“Thank you, sweet heaven,” Nick mumbled as he watched Alex and Will leave the cell.
“Feeling worried?” Alice asked. The others had drifted off to greet Alex at his triumphant return, but she had remained by Nick as he stared into the now empty space.
“I was feeling screwed. For a moment there I thought all was lost.”
“Don’t be so dramatic. We could have still pulled off a tie.”
Nick shook his head. “If they’d gotten that match they would have shifted strategy. Played it more conservatively until they got the next win they needed. We could have gotten maybe one win out of it all, if that. Now they don’t have that lock yet. Chad will play aggressively, trying to win rather than trying to last.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because Chad’s a winner in charge of a team of winners. They’re chasing victory because they’re used to capturing it.”
Alice chuckled lightly. “So that makes us a team of losers?”
“I prefer to think of it as a team of people who have had ample opportunity to build character through adversity.”
“Classy,” Alice complimented.
Mary meandered over and glanced at the two of them. Although she felt a bit guilty interrupting given the way Alice’s brain was tingling with cheer, there was business to attend to.
“One win is good, now who do we send out to get another?” Mary asked.
“I’m thinking the two lovely ladies in front of me,” Nick replied.
Mary and Alice exchanged an uncertain glance.
“Oh, don’t give me that,” Nick continued. “We said we’d do a duo in one of our rounds. This is the time for it.”
“I don’t disagree with you there, but why us?” Alice asked.
“Subterfuge,” Nick said. “Mary, can you do what Alex just did? Hold someone down without seriously injuring them?”
“Not unless they’ve got enhanced endurance like Roy or Chad. I’m a little too strong for it otherwise, and Alex has better fine control than I do.”
“Exactly; you can’t use Alex’s technique. I know it, you know it, and now Alice knows it. Guess who doesn’t know it? Chad’s team. Alice, our little gravity guru, could probably replicate it so well that no one would be able to tell the difference. Not unless they’d experienced both - but thankfully Will is unable to make a return performance.”
“Oh, you son of a bitch. You want me to keep acting helpless, even after I’ve worked my ass off to finally contribute to this team,” Alice accused.
“You’ll be contributing a great deal. You just won’t get credit for it, except from us.”
“These aren’t just contests for fun, you know. We each get evaluated, win or lose: everything we do goes toward whether or not we make the cut for next year. I’m not against helping the team, but I haven’t had a great showing so far. Now that I can do more than float about uselessly this is my chance to step things up.”
“Alice, not once in any of my plans, tactics, or strategies have I considered you as useless.” Nick could have sold it with an emphatic addition of counterfeit sincerity, but Alice would have immediately prickled with distrust. Instead he spoke in his usual manner, making no effort to seem more genuine. Ironically, this was as close as he could get to real sincerity.
“Sure, like I’d believe that. You gave me a four, remember?”
“You’re the one who found the flag and won our last team match,” Mary pointed out. “Not to mention that without you they couldn’t have rescued me from Coach George. Nick is telling the truth; the only person who ever thought you were useless was you.”
“Look, we’re on a limited amount of time, so I’ll leave it up to you two,” Nick interjected. “All I can say is that I promise you’ll get a chance to shine before the year is over, and it will be all the brighter because no one will be expecting it. If you’re really worried about making the cut then I can’t argue with putting on a show today. Just make sure you’re doing it because you want to be here next year and not out of a desire to make everyone respect your abilities.”
Alice nodded silently; her mind was already digesting Nick’s words. No one else on the team could have made her pause. None of the others understood what it was like to stand idly by while you watched your friends do amazing things. Only Nick could know how she felt; after all, he might have given her a four but he gave himself a two. She wanted to go into that cell and tear things up for a change. She just didn’t know if it was for her team or her ego.
“We need to head down,” Mary said, snapping her out of reverie.
“Let’s go,” Alice replied. They turned and headed toward the door, only now realizing that the rest of the room had fallen silent during their discussion. Soft words of encouragement were spoken, but most of their friends stood back as the duo moved closer to the exit.
“Hey, Alice,” Nick called as the girls reached the door.
“If you win, I’ll clean your bathroom.”
Alice smiled in spite of herself. The boy had a talent for lightening moods, no one could dispute that.
“Screw that. If I win I want something better.”
“You have to answer one question with complete honesty.”
Nick paused for a half of a heartbeat. “Deal,” he said. Alice liked that pause; it meant he’d had to think about it. It meant he might even keep his word. She and Mary resumed their walk. It wasn’t until they were in the cell that Mary spoke, and when she did her tone was filled with mock annoyance.
“You know, you might have asked me before turning down the cleaning offer. I bet we could have gotten him to at least throw in the girls’ lounge.”