“Well shit,” Alice sighed. “That does put kind of a damper on things.”
It had taken nearly an hour, but Nicholas had finally regained enough motor control to talk with Alice, and the first thing he’d told her with his rediscovered eloquence was the vital piece of information he’d tried to impart during the battle.
“I would say it puts far more than ‘a damper’ on things,” Nicholas huffed. “Nathaniel is a student of Lander and lives in the town. He is eligible to turn you in, informed enough to know about it, and spiteful enough to do it. Your entire HCP career could be gone by tomorrow morning.”
Alice nodded, her hair somewhat tangled from the high winds she’d flown through. “Yeah, that would really suck.”
The two were parked a few streets from Nicholas’s apartment, illuminated by the bright safety lights of a nearby gas station. Currently they were waiting for word from Eliza that the area was safe to enter and there were no more bombs waiting to be detonated.
It seemed Alice and Nicholas weren’t the only ones who’d had a surprising evening. Nathaniel had spared no expense in contracting out local muscle to try and take down Nicholas’s guards/keepers. A car bomb had mildly winded Jerome, whose ability kept him safe from such things, but the armed thugs had presented a somewhat more time-consuming challenge, especially since they had to be dealt with out of sight from the police. Between them, cell phone jammers, and having to sweep for bombs, Nathaniel had succeeded in taking them temporarily out of the equation, though he’d surely have preferred if they were killed. Still, if he’d wanted that outcome he should have hired far more or far stronger. In Vegas, reputations like Jerome’s were earned for a reason.
“Forgive me, but you appear to be strikingly apathetic about your precarious situation,” Nicholas observed.
“I don’t want to get kicked out of the Hero Certification Program,” Alice said, turning toward him. “My friends are there, I’ve got a potential future ahead of me, then there’s family stuff… for a multitude of reasons, I don’t want it to happen. But it is what it is. I have no regrets about what I did tonight. What was my other option, let that psycho have his way with us? Hell fucking no.”
“You could have run,” Nicholas pointed out.
“Still would have used my power,” Alice countered.
“Yes, but he wouldn’t have cared. You could have gotten away to safety and never risked your life or HCP standing.”
“And all I would have had to do was leave a friend behind,” Alice surmised.
“I’m not Nick. Your friend, all the memories and thoughts that comprised him, are gone. I am a different person, and you owe me no such obligations.”
“You know, Nick once convinced me to run away,” Alice said. She turned her eyes back out the window, staring into her memory rather than taking in the scenery. “It was during our freshman year, the labyrinth trial. He got me to leave Mary alone with Chad, convincing me that it was more prudent for us to stay out of her way. He wasn’t wrong, in a way, but I’ve never forgotten that feeling. How gut-wrenchingly awful it was to leave someone I cared about to an uncertain fate, while I scampered away to safety. That feeling, more than any other bit of motivation people have tried giving me, is what drove me to work so hard at getting stronger. I’m not leaving a friend behind, not ever again.”
Nicholas considered a retort, then thought better of it. “Sounds like Nick was quite convincing, when he needed to be.”
“He had his moments,” Alice agreed. She let out a soft, awkward cough, and changed the subject. “You’re sure your friend will be okay?”
“Jerome is nothing if not durable,” Nicholas assured her. “We were fortunate that Eliza was not in the blast, her power doesn’t afford such protections. As for the goons, they never stood a chance. No, the goal of that operation was to make me temporarily vulnerable. I’ll have to step up security measures so that Nathaniel doesn’t catch us unaware again.”
“After the scare I gave him, I bet he’s already halfway to Vegas,” Alice chuckled.
Nicholas let out a small laugh too, but inside he felt far from humorous. It would take more than Alice’s gentle threats to dissuade Nathaniel Evers from a course of action.
* * *
Across the town, in a luxury hotel room, Nathaniel had just finished putting away his laptop. All the research pointed to a single, inevitable conclusion. That girl, Alice, was in the HCP. There was no other explanation for her level of power, skill, and combat proficiency. Nathaniel wondered if Nicholas had realized he bagged one of the rare hidden treasures on campus. It was doubtful: Nicholas rarely cared for anything more than surface attractiveness, which Alice certainly had in spades.
The orange-eyed young man sat at the desk in his hotel room, letting out his long limbs into a triumphant stretch. The bruises from his landing were still sore, but the magic of revenge was already soothing the pain. In the morning, he would expose this girl as having used her powers, and she’d be tossed out. There were many darker, slower revenges Nathaniel might have utilized if given the chance, however it was more prudent to take the sure-shot against someone of her capabilities.
He’d just finished stretching when he felt a firm grip settle in on both sides of his Adam’s apple. The door had not opened and he’d heard no footsteps, so whoever was clutching his throat was undoubtedly a Super. He tried to stay calm and not allow memories of the night’s earlier defeat to cloud his judgment.
“I am not a twenty year old trainee,” said a voice behind Nathaniel, presumably connected to the hand tightly holding his throat. It was male, spoken in a harsh whisper that would make it difficult to identify. “The second I sense any mental fuckery, see a single sign of an illusion being cast, I will tear your throat out. Gulp once if you understand.”
Nathaniel gulped, not that he needed much prompting. Growing up as he and Nicholas had, they were both acclimated with people of less-than-upstanding morals. That included the wetwork personnel, individuals whose entire occupation was predicated on their willingness to do things that had to be done, no matter the circumstances. Nathaniel had sat in with them before, and he noticed that, to a man, each had the same demeanor when dealing with someone whose life hinged on their next words. They were not cruel, nor angry, nor forceful. They were perfectly calm, as though any of the potential outcomes would suit them fine; all that remained to be seen was which one occurred. Blood or compliance, there was no difference to those calm-voiced men.
The voice behind him spoke in exactly such a measured, detached tone.
“I know you’re thinking about paying back the girl for your loss by outing her. You aren’t going to do that. You’re going to forget all about her. Her name, what she looked like, that she had any powers at all. If she gets outed, by anyone, at any time, I will assume you had a hand in it and I will kill you. Make sure you are clear on that. Alice gets outed, you die. Take all the precautions you like, that is the sequence of events that will play out. Gulp once if you understand.”
“Good boy. Whatever you and Nick have going on, keep the girl out of it. She has far more dangerous friends than you do. If you see her, run. I don’t have to tell you what happens if you test me on this, do I?”
Nathaniel gulped, this time unintentionally.
“Glad we understand one another.”
Then, just like that, the pressure was gone and Nathaniel was free. He jumped from his seat and scanned the room, unsurprised to find it empty. He took a deep breath, an action rendered somewhat painful by the bruises forming on his throat, and reconsidered his plan of action.
Alice had warned him she was connected. At the time, Nathaniel had taken it as bluster, but it seemed there was some truth to her words. Better not chance it, at least not until things with Nicholas were settled.