Chapter 17

Alice was bored. She had come along to the Casino Night with the rest of her dorm, with the exception of Hershel, whom no one had seen since the beginning of the day, but the truth was she had little taste or stomach for craps. There was no nuance to it: just chunk the dice and pray for the best. Alice preferred her games more... strategic.

She stood next to Vince and the pink-haired girl he seemed to be getting along with so well - Sasha was her name, if Alice recalled correctly - as they all watched and occasionally participated in the craps game. Her poor luck on her few attempts had hardly endeared her to the game, and that, coupled with the events of the day, were all contributing to her increasingly sour mood.

Alice tried to smile and keep her facade plastered up by focusing on the positive. It wasn’t as if she had really expected to fare well in the combat trials in the first place. She could only fly, while a significant majority of the girls here had abilities that were far more fighting-based. Still, she had been downed in her first round in less than a minute by some girl with sonic blasting powers. It had hurt, and despite all the preparation she had given herself to brace for the inevitable loss, Alice had found that once the match was done, her pride was stinging a bit as well. It certainly hadn’t helped matters when she learned Mary had come out as top of the class. Still, Alice was an academic at heart, and being a Hero wasn’t just about how many cars you could throw in a minute. It was also about wit, resourcefulness, and intelligence, all of which Alice was confident she could use to elevate her own status. Eventually.

Alice abandoned the craps table when she heard Vince and Sasha making plans to meet for breakfast the next morning before heading off to class. They would all be spending their mornings attending their aboveground classes, but the afternoon would find them all down in the secret levels, training up on the things that really mattered. Vince and Sasha both seemed excited about what the next day would hold, which told Alice that they knew nothing of what was actually in store. She did, and she had the good sense to dread it. Alice left the two to their slowly-blooming, obvious romance and wandered across the room to find some entertainment of her own.

She passed Nick and Mary whispering in hushed tones at the blackjack table. If it had been anyone else but Mary, Alice might have lingered to see what they were discussing. With a telepath, though, there was too much risk of giving away more information than she gained. Instead Alice trudged across the room, passing by the happy faces while wearing one of her own. Eventually she found herself at the only part of the Student Union that allowed for seating without participation: the karaoke stage. Some blonde girl Alice recognized from the program was wailing her way through a pop song as Alice gently plunked down in the back. Ignoring the warbling, Alice pulled out her phone and began checking her e-mail. It was bad form to appear so antisocial in a public place, but she needed a moment to gather her thoughts and get into the right frame of mind. A few minutes by herself would be a relatively small concession for being able to mingle and socialize the rest of the night.

Alice was so caught up in actively ignoring the poor blonde on stage that she didn’t even notice when the song ended. She didn’t notice the mild applause or the announcement of the next song either. What she, along with everyone else in range of the speakers, did notice was what followed. A husky male voice vibrated across the room, breaking into the deep opening chords of a country song. Alice didn’t listen to country, and for the life of her couldn’t have told you what the song was. At that moment, though, she couldn’t hear anything else in the room. Shoving the phone hastily back into her pocket, Alice turned all of her attention to the boy – no, the man – who had pulled a stool on stage and was seated on it as he crooned into the microphone.

He was tall, that was apparent even though he was sitting. He wore a plaid button-down shirt, a small grey cowboy hat, and a pair of clearly worn-in jeans. There was something oddly familiar about his face, Alice noted, and his body was hard and lean. He was well-muscled as his half-open shirt proudly displayed, but with the flat muscle of an athlete rather than the bulky and superficial kind that body builders acquire. If Alice had to guess, which she was actively doing, she would say he was a quarterback in high school, given his physique and frame. Alice’s eyes danced around the crowd, noting their reactions to the clear improvement in entertainment.

A large chunk of the women in the karaoke’s audience were staring at this mystery man with unabashed interest, the most fervent being the blonde who had sung before him. Many of the men were trying to seem unimpressed by him and his performance, though a few who must have recognized the song were happily enjoying his rendition. As he sang, the man’s own hazel eyes swept the crowd, lingering ever-so-intentionally on the women eagerly looking up at him. They came to rest on his blonde predecessor, who looked as though she was applying all her self-control toward not letting out a squeal.

The song finished, and the man stood from his stool and took a wide bow. There was blatantly more applause that there had been for the girl, yet as the man walked down from the small platform that was serving as a stage and tipped his hat at the blonde as way of introduction, it seemed like she neither noticed nor cared.

For her part, Alice felt a bit better. Watching a gorgeous man sing had really done nothing for her, except that it had pulled her mind out of its funk and forced her to focus on something else for a while. Settling back in, she felt her problems were somewhat less pressing than they had been before, as is usually the case, and decided she would take a cue from the singing cowboy. This was an event to meet people and make connections: in other words, a social activity. That made it Alice’s home turf. She might not be able to beat everyone in combat, but there were few who could work a room like Alice Adair.

Alice rose from her seat and set off.