Nicholas sat at a table on a balcony overlooking the casino; the last vestiges of a superb steak dinner and half a glass of red wine rested in front of him. Normally he would have taken Christmas lunch with Gerry; however, the older man had been swept up in handling a high-roller’s concerns for discretion and security. There wasn’t really anyone else it would be appropriate to mix with; the casino owner’s nephew could be seen buying waitresses drinks and slinking off to their room without issue. Spending a holiday together, that was a level of familiarity that spoke of more closeness than anyone outside of a small circle was privy to.
He heard the chair next to him pull out and the weight settle into it without turning from his view of the slot machines below. There was no need to look: with Gerry occupied, only one other person would have the confidence to sit down at his table unannounced.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Pips.” Nicholas’s eyes still tracked movement on the floor, specifically the movements of a black-haired waitress whose chest was precariously close to spilling out of her blouse.
“Good afternoon yourself, Angel.”
“You know I abhor that nickname.” At last he turned to face her, a slender woman whose face was surprisingly free of her years. She wore a pantsuit and her hair back as usual, and today she had added just a touch of makeup. People often had a fearful image of Ms. Pips based on her reputation; they rarely expected her to look so pleasant or speak so gently. Of course, after meeting her they also didn’t expect her cold-blooded tactics or policies of swift vengeance either, so in a way they were deceived both coming and going.
“Then you shouldn’t go so far out of your way to earn it,” Ms. Pips replied. “It seems the Angel of the Cards dealt Nathaniel quite a trouncing in poker the other night.” A waiter approached their table nervously and set down a glass of white wine. Ms. Pips rarely rested even long enough to sit; when she did there was a standing order for any service staff to have wine in front of her immediately. She nodded her acknowledgement to the waiter, who fled as soon as her piercing eyes were off of him.
“Nathaniel Evers is the same one-trick pony he was four years ago. I’ll admit the glowing orange eyes and creepy demeanor accentuate his power, but I’d hoped by now he would have extended his repertoire a bit.”
“The ability to see people’s fears is still enough to unnerve most players.”
“Please; my fears are the very least of my daily concerns. He’s welcome to them, just so long as I’m welcome to his chips.”
“You took quite a few of them, if reports are accurate.”
Nicholas reached across the table and took a healthy sip of his own wine. “They were.”
“Glad to hear it. Since you performed so well, I went ahead and got you a little Christmas present,” Ms. Pips said, flashing a smile that seemed too small to show so many gleaming teeth.
“If you take the time to tour the casino today, you’ll find it staffed with every single new female hire I’ve made in the time since you left for school,” Ms. Pips explained.
Nicholas had indeed noticed a few fresh faces treading across the floor below, but he hadn’t yet noted the extensive lack of familiar ones. He cast his eyes back down to the casino and allowed a smile of his own to bloom across his face.
“Now I feel bad. I didn’t get you anything.”
“You crushed and humiliated that Evers boy in front of everyone,” Ms. Pips reminded him.
“Yes, but I took pleasure in that.”
“Not nearly as much as I did.” Ms. Pips finished her glass of wine and rose from the table. “I’ve got to get back to work. Do try to use a little self-restraint today. You’ve still got two weeks here and you can be a bit boorish when you run out of new distractions.”
“I’ll pace myself.”
Ms. Pips left it at that and turned back to her own matters. The boy would do as he wished; that was prerogative of those who served the family well. She was sure he’d go through more than was prudent; he was always so energetic on his first few weeks back home. Truthfully, Ms. Pips was impressed he’d managed to quell his appetite enough to stay in character while off at college. That was her nephew for you; just when you thought you’d found a weak point in his defenses, you discovered he’d refortified it years ago.
* * *
Mary sat in the thick heat of her trailer as a thin dusting of snow fell across her forest. She’d spent some time with her parents, but today the rest of the extended family was over. Though Mary could stop the influx of thoughts now, she hadn’t possessed that talent when she was younger. As a result she’d heard how they felt about her when she was growing up. There was something disconcerting for a child to see a smiling face offering presents and yet to hear them pitying her poor parents for having birthed such a freak. Mary didn’t spend time around them now; she hadn’t since she left home.
She sat in the streaming sunlight of a window with her bear perched on her lap. She’d waffled between reading a book and doing some of the practice techniques Professor Stone had taught her. In the end she’d settled on the book, if for no other reason than she felt the holiday entitled her to at least one day of laziness.
Dimly she was beginning to grow aware that she was a bit bored out here. Before Lander the silence had been paradise, but after a year and a half of living at Melbrook, plus a summer with Alice, Mary suspected she’d grown used to the sound of perpetual chaos. In a small part of her heart this saddened her: quiet had always been her refuge and she loathed to see it lose that quality. Most of her was happy with the discovery, after some time to mull it over. Mary had spent her whole life watching people find happiness by being around one another, a feat she had envied but never been able to replicate. Now, all this time later, she’d gone and gained the ability herself without even noticing it.
If there were any better Christmas present in all the world, Mary couldn’t have told you what it was.