Second String Supers: Freshman Intrigue: Chapter 14

Chapter 14:
Finals, Failures, and Preparing for the Ultimate Midterm

Antoin sat comfortably curled on the couch of the townhouse’s common room doing his absolute best to concentrate solely on the textbook in front of him while ignoring the darkhaired head resting in his lap and smiling up at him as well as the hostile glares from the immaculately groomed and styled blonde currently occupying the dining area. In spite of his efforts the textbook was definitely receiving the smallest share of his attention currently.

“Gerard my friend, if you wish to join our roommates on the couch I’m certain that all you need do is ask them politely,” Antoin smiled as the asian youth occupying the floor in front of him as well as a portion of his lap broken into chuckles as their fourth roommate entered the common area.

Gerard turned to the newly arrived tall, muscular hispanic man but had to pause as he visibly worked to control himself before responding, “I’m not even the smallest bit interested Ramón. You should at least try to keep your humor on topics that are actually funny. Your new stick figure girl break any interesting new bones yet?” The neatly coiffed blonde man had not been dealing well with the revelation that two of his male roommates were now in a relationship. The best that could be said of the man was that he was making an effort to work through his issues with homophobia as civilly as possible. The results were mixed but the effort was more than some bothered to make.

“So far we have been moving slowly so sadly Ramón had no new entertaining stories about the things that Amelia has broken or how they ended up that way.” Antoin had to give the larger man credit, it was very nearly impossible to come out ahead of him in any war of words. “But if you lack interest in the goings on of the couch, why are you directing so many angry looks towards it? Surely Gerard is not feeling jealousy of our pair of lovebirds?” This drew another snicker from Kyle before the smallest roommate entered the conversation.

“Actually Ramón he’s not angry at the couch or jealous of the boy on boy love. He’s angry because he challenged for fourth rank and lost the match yesterday.”

“Ah, so Gerard is simply worried about his class standing again. Much more sensible than many of the other idiotic things he has managed to do lately.” Gerard flushed a little angrily at Ramón’s words, but didn’t attempt to correct the big Mexican.

“I apologized for reacting poorly when I found out two of my roommates were gay. It was a surprise, and I admit I handled it poorly. Now will you please let me be upset that a man who turns into some kind of satanic porn star kicked my ass in less than thirty seconds? For a day or two at least?”

There was laughter around the room at Gerard’s closing plea.

“I’m pretty sure I’m not a porn star until I’ve actually been filmed doing something you know.”

“But did not you and Antoin talk about doing exactly that my small friend?” Ramón’s latest comment caused the remaining laughter to die as both Antoin and Kyle blushed a deep crimson and Gerard hurriedly turned to try and immerse himself in the collection of papers and textbooks before him.

“Please, everyone, can we save the banter until after finals?” Antoin’s pleading voice took some effort to get out around his obvious embarrassment, but as the Canadian considered that he had yet to turn a single page of his textbook in the last hour, the plea was definitely heartfelt.

“It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before Doc. You’ve got to help me fix it. I can’t sleep right, my food tastes like crap, and I’m making a complete fucking mockery out of myself in training.” Mark Jansen reclined on a comfortably plush couch as he poured out his frustration to the Overton HCP Psychiatrist, Doctor Lane Bertram.

The portly 6’1″ doctor examined his notes as the tall young man on his couch continued to vent. It really was a terrible shame to see such a promising Super struck with such a crippling fear after a poor day in a combat room, but as a psychiatrist in the HCP for nineteen years, the last six of which he was the chief of psychiatry at Overton’s program, it was sadly a story he had seen many times in the past and expected to see many more times in the future.

“You have attempted all the calming exercises we’ve discussed?” the young man nodded as the doctor continued. “And based on your descriptions today, you would say that your problems are worsening?” Mark wore an impassively tight lipped expression for several moments as he considered the last question, before nodding again.

“Look Doctor Bertram, there’s got to be something you can give me for this. Some kind of healer that specializes in mind stuff, or even just some meds to take the edge off. I know I can do this if I can just have a little more time to get right…” the curly haired youth trailed off as he turned to see the sad expression on the much older man’s face. Tears welled up as Mark could predict what was to come next.

“I want you to understand Mark, first and foremost, that problems such as the one you are facing are NOT a sign of weakness.” Mark turned a slightly confused look towards the doctor as he tried to blink the tears away before they could fall. “I’m not going to lie to you or sugarcoat it. As severe as this new phobia is, you are not going to be able to continue in the HCP this year, HOWEVER,” the young man’s tears now streamed freely down his face as he worked to hold himself back from sobbing as he felt his dreams crashing down around him. “I am going to give you a most excellent referral to some specialists I am well acquainted with. You are not the first student to come to me with an emotional wound too crippling to ignore and too deep to heal in only a few weeks time. You will not be the last such student either. But if you truly want to be a Hero, this will NOT stop you from returning once you have healed this injury and are ready once more.”

There was a long silence in the room as the younger man struggled to get himself under some semblance of control and the experienced doctor simply waited, knowing that to rush or interrupt the youth in his attempt to regain control would be a harsh cruelty against a fragile ego right now.

“Has anyone… Has anyone actually done it? Failed out like this and then made it back?”

“You are aware that I cannot give you the examples you desire to prove the case as it would be a terrible breach of trust and the oaths I took to keep what happens to my patients confidential.” Lane paused to allow the statement a moment to sink in before he continued. “Many who suffer from distress like this never find the courage to return and try again. But every student that I have treated that has managed forcing their way back into this program has graduated a Hero. I promise you this, it can be done. It HAS been done.”

Mark nodded as tears continued to fall onto the couch he lay on. His expression held a modicum of peace that hadn’t been present before. Peace, and a truly steely resolve that was rapidly beginning to supplant the grief in his eyes.

Doctor Lane Bertram had indeed told the young man the truth. Only four out of all those that the doctor had watched fail as their emotional strength proved unequal to the grueling challenges of the HCP had ever returned to it in the years he had worked with the program. All four were now active Heroes, proudly serving with no trace of the wracking emotional pain, phobias, and failings that had marked their first attempt at the HCP. As the auburn haired youth slowly dried his tears, and rose to offer a handshake and a goodbye, the older man was absolutely certain that this would be the fifth such student of his career.

Two young men lay sprawled haphazardly on the rooftop of an abandoned furniture warehouse, watching the sun sink slowly below the horizon. The much heavier of the two sported a completely shaved head as he reached into the cooler they had lugged up to the rooftop with them and produced another pair of beers, one of which was gently tossed to his companion. The smaller brown haired youth briefly fumbled the bottle, but managed to complete the catch before reclining again.

“This really fucking sucks Ken,” the smaller man managed to open his bottle and took a long pull before continuing. “Where the hell did they find all these psychos and monsters to populate this place with? We’re supposed to be training to be Heroes, not lunatics!” With a second deep drink the bottle was dropped off the edge of the rooftop, now empty.

“Let’s face it man, we’re good at what we do. But we’re not good enough.” Ken Kaufman seemed to have a much more blasé attitude about the situation. “I wanted this, and I thought I was good enough when I got here, but now look at us man. We’re plummeting through the rankings near every week, the tiniest chick in the class is starting to look like she’s on steroids, and the two of us together couldn’t even distract the monsters at the top.” The bald man finished of his beer and allowed it too to drop off the side with the accompanying sound of shattering glass from below before producing another pair of beers from the cooler. “We’ve got to accept that not all Supers are super enough for this shit. You’ll give yourself a stroke if you keep obsessing Rod.”

Rodney Plankett barely managed to catch the new beer, and directed an angry glare at his companion as he opened it. “You saying it’s our fault for not being monsters? Fuck that man, this is a stacked deck. They’ve pulled in all the god damned ringers because this is the year the government wants to pay attention to how their money is being spent for a change.”

“Either way Rod, lighten up a bit and enjoy the funeral. This is a wake for our futures as Heroes. May it have been as bright as the sun, but it was not to be.” Ken raised his bottle in a gesture of salute before emptying it in one long pull and throwing it off the rooftop.

“I’m not giving up that easily Ken.” The smaller man also finished his latest beer in a single long drink before dropping the bottle and gasping briefly for air and belching loudly. “I’ll be back next year when they ain’t stackin the deck, and then we’ll see who’s got whaddit takes to be a Hero.”

Ken just smiled sadly at his drunken friend. It had been a good dream while it lasted, but being in the HCP and looking around at all the other students who had made it this far, the bald youth had realized that he simply did not have the level of desire and conviction present in nearly everyone left. He had tried to reach that level, but he knew from almost the start that it just wasn’t in him. So rather than drag out the inevitable he had decided to throw a spectacular going away party for himself. He had been briefly surprised when his friend Rodney had asked to join him after he had revealed his intentions. He should have realized the smaller brown haired man was still seeking to lay blame anywhere except on his own shoulders for all the stumbling blocks he had run into in the HCP. Ken knew Rodney’s story a little better though. In spite of the rants about unfair systems and ringers brought in to impress this weird oversight thing, Rodney hadn’t stepped foot in the HCP facilities outside of class or mandatory challenges. He hadn’t attempted to improve his rank, and he hadn’t put in a single extra minute to try and improve.

As he fished another pair of beers out of the cooler, noting absently that it was nearly empty, he wondered if his friend would really make another run at the HCP. He figured it really didn’t matter at this point to him one way or another. Dad’s still got all those contacts with the P.E.E.R.s, that should be more my speed.

The three men occupying the common room of the townhouse dorm all stared more or less blankly at the TV on the wall in front of them. It had switched over to playing late night infomercials at some point a few hours ago and none of them had even noticed. Finals week was over, the Winter Break was nearly upon them. Only the HCP courses remained, with this Saturday being the last of the challenge matches for the first semester, and the special HCP midterm that had first been hinted at by mocking sophomores was now fixed in the schedule to occur on Sunday.

“What do you suppose it is?” it was Barry Jeung who finally broke the silence, startling his two roommates slightly though neither man asked needed any confirmation as to what ‘it’ Barry could be referring to.

“Battle Royale?” Matt Jason the stocky brown haired material manipulator suggested with a somewhat defeated sounding sigh. His ability was really not particularly suited for an open field one on one combat, much less an open free for all with some of the monsters that occupied the upper ranks of the freshman class.

“If that’s all it is after all this build up than it’s a lot of fucking trouble for them to go to just to put another crown on Jacobson’s head.” Aaron Sexton was the only one of the three roommates currently ranked in the top half of the class, and in the top ten at that. Barry had made it briefly across that line but had been knocked back to nearly his old rank shortly after.

“What could it be? I mean really? Scavenger hunt? Labyrinth?” Matt sounded dismissive of the suggestions he threw out as he spoke. “All we’ve really done so far is pair off to improve our combat usage of our abilities every day, and lift enough weights that I would swear they were trying to make a professional sports team out of us. It’s got to be some kind of fight.”

“All the sophomores were talking like it’s something new for the class. Maybe it’s some kind of field drill? Or like the Dean’s scenarios only we actually run through them in some kind of simulation?” Barry’s suggestion seemed to perk up the interest of both of his roommates quite a bit. All three had excelled at theory-crafting their way through the scenarios presented in Ethics of Heroism for most of the term. If this was simply to be a more realistic application of that skill set, it meant that the less combat oriented students would likely be paired with those capable of pulling more than their own share of the weight.

“Whatever it is, it’s gotta be big. Did either of you check where the meeting location is for the test?” Aaron saw brief startled looks followed by shaking heads. “We’re meeting in OBS-1. That’s the main observation room the professors use to evaluate ALL the combat rooms at the same time. The only reason they’d be sticking us in there is because whatever the kickoff is needs that freakin huge screen they got in there to show it all off properly.”

“Awesome. Well after tomorrow we should all know the way, right?” Matt’s question was met with a smile and a nod from Barry, but it was Aaron’s turn to show a confused expression.

“Why would we be hitting up the observation room tomorrow?”

“Shit man, you’re in the top ten. Don’t you pay any attention to the rank challenges?”

“Why would I care about watching the last challenges of the semester when I didn’t care about any of the dozens of other challenges so far?”

Matt laughed at his friend, and Barry took over the explanation. “Because Aaron, apparently something has finally changed.” Seeing Aaron still wore a look of non-comprehension he elaborated. “Erin finally challenged Amelia for the number one spot.”

Stay loose, stay fast, read the movement and keep wearing her down. It was a mantra that Erin Casse had been repeating in her head for almost an hour as she battled to overtake the most powerful student in the Overton HCP freshman class. Amelia’s attempts at learning proper fighting forms had made her movements far more predictable than they’d been when the two girls had fought the first time. On the exchange, she was much, much faster now that she had at least a notion of how to control her incredible strength and a semblance of technique to channel it into. Erin’s right arm still firmly gripped one of the high density tactical batons she’d had approved for this match. The other lay somewhere on the floor of the room which was rapidly becoming more torn up than the site of their first battle. The transparent girl’s left arm hung limply at her side as an exchange that had taken place almost twenty minutes ago had demonstrated that the tall blonde girl’s incredible strength was even a threat while she defended, as she had smashed the incoming baton aside with so much force that Erin’s elbow and wrist were both completely dislocated.

Remarkably even after the incredible fight had dragged on for over fifty minutes, neither girl was yet appearing to be winded. Amelia was, however, becoming quite unsteady on her feet as the precise strikes from her opponent began to add up. Her face was a mask of bruises and blood, her nose was broken, and her left eye had swollen almost completely shut. Additionally she was sporting rapidly swelling bruises along both knees and elbows as Erin had worked as hard as she could to limit the freakishly powerful girl’s movement as much as possible.

Amelia continued to come forward in a relentless, yet measured attack. Her jabs and straight punches were getting sloppy as her arms wouldn’t respond exactly as she wanted them to, although this wasn’t much of a disimprovement from her initial too rigid stances as far as her roommate could tell as they fought on.

Erin felt her heart leap with elation as she calmly wove through Amelia’s offense and stuck a resounding blow against the girl’s temple, actually staggering her off of her feet for the first time in the match. Fortunately the slightly smaller girl was wary of an attempted trick and didn’t seek to press her advantage against the downed opponent, which proved wise as Amelia rocketed back to her feet with no apparent effort and lunged at her opponent with enough speed that had Erin closed, she likely would have been unable to dodge.

As it was Amelia had gotten the angle nearly perfect and was coming in spread eagled with a huge amount of force. Being uncertain if she could completely clear the long limbs of the skinny girl flying towards her, Erin took the opportunity to simultaneously dodge and counter the unexpected attack with her own surprise move. For the first time in the match, Erin leapt completely into the air, her powerful legs easily propelling her into a flip that would clear her startled opponent by several feet without giving Amelia time to react to the sudden change. As she rotated above her opponent the baton came down again on Amelia’s impossibly solid skull with enough force that the nearly indestructible material Ty had constructed it from bent visibly, and the taller girl again crashed to the floor.

As Erin came to her feet and waited it was a much longer pause before Amelia found her feet again. The last blow had opened a vicious cut in one of the bruises along her forehead, and blood spilled freely into her right eye. After a few attempts to wipe the crimson fluid away revealed the futility of the endeavor, Amelia raised her hands in the signal for surrender. Erin stared dumbfounded for a long moment.

“I’m not going easy on you Erin. I can’t see anything but red right now and I hurt more than I knew was possible. You win.” With those words spoken in a remarkably clear voice for all the visible damage done to the girl’s face, Amelia slowly sank down to her knees to gently cradle her mangled face in her hands. “Now please, can we go to the healers so they can put me back together again?”

Erin’s smile was radiant, but she felt no urge to indulge in further celebration and indeed nearly collapsed as she allowed the focus that had driven her through the battle to slip away and the fatigue of having to fight a nearly perfect match lest she be overwhelmed in an instant finally caught up with her.

“I can lead the way Ames, but I might need you to carry me a bit in order to get there.”

“I can probably manage that much. Looks like it’s your turn to buy dinner this time.”

Erin helped her roommate find her feet, only to end up leaning on the taller girl as they made their way towards the infirmary. Two student healers were actually waiting just outside the combat room entrance, but both girls waved them away. They wanted to finish the whole thing under their own power.

Gathered around a massive twelve foot monitor, the entire remaining freshman class collectively remembered to once again breathe normally as the incredible match ended. Standing at the back of the room, Elena Martinez found herself having to give her body a similar reminder as she had not even realized how caught up in the match she had become until it was over. Beside her James Rachd wore only a broad, sadistic smile as he barked out a statement to the assembled students.

“Alright then! Looks like Jacobson is free to accept some challengers again! Anyone in the top five feeling up to it?”

The three students in question seemed to visibly pale at the thought of taking on the woman they had just watched on the monitor. As Elena opened the door and motioned the students to vacate, they all did so in near complete silence, still replaying the events they had witnessed. As Rachd started to follow the last of the students out he turned briefly to his colleague.

“Elena, do me a favor and remind Dani that when she brings all her junk down here for the viewing party later she needs to remember to clean up the damned popcorn this time.” Smiling, the Subtlety Instructor nodded before blinking out of the room. The Combat Instructor gave the now blank monitor one last look before he left.

“In four years, those two are going to be Legends.”

Second String Supers: Freshman Intrigue: Chapter 13
Second String Supers: Freshman Intrigue: Chapter 15

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