Tasha stepped out of the shower with a groan, stretched her stiff arms behind her head for a moment, then trudged towards the sink to brush her teeth. The last two weeks had been weird. Deeply satisfying on some level, sure, but weird. Hideyoshi was a harsh trainer, and apparently, the dude knew a thing or two about super strength.
Her muscles ached. She hadn’t expected that, really. Ever since whatever low level regeneration her power allowed her had finally done away with the damage her body had suffered, she’d expected to feel fine. But no. The moment the bullet wound in her leg was gone, Hideyoshi had set her to running, strapping her body with weights, before sending her on laps of Central Park. When her knuckles had repaired themselves, he’d started teaching her how to punch, and when the last of the damage had finally faded away, he’d started teaching her how to wrestle… By controlling statues with his mind. Solid stone statues.
Tasha reached for the toothbrush, fumbled momentarily with the toothpaste, and lifted it to her mouth, trying to ignore the sight of her belly in the bathroom mirror. She began to brush, sparing an idle thought to maybe grabbing a late afternoon snack on her way out to meet with James. Then she froze.
Over the few years since becoming strong, Tasha had learned not to look at her belly too much; the sight tended to annoy her. The problem with super strength, as it turned out, was that it made the muscles all that much harder to strain, the heart included. She had done her best to ignore the ever-present teenage frog belly; those few inches of flab that had refused to shift, no matter how often she exercised. She had learned not to let it bother her too much. She was a superhero. She could take it.
Catching sight of it now, though, and finally seeing the changes her two weeks of hell had brought, was enough to make her double take. She stopped, the brush halting mid-stroke along her teeth, and slowly lowered her gaze to her belly. The flab was gone; some of it, at least; the faintest tracery of her musculature now visible beneath the skin. She lowered a finger to her belly, and poked it. It was firmer than she remembered. Experimentally, she tried flexing, then watched as her newfound six pack shifted shape in the mirror. She grinned.
“You invited someone to train with us?” Caleb asked, one eyebrow raised. “Who?”
“Friend of mine,” James replied. “About your age, I think. She’s pretty tough.”
“Heh,” Caleb chuckled. “Tough for you, maybe, kid. Some of us aren’t so squishy.” As he spoke, the older boy crouched down towards the small padlock that was the only security the old warehouse had to offer.
“Not a kid,” James grumbled back, standing guard while his not-quite friend did whatever it was he did to the lock. “I keep telling you that.”
“And I keep beating you,” Caleb replied, pausing for a moment as the lock clicked to flick it open. “I told you. You stop being ‘Kid’ when you can beat me in a fight.” With that, he took hold of the garage style door, and heaved it upwards. The rusted metal squeaked a few times as the disused frame was forced into motion, but it opened. James glanced inside. The place was just as grim-looking as last time.
Caleb had shown James the old factory on their second sparring session, sitting on a disused slab of land just a few blocks from his school. When asked how he’d found the place, the older boy had just shrugged, and told him that they needed somewhere big and empty to train in. James wasn’t sure he liked it. The floors here smelled of mold and rust. But it served well enough. He liked the way his power made the windows rattle.
“You remember what I told you last time?” Caleb asked, stepping inside and motioning the other boy to follow.
“Yeah,” James recited grudgingly, stepping in after him and drifting gently into the air. “Remember to keep myself moving and be aware of my surroundings. No more banging my head on the ceiling.” He frowned. That last part was easier said than done. Caleb was way too quick when he chased him.
“That’s it,” Caleb grinned, shrugging off his oversized jacket and shifting into a crouch. “Well, your friend’s not here yet. You wanna have a go while we wait?” He chuckled. “I’ll give you a five second start.”
James didn’t bother replying. He knew from experience at this point that Caleb was already counting those five seconds. Instead, he turned, glancing behind him at the stairway that lead from the low ceilinged storage room, to the spacious factory floor above. He shot towards it, pivoted as he came level with the steps, and ascended. The moment he was out of Caleb’s line of sight, he grabbed the waistline of his hoodie, tugging it up off of himself, as he drifted over the cluttered work stations of the factory floor, littered with the odd tool or machine that the owner of the place had either forgotten about, or simply never bothered to remove. Three seconds down. Two to go. He cast his eyes about, and found a spot, throwing his hoodie down over a toppled chair, partially hidden by a workstation. Then, he dove down behind a pillar on the opposite side of the room, just as the sounds of Caleb’s feet stamping on the steps reached his ears.
James ducked in behind his cover, not daring to look in case his pursuer should happen to glimpse him; he knew by experience now that Caleb had far better eyes than him. Instead, James extended his power out, reaching through the stale air of the factory floor towards the staircase, and tried to feel the other boy out. It took a moment, trying to find Caleb’s shape in amongst the barely moving eddies of the place, but eventually, he caught the trace; something in the rough shape of a person, the currents around its head shifting as it looked from side to side. James began building up the wind in the air above his foe, readying a blast.
After what couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, he felt Caleb’s shape dart forwards through the air, heading in what he was pretty sure was the direction of his hoodie. He grinned.
He waited less than half a second for the older boy to reach his diversion, before stepping out of his cover to line up his shot. He caught the briefest glimpse of Caleb as he ducked out; the older boy was already looking at him, an arm pulled back, ready to throw. He barely made it back into cover in time, releasing his stored up shot in a half aimed burst as he ducked away. He watched as the little rubber ball shot through the air in the space he had just vacated, before bouncing off of the nearby wall. That was way too close. Out in the main area, he heard something crunch as his blast connected… Then a laugh.
“Hah! You missed!”
“How’d you find me?” James whined as he pushed off from the floor of the warehouse and sent himself soaring up along the pillar’s length. “I was totally hidden!” Once more, he began building up another blast, keeping it high and open, ready to fire in any direction.
“You were,” Caleb’s voice agreed. “But you tried to fool me with a hoodie on a chair, and you chose the most obvious ambush point in the room to hit me from.” As the other boy spoke, a tiny orange blur zipped past the pillar to James’ left. Another bouncy ball. As he watched, the ball struck the wall, just as the previous one had, and bounced off, straight towards him. He threw himself to the side to dodge it, and realized belatedly that he was out in the open, his back to the room at large. He knew what would come next without even having to look. Caleb had probably already sent his follow up shot arcing through the air towards him.
Without sparing a moment’s thought, James fired off his blast, aiming this time for the air behind him, spending his one precious shot to knock the incoming projectile out of the sky. He turned, saw Caleb below him, and out of the corner of his eye, watched the rubber ball in question tumble to the ground below. Caleb didn’t waste a second, plucking yet another ball from the tub at his waist. James tried to be grateful for the balls. At least Caleb wasn’t throwing real weapons at him. Nevertheless, he was out in the open, and Caleb rarely missed when he had a clear shot.
He threw himself forwards through the air, dodging away from his cover; trying to throw off the other boy’s aim by going in a bad direction. It didn’t help. He felt the little ball ping off between his shoulder blades, and let out a frustrated groan.
“Nice try, little man,” Caleb laughed. “But you’re gonna have to be quicker next time, kay?”
James opened his mouth to retort, but never got the chance.
“Quicker, huh?” Asked a familiar female voice from the stairwell. “Sounds like fun. Mind if I try?”
Immediately, James felt his frustration lift a little.
“Hey, Tasha!” he called, giving the figure a wave as she climbed up to meet them, clad in an outfit that looked to James a lot like his father’s Jiu Jitsu gi. It had to be the cleanest set of clothes he’d ever seen her in. “How’s life?”
“Pretty good,” she grinned back. “Not gonna lie. It’s been nothing but steak dinners and training since the park. I feel friggin amazing!” As she spoke, the girl crested the stairs, a small backpack dangling from one hand, and cast her eyes around, catching sight of Caleb across the way.
“Yo,” she shot him a wave. “You the creeper who’s been teaching James stuff?”
“… Maybe,” Caleb replied, gazing back at her. “And you are?”
“I’m Tasha,” she answered, her tone dropping a note lower. “Heard there was training going on. Thought I’d come say hi.” James wasn’t sure how she managed to make those words sound threatening, but she did, her face shifting into a scowl.
“Uh,” James murmured, floating down slightly towards the girl. “Hey, Tasha? Is something wrong?”
“Wrong?” Tasha asked, shooting him a glace. “I dunno, James. Has this guy told you why he was at your house yet?”
James opened his mouth to reply, but Caleb got there first.
“No,” he murmured, frowning. “That’s something he earns when he beats me. You got a problem with that?”
James scowled. Tasha, for her part, dropped her bag lightly to the floor.
“Then yeah,” she said quietly. “I got a problem. See, to me, you’re just person number four in a line of random weirdos who started following my friends around. So, here’s what happens next. You tell us who you are, or I start punching. I’m good at punching.” She cracked her knuckles, and for the first time, James noticed that her hands were wrapped; bandaged up for a fight. Across from her, Caleb lowered himself a little, ready to move.
“Uh, guys?” James interjected nervously, drifting down between the pair. “Can you not? I didn’t want this to-”
“No,” Tasha cut him off. “Sorry, James, but you’re my friend, and I look out for my friends. This guy’s creepy.”
James opened his mouth to protest at that, then closed it again. She wasn’t wrong. He was pretty sure by now that Caleb didn’t mean him harm, but that didn’t change the fact that the older boy still hadn’t explained knowing where he lived.
After a few seconds spent failing to respond, James heard Caleb sigh behind him.
“So, I’m guessing you agree with her, then?” he asked. “Well, fine. Tell you what. Tasha gets the same challenge you did. She beats me, I spill the beans. Seems like the fair way to do this.”
“Sure,” Tasha murmured, rolling her neck. “I’m up for that.”
“… Can you at least promise not to hurt each other?” James asked, trying to quiet his concern.
“No,” the others replied in unison.
“Out of the way now, James,” said Tasha.
James hesitated, then, regretfully, he stepped aside. The moment he was clear, Tasha lunged.
Caleb was ready for her.