Finn’s taxi pulled up in front of Lambert Acres and he whistled at the sight of it.
It was a private off-campus house, obviously sized for parties. Two-story, but surprisingly sprawling with an acre of woodland around it as play. The carport led to a four car garage with attached shop. Someone kept a flower garden alongside the paving stone walkway to the entrance. A wraparound porch provided ample chance to relax on a porch swing or open-backed chair during the hot days of a Florida summer.
Finn took a step outside the car and immediately removed his baseball cap to fan his face with.
“Is it always so sodding hot?” he asked the taxi driver.
“Heh, welcome to Orlando, son.”
“I’ll be buggered before I make it six steps.” Shaking his head in amazement, Finn tucked the baseball cap back on and fetched his suitcases from the trunk. “Thanks for the ride!”
“Planning a few weekend parties?” asked the middle-aged taxi driver, whose scruffy beard and somewhat overweight physique made it unlikely he attended many himself.
“Oh, one can hope.”
“Well, make sure you stock up. Can’t buy booze on Sundays. Don’t be caught driving either.”
“You can’t drive on Sundays?” Finn asked, stunned at the notion.
“No, idiot, don’t drink and drive around here. Cops’ll be all over you. They watch anywhere near West Private like a hawk.”
“Americans.” Finn paid the man and left a handsome tip. “Thanks for the advice, mate.”
Without further fanfare, the taxi pulled away. Finn remained in the carport, staring up at the house. No other cars in the driveway. Was he the first one here?
He hefted his suitcases and made his way to the front door, sweating into the baseball cap’s headband by the time he reached it. Finn set the suitcases down, pulled open the screen door and tried his key. It worked! Trying to manage the doorknob was tricky with his luggage, though.
At least until Jia Sun opened the door for him.
The slim Chinese woman promptly took his suitcases for him, helping him into the house. Finn eyed the effortless way she handled the dense luggage but kept his speculations to himself. Instead, he took a moment to survey the interior.
Big fancy living room, already furnished. Three couches spanned the window-lit wall, leather and in good shape considering. The opposite wall included a big screen television and ample shelving for a library no one would use. A sunken fireplace lay below the television, complete with a circular brick round for keeping the wood shivers from getting on the carpet while providing space for those who wanted to sit close to the flame.
“Well, this is nice,” Finn said. “The Major’s?”
“No,” Jia admitted, her soft voice barely audible in the vast room. “My father bought it last year for West Private University as a donation, on the condition that I be allowed use of it while I was here.”
“It’s lovely. Please thank your father for allowing us to stay here.”
The hesitation in her voice told Finn she hadn’t planned to tell him about her roommate situation at all. Finn shrugged. Not really any of his business, especially when she was doing him a favor.
The kitchen lay beyond the living room. A stairway to the right of the front door clearly led to the second floor. Jia silently hefted the luggage right up the stairs, leaving Finn to feel slightly emasculated as he followed.
Upstairs was warmer but the hum of central air promised an eventual relief from the day’s heat. Finn looked down a hallway with four bedroom doors, with a fifth leading to the bathroom. One of the left bedroom doors was open, the one closest to the stairs. Jia had plainly claimed it.
“I’ll take the right then,” Finn said, opening the opposite door nearest the stairs.
He peeked in and nodded approvingly. Queen-sized bed with a lovely window view of the forest surrounding Lambert Acres. He saw a dresser, a furnished desk with matching office chair, and a small table. The room included a closet.
“I’ll put these on your bed then,” Jia said. She promptly lifted them as if they were made of foam and set them, gently, on the mattress.
“You didn’t have to.”
“Oh, it was no trouble.” Jia smiled shyly.
“Are we the only ones here so far?”
“Mmmm.” It took Finn a moment to realize that was a sound of agreement.
“So, this is nice. Do you suppose the Major plans- “
“Shhh!” She silenced him with a single finger against his lips. “We’re not to speak of it, he said.”
“Do you always do what people tell you to?” Finn asked, amused and curious in equal measure.
“Ah…not always, no.”
The way she ducked her head and looked slightly embarrassed said otherwise. Finn was too polite to press the point, though. Thankfully, the screen door slammed open downstairs. They both moved to the hallway and peeked down the stairs.
Alley had arrived in style. The last (and only) time Finn had seen the female soldier, she’d been wearing crisp fatigues and moved like she had a pole up her back. This Alley was stripped down to not much more than a bikini top and a pair of form-fitting bike shorts. Her straw-colored blonde hair was long, now that she wasn’t wearing a cap, and tied back in a ponytail that bounced when she moved. As did other parts. Well, to a degree. Her musculature was a model for a women’s fitness magazine but she didn’t have as much topside as Finn usually cared for.
“Alley, up here!” he called out.
Soldier girl didn’t hear him, likely owing to the ear buds plugged into her phone. As she swung her backpack off her shoulders, Alley continued the motion into a spin, both arms raised over her head. She swayed several times, moving to a beat only she could hear. Then she laughed once and popped her ear buds out.
“My bad,” she called back up the stairs. “Couldn’t hear you. I’m calling the left backside bedroom. Girls on the left, boys on the right. Also, upstairs bathroom is ours. You boys get the downstairs bathroom and shower. No bitching.”
“Yes, sir,” Finn said, saluting.
“Very funny. Now, I saw the shop. Anyone have plans for it?”
“What, seriously? You’re claiming the shop now? Do you plan to assemble soldiers so you can take over America and be President?” Finn couldn’t help but laugh at the overpowering assertiveness of his newest roommate.
“Jesus, you think I want his job?” she asked with a grin. “Nah, I was just thinking of putting together a gym for us.”
“Alley,” Jia said, hesitating to say more until the other woman nodded at her. “I was in the HCP last year. There’s a daily gym-“
“Oh, I know,” Alley said. “I was in it two years ago before I joined up with the Army. I was thinking more a studio with space for yoga, balance exercises, maybe some aikido space. Gym isn’t exactly big on flexibility, you know.”
“Neither of you are freshmen?” Finn asked, looking back and forth between the two women. “Blimey, that’s humbling. Have pity on the ignorant, will you? My first time in America and I didn’t exactly plan to stay for a school year.”
“We’ll help you,” Jia said, nodding swiftly. “Though training our first year is usually individual. I think we’re supposed to get into teams second year.”
“Then you’re on the same team? I mean, you’re sophomores right?”
The women exchanged looks. Both shook their heads. Finn thought about prying but Jia’s pained expression and the absolute flatness of Alley’s pretty face told him he’d be better off interrogating a wall.
Just then, Alley went to the front door and opened it. Exactly on cue, a soldier stepped through carrying suitcases. Finn opened his mouth to protest, only to realize Nate Insley was right on his heels. A second soldier followed the thin, gangly teenager. The last person through was an appealing brunette in a flowery summer dress that very much flattered her figure.
“Christ, Nate, you’re like a rock star,” Alley said, slapping him on the back. The affection surprised Finn but seemed to surprise Nate more. “Always with an escort. So, Julie’s sticking around, eh? Don’t bother with the RV option they gave you, Jia will be thrilled to have you stay with her. Go catch up.”
“Jia?” Julie looked surprised, then spotted her friend at the top of the stairs. Both women promptly gave an ear-piercing shriek and ran to each other, embracing at the half way point up the stairs.
Bemused, Finn met Alley’s eyes and saw her nod once. Noticing Nate standing to the side, Finn said, “Hey, mate, come on up and check your room out. Boys on the right, am I right?”
With Alley’s permissive nod, Nate angled up the stairs around the two women talking a mile an hour to each other. Finn stepped back into his bedroom, giving Nate enough room to walk by. The red-headed kid wore another Doctor Who t-shirt that hung loosely over his skinny body, not bothering to tuck it into his jeans. Finn pointed out the bathroom off-limits to them both before opening the door to his roommate’s bedroom.
Nate seemed delighted at least. Though he spent an awful amount of time peering around the room looking for something. “Hey, is it cool if I bring my cat?” he asked after finishing his inspection.
“A puss is fine with me,” Finn said.
“I love cats,” Jia added.
“Whatever rings your bell, Ginger.” Alley chuckled at Nate’s look of dismay and waved him on.
While everyone else got settled in, Finn went to unpacking his suitcases. Of course, the rest of his effects wouldn’t arrive until next week. When he’d come to America to attend the University of Connecticut, he hadn’t expected to be drafted into a Hero Certification Program down in Orlando, Florida. In the meantime, he put the clothes he had away, plugged his laptop into the desk and settled the place to his liking.
Pleased, he popped his head out to find Nate in his room doing the same under the supervision of the two soldiers. Alley was in her room already, visible through a crack in her door. She lay across the bed, ear buds back in and a tablet in her hands. Reading something given how rarely she touched the screen.
Finn descended the stairs and spotted Jia and Julie sitting on one of the couches, smiling at his approach.
“Hi Finn, I’m Julie Campbell,” said the pretty brunette in the summer dress, rising from the couch and offering to shake.
“Finn Barnaby, at your service, ma’am.” He bowed over her hand and kissed the back of it theatrically. She grinned.
“We were roommates last year,” Jia said.
“And will be again, if you and Nate are okay with it.” Julie looked slightly uncomfortable. “Alley had a good idea there. I’m on evening duty for Nate so I need to stay close. West Private’s HCP offered to provide an RV for me to use in the carport but-“
“Nonsense,” Jia said firmly. “I picked the biggest bedroom, I have room for another bed. We already know we get along, right?”
“Hold on, what is it about Nate exactly?” Finn saw the pretty girl’s friendliness suddenly fold up beneath a professional demeanor but he pressed on. “Seriously, if we’re rooming with him, don’t we have a right to know?”
“I can’t talk about it,” Julie said. “I’m sorry. Part of the arrangements for Nate being at West Private is twenty four hour monitoring by a telepath. I’ve been told there’s little risk and, based on what I’ve seen of Nate so far, I’d agree but-“
“What, you’re a telepath?” Finn backed off at once until his heels hit the back of the bottom step of the stairwell. Realizing what he’d done, he scratched the back of his head sheepishly and smiled an apology. “That was rude, sorry. I’ve just never…well, I’ve never met a telepath. Are you reading my thoughts now?”
“No, Finn, I’m just here for Nate.” Julie’s smile was a bit cool but real. She hadn’t taken offense at least. “Don’t worry about it, most people haven’t. You’ll have to get used to it, though. Most people more or less talk loudly in their heads so it’s almost impossible not to pick up their surface thoughts. Not that you have much to worry about.”
“You’re-wait, you don’t know?” Julie frowned a little. “How can you not know?”
“I guess you haven’t met many other Advanced Minds. Don’t worry, the professors will explain it to you.”
“Other Advanced Minds?” Finn took a few seconds to meditate on what she’d said. “You’re not saying I’m a telepath too, are you?”
“I guess you’ll find out on Monday, won’t you,” she said with a grin.
Finn gave her an unsteady grin. It almost matched the one he wore on the inside. If Julie believed he was an untrained telepath, others would to.
Exactly the way the Major wanted it.