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.