After the countless hours of digital training in the Blonk and even more time spent on Subtlety class and practical skills training, Alice was almost disappointed at the fact that she didn’t need to employ stealth or misdirection when entering her father’s office. The simple fact of the matter was that when Charles Adair left town, so did the vast majority of his security personnel, and even if they had been there it wasn’t as though any would have stopped her. Kings and CEOs might need to request entry into the home of Charles Adair, however his daughter had always been allowed to pass freely wherever she wanted. In her youth, Alice had taken it as a sign of affection, like he was saying she was special and always welcome. Now, looking back, Alice suspected the reason for such freedom was simple: he’d never felt like she was a potential cause for real trouble. And why would he? A life spent as the demure, well-behaved debutante with the floating problem certainly painted her in such a light.
Of course, another explanation was that he was too smart to leave anything truly sensitive in such an easily accessed location in the first place. She’d walked in expecting that this might be the case, and after an hour of careful searching Alice’s suspicions were confirmed. There were plenty of business-related documents stowed away in his desks, things that looked very impressive but yielded precious little information when examined carefully. Aside from that, all she found were a few office supplies, a box of half-eaten protein bars, and a picture of her mother housed in a lovely silver frame.
That item, Alice lingered on. A year ago, she’d have found it odd that he kept such a treasure tucked away in a drawer rather than out on display, but her work with Abridail had shed new light on the matter. Charles Adair loved his wife, whatever remained of her; however he was also almost certainly plagued with guilt over her condition. The situation was a complex one, and tempting as it was to cast her father as a villain outright, Alice’s mind often flitted back to the vision she’d been shown. Shelby, weeping on the floor, coping with the trauma of constantly seeing her own child dead. It would have been for Alice to say she would have found another way, would have never dared to take such a gamble with Shelby’s health. But if Subtlety had taught her nothing else, it had shown Alice that life, and the choices in it, were never so simple. Maybe she’d have done the same, if she were in Charles’s expensive shoes and one of her loved ones was slowly deteriorating before her very eyes. It was impossible to say, and much as she might have liked to talk it over with Charles and see things from his perspective, he’d never given her the chance. He’d never shared this burden; instead he’d buried it deep inside and shoved away anyone who even tried to get close.
Carefully, with a keen eye for detail, Alice tucked the photo back into the drawer. She was working to leave the desk almost, but not quite, as she’d found it. Trying to make things too perfect would draw suspicion if Charles caught a detail. Instead, she’d brought along a small vase of flowers from the garden and a simple Christmas card, one signed with a pen she’d taken from his desk and put back in the wrong drawer. Ostensibly, she’d come in to leave a welcome home gift for when he arrived and rooted about looking for a pen. Whether he bought it or not was largely irrelevant, the idea was simply to create plausible deniability. She didn’t want to tip her hand just yet.
Despite whatever nuggets of information she hoped to glean from their impending discussion, Alice was honest enough with herself to know there was small chance of getting anything truly useful. No, that wasn’t what this meeting would be about, not at its core. What Alice really wanted to uncover was some glimmer of hope, some decent part of her father buried away under all the years of deceit. She owed it to him, not the man he was now, but the one who’d raced into her room with that ghastly look on his face when he thought she was hurt. The one who’d held her mother as the woman lay weeping. Once, there had been goodness in Charles Adair, and Alice dearly wanted to believe that some of it still lingered.
But as a skilled Subtlety student, she was already preparing for disappointment. Given all she knew of her father, it was only practical.
* * *
“It seems… stable.” The soft-spoken woman lowered her hands from Hershel’s temple. Around them, the room was dark and thick with the scent of incense. While Madame Clandesta might masquerade as a medium in her free time, some still knew her as Ava, a Super with exceptionally potent telepathy. She could see beyond thoughts, to the very structure of a mind itself. And for a pair of brothers sharing a body during a tumultuous childhood, she’d played the role of therapist and family friend.
“Stable is good, right?” Hershel asked. “Like, we’re not eroding the barrier between us. Or is it bad, because it means we’re back to having it firmly in place? I mean… I don’t hear Roy right now.”
Ava reached under her decorative crystal ball and pulled out a pack of nicotine gum, which she promptly took a piece out of and began chewing. “Do you need to hear Roy right now?”
“Not especially,” Hershel said.
“Well, then that might be your answer.” Her face pinched, as it always did when she first bit into one of the cigarette substitutes. “No one is going to be able to explain exactly what your power is, it’s unique to the two of you just like mine is to me or your father’s… sorry.”
“It’s okay. The subject isn’t as sore as it used to be.” While Hershel wasn’t quite ready to invite Titan over for Christmas dinner, his interaction with Roy had proved that there might be hope for some relationship down the line. After all, Hershel couldn’t very well let Roy show him up and be the more mature one.
“Glad to hear that. As for your power, I can still feel a distinct difference between you and Roy. It hasn’t lessened since the last time I saw you as children, but it has grown… how to put this… let’s imagine that the barrier between you and Roy is a brick wall,” Ava told him. “And control of the body is a ball that you pass over that wall. You haven’t actually broken the wall in a meaningful way, as far as I can sense. It would be more accurate to say you’ve installed a window in it.”
Hershel mulled the analogy over for several moments. “So we can slide the window up and talk to one another, or leave it down when we want privacy.”
“Precisely. It might take some practice to figure out how to open and close it at will; however, with enough training I’m confident you two can figure it out.”
“I’m fine with that, and I think Roy is too,” Hershel said. “But the bigger issue is the fact that we changed the barrier at all. What if we… do something worse? Accidentally destroy it completely? What happens then? Do I become Roy? Does he turn into me? Do we just get our personalities blended together into a Frankenstein of the two of us?”
Ava leaned over and spat the gum into a trash can near her table. “I don’t know, Hershel. No one does. Understanding how a Supers’ power work is already more art and guesswork than science, and you two are a unique case even in that spectrum. Here’s the thing to keep in mind though: based on what we know of how your power works, it seems to respond to what you need and work toward. So do you plan on working toward destroying the separation between you and Roy? Do you need your brother gone?”
“No.” Hershel shook his head. “Even when I somewhat hated him, even when he made my life a chaotic mess, I never wanted Roy dead. I’ve got his memories, I know how he feels, I could never want to kill him. He’s my brother; I love him.”
“Then you’ll probably be alright.” Ava reached over and patted him gently on the forearm. “And if you’re ever scared, you know you can make an appointment and I’ll give you the once over. Just try not to come at Christmas next time, this is my busy season. A lot of people want to be comforted by saying a festive goodbye to their loved ones.”
“Thanks Ava, and I’ll keep that in mind.” Hershel rose from his chair, and she mirrored him. “By the way, if you’re not working on actual Christmas, Mom said you’re more than welcome to come join us for lunch.”
“I may take her up on that.” Ava walked around the table and gave Hershel a surprisingly strong hug for a person of her age. “Now you take care of yourselves. I’m looking forward to watching the news next year and seeing you on the screen as a big-shot Hero. I like the name, by the way.”
Hershel nearly jerked away in surprise, then felt embarrassed. Of course she’d seen that, he’d been working hard to leave his mind as open as possible for her. “You don’t think it’s a little too… on the nose?”
“What’s wrong with being on the nose? I think there’s a certain power in owning what you are,” Ava said. “It’s a good name, for both of you. I look forward to buying it on a t-shirt.”
They broke apart, and Hershel smiled down at her. “When the first printing comes out, I’ll make sure to send one over to you.”