Nick flipped through the pages once more, almost willing them to hold more correct answers than they previously had. Sadly, his desire was no match for reality and the white paper was still doused liberally in red ink. It had been over a week of constant study, practice, and effort, all of which had yielded an increase from getting fifty percent of the questions right to fifty-five percent. If he and Vince had possessed infinite time it would have been an encouraging trend, but with a week left, it was only slightly less depressing than a death sentence.
There wasn’t blame to be thrown about either, except perhaps at the education Vince had received as a child. Both students had burned the candle at both ends trying to bring him up to speed in time for the test; however, this particular branch of math was like a foreign language to Vince. Even if he could get a grip on the vocabulary, he was lost when it came to tenses and conjugation. The guy might know more about fighting and surviving on the run than anyone else Nick had ever encountered, but it was becoming very clear that any type of advanced math was a lost cause.
“Looks like we’re going to Plan B,” Nick mumbled to himself. He sat alone in his room, illuminated only by the light of a small desk lamp and his monitor. Vince’s latest series of practice exams sat scattered on his lap, confirming the fear he’d been nursing since beginning their endeavor. If it had been anyone else in this situation they would have been thoroughly screwed. No passing grade on the test meant lower than a C in the class, which would get one immediately booted from the HCP. This policy had endured since the inception of the HCP, despite many protests from educators that it was unnecessarily harsh. Someone in Vince’s situation was effectively looking down the barrel of a gun aimed directly at all their dreams. With hard work proving a failure, he didn’t see any options left. Nick, on the other hand, was not so limited in his range of tactics.
He’d been laying the groundwork for this scheme since the first time he saw Vince struggle through a few practice problems. It would be time-consuming, and possibly expensive, but it would work. At the moment that was all that mattered. Nick needed Vince on their team, not just because of his constantly-growing skill level but because he brought a certain amount of heart to their efforts. The kid was inspiring, at least to those who were prone to inspiration. Losing both a competent warrior and a force to rally the troops was an unacceptable cost to playing by the rules. So Nick would do what Nicholas Campbell did better than anyone else.
He would cheat.
* * *
Jill’s phone began vibrating again, rattling across the table’s rough wooden surface. She silenced it without a thought, but not before Will noticed.
“How many times does that make so far?” He didn’t look up from the book he was making notes in, didn’t even pause the careful stroke of his highlighter.
“Four,” Jill lied. It had been seven, but she’d caught the signals from the others before the phone had been obvious in its tremors. Jill’s own book was far less written in than Will’s; her mind had been elsewhere since their cram session began.
“Four calls in the span of three hours. That seems a bit excessive.”
“He probably forgot we made plans to study and wants to grab dinner,” Jill defended.
“It’s past nine. He must be a late eater.” Will didn’t accuse outwardly; even his tone was completely neutral. It wasn’t his way to seem judgmental. He knew Jill well enough to understand that would send her running in the opposite direction just to be contrary.
“Glenn is excitable. When he wants to do or share something with me he just gets persistent. That’s all.”
“Of course.” Jill and Glenn had been dating for three weeks now, ever since meeting in class, and Will had disliked him for two weeks and six days. He was semi-good looking and seemed affable enough, but there was something in his eyes that Will didn’t trust. There was an edge of obsession, and the possessive way Glenn had gripped Will’s sister’s hand left the twin brother with his teeth on edge. Jill had a habit for picking the ones who tried to hold her just a bit too tightly, a trait not uncommon in children who suffered abuse in their formative years.
The phone buzzed across the table again. This time Jill didn’t silence it; instead she flipped it open and got up from her chair. Will sat quietly, continuing his work, allowing her to relocate without so much as a glance. He could pick up snippets of the conversation, hushed reassurances like “I told you I had to study” and “Yes, I’m with my brother”. Soon she would come into the room and feign a headache or some such nonsense and say she needed to go back to her dorm. She’d actually go to see Glenn, and if Will was a betting man, he’d put down twenty dollars that Glenn would spend the night passive-aggressively making her feel like shit for having any priorities in life other than him. She was lonely and Glenn could be nice when he wanted to be. Will understood; he’d read all the psychology texts long ago. Will didn’t blame her for falling into these patterns. He didn’t even blame Glenn for being an asshole.
Will blamed himself. If he’d acted sooner, if he’d been quicker to grasp the situation when they were kids, maybe he could have gotten her out of their mother’s house before things had reached the point they did. He had no excuses for his failure, only regret and a burning desire never to see it repeated.
“I’m pretty beat. I think I’m going to head home so I can actually wake up in time for my morning class,” Jill said as she walked back into the kitchen. She began putting her books away immediately, stuffing them indiscriminately in her backpack with no regard for which papers belonged in which books.
“Sure thing. Think you’ll want to study again sometime before finals?”
“I’m positive I’ll need it. I’ll give you a call when I think I have a free night.” Jill finished her haphazard packing job and gave her brother a quick hug. “Love you, Bro.”
“Love you, too.” Will let her leave without objection; no words he had would rectify the situation. Instead he closed the book he’d been working in and pulled out a black spiral. Inside were schematics and calculations that would have given a hard-on to any corporate engineer who laid eyes on them. Will rifled to the last page, where a new design was still incomplete. It seemed he needed to work faster than expected on it; he’d expected the relationship’s escalation to be more gradual.
Will’s pencil danced across the page, quickly filling the gaps in the design. By tomorrow night he could start the building process. He’d move fast, stay up until dawn if need be. It would be ready. He would be ready. His only regret in life was moving too slowly the first time. Will was determined that there would never be a second time, regardless of what preventing it might cost him.