Charles looked up from his desk to find Alice standing in the doorway. His gaze fell to a nearby clock, which told him that while the customary time for Christmas lunch was drawing near, it hadn’t actually arrived yet.
“By my count I still have half an hour,” he told her.
“I know, I just figured I’d get that out of the way now. Saves me the trouble of coming by when you’re actually late. This way we’ve checked all the boxes. I tried, you brushed me off, and I can have a hot meal on time.” Despite seeming to dismiss him, she stepped further into the office, shutting the door behind her. Her dress was festive, a holly green that matched the glitter she’d applied above her eyes. While she still used the accessory, it wasn’t nearly with the regularity that her mother had, and Alice’s expert application somehow managed to make the twinkling eye-covering subdued. As subdued as was possible, given the garish nature of the product, anyway.
“Be fair, I’ve been making more of an effort in these past few years. Losing you to college made me realize that I took your presence for granted, and I think I’ve shown up more in recent holidays.” There was something… off about the way she was approaching his desk, even as he tried to mollify her. Charles had built his business on the back of his power and being able to read people. Alice’s demeanor had shifted. What’s more, she wasn’t trying to conceal the alteration. She wanted him to know this meeting would be different.
Slowly, she took a seat across from him and met Charles’s eyes. A piece of his heart, one of the few bits not dried by loss and necessity, wanted to be moved by how much those eye’s resembled Shelby’s, but he denied it. Sentimentality was a weakness, something an opponent could leverage if used properly, and he was realizing more and more with every passing second that, at least for the moment, Alice was indeed coming in here to do battle.
“You’ve been a little more present,” she admitted finally. “And hey, sometimes you’re even willing to open up a bit. Tell me about mom’s garden, and the glitter, giving me small peaks into her past. Dad… you know, in spite of everything, I still love you.”
He raised an eyebrow and set his pen on the table. “In spite of everything? That’s an interesting declaration, coming from a woman in a designer outfit who walked in here on marble floors. Some might be grateful to have been raised in such luxury, not think of it as something to love me in spite of.”
A simple jab of guilt, one that failed to land as Alice’s face showed no signs of wavering. “Dad. Please. Don’t play this game. Not today. I didn’t come to fight with you. I came because I sincerely want to believe that under it all, you’re a good man. That we’re a family. I know you have your reasons for keeping secrets, especially when I was a child. But I’m not a kid anymore. I’m asking you to be honest. Come clean. Not to the world, or to anyone outside this room. Just to me. Just to your daughter. Show me that we can still salvage something of this.”
It was a solid opening move. Appealing to his sense of paternal affection, letting him know that she was aware of deceit without tipping her hand on exactly what secret she’d uncovered, and framing the whole endeavor as an attempt at parental reconciliation. No wonder she was putting up such good marks in Subtlety. Playing dumb was out, whatever she knew she clearly was sure of it. There was little to be gained by acting as though he had nothing to hide. Perhaps his best bet was to come at it from the other direction.
“Alice, I would be glad to discuss any matter with you, but I run a multi-billion dollar international corporation. If you want me to come clean on something, I’m going to need you to narrow it down. For the sake of time, if nothing else. Do you want to discuss the bribes to the Peruvian government, the loophole we’ve been using for waste disposal, or the lobbying groups I’m covertly funding at the capital? That’s just what I’ve been looking over this morning, mind you.”
She waited for a moment, not a pause, he could see in her eyes she’d already had a counter ready for this tactic. No, she was letting the moment sit, choosing the right time to speak. “It means a lot to me that you’re willing to chat, but none of that was on my mind. I actually wanted to talk about my uncle.”
There were only two options before Charles now: either Alice knew about all of her hidden family and had chosen the wording with surgical precision in an effort to make him tip his hand, or she’d only learned about Phil. If she’d uncovered Sean or Blake, then she would have certainly discovered the other. And he couldn’t very well ask which one she meant without playing into her hands. Phil seemed less likely to be uncovered; however, she had used the singular. That was his best bet, and even if he was wrong, perhaps unintended disclosure would be enough to ameliorate her concern.
“So… you discovered our family’s hidden shame.” Charles got up from his chair and went to a small bar in the back of his office. Filling a pair of glasses with brown liquid, he brought them back to the desk and retook his seat, setting one in front of Alice before helping himself to a sip from the other. “Can you really blame me, Alice? Globe was widely considered to be a monster, it took all the clout I had to keep from getting dragged along into the muck with him. So when I had the resources, I purged him from our history, severing all connections to the man. And I certainly wasn’t going to tell my daughter about her uncle, the Hero turned murderous traitor. I buried my brother, literally and metaphorically, and trusted that would be the end of it.”
“And then he came back,” Alice added.
“Yes, and then he came back, though how he did it is a mystery to us all, albeit not a true surprise. He’s always been powerful and determined. But his return made it all the more vital that I kept us, especially you, as unconnected to him as possible. A Hero-in-training being associated with that sort of person comes with all manner of complications.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen what Vince has had to deal with.” Alice picked up the glass and took a small drink, almost the exact same size that Charles had. “Who was Reynolds, by the way?”
“I beg your pardon?” It took everything he had for Charles not to show any emotion at the sound of that name, even though he should have been braced for it. He’d seen it often enough on reports about Alice and her fellow subjects, he just hadn’t expected her to know it carried significance.
“Reynolds. It’s Vince’s last name. Let’s not take a step backward and pretend you don’t know all accounts say he was raised by Globe.” Alice had another nip from the glass, clearly giving him time to protest or dispute the claim, which he didn’t take. “Anyway, apparently Vince didn’t know his last name and Globe didn’t want to give him his, said he’d thrown the name away in the first place, so he named Vince after someone important to him. I thought you might know who that was, being his brother and all.”
She was digging deep, dangerously so, but it remained to be seen if she had any idea the mines she was burrowing next to. It was an innocent enough question on the surface, and he had to treat it like one. For now.
“Detective Jack Reynolds,” Charles replied. “He’s long passed on now, but he was a good man. When we were children, our father passed away. Globe… Phil’s power had already developed by then, and as you can imagine when a man with a long domestic abuse record and a Super son dies suddenly, there’s an investigation.”
Alice’s eyes widened just a hair. She hadn’t known about her grandfather’s temperament, which meant she almost certainly didn’t suspect the rest. Charles kept going, albeit with far less tension concealed. “Jack Reynolds led the investigation. He eventually cleared Phil of course, because he was plainly innocent, however he stayed involved with us even once the official business was over. When we took up sports, before we were eventually kicked out for the sin of having abilities, he would come cheer us on. Sundays he would cook for the whole family, sometimes in his apartment, sometimes at our small house. I never thought about it much in my youth, but I suspect he lost one of his parents as a child as well, and when presented with two boys who had only a mother working double shifts and memories of a shitbag father, he chose to step in. He and Phil were closer than he and I, but the man was stalwart and decent to all of us. I send flowers to his grave every year, just like Shelby’s and my mothers.”
“How did he… pass?”
“Heart attack. Years as a beat cop and then a detective all survived relatively unscathed, and then one day while Phil and I were at college we got word that he’d collapsed inside the station. Life often plays the cruelest of its jokes on the most hapless of victims.” Charles helped himself to a deeper drink from his glass. He still remembered getting that call, and Phil trying to keep a brave face on for the sake of Charles and their mother. It had been a true loss, for the world, and for their family.
“Sorry I brought it up,” Alice said. She looked repentant, but not satisfied. “I’m glad we cleared the air on that though. Is there anything else you want to talk to me about? Anything else that you hid from me when I was small but are ready to discuss now?”
“Really Alice, if you want to know something, ask it already,” Charles told her. After divulging such a personal story, he imagined she had to be taking his sincerity at face value. Now she was fishing, using the opened door to see if he’d walk himself into revealing more than she knew.
“I just did.” Alice took one more gulp of the glass and set it down on his desk, empty. “And I guess you’ve given me your answer. Don’t stay here working for too long or you’ll miss lunch again, Charles.”
She stood from her seat and walked briskly to the door, barely slowing down to push it open. In seconds, the holly green of her dress had faded from view and Charles Adair once again found himself alone in his office.
Only now, for no reason he could put his finger on, it felt just a touch emptier than it had before.