“Alice, is everything alright?” Professor Hill’s voice stopped her as she headed for the door, another day’s Control class logged away. It was much the same as her teacher always sounded: empathetic and concerned. He treated all his students that way, but for the last few weeks she’d been listening more carefully, and she thought perhaps he was a touch more caring when it came to coaching her.
“What do you mean?” Alice turned around, watching the rest of the class file out into the hallway. By this point everyone had been held back after one class or another to work on an issue, no one paid any mind to her being stopped. “I hit every target you set for me today.”
“Yes, you continue to demonstrate exceptional skill, but your focus seems to be slipping infrequently. In training you can overcome such mistakes; however, during real tests you might not be so lucky. Your final exams are just around the corner, I thought you might have some issue or worry affecting you.”
Alice resisted the urge to tell him that she was distracted because now she had to get through every class knowing this man was secretly her uncle. With Professor Pendleton, it was easier. She could glower at him through the lectures and still focus on the material. For whatever reason, it hadn’t seemed like a good idea to tell Professor Hill that she knew his secret though. There was no singular thing she could point to as to why, and certainly no one had told her she wasn’t allowed to; it was just a feeling from deep in her gut. Two years ago she’d have dismissed it as nonsense, but Alice had learned a lot from those Subtlety classes. Just because she couldn’t consciously put together what the reason for secrecy was didn’t mean some other part of her wasn’t ahead of the game. With no one else to depend on, she was at least going to trust herself.
“Well, you said it yourself. The final exams are already next week since we’ve got to prepare the carnival for the younger students afterward. Have to make the grade if I want to get into the fourth year. That’s enough to stress anyone out.”
“I had a feeling that might be it.” Professor Hill walked over, and Alice marveled at how she’d never caught the resemblance to her mother before. His hair was dark while she’d been blonde, and he hadn’t gotten the sparkling green eyes that Alice inherited, but his face similar enough that, when she really looked for it, she could see so many of her mother’s features in his handsome visage.
“Listen, Alice, strictly speaking nothing is decided until the final exams are taken. It’s true that you could still make some huge mistakes and tank your grade, but I think we both know that isn’t going to happen. Besides, you’ve been getting top marks in Control all year. So long as you keep your head on straight and do your best, there’s no way you won’t qualify to make it your major. Just relax; you’ve got the knack for this stuff. Trust your training and you’ll be fine.” Professor Hill smiled at her, and Alice forced herself to smile back. He wasn’t lying; she really had been killing it at Control. It was what her powers were clearly meant for, and she’d never actually doubted for a moment that she could make the cut.
“Thanks. I’ll try to calm down. Guess I have to work on that anyway, for when I get in real fights. Can’t very well go into battle with the jitters.”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret: even the most experienced Hero in the world gets nervous before they go into the field. We never know what’s waiting for us, and a little fear is a healthy thing. Reminds us that we’re still mortal. You just have to learn to push through, to not let it drag you down. But you’ll get plenty of practice on that next year. And you’ll be free of a Subtlety course splitting your focus. That will make things much easier.”
“It sure will.” Alice gave her professor one last smile, then hurried out the door. Somehow she’d let it slip her mind that while she was taking both finals, she could only keep one of the courses. Control was the obvious choice. It was what she was good at, with the teacher who hadn’t been trying to get her to drop from day one. Logic had a firm case for where her Hero career was heading.
If only she could quiet the damned pangs of doubt echoing from her gut.
* * *
“You know, up until I saw you standing there, lined up with all the other students, I don’t think I really believed that you’d made it in.”
A grin crested Roy’s mouth and he spun around, only slightly surprised to see Lenny standing outside Melbrook Hall, puffing away on one of his cigars. The much taller boy clapped a quick hug on the agent, careful to avoid getting any ash on the street clothes he was adorned in.
“Didn’t think you’d be able to stop by, what with you being so ‘busy’ and all,” Roy said.
“Can the sass there kid. Just ‘cause you got taller than me doesn’t mean you get to be lippy. Besides, I really am busy. Of course you’re not supposed to know why, which I assume means you’re well informed.”
Roy quickly glanced around and confirmed that they were alone. Melbrook’s semi-remote location made it a pain for getting to class on time, but it definitely had some advantages. “Intermurals, right? Let me guess, you’re here to try and sign whoever comes out on top.”
“Try nothing. I hear there are two top-seeds this year, and I aim to walk away with contracts on both of them, and anyone who happens to put on an unexpectedly good showing.”
“Two? Well one is obviously Angela, and the other… shit, Brent is a senior, isn’t he?”
“Jesus, what the hell do I pay all these scouts for when a Lander junior already has the inside track?” Lenny knocked some ash form his cigar into a small box he carried around expressly to be ashed into. “Hank’s son versus Lander’s demon. Going to be a hell of a match. If you’re good I’ll write down some play-byplay and e-mail it to you later.”
“Damn. I was holding out hope we’d get to watch,” Roy admitted.
“Sorry, the Intermurals are pretty tightly closed off. It’s a chance for the top students to strut their stuff, but someone could also sell information on any weaknesses they show during the fights. I’ve got more clearance than some Heroes and your dean had to pull strings to get me a seat.”
“Ohhh, so that’s how he got someone like you to talk to the class. I was wondering about that.”
“Favors, better than a bribe and with the benefit of being legal. Speaking of…” Lenny put down the box full of ash and pulled out a flash drive from his coat pocket. “I’m paying one off now and giving you this.”
“What’s on it?” Roy accepted the data stick tenderly; rightly afraid that too strong of a grip could crush it.
“An interesting spectacle. I assume you’ve followed the news enough to know that Titan is back on the Hero scene?”
Roy managed to not crush the flash drive on reflex, a feat that even a year ago would have proven impossible. “I’d seen an article or so, but I tend to skip over things that mention him.”
“He’s working with a team of corpies as their Hero Liaison. I won’t say the sailing hasn’t been rocky, but the ship hasn’t capsized yet. Anyway, I want you to watch what’s on the flash drive. I think it might be good to see a new side of your old man.”
“Thanks Lenny, but no thanks.” Roy extended the flash drive, however Lenny made no move to accept it.
“I know you hate him, and damned if you don’t have a good reason to. But he’s trying really hard to be better, to not run away anymore. Maybe that’s not worth anything in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it matters a little. Hell if I know, I just think you’re better off seeing it than not.”
“I’ve got no inclination to see anything my father is doing,” Roy reiterated.
“True, though Hershel still might. Tell you what; watch it as a favor to me.” Lenny picked up his small box and stubbed out the cigar in its center. “I’m not such a bad guy to have owe you one, after all. Especially not to a student planning on graduating next year.”
Roy pulled the flash drive back slowly; still unsure of whether he’d ultimately turn it to scrap in his powerful grip. “I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I can ask,” Lenny closed his box and tucked the rest of his cigar into a plastic tube. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see a man about some top-tier ass kickers.”