Chapter 71

"So I'm the last one then?" Hershel asked.

"Correct," Mr. Transport confirmed. "Alice again elected to drive back, Nick did the same, Vince never left and Mary requested pickup yesterday."

"Nick drove back? He doesn't have a car."

"I suspect that changed over the break," Mr. Transport said. "Are you ready to go?"

"Almost; I just have to run upstairs and grab one thing," Hershel said, darting up those steps with vigor.

Hershel and Mr. Transport had been sitting in the Daniels' living room. Christmas break would be over in a few days and this was the date Hershel had submitted to be picked up. He was excited and nervous. It would be great to be back at Lander, but time spent there could hardly be considered relaxing or predictable. A few weeks at home had left him restless, though, and he was anxious to see his friends once more.

"Thank you for bringing back Hershel," Mrs. Daniels said, walking into the room and setting down a tray of cookies. "It saves us quite a bit on airfare."

"Glad to do it," Mr. Transport said politely.

"Well, please help yourself to some sweets anyway. I appreciate what you and the other man have done for my boys all year," Mrs. Daniels said with a smile. She proffered her hand and Mr. Transport willingly accepted. He was surprised, though; he had expected a delicate shake but instead was treated to a surprisingly firm grip choking his fingers.

"Um, Mrs. Daniels," Mr. Transport tried to begin.

"I'd also like you to know Hershel told me about your little extracurricular test on the mountain, and I am not altogether pleased with my children being put in danger," Mrs. Daniels said, cutting him off.

"I can assure you they were always under observation and never in any real danger," Mr. Transport explained hastily.

"And I can assure you that had better be the case. I accept that there is some risk of injury when entering the HCP, but I find abandoning five children on a mountain very unacceptable," Mrs. Daniels said in a calm, even tone.

"Noted," Mr. Transport said, trying in vain to wriggle his fingers free.

"Please do," Mrs. Daniels said, releasing her grip. "I may be a normal person; however, trust me when I say that being a mother is a power all its own. I think we understand one another now, don't we, Mr. Transport?"

"Implicitly."

"Sorry it took a few minutes," Hershel said, descending the staircase with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

"Nothing to worry about, sweetie," Mrs. Daniels said in a cheerful tone. "Mr. Transport and I were just discussing how happy you seem to be at Lander."

"I am really am," Hershel said. "I miss you, though, Mom."

"Oooh that's my boy," Mrs. Daniels said, wrapping her son in a tight hug. "You don't worry about me, though. You go on and have a great time. I'll see you in a month at Parents’ Weekend."

"Awesome," Hershel said, finishing the hug and walking over to Mr. Transport. "Well, I'm ready when you are."

"Take care, dear," Mrs. Daniels told him. "And Mr. Transport, be sure to take of my sons."

Mr. Transport nodded his understanding and, to his credit, managed not to gulp. It took some effort, though, which considering he was looking at a middle-aged woman a good foot shorter than he made him feel not so masculine. He didn't really rush off, but he didn't dawdle either as he thought of their destination and activated his power.

*          *          *

"I still feel like it’s stealing," Vince's voice said as Mr. Transport and Hershel materialized in front of them. Vince and Nick were in the common lounge, watching television and clearly having some sort of debate.

"It isn't stealing. They offered it up to someone who could fulfill a set of specified conditions. I fulfilled those conditions so everybody wins," Nick defended. His had just finished his sentence when he became aware the room had suddenly doubled its occupants in the span of less than a second. "Oh, hey, Hershel."

"Hershel!" Vince said, jumping up from the couch and greeting his friend with a hug. "It's good to see you, man. How was your break?"

"Lots of fun," Hershel replied, setting down his bag. "I saw some old friends, got to eat home-cooking, and just freaking relax. Yours?"

"Not bad. I stayed here for the most part. Tried to keep the same training schedule so the first one back wouldn't destroy me. Not much else, really," Vince said.

"I did something cool," Nick volunteered.

"It wasn't cool," Vince corrected him. "It was immoral and unethical."

"What'd you do?" Hershel asked.

"I won a car," Nick said with a dopey grin.

"You didn't 'win' a car. You used your power on a slot machine to make the right combination come up. You cheated and stole a car," Vince shot back.

"Also I did this," Nick said. "Pretty much for the last few days. Turns out Vince will hang on to shit like this tighter than a miser to his last dollar bill."

"Because you haven't made it right," Vince pointed out.

"Hate to break it to you, buddy, but there isn't really a process for giving back a car you won off a slot machine. Want to know why? Because it would be batshit insane," Nick told him.

"Glad to see nothing has changed," Hershel laughed with a shake of his head. "So we've still got a couple of days off left. Any big plans?"

"Tomorrow we go see which class we qualified for and what the rankings for the finals were," Vince said. "Nothing on the docket today, though."

"Actually, that is incorrect," Mr. Numbers said, stepping into the room from the kitchen. "Now that you have all returned we need to discuss your test."

Mr. Transport's fingers involuntarily twinged with pain.

"Killjoy," Nick said.

"It shouldn't take all day," Mr. Transport said encouragingly. "Plus, once it’s over you still have a day left for fun."

"Or for plotting your eventual murder in the event we don't find your reasoning for that whole stunt satisfactory," Nick tossed out.

"You'd need far more than a day to conceive a plan with any chance of working," Mr. Numbers informed him.

"Heard and remembered," Nick replied.

"Don't be such a drama queen," Mary said as the door to the girls’ side opened, allowing her and Alice to emerge. "I could hear your squabbling all the way in my room."

"Hey Mary, hey Alice," Hershel greeted them.

"Hi, Hershel," Mary said with a soft smile. Alice merely greeted him with a directed nod.

"Now that we're all here, let's get started," Mr. Numbers told them.