Chapter 244

                “Maybe we can pitch it as a reforming program. Like you’re showing me what sorts of heights I could aspire to if I stay on the straight and narrow.”

                Mr. Numbers grumbled slightly under his breath, moved a bishop, and shook his head. “None of the higher ups want you aspiring to greater heights. They saw what you did with the limited power you had and certainly aren’t going to want you chasing more of it. Remember: you didn’t get cut from the program, you got expelled. That’s a large distinction.”

                Convincing Mr. Numbers to hold he and Mary’s chess game at Nick’s apartment had been relatively easy, as a man who dealt in clandestine meetings he understood the need to change locales when situations demanded it. The much harder hurdle was the reason Nick had asked Mary to move the game: so he could try and talk Mr. Numbers into helping him see Intramurals. It was a sizable request, and Nick knew it, yet he remained convinced it could be done if they just found the right angle.

                “Go at it from the other direction then: make this a ‘scared straight’ kind of thing where you impress upon me the level of ass-kicking I’m in for if I try to mess with my old classmates.” Nick was seated on the couch while Mr. Numbers and Mary played at the dining room table, absent-mindedly flipping through DVA by-laws regarding the HCP, looking for any avenue he might be able to exploit to gain entrance. It was unlikely he’d uncover much, but the whole idea was more or less impossible to start with, so an unlikely lead was still one worth pursuing.

                “This would be a lot easier if you could just have Dean Blaine give you access,” Mary pointed out. She moved her knight into a new position, fully aware that it would be taken in the next few moves. After nearly four years of playing constant chess games with Mr. Numbers, she’d succeeded in learning to significantly prolong their matches. She never won, of course, but she took some measure of pride in the fact that her strategies had evolved substantially with him as an opponent.

                From the couch, Nick let out a sharp laugh. “I’ve got a better chance of sneaking past the DVA and all the security on campus than making that happen. No way the dean can just open the door and let in someone he had expelled and mind-wiped. Especially not when every other dean and a big chunk of the DVA will be present. That kind of stunt would lead to questions we do not want to answer, especially with where things are now.”

                “The same could be said of any entrance method you found,” Mr. Numbers said. “Even if we made it look like we used some sort of loophole or trick to force Dean Blaine’s hand, it still presents needless peril. Which raises the question of why you seem so intent on watching the fights. Your friends know you support them and would be there if you could, but your physical presence will ultimately change nothing. Why not simply let this pass and wait to hear how the battles shake out?”

                For a heartbeat, Nick was almost tempted to tell them the full truth. That even he wasn’t sure why he felt the need to be there, and would never have floated such a ludicrous idea normally. It was only a strange feeling in his gut that kept driving the thought onward, a hunch that refused to be ignored. A year ago, even a few months, he’d have dismissed it as sentiment manifesting under the guise of intuition. But things were different now. Nick still didn’t have complete proof of this expanded version of his power or any idea how reliable it might be, however it hadn’t steered him wrong yet. If some aspect of fate or fortune was urging him to attend Intramurals, then that was what he would try to do. It might end up being little more than a waste of time, but it was his time to waste, and he far preferred that to leaving his friends hanging if they needed him. That was a bit too cumbersome to explain to Mr. Numbers though, so instead Nick fell back on a lie that still managed to be almost entirely true.

                “Boredom, mostly. Class here has never been what I would consider a challenge, and I’m pretty sure I can smoke all my finals without having to crack a book again. I’ve got my summer lined up doing volunteer work on a few small-time campaigns to get the networking mojo flowing. Obviously I’m out of the HCP so there’s no terror of graduation dangling over my head or big final tests to get through, but most of my friends are preoccupied with all that stuff. Even the covert work has dried up since our allies decided to reach out to alternate information sources. So yeah, this is my way to kill time, trying to find a method to wrangle myself a ticket to the HCP’s Intramurals where I can cheer on my friends.”

                From the table, Mary spared the time to shoot him a brief glance. She knew the truth, only because Nick had found it was more effort than it was worth to hide his thoughts around her. That, and perhaps there was some part of him that found a touch of comfort in having a friend he didn’t need to explain things to, who simply knew the score at all times. Probably the first one though, or that’s what Nick told himself anyway.

                “Any non-criminal project that keeps Nick occupied is a good thing,” Mary said. “You know what they say about idle hands.”

                “I beg your pardon, I work on my dexterity every single day, these hands are anything but idle. Want to see a card trick?”

                “Pass.” Mr. Numbers had apparently decided to answer for the whole room, not that Mary was going to object, before sliding a pawn into position. A few more moves, and this game would be done, even if Mary had put up an exceptional fight. “If you really want to get in, you’re going to need someone with clout to get you that invite. Not just HCP clout either, they need favors to call in from the DVA. You need the push of someone important enough that it’s not worth the trouble for anyone to tell them no.”

                Nick mentally flipped through the number of people he knew who fit such a bill. “Too bad Alice’s dad isn’t fond of me. And is also an insane secret tyrant. Otherwise he might have been my best shot.”

                “There’s a little bit of time left, maybe you can go make some new friends with loads of power they don’t mind casually throwing around for a near stranger.” Mary paused, moved a pawn of her own, then resumed. “I realize that might have come off as sarcastic, but it wasn’t entirely meant to be. If anyone can do something like that, it’s you. I’ve watched people fly, punch through concrete, and turn into living fog, but you’ve still pulled off things I genuinely consider to be impossible. I mean, you’re dating Alice for goodness sake. This has to be easier than someone like you winning over a woman like her.”

                “Hurtful, but not entirely inaccurate. Perhaps I’ll dig around a little more and see what I can find. I am quite good at making friends, when I want to be.” Nick set down the bylaws and picked up his laptop to start a new kind of research, barely getting the power on before he heard Mr. Numbers say “checkmate” from across the room. There were bound to be a few people who fit the bill on what he needed and were open to useful alliances. After all, who didn’t need a little more luck in their lives?