Chapter 70

"We should all pitch in, pool our money, and have those two killed," Nick suggested, soaking in the heat and the comfort of the common room couch.

"Nick, I'm right here," Mr. Transport said. All five students had been given a chance to take hot showers and unwind a bit, now they were meeting to talk about the test at Mr. Transport's request.

"I know," Nick said happily, not even bothering to glance at him. "I believe in fair warning."

"Now look, I know it wasn't an enjoyable experience, but it was necessary," Mr. Transport explained. He was met with dark glares and grumbling. "Listen, it's Christmas Eve and I'm sure you all want to get home to your families, so we don't have to talk about this now. Just promise you'll take the rest of the break to really think about what you learned on that mountain. About yourself, about each other, about everything."

"I promise," Mary said, not quite enthusiastically. The others merely nodded in agreement.

"Non-verbal is good enough for me. Whenever you're ready go get your stuff and I'll drop you off at home," Mr. Transport offered.

"Pass," Alice said waving him off. "I'll take my car. I'm only two hours up the road."

"I can take both you and your car in a span of seconds," Mr. Transport pointed out.

"Still no. I just spent six days on a damn mountain, I'm looking forward to a nice, relaxing drive," Alice reiterated.

"Fair enough," Mr. Transport said, putting up his hands. "When anyone else is ready, I'll be waiting in here."

*          *          *

"Hershel!" Mrs. Daniels yelled, flying out of her house to meet her son walking up the driveway. "It's been too long, dear," she said, giving him a strong hug.

"I missed you, too, Mom," Hershel managed to squeak out as she squeezed his lungs.

"My, look at you," she said, releasing her death grip and taking a step back. "You must be at least two inches taller than when you left."

"You think?"

"I know my son, don't I? Come on inside. I'll fix up some dinner and afterward we can get the tape measure if you don't believe me."

"Sounds like a plan," Hershel agreed, dragging his bag inside and depositing it by the door. He'd unpack later; for now he was just happy to be home.

The house seemed just as he remembered it, though now there was a Christmas tree by the fireplace. Underneath were several presents, some wrapped in green paper and others wrapped in red. The red would be for Roy, the green for him, same as it had been for years and years. A spicy scent wafted through the house. His mom would be working on several dishes for lunch tomorrow. On Christmas they went to Hershel’s grandmother’s house and met up with the rest of his family. Hershel realized that this was the first year he would be able to enjoy himself at that gathering and not worry about Roy butting in. Still, he might change later in the day. It was Christmas for Roy, too, after all.

"So," his mother said, interrupting Hershel's internal reverie. "Tell me about college. Have you met any nice girls?"

Hershel smiled in spite of himself and went over to the kitchen table. He took a seat in usual spot and basked in the familiarity for a moment before dealing with his mother's question.

"Well, there is this girl in my dorm..."


*          *          *

Vegas was cold, but that could hardly be blamed on the season. It was a desert: those were hot in the day and cold in the evening. Nick walked up the familiar landscape of the strip and picked out the lighted monstrosity he called home. One good thing about this town: an unaccompanied minor with a suitcase didn't even draw a second glance as he walked into the lobby of a casino/hotel and strode right past the reception desk. Nick would greet everyone soon, but first he wanted to go up to his room and change. He was still dressed as the Lander student, and that wasn't an image that belonged here. His only hope was that the sunglasses and different wardrobe would keep anyone from recognizing him. He should have known better.

Nick made it to the elevators and punched the up button. The elevators were gold in color and the hall was faux marble. It was ostentatious, but with a touch of class, just like the rest of Ms. Pips' establishment. It didn't quite give him a sense of being at home; however, it was an environment he was comfortable in. For Nick, that was more or less the same thing. There was an audible ding as the doors swooshed open and Nick took a step back to accommodate anyone exiting. The elevator turned out to hold only one other occupant, a bald man wearing a dark suit. Nick sighed and stepped on board. He knew perfectly well this man wasn't planning to get off.

"Good to see you, Gerry," Nick said evenly. He would greet his former wrangler more enthusiastically later in the evening. For now, though, there were cameras everywhere and it was a poor habit indeed to start showing fondness to anyone.

"You look good, Campbell," Gerry replied. He leaned forward and punched a few buttons on the pad. The elevator began rising to a floor inaccessible to regular guests. "I wanted to let you know that Ms. Pips is currently overseeing a high-stakes poker game, but she should be on hand for lunch tomorrow."

"They do put on a hell of a spread for Christmas," Nick recalled.

"Of course. We can't have any of our clients regretting their decision to spend the holidays handing us their money," Gerry said. "Anyway, she'll be around tomorrow; tonight you're on your own, though. I had a couple of your suits cleaned and pressed, and I alerted the staff to expect your return."

"I have missed the people," Nick said.

"You've missed the girls," Gerry shot, a bit of slyness in his voice.

"Never as much as they miss me," Nick said with a smile.

The elevator dinged and opened on a plush hallway. The carpet was red and the trim of the walls was gold. There were very few rooms in this hallway because up here the designers hadn't been concerned with cramming in as many as they could fit. This was the level that few would ever see and fewer would ever stay in. Nick stepped off and began heading down to his room. He stopped after a few steps, noting Gerry hadn't exited with him.

"I've got some things to do," Gerry said in response to Nick's glance backward. "If you'd like me to catch you up on things we can meet in the usual place around two."

"Sounds good," Nick agreed. The usual place would be a restaurant a few streets over from the strip where he and Gerry had hamburgers and hung out. It was one of the few places away from Ms. Pips’ direct area of influence, and likely Nick's favorite spot in the world.

Nick swiped a card at the door and entered his suite. Sure enough, Gerry had laid out a couple of suits on the bed. He always remembered every detail, a habit he had worked very hard to ingrain in Nick as well. Still, Nick's first concern wasn't just with changing his clothes. He whipped off his sunglasses and tossed them on a dresser. He then shed the rest of his Lander ensemble and hopped over to the shower. Admittedly he had taken a shower less than an hour before, but that had been all about heat and necessity. This was about re-centering. Nick always found a shower the best tool for wiping away a character and coming back to himself.

Half an hour later Nicholas Campbell emerged. He promptly dressed, wearing a deep purple button-down shirt with no tie beneath a perfectly tailored black suit. He styled his sandy hair with a tussled look and adorned himself with only one piece of jewelry, a silver wristwatch. He frowned slightly when he noticed there were tan lines on his face from those ridiculous glasses and made a mental note to visit a spray bed as soon as possible. All decoration and preparation complete, Nicholas paused only to give the sunglasses a dirty look before striding out the door.

*          *          *

"You're sure you want me to drop you here?" Mr. Transport asked again, just to be certain.

"Positive," Mary assured him, enjoying the sound of leaves crunching beneath her feet and the sticky smell of pine in the air.

"Don't you want to see your family?"

"I'll see them tomorrow," Mary told him. "I wanted to spend one night at home, though." She was already walking toward her trailer, small bag swinging in hand as she surveyed the spots that could use repair.

"Whatever makes you happy, I suppose. Merry Christmas," Mr. Transport wished her, then was gone.

Mary finished her tour of the trailer, coming back to its entrance and unlocking the door. It was cold inside, but a few minutes after she turned on the generator the whole place would be thoroughly warmed. Besides, in comparison to her past week she could barely classify it as chilly. Mary carefully opened her bag and tenderly removed a small brown bear, setting him on the counter.

"It's good to be home, don't you think, No?"

No was his usual, stoically silent self.

*          *          *

"So good to have you home, Ms. Adair," the maid said, greeting Alice at the door and taking her bag.

"Thank you, Greta. Tell Francis the rest of my luggage is in the car. Is my father home?"

"He'll be in China until the end of the week," Greta told her. "But he's promised to come home in time to see you before you go back to school."

"Of course he will," Alice sighed, knowing it was fifty/fifty at best that she would see her father during this break. That might have been for the best, though; she wasn't sure what she would say to him. She'd never really had a grasp of what to talk about with him anyway, but at least before she'd known the right steps and decorum. After her semester at Lander, though, she didn't find the prospect as appealing. Alice had slowly been dropping out of the habit of shying away from real interaction and using polite falsities. She was finding she liked the life she led this way far more than the other. Daddy wouldn't approve, though.

Alice made her way up the marble staircase to her wing of the house. Most of the servants were off for the holiday, so she'd have the house more or less to herself with the exception of Greta, Francis, a few chefs, and some additional support staff. Normally she preferred it this way: it was less lonely to be actually alone than to be surrounded by people and still be by oneself. As her steps echoed down the empty hallway and she pushed open the oak doors to her pink-themed bedroom, it occurred to that she'd become far more accustomed to the bustle of Melbrook.

Alice laid down on her bed and stared up at the ceiling. There were paintings adorning her walls along with a picture or two of her father. The only real photograph she held dear was on her bedside table, though: a photo of a beautiful blonde woman with an infectious smile. Alice had digital copies of it, of course, but there was still something special about the original. Alice rolled over on her side and stared at the woman for a few minutes, wondering for the billionth time how different this moment in her life would be if that woman were still a part of it. There would be someone waiting for her, certainly. A hug, some conversation, and possibly even a meal prepared out of love rather than obligation. Perhaps Daddy would even be here as well if that woman was around to wrangle him in.

Alice had long ago mastered the art of crying silently, so not one sob echoed through the empty catacombs of her mansion.

*          *          *

"Thanks again for bringing me out here," Vince said as he and Mr. Transport walked along a snow-covered dirt path.

"I'm not exactly certain where 'here' is. We've walked a good way from the city," Mr. Transport pointed out.

"We're almost there," Vince assured him.

For a few brief moments Mr. Transport thought back to Nick's death threat jokes and wondered just how much Vince had disliked the mountain test. Then he mentally snapped himself back to reality and realized while one of his charges might eventually kill him, Vince was easily the least likely candidate on that list. Well, after Hershel.

They turned down another path and pushed their way through some brush. This time, though, the scenery opened up and Mr. Transport found himself staring at a set of lightly snow-dusted train tracks. In front of him was a sheer cliff about sixty feet high that looked down on the scene. The tracks seemed to run back in the direction of town, though they were clearly a long time out of use. Mr. Transport was about to question once again precisely where they were; however, the sight of Vince's face paused his words. It wasn't sad, per se. Exposed would be a better word. Soundlessly Vince reached into his pocket and pulled out a small gold watch. He begin winding it carefully, a few clicks at a time.

"My dad gave me this watch for my thirteenth foundday. He said I never had to worry about stealing power from it, because it relied on being wound," Vince said, his voice somewhere far away.

"Foundday?" Mr. Transport asked.

"I didn't know my real birthday since I ran away at such a young age, so we just celebrated the day he found me instead," Vince explained.

"That sounds very... festive," Mr. Transport said uncertainly.

"It was. I know how bad it sounds, living on the rail, scrounging for food, but it was fun. It was nice to have somewhere I belonged," Vince said.

"Not to overstep my bounds, but it seems to me you have found that once more. And I don't think any of your fellow Melbrook residents would disagree with me."

Vince let out a small laugh. "I guess you have a point. I think that would make my dad happy."

"I'm sure it would," Mr. Transport agreed.

There was a gust of wind across the tracks and the sedentary snowflakes bounded about for a few elegant swirls before settling back onto the cold, rusted steel.

"This is where he died," Vince said, not as much to Mr. Transport but to the world at large. "I try to come by here at least once a year. Usually around Christmas if I can. There weren't any recognizable remains of anyone from the explosion, so there's no grave. Just... this spot."

Mr. Transport stayed silent. A few minutes passed by and Vince finished winding his watch. He flipped open the cover, checked the time, then snapped it shut.

"Thank you, Mr. Transport. I know it's cold and wet out here. We can go back to Melbrook now."

"There's no hurry. I'm not expected anywhere until a few hours from now," Mr. Transport told him.

Vince nodded his understanding. A fresh crop of snow was beginning to drift down upon them, some of it clinging to his hair, changing its appearance to more white than silver. Mr. Transport resisted the urge to shiver. He wouldn't be showing any discomfort until Vince was ready to leave on his own.

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Transport," Vince said over the soft winds.

"Merry Christmas, Vince."