Chapter 117

                “What’s the bet?”

                Alice, Mary, Chad, and Vince all looked at Roy rather than responding to his question. The Melbrook residents were clustered together as the HCP juniors rode down to whatever exam was waiting for them.

                “The bet?” Vince asked at last.

                “Yeah, you know, the bet about what the winner gets. Don’t you try to bullshit me and tell me you all weren’t planning on treating this like a competition.”

                “It is a serious assessment of our abilities,” Chad said.

                “And we all want to be the one with the highest of those assessments,” Roy replied. “You guys realize this is our first chance to go all out since last year? Hell, it’s even more free-range than that. No foam tips on your weapons, no specified conditions, no holding back. Today, we get the chance to prove what we can really do in the field.”

                “I think most of us are just worried about passing,” Mary said.

                “To hell with that. I say we worry about excelling. I’d rather go in thinking about beating you all than just scraping by. Besides, I’m genuinely curious how strong we’ve all gotten. I want to see your new cards.”

                At that reference, Vince and Alice smiled in spite of themselves. Roy was right; they were too grim and tense. Nick would have told them to loosen up; he would have distracted them so they couldn’t get too caught up in their thoughts and fears.

                “Lowest score in the house cleans the lounge for a month,” Alice suggested.

                “I think whoever scores lowest will already be feeling down,” Chad said. “How about we offer a boon to the winner instead?”

                “I’m all ears,” Alice told him.

                “Winner chooses where we eat lunch after the trial?”

                “I’m pretty sure we’ll eat at the dining hall,” Vince said. “Mary and I have class after this, and there’s not enough time to go off campus.”

                “Lunch doesn’t work,” Roy agreed. “But Chad was right about doing something for the winner instead of against the loser. How about king for a day? Winner picks a day where they get to choose what we all do and where we all go. FYI, if I win we’re going on a whiskey distillery tour, and that’s just breakfast.”

                “I could get behind that,” Mary said. “It would be nice to drag you all to a museum or something with a little culture.”

                “Screw culture, I’m going for couture,” Alice added. “A day at the boutiques for custom ensembles and dinner at a proper restaurant. I can already picture how I’m going to dress you all.”

                “Sounds like we’ve got a bet,” Vince said. He didn’t have any idea for what he’d do if he won, but since he was going to be competing against Chad it seemed silly to plan on victory anyway.

                “Can I get in on this?”

                They Melbrook residents turned to find Camille standing next to Alice. She looked at each of them, refusing to allow her eyes to linger on Vince. “I think I’ve got a decent shot, and I could think a few places to drag you all to.”

                “Of course you can get in,” Alice replied. “I would have tried to weasel you into my shopping day anyway.”

                “Alice, much as I commend your enjoyment of fashion, I’m afraid I will have to do my best to ensure that you are not victorious,” Chad warned.

                “Bring it on, bone boy. I was already planning on using this as my big unveiling. This just adds a cherry to the top of the ass-kicking sundae.”

                As Alice finished speaking, the lift shuddered to a halt and the large doors opened. All twenty students began filing out, but six of them were far less stressed than when they’d entered. They weren’t just focused on passing or getting by.

                They wanted to win.

*             *             *

                Eliza slid the front door open and closed it behind her. Nicholas had never actually provided her or Jerome with a key, since that would express the sentiment that they were welcome in his home as well as take away their opportunity to practice lock-picking when they wanted to come over. Normally she let him have his precious privacy, but it was already nine in the morning and he’d yet to make contact or pick up his cell phone. Security protocol demanded she make sure he was okay. If he’d been killed or kidnapped then retribution and maybe rescue efforts would need to be kicked into gear. If, as she suspected, he was just taking advantage of the opportunity to sleep in, she’d get the rare joy of kicking the lazy-sack awake.

                “You up?” If she’d been at all concerned about an intruder, Eliza never would have actually given away her position by speaking, but every security measure they had told her Nicholas was alone. That being the case, it was actually far more dangerous to sneak around his apartment without announcing her presence. If he took her for an intruder, she might not have time to correct his mistake before he handled her, and Nicholas was not renowned for handling his problems gently.

                Moving through the apartment room by room, Eliza kept her eyes peeled for any sign of disturbance. Everything seemed to be in place and normal, which meant that either nothing was wrong or she was dealing with an expert. Thoughts like that made her really hate the line of work she’d ended up in.

                Eventually, Eliza pushed on the bedroom door and felt a rush of relief. Nicholas was still there, asleep in his bed. On the nightstand next to him sat a gun and a cell phone, the latter blinking with notifications about the missed calls from Eliza.

                “Lazy asshole,” Eliza muttered. She went back to the sink and grabbed a glass of water, filling it to the brim. Returning to the room she removed the gun from easy reach, then dumped the water on Nicholas’s face, eagerly awaiting his angry and shocked rising from the bed.

                Instead, he just laid there, chest rising and falling as he slumbered on.

                Eliza reached over and shook him, all sense of glee gone. No response. She tried pinching, punching, and very light stabbing, all of which garnered the same reaction: nothing. She stood back up, staring down at the unconscious young man. It was an unnatural sleep, which left her with dozens of things to rule out as the cause before she even considered that it might have been caused by a Super.

                “Damnit, Nicholas, what the hell is going on with you?”