Chapter 138

                “Well, that’s unfortunate.” Gale was still looking at the door on screen, even as it slid shut and the other Heroes rose from their seats. There would be a half hour break before the mixer began in the gym, and most were heading down early. Ostensibly, it was to be prepared when the students arrived, but truthfully they’d probably spend the time rehashing the trial’s highlights with one another. Most Heroes, at least the kind still willing to take interns, never lost the joy of watching students reach new potential before their very eyes.

                 “Unfortunate? Alice just swept the mid-year trial. She was the last person standing, and unless my math is off she had more points than anyone else. I’ll admit I’ve been out of the loop for a while, but I can’t imagine many students from the Subtlety department regularly manage that.” Titan stood from his own chair at the same time Gale did. They were being given a modest berth by the others, although that could have been due to Titan’s size as much as his reputation.

                “Yeah, that’s my point,” Gale said. “I saw her potential from day one, and I’ve been courting her because of it. After a showing like that, she’s about to get a lot more people interested.”

                Well, that was certainly true. Even teams that weren’t fully on board with the idea of Subtlety Heroes wouldn’t mind taking one on if they had Alice’s combat potential. It just meant she brought a measure of cunning to the grit, endurance, and skill she’d put on display.

                “Alice is a smart young lady; she knows how to pick the teacher who’ll help her grow the most.” Titan clapped his hand on Gale’s shoulder as they headed toward the door. “Just keep reminding her you’re interested, she’ll make the right choice.”

                Gale nodded, albeit stiffly. “Guess that’s all I can do for now. Come on Titan, let’s get down there. The first round is on me.”

                “It’s an open bar,” Titan reminded her.

                “Then I’ll get the first two.”

*              *              *

                “….glad to hear it. Okay. Okay. Yes, I-… it’s fine Vince, we’ll talk details tonight. Now get back there, you don’t want to miss your reception.”

                Nick lowered the phone from his ear and ended the call, tossing it onto the bed next to his modest suitcase. He didn’t need to bring much for tomorrow’s trip, as always the majority of his belongings were still in Vegas. And much as he would have liked to lug along his documents, those were too dangerous to get in the same state as Ms. Pips. Still, he packed the suitcase, more for catharsis than necessity. Moments like these helped him mark his transitions between roles. Tomorrow, he would need to be the Vegas con man instead of the unseen aid to a group of would-be Heroes. These two weren’t necessarily different people, but they would react to things in different ways. Details mattered, especially around Ms. Pips. With the HCP so close to being done, Nick couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.

                “Was that Vince?” Eliza walked in and dropped a small package down next to Nick’s phone.

                “You heard me say his name, so you know it was. He stepped out to call and let me know everyone made it through the test safely. Or as safely as one can emerge from an HCP trial. I’m sure I’ll get a play-by-play when they come over tonight.” Reaching down, Nick scooped up the package. It was cylindrical, wrapped in simple brown paper with a white ribbon tied around it. “I don’t mind if you made a copy for yourself, but this had better be the real deal.”

                “Be fair now. I might be happy to pilfer things from you, but I’d never steal from someone I respect.” Despite the smile and sass, Nick saw a flicker of sadness pass through Eliza’s eyes. She was doing her best to hide it, yet with every passing day it grew more pronounced. Whatever waited for them in Vegas, Eliza wasn’t looking forward to it.

                Wordlessly, Nick slipped the package into the suitcase alongside a pair of jeans. Much as he wanted to grill Eliza, it wouldn’t do any good. Ms. Pips had obviously given the order for silence, and her word was law. There was nothing to be done but smile through the evening and get an early start on the drive home tomorrow morning.

                Nick was tired of the quiet sadness and unspoken fear. It was time to get to the bottom of this.

*              *              *

                Charles didn’t bother looking up from his desk as the door opened. If someone had come to kill him, then they’d made it past all of his security and no defense he could offer up would likely stop them. If they were in his employ, then they knew to wait quietly until Charles was ready. He continued working through the document before him for several minutes before finally reaching a stopping point and glancing at the intruder.

                Simon stood there, unbothered by the lack of attention and steadfast silence. As one of Charles’s best aides and longest tenured employees, he knew well the habits of the man he served. Although he’d never say it to his face, for it would be highly improper, Charles was actually a touch fond of Simon. The man had turned down lucrative offers over the years to stay in his employ, not that Simon was aware that Charles knew of the opportunities, and it spoke to his character. There were precious few things Charles Adair valued more than loyalty.

                “Yes, Simon?”

                “Forgive the interruption, Mr. Adair, but I just received news from Mr. Hill that I felt should be brought to your attention. It seems Alice has completed the HCP’s mid-year trial. She won, not only in point total, but also was the lone student not to be eliminated.”

                “Is that so? Interesting. Thank you, Simon. That will be all.”

                Simon nodded, then let himself out, shutting the door gently behind him. Despite being alone once more, Charles didn’t turn immediately back to his paperwork. Instead, he pulled open a desk drawer and removed a photograph housed in a silver frame. In it was a woman who looked strikingly like Alice, and as his eyes fell upon her Charles’s countenance softened ever-so-slightly.

                “It seems our daughter is at it again, Shelby. This time she went and won her semester-trial, despite insisting on that Subtlety major. Honestly, if I ever somehow managed to forget that she was your child; moments like this would serve as undeniable reminders. She pays no more heed to the idea of what is reasonable than you did, just plunging on and doing the impossible as if it isn’t even noteworthy.”

                Carefully, Charles ran his index finger along the edge of the frame, eyes and mind lost in the picture’s depths. “I’m sorry you missed this moment. I’m sorry for all of the missed moments in her life. Just a little longer, Shelby. Bear with me a little longer. I’m going to bring you back, my darling. No matter what it takes.”