Chapter 21

"Okay, this gay thing sucks. I'm done with it. Bring on the boys."

Alley leaned back in her chair and propped her feet up on the dining table in their corner of McKinnon Cafeteria. Beside her, Finn just shook his head and continued to tuck into his hamburger while reading a textbook. Nate on the other hand literally choked on his fries until she had to pound his back with one fist. Julie Campbell, the fifth roommate of Lambert Acres and Nate's warden, just shook her head.

"Jesus, you're gay?" Nate asked, when he could manage a breath.

"I'm not just gay, Ginger. I'm gayer than the day is long, more lesbian than a rainbow is colorful, I'm like Super Lesbian. Except I'm really tired of falling for straight girls. You ever wonder why almost every movie with a lesbian has her go ax-crazy and start killing everyone? Here's a spoiler: Somewhere in her backstory, you'll find a straight girl."

Both boys looked across the hall. Sure enough, Jia Sun still sat at her table. So did Eli Amsley with his adorable slicked back blonde hair and that cute little beard she wanted to rip out.

"Frankly, I don't see the appeal," Finn said. His indifference couldn't be plainer.

"Says the man who scored last night." Alley held up a hand for a high-five.

"A gentleman never tells," Finn said, turning up his British indifference until it approached a Patrick Stewart level of Britishness. Or maybe an Ian McKellon level of Britishness. Was that even a word? And why was she asking herself?

"You don't need to tell. Amara had the wobble. Didn't she have the wobble this morning?" Alley asked Julie.

"Yes, she had the wobble," Julie answered, looking slightly disgusted by the topic.

Noticing Nate's blank confused expression, Alley sighed. "The morning after wobble? Come on, Ginger, you've never-oh right. Well, it's like this. Did you see the way Amara walked this morning? It's this kind of slow walk where she goes even slower when bending over, turning or going up or down stairs. It's caused by being thoroughly s-"

"Lalalalala!" Nate covered his ears with both palms.

"He's adorable," Alley said, tilting her head towards Finn. "Can I keep him?"

"Not until you prove you can take care of your things without breaking them," Finn retorted.

Alley reached over and rubbed the black fuzz that passed for Finn's hair. The bristles felt nice and it amused her. Finn just heaved a sigh of long suffering, as he had since she picked up the habit. Since he seemed so intent on studying his business text, Alley waved her hand in front of the page until he met her eyes.

"That's it. I'm finding you a girl just so I can have a little bloody peace. How come I never see you study anyway?"

"It's like Zoolander said; words can only hurt you if you try to read them. Don't play their game."

Nate laughed despite himself, having removed his hands long enough to hear the joke. He nudged the Organic Chemistry textbook to their class her direction and pointed at the page. "Tell me what it says then."

She sighed and said, "'The double bond of an alkene consists of a sigma bond and a pi bond. Because the carbon-carbon π bond is relatively weak, it is quite reactive and can be easily broken and reagents can be added to carbon'."

Without missing a beat or taking his eyes off his own page, Finn said "Tell me what the third paragraph of page 287 says."

"'The nomenclature of acid halides starts with the name of the corresponding carboxylic acid. The –ic acid ending is removed and replaced with the ending -yl followed by the name of the halogen with an –ide ending. This is true for both common and IUPAC nomenclature. The carbonyl carbon is given the #1 location number. It is not necessary to include the location number in the name because it is assumed that the functional group will be on the end of the parent chain'."

Julie whistled, visibly impressed. Nate flipped the Organic Chemistry book open and started searching. About twenty seconds later, he whooped and looked at her like she was the coming of Christ or something. Of course, Alley had returned to her bad habit of Jia gazing. It was suspiciously like stargazing only it didn't need to be night and the view was much more spectacular. Especially that smile...

"Right then, we're cutting you off." Finn closed his book and stood up before grabbing her by the arm. "Help me out, Nate, it's time for an intervention."

"This is insubordination!" She mock-flailed but didn't try very hard to escape as they packed up their things and dragged her out of the cafeteria.

"Right, this is how it's going to be," Finn said, parking her in front of the cafeteria. "How many girls are there in sight right now?"

"Fifty seven."

"How many are gay?"

"Two identify as lesbian, six more had a significant lesbian relationship and about nine others clicked heels at least once."

"I'm dying to know how you figure that out," Julie muttered.

"Clicked heels?" Nate asked, looking like he already dreaded the answer.

"Ever hear the expression 'knocking boots'?"

"Yeah, it's a euphemism for...oh, I get it."

Alley held up her hand and this time Finn high-fived her. Then Finn said, "Right, you're asking one of them out. Starting with your own kind."

"What, are you kidding?" Alley shook off their helping hands and said, "No way, I never date lesbians. They're crazy, they call you about their feelings and they want to move in with you and shit like that."

She just grinned when both of her male roommates looked at her like there was a serious doubt concerning her sanity. Suddenly, Finn's expression changed. Alley concentrated, then immediately covered Nate's eyes. Too late.

"Hey stop," the kid in the Doctor Who t-shirt said. "What's that over there?"

Alley considered the many ways she could have concealed the sight from Nate. Most had too many complications and the few straightforward approaches had collateral consequences she didn't care for. Besides, like it or not, this was probably the beginning and not the end of the shit Nate would have to go through.

So she put an arm around his shoulders and walked with him across the field surrounding McKinnon Cafeteria towards the Anderson Activity Center. It was a typical Florida day, humid and roasting hot. Despite the way it slimmed down the clothes of West Private's female population, Alley had lost the heart for being playful about it right now. The growing pallor of Nate's face took priority.

The four of them came to a stop before someone's poster board display. It was one of those temporary productions, the kind used for student fairs or for celebrating some week of activity. This one was made of good quality stock and liberally speckled with pictures, charts and figures. Not professional in quality but definitely the work of many hours.

It was captioned: HCP - Remember the Ringmaster

Below the title, someone had organized news clippings along with scores of high-quality printed photos of the causalities. Alley knew at a glance that the display included all of the major massacres in 2005, from the Russell Senate Office Build Occupation to the Razing of Galesburg, Illinois. Yep, it even had the I-90 Disaster that'd claimed thousands of lives back in 2009.

Alley peeked at Nate as the thought occurred. The last time anyone had seen the Ringmaster was the same year Nate's ability manifested, the same year he'd been locked up under house arrest. Coincidence? Unlikely. What could it mean, though?

"Bloody hell," Finn murmured. "I'd no idea."

"I've read about all these," Nate said, his voice so quiet Alley had to lean closer to hear him. "I've never seen them all in like this. I'm-"

Julie put an arm around his shoulders, her hand brushing Finn's as he did the same. "I'll call the Dean and get this taken care of."

"Wish I knew who did it so I could bust someone's ass properly," Alley said, grumbling.

"You mean you don't?" Finn said, surprised.

"Even my super-brain has limits, English. I can tell you no one around here had anything to do with it but, short of time travel, beats the fuck out of me how they did this."

"Alley, how many people died because of...him?"

She tilted her head, not with the effort of calculating the figure but at his subtle hesitation. Nate never talked about his parents so she didn't have a lot of reference points to draw on but something about what he'd said seemed odd.

So Alley concentrated. And it was all she could do to just answer his question calmly. "You don't really want a number. A lot. The Ringmaster doesn't have the biggest body count of the decade but definitely tops the charts on kills per episode of activity."

"Let's not talk about this," Julie said. "Nate, you're not your father, okay? Guns can protect as well as attack. You have Ethics in a few minutes, focus on that. Trust me, the Dean will make sure you come out of it safe for the public."

Alley trailed behind them as they started to walk off. When had Julie joined the Nate team? It was immediately obvious now that the telepath liked Nate a great deal. Hard to guess when those feelings would cross over into love but, unless something serious changed, chances were good it was a matter of 'when' and not 'if'.

Good for Ginger. She smiled fondly as she twisted Iris' promise ring around her finger with her thumb. Promise made...promise made...

Then Erin Powell tapped her on the shoulder. Alley slowed further and turned around to face a slightly bewildered blonde. Mmmmm, blondes! She chose to say "Can I help you?", figuring it would go over better than "I can get you off in fifty seven seconds".

"Look, I know you don't know me and this is going to sound weird but can you...turn it down?"

"Huh?" Alley actually looked at Erin, past the cute exterior and to the pain underneath. "Oh, you're an Advanced Mind? It's easy. Stop scanning me."

"Um, I can't." Alley's eyebrows shot straight up. Erin, the blonde in question, said "Sorry, I'm...well, I'm a Powered. It doesn't shut off. I can't really read much anyway, most of the time it's just this big background static, I have to really concentrate to hear specific thoughts."

"Shit, no wonder." Alley stopped concentrating and smiled. "I'm so sorry. Is that better?"

"Oh my God, that's waaaaay better." Erin massaged her temples, then held out a hand to shake. "Hi, I'm Erin. Sorry to ask you to do that...uh, whatever it is you did but that's been driving me nuts since I got on campus. Is that an ability or something?"

"Something," Alley said, smiling agreeably. "I'm Alley. Mind if I ask what you hear? What's your range?"

"Let me put it this know a room of people? It's like hearing a bunch of people whispering. High school was, like, I don't know. A Starbucks? West is more like a New York deli with everyone shouting their order. I only pick up about a mile so it's never really gotten louder than that in my head."

"Uh huh. So where do I score?"

"Um. Football stadium." Erin looked sheepish. "How do you do that anyway? I mean, you can't really have, like, a million thoughts at once can you?"

"You'd be surprised." Alley sighed and ran her fingers through her shoulder-length hair. Time to lie her ass off for her own selfish convenience. "Look, Erin, let me level with you. I do have an ability but I'm more of a Powered than a Super. I can turn it off but it takes a lot of concentration, so much that it's hard to think of anything else, like paying attention in class or lectures. So I'll try to keep it down between classes but we might need to talk to someone about other options. I want you to be able to stay on campus and I want to stay on campus but we're going to have to find a way to do this somehow. Here, why don't you give me your contact info and I'll find out if West can offer anything, okay?"

That finally got rid of the chatty, cute cheerleader. It also did a wonderful job of getting rid of Finn, Nate and Julie. Perfect. Alley hustled her way to one of the secret HCP lifts and headed down to Ethics. In the meantime, she pulled out her phone and dialed a number she'd committed to memory and would erase off the phone once done.

"Hi," Alley said when the phone picked up. "Major? That's fine, Sir. I know it's not time for the next phase yet. There's been a slight development here, that's all. For some reason, Nate thinks the Ringmaster is his Mom, not his Dad."