The party was fun. People were laughing, the drinks flowed freely, and a small group had even gathered to begin appreciating Nick’s awful movies playing in their own space. Enjoyment filled the air, but Alex could tell, probably better than anyone, that it wasn’t quite as unrestrained as it would have been even a year prior. He could sense the tingling of people’s nerves and anxiety, always holding them back, weighing on their minds in what should have been the lightest of moments. Mary would always be better than him at picking out exact thoughts, he’d made peace with that difference in their skills long ago, but he was worlds above her in terms of seeing the emotions painted across those thoughts.
It wasn’t just Friday’s exam, though that certainly wasn’t helping things. Alex had been noticing the trend for years now. Had this party come when they were freshman, there would have been unfettered celebration and joy, with all thoughts of what trial came next cast aside as problems for later on. But, with every passing year, they were losing the ability to forget what lay ahead for them, and the looming approach of graduation wasn’t even the worst of it. Bit by bit, they were beginning to get a grasp on their impending career in ways they never could when it was theoretical. Graduation was scary, and what waited beyond that was outright terrifying.
“Are you the ghost of party fun? Because you look that way.” Alex had been so swept up in monitoring the overall thoughts of the crowd that he failed to notice Selena, momentarily apart from her crew of friends, arrive at his side. “Seriously, paring all black with a gloomy expression? Little on the nose, don’t you think?”
“Really? You’re going to give me shit about being on the nose?” Alex looked her up and down, as if his words wouldn’t make the point alone. Selena was dressed like an opera singer, or as close as one could get with a costume shop-level of quality in her outfit. Silver dress with lots of barely attached sequins, a mask that almost but didn’t quite match, and a pair of opera glasses tucked into her purse for anyone who couldn’t put the other hints together.
“I’m going to give you shit about showing up to a party and moping in the corner. You could have stayed home for that.”
“And miss someone playing the Camp Blood Death series? Surely you jest.” Alex expected the conversation to end there, he and Selena had rebuilt their relationship to that of people who could be around, and sometimes say a few words to, one another, but that was about their limit. Which made it all the more surprising when she slid into one of the open seats next to him.
“Fair warning, I’m probably about to overstep some boundaries,” Selena said, not pausing to give Alex any chance to reply. “But… I think it’s been long enough. Maybe that’s a callous thing to say, which is why I’ve tried to hold my tongue until now. After six months, and a couple of beers, I can’t stomach seeing this anymore. You have to let go, Alex.”
“Hold your tongue until now? I let myself… drift, for a few minutes at one party. Not exactly a long-running issue.”
Selena tilted her head slightly forward, a gesture he knew all-too-well meant she was about to call him on his bullshit. Sometimes, Alex hated just how familiar they both were with one another’s body language.
“You let it show for a few minutes,” Selena corrected. “Maybe the others haven’t noticed, you do a good job putting on the smile when everyone else is watching, but I know you better than that. Like it or not, and yeah I’m sure the answer there is not, I’m probably better at reading you than anyone else here except Mary, and I might be able to give her a run for her money. I know what you look like when you’re hurting, and when you try to hide it. Since school started, that’s all I’ve seen. We all miss her, but you’re carrying it the hardest. I get why, I do. In the same situation, most of us would be tempted to hold the blame on ourselves. But you can’t keep up like this. Sasha wouldn’t want you to.”
It was the curse of all telepaths (or Supers with telepath-like abilities whose exact natures were under debate) that those who could read minds often allowed themselves to forget theirs was not the only way to see what people were hiding. Because of that, Alex had no prepared response, no quick denial or rebuttal to the truth that Selena had laid bare between them. She’d seen past the false wall he’d been holding in place all semester… since May, really, and now that his facade was ripped away Alex was struck by an unexpected realization:
He didn’t want to deny it.
It had been so long like this, holding it in, trying to act like things were normal, and now that his secret was exposed he didn’t have the strength to try and reel it back.
“I just… I want to tell her I’m sorry.” Alex lowered his head along with his voice, becoming almost inaudible amidst the loud chatter and reverberating music. “There was a moment that, if I had been stronger, it would have all gone differently. She’d still be here. My mistake, my weakness, is what cost Sasha her life.”
“That might be true, though none of us knows how things would have played out even if you had been able to stop your opponent. But you seem to be operating under a very misguided assumption here,” Selena told him. “Sasha didn’t get killed because of you. Sasha gave her life to try and save you. Those are two very different things. She did what a Hero would do, and prioritized the life of someone else, someone she cared about, over her own.”
“What’s the difference?” Alex asked.
“It means she gave you a gift. You can see it as her being dead because of you, or you being alive because of her. Personally, I look at it as the latter. Sasha handed you your life, Alex, even though it cost her own. She gave you the ultimate gift anyone can offer. Is this really the way you think she’d want you to spend it? Tearing yourself apart inside because even doing your best, and no one has any doubt you were giving your all, wasn’t enough to stop someone? Moping in secret, trying to hide your pain from the friends that you know would help you carry it? I think this distinction is damned important, because I want you to realize that you’re wasting the last thing Sasha gave you. She wanted you to live, Alex. So start doing it.”
For a long moment, Alex sat in silence, or as much silence as was possible in the midst of a college Halloween party, contemplating Selena’s words. There were some solid points in there, along with other areas where he could likely debate her, but what would it accomplish? The truth was, she’d hit the nail on the head. He was miserable carrying on like this. He had been for months. Coping through training had been healthy and productive, but not even Chad could train every minute of every day. Alex needed to take a step forward in dealing with the rest of his life. Of all the other parts Selena had said, she was unquestionably right that Sasha wouldn’t have put up with this endless moping.
“If you weren’t my ex, I might just kiss you for that,” Alex said at last. “Thanks. I think I needed someone to call me out.”
“That’s what exes, at least those who are your friends, are for.” Selena leaned forward, and for a heart-stopping moment Alex thought she might have gotten the wrong idea and was going for the kiss anyway. Instead, she veered to the side, ending up with her mouth a few inches from Alex’s ear. Before he could wonder what whisper was coming, he heard a tune being softly hummed. It was so gentle that no one else in the room could possibly take note; this was a song just for him.
As she sang, Alex felt his body unclench in places he hadn’t even noticed he was holding tension. For the first time in months, a general sense of ease filled him, bubbling up from within like warm tea. This wasn’t a song of slumber, or wildness, or any of the other tricks he’d seen from her before. No, this was a song of peace.
And in that moment, it was exactly what Alex needed.