Chapter 79

                “You think you’re really cute, don’t you?” Nick had known what the costume was the moment Alice unzipped the garment bag, but not until he was actually wearing it did he notice the efforts to which she’d gone. He stood there, in the apartment’s guest bathroom (since Alice had locked him out of his own bedroom) admiring the outfit. To her credit, she had kept her word about not letting him look bad. The suit was well-made, probably hand-tailored, and his hat was either vintage or an incredible reproduction. Nick was certain none of the others would catch the attention to detail, but he appreciated it all the same.

                “Don’t kid yourself, I know I’m gorgeous,” Alice called back at him through the wall. “You about done changing?”

                “I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. But keep pictures to a minimum tonight; if this gets back to Vegas I’ll never live it down.” Nick leaned over and grabbed his sole prop, aside from the elaborate outfit, tucking it carefully under his arm. With one last glance in the mirror he pulled open the door and emerged into his apartment.

                It was a small mercy that the others were already downstairs, helping with last-minute preparation that was only last minute because he’d had Eliza and Jerome leave it for them to do. They needed to feel useful, a trait built into most of the Melbrook lot, and besides that he’d wanted a little time alone with Alice anyway. The night would be hectic, at best, and perhaps catastrophic at worst. More than once, Nick had seen meetings like the one he was trying to arrange go south in ways that left lasting consequences. And, while he was prepared to bear them if needed, that didn’t mean he wasn’t smart enough to take a moment and savor things as they stood.

                “There’s my little gangster.” Alice admired her handy work as Nick exited, and on impulse he gave a quick twirl so she could get the whole view.

                Her description was an apt one, because Nick was indeed dressed exactly like a stereotypical gangster from the Capone days. Black suit with white pinstripes, wide-brimmed hat with a white band across the top, shiny shoes and a violin case tucked under his arm. The only non-period-appropriate accessory was the set of large sunglasses covering his eyes. Though things were expected to flow smoothly, there was always the possibility they might need a little luck through the night, and it wouldn’t do to go tipping everyone off about Nick’s power usage.

                As his spin came to an end, Nick glanced over and got his first look at Alice in full costume. To his surprise, she’d gone with a similar theme, her outfit was that of a mid-century Vegas showgirl. Bright red sparkles covered her dress, one which showed a bit more leg than normal and brushed against her curves if not outright hugging them. Covering her face was a blazing red mask, adorned with red feathers all across the crown.

                “You do realize we have to sneak off mid-way through this party, right? Couldn’t have picked something a little less eye-catching?” Much as Nick enjoyed the ensemble, and he certainly did, the pragmatic hurdle it presented was the first thing to come out of his mouth.

                “Oh, you mean like this?” Alice pulled off the headpiece, revealing a slim red domino-style mask, and lowering the large one down to her hip. “I figure if everyone gets used to seeing the feathers, then as soon as I take them off I’ll halfway disappear. Something Professor Pendleton taught the class. You know, because I’m a Subtlety student and know how to slip out of a room.”

                “Sorry, sorry, I just had to voice my concern,” Nick said, raising his arms in surrender. “And I think it’s a forgivable slip-up. Can you really blame any brain for going momentarily dumb at the sight of you in such an outfit?”

                “Now who thinks they’re cute?” Alice pulled the large mask back up and attached it, giving her head a few test shakes to make sure it stayed in place. “But that wasn’t your worst line. Keep it up, and maybe I’ll take us out somewhere fancy once all this is done. Heaven knows I could use a nice meal after Friday’s debacle.”

                “And just think, the weekend isn’t over yet.” Nick wasn’t quite sure what to say to his friends about their latest trial just yet. There were ways he could poke them along, prodding them to get past the terror and hard realizations they’d been hit with, but the truth was that might be doing them a disservice. The professors had been right to give them such exposure, what was waiting for them after graduation would be worse than any HCP test. Sooner or later, each would have to come to terms with it, or accept that their time in the HCP was done. Though, he could hopefully take their minds off the issue for at least one night.

                Slowly, Nick walked over to Alice, taking her right hand and tucking his arm around her waist, letting the violin case clatter to the ground. With careful, sharp movements, he began to move them about, turning to a rhythm that wasn’t actually there.

                “Um, what are you doing?”

                “Dancing, obviously.” Nick gave Alice a quick twirl, which she handled gracefully despite her tall heels. “I have to make sure I can move freely in this outfit, just in case, and if you know a better way to test that than dancing I would love to hear it.”

                Another twirl, a quick swing, and Alice was back against him, her face only inches from his.

                “What’s the verdict?” Her voice had gone lower as she began to sway with him, filling in the gaps to whatever mental song he’d selected.

                “Can’t say for sure until I test the dip.” Nick tilted her down, following her all the way until the few inches between them disappeared. Neither could say for sure how long they stayed locked like that, only that when they parted both took a deeper breath than normal.

                “Full stars,” Nick told her, though whether he meant the costume or the kiss was unspecified, and irrelevant.

                “Someone is feeling stirred up tonight,” Alice said as she slowly rose back up to a proper standing position.

                “We’re about to go digging around in your head, kicking over rocks for long-lost secrets, secrets we might not be too happy about once we learn them.” Nick reached out and carefully adjusted one of the feathers on her mask that he’d inadvertently knocked askew. “Things could get very tough, and I wanted to enjoy this small bit of peace we’ve got while it lasts. And to remind you that, no matter what happens, I’m on your side.”

                It was Alice’s turn to kiss him, though she didn’t bother with as much grand lead-up, merely pressing her lips to his in a brief, but still quite enjoyable, embrace.

                “Of all the things you’ve given me reason to doubt, that was never one of them,” Alice assured him. “Now let’s get downstairs. I’d like to squeeze in at least a little partying before we try and interrogate a dream-walker.”