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Now you may be wondering, who was wearing the bolo tie? Me or the shark? Answer: YES!
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Still reeling mentally from the force of his abrupt discovery, Nick closed quickly in to a nice conversational distance. The usual emotional cocktail - surprise, joy, apprehension, relief- was swirling around his mind, this time with an entirely new ingredient. A sort of feeling that he cuoldn't quite put his finger on. It wasn't quite satisfaction. Definitely not peace. Incredulity, perhaps? That was a good guess. It certainly fit. The only problem was a real lack of anything earth-shatteringly unbelievable. The meeting, granted, was quite the stroke of luck, but that wasn't the first time-

He dropped the thought midway. No, maybe it wasn't just luck. Oh, definitely. No luck involved. None. That was the source of his mind-bending disbelief. He'd left the perimeter of the fair totally lost. Just one vague notion to check off, and that would've been the end of his clues. But then, then came the true genius. He'd found the girls' note. Read it. Extrapolated. Inferred. Guessed - correctly. And not only that, oh, definitely not just that, he'd left that mirror house with a master plan in place. The power to take a third way out, an exit strategy that went beyond screwing the system just to see how many of his classmates' collars he could get blown. Surely Jennifer wouldn't agree, but once the collars had been beaten for the second time, Danya would have no choice. Simply put, he needed Nick. Needed the ingenuity, the cleverness, that raw collar-destroying intellect. Let Nick die, and Danya could get a short-term rating boost. But if he let him live, Danya wouldn't have to worry about subversive activity ever again. Not on Nick's watch.

Another throaty cough pulled him back into the present. He took the proffered water gratefully, wetting down his throat and replying in reverse order.

"Fine," he said. "Just got a bit down the wrong tube." Two thoughts occurred simultaneously, one being that maybe Jennifer wasn't talking about his experiment in respirable rations, and the other being that of course there was no technically wrong pipe, because the power of speech came with a larynx situated in a manner that made choking not only possible but rather facile in some situations. The second thought was unnecessary in the extreme, but before he could fully harangue himself, another flashing idea made him decide to spare the mental rod. That overpowering flow of thought was in fact exactly like his vulnerable larynx, a side-effect of something that allowed him to be so much greater than he was. Something that made him a Survivor. The Fittest.

He took another swig. The water didn't taste like something you'd pour into a fuel tank, which was a refreshing change. Capping the bottle, he cleared his throat and began a response in earnest.

"Hard time? Oh. No. Heck, if you don't count that guy behind the truck, that's only one attempt on my life," he said, still gripping the bottle aimlessly in one hand. "Oh. Oh, no, wait, two. I guess h- um, she counts too. Crossbow," he blurted after a second's pause. "Pulled off some diplomacy, I guess. I mean, I didn't get shot, obviously, so I did something right. Normal day, basically. Not too busy. You guys?"

He waited for their response, mind drifting quickly astray. Was one of them going to mention the announcement? They'd heard it, right? How he'd just gone ahead and slaughtered some other kid? How could they just smile and wave and ask how his day was? They knew what had happened. And it hadn't been long since they'd split, either. Jennifer had spent a good bit of time with him, and he'd acted civilized with her, more or less. And the same arms he'd squeezed her to his chest with - Marty was dead because of them. He saw no reason to think he'd undergone some radical change. So they had to know they were hanging out with a top-tier danger now, that they had been. Was there not a fear for their own life there? Were they glad to see him at all, or just pretending out of fear or obligation of some sort?

Nick felt an uncomfortable twinge in his gut with the depth of his second-guessing. He snapping back to attention, listening but also watching. Watching for the glint of camera lenses. Looking for a spot that they didn't quite cover, at least not very well. He could talk for days, really. And he probably would, if he let himself. But if he focused, they'd have all the time in the world in just a few minutes.



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I Will Follow You into the Dark · The Mountain