Nick sat in the back, eyes out the window as Eliza and Jerome switched off having to drive in the gas station parking lot. It wasn’t a terribly long trek from Lander to Las Vegas, but neither were especially fond of the task. Curiously, part of Nick actually missed the old days, when he had to stuff himself into a shitty old Bug rather than the spacious backseat of a luxury SUV. There had been something peaceful about it being just him, a half-busted car, and the open road sprawled out before him. Maybe he liked the idea of all the possibilities that lay on the stretch of highway. Maybe he enjoyed the small section of time where he didn’t have to play any games or wear any faces; he could just be a man on the road. Maybe he was glazing a past experience in nostalgia to avoid dwelling on his current situation.
That last one seemed mostly, albeit not entirely, right.
Technically speaking, he had no idea what was waiting for him in Vegas. Eliza had been tight-lipped aside from her one bit of advice, and there were just too many possibilities to know anything for certain. All Nick was sure of was that it would be troublesome, and that had a fifty-fifty shot of making it interesting.
Still, no matter how he tried Nick couldn’t shake the feeling in his stomach. The sensation was like the inverse of what had been waiting for him when he finally found Abridail’s body. It was dark, unwanted, and heavy. Worse, the closer they got to Vegas, the stronger the feeling grew. Whether it was a new aspect of his ability or simply intuition his conscious mind refused to acknowledge, it was persistent.
Nick kept staring out the window as Jerome threw the car into drive and put them back onto the long stretch of highway that led to the bright twinkling lights of a place Nick had once considered home. Whatever challenge or problem was awaiting him there, Nick would face it head on. That’s who he was, that’s how he’d been trained to deal with things.
But until they arrived, all he could do was count the road signs going by, and think.
* * *
The cold struck him by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. Mr. Transport had insisted Vince don a heavy jacket before they teleported, and now that they were staring out at the snow-swept landscape Vince understood why. For a moment, his heart leapt into his throat as a memory from freshman year came bursting forth. They wouldn’t dump him at the same mountain, this time alone, would they?
Then Vince noticed the stone building further up a battered and half-frozen path. Looking past it, seeing the peaks of other mountains nearby, he realized that this certainly wasn’t the same place, and even if it had been at least they weren’t at the bottom. Moving forward, Vince trudged along and Mr. Transport crunched through the snow next to him.
“Dean Blaine is going to join us soon to walk you through everything; he just had a meeting come up at the last minute,” Mr. Transport explained. Originally, the dean of Lander’s HCP was going to accompany them on the journey; however, his job came with more than a few unpredictable elements. “Until then we’re just supposed to get you settled.”
“Where are we?” Vince asked, scanning the white lands around them. “It looks like the mountain training scenes from the old kung-fu movies Hershel sometimes puts on. Are we in Tibet or something?”
Mr. Transport’s chuckle came out as fog, lingering near his mouth before slowly dissipating. “We’re in Colorado, Vince. This is still Hero-related, so the HCP couldn’t very well set up a training facility in a foreign country.”
“Oh. It’s just… Dean Blaine called it Lander’s East Campus, so I sort of assumed…”
“Lander is in California. Almost everything is east from there,” Mr. Transport pointed out.
Together, the pair made their way up the path, finally arriving at a thick stone door. Despite the rustic appearance, both men noted the security cameras that were watching as they approached. Vince was reaching out to try and shove the door open when a heavy thud came from the other side. Slowly, the door opened revealing a man Vince’s age wearing simple gray gym clothes. For a moment, Vince couldn’t place him. The hair, short and brown, made it tougher, as did the fact that he wasn’t wearing a half-mad expression and cursing Vince for even existing. But after a few seconds, it clicked, and Vince took a step back even as he let out a single word that was part gasp and part accusation.
* * *
“I’m supposed to be with Vince at this very moment, explaining what the weeks to come will be like,” Dean Blaine said. He wasn’t quite glaring across the table, situated deep in their hidden bunker, but he made no effort to appear anything other than displeased about being called into a sudden meeting. “The fact that you wanted to talk here is the only reason I granted the request. I’m assuming this is something Globe-related and time-sensitive?”
“It is and it isn’t,” Mary replied. Her eyes darted to the other two people in the room, Mr. Numbers and Professor Stone. The latter gave Mary a gentle smile and a soft nod. It was comforting, but it didn’t make the task before her any less onerous. “This is the meeting I requested at the beginning of the year. Originally I just wanted it to be after Winter Break, and I figured that setting it up for when we returned would be fine. However, the situation has changed since then, and I think it’s important to get this all squared away.”
Dean Blaine tapped his index finger on the desk methodically. “If my original complaint didn’t make it clear, time is a factor here. Let’s skip the preamble and jump right to the heart of the matter. What is it you need from me?”
“Well… I needed to let you know that I don’t intend to graduate from the Hero Certification Program,” Mary told him. His eyebrows rose a few inches, but otherwise he remained unmoved. It made sense; in his time as dean he’d probably seen dozens of students realize that this wasn’t the job for them. Hell, she wasn’t even the first one to tell him that this year.
“I am saddened to hear that, although I’d considered it a possibility,” Dean Blaine said. “You lack the temperament for the job, and since May I’ve seen your taste for battle diminish significantly. That seemed the likeliest reason for the meeting request, however I, and no doubt Professor Stone, hoped that with time and training you would change your mind. None of which accounts for why you felt the need to call a sudden meeting in an off-site location. We could have just as easily handled this at Lander.”
Mary swallowed, this was the tough part. She’d have traded nearly anything to read Dean Blaine’s mind, but for once she was flying blind. It gave her a new respect for Alice and Nick, doing stuff like this all the time without the aid of telepathy. “Me quitting could have been handled at Lander, yes. But not this next part.”
“Oh?” Dean Blaine asked. “And what is that?”
Now or never, and never wasn’t really an option. “I just assumed discussion of breaking HCP protocol was best handled in private. Because I’m going to keep my memories of Lander, Dean Blaine. All of them.”