It was strange being back on campus after a summer away. Hershel trekked down the winding sidewalk that would, eventually, encircle all of Lander. Branches would split off periodically, taking him to any destination one might please, but the main path wrapped around the whole campus, serving as both a guide and a divider from the outside world. It was comforting to trace the familiar cement walkway; it reminded him that no matter how much had gone awry last year, at least the school was still somewhat constant.
A quick turn took him down one of the many splits, putting him on track to arrive at Melbrook in a few moments. He could have had his mother drop him off closer, but traffic was already reaching levels of utter insanity as wistful parents deposited eager students, ready to resume, or begin, their independent lives. Besides, Hershel was making a point of taking the more physically taxing option whenever he could. Small actions though they might be, a leaky faucet can still flood a house if given enough time. The roller bag behind him bounced unevenly over the dividers. There wasn’t much in it, a few garments and some souvenirs from his summer; the majority of his belongings had never been moved from his Melbrook dorm. Why bother? It had been heavily implied that he’d still be returning. Even if he hadn’t put on Vince’s showing at the end of the year, Roy had definitely kicked a respectable amount of ass. Since he hadn’t been told not to come back, he was pretty sure they were in the clear. A part of him wondered who hadn’t been so lucky, however that thought was so wrapped up in the empty room waiting for all them at Melbrook that it was too painful to dwell on. Losing Nick was hard. What if someone else they cared about wasn’t returning?
Hershel shook off that line of thought as best he could, focusing instead on maneuvering his way through the Melbrook front door. It look a little more coordinating than normal, since he had to deal with his cargo, but within moments he had passed through the hallway and made it into the common room. There was just enough time to take a deep breath of the familiar scents before a female voice grabbed his attention.
“Hey Alice. Guess you and Mary beat me.”
“We absolutely did, but that is so not the most interesting story at the moment.” Alice turned and yelled past the open door she’d been walking through, into the girl’s lounge. “Mary! Come see this!”
A slight blush crept into Hershel’s cheeks. He’d expected some reaction, the change was appreciable, however this seemed a bit much. Mary popped her head out of the door, her eyes widening slightly as they caught sight of her boyfriend for the first time in months.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he assured her.
“You look great,” she said, stepping out and greeting him more affectionately with a hug. “I mean, you always looked good to me, but this is a heck of change.”
Hershel’s formerly pudgy form looked as though it had collapsed in itself. His belt-overlapping stomach now tapered into his pants neatly, pants which were clearly a size or two smaller than they had been. His face had thinned noticeably, accentuating cheekbones that, while still not prominent, were now certainly discernible. He even appeared to have put on a bit of muscle here and there, though it was still not prominent. Still far from lean, and certainly still out of shape by HCP standards, it was clear Hershel had put in a summer of incredible effort to make such an improvement.
“Thanks,” he said, shuffling on his feet a bit awkwardly. Hershel wasn’t used to having people look at him with such admiration; that was something only Roy had really experienced. “Is Vince here yet?”
“Vince will be along in a few hours,” Mr. Numbers said, stepping into the room from the kitchen. It was a rare occasion, for Mr. Transport was nowhere to be seen rather than at his partner’s side. “He is currently meeting with Dean Blaine and some professors for an important discussion.”
“Wow, you guys really aren’t even letting him get settled before the grilling starts, are you?” Alice asked.
“In this case, it was Vince who requested the meeting,” Mr. Numbers corrected her. “He had a very unusual summer, and has professed a desire to be upfront with the faculty on all such matters.”
“And let me guess, you’re not going to tell us anymore than that,” Hershel ventured.
“Correct. It will be up to the committee to decide if Vince’s summer is unclassified, and then up to Vince to decide if he even wants to share it. I trust all of you had more normal vacations?”
“Normal is a relative term with this group,” Mary said. “But I didn’t do anything that I think bears a special meeting.”
“Ditto,” Hershel agreed.
“I was with Mary, so her answer counts for both of us,” Alice chimed in.
“Excellent. In that case let us move to new business. As you know, your first day of junior year begins tomorrow. They will let you know which of your classmates failed to make the cut and return, but I have been allowed to give you one tidbit of information beforehand. Aside from Nick, everyone from Team One has advanced.”
The students felt a strange combination of relief and stress surge through them simultaneously. It was good to know Camille and Alex were still with them; however, they all had friends on other teams. Knowing two more slots were filled forced them to start running the numbers yet again for who else could remain.
“Also on the subject of teammates, I’m sure you are all aware that Melbrook’s five-person capacity has dropped to an occupancy of four,” Mr. Numbers continued. “While I can appreciate how significant the loss of Nick Campbell was for all of you, Mr. Transport felt leaving his room empty would only serve as a constant reminder of what had been lost. To that end, we are pursuing the option of allowing another of your classmates to take up residency here.”
“I thought the whole point of this facility was to keep us separate from the rest of the students,” Hershel pointed out. “‘Contained’ was the word someone used.”
“That it was; however, this project is evolving, and some of the higher ups have begun to think that segregating you from the general populace was impeding the relevancy of the data.”
“The data?” Alice asked.
“We’re prototypes,” Mary reminded her. “They’re testing us to see if this procedure is viable. Not just if it works, but if there any side-effects they might not have anticipated.”
“Well said,” Mr. Numbers agreed.
“I don’t know how I feel about someone else moving into Nick’s room,” Alice said.
“I’m actually on board with it,” Hershel countered. “No one will, or really ever could, take Nick’s place. Having someone live with us won’t change that. It will, at least hopefully, keep us from dwelling on his absence constantly. I miss him too, but setting aside his old room as a shrine isn’t going to bring him back.”
“I guess so,” Alice begrudgingly admitted. “Who gets it, anyway? Do we have a vote?”
“If we succeed in getting permission, then you will be certainly be consulted before a decision is made,” Mr. Numbers told her. “Though the pool might be a small one. We will need someone willing to sign the proper waivers, and who has an actual desire to bunk with all you, given your unfortunate reputation.”
“Classy way to phrase that,” Alice said. With Nick gone, she felt someone had to take over at least a part of the sarcasm duty.
“Thank you,” Mr. Numbers said, either ignoring the barb or entirely ignorant of it.