Chapter 230

               “That about wraps up class for today.” Professor Pendleton took down the chart of former soviet leaders and tucked it neatly away in his briefcase. Discussing the fundamentals of interrogation wasn’t exactly a popular topic, but it was one that he’d seen the necessity for firsthand, so he refused to gloss over it. Around him, the bustle of students packing away their notebooks filled the air.

                “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you all that tomorrow is your Subtlety Final, but the dean insists that I do so anyway. Additionally, remember that whatever teams you turn into me just before the match will be your official ones. Nothing you’ve said, signed, or submitted beforehand supersedes your final submissions. Something to keep in mind when making those last-minute choices.”

                The stuffing of notebooks slowed slightly as his few students exchanged glances with each other. By Professor Pendleton’s estimations, there were at least two false alliances and one outright betrayal in the works. Alice had been quite the social butterfly, making inroads and half-promises since she first heard the assignment. None of the others seemed to trust her, but they also didn’t know who, if anyone, she’d truly aligned herself with. Much as he hated to admit it, his niece had a real gift for the social side of Subtlety.

                Slowly, but steadily, the students filed out of his classroom, until Professor Pendleton could just be Sean again, at least until his sophomores came around for their next teaching session. He’d barely gotten the romance novel out of his desk when he heard footsteps coming back down the hall toward his room. Slipping the paperback out of view, he took a seat at his desk and waited calmly for the visitor.

                Alice strode back into the room confidently, her usual stoic dislike fixed firmly in place. If he hadn’t already realized that she wanted to speak in private from the fact that she’d doubled back after leaving, Sean knew it for certain as Alice shut the door to his classroom on her way in.

                “I don’t want special treatment.” She sounded as cold and removed as she had since discovering their familial bond.

                “Dean Blaine oversees every evaluation you take for me and Professor Hill to make sure that you don’t get any,” Sean replied. “And honestly, have you ever really thought I gave you any special treatment?”

                “God no, you’ve been such a dick to me since I walked in your door that I thought my father must have screwed you out of a job or something,” Alice admitted. “But that was before I knew about our . . . what you were and started being a dick to you right back. The last thing I want is you trying to make amends by giving me a little helping hand on the final. I’m going to pass that damn thing, and when I do, it’s because I earned the win.”

                “Why do you even care, Alice?” For the first time since Blaine had shown him that picture as they sat in his cell, Sean felt the mask he’d fixed in place slip away. He’d tried so hard to protect her from the truth of her past, but now that everything was finally falling out into the open, Sean finally realized just how tiring the effort had been. “We both know you’re going to ace the Control final, and Professor Hill has probably already written your acceptance letter for making it your major. What does it matter how you do on my final?”

                “Because you’ve been trying to push me out of this class since day one, and we both know it. You probably wouldn’t have let me stay in this year if Dean Blaine hadn’t given us free choice. Well, I’m going to show you that not only can I hack it here, but I can be one of the best.” Alice stared him down, and Sean flashed to one of the countless memories of Shelby when she dug in her heels on a subject. It was all he could do to keep from smiling at how similar they were.

                “I bet you think I’m going to deny it. To tell you that I was just pushing you harder, or being extra tough so that no one would accuse me of favoritism. Well, I’m not. You’re absolutely right, Alice. I have been trying to make you quit. If it had been in my power, I’d have never let you in this class to begin with,” Sean said.

                “Why? I’m smart, I’m cunning, and I’m damn good at a lot of the human elements of Subtlety.”

                “Because I know what it is to be a Subtlety Hero,” Sean replied. “I know how it feels to have teammates that don’t quite trust you, to be the first one in the DVA’s sights when there’s an information leak, to lay awake at night and wonder where the line between Hero and criminal really is, and whether you’ve already crossed it or if it’s still looming on the horizon. I don’t want that life for you, Alice. Not when your power opens the door to one that can be so much better.”

                “You know, if you had just told me that two years ago, I might not have spent all this time thinking you such an asshole,” Alice said.

                “But you wouldn’t have listened.”

                “Of course not.” Alice’s expression softened just a touch, the barest hints of a smile dancing on the corners of her lips. “I’d be exactly where I am right now: telling you to shove it, and that I’m going to kick ass. I’m stubborn, but at least I know it.”

                “That you do. In fact, it’s a trait you get from our side of the family, which is why I’m still going to grade you as carefully as ever. If you slip up, don’t expect to pass.” Sean allowed his own grin to finally break through. Things weren’t really better than they had been, but it just felt so nice to stop having to pretend, even if only for a few moments.

                “Honestly, at this point, I don’t even know how to take a test where the odds aren’t stacked against me,” Alice said. “If I ever get an easy test, I’ll probably freak out and bomb it.”

                “Nothing to worry about there. In the Hero Certification Program, there are no easy tests, and we’re nothing compared to what it’s like out there in the field.”

                “Bring it on, then,” Alice said. “I’ve got plenty of confidence in my strategy.”

                “Tomorrow will tell. Please leave my door open as you leave,” Sean said, leaning back in his chair.

                “No problem.” Alice headed over, pulled the door open, and started to leave. Before completely exiting, she paused to stick her head back in. “Oh, and enjoy your romance novel. Thaaaat’s right; Nick told me all about it.”

                Sean could still hear her laughing for a solid half minute as she headed down the hallway.