Chapter 54

Walking around the party was a somewhat surreal experience. Sure, it was a new environment to most of them, but that in itself wasn't overpowering. The odd part was just how normal everything seemed... until it didn't. Seeing a guy talking to a hot girl at a party: normal. Seeing that same guy produce a rose made of perfect glass from nowhere: significantly less normal. It wasn't the extraordinary parts that seemed out of place, it was seeing them used so casually in a place like this. Slowly it was dawning on the Lander freshmen just how paranoid the secret identity had made them over the semester. Hiding their nature was hardly a new experience for some, but it struck Alice that she hadn't gone flying since she first leaned she was able to. Sure, she'd used it here and there in training, that wasn't the same thing as soaring above world, though. Alex, too, was missing the days when he didn't have to keep his nature hidden away under lock and key.

As the group maneuvered the party, they saw mostly unfamiliar faces. Occasionally a member would recognize a sophomore that they'd seen in the hall a few times; however, that can hardly be considered the same as seeing a friend. Gradually, though, more small huddled groups of freshmen joined the party. They moved in packs, unconsciously fearful that they would be picked off should they separate from the herd. Such fears seemed baseless, as all the older students went out of their way to show kindness and a welcoming attitude to the freshmen. Still, the small groups maintained their tight formations.

It was in one other such group that Vince finally saw someone he knew outside of his own social circle.

"Hey!" Vince called out. "Thomas, right?"

"Right," Thomas answered, leading his own small circle toward Vince's. Smacked over the head with a sudden realization of potential unwanted conversation topics, Vince detached himself from his friends and intercepted Thomas on the premise of a friendly handshake.

"Didn't expect to see you here," Vince said with a large smile, squeezing and pumping Thomas' hand.

"Ditto," Thomas echoed. "I thought you'd have had your fill of parties."

"Eh heh. No, you know me, social butterfly. So who are your friends?" Vince asked hastily.

"Oh, well, this is Stella and Violet," Thomas said, taking a step to the side and indicating to each girl in turn. Vince already knew Stella on sight, but Violet turned out to be an almost unremarkable girl from their class. Average height, cute without being eye-catching, but with hair dyed a shade of purple so deep it was almost black (hence the almost quantifier).

"Nice to meet you both," Vince said, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder and see if the others were still hovering in the area. "I never got a chance to say it in person, but thank you again."

"No prob," Stella quipped. "So you don't want your buddies to know you got your ass kicked, huh?"

"Beg pardon?" Vince nearly choked on his words.

"What Stella is trying to say is that it's clear you wanted to greet us before this conversation was in earshot of your friends, and we'll of course respect your wish for privacy," Violet said, a lilting and slightly high-pitched voice piping out of her.

"Oh um... yes," Vince admitted. "I appreciate what you did, but I haven't really told them about what happened."

"There is no shame in what happened to you," Thomas assured him. "We will, as Violet said, of course respect your wishes."

"Sort of a moot point anyway. Looks like they wandered off," Stella pointed out.

"Huh," Vince noticed. "That they did."

"Well, now we get to talk to you outside of a combat situation, so all the better for us," Violet said cheerfully.

"Thank you," Vince said again, unsure of how to respond to such a statement. An honest thought and change of subject both occurred to him at once. "Wasn't there someone else with you that night?"

"Oh, that was my roommate, Camille," Violet explained. "She's not big on parties. I pretty much had to drag her out of the house that night."

"Too bad, I would have liked to thank her in person," Vince said.

"Do it Monday then," Stella said. "In the meantime, how about showing us where the beer in this joint is?"

*          *          *

"Why are we leaving Vince?" Alex asked as Nick herded the group away after a minute or so of standing around.

"Because it's a party, and the point is to meet new people, not feel guilted into sticking with the ones you already know," Nick explained.

"Still, it seems like we should have said something," Alex objected again.

"I'm actually with Nick on this one," Hershel agreed. "He was mingling with new people. Us hanging around wasn't going to help him with that. Besides, it's a small house, he can find us when he's ready. In the meantime, we can do some mingling of our own, and I think I see the perfect opportunity now." Hershel picked up his pace, leading the others to a ping pong table on which cups were being arranged in a triangular formation and beer was being poured into them.

"Anyone got next game?" Hershel asked.

"Nah," replied a tall boy with black hair who was setting up the cups on one side. "You want in?"

"Sure," Hershel replied. He turned back to look at the others. "Who wants to play with me?"

"I'll watch and learn the game first," Alice said.

"Still working on my first drink. I'm out," Alex said.

"Guess that leaves me," Nick shrugged, stepping up and taking his place on one side of the table.

The other team took their place, and the dark-haired boy laid down the rules. "One bounce is allowed: anymore and you can smack it away. Distractions and trash talk are fine as long as you don't touch the ball. Game can't be won until one team misses and another scores in the same round, so if we keep scoring, neither cup gets removed. Powers are fair game."

Nick raised an eyebrow. "You sure about that?"

"Totally," the boy confirmed. "It makes these games a lot more fun. Besides, how often do we get to just let go and use them? They're only allowed on your turn, though, and no deflecting with it unless your opponent has bounced more than once."

"Fair enough," Hershel agreed. "I'm Hershel and this is Nick."

"Ben and Chris," said the dark-haired boy, gesturing first to himself, then to his darker-skinned companion. "You need a warm-up round?"

"Nah," Hershel said. "Let's do this."