The knock on Professor Stone’s door was soft but firm. She glanced up from her paperwork to see Professor Baker standing in the doorway. She’d changed out of her teaching garments, effectively a more stylized version of the student’s uniforms, and was instead clad in a modest blouse with cream colored pants. Some professors chose to wear their own clothes all the time, this was their prerogative, but Professor Baker’s class could get a bit messy, so she opted to stick to the uniform when educating and keep her clothing costs minimal.
“It’s Wednesday, Esme,” she said, stepping into the office. “You know what that means.”
“I do indeed. Sorry if I kept you waiting, I must have lost track of the time.” A brief glance at the clock informed her that her deduction was correct, she’d spent half an hour longer than she meant to working on her current task. “Sonya meeting us there?”
“Of course. You know she won’t unwrap anywhere the students might see her. Now get a move on. The special only last until nine.”
Esme and Ariel, no longer stodgy professors until the next morning’s classes began, made their way up the lifts and onto the greater Lander campus. From there they each got into their cars and drove the same distance to a small Mexican restaurant in a strip mall several miles away. This was not done out of any need for secrecy, it was merely that both had driven to work that day and both would ultimately drive home later on. Upon entering they found Sonya waiting for them, perched at a table toward the back of the restaurants.
The waiters nodded as the two women of considerably different ages walked by, these ladies had been coming here for over half a decade. The table used to have four of them, the missing member a full-figured woman who drew stares from many of the male staff, however she’d been missing since the end of last year. No one brought it up when they waited on the table. Regular business from generous tippers was more important than idle curiosity.
“Evening, Sonya,” Esme greeted, pulling out a chair and taking her seat. “How was class today?”
The woman who sat across from her would have been a stranger to any student from Lander who cast eyes on her. She was taller than most females, with dirty blonde hair chopped shorter than was fashionable. Her body was lithe and lean, not unimpressive for a woman in her early forties, however the perpetual scowl that rested on her face made it difficult to classify her as attractive.
“Frustrating, as usual,” Sonya answered after she had finished a generous gulp from her margarita. “I looked over the freshman’s videos, but I don’t see many strong candidates for next year. There’s a few who could be, of course, but all of them want to focus on using their bodies like idiots.”
Esme and Ariel nodded in automatic sympathy. Subtlety and Weapons were the two disciplines in the HCP that operated under stigmas. With Subtlety it was, obviously, that those who chose it were prone to turning to a life of crime. Weapons had a more complicated issue, it was seen by many as a weaker Hero skill set. Despite the myriad of Heroes who used battle implements to great success, they’d never quite managed to shake the societal belief that the strongest warrior was one who used nothing more than his own body and power. Sonya wasn’t one to let that dissuade her, not when she’d been a student, a Hero, or any step between, however it did make recruiting students more difficult. Hers was the most frequently dropped discipline when students began their third year.
A waiter arrived, bringing them water, menus, chips, and asking what they wanted. This was all formality, he knew what each of them would order, as did they, yet it was part of the service tradition, so it had to be be upheld. He vanished quickly, reappearing with a pair of margaritas so fast it was as if he’d already had them made. The truth was the bartender kept cranking them out regularly on Wednesdays, their two-dollar price tag was what brought in so many customers. Only once he was gone did the women resume their conversation.
“I hear you,” Ariel echoed. “Next year’s crop doesn’t have a whole lot of potential for ranged either. I mean, there’s a few, but nothing like we had in this go round. Terrance’s size-changing trick is one of the most novel ranged strategies I’ve had to teach in years.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t take a run at the multi-element kid,” Sonya pointed out.
“No way, there are already too many cooks in that kitchen,” Ariel retorted. “Though I might have made a run for Mary if Esme hadn’t staked such a ferocious claim.”
“Her gift has always been held as a Focus discipline,” Esme said with a soft smile. Truthfully, many telekintics did focus on their Ranged Combat, opting to be more proficient in hurling objects over mental force. That was in other colleges though. Lander had Esme Stone, and that made all the difference. Those who were connected enough to realize they were training under Emerald Hydra clamored to learn from her. Those who didn’t learned soon enough what the older woman had to offer.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Ariel said, taking her own sip of the tequila and lime based concoction. “I still say you’re a poacher.”
“Enough about work,” Sonya barked. Her tone wasn’t meant to be abrasive; she just had trouble communicating tactfully. Neither of her companions held it against her. “I get enough of that at the office. Ariel, how’s Claudia doing? That girl manage to get the time of for your cruise?”
Ariel gave a cheerful nod. “Yup. This summer the two of us will be laying in the sun and dancing on various beaches for an entire week. No work, no school, no at home projects, just relaxation and tropical drinks.”
“You lucky asshole. I am jealous as hell,” Sonya said. She was too, both she and Esme, though it wasn’t the cruise that stoked their fires of envy. Ariel had something exceedingly rare in their world, a happy and functional marriage. She and her partner Claudia had been together for twelve years and were showing no signs of breaking apart. That was a truly enviable task, for while the profession of Hero came with many, many benefits, a stable home-life was all too rarely one of them.
They had comradery though, there was trust and love among one another. That was the philosophy many of their ilk used to emotionally hold it all together. That, no matter how bad things got in their dealing with the outside world, they would always have their fellow Heroes to call and count on. It was a belief they could all take comfort in.
That is, as long as none of them looked at the empty fourth chair sitting at their table, or though too hard about what her absence said about the frailty of those bonds.