“How’d it go?” Professor Pendleton asked as Nick emerged from the infirmary. The visit had been quicker than he anticipated, yet Nick seemed considerably more upbeat leaving than he had going in. Certainly he was happier than he should have been, or than Professor Pendleton was feeling. In the year he’d been teaching he’d come to care about many of his pupils; however, Nick was something special. It galled him to see his prized student being flung out the door, but there was nothing to do for it. Nick had chosen his path and he’d structured it so well that it was all but impossible to stop him.
“We’re good,” Nick replied. “Although I’m not sure what his sentiment will be toward me once he finds out the full extent of my punishment.” The two began walking down the hallway. Professor Pendleton was officially his escort, unofficially his prison guard. Not that anyone really thought Nick would make a run for it after going to such great lengths to put himself in custody, but they’d all been around him long enough to know that the minute you thought you knew what Nick was planning was the moment he had you right where he wanted you.
“You didn’t tell him about the policy?”
Nick shook his head. “He’ll find out soon enough. No reason to break it to him without his friends around.”
“It’s not too late,” Professor Pendleton told him. “You could still lobby for just failing the year rather than a full expulsion. The wipe is far less extensive for that.”
“Good to know, but I’m okay with this. It’s the best way for me to leave.”
“With no memory of your experiences or your friends?”
“Look, I just willingly gave up a sweet cover I’d maintained for two years and got myself booted from this program in order to help someone, all with no payoff for me,” Nick grumbled. The duo took a turn and began walking down a different hallway. “These people, this place, all of it has infected me with... sentiment. It’s been fun, but I have to go back to my real world now. And going back as a softer, kinder Nick is likely to get me in serious trouble. If I’m going home, it’s better I go back as the cunning and efficient version of myself.”
“You really want to burn away all the progress you’ve made in your time here?”
“That’s why I built a pyre. What you witnessed in that arena was the funeral of Lander’s Nick Campbell.” They took another turn; it was only a few minutes to the room where Nick would make his final exit from Lander. “For what it’s worth, thank you.”
“Because I tried to talk you out of it?” Professor Pendleton asked.
“Because you really went out of your way to be a good teacher to me,” Nick explained. “Even though my cover made it hard, you still made sure I got a solid education. I wish I could say I won’t forget that, but we both know it wouldn’t be true.”
“You’re welcome,” Professor Pendleton said. “As a student you are a colossal pain in the ass, but you also have more skill and potential than I’ve ever seen in someone your age. I was looking forward to teaching you next year.”
“Maybe one day in the future,” Nick said. “Speaking of future, I have a goodbye present being delivered to you later today. Consider it my version of an apple on the desk.”
“That’s an unexpectedly kind gesture,” Professor Pendleton said.
“Wait until you see it before you say that,” Nick rebutted.
“Well, it at least evens the score for us. I got you something, too.”
They turned the final corner; however, instead of just an open hallway leading to a thick door, there stood a blonde girl five feet down it, tapping her foot on the ground and looking fifteen shades of pissed off.
“You dick,” Nick muttered. He raised his voice to deliver his greeting. “Hey, Alice. How’s it hanging?”
“I’ll leave you two to talk,” Professor Pendleton said. “I think I’ll stand a few feet down the last hallway. You’ve got a couple of minutes.” With that, he turned around and headed back in the direction they’d come from. His coat had barely vanished behind the corner before Alice spoke.
“It seems you caught me,” Nick admitted.
“You’re leaving without saying goodbye.” She began walking toward him, posture somewhere between preparing to deck him and grabbing him in a hug.
“School policy. They tend to be brutally efficient when kicking someone out the door.”
“They also tend to fog over their memories so they can’t divulge any other students’ identities,” Alice added, her approach slowing as she drew within arm’s reach of him. “Didn’t think I’d know that, right?”
“Your father filled you in, I assume,” Nick sighed. “Did you tell the others?”
“No, but I would have if Mr. Transport had told me what was going on. Evidently Professor Pendleton sent a message to get me down here with no explanation. I put the pieces together while I was waiting.”
“Alice Adair, always too smart for her own good.”
“So you were just going to leave us? No hugs, no notes, no nothing?”
“Like I said, policy,” Nick defended. “At least they were nice enough to let me talk to Vince. As for the rest of you, well, I left something as a sort of farewell. You’ll see later tonight.”
“You knew you were doing this. You could have said something before it all went down.”
“Actually, I couldn’t have. Keeping you all in the dark was the best method I had for protecting you. None of you knew what I had planned, so they can’t try and spread the blame around. It was all me. I did the crime, now I’m doing the time.”
“I... ah fuck, I guess I already knew that deep down,” Alice said, her voice dropping several octaves. She reached out and took his hand, gently resting it in hers. “I realize you did all of this for Vince, and for us. What about you, though? What about the things you said on the beach? How even a man like you once wanted to be the hero. To make the world a better place.”
“Alice, this was that moment. Someone like me could never really cross over, never let go of how he was raised and the things he’s done. Even if I had made it to Hero, I wouldn’t have done the role justice, not the way Vince could. So I put all my chips on Silver. If he makes it, then I get to know that every life he saves is in part because of me.”
“That sounds far more noble than the Nick I know,” Alice chuckled, moving in closer.
“Like I said, too smart for her own good,” Nick agreed. They were very close now; he could smell the shampoo coating her long hair and spot the red areas around her eyes that told him she’d been crying. “Alice, you know I won’t remember any of this.”
“But you will.”
“So be it.”
With that she closed the gap, and for the first time in over a year, they were kissing. It was slower than last time, less frantic than in Alice’s intoxicated attack. This wasn’t a kindling or a beginning. This was a kiss goodbye.
It is impossible to say how long they were like that, only that they were interrupted by the coughing of Professor Pendleton. The two pulled away from each other, then exchanged a glance more awkward and genuine than either would have believed themselves still capable of. Professor Pendleton started forward, heading toward the room.
Time was up.
Alice started to move away, but Nick pulled her in once more, placing his lips carefully against her ears and speaking in the softest of whispers.
“Never forget who I am.”
Then he was gone, closing the gap to Professor Pendleton and walking through the door that would seal his fate.