Chapter 167

                Winter Break, as all things do, eventually came to an end. As the students made their way back to campus, a little softer from the relaxation and home-cooking, there was an air of finality among those who were part of the HCP. Three and a half years of constant training, fighting, and effort to get here, and now at last they were in the home stretch. One semester left. One semester to determine if they were living a grand tale of effort and success, or were destined to not be quite good enough. There was always re-applying to be a senior next year of course, however none of them could entertain such a notion. To do what was necessary in this program, to put in the time and work needed to triumph, they knew by now they had to fight like there were no second chances. Only by putting it all on the line every time would they have a prayer of making it to graduation. Except, of course, for those who were no longer trying.

                The news had gone over… well not great, but nothing was broken or on fire so it wasn’t the worst instance of a bad bombshell they’d ever had. Mary stood in the center of Melbrook, surrounded by Hershel, Vince, Alice, Chad, Camille, and Alex. Neither Alice, Hershel, nor, surprisingly, Alex, looked too shocked, although Mary realized she should have expected her fellow quasi-telepath to have picked up on how she was feeling through the year.

                “So, that’s just it. After all these years, you’re quitting?” Vince asked, breaking the silence at last. He looked leaner than he had when they left for Winter Break, and a little more tanned on his face. Apparently all that time in the snow came with lots of sunshine.

                “Yes, Vince. After last May, and the training we’ve been doing, I took a long, hard look at what this job would demand from me, and I knew I couldn’t bear it. I’d break, sooner rather than later, and then I’d still be out of the Hero world, only I’d have taken a spot from someone else in this year’s class in the process. I’m not walking away entirely though. I’m finishing my education and then going for a psych Masters. One day, I might be able to do for Heroes what Dr. Moran does for you.”

                Vince nodded, solemn but accepting. He didn’t like it, Mary could have figured that out even if she didn’t have telepathy, however he did respect her decisions. “When they do the wipe, you get to keep memories of people who give permission, right?”

                It took more control than she was expecting not to let thoughts of the truth about her “memory wipe” bubble to the surface. Much as she trusted Alex, the fewer who knew what was really happening, the better. “That’s right, Vince.”

                “Then I want you to know you can keep the ones of me,” Vince said. He smiled at her, and she felt unexpectedly reassured. “And know that I’m always here if you need me, HCP or not.”

                Sometimes Mary wished they were all like Vince, able to just blurt out their thoughts as words with little-to-no pause in between. How much happier would humanity be if they could cut through the obfuscation and simply be honest with one another?

                “I said it when you told me this last night, but I’ll repeat myself: you’d dang well better keep your memories of me.” Hershel smiled at her too, though there was a tinge of melancholy in his grin. She’d given him this news the night before, when they arrived back on campus. It had only felt right to break it to him privately. Since Alice figured it out on her own, Hershel was the first person outside of the staff that Mary had told, and she knew it had to be that way. He still hadn’t shaken the surprise from his face or the sadness from his eyes, but she hoped that would come in time. This was going to be a transition, and a difficult one at that. All they could do was work hard to show each other that they had more than the HCP connecting them.

                “Please add me to that list as well.” Chad didn’t look shocked by the news, which might have been due to either his deductive abilities or his stoic nature. A few faces did light up with surprise as he consented to be remembered though, and he visibly took notice of them. “I trust Mary. On the battlefield, and in my life as a friend. That trust doesn’t diminish because she looked inside herself and found a lack of willingness to kill. If anything, I trust her more now. Facing that sort of honesty is no small task. I must say, I am disappointed though. Part of me always hoped for a true rematch to our freshman year bout.”

                Mary laughed in spite of the tense situation. It was funny to think back to being freshman, when she’d only defended by tossing up some crude telekinetic wall and Chad hadn’t even adopted his bone armor yet. Calling it a rematch was hardly accurate, they’d both changed so much it would be an entirely different bout. “I’d say maybe one day, but with me dropping out I think you’ll be past my league in the span of months.”

                “Your league is bigger than you might expect. The world is losing a valuable Hero today,” Chad told her. “However, I support your decision. The toll you imagined is very real; I have seen it on the faces of many Heroes. Better to turn away than to break, or worse, be twisted to evil by such a burden.”

                “You can remember me too,” Alex volunteered, mercifully taking them off the topic of secretly evil Heroes before Mary had to work too hard at marshalling her thoughts. “And by the way, you know this news is going to throw a big upset into Intramurals. I think you and Chad were the only people we all knew would be going in.”

                “We’re the Class of Nightmares, I’m sure there will be no shortage of worthy contenders.” Mary noted the confused looks on many of her friend’s faces. Right… that was a nickname the Heroes used for them, not one they tossed about among themselves. “Sorry, just something the observing Heroes have called us. Apparently seeing real combat last year has made us a little more… aggressive than the standard senior class. Add in that we’re unusually powerful, and you get a silly nickname.”

                A dark grin cut Camille’s face, betraying the stalwart warrior who rested beneath her innocent exterior. “I kind of like it. If the Heroes think we’re scary, just imagine how the criminals will feel.” She paused, her face turning back to its usual gentle appearance. “Count me in for being remembered. I need someone else to drag along when Alice has her shopping binges, otherwise she’ll put me through trying on a dozen outfits.”

                “If it gets me out of the shopping trips, I may turn you down on that one,” Mary countered. Her eyes, along with those of everyone else, turned to Alice, who was the only person yet to declare a position on being remembered.

                The shift didn’t escape Alice’s notice either. “What are you all looking at? She’s my best fucking friend; of course I want her to remember me. Did I really need to say that?”

                “Wait, what about Nick?” Vince asked.

                “Nick is not a part of the HCP, and he never will be again,” Mary said. “He got expelled, he didn’t quit. So memories of him are fair game.”

                Chad raised his hand to get the group’s attention before asking his own question. “Forgive me if this is rude, but as it concerns us I feel compelled to ask: what about the living situation? Will you be forced to vacate?”

                “Thankfully, no. Since you all gave permission for me to keep memories of you, there’s no real reason for me to move. At least not midway through the year. I probably wouldn’t be able to come back once a new year started, but since we’re all seniors anyway it’s a moot point.” Mary looked around the common room, wondering what she’d have done if she did have to move. It was strange to think of living anywhere around Lander that wasn’t Melbrook, but she would have been okay. The walls and doors didn’t make this place a home, the people in it did, and they’d all just professed a desire to stay in her life.

                It made her feel deeply loved and incredibly guilty, at least where Vince and Chad were concerned. They deserved to know the truth about their fathers, but that wasn’t her call to make. Dean Blaine was right; they had to be careful with every move they made.

                However, there was one thing still left that she had to pull off. A parting gift, of sorts, before she was officially out of the program. “Vince, do you want to take a walk with me down to the HCP? There’s someone you and I need to talk to.”