Chapter 15 – Friendly Worries

3 Days Later

A careful exhale, a slight twist of the foot.

Squared shoulders and bent knees; one fist in front of the other.

Another breath, in, and out.

A quick scan of the room — no one around.

Eyes forward again, focusing on the one thing before him: a large cylindrical bag, hanging from the ceiling by a chain.

Alright… let’s see what I can do.

First a jab, then a right hook. Pierce drew back slightly, watching the bag swing before glancing down at his fists. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and then returned his attention to the punching bag in front of him, at which point he began to step up the pace of his hits. A left punch, then a right; two more, three more, four. Each time, keeping careful control over the speed of his punches, and how hard he hit the bag.

A good twenty hits later, Pierce stopped to take a deep breath and step back. He wasn’t accustomed to using his arms in quite this manner — he was a track runner, after all. Most of his arm-based workouts were centered around building general strength, rather than fighting skill or punching ability. Yet three days ago, he had realized a crucial weakness of his: he had little ability to control his newfound superspeed when used outside of the normal context of running or jumping.

Maybe I should take a martial arts class, he mused as he squared up in front of the punching bag again. There’s supposed to be a Karate class during the fall term, isn’t there? I should see about adding it…

Pierce focused momentarily on the bag again, starting a new set of punches before his thoughts began again to drift. Since his run-in with the hooded burglars in an alley three days ago, he had moved back to his dorm at Caltech in preparation for the new academic year. Classes still wouldn’t start for another week, but various athlete and new-student orientations were already running, and upperclassmen were already returning to set up their dorm rooms and get to know the incoming freshmen. Pierce himself was curious to see if there were any interesting new students to meet, but before that, he wanted to get some training out of the way — and he wanted to do it without anyone watching him. So here he now stood, in one of the training rooms of the school’s athletics complex, punching a bag at 7 in the morning while no one was watching.

The odd sound of tearing leather snapped Pierce’s attention back to his surroundings, where he found his right fist embedded within the bag hanging in front of him. With lips pursed in irritation, he carefully withdrew his hand; he opened and closed his fist a few times, checking that his hand was fine, and then looked at the punching bag’s new hole. …Well, shit. Guess I should leave before someone sees that. He sighed wearily and looked down at his hands again. It’s no surprise that I can ‘simulate’ superstrength with superspeed, when it comes to striking power at least. Force is just mass times acceleration, after all, and I have tons of acceleration. But to see it like this… I really need to be more careful. Damn, is this what all superspeed Chaotics have to deal with? Is this what Trenon had to deal with…?

“Oh, wow, did— did you do that?”

“Huh?!” Pierce jumped and spun around, his eyes wide with surprise. Standing across the room in the entrance was a young woman with blond hair, tied back in a ponytail. She appeared to be around average height for a woman, and the workout clothes she was wearing made it clearly evident that she had an athletic build — not too unlike a runner’s, in fact. Huh, is she aiming to try out for the track team? …She’s certainly cute. Not a bad ass, either. Looks kinda familiar, too. …Wait, shit, she saw me, didn’t she—?

“Hey, are you…” The woman squinted at Pierce for a moment before her eyes lit up, as though with recognition. “You’re… Pierce Bradley, aren’t you? The star of the track team, as they say?”

“…Why, yes, I am,” Pierce replied, as he adjusted his posture to straighten his back, broaden his shoulders, and plant his feet at shoulder width. He crossed his arms and nodded toward the woman with a confident smirk. “‘Star’ might be a bit much, really, but, hey. I just try my best, is all.”

The woman giggled. “Wow, modesty? I have to admit, that’s not quite what I expected from what I’ve heard about you.”

“You can’t always trust the rumors, you know,” Pierce replied. “Sometimes, the truth is a little different.”

“Maybe, but I could understand either way. I mean, I could hardly blame you for having a bit of an ego when you can do the 100 meter dash in just under ten seconds.”

Pierce chuckled. “Oh c’mon, I don’t have an ego, per se. I prefer to think of it as a… massive reservoir of self-confidence.”

The woman giggled again, and then approached with her hand out. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Andra.”

“Andra? Nice name,” Pierce remarked as he firmly grasped her hand and shook it. “…Sounds vaguely familiar, actually. Have we met?”

“Uh, no, not really,” Andra replied bashfully. “I have a few friends on the track team, but I doubt they talk about me much.”

“A few friends on the team?” Pierce took the opportunity to look her over head-to-toe again. “With a build like that, I say you ought to be on the team yourself.”

“Oh! Thanks!” She grinned broadly. “I recently decided to start training for it, so I can join when the season starts. I’m glad to hear you approve!”

“…Oh, I think I recognize you now!” Pierce snapped his fingers and pointed at her, his eyes lit up in recognition. “You’re one of Kieran’s buddies, aren’t you? I think I’ve seen the two of you hanging out together around campus. Now that I think about it, he did mention something about trying to convince one of his friends to join the team. I take it that’s you?”

“Ha ha, probably.” Andra’s smile broadened further, as though she were glad that Pierce recognized her. “…Ah, but Kieran and I are just friends, you know? We aren’t, like… together.”

Pierce raised a knowing eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“Uh, yep!” She nodded; as she did so, Pierce couldn’t help but notice that her cheeks were flushed.

Well, now he mused, a smirk crossing his face, this seems like it could be an interesting year

“A-anyways!” she continued, “I just thought I’d, you know, introduce myself. I didn’t really expect to see many people around here this morning… especially not the star of the track team putting holes in punching bags.”

“Ah, well, you know…” Pierce chuckled uneasily as he glanced back at the bag. “I just decided to, you know, check out the sports equipment. It’s a new year, after all, gotta make sure everything’s still up to snuff.”

Andra smiled and nodded toward the bag. “I guess that one didn’t pass, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s a real shame…” Pierce stepped back toward the bag and gave it a slight kick, at which point some of the filling began falling out of the hole. “I guess this bag was just, uh, old and rotting, or something.”

“I mean, even if it is, it’s still pretty impressive to punch a hole in one.”

“Well, hey, I won’t deny that. Still, though…” Pierce glanced toward the room’s entrance; he could see the occasional person passing by, but it didn’t seem like anyone else had noticed the bag. “…Let’s keep this between the two of us, huh? I don’t want to steal all the attention, you know.”

Andra giggled. “If you say so!”

Pierce smirked in response. “Glad to hear it. Though, while you’re here — ah, hold on a sec.” He glanced down at his watch, which had just vibrated, signaling a new notification. After a quick swipe of his finger, his brow reflexively furrowed — the notification was a message from Phoenix. Oh, great. The hell does she want?

“…Is something wrong?”

“Huh? Oh, no.” Pierce shook his head and returned his attention to Andra. “It’s nothing important, just an… old annoyance. Anyways, as I was saying—”

Once again, he was interrupted by his watch buzzing, though this time it was a sustained series of loud vibrations. Annoyed, he glanced down at it and saw that a call was incoming. Is this Phoenix again? Of all the timing

“…I guess I should let you take that, huh?”

“Oh, no, it’s fine, it’s fine!” Pierce urged as he dismissed the call — only for his watch to begin buzzing again a second later.

“That’s an… interesting definition of ‘fine’,” Andra remarked, and began making for the room’s exit. “Sorry about my timing.”

“No, not at all,” Pierce replied. “But, uh… well, talk to you later!”

Andra smiled and waved back at him just as she stepped out of the room.

Pierce maintained a strained smirk until she was out of sight, at which point his expression rapidly collapsed into a scowl. “Damn it, Phoenix…” In a huff, he stomped over to his bag at the side of the room and yanked out his phone, irately pressing the ‘answer’ button as he did so. He then held the device up to his ear. “The fuck do you want?”

«That’s how you greet me? Seriously?!»

“Do you have any idea how utterly bad your timing is? I was in the middle of talking with this cute chick, you know that?!”

«You’re mad because I interrupted you flirting?!» Phoenix’s voice dripped with incredulity before switching to pure frustration. «Damn it, Pierce, I knew you couldn’t be trusted to keep your priorities straight!»

“The hell are you on about?”

«You’ve been using your abilities, haven’t you?»

Pierce’s brow furrowed in confusion. How the hell does she know? She’s way over in Boston. …Wait a fucking second. Kestrel ratted on me, didn’t she?!

«Answer the question!»

“I somehow doubt you’d believe me if I said ‘no’,” he retorted.

«Damn it, Pierce! Didn’t we all agree specifically to not use our powers? At least until we had a chance to meet up and talk about it?»

“All I remember agreeing to was not getting into trouble — and I haven’t, I’ll have you know.”

«Knowing you, it’s only a matter of time until you do, unless you stop now

“I didn’t know that you could order me around.”

«This is for your own good, Pierce! Can’t you see that?»

“My own good, my ass. You know what using my powers is good for? Saving other people!”

«Don’t try to fool me. You’re no altruist, we both know the only reason you want to save people is for the attention.»

“Oh fuck off. If you want to squander your newfound power, then fine, I don’t fucking care. But the way I see it — what’s the point of having this power if we don’t use it?”

«If you do use your power, you’re liable to get SERRCom on your ass. Hell, I bet the two of us are especially at risk of that, since we literally just got back from a SERRCom-sponsored program!»

“So?”

«Do you seriously not see what I’m saying here? You run the risk of getting drafted, Pierce! SERRCom’s already done it once, with those four Chaotics from Texas, so we know they’re willing to do it. And the way I see it, being forced to use my powers for a military purpose is worse than not using them at all.»

Or, you could just use them in a way that will never lead to SERRCom discovering who you are.”

«If you seriously think that you can do that, then I don’t know what to tell you. It only takes one slip up to lose everything, you know. And once SERRCom is after you, there’s no where you can hide. Surely you at least know that

“This is fucking stupid. Can you imagine if everyone thought the way you did? The only reason I’m still around right now is because of Trenon, you remember that?!”

A momentary lull passed as Phoenix failed to respond, during which Pierce realized that his heart rate had risen considerably. He took a deep breath and sat on the floor in an effort to calm himself and ignore the dull throbbing in his torso, and as he did, Phoenix finally responded.

«Look… I’m not trying to diminish what… what Trenon did, or what people like him do,» she stated, her voice calmer than before, though still tense. «But the fact of the matter is, if no one used their powers, then there wouldn’t have been a berserk Chaotic tearing up the city, either. Trenon would still be alive.»

“Bitch please, are you trying to say that me using my powers is going to get someone fucking killed?!”

«That’s not entirely my point, but it could! Don’t try to pretend that it couldn’t!»

“You—!” Pierce began to respond, but stopped as the image of an unconscious woman, slumped to the ground after he had knocked her out, crossed his mind. Phoenix didn’t know it, but Pierce’s own experiences had already proved her correct — though he would be loath to actually admit as much out loud. He scowled, his brow furrowed in irritation; he wanted to argue, but there was no ground for him to stand on. Unless… “…You know, people only die in accidents like that because other people get careless. Chaotics that use their powers responsibly don’t go berserk, I’m sure you know that.”

«You can’t honestly be saying that you’re using your powers responsibly.»

“You can’t know whether I am or not because you aren’t fucking here. But even if I’m not, I have to actually practice my powers if I want to get good enough to not put other people in danger. It’s just like track training.”

«‘Just like training’ my fucking ass! You can’t accidentally kill someone by running on a track!»

“No, but you can if you do stuff like shot-put or javelin throwing wrong. And guess which one of us does those events?”

«You…! I can’t believe you. Nothing gets through to you!»

“Sounds like you’re just mad I turned your argument around on you.”

«I’m mad because you won’t listen to reason, you stupid dumbass! Fucking… whatever. If you end up getting drafted, or even getting yourself fucking killed, I don’t care. Just don’t drag the rest of us down with you!»

Pierce opened his mouth to respond, but before he could, the sound of Phoenix hanging up reached his ears. An irritated sigh escaped his lips as he removed his phone from his ear and glared at it. That bitch thinks she can order me around, just because we’re old friends or something. Hmph! I’ll show her she’s wrong… He then tossed his phone into his bag, zipped it up, and heaved it up onto his shoulders. Though for now, I have more pressing matters to attend to. Like where Andra went. Shit, I don’t even know what house she’s in. I guess I can ask Kieran…

With that, he turned around and set out for the exit of the gym, prepared to face whatever else the day or upcoming week would throw at him.

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