Chapter 80

                Despite the tension from almost every Melbrook resident, an understandable condition if ever there was one, the party kicked itself off without much issue. There was no denying that the HCP had a strong presence at the event, easily composing the majority of the guests, but several students had taken the opportunity to bring along friends they’d made in the mundane world. Violet, Will, Thomas, and Jill, currently dressed as masked turtles with presumed crime-fighting skills, had each brought along a friend or two. Selena had brought a relative cluster, though her group paled in comparison to Adam’s, who was apparently quite the social butterfly above ground.

                It was Nick, however, who’d managed to stock the party with the most mundanes, as he was the only one among them not leading a double life. Well, not the same double life, anyway, and that allowed him more free time for schmoozing and networking when the occasion arose. Initially, he hadn’t cared that much about the ratio of normal students to HCP attendees, but with the implementation of plan “Shake the Dream-Walker By His Ankles” (at least, that’s what Nick called it in his head) filling the party had become vital. They needed the thickness of a crowd, it made them easier to become lost in and, more importantly, added a layer of insulation between themselves and the DVA. Chapman had shown they weren’t above poking in where they didn’t belong, but the department’s agents could only risk so much activity around normal students.

                Even if it bought them no more than an extra six inches of breathing room, Nick would gleefully seize each one. What they were planning was dangerous on multiple fronts; every chance he had to negate some risk was one he’d be taking. Briefly, though for far from the first time in the last few months, his mind flashed back to what the world had been like on his augmented power. Being able the see the lines of causality, and push them ever so gently, it was an experience beyond description. What he wouldn’t give for even a peek behind the curtain tonight, some indication of where their path was leading them. Sadly, all he had to work with was his gut, and that had gone noticeably silent in spite of their impending adventure.

                Which was why he elected to pass the time until he vanished by handling the things well within his sphere of control. Nick all but whirled through the party, shaking hands, making introductions, and accepting the alternating compliments and snickers on his costume. He made a big presence, certain that everyone would remember him being here. As the freely-flowing alcohol muddled their minds, the overwhelming existence of Nick Campbell would ideally seep through their hazy memories. The goal was to ensure no one could ever exactly pin down when, if at all, he’d been missing from his own party.

                Making sure the respective areas were up and running was key to that, which was why Nick stopped by the screening area to be certain Camp Blood Death 7: Algae From Beyond the Pale was cranked up and playing in the largely dark room. He may have also lingered there for a few minutes longer than was strictly needed, taking the opportunity to enjoy a favorite scene. Then it was off to the patio, where the brisk air washed over people who wanted to get away from the music and dense crowd, or, in the case of those who weren’t putting their bodies through endless physical training daily, smoke.    

                After that it was around to the refreshments section, which was set-up in the makeshift kitchen that more responsible people likely used for cooking when renting out the room. There, he found Eliza playing bartender, an act that allowed her to monitor their stock while also excusing herself from much drinking. Though he’d never admit it to her face, it was a bit of a relief to have Eliza and Jerome skulking about, even if they had reused the same costumes from last year, an otherwise unforgivable sin in his eyes.

                “Good party so far,” Eliza commented, handing over a cocktail that was utterly devoid of anything other than caffeine. She was under strict orders to make virgin drinks for Nick, Alice, and Mary tonight, as all three would want their wits about them in what was to come. “Few people are hitting the keg pretty hard early on; you might have to wean them down if you don’t want puke on the floor.”

                “Drunk is good, for what we need,” Nick replied. “Don’t let anyone get themselves sick or drive though. Try diplomacy first, and if that fails have Jerome steal their spark plugs or whatever. We’ve got a few sleeping bags that can become as many as needed, and most who are that drunk would be fine with just the floor.”

                Their conversation was forced to a halt as Shane and a girl who had come with the other mundane students approached the bar, he ordering a water and she getting whiskey neat. Only after the pair had left, leaving Nick with a higher opinion of the woman than when she’d approached, was the discussion able to continue.

                “Anything else you want done?” Eliza’s eyes flicked to the nearby clock, one of the few pieces of the room that had not come with the rental. Nick had added it, and four more throughout the space, all synced up to be sure anyone who needed to could know the time with a glance. Though it went against his casino-raised nature to add clocks to an area, for tonight scheduling and coordination took precedence. Having a clock in every room allowed the key people to watch the time without doing something as telltale as checking a watch.

                “Just keep things moving smoothly,” Nick said. “We’ve only got a couple of hours until the real night starts; I’d like to actually enjoy myself until then. After all, how many more parties with these people am I really going to get?”

                “You could always fly them out, comp them some rooms, that sort of thing,” Eliza suggested. Although she wasn’t entirely sure how comfortable the rest of the family would be having Heroes around, assuming Nick’s friends graduated, they’d hardly be the first ones to vacation in Vegas. Besides, she liked the effect that group had on him, and deep down she knew a part of her would always be happy to see Vince, no matter the circumstances.

                “I could, and they might even accept, though I doubt I will.” Nick took a sip of his drink, momentarily forgetting it was nothing but soda and ice cubes. “Here, in this place, things like our familial ties don’t matter in the same way. Once we leave, it will be different. People like us and people like them can’t associate quite so freely, not without the risk of serious repercussions. I’m sure I’ll still see them, the lot has proven unexpectedly hard to shake in the past, but it will never be as carefree as what we can manage now.”

                “Given what you have planned for the night, your definition of carefree sort of worries me,” Eliza said.

                 Nick permitted himself a small laugh, then gave a shrug that caused his suit to ripple down the front. “After a life under Ms. Pips and Gerry, I wouldn’t trust a day that didn’t have at least a little intrigue. That would stress me out far more than our usual routine. But, as Gerry himself would say, you can’t let the worry about what you have to do after sunset ruin your whole day. Which is why I’m going to go do another round about the party, and perhaps even take a tour with Alice on what’s passing for our dance floor.”

                Nick turned, though even if he’d kept staring there would have been no telltale pained expression on Eliza’s face. She was better than that, she was keeping herself together. All she did was glance at the clock, ostensibly because she had to keep an eye on the schedule, and certainly not because she was counting the minutes until Nick would exit the party.