Chapter 125

Nick was lost. He’d come to terms with this fact several minutes ago, and was now in the recovery stage of dealing with such a realization. His first attempt was to retrace his steps back toward camp, however the sun had slipped away completely and Nick’s tracking ability was already poor. His tracking ability by flashlight was at a level of failure on par with the combination of moonshine mixed with chocolate milk. Had Nick been in this predicament a year ago his only remaining recourse would have been to start a forest fire and hope someone came to investigate. This was not the Nick of a year ago, though, and he had another option available to him.

Nick stopped trying to find his way and focused his luck. He closed his eyes, spun around, and began walking in a random direction, using his flashlight to see, but making no attempts to track his course. Whichever way the trees seemed to break, that was the path he took. It was slow going, navigating the shrubbery in the night wearing only a swimsuit, sunglasses, and flip-flops, but step by step progress was made. Nick just wasn’t sure about progress toward what.

That was the thing no one seemed to get about luck. In a confined sense it was very predictable, like a dice or card game. Under those circumstances there were defined outcomes that were positive and negative. Good luck yielded the good results, and vice versa. The larger the scale of the task, the more variables were present and the more potential outcomes were at hand. Good luck would yield a desirable outcome, of course, however that didn’t guarantee it would be the one he wanted. He was hoping to find his way back to camp, but he could just as easily fall into an undiscovered gold mine, or get chased by a bear into the arms of a beautiful woman. Luck, even when you could control the direction it flowed, was unpredictable. That was why he so rarely used his power outside of tightly controlled circumstances.

As the sound of a familiar sniffling reached his ears, Nick let out a sigh. Once again Lady Fortune had heard his plea and then decided to do whatever she damn well pleased to him. Nothing to do but make the best of it.

“Alice,” Nick called. “Are you okay?”

Her response came from higher than he’d expected. “Nick?”

“You got it,” he said, waving his flashlight around so she could see him.

“It would be you,” Alice muttered from the darkness. As Nick squinted into the night he made out a bikini-clad shape slowly descending toward him. Alice floated down from the tree she’d been perched in and settled at his side.

“How you feeling, Drunky?” Nick asked.

“A little scared,” Alice admitted. “And a lot lost. I didn’t mean to walk so far, and then the sun set, and I wasn’t sure what to do.”

“Fifteen beers will do that,” Nick said, patting her shoulder. “My bet says our friends have lit a fire to cook on by now. Why don’t you float over the tree line and see which direction they’re in?”

“Okay. That makes sense,” Alice agreed. She flew carefully upward, trying to dodge tree branches with only a moderate success rate. Once she crested the tops she could feel the night wind lapping against her skin. It took only a moment to spot the orange glow of her camp. They were a little bit to the north, maybe a five minute walk away. Alice let out a sigh of relief and lowered herself back into the trees. She took a few more scratches as she flew toward the beacon of Nick’s flashlight, however she ultimately reached the ground safely.

“Did you see it?” Nick asked.

“I sure did,” Alice replied.

“Whew. Okay, Princess, you point the way and we can get out of these damn woods,” Nick said.

Alice opened her mouth to tell him the appropriate direction, but before she could something else entirely leapt out.

“No.”

“No?” Nick asked.

“No,” Alice confirmed, her brain, boozy as it was, catching up to her mouth. “I have you trapped in the woods with information you need, and no audience. You and I are going to have a talk.”

“A talk?”

“A talk,” Alice repeated.

“Okay, what are we going to talk about?” Nick asked.

“You,” she said.

“I guess that works. My favorite food is sushi, favorite color is gold, big fan of horror movies, fifteen inch penis, love long walks on the beach, just tell me when you’ve heard enough,” Nick rambled.

“No,” Alice said, waving him off. “I mean we’re going to talk about just what your damn problem is.”

“Wow, drunk Alice really doesn’t pull any punches,” Nick observed.

“Enough deflecting. I mean it. You act like this intolerable jackass with a never-ending stream of snarky comments and bad jokes. Then, with the flip of a switch, you can become this charming, knowledgeable, really sweet guy,” Alice said, her voice raising a few octaves. “I mean, what the fuck?”

“Intolerable jackass, you sure know how to sweet talk,” Nick spat back. “I explained before, the thing with your dad was just an act. I pulled together some crap I saw from movies about high society and did my best. I’m glad it worked, that doesn’t mean there’s some super deceptive side to me, though.”

“I don’t believe you!” Alice's voice crescendoed higher, passing the line of stern talking and entering the realm of the yell. “I know there’s more to you than that. Yes, that was the first time I saw it but I’m not blind, Nick. I’ve been watching since then, and I keep seeing little snippets of that guy. You can lie all you want, but I'm done being a sucker. I know there’s more to you than this.”

Nick took a deep breath and steadied himself. He could feel that strange tickle in his brain still, clouding his judgment. Still only slightly, but it was growing stronger. He needed to end this discussion, quickly. Unfortunately, for Alice, that meant going for the throat.

“Alice, I’m sorry,” Nick said.

“So you finally admit it?”

“No,” Nick said. “I’m saying that I’m sorry you have a crush on the guy I pretended to be. That wasn’t what I meant to happen, and I hope you know that.”

“You think I have a crush on you?”

Nick shook his head. “No, not on me. On who I pretended to be to impress your dad. You obviously liked him. That’s why you think you keep seeing glimpses of him in me. That’s why you’ve developed this radical idea that I’ve been faking who I am the entire year instead of just that evening. I mean, really think about it Alice, which seems more likely?”

Alice stared at him, her wide eyes gleaming in the glow of the flashlight. “You... you’re lying. You’re lying again.”

“I wish I was, Alice. Things would be a lot easier. But the truth is that you got enamored with a fictional character.”

"That's bullshit, Nick, I'm not falling for this!"

"Falling for what? The fact that you only like a version of me you saw for a few hours at a dinner, a dinner where you knew I was lying the whole time? Or facing the fact that the lie version of me is the only version of me you've ever been attracted to, a fact I'm trying really hard not to let hurt my feelings, by the way."

"Why would that hurt your feelings?"

"I don't know, maybe because someone I've spent an half a year living alongside, who knows what it’s like to grow up with the same defect, and climbed a fucking mountain with, had to invent a complex delusion just to find me the least bit bearable," Nick shot back, raising his own voice in turn. "You don’t see how that might be the least bit shitty for me?"

“But... I know he's you,” Alice said weakly. Nick smiled inwardly, her hesitation was the sign that he'd successfully sown doubt. He was home free now. All he had to do was wrap things up carefully and he would put both Alice’s affections and suspicions to bed for good. And then, as Nick felt the genuine joy of a well-played altercation mingle with the giddiness from Serena’s song, something slipped.

“Please, Alice, you don’t even know the real me,” Nick said. He slammed his mouth closed so hard that his teeth clicked. That hadn’t been how he’d meant to phrase it. That said far, far more than he wanted to. Briefly, Nick hoped that in her still-addled state of mind Alice would miss the meaning in those words.

One glance in her eyes dispelled all traces of that dream, like a broom sweeping through cobwebs.

“I don’t even know the real you,” Alice said, some of the conviction returning to her voice.

“That’s not what I meant,” Nick said, backpedaling quickly.

“Now that, I believe,” Alice said, a smirk twitching at the corners of her mouth. “Maybe you’re right, Nick. Maybe I’ve been seeing that version of you because I wanted to. And maybe he’s as fake as you claim. That doesn’t automatically make this version of you real, though.”

“Alice, you’re sounding deluded again.”

Alice silenced Nick with a finger to his lips. “You just said something honest to me. Possibly one of the very few things that has crossed your lips and falls into that category. Please don’t taint it by lying again already. Just give me a few minutes.”

Nick looked at her green eyes. The jig wasn’t necessarily up, but if he pushed her any harder on this it very well could be. It was more logical to wait, to let her sober up and hope she had poor drunken recall. And, if Nick were being brutally honest with himself, perhaps a part of him enjoyed someone looking at him and actually seeing even a piece of what was really there.

Nick simply nodded, unable to trust his tongue not to twist any words that might start with the best of intentions.

“Thank you,” Alice said softly. “We can go back to camp now.” She took his hand and began leading him north. Alice came to a halt after only a few steps, though.

“Oh, what the hell,” Nick heard Alice say, and that was his only warning before a soft, warm body and a clumsy pair of lips crashed against his own.

Alice was an awkward kisser, but what she lacked in experience she was not missing in passion. Nick had spent the entire year trying hard not to notice just how shapely Alice was, and as she wrapped her body around him, his efforts came crashing down. He kissed her back, a flurry of resistance and indulgence as he warred with himself inside. At last, one part pulled ahead of the other and he pushed her back.

“Alice,” he said carefully. “You’re a beautiful girl, but this isn’t right. You’re intoxicated and I’m seeing someone. We shouldn’t do this.”

“I agree,” Alice said, her voice steady but her breath panting. “That kiss wasn’t for you tonight. It was for the real you.”

“The kiss was for the real me?”

“Yup. In case I like him. Because I hope you know that I will meet him one day.”

Nick forced out a laugh. “Whatever you say there, Drunky. Let’s head back to camp and get some food to sober you up.”

Alice let his comments pass and instead took his hand once more. She led him swiftly to the camp, though not so swiftly that she didn’t get to savor leading him around for once.