Lambert Acres was far more subdued when Finn got home than it had been last night. This evening saw Nate sprawled across one of the three couches, his cat Perpugilliam stretched out on her side in front of him, enjoying the occasional idle scratch. Julie had claimed one of the other couches and looked content to simply lie there, eyes closed. As for Jia, she had claimed a corner of the third couch. With her legs tucked under her, she sat reading a large hardbound book that was unmistakably for a class.
"You sure know how to show us up, Jia," Finn said, shutting the screen door behind him and limping across the room to flop on the other side of her couch.
"You've heard of the Asian F?" the Chinese girl said, smiling slightly as her golden eyes peeked up from the book.
"Oh, I know this one!" Nate said from his place on the other couch. "That's from Glee, right?"
"That doesn't sound like something Professor Glee would say." Julie opened her eyes and sat up, a dubious look on her face.
"No, the show."
"Exactly," Jia said, her smile growing. "My family expects all As for my grades. Given how I disappointed them last year, accomplishing perfect grades is the least I can do this semester."
"Where's Alley?" Finn asked.
All three of the others pointed towards the kitchen. With a weary groan, Finn hauled himself to his feet and limped some more out of the room.
Sure enough, the tall blonde was busy layering just-cooked pasta shells in a glass pan sandwiched between rich red sauce, sausage and half a dozen vegetable looking things. Finn eyed the huge pan. It looked large enough to feed an army.
Alley herself wore her customary outfit at home; a bikini top and bike shorts with her ears filled with headphones blaring out some song piped in from her phone. She swayed and danced between the stove, a counter and an island in the middle of the floor where she skillfully combined ingredients. Her lips moved silently, mouthing the lyrics of whatever she listened to.
Perfume. A Britney Spears song. Finn could distinctly hear it from the doorway.
"Are you trying to go deaf?" he asked, despite the futility of talking over music that loud.
"It's not that loud, English, the insulation's just poor." Alley's answer was instant and didn't interrupt her pace whatsoever.
"I can't believe you can actually hear me."
Finn took a step back from the crazy woman. She hadn't even looked at him yet. How could she possibly hear him? He held up three fingers and said, "How many-"
"Three." She still hadn't looked.
"Sod it. How many now?" Finn tucked his hand behind his back and spread four fingers.
"Four. I can do this all day, English. Now, why don't you park your ass on a stool and keep me company while those wimps out there moan about their workout."
Finn just grinned and obeyed the order. His legs protested as he lifted himself onto the tall seat. As workouts went, today's gym hit a nine out of ten on his personal scale of agony. Even though it was over, his abused body kept reminding him of the price paid.
"Tomorrow's going to hurt worse," Alley said.
"For a girl who isn't a telepath, you're awfully good at knowing what's on my mind."
Alley shoved the giant lasagna into the oven. She set a timer on the microwave, double-checked the heat and tossed a pile of dishes into the sink. With a twist of the wrist, she started up the hot water and rinsed what she'd used before loading each item into the dishwasher.
Finn admired the trim line of her backside as she bent over the dish rack. Much to his delight, she actually wiggled for him. Once more, the fact she couldn't see what he was doing stood out.
"So what's your story, English?" she asked as she worked.
"Me? I'm an open book. My father's Albus Barnaby. Mum was Bridget Chandler before she married and had me. I fancy fish and chips, the Rolling Stones and beautiful blondes. You want my A levels or what?"
"Business Studies, Computing, Economics and Super Studies. A, B, A, B. That's a fun coincidence, it matches one of the basic rhyming patterns for poetry and shares its name with basic single subject design when evaluating the efficacy of psychiatric treatment."
Finn just stared. "That's just putting me off. How are you doing that? You're like, a big brain am I right?"
"I'm like a big brain," Alley repeated back, nodding in agreement. "How was class?"
"Any point in telling you?"
"Not really, but I like making conversation."
"Try taking the headphones out."
Alley grinned even though he could still hear her music from where he sat at the kitchen counter. Sure enough, she popped the ear buds out and set them out on the counter. She turned and leaned back against the counter, folding her arms across her unfortunately slight bosom.
What was her angle? Finn had Nate figured out in minutes of meeting him. Poor boy was sheltered beyond belief. He was a sucker for a good friend and would doubtlessly be loyal to someone who showed him some consideration. Jia was almost as simple. Christian, baby out of wedlock, overbearing father figure, she was practically a color-by-numbers sketchbook. Her biggest nuance was the fact that she wasn't more rebellious.
The blonde giving him the challenging look was another matter. Military, judging by the body, and the first time he'd seen her was in uniform. She'd discarded it like a snake sheds skin, though, and there was almost nothing of discipline in how she moved and acted now. Pretty, in a conventional, ordinary way that would never equal a natural beauty like Jia's. A slim golden ring on her right ring finger seemed as significant as the gold locket she wore around her neck when dressed for school. Little else to go on. When he'd peeked in her bedroom, all she'd put up was a single set of pictures of her parents.
"Class was fine," Finn said at last. "Class was fantastic. So, Julie knows we're after the Ringmaster."
"How much does she know?" Alley's voice was exactly as cordial and friendly as before but those blue eyes turned to ice instantly.
"Only the public parts of our little operation. It seems our boy Nate thought about him. I'm still playing possum and shielding my thoughts so we're still safe otherwise. We all saw what happened when she tried to read your mind, of course. Why is that, again?"
"Because there's nothing in there." Alley rubbed her left knuckles with her right thumb, a tell that somehow softened her. It was ordinary, human. Showing abstract nervousness did a lot to dispel the intimidation that brain of hers could create. "So, we had an idea this would happen. I think we're fine."
"I'd have liked to have made it past our first day of classes before they clued in that we're after the Ringmaster." Finn folded his hands together. "You know she's going to pass information like that on to the Dean."
"The Dean's fine," Alley said. She watched the clock on the wall, her mind almost visibly ticking along like the ticking hands behind him. "Yeah, we're fine. Just means we keep our part quiet a little longer than expected."
The two students waited in the kitchen, lost in thought. Outside the kitchen, Finn could hear Nate and Julie laughing at something that happened on the television screen. More faintly, Finn could hear the wind pick up, sending an ocean's worth of stirring leaves rustling, the sound penetrating their insulated walls.
"So, you and Amara, huh?"
Finn blinked twice before he realized what she was talking about. "Sorry, come again?"
"She's cute, I'll give you that. You work quick, English!"
"We just met at lunch!" Finn didn't know why he felt the need to get defensive but that smile of hers unnerved him.
"You have a class together. And she's into you. Pick up your phone right now. Give her a call, invite her over. She'll say yes. She's a sucker for a handsome black man."
Finn actually looked down at his phone lying on the kitchen counter and slid a finger over the screen before he caught himself. "The same way you fancy Chinese?"
Alley nodded once but flinched while she did it. "Yeah, I had a feeling you'd say that. It's not that obvious, is it?"
"No, it's not." Finn leaned forward over the counter as he watched the blonde with rapt interest. "Tell me something? What's the appeal?"
"You mean Jia, Chinese girls or just girls?"
"You know what I mean," Finn answered.
"Never met a lesbian before? That's hard to believe." Alley shrugged. "It's not that complicated. I can tell you the exact moment I knew. I was watching a show, I think I was all of twelve or thirteen. Two girls kissed. And it was... " Alley took a breath and held it for a moment. "Electrifying. Transforming. And I knew, that exact instant, I knew. I'd never really gotten into boys, never understood the whole butterfly in your stomach thing, couldn't see what the fuss was about. That kiss, though, and I knew what fireworks were."
"Ever fancy a boy?" he asked.
"Have you?" she shot back. Finn just grinned and shook his head. "Like I said, it's not that complicated. How do I know I like girls? It's the same as you, English; you just do, head to toe, brain to groin."
"Ever been in love?"
Alley sighed and unfolded her arms, using her hands to grip the countertop. When her knuckles turned white, Finn had an idea of the answer and held up a hand. She just nodded at the silent permission to drop the subject. Then she spoke anyway.
"So, why the army?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Tell me about Queen Victoria's mother," Finn said instead.
"Princess Mary Louse Victoria, born 1786 to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. Victoria came from her second marriage, actually, to Prince Edward the Duke of Kent and Stratheam."
"Multiply the square root of 11,072 and 9,248 together."
"10,118.98492932962056415681563333." Alley's answer dropped within a second after his question had.
"Blimey, why the hell are you in the army?" Finn exclaimed, astonished despite himself. "You've got to be wasted there."
"I joined to serve my country."
"Why aren't you a scientist, though, or at least an officer?"
"You're smart, Finn, if your A levels are anything to go by. Why didn't you study business or economics? Why are you wasting half of your time learning to be a Hero?"
"Because being a Hero's more fun and it really matters."
Alley pointed a finger at him and made the classic motion with her thumb, mimicking a revolver hammer dropping as an imaginary gun fired. "Bingo."
Finn laughed and left his seat, looking for beer. Thankfully, he found a six pack. Grabbing two, he turned around and saw Alley already there, a bottle opener in her hand.
"You're bloody marvelous, you are."
Alley accepted one of the bottles, popped it open and took a long swallow. "Mmmm. You ain't seen nothing yet, English. One thing before we head in to join the others?" Finn just nodded his consent. "You've never tried to read my mind. Any particular reason?"
"You mean besides me hiding the fact I'm a trained telepath?" Finn chuckled and shook his head at her, wagging his bottle of beer in a chastising fashion. "I've seen what happens when telepaths try. I'll be buggered if I go looking for a migraine."
"You were around me for a good twenty four hours before Julie took a shot. We're the only two the Major trusted with our real assignment. You're really telling me you never wanted to know?"
Finn just took a swallow of beer and shook his head again. "Guess that makes me a gent."
She seemed to accept the explanation, which either meant her unbelievable intelligence missed the truth or she was too polite to push. Probably the latter, come to think of it. Finn watched her go and lingered in the kitchen.
It gave him another chance to try finding her among the millions of voices he could hear screaming inside her head.