Jia was the first one to arrive at her Ethics class.
This wasn’t new. She wasn’t sure if it was exhaustion from the demanding HCP schedule or boredom with the subject matter but no one seemed eager to turn up for Ethics. For others, this was a class to be endured on the road to the real thing.
Not for her. Jia had no heroic legacy to come from. Her father was a preacher, her mother a senator. Both conservatives, both champions of the greater good in their own ways. But Mom and Dad didn’t have abilities like she did. In Jia’s family, in her religious tradition, God gave you the gifts He gave you and it was up to you to use them to their fullest. Becoming a Hero was the only responsible thing she could do.
And that meant studying everything there was to know about them.
Finn and Amara arrived together. The black Brit was the soul of their team, kindly and compassionate, always ready to give a listening ear. She hadn’t needed him for that but there was no mistaking the caring he showed to the poor, isolated Nate. Next to him, Amara English was his shorter, whiter counterpart, a woman with the power to create light who nonetheless seemed to need her boyfriend’s company to truly shine. Finn had worked wonders on her, lifting the sadness she so often concealed. Amara wasn’t part of the Major’s group to find the Ringmaster but at this point the Lambert Acres team had largely adopted her as one of their own.
Behind them came Alley.
Jia looked down at her desk, unable to quench the fire that ignited in her belly. The athletic blonde was the mind to Finn’s soul, brilliant, cunning and tireless in driving all of them onwards to excellence. But she was also impulsive, wildly out of control and…other things. Jia herself couldn’t figure if Alley’s blatant sinfulness in sleeping with women was what bothered her most or if it was the fact that the soldier had slept with her ex-boyfriend’s sister.
Danielle Wyngarde, part of the legendary Wyngarde dynasty, born into a tradition of excellence and morality. When her brother Jason had seduced Jia last year, impregnating her, Danielle had spent much of this first semester making Jia’s life hell over it. But now, Dani’s sins far exceeded Jia’s own. Was it wholly her fault, though? No one understood Alley’s ability but she was some kind of super-genius, able to calculate a million billion things on the fly. If any lesbian could have analyzed a straight girl and found a path of seduction, it was Alley. Given Dani’s look of horrific embarrassment and the fact that she’d just walked through the door and still couldn’t meet Jia’s eyes, Jia was inclined to leave the bulk of the blame on her hedonistic roommate.
And then there was Nate, the team’s heart. Nate Insley, alleged son of the Ringmaster himself, and bearing an ability even more powerful than his parents. Only a few months had passed during this semester but they’d left indelible marks on the young redheaded man. Gym class had carved away his thin softness, far more than the rest of him, leaving a slender muscularity that no longer twitched and flinched at the unexpected. Being around people had settled his nerves somewhat as well and even the painful public revelation of his heritage hadn’t bent his spine. There was a slightly numb quality to his expression at times but also the prospect of rising above that ancient pain.
Four had come to West Private’s HCP, sent by Major Isaiah Diaz, but Finn, Alley and Jia were largely unchanged. Not Nate.
As Jia mused on her observations, the Dean Diane Goddard strode into the room and took her place behind the podium. She wore a black woman’s suit jacket over a lovely cream blouse and charcoal slacks. The Dean definitely knew how to dress for success, though it’d be years and years before Jia could pull off that outfit by herself.
“We’re moving into Finals Week,” Dean Goddard said, “Which means your presentations and research papers on a Hero of your choice are due. We’ll be starting those shortly, per the schedule you signed up for. However, I imagine most of you are more worried about the Gym Final?”
Jia couldn’t help shifting her eyes down to her notebook, where she’d doodled out ideas on what the final might be like. Around the room, people made shuffling noises suggesting they had the same nerves she did. The Dean only smiled and nodded once as she stepped out from behind the podium.
“That’s understandable. I’m sure the empty seats haven’t escaped your notice. We began this class with fifty four freshmen. Only forty remain. Believe it or not, we expect this level of attrition. Being a Hero is a demanding career and many find the sacrifices demanded of them to exceed their capacity to sacrifice for others. Make no mistake, my students; the physical and moral requirements of this program cannot be met by those whose hearts are divided. No matter the ability, only two types of students usually prevail. The first are competitive, drawn and made stronger by the conflict of the Hero lifestyle. The second are altruistic, drawn and made stronger by the knowledge that they stand between life and death for thousands. Both types have their place, so long as their heart and their ability rise together.”
The Dean’s gaze fell on Jia Sun. Frozen, caught by the sheer weight of those eyes, she breathed out a sigh of relief when that scrutiny moved on to others. It still left the implicit question; which kind of Hero was Jia? The latter, she hoped.
“Both types will have their own opportunities to rise and fall in the Gym Final,” the Dean said at last. “Your Gym Professors have put together a rather excellent arena for you all. The rules are simple; it’s capture the flag.”
“The arena will include dozens of flag discs. One touch will prime the disc for commitment but it requires sixty seconds of contact to commit the disc, at which point you’ll see the image of a flag display. Points are awarded for capturing a flag disc, holding onto a flag disc and eliminating competitors. The results of this final will be how your rank is assigned next semester. In addition, the top three performers will be tracked for the most flag discs captured, the longest hold of a disc and the top three eliminators of other students.”
“Put your hands down,” Diane said, gesturing towards the half dozen raised with an upwards palm swept out, Jia’s among them. “That’s all the information I intend to give you in advance. How you prepare for this Final in the next five days is up to you. Heroes usually deal with the unknown so any further details on the arena will also be unknown. But be aware that, just as in your combat ranking matches, all abilities are allowed and healers will be on hand to deal with the damage. If you decide to withdraw from the program before the Final, please see me in my office. Otherwise, let’s begin the presentations.”
The rest of the hour went smoothly enough. Jia gave her presentation on the Fortune Teller, stumbling only when she accidentally looked at Alley and flinched away from the frost nova in those sharp blue eyes. At least Nate seemed impressed. He was the real litmus test as far as Jia was concerned, the one person in the room who knew the most about the Circus owing to who his parents were.
At last, class was dismissed. The rest of the Lambert Acres crew made their way to Gym but Jia lingered. She felt the pull of being on time but her heart felt more troubled now than it had been the other week when things had blown up back at the house. One way or another, Jia needed closure. She needed advice.
And authority figures had always been a good source of such advice for her.
Jia rapped her knuckles on the Dean’s door, relieved to find this time period was part of Diane Goddard’s office hours. Presumably for the upperclassmen since she was supposed to be in Gym. At least there wasn’t a line out here.
“Come in, Jia,” The Dean waved Jia to a seat in front of the ancient, huge oak desk. Then she stood up and walked around that desk, sitting in an overstuffed leather-clad chair opposite the couch that Jia took on cue.
“Thank you, Dean.” Jia’s eyes fell to the floor, only flicking up to the Dean’s face with great effort. “I…I need your advice.”
“Please. Go on.”
“You used to be on a Hero team, didn’t you?”
Dean Goddard arched one elegant eyebrow before nodding gravely. “Yes I was. Why do you ask?”
“Did you ever have…” Oh Lord, how could she put this?
“Jia, what’s on your mind?” the Dean asked gently. “How can I help?”
“I know we don’t really do teams until next year but I…well, we…I mean, we’re all roommates and we kind of consider ourselves a team you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Dean Goddard said, still speaking gently. “Go on.”
“What do you do when you can’t trust your team anymore?”
Both of the Dean’s eyebrows went up this time. “That sounds serious. Would you like to tell me more about it?”
Jia just shook her head. “Dean Goddard, what did you do when you were a Hero? How did you handle it when someone on your team was…proved that…well, turned out to be someone horrible? Did that ever happen with you? How did you ever trust them again? Or did you?”
The Dean sighed, reached out a single hand and gently placed it over Jia’s which were tightly clasped over her own knees. The touch made the Chinese girl shiver, for all that it was warm and friendly. She hadn’t realized how tense she was until she felt the absence of tension in that hand.
“Heroes deal in conflict, Jia. It’s the job, it’s the nature of the job. And conflict without tends to create conflict within. If you’re asking if anyone on my team ever did anything horrible…” The Dean smiled and said “Yes of course. The reason for assigning the Ethics class to research the triumphs and failures of past Heroes is because we all make mistakes, Jia. If you make fewer mistakes than I did, than my cohort did, this class will have been a success. Yes, I’ve seen my teammates do horrible things.”
“How did you forgive them?” Jia whispered.
“By forgiving them,” the Dean replied.
“I think you’re confusing forgiveness with excusing. Listen to me, Jia.” Diane Goddard’s expression grew very serious. “If there’s an excuse for a mistake, you excuse it. There’s a reason for the failure, something understandable that means failure isn’t entirely their fault. So you excuse it, you overlook it, you pardon it. You don’t forgive it. That’s not what forgiveness is for.”
“I was born and raised Christian,” Jia said, smirking brokenly around the shards of pain this conversation pulled into light. “You wouldn’t think I’d have a hard time with forgiveness but…”
The Dean smiled again. “Forgiveness is what you do when there is no excuse. They failed you, they hurt you and what they did was wrong. That’s why forgiveness is needed.
“What if what they did was unforgiveable?”
“I’ll confess, I’m a bit of a CS Lewis fan. One of my favorites: ‘Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive’. Is what your teammate did really unforgiveable?”
Jia flinched. “…It feels unforgiveable.”
“I’m sure.” Diane sighed, then reached down to the coffee table between them and took up a pad of notepaper. She quickly wrote something down, tore off the sheet and handed it over to Jia. “Now I want you to go get something to drink. Meditate, pray, spend a few minutes do whatever relaxes you. Then I want you to read what I’ve written down. And if you still feel you have a serious issue with your teammate, send them in to talk to me please.”
“Thank you, Dean Goddard.”
“Now go on. You have Gym and I don’t want Professor Matthias to come knocking on my door.”
Once Jia had left the room, she looked down at the sheet of paper folded in her hand. Then she opened it up and read.
To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.
She bowed her head, felt a great weight squeezing her heart finally ease. Taking a deep breath, she nodded once. Jia managed a smile as her eyes lifted up the bare, ascetic corridor towards the ceiling and, beyond it, God. Colossians 3:13. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
“I’m sorry, Alley,” Jia murmured to the roof of the underground HCP complex. Then she hurried down the corridor towards the showers. Professor Paul Matthias wouldn’t wait forever.