The return of the students, both normal and members of the HCP, marked the final chunk of the school year, with only nominal holidays to break up the work until summer vacation. The home stretch was a time when most hurriedly attacked their books in an often-futile effort to raise their grades before final exams. In the HCP it was much the same, and added into that frenzy of studying they also honed their respective skills. The final match was approaching, and it didn’t require a genius to figure out it would likely be a large part of the test to determine who would advance to next year. With Michael Clark gone, there were twenty-seven students remaining, all competing for the twenty spots in the junior year class. Even assuming no former students managed to snare a space, that left a best case scenario of losing seven classmates.
It was a trial by fire, an emotional wringer that would test even the closest of friendships. The system had been designed not only knowing that, but expecting it. The goal was, after all, to create Heroes that were able to rise to any challenge and not falter in the clutch. Of course, there were other challenges to meet along the way, and as the students stumbled back onto campus in droves, one pair of chaperones was dealing with theirs.
“While I can certainly appreciate Ms. Robbins’ intentions, encouraging the foliage to grow in such a manner has caused no end of trouble for the park officials,” Dean Blaine said, reading through one of many folders piled up on his desk. “Were you aware that shrubbery can grow so thick that the only efficient way to get through it is with a flamethrower? I was not, but now I have ample complaint letters detailing how that process works.”
“Candi didn’t mean for it go on like that,” Mary defended. “I talked to her, and she was just settling a debate on whether plants had ambitions or not. Admittedly, it got out of hand.”
“That is a spectacular understatement if ever I’ve heard one. Of course, it still isn’t as troublesome as having the very river you were on suddenly alter its course.”
“That one is my fault,” Chad said. “I had Walter shift the flow to take care of a different problem.”
“Ah, you mean the twenty-foot blazing pillar that manifested in the middle of a clearing?”
“That would be the one.”
“I suppose that is the lesser of two evils,” Dean Blaine admitted, shuffling to a different folder. “On the plus side, you seem to have gotten through without losing any students or allowing anyone to sustain serious injury. That much can be commended, especially since there are no healers in that class to cover up transgressions. Two years in a row; I suppose that makes it a hot streak.”
“There were injuries on the trip before ours?” Mary asked.
“And the year before that, and the year before, etcetera. Occasionally we get a good year, such as the one where Ms. DeSoto imposed her unusual brand of authority and kept people safe, but two in a row is quite rare.”
“Actually, Angela gave me several pointers of how to keep things from getting out of hand,” Chad said. “So in a way she’s partially responsible for both years.”
“Quite a humorous turn of events, seeing as she was the one responsible for the injury when she was a freshman.”
“Angela got hurt?” Mary asked. Dean Blaine and Chad immediately exchanged a poorly-disguised grin. She felt the tips of her ears turn red. Being a telepath meant not often being out of the loop. Two years ago she would have done near anything not to have other people’s thoughts buzzing about in her brain, but now it was quite annoying to sit next to these two pillars of mental silence.
“Very much the opposite. She got into what she would eventually describe as a ‘light tussle’ and caused broken bones in several of her classmates.”
“Angela is very strong,” Chad added for emphasis.
“I suppose that does make more sense,” Mary said, still a bit begrudging about their inside chuckle at her expense. “So, are we in trouble?”
Dean Blaine blinked a few times in surprise. “What on earth for?”
“All the problems. The fire, the river, the super-growing grass.”
“Heavens no, you did exactly what you were supposed to do. You solved problems as they arose and kept all of your charges safe. Forgive my brusque demeanor: I only needed to get some clarification around the incidents for my reports. Truth be told, you both did an exceptional job.”
“We did,” Chad assured her. “Really anytime there’s not a giant catastrophe involving the HCP interacting with the real world it’s considered a win. A bunch of competitive people with high-level abilities tossed into a social environment is often the recipe for some serious public gaffes.”
“You’d think I’d have heard more about that sort of thing.”
“We have an excellent PR department,” Dean Blaine explained. “Luckily it seems they will not be needed for this year’s trip. I do still have a good bit of paperwork to do, so while I appreciate you two coming down, I’m afraid I must politely request you head out.”
“Sure,” Mary said, she and Chad both rising from their seats. “Hey, Dean Blaine?”
“I’ve noticed a lot of activities between the sophomores and the freshman. The party in November, chaperoning the river trip, helping with the carnival at the end of the year, all that stuff. There doesn’t seem to be as much interaction between the other classes. Do we start doing events with the seniors once we become juniors?”
“Sadly, you do not,” Dean Blaine replied. “Once you enter your third year in the Hero Certification Program, the demands on your time increase significantly, as do the tasks required of you. We try to add a little fun to the earlier years when we can, specifically because of how arduous the program becomes.”
“So this is the last year of fun?”
“Certainly not. It’s just the last year you’ll be able to view your classmates the same way. From here on it will be nearly impossible to ignore the truth of your situation: that every one of your friends is battling against you for a dream only a select few of you will get to realize. Casual socialization becomes much harder when done in the light of those circumstances.”
“Oh,” Mary said, not quite sure what to say or feel about Dean Blaine’s statement. He wasn’t wrong, that much was obvious, but she hadn’t really taken the time to think about it like that. As she and Chad left the office, closing the door behind her, the blonde boy gave her a courtesy nod then headed off toward the gym. In that moment Mary realized something else she hadn’t picked up on before.
That was how Chad had been looking at all of them from the very beginning.