"So, when are you asking Julie out?"
Nate shifted uncomfortably before he went back to mimicking Finn's stance. Both hands raised, feet spread slightly, shoulders forward. Finn took a jab at him and this time Nate blocked it. The taller black Brit just grinned and nodded, pleased that their drilling had started to translate into measurable reflex.
The two of them circled each other on the foam mats of the HCP's sparring gym. A few weeks back, Nate's best friend had announced that he needed training in practical fighting. The two took up sparring sessions every other evening an hour or so after dinner, giving their still-strengthening bodies a chance to recover from Gym. So far, they hadn't been focused on much beyond jabs and blocks. Nate was relieved. Even that took a lot more work than he'd expected.
"You realize she can hear everything we're thinking, right?" Nate asked, blocking another jab.
"Correction, mate; she can hear everything you're thinking."
"How is that any different?"
Finn sighed and ran a palm across the stubble of his head. "Why are you avoiding the question?"
Nate sneaked a peek across the room at Julie. His warden sat on bleachers, flipping through the pages of a textbook and giving no sign of paying attention to them. The sparring gym was large enough to accommodate up to fifty students so there was plenty of space to allow them a semi-private conversation. Their only company tonight was a trio of juniors flashing through techniques that Nate couldn't follow much less try to imitate.
"Because I don't really know the answer," Nate mumbled. "You realize I missed the whole dating thing during high school, right? Like, I've never had a girlfriend? Until I came here, I hadn't even laid eyes on a real girl since before puberty. I-I have no idea what to say or do with a girl that doesn't come from a movie."
"It's not rocket science," Finn said, heaving a sigh as he absorbed one of Nate's jabs effortlessly. "Just talk to her like you'd talk to me, like anyone. Only be respectful and smile. Show you fancy her too but not too much or she'll think you're a nutter or worse. And you have to listen, alright? Only you have to talk too so she knows you have an opinion but you can't solve her problem for her or you'll miss the-hang on, this is sounding complicated, isn't it?"
Nate just shook his head at the nonsensical advice and put more effort into a punch. His arms ached from the Gym workout earlier today and they ached more as they absorbed the shock of each impact. At this point, they felt like burning rubber.
At least Nate thought he had the movement down. It still took conscious effort but he'd done it enough that each punch went the way he meant it to. Martial art films never looked easy but the reality was so far from his experience, it literally passed his ability to imagine how anyone could have the strength and energy to do those high octane kung-fu moves.
Thankfully, Alley and Jia walked in at the other end of the sparring room.
"You could always ask Jia for advice," Finn said, noticing the two girls as they slowly made their way across the expansive space towards them.
"Why not Alley?" Nate asked. "She's a girl and she likes girls. If anyone would know, wouldn't she?"
"You forget, mate, I went to a party with her. Here, try this on for size." Finn lifted his voice and called out to the girls as they approached. "Hey Alley! How would you handle asking a girl out?"
The tall blonde's eyes flicked over to catch sight of Jia peripherally. Then Alley's mouth hardened for a moment. "I don't date, Finn, so you're probably asking the wrong person. Try Eli, he seems to have the moves."
Jia looked surprised. Alley was resigned. Finn seemed amused. At last, it fell to Nate to break the increasingly uncomfortable silence falling over them.
"So, whatcha guys doing for the Ethics assignment?"
"I can guess who you're doing," Alley said, grinning appreciatively at the subject change.
"Actually..." Nate looked around to make sure no one else was nearby, then pitched his voice down a bit more softly. "Marie and I are going to do the Hypnotist."
"Hang on," Finn said, waving his hands. "Wasn't that one of the Ringmaster's team? What were the Circus when they were at home, anyway?"
"Who were they?"
All eyes went back to Nate. He swallowed uncomfortably and stuck his hands in his pockets. Resentment stirred inside of him, quickly quashed by good sense. Who else would have the reason he had for doing research on them?
"The Circus was a team of Heroes formed up in the eighties and nineties, mostly. As near as anyone can tell, the Ringmaster formed them mostly out of her graduating class of Heroes. You have to understand, though, even now there isn't a lot of reliable news when it comes to them. The Ringmaster Dominated a lot of people, not only then but since then. People who had the power to edit news reports, archival data, government records, you name it. Practically the only reliable media we have is actual printed newspaper from then. Though three different people could read the same article out loud and yet say something different from each other."
"Mary wept," Jia murmured.
"Sounds about right," Alley said, agreeing. "So, what I've heard is the Circus was led by the Ringmaster who had the power of Domination. The Hypnotist was the team's co-leader, right? Had the power of Possession, like, he could hijack other people's bodies and drive them around like a car. There was the Conjurer who could make objects out of nothing, like knives and stuff, or he could make people disappear. Weird ability."
"Weren't they the team with the Monster?" Jia asked.
"Who? Oh right, Godzilla?"
"You're having me on," Finn said, shaking his head.
"The Monster was the Circus strongman, yeah," Nate said. "He was a Shifter whose fighting form was this ridiculously huge behemoth, the kind that could shatter cities. That only happened twice, both times in the ocean. I think he learned how to shrink his form during his HCP. He could Shift to something the size of a house when the Circus was formed and, by the nineties, he could shrink down to something that could fit through the door. Still had all the compact power of a thousand foot tall monster. Hence the name."
"Anyone else on the team?" Finn asked.
"Just the Mystic and the Fortune Teller. The Mystic was also weird. His ability let him do things like telekinesis, flying and this weird kind of sunbeam plasma energy emission thing. He was also said to have healing abilities."
"I've never heard of a range that big," Alley said, frowning as she worked them out in her mind. "What about the Fortune Teller?"
"You mean there's something the super brain doesn't know?" Finn's question was mocking, if still friendly in tone.
"I like making conversation." Alley sighed. "Fine. The Fortune Teller's a precog."
"More than a precognitive," Nate said, his voice sharp at the easy characterization. "The Fortune Teller was said to be able to change the future. Like, if things didn't work out the way she wanted them to-Alley?"
The tall blonde had gone starkly pale. Her tanned face had a look of such profound horror that the other three scanned their surroundings, just in case she'd seen something horrible coming. The sparring gym seemed ordinary, though. The upperclassmen looked like they were about done for the evening. As for Julie, she seemed content with her book.
"Alley?" Nate traded looks with his roommates at her lack of response. He opened his mouth and she stopped him with a finger across his lips.
"Don't," she said, all light and joy in her voice vanished. In that flat desolate tone, she said "Don't ever use your ability on me. I'm fine. Just...realized something, that's all."
"Oh you're right as rain, you are," Finn said, shaking his head. "You're having us on. What's the matter?"
"It's a family thing," Alley said. "Anyway, Nate's doing the Hypnotist so I'll take the Mystic. Finn, you take the Monster and Jia, you get the Fortune Teller. Why? Because they're the ones unaccounted for. The Mystic and the Conjurer supposedly died when everything went to shit back in 2005. The other four members of the Circus remain at large, as far as we know. Let's not kid ourselves, we're in the HCP for a reason. The last couple of months have been fun but it's time to get to work."
"Won't it be a little obvious what we're up to?" Nate asked, astonished at the guild leader's suggestion.
"Ginger, you can bet the Dean knows why we're here. Most of the staff probably do too. Let's give them something obvious to look at. It'll keep attention off of the real work. Speaking of, it's time we get to that. Halloween's coming up this weekend. We'll make our move then."
"Move?" Finn looked at his peers in case they had more of a clue than he did.
Jia just sighed and said, "We're going to break into the HCP mainframe."