Chapter 20

"I think Alley's gay," Amara whispered.

Jia froze, then finished fastening her bra back on and buttoned her blouse. The two girls had lockers right next to each other in the girl's locker room and, after Gym, showers were mandatory. Jia felt exhausted, freshly scrubbed and ready to face the world. Right now she also felt confused.

"No she isn't." Jia closed her eyes, concentrating on the last month spent together. "Why do you think she's gay?"

"A couple things Finn's said. Not really said, hints?" Amara pursed her full lips and applied lipstick. "Okay, it's just an impression I have. Like, he laughed when I asked Finn if it was weird rooming with three girls and he said it was really only rooming with two. Or you know how they seem to be really good friends? I asked him about it and the way he laughed it off...and have you ever seen her show any interest in boys at all?"

"I haven't really paid attention," Jia admitted, borrowing Amara's lipstick just to be fancy.

...I threw a wish in the well
Don't ask me I'll never tell
I looked at you as it fell
And now you're in my way...

Both girls giggled as the strains of Alley's alto rang out from the shower stalls. Glancing around, Jia saw smiles on the faces of the rest of the females still here. Shaking her head in disbelief, the slim Chinese girl started on her makeup while Alley serenaded the whole locker room with Carly Rae Jepsen from the shower.

"Jesus, is she like this all the time?" Amara asked, looking doubtfully in Alley's direction.

"You have no idea." Jia was still distracted by her friend's observation. "I wonder if she likes anyone in our class."

"Hopefully sharing a room with Julie will give her the wrong idea about you two and keep her at bay," Amara said, smirking.

"That's not funny." Jia smiled a bit though.

Just as Jia finished combing out her now-dry hair, Alley literally slid down the row of lockers right past her, clad only in a towel and trailing water. The tall blonde spun in the midst of sliding, turning like an improbably balanced ballerina. Jia's mouth dropped when the other girl actually lifted a leg and did a pirouette, the towel just barely keeping her decent.

Your stare was holding
Ripped jeans, skin was showin'
Hot night, wind was blowin'
Where you think you're going baby?

Alley skidded to a stop against the back lockers, now the center of attention for the two dozen ladies still here. Retucking her towel, she lifted her hands dramatically. Seeing everyone frozen, Alley lifted them higher and almost popped out of her towel. "Well?" she called out with a giant grin.

Hey, I just met you and this is crazy
But here's my number, so call me maybe
It's hard to look right at you baby
But here's my number, so call me maybe

On cue, most of the women burst into song with her as Alley launched riotously into the chorus. Jia couldn't stop laughing long enough to really contribute much but the other woman's joy was infectious. The song made it to the end at last and the locker room degenerated into a cacophony of cheers, whistles and applause mixed with fits of giggles.

"Where the hell does she get that much energy," Amara said, staring in frank admiration. "Two and a half hours of Gym and she's dancing? God, I hope she's not gay. I don't want to have to listen to two girls sing harmony all night if I end up staying over with Finn."

"You're terrible," Jia said, snickering despite herself. "Hey, how are you two doing anyway?"

"Um. Fine." The blush was telltale. "Okay, way better than fine. I think tonight might be the night. I mean, I hope it is. I think I'm ready."

"Oh that'" Jia blushed as well and turned back to her locker to get her purse. "I'm happy for you both," she managed.

"Me too! Oh, who are you doing for the Ethics assignment?"

"Doing?" Jia's mind was still stuck on the previous topic and she was immediately horrified until comprehension dawned at last. "Mmmm. I'm not sure. I mean, it could be anyone, right? It's just an interview of a mundane on the impact Supers have made in the world. The hardest part will be making it casual. I don't want anyone thinking we're...I don't know, who interrogates people about Supers? It's weird."

Amara just hugged her friend, picked up her own purse and hopped her way out of the locker room. Distant strains of Call Me Maybe hummed by various ladies slowly made their way out. Jia shook her fist at her roommate's oblivious back for getting that song stuck in her head.

"You're welcome," Alley said, not bothering to turn around so she could at least pretend she'd known about the fist shake.

Jia took a lift to the surface and immediately regretted the blouse. It was nice but the afternoon heat had turned up the daily temperature from unpleasant to roasting. She hurried across shimmering asphalt and waved off an offer of a ride from some too-friendly frat boy.

Instead, she found the small trail she'd discovered last week tucked away behind Kennedy Hall, where the music department was based. Almost immediately the temperature dropped as the sound of rippling water rose. Jia was careful not to smudge her nice pumps as she navigated the slightly damp packed soil of the trail heading downwards. Above, tall heavy willow trees cast thousands of their slender branches to fall like rain just above her head. The rustle of a million leaves filled the air louder than the creek below.

At last, Jia reached the quiet sanctuary of Tanner Creek and walked along the shore in search of her favorite bench. Tanner Creek Trail was a campus walkway but rarely visited by most students so she expected a great deal of privacy and peace here.

She almost sat down at her favorite bench when she realized it was already occupied.

"No, go ahead." The slender blonde man already seated there gestured to the rest of the bench. He'd taken up only the far right, leaving her plenty of room.

Slightly discomforted, Jia gave him a grateful nod and seated herself. The two shared some minutes in mutual silence. Jia normally came down here to pray and almost felt comfortable to close her eyes and do so when she peeked his way. The man had a pale straw-blonde color to his combed back hair, revealing a high forehead and a remarkably smooth complexion decorated only by a faint smattering of freckles and a well groomed goatee. Beards didn't do much for Jia but she had to admit it looked good on him.

His own eyes were closed, head slightly bowed. As she watched, his lips moved silently. Had he come to pray too?

As if on cue, his eyes opened, revealing a beautiful shade of blue. Then came a smile. "I'm sorry, am I making you uncomfortable?" he asked gently.

Jia shook her head.

"I'm Eli Amsley."

"Oh. Jia Sun." She offered her hand to shake. He did so with dignity and gravity, though not without that gentle smile. "I'm sorry if I'm disturbing you, I can leave if you want."

"'Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up'."

"That's Ecclesiastes!" Jia said, unable to hide her delight. "'Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken'." She smiled in fond memory of a time when that had been true. Jason, Jia and Jake, the perfect cord of three strands. It was such a nice fantasy.

"It's one of my favorite scriptures," Eli said. "It's nice to see someone else with an interest in the Bible. I assume you're here for homework, though."

Jia followed his gaze to her lap where she'd set her purse with its tablet sticking out prominently. Her hand fell over the device, sheltering it from his sight. For some reason, bringing up worldly things instead of spiritual things felt inappropriate. Like this place was a church.

"That depends on if you mind being interviewed by a complete stranger," she said, smiling shyly.

"Not a complete stranger," Eli said, holding up a palm to face her. "We had Chamber Choir together last year."

"Mmmmm, that's right, you didn't have the beard." Jia's shyness melted away and she grinned. "When did you grow that?"

"Over the summer. There's never a better time for a beard than college. I only have two years left so I'm running out of time." He rubbed it self-consciously. "Is that the first interview question then?"

Jia giggled and held up one finger to pause the conversation. Then she pulled out her tablet and opened up her files until she found the file the Dean had sent to all of them. Eyes skimming down the page, Jia nodded once. Nothing too strange or unusual.

"It's about Supers, is that okay?" she asked. He nodded. "Okay, who was the first Super you ever met?"

The corners of Eli's eyes crinkled as he smiled. "My parents actually."

"Were they Heroes?" Jia asked, surprised to find such a personal history in someone she hadn't expected to meet.

"My Dad was. Mom worked for the government. They weren't...they weren't together when I was born. I mostly grew up with Dad."

"Okay." Jia drew her tablet's pen and swiftly wrote notes on what he said as he talked. "What impact, if any, have super abilities made on your life?"

Eli leaned forward and scratched his bearded chin. "Well, my parents wouldn't be who they are if not for their abilities. Same with me, I guess. It's impossible to be a Hero's kid and not have that affect you. Every time Dad went to work, I had to face the possibility he wouldn't come back. Also, growing up the son of a Hero is complicated in other ways. I can't tell you who they are, obviously, but let's just say I always listened to Dad and never tried to fool Mom."

"Mmmm, I understand. My father's a Super too. Not a Hero. I remember growing up wishing I could do what he could. How about you, did you-"

She stopped, trapped by the indelicacy of the question. Thankfully, Eli just laughed at her predicament and took no offense. Instead he leaned back on the bench and stretched a little, having apparently been here for a while.

"I didn't come to West Private for its Hero Certification Program, no. Not that I could tell you if I had. Or vice versa, I suppose?" He smiled to show it wasn't a question that weighed heavily on his mind. "No, I just love to sing. It's the only thing that was really my own, you know? And when I came here, I really needed a fresh start. West Private let me start over, work on becoming the man I want to be. I'm not sure if any of that makes sense..."

"I do," she said before amending it with "It does. I mean, it makes sense. Um, last question. How do you think the world would be if there were no Supers?"

"Worse off," Eli said without hesitation. "Don't get me wrong, there's been plenty of disasters caused by abilities. Plenty of good things as well. I once met a girl who could cause flowers to bloom out of anything. Last I heard, she'd joined a non-profit who went into damaged or polluted areas and covered everything with flowers. It usually took a few applications but she was on her way to reclaiming land damaged by chemical spills or volcanic eruptions. With this economy, you think anyone would ever get around to spending the money it'd take to do that otherwise? To say nothing of Heroes like Hurricane who can actually break up storms when they get near Florida. Think of how many homes and how many lives are saved every year."

"That's very optimistic," Jia said, smiling. "Thank you, Eli, we're done. I wish I had time for Chamber Choir this semester. It'd be nice to see more of you."

Eli reached into a backpack he had next to the park bench and pulled out a binder. He took out a pen, opened up the folder and quickly scribbled something on a sheet of paper. Ripping it out, he folded it in two and passed it her way. Mystified, Jia unfolded it to see Eli Amsley's name written out with a phone number below.

"Just asking for your number feels crass," Eli said, stowing the binder in his pack and standing up after slinging it over his shoulders. "Thank you, Jia, for a nice early evening but I need to get to get some dinner before homework tonight."

Jia sat on the bench until her stomach grumbled. The slip of paper lingered in her hands, reluctant to leave them for a pocket or her purse. Jia rubbed the material between her fingers and tried to figure out how she felt about it.

Jason, Jia and Jake: The threefold cord. Only Jason didn't want it. He didn't want her or Jake.

A minute later, Eli got a text message from her inviting him to lunch tomorrow.