Chapter 36

Nick washed his hands thoroughly, taking time to reflect in the serenity of the restroom. He needed to step away from the world, needed to compose, needed to take assessment of what a dumb fuck he’d been. Gerry had taught him better than that, taught him that the con and the character took precedence over petty emotions. Yet here he was, only a few years since graduation, making a moronic move that flew in the face of all that. He and Alice had been rebuilding their tenuous friendship. With quiet deference and a few well-placed gestures, he could have been back on her list of trustworthy persons by the time Halloween rolled around. Not now; now things were infinitely more complicated.

Nick had actively stoked the very fires of infatuation he’d worked so hard to douse last year. It wouldn’t make her more malleable, it certainly wouldn’t smooth out the wrinkles in their friendship; all it would do is add unneeded layers of complication. He’d let fly with the little quip just to prove her wrong and only now were the consequences fully settling in.

Nick pulled free some paper towels and wiped away the moisture. He tossed them into the trash and readied himself to try and do damage control. Curiously, in all of his machinations, analyses, and speculations, he never once paused to wonder why he’d selected that particular piece of truth as a wrench to throw in Alice’s gears, which merely goes to show that even the swiftest minds can fall into the gopher hole that is self-delusion.

*    *    *

Vince and Camille rotated slowly in place, each carefully moving his or her respective feet in an effort to avoid the other’s. They felt awkward, though for very different reasons. Vince had merely never felt quite at home in the center of a dance floor and Camille was doing her darnedest not to hyperventilate.

“Sorry I’m not that good,” Vince apologized. After watching Nick tip and twirl Alice about, he felt like his own slow-paced turning was somewhat inadequate.

“It’s fine,” Camille said. “I’m not much of a dancer anyway.”

Vince chuckled. “So neither of us is good at this, yet we’re both out here?”

“Alice is scarily capable of party organizing. I’m not taking the risk,” Camille replied to the unasked question.

“Very, very good point,” Vince agreed. “Actually, while we’re out here and no one can hear over the music, there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for a while.”

“Oh?” Camille’s voice squeaked within the decibel range audible to human ears, but only just barely.

“Why are you in the Close Combat class? I mean, you work hard and do well, but given the nature of your talents it seems like an odd fit. The rest of us have the ability to at least deal damage in some way.”

Camille weighed her words precisely, knowing she was about to walk a tightrope between lying and merely not saying the whole truth. “Healers in general aren’t a physical risk to their opponents, but they represent a giant threat when on a team to the people they’re facing. So even if a healer isn’t dangerous, they can still get targeted. Knowing how to not get hit, even a little, can make a big difference.”

“When you point that out, it seems like a stupid question,” Vince conceded. “I was wondering why they’d put you in a position to get hurt, but I guess it’s actually more about teaching you how to stay safe.”

“That is the theory,” Camille said carefully.

“It seems like a good one,” Vince said. “You know, this girl I met a long time ago had a pretty useful version of healing. She didn’t just take away damage, she absorbed it like energy. She told me she could give it to other people later on. It seems like that would be a really good combination to have, both offense and defense rolled into one.”

“Sounds that way,” Camille said, her brain sludgy with uncertainty. So he remembered her but didn’t recognize her. What the hell? She hadn’t changed that much; she’d barely even grown. His eyes seemed far away when he talked about her, and he had a half-smile that materialized with the words. Which meant what, exactly? Camille dearly wished she was more adept at these sorts of social situations. Ultimately, her need to know got the better of her and she pressed forward.

“This girl you knew, did she ever go into the program?”

“I doubt it,” Vince replied.

“Ah, didn’t have the guts for it?”

“Oh no, not at all,” Vince said, hastily correcting himself. “I just don’t think she would have taken such a combative route. I have a feeling she found her calling helping people. She was a very kind and gentle girl. Small, too, like you, except she had brown hair.”

Camille blinked. She’d forgotten she used to dye her normally white-blonde hair to stand out less. It seemed as well that he still hadn’t realized that she and his former girl had the same power. That explained at least some of the recognition problems.

“She seems sweet. I’m surprised you didn’t keep in touch.”

“I... used to travel a lot, and we kind of met in passing,” Vince said, glossing over the long explanation that was his past.

“Well, she must have left quite an impression.”

“Yeah, but then again, your first kiss usually does,” Vince replied. The song came to an end and the crowd began swapping out, people preferring the loud rhythmic music to the slow twirls taking the dance floor while the other type left. “I think we’ve satisfied Alice’s requirements, unless you want to...”

“No, thank you. I can barely manage the slow songs, I don’t think I’m cut out for the other type of dancing,” Camille said politely.

“You and I are very much on the same page there,” Vince agreed. “I’ll go get us some water.”

“That would be great,” Camille said as she moved to retake her seat at the table by Stella. It was a blessing that Vince left her side at that moment: one more piece of stimulation might have made her completely fall apart. So he remembered her after all, he just didn’t know she was that girl. It had been over ten years ago, after all. The mere fact that he remembered her would likely have been the pinnacle of her night on any other occasion, but shockingly enough, there was another chunk of data that eclipsed that fact in terms of emotional potency.

She’d been his first kiss. They’d shared an intimate first experience on that sunny summer afternoon. She’d never known that, and somehow that little slip of information made everything a bit more bearable.