Chapter 104

“You know, this isn’t as bad as I expected.” Alice surveyed the porcelain domain, rubber gloves pulled tight across her hands and an already-soapy mop to her side. She’d picked out the grittiest clothes she had for this job: a t-shirt and sweatpants that were each designer label but from a collection now three years old. Most of the morning had been spent getting supplies and bracing for the worst, but the room before her was actually not as horrific as tales of men’s restrooms had led her to believe.

“We do have a cleaning lady that comes every few days,” Nick reminded her. “Melbrook might be cozy and odd but it’s still a dorm. Besides, there’s less mess when you have three guys who know each other sharing the same area. Not much opportunity for diffused responsibility.”

“I don’t want to know,” Alice said immediately. “I’m here to clean, not learn anything more about what goes on in here than I have to.”

“Fair enough. I must say, I’m surprised you still showed up for this after my mild deception.”

“You mean the fact that your singing is fantastic? Yeah, I’ll admit I thought about welching after that little revelation.”

“Stopped by a refined sense of honor?”

“Closer to pride,” Alice admitted. “When I thought about it, you were clearly leading me into this trap. The bathroom was my idea, but it could have been anything. I should have seen it; hell, you weren’t even really trying that hard. So that’s most of why I’m here. Like you said at the slasher marathon, lessons without consequences don’t take as well. This is my way of learning not to be fooled quite so easily.”

“There’s a bit of wisdom in such a philosophy,” Nick said, patting her gently on the shoulder. “Would you like me to keep you company?”

“Much as I’m sure you’d love to ogle my ass when I crouch down in these sweatpants, you’re out of luck. Mary flagged me on my way over. She said she wants to have a chat with you, captain to tactician,” Alice replied.

“This must be my lucky day,” Nick mumbled. He’d known this talk would be coming eventually, he’d just hoped to push it off as long as possible. Mary wasn’t going to like what he had to say, not at all. “Fine, I’ll go get my lickings.”

“Heh heh. And here I thought I’d be having the worst Saturday out of us all,” Alice chuckled. She pulled the mop clear from the bucket and plopped it onto the tile floor, a wave of bubble-infested water rushing outwards. Nick took a quick step back to keep it from getting on his shoes. He paused for just a moment to savor the sight of oh-so-proper Alice dragging a cleaning implement across the floor, then left the bathroom and headed toward the common area.

Mary was waiting for him as soon as he walked in; a book sat in her lap, clearly not being read. She glanced up and nodded to the seat across from her.

“Shouldn’t we go somewhere more private?”

“Vince and Camille went to get lunch, Roy is off doing more training, and Alice is on cleaning duty. I think we’re okay,” Mary said, nodding to the seat again. “Incidentally, when did those two start hanging out by themselves?”

“I think our little healer was working a different kind of ability last night after the party,” Nick replied. He gave in to her request before it became an order and took the seat she wanted him to. “Vince was visibly shaken up; I assume she came over and helped him feel better.”

“Feels like that should have been our job,” Mary pointed out.

Nick shook his head. “Vince doesn’t deal with vulnerability well. He admits his own weakness, faces his own faults, and even cops to his failings better than anyone else I know, but the kid hates having people worry about him. If we’d tried, all we would have done is get him to dig in deeper, insisting he was okay. Camille is nothing but vulnerability; my guess is something about that gentle demeanor of hers was enough to slip through his guard.”

“As long as he’s okay. While we’re on the subject of Vince...”

“I know you didn’t catch the table,” Nick said.

“I figured. So what happened?”

Nick shifted a bit in his seat. “How much do you know about Vince, before the procedure?”

“I’m going to guess less than you.”

“That’s a given. I meant about his ability. Did you know that when Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport found him, Vince was locked in a concrete bunker because he was going through a phase where he absorbed almost every kind of energy he touched? Heat, electricity, even sunlight.”

“Vince can absorb light? He’s never done that before.”

“Exactly. When he got control, he focused on energies that were very finite. Contained sources that would run themselves out. It’s why he still uses batteries to get electricity instead of just draining some from a power grid. He’s a little afraid of what he can do, even a year and a half later,” Nick explained.

“That still doesn’t tell me anything about last night.”

“It tells you quite a bit, actually. We know Vince can absorb more than he’s shown us so far. We know a table stopped as soon as it touched him, and that a blow that should have broken his back didn’t leave so much as a bruise. Most importantly, we know he was putting his body between another person and danger, and when Vince is protecting someone, he demonstrates a much higher level of skill with his abilities.”

“You think he absorbed the kinetic energy of the table?” Mary’s eyes had grown wide in disbelief.

“It’s the best theory I have, at the moment. We’ll need to confirm it, but we might want to let him mentally stabilize a bit first. Give him a couple of days and all three of us can have a nice little talk.”

“I agree, he needs time, but I’m not sure how many days we’ve got,” Mary replied. “You know I didn’t call you here just to talk about Vince.”

“You want to know why I haven’t called a strategy meeting for the upcoming match,” Nick surmised.

“Or even come to pitch ideas at me,” Mary added. “Last time you were all about driving home the importance of tactics, but this round you haven’t said word one. What’s going on?”

“Firstly, last time I had to lay down the basics of team-building and get people accustomed to thinking in the right ways,” Nick pointed out. “Secondly, I do have a strategy for this round. It just doesn’t require meetings.”

“How does that work?”

“Let’s move to the kitchen,” Nick said, tilting his head slightly as he strained his ears. “This part needs to be private; I don’t want anyone walking in accidentally.”

“Is it that bad?”

“Let’s say you’re going to require a fair amount of convincing.”