Holiday Vacations, Gifts, and Conspiracies
Best seventy bucks I think I've ever spent. The heavily muscled black man bid farewell to the shorter athletically built middle eastern girl and turned to find his bearings. Beulah smiled and vanished with a loud cracking sound as Ben examined his surroundings and came to the conclusion that the teleporter had dropped him off near the entrance to Central Park. He chuckled to himself as he realized he had grown up in New York and this was actually his first visit to one of the city's more famous landmarks.
Considering his options as he strolled onto the sidewalk Ben decided since he'd managed to save almost a grand on travel expenses he could spring for a taxi the rest of the way home instead of making use of mass transit. Having almost half the city to traverse in holiday traffic the large man relaxed in the back of the cab and found himself in a deeper state of contemplation than he normally liked to inhabit.
The HCP was hard. Harder than Ben had ever imagined it could be. But he had made it through the first semester and had even managed to remain in the upper half of the class rankings. He was being challenged, but by all the measurements that the program used, he was passing those challenges. But for some reason it didn't feel like he was succeeding. The strength based Super pushed himself every day, and he had improved notably since arriving at Overton in late August, yet for all his improvement he felt as if he were falling behind. Physical strength was Ben's only real ability. He was more durable and endurant by far than a normal person, but it was his strength he had expected to shine through and carry him in the program.
Unlike many of the other students in his class, and contrary to the mostly laid back attitude Ben projected, he had actually studied the HCP in quite a bit of detail before deciding to apply. He hadn't expected his ability to put him in the top spot in the class, he felt he was decidedly one dimensional in his power and that was not likely to be an insurmountable obstacle for those who would be vying for that honor in this sort of competition. But Ben had expected to be physically the strongest in the class. Even after all his improvement over the semester had him deadlifting over three tons, he was barely holding the number three spot in physical strength, and his roommate was the one barely lagging behind him in that category while completely overshadowing him in nearly every other metric. The muscular youth was beginning to feel that he was no longer competing for a starting role, but that he was only along to play a backup position. Something had to change, and it had to change soon, or Ben couldn't see the point of continuing past freshman year with his mindset where it was currently. Fortunately with most of his extended family visiting for Christmas and more than half of said extended family working as active Heroes, it should be an excellent time to find some advice.
Ben Pelley was obviously not going to manage to assume the role of class Strongman in a competition with Amelia Jacobson. It was time to find something he could do to compliment his strength. He could still be great, he was just going to have to be a little more creative than he had originally planned on being.
Lounging on the well worn dorm couch in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, a very average looking young man ran a hand through wavy blond hair as he sighed in exasperation, flipping rapidly through channels as he did so. Let there be ANYTHING on that's not another ancient Christmas special or claymation cartoon, I'll even take a freaking GAMESHOW at this point. Aaron Sexton was glad to have the townhouse to himself over the winter break as he seemed to be one of the only students in the HCP not heading home for the holidays. Particularly with the enterprising Ms Abbot providing such inexpensive travel fare.
Fortunately, as Aaron perceived it, returning home wasn't really an option when your parents had decided to leave the country on an extended tour of Europe and hadn't deigned to invite their offspring along. The wealthy Sexton family had been shocked at Aaron's intent to enter the HCP, and even further shocked that having made that decision he would even CONSIDER attending any University save Lander, the most prestigious of all HCP Universities. Consequently, while they were still paying for every part of their son's education, any further contact was more or less null until such time as he came to his senses and found a way to transfer.
As he continued to flip through channels searching in vain for something watchable that would not require him to leave his perch to locate a suitable DVD or even retreat all the way to his room and the infinite possibilities of the internet, Aaron finally accepted that he would have to leave his comfortable position if he wanted anything to occupy his attention that would not drive him stark raving mad.
Deciding that it was late enough for an early lunch if he had to be up and mobile the young man made his way into the kitchen. This may have been a mistake as it forced him to realize that unless he wanted to make a meal out of the collection of condiments in the fridge, it was either time to track down some clothes for a run to the store, or time to order in. Seeing that the trash can was already completely full of takeout boxes, the blond youth opted for the former option and started towards his room before detouring into the shower.
It seemed that reality was conspiring to force far more activity out of him than Aaron wished to engage in during the break, but it would give him a solid nudge towards locating a present for his roommate before Barry made his return in two weeks. Originally he hadn't been planning to get either of his roommates anything, but when Matt ended up not making the cut after the midterm and Barry had presented Aaron with a very nice and VERY expensive laptop to replace the old one the blond was constantly complaining about, Aaron knew he would feel constantly guilty if he didn't reciprocate in some way. And if his parents were going to refuse any contact outside of financial, he might as well take advantage of that fact to make sure he kept one of the few friends he had made in the program on good terms.
As the tall man toweled himself dry, he found himself pausing again in front of the mirror to appreciate how much he'd changed since coming to Overton. He'd thought he was in good shape before he had arrived for his first day in the HCP, but after several months of Coach Rachd's physical training, he was starting to look like a professional athlete.
Seeking out clean clothing (and adding another item to the to-do list as he found his supply greatly diminished) Aaron idly wondered if there would be a new roommate moving in come the new semester with their townhouse's occupancy currently dropped to two. Possibly two new roommates to consider really. With a sigh he opted to take the safe route going forward. He definitely had to get something special for Barry to offset the guilt he was feeling over the expensive gift already given to him, but the newcomers could deal with gift cards and be happy. Two different cards from local stores could make a very solid single present, or two acceptable separate gifts depending on what turned out to be needed. And it could definitely work out nicely if whomever moves in ends up feeling like they owe me a favor.
Heading out the door Aaron sighed again as he moved towards his car. Christmas, that wonderful time of year when everyone guilts everyone else into doing things to make themselves feel better.
Tasha Johnson was beginning to wonder if going home for the holidays might have been a better plan after all. The tall girl had originally decided that the trip would largely revolve around a never ending continuation of the same argument she'd had with her family since summer, the one about her joining the HCP instead of following in her father's footsteps into a medical practice, and since it was an argument she could have whenever she felt like picking up the phone, the personal touch didn't seem needed. Her roommate had, of course, discovered that Tasha had no plans to leave town for the break, and subsequently the muscular black woman had found herself carted off to a nearby town to join the Blake family for Christmas dinner.
Since arriving in the early afternoon, Tasha had been treated to a warm reception by Catalina's large immediate family, but she couldn't shake the feeling that there was something weird going on with the smaller girl's brothers. All four of the huge men, the second oldest actually larger than even Tasha's 6'6" frame, had been caught staring at her several times only to look away in an utterly failed attempt at nonchalance each time she caught their eyes. Tasha couldn't detect any hostility in the looks she was getting, but it was definitely weirding her out quite a bit.
"You're being a silly Giantess, you know that right?" Tasha nearly fell off the chair she was currently perched on as a quiet voice invaded her head. "None of these Neanderthals is attached and I don't think any of them realized that girls existed in your size. There's going to be a brawl later to figure out who gets to ask you out if you're interested in some pre-dinner entertainment."
The second statement was apparently broadcast as it immediately resulted in four extremely large men blushing more profusely than Tasha would have thought possible, deep laughter from Catalina's father, giggles from her sister, and a rapid string of angry sounding Spanish issuing from her mother as she exited the kitchen to yell at her sons. Tasha found herself joining in the laughter helplessly as four of the other giants in the room seemed to be trying to shrink straight through the walls in order to escape their mother's wrath. Her laughter cut off when Sofia Blake turned her attention on the massive black girl occupying the old recliner.
"I'm sorry my boys are sometimes stupid. If you want one of them feel free to pick one out, if he doesn't live up to expectation you can throw him back and pick another." There was a truly devilish gleam in the strongly built older Latina's eyes as she spoke, and Tasha found herself fighting hard to keep her laughter from resurfacing. "Also if you really were interested in the brawl, the boys usually have one later in the evening after dinner every chance they get."
Tasha couldn't quite keep her giggling fully suppressed as she responded, "I appreciate the offer Ms Blake bu-..."
"Cat's friends call me Sofia dear. You are one of my Catalina's friends, yes?"
"Sorry, Sofia it is. I'm already sort of attached to someone so I'm afraid your boys will have to search elsewhere for love. The brawl does sound fascinating though."
"Dear girl, if you think it is 'love' my boys are hoping for right now I don't know how you've survived long enough to make it into college."
This statement was met with renewed laughter from Catalina and her father and sister as Tasha now joined the four boys in blushing, though not quite as deeply, as she still managed a laugh at her own expense. Maybe it hadn't been a bad idea to take her roommates offer after all. Things were still awkward, but at least now the awkward was spread around much more evenly. And whatever Sofia was cooking for dinner smelled absolutely divine.
Alexandra sighed happily as she fell backwards onto her wonderfully plush bed. So much nicer than the 'beds' they stick in the dorm rooms. It was so wonderful to be home and spend time with her mother and sister again. So great to get away from the grueling torture that was the HCP. Her expression soured a bit as she considered that she would be traveling back into that world in only four more days. It was definitely not a journey she was looking forward to, but it was one that was required.
Alexandra turned to look at the solitary framed picture sitting on her dresser. It was the only picture she had of her family from back when it was whole, from back before her father had decided that raising two children was more than he could handle while his wife was away 'playing' a Hero. Alexandra had been only six, her older sister Elaine seven, when the picture was taken. Her mother, Rachel, had been so happy that they had all gotten to take a vacation together. The older woman's expression in the photo was positively glowing, and there was no trace of discontent in her father's expression in the photograph either. Nothing that would indicate he was only months away from walking out on his family without ever looking back.
Even now, twelve years later, Alexandra hadn't heard from her father a single time since the day he had left. He'd sent child support checks to his wife every month like clockwork until the younger child's eighteenth birthday, then even that contact had ceased. The petite blond girl considered it somewhat ironic that in spite of all the wonderful examples and warm caring concern that her mother had raised her with, it was her father that had instilled her deepest convictions into her. He had walked out on his family, on all the promises he had made to his wife and children, and never expressed even a hint of regret anywhere it might matter. Alexandra had resolved never to be that kind of person. When Alexandra Andrews made a promise, the only thing that would stop her from fulfilling it was her own demise.
As a result, the young woman made a habit of not making casual promises or commitments she wasn't absolutely certain that she could honor. The most notable exception had been made nearly eleven years ago, as her mother had returned home with a smile doing a poor job of masking a sad expression beneath it.
"Mommy's going to be spending a lot more time with you girls from now on. I'm retired from being a Hero, so you two and Grandma won't have to worry about me anymore. I'm going to teach the new Heroes at West from now on, and we'll all get to spend lots of time together!" Elaine had been overjoyed at the news, but Alexandra had wanted to know why her mommy looked so sad.
"I'm going to miss being a Hero, sweetie, but I promised my daughters that I would take care of them, so that's what I have to do." Both girls had nodded in agreement. Keeping promises was important.
"But if you aren't a Hero any more won't more bad people get away?" Alexandra could clearly remember the entire conversation, and how her innocent question had almost broken her mother's confident facade.
"There are plenty more Heroes out there, sweetie. It will be okay."
"No, it's not fair. If mommy can't be a Hero, than I'll be a Hero for mommy when I get old enough." Elaine had giggled and pulled on her younger sister's hair, saying she would probably be too little to be a Hero, but her mother had just smiled brightly at both her children.
"You have a long time to decide something like that, Alex honey. You'd have to learn how to use your ability first and the training will be super hard."
"No, it's only fair. Mommy had to stop being a Hero to take care of us, and Elly doesn't have a power. So I'm going to be a Hero. I promise."
It was probably the most ill thought out promise the young woman had ever made in her entire life, and it had left her trapped between a program she didn't want to be in and her personal conviction to never break her word. So far, in spite of all of Coach Rachd's attempts, the program didn't stand a chance against the quiet conviction of the small blond haired girl.
"Girls, get down here for dinner!" There was another benefit to her promise that Alexandra had only recently discovered. Her mother had actually made the transition from Hero work to HCP teaching quite nicely, she had found she truly enjoyed working as an Instructor for future generations of Heroes. But Alexandra hadn't seen true joy in her mother's eyes outside of the solitary picture on her dresser until the day she had returned home from college for the winter break to inform her mother that she had made the cut to continue in the Overton HCP.
Alexandra was completely certain that her mother would never speak a word of blame against her daughter if the young woman chose to drop out of the HCP, would only comfort her and help her find something else that she could truly enjoy doing. But having seen true joy return to the older woman's eyes for the first time in twelve years, Alexandra's resolve had hardened even further. Training was terrible, Coach Rachd was a demon sent directly from the deepest pits of hell to torture those stupid enough to walk into his domain, and the casual manner in which many of the students treated their powers terrified her. But none of that mattered. If her mother had held joy in her eyes at Alexandra completing a single semester in the HCP, the young girl would make any sacrifice needed to see the look in those eyes when she walked onto the stage a graduated Hero.
"THEY WHAT?" There were many winces around the table as Mirror's announcement was met with a predictable response from Overton's Close Combat Instructor.
"If I say it again, can you manage a response under a hundred decibels James?" The young bearer of bad news was wishing she'd had the foresight to stand further away from the man before making the announcement the first time. Rachd glared at her, but did not respond other than to return to his seat.
"So, for James' benefit since I think everyone else heard me the first time, there's no outside applicant pool for the Overton freshman class going forward."
"Is that, can they even do that?" Hai Nguyen, the Control Instructor, was the person posing the question this time, in a much more reasonable tone than Rachd's earlier scream.
"Normally no, but someone is still playing fast and loose with a lot of the Budget Committee stuff, and the freeze on the Oversighted class receiving any outside reinforcement from previous HCP applicants was snuck through in pieces. All in the name of insuring that the school can't somehow strengthen the class with students that previously washed out of the program." Deanne sighed as she sank back into her chair. "The only reason I even found out about it is that Raines is a complete idiot." Several questioning glances prompted her to continue. "He was ranting about how Elena and James must have fixed the midterm in order to insure that enough of the freshman class made it through the cutoff to give you a potentially full sophomore roster."
"It's actually quite an intelligent means of attack." The Focus Instructor entered the conversation with an expression somewhere between admiration and murderous rage. A somewhat unique look for the normally distinguished older gentleman. "We can't monitor everything that goes through a Senate committee who's actions are all technically classified, and it's a well documented statistic that the vast majority of freshman classes don't make it through the year with enough students to fill the sophomore class. That's why the program was set up to allow previous applicants to reapply in the first place."
"And no matter how good the top students turned out to be, and even as we would be likely to fill the junior and senior classes, having the Oversight spend an entire year reporting on a sophomore class that had vacancies in it would have been a difficult thing to overcome." Elena Martinez managed to keep a level voice, but her expression also showed anger. "Tony, I think you were absolutely right in toasting the freshman class two weeks ago. The best potential we've had in over a decade might have just thwarted the best offensive thrust to date from whomever is behind all this bullshit."
"Hey, I just wanted another opportunity to get the Dean drunk; the kids just happened to be awesome enough to make a good excuse." Laid back in appearance, casual in tone, but there was an intensity in Anthony Banning's gaze that showed a great deal of thought occurring beneath the otherwise placid expression he wore. "Are we likely to lose any more in the second semester?"
"No." The Close Combat Instructor's one word answer drew the attention of everyone in the room, and a long pause followed before James seemed to clue in that he was expected to continue. "Lane made the rounds of all the students after the incident with Simmons. No one else is likely to have any kind of break down, and after the hell those kids have already gone through not one of them is even seriously considering dropping out."
"Well then, thank you Deanne for bringing this to our attention even as it turns out there seems to be nothing we need to do with it." Kathryn Jilles had been silent since the announcement, seemingly distracted by something outside of the conversation. "I think it would be a good idea to see if the Walker's can bring any more political observation to bear in D.C. in the hope that we can at least get an advance warning on whatever the next attempt to derail our program is." Nods of agreement around the table met that suggestion. "Now on to the related item of business, how do we want to proceed with the students in regard to the new developments?"
"I don't think there's anything we need to worry about with the freshman Kathryn. Since they managed to get more than twenty eight through the midterm it seems unlikely anything major will come up in regard to Oversight until the end of the term at the soonest." Deanne wasn't sure where the Overton HCP's Dean was going with her suggestion, but it seemed a likely recipe for disaster to inform the students that the forces behind the Oversight Committee were working actively against their class.
"Ah, oh my." It was Laurence Vree who responded before the Dean could. "It seems that our informing the students is unrequired. Ms Blake has apparently decided that the class has been kept in the dark long enough and has managed to call a meeting with the entirety of the remaining freshmen to discuss the subject in detail." Looks of surprise around the room deepened into genuine shock at the next voice to interject.
"We're all in the Ethics lecture hall if any of you would care to join us, but I think I have all the details straight and we're working on a plan. For the record, Raines is the only one here that seems to WANT us to fail right?"
More looks were exchanged around the table as the realization sank in that the young telepath was likely privy to every one of the closed door conferences the instructors had held throughout the year.
"Not all of them, I've mostly just been focusing on the ones about the Oversight since I figured out that Raines might have something to do with my friends being attacked to try and out them from the HCP."
Dean Jilles smiled as she stood. "Ms Blake, I believe that Mirror and myself will be joining your class discussion. If nothing else, it will be a good opportunity to remind all of our students of the things they are NOT allowed to do to Mr Raines or any of the other investigators."
As she moved towards the door, followed quickly by Deanna, the petite Dean noted that all the Overton Discipline Instructors were trailing behind as well. This was shaping up to be a truly interesting start to the Spring semester.