Chapter 90

                The slow song that Vince and Camille were hoping for never came, though a few songs with more choreographed, less tantalizing moves did manage to draw them out onto the dance floor. At the times in between those infrequent dance excursions, they sat around at one of the empty tables and talked. Nothing of tremendous weight was discussed, but they both felt like it was much needed conversation. Life had grown so heady and serious this year, it was nice to talk about nothing more than bad teachers and tough classes.

                After the last round of choreographed dancing, a simple melody that even Vince was able to learn within a few iterations, they found a set of empty stools and sat down to rest.

                “I think that might be it for me,” Camille admitted. Her heavy make-up was smudged at the edges from perspiration. As good as an HCP student’s endurance was, a giant floor packed with moving bodies would put off enough body heat to make anyone sweat. “Nice as it was to try dancing, I feel like I’ve effectively broken out of my bubble enough for one night.”

                “Ditto,” Vince agreed. “Plus it would be good to see our friends some more. This is the first time I can remember in ages that the whole night has been simple and relaxed. I mean, it’s like that in Melbrook a lot, but that’s just the five of us.”

                “What you guys have is something special. I’m jealous; it would be nice to live in a place like that.”

                “You could have taken over Stella’s room,” Vince reminded her.

                Camille frowned, a sour expression on her usually sweet face. “I could have, but I didn’t want to live in a constant reminder that she wasn’t around anymore. I miss her so much already. If she could have seen me in this outfit, she would have just died of joy right there on the spot. Stella was always trying to get me to break out, even more than Violet.”

                “I’m sorry your friend is gone.” Vince patted her gently on the shoulder. Camille suspected his hand lingered for a bit longer than needed, but it was probably just wishful thinking.

                “No, please; I should say that to you. At least Stella has all the memories of our time together, even if she wouldn’t recognize that I’m the girl she had them with. Losing Nick must have been much worse.”

                “I don’t think anyone can, or should, rank loss. It just sucks, no matter the details around it. It’s an awful, awful thing.” Vince’s hands trembled, ever so slightly, in a way that only someone truly attentive or truly enraptured would notice.

                Camille noticed, and put one of her own small hands atop his, giving a slight squeeze. This was a hard topic for him to even brush against. In a different time, in a different place, she might have pressed on, but in a club on Halloween it seemed like changing the topic was the best course of action.

                “Hey Vince, would you grab me a water? I’m pretty parched after all the dancing.”

                “Huh? Oh, sure,” Vince hopped off the stool immediately, and Camille felt a small smile appear on her face. That was her Vince; the easiest way to redirect him was to give him someone to help.

                “I’ll stay here and hold the chairs. Seats are filling up pretty quickly.” Camille motioned to the area around them, which did indeed host an abundant lack of open seats.

                “Are you sure?” His tone was heavier than his words; it was evident the last traces of their last topic hadn’t quite faded yet.

                “I’ll be fine, Vince. I might be small, but in this outfit I should still be easy to spot when you come back. You never have to worry about losing me.”

                Vince stared at her for a moment, and Camille felt herself grown tense as he did. She wasn’t sure what he was about to do, whether it was hug her, thank her, or kiss her so hard she fell off the stool. That moment seemed to stretch onward, lasting for hours, even though she could count time in the steady beat of the music from the dance floor.

                In the end, Vince just gave a sheepish grin and nodded, then went off to get her water. Camille, on the other hand, put a hand to her chest and tried to steady her heart, which had suddenly begun to race.

*             *             *

                Mary felt an unexpected kernel of relaxation begin to appear in her stomach, a break in the rock of worry that she’d been carrying around ever since she first approached Nicholas. It had been scary, damn scary really, to reintroduce her former friend to his old acquaintances. But it was necessary, as she saw it. She’d read his mind and knew there was a chink in the fog Professor Stone had thrown across his memories. Nick was still in there, somewhere, and it seemed like his friends were the best path toward getting him out. Of course, dealing with Nicholas was still incredibly dangerous, so the sight of him toeing the line gave her a slight sense of ease. Only a slight one, however, because she knew that man’s mind too well to ever truly lower her guard.

                Still, things were going well. Everyone was talking and joking, neither Nicholas nor his friends had pushed to ask any HCP secrets, and the tension that the group had felt at first seeing Nicholas was slowly dissipating. It didn’t hurt that Eliza and Jerome were both affable as well, he stoic and polite while she was rowdy and comical.

                “Hey Mary, I’m going to go get a drink, you want to come with me?” Eliza asked. The question seemed out of the blue, unless you’d been listening to her thoughts, which Mary had.

                “Sure, I could go for a water,” Mary agreed. The two women rose from the table and headed down toward the bar. Had it not been concealed by a red and yellow striped hat, they’d have noticed a head topped with spiky silver hair in the same direction.

                “Thanks for coming with,” Eliza said once they were out of earshot from the others. Her flippant tones had dulled, though not vanished. Unlike with Nick, this seemed to be a genuine part of her personality. “I just wanted to see how we’re doing. Nicholas was pretty insistent we make a good impression. If it’s going bad, Jerome and I can vanish.”

                “What good would that do?”

                “Well… I mean, if we don’t make the cut and he does, then at least he can still be around his friends.”

                Mary was surprised by the emotion behind Eliza’s thoughts. “You’re worried about him?”

                The cat-masked woman shot the small girl a striking glance. “Damn that is inconvenient. Yes, though I’ll deny it to his face. Nicholas and I have known each other since we were sixteen. He’s an ass, always has been, but these last few years he was… less of an ass, I guess. Whatever you people were doing to him, I didn’t loathe being around him as much. So if I’m screwing up his opportunity to get some of that back, I’ll get scarce.”

                “Even though you’re supposed to watch him?”

                Eliza grinned, an appropriately cat-like expression. “I’m supposed to watch out for him. If I deem this in his best interest, then that seems like good looking out to me.”

                “You two really are from the same town,” Mary sighed. They arrived at the bar, still thick with patrons, and began the process of waiting for a drink. “You’re fine. Now that I’ve had time to thoroughly vet you both, I don’t mind if you stay around.”

                “Thank goodness,” Eliza said. “Does that mean I can lose this stupid mask? The rubber has been biting into my cheek for hours.”

                Mary giggled softly in spite of herself. “Go ahead; I think you’re safe to show your face.”

                Eliza peeled the cat mask away, revealing her lovely face and causing her dark, curly hair to cascade as she pulled the mask back through it.

                The sound of shattering glass filled the air. Both girls glanced in the direction it came from, to find a tall, fit young man in a red and yellow striped cap staring at them. At his feet were what had once been two pint-glasses filled with water and ice. He had no eyes for the potential tripping/slicing hazard, nor for anything else in the bar.

                “Vince?” Mary asked, suddenly concerned. He’d lost control a few times before, it was possible something was about to go down.

                Vince paid her no mind, if he even heard her. His eyes were locked on Eliza, who Mary suddenly realized was staring right back at him. A single word escaped him, as desperate and fierce as a spaceship racing away from a collapsing star.