Monday brought, along with an extra class for Alice, a pre-class gathering for all the sophomores. They clustered together in the gym, milling about while the teachers took their damned sweet time in making whatever announcement was pending. Most already suspected that they knew the subject matter: given that they’d just crested the hill into November, the only pertinent thing looming was midterms. After last year’s labyrinth, the room was rife with rumor on what waited for them before the winter break. Some believed it would be a team match pitting them against a professor. Others speculated it would be a solo endeavor featuring grueling mental and physical punishment. Most assumed it would at least suck, and the ones who didn’t were among the few who hadn’t yet been significantly challenged by any of the tests the HCP had presented. The one thing none of them were expecting was what turned out to be the truth.
“Good morning, everyone,” Dean Blaine said, stepping forward with the six professors at his rear. “I just had a quick announcement to make. I’m sure most of you are wondering when your midterms will be. Well, as far as the HCP goes, there will not be any.”
He was met with untrusting stares, too certain of deception to even bother with murmuring. It was understandable; the HCP wasn’t exactly known for its easygoing policies.
“I can see you’re all skeptical. While that’s a good thing, in this case it’s unwarranted. You see we don’t do midterms for sophomores for a few reasons. First off, the midterms for students in the other years are very time-consuming to set up - so much so that adding a fourth to our schedule would likely be impossible. Secondly, all the team events that sophomores participate in give us ample data for evaluation; adding a test in the middle of the year wouldn’t make much difference either way. It would be a poor use of time and resources, so enjoy the free pass. It will be the only year you receive it, and I expect your grades in other classes to pick up proportionately. That will be all.”
The chorus of whispers Dean Blaine had been expecting finally materialized when he turned his back. They still wouldn’t accept it for a while, and a few would spend the next month and a half waiting for a surprise test that would never come. Hopefully they’d put this free time to good use; heaven knows they wouldn’t get many more opportunities like this in the coming years. Free time dissolved after year two, the rest of college whipping by in a blur until there were only a few weeks until the final hurdle to graduation. Year two was the last time they’d really get to stop and catch their breath, and when they did, they’d find their chests had grown tight with fear, paralyzed with a crippling terror of what would happen if they failed – one that would only grow stronger the nearer they drew to their goal.
* * *
Blaine stood out on the balcony, wishing he could smoke. He’d burned a few in high school, but that habit had gotten squashed out of him after his first week in the HCP. The workouts were hard enough without a diminished lung capacity. His fingers still itched for a cigarette, especially when he was stressed or had the taste of bourbon in his mouth. He wondered if the cravings would ever completely go away. They said it happened eventually, but “they” said a lot of things that turned out to be bullshit.
Blaine heard the door open behind him and felt the cool air waft out from the apartment. Clarissa’s place had an amazing view, but the price was standing in the unseasonable heat. It was still early summer, yet Blaine was certain he’d sweated through his shirt and that only his suit jacket was concealing the shame. He wondered if that’s why a jacket was part of such fancy ensembles in the first place.
“Man, you’ve got the right idea. I need a little fresh air; that place is too loud and stuffy.” Blaine knew the voice instantly, as he knew every voice in attendance that night. All of them belonged to his classmates in the HCP, all save for one. It was the unique voice that he knew best of all, and that voice was part of why he stood on the balcony suppressing a craving instead of socializing with everyone else.
Fortunately, his new companion was not the owner of that voice. This one belonged to Joshua, who came to the railing and looked over the city with him.
“Hard to believe in a few weeks we’ll all be going in different directions,” Joshua remarked.
“Any idea who you’ll be apprenticing under?”
“There aren’t any official offers made until after graduation,” Blaine pointed out.
“Come on, man, you and I both know you’ll be one of the ten. You can’t tell me you haven’t gotten a few feelers already.”
“There may have been some inquiries. Genogong and Grey Earl have been particularly persistent,” Blaine admitted.
“Wow, those two are pretty impressive,” Joshua complimented. “All I’ve gotten so far is a vague interest from Shade Slime.”
“More will come after the test,” Blaine assured him.
“Maybe. I’m not exactly the most impressive of our lot, power-wise.” Joshua said this with an easygoing smile that never seemed to leave his lips. It was the truth, but only because of the tremendous crop of talent their class had yielded. Besides, what Joshua might lack in showmanship, he made up for in reliability and charm. He had knack for turning everyone into a friend, and given the competiveness of their environment, that was almost more useful than his actual power.
“I’m positive you’ll get a solid offer,” Blaine said. “I can’t imagine anyone underestimating you once they see what you can do.”
“I’ll hope for the best, that’s all any of us can do.” Joshua pulled a flask from his own jacket pocket. He carefully unscrewed the top and offered the container to Blaine. “Care for a nip? I know you prefer bourbon to the wine Clarissa stocked.”
Blaine didn’t bother asking why he would have a flask of that brand on hand; the answer was evident. It was to appease the woman Joshua had come with, the one who Blaine had introduced to this beverage in the first place. He accepted the flask and took a short draw.
“My pleasure,” Joshua said, taking his own sip. He swished it around as he debated how to broach the subject on his mind. Eventually he decided the straightforward route was the best option. “Look, not to make this uncomfortable or anything, but I just wanted to make sure you and I are cool.”
Blaine bit back a scathing retort and soothed his temper. He didn’t have any right to act that way, not when Joshua had been so honest and forthright with him from the beginning. “Of course we are. Miriam and I broke up over three years ago. I’m glad the two of you have found happiness with one another.”
“I appreciate that,” Joshua replied. “I really like dating her; I think we might have a future together. Let me know if it gets awkward, okay? I don’t have to bring her to all our events if it makes you uncomfortable.”
“I will make certain to tell you if that becomes an issue.” Blaine would cut out his own tongue before he’d actually let it speak those words.
“Cool,” Joshua said, taking another sip from the flask. “Cool.”
“Did Gerard have any trouble scrubbing the stain from the tea out?” Blaine was unabashedly changing the subject. He’d had a small incident during Clarissa’s serving ceremony which resulted in him spilling tea on Gerard’s pants. He’d said it was because of the heat of the cup, but the truth was he’d seen Miriam grab Joshua’s thigh. In that instant his coordination had simply deserted him.
“He got most of it; I think a good dry-cleaner can fix the rest,” Joshua told him. “Once you do graduate maybe your Hero name should be Butterfingers.”
“Or The Fumbler.”
“Spilltacular,” Joshua said with a chuckle. Blaine laughed too, if only because he couldn’t really think of anything else to do. “On that note, have you given any thought to your actual Hero name? We’ll have to register them right after the White Cape ceremony.”
“I’ve got a couple of ideas I’ve been kicking around. You?”
“Honestly? I’ve got an idea, but I keep waffling back and forth on if I should come up with something better.”
“You’ve still got a month,” Blaine said.
“True. Hopefully I’ll find some inspiration. Tell me one of yours, maybe it will get the creative juices flowing.”
“Well, I haven’t found one that seems perfect yet, but there are a few near the top. For example, you know how my ability affects an area around my body?”
“I was thinking of doing a play on that,” Blaine explained. “At first I considered Radius or Sphere, but those sounded too mathematical. Then one day I was sitting in class and it hit me. The perfect name for how my power encircles me: Globe.”