The sensation wasn’t quite pressure, but it was akin to pressure. It felt more like something had accidently brushed up against her, yet when she turned to look for it there was nothing to be seen. It came again, firmer this time. There was no space, no world, nothing aside from the tame yet still chaotic swirling of thoughts in her mind. The brushing came once more, insistent, this time continuing to increase until it seemed like something was trying to break through the outer membrane that encompassed her thoughts. It was surreal, and slightly scary. That fear caused her to tighten her mental defenses, and suddenly the intruding sensation vanished.
“Damnit,” Alice swore, opening her eyes. “Sorry about that. It’s hard not to push back when I feel your presence.”
“Don’t worry, this is still great practice,” Mary assured her. “Pretty soon I want to try it again when you’re asleep.”
The two girls were sitting cross legged in Mary’s room, the faint scent of incense burning and a soundtrack of ocean noises filling the room with a sense of relaxation. Mary was clad in a gray t-shirt and sweats, while Alice sported a pink tank-top and black yoga pants. They’d positioned themselves in a way that left their feet pressed against one another’s. All attempts at holding hands had resulted in discomfort and loss of the clear-mind state they were trying to achieve.
“You’ve gotten a lot better. When we first started I couldn’t even tell when you were trying to make contact.”
“That’s probably at least partly because of how rarely I even managed to find your mind,” Mary admitted. “But you’ve gotten better too. The calmer your mind is, the easier it is for me to locate it and try to come in; probably why my power works best on people in dreams and trances. Anyway, for the last month you’ve managed to make it a lot easier on me, so thanks.”
“Glad to help, it’s nice to be useful for at least one thing.” Alice leaned back slightly stretching some of the muscles in her hips she felt beginning to grow sore. “This damn Subtlety project will be the death of me. Three days in and I’ve barely made any progress at all.”
“You’ve got a month and a half, that’s plenty of time.”
“For one cipher? Sure, but supposedly there’s a lot more steps and who knows how long each of those will take.”
“Alice, your power has grown tremendously since last year. Honestly, I’m not sure if even I could beat you anymore. Whatever our test is, you’ll pass.”
“Maybe so, but I want to pass using Subtlety,” Alice said. She shifted back into proper position, pausing to pull a few loose hairs from her face by remaking her ponytail.
“Why? You’re a lock for Control.”
“I don’t have a great reason why. Probably because I feel like Professor Pendleton doesn’t think I’ve got it in me to do it, and that makes me want to show him that I can.”
Mary had her own theory about why Alice was clinging to Subtlety so hard, a theory that revolved around memories of a Nick that no longer was and the class he and Alice had shared. Thankfully, Alice was not the telepathic one, so she wasn’t privy to the hypothesis being formed in Mary’s head.
“You’ve always found a way before. I’m sure you’ll think of something this time as well,” Mary said. “I’m sort of envious; I wish we had a way to prepare for the exam besides the usual classes and training. It would be nice not to be going in totally blind for a change.”
“I’m always surprised you don’t get any hints. None of the professors let their thoughts slip?”
“They might, on occasion, but there are a lot of people and I can’t pay attention to them all the time. Plus, as far as I’ve seen, our instructors all skilled at keeping their surface thoughts controlled. Probably part of the HCP training we haven’t gotten to yet.” Mary paused for a moment, debating on whether to broach the next topic with Alice. She tried to respect her friend’s boundaries; however, one of the perks of friendships was being permitted to step across them when occasion demanded.
“Speaking of mind-reading, are you going to reschedule with Professor Stone sometime soon? Your meditation skills have definitely improved enough that she should be able to pull up the memory this time.”
“I’ve thought about, and I was actually leaning toward doing exactly that, but for right now I think I’m going to hold off,” Alice replied. “Professor Pendleton’s exam already has me mentally consumed. Once I dig up the memory, I might find something useful, or I might get something that just torments me and makes me spin my wheels. If I knew for certain it would help lead me to my mother, I’d be there as fast as I could fly. But my life just isn’t that damn easy, so since I don’t know for sure I want to put my energy toward the thing I know I can affect: my exam. Once it’s over, then I can roll the dice with memory scavenging.”
“Boy, you really do not like people underestimating you,” Mary said, shaking her head at her friend’s unruly determination.
“Damn straight, the last guy who did it got tossed in the air and dropped in a dumpster. And he got off easy. If I hadn’t been wearing a dress I liked, I might have gotten rough with him.”
“Why am I wholly unsurprised that fashion is the only thing which can restrain the mighty Alice Adair?”
“Fashion and Subtlety assignments,” Alice corrected.
“I think I’ll hold off my judgment until we actually make it to test-time. You have a knack for pulling these things out at the last minute.”
“Last year was different. I had Nick to lean on.”
Mary reached over and poked Alice forcefully in the stomach. “None of that. Nick didn’t help you in the tailing assignment, you found the professor on your own. And for that matter, Nick didn’t even help you get to that point. You’re the one who out-foxed him. If that doesn’t speak to talent in Subtlety then I don’t know what does.”
“You have bony fingers,” Alice said, rubbing her stomach where Mary had jabbed her. “And, maybe, good points. But I’ve never been good at this cipher stuff; it takes me ages more than everyone else. All I’ve been good at is tricking people.”
Mary gave a shrug, causing ripples to flow down the loose gray fabric of her shirt. “Is there a way you can just do more of that?”
“Probably. Actually, I’m sure there is, I even had a few ideas. But I want to do this one the proper way. If I ever do become a Subtlety Hero, however unlikely it is, it’s the sort of thing others would lean on me for. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to show Professor Pendleton that I can pass his tests even without putting my own spin on things.”
“I’ve got no doubt you’ll figure something out, but there is no darn way you’ll convince me that you can do anything without putting your own spin on it.” Mary gave her roommate a reassuring grin, then closed her eyes and began to let the thoughts flow out of her mind once more.