Chapter 76

Nicholas took one look around the foggy, ill-defined landscape, and swore.

“Not this shit again.”

“Oh come now, you can’t really be all that surprised.” Nick’s voice was strange for Nicholas to hear. It came from the same vocal cords as his own, yet it was different. Lighter, filled with a playfully teasing edge. Perhaps… happier?

“Surprised, no. Just inconvenienced,” Nicholas said, turning around and walking over to where his past self was sitting. This time the table in between the two chairs was slightly larger, and there was an unmarked brown box sitting on top of it.

“I can see how a weird dream might very well take time out of your busy day. No, wait, you’re already asleep.”

“The memory you gave me was inconvenient,” Nicholas snapped, a momentary lapse in composure that he quickly remedied. “I didn’t need to know about possible previous feelings for Alice.”

“See, that’s the thing, you sort of did,” Nick countered.

“Why? All it did was make my evening with her all more uncomfortable. Considering the fact that Nathaniel almost killed me, that says quite a bit.”

“Please, with Alice there he never had a shot,” Nick said. “Don’t let the sweet smile and the designer clothes fool you, that girl has a crock-pot of pissed off ready to boil over when there’s good reason.”

“She was… ferocious,” Nicholas admitted, remembering the terrified look on Nathaniel’s face as he’d come plummeting into a dumpster.

“She’s a lot of things,” Nick replied. “However, today isn’t about Alice.” He opened the box and produced a black and white checkered board. Beneath the board were two identical set of figures, different only in their color.

“Chess.” Nicholas allowed his mouth turn downward in a visible frown. “I loathe chess.”

“Me too,” Nick agreed. “So rigid, so straightforward. I like games with a little more fluidity.”

“You mean with more creative ways to cheat,” Nicholas said.

“Same thing. Remember when Gerry tried to make us learn chess?”

“He was adamant that the key to winning at chess was to cheat the player, not the board,” Nicholas recalled, perhaps with a bit of fondness in his voice. “It was his way of teaching us to manipulate people, rather than just read them.”

“We learned it, we just never liked it as much as the sleight-of-hand tactics,” Nick finished. “But Mary, on the other hand, loves chess. She and Mr. Numbers play it every Saturday.”

“So your notes indicated.”

“Do you find that strange?” Nick asked. “Knowing what Gerry taught us about chess, why would a telepath need to learn it? And play it against a master, without her powers, at that?”

“She’s learning to manipulate,” Nicholas theorized. “Her power lets her read people, however she recognized that it was not the same as making them do what she wanted, so she undertook a training regimen to correct such an oversight.”

“You’re close,” Nick said. “Really, only off by a few degrees. That said, they are pretty crucial degrees.” He finished setting up the board, each piece in its proper starting position. “Black or white?”

“Neither,” Nicholas replied. “I have no intention of playing this game with you.”

“Someone is a spoilsport,” Nick grumbled. “I didn’t even tell you the stakes. We’re playing for another memory.”

“I assumed as much. That’s why I’m electing not to play. The last one caused me nothing but ill-timed awkwardness. I don’t need your memories or your emotional encounters. I prefer my interactions with people to be clean and simple.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” Nick said. “Here’s the thing though, this is not a ‘make you feel gooey in the aorta’ kind of memory. It is a memory regarding some deeply personal shit that Mary knows about. The sort of thing you definitely want to be aware of.”

“And of course you can’t just tell me what it is,” Nicholas complained. He looked up from the board to his past-self and nearly let an expression slip in surprise. All of Nick’s levity had evaporated away, leaving him with the sort of look a man about to pass down a death sentence would wear.

“I can’t.” Nick’s voice matched his expression in severity. “But you need to know this.”

It could be a ploy; no one knew better than Nicholas how good an actor he could be. Still, this was himself he was dealing with. He had to believe that such seriousness stemmed from genuine concern.

“Fine,” Nicholas yielded. “I choose black.”

“Leaving me to make the first move,” Nick pointed out. “Thinking you can get a read on me?”

“Shouldn’t be too hard. We are the same person after all.”

“That is one of the many things you are shockingly incorrect about,” Nick replied, making his first move. “We’re not as distinct as Hershel and Roy, but we are different. Two years of memories can change a lot about a person. In fact, meeting you like this, I have a hard time believing I was really ever entirely like you.”

“Says the one of us who went soft and grew feelings,” Nicholas countered, choosing a conservative move that would hopefully draw Nick out.

“We always had feelings,” Nick sighed. “Despite what we tried to convince others of, we’ve never been empty inside. I just actually dealt with a few of mine, rather than hiding them all away behind the ‘too cool for this shit’ facade.” He moved once more.

“No, you used sunglasses and an idiotic attitude.”

“Did it ever occur to you, in the two years I was putting on a show being Nick, I actually started having fun?” Nick asked. “Not just from the challenges of staying a step ahead of ridiculously powerful beings, but just from being able to say stupid things and not worry about how many people the Family had dealings with were watching.”

“No, it didn’t occur to me,” Nicholas replied. “You just got comfortable playing a character. Gerry warned us it could happen in long assignments.”

“Maybe you're right,” Nick conceded. “Or maybe Gerry just didn’t want us to spook when we finally starting cutting loose a little, so he gave us a plausible lie to use as a mental shield.”

“That does sound like something he would do,” Nicholas agreed. “Anyway, it’s your move.”

“Thanks,” Nick said.

They played in silence for some time after that, no sound heard through the dream-world save for the clacking of pieces into place. The next word spoken by either of them had no relation to their previous argument, though it certainly had the potential to incite another one.

“Checkmate,” Nick declared, moving his knight into position.

Nicholas studied the board carefully. Nick was right, he’d set a careful trap and sprung it flawlessly. The game was his.

“Well played,” Nicholas said. “But I have to admit, I’m surprised. I thought you’d let me win so you could give me the memory.”

Nick shook his head. “You seem to be under some misimpressions about my motivations. I’m not cooling my heels in the hidden parts of your brain because it’s fun. I want back out. The more memories you get back, the more I exist in our outer self. I’m not playing to keep them from you, I’m playing to give them to you.” Another golden orb was produced from his hand and set on the table, next to the chessboard.

“You’re a sneaky bastard,” Nicholas accused.

“Thank you,” Nick replied.

“And what’s your plan if I don’t pick it up?”

“The orb is a symbol,” Nick informed him. “You don’t have to touch it. You’re getting the memory whether you want it or not.”

“Fine,” Nicholas said. “But you might find me far more reluctant to play your next game.”

“Feel free to refuse,” Nick graciously offered. “But I’ll take that as a forfeit.”

“This is not what I’d expected from my past self.”

“Really?” Nick asked. “Because if anyone should have seen it coming, it’s you.”

Nicholas had no ready counter for that, so instead he picked up the orb. The world faded around him, swirling into a memory of coffins, revelations, and an emotional battle in the depths of his subconscious.

When he awoke, the barest remains of tears were in his eyes.