Chapter 37

As the night wore on, minds became soaked in booze, bodies coated in a thin shimmer of sweat, and spirits lifted beyond their previously dismal locations. The dancing became more prevalent and conversation became louder as the young people began to forget their formal attire in favor of recalling their naturally informal nature. It was under the cover of this happy-hearted dull road that Nick slid into a chair adjacent to Mary.

“Boyfriend time is over, huh?”

“Roy’s been charming a gaggle of girls for the better part of an hour now,” Mary replied.

“I’m impressed you’ve convinced him that doesn’t bother you, knowing every time Roy pulls this your boyfriend wakes up with new memories of a carnal carnival,” Nick complimented.

“I try not to think about it,” Mary said. “Besides, I know there are challenges to being with a telepath, even if I do try never to read his mind. There will always be issues if we date others like ourselves; best to meet them head on.”

“Whatever you say. On the subject of mental eavesdropping, gleaned anything from our fellow competitors?” Nick asked.

Britney and Amber had both shown up and begun working the room a little over an hour ago. They’d acknowledged their fellow HCP members non-verbally, but kept their distance otherwise. The group didn’t run in the same social circles above ground, after all. Familiar greetings would prompt questions from spectators, questions that would be met with lies that could be uncovered. No, the best course of action was distance in situations like these.

“I’ll say this much: either the girl is an expert at keeping her thoughts shuffled or Monday’s event is literally the last thing on her mind,” Mary answered.

“Really? She’s hasn’t thought about anything?”

“Oh, she’s thought about plenty. The flavor of the beer, how she wishes her high school friend was here, how sexy she finds Amber’s boyfriend and the implications she doesn’t want that to carry.”

“But nothing about us. Interesting,” Nick surmised.

“There is one thing,” Mary said tentatively. “I don’t know what it means, but whenever Britney looks at Vince, she feels guilty. Not a lot, just a few versions of ‘I wish I could say I’m sorry’ flit through her head.”

“That tells us something,” Nick said. “Those two were never close, so she can’t feel bad about abandoning him after the revelation, and she’s not friends with Sasha so there isn’t any connection there. Whatever she feels about Vince must be tied to something she is either going to do or going to let happen.”

“So we should keep an eye out for Vince on Monday?”

“No, we proceed as planned,” Nick corrected.

“But what about-”

“Whatever Britney thinks she might have to do or let happen, I’m not worried about it,” Nick said. “Vince may need looking after in many contexts; however, on the battlefield is definitely not one of them.”

“You sure? She’s got Michael, after all. He’s ranked number three and Vince is only eight,” Mary pointed out. “Maybe we should give him some warning.”

“If Vince doesn’t know to watch out for Michael by now then nothing we say is going to make him keep alert. Aside from that, neither of those rankings has been accurate for a long time,” Nick told her.

“Then why haven’t they been changed?”

“They were supposed to be, after the final exam last year. My guess is our absence and the fiasco fouled up the system too much to make an accurate ranking. Or maybe it is because they want people operating under those old assumptions,” Nick explained. “As to why, well, it might make people create a few errors in their plans and match-ups. The smart money says those kinds of errors will be evaluated on the leader’s part as much as the individual fighting’s failure to win.”

“Seems overly contrived just on the off chance it might foul someone up,” Mary observed.

“Yes, well, it seems to be what they do best here. Speaking of contrived, have we confirmed that Chad legitimately thinks he is here in an innocent context?”

“Hard to say for certain since I’m deaf to him, but everyone is collectively leaning toward an affirmative.”

“Shocking, quite shocking. Also, kudos to the elder DeSoto.”

“Oh yeah, I’ve been listening to her quite a bit tonight and the girl is positively diabolical. She’s got a whole little plan for wooing Chad without his noticing,” Mary said.

“Smart girl. A direct approach on a guy as focused as Chad would only meet with distance. I sometimes wonder what’s going on in that boy’s head to make him so relentless.”

“Go figure, I can’t hear his thoughts and you can’t deduce his motives. Who’d have believed there was someone so well-defended that even the two of us can’t get in their brain?”

“I would have,” Nick said, taking a sip from a beer he’d set on the table. Despite hollow words said about only serving those of age, as soon as the local police had done their pop-in the bar’s serving scruples became visibly lax. “I’ve seen firsthand just how exceptionally guarded a motivated person can make their head.”

“You are quite the little mental tank,” Mary complimented. “Except for your interaction with Alice earlier, I mean.”

“I wasn’t talking about myself. And you heard that?”

“Alice is my best friend and, suffice it to say, it’s been on her mind.”

“Of course it has,” Nick sighed, taking a deeper sip.

“You know, if you ever want to talk to someone about all of this-”

“Let’s keep it professional,” Nick said, cutting her off. “I’m not the kind of person who really opens up and spills my heart.”

“Never hurts to try.”

“On that account, you are so very wrong,” Nick replied. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a fresh beer to open and a blonde girl to try and convince I was messing with her.”

“Don’t do that,” Mary cautioned.

“Why? Because such complications make life worth the living?”

“Well, yes. But mostly because I know you’ve been trying to repair some semblance of trust between the two of you.”


“So, I don’t generally talk about what other people are thinking or feeling out of respect for their privacy, but I’ll at least say that right now is the closest you’ve been all semester to achieving that goal.”

“Ah, yes, I suppose I should have tugged on her heart strings earlier.”

“No, it’s because you told her something sincerely and spontaneously honest. Alice may not be telepathic or skilled in emotional manipulation, but she’s good enough at reading people to see that much. If you go try and lie about it then I don’t know how she’ll take it, but I guarantee it won’t put you any closer to a friendship.”

Nick bit back the witty retort that tried to leap off of his tongue. Instead he merely said, “Advice appreciated,” and headed toward the bar. He wasn’t sure he agreed with Mary’s assessment, but he’d be a damned fool to ignore a telepath completely. At the very least he could ride this apparent positivity of Alice’s through Monday’s match. After that he would decide on the best course of action.

It was the simple, logical choice. That’s what he kept assuring himself as he carefully watched Alice clumsily swaying with her friends on the dance floor.