“That was incredible!” Vince bounded forward to clap Nick on the back as he entered the room. The others weren’t far behind, offering similar tidings of congratulations. Nick wasn’t sure whether it said more about how strong everyone thought Chad was or how weak they viewed him to be that merely not getting annihilated drew such a reaction. Given that it was what he’d been banking on, however, he supposed either one was acceptable.
“I still can’t believe you dodged him by closing your eyes,” Alice muttered.
“Trust me, no one is more surprised that worked than me, with the possible exception of Chad,” Nick replied humbly. “I take it you folks overheard our little adversarial chat?”
“No, Mary gave us a sort of narration based on your thoughts and what you were doing,” Alex explained. “Unless you’re hooked up to the mike and speaker system those cells are completely soundproof.”
Nick stepped away from the crowd and looked through the relatively thin slit that comprised their window. Across the cell he could see into the other team’s prep room; they were huddling together and congratulating Chad. The blonde captain didn’t look as sure of himself as he should be after a win. A warm glow of satisfaction cascaded through Nick’s mind. He’d successfully planted the seeds of uncertainty; now he had to capitalize on them.
“Chad is the one making all the decisions,” Mary said, sidling up next to him and lowering her voice. “They figured out that strategy before he was done with the fight. Since I can’t read his mind, we’re going to be working as blind as they are.”
“Not entirely. We still know who they are on a personal level. Telepathy is well and good, but I’ve been predicting people’s actions long before I had access to a mind reader.”
“I take that to mean you’ve come up with a plan?”
“You know me so well. It’s going to get very rough. Can you keep them together?”
“Find a way to keep us in this thing, I’ll make sure they keep at it.”
“Let’s hope so, because this next one will be bad,” Nick warned. “Hey, Camille!”
The small girl turned and looked at the pair curiously. “Yes? Do you need some healing?”
“Nah, not right now. You have more important things to deal with. Mary and I talked it over and decided you’re our pick for the next round.” Nick took advantage of the stunned silence that followed to shift his position and brace himself. There was a good chance he really might need some healing before Camille was out of the room.
“What?!” Vince blurted as realization finally struck home. “You’re pairing her with someone, right? That’s why we agreed to do a two-person round, so we could couple a strong offense with Camille’s healing ability.”
“Vince is right; that girl has no place being in the cell by herself,” Roy echoed. “You’re one thing, but she could get really hurt.”
“And if the healer gets injured then who helps her?” Alex tacked on.
Mary held up a hand to silence them, and surprisingly they complied with minimal grumbling. “I hear your concerns, I really do. But Nick made a compelling case, so hear him out before you decide he’s wrong.” Mary turned, ready to actually hear the case she’d pretended to know and endorse.
“We’re probably going to lose this event,” Nick said, his face unusually straightforward. “I told you all that from the beginning. Even in this format we’re at a disadvantage. I’ve run through the lineup combinations in my head dozens of times, and in the vast majority we lose four out of six matches. There are a couple - a very slender few – of exceptions. The only arrangement of those we have any reasonable shot at still requires a very precise order of execution, which is remarkably harder, given that our opponents get to choose their participant in three of the matches. I think I can get us there, but only if you all trust me and go in the order Mary and I decide.”
“I’ll go,” Camille said, so softly that it would have been inaudible had the room not been stricken silent.
“You don’t have to do that,” Vince told her.
“She does if we want a shot at this thing,” Nick rebutted. Vince threw his friend a look dirtier than Nick would have believed him capable of conjuring.
“I’m doing it,” Camille insisted. “I’m not at this school just to heal everyone else, you know. I’m here to learn, and to fight, and to get stronger. I’m here to become a Hero, and Heroes don’t have the luxury of sitting out a fight just because it’s hard.”
“We’re done talking about this.” Camille turned toward Nick, less because she actually wanted to speak to him and more because she couldn’t bear the look of worry on Vince’s face. “Anything I need to know?”
“I’m betting you have the same guess as me on who they’ll send against you, right?”
Camille nodded. No matter what they were planning, some opportunities were too rare to pass up. She knew who would be gunning for her.
“Then I’ll just say this: I don’t support pyrrhic victories as a rule, but on this occasion I think there might be a bit of value to the concept,” Nick instructed, his eyes scouring Camille’s face for any signs of comprehension. The small girl was smarter than most of the others; he could only hope she knew what he was talking about. Her lashes went up and she let out a quick breath. He wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but he’d given as much as he could with this many people in earshot.
“Good advice,” Camille said without commitment. She turned and walked out the door, leaving behind a rising babble of voices as she exited. She could already hear them badgering Nick for more information, but she doubted he would give anything up. That boy was disturbingly clever.
Camille could see the surprise ripple through the opponents’ room as she entered the cell. Whatever they’d been expecting, it wasn’t her. That was the whole point, after all. This match’s strategy was insanity: keep the others off-balance and make it impossible for them to predict what Team One would do next. So far, so good. She hoped.
It didn’t take long for the cell door to open again. Camille considered feigning surprise then thought better of it. This was a rare opportunity for them to face one another plainly, with all feelings and thoughts laid bare. She wouldn’t be the one to sully it with cheap ploys.
“Good morning, Sasha. Thanks for not keeping me waiting.”
“The least I could do,” Sasha replied. “After all, if there’s one thing someone with my ability should be, it’s punctual.”