Chapter 32

The pounding on Nick’s door was a far cry from the delicate knock his late-night visitor had used last time. He pulled the door open quickly before any of his neighbors could be roused from their slumber.

“You need something, fearless leader?”

“I need to know when you decided that tactician meant the same thing as person in charge,” Mary said, walking stiffly past him and dropping into his desk chair. Nick closed the door securely before attending to the diminutive invader.

“I believe I was also declared strategist, wasn’t I?” Nick asked as he took his own lanky strides across the room.

“You were, but I don’t see how that applies here.”

“Of course you don’t,” Nick said. “You’ve been a good girl lately, not digging into people’s minds nearly as much as last year. I’m not going to ask why - it isn’t my business after all - but I will say that it’s a damn stupid idea given our present situation.”

“It’s because-”

Nick held up a hand to silence her. “I don’t want to know. It’s either emotional or ethical and in either case I’m not the person you should talk to about it. Let’s stick with the matter at hand. You want to know why I overstepped my boundaries.”

Mary nodded.

“Because going to tomorrow’s little party will offer us the chance to peek at minds of the competition. Amber Dixon’s boyfriend happens to be part of the frat that’s throwing the shindig so she will be in attendance.”

“Amber is on Shane’s team,” Mary pointed out.

“She is; however, she never goes to these events without her exceptionally close friend, Britney Ferguson,” Nick continued.

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Patience, research, and attentiveness,” Nick replied. “Unlike you lot, I made a point of eavesdropping on all the gossip-filled comings and goings of our peers during and between classes. I kept track of minuscule and pointless details methodically and I did it for moments exactly like this. We can go pick the brain of our opponent’s leader mere days before the match.”

“It’s a sound idea,” Mary agreed. “But why couldn’t you have asked me beforehand? And how did you know Alex would suggest it?”

“Because he is a boyfriend to a beautiful woman plugged into the live-wire of the social system and because I needed you not to be fully on board with it, which you would have been if you’d known my reasons,” Nick said.

“Explain,” Mary demanded.

“You’re the leader; you need to come off as dedicated and uncompromising in the pursuit of victory. I’m the screw-up; I’m allowed to do things like suggest we take a day off right before a big test.”

“But you got your way,” Mary pointed out.

“And you agreed to it, which allows you to keep the responsible image while at the same time showing you are considerate of the wishes of your team. It was the optimum way to get what we needed while framing you in the best light.”

Mary narrowed her eyes. “You put a good spin on it, but I’m still not happy at being circumvented in the decision-making process.”

“If you were, then you’d make a pretty shitty leader. What’s done is done, so how about I promise not to do it again and you decide it’s not worth fighting over so late in the night?” Nick suggested.

“Fine,” Mary said. “Just know that if you pull something like this again we’re going to have a problem. These matches are what will decide if we make it to another year in the HCP. That means the future of everyone in Melbrook rests on the decisions I make. I don’t take that responsibility lightly.”

“I’d wager a guess that’s part of why it was assigned to you in the first place,” Nick said. He walked back to the door and slid it gently open. Mary stared at it for a few moments then purposely walked out without so much as a backward glance. Nick eased it shut and went back to his computer.

He was back at work finishing his Statistics assignments for November (Nick preferred to work ahead so that he had the necessary free time for finals) when another set of knocks echoed through his room. These were more subdued than the first set; he supposed Mary was feeling less cocky this time around. Nick hefted himself from his chair and walked back across the room, pulling the door open to greet his returning guest.

“Forget something?”

“Huh?” Alice said, her face sparking in surprise. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, um, nothing,” Nick said, feeling the unfamiliar sensation of being caught off-guard. “What’s up?”

“I need to talk to you,” Alice said simply.

“At two in the morning?”

“Yes,” the blonde girl replied simply.

Nick took a deep breath and tried to fully grasp the situation. He and Alice had barely spoken, let alone been friendly, ever since last year’s fiasco. A late night call was a strange and curious anomaly. Nick didn’t like anomalies; Nick liked to know what was coming so his spontaneous reaction was already prepared.

“Well then, come on in,” he said, stepping aside and gesturing to his room. “Mi casa es su casa.”

Alice couldn’t stop herself from chuckling. Nick had no idea just how accurate that statement was.

“So Giggles, what do you need?” Nick as asked as he closed the door yet again.

“I need to talk you about, well, you,” Alice said as she started to sit on his bed then thought better of it; she took the same desk chair Mary had previously occupied.

“Fair enough,” Nick said. “I like smooth jazz, margaritas, and long walks on the beach. That fill in the gaps?”

“Not even a little,” Alice said “I’m serious. I’ve been playing along with you this year, not raising a stink about your attempts to bail on our friends, but now that you seem to be helping Mary call the shots on our strategies we’ve hit a problem that needs resolving.”

“And that is?”

“I don’t trust you,” Alice said simply.

“All things considered, I don’t know that I can fault you on that one,” Nick said.

“No, you don’t understand,” Alice said with a shake of her head. “Even last year when I thought you were full of shit, when I already suspected the person you acted like was wildly different from who you really were, I still at least trusted that no matter the facade you put up, you were a good person. I thought you were a good friend. I don’t have that anymore, and it makes listening to the orders you give and the tactics you implement a lot harder.”

“What would you like me to do about that? I can tell you it was all a joke, a lie, or a farce. I can tell you it never occurred to me to not go after our friends,” Nick offered.

“More lies aren’t the answer,” Alice said. “Not that I know what is. Hell, I don’t even know why you still act the way you do. You let the cat out of the bag already.”

“Only to you,” Nick said, his voice softening slightly. “Mary and Hershel weren’t there, and Vince never believed me about not going in the first place. Or maybe he did and didn’t care. Maybe he knew all along I’d go; I’m not sure what to make of that guy sometimes. Anyway, the point is that to nearly everyone else, including our classmates, this version of Nick is the real one, and it’s the one I prefer they see.”

“So I’m the only one with issues,” Alice surmised.

“Oh, Princess, let me assure you everyone here has issues; they just aren’t all with me,” Nick corrected.

Alice snorted out a weak laugh. “I want to get past this,” she said. “I want to trust you, at least trust your core morality again. I just don’t know how.”

“Wish I could help,” Nick said. “Unfortunately, I’m the one person who can’t. Anything I say will seem suspect or manipulative, even if it’s the truth. So however you get past this, I doubt I’ll be the one to guide you.”

“You’re right,” Alice agreed. “Because I’m even asking myself if that little piece of basic logic is real or if it’s just a ruse to get me to drop the issue. Either way, it proves your point.” Alice rose from the seat and headed toward the door. “I’m sorry I bothered you. This is something I have to work through. And if I can’t... well, I trust Mary a lot. Maybe I can believe in her judgment enough to follow your directions by proxy.”

“Seems like a workable plan,” Nick said, unmoving from his perch.

“Best one we’ve got,” Alice said, giving him a brief smile. She left Nick’s room silently, pulling the door closed behind her.

Nick started to get back to his work again, then gave up and merely saved his progress. Instead, he layed down on his bed and stared at the bright bulb wedged into its socket above him. He lay like that for nearly an hour before he made any motion to turn off the light.

Nick truly hated anomalies.