“Your story is impressive, and I was unaware that photographic memory was part of your repertoire,” Dean Gravitas tells me. Gravitas leans back across the desk from me, an air of patience emanating from zhim. “Though it does not inherently answer the question.” Zhe had long black hair, copper colored skin, and a very feminine face except for zir’s handsome cheekbones. Gravitas’ clothes were more flamboyant than Pyrrha would have expected of an educator, and zhi’s nails were long, painted, and more immaculate than Pyrrha had ever worn herself. There was an agelessness to Gravitas’ face that made it impossible for her to tell how hold Gravitas actually was. Gravitas had a deeper voice than most women but it was lighter than most men.
Pyrrha had found it interesting that Gravitas had none of the sexual drive that underlay most people’s actions, and it did not help her to determine whether Gravitas had an actual gender. But what was far more interesting was the other things Gravitas was hiding. She’d never told anyone what had really happened that day. At first because she was in too much shock to speak at all, but then because part of her knew she should protect The Butler’s privacy. Yet throughout the entire story she had not felt one iota of surprise from Gravitas. Zhi’s mind was barely giving off any active emotion, Zhi’s thoughts guarded. This one was practiced hiding secrets so dark they shouldn’t even be thought about.
“If I had been stronger, if I could have stopped Johannes Barber for even a few seconds, hundreds of millions of people would still be alive. My parents might still be alive.”
“You were eight,” Gravitas pointed out, as if that really meant anything.
“Yes. I was eight, and I had no combat abilities. There was nothing I could have done. But now I do. Now I have ones that could have made a difference. I have them because I failed then. And next time I fail, I’ll get stronger, and I’ll keep getting stronger until I don’t fail anymore. I’ll get stronger until there are enough other people besides me who can stop the monsters that I’m not needed anymore.”
“Or you’ll die,” Gravitas said genially. “But knowing what your true power is, I suppose your version is more likely. Yet I’m still not sure that explains why you want to join our academy. You’ve been in Youth Leagues almost since gaining your abilities, so you’re plenty versed in high level combat at this point. Given the nature of your powers, you would likely progress much faster if you went straight into field work. I’m not saying you won’t benefit from your time at my school, but what do you expect to learn here?”
“Who to work with,” Pyrrha said without hesitation. “I want to know who I can work with so that I don’t fail in the first place. I don’t want to get much stronger than I already am, because if I do it means…well, you already know what my power really is.”
Gravitas eyes me up and down, looking at the thin layer of armored scales covering my body from the upper chest down. Right now it was deep blue, with the slightest of shimmers. My crimson hair flows down over it. Fortunately the light in here is too soft for my hair to be throwing off its usual luster. My green eyes might be glowing slightly though. They have an annoying habit of doing that, now far brighter than Lilly’s green flecks had been.
Gravitas flipped a coin and it remained floating above the desk between us. Even with Zhi’s mental control I could feel curiosity about what would happen if I were to try to kill him and even greater curiosity about how my power would react if I succeeded. Gravitas put the thought away almost the instant it passed into zhi’s mind.
Gravitas smiled, “You might be disappointed, at least at first. I suspect you will be the top of your class here starting out. You have more combat experience and your armor alone makes you more dangerous than most of your class is currently.”
“But…” I say hopefully, sensing a but.
“Professor Karim will explain more in the general assembly before the initial ranking matches, but I think you will find that there are members of your class who can surpass you, at least temporarily. Hopefully if strength is what you’re looking for you won’t have to wait too long to find it. Welcome to the Aftermath Academy, may your time here be fruitful.”
A sun bursts in my heart. It’s a selfish sun, I know that. The world might be better served if I throw myself into real combat immediately. If I gained power at any cost, I could become as strong as The Butler, maybe even more so. But I remember clearly that moment when Jared nearly threw in the towel. When he thought about just kneeling on the floor in grief instead of running off to deal with the newly created End Class. How many would have died if he hadn’t executed The Revenant, Brother Behemoth, and Levi’s Friend within minutes of their emergence?
The reason he got his ass up to fight was he still had something to protect. And I? I’m not close to anyone. Not really. I want to be able to protect others, to keep what happened to my family from happening again, but when the chips are down and people are counting on me, who will I think about?
I don’t have an answer to that and, until I do, it would be better if people don’t count on me too much. If I join a team, if I help them become strong enough to help others, maybe we can keep the world going together until I know I can do it on my own. And there is nowhere else that I might be able to find stronger teammates than here.
“Thank you, Dean Gravitas,” I say politely. “I look forward to training here. I will make my way to the assembly now.” Gravitas makes no offer to provide an escort or directions and I can’t quite tell if it is because zhe already knows I learned the location from his assistant’s mind before coming into the room. I get up from my mahogany chair and walk through the door, excited to begin my new life here.