“It seems like you’re supposed to say that you’re sorry,” Alice surmised as Nick finished relaying the basics of the labyrinth he and Nicholas had run through. He’d purposely left out and obscured most of the details from his pre-Lander memories; there were things about him that even his friends didn’t need to know.
“No, I’m supposed to be sorry,” Nick said. “This is my mind, one of the few places in the world where I can’t just bullshit my way out of problem. If Professor Stone wants me to repent, I’m pretty sure it will have to be genuine to have any effect.”
“Plus he tried apologizing several times before you all got here,” Nicholas added.
“You said ‘if Professor Stone wants you to repent.’ Do you not think that’s what this is about?” Mary asked.
“I don’t know. It could be, sure, but then why bother? What does it accomplish? Good people in the HCP get wiped every year, and I highly doubt they go through this kind of ordeal. Even if I did somehow decide to be a totally different person, why would that make me more deserving to keep my memories? It just doesn’t add up.”
“Maybe it’s about what they think you have the ability to do,” Hershel said. “You managed to survive two years of the HCP, and you probably could have gone further, using mostly just your mind. That could mean they think there’s a place for you in the Hero world, if you can get your morals in line.”
“If that were the case then I would have never been wiped in the first place. Numbers and Transport would have grabbed me as soon as our exam ended and given me the hard-sell.” Nick noticed everyone except Mary looked confused at his statement. “You guys still haven’t figured out what they do, have you? Jeez, you really are useless without me. Just trust me, there is a place in the Hero world for people of my flexible nature, but I seriously doubt they bother with these sorts of games in their recruiting procedures.”
“Then what does that leave us with?” Roy asked.
“Fuck all if I know.” Nick shrugged his shoulders slightly, rattling the chain as he did. These words were not entirely true, as he did have a slight suspicion of what Professor Stone wanted. That theory would be sealed away with the rest of his memories though; it was too dangerous to be spoken.
“So… what’s the plan then?” Hershel looked up and noticed that the hole was now significantly smaller. “We’ve tried force, fire, and figuring out the trick; all of which have come up empty. Time’s running out, what are we going to try next?”
“Something I’ve always been particularly shitty at.” Nick walked over to Hershel and took the smaller man’s hand in his, giving it a firm but gentle shake. “Goodbye, Hershel. You were always a nerd, and I mean that lovingly, and you had a good head for strategy. Try and keep them out of too much trouble.”
Nick turned to Mary, who he patted lightly on the head. “You are the biggest pain in my ass I’ve ever had. Thank you.”
He rotated to Roy, who was staring down with a grim expression as understanding set in. “You’re a good guy, when you work at it. And you can hit like nobody’s business. Strongmen get played out a lot in the Hero world. Go remind them what a solid punch can do.”
Nick hesitated for a second as he moved to the next person. He had to say goodbye to Alice last. If he didn’t, he feared he would lose his composure, and composure was necessary to get his friend’s to safety. So instead he spun to face the silver-haired young man who was his best friend.
A sudden blow to his stomach cut off Nick’s words. Vince caught his friend’s shoulder with his left hand even as his right was still imbedded a few inches below Nick’s sternum.
“Sorry about that, but we really are running short on time,” Vince said. He looked at his friends, who were staring at him with unmasked confusion. “What? You know if I hadn’t incapacitated him he’d have tried something crazy.”
“Vince… he was telling us goodbye. He was telling us to go,” Mary said softly.
“I know. That’s also why I stopped him.” Vince carefully set Nick onto the ground as he gasped and wheezed, trying to get his breath back. “I don’t need a goodbye. I’m not going anywhere.”
“You understand that if you don’t get out of here, your memories could be sealed along with his, right?” Mary asked.
“You damn idiot… you can’t stay.” Nick had to wheeze between words, but he still managed to get them out.
“No, Nick, what I can’t do is leave. I won’t let you be here alone.”
“You’re going to throw away your career?” Nick’s words came faster as his breathing returned to normal. “They won’t let you restart the HCP, you know. You’re the son of Globe, and you’ll lose your memories going after someone who was expelled. You’ll never be a Hero.”
“I already told Mary, I understand what I’m doing.”
Nick had heard that tone in Vince’s voice before, it meant he was set on a course and nothing short of divine intervention would stop him. Still, he had to try.
“Use your head Vince. I gave up my career for yours. If you do this, you waste my sacrifice. You make it so I threw away everything in vain.”
“Last time you made that sacrifice, you purposely kept me in the dark because you knew I wouldn’t let you do it. This time, I get a say in the matter. So berate me, manipulate me, try and trick me however you want; it won’t work. We’re in this together, Nick. We’re brothers, and I’m not going to leave family behind.”
For once, even Nick’s ever-flapping tongue fell still.
Vince looked over to Alice, whose eyes were already watering. “Alice, could you, um, tell Camille… tell her I’m sorry.”
“No, Vince, I can’t.” Alice walked over to where Nick was still sitting and crouched down next to him. “I’m staying too.”
“I can’t let you-” Nick sputtered
“You can’t stop me,” Alice snapped. “Besides, you really think I’m going to let you inflict yourself on some other girl? No, I think it’s my duty to stay by your side and keep you in line.”
“You won’t even know me. You’ll be who you were at the beginning: an entitled and combative princess.”
“And yet I’ll still be too good for you.” Alice stood and turned toward the others. “When you guys are ready, I’ll float you out of here.”
Mary and Hershel exchanged a quick glance. They’d been together for over two years, two years that might soon be lost to them, and didn’t need words to know that they were in agreement.
“Vince is right. We’re family. For some of us, this is only family we’ve ever really had. Better to start over together.” Mary took Hershel’s hand in hers as they stepped forward. “Promise you’ll woo me again?”
“Just try and stop me,” Hershel replied. He paused to look at Roy, whose face was almost inscrutable. “Since we’re separate mind, if you go then you should probably be able to retain your memories.”
“Fuck you,” Roy spat. “I ain’t dad. A real man sticks by the people he loves.” With that, he walked over and they were once again a group.
“You know,” Nicholas called from a few feet away, “I never particularly saw the benefit in friends, but I’m beginning to get an idea of how these people softened you up.”
Overhead, the small hole in the dome grew tinier; soon they would be completely encased in the ice. Without thinking about it they began to hold hands, forming their own chain. This wasn’t made of ice; however, it was forged from love, friendship, and loyalty.
“In case this does really wipe us all out, anyone have last words?” Hershel asked.
“I need a drink,” Roy said.
“I wish I’d worn something cuter. Post-wipe Alice is going to be just so confused, and to be poorly dressed on top of that just seems cruel,” Alice added.
“I’m really, really thankful that I met you all,” Vince said.
His were the true last words, as the tiny hole in the dome finally sealed over. The slight sound of growing ice that had filled the world around them ceased, and for a moment silence engulfed them. It was quickly shattered by a new voice, this one far less contemplative or gentle than theirs had been.
“You have got to be shitting me.”