Nick and Alice plodded along the shoreline, well-illuminated by the lights from the nearby street and the glowing moon overhead. Neither had said much since leaving the station; Alice had grabbed a cab to follow Nick since Thomas had driven them to the bar, but being unable to find one nearby after Nick’s release had left them with only the option of walking a few miles to the house or calling a friend to pick them up. Explaining why they were at a police station seemed like more effort than a sand-covered trek, so off they’d gone.
“You really beat the hell out of those guys,” Alice said after about ten minutes of walking in silence. “I mean... you went after them.” Her voice was weaker than usual; her worry seemed to physically weigh down her words.
“They attacked me first,” Nick replied, pausing to knock some of the sand from his flip-flops.
“Bullshit. I know you well enough to know they did exactly what you wanted them to do. They were drunk idiots and I’m not really sorry they got hurt but... I’ve never seen that look in your eyes before.” Despite the warm spring air, Alice shivered slightly. “Nick, you looked savage, scary, and happier than I think I’ve ever seen before. Is that... was that... the real you?”
Nick finished knocking away the sand and looked up at her. She was staring at him, resisting the urge to look away even though it was clear she wanted to. Her right arm was pulled across her stomach, something of a half-hug for reassurance. In this light she looked smaller than normal, yet somehow more beautiful as the soft light illuminated her features.
“Are you cashing in your marker?”
“Our bet, from the second team event. I promised you an honest answer to one question if you won your match. I’m asking if you want to use it for this question, right now.”
Alice was silent for a moment then shook her head.
“Then I’m going to say no, and you’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s the truth or not.” Nick turned to resume their journey, but Alice wasn’t done with the discussion yet.
“You didn’t have to do it that way. I was okay, it was just words. You didn’t have to hurt them.”
“Words are more powerful than people think,” Nick said with a sigh. “As for not hurting them, I’ll admit I’m pretty new to the world of friendship - hell, I’m still grappling with the idea of even having real friends - but one thing I’m sure of is that I’m not going to stand around and do nothing while someone hurts a person I care about. Besides, it was the best outcome.”
“How was that the best outcome?”
“Thomas and Will were there too. Thomas is like Vince, overprotective to a fault. He would have knocked those guys senseless once he figured it out. As for Will, let’s just say I’ve seen the look in his eyes when he gets serious, and he’s not someone I would purposely make an enemy of. Both would have taken action; neither of them have my connections. Jail would have been a much bigger deal, especially if it came out that they were Supers.”
“I... I can’t believe I missed this. I get it now.”
“Yup; just trying to keep things moving along nicely.”
“No. You were protecting all of us,” Alice said, some of her usual authority returning to her tone.
“Whoa now, let’s not go overboard. I just didn’t want the week to get spoiled. We’re all having too much fun. One of us getting locked up would have brought everyone down.”
“It would have. And an arrest for fighting humans would have been a serious black mark against Thomas or Will when they tried to advance to the next year,” Alice surmised. “You weren’t just hitting them on my behalf, you were doing it before the others had a chance because you knew you could walk away.”
Nick sighed and looked out at the ocean lapping onto the shore. This was why he loathed people with unpredictable perception. He could usually slip so much by Alice, but every now and then she caught something he didn’t expect her to see. It was quite annoying.
“Look, I think you’re giving me too much-”
“Why are you in the HCP?” Alice interrupted. Her passive posture was gone; now she moved slightly toward him, shoulders set and eyes full of steel. “And yes, I’m calling in my marker or whatever you said. Honest, complete answer. I want to know.”
“Have to admit, I wasn’t expecting that one. Mind if I ask why?”
“I just want to understand,” Alice replied. “What I saw today, that beast in your eyes as you smacked those guys around, it was kind of terrifying. But then, when I really think back, it seems like you’re always doing stuff like that. Playing the idiot or the ass and making missteps so the rest of us won’t. You go so far out of your way to act like a dick, but if someone were to look carefully, they’d see you’re always protecting the rest of us. I’m trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. The HCP wasn’t a mandatory part of the program, it was an offer. I’m hoping that knowing why you took that offer might help me figure things out.”
“I suppose I can see the thought process there,” Nick admitted. He walked toward the water and Alice followed a few steps behind. At the edge of the tide line he kicked off his flip-flops and trod a few feet further. The water pushed itself up the shore, covering his feet then pulling away, sinking him slightly as it stole away the sand.
“The reason I told the... my family is that this is training I can’t get anywhere else in the world. There are big plans for me, and bringing my ability under control would go a long way toward reaching those goals. In my entrance interview I told the school I wanted in because it was a chance to finally get control of something that had run my life for so long, to turn a handicap into an asset. Both are true, although the reasoning behind the second is different than a person who didn’t know me might assume. But if I’m being completely honest, there is a third piece of the puzzle as to why I enrolled in the HCP.”
Alice pulled her own shoes off and joined him in the water’s path. She stood close, close enough that he could feel her presence tingling along his arm, but without touching him. The waves rolled in and rolled out. Their gentle lapping was the only sound either could hear. Alice waited.
“I was a kid once. I mean, not a very normal one, and I don’t remember having a child’s mentality for long, but I was a kid once. Gerry used to tell me stories and read books to me. He loved classics. Don Quixote, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, shit like that. I read comic books too, once I could read on my own. I played pretend that I was a noble knight rescuing princesses. I put a towel on like a cape and ran around making flying noises.” Nick paused as he ran his hand through his sandy hair.
“Even someone like me wanted to be the hero, once upon a time. Dreamed about making the world a better place. Believed that one person could make a difference. All that crap. I came to Lander mostly for the logical reasons I gave everyone else. However, complete honesty, I think some part of me wanted to touch that fantasy again. Maybe a chunk of me even wanted to believe in real heroes, not just Supers with the title. Silly, especially saying it out loud, but it’s the truth and that’s what you wanted.”
“You were a kid once,” Alice repeated. Her hand worked its way carefully into his, intertwining her digits amidst those dexterous fingers as a fresh wave washed over their feet.
“Yeah. Did that help with your dilemma?”
Alice smiled and turned to face him. “Not really.”
“Oh well. Can’t win ‘em all.”