Chapter 110

               Mary heard his thoughts long before Vince came near the Melbrook dorm. Though Mary generally dialed back the telepathy while relaxing, after Alice’s brush with Nathaniel she’d grown more accustomed to staying on watch. Like a five-foot tall mother hen, Mary was making damn sure no one messed with her chicks. That was why she’d said nothing as Vince headed out to meet Eliza; he had the right to get some sense of closure and perspective. What she had never expected was for him to come back knowing that Nick was here, in a manner of speaking, and that she’d kept it from him.

                Vince wasn’t even surprised when he stepped into the Melbrook lounge to find it empty; Mary had been given ample warning she could use to clear the others out. He found her sitting in a chair that had been turned to face the door. There was no charade, no attempts at subterfuge. She knew what he was here for.

                “How long?” Vince was sweating slightly, though it had nothing to do with the run back. He’d kept a steady pace, and even if he’d pushed himself it wouldn’t have made a dent in his HCP-grade stamina.

                “Since he’s been back? Start of the year. Since we’ve known? Varies by person. I knew early on. Alice found out a couple of months back when she saw him on campus. Roy, and by association Hershel, knew on Halloween, which was the night you were supposed to find out too. I made a spur-of-the-moment call to put that off when you and Eliza reconnected. I thought you’d had enough sudden revelations for one night.”

                “You made the right decision,” Vince agreed. In spite of everything, he was managing to keep an even head about all of this. Part of him wondered if he’s just had too much surprise too frequently, and now his mind was burnt out on the concept of it. “But that was weeks ago. I got stable after talking to Dr. Moran, why not tell me then?”

                “Partly because I wanted to let you sort things out with Eliza, partly because their group has some issues of their own they need to deal with, and finally because I wasn’t sure how you’d react.”

                “How I’d react? Mary, Nick is back. Why would I be anything less than overjoyed?”

                “Because it isn’t Nick who came back. It’s who he was pre-Lander, the version before he grew into the scoundrel with at least a heart of tarnished bronze. He goes by Nicholas now, and we’ve been calling him that too. It makes it easier to draw mental lines, to separate the friend we remember from the doppelgänger we see.”

                “That’s crazy,” Vince said. One of his hands ran quickly through the sweaty silver hair plastered to his scalp. “He’s still Nick. No matter what happens to him, he’s always going to be Nick.”

                “Vince, you know his memories got wiped.”

                “Yeah, his memories, not his whole mind. He’s our friend, no matter what name you use. And I’m going to go see him.”

                Mary pulled herself up from the chair very carefully. Exercising any sort of authority around Vince was a delicate balance. While he was a respectful person nearly all of the time, something that targeted his friends could easily override his judgment.

                “You ca-… shouldn’t. Not yet. I know Eliza told you they were dealing with a problem. Nicholas is handling it, in his own way. Give him space to work in.”

                “I’m not going to mess up his plans; I’m just going to see my friend.” Vince started for the boy’s lounge, weaving past Mary.

                “This is a fight,” she said, desperately grabbing a term he had familiarity with. “It’s his fight, something he needs to do. Whether you mean to or not, showing up will affect his battle. You would never interrupt one of our matches, nor would you expect us to do so for you. We respect each other’s abilities and goals. So do that for Nicholas. Respect him enough to let him finish his fight before you go barreling into the cell.”

                Vince paused, almost to the doorway. He turned around slowly and looked at Mary, taking in the sincerity and forcefulness in her voice.

                “I’ll wait a week,” he said at last. “One week, then I’m going to see Nick.”

                “What if he’s not done by then?”

                “Mary, come on, this is Nick we’re talking about. The week is just courtesy. He’ll probably have it finished before the weekend.”

                “You might be overestimating him,” Mary warned. “Nicholas lacks the experience and insight he gained while living with us.”

                “You’re the one who is misestimating,” Vince replied, opening the door to the boy’s lounge. “I know Nick, and no amount of telepathic ability can bury who he is, at least not for long. For someone who can see into people’s minds, I’m amazed you missed something that obvious.”

                Vince shut the door behind him while Mary stayed in place staring as it relocked. He was going to be in for a world of disappointment when the week was up. Vince could carry all the faith in the world, but Nicholas wasn’t Nick. Yes, Nick was still stuck under there trying to get out, but-

                Mary blinked in surprise at the realization. Vince didn’t know about the memory fragments, couldn’t have even guessed at what was going on in his friend’s head, yet he’d called it perfectly. No one could bury Nick Campbell, at least not for long.

                In all her time dealing with Nicholas, Mary had been focusing on how to minimize his damage and use him most efficiently. She had never really allowed herself to hope that Nick might come back; the pain of the letdown would be too harsh. But Vince had committed to that idea without even knowing it was a viable option. He’d assumed, on nothing more than blind faith in his conman friend, that Nick Campbell was not the sort to go quietly.

                Perhaps it was time she took a page out of Vince’s book and showed a little faith of her own.