Chapter 157

                Nick’s friends hung around for a day or so after the funeral, but eventually Vince had to head back to his training. After that, the others slowly peeled off one-by-one, always making sure Nick was okay several times before finally heading back home. Alice was the last to leave, and Nick knew if he’d asked she’d have happily stayed by him for the rest of Winter Break. But he didn’t make that request. Much as he loved them all for their support, Wilson Evers had been right. Distractions were only good in doses, and with Gerry gone there were things Nick needed to face. Things that had to be handled without them around.

                The summons came two hours after Alice left, Eliza arriving at his door to find Nick already waiting for her. He knew this was coming. It was inevitable, and he wanted to face it head-on. She led him through the halls, up the elevator, and to the wide door of Ms. Pips’ office. The guards checked him over, and then one pulled the heavy entrance open so Nick could pass. He stepped through silently, waiting until it had been shut once more to proceed.

                Her office had a lovely view, a grand look at Las Vegas and the desert beyond. Even though she was only a few floors higher, the vantage point made it seem like an entirely different world. When Nick was a child, he’d loved staring out those windows, seeing the city laid out before him. As he’d gotten older, he’d grown to covet that view, to imagine himself in this office. Standing here as someone more adult, it seemed… smaller. More confined. He loved this city, but he’d seen more of the world now. Nick knew how much lay out beyond that desert.

                “How are you doing?” The words seemed to come out of nowhere, as Ms. Pips looked up from her desk and met his eyes. “Holding up okay?”

                “I’m as good as I can be.” Nick finished the trek forward and took a seat in one of the open chairs in front of her desk. “It’s been rough, but I’m coming to terms with everything. Thank you for letting my friends stay here.”

                “We all need our support from time to time.” She stared at him, waiting patiently. While she’d been the one to summon him to the room, this was really his meeting to lead.

                Despite being lost in the swell of emotion and loss, both of them knew what Gerry’s departure meant for Nick. There was a reason he’d gotten the most training, the best education, and endless support. Gerry may have thought of Nick like a son, but that had never been their formal relationship. Gerry hadn’t been ordered to raise a child; he’d been tasked with creating a successor. It was Nick’s turn to serve at Ms. Pips’ right hand. And one day, if he proved himself capable, take over this office when she was no longer able to hold it. There had never been any pretense otherwise; this had been his path for as long as he could remember. Which was why the next words Nick spoke were difficult, and dangerous.

                “I’m going back to Lander.”

                Her gaze didn’t waver, nor did she seem surprised. “Do you remember about a year ago, when you sat in that same chair, telling me the same thing? When you, you, demanded to leave this town and go back to playing games with your friends? I told you before you left to remember which of us had made that demand.”

                “Because you wanted me to feel like it was my fault I missed Gerry’s last year, when you could have told me at any time.”

                “I wanted to, Nicholas. I really did.” She blinked, leaning back a little in her chair, and Nick caught a glimpse of how tired Ms. Pips really was. This job, this life, it was a constant drain. There were never any vacations or time off. She was the job, through and through. That would be him one day, if he followed her footsteps.

                “I had a folder with his medical results in my drawer, and I knew I could have made you beg me to stay if I’d played that card. I could have ordered you to slit your friends’ throats and you would have thanked me for the opportunity if it meant staying by his side. But I didn’t do that, because I promised Gerry that I’d keep his secret, and he truly believed that going to Lander was better for you. Personally, I’m not so sure about that. However, seeing as we’re near the end of your education anyway, I’m willing to give you your way one last time. You can go finish out your degree, Nicholas. Those are useful to have anyway; with only a semester left it’d be silly not to complete yours. But when it’s done, that’s enough. I’ve been a good sport about all of this, I’ve let you have your way and spend your recent years as you see fit, even knowing how much you’d resent me for it. After graduation, it’s time to start doing the job you were trained for.”

                She was right; this was what he’d spent his life preparing to do. Nick could see his whole future spread out before him, almost like the golden roads the night he’d had his power enhanced. It wouldn’t be long, maybe a decade at most, and he’d be the one in charge. Running the family, his aspiration since childhood, when he’d wondered if a mere Powered could ever command enough respect to pull it off. Now, it was in his grasp, all he had to do was take the first step down that path.

                “With respect, I must humbly decline the offer,” Nick said. “I know this is what I’m supposed to do, the role I’m supposed to take over, but I’m not the right fit for it. Not anymore. If I take the job, thirty years from now it will just be more of the same. We’ll be in pissing contests with the other families, maybe I’ll win a few more skirmishes here and there, but ultimately nothing will really change. I can do more than that, and I will. I just can’t do it from here.”

                “So you feel like you’re too good for the job now?” Ms. Pips didn’t seem particularly angry, however that wasn’t as comforting as it should have been. She was known for her ability to hide fury, often slipping a blade between someone’s ribs without so much as a twitch in that placid expression.

                “No, I’m not good enough.” Nick smiled despite the very real stakes of the situation he was in. He didn’t even want to; it came unbidden, which only served to prove his point. “Those friends, and let’s be honest here, Gerry, have made me too soft to fill this office.”

                “You’d be surprised how quickly it can harden you back up,” Ms. Pips replied.

                “I don’t think I would be. And that’s part of why I’m turning it down. Last year, I got to see who I was before Lander, and I didn’t care much for him. If I returned, I’d slowly turn back into the man I was, instead of growing into someone new. That’s not what I want, that’s not what Gerry wanted, and that certainly doesn’t align with my new career goals.”

                “Oh? And tell me, dear nephew, what exactly are these new goals? Because I don’t think I have to tell you that what you’re saying means you’re turning your back on the family, which is something that isn’t done lightly.” Her tone was still neutral, but Nick hadn’t missed the fact that she called him ‘dear nephew’. Whenever she said that, it meant he was on the thinnest of ice, one wrong word away from going under.

                Carefully, being sure she didn’t think he’d opted to pull a weapon out of his pocket, Nick took out a piece of paper and laid it onto the desk. Ms. Pips picked it up and scanned it over, her brow furrowing. “You want to apply for an internship helping on some local governor’s campaign? If this whole thing is a bit, you are not going to find me laughing at the end.”

                “Not in the slightest,” Nick assured her. “But what has long been the proverbial peanut butter to organized crime’s jelly?”

                She kept reading, although the barest hint of a smile seemed to tug on one of her lips. “Politics.”

                “Exactly. And doing dumb shit like that is a stepping stone. Making the right friends, shaking the right hands, and learning how the business is done. A few volunteer jobs, a little funding in the right places, and then I start out small with something easy to win and local. With my people skills, after that it’s just a matter of climbing the ladder. So it’s less like I’m abandoning the family than it is transferring to another department.”

                “If you can win,” Ms. Pips pointed out.

                Nick scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Come on now, whose nephew do you think I am? Of course I’ll win. Every election, every time. And with every rank I climb, your influence in government grows. Think of the power we’ll have when you’ve got favors to cash in on the national level.”

                “Plus, you’ll be able to protect those friends of yours too. Every year or so someone tries to pass new regulations on Supers and Heroes. Having a charismatic Super to push back against the bad stuff would keep things in line.”

                “That too,” Nick agreed. “And are you really going to argue with having Heroes in my, our, debt?”

                Slowly, she slid the paper back over. “I’ll think about it. We’ve got until you’ve graduated anyway. Though I’ll admit, Senator Campbell has a nice ring to it.”

                Nick took the paper and tucked it back carefully away. “Only Senator? I personally preferred President Campbell. If we’re going to do this, we may as well think big.”