Tanner Creek was always peaceful.
Jia found her bench at the bottom of the trail, nestled beneath the tall willows overshadowing the riverbank. Forming one of the natural barriers of the campus, almost no one came down here and it had the merit of being a good ten degrees cooler than the surroundings. Now that the school year had reached November, the climate was in danger of actually reaching pleasant and possibly cold in the next few months.
She carefully sat down on the bench, making sure the weatherworn, slightly splintered wood didn't catch her skirt. Jia had put a little more effort into today's outfit and wore a nice cream blouse, a pearl necklace, gold earrings and a great pair of glossy black pumps. She'd even made herself up.
Eli would be by before too long and she wanted him to know he was worth making an effort for.
Jia checked her text messages while she waited. Nothing new from Flynn, unsurprisingly. He'd opted to handle the presentation part of their Ethics paper on the Fortune Teller, leaving her the paper. They both preferred it that way. Finding research material on the enigmatic Hero had been difficult. The Fortune Teller had been shy about media her whole career, shy enough to have appreciably hurt sales of her comics and action figures.
Her finger tapped the side of the phone as Jia's thoughts turned to Alley. The way the blonde girl reacted when the Fortune Teller had first come up in conversation last month had been beyond bizarre. Jia was reluctant to make judgments but, in hindsight, it seemed like she had something to hide.
"So, this is where you hide?"
The spoken words came in an eerie echo of her own thoughts and Jia visibly jolted at the interruption. She hadn't even heard anyone approach. Looking up, she saw him, Jason Wyngarde, in all of his silver-crowned glory. Those incredible nearly-white eyes seemed hard but the skin around those eyes wasn't creased with anger the way it had been last time.
"I'm not hiding," Jia said to her ex-boyfriend.
Jason turned his back to her as he took in Tanner Creek. He looked good dressed in a white polo shirt and tan slacks that accented a thin build turned into lean, hard muscle from HCP training. The sight of him made her ache in ways she wished were only a distant memory.
No matter what, he would always be her first. And the father of her son. For the rest of their lives, there would always be that much connection at least.
"I don't get you," Jason said at last, back still turned to her.
"You don't know me anymore."
"No, I mean I can't figure out your angle. I know the Suns are a pretty wealthy family but you have nothing on us. And yet you haven't asked for a thing, not even for Jake. You were pregnant, unmarried and under twenty despite being the daughter of a Senator and a big-time preacher and yet you kept me and my family out of the press coverage. I asked the Wyngarde attorneys if you had any court-mandated restrictions on, like, visitation rights or anything and they say no."
"Jason, what don't you understand?" Jia asked, confused and not liking the feeling.
"I've been nothing but an asshole to you." At last, her ex turned his model-like looks her direction and tear tracks ran down his cheeks. Her sympathy at the sight hit her stomach like a punch. "I was horrible to you, Jia. And you've just taken all of it without doing anything back. You could have but you didn't. My family has always been big on being Christians but I've realized recently that you're the only one I know who really acts like it. I want to say I respect that. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the way I freaked out on you and everything that happened last year. And this year. I'm sorry."
The apologies rolled over her like waves against a cliff, endless and unexpected currents against an immovable resentment and anger she rarely noticed was there. All at once, that cliff dissolved in those waves. All at once, the sight of the tears on his face moved her. She just wanted to wipe away that pain.
No one liked seeing someone they loved in pain.
Jia rose from her seat without thinking and took a step forward before she caught herself. She still loved him. Her body wanted to go to him, knew it belonged in the arms that opened for her. This was Jake's father. If the rift between them could truly be healed, their son would have the family he deserved.
But the thought of Eli held her back.
As if on cue, Jia's eyes went up the other path and found Eli standing there, watching events unfold. He was handsome with his combed back pale blonde hair and goatee. She couldn't see his freckles from here but they were one of his most endearing features. Other endearing features included a sense of reverence for God they shared, an abiding compassion for all human beings and an infinite patience for her insecurities.
Even now, Eli made no move to approach. She was his girlfriend, facing a man who could only be the ex who'd fathered her child and still Eli held back. Because he trusted her. And maybe because he cared enough about her to let her do what she needed to. If she embraced Jason after all, would he walk away? Probably. It was Eli's way to put her happiness over his own.
In that moment of thought, Jia took a step back from Jason and towards Eli.
"I'm sorry too, Jason," Jia said. "I never meant to hurt you. I want nothing but happiness for you."
"I want those things for you too," Jason said, taking a step of his own to follow. "I want to make everything I said and did up to you."
"Thank you. But I'm happy now, Jason. I'm...I'm seeing someone." She took a deep breath. "Eli. Eli Amsley. He's a junior, a voice major like me."
Jason's white eyes turned dark, cloudy with the onset of confused pain. With clenched fists, he looked up the path and at last spotted his blonde rival. Those white eyes seemed to go from dark to black, rage swelling within them. Or maybe not black. Red.
She reached out a hand to grab Jason by the shoulder and snatched it away, shocked at the searing heat of his skin. Air currents stirred around him, a heat mirage haloing him like a forcefield of incipient wrath. Steeling herself, Jia plunged her hand back into the aura and bore only mild discomfort as she caught his arm.
"Don't," she said.
"She was my girlfriend," Jason said, calling up to Eli, ignoring her.
"I know," Eli said back. If Jason was fire and rage, Eli was a slowly moving ocean of endless cool, calm water.
"You know we have a son together?"
Jason's anger broke slightly as the steady, unrelenting serenity in the blonde upperclassman finally got through to him. Enough for a more rational, if still ugly jibe. "So, what, you think her putting out's a sure thing?"
"I think you're speaking out of pain," Eli said, standing his ground higher up on the trail. "If you loved Jia the way I've come to, then we both know she deserves better than that."
The admission of her boyfriend's feelings only confirmed her own. Jia had never had an active romantic life. High school was all about being valedictorian and proving the Sun family name stood for excellence. Jason had been an unexpected surprise in his own way, a fellow Super with the same secret, the same faith in God and the same dynasty of unrelenting standards. But she loved him the way a well holds water, seemingly empty and dry until a torrent of emotions caused all her feelings to rise to the surface and flood the landscape of her life.
That same well within had filled to capacity for Eli. Those kind, respectful comments that held his feelings so carefully brought her own to the surface and now she had no doubt of how much she cared for him. How much she'd fallen in love with the gentle man.
When Jia glanced at Jason to do see what he would do, the white-haired man had frozen in place. Heat roiled the air around him, unmistakably artificial. Fear for Jason cut through the tidal plain of her feelings for both men, demanding a response.
So Jia stepped in towards Jason and pushed him into Tanner Creek.
The first-ranked man in the boy's HCP oofed from the unexpected shove, for she'd used a fraction of her additional strength to make sure he went in. Flailing his arms, Jason hit the water a moment later. A hissing steam rose at once from the surface that Eli hopefully didn't notice with the spectacle.
As Jason surfaced, Jia stepped up to the bank of the creek and looked down at him.
"I don't need you to make up anything to me, Jason," she said, as clearly and calmly as she could. "I'll always treasure the time we had. But I've moved on. You need to move on too."
Without listening to his response, Jia took the incline up the path until she reached the taller man waiting for her. Eli's face was somber but a lightness stole the severity of the expression, the hint of a smile turning up the corners of his mouth. He offered her a hand. Jia took it and let him lead her back onto campus.
It took several minutes for her to get the composure to talk. Jia knew she'd made a choice but her body thrummed with reaction. Old love coming back into reach at the same time she realized she had new love, it was a lot to process.
"Are you okay?" her boyfriend asked at last.
"I'm fine, Eli. I'm sorry for Jason. He's-"
"Not something you need to apologize for. I can tell life's been a struggle for him. I can only imagine how hard it must be to live feeling as little as possible because getting worked up means outing yourself as a Super. Love must have hit him hard. It's scary for anyone but even scarier for someone without the experience of feeling intensity, with so much to lose for that feeling. I hope he has the good sense to keep away from you now. For his sake, not just yours. Next time, he might be seen by someone who would turn him in."
Jia's initial pleasure at how understanding Eli was faded beneath her growing astonishment. Eli knew! He'd noticed the heat patterns around Jason, saw the way the water boiled when he'd fallen in. For all of Jason's astonishing ability and agility with his pyrokinesis, the HCP would drop him in a second if Eli reported him. Something it seemed the blonde, bearded man had no intention of doing.
"Thank you," she said, choosing the simplest of all possible responses to her surprising boyfriend.
"We're all at college to learn," Eli said, shrugging the gratitude off. "Most of the secret HCP isn't legal to drink yet, if they're our age. People seem to forget that people make stupid choices in college, all of us. It's how we learn to be adults. Jason has nothing to worry about from me." After a moment of further consideration, Eli said "Neither do you."
"Wh-wait, how did you-I mean, I'm not-"
"You've been discreet, Jia," Eli said, smiling in a way that warmed her like no sunlight ever could. "But your schedule's always had time you don't talk about. Your roommates all have an Ethics class together with you, which is a little odd, and Nate's not really the kind of man to voluntarily take a Gym class. When I put that together with knowing you dated a Super last year, it's not hard to figure out how the two of you met."
"You're assuming a lot," Jia said, swallowing hard.
"The only thing I'm assuming is that you feel some of what I feel for you, or you'd be with him instead of me." Eli's smile widened at the way her cheeks blushed. "You have nothing to fear from me. Ever, no matter what happens or doesn't happen between us. Do you feel up to dinner?"
"I'd adore dinner. You're not even going to ask what I can do, though?" Jia couldn't hide her surprise. Abilities tended to dominate conversations when they came up. She wasn't used to talking to someone more interested in her than in what she could do.
"I'm curious. Abilities have a way of overshadowing the more important things, though," Eli said, echoing her thoughts. "Like who you are, what you stand for, what you love and what you fear. I'm here for Jia, whether it's Jia the student, Jia the singer or Jia the Hero. Okay?"
But as they walked along the sidewalks of West Private University, Jia spotted a rock on the sidewalk and stooped to pick it up. As Eli noticed, she concentrated and promptly chiseled into it with a fingernail. Half a second later, she passed it over to him. In that fraction of time, she'd left an inscription across the surface in miniature print.
I love thee, as I love the calm
Of sweet, star-lighted hours!
I love thee, as I love the balm
Of early jes'mine flow'rs.
I love thee, as I love the last
Rich smile of fading day,
Which lingereth, like the look we cast,
On rapture pass'd away.
I love thee as I love the tone
Of some soft-breathing flute
Whose soul is wak'd for me alone,
When all beside is mute.
Eli studied the inscription for a moment. Then he slipped the rock into a pocket, squeezed her hand and kissed her cheek. There was no fear in those beautiful blue eyes of his, only wonder.
And as they walked to dinner, Jia marveled at how lucky she was.