Chapter 77

Angela was nearly to the lifts, class having let out roughly ten minutes prior, when she became aware of a gray-uniformed male approaching her. With most of the younger classmen, she had trouble keeping them straight. She, like nearly every other HCP student, cared predominantly only about the people she was directly competing with. The exception was this year’s junior class, which she had more than cursory awareness of due to Shane and Chad. The young man coming up to her was neither of those people, but she still knew his name. After all, around this time last year she’d been the one coming up to him without warning.

“Thomas, right?”

Thomas gave a small nod of confirmation. “Thomas Castillo. I was wondering if you could spare a few moments of your time.”

Angela glanced at her watch. She had an hour break before her next above-ground class, time she usually spent grabbing a lazy lunch. Some of that could be spared, as long as he kept it quick.

“A little,” she replied.

“Thank you. I needed to ask how you chose me to host the sophomore party last year. The time is drawing close, and I presume it’s my duty to elect a sophomore to carry on the tradition.”

“You presume right,” Angela said. “Well, for me it was easy. I just asked Shane for the background on you young’uns and picked the person best suited for it. I’m guessing you don’t have any friends or siblings in the sophomore class?”

“I do not,” Thomas confirmed. “My social circles have been somewhat limited, I now realize, to almost entirely fellow HCP students in my year.”

“Don’t sweat it, we all do that,” Angela said. “There’s a bond between people you’ve tried to viciously knock unconscious. Not totally sure why, but there is.”

“So it seems. Back to my dilemma, do you have any advice for making my selection?”

“If I had to say anything, I’d say you have two criteria that need to be filled for a good party host candidate,” Angela said. “First, they need a house. Can’t very well have much of a party in a dorm room. Anything in the Lander Lounge area should be good. Second, they should have come to your party last year. It allows you to play the ‘passing of a torch’ card along with a healthy dose of guilt. Plus, people who were at one last year already know the deal. You don’t have to explain a whole lot to them.”

“I’d thought there were many other factors to weigh,” Thomas said. “Social capability, overall power to enforce peace, that sort of thing.”

“Oh yeah, that’s great information if you can get it like I did,” Angela agreed. “But since we established that you can’t, I just gave you the bare-bones package.”

“Ah,” Thomas said, realization setting it. “Capability to host, and willingness to do so. I see now.”

“That’s part of why I picked you last year, you’re quick on the uptake,” Angela said. “Alright, I’m going to go get lunch if we’re good here.”

“Yes, thank you, you’ve given me some direction to work in.”

“Better work fast, traditionally you need to give them at least a month and half to prepare,” Angela said as she stepped onto the lifts.

Thomas made an odd, strangled noise in his throat. “You gave me less than three weeks.”

“Yeah, but I’m waaaaaay more irresponsible than you,” Angela countered, giving him a theatrical wink as the lift carried her upward, toward Lander’s normal campus and away from Thomas’s silent fuming.

*              *              *

“No fucking way,” Eliza said, crossing her arms over her torso for emphasis. “Not happening.”

“Your opinion is heard, considered, and summarily dismissed,” Nicholas replied.

Jerome said nothing; he merely watched the two building up toward a world-class bickering session with the detached resolve of a father who hasn’t slept in several nights. The three of them sat in Nicholas’s apartment; having their first face-to-face team meeting since Mary’s visit. Nicholas had taken two days to think over their conversation before requesting to meet with his associates. Once he told them why, Jerome understood why it had been a difficult decision.

“Dismiss it all you want, I’m not doing it,” Eliza reiterated.

“You will,” Nicholas disagreed. “Mary set down terms for continuing to interact with my former colleagues. One of those was that I had to go on a public outing with them in order to allow everyone to be aware of and adjust to my presence.”

“Yeah, goody for you, but Jerome and I aren’t coming along.”

“Eliza, Nathaniel’s people planted a very well-planned, perfectly timed, insidiously hidden explosive device. If not for fortune and Jerome’s power, one or both of you could be dead right now. There’s no secret that you and I don’t always see eye to eye, but you’re both members of our Family. The last thing I want is to see either of you dead,” Nicholas said. His voice softened slightly, and from just his facial expressions one could have believed he was totally sincere… unless they knew how skilled he was at faking just such emotions.

“More like you didn’t want to answer to Ms. Pips for our deaths,” Eliza muttered. “Even if I buy that line of reasoning, why should we come with you? Why not watch from afar? There’s no need to expose our identities to these people.”

“Except that they are valuable, useful assets,” Nicholas reminded her. “The only reason Nathaniel didn’t get his hands on me is because Alice Adair had enough power to completely neutralize him. Since it seems I’m going to be entering into their social circle, bringing you two along will mean that you can join me at outings and what-not. It gives you reason to be right beside me. That fulfills your duties as both bodyguards and snitches. It’s win-win.”

Eliza mulled this over. He made strong points, but they all favored Eliza and Jerome. Nicholas was not the sort to do anything for another person unless he was seeing some gain from it as well.

“Those are great reasons for us to come,” Eliza admitted. “But until you tell me why you insist we be there, I refuse. I will take this all the way up to Ms. Pips if I have to.” There it was, the trump card. It was a double-edged play, because if he called her on it, she had to follow through. If Ms. Pips didn’t agree with her thought process, then it would make Eliza seem flighty and weak. Those were not qualities one wanted Ms. Pips to assign to them.

Luckily, it seemed Nicholas had already been prepared to concede this point. “Mary demanded it,” he said, the barest touch of embarrassment in his voice. “She doesn’t seem to care about the fact that you’ll be spying on me, and by extension, them, but she’s only going to tolerate it if she has the chance to check you out as well.”

“So if Jerome and I don’t go, you’re cut off from the Melbrook group,” Eliza surmised.

“Correct. At that point, I can either write off the loss of incredibly powerful allies, or I can go against Mary’s will and see how full of bluster her threats were.” Nicholas dearly didn’t want the second option, not after the memory Nick had forced upon him. Mary had seen his darkest fear, his deepest secret, his soul laid bare. He didn’t want to cross her, if it could be avoided.

“Well then, this shouldn’t be a discussion of if Jerome and I will go.” Eliza leaned back against the couch’s soft cushion and daintily crossed her legs. “It should be a discussion of where we’ll have the five-star dinner where you make your proposal to convince us. Word to the wise, you never go wrong with Wagyu beef.”