Often, people would describe the bedrooms of the terminally ill of smelling like death. That wasn’t true, however. Nick had smelled death on countless occasions. Sometimes from across a room, sometimes up close and personal. Death smelled like blood, and piss, and rot. Gerry’s room had a disinfected scent; it was too clean, too empty. To Nick, these sorts of rooms had always smelled like the absence of life more than actual death, and to him that was far, far worse.
Gerry stirred as the door shut quietly behind Nick, lifting his head carefully from the inclined bed. There were machines and IVs in him, although less than Nick had been expecting. Then again, perhaps that made sense. This was a mission to make the end comfortable, not continue the battle. One probably required less equipment than the other.
“Well well well, if it isn’t the college boy come home for the holidays. So much for my peace and quiet.” Despite his frail form, he still sounded like Gerry, a revelation that pulled an unexpected weight from Nick’s heart.
“Damn right,” Nick agreed. “If you think I’m going to just let you sleep away my time here then you’ve got another thing coming. There are heads to crack, burgers to eat, and marks to fleece. Nothing ever really stops in Vegas.”
Gerry reached out and pointed to one of the chairs near his bed. “How about we chat for a little while first, then move on to the head busting?”
Nick made his way across the room, seating himself in the chair Gerry had pointed at. He knew it wasn’t going to last for long, but still, he’d hoped to keep the banter alive for a bit. This close, he could see how tired Gerry really was though. The already bald man had shed too much weight, and the bags at his eyes betrayed how fruitless his sleep had been. It was hard to imagine the real Gerry when staring at this worn expression, but Nick never dared turn away, even for a moment.
“You know this is bullshit, right? That Ms. Pips, Eliza, even the damn workers downstairs, all of them get to know before me? Tell me how that’s okay, Gerry. You and me… we…” Nick trailed off, for once unable to find the right words awaiting him on his tongue.
“Yeah Campbell, I know.” Gingerly, Gerry reached over and laid an emaciated hand on top of Nick’s own. “But none of them have futures riding on staying away from this place. And if you found out, you’d have come. We both know it. This family teaches loyalty as a religion, and you’ve always been a devout disciple. Loyalty runs in two directions, though. I didn’t want you to throw your future away over me, so I made the call not to spend these last few months with you.”
“It was a shitty call,” Nick told him.
“Maybe, but I’m dying. I get to be a little selfish and make some shitty calls.”
Nick recoiled like Gerry had struck him, pulling away from the thin hand. “You’re not dying, Gerry. I’ve got people. I’ve got connections, markers I can call in, secrets I can leverage. We know there are healers who can cure even the toughest of diseases, and I’ll get one of them here no matter what.”
“See, this is the other reason I didn’t tell you.” Gerry kept his hand outstretched, but shifted in bed, trying to get more comfortable. “Most people I teach, they eventually learn that winning isn’t everything. If the cost is too high, if the repercussions are too severe, then it’s best to take the loss and regroup. Not you, Campbell. For you, it’s always been victory or death. Maybe you had something to prove, maybe you just wanted to show being Powered didn’t mean you were less than any of the rest of us, but whatever the reason you’ve always been terrible at knowing when to take a loss. In a way, that might be why you fared so well at that Hero school. I’d place a bet that a lot of them look at life the same way.”
“I’m not stupid; I don’t hang on for every fight. I just don’t roll over on the ones I know I can win. And we can win this, Gerry. Trust me. There’s even a girl in my old class I could call, she might be able to-”
“To heal a criminal? One of the leaders in a major crime organization? A man with so much blood on his hands he…” Gerry trailed off for a moment and cleared his throat. His voice was beginning to weaken. “Don’t do this, Campbell. Don’t drag others into this place, don’t taint the bright and shiny Heroes-to-be with the kind of grime we deal in. Don’t sully your future trying to save your past.”
For a moment, neither said anything. Then Nick reached out and carefully grasped the man’s outstretched fingers. “Is that why you’ve stopped fighting? Do you think you don’t deserve to live, Gerry?”
“Hang on there; I’m not just giving up. I’ve been fighting this for years, and thanks to Ms. Pips’ generosity with treatment and healers I bought myself more time than most any other man could have gotten. But you can only fight a losing battle for so long before you accept that defeat is inevitable.” Gerry broke their grip to reach for a nearby glass of water on his table, but Nick was there first, lifting it up to Gerry’s lips until he signaled he was done.
“But yes, dying does make a man take stock of the way he spent his life. And mine was not spent in the service of good. I was a criminal through and through, the fact that I worked my way up this high in the organization is proof of that. Still, at least there are a few bright spots I can look back on and know I did the right thing.”
“You gave a lot of people second chances, sometimes even jobs, and helped them get their shit together,” Nick agreed.
“Sure, that too, but I was talking about you, dumbass,” Gerry corrected. “I got to have a hand in raising you, and I’m pretty sure that’s one bit of good that will endure long after all the others have faded away.”
Nick hesitated at those words, suddenly uncertain. Gerry was clearly ill, had his mind started to go along with his body? It was tempting to play along, just in case, but Nick pushed the idea aside. He and Gerry shot straight with one another, even if they couldn’t do that with anyone else in the world. Now was not the time to trample on that special part of their relationship.
“Gerry, I’m not in the HCP, you know. I got the boot. I’m not going to be a Hero or anything.”
“Christ kid, I’m sick, not dumb. I know you aren’t in the program anymore, just like I know you’re still taking care of those friends of yours. That’s what I was talking about. Those Heroes are going to be stronger and safer because you’re there watching their backs. Every life they save, every monster they stop, will be in part because you’ve been in the shadows keeping them aloft. And I know you, that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what you’ll accomplish. I have high expectations for you, Nick Campbell. Don’t go slacking off just because I won’t be around to keep you on task.”
Without meaning to, Nick lowered his head. How long had it been since he cried? Since he even felt the inclination? He wasn’t sure if the tears were coming yet, but he could feel all the emotion rising up in him and he wasn’t sure how it would manifest if it reached the surface.
“I can’t… I don’t know how to do this without you. Gerry, you were the one that kept me decent, made me stay human. I need you. Please… don’t go. Not yet. Not like this.”
“As an older man, trust me when I say death never comes at the right time for any of us. There’s always more we have to do, people who still need our help. It comes when it comes, and personally I’m thankful my reaper was kind enough to give me a chance to say my goodbyes. And you don’t need me, not anymore. You’ve got other people who love you, who’ll stand by you, who’ll hunt you across the Earth and drag your ass home if you try to run from them. You haven’t needed me for a couple of years now, and that makes me happy beyond words. I know I’m not your real parent, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to see you leave the nest and fly on your own.”
Gerry reached out, but this time rather than taking Nick’s hand, he flicked the younger man in the ear. “That said, I’m not dead yet, so how about we stop all the sad talk and you go get us a deck of cards. Bet I can still take you in poker.”
“I’ll run down to the front desk,” Nick said. He met Gerry’s eyes once more, and was surprised to see a smile on the sallow face. It was fleeting, but for a brief instant he could see the true Gerry still in there. “And you know you’re the closest thing to a real parent I ever had.”
“Don’t sell Ms. Pips short. She may not be as cuddly as me, but the woman has been tireless in her efforts to keep you safe since the accident. That’s a parents’ job too.” Gerry’s smile grew a bit brighter. “But thanks for saying that, Campbell. I never had kids, but if I did I couldn’t be prouder of them than I am of you. Now get a hustle on, and order us some burgers while you’re at it. One upside to all of this, cholesterol can kiss my ass.”
Nick did as he was told, leaving the room and pausing in a nearby bathroom to compose himself. No matter how shaken he felt, he needed to present an aura of control and competence for the employees. It was one of Gerry’s first lessons, and Nick certainly didn’t intend to cast aside such teachings. Especially not now.