“All right, ladies and gentlemen, today we take the first steps toward mastering the fine art of battle,” Coach George said. It was Monday afternoon and the combat class was back in the same room as they had been on Friday. The debris has mostly been cleaned up, though a keen eye could still spot a few remaining signs along the ground.
“Not surprisingly, this will start with learning how to fight,” Coach George continued. “Now, I’ll take a minute here to make sure I’m clear. When I say fight, I don’t mean zip around, or turn the ground into fudge, or any other such bullcrap. That’s called strategy, and that comes later. When I say fight, what I mean is the ability to get the crap kicked out of you and the strength to knock the teeth out of someone’s head, which incidentally will be a test later in the year.”
Some of the students exchanged worried glances. A few days ago they would assumed he was joking, but after Friday...
“We’re talking about today, though, and this will be the same thing we do for the next several months, so I’d pay attention if I were you. The procedure is simple. I’ll call you out in pairs. You’ll find one of the many red circles located on the ground in this room. You’ll both step in the circle. You’ll beat each other senseless until the end of class. You’ll go get healed and come back fresh next time. Wash, rinse, repeat.”
“What exactly does this teach us?” Stella asked from her place in line.
“Two hundred pushups for speaking without being called on,” Coach George snapped at her. “That kind of crap might fly in the dean’s class, but I think you’ll find me a lecturer much less appreciative of interaction.”
Stella looked like she was ready to object for a moment, but her eyes wandered to one of the scorch marks from the last class’s brawl. A brawl in which she’d been trounced with ease. She got down and began doing the reps.
“Since Hawkins was smart enough to take her lumps and shut her mouth, I’ll answer her question,” Coach George resumed. “This is teaching you all the basics of fighting. Not the movements, not the reflexes, not the martial arts, the real basics. Hit and get hit. Be hurt and push through. Feel the painful impact of your knuckles on another person’s bones. Those are the lessons you can only learn through experience. Now, I know some of you have had those lessons firsthand already, but these are ones you can never really have too much of. So for now you learn to fight. Once you’ve all got that down pat, then we move on to how to win.”
Coach George examined the students looking back at him. They were a little worried, most of them seemed to still feel confident, though. After all, they were warriors and this was sparring. How bad could it be?
"I do have a few rules you should know about, though. First off is that if you get knocked out of the circle, your opponent will get to take a penalty shot at your face, a shot you will not dodge or block. Secondly is that I'm the one who determines your opponent each day, so don't bother me with requests. Sometimes you'll fight people better than you, sometimes worse, but I'll be keeping careful track of how you all do and making my choices to maximize everyone's education. Third, the fights go on until the end of class. If you're knocked unconscious, we'll grab you a healer and you'll get back at it. I don't care how much you ache or how tired you are; you fight to the end, no exceptions. Fourth is the last rule, the most important rule, and my personal favorite rule."
A large, unsettling smile crept across Coach George's face.
* * *
“I trust everyone completed the weekend’s assignment,” Coach Persephone said as the students fell into line.
There was a mumbling to the affirmative that was to be expected. Alice, for once, didn’t shoot her hand up to volunteer as an example. For some reason she’d felt all out of sorts since Friday night, unable to really focus on the assignment and come up with a cool experiment. She’d ultimately settled on trying to levitate just one part of herself, specifically her hair, Sunday evening. It had been even less successful than it was interesting or impressive.
“Rich Weaver,” Coach Persephone called out, pointing to a dark-haired boy with a goatee. “In what new way did you try to use your power?”
“I tried to seal a cat in its own mind,” Rich replied promptly. “I’ve never tried it on animals before.”
“Not much in the way of a new technique, but it was an honest attempt,” Coach Persephone said. “Did it work?”
“I’m not really sure,” Rich admitted. “The cat just sat there and stared at me, but it was doing that beforehand, too. Next time I think I’ll try a more active animal.”
“Good idea,” Coach Persephone agreed. “Britney Fletcher, what was your attempt?”
“I tried to make a force field,” Britney said.
Coach Persephone blinked in surprise. “I was under the impression your power was invisibility.”
“Then what would make you think that would in any way lend itself to sustaining a maintained field of defensive energy?” Coach Persephone asked.
Britney shrugged in response. “You said try something really different.”
“You overshot the goal a bit there, dear,” Coach Persephone told her. “All right, let’s move on to Nick Campbell. I trust after our little talk on Friday you decided to give your homework a try?”
“I did indeed,” Nick said. “I tried to use my power in a whole new way.”
“I tried to get laid,” Nick stated proudly. The silence that followed his statements lasted several seconds. Seconds that consisted of the others looking at him with a mix of entertainment, curiosity, and disgust from those who suspected the worst. Unfortunately, Coach Persephone’s particular expression fell into the last category. Nick at last acknowledged the stares by looking around and raising his hands.
“What’d I say?”
“You attempted to use your power, the thing that makes you a Super and places you in a class of elite beings more capable than any mere human, for sexual gratification?” Coach Persephone asked in a very strained voice.
“Dick’s not going to suck itself,” Nick replied.
“You used your gift to try and manipulate some unsuspecting girl into intercourse, and you have so little remorse you can make flippant jokes about it? Nick Campbell, I am very close to hurling you out of this class right now,” Coach Persephone threatened.
“Do what you have to do,” Nick replied. “But let’s get something straight. I did the assignment. I didn’t do anything illicit or manipulative, though. At our age sex is eighty percent pure chance of opportunity. I used my luck to heighten the probability of meeting a girl who found me to be a viable and desirable partner. No influence on anything but sheer chance. It was a valid attempt to try my power in a new way. I mean, hell’s bells, another term for sex is ‘getting lucky.’ I did exactly what you told me, lady, so don’t go getting too high on your soapbox.”
Coach Persephone’s lips were pressed into a thin line. The students nearest to Nick began edging away, just in case she let loose with more of the twitching on the floor power. Instead she released a long, deep breath.
“Were you successful?” Coach Persephone asked.
“Yes and no,” Nick said. “I probably could have been, but it turns out just finding someone who wants you doesn’t mean you’ll want them too.”
“True. Good job. And one more thing.”
“Yes ma’am?” Nick asked.
“You were right in that I was jumping to conclusions on what you’d done. You were also right to fully explain yourself before I acted. However, speak to me in a tone that disrespectful again and I’ll leave you a drooling piss-soaked mess on the floor,” Coach Persephone said with surprising evenness to her tone.
“Noted,” Nick said.
* * *
Coach George could see the desire to speak, to argue, to be contrary in the face of what he’d just told them. Hawkins was still on the floor pounding out her push-ups, though, and that was an audible reminder that unwarranted comments were not appreciated in his class.
“I know some of you are wondering why I would do this. Others of you have already put it together. For the sake of you dumber students I’ll explain. You’re going to fight people who are stronger and faster than you eventually. Right now I want you learning to fight at a base level. Powers come later, once you’ve proven you’re competent enough to handle them. We’ll use them, just not until you’re ready. Any questions?”
No one raised their hand. They were learning slowly, but they were learning.
“Good. When I call your names, grab your partner and get in a circle. Once everyone is assigned, the circles will glow red. Start smacking the shit out of each other and don’t stop until those bastards go dark. Clear?”
“Yes, sir!” This was yelled by a large majority of the students, almost instinctually. Coach George loved the sound of that chorus. It meant he was forging order from the chaos.
“Excellent. Castillo and Reid, pair up. Foster and Dixon. Riley and Wells. Reynolds and DeSoto,” Coach said, rambling off the names. He read quickly, leaving no doubt in his students’ minds that they were expected to move with just as much speed. There was a scramble as the students searched through somewhat familiar faces, trying to find their opponent and get inside a square as rapidly as their bodies would permit. Before long Coach George had reached the end.
“Sullivan, grab Hawkins when she’s done with her push-ups. Lastly, Daniels and Taylor report to me,” Coach George finished. Roy and Chad looked at each other with some confusion, but neither had any more idea of why they’d been singled out than the other.
“Okay everyone, you have five minutes before your circles glow. Shake hands, stretch, pray, or do whatever revs you up before a fight. I’ll be here watching when it starts, so make sure you come out swinging,” Coach George instructed them. He then turned his attention to Roy and Chad.
“You two follow me. I have a special place for you to fight.”
* * *
“Here’s the deal,” Coach George said once they had arrived at an even lower level. This one was as bare as the last, though on the ground were a series of red rings, each one within the last until the final ring that was only five feet across. “You two are now permanent training buddies. Shake hands, make nice, and find peace with it.”
“Works for me,” Roy said with a grin. “But why am I the only one who gets to pound on Blondie?”
“Because, dumbass, you have to use your powers when you train. It doesn’t do Roy any good if Hershel is the one learning the lessons,” Coach George explained. “And Taylor here has remodeled his whole body from the ground up. He can’t really just turn that shit on and off in the blink of eye. It works out, though, because you’re both strong enough to ring each other’s bells.”
“I don’t feel this will be adequate training for me,” Chad said. “He doesn’t offer me a significant challenge or the opportunity for learning.”
“Try letting him smash you in the face and work on your pain tolerance,” Coach George snapped at him. “It’s what we’ve got to work with, so I suggest you find a way to get some gain from it.”
“I’ll do my best,” Chad replied.
“Goody for you. Now, you two are going to start in the smallest circle. I have to be back upstairs to watch the others so I’ll review tapes of your training at night. When I think the time is right, we’ll move you to bigger circles.”
“Aw, why bother with that bullshit?” Roy complained.
“Because given enough room to move around, Taylor would utterly crush you at your current skill level like he did a few months ago. At least in close proximity you stand a chance of hitting a lucky blow,” Coach George told him.
Roy thought about yapping off again, then reconsidered. He really couldn’t have asked for better circumstances. He was training against the strongest guy in class every single day. There was no better way for him to improve than this.
“Fine, I guess it’ll do,” Roy said, walking toward the center circle.
* * *
“It’s Shane, right?” Vince asked as he and his opponent stared at other from within their circle.
“Right. And you’re Vince, the guy who can absorb energy,” Shane replied.
“Nice ability. Not to mention you must have some exceptional combat skills,” Shane continued.
“Thanks, I think. What makes you say that, though?”
“You were beaten in the first round but you still made eighth rank. You’ve fended off Michael multiple times despite his presence in the top three. And then of course there’s the fact that you’re fighting me,” Shane explained.
“I take it you’re good too, then,” Vince said, catching his meaning immediately.
“If not for the experience of fighting Chad I would have thought myself easily the best in our year,” Shane told him.
“I have heard he’s pretty talented,” Vince said.
“Talent has nothing to do with it. Chad Taylor is a man possessed. I’ve been working to be a Hero since I was a small child. I’ve been instructed in various forms of martial arts and had the opportunity to hone my power to a level of refinement it would take the others in this class years to match. And I still cannot match the intensity with which Chad trains for battle,” Shane said. “He lives and breathes it. His free time is spent thinking of new strategies and techniques. Even when he’s resting he trains new reflex sequences into his muscles. It is literally his entire life.”
“Wow, that’s amazing,” Vince said. “And kind of sad. I mean, there’s more to life than just fighting.”
“Perhaps. But he is the best, and we are not. So maybe we’re the ones who’ve taken a wrong turn,” Shane pointed out.
Vince would have said more, but the soft hum from behind him was the only warning he got that the circle was beginning to glow.
“Good luck,” Vince said.
“Move swiftly and surely,” Shane replied.
* * *
The first clash lasted only seconds. Before Roy could even blink, Chad had drilled him in the ribs and knocked him on his back. He didn’t press the attack, surprisingly. Instead he took a few steps back and allowed Roy to climb to his feet.
“Thanks,” Roy said as he rose. “But you didn’t have to do that.”
“Kicking you mercilessly while you lie on the ground isn’t really a great learning experience for either of us,” Chad said.
“True,” Roy agreed, rushing him. Chad slid out of the way with ease, catching Roy’s shoulder and putting him right back on the ground. Roy pulled himself up again.
“Listen, I don’t do this often, but something’s been bugging me,” Roy said once he was up.
This time Chad stepped forward and caught Roy in the sternum, sweeping out his legs at the same time.
“What’s that?” Chad asked as he looked down.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry,” Roy replied, rubbing his chest as he got on his feet. “I’m sorry I insulted your power before. I still think mine is stronger, but I’ll admit yours is a lot more impressive than I would have guessed.”
Chad closed the gap between them and punched Roy in the jaw. As Roy’s head reeled to the side, Chad grabbed his right arm and hurled him over his shoulder. This time he didn’t just land on the ground, he was slammed there with an impact that left concrete chips on his shirt.
“Apology accepted,” Chad said in his usual even tone.
* * *
Vince and Shane were both dripping in sweat as they gasped for air, circling one another.
“You’re better than I expected,” Shane complimented him.
“You, too,” Vince agreed.
Each boy was covered in small gashes and bruises. They’d put each other down several times and taken the fight to the concrete more than once, but neither had managed to get so much of an advantage that he could own the day. Plus, they had been unable to drive each other out of the ring even a single time.
“You look tired,” Vince told him.
“You look exhausted,” Shane replied.
“I think the others are about out of gas,” Vince noted, watching the lackluster battles around the room. It might not have been so bad if they hadn’t done the usual two hours of hard training before this part of class.
“That your way of asking me if we can softball it ‘til the clock runs out?”
“Not in the slightest,” Vince replied. He dashed forward, sweeping at Shane’s legs. Shane stepped back on his right foot, bringing his left swinging for Vince’s head. Vince moved his whole body with the blow, doing a half flip only a few inches above the ground and driving his legs into Shane’s chest. Shane dropped to his knees rather than have the momentum send him sailing out of the ring, and both boys scrambled to get to their feet.
“Not bad,” Vince said to Shane as they both sucked in air.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Shane replied.
* * *
“You’ve gotten better since last time,” Chad told Roy as Roy dragged himself from the ground.
“I get better hang time in the air?”
“No, you’re thinking when you come at me now. And your reflexes have improved. Not much, but some. You’ve been learning some martial arts,” Chad said.
“Guilty,” Roy replied, swaying slightly. “Lot of good it’s done me.” He hadn’t landed a blow on Chad yet, and Chad was hammering away at him every time they came together. Roy was resistant to damage, of course; however, Chad dished out enough to cover that gap and more. In truth, Roy knew the only reason he was still conscious was simply because Chad didn’t want to knock him out, and that knowledge made him want to crush that blond bastard even harder.
“It’s a process. You should keep that in mind. Steady groundwork is what bears results,” Chad told him.
“I’ll make sure to remember,” Roy replied, stumbling forward. He was too slow, he knew it as soon as he was moving. Chad would capitalize. Sure enough, rather than use a quick series of blows to knock Roy down, Chad instead took a step forward and smashed him in the forehead with a powerful kick. Roy saw static all around him, and when his vision finally cleared, he was on the ground again. It was beginning to have a familiar, almost homey feel.
“Just stay down already,” Chad told him. “I’ll go fetch a healer and we can tell Coach George that this won’t work because you can’t keep up with me. By this time tomorrow we’ll both have people more appropriate to our skill level.”
“Fuck you,” Roy spat out, along with a bit of blood.
“I beg your pardon? I was trying to show you mercy.”
“You were trying to show me condescension,” Roy sneered, getting up for what felt like the billionth agonizing time. “Yeah, you’re faster than I am, and more skilled than I am, and a hell of a lot better practiced than I am, but who cares?”
“Off handedly, I’d say your battered body. Don’t get the wrong idea here, Roy. I’ve been going easy on you. This can get much worse.”
“Blondie, there’s a few things you should know about me,” Roy said as he found his shaky footing. “I love whiskey, dumb blondes, and my momma. I don’t welch on bets and I don’t cheat at pool. And I never, repeat, never give up.” Roy locked eyes with Chad and gave him the legendary Daniels’ family grin. “Now bring it the fuck on.”
To his credit, Roy stayed conscious for the rest of the fight, even if a part of him truly wished he hadn’t.