Chapter 202

                Had Dean Blaine been a bit more romantically aggressive in his youth, he might have worried about how the invitation would come off. Inviting Clarissa over to his home, just the two of them, could have sent the wrong message if they’d ever come close to something beyond friendship. Thankfully, that issue had never arisen between them, in college or after. Each of them had already given their hearts to someone else, and both respected the other too much to try and use them as a temporary surrogate of affection. So Clarissa didn’t bat an eye when Dean Blaine invited her to join him for a home-cooked meal. Perhaps she knew that under his wily, shy grin he had other intentions than just conversation, but at least she wouldn’t mistake this as an attempt at courting. It was one small concession in a night that threatened to be filled with potential pitfalls.

                “Next senior trial is coming up soon,” Clarissa noted, helping herself to another glass of chardonnay. “Is it one of the recalibrating ones, or the other big bad?”

                “Big bad, I’m afraid.” Dean Blaine always tried not to think too hard about this next trial when it approached each year, the stress it would put on his students and the truths it could reveal were both extremely dangerous. No one would get hurt, not unless they royally screwed up, but it would be a genuine shock if they didn’t lose a few more students from the program. The one upside to the debacle with Globe was that Dean Blaine had actually managed to shove the impending test from his mind. “There have been suggestions that we draw inspiration from real life for the exact scenario, however I feel it adds more emotional weight than necessary, even for a trial like this one.”

                “I’m sure you’ll make the right call. You’ve done a great job educating these kids. I’m really impressed with the crop Lander is turning out, and I’m far from the only one.”

                Dean Blaine grabbed the bottle and poured himself another helping of wine. “Thank you, but I only teach the ethics classes and handle the administrative work. The real credit goes to their professors; our amazing staff is the reason why the students are so strong.”

                “Be as modest as you like, we all know that attitude and leadership come from the top,” Clarissa said. “You’ve set a strong standard and the others are following the example.”

                It wasn’t the best opening in the world, but it was the clearest one Dean Blaine had seen since the conversation started. Not wanting to wait any longer, he decided to make it work however he could. They didn’t have all night; it was time to get down to business. “I never thought I’d be the one to go back to Lander, you know. I always figured it would be… well, Phil always spent so much time helping the rest of us, he seemed like he’d be a natural fit for a teacher. If things hadn’t happened the way they did, he’d probably be the Lander dean by now.”

                “Hate to say it, but I disagree.” Clarissa’s next sip of wine was measured; she was staying keenly aware of her alcohol intake. “Phil would have never hung up the cape. He might have thought he’d do it eventually, once his reaction times got slow or his bones got weak, but he wouldn’t. Just wasn’t in him to give up the good fight. He was always destined to die in the field.”

                “Probably taking some threat to the entire world along with him,” Dean Blaine agreed. “It’s hard to believe that man is the one who turned on his team and killed his best friend. I mean that quite literally, it was difficult for me to swallow even after I saw the tapes. Do you really think he turned?”

                “Please, Blaine, I get that question enough from DVA-”

                “Because I don’t.” Dean Blaine felt bad about cutting her off, but it was important to make his stance clear so they could proceed. His words hung in the air between them, a dangerous idea that Clarissa was no doubt weighing carefully. Dean Blaine didn’t look away as she watched him, he had nothing to hide. He really didn’t believe that Globe was a traitor; part of him had never accepted it. Even if Abridail didn’t turn out to be telling the whole truth, Blaine knew the man he’d trained alongside. Globe wouldn’t do that, especially not to Intra, not unless he’d been deceived.

                “You don’t what?” Clarissa said finally. It was a careful move, one he could respect. She was testing the waters to see how firmly he was willing to commit.

                “I don’t think Phil betrayed Joshua. I know he killed him, but I believe he did so under false information. Phil thought, believed deep down, that he had to kill Joshua to keep innocent people safe. And even to the end, I don’t think he ever really bought it. He was just shoved into a corner by people that knew him well enough to orchestrate it. They played on his deepest fear of losing more family, pushed his buttons until they got the desired reaction: one quick, deadly, strike.”

                If Clarissa wasn’t aligned with Phil, there was a good chance she’d storm out, cursing Blaine’s name the whole time. No one had it harder than her when news of Globe’s treachery broke. Even his brother took less heat since Charles had been part of the effort to stop Globe. But for Clarissa, the dear friend with a not-so-secret crush always at his side, there had been no such defense. Accepting that Phil was a killer would have been nearly impossible for her. Dean Blaine was betting heavily that it was so impossible she’d never managed it, but if she had then anyone suggesting he might be innocent was akin to ripping open an old wound, one that had never healed properly in the first place.

                “That’s quite a theory, Blaine. A dangerous theory, because the pool of people who might know Phil well enough to do that is extremely limited. I’d say it’s just Joshua, who is dead, myself, who I hope you’re not accusing of anything, and Charles. I would be very careful before I started leveling accusations against Charles Adair.” Clarissa’s whole body had gone tense; she was on the edge of her stool, ready to react to any sort of attack or trap Dean Blaine might spring.

                “Agreed. The only way one could do a thing like that would be if they had proof. Real, solid, substantial proof that Charles had done unforgivable things. It wouldn’t be easy to come by, I’m sure. Locating such proof might very well drive a Hero into hiding, or force them to seemingly work against the people who were really their allies.”

                “Blaine, if you have something to say then perhaps it’s best if you come out and say it. I spent years with Phil dawdling and beating around the bush about his feelings, you’ll find my patience for such half-hearted measures has worn thin since then.” Clarissa set her wine glass to the side; the socializing part of this evening was obviously done.

                “I’ve come into information recently that points to Globe not being the villain we were told he was.” The time for delicacy was past; he either put his cards on the table now or lost the opportunity. “The sort of information that, if true, would make me interested in helping an old friend who has been cast out by the community. I would just be me, mind you, not the dean of Lander or a representative of the DVA. That might change if we can find some of that theoretical proof, but until then I’d only be able to offer myself, and the help of a few closely trusted friends. In theory, do you think Globe would be interested in discussing such collaboration?”

                Clarissa’s eyes swept the room once more, looking for any signs of an ambush she’d missed previously. She found nothing, because there was nothing to find, and turned back to Dean Blaine. “I think, in theory, that Globe would absolutely be open to such an arrangement. In fact, if I were hypothetically in contact with him, I’d say he’s been expecting you to reach out for a while now. He’s even working on a present to show his goodwill. I could probably arrange a meeting at some point, with enough planning. Hypothetically, of course.”

                “Of course.” Despite Clarissa putting hers aside, Dean Blaine treated himself to another sip of wine. The way things were going, he had a feeling tonight was going to make progress worthy of celebrating.