Chapter 50

“So how does it feel, oh valiant captain, to have won your first match?” Hershel asked as Mary laid her head on his chest. They were in Hershel’s room, the night of communal happiness having wound down some time ago. It was a moment of coupleness, the likes of which had become increasingly rare with all the preparations and training as of late.

“Exhausting,” Mary replied. “Trying to keep up with what everyone was doing across the entire battlefield, not to mention worrying about them when things got dangerous, and having to listen to Nick all day wore me out. I’m going to sleep like a baby tonight.”

“I bet. You’re quite an amazing girl, you know that?”

“It might have come up in conversation a few times,” Mary said, her tone playful but her smile genuine. “You’re not too shabby yourself.”

“Meh, I’m a nerd who can turn into someone awesome. That makes me less interesting and more a homework jockey for my alter ego.”

“None of that,” Mary said, lifting her head so she could look him in the eye. “You’re brave, smart, resourceful, and kind. I wouldn’t be the girlfriend of a guy who was just ‘meh’, after all.”

“You make a strong case,” Hershel said. He leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek, bringing her back down against his chest so they could lie comfortably. “On the subject of resourcefulness, I had a thought about how we could celebrate. Halloween is next weekend, so-”

“Please don’t say you want to go to that giant frat costume party again.”

“Perish the thought. I was thinking we could hit one of the giant haunted houses in town. There’s one called Screamtopia that’s apparently known nationally. It has mazes, hidden passages, and all sort of special effects. They say they even use a Super or two to really bring the impossible to life. Plus, on Halloween weekend they have a big lounge running at the end where you can hang out and drink or just breeze through. I figure that way it can be scary or drunken depending on what each person wants.”

“Plus you’re hoping to have me clutched against you in fear for the duration of it,” Mary pointed out.

“I thought you didn’t listen to my thoughts?”

“Didn’t need to. I’m hoping for the same thing.” Mary reached up and kissed him, this one definitely not on the cheek. Though there were many physical boundaries the couple had yet to cross, they still kissed with enough passion that by the end, neither one was thinking about haunted houses.

*    *    *

Camille was nearly halfway back to her dorm when the figure stepped out of the shadows. She tensed immediately, turning sideways and bringing up her hands in a defensive stance. It laughed at her, and at the sound Camille knew she wasn’t in danger. She was still a bit annoyed at the entrance, however.

“You scared me,” Camille said, relaxing her body.

“I scared you? That’s pretty rich given the difference between us,” Nick said, walking all the way into the light. It was hard to see through his sunglasses at night, but after over a year of wearing them he’d gotten plenty of practice. “Seriously, after what I learned today, it’s hard for me to imagine you really being scared of anyone.”

“I don’t like being startled.”

“You don’t? Funny coincidence, I’m not big on surprises either. So try and imagine my displeasure at finding out one of my teammates had been hiding a tremendously important aspect of her powers.”

“I wasn’t trying to hide, I just didn’t want-”

“Vince to know. Yes, I’m aware of your feelings, as is Mary, as is really anyone with perception. You’re in luck, because that criteria still rules out Vince. I get that you are keeping it from him, and it doesn’t bother me. What does is when you hide things I need to know about in order to effectively strategize against our opponents. So let’s go ahead and clear the air. First off, why are you so set against him knowing you can give back the damage you absorb?”

“I... we met when we were kids. He doesn’t remember me because I was using a nickname, had dyed my hair, and told him how I absorbed damage instead of making him think I was a healer. I’m scared if he sees my real power he’ll figure out who I am.”

“Why is that so bad? Did the childhood version of you beat him up or something?”

“No. I was his first kiss,” Camille said, unable and unwilling to hide the blush washing over her skin. She expected a snappy comeback, but Nick was silent for some time before responding. When he finally did, his voice was softer and more amiable.

“I get it. I didn’t understand the little monologue you gave Allen at first, but now it makes sense. Vince must have left quite an impression on you as a kid. Not that surprising, I doubt he was any less foolhardy and moral then than he is now. So you met this kid whose memory stuck with you, and then some years later you show up at Lander and here he is. Now you’ve finally got your chance to be with him, as long as you can find the right angle of approach.”

“It isn’t like that!” Camille protested, her voice rising despite herself. “I don’t expect him to be with me, and I’m not trying to trick him into it. It’s just that he’s... he’s so reckless. He always charges into things for other people without giving any thought to his own safety. One day he’s going to get seriously hurt doing that.”

“And you want to be there to save him when he does,” Nick finished. “Which you have a much better chance of doing as a friend than as a romantic partner. After all, statistically speaking, most relationships fall apart. I think I finally comprehend. All right then, I’ll keep your secret for now.”

“You will?”

“Yes, but understand, keeping it should never take priority over winning in one of our team’s matches. Got me?”

“Of course.”

“Then I don’t see any harm in letting you have your privacy,” Nick told her. “It’s kind of a shame, actually.”

“How so?”

“You’re selfless, protective, and dedicated. If you weren’t so set against getting involved with him, you two would be a good match for each other. Probably better for me in the long run this way. The last thing I need is a pair of you do-gooders always around. Just handling one unwavering moral compass takes enough energy.”

“Thank you, I think.”

“Not at all,” Nick said, giving her a smile that made Camille think of when her cat used to watch the fish swim in their bowl. “I’m glad we had this little chat. I think our team will be stronger for it. Be safe walking home. You never know what weirdoes are out there.” With those words and a wave, Nick headed back to Melbrook. Camille, meanwhile, started back toward her own dorm, trying with little success to reassure herself that Nick would be true to his word and keep her secret. She should have known better than to worry: Nick Campbell would never betray someone’s confidence.

Unless, of course, there was something to be gained from it.