Chapter 150

                Alice was unsurprised to step into a nearly vacant mansion. It was the holidays, and, save for security personnel, Charles Adair allowed much of the staff to take time off. It wasn’t as if they’d be needed beyond the basic tending of meals and cleaning for Alice. His Christmases at home were infrequent at best; all revolving around what deal needed closing.

                No, Alice was not surprised by the emptiness of the house. What did catch her off-guard was how unbothered by it she was. The first year she’d come home to this place she’d broken down in tears, overwhelmed by the loneliness. This time, it wasn’t even a blip on her emotional radar.

                She pondered why as she walked up the marble stairs, sneakers moving soundlessly. Perhaps it was because she’d been away so long that the place felt foreign to her. That seemed close to the source, but not quite there. As she reached the top of the stairs, she paused for a moment, turning about to figure which way her room was.

                That was when she finally understood why this place provoked no reaction in her.

                Alice’s room wasn’t anywhere in this massive mansion. It was three hours away, in a small dormitory on the Lander campus. Her father’s estate no longer depressed her because it was no longer her home. Alice’s home was a place filled with laughter, and worry, and fun, and most importantly: people she loved. At some point since her last time in this place Alice had mentally relocated. She didn’t belong here anymore, not really. Even if Lander cut her at the end of the year, she wouldn’t come back. She would make a new place in the world, one without empty halls and lonely memories.

                Her gait increased as she moved briskly down the hallway. Now that she knew her time here was temporary, there was no hesitation in Alice. It was just a few weeks away from home, nothing to get worked up over. Because it would end, and Alice would go back to the place where she belonged.

*              *              *

                The Daniels’ living room was filled with Christmas cheer as Mr. Transport, Vince, and Hershel all appeared. Sally Daniels enveloped both of the younger men in hugs before they’d even gotten a few away from the teleporter, squeezing all the worry she’d held for them into the embrace.

                “Glad to see you’re all still in one piece.” She pulled back a bit to examine them. Hershel had changed considerably since summer, muscle slowly taking the place of the fat he’d worn since childhood. He looked more like Roy now, though the two would never be able to pass for twins they now far more resembled brothers. Vince’s body was much the same as the last time she saw him, perhaps with a bit more mass in the arms and shoulders. His eyes, on the other hand, had become a bit harder. Kindness still twinkled in them, but there was an undercurrent of violence willing to emerge. It both saddened and relieved her. Much as it was a shame to see Vince change; she’d been around enough Heroes to know that a certain amount of steely resolve was required to do the job.

                “You two go run your bags upstairs. We’ll be having lunch soon, and I expect you two to both have brought serious appetites.”

                Vince and Hershel immediately obliged, walking up the stairs with baggage in hand. Only after she was sure they were gone did Sally turn to Mr. Transport, who was waiting with polite patience.

                “Are you ready for this?”

                “I am if you are,” Mr. Transport said.

                “I believe we’ve reached the point where not telling is actively lying. It’s been nearly a year, and we haven’t grown tired of one another yet.”

                “Quite the opposite, really,” Mr. Transport agreed.

                “Exactly. So, even though it’s just dating, I think it’s time Hershel and Roy knew. We’ll tell them over lunch.”

                “How do you think they’ll handle it?”

                “Hard to say,” Sally replied, looking back up the stairs. “When their father left, it sewed a lot of anger in both of them. Much as they dislike him, I think they worry about me even more. My guess is that they’ll be happy so long as you make me happy, but don’t be surprised if Roy threatens to break you skull if you hurt me.”

                “You know, I’ve seen how strong Roy is getting. That’s actually a bit of a scary prospect these days.”

                “Well then, I suppose you’d best endeavor not to hurt me then.” Sally slipped over to her suitor and placed a brief kiss on his lips.

                “It’s the last thing I intend to do.”

                “We wouldn’t be here if I didn’t know that,” she said. Then she moved away from him as sounds from upstairs echoed downward. Today was the day to tell the truth, but in a proper way. A way that involved mashed potatoes, corn, and roast turkey.

                “Into the dining room you two,” Sally Daniels yelled up the stairs. “And set a fourth place as well. I’ve convinced Mr. Transport to join us for lunch.”

*              *              *

                “I miss you all. I know I open with that every time I come here, but it’s always true. I miss our stupid car trips and our fights and just having you around. If I was in this program for real, I think you’d be proud of me. If I were really going to be a Hero, I wonder what you’d all say. Probably nice things, except for you, Teri. I’m sure you’d constantly be messing with me under the guise of keeping me from getting a big head. God, I wish you were here to tease me. What’s a little brother without his big sister?”

                The man speaking wore a black hooded-jacket than ran down the all the way to his calves. This left only a bit of his gray pants and boots visible on the snow-frosted ground. They were unremarkable, unless one happened to be student in Hero Certification Program, in which case they were instantly recognizable.

                “I know it’s been a long time. Eleven years too long, in fact, but I’m making progress. I just need a little longer, a little more time and I’ll be able to keep my promise.”

                A gust of wind blew by, stirring the top coating of snow resting atop the marble headstones. There were three of them, two large and one small. Each certainly bore a name and an inscription, but such details were obscured by the white powder coating every surface, save for the man speaking. He hadn’t bothered wiping them off. He didn’t need to read name to know who he was talking too.

                “Just a little bit longer, and I’ll be able to kill him. Maybe another year, at most. It’s a weird route to get there, I’ll freely admit that, but I will do it. Please, believe in me. I’ll keep my promise.”

                A sharp popping sound echoed through the quiet graveyard and the smell of burning o-zone filled the air. Moments later, a new voice spoke, this one distinctly feminine.

                “Whenever you’re ready, we’re waiting for you.”

                “Thanks, Shims. Or maybe you prefer Clarissa?” The man turned away from the headstones and walked toward her. As he drew close, another gust of wind took his hood and pulled it back, revealing the tanned, strong-jawed face of Thomas Castillo. It also served to pull his jacket open a bit, revealing the full HCP uniform on underneath it.

                The woman scowled at the sight. “You shouldn’t be wearing that.”

                “It’s what I had on hand. Besides, I can’t very well come to a place like this in my normal look. I’ll change before the big meeting, okay?”

                “I suppose it will have to be alright. And keep calling me Shims, please. Who we are here is different than who we are with the outside world.” Shims pointed her hand to a large, yellow sphere floating a few feet off the ground. Stepping through it would lead to another identical sphere connected at the meeting location. Most teleporters to only hop about in space, but Shims was different: she could create tunnels through it.

                “Hey, who understands that better than me? Are we doing Christmas dinner again this year?”

                “Of course,” Shims said, a slight glow lighting up her face. “You know how Globe gets around the holidays.”

                The duo stepped through the orb and vanished, the orb itself dematerializing moments later. Though it was gone, the smell of burning o-zone still lingered in the graveyard for an hour more, until the wind picked up in earned and a new coating of snow arrived to douse the land.

End of First Semester