“So, I guess we’re a team now,” Alice said as the seven clustered together. All across the room the other groups were circling up as well, having a quick chat and handling formalities while everything was still fresh and new. They were trying to adjust their mindsets, going from seeing each other almost exclusively as rivals to regarding one another in the light of camaraderie and mutual goals. The transition would be somewhat tumultuous in the majority of cases.
“Great to have you guys on board,” Vince said cheerfully. He shook Alex’s hand and slapped him on the back in a half hug. He did the same with Camille, albeit far more gently. It’s fortunate that doing so turned her face away from him, because Camille’s blush and expression would have made him think he had seriously injured her.
“Glad to be with you,” Alex said. “I have to say I was a little surprised you picked me. I mean, Thomas and Stella and Violet are all really strong fighters.”
Mary glanced at Nick, who took it upon himself to field the question.
“That they are,” Nick agreed. “But as the good professor pointed out, one of the core points of teamwork is trust. Now, while their stepping forward means the world to us, you’ve spent more time hanging out with us last year. You were also the first one to tell Hershel that you didn’t care about the whole Powered thing. To put a point on it, the five of us have experience working together, which is an advantage. Adding a sixth person who shares in some of that experience is worth vastly more to us than just another heavy hitter.”
“I’ve got that department handled,” Roy bragged, flexing a not unimpressive bicep. “I have to tell you, the one thing that surprised me was when the little lady here joined us.”
“Definitely,” Alice concurred. “I never expected to get the only healer in class with us. What made you decide to work with us, Camille?”
Camille let out a low squeak barely discernible to human ears. Luckily, Vince already had his own theory about her decision of addition.
“She’s good friends with the other three. I guess they all had the same sentiment toward helping us,” Vince said. He turned to Camille and gave her a reassuring smile. “Thank you, by the way. I know someone with your ability could have had their pick of teams to work with.”
“No, I... I’m happy to be here,” Camille said, her soft voice piping up with more enthusiasm than she’d expected. She really was happy, too, that much was clear to everyone with training or telepathy. Alex already suspected the actual reason, but it was Mary who proved to be the more curious. So much so that she opened up her own mind and listened in to Camille’s thoughts for a moment.
“Whoa,” Mary said, taking a step backward and shaking her head. Whatever she’d been expecting, she hadn’t expected it to come with that much force, that much feeling. It was crazy that such a meek girl could be ratcheted up to that level of intensity.
“What whoa?” Alice asked.
“Oh, um, just whoa, I’m really excited about our team,” Mary lied lamely. “I can’t wait to get together and do some training.”
“Nor should we,” Nick leapt in. “We have a weekend before us, so I say we do a little team building event.”
“I swear to god, if you say the words horror movie I’m going to forcibly remove your baby-making equipment,” Alice said.
“Perish the thought,” Nick replied. “No, I was thinking more along the line of an outing, an excursion if you will. Something fun for us all to do together. Shall we say tomorrow night?”
“What did you have in mind?” Alex asked.
“A classic training technique to help us learn to work fluidly and seamlessly,” Nick told her. “Wear something nice and meet at Melbrook around eight.”
“I’m terrified, but curious,” Vince admitted.
“Have no fear, I guarantee a night that will culminate in both training and entertainment,” Nick assured him.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the part that terrifies him,” Alice said. “Well, that gives us tomorrow night, I say we get our schedules and relax a little with our evening.”
“Sounds good,” Mary agreed.
“Yeah, I’m down,” Vince said. “I’ll meet you guys there. I need to run a quick errand first.”
“We’ll try to survive without you,” Nick assured him.
* * *
Michael Clark was halfway across campus, heading toward the nearest dining hall, when he realized he was being followed. He kept his head trained in the same direction and tried not to give any indications he was aware. There weren’t many people around – regular classes didn’t start until Monday this year, so he didn’t have to worry about any bystanders if things got violent. Not that he would have anyway. No, his only real concern was if things got wild and he used his powers he might get identified. That was still a big no-no, so he’d try to restrain himself.
Michael slowed his pace by a few steps, letting the muffled gait of his pursuer draw closer, then spun around on his heels with his fists up, ready to deal with the threat by any means necessary. What greeted him was a figure with familiar hair and a slightly startled expression on his face. Michael didn’t let his guard down one bit. If anything, he grew tenser.
“Trying to sneak up on me, huh? Can’t say I’m surprised,” Michael spat.
“I think I’ll gloss over the irony of that particular statement,” Vince said. “I’m not trying to sneak up on you or attack you.”
“Sure, then why are you following me?” Michael asked.
“Well, I needed to talk to you,” Vince explained.
“You’ve been following for a while just to talk.”
“I wasn’t really sure how to start things off,” Vince said. “So I kept trying to think of a good way, but stayed close so I could and then... I suppose you started things for me.”
“Uh huh,” Michael said skeptically. “Fine, then. I’ll play along: what did you want to talk about?”
“Two things, actually. First off, I wanted to know how you found out about us last year.”
“Lots of research and putting the pieces together.”
“No, that’s how you proved it to everyone else. I wanted to know what tipped you off in the first place.”
Michael stared at his opponent fiercely. There was nothing aggressive in his body language, nothing to suggest this request was coming with a threat of violence if not complied with. Still, Michael didn’t owe this freak any favors.
“There was always something off about you,” Michael lied. “I just trusted my gut and kept digging until I found the truth.”
Vince sighed. “If that’s what you want to stick with then I can’t force you to tell me. We will find out eventually. I’d just hoped you would have been a little more helpful.”
“Hope is a beautiful thing, you hang onto that,” Michael said. “What else did you want?”
“Oh, well, the other thing I wanted is to say ‘thank you’.”
Michael tilted his head in skepticism.
“No, I mean it. Not only for setting me free from living a lie, but for helping me see how wrong I was last year,” Vince said.
“What do you mean?”
“I kept thinking that by limiting my power intake I was keeping everyone else safe. I was so scared of losing control that I purposely kept myself as weak as possible. But if you hadn’t stirred up the whole campus, I doubt George and Persephone could have slipped off with our friends and in that whole fiasco I realized something important: I can’t keep anyone safe if I’m weak. I have to get past my fear of losing control and start using my power to its limit and then some. If I really want to keep everyone safe then I’ve got to be stronger than everyone and everything else,” Vince explained. “So, for that lesson, I sincerely do want to thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Michael said with a sneer. “Let me know if there’s anything else you want me to teach you.”
“Oh, I don’t think there’s any need for that,” Vince replied. His voice was the same, as was his stance, but something seemed to shift to Michael. He couldn’t put his finger on why, however he was certain something about this situation had become vastly more dangerous.
“I took that lesson to heart, Michael, and I think you’ll find I’m now far less hesitant about how much power I keep held within me. I genuinely meant that thank you, and I do hope one day you and I can become mutually respectful peers, if not outright friends. That said, until you get past whatever issues you seem to have with me, you should stay away. From me, and especially from my friends.”
“Big talk from a freak,” Michael said. “I think someone needs to be reminded which of us always wins our fights.”
Michael took a step forward and readied himself to charge. Suddenly he felt his breath slip out of his chest as the air around him rippled with heat. In less than a second the temperature had leapt up by tens of degrees and it was only getting hotter. He tried to gulp down new air but it burned at his lungs and gave him little relief. He fell to a knee in hopes of seeking cooler air closer to the ground. Then, just as soon as it had started, it was over. The heat dissipated and Michael was able to take several ragged breaths to sooth his pounding heart.
“I’m not here to fight. I just wanted to ask you a question and say thanks,” Vince said calmly. “I don’t have interest in fighting you, Michael. I never did. The difference is that I’m not going to put up with your antics anymore either. Please keep that in mind next time you decide to ambush me, because I’m done pulling punches.”
Vince turned and headed off toward his dorm, leaving Michael still panting for air and fuming with rage.