Chapter 72

“I wonder what’s keeping Walter,” Candi said as she scanned the cafeteria. With his horn-rimmed glasses and buoyantly curly hair, her fellow freshman was generally hard to miss. He was also rather prompt in his nature, making her wonder if something had detained him after their gym session finished. She knew he’d been trying to uncover information about their mysterious upcoming midterm, and an idle hope flittered through her that perhaps he’d had some luck.

“I’m sure he’ll be along,” Cameron assured her between mouthfuls of chicken. The buzz-cut sporting boy always boasted a voracious appetite after training; deep down the others often wondered how he’d managed to stay trim before the HCP had forced him into three hours of daily exercise.

“I think I saw him talking to a sophomore when we were heading to the lifts,” Gail chimed in. The three of them, plus Walter, had bonded early in the year and tended to spend most of their time outside of class together. Candi initially had a bit of friction with Gail, but the two had eventually come to a point of mutual respect that was evolving into admiration.

“Really? Maybe he’s making some progress on the, well, you know.” The dorm cafeteria was always filled more with humans than with their kind, so Candi made a point to use vague terms whenever possible.

“Maybe,” Gail replied. She turned her attention back to her salad topped only with oil and sesame seeds. Candi had to look away; she’d long ago accepted other people’s dietary choices but it still turned her stomach to see such violence piled atop a plate. She focused on her own meal: two pork chops and a chicken breast. Candi got her greens when they were willingly given, not by brutally assaulting innocent plants for her own gain.

The trio ate in silence for a few minutes before a fourth figure plopped down next to them.

“Evening, all,” Walter greeted.

“About time,” Gail chastised. “We’re almost done here.”

“My sincere apologies, dear lady. I do hope you’ll forgive my tardiness, I was in the depths of conversation with one of our elder classmates.”

“Cut the funny talk and get to it,” Cameron urged. He was a good guy, but he could be a bit antsy.

“All right. One of the sophomores, a young man named Thomas, wanted to let me know about a party they’re throwing next Saturday,” Walter explained. “Evidently all the freshmen are invited.”

“I don’t trust it,” Gail said immediately. “I bet it’s some sort of weird hazing ritual. We show up and they make us dress like chickens or wrestle in Jell-O.”

“That actually sounds pretty fun,” Cameron pointed out.

“Speak for yourself; do you know how long Jell-O stains your skin?” All eyes turned to Candi, who began to blush immediately.

“Moving past that, though we will definitely circle back to it, my understanding is that this is something of a tradition once our class reaches its current size. It’s sort of an olive branch to let us know that we’ve lasted long enough to be part of the community.”

“I still don’t trust it,” Gail reiterated. No one was particularly surprised by her misgivings; Gail’s particular power hadn’t always led to her seeing the best in human nature. They tolerated her untrusting demeanor, if for no other reason than she had proven her ability to get past it for the sake of friendship.

“Will there be beer?” Cameron’s eyes were already shining with anticipation. If there was one thing he loved, it was beer. If there were two things he loved, it was beer and adventure. The others often joked that Cameron would have walked right through the gates of Hell if promised an open bar and a good fight.

“Multiple kegs,” Walter assured him. “It might be interesting for you three to know that I did a little extra asking around after our conversation, and this Thomas fellow is good friends with The Five.”

This drew their attention more than any other fact, with the possible exception of Cameron and his beer question. The Five were already a legend in the lower class, though none had ever dared approach them. Everyone knew the rumors: that they had been born Powereds but had somehow become Supers, that one was so powerful two teachers had tried to kidnap her for nefarious purposes, that The Five had been strong enough to overtake them both and rescue their friend. Many of their classmates held The Five in contempt for their origins; however, the four students currently seated felt more curiosity toward them than anything else.

“Why would they go to a party? It’s commonly known the whole sophomore class hates them,” Gail said.

“Not the whole class,” Cameron rebutted. “I’ve seen that short girl and the goofy-looking guy hanging out with them a lot.”

“Plus it seems Thomas and his roommates have a long-standing friendship with them. They were one of the first ones to show loyalty after the big secret came out,” Walter added.

“How do you know that?” Candi asked.

Walter gave his usual noncommittal shrug. “I listen and I ask questions.” The truth was he hung out by the older students’ rooms frequently, either under the guise of being lost or having his head crammed into a book for studying. It wasn’t very dignified, so Walter tried to craft an aura of mystery to explain his extra knowledge.

“I say we go,” Cameron volunteered. “I mean, they’ve got beer.”

“No surprise there,” Candi sighed, absentmindedly brushing her blonde bangs out of her eyes. “I want to go too. It sounds like it could be pretty interesting.”

“I’m obviously in; no way I’d miss such a networking opportunity,” Walter agreed. Three sets of eyes set upon Gail, who was finishing up her salad. She chewed slowly, savoring every bit of flavor the withered plants could offer. Finally she set her fork down and looked at the others.

“I guess I could go for a little while. But the first sign of bullshit and I’m out the door.”

The other three cheered, drawing strange looks from the rest of the cafeteria. The four HCP freshmen paid the stares no attention. They were well-accustomed to being weirdoes to the bulk of the world.