Chapter 114

               Nicholas expected it to come at night, under the cover of darkness. It was how he would have handled such a situation; carefully tailing a target until he was completely certain that neither he nor they could be seen. Only then would he have engaged, only when the situation was totally under his control. Nicholas was always prepared for his opponents and peers to be as smart as, if not smarter than, him. That was why he expected it at night, ever since Mary warned him what was coming; a mistake that Nick Campbell would not have made.

                Nicholas was halfway to the dining hall, a necessary self-imposed torture that provided him basic nutrition while allowing him to keep a tight schedule, when Vince appeared. He was, obviously, unmistakable. That spiky silver hair would have given him away even if Nicholas had never seen the pictures of him in the file Nick kept. He wore the sort of smile that Nicholas associated with older Vegas tourists; too far gone from empty dreams of quick wealth, they were merely happy to see the sights and experience a new place. Nicholas had never particularly cared for those tourists; they were strange anomalies in a sea of sin and greed.

                Vince made no pretense of pretending to not recognize Nicholas, instead he strode purposely across the sunlit cement sidewalk, carefully skirting other students on their way to class or lunch or perhaps a strange reunion of their own. As Vince neared, Nicholas prepared himself mentally. From the notes, and the general context of his expulsion, Nick had clearly never gotten a firm handle on how to deal with Vince. While malleable in a general sense, he had bits of steely resolve buried throughout his personality, bits that were prone to popping up and wrecking carefully planned strategies. Nicholas would show greater care in handling this valuable, but unstable, asset. He had no intention of falling under the same silly delusions of friendship that had tainted the judgment of his previous incarnation.

                In a few more steps, Vince would be close enough to speak with. Nicholas readied the carefully thought out greeting, one meant to set the tone of the conversation and lead them down the path of discussion he wanted. As soon as the silver-haired young man stopped, Nicholas would speak, and this situation would be firmly under his methodical control.

                He had only a few seconds to realize his miscalculation when Vince finally drew near, and even with that minor bit of forewarning Nicholas failed to act. Instead, he stood there dumbly as Vince didn’t stop or slow down in the slightest, barreling right into Nicholas and sweeping the leaner boy up into a crushing hug. The sudden display of affection surprised Nicholas, but not nearly as much as what happened next. As Nicholas tried to re-assert some mental control and escape his former friend’s grip, he became aware that his body had acted seemingly on its own. Without even knowing he was doing it, Nicholas had begun hugging Vince right back.

                “I knew you’d come back,” Vince said, finally releasing his grip. “You’re the most devious, crooked, and ingenious person I’ve ever known in my entire life.”

                “That isn’t as flattering as you might think it is,” Nicholas said, still trying to get his bearings. He’d been braced for this encounter; Mary had warned him it was coming, so why was he feeling so out of whack? It shouldn’t be like with Alice, when he was blind-sided by Nick’s latent feelings for her.

                “I’m pretty sure it’s flattering to you,” Vince replied. “And I meant it in a good way. If you used that mind of yours for evil then I’d be scared for the world, but instead you used it to find your way back to us.”

                The two men were getting a wide berth on the side-walk, one of the benefits of engaging in a sudden bear-hug. If Nicholas thought Vince had the capacity for it, he’d have suspected that the HCP student had planned it that way.

                “Vince… you know that isn’t entirely true. Mary called me; I know she explained what’s happened.”

                “She told me what you told them,” Vince said. “And I have to say, I’m a little surprised by everyone. After living with you for two years, I’d have thought they would have learned to trust your intentions more than your words.”

                “You didn’t live with me, though. You understand that, don’t you? I’m not Nick.”

                Vince stared into the eyes of the man who had once given away his future, his chance at being a Hero, and even his very memories to save him. He took in every aspect of Nicholas Campbell, and his smile widened.

                “Maybe you’re not Nick, but you’re also not not Nick.”

                “Vince, that doesn’t even make sense.” Nicholas felt both exasperated and strangely comfortable as he tried to use reason on the silver-haired young man. He tried to focus more on the first sensation than the second.

                “Sure it does. If you were really not Nick, all the way gone from him, you would have never come here in the first place. You were always too smart to need the classes, your old extra-curricular activity is gone, and your whole future is back in Las Vegas. The only thing that would bring you back to Lander is your friends. You came here because you need us as much as we need you. And going somewhere just to be with his friends is something Nick would do.”

                “I came here because the sudden gap in my memory left me with a lot of questions, and I wanted to finish out my degree,” Nicholas protested.

                Vince patted him on the shoulder, that damned smile of his never wavering. “Like I said, I know you. I know your intentions say more than your words. Deny it all you want, Nick, but I’m not pretending you aren’t who you are. And I’m definitely not keeping my distance from you any longer, you better get used to that real quick.”

                The two young men had to step aside briefly as a group of women jostled along the sidewalk, clustered together too tightly to be ignored. When they had passed, Nicholas spoke:

                “The meeting up thing shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I’m here as a legitimate student, and the minor surveillance concern I was dealing with has been handled.”

                “I never had a doubt,” Vince said. “I have to lay low tonight, tomorrow is a big exam. My biggest exam, actually. But tomorrow you’re coming over to hang out in the dorm.”

                “No.” Nicholas firmly shook his head. “Vince, for just so many reasons, no. I cannot go back in there. The security protocols alone are staggering. If you really want to hang out, then you all can come to my apartment. Mary, of course, knows where it is.”

                “Awesome, plan on us showing up around seven. Just this once, I bet everyone will even let you pick a bad horror movie without complaining.”

                Nicholas knew he could still diffuse this situation, manage to convince Vince that hanging out in such social occasions was dangerous for all in involved. He knew he could do that… he just didn’t want to. The idea of spending an evening with everyone, of being around his friends from a former life, it sounded downright fun. He couldn’t have rationally broken down why, but Nicholas had a staggering desire to see them all, as soon and as frequently as possible.

                “I’ll pick something so bad it borders on blasphemy.”