Mary returned home from class on Tuesday to find Mr. Numbers setting up the chess board in the common room.
“Is it Saturday already?” Mary asked.
Mr. Numbers shook his head. “We missed our weekend game. I thought we might play today instead.”
Mary paused for a moment, then walked over and set down her bag. “Why not?”
Mary made the opening move, followed by Mr. Numbers. In the time they had been playing she’d been slowly growing better. She was lasting a move or two longer each game so far, though Mr. Numbers anticipated her progress would reach a plateau within another five games.
“So, what’s on your mind?” Mary asked as she shifted her knight’s position.
“Just the game.”
“Now, I think we both know that’s a lie,” Mary said.
“Not during our games, no. But I’ve heard you long enough to know you’re a creature of habit, and you’d rather miss a game than reschedule it,” Mary said.
“True,” Mr. Numbers said. “Mr. Transport and I have been entertaining the idea of another project, one that would require the assistance of you and Nick.”
“I should warn you, I’m still putting extra blankets on my bed and drinking my tea hot as symptoms from the last ‘project’ you two hatched.”
“It’s nothing like that,” Mr. Numbers assured her. “This one would be both harmless in nature and universally beneficial.”
“Are you willing to hear me out?”
“Yes,” Mary said. “If for no other reason than I’d rather be forewarned and forearmed.”
Mr. Numbers carefully ran through the plan Mr. Transport had presented him some days before. He was careful to include every detail he had currently determined and to be absolutely truthful. Even if Mary really wasn’t listening in right now, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be checking in on him in time to come.
“I like it,” Mary said. “And I’m on board for it. I can’t speak for Nick, though.”
“I daresay no one could claim such an ability,” Mr. Numbers remarked.
“Maybe, maybe not. Either way, you’ll need him,” Mary said.
“I was unfortunately certain you would say that.”
“You’re good at what you do. Anything else I should know?” Mary asked.
“Indeed. Checkmate,” Mr. Numbers said, moving his bishop and springing the trap he’d laid.
Mary blinked. “Did you distract me with this just to beat me?”
“Don’t be silly,” Mr. Transport said. “It was a necessary conversation. And I don’t need cheap ploys to beat you.”
“Yet,” Mary said.
Mr. Numbers looked down at the small, unassuming girl and the confident look in her eyes. His brain buzzed, assessing the multiple factors he’d gleaned about her. Her ambition, her determination, her aptitude, and her focus.
“Yet,” Mr. Transport agreed, sweeping up the board and heading into his room.
* * *
Nick was relaxing in the common room later that night, flipping through television stations, when a flash of blonde hair and pink dress dropped into the seat next to him.
Nick raised an eyebrow. “Can I help you?”
“What?” Alice said. “Can’t a girl sit down and watch some TV with her friend?”
“That depends,” Nick said. “Is there a reason she needs to do it right next to him, as opposed to in one of the many other scenic locations?” He gestured at the empty common room and the abundance of seats contained within it.
“Oh no, I think proximity is very important. It fosters deep, intellectual conversations. Conversations about new developments, and what those new developments might be doing this weekend,” Alice said.
“You want to know where Hershel is taking Mary on Friday.”
“See, I always told people how smart you were,” Alice said.
“Admitted,” Alice said. “But I still want to know, so spill it.”
Nick laughed. “And why would I betray the secrecy of my dear friend for the curiosity of a girl who repeatedly hits me?”
“Well,” Alice said, leaning forward slightly. “Maybe because a gesture of that sort would make her feel better disposed toward you. Maybe she’d show you a softer, kinder side.”
“Yeah, not buying it.”
“Fine. Then how about maybe because she’s right next to you with her hand in punching range of your crotch?”
“Now, see, that, that I believe,” Nick said, shifting his legs slightly to provide cover. “Even if I wanted to tell you though, I can’t. As of when I last checked, Hershel doesn’t even know what he’s going to do with Mary after dinner.”
“That sucks,” Alice said. “He better think of something soon. Mary’s looking forward to a good night out.”
“I’m sure our little nerd boy will come through in the clutch,” Nick assured her. “He can be tenacious when the mood strikes him. Plus, Vince and I offered up a veritable plethora of helpful suggestions.”
“Please; you probably suggested something moronic, like taking her to a strip club.”
“I would never!” Nick cried in a hurt tone. “I can’t believe you think so little of me.”
“Uh huh. Whatever you say, stud. Let me know if he tells you anything,” Alice said, getting off the couch.
“No promises, but if it’s exceptionally interesting I might seek you out,” Nick said.
“That’s probably as good as I’m getting out of you,” Alice sighed. “I’m going to go work on some chemistry. Night, Nick.”
“Night, Alice,” Nick said, giving her a perfunctory wave. Once the door was closed, though, worry descended on his face. She’d been much more comfortable and familiar around him than normal. The whole mock flirting thing had demonstrated that amply well. Such an attitude could be problematic. The last thing he needed was her to grow so at ease around him their friendship developed into romance. No, it was best to nip this in the bud right away.
Nick flipped out his cell phone and selected a number from its directory. That was the good thing about catching these situations early, they could often be resolved in a single phone call.