Campus was nearly deserted as Vince stood outside Melbrook, watching the sun journeying higher into the morning sky. Always an early riser, his time at camp had made sleep an even more infrequent activity than it already was. Chad and Hershel had both gone for their morning run, darting off into a campus where one could scarcely see any proof of the chaos that had transpired mere months before.
Every bombed and burned building was completely rebuilt, so thoroughly that, unless one was looking, it was hard to spot the differences. This wasn’t the first time large-scale damage had occurred as the result of a Super battle, and the DVA, or more accurately the Supers they employed, knew how to handle clean-up quickly when there was proper motivation. Just looking at it, Vince would never have been able to tell that this was a place that had been brutally attacked in the night. Lander had been wiped of its scars, now the only ones remaining lingered in its students.
Few of those students had arrived yet, as classes weren’t yet set to start for a few days, but those who had didn’t move with quite the same level of apathy about their surroundings. Eyes darted, nerves tensed, and any loud sound was cause for a sudden burst of adrenaline. Some handled it better than others, and the worse were those who’d actually been present for the fight. As many as had been on campus, it still represented a small percentage of Lander’s total students. Though, that was less true now.
Enrollment at Lander had dropped significantly, as Mr. Numbers told them last night when they arrived. All HCP schools were seeing downward trends, but Lander had been by far hit the hardest. Former students were too scared to return, and relatively few new applicants wanted to come to the school now most famous for being attacked by madmen. Vince didn’t blame any of them; if he’d been looking at the world through their eyes he might very well have made the same choice. Being a Super in the world of Heroes was terrifying enough; he couldn’t fathom what it would be like to step into as a human.
Still, at least the campus was peaceful, and soon it would liven up even more. They’d come back from camp a touch earlier than needed, wanting a few days to settle in to a world that was both familiar and completely foreign. Tomorrow would be the day when most students started arriving, as well as the day of orientation for those in the HCP. No one knew what it would, what it could, possibly entail after everything that had happened, though Vince was betting it wouldn’t be the usual meet and greet. They might have to go right into testing, since last year’s finals had been pre-empted. It would be rough, but fair. And after a summer of hard training, part of Vince was slightly curious about where his skills now stood in relation to the rest of the class.
Several buildings over, Vince could make out a pair of students with a paper map clutched in their hands, weaving about between buildings as they navigated the unfamiliar landscape. It was hard to imagine that only a few years before, that had been him. Well, him and Nick, stumbling about trying to find a cafeteria that Vince could now shut his eyes and still walk to. They looked so young though, had he been like that when he first got to Lander? Probably. Heck, he was probably worse, a life on the road followed by months in a hospital bed that he could barely remember. It was amazing they’d ever let him into the HCP in the first place, let alone that he’d managed to last a week.
Vince smiled at the thought that perhaps the kids he was watching would be down there tomorrow, wearing black uniforms and looking terrified about the prospect of fighting one another. They had come to campus early, after all, and anything was possible. One never knew the coincidences that might happen on a campus full of Supers. Even on his first day, he’d seen Sasha in the cafeteria, noticing her even before he knew they were both in the program.
The thought of his lost friend conjured a dull ache in the depths of Vince’s heart. Their time away had done little to numb the pain of losing one of their own, but it had given him the chance to find a measure of peace with it. Thoughts of her corpse no longer filled him with the that slow, burning rage which had taken hold that night. Now, he largely only felt sadness, and that was, he imagined, as it was supposed to be.
In the end, Sasha was gone, but the rest of them still had much to do before their journeys were over. Vince turned his gaze from the searching students to the sun still rising higher over Lander. One year left to go. One year to prove he deserved to wear the title of Hero. One year to learn, to struggle, to survive, and to hopefully make his way to graduation. If the other three were any indication, things would only be harder this time around. To his surprise, Vince found himself glad at that realization. He wanted it to be harder, to be tougher, to push him to and past every limit he had. After seeing what was living outside the protective shell of the HCP, Vince needed to be educated, to become as strong as he was capable of being.
Next time he was in the field, when the stakes were real, he wouldn’t falter. He would be prepared, be trained, and be strong enough to keep a level head. There would be no mistakes. He would be powerful enough to do what was necessary, and controlled enough to do nothing more. Vince wanted every bit of training Lander could throw at him, every bruise and cut and pain it could impart, so long as it made him stronger. He’d seen what the Hero world was like, and Vince was determined to be ready.
Next time, there would be no funerals after the battle.