Chapter 49

Nicholas Campbell sat on a bench, a sandwich in one hand and a biology textbook in the other. He’d adjusted to life at Lander quite easily; the classes were simple (at least by his standards) and the environment was surprisingly enjoyable. The fly in his ointment was Nathaniel Evers, who, aside from their recent encounter, had yet to show his creepy-ass eyes anywhere near Nicholas. Jerome and Eliza were scouring for him, but it seemed he’d opted to back off after his initial opening move, waiting for the next chance to strike. Still, that would occur sooner or later, and Nicholas had other things on his mind until then. Though the book in his lap sat open, his eyes surveyed the campus and all the students wandering across it as he dined on his meal. He’d made it a point to eat in the same place every day for a week, watching the comings and goings of all the Lander students with a trained eye. Next week it would be a different place, then another, then another, until he’d successfully mapped out the daily patterns of as many people as he needed. It would have been impossible to track everyone, even for him, but thankfully the pool of people Nicholas was looking for was far smaller than the entire population.

He’d already charted two of them, recognizing their faces from the files even as his brain scrambled at the sight of them. This couldn’t be the way the memory wipes normally worked, and soon he would need to do something about it. The upside to a world with Supers was that somewhere out there was a person who could likely undo any other person’s ability. Nicholas had no desire to completely unmake the wipe, at least not until he understood why it was needed; however, he would like to have it touched up in a way that didn’t give him a sense of mental vertigo when encountering old classmates. For now he just had to work around it.

Idly he wondered when he would run into one of his fellow former Powereds. It was inevitable that he’d spot one sooner or later; after all he was exposing himself to the migration habits of the majority of the student body. There was no rush for now, in fact if it happened too soon he might not get all his prep work accomplished. Still, if by the end of the month he hadn’t run into any of them then he would expel a little luck to solve the issue. Nicholas was patient, however he knew he had an enemy out there somewhere, unseen. It wouldn’t hurt to have a bit of backup for when Nathaniel grew tired of playing coy.

Nicholas glanced down at the book from time to time, not wanting to give away the extent to which he was ignoring it. It was part of his tradecraft, instilled in him so deeply that the thought of varying from it never crossed his mind. It was, on the whole, a very good practice, but it did come with certain risks. Usually a ten-second glance at a book will not cause a keen observer to miss any important details.

Usually, but not always.

 *              *              *

Mary would have noticed him. Hershel and Roy wouldn’t have. Vince, that one was up in the air. But Alice knew him as soon as her eyes fell across that familiar sandy hair. She’d gotten used to seeing past disguises, even if Professor Pendleton seemed to think she took nothing from Subtlety. Not that he was wearing one, or not what most people would see as one. He looked normal. Boring even. So much a part of the scenery that if she hadn’t glanced his direction she might have walked by and never noticed. Halfway to her meeting with Professor Stone, mind full of thoughts about what she would uncover, the whole world had fallen out from under her feet due to a casual sweep of the eyes.

Alice immediately veered off to the side, further from his line of sight. She stared unabashedly, not caring what the people walking around her thought of the leering. The longer she looked, the surer she was. It was him. He’d changed his movements again, altered the way he held himself, even when sitting, but there was a  little piece of him still shining through. Her breath was in her throat as she kept watch, half of her wanting him to look over, half praying with everything she had that he wouldn’t. What would she say to him?

Nothing. She would say nothing, because he’d be a stranger. The breath that had been held leaked out of her at that thought; suddenly her lungs didn’t want it anymore. The mere act of taking a fresh one seemed to make her chest ache. He wouldn’t know her, because he was gone. All the fighting, all the bad movies, all the sniping the two of them had exchanged lived only inside her mind. His had been purged.

Alice no longer wanted to be there, no longer wanted to look at him. It was too cruel. Having to watch someone who looked like her friend, but wasn’t. It hurt too much. She knew she’d missed him, though that was one of the many things she’d been working hard at keeping mentally sectioned off. She just hadn’t realized the extent of it until she’d seen him sitting there, like he belonged.

Nick didn’t belong up here, eating on a bench. Nick belonged in the cafeteria with them, complaining about the food. He belonged in their dorm, constantly derailing everyone’s attempts to study or be productive. He belonged with her, calling her Princess and trying to bait her into embarrassing situations. Nick never sat in the sunlight, alone, like it was the nicest place in the world. Then again, that wasn’t really Nick anymore.

All at once Alice pulled herself up short. That wasn’t Nick anymore. Nick had given himself to help Vince, had willingly had his mind wiped to protect some unimaginable secret he’d deemed too dangerous to know. Nick had walked away from the HCP and Lander, burning the bridge with napalm as he left.

So… what was Nick doing here?