Chapter 123

“I can’t believe you lost to a song,” Camille chuckled lightly. “Didn’t you think to just stick your fingers in your ears?” She and Vince were in the dining hall eating a late dinner, almost alone in the spacious enclosure. Everyone from both teams, with the exception of Sasha, had come to check on her in the infirmary; however, it was past afternoon by the time she finally woke up, so all but Vince had eventually needed to leave for other classes. The pain drugs they’d given her had evidently worked better than expected, as Camille usually classified herself as a light sleeper. Once she finally came around, it was a quick matter to heal herself, and once Vince had caught her up on the match outcomes, they’d both realized they were ravenous.

“Generally it’s a bad idea to stick things in your ears that are putting out heat in the hundreds of degrees,” Vince pointed out. He took a bite of low-quality hamburger and swallowed it with some effort. “Besides, it wouldn’t have worked.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t totally understand it, but Alex explained to me and Nick once why you don’t have to hear Selena’s music to be entranced by it. He said it was like how someone can turn their bass so high that you feel in rippling through your body.”

“My cousin has a car set up like that. He gave me a ride home from swim practice once and I nearly threw up,” Camille recalled. It normally would have weakened her appetite, but if the lukewarm chicken tenders on her plate couldn’t turn her stomach then some childhood memory of discomfort didn’t stand a chance.

“Right. So, basically the same thing. Even though you might not register it, your body still absorbs her song. Evidently that’s all it takes. It’s why Alex created a technique that pushed back all sound, not only whatever was around his ears.”

“Good luck for him that he did,” Camille said. She dragged a limp, soggy fry through ketchup in hopes that it would improve the taste. It didn’t. “It sounds like Will would have had that match sewn up if he hadn’t pulled that trick out of his hat.”

“Yeah, everyone did a really amazing job today.” Vince didn’t say ‘except me’ because he didn’t have too. He felt like everyone was already thinking it. So instead he cut his sentence short and gulped down some flat soda that had come with his meal. Camille heard the unspoken words in his voice anyway.

“I’m sorry, Vince. I didn’t mean to laugh. It just seemed funny because of how strong I know you are. After I saw you fight Michael, it was hard to imagine anyone beating you. Selena is powerful in her own right, and there’s no shame in losing to her.”

“She is, she’s incredible,” Vince agreed. “But I think I could have beaten her if I’d used electricity.”

“Let me guess, you held back because you were scared of hurting her?”

Vince looked up from his food into the compassionate stare of his dinner-mate. “How did you know?”

“It’s who you are. All this strength is still relatively new to you, so you err on the side of caution rather than risk seriously injuring someone.”

“In this case that weakness of mine cost us an upset win. That’s what’s eating at me; I had the chance to really make a difference and I couldn’t pull the trigger on it.” Vince noticed his hand had involuntarily clenched into fist as it rested on the table. A smaller hand, one far more delicate than his own, settled on top of it and squeezed.

“Kindness is not a weakness,” Camille said firmly. “The fact that you care so much about other people is part of why you do make a difference. Maybe not in some stupid match, but in the world as a whole.”

“You think too much of me,” Vince replied. His hand relaxed, and it could have been his imagination but he would have sworn Camille’s lingered on top of his for a few moments after. Then it was gone, and they were back to working their way through the culinary catastrophe set before them.

“So what is Nick planning for celebration, anyway? Monster movie marathon or maybe a night at some sketchy dive bar?”

“Actually, he said he wanted to take the night to reflect on the day’s events,” Vince informed her. “I guess it is tactician stuff.”

*    *    *

Nick was well through his sixth glass of gin at the moment in question. He was at a bar far from campus; the cab ride here had been nearly forty dollars and now he’d have to spend the same to get back. It was worth the cash to be here. This was a dark lounge with thick smoke in the air, a place where no one asked for an ID because if you had the clout to know about it, your business was welcome. There were places like it all over America, and Nick made it a point to know the nearest one whenever he was stuck in a new city.

He sat alone in a high-backed leather chair, vision trained on a fake fireplace with a projection of flames dancing across it. There were people to talk to and things to do of which he could avail himself, but that wasn’t why he’d come here. Nick needed to be alone. He needed to drink in misery and have a night to chastise himself for such an unforgivable failure. He needed penance, and more importantly he needed focus.

Vince was in danger of being kicked out. It made sense; all policies aside, the son of Globe would be no more welcome in the HCP than the son of Hitler at a bar mitzvah. That it wasn’t a blood relation or an official adoption was even worse; it meant the little protection that applied to children of criminal Supers could be sidestepped. It couldn’t be an easy process, at least, otherwise they would have drummed him out already.

Another hearty gulp of gin smoothed his nerves as Nick continued to work through the problem. So, someone wanted Vince out based on Chad’s accusations. They probably couldn’t eliminate him based solely on something so flimsy, however. Professor Pendleton had specifically mentioned Vince’s sub-par record in official matches, so there was a good chance that was the avenue being pursued. Nick took another long drink as the false flames flickered. Vince was middle of the pack. He’d improved, but his tendency toward caution meant he never truly showcased his skills. If things kept up at this pace, he could fail to advance to third year without raising too much suspicion. Friends would be sad, but no one would be able to prove it was intentional discrimination. Not with an official record like his.

Nick cleaned out the glass and motioned for another. So, the solution was to make sure that Vince put on such a display of power in the final match that failing to advance him would raise all manner of hell. It had taken Nick six drinks to figure out the What, now all that remained was coming up with the How. He suspected it would require more gin than this bar stocked, but he was willing to find out.