Not long after Chad and Brenda were led away, the students who drew number one slots from West Private and Sizemore were both taken out as well. They’d be able to prep for their match while the first one was going on, which most of the other competitors imagined had to be the worst spot possible. Going first would be rough, sure, but at least there was a little bit of leeway since it was the first match of the whole event. For those going second, it would feel just as foreign as going first, only the crowd would already have a standard to compare it too.
Alice was just reflecting on how lucky she felt not to be in that position when a lift door opened to reveal one of the, quite literally, last people she would ever have expected to see in an HCP, let alone at Intramurals. Seeing Nick walk in was strange enough, but seeing him walk in next to Ralph Chapman was so bizarre that Alice genuinely wondered if someone was using illusion powers, until she remembered Dean Blaine was in the same room as them.
“There’s the cream of Lander’s crop. Sorry I missed the drawing, somebody has trust issues even though there’s a negation Super right here in the room with us.” Nick strolled over as if he were oblivious to the shocked expressions on his friends’, and a few of the DVA agents’, faces.
With a barely suppressed groan, Alice rubbed the sides of her temples. “You know what, I’m more mad at myself than anything. It’s been four years, and I’m dating you, I really should have expected something this insane by now.”
“Nick, how are you here?” Vince was more to the point, and visibly concerned as he pulled his friend in close. “Is it even safe?”
“Relax, I’m on premise as a specially invited guest of the DVA. See, when Crispin made his confession, he might have mentioned Nathaniel’s role as an instigator, which means the Heroes are suddenly interested in the Evers family and whether they helped bankroll the attack on Lander. As a man who is intimately familiar with the people who run Vegas, I’m what they consider a ‘high-value’ asset. In exchange for a little help navigating things, I was able to swing myself an invite to the event of the season.”
It was a good lie, it held together well and made a certain amount of sense, but Alice didn’t buy it for a second. Nick wouldn’t divulge anything of value about the Vegas syndicates, not even one he had a bad history with. At most, he’d toss out a few crumbs of information that anyone could find if they dug deep enough. No, this was a cover story, created to mask whatever real methods he’d used to gain entrance. That was for the DVA to worry about, though. She was just glad he’d found a way down. The whole situation was tense and nerve-wracking; it would be nice to have someone around who could help distract them when it was necessary.
“If you’ve got any popcorn, bust it out. They took Chad away a few minutes ago so the first match is bound to start soon,” Alice said. “And I don’t know about you all, but I’m looking forward to seeing what these other schools are made of.”
* * *
With the focus on Lander and Korman as Victor drew the conditions for the first match, pulling out a blank ball that indicated a standard combat cell, Titan made his way across the room. He wasn’t heading for the Lander kids, since they already had enough going on, plus it was seen as poor form to talk to the competitors lest anyone think they were getting advice. No, his target was an older man with wide shoulders and a gruff expression. As soon as Titan arrived, he found a handshake waiting for him.
“Dean Jackson, good to see you as always.”
“Same to you, Titan. Been keeping track over the past year, and it looks like you and those new Gentle Hammers of yours have done some fine work. Glad to see you haven’t lost your touch in the time away.”
“It took me a little while to get back into the swing of things, but I’m getting there.” Titan released his hand, shifting so that they could both watch the screens as they chatted. Small-talk was perfectly fine in the downtime, but the focus of the day needed to stay on the students.
“Maybe you’ll make some room for a few fellow Sizemore graduates on that team. I heard you were looking to take an intern, but you’ve yet to swing by your old alma mater.”
There weren’t many people who could make Titan squirm, however his old dean was one of the few with that power. “This year was special. I don’t think I fully realized it at the time, but I was hoping for a very specific student. One that went to Lander.”
Dean Jackson gave a small, curt nod. “And?”
“We signed the paperwork a few days ago. My boys will be interning under me if they graduate.”
The snort was unexpected, as was the brief smirk that showed on Dean Jackson’s lips. “If the sons of Titan can’t even graduate, then I fear to imagine what this class is capable of. No, I don’t begrudge you that selection, even if it is going to be a hard road. But maybe next time you’ll at least throw us into the mix.”
“I promise, next time I need interns I’ll show up for as many of the Sizemore trials as I can,” Titan said. “On the subject of the school though, I was wondering… how’s she doing?”
There was no need to say who he was talking about; they were both fully aware that there was only one student enrolled at Sizemore that Titan had any interest in. “She’s doing well. The first of the year was tough, she struggled to find her footing in the class and I think she felt out of place. Over time, she’s settled in though, even made a few friends. And combat wise, those summons of hers are keeping everyone on their toes. I’d say she’s all but a lock for moving on to sophomore year, and I’m quite eager to see how she does once we shift to team events. Given her background, I expect she’ll be something to see.”
“I’m sure she will,” Titan agreed. He’d tried not to pester Hexcellent, now Hannah, too much about her freshman year, but he still wanted to keep tabs on the former-corpie when he could. If she made it to senior year, there were already plenty of Heroes gunning to make her an intern after the show she’d put on in Brewster. While that was still a long ways off, Titan had a strong feeling that she’d make the cut. She was a tough one with a lot to prove, not to mention a rabbit that redefined what it was to be a summoner.
Much as he might have liked to ask more, the screens suddenly flickered to life, showing a combat cell with two students slowly walking in. A hush rippled through the room as Victor picked up his microphone once more.
“Students: You will start on my signal and not before. If at any time I halt a match, you are expected to freeze in place that instant. Keep in mind that while we expect a hard-fought battle, any attempts to legitimately kill one another are banned. Violate any of these, and expect to be disqualified. Now, begin by introducing yourselves. Real names, your major, and your chosen Hero name if you have one and wish to share it.”