"Hey, you room with Nate Insley, right? Is it true that he's the Ringmaster's son?"
Finn sweated through the last set of reps in this round of bench press during Gym. His breath exploded from him in a great gasp as he almost dropped the bars. Rubbing his burning arms, Finn rose from the bench and mopped his brow with one of the many towels provided to students exercising a lifetime of poor health out of their systems.
"The Ringmaster's son? Depends I suppose." Finn coughed and took a swallow from his water bottle. "Who's the Ringmaster?"
The High Five Club, as the top 5 ranked boys at West Private's HCP were commonly called, passed chuckles and incredulous expressions between them. Flynn Smith, the first healer in history to hold the top rank in any HCP program, looked like he couldn't decide if Finn was making a joke as he took his turn under the weights. None of this year's High Five Club had super strength, turning all five of them into workout buddies for a change. That suited Finn just fine. All of them were the children of American Heroes and knew a great deal more about the local landscape than he did.
"I would have thought someone like the Ringmaster would make headlines even in England," Emmanuel Ramirez said. Ranked second for his prodigious elemental manipulation of liquid, coupled with a wickedly creative mind in using it, Emmanuel looked curious. "After all, his last official appearance was...eight years ago? Five? It's a long time to go without someone spotting you. It's a lot easier to do if you're in another country."
"I should have known," Joe Shaw muttered. A kinetic absorber, he was potentially the strongest student in the High Five Club and ranked third. Since he could opt to not use his ability, though, Joe chose to work out with the Club and improve his baseline. "I pulled Nate for my first match. I just assumed his ability made me do to myself what I wanted to do to him."
"It's not that bad," Aaron Capsaw said as he took a turn on the leg press machine. Ranked fourth, he could generate and project incredibly potent force fields. "At least he didn't tell you to stop breathing."
"Jesus, he could, couldn't he." Joe's eyes went a little wide. "What's he doing at this school? How can you really train someone like that?"
"Hold on," Finn said, raising his voice over all of them. "None of you answered my question. Tell me about this Ringmaster, won't you?"
"Surprised you haven't just picked our heads for it," Joe muttered.
"I'm a teke, mate, not a tele. Try your words like everyone else."
Snickering, Aaron answered for him. "The Ringmaster was a Subtlety Hero back in the late 80s and 90s. Ran a group called the Circus, led about half a dozen Heroes. The Ringmaster's ability was Domination. Like, he could make anyone do anything. You should hear the things he gets credited for. The fall of the Berlin wall? The fall of the Soviet Union?"
"Oi, you think?" Finn shook his head and went back to work on his arms. "Sounds rubbish to me. The whole Soviet Union, really?"
"The Ringmaster is worth taking seriously," Flynn said, finishing his last set and rising from the bench so Emmanuel could take a round. "When he was caught defunding the federal government, he turned his whole team against a town and wiped it off the map, just to make a point."
At that point, Professor Matthias blew a whistle announcing an end to weights. That meant laps next. Weary, Finn nonetheless took front with the others. As much as he'd rather be back with Nate to keep his roommate company, it was expected that he run with the High Five Club. Besides, today he wanted to know more about what they knew.
With a second whistle, everyone started forward. Flynn set a fast pace and the Club drew ahead of the bulk of the remaining male students. It gave them enough space to talk, when there was enough breath to do so.
"Why'd he do it?" Finn asked.
"Because he could," Emmanuel answered. "I think maybe it was because he was tired of being told what to do."
"There was a whole thing about it in the news back then, right?" Joe rubbed the sweat from his forehead as they all ran together. "The whole scamming the government thing. He stole a lot of money, I think, and he went postal when they caught him."
"I wonder who Nate's Mom is," Aaron said.
The question briefly brought an end to more discussion as everyone realized no one knew. Finn cast a look back behind him. Nate lagged near the back of the pack. The skinny redhead caught the look and gave him a wave and a tired smile. Typical. Nate had told Finn in the first days of class to go keep up with the High Five Club, even though surely the out-of-shape kid needed the help more. Finn couldn't deny the usefulness of networking with West's elite but it brought a tender wince out of him to see Nate struggling by himself.
Further back, the girls ran in their own pack. They didn't have a High Five Club for some reason. Alley ran in front of everyone. Jia ran with her girl squad, made up of Amara, Natasha, Dani and Marie. Kim Nolan and Irene Norman, ranked third and fifth, each ran with their own pack as well. Finn rubbed his chin as he contemplated why that might be.
"Let's ask him."
Flynn's surprise comment didn't leave Finn much time to react before the healer dropped back to allow the rest of the class to catch up. In seconds, the High Five Club had Nate surrounded. To his credit, Ginger didn't look very intimidated. Of course, breathing might be more of a priority than fear right now.
"Hey Nate," Flynn began.
"C'mon, leave it," Finn said, interrupting. "Let's leave it, shall we? No point in bothering him over something he had no control over."
"No, I just want to ask a question," Flynn said, insistent. "You don't mind a question, do you Nate?"
"Sure," Nate panted. "Do it."
"Who are your parents?"
Nate sprinted onwards, still trying to catch his breath. Even exhaustion couldn't swallow up the fear that lit in his eyes. "Why?"
"The word going around is that your Dad's the Ringmaster. Joe says it might be true since he faced you in the combat cells during rankings last Monday. I just want to know if it's true."
"Maybe." Nate sucked in a breath and said, "Probably."
The Club didn't know what to make of that answer. "You don't know?" Emmanuel asked.
Thankfully, Professor Matthias called for a water break. Winded, the Club slaked their thirst while letting Nate catch a bit of his breath back. Then they surrounded him once more, though Finn stood just a bit closer, protective of his roommate.
Across the room, Alley caught his eye and lifted her chin slightly, a clear signal for her readiness to intervene. Finn shook his head and returned his attention back to the Club. If something happened, she was across the room. He'd need to handle this himself.
"What, what do you want from me?" Nate asked, turning in place to look at the faces of the Club. "I told you, I don't know for sure. They were just my parents. They disappeared when I was ten years old. My uncle raised me for four years, until my ability showed up. Then the army put me under house arrest until a few weeks ago. That's my life story. What else do you want?"
"For you to keep your ability to yourself," Flynn said, hands clenching into fists.
"C'mon, mates, this is harassment," Finn said in a light tone. "I don't want to get in trouble, do you?"
"This isn't harassment," Flynn insisted. "This is self-defense. This is survival. I know what the Ringmaster did to the 325th Airborne."
"Huh?" Nate's bafflement was unfeigned but it didn't seem to matter to the healer, whose tone grew sharper and colder with every passing word.
"June 18th, 2005. They deployed without orders and occupied the Russell Senate Office Building, resulting in the deaths of twelve United States Senators and several hundred people. The Ringmaster made them do it so he could break into Senate records. When the DC Defense Team deployed to apprehend him, he escaped but not before making every single soldier shoot themselves in the head."
"Take a walk, Smith."
Flynn spun on his heels, rage eroding all reason. He stopped short when he saw who addressed him. Choking down his anger, he obeyed the order and walked swiftly from the gym. The furtive forearm across the face as he reached the door did nothing to hide the tears everyone there had seen.
Both Professors Glee and Matthias stood before the remaining High Five Club, stern looks on their face. Finn just put an arm around his roommate's trembling shoulders. Nate had turned a very convincing shade of parchment white. All of the boys stood a respectful distance back, slowly creeping further away to avoid any more backlash.
"You would do Flynn a kindness if you forgive him," Glee said to Nate. "In your heart, not to his face. He had an older brother who served with the 325th Airborne and I don't think he's ready to accept forgiveness from the son of the man who murdered him."
"Hold on now." Finn patted Nate on an arm and faced down both professors. "There's no proof Nate's their kid. Sure he's got the ability, or something a lot like it, and his own parents are missing. Honestly now, has he given anyone any problems here?" Pitching his voice up to carry to the rest of the boys, Finn said "No, he's been just topping to everyone. Let's remember that before we heap the sins of the world on the poor bloke, alright then?"
"Mr. Barnaby," Professor Matthias said, his booming voice ending the chance to say anything more. "Nate's a good kid, no one's denying that. But you're naive to blame people for being afraid of the Ringmaster. Anyone who was there-"
"I was there too, Paul," Glee said, her quiet voice somehow silencing the big man. "Listen up, everyone. Nate Insley is a student of the HCP, just as all of you are. He's here for the same reason; he wants to be a Hero. Like all of you, he's here to risk his life to save others and he's doing that for a country who has not done well by him. We're a team, all of us who make it. I don't doubt Nate would do all he could to help you succeed. Do the same for him."
Both professors turned away and resumed their places at the center of the Gym. Another sharp whistle blast signaled the end of break time. Finn groaned and finished up his water bottle. Then he put his hand on Nate's shoulder, in full view of the High Five Club. Patting the underdeveloped shoulder, Finn jogged to the front of the line and looked back.
Behind him, he saw Emmanuel step forward and pat Nate's shoulder before joining him. As the rest of the Club lined up, Emmanuel shrugged and said "Hey, you room with him. If you can get along with him, what's my excuse?"
"So, what's going on with you and Amara anyway?" Aaron said, joining Finn on his right.
"Yeah, how'd you get a smoking hottie like that on the first week anyway?" Joe asked.
"Really great teeth. But no, if you're looking for tips, is there anyone you boys fancy? I understand her friends are single. Marie Yates, Natasha Adler, that delicious Danielle Wyngarde over there. And, of course, Jia and Alley are single. Though I wouldn't set my sights on Run Lola Run over there..."
As the next lap started and the conversation drifted on, Finn looked behind. Nate's head was bent, his breathing labored as the workout progressed. But when the redhead noticed Finn looking his way, Nate gave him a thumbs up and a big winning smile. The kid had the heart of a Hero.
And it fell to Finn to make sure Nate had his chance to beat.