Chapter 78

The cold cheese sandwich on Walter’s plate did little to entice him toward eating, and not just because it was of cafeteria quality. His appetite had been shot all week, ever since his team’s first trial. Despite having two of his three best friends in his roster, along with an assortment of other Supers he considered quite skilled, Walter’s team had been summarily crushed. They’d lost their flag in under fifteen minutes, and been beaten in three physical confrontations. For most of the team, it was disheartening and somewhat scary. For their captain, a man currently staring at a cold cheese sandwich, trying to figure out why he’d purchased it in the first place, the loss had nearly destroyed him.

Walter was so focused on his plate that he didn’t immediately notice when someone sat down at the table next to him. He wasn’t expecting company; this was a Tuesday, which meant the others all had classes during his only time for lunch. He usually ate a quick meal then hurried off to study or train. Today, it seemed, was going to be different.

“Walter Cross, correct?”

Walter looked up from his sandwich, unsurprised that the guest at his table was a fellow member of the HCP. The fact that it was one of his seniors, however, did startle him a touch, rattling him out of his fugue and into speaking.

“Yeah. You’re Thomas. I met you last year.”

Speaking about anything linked to the HCP aboveground, even something as innocuous as a party, had to be done with exceptional care.

“That’s right, you and your friends ended up at a party at my house,” Thomas confirmed. “Which, actually, is what I wanted to talk with you about. That party, it’s something of a tradition.”

“I’d heard about that,” Walter said. He’d done as much digging as possible when the invite had come last year. He knew it was a way for the sophomore class to officially welcome the freshmen who had made it that far, telling them they were part of the HCP. The party had certainly accomplished that goal, nothing like watching Cameron slug it out with Roy Daniels to send the message that this was where they belonged.

“Good,” Thomas said. “Hopefully this next part will not surprise you then. I’m here to tell you that you, and by proxy your housemates, have been selected to throw the party this year.”

Part of Walter wanted to ask how Thomas knew he lived in a house, then he thought better of it. Subtlety was a course in their school, after all; he really shouldn’t be surprised that the older students had skills for information gathering. Had Walter asked, he would have learned that Thomas had employed the favorite tactic of Subtlety Heroes all over the nation: he’d just gone and talked to a telepath.

“I really appreciate it,” Walter said, his words tentative. “But I don’t think I can do that.”

“May I ask why not?”

“I need to double down on my… studying,” he replied, careful emphasis put on key phrases. “I was part of a group project last week, one we failed really badly. We’ve got several more coming up, and I have to make sure we don’t get any more failing grades.”

“That is very important, your group’s grades should be your top priority,” Thomas agreed. “However, this party should be your second. The purpose it serves, welcoming strangers to an existing community, is a vital one. You should know this quite well.”

“I do, I really do, I just… couldn’t someone else do it?”

“That would depend on you,” Thomas informed him. “From the information I gathered, you seemed like the best fit. You have the house, you are responsible enough to be in charge of your group project, and you understand the need for the event. If you can find a better fit, then by all means feel free to pass the burden of duty to them.”

Walter gave his head a little shake. “I don’t even think I should be leading my group project,” he admitted, his voice soft and fragile. “I feel like we could have passed the last… test, if only we’d had someone better leading us.”

“You might be right,” Thomas said. “Maybe you’re not the best pick for leading a group or for hosting a party.”

“Gee, thanks,” Walter sighed. It wasn’t untrue, but he sort of wished Thomas hadn’t just come out and said it like that.

“Still, that changes nothing,” Thomas continued.

“What do you mean?”

The older boy leaned forward, his dark eyes so serious that for a brief flicker of a moment Walter thought Thomas was about to start a fight right in the middle of the cafeteria.

“I mean, it changes nothing. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t the best pick for either of those roles, they have still been thrust upon you. They are yours, no matter what. Do not waste your time lamenting your fitness or fearing there could have been a better choice made. If you’re afraid you are unfit to lead, then work every day to make yourself better. That, and quitting, are your only options. Pissing away time on questions that have no relevance leads you nowhere. It doesn’t matter if you should lead. You are the leader. Own it, and make yourself the best you can be. If you can’t face your fear and do that, then you should turn in your resignation today.”

Walter gulped, and not just because Thomas’s words had come dangerously close to touching on the real subject of their discussion. The intensity of his admonishment had nearly knocked Walter from his chair. He suspected this speech wasn’t entirely for him, but rather than asking follow-up questions he just nodded his head enthusiastically.

“I understand,” Walter said quickly. “I’ll throw the party.”

“Good,” Thomas said, appearing to somewhat come back to himself and dial down the intimidation. “Good, I… you are the best fit, you know. Whether you believe it or not.”

“Thanks,” Walter said. “I, uh, I need to get going to my next class.”

“By all means,” Thomas said. He watched as the younger boy with the light curly hair and glasses hustled out of the cafeteria, pausing only to drop an untouched sandwich in the trash. Thomas remained at the table for some time, quietly reflecting on the words that came unbidden from his mouth. What he’d said hadn’t been wrong, but it also hadn’t been just for Walter. No, Thomas knew as soon as he spoke that those words were meant for him. He’d done everything he could to avoid the truth, he’d bucked it for as long as possible. Now, it stared him in the face, refusing to fade back to mental smoke.

Face your fears, or quit. That was what he’d told Walter. And, more importantly, himself.