Passing Time, Passing Grades
Sean Tannen sprinted down the short side corridor on the first floor of the Union building and barely caught the concealed elevator door before it closed. "Hey Kaori, guess you didn't hear me ask you to hold the door?" The petite Japanese girl barely seemed to register her teammate's question, her eyes remaining downcast and her posture slumped.
The heavyset brown haired youth considered his available responses to his teammate's continued depression. We've moved up to fourth place, we're going up against the third rank in less than an hour for a MAJOR chance to take over their spot. But how the hell do I try to push her to get her head in the game? None of this probably even MATTERS to her. After contemplating for the length of the trip down to the HCP levels, Sean moved to stand close to the petite girl and sank to a sitting position against the wall. “Talk to me, Kaori, talk to any of us. Tell us if there's anything we can do, ANYTHING you need, because I'm pretty sure it's killing all of us to see you like this.”
Kaori stiffened briefly around the midpoint of Sean's speech, but didn't immediately respond in any other way. The asian girl also didn't move to exit the elevator as it arrived, the door standing open for several long seconds while the two students remained stationary, before closing again.
“I need...” Kaori's voice trailed off for a moment and she looked away from her teammate, trying in vain to hide the tears that had welled up again. “I need it to be right again. And no one can do that. My big brother was the safe one, the full time healer and doctor, not the crazy one running off to the HCP to try and fulfill some stupid dream or spontaneous family legacy. He never got into trouble, he was always careful, and now because someone wanted to hurt ME, any of us, for being at this school right now, he's dead. Someone put his name on a list and sold it to a bunch of damned criminals like it was nothing, and now he's dead, and so's my dream of being a Hero. I'm not even sure why I bothered to take up Ramón on his crazy loophole idea, except that I think it would hurt even more to let whoever those fuckers are win even one more inch without making them fight for it."
"I don't think any of us will blame you if you want to give it up, Kaori. If getting away from here is what you need, then every one of us will do everything we can to help you. But before you decide that, you have to remember; your dream isn't dead yet."
"Really." The petite healer looked down at her seated teammate, tears still visible in her eyes but her tone now holding an edge of sarcasm competing against the hollow grief it normally carried. "Even with the loophole, five of us are out. We can't meet the academic requisites when we don't really HAVE any classes anymore, and our only other option was to get dropped even sooner by failing scores that don't actually go into our grades. So I'm out of the HCP at the end of the year, or the end of the semester. Unless you can think of a magical way for me to graduate before June with two years of training left ahead of me."
"The dream is being delayed, Kaori, not dead. You'll finish the second year of the program, then you take a year off to get caught back up on the academic shit, then you come back to the HCP."
"Do you have ANY idea how rare it is for a dropped HCP student to EVER test into the next year of the program?"
"But you aren't a dropped student, Kaori. None of you are. You aren't getting passed over and failing to advance, you got screwed by obscure semantics and I'll bet money it'll say so right in the damned files. But you know what will REALLY help make sure you get right back in to any HCP you apply for after taking a year off?"
"I'm sure I'm about to find out." The sarcasm was still present, but the grief seemed to have faded further, and a new note could just barely be detected if one was listening hard enough for it. Hope.
"Being on the team that takes over the top ranking in the class."
A faint smile appeared on the healer's face. "And I'm sure you have some grand plan for how to beat the girl who punched a god damned anti-tank missile and secure that spot?"
"Nah, planning for Ames comes later. For today all we have to worry about is Team 3. Just enough artillery to take on an armored division, the most skilled fighter in ANY of the classes, and Zach! How hard can it be?" Sean pushed himself to his feet as he spoke and made his way over to elevator panel to reopen the doors, before turning and meeting the eyes of his smaller teammate again.
"You really think they'll take me back later?" The hope in Kaori's voice was still small, still uncertain, but definitely there now. "I need... Jiro died. I can't let that end up being in vain, so I HAVE to be a Hero now."
"Kaori, I'm more certain that YOU will one day walk out of the HCP as a Hero than I am that I will."
"C'mon man, you gotta give me more than that! This is seriously fucking with my head, man!" Max Thompson let out an exasperated sigh at the groveling tone coming from one of his fellow HCP seniors.
"I already told you Will, they aren't all that. I wasn't expecting all the nuisance shit they threw at me and then the blonde chick sucker punched me. You'll be FINE." What the fuck is wrong with you that you're worried about fighting the damned sophomores?
"Don't let him fool you, Will." The jovial female voice that joined the conversation drew a wince from Max and an even more slumped posture from the smaller Will. "The sophomores this year are fucking VISCIOUS. Mr Thompson here is ranked behind only myself and Danny, and he lasted less than three minutes against the team you'll be squaring off against!" The second ranked senior, Vicki McCormick, made her way to one of the open chairs in the small observation room and plopped into it. "Hell, in the six matches between them and us so far, we've only managed to win TWICE. First time a senior class has ever dipped below .500 in Overton history, so we are COUNTING on you to do better!"
"They didn't beat me, they distracted me and landed a cheap shot." The tall, muscular youth was obviously more than slightly upset over the result of his match against the number one sophomore team.
"Ummm, that kinda sounds like you got beat, Max?" The smaller male sounded a little unsure of himself, but the more he considered it the more confident his appearance became. "I mean, it's four on one where the one is expected to be a heavier hitter than any one of the four, so... Isn't that just tactics?"
"If Rachd would let me go again I could take that whole team apart in sixty seconds." The icy tone of voice and deadly glare combined to get the smaller senior to back away quickly from his classmate, but it only drew laughter from the direction of Vicki.
"Seriously Max, you should do a LITTLE research before you make claims THAT fucking stupid. I don't think any of the Instructors could take out Jacobson in under a minute, the girl is a fucking tank and THEN some. Even Danny thinks she's impressive." The tone used by the African American woman for the final bit of her speech seemed to indicate that this was something of MAJOR import in her mind.
"Who cares what Danny thinks? He's not even eligible for the cross class matches." The attempted rebuttal from Max drew more laughter from the second ranked student, and an incredulous look from the much less relaxed Will.
"Are you kidding? Danny, the guy who could probably dismantle our ENTIRE senior class in five minutes, thinks the top sophomore is impressive; and YOU don't think that's something? Fuck me, I still have to fight her in... Shit, fifteen minutes."
"Some real advice, Will?" Vicki almost resumed laughing again at the pathetically eager expression she saw in response to her query. "Take out their telepath quick, then isolate the two techies away from Jacobson long enough to eliminate. Normal human resilience on those three, so as long as you're quick and decisive you should be able to pull it off. Then you just have to whittle Jacobson down a piece at a time. She's ridiculously strong, she punched a fucking missile out last year and she's back like it never happened, and she's supposed to have some crazy power sink ability like a black hole for any energy you throw at her."
"Wait, she does WHAT? How the fuck do I fight a black hole?"
"Not a literal black hole, stupid." Max's expression still held more than a trace of rage, but his pride seemed unable to allow him to let Vicki provide all the insight. "It's a power sink, kind of like a null Super. Doesn't work very well against brute force with kinetic hits though, your power should be able to hurt her."
"Yes, only replace the idiotic 'doesn't work very well' with the more accurate 'doesn't work AS well.'" The tall girl's response to the glare resulting from her interruption was a mocking grin. "It looks like Max here has been studying the girl who knocked him out, but he doesn't seem to be actually learning the things he should from that study. There's a record of her fight against crystal monster guy from the first weekend if you want to check it out later. He hits like a truck, but he couldn't take her off her feet even when he landed clean. The silver lining is that she's not very good at actual fighting or moving yet. She trains like crazy though so I'm gonna guess that the HCP was a really late decision for her instead of the many years long approach it was for most of us.”
“Well, at least I can see how I might have a chance.”
“You ALWAYS had a chance Will. God damn but this class needs to stop pretending the SOPHOMORES are so fucking special.”
“Good luck Will, I'll be cheering for you and I'm sure mopey here will at least be hoping you avenge his defeat!” Will managed a nervous chuckle at the farewell from Vicki, then made his way to get his final briefing from the Close Combat Instructor before his match.
“So now I'm moping?”
The black girl sighed and settled into a better angle to view the monitor in response to the sullen question. “Yes Max, you are moping. You were a little whiny when they let you back into the HCP here because you thought you were 'better' than the Overton program. You sulked when I kicked your ass and you found out you WOULDN'T be at the top of the senior class. And you have been moping non-stop since Amelia Jacobson knocked you the fuck out.”
Max stood very still for quite a while, showing no response until several minutes later when the monitor flickered on to show the unfolding match between Will Denne and the sophomore Team 1. The muscular third ranked senior had to give some credit to his class's sixth ranked student. Will wasn't showing any of the nervousness or outright fear he'd been radiating while asking for advice going into the match. His ability to throw or push objects away from him at extreme speeds seemed briefly like it would allow him to operate from far enough back to pick his opponents apart the way Vicki had recommended. Max smiled as the sophomore Advanced Mind went down, but that expression changed quickly when he realized that the telepath had apparently been making himself the bait. The position needed for Will to get the shot had been a trap, as some kind of concealed mine went off as the senior sought to reposition, and the same foam substance that had briefly held Max rapidly engulfed his classmate.
“Well, he lasted about thirty seconds longer than you did, and he remembered to take one of them out INSTEAD of monologuing at the kid.”
“Fuck off, Vicki. I admitted I was stupid and overconfident in that fight, why are you still harping on me about this shit?”
“Because you haven't LEARNED yet Max. You just tried to send Will in there with a little pep talk about how, 'they aren't that tough.' You want me to stop? Either issue a challenge and MAKE me shut up, or prove that you've actually learned your lesson from this.”
Max looked to be carefully considering the options the woman in front of him had proposed. Then he smiled. “How about option three? I prove that they aren't all that.”
Vicki sighed in response. “Kinda proving my point about not learning your lesson.”
“And if I can prove that the only 'lesson' I needed was another reminder not to let my pride get the best of me?”
“I must admit that I am DEEPLY curious as to how you plan to prove that. I will accept it as a third alternative to get me to stop harassing you.”
“Give me a week to get it approved, and it'll all be settled before Halloween.”
“Come on Collin, grab your stuff already and let's go! Cat's already ready!” The cheerful shout from the giant woman in the doorway drew laughter from Collin's three housemates as he scrambled about.
“Actually Tasha, I'm not really sur-...”
“You're ready because I dressed you and sent you out the door myself.” Seeing the combination of confused and amused expressions now directed her way, Tasha sighed. “And talk to everyone when you do that to me so I don't look crazy when I respond! Now go get Scott and let's go or we will be late!”
“I'm still a little lost on what, exactly, we're going to.” Collin had managed to find appropriate 'outdoor event clothes' as requested by his girlfriend, but the lost expression on his face drew another round of laughter from his still watching roommates. “Seriously Tasha, what are the 'Wildcards,' and where are we going to watch them?”
“Honestly, you really don't bother looking around much do you Collin? As much time as you spend blowing off steam and working out in the campus gym, you never bothered to read the backs of ANY of the sweatshirts? You own two of them you know.”
Seeing the confused expression remain, one of the men watching the entertainment unfold finally took pity on the muscular redhead. “It's the Overton University mascot, Collin. Since it's October that means she's taking you to a football game.” Aaron got a private laugh as he saw the faces of Michael and Barry light up with understanding along with Collin's.
“Yes, football. The Wildcards are off to their first ever 3-0 start, and most of the experts are sayin the team we've got this year is poised to sweep every game all the way to the championship!”
“I didn't even know Overton HAD a football team. I remember the basketball stuff a little bit last year in the spring, but nothing about football.” Collin combined a wave to his roommates with flipping the three off as they all mimed whipping motions as he headed out the door. “I didn't know you were this into sports either, Tasha. I don't think you've brought it up before?”
Tasha responded to the tentative question with a grim smile, managing to hold it for several seconds and observing Collin's mounting anxiety before she lost it in a burst of giggles. “No Collin, I haven't brought it up much before. I used to be way into every sport I could get at. When I was little I used to dream about playing professionally in any or ALL of them. Then I got my powers and found out that Supers aren't allowed to compete in normal sports, and all the Super sports just emphasize the power over the athlete and I lost my dream.”
“So, at the risk of landing in dangerous territory again, why the sudden rekindling of the interest?”
Tasha giggled again, a sound that couldn't have seemed much more out of place than it did emanating from the muscular six and a half foot tall woman. “Because all this crap we're going through in the program, we need to do more normal stuff. I figure this is good because it's normal stuff we can share with our friends, unlike most of our other boyfriend/girlfriend 'activities.'”
Collin blushed deeply at the emphasis on the last word, but managed a deadpan comeback. “I don't know, we could always ASK if anyone else wanted to joi-...” The rest of whatever he'd been going to say was lost as Tasha began laughing and slapping at his shoulder and head.
“Alright, so a no go on that plan then.”
“It had BETTER not have been an actual PLAN.”
“Poor phrasing. A no go on that idea then.”
“Accepted. Now Cat is getting Scott, we just have to swing around and pick up Alex and Lisa, and see if they invited their boys along!”
“I didn't know Alexandra or Lisa were dating anyone.”
“They aren't, as far as I know, but these things can change quickly.”
From there Collin opted to simply follow the beautiful woman he was dating as she collected her friends and teammates to impose football upon, offering only helpless shrugs in response to the pleading looks many of them threw his way out of Tasha's line of sight. Eventually the six of them made their way to the small outdoor stadium, where everyone but Tasha and Catalina was briefly shocked to see the crowd that had gathered to watch the game. Uncertainty slowly melted away as the found seats, purchased sub-par and ludicrously overpriced snacks, and for a couple hours they all got to experience something like being nothing more than normal college students.
“It's an away game next week, but they're back the week after that. You guys want to come again?” All five nodded eagerly in response to Tasha's question.
“STUPID!” The shout from the entryway, followed by the slamming of the front door, quickly drew the attention of the townhouse dorm's current occupant.
“Scott? What the hell?” Erin leaned slightly over the railing to look down at her roommate, standing in the entry hall with a dejected posture.
“Hey Erin, sorry about the screaming. I forgot how much the good Lord loves fucking with my life for a bit is all. That psych midterm that was on the syllabus for Wednesday turned out to ACTUALLY be today. Professor said the changed schedule was all part of some class experiment bullshit.”
“Ah, crap. Tell me you didn't just fail out of the HCP?” The tall girl at the top of the stairs suddenly looked very nervous, and her tone was pleading.
“What? No! I wasn't COMPLETELY unprepared for the test, I just thought I had two more days. And looking back, the man was dropping hints left and right that he was planning on pulling some surprise like this, and I missed it until after the fact. This is just going to make it a pain in the ass to make sure I pull my score up by the end of the semester.”
“Wait. You're complaining because you think the test you took today is going to make it harder for you to pull your perfect A's across the board again?” Scott started to respond, but opted to flee into his room instead as Erin began hurling cushions and couch pillows down at him.
“C'mon Erin! I didn't mean to make such a big deal about it. I thought no one would be here.” The sandy haired boy poked his head out from the door to see if the barrage had truly stopped. “Besides, my mom told me back before freshman year that she would be, quote: 'VERY disappointed' if I didn't ace my way through college and come out of it with a degree no matter how the HCP goes.”
“Okay, point. Your mom is a scary woman.”
“Not HALF as scary as your uncle!”
“That still doesn't sound quite like your mom though. I mean, it's like she's hedging a bet that you're gonna fail out of the HCP.”
“Oh, yeah, that. She also told me that if I didn't graduate from the HCP after everything she helped me with to get me ready she was going to disown me and hunt me for sport.”
“Now THAT sounds a lot more like the Mrs Jameson I remember!”
“So, how goes the studying?” Antoin asked the question as he slipped into the room and took a seat on the bed behind his roommate.
“No, off the bed, now. No distractions.” Kyle Sawara turned away from his monitor only long enough to demonstrate he was wearing his most serious expression, and pointed emphatically towards a chair. The blond Canadian youth laughed in response, but moved quickly according to the instruction.
“I wasn't coming down to distract you, Kyle. I was just checking on you.”
“I should be the one checking on you, you're the one who decided you needed to take three comp sci classes on top of your normal class load.” There was a trace of anxiety in the dark haired boy's voice, but it was mostly smothered with the exhaustion present as the end result of several hours of studying.
“Yes yes, I took on too much, we've had that argument. At least I was smart about it and I'm only auditing the classes. I get all of the learning and none of the pressure!”
“You've been using your ability to stay awake for a week straight at a time, you call that 'none of the pressure,' really?”
“The pressure is from the HCP, not the extra classes. I don't exactly have the skill set most people think of when they think, 'Hero.' I knew before I came here that I would have to work harder to make it as far as the truly talented. I don't regret anything.”
“Pretend you aren't one of the 'truly talented' again and I'll come up with something for you to regret.” Kyle sighed and clicked the monitor off as he finished speaking.
“I'm distracting you, I should g-...”
“No, I've been staring at the screen for so long my eyes are having trouble focusing. Time for a break. Now, I thought we already covered this stupid inferiority thing you tried to bring up before? There's maybe a dozen known healers in the world that can heal without physical contact the way you can, and it's not like you'd be the first healer to make it through the HCP.”
“The most famous example is also the worst comparison, Kyle. I'm never going to be the next Hallow.” The words had the ring of an old and well worn argument.
“And that's a good thing.” Apparently Kyle was striking off on a new path in this argument, as his response seemed to take Antoin by surprise. “He was a great Hero, one of the Legends, and now he's just a medical mercenary selling that ability to the highest bidders. You shouldn't WANT to be like him. You can support an entire team at once, your range and selectiveness get better every day, AND you're learning all this high-tech subtlety stuff. You really going to keep pretending that you have worse odds of making it through this than I do?”
“Right, because the flying illusionist isn't an incredibly effective ability set already.” Antoin stopped, then started laughing. “My god, are we really having a 'mine's worse, no MINE!' argument?”
The asian boy started to respond, stopped, then started laughing as well. “Wow, we are way more exhausted than either one of us realized if we're having sitcom arguments.”
“Well, time for a break, healer's orders!” The taller blond youth punctuated his statement by standing and dumping his boyfriend onto the bed before the shorter man could react.
“Hey, NO! I have to study!”
“Kyle, it's a political science midterm for a class you've described as; 'a great place to catch up on sleep and still get an A.' You're worrying over nothing there, get some rest.”
“I have a trig test too!”
“Yes, but in that respect you are the stereotypical Asian college student. Seriously, you score higher on advanced math tests in your sleep than I could manage with an open book and pages of cheat sheets. Go. To. Sleep.”
“Only if you get some sleep too.”
Antoin considered the ultimatum for a moment, then shrugged. “Alright, move over!”
“Do you have a moment, Mr Weaver?” The tall blond man looked up from his laptop at the hesitant question asked from his doorway. Standing there was the Oversight Committee's youngest member, a man that Harold Weaver did not normally associate with timidness or hesitation.
“Come in, Allan. What can I do for you?”
“Thank you, ummm.” The tall dark haired man moved in and took a seat across from his boss as he collected himself. “I think... I need to resign from the committee, Mr Weaver. I can't see a way to do my job with all the bullshit politics that keep getting funneled through.”
The Oversight Chairman was surprised, and he allowed the genuine emotion to show clearly on his features. “I have to tell you that this is unexpected, Allan. What brought this on? I thought we'd been doing good work to reverse a lot of the damage the first year's 'management' had done to our committee's credibility and ability to perform its stated task.”
“We all know, Mr Weaver, that the politicians that got this thing started didn't want a fair investigation or findings. They wanted an excuse to shut down this HCP. All of us accept that politicians do stupid things a lot of the time, but we just do our job and let the people at the top worry about how bad their missteps will make them look when everything pans out. But this, we can't do our job like this.”
“I won't insult anyone's intelligence by saying that isn't the reason this committee was initially formed. I also won't insult a team of extremely incompetent investigators by pretending to have no political aspirations of my own. All that aside I am trying to do this job to the best of my ability, and I can assure you that I have no intention of throwing this program to the wolves unless or until I become convinced that they really are NOT performing up to standard.” No reason to tell him that I USED to have such intentions, until someone farther up the ladder thought I would make a good scapegoat for later.
“It's actually not you, Mr Weaver. I mean, I don't think any of us REALLY like you, no offense, but you are a politician first. You're letting us do our job, which is more than can be said about almost every other politician involved with this crap.”
“Something changed again, didn't it?” The brief flicker across the younger man's face was all the confirmation Harold needed. “Well spit it out, man! I could go digging for it myself, but I imagine it would save me some time if you told me straight.”
“We're supposed to be investigating and evaluating the Overton HCP's performance, making sure that they are operating on par with the other four programs around the country as the primary complaint filed during the creation of this committee was Overton's tendency to produce 'Second String Heroes.' We finally got a confirmed response back on all of our requests for baseline records from the other programs so we have something to compare our results to.”
“I'm going to assume that this isn't good news?”
“We were told that we weren't cleared for access to ongoing records from the other programs, and that the comparisons would be made using random records from past classes. Apparently amongst the 'randomly selected' classes that this group is going to be compared to is Lander's Class of Legends.”
“That's...” Harold actually leaned back in his chair and brought his hands up to massage his temples in anticipation of an oncoming headache. “That's actually good. Someone is being SO stupid about this that I should be able to fix it long before it becomes an issue. But I get the feeling that this is more than some idiot deck stacking that has you ready to resign, Allan.”
“The new HCP Budget committee and the DVA are confirming last year's freeze on the applicant pool. The Oversight class at Overton won't be able to draw on an outside candidate pool, and any students that fall below the cutoff line for the top 100 to advance will simply become blank spots in the roster. They aren't just going to screw this program any more, Mr Weaver. They're going to deny positions to Supers that WANT to go out and be Heroes, just to try and make this program look worse.”
The blond man sat in silence for a long moment as he absorbed that piece of information. “How well known is that right now?”
“I don't know.”
“Let's make it a little better. I want you to take what you just told me directly to Riley and Janette Walker, I'm going to take it to Dean Jilles. It looks like politics is going to force us to commit fully to one side a LOT sooner than I would have liked. Be sure to let the rest of the committee know, we're picking the side with the most firepower.”