Chapter 73

"Welcome to the halls of horror!" Nick declared as the guests walked into Melbrook.

"Good to see you, too, Weirdo," Sasha said, giving him a quick hug. Greetings were exchanged all around as Will, Jill, Julia, and Alex followed suit. After procuring a few choice cinematic classics, the Melbrook students had decided to see how many of their friends were back from break. As it turned out, the answer was all of them.

Vince appeared from the boys’ side lounge, dragging in some extra chairs. Since there were so many people they'd elected to hold the movie marathon in the common room and thus needed to increase seating. He stopped and set down the four-legged burdens, then noticed everyone else had arrived. It was good to see them, with one being a bit more warmly appreciated than the others.

"Hey," Vince said, walking up to Sasha.

"Hey yourself," she replied.

"You look nice," he told her.

"Missed you, too," Sasha said with a slowly spreading smile.

"Yeah, this is totally comfortable for everyone else watching, just if you were wondering," Julia tossed out.

"Sorry," Vince said, blushing rapidly.

"Speak for yourself," Sasha said. "I'm not ashamed to say I missed my man."

"That's okay, we're ashamed enough for you," Nick tossed out. Alice punched him in the arm reflexively. "Damn it!" he swore.

"You'd think a guy as smart as you could handle a little pattern recognition," Mary pointed out.

"Real funny," Nick said, rubbing his arm. "I'm going to go set up the movie."

"Good timing," Hershel said. "The popcorn will be done in a couple of minutes. Anybody want a soda before we start?" A few people raised their hands, so Hershel bustled off to the kitchen.

Julia let out a sad sigh. "I was really hoping Roy would be around my first night back."

"Take a cold shower," Jill chided her. "I'm sure he'll show in a day or so."

"But I haven't seen him in weeks," Julia continued complaining.

"Man, you really don't get the point of a booty call buddy, do you?" Sasha asked.

"Psh, with Amber spending all her time out with the boyfriend and you two being prudes, someone has to be getting a little in that dorm," Julia said. "And it might as well be a little that is toned, fit, handsome, and skilled."

"I'm literally begging you here, please stop talking," Mary jumped in. "This is leading to mental images I'd really rather not have to deal with."

"Fine," Julia said, crossing her arms. "I'm still hoping he shows up."

"That's your prerogative, I suppose," Mary said. "Though personally I'm glad we get to spend some time with Hershel."

Vince had a feeling Hershel would very much wish he had been present for that particular statement.

"I've got the drinks," Hershel said, walking back into the room. "Popcorn will be done in thirty seconds."

"Which will be just in time, because we're about to watch Mad Santa Massacre," Nick said, twirling the remote in his hand.

"Joy. It will be just like our Halloween movie session all over again," Will said, speaking for the first time.

"Except this time it might be someone else who screams like a girl," Jill chuckled, throwing her arm around her twin.

"My device was more realistic than even I expected," Will said defensively. "Which is why it is being redesigned."

"Only you could take something back to the drawing board because it was too good," Jill told him.

A loud ding echoed through the room.

"And that's the popcorn," Hershel said. "Okay folks, time to get started."

*          *          *

"It sounds as though they're hosting a kegger out there," Mr. Numbers noted as he and Mr. Transport sat at their kitchen table.

"They just got back from break. It is completely natural for them to rejoice in seeing their friends," Mr. Transport said.

"I never said it was unnatural. I merely insinuated it was annoying," Mr. Numbers pointed out. He took a long sip of tea from the steaming cup in front of him.

"You seem edgy," Mr. Transport noted.

"I just spent a full week with my mother," Mr. Numbers told him. "You'd find your nerves diminished in tolerance as well."

"I suppose that's fair," Mr. Transport acquiesced. "So how do you think they'll take discovering their classes tomorrow?"

"Perfectly well," Mr. Numbers said. "There aren't any big surprises after all. It's been clear from the beginning who had the talent for combat and whose skills lay in other areas."

"You're right. I'm just a little worried. There's always been a stigma of the combat Supers being more elite, more valuable. I'd hate for our students in alternative training to feel like they somehow failed to measure up."

"Be reasonable, Mr. Transport. They're just thankful not to be destroying buildings or drowning in a sea of errant thoughts. I sincerely doubt any of them will care if they are perceived as 'less cool' than their peers."

"My understanding is these programs are exceptionally competitive," Mr. Transport said. "It's not unreasonable to worry about how they'll cope with additional social pressure."

"We left them on a mountain in the middle of December. I'm confident they can handle quite a bit of pressure," Mr. Numbers said.

"True," Mr. Transport agreed. "I was impressed by the lessons they took from it. I thought for sure some would go down a negative path."

"I was more impressed that Mary and Nick decided not to reveal the whole reason we did it," Mr. Numbers said.

"Do you think that means they trust us?"

"I think it means they are giving us some metaphorical rope, to see where our loyalties lie and what we do with our position over the group," Mr. Numbers informed him.

"Let's hope we live up to their standards," Mr. Transport commented.

"I'm less concerned with their standards and more concerned with the school's," said Mr. Numbers. "Things grow increasingly more difficult from this point on."

"Still, it would be nice if they knew we had their best interests at heart," Mr. Transport said.

Mr. Number resisted the urge to point out that this statement would be easier to demonstrate if it were actually true. Despite years of service, Mr. Transport still had a streak of idealism in him, and it was a trait Mr. Numbers had resolved to foster in his companion for as long as he could. He was amazed it had endured for these many years, though each year seemed to edge it closer towards its inevitable destruction.

"Indeed," Mr. Numbers said simply, turning his attention back to his tea.

*          *          *

The lone figure stood outside the Melbrook dorm, obscured by darkness and hidden behind a tree. In the abundance of shadow it was difficult to make out a definite shape or the sex of the figure, only that it was watching the flicking lights from within intently. The figure stood there unwavering, confident its hiding place wouldn't be discovered. It waited for hours, watching until the hour grew late and the guests emptied out and returned to their respective dorms. It lingered on even after that, seemingly unwilling to abandon this place quite yet. Eventually it left its obscured position and moved quickly across the campus, sticking to the darkest patches to maintain its anonymity.