It was easier this time. No other students around, no pretense to establish, all they each needed was some momentary solitude to slip away. For Alice and Mary it was easy, as one lived in a heavily-guarded mansion and the other knew her woods well enough to vanish from even the most talented observer. Nick had to jump through a few more hoops, however he actually rather enjoyed the process. It felt good to do something again, aside from sitting in the casino and scheming. Moving, stretching his brain and his legs and tasting action, it helped him finally take his mind off the empty room at the end of the hallway.
No one knew where Mr. Transport had dropped them, and he didn’t offer the information. It was a cabin set in a forest that could have been in any wooded area across the nation. Or, perhaps, they’d even stepped onto foreign soil where the DVA’s reach was weakened. There was no way to tell, no signs or trail guides using an identifiable language. Just a cabin, inside which there was a stalwart woman standing over three beds and a cooler of water. This time at least they had proper mattresses to lay down on, a vast improvement over the thin cots of their last adventure. Little was said as they all lined up and waited for Galina to use her stolen power. There was no point in any discussion; whatever they wanted to say could wait until they were in the far more secure space of their shared unconsciousness.
Mary’s hands were bound to her friends’, one to Nick and the other to Alice, and all the prep work was done. A brief glance into a pair of familiar, stolen eyes, and she was knocked out. Seconds later the others were as well. Galina took a seat in a nearby chair, keeping watch to make sure things were going smoothly. She couldn’t see what was happening in their minds of course, but should something go wrong, she was here for security. It was the least she could do, given what Dean Blaine was paying for her services.
* * *
There was little delay between their arrival and Abridail’s appearance, Nick barely had time to get a smoothie from the juice bar of Alice’s mind. The dream walker stepped into their existence easily; no one was trying to keep him out. They wanted this meeting, needed it. They were standing on the precipice of answers, and Abridail was the final step they needed to take. At least, that was the hope.
“You all seem well,” Abridail greeted.
“We’re as good as we can be with life going the way it has.” Alice’s eyes didn’t dart over to Nick, but that was only thanks to her constant Subtlety training. “And I don’t mean to be curt, but as you saw last time we are working with a finite amount of time. Let’s not waste too much of it on pleasantries.”
“I suppose I can’t blame you for that. What I showed you last time was bound to have raised some questions, and I can only imagine that you’re more than ready for answers. Before we begin, however, I do have one question of my own.” Abridail pointed a finger over at Nick, who was halfway through his green smoothie. “Why is he here?”
“And hello to you too, dickhead,” Nick replied.
“I don’t object, I assume what I tell you all will be shared with your friends, but last time Nick was brought in as a negotiator. Seeing as the terms of our arrangement are already set, there’s no need for more dealing. I’m making sure his presence doesn’t signify the desire to change our arrangement.”
Alice hadn’t really considered that. The idea of doing something that involved extracting information in a covert setting just seemed to naturally pair with Nick. But Abridail was right; Alice was the only one who really had to be here. She was the emotional hook that was pulling the truth from the dream walker. Even Mary’s presence wasn’t required, since she was only needed to bring Nick into the dream world. Before she could voice any of that, however, Mary and Nick were already at her side.
“Maybe you’ve seen Shelby’s memories enough times to become numb to them, but Alice hasn’t,” Mary declared. “That look into what she’d seen in the bathroom alone… I understand that to get our answers, we need to see the past as it was. But that doesn’t mean Nick, or I, want to make Alice go through that sort of experience by herself.”
“Also, I’ve got a serious issue with curiosity. Suffice it to say if I were a feline it might be a terminal condition.” Nick dropped the smoothie glass, which vanished midway to the ground, and gently took Alice’s hand in his own. “But yeah, the support stuff too.”
Abridail looked at them all, sweeping his head back and forth, before re-fixing his gaze on Alice. “Perhaps that is for the best. While none of what I have to share this time will be as visually jarring, I can’t imagine you will walk away from this emotionally unscathed. You may look at your father-”
“Charles Adair,” Alice corrected. “I had a chat with Charles over Christmas. I gave him the chance to open up to me, to come even a little bit clean. I really wanted to believe that he’d kept so many secrets out of necessity at first, and then habit. That pushing him, showing him I was willing to listen and be there no matter what, would be enough for him to let me in. Last time, I saw what he was like when all this started. I wanted to know if anything of the man who was so happy and loving is left inside, but that man is gone. Gone, or buried too deep to be brought back. I readied myself for this, Abridail. I made my peace with it. Whatever you have to show and say, I’m going to be able to hear.”
“For your sake, Alice, I truly hope so. Shelby never wanted you to hate him, though.” Abridail looked worried, and Alice spoke up before he could have any second thoughts.
“My mother knew who he was a long time ago. If she was around right now, to see what he’s become, I doubt she’d have the same opinion. But you don’t need to worry anyway. I don’t hate Charles Adair. I’ve just given myself permission to stop loving him.”
The sadness and uncertainty in Abridail’s eyes lingered, but he still nodded. “In many ways, that might be worse. However, you have not yet seen the rest of the story. By the end, you may very well hate Charles Adair for what he did. As I told you when we started this, though: try to remember that it all began from a place of love.”
Abridail lowered his head, raised his arms, and around them the world began to change.