Nick’s right eye twitched and Mary’s throat bobbed. It was the first signs of stirring either had shown in the last few minutes.
“About time,” Rich sighed. Even bringing them out gently, this was taking longer than he expected. He’d just dropped them in the upper layers of their heads; they should have come back within a few moments. Unless, of course, they’d somehow found their way in deeper. Rich dismissed the idea. They’d need awareness to plumb their mental depths and he hadn’t given it to them. No, they must just be particularly stubborn.
“You’re sure they’re okay?” Vince asked. He and Sasha had been the last to join the table, getting quickly up to speed on why his friends were in a catatonic state. While neither he nor anyone else from Team One was particularly pleased with the events, it didn’t surprise any of them that Nick had riled Rich to the point of demonstrating his abilities. So long as the three came out without damage it seemed a harmless, if inconvenient, occurrence.
“I assure you, they’re fine. The place I sent them is like the home base of their subconscious. It’s built to be safe and comforting. If anything they’re resisting because they’re enjoying it too much,” Rich explained. “I could jerk them out, but it might be a bit jarring.”
“I can vouch for that,” Hershel added. “Last year when Roy snapped free of the illusion you put him in it took half an hour before he was sure of what was real and what wasn’t.”
“Precisely why I’m being more delicate,” Rich replied. “Shouldn’t be much longer now and their relaxing little vacation will have to come to an end.”
* * *
Mary gagged as the crushing pressure bore down on her windpipe. The powerful hands yanked her into the air and let her dangle, her small feet kicking helplessly as she tried to quell the rising sense of panic. This wasn’t real. She didn’t even need air, so choking shouldn’t matter. That thought was little comfort as she felt a burning sensation begin to creep across her chest. She groped behind her, searching for anything tender that was in her reach. Her nails brushed something she thought was skin and Mary drove her fingernails in with every ounce of strength she could muster.
There was a grunt of pain and suddenly Mary felt like she was flying. She realized a moment before impact that her attacker had released one hand and was using the other to hurl her down in a choke slam. Her backbone struck the wooden top of a pew and Mary lost most of her precious remaining air in a gasp of pain. If she’d been in her real body she was certain there would have been breaks in her spine. Her head swam, red dots blurring her vision. When they finally cleared, she could see the face of the person pinning her down on the unpadded slab of oak.
“You fucking bitch.” Nick spat the words as he glared down at her, but it wasn’t a Nick Mary had ever seen before. This wasn’t goofy Nick pretending to be dumber than he was. This wasn’t casino Nick, master of his environment and all he surveyed. This Nick had a face twisted in hate and anger, his eyes burning with a dark golden light and three slashes of blood trailing down his cheek. All that was scary, but the thing that terrified Mary the most was the shaky way he was clutching her throat. Nick was always in control, always able to stay detached. For the first time she’d ever seen it looked like his emotions were overtaking him, and these weren’t emotions she wanted to see play out. Mary felt the panic rise again; she began to claw uselessly at his hand.
“What fucking right do you have? I tolerate your intrusions, I bear your nosy nature, and you decide those acts of civility mean you’re free to look at any damned part of me you want.”
Mary opened her mouth, wondering if she had enough breath left for even one response. She didn’t find out; Nick jerked her up and slammed her back to the wood, smashing her head and leaving her mouth with the taste of blood.
“Don’t you fucking say a word. I don’t want to hear it. This is too much. There’s no going back from this one, Mary.” His grip grew even tighter. Mary wondered if he was really this strong or if it was simply because he made the rules down here. She was curious what would happen if she died like this. Would a part of her stay gone when she awoke, some piece of her mind eternally obliterated? Maybe she wouldn’t wake up at all. Rich would get blamed, Nick would walk away free. If she didn’t know better she’d swear he’d planned it all to work out that way.
“Stop it!” The younger version of Nick leapt onto the arm pinning Mary down and began trying to wrestle it away. “Don’t hurt her!”
Nick’s face flickered with uncertainty. It made sense: here he was literally fighting with himself. That was bound to cause some confusion. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone else I care about.” Young Nick was crying again, but his voice was determined and his efforts to free her unyielding.
“She’s my friend.”
“You don’t have friends,” Nick barked. Mary wasn’t sure, but it seemed like his shoulders sagged a bit. “We don’t have friends.” Nick shook his head. “I don’t have friends. Friends are for marks. All I have is the family.”
“She’s our friend,” young Nick said, staring his older version in the eyes. “Now please, let her go.”
Nick looked at the two of them, the golden burning in his eyes subsiding to reveal their usual brown irises. He slowly relaxed his hand and Mary nearly vomited as she gulped air down gluttonously. She fell to the ground, coughing and wheezing as her body began coming back to life. As she lay there, Mary made a mental note not to die by asphyxiation. There had to be more pleasant ways to go.
Eventually she regained enough strength to rise, getting to her feet and seeing that both Nicks were standing in front of the coffins. The older one was hugging the younger one close, like a big brother trying to squeeze in some semblance of comfort. Mary couldn’t remember if she’d ever seen Nick hug anyone before. She walked forward gently, not sure of what to say to the man who’d just been on the verge of crushing her windpipe.
“This never happened, you know.” Nick’s voice echoed through the church, reaching Mary easily even as he faced away from her.
“All of this.” Nick made a broad, sweeping gesture. “I mean, there was a funeral, of course. I just wasn’t in attendance. They insisted on keeping me at the hospital for several weeks after the accident.”
“Wait, you were in that?” Mary came closer and stared at the hunk of metal. The idea that anything could have walked away from it was beyond mind-boggling.
“I was. They couldn’t believe I’d gotten through without some sort of damage, so the doctors had me under strict observation for some time.”
“That’s still terrible, not letting you say goodbye to your parents.”
Nick shrugged. “Given that I was only four months old at the time, I guess they figured I wouldn’t really know the difference.”
“Four months old? What about him?”
“He’s the age I was when I realized what had happened.”
Mary shuffled awkwardly. There was only one place to take this conversation, but even though he knew that she knew, it still felt like speaking the words aloud would be an act that could change everything. She decided to press on as carefully as possible.
“He seemed to think you had something to do with the accident.”
“I probably did. In all likelihood I’m the reason my parents are dead.” His voice was hollow as it cascaded through the room.
“You were a baby, Nick; you couldn’t have caused something like that.”
Nick turned around slowly and looked at her; his lean face seemed almost gaunt in the wavering light of the candles. For the barest instant his eyes sparked golden. “Couldn’t I?”
Mary felt a horrible, wrenching sensation as she put it all together. An accident that ravaged the vehicle, with only one miraculous survivor. The way the car resembled the wreckage that had once been the truck George tried to kidnap her in. Nick’s ability to manipulate luck, and what his life had been like back when he was a Powered. What it must have been like, always wondering if the reason you’d grown up an orphan was because of some awful curse that genetics or God had cast upon you.
“That’s the memory you were looking for. You wanted to see if it was really you who caused the crash.”
Nick raised an eyebrow. “How did you know that?”
“Gerry told me.”
“That actually raises more questions than it answers.” Nick shook his head. “Never mind, I think I’d rather not know for now. It doesn’t matter; as soon as I felt you here I came running.”
“Nick, most people never show any symptoms of their abilities until three or four at the very earliest.”
The single word said volumes. Rather than continuing any debate, Mary walked the rest of the way to the front and wrapped her arms around the tall boy’s torso.
“What are you doing?”
“Because I can’t think of any other way to make you feel better.”
“Thank you.” These words came from young Nick, the first he’d spoken since the altercation.
“Yes, thank you, I suppose,” Nick echoed. “And I guess I’m sorry for my reaction.”
“Don’t worry about it. The way I see it you only imagined trying to kill me, and it would be pretty unfair of me to hold a grudge against your imagination.”
When they woke up minutes later there would be much to talk about, things that would be conveyed through read thoughts and covert nods. For now, for only this moment, there was peace, and in this room, through that door, down this hall, peace was something that hadn’t been present in a very long time.