“Wow, you got a big car just to be here for a day,” Alice noted as she walked outside and saw the white stretch limousine.
“A necessary evil, unfortunately,” her father said.
“I’m confused, though; I thought you hated stretch limos. You said they were tacky, for people who wanted to look impressive but didn’t know how,” Alice said.
“And that belief still holds firmly true,” her father replied. “Though I’ll thank you not to mention it around our guests tonight. The limo was to appeal to their tastes rather than my own.”
“What guests? I thought you flew in to see me,” Alice said, slowing down her trot to the car.
“No, dear, I said I was going to be in town and invited you to dinner. I’m here to close a deal with Horatio Vinders for one of his offshoot companies. He insisted on coming into town this weekend to visit his daughter Beth, so I offered to take them out to dinner,” he explained, his gait never even considering an idea as indignant as slowing down.
Alice scrambled to catch up. She wasn’t sure how she was feeling right now, though she was certain it wasn’t pleasant. All the same, she didn’t want to be left behind entirely.
“Mr. Adair,” called a young girl somewhat older than Alice. She had stepped out from the behind the limo, clearly waiting for them. She had her hair trimmed short and wore a midnight blue dress paired with a few adornments of tasteful jewelry. She looked familiar, and Alice realized she had seen this girl many times before wandering the halls beneath the school. At that time she’d been wearing a grey uniform, so that made her either a sophomore or a junior. Alice’s guess was junior.
“Beth,” Charles Adair said, leaning in and giving the girl a respectful kiss on the cheek. “You grow more beautiful every time I see you. Is your father already inside?”
“Oh no, I’m so sorry but he was caught up momentarily speaking with one of my professors. It was so embarrassing, she wouldn’t stop going on and on about how wonderful a student I am. Father sent me ahead to let you know of his delay and tell you that we certainly don’t expect you to wait. You two go ahead to dinner and we’ll catch up later.”
Alice felt a bubble of joy rising in her; at least she would have a little time to talk with her dad, just the two of them. It wasn’t what she had expected, but it was something.
“Nonsense,” Charles Adair said, waving her off. “I wouldn’t hear of such a thing, leaving you two to find your own way when I have this enormous vehicle just idling by. Don’t even mention it again; Alice and I will wait right here with you until your father arrives.”
“Mr. Adair, you are so kind,” Beth replied. “And it was Alice, wasn’t it? I think I’ve seen you around, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” Alice said automatically. She’d been through so many formal greetings it came like second nature to her now.
“Beth’s father tells me she’s quite accomplished here at Lander,” Mr. Adair interjected. “A third year in the same program as yourself, Alice. You would do well to listen to any bits of wisdom she might pass down.”
Alice choked herself back from snapping that she already knew what year Beth was just from paying attention below ground. Instead she lowered her eyes and said, “I am always grateful for the guidance of my seniors.”
“Such an excellent attitude to have here at Lander,” Beth said, flashing a toothy grin. “You’ll find yourself going far here with such humility.”
Alice said nothing. She’d managed to forget what this was like, the subtle barbs, the plays for power, the dance of the wealthy debutantes. For that’s what this was. Beth was from society, too. Her father had less wealth than Alice’s, but since Mr. Adair was trying to impress them, it was simple enough for Beth to establish herself as the alpha between the two. It was a tactful duel of concealed attacks and hasty retreats, an art Alice had learned long ago. And now, standing here in the crisp air of a dying winter, she realized how much she loathed it to her very core.
* * *
“You look good, Campbell, they already got you whipped back into shape after your month off over Christmas,” Gerry said, stepping the rest of the way into the common room.
“Thanks. So, what brings you to Lander?” Nick asked.
“Well, Ms. Pips couldn’t be here herself, of course, you know how busy things get on the weekends, but she thought you might like at least one familiar face on Parents’ Weekend,” Gerry explained.
“That is... surprising,” Nick said. He took a moment to recover himself, then turned to Vince. “This is Gerry. He works for Ms. Pips. He was my tutor growing up.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Vince said politely, shaking his hand.
“You too, kid, and that is some grip,” Gerry replied. “They making all you kids into ultra-soldiers?”
“Just basic Hero training,” Vince said, an unwitting smile coming to his lips.
“Yeah, well, with training like what they’re giving you, I’m glad I’m not a criminal. Four years of this and you’ll be able to take on an army,” Gerry quipped.
“Maybe, but we’ll all hope we never have to,” Vince said.
“Damn right, kid. So Nick, you know any good burger joints around here?”
“A couple,” Nick replied. “But Gerry, Vince and I sort of made plans already.”
“Well then, Vince can come along,” Gerry said with a big grin.
Vince took a step back and raised his hands. “No, no, I really couldn’t. You two go enjoy yourselves. I’ll call Alex up; his parents aren’t coming in ‘til tomorrow so we can have still have unsupervised fun.”
“You sure, kid? We got plenty of room in my car,” Gerry said.
“Really, Vince, you’re more than welcome,” Nick reiterated.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Vince said. “You guys have fun, I’ll see you when you get back.”
“Okay, if you’re sure,” Nick said hesitantly. Vince nodded emphatically.
“I guess that’s that, then. Good to meet you, Vince,” Gerry said, stepping over to the door. He and Nick walked wordlessly up the hallway. Only after they had stepped outside, checked to make sure the door was secure, and done a visual sweep did any words pass their lips.
“Good kid,” Gerry commented. “He the one without any family?”
“Yup,” Nick confirmed.
“You know he was lying about the other friend, right? He’s going to sit in there alone all night.”
“I know, Gerry. We invited him, though.”
“We could have pushed harder.”
Nick shook his head. “Wouldn’t have done any good. I slipped up and let him see how glad I was to see you. Vince could have never infringed on our time after something like that. He wouldn’t have budged no matter how hard we pushed.”
“Huh. Quite a guy you befriended there.”
“Whatever you say. Ready to get some food?” Nick asked.
“Sure, my car is over that way,” Gerry said, pointing past a garish stretch limousine and a few people dressed to the nines standing around it.
“Crap,” Nick said. “Let’s circle around. The blonde wearing black is another dorm mate of mine and I’d really rather not get drawn into talking with her or her dad.”
Gerry let out a low whistle. “She’s quite a looker. Which one is that, the flyer or the telepath?”
“Flyer,” Nick replied.
“Alice, then. And the guy with here is her dad. Any idea who the other girl is?”
“Not a clue about her name, but she’s one of the few female juniors in the HCP,” Nick replied. He had long ago compiled a mental list of every face he saw below ground as well as what class they belonged in.
“She must be some kind of powerful bitch,” Gerry observed. “Your friend looks pretty uncomfortable.”
“She’s fine,” Nick said, brushing it off. “Let’s go eat.”
“Campbell, if you think she’s fine, we need to go back over how to read body language and I mean now.”
“Fine, so she’s miserable and trying to hide it,” Nick replied. “That’s her problem; I’m off duty on the friend act.”
“Isn’t this the girl who saved your life?” Gerry asked.
“Yeah, on the mountain. Why?”
“Heavens above, kid, what do you mean why? The girl you owe your life to is practically biting back tears and you want to sneak by so she can’t see you.”
Nick sighed. “You know, for a con man, you sure have strict moral code.”
“The key part of con man is the word ‘man.’ You have to have empathy with your fellow human beings or you’re just a sociopath, and they make the shittiest con men alive,” Gerry pointed out.
“So what do you want me to do? Go slash the tires of the car so they can’t go to dinner?”
“Interject yourself, give her someone familiar she can lean on in the middle of shitty situation,” Gerry said.
“How? I wouldn’t do that. I mean... the me that they know wouldn’t do that. Hell, he wouldn’t even know how,” Nick said.
Gerry shrugged. “You got your license to work solo a long time ago. It’s not my job to figure out the angle for you.”
“No, it’s your job to tell me when to break my cover for no good reason,” Nick snapped back.
“Campbell, right now you’d be dead in the ground if not for that girl. There’s your good reason. If you can’t see how you owe her at least a little help when she’s upset, then maybe basic human empathy is something you’ve already lost touch with,” Gerry said simply.
“Damn it,” Nick cursed, taking off his sunglasses and handing them to Gerry. “Give me those back tonight. Lunchie and Munchie’s Burgers on 22 and V. One in the morning. And you are so buying after this shit.”
“Deal,” Gerry agreed as he watched Nick stride off across the grass.
* * *
“-so that’s why I’m holding myself in seventh place,” Beth said, concluding her story. “I could go higher, but right now I just feel like those other six need the self-esteem from it more. I mean, I’m already so blessed, why be greedy?”
“A very kind gesture,” Mr. Adair said. “You’re quite the caring girl.”
“Indeed,” Alice agreed. She wasn’t gritting her teeth yet, but it was becoming an effort. It was strange; she’d been the good little daughter for so long without even trying. Yet after only a few months at Lander, living in this role felt like getting dental surgery without anesthetic. She didn’t know what could have changed so much in such a short time. Had Alice been a touch more introspective, it might have occurred to her that the answer was herself. Perhaps she would have arrived there anyway, but at that particular moment a considerable interruption to her thought process occurred.
Alice felt an arm curl gently around the small of her back. At the same time a hand cradled her chin and pulled it in close. A pair of lips landed lightly on her cheek before she was released from the silken net of the grip that held her. She turned her head and found herself looking into a pair of brown, utterly foreign eyes. She was surprised, though not nearly as shocked as when she pulled back her gaze and saw the face that owned those eyes.
“Sorry I’m late, darling,” Nick said, giving her a comforting smile. “I got caught up at the study session for physics.” Nick turned away from the stunned-into-silence Alice and faced her father.
“You must be Mr. Adair. I must say it’s an honor to finally meet you, sir. I’m Nicholas Campbell, Alice’s boyfriend.”