Chapter 37

                Clad in fresh uniforms, hair still damp from the powerful spray of the locker room showers, Lander’s senior class followed Professor Pendleton to the gym, of all places. Only now, instead of being a temple to sweat and discipline, there were small tables set up at regular intervals, adorned with white table cloths and small decorative center-pieces. In the middle of the room was a large buffet stocked only with small plates, inconvenience incarnate, and at the far end of either side of the gym were bars that had ample costumed patrons lining up to be served.

                “Help yourselves to the food and drinks,” Professor Pendleton advised. He’d been waiting outside the locker rooms, catching each student as they emerged, corralling them into a herd before leading them through the halls. “Just remember not to go too hard, this isn’t far off from a job interview, and no one wants to teach a sloppy drunk. Otherwise, feel free to mingle about. The Heroes are going to be approaching those of you they want to know a little more about, some as potential teachers, some out of pure curiosity. But, if there’s one here you know you want to learn under, don’t be afraid to take the initiative. They tend to respect that sort of thing.”

                It didn’t escape everyone’s notice that Professor Pendleton referred to the Heroes as “they” instead of “we”, and even more took note of the fact that he stopped at the gym’s entrance, holding the door open but not entering himself. While few knew the reasons for his separation from the Hero world, several flashed him thankful smiles as they made their way into the reverie. Alice, particularly, lingered with her estranged uncle.

                “What are you going to do while we’re in there rubbing elbows?”

                “Retire to my quarters, where I can eat on normal-sized plates and drink as much as I like without fearing a bad impression,” Professor Pendleton replied. “I hated these things even when I was a student. Damn sure not going to attend one if I don’t have to.”

                “Lucky.” Alice knew he was lying, or at least not telling the whole truth, but with so many other ears around she couldn’t blame him. Instead, she pretended to believe the fib and kept walking, stepping into the place she knew so well, yet with only a few changes had suddenly become almost entirely foreign.

                If anything, she felt a sense of déjà vu from her life before Lander. Tiny plates, awkward business-like mingling, and the feeling of forced politeness suffocating the room. She may as well have been back at one of Charles Adair’s events, dressed up pretty enough to be noticed and complimented, but otherwise only there as a prop to humanize the mogul. Looking back, Alice could think of few things she hated more than those memories, and that included the times she’d gone floating up too high and landed to a broken ankle or foot.

                Hated or not, those times had given her the skills to navigate exactly this sort of situation, and that was what she intended to do. Alice was going to find a good mentor to teach her once the HCP ended, someone who could really help her take her power to the next level.

                And she was going to do it on her own merit, as Alice, not as the daughter of Charles Adair.

*             *             *

                “That was some impressive fighting out there.” The voice came from a shaggy-haired man in a green and gray costume, wide shoulders off-setting his short frame and making him look compact, like a walking ball of muscle. He’d appeared at the end of the buffet line, waiting to greet Chad as the younger Super finished carefully balancing a few morsels on his tiny dish. Chad looked the man up and down, peering back through a lifetime of memories and easily pairing the outfit with the name attached to it.

                “Thank you very much, Wild Claws,” Chad replied. He stepped away from the line, allowing others to continue moving, and Wild Claws followed.

                “Have to tell you; from what I heard through the grapevine, I was expecting you to be another strongman. Damn near spit a sandwich across the room when I saw the grace and precision you were fighting with. No wonder you’re on top of the heap around here.”

                “I assure you, that position has been harder to retain with every passing week,” Chad told him. “If tested now, I’m not certain I’d be able to stay there, though I certainly wouldn’t make taking it easy.”

                “Strong and humble. That’s a rare combination so soon in the senior year,” Wild Claws chuckled. “Then let me ask, you open to a little constructive criticism?”

                “Always.” There was almost a bit too much eagerness in Chad’s voice. He loathed personal weakness, and his desire to root it out from himself like a fierce gardener spilled over unintentionally at times.

                “You’re leadership skills are solid, in that people listen to your commands, but you didn’t put them to much use. In fact, all you really did was tell people to do whatever they wanted. That’s not an effective use of teamwork or strategy.” Wild Claws pointed across the room to Shane, Alice, Britney, and Mary in order. “Those four cleaned up after you, which was why things worked out. Now, not every Hero needs to be in command, that wouldn’t make any sense on a team, but if you’re going to take the reins, you need to do it well.”

                “I thought a good leader trusted his people and their decision making.” Chad might have been the only person in the world who could raise such a point without seeming defensive. He genuinely was confused, seeking clarification, and it shone through in his tone.

                “Trust is key, you’re not wrong there, but… look, would you ask Roy Daniels to handle aerial opponents?” Wild Claws asked.

                “Obviously not, unless it was absolutely necessary,” Chad said.

                “Exactly, because that’s not what he’s best suited to.” Wild Claws nodded enthusiastically, sending his long hair bouncing about. “Same with strategy. Not everyone is good at seeing how to best allocate a team’s resources in a fight. Just like some are better at melee than ranged fighting, some aren’t great with tactics. That’s part of why teams have leaders. If you’re going to take command like that, you either need to have a real plan in mind, or listen to someone who does. You’re a powerful Super, no one can doubt that, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a good leader.”

                “I see. Thank you very much for the candor, I didn’t realize my error. If such a situation arises again, I will either seek to be a better leader, or let someone more suited take the role,” Chad said.

                “For what it’s worth, I hope you pick the former,” Wild Claws told him. “I’m probably not supposed to know this, technically speaking, but I’m aware of who your old man was. Fought alongside him a couple of times, and damned if he didn’t know how to get the most out of every Hero working with him.”

                “I… you fought with Intra?” For the first time in a long while, Chad’s composure slipped a bit, his eyes widening, and the small plate in his hand nearly spilling to the floor. “How did you know I was his son? My impression was that they kept the exact specifics of our powers secret.”

                “Oh they did. Truth be told, I doubt I would have put it together if I hadn’t seen him pull some of your same moves in the field,” Wild Claws admitted. “But it helped that I already knew he had a son.”

                “You did?”

                “Sure, everyone who worked with Intra knew about his kid. The guy wouldn’t shut up about you, and I mean that in the best way,” Wild Claws said. “What happened to your dad was a genuine tragedy, especially since he didn’t get to see how strong you turned out. That man loved the hell out of you.”

                “I see.” Chad was back in full control, but now it demanded effort and he focused on keeping his emotions reined in. “Thank you very much, Wild Claws. For the advice, and for the kind words.”