Nick heard the door open, but made no motion to reach for one of the several guns stashed nearby. Two minutes earlier or later and he certainly would have. This time, however, was perfectly in the window expected for Eliza to check in as she did her rounds, and therefore no cause for concern. He did still bristle a bit, then forced himself to calm down. The situation with Nathaniel was making him tense, and that was a mistake. Tension was the enemy in long, protracted battles like these. If he started seeing threats everywhere, he’d become blind to the real ones as they crept up on him. Part of him wanted to believe that trying to stay relaxed was the reason he’d finally let thing progress to this point with Alice, but not even Nick was skilled enough to sell that lie, especially to himself.
“Everything is clear on the- oh ho ho. What’s this now?” Eliza stepped into Nick’s bedroom as she spoke and found him looking at three button-down shirts paired with different slacks that had been laid on the bed. “I thought your date wasn’t until Saturday?”
“It’s not, but time and temperature have wilted the crispness from these, so I’m going to get my outfit pressed before the big night.”
“You know, I’ve seen a lot of crazy shit in my life, most of it since starting to work for your family, but I never would have believed that I would live to see Nicholas Campbell actually care about one of his dates.”
“Then that shows a lack of perceptiveness on your part,” Nick replied. “I’ve cared about every date I’ve ever gone on and every lady who has given me the pleasure of her company.”
“Fair enough. But what about after things are done?” Eliza said.
“There, you may have something of a point.” Nick picked up the blue shirt along with the grey slacks beneath it and set them aside. It was a classic color combination, but it was better suited to someone with Vince’s striking eyes and hair. On him, it would seem a touch garish, and while Nick had no objections to garishness on occasion, he was cultivating a different aura for his first date with Alice.
“Seriously though, you can’t tell me you put this much effort into choosing your clothes every time you take a girl out. We’d never see you on the casino floor if that were the case.”
“No, I’ll admit that I don’t usually try quite so hard. But Alice Adair is not a simple woman, and I would put myself at a disadvantage if I treated her as one.”
“It’s okay to be nervous.” Eliza leaned over and touched Nick lightly on the shoulder, drawing his gaze from the clothes to her. “I mean it.”
“I’ve committed more crimes in my life than most police officers will ever see. I’ve squared off against Supers, criminals, and thugs on a near daily basis since I was a child. I am Nicholas Campbell; I do not get nervous about dates.”
“Except when you actually care about the girl, of which I’m guessing this is the first time.” Eliza met his eyes head on and for once Nick found himself wondering if he’d stepped out of his depths. These were emotional complications he was accustomed to using on others, not getting tangled in himself.
“You said we were clear,” Nick said at last.
“All quiet on the western, eastern, northern, and southern fronts.” Eliza let him change the subject without objection, mostly because she wasn’t sure what to say if he tried to turn it into a genuine discussion. After all, she’d left the only man she’d loved abandoned in a shack, what did she know about healthy love?
“Good. At least Nathaniel seems to have retreated for the moment. I don’t need to tell you that we’ll be on high alert when I take out Alice though, do I?”
“He caught us off-guard once. It’s not happening again,” Eliza assured him. “Also, I’d wear the green shirt with the dark pants. Just my two-cents, but I think you look good in green.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Nick turned back to choosing his outfits in an effort to calm his nerves as Eliza headed out the door to continue making sure their homes were secure.
Of the two, she had the far easier job that night.
* * *
“Sure, I can ref for you.” Professor Cole pulled a thick binder out from her desk drawer and set it down with an audible thud. Her gloved hands rifled through the pages until she came across the one she was looking for, at which point she turned back up to the two young men standing in her office. “How’s Saturday work?”
“I have no prior commitments,” Chad told her.
“Yeah, I’m good too.” Unlike Chad, Roy seemed a bit a frazzled by the unexpectedly easy answer his teacher had given. “Don’t you even want to know why we’re going to have a match though?”
“Because you’re deciding between Weapons and Close Combat, and you think fighting the class’s top ranked student will give you some perspective on which you’re better suited for.” Professor Cole snatched a pen up off her desk and began scribbling in the binder. “How about we do it around one? Eat an early lunch and you’ll have time to digest before the action.”
“Works for me,” Chad said.
“Wait, hang on, how did you know that’s what I was doing?” Roy asked.
“For shit’s sake, do you really think you’re the first student to decide to make the choice by testing themselves? We usually get one every two or three years in a situation like yours. Honestly, if you didn’t figure this out for yourself I was going to drop a lot of hints until I had to outright tell you to do it.”
“So this works? It’s a good way to make the choice?”
“What you get out of it depends entirely on you,” Professor Cole replied. “The more straightforward with yourself you are, the more clarity you’ll have after trying both styles. It’s all about honesty: are you going in hoping to prove one style is better? If so, then you’re going to come out with either confusion or justification. However, if you’re trying this to genuinely see what the best way you fight is then you may just learn a few things about yourself in the process. Now, does one in the afternoon on Saturday work for you or not?”
Roy noticed Professor Cole was tapping her pen to the binder’s pages and quickly nodded his head. He’d been in her class long enough to know that when her patience ran out, things could get ugly. “That’ll be fine for me. And thank you for doing this, ma’am.”
“You can thank me by making sure it’s not a waste of my time,” Professor Cole said. “I want you two to push yourselves until you get some real answers. Otherwise, I might have to do some of the pushing myself.”
“No worries about that,” Roy told her. “No matter how things turn out, I’m bringing everything I’ve got to that fight.”