Chapter 287

                One fight left. One more match, and it was over. Win or lose, this was going to be Vince’s last chance as a student to show the Hero world at-large what he was made of. There were sure to be more tests to come, probably a big one to actually make the cut for graduation, but those would be smaller venues. Today, he had the eyes of Heroes upon him. This was where he proved he had what it took to join them, no matter what the DVA thought about his adopted father. Intense as that pressure was, it was made even worse by the knowledge that it wasn’t just his own victory on the line. Vince was the last man standing for Lander. If he didn’t find a way to win, the whole school lost. Sure, they’d already put on a strong showing, but Vince couldn’t bear the thought of Lander falling short because he wasn’t strong enough to carry them across the finish line.

                “Knock knock.” The voice came from the open door of Vince’s prep room, an area he’d been actively ignoring. No one ever showed up there except when it was time to lead him off to the next match, so it should have been shocking to see Nick Campbell leaning against the frame, waiting for Vince to realize he had company. However, since it was Nick, Vince was only mildly surprised by the sudden appearance. Nick had a habit of making impossible tasks seem outright mundane.

                “Did you sneak down here?” Not the warmest of greetings, but Vince had to figure out whether or not people were about to come storming down and drag Nick off before the conversation went further.

                That question drew a laugh from Nick, who stepped fully into the room. “I might have, if I thought it was necessary. Didn’t need to, though. Turns out it’s customary for the students to be allowed a pre-fight pep talk before their last match. Just encouragement, no advice, the Heroes were very clear on that front. Everything down here is monitored anyway, so it’s not like I could slip you secret info even if I had some to share.”

                “That seems more like a job for Dean Blaine than a friend who was expelled,” Vince pointed out.

                “And he no doubt would be here if I weren’t, but I convinced him to let me handle this one. The guy understands his students better than most people realize, and part of that means knowing how to best help them. In this case, that meant using me.” Nick sauntered over, hopping into a chair next to the counter Vince was perched on and pulling out the deck of cards he’d been shuffling all day, automatically moving them through his hands. “So, worked yourself into a complete mess yet, or did I come slightly too early?”

                There was a brief moment where Vince considered denying the blatant truth Nick had noticed, however he quickly dismissed such a senseless notion. He had zero chance of fooling Nick, and even if he could, what did that gain Vince? The illusion of pretending such high-stakes situations didn’t make him nervous? That was a silly thing to choose over a friend’s help.

                “Hard to say. I’ve been feeling the pressure all day, but this last one… Conrad beat Chad. And Alice. Two of our strongest people, who I’m not sure I could defeat. I get that no one out there actually expects me to win, not when our top people failed. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ll be letting everyone down if I don’t somehow find a way to come out on top.”

                “About where I figured you’d be,” Nick said. “That’s the reason I came down here. I know how you get all bunched up in your head. Don’t use too much power, don’t come off as too aggressive, don’t let anyone watching feel too afraid. Just about the only time you let loose is when people are counting on you, and then you risk over-correcting and coming out way too strong. Well good news, Vince. I came down with a message that will take all that worry and pressure right off your shoulders.”

                Vince watched as Nick rose from his chair, setting down the deck of cards and standing right in front of Vince so the two were eye-to-eye. “That sounds too good to be true.”

                “It’s not. It’s the simplest thing in the world, you just haven’t realized it yet.” Nick leaned in slightly, shifting his voice to a stage whisper. “Vince, the big secret to why you don’t need to feel so stressed out is… none of this matters.”

                The reply sprang to Vince’s lips before he had time to consider it, which was why a simple “Huh?” slid out of his mouth rather than a more targeted request for explanation. Luckily, Nick still got the message.

                “It’s just a school contest. A big one, sure, maybe on par with a Bowl game at the end of football season, but nothing more than that. You’re fighting for pride and bragging rights. Not your future. Not the soul of Lander. None of that crap.”

                “Nick, we’ve both seen how many Heroes are up there-”

                “Oh yes, there’s a crowd, no doubt about that.” Now that Nick was on a roll, he didn’t seem willing to let Vince take them off-track. “A crowd who has seen you put on a great three matches. A crowd who will trust Dean Blaine when he tells them what kind of man you are, and what kind of Hero he expects you to be. A crowd including Graham DeSoto, new head of the DVA who sure seems to have reigned people in on putting the screws to you. Look, I’m not saying you could go out there and try to murder Conrad without facing consequences, but losing this fight won’t fundamentally change anything about your life. You’ll have a bad day, and our class will be bummed for an afternoon. That’s it. That’s all your fighting for.”

                Silence fell between the two as Vince considered Nick’s words. Was he right? Had all of the pressure been in Vince’s own mind? No, the class was still counting on him, even Nick had admitted that pride was on the line. But compared to fights where he had to prove he belonged or the life and death ordeal of last May, fighting for bragging rights didn’t seem nearly so dire.

                “This feels like the opposite of what a pep talk should be. Aren’t you supposed to be riling me up? Talking me into leaving it all out on the floor, fighting like there’s no tomorrow, all those clichés?”

                 “Shit no. Maybe that’s what most people need, but not you. Nobody puts more pressure on Vince Reynolds than his own unshakeable sense of responsibility. You always fight the hardest for other people. Save the innocents, protect your friends, that kind of thing. And that worked for a while, when you were still figuring yourself out. It’s been four years though, four years that you’ve used to improve in a lot of ways. All that therapy was part of it. I think you know yourself quite well by this point. What you want. What you can do. What you’re willing to do. Today, it’s time to fight with a clear head. No massive stakes, no people depending on you to keep them safe. Just Vince Reynolds, having a match with some dick trying to show up his school. That’s all. So, knowing that nothing really changes whether you win or lose, what do you want to do?”

                Vince tried to imagine what it would feel like to lose if Nick was right, if the fight really had no consequences. His friends would be sad, but they wouldn’t blame him for Lander’s loss just like he hadn’t blamed Chad or Alice. No one questioned that those two tried their best, and if there was one thing Hero training had drilled into all of them it was that everyone lost sometimes. That was why people agreed no Super was invincible. Beyond the initial loss, his class would be disappointed. Again though, would they really have expected Vince to win when Alice and Chad fell short? The Heroes watching probably wouldn’t think much less of Vince, there was only one Intramurals champion, the rest had to lose by design. As for the DVA, they likely cared more about Vince not burning down the HCP than how he did in the fights.

                It was odd, the more Vince thought about it, the more he realized that Nick was right: this match ultimately didn’t matter. But clearing all the anxiety away had revealed another truth, one that not even Nick had brought up. Now that there was no more pressure, Vince realized this match actually did matter to at least one person: him. Even if it was for nothing more than pride, Vince had a tremendous amount of pride to fight for where Lander was concerned. It was his first real home, the place where he’d met the biggest family he ever had, the school that had taken him in and stuck up for him even when the Globe controversy came to light. Maybe Conrad would win, and that would be okay in the long run. But no one would forget that Lander had made it to the final match as well, Vince would make damn sure of that.

                “I want to win.” Vince looked up at Nick, his mind already set in determination, to find a knowing grin looking back at him.

                “Had a feeling that’s what you’d say.” With that, Nick turned and started for the door. “I should head out, they’ll be coming to get you in no time. Just remember, no matter how crazy things get: none of this matters. Not unless you want it to.”

                “Thanks.” Vince set his hand down on the counter, finding his fingers resting on a strange object. A quick glance showed him the stack of playing cards were still there, just where Nick had left them. “Hey, you forgot your cards.”

                Nick paused his exit, fixing Vince with a piercing glance. “No, I didn’t. They’re a good luck present. Just normal playing cards, mind you, I even had to get them checked before coming down here. We can’t give you any kind of tangible help, be it equipment or advice. So it’s just a stack of cards to help you remember that everyone is cheering for you. Fitting, too. With all the others knocked out of the tournament, maybe that makes you the King card of the class, if only for Intramurals.”

                Nick was gone before Vince could ask any follow-up questions, only the stack of cards evidence that he’d ever been there at all. That, and the fact that Vince felt worlds better than he had moments ago. It was hard to say why a pep talk telling him that nothing mattered had worked so well, but Vince didn’t care to question it.

                Making the impossible seem mundane was simply what Nick Campbell did.