The bottle was nearly empty as Blaine topped off both their glasses. His head had a pleasant swim about it, not quite so much that his senses were yet on leave. It was more that they were on a coffee break: not immediately active but ready to spring at a moment’s notice, if called. It was the stage of intoxication he liked best, and one he rarely went past.
“Scotch,” Sean said, tasting the word as much as the drink. “This is one of those things you expect not to notice how much you miss in prison. Then you get out and it’s like a shock to the system, you didn’t even know how much you wanted some. That, by the way, is a crock of shit. I was keenly aware of how much I missed this and a thousand other little pleasantries from the outside world.”
“And yet it took me ample convincing to get you to leave,” Blaine pointed out.
“You’ll forgive my hesitation. Our last encounter wasn’t exactly one that captured the pinnacles of our friendship.”
“Sean... well, I can’t really say I’m sorry, given what you were doing. I still wish it hadn’t had to be me that brought you in.”
“I understand, Blaine. In the end it had to be someone from our class, and given all that’s unfolded since then, perhaps I was lucky to be snared by Zero after all.”
Blaine shook his head a little. “Of all the futures I imagined when we were enrolled here at Lander, I must say this wasn’t one of them.”
* * *
“Open the door!” Sean yelled, his voice muffled by something. Blaine and Gerard both stood from the table, but Victor had already been up getting a drink, giving him the advantage of position. He flung open the flimsy apartment door to reveal Sean, arms loaded down with a case of beer and assorted snacks. He had a bag of chips in his teeth, which accounted for the distortion in his speech.
“About time,” Victor thundered. No matter how often Blaine and Gerard tried to explain to him that they had neighbors who were partial to silence, the barrel-chested young man was never quite able to restrain himself fully.
“Maybe if I’d had a little help I could have made better time,” Sean snapped, wobbling through the entrance under the burden of his load.
“Maybe if you were better at poker you wouldn’t have lost last week and been tasked with snack duty,” Victor fired back, one of his ham-sized hands delicately plucking a fresh beer from the case to join the one he’d already gotten from the fridge and drank halfway down. Blaine and Gerard got up to help Sean unload, a relatively quick process consisting of putting chips on the counter and beer in the fridge. With the food settled, they sat down at the small kitchen table and Gerard began to shuffle. His bony fingers were shockingly delicate and deft, rearranging the order of the cards with exemplary speed.
“What we need are fresh players,” Sean proposed, settling into his own seat and popping his weary back. “That way I’m not always getting my clock cleaned by you guys.”
“We’ve invited everyone in our class,” Blaine pointed out. “Then again, we’re seniors now, so the environment is leaning more toward outright competitive than friendly.”
“In fairness, that’s not true of everyone,” Gerard pointed out. “Phil and Joshua aren’t avoiding us out of malice; they simply prefer to spend their time training.”
“Not to mention Phil is such a Boy Scout he’d never play poker. And wherever Phil is, that’s where you’ll find Clarissa,” Victor added. He held himself back from the sigh that wanted to escape his lips. That girl was so breathtaking, yet all she ever seemed to do was follow after Phil like a puppy with an oblivious master.
“Casper comes to some of our other stuff,” Sean said.
“Yes, but he refuses to take part in anything involving gambling. The tenants of his faith label it a sin,” Gerard expanded.
“And of course Marianne has been dating that guy for the past couple of months,” Sean said.
“A Super like her with a human. Such a waste,” Victor said with a shake of his head.
“Love doesn’t draw distinctions between those with and without abilities,” Gerard said, his quick hands now doling out the cards one by one. “Now, how about we cease lamenting those who aren’t present and focus on the game with those who are?”
“Fine, fine,” Sean said, looking at his hand. The game was five card draw, and it was not starting out well for him. “So, you guys nervous about the final exam in a few weeks?”
“Terrified,” Blaine said immediately.
“Hell, I didn’t mean you, Blaine. Of course you’re going to make the cut.”
“Nothing is certain in our world,” Gerard corrected him. “Though I agree that there is a very high likelihood my roommate will gain the title of Hero.”
“I’m definitely going to be one,” Victor declared loudly. “No matter what they throw at me, I can handle it.”
“Oh? So what’s the plan if they make you square off against Blaine, or Joshua, or Phil?” Sean asked.
“Obviously it’s a secret,” Victor replied. “I can’t just go telling you what my strategy is with Blaine right there.”
“I can leave the room if you like,” Blaine offered.
“No, no, that’s fine. I’ll just keep it to myself, thank you very much,” Victor said hastily.
Sean smiled. Despite his big talk and boisterous nature, Victor was actually a pretty solid guy to have on your team. He really hoped the lummox made it through. As for his own chances at graduating, he evaluated them about half and half.
“For me I think it comes down to what the test is,” Sean speculated. “In the right environment I can be quite impressive. In the wrong one I can look useless.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. No one who looks useless makes it this far,” Blaine said. He set down two cards, which Gerard swept into a pile before doling out two fresh ones.
“Everything is relative,” Sean said. “Compared to some of the heavy hitters out in the world, all of us would look pretty weak.”
“Then let us be thankful none of them are enrolled at Lander,” Gerard replied, setting a small set of chips in the center. There were monetary values ascribed to the chips, just not nearly at the standard denominations. With a buy in of only five dollars, the game wouldn’t last too long without the ability to bet low values.
Victor raised by ten cents, Sean checked, and Blaine raised by another five cents. Each was so focused on the game laid out before them that they nearly jumped in surprise at the knock on the door. Blaine and Gerard exchanged curious glances. They weren’t expecting any other players to tonight’s game.
“Maybe someone decided to join us at the last minute?” Sean tossed out.
Blaine rose from his seat and crossed the short distance to the door. He pulled it open to reveal a pretty girl with wavy blonde hair.
“Hey, Blaine,” she said cheerfully. “My stupid brother forgot his wallet in my car after getting the groceries. I came to drop it off.”
Blaine stepped aside to allow entrance, giving the girl a greeting smile.
“Hey, Shelby,” Victor called.
“Good evening, Shelby,” Gerard greeted. “Would you like to join us?”
“No, thanks,” she said, making her way to Sean. “I just figured someone might need this when he loses again and has to pay up at the end of the night.” She held out a slim black piece of leather, which Sean accepted bashfully.
“Thanks, sis,” Sean said. “But I don’t expect to lose tonight; I’m feeling lucky.”
“Uh huh. I don’t need to see the future to know how bad you suck at poker,” Shelby said with a mischievous smile.
“I’m sure it helps,” Blaine said, pulling up his own chair. “Would you like a beer or a snack?”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Shelby replied. “I need to hustle; I’ve got a date tonight.”
“Same guy?” Sean asked.
“Same guy,” Shelby confirmed.
“That’s four weekends in a row. Do I need to give this gentleman the standard ‘put the fear of big brother into him’ talk?” Sean asked.
Shelby laughed. “I appreciate it, but he’s one of Blake’s friends so he’s already been thoroughly threatened with fraternal retribution should he hurt me.”
“Long as the job gets done,” Sean said, adding another few chips to the pile.
“You guys have fun, and don’t cream my brother too bad,” Shelby said, showing herself out and shutting the door behind her.
“See, now I feel bad, because when we totally wreck you tonight it will feel like we’re going against your cute little sister,” Victor said.
“Don’t worry about it; regardless of what she says, tonight I’m feeling lucky,” Sean said proudly. “I’m going to win this game, then in a few weeks I’m going to ace the test and become one of the world’s greatest Heroes.”
“Nothing wrong with dreaming,” Gerard said. “In a perfect world we’d all make the cut and meet together decades from now to play a game of cards and talk about all the villains we’ve brought to justice.”
“Perfect world my ass,” Victor said. “That will definitely happen, just you watch and see.”
* * *
The bottle was now empty, and the two lone figures sat in Blaine’s house, watching through the windows as the wind whipped at the trees.