Jia watched her past leaving her in the dust.
The slim Chinese girl stood in the center of the HCP lobby. A vast room was the bridge point for all HCP lifts as well as providing central access to the combat cells beyond, the classrooms on the right and the faculty offices on the left. The room itself was cluttered with couches for spectators and it included view screens of every combat cell so students could watch sanctioned fights at will. Last, a set of scoring screens unnoticed by most freshmen displayed team composition and scores for the upperclassmen.
Team 1: Jason Wyngarde
Team 2: Kelly Castle
Team 3: Tom Sanderson
Team 4: Jake Hallencheck
Team 5: Sam Ostermann
“Kelly, I’m so proud of you,” she murmured, hugging herself for comfort.
Jia stiffened, caught staring at scores for a class she was no longer a part of. She should be grateful for the extra time to practice. It was only a year behind. They were only the first and best friends she’d ever had. Seeing Julie every day was equal parts sweet and searing reminder of her failure. How much contact had she had with the others since then?
Slowly, she turned in place to face a small crowd of girls. Natasha Adler, Marie Yates and Dani Wyngarde. It was Dani who’d asked the question and, for once, she didn’t look outright hostile about it.
“A friend of mine. She was ranked second last year. I’m not surprised she claimed my place. She deserves it.” Greatly daring, she tried a cautious smile on Dani. “So does your brother.”
“Yeah, well.” Dani shifted a little uncomfortably. “Maybe I’ve been too hard on you. Sorry.”
Blinking in complete surprise, Jia choked out a “Think nothing of it”.
“We’re going to get dinner together,” Natasha said with a friendly smile. “Would you like to come?”
“I’d like that,” Jia said, being agreeable as much as anything else. She was still too surprised to know how she felt otherwise.
The three roommates quickly caught Jia up in the familiar babble of college chatter. Classes seemed to be on everyone’s mind, now that Gym for the day was over. There was no talk at all about the combat trials a few days ago. Jia was relieved. Natasha had been her last battle before facing Alley. The Shifter had a winged form with steel-like feathers that could cut through almost anything. Natasha had a powerful ability and knew it but she seemed remarkably okay with coming in fourth.
Danielle and Marie had placed thirteen and fourteenth respectively but their abilities were less straightforward. Jia still remembered how strange she’d felt facing Marie. Her ability had surged out of control and she’d spent most of a minute throwing punches so fast she’d fallen shy of her opponent each time. Danielle, on the other hand, had apparently done really well against Alley. Though Jia couldn’t think of any offensive application for phasing through objects, it seemed Jason’s sister had made a good impression.
She turned her head slightly, realizing she’d just been asked a question. Too preoccupied thinking about combat rankings when no one else was! Embarrassed, she softly said “Excuse me?”
“How’s Jake doing?” Dani asked, just as softly while Marie and Natasha chattered in line. Only now did Jia realize they’d made it into the cafeteria. She must be preoccupied!
“Oh. He’s fine. He’s fussy but he mostly sleeps. My mother’s looking after him while I’m in school.”
“Senator Ruth Sun, right?” Dani smiled. “Your dad always has such funny stories about his marriage. I bet she’s terrific.”
“She is,” Jia said, smiling a little. “You listen to my dad?”
“Lots of people do. Most Southern Baptists do. I mean, you knew that. That we’re Baptists.”
The only mercy in the conversation was that Jia couldn’t figure out which of them had a harder time making conversation. Their saving grace came when the line moved forward and they could pick out dinner items. Jia opted for a salad, well accustomed to the ‘freshmen fifteen’ experience. Besides, she’d already shed most of the little pregnancy weight she’d put on but Gym alone wouldn’t drop the pounds without a good diet.
Jia followed the lead of the other girls to a table in the center of the dining room. There was a bit of foot shuffling that was mostly resolved when she realized they were waiting for her to pick a seat. That revelation once more took her thoughts off racing in other directions while her body numbly chose a chair.
After her fall from grace last year, it seemed being ranked second this year was still enough prestige to net her a following.
“So, how’d she do it?” Natasha asked at last, once everyone was settled.
“How did Sarah Connor beat you?”
Jia looked from one face to another. “My roommate Alley is the one who beat me…”
“Oh right,” Marie said, snapping her fingers as the name triggered a memory. “Forgot. We’ve just been calling her Sarah Connor because she’s totally Terminator.”
“Jesus, she’s intense,” Natasha said, leaning forward to speak more quietly. “You’ve seen her, right? In gym, she’s all…” The taller girl swung her arms back and forth in an exaggerated motion. “I mean, everything we do, she does it like it’s life or death.”
“She’s intense,” Jia said agreeably. “But fun. You should see her back at Lambert Acres. She has my vote for the girl most likely to party.”
Snickers went around the table. Then Dani said, “So, how did she beat you?”
Jia frowned. “I’m not…I still don’t understand it. Her strength and speed are better than mine at baseline but she’s not even a tenth as strong or as fast as I can be. Did you see the fight?” Nods around the table. “Then why are you asking? You saw what happened.”
“I mean, how did she do it? Like, what’s her ability?”
“You know, I’m not 100% sure,” Jia said, surprised to realize it. “I don’t think she’s ever said, exactly. Finn says she’s got some kind of hyper-intelligence that lets her anticipate people. I think he’s right. She’s very smart on every topic that comes up. She doesn’t believe in the Bible and hasn’t read it since she was a teen but knows the scriptures better than most Christians.”
Thankfully, the conversation turned away from combat rankings. Jia allowed herself to slip back into relative silence, adding a remark only when it was expected. The salad was nice but the company was nicer and she just wanted to enjoy it. It was wonderful to feel like she had friends again.
Dinner wrapped up with thankfully little fanfare. By the end, Jia had all their phone numbers and an invitation to a party this weekend. Everyone had studying to do, though, which brought an unceremonious end to tonight’s festivities. Still, Jia left McKinnon Cafeteria in soaring spirits. She’d almost forgotten about the rankings board earlier.
Until she stepped into one of the secret HCP lifts, only to find Jason coming out.
He was gorgeous. The silvery-white color of Dani’s hair looked pretty on her but seemed sublime on him. Jason also shared the famous white eyes of the Wyngarde family. Rather than being completely uniformly white, he still had a dark circle denoting his iris. The interior was a shaded snow, almost a pale grey that sparkled like diamonds.
Jia missed those eyes. She’d fallen in love with those eyes. Her only reprieve was when he closed them in pain. She ducked her head as he walked away silently, steeling herself against the feeling of seeing him again. Jason needed more time, more space. After what she’d put him through, she owed him that.
“I’d heard you came back.”
She stopped with her hand on the button to seal the lift doors. Her hand dropped limply to her side. Almost helpless, Jia stepped back out of the lift and looked down the deserted hallway towards the father of her child.
“Congratulations on making team captain.”
“Thanks.” His stern tenor had always made a beautiful accompaniment to her mezzo soprano. They’d sung beautifully at the church on campus. Now Jason’s voice just sounded cold. “I should thank you, actually.”
“I-I didn’t do an-“
“I’m a pyrokinetic, Jia, you know that.” Jason half-smiled but the lightness of expression didn’t reach his glacier-cold eyes. “Nothing’s better for fueling a fire than rage. No one could stand against me last year.” She turned away and started walking. Jason called after her, saying “That’s it? You’re just going to walk out? Again?”
The white-haired man’s eyes closed in a blink. When they opened, Jia had closed the distance between them, snagged him by the front of his shirt and slammed him against the wall. Even she could scarcely believe the hot, raw rage set loose through her bones, a fire matching his.
“I had to leave, Jason. They didn’t give me a choice. You had a choice, though. I was all alone, terrified out of my mind with what happened and what I needed more than anything else was a partner who’d stand by me, who would help me make the most terrifying choices of my life. The school said one thing, Planned Parenthood said another, my parents had their own view, everyone I knew was pushing their opinion down my throat. I needed you, Jason! But you walked out on me!”
Jason broke her hold with some new move she hadn’t seen. Dropping to his feet, he shoved her backwards and stood his ground. Even on a hot day in Florida, Jia could see the heat rolling off of his body. After all the training he’d had on keeping his cool, he must be pretty near the tipping point.
“I’m going to be a Hero, Jia. Like my father before me. I didn’t come to school to be seduced by a girl who couldn’t at least use birth control. God, how stupid are you?”
“I was in love with you, asshole!” Jia was suddenly glad for the salad she’d eaten because anything heavier would have already come up out of her nauseated stomach. “Why is it all my fault?”
“I should have listened to my father,” Jason said, shaking his head and backing away slowly.
“That would mean listening to the controlling jerk whose shadow you’ve lived in your whole life. You came here to be your own man, Jason. You’ve already missed your first shot at being a man with me but it’s not too late for you and Jake.”
Something cracked the fierce fire of Jason’s visage. Then, anguished, he turned away and walked out. Walked out again, just like he had last year. It wasn’t until this moment that Jia realized her heart had been healing. It had to have healed a little for her to feel it break all over again.
Jia leaned against the smooth walls outside the HCP lift, slid down the surface and hugged her knees against herself. Then, out of sight, she sobbed inconsolably.