“I don’t like what you’re thinking.”
Nate winced a little as he hurried along the nearly deserted college sidewalks with his warden, Julie Campbell. The telepath could hear everything going on in his head, of course. Maybe there were ways to screen your thoughts from being read but he sure didn’t know what they were. He’d be the last person anyone would try teaching that to, for good reason.
Ahead lay the athletic field and, just beyond it, the dorm house. Nate left the pavement and opted to spring across the yard. The past two weeks of gym had left him sore, exhausted but surprisingly better. It’d be a while before his body really adapted to the brutal pace but at least there was hope in sight.
“Nate, I’m serious. I can’t-“
“You think I can?” Nate huffed across the lawn and tried not to look at the girl he had the biggest crush in the world on. “I don’t even know what’s going on.”
“You think Alley wants you to use your ability, don’t you?”
“Probably,” Nate admitted. “But I won’t. Not unless I have the facts and not unless you agree, okay?”
Julie’s frown was icy but at least she didn’t say anything further.
They hit the pavement on the other side of the field and jogged across the street in a second. A crowd of people stood around, mostly drunk and entirely confused. The police didn’t help. Three patrol cars were parked outside the house and half a dozen uniforms were spread out, taking statements.
In the middle of it all stood Alley, one arm around Finn. The black Brit looked the worse for wear, blood trickling from a cut lip and bruises already decorating his face. Beside them…
“Mike,” Julie breathed. “This is his fault.”
“Huh? How you figure?” Nate turned and looked at the prettiest jailor ever.
“He’s not shielding himself right now. I can sense his guilt in his thoughts. He…I think he stirred them up somehow. I didn’t know he could do that.” Julie’s confusion was rapidly giving way to anger. “He’s not supposed to do it either way. Using his ability on a crowd of mundanes? He could get dropped from the HCP or get sued. Probably both.”
Alley beckoned them both on. One of the uniforms blocked the way, however, waving them off with the rest of the bystanders who’d drifted by to see drunk college kids get busted. Nate glanced at Julie, who just shook her head again.
That’s when Alley pointed at them both and yelled, “Hey! They’re the ones who started it! Look, that couple right there started it!”
Julie facepalmed even as Nate swore silently. Immediately a cop waved them both over and flipped open his book to take down another statement. Nate fished in his pockets for his ID before realizing he’d left it back at Lambert Acres. That would make the police look him up by name. They’d probably pull his full profile. God only knows what the police had on him but inciting a riot probably didn’t help his case.
“Nate,” Julie said, putting her hand on his shoulder. “Nate, you can’t-“
Just like that, everyone stopped. Everyone. The police, the crowd, the bystanders, even Alley and Julie. Nate’s hands started to shake as he surveyed the scene around him, confirming it was total. Half the people, he hadn’t even been looking at. Somehow, everyone was frozen in place. He hadn’t…he hadn’t used his ability full power, had he?
“Say your names!” Nate shouted.
“Your names!” the crowd shouted back.
He laughed once, an ugly sound that barely resembled anything pleasant. “Tell me your names.”
A cacophony of names answered back. Nate wiped the sudden cold sweat off his forehead and took a breath even shakier than his hands. That was close. Damn close.
Nate had to sit down. He tucked his head between his knees, feeling lightheaded. It was like the first day of class, in the bathroom after class only worse. Anxiety he couldn’t touch or find its source flooded through him in a relentlessly increasing tide. Nate could feel his heart hammering in his chest. His stomach roiled sourly. Even his palms had started to sweat.
Then a hand touched his shoulder gently.
“Jesus!” Nate fell over as he tried to unsuccessfully spin around while seated.
“Nate, are you-” Jia crouched beside him, her face touched with worry. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
“I had to, Jia. I didn’t want to, I had to. Alley called me, she demanded I come here. And th-then she blamed me for the riot a-and I-I, shit Jia I’m in serious trouble, aren’t I.”
The Chinese woman straightened up and looked around. Slowly, she moved through the assorted partiers, police and witnesses. Each person just stood there, their faces blank, their eyes blinking and chests moving but little more. Empty slates. Waiting for orders. Waiting for his orders.
“This is…Oh Nate.”
“What do I do, Jia? You gotta tell me what to do.”
“I, um.” Jia swallowed hard as she looked around. “Well, can you just…make everyone forget?”
“I guess so.”
Nate put one palm against the asphalt of the street, feeling the day’s residual warmth. Then he pushed himself onto his feet. Nate unconsciously tucked in his shirt and smoothed out the folds before stepping up where everyone could clearly hear him.
“I want everyone here to forget what happened here tonight. I mean, for the college students, this was just a party that got a little loud. Anyone who got hurt, it was just a stupid drinking game you’ll blame yourself for. Police officers, you heard a report of a fight but didn’t find one when you got here. Everyone else, you didn’t see or hear anything interesting here and all you’ll remember is seeing nothing happening here. Okay?”
The crowd said nothing. Upwards of a hundred eyes tracked his every movement. Nate let his words sink in. Then he released them all with a thought.
And watched the whole situation sort itself out. Somewhat distractedly, the police got back in their cars and left with the bystanders who’d dropped by. The drinkers on the lawn went right back to dancing after someone turned the music on. Dozens trickled out, nursing bloody noses or signs of battering, grinning ruefully and already making up improbable stories they’d explain the marks with tomorrow.
“Hey Ginger,” Alley said, crossing the lawn to join them. Finn followed, looking a bit pained and surprised. “Thanks for coming. Want a drink?”
“I called you…here…for a-” Alley cut herself off and frowned. “That doesn’t make any sense. Julie doesn’t-” She stopped herself again, glancing at Nate’s telepathic guardian and secret crush. “Uh, nevermind.”
“Nate, you’ve missed a smashing party!” Finn said, delight bubbling up despite his wounds. “I’m a bit rubbish at American drinking games, sad to say.”
“That’s why you had us run over here in a hurry?” Julie said, giving her two slightly tipsy roommates a glare.
“Hey Sunrise,” Alley said suddenly. “You came too?”
“It sounded serious from the way Nate was on the phone,” Jia answered. She alone looked as confused as Nate felt.
“I can’t do this,” he said at last. Nate cleared his throat and said, “Roomies, remember.”
All three of the affected abruptly jumped backwards from him, Finn and Julie both falling on their butts as they tripped over their heels. Finn tapped his head, as if checking for a loose connection. Julie had a look of utter betrayal.
Alley just looked satisfied. “Thought so. Good work, Nate. You just saved Mike’s career here.”
“Wait, what?” Julie climbed back onto her feet, straightening out the summer dress she wore tonight. “Oh. The…he’s empathic. Where is he?” She craned her neck, then shook her head as she didn’t spot him. “Was it really that bad?”
“We were two minutes from fatalities when he finally got a grip and turned it off. New facet of his ability.” Alley slipped an arm around Julie’s shoulder and squeezed. “Relax if you can. I know Ginger just broke the rules. You also know I basically made him, he did it for the right reasons, he saved your buddy Mike’s ass and that’s not even the most important part of it.”
“Which is?” Finn asked.
“He allowed you all to remember,” Jia said softly. “He didn’t have to. I would have…well, maybe it was better off with no one remembering anything. But he didn’t try to hide it.”
“Because he knew I’d catch him thinking about it eventually!” Julie shouted, clearly overwrought.
“Ginger’s an open book to you, Jules.” Alley inclined her head in Nate’s direction. “You tell me if it even occurred to him to hide this.”
Nate froze in spot. His beautiful captor just looked him in the eyes, as if she were scooping out his brains from the inside and shifting through the contents like a Betazoid from Star Trek, or one of the Psi-Corp from Babylon 5. At last, the coldness thawed and she conceded the point with the barest nod.
Satisfied there would be no further trouble, Alley tucked an arm around Finn’s and half-helped, half-hauled him away from the party. Hopefully Nate’s buddy would get bandaged up or something. Alley liked to take care of her team, like the guild leader she was. Finn would be fine. Jia looked between the remaining two and slowly followed the others’ lead.
At last, Nate stood alone on the street with Julie beside him.
“I guess I blew any trust I’d built up,” Nate said, wincing at the sharp bitterness in his voice but unable to do anything about it.
“Nate…it’s not about trust.” Julie pressed two fingers against the bridge of her nose, squinting her eyes closed as if pained. “You just proved that the Dean’s protective measures won’t work. You stopped me before I could even think about trying to break up your thoughts and block your ability. I’m trained to stop Supers, Nate, and I wasn’t quick enough.”
“It’s okay.” Nate thought about it for a moment. “So if we talk about it, Mike gets kicked out, Alley and Finn get busted, you get…I dunno, maybe you’re okay? And I get kicked out. Maybe you should though. I mean, all of us did screw up here. Maybe we’re not really cut out to be Heroes.”
Julie didn’t answer at first. She just gave him that probing look, long, piercing and powerful. Then, to his utter shock, she stepped close and gave him the lightest, softest kiss. It was almost more lips brushing against each other. Not that Nate could really make a comparison.
He’d never been kissed before.
Overcome, Nate couldn’t think of returning the kiss until she’d already drawn away. She smiled a little at his complete befuddlement.
“Maybe it is about trust,” Julie said, her voice as soft as that kiss. “Your first thought about what would happen if we talked about it was worry over Mike, a man who doesn’t even like you. You are literally the last person you thought about. If anyone can be trusted with your ability, maybe it’s you. I guess I’d better stick around, though, keep an eye on you.”
She winked and started across the field. Then the grassy plain was filled with her laughter when Nate, too preoccupied by her, tripped over the curb and fell on his face.