Chapter 140

The various classrooms that dotted the underground area had been filled with carnival-style games of chance for the delight of those who considered themselves too refined for such frivolity as dancing. The music from the gym could still be heard thanks to a well-connected (but thankfully low in volume) PA system with speakers at each corner. Grey-uniformed middle classmen were tasked with manning the various booths, serving as free labor as well as a control should some of the youngsters get rowdy.

“This is ultra-lame,” Nick complained as he and Alice meandered the halls. “I mean, seriously, dart throwing? Haven’t we all spent, like, the past couple of months training in ranged combat?”

“I think it’s quaint,” Alice disagreed. “It’s a reminder of the normal world. It’s easy to get so caught up in all this that you forget what it’s like for the rest of the humans. Or the rest of the Supers, for that matter. I have trouble remembering a time when the HCP didn’t seem to dominate a majority of my life. This is a pleasant break.”

“Yeah, except that for some people that break might be a bit more permanent than they’d like,” Nick said.

Alice looked at him, trying in vain to see past the sunglasses into the eyes that lurked behind them. “Worried?”

“Just aware. Not everyone makes the cut, and I’m not exactly a ranked combatant. There’s nothing wrong with a little focus.”

“Pfft, a little focus my butt,” Alice said. “This from the guy who spent the entire two weeks of training watching television on the couch.”

“It was a part of my training regiment,” Nick replied.

“Only if you’re training for a bad sitcom trivia game show.”

“And the lady has uncovered my backup plan if the HCP doesn’t work out.”

“Uh huh, whatever you say there, slick,” Alice huffed. “I’m sure you have some secret scheme to slide through these tests with a passing grade. In the meantime, there’s a more pressing matter facing you.”

“What’s that?”

Alice pointed at a game some yards down the hall.

“They have giant bears and you are going to win one for me.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because I’m not above guilting you into dancing with me and then stomping on your feet all night.”

Nick sighed. “A bear for the lady it is then.”

*          *          *

As time slipped by, the group dancing gave way to the inevitable coupling up of partners. Vince and Sasha were the first to slip off, followed not long after by Alex and Selena, then Hershel and Mary. Thomas did double duty, switching between Violet and Stella as dance partner at their whims. Stella would never admit it but she, along with several other girls, wished it was Roy making an appearance tonight instead of Hershel. They were hard out of luck, though, because with all the training and prep work Roy had been putting in for the test, it had been no contest giving this night over to Hershel. Besides, Mary had been very adamant that she get to spend the night with the boy she was actually dating and the wagers of their bet still held effect for the next two days.

Hershel noticed Alice and Nick wandering into the gym area, Alice clutching an oversized plush bear, as he and Mary stepped into the hallway to get a little space. This is where several of the games had been set up; however, there were also several classrooms left open, presumably for the purpose of those who wanted to get away from the racket for a while. It was in one of these that the duo found themselves resting after the better part of an hour they had spent kicking up the dance floor.

“Woo,” Mary said and she plopped down. “I have no idea how some girls do that in heels.”

“Practice?” Hershel ventured.

“I’d rather do a Coach George workout than practice that,” Mary said, shaking her head. “No question about it, I’m a flats girl.”

“I didn’t know that point had ever come up for debate,” Hershel said.

“It hasn’t. I’m just putting it out there preemptively, lest you expect me to start donning pumps on special occasions.”

“So you see us celebrating special occasions together then, I take it?”

“Well, yeah,” Mary said. Her eyes fluttered downward and an unfamiliar blush crept into her cheeks. “I mean, you and I are sort of... well, I mean, you’re my boyfriend, aren’t you?”

“I’d hoped so, but I never really wanted to press the issue,” Hershel admitted, a tomato coloration rising in his own face.

Mary tittered nervously. “You and I aren’t very good at this, are we?”

“Doesn’t look that way,” Hershel agreed. “I mean, we’ve been dating for a few months now, and I’m really enjoying it.”

“As am I.”

“And there isn’t really anyone else I want to be dating.”

“I’ll second that motion as well,” Mary said.

“So then, yes, I think we are in fact in a relationship.”

“You certain? I bet we can get a second opinion,” Mary offered.

“Nope, no need. I’m calling it officially. I am your boyfriend and vice versa,” Hershel declared.

“Well, when you say it with so much confidence, I don’t know how I can refuse.” The two had scooted closer during the conversation. Now they were locked into each other’s eyes, idiotic smiles splitting their faces and a slow twitch of nerves jerking through their skin.

“We are ridiculous,” Hershel said.

“But adorable,” Mary tacked on.

They leaned in and kissed, their first one since taking the next step forward in the relationship. It was familiar, scary, awkward, and overrun with joy.

It, along with the sharp crackle of electricity, was also their last conscious memory for the next several hours.

*          *          *

“Where’d the happy couple go to?” Nick asked as the music dimmed in volume. The DJ could be seen evacuating his booth in pursuit of a bathroom and a fresh water bottle, so dancing was tabled for the duration of his break.

“Off away from all these prying eyes,” Sasha theorized. “A sentiment I can get behind, if you know what I mean.” In case anyone didn’t know what she meant, Sasha took the opportunity to slap Vince firmly on the ass.

“I’m sure they just wanted to talk in private,” Vince said, eyes darting about as he searched inwardly for any strategy to hide his fresh embarrassment. Sadly, he found no such method: Vince had always been cursed with wearing the truth on his face.

“On that note, though, Alex and Selena seem to have left, too,” Thomas pointed out.

“I saw her slip out with him a few songs ago,” Violet said. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say they were definitely not just heading out to talk.”

“Alex and Selena, huh? When, and more importantly how, did that happen?” Nick asked.

There was a collective shrug. “They hung out a lot during the river trip,” Stella said. “I guess they found a connection.”

“Huh. Kudos to him, that girl is crazy hot. A toast to our buddy scoring some out-of-his-league tail,” Nick said, snatching up a few punch glasses from the table and handing them out.

“How about we just cheers to a great year instead?” Vince offered.

“Whatever,” Nick said by way of agreement. The friends clinked glasses and downed the cherry-flavored drink. A crackle from overhead indicated the DJ booth speaker was about to be used.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your fun,” said a new voice, half-strangled with its own excitement. “However, I’ve recently discovered some information that the entire HCP needs to be alerted to.”

Nick felt the muscles in lower back tense immediately.

“I just thought it should be known that despite what they have told us, the entire Melbrook populace - Nicholas Campbell, Alice Adair, Hershel Daniels, Mary Smith, and Vince Reynolds - are not Supers. They’re all Powereds. And I have proof.”