Chapter 74

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected and inconvenient visit?” Nicholas asked. He noticed Mary walking slowly through his living room, taking in the decor with a careful eye. Clearly she was looking for something, or things, yet he had no clue what she might be hoping to spot.

“I was looking for pictures,” Mary stated without prompting. Nicholas blinked in surprise, then mentally adjusted. Understanding one was dealing with a telepath wasn’t the same thing as expecting one’s thoughts to be on open display. He wondered how Nick had gotten used to it.

“He didn’t,” Mary said, ceasing her examination and settling down into a chair. “He just became tireless about marshaling his thoughts. There were slip-ups, of course, no one can control their every errant thought, but Nick came closer than I ever suspected anyone could.”

“Impressive,” Nicholas replied. “Now, are you going to answer my question?”

“I’m here to spy on you,” Mary said, not a single shred of guile in her voice. “I want to know your motives, I want to know your intentions, and I want to see if it’s safe to let you be around the others.”

Nicholas stared at her for a moment before taking his own seat in a chair across the room. Nick’s notes had warned him Mary was something of a busybody, so he’d expected her to make a play eventually. However, this was more overt than he’d anticipated from a skilled telepath.

“I don’t know that you have the authority to stop me,” Nicholas pointed out.

“I don’t need authority,” Mary replied. She smiled at him, her small stature and sweet expression making her appear as harmless as a kitten batting at a sunbeam. “I have power. That’s all the authority you would respect, anyway.”

“I’m abreast of the rules regarding HCP students and keeping their identities secret. Whatever bargaining pieces you may think you have, rest assured I possess plenty of my own.”

“Hmm,” Mary said, smile giving way as she bit her bottom lip in contemplation. “I didn’t expect that.”

“You thought I’d have no rebuttal to your threats?”

“No, I assumed you’d have something. I mean I didn’t expect you to be stupider than Nick,” Mary explained.

Nicholas kept the glower off his face, but only barely. “Beg pardon?”

“Maybe stupider was the wrong word,” Mary conceded. “Worse? More ignorant? No, those don’t feel right either. I guess I thought giving up all your Lander memories would turn you into a more efficient, cunning manipulator. Then again, you’re basically the same person you were when we first arrived at Melbrook. I suppose my judgment of you from those days is foggy, since I didn’t know as much then as I do now. That’s probably it: I thought old you was smarter because old me wasn’t experienced enough to see all your weaknesses at the time.”

“My, you do like to blather,” Nicholas replied. “And yet, you’ve done nothing but level false assertions. I am not ‘stupider’ than my previous counterpart. If anything, from what I’ve seen, I’m a step up.”

“Are you? Because Nick would have come up with a better bluff than threatening to out me in retaliation. He’d have known I was aware of the gambit Alice used on you, and that I could level the same threats even more effectively. Of course, he would have also known me well enough to predict that I would never reveal the sort of secrets that could bring you serious harm, both because you’re a former friend and because I’m not a heartless monster.”

“Which means I have leverage, while you have none,” Nicholas pointed out.

“No, what it means is that you have a way to get back at me,” Mary corrected. “See, Nick would also have understood that when I say I’ll stop you if I deem you to be a threat to my people, I spoke those words with full understanding of the consequences of my actions.”

The pictures, tasteful art meant to leave a fleeting impression then be forgotten, along Nick’s wall began to rattle ever so softly. The coffee table was next, then every piece of furniture in the living room.

“Nick grasped that the kind of bond we all have is not something you take lightly. He understood the concept of sacrifice. You, clearly, don’t; so let me spell it out. If I decide you are too dangerous to be allowed near my friends, I will stop you. Make any threats you like, out me if it pleases you, but make sure you’re clear on this point: I have the power to stop you, and I will use it.”

The rattling stopped, everything settling into place as though no disturbance had ever taken place. Mary flashed Nicholas another harmless smile.

Nicholas, for his part, kept his heartbeat in check only through years of practice at self-control. Reading about these people had been one thing, but dealing with them up close was another. They were focused, powerful, and incredibly dangerous. Nearly every encounter had served to remind him that he was scarcely better than human, and they were far beyond such a state. And Nick had managed to spend two years somehow coping in the presence of these beasts.

“He didn’t cope,” Mary corrected. “He flourished. Nick had something you don’t; he had the memories of us when we were all scared and new to the program. The bastard knew enough of our emotional strings to play the chords and keep us dancing. Plus, he had friends who would do anything for him. Melbrook might not be the best assortment of Supers on campus, but we’re not the worst group to have your back in a fight.”

“So I’ve seen,” Nicholas admitted. “Alright then, let’s back off the sword-waving for now. After all, I might pass your test and be deemed fit for mingling.”

“There’s the Nick sensibility I missed,” Mary said. “In the spirit of friendship, I’ll even tell you that your acquaintance or employee or whatever she is, Eliza, is listening in on us.”

There was a muffled thump from the other side of the far wall, as though someone leaned against it had made a sudden motion in surprise.

“I’m annoyed, but not surprised,” Nicholas sighed. “She’s here partly as back-up and partly as a spy for Ms. Pips. No sense at getting mad at a spy for spying.”

“Ms. Pips sent someone to watch you? Why not Gerry?”

“How do you know… never mind. Gerry is too busy to come spend a few months charting my every move.”

Mary knew it was a lie, and she heard the truth in his thoughts. She also understood that this deception wasn’t for her benefit, it was meant for the eager ears of the woman on the other side of the wall.

“Let’s start with why you’re here in the first place,” Mary suggested, skimming past the thorny topic.

“I’ll put on some coffee,” Nicholas suggested. “This might take a while.”