Chapter 135

                It shouldn’t have been a hard fight. Hell, it shouldn’t have been a fight at all. Maybe if Alice were in peak form, not dragging along a pair of broken limbs and a host of bruises that were sapping her stamina and focus. Then she and Mary would have been able to square off properly and put on a good show. But that wasn’t the case. Alice and her power were both slower than normal, creating dozens of opportunities for Mary to capitalize on. Even as she’d laid down the challenge, Alice had known it probably wouldn’t go for so much as a full minute.

                Which made it all the more infuriating as Mary mentally lifted a few bits of rubble and sent them flying toward Alice’s legs, landing blows that hurt, but were far from crippling. Alice tried to dial up the gravity around Mary, however the small Super shoved her own body several feet down the hall with a delicate burst of telekinesis. Defense. Defense and minor pot shots while Alice struggled to keep her mind focused on the task at hand instead of the tremendous pain rippling through her body. This wasn’t a fight at all, it was nothing but god damned pageantry.

                “You know, for a minute there I thought you were going to fight me seriously,” Alice called.

                “I am fighting you seriously. And you are putting on a remarkable show against one of the higher ranked combatants. If you defeat me, I imagine it will be quite the bump to your standings.” Mary was still wearing that grim expression, only now Alice knew it for what it was: a mask to make the Heroes watching on camera think she was doing her best.

                “Do you even believe that? These people aren’t stupid, you know. I’m sure they can hear us.”

                Mary’s face never wavered, even as she lifted a few more bits of rubble and made a show of lining up new shots. “Actually, Vince let out an electrical blast that fried most of the cameras and microphones in this area. I’ve kept an ear out for stray thoughts from anyone who wanders too far from Dean Blaine, and I don’t think they’ll be able to pick up anything short of a shout.”

                “Which is why you picked this area to approach me in, just in case I said something that would be hard to explain away.” Slowly, Alice lowered her hand, allowing the warped gravity on everything but herself to dissipate. “Mary, I’m not going to play fight you. You deserve better than that, and so do I. If you want to fake your way through this test, then I can’t stop you. But I don’t have to play along.”

                “Alice, we’re still on camera. You look like you’re giving up.”

                “So? What, are you afraid I’m going to steal your thunder?” Alice floated lower to the ground, still keeping herself largely weightless as her good leg made contact with the floor. “Why are you even doing all this in the first place? Why are you still fucking here? Why hang around if… if you’re planning to quit the HCP.”

                And there it was. All the strange behavior Alice had seen, all the curious choices Mary had been making since the year began, all the hunches and theories she’d gone through about her friend’s shift in behavior, and now she’d finally said the truth out loud. Even if no one else could hear, even if Mary had just confirmed it via telepathy moments prior, the words still felt like tossing off a weight that fell heavily to the ground and echoed through the hall around them.

                “Because I wanted to help you all, for a little while longer.” The grim mask slipped, and Mary tilted her head downward, unwilling to have her face seen or meet Alice’s eyes. “This was never my dream, you know. All I ever wanted was peace and solitude. Just to be able to shut out the voices. Being a Hero, and everything that came with it, I’d never imagined myself in that world.”

                “That’s crazy. You’ve made it through three and a half years of intense, endlessly taxing training. If you didn’t want to be a Hero, why in the hell would you put yourself through that?” As the words left her mouth, Alice already knew the answer. She’d gotten too good at Subtlety, at seeing between the lines. There was only one reason that could possibly explain Mary’s actions. But she still had to ask. Too much had gone unsaid for too long. With the end looming before them, they had to clear the air now, before they lost the chance.

                “Same reason as before: I wanted to help you all.” Mary’s head rose a fraction of an inch, just enough for Alice to make out the shining wetness of tears at the edge of her amber eyes. “You all were strangers when we came to Melbrook. None of us met when we were getting treated. But it wasn’t like that for me. I spent months in that building, with you all as most of my mental company. I couldn’t turn it off back then, so all I could do was listen. To the brothers at odds, failing to work through the anger they felt at a father who left them. To the boy who’d lost everyone in his life, who felt like he destroyed whatever he touched. To the criminal with a conscience he was desperately trying to ignore. And to the lonely rich girl who’d spent her life afraid to ever feel too happy, because that kind of joy was always followed by a sharp fall. I knew you all so well by the end, and when I realized everyone was coming here, I couldn’t not follow along. Even if you didn’t know me, we were friends. Besides, I figured the idea would grow on me, the chance to help save people and make the world a better place. It did, too. For a while.”

                “Then Lander was attacked.” It wasn’t hard to put the rest of the pieces together, yet Alice gave her friend nothing more than a mere nudge. Mary had been carrying all of this around for a long time, and no one had tried to help her. They all took for granted that she was their rock, taking that confident smile at face value when deep down they knew she would have fears and worries of her own.

                “Then Lander was attacked,” Mary softly echoed. “I heard people die that night. I heard their last thoughts. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced that, but there were so many, and I couldn’t tune them out, not when those still alive were counting on me. Then, when the professors started fighting back… I don’t want to kill anyone, Alice. I let myself believe there would always be a way. That with my power, I could make there be a way. I know better, now. I know what being a Hero means. And I know it’s not a job I can do.”

                “I get it. Deep down, I think I always knew you were too gentle for this sort of work. I’m going to miss you, Mary. You’re my best friend. The first real friend I think I ever had.” Alice wasn’t crying, not because her heart wasn’t breaking at the thought of losing Mary, but because she couldn’t afford to let it out yet. The trial was still going on, and unlike Mary, Alice had a lot riding on the outcome. “So, how do you want to end this?”

                “With you getting a point off of me,” Mary said. “Same way I was trying to end it from the beginning. This is probably the last bit of help I’m going to be able to give anyone in the HCP. I’d be happiest if it went to you.”

                Gingerly, Alice reversed the gravity on Mary and lifted her to the ceiling, pinning her delicately there. To everyone watching, this match would make no sense, but for the moment that didn’t matter. Alice didn’t even care whether they gave her the point for this one or not. It wasn’t about that anymore. Right now, it was about giving Mary the ending she wanted to her final HCP activity. It was about saying goodbye.

                After three minutes, a nearby door slid open, and Alice lowered her best friend back to the ground. “You’re like a sister to me, you know. I love you.”

                “I know.” Mary landed gently, adjusting her footing once and glancing to the door. “And I love you too. Now go win this thing.”

                “Who’s even left to fight?”

                Mary pointed to a hall leading away from the room with the busted wall. “If you go that direction for long enough, you should find out. But they won’t be as easy a fight as me.”

                “Good. After all this emotion, I’m sort of in the mood for some real combat.” Alice watched as Mary climbed the stairs, keeping her eyes trained until the door slid closed once more. Only then did she float back into the air and head down the hall Mary had pointed at.