Shane was expecting to walk out to a round of congratulations and pats on the back for his victory, maybe a double celebration if Chad had already secured another victory for Lander. But the minute he stepped into the viewing room after his post-match exam, Shane knew something was wrong. Sizemore was cheering, a generous clue if ever there was one, and Vince, the only competing Lander student who had enough spare time to watch the match, was pale. Nick stood nearby, close enough to hear but still giving them space to talk. Vince turned to Shane, blue eyes wide in visible shock.
It was aggravating, disappointing, and worrying news, but it wasn’t quite the same blow to Shane as it clearly had been to Vince. While Chad seemed an insurmountable obstacle to them, Shane had more perspective on the Hero world than most. He understood that there were gaps in power that skill couldn’t overcome, and while Chad had done incredibly well at Lander, it didn’t mean there weren’t Supers out there who would be able to best him. Chad losing had always been a very real risk for Shane, and while he was disappointed they wouldn’t be able to have a match, Shane’s first concerns were for his friend and his school.
“Was he hurt?”
“No.” Vince shook his head slowly, like the motion took concentrated effort. “There wasn’t a single punch thrown. Conrad, the guy from Sizemore, apparently has some sort of ground-powers. He made the floor open up into a pit when Chad was mid-step, sending him tumbling in, and when Chad came out he was wrapped in rock. He fought as hard as he could to get free, to the very end, but it wasn’t enough.”
“That makes sense,” Shane said.
Shane stepped closer, ensuring their conversation would stay as private as possible. “It does. Environmental powers are extremely hard for most physically-based Supers to deal with. I’m sure Chad has some ideas for how to fight with Alice since he’s seen her fight often enough, but a totally new power would be tough for him to overcome, especially if he was taken by surprise. The bigger issue is what this means about Conrad. We both watched his first fight, we saw him shrug off damage and throw a hell of a jab. So, for him to have both strongman-level endurance and the power to manipulate rock, what does that make the most likely explanation of his power?”
For a minute, he thought Vince wouldn’t get it, but apparently years under their Close Combat instructor was enough for him to connect the dots. “He’s like Professor Fletcher, isn’t he? Only with rocks instead of electricity.”
“Thus far we only know he can control and take on characteristics of his element, full-transformation has yet to be confirmed. But even if it’s only as much as we’ve seen that’s still plenty.” Shane looked over to the Sizemore crew, who were eagerly awaiting the return of their conquering warrior. “Round two is when people start pulling out the real tricks, it seems, and I doubt this is going to be the only one. Watch everything from here as carefully as you can, Vince. Victory will hinge on it.”
* * *
After Professor Pendleton spoke, his own words hesitant as if he was waiting for someone over the communicator to correct him, the gym fell silent. They’d all known this was possible, in the backs of their minds. Every one of them had understood that the other schools would be sending in their best students, some of whom might be able to defeat even someone as tough as Chad. But knowing it could happen and actually believing it were two very different things.
In the end, it was Hershel who broke the stunned quiet. Rising from his seat, he walked to an empty spot on the floor and began to do push-ups. The keen eyed noticed from the chalk board that Hershel didn’t actually have any wagers riding on this match, but it was Violet herself who called him out on it.
“What are you doing? You didn’t bet anything on Chad’s fight.”
“I know. That’s not what this is about,” Hershel replied.
Violet nodded. “I get it. Feeling frustrated and you want to burn off some excess energy.”
The push-ups paused, momentarily, as Hershel looked over to her, making sure he caught the eyes of others along the way. “No. I’m training. We just heard Chad, our Chad, lose a match in the second round. That scares me on a lot of levels. It’s a reminder of how many powerful people are out there waiting for us. That any of us can fall short. More than anything though, we know Chad pretty well by now. This is going to knock him for a loop, no question, but what do you think he’ll do once he’s recovered?”
It was Thomas who answered this one, even as he was finding his own spot to exercise in. “He’ll train until his bones crack, then heal them and keep going.”
“Exactly. It took Roy and me this long to catch up to Chad, we’re not letting him get ahead of us again.” Done speaking, Hershel resumed his exercise. Within five minutes, almost the entire class had joined him.
* * *
Chad was taking his time getting to the healers, hands only now finally relaxing. He didn’t need any healing, and they would know it. There hadn’t been a single injury, so much as a scratch on either student. Losing was bad, but knowing he’d gone down without putting up a real fight made it all the worse.
“Where are you going?”
Chad turned, unsurprised to find Dean Blaine standing in the hall. “To the healers.”
“They’ve been made aware that you need a few minutes to compose yourself. Don’t worry, you’re not the first. Come on.” Without waiting, Dean Blaine headed down another hall, expecting Chad to follow. To his credit, Dean Blaine was right, as Chad fell in line behind him without objection. They traveled a short way, until Dean Blaine opened the door to a small room, designed like a combat cell yet only a quarter of the size.
“Am I about to get a lecture?” Chad asked, only half joking. Lander was a school, first and foremost, and there was sure to be a lot to learn from his defeat.
“If you need one, but we’ll see about that when the moment comes.” Dean Blaine shut the door firmly, making sure it stuck. “The real reason I brought you here in that I thought you might want some privacy, and some walls you could hit without getting in trouble.”
Looking over the room again, Chad did notice that there was a bit of damage scattered throughout, probably from others who’d lost their early fights. “I’m fine. You know that.”
“I know that you are controlling your emotions and making yourself seem fine, for the sake of the school and your friends who are out there still fighting. But I’ve also been here, you know. I understand what it’s like to lose on the big stage of Intramurals. And I know you need to feel this, Chad. It’s going to be unpleasant, and painful, and you’ll hate me for making you, but in the end this needs to happen. Moments like this are part of your education too. Our losses define us as much as our victories, and if you don’t fully feel yours then you are robbing yourself of important self-reflection.”
Tentatively, Chad slightly released his grip on his brain’s chemistry, allowing more variance in mood and emotion. Almost immediately he was overcome, the feeling was so raw it had nearly broken through on its own, when given a path it surged forward. Chad forced it back, retaking control of his brain and shaking his head. “I don’t think there’s anything good there.”
“Not now, no. One day, there will be, though. One day, you can look back on this as a time where your resolve was tested; where you tasted real failure and either choked on it, or came out the other side stronger. Defeat is part of the job too, Chad. You won’t win every engagement. You won’t save every person. There are losses ahead of you that will hurt much worse than this one. You owe it to yourself to fight through this one now, otherwise the ones ahead will be all the harder, and eventually you’ll slip, let your guard down for a moment, and all of that pain will come bursting forth and drown you. I’m here if you need to talk, and the wall is there if you need to punch. Cope however you like, just make sure you actually deal with what happened.”
“Don’t the others need you?” Chad asked.
Dean Blaine shook his head. “Deans can’t give advice or assistance; we aren’t here to help on the battlefield. We come to Intramurals for moments exactly like this one. And even if that weren’t the case, I would still be in this room. While I can’t show favoritism as the dean of Lander, you know I will always be here for you in one capacity or another.”
It was true, Dean Blaine had been there back even when Chad just knew him as Blaine, the friend of the family. Blaine had educated Chad, taught him, trained him, made sure he was getting the most out of his abilities at all times. There weren’t many people Chad trusted completely, but if Blaine said this was necessary, then there was no reason to doubt him. The only thing holding Chad back was fear, and the moment he realized that, it was no longer a tolerable obstacle. Steeling himself as best he could, Chad let his control fall away and emotions wash over him.
As it turned out, he went with punching the wall first, although talking would follow soon enough.