Chapter 169

It was Tuesday when Nick slid into a seat adjacent to Vince, both of them currently in the boys’ lounge of Melbrook. Vince was studying for his last final exam, or at least he had been before Nick arrived. The sophomores had been blessed with more free time than expected, their duties at the carnival had been absorbed by the juniors and seniors. Officially this was because the committee meeting had been interrupted before tasks could be assigned. The actual reason could be speculated on, but since Dean Blaine was immune to both telepathic probing and idle dissemination of information, speculation was all it would remain.

“Working hard, or hardly working?”

Vince closed his book. Whatever Nick wanted, it was likely going to require Vince’s full attention. “Just trying to squeeze in as much as I can.”

“You never learn, do you? Cramming doesn’t... screw it, a fight for another time. I wanted to see how you were holding up.”

“Better than I would have thought myself capable of. Honestly, with the stress of finals and the impending match, I haven’t had much time to think about the Globe incident.”

“That’s great, but that’s actually not what I’m talking about.”

Vince’s brow furrowed. That was all pretty much anyone had asked him about since it happened. It hadn’t occurred to him Nick might be concerned about something else.

“Don’t give me that look. You’re obviously fine with the Globe being your father issue, otherwise you’d be holed up in your room, crazier than a shithouse rat. That’s not the sort of thing you can fake your way through.”

“I guess?”

“You guess right.” Nick leaned forward and plucked the book from Vince’s hand. “What you can carry under the surface as it eats at you is the same problem we’ve been fighting against since day one: your fear of your own power.”

“I thought I’d been making progress.”

“Tremendous strides. But what no one seems to have talked about yet was your fiery freak-out before Rich put you under. That shouldn’t bother you; I daresay nearly anyone in your situation would have lost some form of control. You being you, I’m betting it’s been slithering around in the back of your mind, making you wonder if you’ve really gained as much control as you think you need.”

“Oh.” Vince studied his hands intently. No one had mentioned that incident save for his discussion with Dean Blaine. He’d hoped, well, he didn’t know what he’d hoped. Maybe that he could pretend it didn’t happen. “Yeah, it scared me. I could have really hurt someone. It’s just lucky that Rick stopped me.”

“I don’t blame you for being a little scared,” Nick said, opening the book and leafing through it. Whether his eyes were on the pages or not, only the sunglasses knew. “All of us have that little phobia ticking away somewhere inside of us. Wondering if we’ll go back, if this has all just been a sweet teasing taste of a life we can never have. You and I, we have a greater fear than the others. If we suddenly revert, it might not just be ourselves that suffer.”

“This isn’t really making me feel better,” Vince said.

“I’m just saying you don’t have to be ashamed of having that fear. What should shame you is if you let it hold you down. Mastering your ability is the best defense you have against losing control of it.”

“You realize I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen you use your power, right?” Vince pointed out.

“You can count on one hand the number of times I’ve told you I used my power,” Nick corrected. He gently jiggled the sunglasses stretched across his face. “These bad boys aren’t just for making me look cool. Of course, they do that pretty well too. None of which is the point of this discussion. I just want to make sure you aren’t backsliding into the Vince who shows up carrying the energy equivalent of a lighter. We’ve got days until we’ll be facing who knows what, and I’m counting on you being in fighting form.”

“I’m not going to let you down,” Vince said. Despite the flighty body language he’d displayed during the talk, Nick recognized a familiar resilience in his voice. Years ago he would have mistaken it for Vince trying to convince himself that he would be able to follow through. After all they’d been through, Nick now knew it was the sound of his friend when things got serious. He liked that tone; it meant the realms of possibility were about to dramatically shift.

“Good. Our team is counting on you.” Nick set the book back in Vince’s hands, then began to rise from his seat.

“It’s me, isn’t it?”

Nick froze in mid-air, his long arms still pressing against the chair as he propelled himself upward. Slowly he lowered back into the warm and waiting cushions below his posterior. He debated lying, or trying to cover with misdirection, but neither of those would likely succeed. Vince was easily led and deceived most of the time; when he found the truth, however, there was no separating him from it.

“Yeah. It’s you. It’s been you ever since your secret got out at Camille’s birthday party. There were people who wanted you gone, and that was when the whole thing was a crazy rumor.”

Vince nodded; clearly this meshed with whatever had already been in his head. “Why didn’t you just tell me? Why pretend it was about protecting the others?”

“Firstly, protecting the others wasn’t pretend. This is an elimination game, don’t ever forget that. Just because you were in the crosshairs didn’t mean a poor showing wouldn’t push some of us out the door along with you. As to why I emphasized that part, well, I mean, come on. You have to have noticed this about yourself by now. You never fight as hard as when you’re protecting other people.”

“Everyone is like that,” Vince said. “We all fight hardest when others are on the line.”

Nick opened his mouth with a smart-ass reply then glanced in his friend’s eyes. They were teeming with a sentiment of honest belief. The stupid kid really thought the rest of the world functioned like he did. He didn’t understand that most people looked out for themselves first and most vehemently then gave consideration to the rest of the world. Sure, a reasonable percentage might go to the walls for their family, but it didn’t match the raw animal savagery they would use when fighting for their own life. Nick had seen it time after countless time. People looked out for themselves. Well... most people.

“Then why are you surprised that I emphasized it?” Nick said at last. There was no need to try and rupture Vince’s pretty image of the world, not that Nick was certain he could even if he tried. “You know people work that way, so obviously that’s why I would have used it to motivate you.”

“It does make sense, when you put it like that,” Vince replied. He reopened his book, flipping through the pages until he returned to his spot. “You don’t have to worry. I have no intention of letting anyone on this team get kicked out. Myself included.”

“Now that’s what I like to hear,” Nick said, patting his friend on the shoulder and leaving him to his studies.