Threat Level: N/A
Power Type: N/A
Danny learnt to take a punch training with super-folk. Even the shit ones managed to bring the hurt. Danny’s forearms stung from blocking Jose’s attacks, and his limbs threatened to pop out of their joints.
Left jab. Left jab. Right hook.
Danny had faced his opponent before. Jose’s abrupt change in stance and movements made him predictable. Jose ceased his bouncing, and pointed his left shoulder at Danny, raising his arms in a high guard. The angle put Jose’s solar plexus out of reach, but unguarded.
It’s a bait.
As predicted, Jose’s giant left fist came flying at Danny’s face. Blocking would hurt too much, so Danny dodged to his left, letting the fist fly past his ear. If he were facing anyone else, Danny would’ve retreated. After all, the position left him open to grappling. However, he knew that Jose sucked at it. So, he purposely slowed, letting Jose execute the next move in his favourite pattern.
When the second jab came at his face, Danny took a minute step backwards, putting him just outside of his opponent’s long reach. Then Jose’s scaly lips curled up into a smile and he bounced off his back foot, launching himself at Danny. Jose’s hips twisted and his right fist swung towards Danny’s face.
If the blow struck, Danny had no doubt about it knocking him unconscious. Jose had the benefit of reach and strength, after all. However, he was slow and predictable. Danny stepped into the attack, throwing up his left arm and avoiding the hammer-like fist. Fortunately, the scales on Jose’s inner arm were smoother and didn’t scratch Danny’s skin as he made contact around the elbow.
Feeling rather pleased with himself, Danny launched his right fist upwards into Jose’s abdomen, just below where his ribs met the sternum.
What the hell?
Despite the wrappings protecting Danny’s knuckles, they stung as his attack bounced off the scales. Jose’s natural chest armour had spread to the rest of his frontal torso. With his plan failed, Danny hopped backwards, rushing to put distance between himself and his opponent. Jose launched a low kick in retaliation, but Danny expected the counter and hopped over it. However, he failed to account for the reptilian man’s tail. It caught him across the stomach, wrapped around his torso, and tossed him across the sparring mat.
The awkward, uncontrolled landing forced the air out of Danny’s lungs, but he protected the side of his head from bouncing off the mat. He rolled onto his back, wheezing as his heart pounded out of his chest. Jose came running and fell to his knees next to Danny.
“I’m so sorry, mate!” Jose exclaimed. “That was much harder than I intended!”
“You learned how to control your tail.” Danny wheezed, accepting Jose’s help to sit up. Even though his skin stung from where the ridges on the tail had scraped his skin, Danny resisted rubbing at the irritation. However, when Jose offered to help him stand up, he accepted the offer.
“The Holonet has tutorials on improving control over prehensile limbs,” Jose answered, looking embarrassed. “They’re meant for newly awakened children.”
Jose stood a foot taller than him and had abnormally long arms. Because of his hunched posture, they almost reached his knees. Danny took pride in the fact he had Jose panting. At twenty-nine, Jose had eight years on him. He drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney. However, Jose’s new reptilian physiology put his physical capabilities far beyond anything a powerless individual like Danny could ever achieve.
“You’ve got that new armour, too,” Danny said, flexing his right hand. Scratches marked the knuckles. “Is that actual scale plating?”
Jose nodded. “Adaptive armour. That’s what Power Merchant calls it, anyway. He helped me figure it out. I can grow the plating over a minute or two wherever it’s needed.”
“That’s pretty amazing.” Danny’s brows furrowed as he imagined the possibilities. “That’s a pretty high-end Bruiser-type power.”
“Feels like every passing day my power develops further down the path.” The pair continued talking as they made their way to the locker rooms. “The plating comes at a cost of speed and flexibility, though. So, it’s not all good.”
Danny turned his back to Jose for a moment, pretending to look for a towel. Instead, he opened his tub of Cleric’s Salve inside his gym bag. He didn’t want Jose to see it. Danny worried using the ointment would make him appear weak. Applying the Fabricator-made paste to his knuckles and abdomen eased the stinging. The wounds would heal without scabs and leave no scars.
When Danny peeked over his shoulder, he was glad to find Jose scarfing protein bars out of his locker. The distraction let Danny swiftly apply Cleric’s Salve to his back, too, before covering himself with a shirt.
“So you’re working for Power Merchant now?” Danny asked after they were both out of their sparring shorts and fully dressed.
“It’s part of the deal,” Jose answered. “I couldn’t afford the entire Catalyst and Empower package, so I owe him three years of service. The pay is great, though.” He paused. At six-and-a-half-feet tall, Jose comfortably peeked over the lockers. After a quick glance around the changing rooms, he continued. “Legitimate businesses don’t come with pay or benefits as good as his entry package. I’m considering continuing with him in the long term.”
“But you’d be a supervillain’s minion.”
“I prefer henchman.”
“Fine. Henchman. Isn’t the risk a bit too high. Don’t you think he’ll send you on jobs that’ll get you killed or land you in prison?”
Jose shook his head. “The Power Merchant makes so much money he doesn’t need to engage in heists or fights. The general job details involve protecting his facilities and ensuring things don’t get out of control when meeting potential clients.”
“So it’s really a security job?”
“Pretty much.” Jose shrugged. “His facilities are… pretty much impossible to find, which makes that part of the job pretty easy. Besides that, I’m mostly an overpaid bodyguard. If I stay on after paying off my debt, my take-home will double.”
“What about the tax side of things?”
“According to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs I’m a manager at a storage warehouse near Finsbury Park.” Jose flashed a reptilian grin. After gaining his powers, Jose’s teeth and tongue had transformed, too. They were all pointed and near identical. “Honestly, it’s an amazing deal. Do you want me to make an introduction?”
“You can’t be serious.” Danny laughed as he put his shoes on. “I’m fine where I am.”
“Working as a punching bag and cleaner can’t pay particularly well,” Jose said. “Does your uncle even pay you for working in his kitchen?”
“No, but that’s just part-time, and he doesn’t charge me rent utilities—”
“How old are you, Danny?”
“Almost twenty-two,” Danny replied.
“You’re well past the average awakening age.”
“But the cutoff is twenty-three.”
“Power Merchant says that data is anomalous. Barely anyone awakens superpowers after twenty.” Jose placed a giant hand on Danny’s shoulder. “You’re a good fighter, mate. Before I underwent the procedure, you were kicking my arse every fucking week. Imagine what you could do with the Power Merchant’s help.”
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t thought about it.” Danny sighed. “You know I’ve wanted to join the League, don’t you? Working for the opposite side feels like the wrong way to go about that goal.”
“There are new heroes on the League’s rosters who owe Power Merchant favours. Think about it. You’re smart, Danny. You went to University. Speak three languages—”
“And your mixed martial art skills are no laughing matter. Apparently, I’m currently a D-rank Bruiser and have the potential to make it to C. You have no trouble holding your own against me. Imagine what you could do, Danny.”
“I don’t want you to give up on your dreams, and I’m not trying to trick you into a scam or trick,” Jose said. “There is no referral scheme with Power Merchant. I’d like to think we’ve become friends in the past couple of years. I just want what’s good for you.” He froze when the changing room door opened. Two men entered, talking and laughing. They wandered to the lockers by the showers, but their conversation carried across the room. “Just think about it, alright Danny?”
“I will,” Danny replied, keeping his volume low. “The offer does sound good. It’s just the reports say he works with more gangs and villains than heroes.”
“Who publishes the reports, though?” Jose asked. “Do you think heroes will admit they got their powers from a wanted man?”
Danny didn’t have an answer for Jose. Much to his relief, the phone in his pocket buzzed. It was the owner calling him to the office.
“I’ve got to go,” he said.
“Are you working tomorrow?”
Danny shook his head.
“I’ll see you when I see you, then.” Jose fished his wallet out of his locker and checked the contents. “Do you mind if I send you the session’s fees through Holopay?”
“Not at all.”
The pair bid each other good night before Danny left the changing room. He took his gym bag with him, hoping not to return to the changing rooms again. However, it wouldn’t surprise him if the owner asked him to stay behind to clean and close. It wasn’t the first time it had happened.
Since it was near closing time, only a handful of individuals occupied the gym floor. His students from the self-defence classes earlier in the evening had finished their practice and stood chatting by the water fountain. Meanwhile, a group of five men continued to train on the sparring mats. Two speedsters blurred as they dodged each other’s blows, playing tag instead of using actual technique. The other two involved a pair of bruisers. One featured four arms. His opponent looked like a short and skinny teenager who had no business facing off against a towering opponent. However, the boy blocked all four fists with little trouble and his punches staggered the opponent.
Not all Bruisers and Movers—speedsters, flyers, teleporters and other mobility-focused supers—experienced physiological changes. There was no guarantee the young man’s power set put him in either category, too. Projectors, Controllers, and Anomalies occasionally gained super strength as a side effect of their primary abilities. Danny believed it didn’t matter.
Powers or not, everyone living in Islington and Hackney needed combat or at least self-defence training. The League struggled to keep the two boroughs under control because of the heavy gang presence. Their absence made North-East land a haven for supervillains, too.
The two other on-duty employees had already started cleaning. One of them glared at Danny as he passed, but he ignored her. It wasn’t his turn and Danny didn’t intend to close unless the owner forced him to. The office sat at the top of a flight of rusting metal stairs, overlooking the gym floor. The door was closed but the owner’s voice called before he could knock.
“Come in, Danny.”
An old Holotop sat on the office desk. The owner paused the 3D video and put down his box of noodles as Danny entered.
“Everything okay, Sal?” Danny asked.
Sal pointed at the manilla envelope sitting next to the Holotop. Danny opened it, took the money out, and placed it in his wallet without counting. He returned the envelope to the desk before taking a seat.
“You’re doing well, Danny,” Sal said. “What’s that style you use? Muay Thai?”
“Mostly, yes,” Danny answered. “There is some Shotokan Karate mixed in, too. It helps with the bigger opponents.”
“Why not judo?”
“I never had the opportunity to train in it. Now, I really don’t have the time or money for much else.”
“Well, whatever you’re doing. You’re doing it well. There are more people signing up to the dojo for your self-defence classes. We’ve had a few powerless—or normal physiology folk—signing up to train under you. We might need you to take on more classes.”
“As long as I get paid for these classes and they don’t get in my way of training with powered folk, I don’t mind.”
Sal’s eyes narrowed, taking on an almost cat-like appearance. Even though time and age had resulted in his gut ballooning, Sal still had a fighter’s body. His powers as a rank-B Shifter had helped him climb London’s cage fighter scene a decade ago. Using various partial-beast transformations, Sal had made a name across multiple weight classes and categories. However, drugs, drinking and divorces had cost him his fortune. Now, he used his fading name to market the dojo and lived above it.
“We’re getting a new trainer for the heavy Bruisers,” Sal said. “You can keep your current clients, but he’ll get first priority on all D-rank Bruisers and above.”
“That’s bullshit, Sal!” Danny exclaimed. More expletives threatened to burst from Danny’s mouth, but he held himself back, focusing on slowing his breathing. “I made those classes what they are today.”
“But you can’t spar with the people that attend them and the solo demonstrations only go so far. I’m doing this for your own good, Danny. This idea of yours to force your body towards an awakening is stupid and will either get you killed or leave you crippled.”
Danny sat in silence, stewing. He had good reason to hide his scratches, bruises, aches, and pains. Since he had no powers, people like Jose and Sal considered him weak. They thought him delicate and said or did whatever in self-interest, but then said it was for Danny’s sake.
“Do you need anything else from me, Sal?” Danny asked. “Or am I free to go home?”
“You’re free to go,” Sal answered, after staring at him for several seconds. His nose twitched as he continued. “If you want to keep up the ‘I’m fine’ facade, invest in Healer’s Gel Six. It’s clear and has no smell. Anyone with bestial physiologies can smell Cleric’s Salve from across the gym. It doesn’t suit the image you’re trying to project. Even if you, by some miracle, awaken powers, let’s face it, your heritage makes it unlikely they’ll be suitable for fighting Bruisers. People of your…ethnicity don’t usually—”
“Good night, Sal,” Danny said, grabbing his bag and marching out of his office.
“Good night.” The older man sighed. “Close the door behind you.”
Danny pretended not to hear Sal. He pulled on his over-ear headphones and ran down the metal stairs. They creaked and clanked under his footsteps, and continued to hum even after he had stepped off them. Danny ignored the gym’s noises, employees and patrons. He rushed out of the exit and headed home. The meeting had soured an otherwise decent day, and Danny wanted nothing more than to go home and eat dinner.