Chapter 193

               Alice glanced in the mirror, pulled her still damp hair back into a ponytail, and decided that would have to suffice for the rest of the day. Sometimes she liked to stop by the dorm and primp a bit after her HCP classes and necessary shower, but after an exam day she was too wiped out to do anything but trudge up to the surface and deal with her last topside class. At least Subtlety only having finals at the end of semesters meant that her testing was over for the week, save for when she had to jump in on other people’s trials. She’d put on a good showing as well, not that anyone was particularly surprised. Alice wasn’t certain how she stacked up in terms of overall power against the rest of the class, but she was unquestionably one of the top Control students in her year.

                Grabbing a backpack and pausing to tie her sneakers, Alice headed into the hallway on track for the lifts. Her mind was still in a post-battle fugue as she made her way across the concrete halls, which was why she didn’t notice Angela’s presence until the older girl laid a hand on her shoulder.

                “Gah!” Alice yelped and jumped into the air, though she didn’t float or linger, simply dropping back to the ground as if gravity held sway over her.

                “Whoa, calm it down there,” Angela said. “I called your name twice.”

                “Huh?” Alice’s heart slowed down quickly, it was almost unnerving how fast she adapted to shocks and surprises these days. “Oh, sorry. Just had my exam, so I’m a little out of it.”

                “Happens to the best of us,” Angela replied. She too wore a slight sheen and damp hair that spoke to time spent training followed by a hurried shower. It was essentially the “heading back to class” uniform for HCP students. It might have marked them as suspicious, if not for the fact that many students showed up in their pajamas, meaning people who had just showered were hardly the most eye-catchingly different of the lot.

                “Anyway, tonight is the last chance for sign-ups on the rodeo,” Angela continued. “I wanted to see if you’d finally decided to come give it a go with me.”

                “I’m still sort of on the fence about it,” Alice admitted. While it seemed like it would be fun, she wasn’t sure how comfortable she felt in that sort of spotlight. After nearly three years of trying to blend in and go unnoticed, any sort of mass attention made her feel uneasy. “Sorry, I know you needed a partner and everything.”

                “It’s not a big deal. If you don’t want to do it, I’ll just join up with one of the other girls who asked me to be on their team. No hard feelings.” Angela gave Alice a soft punch on the shoulder, then started heading back down the hall.

                “Wait, you had other options? I thought you were just asking me because you needed someone to sign-up with you?” Alice’s words stopped Angela who turned back around with a furrowed brow.

                “Why wouldn’t I have other options? I do have my own friends you know, many of whom work at the same bar as us.”

                “Then… why were you trying so hard to get me to do the rodeo with you?” Alice asked.

                Angela let out a long sigh and walked back over to Alice, promptly rapping lightly on her fellow blonde’s skull. “Because I like you, ding-dong. You’re a fancy bitch, but from what I’ve heard you kick some serious ass. I thought it might do you good to cut loose and go a little wild. Your friends are nice people, but hardly the most unpredictable bunch.”

                “You clearly didn’t spend enough time around Nick,” Alice muttered.

                “Oh yeah, I heard some tales about that kid. Point being, he’s not here anymore, and I thought you’d like having some fun at the Cowgirl Rodeo. Plus, a thousand bucks is a thousand bucks, and we’ve have kicked the shit out of those other broads.”

                “You really think we’d have won?” Alice could feel some of Angela’s enthusiasm leaking into her, but she wasn’t quite sure how to stop it. Or, truthfully, if she was sure she wanted to.

                “Two HCP gals like us? We’d have wiped the floor with all the others.”

                “I’m pretty sure we can’t use our powers in bull-riding or three-beer roping, whatever that is,” Alice pointed out.

                “What ‘that is’ is a shitload of fun,” Angela told her. “You chug three beers, then spin around three times, and them have to rope one of the bartenders carrying around empty keg shells. And we don’t need our powers to win. We’ve got years of training and physical conditioning under our belts that the others won’t have a prayer of matching.”

                “I think two of my other friends are entering,” Alice said. “So that’s at least one more set of HCP girls in contention.”

                A devilish grin spread across Angela’s face, the kind that made Alice feel both curious and a bit terrified all at once. “Seriously? That’s awesome! I was really worried there wouldn’t be anybody worth taking on this year. If there’s going to be actual competition, then it will way better than I was hoping for.”

                “I think most people would prefer the easy win.” Alice wasn’t certain whether she was included in that group or not anymore. Certainly when she’d started off in the HCP she’d have taken a win over a challenge any day, but it was a rare week when Alice didn’t find her thoughts drifting back to last year’s aerial battle with Violet, or her duel with the Sims. Strangely, those memories conjured excitement in her, a type of fire she wasn’t entirely sure she’d ever experienced before.

                “Most people are wimps and cowards,” Angela replied. “The best battles are the ones that push you to the edge, the ones that force you to find a way to get better, or stronger, or faster all in the heat of the moment. That’s where greatness lives.” Angela shook her head, realizing she’d gotten a bit caught up in the excitement of having proper competition. “Anyway, thanks for the heads up. I’ll make sure to pick your replacement more carefully now that I know there’ are real contenders showing up.”

                “Like hell you will,” Alice replied. “We’re signing up as a team tonight.”

                “Really? Did you find my speech that rousing?” Angela asked.

                “No, but I realized that of everyone here, you seem to be the one who enjoys all of… this,” Alice lifted her hands and gestured to the concrete walls around them, “…the most. It might be nice to have half as much fun as you do, if only for one night.”

                “Poetic and irresponsible,” Angela said. “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”