even thinks about activating his ability, I shut him down hard. If there's any justice, they won't lock him up again." Mike glared at the wilting Nate. "They'll just put a bullet in his head."

Alley looked back at her roommate. Anguish, embarrassment and frustration vied for attention on his socially inept face. Beneath it all, she realized Nate believed Mike. Not just what his fate would be, but that he deserved it. Nate actually believed the world might be better off with him dead.

So she turned around and broke Mike's nose.

Alley's knuckles stung slightly as she watched him stagger. One carefully placed foot caught him behind the ankle and toppled him to the ground. Around her, some students spread away from them while others crept closer to witness the fight. Alley ignored the mundanes and put a sneaker on Mike's chest, pressing down until the stunned telepath realized his situation.

"Suck it up Mike. The infirmary can fix you up in a second. But I want something clear. Nate's my friend. Now you know what I do to people who aren't his friend." She lifted her foot off his chest and said, "Pass it on" before walking back to Nate's side.

"Are you nuts?" Nate asked hoarsely. "He's going to report you! Do you want to get kicked out?"

"They knew what they were getting when they accepted my application, Ginger," Alley said, putting an arm around the smaller kid's slender frame. "Now they know I'm not afraid of them. I don't care what the fuck you can do, you deserve a clean slate. And I stick up for my friends."

"I've never really...had a friend."

The words came out of Nate reluctantly. They had the weight of awful sincerity. She flinched and wondered once more if his ability was truly so bad it justified the hell they'd made of his life. Not her call, though. Alley understood and respected the chain of command.

She looked back at Mike as he slowly crawled to his feet. Well, okay. The military chain of command. The vote was still out on West Private's HCP.

Chapter 5

Nate was the first one out of his class, the instant it was dismissed. He made a beeline down the rapidly growing crowded hallways of Elba Hall Science Building. Just in time, he reached the bathrooms, plunged into a stall and locked himself in.

It took a few minutes to get his breathing under control. Nate used the time to reshuffle the contents of his backpack, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything. The Department of Variant Human Affairs gave him that backpack along with its binder and basic school supplies including a tablet that came preloaded with PDF documents of all his text books. It might be the nicest thing they'd ever done for him.

Right now he needed nice. Someone came into the bathroom and used the urinal next to his stall. Nate just ground his teeth and rode out the wave of anxiety and emotion still surging raw inside.

His cell phone vibrated as the bathroom visitor washed his hands and left.

"Uh, hi?" he asked, answering it.

"Oi, it's lunch time, where are you? I thought we'd get a bite together." The crisp intonation of Finn Barnaby spilled out of the phone like a stream of cool water on Nate's fevered skin.

"Sure. Sorry. I'm just...I'll just be a minute."

"You feeling alright there?"

"I'm fine, it's fine. I just..." Nate laughed a little as he realized how ridiculous it was to talk to his roommate on a phone in the bathroom instead of just seeing him. "It's so many people, man, you know? For four years, the only people I ever saw were on a monitor screen and now, here they are, all around me. It's freaking me out."

"Sounds serious," Finn said, his voice stern and sober. "Only one thing for it."

"What, more people?"

"I was thinking a pint. Seeing as you're not legal, though, how about we have lunch with more people? There's this girl, you see-"

Nate laughed again. "How fast do you work, dude?"

"Just call me Finnetic," the cheerful English voice said over the phone. "Now come on then. Enough of the mobile. Let's meet up, shall we? I fancy McKinnon."

"I'll see you there in a minute," Nate said, once he remembered where McKinnon Cafeteria was.

Hanging up, he stepped out of the stall and washed his hands at the sink. Nate checked his reflection and groaned. His skin was clammy, his red hair all skewed from sweat and ill care. Nate washed his face, wet down his hair and combed it back with his fingers before patting everything dry with paper towels.

Mike was waiting for him outside when he left. The telepath didn't say a thing but Nate thought he saw a bit more sympathy on the upper classman's face than he'd had earlier. Of course, Mike could hear everything he was thinking. Including the meltdown in the bathroom. Including his pitiful need for sympathy from a man who was only here to keep Nate from hurting others.

Mumbling something apologetic, Nate ducked back into the crowd and followed it out to the outside. The air was fresh, the weather clear and the sun shone hotly. It was so hot here! Nate slowed to a stop, taking in the heat and the humidity, before he plodded on towards McKinnon.

"Nate?"

He stiffened, realizing someone had spoken his name several times. Flushing, Nate spun on his heels and almost tripped over the pavement. Mike just heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes.

"Uh, hi J-Julie."

Julie Campbell, telepath, Jia's roommate and his night warden had come up from behind and now stood there on the sidewalk with him. At least she had a smile. The soft white dress with black print flowers really went with her dark auburn hair. At least, Nate thought so. Truth be told, she was maybe the prettiest girl he'd ever laid eyes on in real life.

When she ducked her head and cleared her throat, Nate blushed even harder. "Shit, I'm sorry. Of course you can hear everything I th-I mean...um, how was your day?"

"Good," Julie said. "I'll tell you about it on the way to lunch?"

Nate's jaw literally fell open. "You want to have lunch with me?"

"Well, Finn invited me to join him and Amara. Jia has something going on right now and you seemed free so I thought I'd take over, give Mike a break for lunch."

"Hallejah," Mike said quietly. Flashing her an appreciative smile, he peeled away from the two of them and went his own way.

"Tough first day, huh?"

Julie's question surprised Nate, as did her several steps ahead. Only then did he realize she expected him to follow. He obliged, plodding along after her while trying to figure out why she would possibly want to spend a lunch she didn't have to around him.

"Yeah. I mean, it's fine. I'm just-"

"I understand. So many people." Julie fell into step beside him and walked silently for a moment. "I can't imagine being so...alone for all those years. You really never had any visitors?"

"I'm not safe," Nate said. He hung his head. "As afraid as the DVA and the Army are of me, they'll never be as afraid of me as I am. If I slip, if I do the slightest thing wrong...oh shit, I'm not supposed to talk about this in public!"

Julie laid a friendly hand on his shoulder. The warmth of her touch made him jump. Touch was something else he'd forgotten about.

"It's fine. Just keep your comments general. Most students aren't paying attention to us anyway, as quietly as we're talking. And I'm shifting attention away from us. You won't have any problems."

"You can shift people's attention?" Nate stared at her, fascinated. "How?"

"I'm really good at it, actually," Julie said, smiling slightly. With pride, Nate thought, though she deserved it in his opinion. "Remember how I told Finn that people talk loudly in their heads? I can...well, it's complicated but to use that analogy, I can dial up the volume of their thoughts. I can basically make people preoccupied with their own thoughts so they stop paying attention to what's around them."

Nate's stare turned from fascination to amazement. "That's incredible! It's kind of like...mental invisibility?"

"That's how I've used it," Julie said, nodding and seemingly pleased. "So, how did you end up Jia's roommate? Can I ask?"

"Do you even need to?" Nate asked back. He was still half credulous at the conversation, partially because she had to ask, partially because this girl who was so out of his league was talking to him at all.

"It hasn't come up yet in anyone's thoughts. And it's not appropriate to pry." Julie looked a bit self-conscious as she explained. "Reading someone's surface thoughts is like sitting on a park bench reading a book when someone walks by while having a conversation. You can't help what you overhear. Probing is different. That's more like...looking at someone's email behind their back or spying on them in the shower. Most of us can't help but notice surface thoughts so it's not really a legal violation of privacy. An unsolicited probe is illegal, though. They'll cover all this in Ethics."

"Wow."

Nate took a moment to collect his thoughts. They reached McKinnon Cafeteria in the meantime, though, and gratefully stepped into its air conditioned environs. Like most of the buildings in West Private, McKinnon had a kind of distinctive rippled concrete interior with wooden slat overlays across the top half of the walls. Doors were an almost rusty red and in universally excellent repair. Floors were chiefly concrete as well but featured impressions that varied from building to building. In McKinnon, pictures of influential Americans and a short name and biography were standard.

Finn and a girl were already at a table. Waving back to the Brit's enthusiastic greeting, Nate got in line with Julie. The smells were incredible and his stomach rumbled.

"Well, this guy recruited us all," he began as they picked items for their trays. "Um, Major Isaiah Diaz. I'm not really supposed to talk about it but, you know, you're going to see it come up in my thoughts sooner or later. Basically-"

Julie came to a complete stop in the line. Her expression was one of shock. Then she picked up her tray and said nothing more until they reached the end of the line. Nate tried to sort out his food card while she paid for her meal. Thankfully, she took mercy on him and briefly explained the college food program on their way to Finn's table.

The handsome black man leaned back in his chair and popped a grape into his mouth. "Nate, you look half past. Tough classes today?"

"Is it true?" Julie interrupted, looking him in the eyes.

"Yes," Finn said swiftly. Then he said, "Wait, no. Unless it's yes. Maybe? It might help if I knew what was supposed to be true."

"She found out we're here to find a lead on the Ringmaster," Nate said.

Finn looked surprised. Then he laughed nervously and held out a hand towards the girl sitting at the table with him. She was a pretty thing, a bit small but very sleek with rich chestnut hair worn short in a way that looked so much better on a girl than a guy. Finn's guest wore a tank-top tucked into a pair of shorts. A small tattoo of some Asian character lay on her upper right bicep. Otherwise, she seemed an ordinary if pleasant girl.

"This is Amara. Who, I'm sure, has no idea what you two are on about. Come to think of it, neither do I. Have you both gone daft or something?"

"That's Amara English," Julie said, sounding annoyed. "She's a freshman too. Just like you two. Exactly like you two."

Nate and Finn said "Oh!" at exactly the same time.

"Oh, you're here for-" Amara started.

"Look, there's been enough skirting the rules here," Julie said, shaking her head at the conversation. "I'll let it go. We're talking about this tonight, though."

"So this is my mate, Nate Insley," Finn said, deciding the only way to handle the conversation was to pretend it hadn't happened. "We're rooming together this year. That's Julie Campbell, she's sort of our roommate too."

"Hi Nate," Amara said. Her voice had a husky quality to it, the kind of sexy smoldering Nate had always heard in those femme fatales in movies or lounge singers.

Both boys and both girls tucked into their food with the kind of relish that came from social embarrassment as well as real hunger. The flavors were extraordinary. Nate couldn't help sounds of delight escaping his lips as he cut into a freshly made chicken burrito, a side of cheese-covered refried beans and a small pile of chips to dip with. Even his Coke tasted better than he remembered.

Glancing up, Nate realized his companions weren't nearly as enthralled with their choices. Instead, they spent much of the lunch talking about classes, professors and what to expect for the afternoon. For his part, Nate ate silently and simply watched.

And wondered for the millionth time if he was the Ringmaster's son.

Chapter 6

"Welcome freshmen!"

The Dean looked over the assembled freshmen, nodding in satisfaction at what she saw. She stood at a podium overlooking a sea of serious, nervous faces in the auditorium, the largest room at West Private HCP and the only one that could comfortably house the whole student body. Clad in black, the freshman class stood out front and center before the stage. Sophomores occupied the seats to stage right, juniors to stage left, both groups wearing the telltale grey of mid-years. The half-score white uniforms in the back were reserved for the seniors who made it this far.

Other programs segregated the classes for a myriad of reasons, mostly owing to stressing in-class camaraderie or isolating each student to force them to become self-reliant. Dean Goddard found those two chief reasons something of a paradox and best set aside. Heroes worked in teams. Besides, a strongly integrated community minimized the risk of treason. West Private boasted the lowest turncoat rating in the nation for good reason.

The Dean lowered her arms from her initial greeting, confident in her black business coat over a white blouse and charcoal slacks.

"I am Dean Diane Goddard and I oversee the Hero Certification Program. We congratulate you on your acceptance to our program!"

She applauded, as did all of the upperclassmen. The freshmen looked a bit surprised before smiles broke out on their faces. It was a warmer welcome than most of them expected, no doubt, if high school was anything to judge by.

"We congratulate you because you are the future. We're blessed in America by the service of so many distinguished men and women who have given their lives in defense of its people. As all of you should know, the life of a Hero is not an easy one. Take a look at the senior class behind you, in the white uniforms." As the auditorium filled with the sounds of shuffling, the Dean pointed their way and said, "In the time since they stood where you do now, forty seven Heroes lost their lives. There are five Hero Certification Programs in this country and we're lucky if we can turn out fifty Heroes a year between us to make up for those killed, incapacitated or retired."

Grim silence descended on the student body. The Dean was pleased at how quickly they'd sobered again. This was the first time many of them had really thought about how dangerous their career choice was.

"This program, these faculty," she gestured to the row of professors behind her, "and your peers around you are all here to make those ten the very finest men and women to put on a Hero's uniform. Statistically, many of you have never met another Super before. You've had to rely solely on yourself. At West Private, you are part of a community committed to training the best Heroes in the nation. From now on, you are no longer alone. The friendships you'll make and experiences you'll share will hopefully stay with you for the duration of your lives."

"The HCP consists of a series of classes. For first year students, we chiefly emphasize Combat Training and Alternate Training, two programs designed to lay the foundation of physical and mental fitness you'll need to grow in the program. Should you continue with us into your second year, you'll have access to specialized classes in Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Weapons, Focus, Control and Subtlety." She pointed out each professor responsible for a class as she spoke.

"Last, all of you will participate in a class that focuses on Super issues such as the legal framework that Heroes must work in and the consequences of using our abilities. Although it's perhaps the least popular class, I will be personally teaching Ethics to ensure all of you know how to protect yourselves and your loved ones from the choices you make once you put on that uniform."

As her eyes drifted over the freshman class, the Dean's scrutiny settled on four. Unsurprisingly, they all stood together. Just as expected, none of them reacted to the speech quite the way their peers did.

Finn Barnaby seemed amused and he looked around as if he were merely an observer here rather than a participant. She'd have to talk to him about that. Jia Sun, on the other hand, looked down the entire time. The shame of last year's failure bore heavily on those slim shoulders. Nate Insley looked like he might faint at any moment. After years of being treated like a Villain, it was no wonder he found this overwhelming. And as for Alexandria Amherst...Alley just watched her like a hawk, the look on her face an open challenge. Given the young woman's ability, as well as her history, managing that student might prove most difficult of all.

"Part of that protection begins today," the Dean said, resuming her speech. "You will be required to keep your abilities and your participation in this program a secret from everyone on or off campus. Although it's widely known that West Private University features a Hero Certification Program, what happens here must remain confidential. One of the first things many Villain groups do against new Heroes is to try determining their real identities so they can get to you through your families. A levitating Hero who can be matched to a levitating student four years ago is a Hero who must be retired to avoid the risk of their compromise."

A hand shot up in the audience. Finn Barnaby. The Dean's eyes narrowed and she sighed. Of course. She shifted her gaze to her left, towards Ava Stevens. The professor in charge of Control concentrated on Finn before sending the thought onwards. One of her most useful abilities was the knack for not only scanning the thoughts of telepathically shielded targets but sending them to other minds as a kind of relay.

"In case some of you were less discreet in high school," the Dean said, making a point to ignore Finn's hand. "There's very little risk now. Please take me at my word when I say what you were able to do in high school compared to what you will be capable of as a graduate of this program will be as different as night and day. Just avoid bringing attention to yourself while enrolled here and you should be fine."

Finn's hand went down and the Dean nodded towards him, satisfied she'd answered the question without interrupting her speech.

"Now, others of you are no doubt wondering when we begin training. The answer is: Now. This is Professor Paul Matthias." The big man in his wonderfully tailored suit rose at her introduction. "He is responsible for Combat Training and all gym activities for this year. All of you will be going with him shortly to change for this afternoon's first workout. You will learn to fight, defend yourself and endure all the rigors a Hero is expected to handle at his hands. He'll be assisted by a woman who needs no introduction."

Indeed, all eyes turned to Glee. The Hero rose from her seat, clad in the distinctive black costume with silver striping that'd followed her all of her career. Although the students had seen Glee with the other professors, none of them had really dared believe it was actually her until this moment.

"Professor Glee is responsible for all Alternative Training for first year students. She'll be handling the basic development of your abilities, teaching you how to think tactically and creatively. Bear in mind; just as it's inappropriate to ask the professors for their Hero names, it's equally inappropriate to ask Glee for her personal name.

"Believe it or not, this is for your protection," Glee said from where she stood. "There are at least seven active Villains who would-"

"Let's not scare the class before they see the first workout," the Dean said gently, to the murmured laughter of the upper classmen. "Now, freshmen, follow your professors to the gym. This time next week, we'll be conducting combat trials to determine your ranking for your first year in the program. Make the most of the time you have until then. You are dismissed."

The Dean stepped back from the podium as her professors left the stage behind her. She watched the freshmen mingling about Professor Matthias and Glee. The upper classmen went with the other three Professors to begin planning for their more focused programs. She slowly walked off the stage, descending the stairs on the side until she reached the auditorium floor as the last of the students left.

Only one lingered. Just as expected.

"Mr. Insley?" she said, making his name a question all on its own.

"Dean Goddard..."

"Why don't you call me Diane." He blinked and lost his train of thought, so surprised was he. Dean Goddard smiled. "No, I don't encourage familiarity with the average student. But then, you're not the average student. What's trouble you, Mr. Insley?"

"Okay. Diane." Nate took a deep breath. "You know that I'm here because of the Major. But I don't really understand why I'm here. Everyone else came to learn to use their abilities. It's actually a crime to use mine. Come Monday, what am I supposed to do? How can I be in combat trials if I don't dare use my ability?"

The Dean nodded solemnly. "A good question. Let me ask you one in return: Can you imagine a situation where a gun can be used without risking lethal injury?"

"Uh, sure. If it's a BB gun or something."

"Interesting." The Dean smiled slightly. "Can you think of an application then?"

Nate visibly thought about the problem, his young brow furrowed in concentration. "Are you saying it's not just an all or nothing thing?"

"Let's try an experiment." The Dean fished around in the inside pocket of her suit jacket and produced a pen. "I want you to take this pen from me with your ability."

"Diane, I-"

"I'm well aware of the risks, young man," she said, smiling with sympathy. "Now, take this pen from me with your ability."

The struggle behind his eyes yielded to her demand. Nate held up his hand underneath hers. And then she dropped it into his palm.

"Very good, Mr. Insley."

"How-" He just gawked at the pen lying in his open palm. "You're okay?"

"Perfectly. If you'd had even a modicum of training you'd have known-" The Dean stopped herself and controlled a despairing sigh. So much time and potential wasted. "Never mind. I'll inform Professor Glee how to instruct you. In the meantime, you have my express permission to use your ability but only here at the HCP and only to accomplish specific, objective-based tasks. I'll pass along that consent to Professor Stevens' telepaths. Now, run along to your class. You have a great deal of catching up to do, Mr. Insley."

"Thank you, ma'am!"

She smiled as she watched him go. Such potential. It would be difficult to work through all of the legal permutations of a Hero like Nate Insley but well worth the trouble, in her estimation.

Nodding in satisfaction, she said, "You can come out now, Ms. Amherst."

Alley walked into view from outside the double doors leading into the auditorium. She wore the black uniform of a freshman like it was armor made for her skin, with none of the self-consciousness or awkwardness of a genuinely new student. But then, this wasn't the young woman's first HCP.

"I figured I'd get it over with," Alley said.

"I can appreciate that," the Dean replied. "Very well. You'll sit today's gym class out."

"What?" Alley was clearly surprised by the news. "Why? I thought you were going to punish me."

"Aren't I?" Dean Goddard smirked. "This may be our first conversation, Ms. Amherst but I believe I understand you. I know the fire that drives you. You think you've surpassed the HCP with your time spent with Shadow Dance but you were looking forward to the workout today and benefiting from being trained by a Super the way only a Super can."

"How do you know about the Shadow Dance Directive?" Alley asked, all humor evaporating from those blue eyes of hers.

"That's above your pay grade, Corporal. I'm certain you'll ask your commanding officer anyway so I see no point in wasting time for both of us. You can join the gym class tomorrow. Today, you'll watch."

Alley tensed, her hands forming fists without thought. Then she visibly forced herself to relax. "Is that going to be the standing punishment for breaking someone's nose?"

"Only when it happens in public." At Alley's surprise, the Dean's smirk widened. "I stay informed on what happens around campus. I know what Mr. Cavil said that prompted your reaction. It was inappropriate and not becoming of a student of his standing. I chose to let the consequence serve as its own punishment for him. It was mended easily enough. Your only offense today was doing it where other students can see. I've covered the matter up, of course, but please keep violations of the student code of conduct to private areas. Thank you."

Alley whistled and shook her head. "You're a real piece of work, Diane."

"It's Dean Goddard...Alexandria."

The young woman grinned fiercely. "Message received, Dean. I think we understand each other just fine."

Dean Diane Goddard watched the young woman go. Then she folded her hands together and headed towards her office. One thing was certain.

Alley would be her biggest headache this school year.

Chapter 7

Gym started out with a traditional run. By the time she hit her second lap, Jia remembered how much she'd enjoyed these. Then she hit the beginning of the tenth lap and knew she was in trouble. Thankfully, Professor Matthias switched them over to push ups. Only Jia started flagging there as well.

When they hit sit-ups, she was groaning as hard as Finn and Nate by the time she was done.

The basic model of freshman gym was simple; four sets of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and more broken up by five minutes of running in between. Fifty five minutes of exercise with a five minute break at the end. Over on the other side of the gymnasium, Professor Matthias herded the boys around in a pack for running and weights. On her side, Professor Glee supervised the girls with the same uncompromising drive. Both genders ran and lifted in equal measure.

"Oh sweet Jesus in Heaven," Amara said as she sprawled across the ground the instant Glee called for their first break.

"That's not what you use prayer for," Jia gasped as she dropped to one knee and panted, desperately winded and trying to get her breath back. "Normally. I think God makes exceptions for the HCP."

"So, any guesses on how that bitch does it?" asked a pretty brunette with a weird glyph thing tattooed on the side of her neck.

Jia followed the other girl's finger and noted the stoic, slightly bored girl with shoulder length hair dyed an obviously artificial blue. Of course, with Super genetics, it might be natural. Jia had golden eyes if people looked close enough, though most just assumed they'd had a skewed look at a light shade of brown. Not everyone with a bit of distinctiveness since the 1950s had an ability but the correlation was high.

"Probably a strong girl," Jia answered. Then she held out her hand. "Hey, I'm Jia Sun. That's Amara English, we met in Ethics class."

"Her roommate's cute," Amara said, grinning shamelessly.

"I'm Natasha," said tattoo girl. "Natasha Adler. Those are my roommates, Marie and Dani."

Two more girls finished their last lap and collapsed next to them. Marie had short cropped brown hair, green eyes and a sprinkling of freckles over tanned cheeks that gave her a cute country girl kind of look. As for Dani, she had a thick braid of waist-length hair so silvery it gleamed white under the gymnasium's powerful lamps.

Jia swallowed hard at the sight of that hair. It looked too familiar. Jason's sister, probably. Another complication she didn't need.

"My roommate's Alley over there," Jia said, pointing at the slender blonde sitting on the bleachers and looking surprisingly sulky about it. "Don't ask me why she's not going through hell with us today, I don't know."

"So, what's a strong girl?" Amara asked.

"You know, the kind who can pick up cars and get hit by one without blinking." Jia wiped sweat out of her eyes. "They don't usually get tired."

Then Glee loomed over the five girls with a disapproving look. Jia got the hint at once, groaned and rolled to her feet. Pausing to help the other girls up, they took their places and started off into another jog, already exhausted.

Second hour of gym was the worst. Jia's arms and legs held up but her core didn't. Couldn't. Despite how fit she'd been from last year's program, she'd had an unexpectedly difficult pregnancy towards the end and had to be confined to bed rest. The birth had been...indescribably hard. Thirty six hours of labor followed by another week of bed rest while she healed. For whatever reason, Jia's abilities hadn't made any difference and she'd barely been up to jogging when Major Diaz showed up at her house with his recruiting pitch.

Now, she had to seriously question if she could make it without cheating. Technically, using her abilities was legal, just like it was for the strong girl who was outdoing everyone. Jia ground her teeth and tucked into it, though. Building faith in her body again would build power for her ability. And she desperately didn't want to depend on an ability just to function post-baby.

Still, collapsing on the mats was a relief. Amara dropped next to her, followed by Natasha, Marie and Dani. For a minute, all the girls could do was gasp.

"They can't all be like this," Amara said.

"You get used to it." Jia tried to sound encouraging but only ended up with a dark look from the girl with the white braid.

"How would you know?" asked Dani.

Jia considered avoiding the question. It wasn't anyone else's business, after all. But the truth would eventually get out, given the sophomores remembered her. All being coy would do was guarantee these girls didn't like her.

"I was in the program last year," she said at last. "I had to leave halfway through."

"You're Jia, aren't you." That wasn't a question at the end. Jia hung her head as she saw the anger lighting to life in the other girl's white eyes. "You're the one who seduced my brother."

"What?" Jia's head snapped up, shock washing away her shame. "No I-I mean we-"

"Jason came to school to be a Hero, not to date. You screwed him up. He's been a basket case ever since he found out he knocked you up. How stupid are you to not use protection?"

Jian flinched. Then she got mad. "He seduced me since he was the one who started things. I'd planned to wait. And I wasn't the only one there so why are you blaming me like it's all my fault?"

"You ruined his life!"

Danielle Wyngarde, Jason Wyngarde's younger sister, staggered to her feet despite her exhaustion and walked away. After an uncomfortable moment, Natasha and Marie got up too. Jia just sighed and waved her hand at them, no expectation they'd return it.

"Sorry," Natasha said as Marie went on to join Dani. "She's our roommate, you know."

"Don't worry about it," Jia said, forcing a smile. "I'm fine. Go see to your friend."

Amara at least stayed put. She even sidled up and put an arm around Jia's shoulders. The comfort almost brought tears to the Chinese girl's eyes. She swallowed them down and leaned her head against Amara's.

For a moment, they just sat there like that. Then Jia opened her eyes. Her gaze settled across the gym, where Alley sat in the bleachers. The blonde returned the look, obviously having watched the whole interaction judging by the worried look on her face. Jia managed a small wave.

A hand touched her other shoulder. Jia nearly jumped when Glee walked by, moving to meet Professor Matthias at the center of the gym. The Alternative Training coach had shown no affection, sympathy or interest last year. What changed?

"Alright, class, circle up and have a seat."

Paul Matthias normally had a surprisingly soft voice for such a big man. It boomed through the vast room with no effort, though, and students did their best to drag their aching, exhausted limbs up and over to join them. Glee stood beside Professor Matthias, a small nondescript woman who wouldn't even fit in his shadow. Jia couldn't take her eyes off of the famous Hero as she settled down next to Amara.

Then Alley suddenly dropped in on her other side. Stretching a hand across Jia's lap, the blonde girl said "Hey Amara, I'm Alley. Jia's roommate. It's nice to meet you."

Amara seemed surprised but returned the greeting. Then the fifty freshmen finished settling down on the floor. Silence fell by mutual consent, driven by the stern gaze of the huge Combat Instructor.

"Good work," Professor Matthias said. "It seems you all took my warning about what happens to those who fall behind seriously. I want you all to understand something, though. This was just the warm-up. Starting next week after Combat Trials, we move to two and a half hours of gym. The week after, it'll be three for the rest of the year. You don't even want to imagine what your Sophomore program looks like."

He grinned without a trace of humor. "There are many ways to be a Hero. All of them involve a basic level of fitness. If you stay with the program and stay with me, I will bring you to that fitness. Every year, though, we lose some in the first week as they discover how difficult the program really is. Hypothetical death at the hands of a villain is one thing. What may seem like actual grueling torture is another. If you don't think this program's for you, see me after class and we'll work to disenroll you. There's no shame in choosing another path. Better you drop out now than stay around long enough for people to depend on you, people who will be let down if you leave later."

"Fitness is the single greatest defense a Hero has," Professor Matthias added. "Lack of fitness killed more Heroes than any single other factor. For the rest of this first semester, you will spend all of your gym time on days like today. Running, weights, flexibility training, we will use every tool we have to strip apart a lifetime off bad habits and rebuild you from the ground up."

"Starting next semester, each of you will be assigned to one of two classes," Glee said. "The top five in the Combat Trials will automatically be placed in Combat Training, while the bottom five will go to Alternate Training. Everyone else will be placed depending on the strengths you show between now and then. Combat training is obvious and Paul will handle it with his usual thoroughness." She grinned. "I teach Alternative Training, where we focus on helping students with non-traditional combat abilities to find ways to use them in the field to support their team."

"Students who want to move up ranks after Combat Trials can always challenge students within five ranks of them in sanctioned fights. Success and failure are both tracked in these fights, added to your final grade. If you're on the bottom and you beat a student higher ranked, you get their rank. If you defend your rank, it adds to your final grade. Anyone can choose to decline a challenge but no one smart does so without a good plan for making it up. Bear in mind; the top five can challenge each other but cannot be challenged. This is for your protection more than anything else."

"Now, go find the showers and enjoy the rest of your day."

The students slowly broke up. Jia looked regretfully after Natasha and Marie as they followed their roommate Dani out. Alley and Amara both noticed the look and each took one of her hands, dragging her from the gym towards the showers. Jia let herself be led, surprised and a bit pleased that she already had friends who cared.

"Don't let it get to your head," Alley said as they drew up by the lockers.

"Yeah," Amara echoed. "Besides, he's more to blame than you are."

"It was both of our faults," Jia said, stripping out of her uniform coat and discarding the sweaty clothes in a pile she'd move to a hamper soon. "I should have been...I'd never been with a boy before. It was-"

"Oh shit." Jia frowned at the language and peeked at Alley. The blonde froze suddenly, as if caught staring. Alley covered her embarrassment by turning around and stripping down for the showers. "I just didn't realize why you'd dropped out last year, that's all."

"I'm sure these things will come up in Ethics anyway," Jia said. "Abilities don't make us perfect. They just let us make bigger mistakes faster and with more damage."

"Hah! I like that. So focus on that," Alley said, turning back around and putting her hands on her hips.

With the blonde entirely naked, Jia realized just how fit her roommate was. Tightly defined musculature ran the length of her legs, her arms, her stomach and even her shoulders. Not quite into bodybuilder territory but Jia remembered watching Olympic gymnasts and runners working out. They had a similar physique. The amount of time, energy and effort that went into a body like that scarcely bore thinking about.

"Making bigger mistakes?"

"Nah, being faster and doing more damage. We've got combat trials coming up. Concentrate on things you can do something about, okay? Trust me, you're going to need all the time you can put in getting back in shape this week if you're going to claim first spot in the class."

Jia grinned. "Don't let the sweat fool you. I didn't use my abilities once today. If anything, I'm probably stronger than I was last year. I'm definitely more practiced. Why, know someone who might knock me out of the top spot?" She winked playfully.

"I was first in my class, Sunrise." Alley returned the playful wink as she headed into the hot water. "The only people who could take me at Sizemore Tech were three of the professors. And that was two years ago. Trust me, girl, it's going to come down to the two of us. You better bring everything you've got."

Jia and Amara traded incredulous looks, then followed her into the steaming showers.

Chapter 8

Lambert Acres was far more subdued when Finn got home than it had been last night. This evening saw Nate sprawled across one of the three couches, his cat Perpugilliam stretched out on her side in front of him, enjoying the occasional idle scratch. Julie had claimed one of the other couches and looked content to simply lie there, eyes closed. As for Jia, she had claimed a corner of the third couch. With her legs tucked under her, she sat reading a large hardbound book that was unmistakably for a class.

"You sure know how to show us up, Jia," Finn said, shutting the screen door behind him and limping across the room to flop on the other side of her couch.

"You've heard of the Asian F?" the Chinese girl said, smiling slightly as her golden eyes peeked up from the book.

"Oh, I know this one!" Nate said from his place on the other couch. "That's from Glee, right?"

"That doesn't sound like something Professor Glee would say." Julie opened her eyes and sat up, a dubious look on her face.

"No, the show."

"Exactly," Jia said, her smile growing. "My family expects all As for my grades. Given how I disappointed them last year, accomplishing perfect grades is the least I can do this semester."

"Where's Alley?" Finn asked.

All three of the others pointed towards the kitchen. With a weary groan, Finn hauled himself to his feet and limped some more out of the room.

Sure enough, the tall blonde was busy layering just-cooked pasta shells in a glass pan sandwiched between rich red sauce, sausage and half a dozen vegetable looking things. Finn eyed the huge pan. It looked large enough to feed an army.

Alley herself wore her customary outfit at home; a bikini top and bike shorts with her ears filled with headphones blaring out some song piped in from her phone. She swayed and danced between the stove, a counter and an island in the middle of the floor where she skillfully combined ingredients. Her lips moved silently, mouthing the lyrics of whatever she listened to.

Perfume. A Britney Spears song. Finn could distinctly hear it from the doorway.

"Are you trying to go deaf?" he asked, despite the futility of talking over music that loud.

"It's not that loud, English, the insulation's just poor." Alley's answer was instant and didn't interrupt her pace whatsoever.

"I can't believe you can actually hear me."

"I can't."

Finn took a step back from the crazy woman. She hadn't even looked at him yet. How could she possibly hear him? He held up three fingers and said, "How many-"

"Three." She still hadn't looked.

"Sod it. How many now?" Finn tucked his hand behind his back and spread four fingers.

"Four. I can do this all day, English. Now, why don't you park your ass on a stool and keep me company while those wimps out there moan about their workout."

Finn just grinned and obeyed the order. His legs protested as he lifted himself onto the tall seat. As workouts went, today's gym hit a nine out of ten on his personal scale of agony. Even though it was over, his abused body kept reminding him of the price paid.

"Tomorrow's going to hurt worse," Alley said.

"For a girl who isn't a telepath, you're awfully good at knowing what's on my mind."

Alley shoved the giant lasagna into the oven. She set a timer on the microwave, double-checked the heat and tossed a pile of dishes into the sink. With a twist of the wrist, she started up the hot water and rinsed what she'd used before loading each item into the dishwasher.

Finn admired the trim line of her backside as she bent over the dish rack. Much to his delight, she actually wiggled for him. Once more, the fact she couldn't see what he was doing stood out.

"So what's your story, English?" she asked as she worked.

"Me? I'm an open book. My father's Albus Barnaby. Mum was Bridget Chandler before she married and had me. I fancy fish and chips, the Rolling Stones and beautiful blondes. You want my A levels or what?"

"Business Studies, Computing, Economics and Super Studies. A, B, A, B. That's a fun coincidence, it matches one of the basic rhyming patterns for poetry and shares its name with basic single subject design when evaluating the efficacy of psychiatric treatment."

Finn just stared. "That's just putting me off. How are you doing that? You're like, a big brain am I right?"

"I'm like a big brain," Alley repeated back, nodding in agreement. "How was class?"

"Any point in telling you?"

"Not really, but I like making conversation."

"Try taking the headphones out."

Alley grinned even though he could still hear her music from where he sat at the kitchen counter. Sure enough, she popped the ear buds out and set them out on the counter. She turned and leaned back against the counter, folding her arms across her unfortunately slight bosom.

What was her angle? Finn had Nate figured out in minutes of meeting him. Poor boy was sheltered beyond belief. He was a sucker for a good friend and would doubtlessly be loyal to someone who showed him some consideration. Jia was almost as simple. Christian, baby out of wedlock, overbearing father figure, she was practically a color-by-numbers sketchbook. Her biggest nuance was the fact that she wasn't more rebellious.

The blonde giving him the challenging look was another matter. Military, judging by the body, and the first time he'd seen her was in uniform. She'd discarded it like a snake sheds skin, though, and there was almost nothing of discipline in how she moved and acted now. Pretty, in a conventional, ordinary way that would never equal a natural beauty like Jia's. A slim golden ring on her right ring finger seemed as significant as the gold locket she wore around her neck when dressed for school. Little else to go on. When he'd peeked in her bedroom, all she'd put up was a single set of pictures of her parents.

"Class was fine," Finn said at last. "Class was fantastic. So, Julie knows we're after the Ringmaster."

"How much does she know?" Alley's voice was exactly as cordial and friendly as before but those blue eyes turned to ice instantly.

"Only the public parts of our little operation. It seems our boy Nate thought about him. I'm still playing possum and shielding my thoughts so we're still safe otherwise. We all saw what happened when she tried to read your mind, of course. Why is that, again?"

"Because there's nothing in there." Alley rubbed her left knuckles with her right thumb, a tell that somehow softened her. It was ordinary, human. Showing abstract nervousness did a lot to dispel the intimidation that brain of hers could create. "So, we had an idea this would happen. I think we're fine."

"I'd have liked to have made it past our first day of classes before they clued in that we're after the Ringmaster." Finn folded his hands together. "You know she's going to pass information like that on to the Dean."

"The Dean's fine," Alley said. She watched the clock on the wall, her mind almost visibly ticking along like the ticking hands behind him. "Yeah, we're fine. Just means we keep our part quiet a little longer than expected."

The two students waited in the kitchen, lost in thought. Outside the kitchen, Finn could hear Nate and Julie laughing at something that happened on the television screen. More faintly, Finn could hear the wind pick up, sending an ocean's worth of stirring leaves rustling, the sound penetrating their insulated walls.

"So, you and Amara, huh?"

Finn blinked twice before he realized what she was talking about. "Sorry, come again?"

"She's cute, I'll give you that. You work quick, English!"

"We just met at lunch!" Finn didn't know why he felt the need to get defensive but that smile of hers unnerved him.

"You have a class together. And she's into you. Pick up your phone right now. Give her a call, invite her over. She'll say yes. She's a sucker for a handsome black man."

Finn actually looked down at his phone lying on the kitchen counter and slid a finger over the screen before he caught himself. "The same way you fancy Chinese?"

Alley nodded once but flinched while she did it. "Yeah, I had a feeling you'd say that. It's not that obvious, is it?"

"No, it's not." Finn leaned forward over the counter as he watched the blonde with rapt interest. "Tell me something? What's the appeal?"

"You mean Jia, Chinese girls or just girls?"

"You know what I mean," Finn answered.

"Never met a lesbian before? That's hard to believe." Alley shrugged. "It's not that complicated. I can tell you the exact moment I knew. I was watching a show, I think I was all of twelve or thirteen. Two girls kissed. And it was... " Alley took a breath and held it for a moment. "Electrifying. Transforming. And I knew, that exact instant, I knew. I'd never really gotten into boys, never understood the whole butterfly in your stomach thing, couldn't see what the fuss was about. That kiss, though, and I knew what fireworks were."

"Ever fancy a boy?" he asked.

"Have you?" she shot back. Finn just grinned and shook his head. "Like I said, it's not that complicated. How do I know I like girls? It's the same as you, English; you just do, head to toe, brain to groin."

"Ever been in love?"

Alley sighed and unfolded her arms, using her hands to grip the countertop. When her knuckles turned white, Finn had an idea of the answer and held up a hand. She just nodded at the silent permission to drop the subject. Then she spoke anyway.

"Once."

"So, why the army?" he asked, changing the subject.

"Why not?"

"Tell me about Queen Victoria's mother," Finn said instead.

"Princess Mary Louse Victoria, born 1786 to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoria came from her second marriage, actually, to Prince Edward the Duke of Kent and Stratheam."

"Multiply the square root of 11,072 and 9,248 together."

"10,118.98492932962056415681563333." Alley's answer dropped within a second after his question had.

"Blimey, why the hell are you in the army?" Finn exclaimed, astonished despite himself. "You've got to be wasted there."

"I joined to serve my country."

"Why aren't you a scientist, though, or at least an officer?"

"You're smart, Finn, if your A levels are anything to go by. Why didn't you study business or economics? Why are you wasting half of your time learning to be a Hero?"

"Because being a Hero's more fun and it really matters."

Alley pointed a finger at him and made the classic motion with her thumb, mimicking a revolver hammer dropping as an imaginary gun fired. "Bingo."

Finn laughed and left his seat, looking for beer. Thankfully, he found a six pack. Grabbing two, he turned around and saw Alley already there, a bottle opener in her hand.

"You're bloody marvelous, you are."

Alley accepted one of the bottles, popped it open and took a long swallow. "Mmmm. You ain't seen nothing yet, English. One thing before we head in to join the others?" Finn just nodded his consent. "You've never tried to read my mind. Any particular reason?"

"You mean besides me hiding the fact I'm a trained telepath?" Finn chuckled and shook his head at her, wagging his bottle of beer in a chastising fashion. "I've seen what happens when telepaths try. I'll be buggered if I go looking for a migraine."

"You were around me for a good twenty four hours before Julie took a shot. We're the only two the Major trusted with our real assignment. You're really telling me you never wanted to know?"

Finn just took a swallow of beer and shook his head again. "Guess that makes me a gent."

She seemed to accept the explanation, which either meant her unbelievable intelligence missed the truth or she was too polite to push. Probably the latter, come to think of it. Finn watched her go and lingered in the kitchen.

It gave him another chance to try finding her among the millions of voices he could hear screaming inside her head.

Chapter 9

Alley's smartphone went off and she answered it by reflex. It's time, Corporal.

Alley went from playfulness to perfectly serious in a second. Thankfully, no one was in a position to notice. Everyone had survived the arduous week more or less intact. Seven students had washed out already, dropping the class size down to forty seven. Sobered by the empty chairs in Ethics class, everyone had thrown themselves into Gym, all eager for Friday and a release from classes.

A trip to the beach had been the perfect idea. Thankfully, Jia's father owned a beach house near Canaveral National Seashore. Even more thankfully, the gorgeous Chinese girl realized how desperately eager her roommates were for a weekend escape.

The weather was hot, the sun fierce but beaten back by the clouds for the moment, and the never-ending sound of ocean washed over the Lambert Acres crew in endless tides of relaxation. Alley knew they had maybe an hour, maybe two before the sun went down. Would it really hurt to linger a little longer, soak up what was left of the heat and finish her tan?

Corporal?

"Just a sec, sir."

Alley groaned and sat up on her beach towel. Finn lay on his nearby, completely passed out and snoring blissfully. He hadn't bothered with sunscreen but between his black skin and his British heritage, it was doubtful he even knew what it was. Nate, on the other hand, was also passed out but pale enough to burn in seconds. He'd applied sunscreen hours ago and the faint reddening of his skin suggested it'd gone as far as it could go.

Sighing, she rolled up onto her feet and tiptoed through the hot sand over to his prone body. Jia lay on the other side, her golden skin glowing in the evening sun, those golden eyes hidden behind sunglasses as she read a book. Alley realized she'd come to a complete stop and, with effort, forced her attention back to picking up the sunscreen. Going there wasn't going to do her any good.

"Mmmm," Nate murmured as she squeezed out sunscreen onto her hands, rubbed them to warm it up and then quickly worked it into his skin.

"Ginger, even England doesn't make them as pale as you," she said, kindness blunting her mocking tone. "You have to put this stuff on before it wears off."

"Mmmmmmm."

Alley rolled her eyes and walked over to Finn. Looking down at his prone figure, she chuckled and kicked sand over him. Sputtering, he rolled off his towel and flailed in the sand before coming to his senses. Scowling, the handsome black Brit picked himself up and brushed white sand from ebony skin.

"Hang on, what's that about then?"

"Showtime," she said softly.

Finn took his cue at once. Glancing over at Jia, he said, "Hey Sunrise, time to go for a beer run."

"Don't call me Sunrise." She didn't even look his way, just turned a page in her book.

"What? Alley calls you Sunrise all the time!"

"You're not Alley."

An unexpected thrill raced through Alley, incandescent delight dancing inside her skin at the intimacy Jia's words suggested. A cold dose of reality chased the fantasy away a moment later. They'd been roommates a week now and there was no evidence at all that Jia thought of her that way. Straight meant straight.

"Hey Julie, Amara, you two want anything?" she asked instead.

Alley received no answer from Nate's watchdog and Finn's...well, they were basically boyfriend and girlfriend already. Both were as unconscious as Nate, worn out by the brutal first week of school. Alley's gaze lingered on the pretty brunette, Jia's roommate. Julie and Jia had been best friends last year yet neither of them talked much about what they'd done together. Not knowing made her feel left out.

The fact that she felt left out told her that she was way too emotionally involved. Time to get out of here and stop dyking out. She had a job to do.

Corporal.

Major Diaz's voice was relentlessly patient over the phone. He was evidently aware of his need to wait for her to get some privacy. He was also equally determined to not stop harassing her until she could talk back.

Alley nudged Nate in the ribs until he reluctantly woke. She pointed at him and pointed towards the truck. Jia gave the kid a help up onto his feet and the four of them set across the hot sands of Canaveral National Seashore.

They reached her Ford F-150 a few minutes later. Sliding behind the wheel, Alley started the engine and waited for Finn to buckle up. Jia and Nate, as the smaller, skinniest members of the Lambert Acres Team, slid in the extended cab seating, grumbling at the tight fit.

Then Alley said, "We're alone, sir."

Good. You're at Canaveral National Seashore, right?

"That's right, sir."

It's time to pay a visit to Professor Stevens.

"Acknowledged."

Alley turned the truck back onto Courtenay Parkway and headed up towards State Highway 1. The road was reasonable, the traffic surprisingly light and they made good time. Finn leaned against his door and rested his head against the window. Was he sleeping?

"Okay, you two in the back, it's time to take your shot. Any questions?" she asked at last, tilting her head so her voice carried into the back over the loud rumbling of the Ford's diesel engine.

"Ugh, we really have to do this?"

Nate's discomfiture made her smirk as he pulled out a slim blue vial from a kit she'd packed under the backseat. Jia pulled hers out and looked at it without much expression. Those beautiful golden eyes watched the liquid swirl inside the glass like it was a serpent ready to strike.

The gorgeous Chinese girl lifted her vial up, clinked it against Nate's and said "Bottoms up!" before downing the contents in one swallow. A moment later, the red-head working on a sunburn did the same. Alley breathed out a sigh of relief and focused on the drive. The turnoff for State Highway 1 was up ahead.

"Hey, why is it you two don't have to?" Nate asked, once he realized neither Finn or Alley had vials of their own.

"Vintax Synorde III blocks your brain from forming memory," Alley said. "At least until it wears off sometime tonight, anything you do you won't remember. Not being able to remember means no chance of a telepath picking your thoughts up. It's the Major's idea anyway, though I fully support it."

"I think Nate asked why it's just the two of us," Jia said. "Is it because of your ability?"

"Yeah," Alley answered as they reached State Highway 1 and turned right onto it. "My ability scrambles telepaths, among other things. Finn over there's a telepath in his own right. As far as I know, he can hide his memories or the Major wouldn't have picked him for our team."

"Why'd he pick us anyway?" Nate asked, sitting forward and leaning around the seat to better see where they were going.

Alley laughed. "Because you and Jia are way stronger than Finn and me. Like, ridiculously. Now listen up. We're after Professor Ava Stevens. The Major's identified her as a good starting point. She's got a beach house down on Bills Hill Road a few minutes from here."

"Hold on, what are we talking about here? Are we kidnapping her?" Jia sounded horrified in the backseat.

"You knew when we accepted the Major's offer there'd be strings," Alley shot back. "And not quite. If we do this the way I want to do it, she'll never leave the premises and never know we were here."

Finn made an uncomfortable noise but didn't otherwise protest. She decided to take that as a good sign. The Major knew he could rely on her because she was a soldier. She followed the chain of command. The others were an unknown quantity to her. Tonight would show how far this team would go.

They reached Bills Hill Road a few minutes later. She turned her Ford right and quickly hit dirt. Finn groaned again as she pulled over to the side of the road and parked, the slow speed making the uneven rolls in the side of the road jarring despite the F-150's suspension.

Peeking behind revealed Jia and Nate half-dozing in the back as well. She smiled sympathetically. Her own first week of HCP two years ago had been brutal enough.

It was a gorgeous day at least. Cloudy but the good kind on a hot day that kept the temperature reasonable and added contrast to an otherwise sapphire sky. The sun hung low in the horizon, promising to set sometime soon. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her it was dinnertime. Perfect.

"Okay, we're ready to make the play," Alley said, checking her smart phone first. "Looks like she's home. Time to lure her out."

"Why don't we interrogate her in her home?" Finn asked.

"Do you have any idea what kind of security HCP professors have? Most of it we can get by but she's even got satellite monitoring on her home. We're parked just outside of its attention area. If we go in, we'll be spotted and recorded. I'm pretty sure no one looks at those logs unless there's a request but no one outside of the HCP really knows how the system works. I don't want to risk it so we lure her out."

"What about a disguise?"

Of course, Alley saw Nate's question coming a mile away. It was a good one. She waited for her teammates to make the choices she expected them to make, though. It was only polite.

"That's not a bad idea," Jia said. "Did you have something in mind?"

"I was thinking, maybe we could borrow a UPS truck or FedEx or something."

"You mean just drive up there?" Finn rubbed his chin. "Could work. If there's enough overhang on her house, we could probably park close enough to get out and get in without being seen."

"She'll have other security systems, I'm sure," Jia said, still visibly uncomfortable with this whole idea.

"Professor Stevens has on-site cameras," Alley said, drawing everyone's attention. "I already checked and I already have a workaround for them."

"Well, how will we get inside then? Break in?"

"She's home." Alley just looked at Nate. The expression as reality dawned on him was both amusing and pitiful. "Yeah, I think that's where you come in. If you think you can do it."

Everyone's attention was on the red-head now. He was skinny, much less muscled than Finn, and he looked awkwardly uncomfortable being the subject of scrutiny in the oversized swim trunks he'd turned up with today. Nate opened his mouth and tried to talk casually but the effort was hampered when nothing came out.

Finally, he forced out, "I-I-Sure, sure I can do it."

"You're off leash here, Ginger," Alley said, meeting his eyes and holding him with her focus. "No telepaths making you play nice."

"I d-don't want to hurt her."

"Then don't. We don't want her hurt either. She gets hurt, the mission's fucked. We need you, Nate, to make this work." She leaned closer and grinned. "It's like a raid on one of your MMORPGs, right? Jia's our tank. Finn's our DPS if we need it. I'm like equal parts buffer and debuffer. You're our crowd control. We do this together or we never get another raid again."

Alley punched Finn in the arm before he could make a snarky remark. Jia looked entirely baffled. Nate, on the other hand, just swallowed and nodded. He even managed a shaky smile. "Okay, I'm in. Yeah, I'm in."

Chapter 10

"FedEx truck will be here in sixty seconds," Alley said from the front seat.

In the back of the truck's extended cab, Nate rubbed a forearm across his forehead. The heat made him sweat and his skin felt oily from the sunscreen. Though the sun promised to set soon, it was muggy and no one's temper had benefited while they were all trapped inside the truck.

"Do we have a way to stop it?" Jia asked. "Or are we just hoping we'll get lucky and it'll turn our way?"

"Have a little faith," Alley said, grinning back at the Chinese girl. Jia's glower, stirred up by the heat and the long wait, faded into amusement at the blonde's choice of words.

"Well, I suppose I can try sorting it," Finn said. The good-looking black man rubbed a hand over the black stubble that passed for his hair. "I'm a much better teke than tele, though, if you follow. Suppose I could try pulling the truck this way at least."

"Just how strong are you?" Jia asked, plainly surprised.

"Oh, not nearly strong enough to move a truck. A steering wheel, though, that's nothing. That's easy. We'll have to do something about the driver, though. Or are we going to dope him with that Vinnie stuff too?"

Alley sighed. "Vintax Synorde III. The usual nick name is the Snore, you know."

"Hey, that's clever," Finn said after a moment, grinning.

"Maybe..."

Nate's hesitant offer died before it began. Mostly because all three turned to face him. Was that what was going on? Were they just waiting for him to offer? Alley's plea still rang in his years. She'd make a great guild leader. The girl could make speeches like no one's business.

But this wasn't a raid, no matter what she called it. Screw up a raid and you wasted four hours. Screw up this and it was someone's life.

They kept looking at him. Nate swallowed, then looked past them towards the street. There was the FedEx truck! Their chance was slipping away right now and no one would even notice before it passed Bills Hill Road!

Fear left him. Nate took in a deep breath. Then he held up his hand towards the windshield.

The driver slowed his truck. Turn signal, there it was. Then the FedEx truck lumbered onto the dirt road until it drew up next to the truck.

"Blimey, did you do that?" Finn half jumped, only now noticing the truck had arrived.

"That's my boy, Ginger," Alley said with a grin.

More than a grin. Trust. He'd proven himself in her eyes just now. When Jia put a hand on his shoulder to show her support and gratitude, Nate almost blushed at the wash of commendation in the truck. After so many years on his own, surrounded by soldiers who'd shoot him if he even looked at them, his roommates were something else. Something wonderful.

One by one, the Lambert Acres crew climbed out of Alley's big Ford truck. Nate was the last to get out and he paused when he saw the other three staring mutely at the truck. The FedEx driver sat behind the wheel, hands on the steering, head bobbing slightly to a song on the radio.

"Got a delivery for us?" Finn asked the driver, grinning at the slightly surreal situation. The driver didn't even look his way.

"So, how do you want to do this?" Nate asked. "Like, one of us pose as the driver?"

"I'll know more when we're closer," Alley said. "Come on, let's get onboard. Save the Snore, Finn, the driver won't need it."

"Hey now, we had to forget tonight, why doesn't the driver?" Jia protested.

"Because Nate's going to tell him to forget it. Just as good."

There it was. Nate had already climbed aboard and moved into the back with the packages. He'd moved first so he didn't have to look at the faces of his roommates, his team, his friends as they started to realize who they roomed with.

"You mean you can just..." Jia's voice couldn't finish the sentence. "Like, anything?"

"Can? Yes. Will? No." Alley's strong voice gave Nate an unexpected boost. There was such certainty there. Like, she knew how much he hated his ability. "Nate, can you take us out?"

The driver put the FedEx truck into drive and soft-touched the gas pedal, moving the truck forward at the merest thought from Nate. If the road had been a bit bumpy in the Ford, it was even more so with this truck. Nate gripped a handrail and held on as the ride rocked them back and forth around the interior.

Professor Ava Stevens' home was near the end of Bills Hill. A long driveway tucked between trees led down a slight embankment rising around a spacious beach house a few hundred yards off the coastline. A few spotty islands peeking above the water added a beauty and visual contrast that had doubtlessly inspired painters.

They pulled up in back of the beach house and the driver put the truck in park before grabbing an electronic signature thing Nate knew nothing about. With a thought, the driver started tapping keys on the device before he got up and went into the back, grabbing a package at random. The other three Supers just gawked at how completely the driver ignored them all.

"Any limits?" Finn asked at last.

"Line of sight," Nate said. "I think. That's pretty much it. That's why-"

"We don't have time for this," Alley said. She reached under her seat and pulled out a slender black pistol. "Here's how we play it. We send the driver to the front door. He'll knock, she'll come out to see what she's getting. When she opens the door, Finn, you shoot her with this."

The black Brit looked uneasy as she passed the gun over to him. "You do know I've never-"

"With your telekinesis," Alley said with a sigh. "Levitate it up where she won't see it, then drop it down low and shoot her. It's loaded with Vintax Synorde III . She'll never see it coming."

"This is so illegal," Jia said, squirming next to Nate. "If we get caught, I'm blaming you for everything."

"We won't get caught," Alley said.

Nate saw her nod and willed the driver forward. He could feel the trickles of sweat running down his cheeks and the back of his neck now. It took such effort, focusing on a single thought at a time. Get out of the truck. Walk to the front door. Ring the bell.

The driver's feet stirred up dust as they hit the dirt driveway. The Lambert Acres team followed suit. They walked along the back of the house until they reached a stairway leading to the wraparound deck facing the ocean. Nate lingered at the bottom, placing a hand on the slightly splintered red-varnished wood, worn and faded by years of unrelenting sunlight and storm. Then the driver reached the door.

The glass door slid open. Nate watched Professor Stevens walk out and stop just shy of a barbeque grill. Ava wore a bikini as well but favored a light robe for a bit more modesty. Just as well since she had unexpected guests. The slender willowy blonde looked surprised but unconcerned at the FedEx man at her door.

"Goodness, you surprised me!" Ava stared at him in rapt fascination. "How on earth did you manage that? Never mind. I've been waiting for that, can I sign?"

Then Finn shot her in the neck with a tranquilizer dart from the nearby pistol he'd made float.

Lots of things happened all at once. Ava's face darkened and she threw the driver clean off of the porch into a nearby sand dune. Stepping out, she lifted the barbeque in the air with a thought and sent it flying at them.

Alley slammed into him, knocking them both to the ground. Nate gasped, the air knocked out of him. Lying on his back, he gawked as the entire FedEx truck lifted off the ground...and then dropped on top of them. Only somehow Jia was there, moving hummingbird fast to get beneath the vehicle and catch it with both hands. Effortlessly, she held it above them even as Professor Stevens tried to crush them all with it.

Finn took a step forward and suddenly Ava threw up an arm to raise some kind of a shield against a sudden storm of sand he'd lifted off the beach and flung against her.

"Nate, stop her!" Alley yelled into his ear.

And just like that, he did.

---

"I still don't like this," Finn grumbled as Nate made Ava walk into her own house and sit down in a chair.

Outside, Jia had already helped the driver up and was in the process of pushing the vehicle back to where it'd been parked. Alley leapt inside the instant she could but she seemed to have a knack for finding switches, panels and all sorts of security things that she turned off as she went. That left the two boys with the helpless, motiveless blonde staring blankly at them.

"Professor Stevens, are you okay?" Nate asked.

"Am I okay?" she answered, her eyes slightly unfocused.

"Tell me you're okay."

"You're okay."

Finn snickered. Then immediately covered his mouth. Nate ground his teeth with worry.

A minute later, Jia made her way inside and joined her team as they regarded the captured professor. Seconds later, Alley joined them as well. She gave the room one last once over and then walked right up to Ava. Gripping the professor's chin, Alley turned Ava's head from side to side as if inspecting her for defects.

"Good work everyone," Alley said at last. She smiled at them and Nate could actually feel a tangible portion of everyone's tension leave them at the sight of it. "I think our asses are covered. The sooner we get this over with, the less risk there is so let's get to it. Finn, are you getting a handle on her thoughts?"

"They're a bit muddled but she's coming through," Finn answered. "Mostly, she's just thinking about sitting down."

"Fine. Nate, I need you to ask her some things."

"You can ask me whatever you like, Alley," Ava said. The others watched her with a kind of nervous terror as she smiled dreamily at them.

"Tell me what the Ringmaster looks like, Ava."

"I don't know what the Ringmaster looks like."

Alley and Nate both frowned, if for different reasons. There was a telltale cadence in her words, amplified by his control. That wasn't a natural response. Programmed. First question and they'd hit the jackpot.

Nate opened his mouth to order her to tell them what she knew about the Ringmaster. He stopped when Alley put a hand over his arm and shook her head. "This isn't going to get us anywhere," the taller blonde said.

"We're already here," Finn said, clearly concentrating. "Though I'm not getting much."

"No, you won't. The Ringmaster's covered his tracks too well. It's the same block every other Super who ever tussled with him has. No one can remember him or talk about him. It's, like, his calling card. We should get out of here."

"Don't you want to ask her any other questions?" Jia said, looking between the two blondes in confusion.

"Nope. I already know what all her answers are. She doesn't know anything about the Ringmaster. He's wiped himself from her memory. The only thing she does know is that he's got plans for Ginger."

Nate swallowed hard as the words penetrated his concentration. Plans for him? The whole point of this exercise was to infiltrate West Private's Hero Certification Program to find the evidence on the Ringmaster Major Diaz suspected. Now the legendary Villain not only knew he was there but had plans for him?

For the briefest moment, Nate fervently wished he was back in solitary confinement under house arrest.

"Alright, time to get beer," Alley said. She grinned at them all, looking like the mission had been a resounding success. "Ava will wake up tomorrow with a bit of a headache, that's all. I've already covered our presence. Nate, I'll need you to make sure Ava goes to sleep and that the driver doesn't remember any of this. Finn, can you use that telekinesis of yours and straighten things up outside? You know, put the sand back where it was and wipe out our footprints? Now, let's get to it. I want dinner."

Once they'd cleaned up enough to get underway, they rode with the FedEx driver up to Alley's truck. Nate lingered only to make sure the driver didn't remember any of this. Then Alley drove them all back onto State Highway 5 and towards the promise of food. They'd need an epic story of getting lost to defray their roommates' suspicions but Nate had confidence in Alley's ability to bullshit. If not Alley, Finn at least.

On reflection, it was a good night's work. At least they'd confirmed the Ringmaster had been here. And Nate had proven he could use only a fraction of his power and get safe results.

Too bad he wouldn't remember any of it in the morning.

Chapter 11

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.

"Hey Jia."

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?"

"Oh, always!"

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."

Chapter 12

Finn walked into one of West Private's combat rooms and gave a low whistle as he looked around. Thick slabs of concrete made up the walls, floors and ceiling. Probably steel reinforced. It made sense at least. If the builders bothered with that much concrete, why use wood for support beams?

More interesting was the tiered window ceiling, allowing a viewing platform up top to witness fights below. Judging by the curvature, Finn guessed 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.

He whistled again at the budget this place had.

"Hey, you gonna stand there all day?"

Finn finished turning in a circle and looked across the room towards his opponent. The other bloke was tall, with a lean body that came from an average amount of muscle stretched over too much frame. Shaggy blonde hair hung in styled waves, framing a strong, rugged face.

"What are you, a model? You look like you belong on a magazine."

"Are you faking that accent?"

Finn laughed. "You should hear me try to speak Southern, I'm right terrible with it. So let's start, shall we?"

"Please introduce yourselves," spoke a voice over an invisible intercom.

"Finn Barnaby!"

"I'm James Leland," said the tall blonde model.

When no response issued, both men looked at each other. Finn shrugged and lifted his hand and beckoned. James just grinned when the intercom at last said "Begin."

Then the tall blonde disappeared in a thunderclap of light. "I'm completely knackered," Finn said with a groan, throwing himself forward and twisting around.

Sure enough, James burst out of a flash of light and swung a clumsy punch through the space where Finn had been. The model steadied himself and took a second to find his target. Finn grinned cheekily. Then he made a fist with his hand and punched out. A dozen feet away, James staggered as a telekinetic fist hit him right across the jaw.

Growling, James vanished once more. Finn drew his hands together, then spread them wide. His mind expanded in all directions, driving force in the wake of his thoughts. Just as James appeared, the telekinetic bubble swept over him. Finn didn't really have enough strength to do more than push his opponent back a little. Then again, he didn't need much more.

It bought him enough time to pinpoint James and punch the other guy before he got punched. James took the shot across the chin, leaving Finn to follow up with a kick that almost knocked both of them down.

"Blimey, I'm rusty," Finn muttered.

"Shut the fuck up!" James' roar took Finn by surprise, as did the tackle. They both went sliding across the floor.

A fist crashed into Finn's side and he decided he'd had enough playing around. He grabbed his opponent by the throat and looked him right in the eyes. As he glared, James' crystal sharp blue eyes dented in slightly.

"What the fuck-"

"That's a nice teleport trick you have there," Finn said. "Good on you, mate. Now yield or I crush your eyes."

"G-uh, yeah, I yield. I yield!" James shouted, clearly terrified.

---

The rough concrete of the arena made Nate nervous. It looked like the kind of place that was sluiced with blood often. In fact, he was almost dead sure he'd played an Unreal Tournament map that had these exact cells.

Gibbing an opponent repeatedly or doing headshots was fun until you had to fight someone for real.

The other dude was Joe Shaw, the guy in class who'd asked about gender segregation. Joe was taller, broader, stronger and basically better looking in every way. It made Nate all too conscious of how physically frail he was despite an hour of cardio a day. Weights! He'd had a gym set in his prison of a bedroom but they were so heavy and painful. Why hadn't he used them?

"Um, I'm Nate Insley," he said when the intercom prompted him.

"I'm Joe, Joe Shaw," said his opponent with a cocky confident grin.

"Begin," said a voice over the intercom.

The first thing that happened was Joe running at him. Nate lifted a hand defensively and tried to concentrate on what the Dean had said. Just use his ability a little. Focus only on single instructions for a specific purpose.

Stop where you are and punch yourself in the face.

And Joe slid right to a stop only a few feet away. Confusion spread over the handsome guy's face. He visibly strained to move forward but his legs wouldn't cooperate. Then Joe's fist raised on its own and he started hitting himself.

Nate grinned, sweating with relief. It worked! It was even easier than he'd thought it would be, given he hadn't had a chance to practice.

As a minute passed, though, Nate realized the punching wasn't doing the trick. Joe looked utterly undamaged. Unsure of what else to do, Nate balled up a fist and half-jogged towards his opponent before throwing a punch of his own.

Joe caught his fist easily with his spare hand, yanked on Nate's arm and spun him around. A powerful arm wrapped around his throat instantly. Squirming, Nate flailed helplessly as he tried without success to dislodge the steel-like forearm crushing his neck. He couldn't breathe! And he couldn't see his opponent to issue a command!

Blackness crowded Nate's vision, then claimed him completely as he passed out still trying to find a way to win.

---

Four rounds later, Jia walked into the arena with an easy, confident stride. It'd been a hell of contest so far.

After Amara, she'd faced Marie, Dani's roommate. That fight had just been weird as Marie had the ability to screw with hers. After almost crashing out of the arena with a single step, Jia finally caught up to the girl and shut her down. Next was Nicole Cassidy, the strong girl she'd spotted in Gym running laps around everyone. They'd traded a dozen blows before Jia hit the other girl so hard she actually knocked Nicole through the steel door in the arena. The last fight was against Natasha Adler, a shifter who could turn into a giant winged version of herself clad in razor-sharp steel feathers. Jia took a couple of cuts but the fight was basically over as soon as she circled Natasha faster than the other girl could react and knocked her out with a double-fisted blow to the base of the skull.

This was round five. Last fight of the day. After this, she'd be back as first in her class.

Jia cracked her knuckles as the steel door opened...only to admit Alley Amherst.

"Holy shit, look at you," Alley said, stopping at the front of the door and placing her hands on her hips. "You've kicked ass, taken names and you're ready for the crown."

"Are you surprised?" Jia grinned.

"Nah. I saw what you did to that tree. So, no hard feelings?"

"None. Though Alley...I don't know who you faced getting this far but..."

"Aw, you're worried about me getting hurt." Alley grinned back. "You're wondering how the girl with the superbrain got this far, right? I've faced down a girl who could turn into anything, another girl who could throw lightning and one chick who was completely indestructible. This isn't my first rodeo, Sunrise. Feel free to hit me with whatcha got."

Jia eyed her opponent doubtfully. The real trick would be to shut Alley down without hurting her much. Brutal force was easy but this girl was her roommate, her teammate. Her friend. Though the taller blonde didn't seem to have any trouble with the idea of fighting, judging by the easy way she rolled back on one heel and lifted her hands, fingers spread, ready for anything.

The intercom, noticing they knew each other, just said "Begin."

And Alley was on her like a whirlwind.

Jia took a step back, then a second. Then a third. Alley was fast, faster than the Chinese girl had believed possible for someone without a physical ability. More than that, each punch and kick was perfectly timed, flawlessly executed with the optimum balance while recovering. Alley had height and reach and she used every inch of it to full effect. Jia had fought strong Supers and she'd fought fast Supers but she'd never fought someone with such singular coordination. Only Jia's superhuman reaction time saved her from getting hit twelve times in eight seconds.

Then Alley got a heel through Jia's parries and hit her in the stomach. Winded by it, Jia was surprised enough by the contact that Alley was able to land an uppercut that actually knocked her down. Shaking her head, Jia rolled back to her feet as Alley backed off, hands still spread.

"First blood's mine," Alley said, laughing as she winked.

She enjoyed this! Alley actually liked this! Jia wiped a thin stream of blood from her lip, still in disbelief. She'd crushed almost everyone who'd ever gone head to head with her but Jia hadn't enjoyed it. There was no mistaking the fervent delight in Alley's eyes, though.

It hardened Jia. This was ridiculous. And she'd be damned if she let this pointless skirmish drag on longer than it had to, just for Alley's twisted kicks.

Clenching her fist, Jia crouched...and shot forward with superhuman speed. Her hand flashed out and slammed into Alley's chest, taking the other girl off her feet as Jia's forward momentum carried them forward. Jia aimed right for the wall. One good smash along the back would knock her roommate clean out.

Only Alley was already in motion with Jia's first step. It wasn't enough to avoid the hand but it was fast enough to grip her wrist and twist. Then Alley stuck a foot at just the right angle to catch Jia's stride and trip. Somehow, the blonde swung herself out of the way and used their mutual momentum to swing Jia off her feet.

Jia hit the wall head on with every bit of speed and strength she had.

---

Alley dusted her hands off as the medics carted the unconscious Jia out of the arena. Glancing up at the monitors, she lifted one hand in a defiant fist and pumped it for the cameras. That would look good on the tapes and direct everyone's thoughts the way they should go.

It did wonders to cover up how shaky her hands were.

So close. She'd seen Jia not only chop a tree down but catch a FedEx truck the Chinese girl couldn't remember anymore. Alley had come into this match with a good idea of what her opponent was capable of but seeing was believing. It'd taken the utmost of her ability to shut Jia down and it was close.

Alley had a pretty good idea that Jia would exceed her ability to fight in the next six months or so.

Shaking her head, she walked out only to be greeted by Professor Paul Matthias and Dean Diane Goddard. Looking between them, Alley sighed and waited for the inevitable. They didn't disappoint.

"Very well fought, Alley," said the Dean.

"Yes," Professor Matthias said. "How-"

"Look, I'll spare us both the back and forth. You're right, I'm not remotely strong enough or fast enough to fight someone like Jia. Good thing I know Aikido. I had to use her speed and strength against her. Who knows how long that'll keep working. Now, let's get to the interesting part of this conversation."

Professor Matthias stiffened at having his line of questioning interrupted. The big, muscular man in the fancy suit didn't look like the kind of guy who was interrupted much, ever. "Interesting?" he asked, opting for the smallest response possible.

"Jia's ability. She's powered by faith, right? She really wasn't kidding when she said faith can move a mountain because, with her, she actually can. If she believes she can do something, she can. I think you're both right; she may not have an upper limit. Someday, Jia Sun might be the strongest Super on the block. No wonder you're keeping your suspicions a secret."

"How-"

"Do I know? It's how my brain works," Alley said with a grin. "You see, there's more to me than super calculation and intuition or whatever it is you think I do. I'm part of the Shadow Dance Directive, Dean, as you were about to say whether I wanted you to or not. But that's classified. Take it up with Major Diaz if you can't stand the mystery."

Alley grabbed a towel off a nearby stand and mopped her brow. Then she draped it around her shoulders and started deliberately towards the showers. She stopped the instant before the Dean told her to.

"You really want to know how you can teach me without knowing how my ability works?" Alley asked, lifting both eyebrows in incredulity. "C'mon, half your students you don't fully know what they can do. That's what a good chunk of the first year goes to, not just teaching the student how their ability works but finding out for yourselves. I'm no different. And no, I don't actually know you can make me better at it. But there's nowhere on earth better qualified to help me than you guys. So, if you'll forgive the attitude, let me pay you the compliment of saying I have the highest respect for you both and I'm grateful to be here."

Both faculty members looked like someone had knifed them in the back. Alley forced the smile from her face, looking as seriously earnest as possible. It produced the ideal outcome. At last, the Dean just nodded and dismissed her.

Good. Now that the combat rankings were done with, Alley could get back to the real reason they were at the school. The only question was: When would the Major be in touch with their next assignment?

Chapter 13

When the Ringmaster called her Tuesday morning, Dr. Sarah Amherst knew she'd be a little late to work.

She slipped her cell phone back into her purse before lifting the bag and sliding it over her shoulder. With her coat already on, Sarah picked up her car keys as she walked through the four bedroom house she and her husband kept. Master Sergeant Hank Amherst had retired here four years ago and she found it a lovely place to finish raising a family at. At least, when she wasn't managing the infirmary for West Private University's HCP.

Hank had a newspaper in front of him as he sat in his recliner. A career non-commissioned officer, he'd served thirty years until finally drawing retirement to spend more time at home. Since retirement, Hank picked up serving on the local Homeowner's Association, participating on an advisory committee for local army recruitment and helping out with Hank Junior, the sixteen year old youngest member of their family. Junior had already left for school, of course. Given Hank's muttered comments, he'd be occupied for an hour or so yet with the old-fashioned print media.

"Honey, I may be late getting home today."

"I thought Monday was your heavy work day," Hank said, not even looking up for his news page.

"Usually. I have a lot of catching up to do from it."

"Sure, Sarah. I'll see you tonight. Just don't forget Junior has a game tomorrow, okay?"

"I'll pick up the party supplies later." She leaned over and kissed her husband on his bearded cheek.

"Hey, you seen Alley yet?"

She stopped just shy of the front door, paused with her hand on the handle. "No, not yet. You know she's busy with her own life these days. The Dean says she has a few roommates she's living with off campus."

"Not with a boyfriend, I hope," Hank said, and it wasn't a question. "She better not be living with a boy. I raised that girl right."

Sarah just turned her head away and walked out.

It was beautiful today. Little in the way of cloud cover, lots of sun in the sky already. Doubtless, it would be cloyingly muggy later in the day but it was rather pleasant for the moment. Sarah walked down the steps to her driveway and beeped the alarm off before climbing into her Jetta. The diesel engine turned over with little more noise than a gasoline engine would. Putting it into drive, she pulled out of the driveway and headed out.

By the time she reached her first stoplight, Sarah Amherst had company.

She didn't know who the Ringmaster's teleporter was. In fact, she made a point of not knowing by not even looking his way. What Sarah felt was a sudden inrush of air inside the car followed by a gentle touch on her arm once the car had come to a stop. Then she vanished. Doubtlessly, the teleporter replaced her with a driver who'd get the car to West Private University. All that mattered was that she was free to meet during a span of time no one would be tracking her whereabouts.

Sarah appeared in a rush of air...inside a limousine. The luxury vehicle rolled through a section of downtime city somewhere, somewhere a bit cooler if clothes were anything to judge by. Probably New England once she saw the other occupants.

Beside her, a handsome Chinese man with golden eyes sat half-paying attention to some conference call on his headset. Dave Sun adjusted his tie and acknowledged her with the briefest of nods. The prominent televangelist was smaller in person and a bit older. But given his extraordinary television presence, almost anything in real life would be a bit of a let down by comparison.

And, of course, the Ringmaster himself was present.

Sarah unlocked her phone and jotted off a quick text message to her day shift assistant healer at the infirmary, letting the young woman know she'd be in a little late. Then she checked her text message history and saw a message from Laura.

"Family," she murmured aloud, texting Laura back to say she'd arrange time for them.

"Children?" Dave asked, apparently finishing his call.

"And grandchildren," Sarah answered. "My oldest boy Tom and his wife Laura are coming in to Orlando for a trip to Disneyworld this October with the grandkids. They want to spend some time with Hank and I."

"Ahhh, Psalms 127:3." Dave smiled absently. Then, noticing her blank look, added "'Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him'. At least they are in wedlock."

"How is Jake, anyway?" asked the Ringmaster. It was the first time he'd spoken today and they both took immediate notice.

"Fine," Dave said. "Young. You know what newborns are like. Ruth's enjoying herself but the nanny makes a big difference. I'm just relieved Jia's back in the HCP and focused on school."

Sarah nodded. As the limo slowed to a stop beside a bus, she said at last "Did you know my Alley's her roommate?"

The normally smiling, charming preacher represented the newer breed of evangelical. Dave Sun's church didn't care what your dress code was or even how seriously you took the scriptures. But at the moment, the older Chinese man had an expression as stern and serious as any fire-and-brimstone Baptist priest.

"No, I didn't. Sarah-"

"I know, I didn't know either until the Dean mentioned it. Alley and I...we're not really on speaking terms, you remember."

"Sarah, I'm not comfortable with this," David said firmly.

"With what, exactly? What are you afraid is going to happen, Dave?"

Sarah's glare was interrupted when a young college boy suddenly appeared in the limo. Fit and attractive, he looked like the proverbial blonde college ball player complete with letterman's jacket. He bounced once or twice on the leather seats and slapped the seat cover.

"Well, look at us, the gang's all here."

Dave and Sarah exchanged a look of mutual irritation. "Hello Ellis," Sarah said carefully. "That's a new look."

"They're all new for me," said the enigmatic fourth member of their little conspiracy. "Can we make this quick? I'm on a schedule."

"My shift at the infirmary starts in half an hour," Sarah said, trying to keep the ire out of her voice.

"I have a meeting with three members of the state legislature in an hour," Dave said, not bothering to hide how he felt in the slightest. "Let's get on with this."

The Ringmaster cleared his throat and brought silence to the limousine.

It was hard to describe the man. If Sarah had to use one word, it would be nondescript. He just didn't seem to stick to memory. Even looking at him, she found it hard to tell if he was tall or short, slender or heavy, blonde or brunette. But then, appearances didn't really matter. He was a man of vision, of power and with considerable reach.

"We all have schedules to keep today," the Ringmaster said. "So I'll keep this brief. Major Isaiah Diaz has taken an interest in West Private University's Hero Certification Program."

Sarah's breath caught, as did Ellis'. Dave Sun just looked puzzled. "Should I know who he is?"

"He's a Powered," Sarah said. "He's an..." she paused to look at the Ringmaster for confirmation. When he nodded, she continued. "He's an uncontrolled precognitive. His ability lets him see the future, sometimes up to five or ten years out. It's unpredictable and it's a little unstable."

"What she means," Ellis interrupted, "Is that when his ability's active, he's not in control of his own actions. He says things, does things even he can't explain because they'll ultimately prevent a disaster or make the future unfold the way it should."

"A genuine prophet," Dave said, almost reverentially. His golden eyes hardened at the disdain on Sarah and Ellis' faces. "Call it what you will but I can see why you fear him. Such a man could pull apart everything we're trying to accomplish."

"Or enable it," the Ringmaster said. He held up a hand, silencing their outcries with a thought. "It remains to be seen. We do know he's taken action, specifically asking for four students to be added to West's HCP. Those students include-"

"Alley," Sarah whispered in shock.

"Jia?" Dave looked equally astonished.

"As well as two others, an English man named Finn Barnaby and my son, Nate."

Sarah and Dave both looked at Ellis until he lifted his hands up and said "What? You're expecting me to know Finn or something? No, we're not related. Though the selection can't be a coincidence, can it? The good Major's managed to pick up the three Super kids of the three of us and put them on our scent. I wish I knew why."

"What are we going to do?" Dave asked as the limo rolled on, giving the four conspirators the privacy only a sealed, protected vehicle in motion could afford.

The Ringmaster nodded once. "We're going to be alert to it. It's too early yet to see what the Major's play is but we don't know which way it'll go. What's important is that we watch out for them. Dave, I wanted you to be aware but the most important thing you can do right now is focus on your flock and keep practicing. There's almost no limit to what you can do with your ability except one; experience. Get it."

"Sarah, I want you to keep an eye on the HCP faculty. You have connections with them no one else can rival. If you can, see if Alley's open to talking. I suspect she'll be the Major's ringleader in whatever mission he has in mind . Be safe, though. Our plans fall apart if you're removed from play. You are not to divulge anything about us to anyone, not even your daughter."

"We're not close," Sarah said, pained at the memory of the last time they'd spoken. "But I'll try to find out what I can. I understand."

"As for you, Ellis, I want you to keep an eye on the students directly." The Ringmaster leaned back in his seat, causing the leather to creak. "Track what the Major's team is up to. Keep me appraised with all you can find out. If they actually find something, I want to know about it."

"Anything you want," Ellis said. He rubbed his strong, square jawline ruefully. "Too bad I can't keep the face. But leave it to me, Ringmaster, I'll get you what you want."

One by one, the Ringmaster met their eyes. When it was her turn, Sarah could feel the force of his will flowing into her. It was wonderful, beatific, enabling. With the Ringmaster's will, she had no doubts. Fear and uncertainty were gone. Only the cause remained, carrying out her instructions so that the Ringmaster could accomplish all he'd set out to do.

All of them would live and die for their leader.

The teleporter returned, disappearing the Ringmaster first. Sarah reached out and put a hand on Dave's shoulder. "I'll make sure nothing happens to Jia," she said. He only smiled a little, showing his gratitude despite his earlier concerns about Alley being around his daughter. Then it was her turn to vanish.

Sarah found herself back behind the wheel of her car just as the light turned green. She pulled the wheel to the left and drove into the West Private University faculty parking lot. Parking, she picked up her purse and checked her phone for messages. Two from her assistant, one about the morning's cases so far. The second text was about an impending senior match that would almost positively require her personal ability.

She just smiled. The kids might be the future but some things never changed.

At least, not until the Ringmaster changed them.

Chapter 14

The second week of school was quite a bit quieter than the first. With most of student orientation out of the way, college fairs had largely wrapped up and the attendees had started to settle into classes. The mood was still positive, though. Ninety degree weather meant everyone dressed light and the ready nearness of beaches made the campus feel like an extension of everyone else's spring break.

Finn liked it. Not the heat especially but the bikini-clad spectacles everywhere more than made up for it. Particularly the one coming up to meet him.

"Amara, you look..." Finn paused dramatically, searching for the right word. "Positively breathtaking. Truly. I could take a picture of you and send it on to my mates back home and no one would believe me that I knew you."

The effuse praise colored her tanned cheeks slightly. Amara's short brown bangs did little to hide her pretty face when she ducked away from his gaze self-consciously. Finn just smiled until she looked his way and saw the expression. His confidence coaxed an answering smile in return.

"No Nate today?" she asked, looking around as the lunch hour rush started.

"Hmmm? Oh no, babe, you've been hanging with my roommates since we met, practically. Today, it'll be just the two of us. What's your fancy?"

"You don't want McKinnon Cafeteria?" Amara said, surprised. "I didn't bring my purse or anything."

"Relax, babe, I'll sort it. Come on then, I know just the place."

He crooked his arm out. Giggling, Amara slipped her arm through his as he escorted her the way a gentleman in a tuxedo might escort a lady to a ball. He glanced down and noticed a Chinese character on her arm. 'Light'. Intrigued, he filed it away for later.

"How'd your matches go, anyway? You never said last night."

"Oh, I had bad luck." Amara made a face and said, "I drew Jia in my first round. She shut me down hard, though I placed twelfth overall. I must have done way better against her than anyone else did."

"Right, I forgot. I'm rooming with the first and second ranked girls." Finn chuckled. "Strange, that. I think Nate was in the high twenties and I barely managed the top five until that Flynn bloke, the healer toppled me. Sadly, I can't just pick up a person. I'll learn, though."

As soon as they cleared the campus, Finn signaled for a cab and quickly flagged one down. Tucking her in first, he slid in after and rattled off a street address that drew a puzzled look from Amara. Perfect. As the car started forward, she slid slightly against him. Even more perfect. Finn checked his phone and smiled slightly. Plenty of time before Ethics to eat and get back. Time to improvise a little.

The taxi pulled up at a stoplight just as Finn cast his thoughts out, searching and finding what he wanted. He popped the door open and sprinted to the sidewalk over the startled protest of both taxi driver and his date. Heedless of the spectacle, he slid to a stop right in front of a flower stand. Pushing a twenty into the hands of the somewhat bemused woman who ran the stand, Finn snatched up a bouquet of roses and just made the taxi door before the light turned green.

"You're crazy!" Amara said, laughing with delight.

"Crazy for you, maybe. To be quite honest, I'm mad for you. Besotted even. Look at me, two weeks in America and I'm head over heels. Since doing somersaults in the backseat's a bit impractical, though, please accept these instead."

She took the proffered roses with due dignity and breathed their scent in deeply. Finn sighed happily. There was nothing more exquisite than a woman falling in love. Oh, it was still early days yet. But a slow pace just made the wait sweeter when it came to an end.

The taxi drove on and ended up over in Southeast Orlando. As the vehicle made its way up Kensington Shore Drive off of Lake Nona Shore Drive, Finn watched Amara's puzzlement return. They'd passed up the usual food districts and were heading out into residential territory. The rich kind of neighborhood. When she met his eyes, he just shrugged mysteriously and her wonder grew.

At last, the taxi pulled up to the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club. Finn paid the driver and hustled Amara out of the car before she had a chance to fully process where she was. The car left them standing before the Lake Nona Clubhouse. Finn just waved her on without explanation. He smiled at the bemused look on her face. All was going exactly as planned.

The two of them made it to the docks without incident, though they drew looks from a couple of elderly golfers walking between holes on the green. Finn shrugged off the dislike and wariness he saw on their faces. He was a young black man with a young white woman. Though he'd never really dealt with race as an issue where he lived in England, race had peeked its head up several times during his stay stateside. Just one of the tradeoffs for an American education.

"Finn, what are we doing here?" Amara asked they walked along wooden blanks girded with rope arm rails stretched between wood posts.

"Something nice, I expect. Why, do you have somewhere better to be?"

"This looks like a members only place..."

Finn just waved a hand dismissively and stopped in front of a white pontoon boat bobbing slightly in the gentle waves of Lake Nona. Hopping in, he fished under one of the seats quickly. Sure enough, there were the keys he expected. He took a moment to examine the engine control before starting the boat up. Amara's nervousness grew but she didn't stop him when he unhooked the dock line and set them loose on the lake.

Despite the hot muggy oppressiveness of an Orlando summer, it was surprisingly balmy on the lake. The waters were shallow, dotted with vegetation but the lake proper was beautiful and shiny in the sunlight. Amara reclined in one of the pontoon's well upholstered white couches and even started to relax.

At last, as they neared the center of the lake, Finn idled the engine down and set the boat to drift. He stepped away from the steering and paused before another couch, pulling open a compartment below the seat. Amara's eyes went wide when he produced a picnic basket, topped with a card.

"You...you planned all this? Are you crazy? This must have cost a fortune!"

"A fortune's nothing. Fortune's easy when you're fortunate like me. With a lady such as yourself, how could I be anything but fortunate?"

"Lay it on a little heavier, British boy."

Still, her face glowed as she read the brief poem inscribed on the card. Finn took a seat next to her in the meantime and started to unpack small containers of prepared salads followed by a hearty, hot hamhock stew complimented with thick slices of cornbread. Two truffle chocolates were decorously covered on a refrigerated tray, a perfect desert on a day like today.

As they supped, Finn kept on a steady patter of small talk. Despite his best efforts, the beautiful brunette with the fetching tattoo on her arm gradually grew quieter and stopped eating. When he served her a truffle, she accepted but made no move to open it. Finn was perplexed...until he relaxed his mental shielding and tuned into the almost frightened cacophony of conflict in her mind.

"Well, that was lovely," he said, nibbling on his truffle. "I think I might finish this on the way back, though. Shall we?"

Surprised, she moved a little away to give him room to rise as he removed his arm from her shoulders and stood up. Finn made his way to the wheel and turned the engine back on. They were well on their way back to shore when she finally worked up the nerve to talk to him.

"Is that it?" Amara asked.

"Afraid so," Finn said with as much regret as he could muster. "Ethics isn't too far away and I want to get there with time to spare. I'm so sorry if it didn't quite meet your standards."

"No, that's not what I-" She hesitated, then rose from her seat and joined him at the steering. Slipping an arm around his waist, Amara leaned against him silently for a minute as the shore drew nearer. "Finn, I've never had someone go through this much trouble to impress me in my life. You can't possibly tell me you don't want anything out of it."

"Oh, I very much did," Finn said, nodding agreeably. "And I received it, babe, in full measure!"

"Stop being silly for a minute. Seriously, surprise drive to a lake? A boat? A delicious private picnic on waterfront without anyone around?"

"Sounds...nice?" he offered.

"You're not gay, are you?"

Finn laughed. "Not especially, no. Though there was this one bloke-"

She punched him in the arm. But it finally broke the reserve, the fear he could feel in her mind. Amara at last realized this date didn't come with any strings attached. Finn closed his eyes for a moment, basking in the sun as much as he basked in the growing radiance of her thoughts, of her joy. There was nothing quite like it.

"I've never met a guy who'd do all that without expecting something," she murmured as Finn pulled up to the dock, killed the engine and set about securing the pontoon boat.

"It's early days, Amara." He hopped onto the dock and held out his hand, helping her to join him back on solid ground. "You've known me, what, a week and a half? We're still finding each other out. Why rush?"

The joy he felt in her mind bloomed into full flower. Finn hid an inner wince, feeling a sudden abiding sorrow and sympathy for the fairer sex. What it must be like to worry like that, to always mistrust the motives of the opposite sex until they'd amply proven their intentions. He caught a few traces in her thoughts of more, of deeper memory and painful experience.

Finn withdrew respectfully from her mind, closing his thoughts behind the black impenetrable barrier he normally kept around his consciousness. Some things were best left private. Private and treated with kindness, tenderness and patience until they healed.

"Excuse me, can I help you two young people?"

Finn turned around to face a well-dressed middle-aged man whose demeanor and tone were practically poster board for a club owner. He put down his phone and shook his head. "No, sir. We've already called for a cab. Oh! You could do me a favor, though. Would you let Henry Kissinger know that we had a marvelous time borrowing his boat for our little day jaunt? It was awfully good of him to let us use it."

"I expect Mr. Kissinger in this afternoon," the owner said, his reserved concern thawing by an inch. "Who shall I say was grateful?"

"Oh, this is his niece here. I'm just a friend of the family. Finn Barnaby, at your service. Of the Birmingham Barnabys? From England? Haven't heard of us? Blimey, that's disappointing. Clearly we need to spend more time colony-side, renewing old family ties."

Finn gave Amara a smile, amused by her fairly successful attempt to keep a straight face. Thankfully, their taxi arrived and they were on their way back to school. Once safely on the road, Amara burst into laughter.

"Remind me never to play poker with you," she said, shaking her head in admiration. "I knew even you couldn't just make all that happen. It was so nice I won't judge this once but next time let's stick to places we can actually afford."

Finn shrugged and smiled. Then he picked up his phone and unlocked it with a stroke of the thumb. Tapping his contacts, he presented Henry Kissinger's name to Amara's startled scrutiny.

Where to go for next time, anyway? Good question...

Chapter 15

Jia watched her past leaving her in the dust.

The slim Chinese girl stood in the center of the HCP lobby. A vast room was the bridge point for all HCP lifts as well as providing central access to the combat cells beyond, the classrooms on the right and the faculty offices on the left. The room itself was cluttered with couches for spectators and it included view screens of every combat cell so students could watch sanctioned fights at will. Last, a set of scoring screens unnoticed by most freshmen displayed team composition and scores for the upperclassmen.

Sophomore Captains
Team 1: Jason Wyngarde
Team 2: Kelly Castle
Team 3: Tom Sanderson
Team 4: Jake Hallencheck
Team 5: Sam Ostermann

"Kelly, I'm so proud of you," she murmured, hugging herself for comfort.

"Who's Kelly?"

Jia stiffened, caught staring at scores for a class she was no longer a part of. She should be grateful for the extra time to practice. It was only a year behind. They were only the first and best friends she'd ever had. Seeing Julie every day was equal parts sweet and searing reminder of her failure. How much contact had she had with the others since then?

Slowly, she turned in place to face a small crowd of girls. Natasha Adler, Marie Yates and Dani Wyngarde. It was Dani who'd asked the question and, for once, she didn't look outright hostile about it.

"A friend of mine. She was ranked second last year. I'm not surprised she claimed my place. She deserves it." Greatly daring, she tried a cautious smile on Dani. "So does your brother."

"Yeah, well." Dani shifted a little uncomfortably. "Maybe I've been too hard on you. Sorry."

Blinking in complete surprise, Jia choked out a "Think nothing of it".

"We're going to get dinner together," Natasha said with a friendly smile. "Would you like to come?"

"I'd like that," Jia said, being agreeable as much as anything else. She was still too surprised to know how she felt otherwise.

The three roommates quickly caught Jia up in the familiar babble of college chatter. Classes seemed to be on everyone's mind, now that Gym for the day was over. There was no talk at all about the combat trials a few days ago. Jia was relieved. Natasha had been her last battle before facing Alley. The Shifter had a winged form with steel-like feathers that could cut through almost anything. Natasha had a powerful ability and knew it but she seemed remarkably okay with coming in fourth.

Danielle and Marie had placed thirteen and fourteenth respectively but their abilities were less straightforward. Jia still remembered how strange she'd felt facing Marie. Her ability had surged out of control and she'd spent most of a minute throwing punches so fast she'd fallen shy of her opponent each time. Danielle, on the other hand, had apparently done really well against Alley. Though Jia couldn't think of any offensive application for phasing through objects, it seemed Jason's sister had made a good impression.

She turned her head slightly, realizing she'd just been asked a question. Too preoccupied thinking about combat rankings when no one else was! Embarrassed, she softly said "Excuse me?"

"How's Jake doing?" Dani asked, just as softly while Marie and Natasha chattered in line. Only now did Jia realize they'd made it into the cafeteria. She must be preoccupied!

"Oh. He's fine. He's fussy but he mostly sleeps. My mother's looking after him while I'm in school."

"Senator Ruth Sun, right?" Dani smiled. "Your dad always has such funny stories about his marriage. I bet she's terrific."

"She is," Jia said, smiling a little. "You listen to my dad?"

"Lots of people do. Most Southern Baptists do. I mean, you knew that. That we're Baptists."

The only mercy in the conversation was that Jia couldn't figure out which of them had a harder time making conversation. Their saving grace came when the line moved forward and they could pick out dinner items. Jia opted for a salad, well accustomed to the 'freshmen fifteen' experience. Besides, she'd already shed most of the little pregnancy weight she'd put on but Gym alone wouldn't drop the pounds without a good diet.

Jia followed the lead of the other girls to a table in the center of the dining room. There was a bit of foot shuffling that was mostly resolved when she realized they were waiting for her to pick a seat. That revelation once more took her thoughts off racing in other directions while her body numbly chose a chair.

After her fall from grace last year, it seemed being ranked second this year was still enough prestige to net her a following.

"So, how'd she do it?" Natasha asked at last, once everyone was settled.

"Hmmm?"

"How did Sarah Connor beat you?"

Jia looked from one face to another. "My roommate Alley is the one who beat me..."

"Oh right," Marie said, snapping her fingers as the name triggered a memory. "Forgot. We've just been calling her Sarah Connor because she's totally Terminator."

"Jesus, she's intense," Natasha said, leaning forward to speak more quietly. "You've seen her, right? In gym, she's all..." The taller girl swung her arms back and forth in an exaggerated motion. "I mean, everything we do, she does it like it's life or death."

"She's intense," Jia said agreeably. "But fun. You should see her back at Lambert Acres. She has my vote for the girl most likely to party."

Snickers went around the table. Then Dani said, "So, how did she beat you?"

Jia frowned. "I'm not...I still don't understand it. Her strength and speed are better than mine at baseline but she's not even a tenth as strong or as fast as I can be. Did you see the fight?" Nods around the table. "Then why are you asking? You saw what happened."

"I mean, how did she do it? Like, what's her ability?"

"You know, I'm not 100% sure," Jia said, surprised to realize it. "I don't think she's ever said, exactly. Finn says she's got some kind of hyper-intelligence that lets her anticipate people. I think he's right. She's very smart on every topic that comes up. She doesn't believe in the Bible and hasn't read it since she was a teen but knows the scriptures better than most Christians."

Thankfully, the conversation turned away from combat rankings. Jia allowed herself to slip back into relative silence, adding a remark only when it was expected. The salad was nice but the company was nicer and she just wanted to enjoy it. It was wonderful to feel like she had friends again.

Dinner wrapped up with thankfully little fanfare. By the end, Jia had all their phone numbers and an invitation to a party this weekend. Everyone had studying to do, though, which brought an unceremonious end to tonight's festivities. Still, Jia left McKinnon Cafeteria in soaring spirits. She'd almost forgotten about the rankings board earlier.

Until she stepped into one of the secret HCP lifts, only to find Jason coming out.

He was gorgeous. The silvery-white color of Dani's hair looked pretty on her but seemed sublime on him. Jason also shared the famous white eyes of the Wyngarde family. Rather than being completely uniformly white, he still had a dark circle denoting his iris. The interior was a shaded snow, almost a pale grey that sparkled like diamonds.

Jia missed those eyes. She'd fallen in love with those eyes. Her only reprieve was when he closed them in pain. She ducked her head as he walked away silently, steeling herself against the feeling of seeing him again. Jason needed more time, more space. After what she'd put him through, she owed him that.

"I'd heard you came back."

She stopped with her hand on the button to seal the lift doors. Her hand dropped limply to her side. Almost helpless, Jia stepped back out of the lift and looked down the deserted hallway towards the father of her child.

"Congratulations on making team captain."

"Thanks." His stern tenor had always made a beautiful accompaniment to her mezzo soprano. They'd sung beautifully at the church on campus. Now Jason's voice just sounded cold. "I should thank you, actually."

"I-I didn't do an-"

"I'm a pyrokinetic, Jia, you know that." Jason half-smiled but the lightness of expression didn't reach his glacier-cold eyes. "Nothing's better for fueling a fire than rage. No one could stand against me last year." She turned away and started walking. Jason called after her, saying "That's it? You're just going to walk out? Again?"

The white-haired man's eyes closed in a blink. When they opened, Jia had closed the distance between them, snagged him by the front of his shirt and slammed him against the wall. Even she could scarcely believe the hot, raw rage set loose through her bones, a fire matching his.

"I had to leave, Jason. They didn't give me a choice. You had a choice, though. I was all alone, terrified out of my mind with what happened and what I needed more than anything else was a partner who'd stand by me, who would help me make the most terrifying choices of my life. The school said one thing, Planned Parenthood said another, my parents had their own view, everyone I knew was pushing their opinion down my throat. I needed you, Jason! But you walked out on me!"

Jason broke her hold with some new move she hadn't seen. Dropping to his feet, he shoved her backwards and stood his ground. Even on a hot day in Florida, Jia could see the heat rolling off of his body. After all the training he'd had on keeping his cool, he must be pretty near the tipping point.

"I'm going to be a Hero, Jia. Like my father before me. I didn't come to school to be seduced by a girl who couldn't at least use birth control. God, how stupid are you?"

"I was in love with you, asshole!" Jia was suddenly glad for the salad she'd eaten because anything heavier would have already come up out of her nauseated stomach. "Why is it all my fault?"

"I should have listened to my father," Jason said, shaking his head and backing away slowly.

"That would mean listening to the controlling jerk whose shadow you've lived in your whole life. You came here to be your own man, Jason. You've already missed your first shot at being a man with me but it's not too late for you and Jake."

Something cracked the fierce fire of Jason's visage. Then, anguished, he turned away and walked out. Walked out again, just like he had last year. It wasn't until this moment that Jia realized her heart had been healing. It had to have healed a little for her to feel it break all over again.

Jia leaned against the smooth walls outside the HCP lift, slid down the surface and hugged her knees against herself. Then, out of sight, she sobbed inconsolably.

Chapter 16

"You want me to go to a fraternity party?"

Alley lay propped up in her bed and couldn't be bothered to do more than give Finn an incredulous eye from where he stood in the second floor hallway. He spread his hands wide and adopted the most hopeful expression ever seen outside of a cute puppy. Then he fell to one knee before her, cinching the deal. Alley laughed at him before throwing her pillow at his face.

"Fine, but I don't see why you need a wingman. I heard you and Amara last night."

"That's...not what you...well, it is..." Finn cleared his throat and said, "Things are going in nice directions there but we haven't arrived. Not that it's any of your business. And I've never seen a fraternity party! It is, I understand, an essential part of the American experience. How can I go back home having missed this singular opportunity?"

"They party all year long, you'll have more chances."

"Then think of poor Nate."

"Jesus, you're not bringing him, are you?" Alley pulled off her t-shirt and started fishing around for something a little nicer to wear. Noticing Finn's slightly poleaxed expression, she just waved a hand at him. "I'm sure you've seen a bra before, English. Now, why do you want to bring Nate? You know they'll eat him alive, right?"

"Would they?"

Alley finally found a nice tan skirt that went well with a thin-strapped white top. She stripped out of her jeans first, mostly to make Finn squirm in the hallway. Dressing quickly, she then began the hard part; finding shoes. "Take my word for it; Nate weighs like fifty pounds less than they do, wears Doctor Who t-shirts and can't small talk to save his life. Don't get me wrong, I think that adds character. But fraternities exist to pick on people who aren't like them. Well, I suppose they drink too."

"If you feel that strongly about them, why are you getting dressed up?" Finn said, crossing his arms.

"Free booze!" She grinned. "Besides, I might get lucky."

Finn's eyes went wide. "I thought you-"

"C'mon, English. Even the United Kingdom must know the magic formula for turning straight girls gay for a day. It's simple math: Alcohol + Male Attention = More tail than Alley can chase. If the only price for banging a hot chick is some guys watching, eh." She shrugged.

"You're a complete nutter."

Alley slipped her feet into a nice pair of heels and sighed in satisfaction. "Love makes you nuts," she said as she picked up her ID, just in case. "I'm in remission. Let's go. No Nate, though. I know you guys are besties but it's not just Amara you need to worry about. Here, I'll show you," she added when she saw the confused look on his face.

The pair of them headed downstairs. Jia sat in her customary spot in the couch nearest the door, legs curled up under her as she studied a textbook. Nate was also in his usual place on the middle couch watching the big-screen tv. Julie Campbell, his after-hours telepath and quasi-jailor, sat next to him absently stroking Nate's Siamese, Perpugilliam. No Amara tonight unsurprisingly. If the cute short-haired brunette had been around, doubtlessly Finn would not be up for a party.

She paused at the top of the stairs and concentrated. All of her thoughts dwindled into a single frame, a mental picture of a fraternity and Nate in the middle of it. When Julie glanced their way, Alley pointed at her own head. The telepath looked warily at her but then the tension left her. It returned in full force a moment later, her eyes widening slightly before she looked at Nate and shook her head. Tellingly, Julie scooted an inch closer to the boy.

"Thought so," Alley said, nudging Finn in the ribs. "Let's go, English. Hey everyone, we're going to a party, we'll be back later."

"What kind of party?" Nate asked, finally looking away from the screen.

"The boring kind," Julie said.

"Have fun," Jia said.

The image of the smiling, smolderingly hot Chinese girl stayed with Alley the whole HCP lift ride. Thankfully, Finn started up an endless chatter of amusing anecdotes. That boy had one of the most remarkable knacks for storytelling she'd come into contact with. His social engineering ability must be huge. Alley smiled, nodded, and quietly earmarked him for future activities.

Given how much time they spent in the HCP, it didn't exactly surprise Alley that she didn't know where they were going. She'd learned enough of the campus to be strategically useful if certain scenarios came up. Otherwise, she knew where classes and food was. The path Finn took led them beyond that point, down old sidewalks towards the fringes of campus.

The fraternity house lay on the other side of one of the athletic fields. It was truly sprawling, almost an apartment complex in scope with enough rooms to house a good twenty people or so. At the moment, the house was so overfull of people they'd spilled out onto the lawn. Pulsing music blared out the open windows, turning the grass field into an extended dance floor. With a layer of tall shrubs bordering all sides of the property, they even had a relatively decent layer of privacy...and sound break for their poor neighbors.

Alley grinned as she came into contact with the enemy, a familiar wall of boy and girl flesh that reluctantly parted as she pressed against it. Finn followed in her wake, looking a bit stunned at being surrounded by so many nearly naked bodies writhing and gyrating against each other. The sun was just starting to set by the time they reached the front door and made their way inside.

The music surged through her teeth. Alley snatched up a red solo cup and pressed it into Finn's hands. She grabbed another and took a drink before making a face. The beer had a decided lack of awesome but that just added to the authentic party experience.

Even in Florida, there was a kind of white girl that was drawn to handsome black men and Finn was quickly picked up by a cute redhead in a pink bikini. She considered saving him but lost most of her ability to coherently think when a pale girl with raven-black hair gave her a come-hither look and crooked a finger.

They almost made it through one song before they had their mouths on each other. Alley wished she were a little more buzzed but couldn't complain about the company at least. Raven-hair kept peeking around to look for someone so she probably wasn't alone. Judging by her eagerness, Alley wagered the gorgeous girl was hoping her boyfriend would get turned on watching his girlfriend make out with another girl. The alternative, that she was hoping not to get caught, seemed increasingly less likely when Raven-hair slipped a hand under Alley's skirt.

Things were just getting interesting when a hand fell on Alley's shoulder. She turned with a smile, hoping it wasn't a frat boy she'd have to push back to voyeur status. Then her heart sank.

"Mike, there you are!" Raven-hair was breathless and sweating slightly with how far things had gone on the dance floor. "Have you met..." The drunken cutie swayed slightly and only now seemed to realize she didn't know the name of the girl she'd picked up.

"We've met," Alley said, carefully extracting her arm from around Mike Cavil's girlfriend. "Hey Mike. Hope the nose's okay."

The tall boy with brown hair had traded his glasses out for contacts at some point. His nose looked perfectly fine. The rest of him blended in perfectly with the fraternity, a cocky attitude matched with an athletic build that would give way to beer weight if he wasn't careful. Mike was pretty obviously as drunk as his girlfriend.

Dumb fucking luck.

Mike just stared at her for a moment. Sadly, Raven-hair tipped the encounter past the point of saving when she licked Alley's cheek while reaching a hand up under Alley's top. Mike went shock-still. Then he swung his arm back and threw a punch right at her face.

Since Alley's normal range of motion was encumbered by too much cute girl on her, she just twisted her head to the side and dodged it. Instead, she stepped inside his reach and pulled Raven-hair with her. Mike was suddenly surrounded on both sides by girl.

"We're good," she whispered in his ear. "Your girlfriend looks up for any hard feelings you might have. What do you say we settle this on the sheets?"

Unfortunately, Finn took that moment to notice his roommate was being accosted by the telepathic frat boy that followed Nate around to all his day classes. Putting two and two together, the British black man shook off Pink Bikini Redhead and closed the distance. Ignoring Alley's warning glances, he put his hand on Mike's shoulder.

"Leave my friend alone before you do yourself a mischief."

Mike hadn't made up his mind how to react to the girl sandwich but he was still predictably male when it came to other males. He hit Finn across the mouth and knocked the surprised man down. Alley groaned, gave Raven-hair a regretful look and promptly kneed the other girl's boyfriend between the legs.

In long drunken seconds, the party disintegrated into a brawl. Two frat guys grabbed Finn off the floor, having seen their buddy Mike go down and assuming he'd done it. Alley caught up with them and suckerpunched one before he could hit Finn in the stomach. She kicked the second in the face, barely avoiding a gouge from her heels. Finn scrambled free and shook his head, seemingly stunned.

"Things are about to go to shit in a second, English. You clear? You hit your head?"

"Oh I'm fine, love. I'm the king of fine. Next time you want to kick someone in the face while wearing a skirt, though, you might consider knickers. May I compliment you on your grooming?"

Alley paused as a tide of angry drunk fraternity boys swelled around them. Then she just grinned and shook her head as she realized the angle Finn had been in for that kick. Finn got a playful pat on his cheek for being cheeky.

It was all they had time for as the fists started flying.

So Alley pulled out her phone and dialed as she stepped back from a grapple. She slipped out of her heels and kicked another in the face at the first ring. A swift leap got her on top of a drink-filled table on the second ring and, by the third, she'd skidded down to the end and tipped it over. The back end swung up and hit another frat boy in the face. By the time Nate picked up, she was perched in a window sill to stay out of the fray.

"Nate, get your ass over here, we need your help."

"Huh? Where? What's going on?"

"Big brawl. We could use a cover-up if you can talk Julie into it. No, don't talk her into it. Just bring her with, fast. I mean, right now, right this instant, get off the couch and get into the HCP lift so you get over here as fast as you can."

She hung up on him before he could invent more excuses on why he couldn't help. Instead, Alley looked across the room and spotted Finn get shoved through a dry wall partition. She concentrated and nodded once. Mike was the reason these boys had gotten so damn aggressive.

Alley hopped out of the window and into the drunken fray. She punched, kicked, elbowed and kneed her way through the crowd. Dozens of fists came her way, each ducked or redirected with disappointing ease. Next time, she really needed to get a head start on her drinking. By the time Alley reached Finn, she'd left a trail of groaning bodies in her wake. This was turning into the mother of all spectacles. Hopefully her roommate would get here soon to clear things up.

One look spotted Mike in the kitchen, obviously tender from her knee. Raven-hair was with him, keeping a close eye on the brawlers and sending them back out into the fray if they tried to get in. Alley's blue eyes narrowed. She should have noticed. Of course Mike's girlfriend would be another HCP student but Alley hadn't recognized her because they were in different years.

Too bad.

Alley pulled Finn out of the dry wall and promptly aimed herself right for the kitchen, backhanding a frat boy who got in the way. Someone grabbed a chair and swung it at her. Alley just caught it, whipped it around with the assailant's momentum and clobbered him over the head with it.

"This ship has sailed, blondie," said Raven-hair.

"Guess I have a speedboat, Ashley. I need Mike to get a grip, right now."

"Do I know you?" Ashley asked, clearly puzzled since their earlier introduction hadn't included names.

"Listen fast," Alley said, snapping her fingers for effect. "We're in different grades but the same program. Mike's not just an Advanced Mind, he's a broadcasting empath, something he discovered two weeks ago but hasn't told anyone about because he's still getting a handle on it. Unfortunately, he needs to get a handle right now or people are going to start killing each other out there. I'm dead serious," she added even as Ashley opened her mouth.

"Why the hell should I listen to you?" Ashley asked.

"Because your Mom named you after Laura Ashley, because you lost your virginity to your cousin when you were thirteen and because you still sleep with your little sister's bear she gave you when you went to college. His name's Benedict."

"You bitch," Mike said, recovering at last and managing to straighten up. "I'm going to-"

"Get drummed out of our program," Alley finished for him. "Get your shit together, asshole, you're leaking rage everywhere. Look at those people going nuts out there! The first fatality is going to happen in two minutes, thirteen seconds. If you don't calm the fuck down by then, I have to knock you out."

As she anticipated, her words made Mike angry but he still had enough of a clear head despite the booze to realize how serious this was. Training went a long way after all, even for assholes. Mike grimaced, then turned to face away from them as he put both hands to his temples.

Just like that, the wind was let out of this riot's sails. The punches slowed. People started breaking apart from the fray and standing there, looking a little confused why they'd just been brawling. The noise level dropped.

Alley sighed as everyone heard the sirens she knew were coming.

Chapter 17

"I don't like what you're thinking."

Nate winced a little as he hurried along the nearly deserted college sidewalks with his warden, Julie Campbell. The telepath could hear everything going on in his head, of course. Maybe there were ways to screen your thoughts from being read but he sure didn't know what they were. He'd be the last person anyone would try teaching that to, for good reason.

Ahead lay the athletic field and, just beyond it, the dorm house. Nate left the pavement and opted to spring across the yard. The past two weeks of gym had left him sore, exhausted but surprisingly better. It'd be a while before his body really adapted to the brutal pace but at least there was hope in sight.

"Nate, I'm serious. I can't-"

"You think I can?" Nate huffed across the lawn and tried not to look at the girl he had the biggest crush in the world on. "I don't even know what's going on."

"You think Alley wants you to use your ability, don't you?"

"Probably," Nate admitted. "But I won't. Not unless I have the facts and not unless you agree, okay?"

Julie's frown was icy but at least she didn't say anything further.

They hit the pavement on the other side of the field and jogged across the street in a second. A crowd of people stood around, mostly drunk and entirely confused. The police didn't help. Three patrol cars were parked outside the house and half a dozen uniforms were spread out, taking statements.

In the middle of it all stood Alley, one arm around Finn. The black Brit looked the worse for wear, blood trickling from a cut lip and bruises already decorating his face. Beside them...

"Mike," Julie breathed. "This is his fault."

"Huh? How you figure?" Nate turned and looked at the prettiest jailor ever.

"He's not shielding himself right now. I can sense his guilt in his thoughts. He...I think he stirred them up somehow. I didn't know he could do that." Julie's confusion was rapidly giving way to anger. "He's not supposed to do it either way. Using his ability on a crowd of mundanes? He could get dropped from the HCP or get sued. Probably both."

Alley beckoned them both on. One of the uniforms blocked the way, however, waving them off with the rest of the bystanders who'd drifted by to see drunk college kids get busted. Nate glanced at Julie, who just shook her head again.

That's when Alley pointed at them both and yelled, "Hey! They're the ones who started it! Look, that couple right there started it!"

Julie facepalmed even as Nate swore silently. Immediately a cop waved them both over and flipped open his book to take down another statement. Nate fished in his pockets for his ID before realizing he'd left it back at Lambert Acres. That would make the police look him up by name. They'd probably pull his full profile. God only knows what the police had on him but inciting a riot probably didn't help his case.

"Nate," Julie said, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Nate, you can't-"

"Stop."

Just like that, everyone stopped. Everyone. The police, the crowd, the bystanders, even Alley and Julie. Nate's hands started to shake as he surveyed the scene around him, confirming it was total. Half the people, he hadn't even been looking at. Somehow, everyone was frozen in place. He hadn't...he hadn't used his ability full power, had he?

"Say your names!" Nate shouted.

"Your names!" the crowd shouted back.

He laughed once, an ugly sound that barely resembled anything pleasant. "Tell me your names."

A cacophony of names answered back. Nate wiped the sudden cold sweat off his forehead and took a breath even shakier than his hands. That was close. Damn close.

Nate had to sit down. He tucked his head between his knees, feeling lightheaded. It was like the first day of class, in the bathroom after class only worse. Anxiety he couldn't touch or find its source flooded through him in a relentlessly increasing tide. Nate could feel his heart hammering in his chest. His stomach roiled sourly. Even his palms had started to sweat.

Then a hand touched his shoulder gently.

"Jesus!" Nate fell over as he tried to unsuccessfully spin around while seated.

"Nate, are you-" Jia crouched beside him, her face touched with worry. "What's wrong? What's happening?"

"I had to, Jia. I didn't want to, I had to. Alley called me, she demanded I come here. And th-then she blamed me for the riot a-and I-I, shit Jia I'm in serious trouble, aren't I."

The Chinese woman straightened up and looked around. Slowly, she moved through the assorted partiers, police and witnesses. Each person just stood there, their faces blank, their eyes blinking and chests moving but little more. Empty slates. Waiting for orders. Waiting for his orders.

"This is...Oh Nate."

"What do I do, Jia? You gotta tell me what to do."

"I, um." Jia swallowed hard as she looked around. "Well, can you just...make everyone forget?"

"I guess so."

Nate put one palm against the asphalt of the street, feeling the day's residual warmth. Then he pushed himself onto his feet. Nate unconsciously tucked in his shirt and smoothed out the folds before stepping up where everyone could clearly hear him.

"I want everyone here to forget what happened here tonight. I mean, for the college students, this was just a party that got a little loud. Anyone who got hurt, it was just a stupid drinking game you'll blame yourself for. Police officers, you heard a report of a fight but didn't find one when you got here. Everyone else, you didn't see or hear anything interesting here and all you'll remember is seeing nothing happening here. Okay?"

The crowd said nothing. Upwards of a hundred eyes tracked his every movement. Nate let his words sink in. Then he released them all with a thought.

And watched the whole situation sort itself out. Somewhat distractedly, the police got back in their cars and left with the bystanders who'd dropped by. The drinkers on the lawn went right back to dancing after someone turned the music on. Dozens trickled out, nursing bloody noses or signs of battering, grinning ruefully and already making up improbable stories they'd explain the marks with tomorrow.

"Hey Ginger," Alley said, crossing the lawn to join them. Finn followed, looking a bit pained and surprised. "Thanks for coming. Want a drink?"

"Huh?"

"I called you...here...for a-" Alley cut herself off and frowned. "That doesn't make any sense. Julie doesn't-" She stopped herself again, glancing at Nate's telepathic guardian and secret crush. "Uh, nevermind."

"Nate, you've missed a smashing party!" Finn said, delight bubbling up despite his wounds. "I'm a bit rubbish at American drinking games, sad to say."

"That's why you had us run over here in a hurry?" Julie said, giving her two slightly tipsy roommates a glare.

"Hey Sunrise," Alley said suddenly. "You came too?"

"It sounded serious from the way Nate was on the phone," Jia answered. She alone looked as confused as Nate felt.

"I can't do this," he said at last. Nate cleared his throat and said, "Roomies, remember."

All three of the affected abruptly jumped backwards from him, Finn and Julie both falling on their butts as they tripped over their heels. Finn tapped his head, as if checking for a loose connection. Julie had a look of utter betrayal.

Alley just looked satisfied. "Thought so. Good work, Nate. You just saved Mike's career here."

"Wait, what?" Julie climbed back onto her feet, straightening out the summer dress she wore tonight. "Oh. The...he's empathic. Where is he?" She craned her neck, then shook her head as she didn't spot him. "Was it really that bad?"

"We were two minutes from fatalities when he finally got a grip and turned it off. New facet of his ability." Alley slipped an arm around Julie's shoulder and squeezed. "Relax if you can. I know Ginger just broke the rules. You also know I basically made him, he did it for the right reasons, he saved your buddy Mike's ass and that's not even the most important part of it."

"Which is?" Finn asked.

"He allowed you all to remember," Jia said softly. "He didn't have to. I would have...well, maybe it was better off with no one remembering anything. But he didn't try to hide it."

"Because he knew I'd catch him thinking about it eventually!" Julie shouted, clearly overwrought.

"Ginger's an open book to you, Jules." Alley inclined her head in Nate's direction. "You tell me if it even occurred to him to hide this."

Nate froze in spot. His beautiful captor just looked him in the eyes, as if she were scooping out his brains from the inside and shifting through the contents like a Betazoid from Star Trek, or one of the Psi-Corp from Babylon 5. At last, the coldness thawed and she conceded the point with the barest nod.

Satisfied there would be no further trouble, Alley tucked an arm around Finn's and half-helped, half-hauled him away from the party. Hopefully Nate's buddy would get bandaged up or something. Alley liked to take care of her team, like the guild leader she was. Finn would be fine. Jia looked between the remaining two and slowly followed the others' lead.

At last, Nate stood alone on the street with Julie beside him.

"I guess I blew any trust I'd built up," Nate said, wincing at the sharp bitterness in his voice but unable to do anything about it.

"Nate...it's not about trust." Julie pressed two fingers against the bridge of her nose, squinting her eyes closed as if pained. "You just proved that the Dean's protective measures won't work. You stopped me before I could even think about trying to break up your thoughts and block your ability. I'm trained to stop Supers, Nate, and I wasn't quick enough."

"It's okay." Nate thought about it for a moment. "So if we talk about it, Mike gets kicked out, Alley and Finn get busted, you get...I dunno, maybe you're okay? And I get kicked out. Maybe you should though. I mean, all of us did screw up here. Maybe we're not really cut out to be Heroes."

Julie didn't answer at first. She just gave him that probing look, long, piercing and powerful. Then, to his utter shock, she stepped close and gave him the lightest, softest kiss. It was almost more lips brushing against each other. Not that Nate could really make a comparison.

He'd never been kissed before.

Overcome, Nate couldn't think of returning the kiss until she'd already drawn away. She smiled a little at his complete befuddlement.

"Maybe it is about trust," Julie said, her voice as soft as that kiss. "Your first thought about what would happen if we talked about it was worry over Mike, a man who doesn't even like you. You are literally the last person you thought about. If anyone can be trusted with your ability, maybe it's you. I guess I'd better stick around, though, keep an eye on you."

She winked and started across the field. Then the grassy plain was filled with her laughter when Nate, too preoccupied by her, tripped over the curb and fell on his face.

Chapter 18

Dean Diane Goddard had a feeling today would be one of those days. That instinct was confirmed by a pounding on her office door. The Dean reached out and steadied a small, precariously balanced sculpture on her desk before it fell over. Then, calmly, she said "Come in."

Professor Ava Stevens opened the door. The petite blonde stalked inside, followed by two students. Ava gestured emphatically to a pair of seats before the Dean's desk, causing the chairs to scoot outwards, swing around and promptly scoop up the students. Another thought shut and locked the door.

Dean Goddard just spread her hands on the surface of her desk and waited patiently for an explanation.

"I'm afraid to report that Nate Insley has been outed, Dean," Ava said, immediately dropping the news on the desk.

The Dean looked at the two students, sophomores named Mike Cavil and Ashley Nesbit. The two dated if memory served. Right now, Mike looked immensely worried while Ashley just looked angry. Dean Goddard opened her desk, pulled out a booklet titled 'HCP Code of Conduct' and flipped it open to page seventeen. Scanning down quickly, she found the right paragraph and read.

"Harassment on the basis of any protected characteristic is strictly prohibited. Under this policy, harassment is verbal, written or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward an individual because of his/her race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age, disability, marital status, citizenship, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law or that of his/her relatives, friends or associates, and that: (i) has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive learning environment; (ii) has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's ability to learn; or (iii) otherwise adversely affects an individual's educational opportunities."

Dean Goddard set the student code of conduct on the desk, turned it around to face the two students and folded her hands together. "Were either of you unclear on any point of this policy, Mr. Cavil, Ms. Nesbit?"

"No, Dean Goddard," they said together.

"Would you like to tell me what happened then?"

"It was an accident," Mike said, glaring at his girlfriend. "I was on the phone with Julie, coordinating our shifts when Julie...it was an ethical discussion, Dean, like we have in Ethics class. She thinks he's the Ringmaster's son from what he can do. I agreed with her and just wondered out loud if Nate might be immune to the Ringmaster's power because they have the same ability. I thought Ashley had gone to class already since she wasn't there but she was in the kitchen and overheard."

"Way to throw me under the bus, Mike," Ashley muttered.

"Your thoughts throw you under the bus," Ava said, her voice sharp with irritation. "Mike knows better than to try mitigating what happened. Ashley, tell the Dean what happened next."

"I just texted a few friends to ask if they knew anything about the new kid, Nate. I asked Sheila, she's the Mechanical Genius of our class, I wanted to see if she could dig up anything about him online. She's the one that pulled out these fringe references in really old reporting on the Ringmaster before he went rogue. By that point, her team spotted her research and..."

"The cat was out of the bag, I see." The Dean sighed. "Mr. Cavil, Ms. Nesbit, please tell me in your own words if you've otherwise broken our harassment policy."

"No," Ashley said immediately.

"Not exactly," Mike muttered. Hastily, he added "I mean, I don't like him. He's kinda pitiful, Dean. Like someone's kicked puppy. If not for that ability of his, I'd have written him off as a loser already. He looks like he'll break in half if the wind blows at him too strongly. I don't think he has what it takes to make it in the HCP."

"I believe my certified and experienced faculty can make that determination without your consultation, Mr. Cavil."

"I haven't said anything to anyone other than Julie," Mike said, his right hand involuntarily squeezing into a fist. "I try not to talk to Nate, kid has enough problems as it is."

"Other than being outed as the son of one of the most infamous villains still at large?"

"Uh, yeah." Mike wiped his palms against the denim of his jeans. "He's...you know, anxious. Gets social anxiety. You know, too many people for too long and he starts hyperventilating and has to shut himself in a bathroom until it passes. He's terminally paranoid about his ability. You should hear his thoughts sometimes, it's like this loop cycle of regret and fear that goes over and over again." Reluctantly, the sophomore's face softened. "I mean, who wants to live like that? I just make it worse whenever we talk so I stopped trying. I think he'll fail out but he doesn't need me adding to it."

Dean Goddard lifted an eyebrow at Professor Stevens, who squinted slightly and then nodded once. "Very good then. I suppose I'll need to remind all classes of our harassment policy. That'll be all, Mr. Cavil, Ms. Nesbit. Be on your best behavior from now on."

"That's it?" Ava asked, surprised despite her ability to read the Dean's mind.

"Professor Stevens, I'm afraid mere disclosure of a student's parentage does not constitute breech of policy. It has to create a harmful environment, interfere with his learning or remove opportunities for Mr. Insley."

"Diane...Dean Goddard," Ava said, recovering swiftly from the unprofessional stumble. "They're going to eat him alive."

"And that is behavior I can act on," the Dean said. "It's not illegal to possess a lethal ability. It's only illegal to kill someone with one without due authorization from the Department of Variant Human Affairs. Although Domination is included on the Class A listing of restricted abilities, it's not illegal for Nate to know how to use his ability either. In like fashion, it's not a violation of school policy for the student body to know what his ability is or where it came from. It's only a violation if they intimidate, interfere or block him on the basis of that knowledge."

The Dean traded looks with Professor Stevens until her brother's ex-girlfriend relented. Then she dismissed the students and their teacher with a taciturn return to completing the paperwork on her desk. Some of it anyway. If there was one surety in life, it was that more paperwork would materialize to replace the work done.

Chapter 19

"Hey, you room with Nate Insley, right? Is it true that he's the Ringmaster's son?"

Finn sweated through the last set of reps in this round of bench press during Gym. His breath exploded from him in a great gasp as he almost dropped the bars. Rubbing his burning arms, Finn rose from the bench and mopped his brow with one of the many towels provided to students exercising a lifetime of poor health out of their systems.

"The Ringmaster's son? Depends I suppose." Finn coughed and took a swallow from his water bottle. "Who's the Ringmaster?"

The High Five Club, as the top 5 ranked boys at West Private's HCP were commonly called, passed chuckles and incredulous expressions between them. Flynn Smith, the first healer in history to hold the top rank in any HCP program, looked like he couldn't decide if Finn was making a joke as he took his turn under the weights. None of this year's High Five Club had super strength, turning all five of them into workout buddies for a change. That suited Finn just fine. All of them were the children of American Heroes and knew a great deal more about the local landscape than he did.

"I would have thought someone like the Ringmaster would make headlines even in England," Emmanuel Ramirez said. Ranked second for his prodigious elemental manipulation of liquid, coupled with a wickedly creative mind in using it, Emmanuel looked curious. "After all, his last official appearance was...eight years ago? Five? It's a long time to go without someone spotting you. It's a lot easier to do if you're in another country."

"I should have known," Joe Shaw muttered. A kinetic absorber, he was potentially the strongest student in the High Five Club and ranked third. Since he could opt to not use his ability, though, Joe chose to work out with the Club and improve his baseline. "I pulled Nate for my first match. I just assumed his ability made me do to myself what I wanted to do to him."

"It's not that bad," Aaron Capsaw said as he took a turn on the leg press machine. Ranked fourth, he could generate and project incredibly potent force fields. "At least he didn't tell you to stop breathing."

"Jesus, he could, couldn't he." Joe's eyes went a little wide. "What's he doing at this school? How can you really train someone like that?"

"Hold on," Finn said, raising his voice over all of them. "None of you answered my question. Tell me about this Ringmaster, won't you?"

"Surprised you haven't just picked our heads for it," Joe muttered.

"I'm a teke, mate, not a tele. Try your words like everyone else."

Snickering, Aaron answered for him. "The Ringmaster was a Subtlety Hero back in the late 80s and 90s. Ran a group called the Circus, led about half a dozen Heroes. The Ringmaster's ability was Domination. Like, he could make anyone do anything. You should hear the things he gets credited for. The fall of the Berlin wall? The fall of the Soviet Union?"

"Oi, you think?" Finn shook his head and went back to work on his arms. "Sounds rubbish to me. The whole Soviet Union, really?"

"The Ringmaster is worth taking seriously," Flynn said, finishing his last set and rising from the bench so Emmanuel could take a round. "When he was caught defunding the federal government, he turned his whole team against a town and wiped it off the map, just to make a point."

At that point, Professor Matthias blew a whistle announcing an end to weights. That meant laps next. Weary, Finn nonetheless took front with the others. As much as he'd rather be back with Nate to keep his roommate company, it was expected that he run with the High Five Club. Besides, today he wanted to know more about what they knew.

With a second whistle, everyone started forward. Flynn set a fast pace and the Club drew ahead of the bulk of the remaining male students. It gave them enough space to talk, when there was enough breath to do so.

"Why'd he do it?" Finn asked.

"Because he could," Emmanuel answered. "I think maybe it was because he was tired of being told what to do."

"There was a whole thing about it in the news back then, right?" Joe rubbed the sweat from his forehead as they all ran together. "The whole scamming the government thing. He stole a lot of money, I think, and he went postal when they caught him."

"I wonder who Nate's Mom is," Aaron said.

The question briefly brought an end to more discussion as everyone realized no one knew. Finn cast a look back behind him. Nate lagged near the back of the pack. The skinny redhead caught the look and gave him a wave and a tired smile. Typical. Nate had told Finn in the first days of class to go keep up with the High Five Club, even though surely the out-of-shape kid needed the help more. Finn couldn't deny the usefulness of networking with West's elite but it brought a tender wince out of him to see Nate struggling by himself.

Further back, the girls ran in their own pack. They didn't have a High Five Club for some reason. Alley ran in front of everyone. Jia ran with her girl squad, made up of Amara, Natasha, Dani and Marie. Kim Nolan and Irene Norman, ranked third and fifth, each ran with their own pack as well. Finn rubbed his chin as he contemplated why that might be.

"Let's ask him."

Flynn's surprise comment didn't leave Finn much time to react before the healer dropped back to allow the rest of the class to catch up. In seconds, the High Five Club had Nate surrounded. To his credit, Ginger didn't look very intimidated. Of course, breathing might be more of a priority than fear right now.

"Hey Nate," Flynn began.

"C'mon, leave it," Finn said, interrupting. "Let's leave it, shall we? No point in bothering him over something he had no control over."

"No, I just want to ask a question," Flynn said, insistent. "You don't mind a question, do you Nate?"

"Sure," Nate panted. "Do it."

"Who are your parents?"

Nate sprinted onwards, still trying to catch his breath. Even exhaustion couldn't swallow up the fear that lit in his eyes. "Why?"

"The word going around is that your Dad's the Ringmaster. Joe says it might be true since he faced you in the combat cells during rankings last Monday. I just want to know if it's true."

"Maybe." Nate sucked in a breath and said, "Probably."

The Club didn't know what to make of that answer. "You don't know?" Emmanuel asked.

"Nope."

Thankfully, Professor Matthias called for a water break. Winded, the Club slaked their thirst while letting Nate catch a bit of his breath back. Then they surrounded him once more, though Finn stood just a bit closer, protective of his roommate.

Across the room, Alley caught his eye and lifted her chin slightly, a clear signal for her readiness to intervene. Finn shook his head and returned his attention back to the Club. If something happened, she was across the room. He'd need to handle this himself.

"What, what do you want from me?" Nate asked, turning in place to look at the faces of the Club. "I told you, I don't know for sure. They were just my parents. They disappeared when I was ten years old. My uncle raised me for four years, until my ability showed up. Then the army put me under house arrest until a few weeks ago. That's my life story. What else do you want?"

"For you to keep your ability to yourself," Flynn said, hands clenching into fists.

"C'mon, mates, this is harassment," Finn said in a light tone. "I don't want to get in trouble, do you?"

"This isn't harassment," Flynn insisted. "This is self-defense. This is survival. I know what the Ringmaster did to the 325th Airborne."

"Huh?" Nate's bafflement was unfeigned but it didn't seem to matter to the healer, whose tone grew sharper and colder with every passing word.

"June 18th, 2005. They deployed without orders and occupied the Russell Senate Office Building, resulting in the deaths of twelve United States Senators and several hundred people. The Ringmaster made them do it so he could break into Senate records. When the DC Defense Team deployed to apprehend him, he escaped but not before making every single soldier shoot themselves in the head."

"Take a walk, Smith."

Flynn spun on his heels, rage eroding all reason. He stopped short when he saw who addressed him. Choking down his anger, he obeyed the order and walked swiftly from the gym. The furtive forearm across the face as he reached the door did nothing to hide the tears everyone there had seen.

Both Professors Glee and Matthias stood before the remaining High Five Club, stern looks on their face. Finn just put an arm around his roommate's trembling shoulders. Nate had turned a very convincing shade of parchment white. All of the boys stood a respectful distance back, slowly creeping further away to avoid any more backlash.

"You would do Flynn a kindness if you forgive him," Glee said to Nate. "In your heart, not to his face. He had an older brother who served with the 325th Airborne and I don't think he's ready to accept forgiveness from the son of the man who murdered him."

"Hold on now." Finn patted Nate on an arm and faced down both professors. "There's no proof Nate's their kid. Sure he's got the ability, or something a lot like it, and his own parents are missing. Honestly now, has he given anyone any problems here?" Pitching his voice up to carry to the rest of the boys, Finn said "No, he's been just topping to everyone. Let's remember that before we heap the sins of the world on the poor bloke, alright then?"

"Mr. Barnaby," Professor Matthias said, his booming voice ending the chance to say anything more. "Nate's a good kid, no one's denying that. But you're naive to blame people for being afraid of the Ringmaster. Anyone who was there-"

"I was there too, Paul," Glee said, her quiet voice somehow silencing the big man. "Listen up, everyone. Nate Insley is a student of the HCP, just as all of you are. He's here for the same reason; he wants to be a Hero. Like all of you, he's here to risk his life to save others and he's doing that for a country who has not done well by him. We're a team, all of us who make it. I don't doubt Nate would do all he could to help you succeed. Do the same for him."

Both professors turned away and resumed their places at the center of the Gym. Another sharp whistle blast signaled the end of break time. Finn groaned and finished up his water bottle. Then he put his hand on Nate's shoulder, in full view of the High Five Club. Patting the underdeveloped shoulder, Finn jogged to the front of the line and looked back.

Behind him, he saw Emmanuel step forward and pat Nate's shoulder before joining him. As the rest of the Club lined up, Emmanuel shrugged and said "Hey, you room with him. If you can get along with him, what's my excuse?"

"So, what's going on with you and Amara anyway?" Aaron said, joining Finn on his right.

"Yeah, how'd you get a smoking hottie like that on the first week anyway?" Joe asked.

"Really great teeth. But no, if you're looking for tips, is there anyone you boys fancy? I understand her friends are single. Marie Yates, Natasha Adler, that delicious Danielle Wyngarde over there. And, of course, Jia and Alley are single. Though I wouldn't set my sights on Run Lola Run over there..."

As the next lap started and the conversation drifted on, Finn looked behind. Nate's head was bent, his breathing labored as the workout progressed. But when the redhead noticed Finn looking his way, Nate gave him a thumbs up and a big winning smile. The kid had the heart of a Hero.

And it fell to Finn to make sure Nate had his chance to beat.