Chapter 194

               “Welcome, ye weary warriors, to my den of iniquity and ale. Partake all you like, as I hear you are in dire need of rest.”

                “Evening to you to, weirdo,” Alice replied, giving Nick a brief hug as the group entered his apartment.

                “What? I can’t get thematically in the mood?” Nick said, shutting the door and locking it firmly after Hershel and Mary stepped through. Vice was already seated at the table, unpacking the bag he’d been tasked with carrying. “We’re playing ‘Stone the Villager’ tonight, so I thought I would talk old-timey.”

                “Iniquity and ale?” Mary asked, staring at Nick with an exasperated expression he curiously found he’d missed in his time away.

                “I provide the ale, the iniquity is on you lot to come up with. Though Alice can save hers for tomorrow, since I’d hate for her to use up her whole stockpile before the big rodeo,” Nick said.

                “Don’t you worry about my iniquity, I’ve got loads of… wait, why the hell am I even humoring this discussion?” Alice shook her head and sat down at the table across from Vince. “Stop being an idiot and let’s just play the game.”

                “Oooh, does someone perhaps have a touch of stage fright?” Nick walked over to the table, pausing to grab a soda from the fridge in the adjacent kitchen, and plopped down next to Alice. Once, he might have worried about such proximity sending the wrong message, but by this point there were certain charades that it wasn’t worth the effort to keep up.

                “I’ve fought massive mechanical opponents, a professor of the HCP, and lived with you for two years. You think a little mechanical bull-riding can rattle me?”

                “To be fair, when you did those other things you weren’t wearing skimpy jean shorts and a revealing top,” Mary pointed out.

                “Hey now, that was just Angela’s suggestion for a team outfit. I didn’t sign off on anything yet,” Alice replied. Of course, she already knew that she would, which meant Mary knew that as well, making the entire act of denial a pointless endeavor. Still, Alice persisted, because it seemed like the proper thing to do.

                “Personally, I’m just glad one of us is doing something fun for spring break,” Hershel said. He was setting the board as Vince unpacked the components, carefully laying each tile down along the gamer board’s path. “All everyone else is doing is working.”

                “Jill said she had something fun planned,” Vince reminded him. “She even made us all promise to take off next Wednesday. Plus there’s Chad’s normal day.”

                “Which will eat our Tuesday, so we need to make sure and tell Brenda,” Mary instructed. “She’s made it clear we can take what we want off, but only if we give notice.”

                “Right, we’ll tell her when we work tomorrow,” Vince agreed. “So that’s two fun things right there.”

                “I reserve the right to see what Jill comes up with before I yield to the idea of it being fun,” Hershel said. “Though Violet mentioned that she was bullying Will into helping, so that will at least make it interesting.”

                “Sometimes I wonder where he finds the time to cook up all those doo-dads,” Vince said.

                Mary snorted out an involuntary bark of a laugh, causing the entire table to look at her. She took a moment to compose her before finally speaking. “What? He said ‘doo-dads’. I’ve never heard anyone under seventy use, or even think, that word before. It caught me off-guard.”

                “Vince Reynolds, one of the few men to take a telepath by surprise,” Nick announced. He quickly got up from his seat and hurried over to Vince, grabbing the silver-haired young man’s hand and lifting it in the air like a victorious prize-fighter.

                “And what will you be doing with your spring break?” Alice asked as Nick sauntered back to his seat. “Heading to Vegas for a whirlwind of liquor and gambling, followed up by watching some showgirls?”

                “Perish the thought,” Nick said. “Then resurrect it and put it on a pedestal, because it’s a fantastic one. But no, sadly, I’ll only be able to manage a quick trip back home at the most. The rest of my time will be spent here, frequenting your various eateries and work establishments so I can pester you while you should be working. Truly it is a noble endeavor I undertake, but someone must bear this burden.”

                “Are you really just hanging around Lander?” Hershel asked. “I mean, you don’t have a job, you can go wherever you want.”

                “Ah, but where else would I want to go than where my dear and wonderful friends are,” Nick said, grabbing Alice in a side-armed hug that she immediately began twisting to extricate herself from. “Besides, there’s more fun to be had here than in Vegas. You can only see the same shows so many times before it gets a bit repetitive.”

                Mary managed to avoid meeting Nick’s eyes; there would be little point in the gesture. She knew why he was really staying, about the mounting danger they all faced, only because it was impossible for him to hide such things from her. It was at forefront in his mind when he saw everyone, if for no other reason than he had to employ constant security precautions to keep make sure their meetings didn’t end in an ambush. Only Mary knew the truth, but she said nothing as Hershel finished setting up the game board.

                Knowing what was after them would make most of the others want to take action, and that would be their undoing. Nick was right; the only strategy at the moment was to work behind the scenes and do as much damage control as possible. If they confronted Nathaniel Evers out in the open, they would certainly be able to neutralize the problem, but it would cost some of them their chances of being a Hero, at the very least. If things went truly awful, it could take a toll for more devastating than a mere career.

                As the banter continued and Hershel began passing out action cards, Mary did chance one long glance at Nick. He was smiling, making jokes, and playing the fool as usual. Sometimes she wondered how he could bear all that he knew, and all that he’d done, with such a carefree grin plastered perpetually in place. It was a gift that both amazed and scared Mary the longer she knew him. In all their years together, she still wasn’t certain whether Nick was technically on the side of good or evil.

                All she knew was that he was on their side, and for that she was infinitely thankful.