Back to School
Iris Todd stood, stretched, and groaned softly as several muscles in her back complained loudly. “How the hell does someone as small as you have three times as much luggage as I do?”
“You didn’t have to help me move.” The petite white-haired girl responded in a neutral tone as she carefully placed the last of the boxes on the bed in her new room and turned to offer a questioning look at the taller blonde. “Why did you?”
“We’re roomies now, El. Roomies help each other out with stuff like this.” Iris grinned at the smaller girl’s response.
“I don’t like nicknames.”
“But I love nicknames, so you’re probably stuck with this one for a while. Consider it the cost for all the assistance with your move!”
“But I didn’t ASK you to help.” Eloise’s tone was beginning to show signs of exasperation that didn’t seem to faze the cheerful speedster in the slightest.
“Then you should be happy that it’s such a bargain price. Dinner should get here in about an hour, Louise ordered Chinese.”
The shorter girl sighed as Iris made her way out of the room, closing the door softly behind her. Eloise acknowledged that it was only logical to move into a vacant space in one of the townhouse style dorms, particularly as the rumors of the HCP’s second year programs all featured varying level of detail on the much enhanced leeway for students to bring outside weapons or equipment in with them. With daily classes it would have been entirely impractical to have to trek all the way out to her storage unit, and it would be both against the rules and extremely difficult to store any of her arsenal inside the main dorms.
Somehow the tall blonde girl had gotten word of Eloise’s housing transfer and been awaiting her arrival, workout clothes and lifting gloves worn and a cheerful smile to accompany the information that she was “Here to help!” Iris had been friendly, helpful, and actually managed to engage Eloise in conversation for the several hours it took to move and store all of her personal luggage, plus about a literal ton of weapons and ammunition.
As the white haired girl began sorting and unpacking boxes and breaking down the remains, she tried to force herself to stay frustrated with the blonde’s cheerful invasion. Eloise didn’t WANT to be friends with everyone in the program, these were the people she was competing with. She didn’t NEED that sort of distraction. Yet as the boxes emptied and her room resumed a semblance of order and neatness, the petite young woman found herself unable to stop smiling.
Henry Harmon settled back into his booth in the tiny corner diner off Main St in Overton with a sigh, and a perplexed expression. Even seated the African American man appeared massive, his three hundred fifty pounds of mass distributed seemingly evenly between muscle and fat on his six foot two inch frame making the six person table he was occupying appear more like seating for two or three at most. His gaze drifted out the window as he noted the swarming activity of a college town returning to life in preparation for the start of a new school year, and wondered. What the hell could be so important in a little backwater town in Texas that has me getting paid a full retainer plus full time and three… four… at least SIX other PI’s in just one damned restaurant all sitting around looking just as bored as I do?
It was unlikely anyone would ever look at the massive man with the unkempt burst of hair radiating in all directions from his head and think the man was capable of observing nearly ANYTHING undetected. His chosen apparel for the day, a faded red Hawaiian shirt with dingy khaki shorts, definitely made him look more the deranged tourist than professional anything. Henry prided himself on being considered one of the best investigators in the country in spite of his outlandish appearance. The intellect hidden inside his huge body was the true secret to his success, and one that found itself absolutely stumped by the current puzzle. And judging from the conversations, none of the others know why we’re all here chilling out and getting paid for it either. Something really, really strange is going on…
Henry’s train of thought was interrupted as the waitress swung past his table to deposit another pitcher of iced tea and a platter containing a two pound burger and enough fries to feed a small family. At least there’s proper amenities for me while I sort this out.
“Good afternoon, Hank.” The familiar voice from just over his shoulder shocked the large man so much that the massive burger dropped from his fingers, only to freeze in mid-fall just below the level of the table and above his lap.
Henry recovered his composure quickly enough to scoop the stationary burger back together in mid air and deposit it on his plate, and begin making angry wiping motions at his lap with the napkins as if the meal had been caught by his pants instead of a more spectacular force. He found himself freezing again as a petite asian woman patted him on the shoulder as she strode past him and sat calmly in the seat opposite him. He felt his hands tremble involuntarily a bit as he noted that the woman was wearing a casual outfit, blue jeans and a t shirt. He had honestly expected form fitting costume and a mask when he heard the voice.
“Oh God,” the strained whisper coming from the enormous man would have been humorous if not for the note of fear it held, “you’re going to kill me.”
“Don’t be stupid, Hank. We both know that you aren’t stupid. Going to eat yourself to death someday, yes. Fashion sense of a color blind monkey, also yes. Stupid, no.”
Henry breathed a sigh of relief at the cheerful but quiet banter from the small woman across from him. “There’s rumors that when… certain people show up without masks around people that might recognize them, it’s kind of a final thing.”
“That’s a pretty damned stupid rumor. How would anyone know?” The sweetly innocent question actually caused another involuntary tremor in the large man’s hands as he easily read the implied threat in those words. “Besides, you’ve known who I really am for years now. I’m guessing within a few months of that time we met… On the job.”
Henry finally managed to relax a bit as he processed what the woman was telling him, and took a sip of his drink. “How did you know?”
“That you know? Because you’re damned good at your job, Hank. How long did it take? Just curious.”
“Seven weeks, Ms Nguyen.”
Hai Nguyen smiled wider at the number. “Like I said, damned good at your job. So what the hell are you doing here now, Hank? And why are there over a dozen PIs crawling around Overton without any semblance of order or organization?”
“Hell if I know. As you likely know, I got here yesterday. I noticed today that I’m sharing a restaurant with at least half a dozen people in the same line of work that I’m in, and no one seems to be actually here to do any work. Everyone’s just… waiting.”
“And what are you waiting for, Hank?” The cheerful tone had left the small woman’s voice, and Henry found himself again rigidly nervous.
“I don’t know! I swear! Darcy picked up this gig for me through some back-channel contacts that she made me PROMISE not to look at too hard when we got together. It’s full retainer plus full hours compensated for a week, and no actual legwork required. I figured it would be like a paid vacation, and I get to try and solve a mystery while I’m down here.”
“And will you let me know if you solve that mystery?”
“I’d love to, Ms Nguyen, but frankly I’d rather see my wife again.” Henry took a massive bite out of his lunch and the conversation stalled while he chewed, swallowed, and took a drink to wash it down. “If a H-… someone in your line of work is investigating people in my line of work just for showing up, then whatever the fuck this mystery is can not POSSIBLY be worth the paycheck. I’m heading back north as soon as I’m done eating.”
“Are you sure, Hank?” There was a new note in Hai’s voice, one that made Henry wary but not nervous as previously. He couldn’t pin down exactly what it was though.
“Sure that this is dangerous? With you sitting here in the booth talking to me like this? Fuck yes.”
“But is it too dangerous if, for example, you were getting paid double your normal rate on TOP of that retainer and paycheck for sitting around doing nothing?”
Henry’s eyes widened, then narrowed quickly in response to the unexpected offer. “What exactly would I be expected to do to earn such a generous paycheck?”
“Exactly what you expected to be doing when this was just a vacation to you. Solving the mystery of why dozens of private investigators are suddenly in Overton seemingly doing nothing.”
The large black man turned back to his meal and began to eat, slowly, as he turned the proposal over in his mind. For her part, the petite asian woman waited patiently for him to finish. Once the burger was no more and the fries had been properly decimated, Henry wiped his hands on the napkin, and extended one across the table.
“Ms Nguyen, consider me hired.”
“You really didn’t have to help me move in, you know.” Collin Gauge casually tossed the last of his boxes onto his new bed as he turned to address the taller blond youth accompanying him.
Aaron glanced around at the results of the move in; three relatively small boxes, a suitcase, and a mini-fridge, before nodding in affirmation. “Yea, you seem to pack pretty damned light. Still, it would have been rude of me to just sit around watching TV while you lugged your stuff up the stairs.”
The muscular redhead nodded in acknowledgment, then turned to begin unpacking his belongings. After settling the fridge into a convenient location next to the desk and stripping the tape off the three boxes, Collin started a bit as he turned to discover that Aaron was still standing in his doorway. “Uh, so what’s on your mind?”
Aaron hesitated for a long moment before answering, obviously uncomfortable with whatever it was he felt he needed to say. Finally, the blond man let out a heavy sigh and spoke quickly and softly. “You can’t have your girlfriend stay the night here. It’s kind of a house rule. I got nominated to be the one to break it to you.”
“The fuck? You guys have something against Tasha or so-…”
“Oh shut up, Gauge. Nothing against the Amazon, and no you can’t get pissed at me for calling her that when she introduces herself that way half the time on campus.” Aaron smoothly interrupted his new roommate, then cleanly cut off the further objection as he saw it forming. “So before you flip out and accuse us of some shit, answer me a couple questions: Did you two usually hook up at your room or hers?”
“Well, normally at my dorm bu-…”
“And when you did crash at her place, was her roommate around?”
Collin’s initial outrage had tapered off into a deeply confused state as he tried to figure out the point of these questions. “I… don’t think so?”
“And to see if the gym rat can put the puzzle together, what’s Cat’s ability again? And does anyone else in our class, possibly living under this very roof, share a similar ability?”
“Oh… shit. So you mea-…”
“Yea, exactly. Michael tried not to bring it up the first couple times I had someone over, but apparently it REALLY messes up a telepath if they’re asleep in close proximity to certain ‘loud’ activities. Dude tried to be cool about it, but there’s a certain level of insomnia that a person just can’t deal with. Barry hasn’t had a ton of luck, so he had no issues with it, and I’m not gonna mess with the man’s sleep like that and I don’t exactly have a regular girl.” Aaron’s light, somewhat condescending, tone hardened as he continued. “So this isn’t going to be a problem for you, right?”
Collin seemed briefly like he was about to blow up at the taller youth, before he relaxed instead. “No man, no problem. I’m glad you told me, even if you did decide to be an ass about it.”
“Well, can’t let any points slip past ya know. Otherwise I’ll never overtake Gerard for the coveted title of biggest asshole in the class.”
The redhead laughed at that statement. “I don’t know. Gerard is definitely an asshole a lot of the time, but he always gives the impression that he’s trying to improve, and not doing it on purpose.”
“Yea, completely unfair. The dude is a complete natural at it. I don’t know how I’ll ever manage to win.”
“If it makes you feel better, you have my vote.” Aaron acknowledged the final statement with a laugh and a wave as he left the muscular youth to his unpacking.
The short Japanese girl let out a frustrated groan as she rounded the corner just in time to see the heavy metal elevator doors slide close. Great, going to be late for orientation. Not a great start to the sophomore year. The dark haired young woman made her way down the hallway and pressed her thumb over the concealed button that would check her fingerprint and call the HCP elevator back up.
“Glad to see I’m not the only one that overslept.” Kaori felt like she had just leapt out of her skin as she spun in startlement at the cheerful voice that had sounded just over her shoulder. And found herself looking up at the much taller girl who had just snuck up on her.
“Good morning Erin. Thanks for making sure I won’t need any caffeine to stay awake through the meeting.” The smaller girl took several slow, deep breaths as she attempted to get her heart rate down to something more reasonable when she jumped again at a loud chime behind her.
Erin laughed, which earned her a glare from the asian girl as they both entered the elevator. “So how did the whole group training in Alaska work out? Learn any great new tricks?”
“A lot of practice on the old stuff, and a couple of new things. Little stuff though.” Kaori’s expression changed to something that the taller girl couldn’t decipher, somewhere between analytic and shocked. After a moment’s hesitation, the healer stepped over to the control panel and depressed the emergency stop.
“Umm, what’s up Kaori?” The taller girl looked a bit uncertain, and a small shift in stance brought her hands closer to her pockets.
“Arm, show me. Now.” The tone used by the smaller girl was one she had practiced for her entire freshman year while working in the HCP infirmary around a myriad of students that would always try and convince the healers that they were ‘fine.’ When Erin didn’t immediately respond, Kaori pointed at the taller girl’s right arm and repeated. “NOW.”
Erin offered a shrug and presented her arm, rolling the sleeve back to reveal smooth and unblemished skin as she did so. “See, it’s all there. Now we should get going since we’re already la-…”
“Show me what it really looks like, Erin.”
The presented arm immediately became wholly transparent, almost as if made of glass. The healer glared at the now smirking face in front of her. “Just doing as requested!”
Kaori sighed, then reached out and touched the presented arm lightly with fingertips from each hand. “This is going to be a lot harder if you make me do it blind.” The authoritative healer’s tone was gone, the asian girl’s voice was now quiet and plaintive as she locked her gaze with the taller girl’s.
With a sigh, the arm in question faded back into a more normal skin tone. This time it was anything but unblemished. The entire surface of the arm seemed to be covered with scar tissue, some of it obviously going quite deep into the flesh. “The healer on base can’t deal with scars, but I can hide them pretty well. How’d you know?”
“With that much scar tissue you HAD to know that your arm wasn’t at a hundred percent. I imagine it hurts when you have to move it too much as well. Erin, what the fuck did you do to yourself?”
“Right, of course. Didn’t you already learn your lesson about burning yourself with that light absorption thing last year?” Kaori closed her eyes in concentration, and Erin’s skin seemed to almost melt together into a smooth whole before resettling into its natural transparent appearance again.
“I needed a new edge, Kaori. Every day the gap I managed to build between myself and the far more powerful Supers in this program gets narrower. After the final I’d already slipped a bit down the combat rankings, and I fully expected that. If I want to graduate a Hero at the end of this, I have to push harder and take more chances. Please don’t tell anyone about my arm. Please.”
The petite healer sighed and keyed the elevator to start moving again. “What arm are we talking about? All four arms in this elevator seem to be completely healthy, and if needed I can work to make sure they stay that way.” Kaori then let out a startled yelp as the taller girl scooped her up in a hug and spun her around.
Kathryn Jilles hid her desire to sigh behind an impassive mask as she stood behind the podium and waited impatiently for the last few stragglers to make their way into the auditorium. With the final students making their way to sit with their respective classes, the petite woman found her eye drawn to the dark gray sophomore uniforms. Only twenty seven in the auditorium.
“Welcome all of you, the the Overton University Hero Certification Program. To all of our upperclassmen, congratulations. You all know how much you’ve overcome in order to occupy the seats you have now. Make sure you don’t falter going forward. To our new crop of freshmen, my name is Dean Kathryn Jilles, and I congratulate you as well on clearing the initial hurdle in gaining acceptance into the HCP. Things are only going to get harder from here.” She offered a predatory smile in the direction of the black uniformed students, and noted with some satisfaction that she now had their complete and undivided attention.
“Now, as our three returning classes already know, Overton is under a non-ordinary situation as we are currently being evaluated by a special committee as the government is determining if the monies they are spending on the HCP are being wisely invested. I am absolutely certain that all of our students here will prove, unequivocally, that Overton is producing Heroes of the highest caliber, and the Senate’s doubts are wholly unfounded.
“To that end I would like to introduce you to our Oversight Committee. These men and women will be observing us discretely while we work, and for the piece of mind of our new freshmen you should all know that they are primarily following the actions of the year ahead of yours. Oversight will be evaluating the entire four year process of that class first and foremost, and only observing the other years in order to make note of any changes or discrepancies.” The amount of tension from the black uniformed freshman students that was suddenly released almost caused the Dean to break out in laughter.
“I’ll try to keep this portion of the orientation brief so our upperclassmen can return to their final day of freedom before the school year officially begins tomorrow. I apologize to the freshmen, you’ll be stuck down here a little longer.” There were a few chuckles from the upper class groups at this announcement, and some of the tension returned to the freshmen.
“As some of you might know, there were some issues at the end of last year where the Oversight group at the time was not wholly clear on their boundaries and a few difficulties arose. We want to insure that such an event does not repeat itself, and as such the HCP staff has decided to involve the entire student body more completely in program security. All students will find added to their orientation packets, a complete list of the members of the Overton Oversight Committee. This includes photos, a brief bio, and a list of the areas where Oversight is allowed unchaperoned access. If you run across any member of the Committee in an area they are not supposed to be, you are to immediately alert the HCP staff so that the transgression can be resolved. If the person in question attempts to flee, you are fully authorized to restrain them from doing so with any non-lethal force YOU deem fit.” Kathryn paused for a long moment to let the statement sink in. Looking out across the sea of students she noted some truly gleeful expressions among the upperclassmen
“Are there any questions from the upperclassmen?” A quick scan showed no hands up, and no spontaneous utterances in the auditorium. “Very well then, junior and senior class you are dismissed for the day. Sophomores, please report to the lecture hall for your class orientation. Freshmen, settle in. This is the part where you find out what you really signed up for.” The Dean’s predatory smile had returned as she looked out at the black uniformed students.
The last of the sophomore class to file out of the room noted the appearance of a familiar pair alongside the Dean as she began her next prepared speech. “Class, allow me to introduce your primary instructors for the year…”
“So is no one going to say it?” The tall, well groomed blond man spoke into the silence that had descended upon the sophomore class as they made their way to the lecture hall from the auditorium.
“Say what, my friend?” The tone of voice that called back from the even taller hispanic male was far less serious than the first.
“There’s only twenty seven of us and there’s supposed to be twenty eight.” Gerard Finne came to a stop as he spoke, and his position near the front of the crowd resulted in the rest of the class likewise coming to a halt. “We’re expected to somehow impress the shit out of a new Oversight Committee, after the last one made it painfully obvious that they aren’t here to evaluate us. They’re here to find a way to eliminate us. And we have to somehow do this with less than a full class.”
Murmurs arose among the class as the blond man voiced the concerns that most of them were feeling. “Oh quit being such a drama queen, Gerard.” Iris Todd strode past the man as she spoke. “This year we know what’s up. The Dean just basically gave us tacit permission to maim the Oversight Committee if they step out of line. We are going to kick ass, take names, and roll right on into our third year!”
There were smiles and even a brief scattering of applause in response to the blonde speedster’s declaration. “Iris is right, you think these guys stand a chance now that we know they’re coming?” The next girl to sweep past Gerard stated with confidence. “But in regards to the twenty seven topic, where the fuck is Ben?”
Most eyes turned towards the former roommate of the missing student in question. Collin simply shrugged in response. “I didn’t hear from him all summer, and he never got back to anyone about the extra training. And this year when housing sent me the packet it said I was in a single room, so I switched over to one of the townhouses. Your guess is as good as mine, Susan.”
“My friends, we need to not worry so much about a small thing.” Ramón Carrera spoke in the same light hearted tone he had when he first responded to his roommate’s question. “The HCP has stated that the number of sophomore, junior, and senior students is a thing that is set. If Ben has withdrawn from the program, then likely we will be seeing a new face from one of the other programs instead.” The tall hispanic man paused briefly to pat Gerard’s shoulder as he also made his way past.
“So we’re not going to do anything?”
“We’re going to go and see what’s waiting for us in the Lecture Hall. Then we’re going to enjoy our last day of summer. Tomorrow, when classes actually start and we know for sure how many people are in our class, that’s the time to talk strategy.” There was a ripple of surprise through the crowd as Alexandra Andrews spoke with more volume and authority than any of them could remember having come from the petite mimic in the past year. “Besides, trust me when I say that we really want to get to the Lecture Hall.” Several of the students closest to the small girl noted that she seemed to be simultaneously fighting to keep a smile off her lips and tears from falling as she began to walk more rapidly down the hallway.
”She’s definitely right!” The auburn haired telepath actually broke into a run as she spoke to the group. ”I don’t think we’re going to have anything to worry about!”
With a wide range of expressions and emotions visible, the sophomore class picked up speed and reached their destination. The door slid open, and the five occupants of the room turned to face the arriving students that piled through it. Four of the room’s occupants, two men and two women, were dressed in casual outfits and lounged in chairs set up around the lectern. It was the fifth occupant of the room that resulted in the class freezing in shock as she casually waved a greeting to the group.
“The professors and I were wondering what was taking you guys so long. You guys forget where the Lecture Hall was after only one summer off?” The tall girl stood as she spoke, and turned to face the group of students. “I missed you guys.”
The surge of cheering students would likely have bowled over anyone else, but Amelia Jacobson easily stood her ground as a wave of shouts, high fives, and hugs welcomed her back to the HCP.