Chapter 14

                The pop of the champagne bottle caused several of the students to jump; the sudden sound much louder than any of the non-drinkers had expected it to be. Nick was not among these as he poured the bubbly liquid, purchased for less than ten dollars and likely all-but unpalatable, into an array of glasses and plastic cups that in no way even remotely resembled champagne flutes. Next to him, Vince untwisted a bottle of sparkling grape juice and began filling up separate receptacles.

                “Alright everyone, grab a glass of whatever you want, booze or some god-awful knock-off stuff,” Nick commanded to the guests gathered around his modest kitchen table. They did just that, walking slowly to avoid jostling one another as they moved, slowly but surely grabbing their respective drink choices; save for Violet who snuck an extra glass of the champagne.

                It was a large crowd, bigger than Nick would have ordinarily tried to cram into his apartment under normal circumstances, but this was a special occasion. Everyone from the summer training camp had come after their day’s activities ended, and now at last it was time to truly kick things off. Shane made his way out of the crowd, handing glasses of the grape juice to Chad and Thomas who’d hung back, while Jill craned her neck to see if she could repeat Violet’s double grab attempt. Alex telekinetically lifted several cups over to he, Camille, and Will as they tried to avoid the scrum of bodies. Roy was helping Vince hand things out, his size creating a small moat of space around him. Alice and Mary, ever the sly ones, had nicked their cups early and hurried away to safety.

                Only when everyone had a drink in their hand did Nick stand on top of the cheap wooden chair, towering over the gathered students. He raised his own glass, full of the thriftily-purchased champagne, high in the air.

                “Tonight, we celebrate all of you, our friends, our trusted companions, and each other’s rivals, who have made it to their senior year.” Nick turned as he spoke, being sure to look every person in the eye for at least a few seconds. “I know it was unnerving for a lot of you when a wash-out showed up at the training camp, and I’m thankful to all of you for taking the chance on letting me hang around, polishing up my own skills. In that time, I got to see all of you work, and truly appreciate how powerful you are. Making it this far is an incredible accomplishment, and one you deserve to celebrate. But as someone looking in from the outside, trust me when I say this should be a piss-poor party compared to one you throw when each and every one of you reaches graduation. Cheers to you all, and have one hell of a year!”

                Nick gulped down the terrible liquid before it could sully his taste buds, noting that the people with grape juice at least seemed to be enjoying their choice. He wouldn’t have minded springing for something a little nicer, truth be told, but it was important to keep up appearances. Aside from his original friends in Melbrook, no one else knew quite the entire story of Nick Campbell, and he was much happier keeping things that way.

                The crowd quickly dispersed, spreading into different rooms so people had space to move around. A familiar hand appeared to help Nick down, which he accepted as he hopped off the perch.

                “Thanks,” Nick said, running his tongue along his teeth to get the taste of cheap sparkling wine off his gums. He hadn’t done quite a good enough job in tossing it back, and a bit of the flavor insisted on lingering.

                “No problem. Thanks for having us all over to celebrate.” Vince took the chair Nick had been standing on and wedged it back under the table, clearing the walkway for others to get by.

                “Come on, you all made it to freaking senior year. How was I not going to make you celebrate that? If I’d left it in your hands, all of you would have just had an extra helping of vegetables from the cafeteria, or whatever it is you HCP kids do.” Despite reconnecting with so many of his former classmates, ostensibly under the guise of self-betterment in the wake of a tragedy, it hadn’t been made public knowledge that his memories were recovered. Since he, and the professors, had technically broken HCP protocol, Nick wanted to keep those who knew as limited as possible. Plus, one never knew when a well-hidden card would be the one that snatched victory at the last moment.

                “We generally don’t do cake and champagne, that’s for sure,” Vince said. In the kitchen, Thomas was helping Jill as she sliced into the white frosting covering spongy chocolate cake. Nothing was written on top of it, in wake of last May’s events secrecy was all the more important than ever, but no one needed frosted words to tell them what they were celebrating.

                “Maybe the HCP needs to take a few pages out of my book, those are some excellent motivating forces,” Nick replied. He lowered his voice slightly, letting the din of the crowd mask his next words. “How are things looking for this year, by the way? Any big scares or surprises?”

                “They didn’t cut anyone from the class, from any of the classes, actually. Though we did lose Terrance. No one knows exactly why, but I heard he came upon some bloody stuff during the rescue efforts. Decided this wasn’t the life he wanted after all.”

                Nick was unsurprised that seeing real danger had spooked a potential Hero into quitting. If anything, he was shocked only one had taken the off-ramp. The HCP, it seemed, did a good job of screening who had the stomach for the work they were learning.

                “Can’t say I blame him, that was a rough night. It’s nice of them to give you a pass, since you missed final exams, though.”

                “I was sort of worried we’d have to go through something today, though after all those months of training I think I’m as ready as I could be for it,” Vince said.

                “Tell me about it, I caught a few of you and Hank’s training matches near the end. I feel pretty confident that you could have easily passed whatever test they threw at you.”

                “Maybe so.” Vince looked down into the bubbly depths of his grape juice, watching them pop one by one as they reached the surface. “But graduation is a long way off. There’s no certainty I’ll pass every test from now until then.”

                “True, Nick agreed. “But when has that ever stopped you? Don’t fret too much about the future, Silver. That’s not your strongpoint. You just focus on getting through one day, one trial, at a time. Do that enough, and I guarantee you’ll end up wearing one of those ceremonial white capes.”

                “I’ll do my best.” Vince gulped down the rest of his juice, then grabbed the bottle to refill it. “If nothing else, it’ll be interesting to try. HCP classes are never boring.”

                Nick was amazed that, after all these years of friendship, he could still be blown away by Vince’s talent for understatement.