By the time Owen called the first day to an end, Hershel was barely able to stand. Weights, running, jumping, and a variety of aerobic workouts had been spread out through the day. It was enough to make him long for that first day of working out under Coach George. Despite his body’s constant protests, Hershel had stumbled on, the quality of his movements gradually deteriorating until even standing was a concentrated effort. He couldn’t remember ever feeling this weak or worn down. Owen had literally pushed him to the end of his limits several times, always backing off just enough to keep him from losing consciousness. He gulped down a few sips of water as he watched the afternoon sun on its downward trek toward the horizon.
Owen emerged from the inside of the bar holding a grey plastic water bottle, the kind designed to fit on the inner frame of mountain bikes. For a terrifying second, Hershel was sure that his father was going to demand a twenty-mile bike ride or some other terror, but instead the enormous man just handed him the bottle.
“I think that’s as much as we have time for today.”
“Oh,” Hershel said. “So I should leave now, I guess.”
Owen shook his head. “I promised Roy proof by tonight. Now it’s time for me to pony up.”
Hershel pulled out the stopper top on the plastic bottle and sniffed. Definitely whiskey.
“You haven’t even trained him yet. All we did today was work on me.”
“Trust me.” Owen gave his son a reassuring smile, one that made Hershel feel good, then feel guilty for feeling good. He might have been more inclined to argue, but he was sore, tired, and curious. The whiskey would cure the first two; hopefully some answers would satisfy the last one. A long drink drained the bottle of its contents and initiated Hershel’s transformation.
By the time Roy stood up, the fatigue in their muscles had completely dissipated. If anything, he felt more energetic than usual. Rather than jumping about, Roy simply looked at his father and narrowed his eyes.
“Weights,” Owen snapped back at him. The giant of a man lumbered across the yard, stopping at a set of weights he’d used to put Hershel through the paces only a few hours previously. This time Own didn’t reach for any of the shiny silver ones; instead his massive hands wrapped around a pair of dumbbells that were charcoal black. Roy recognized them as the hyper-dense weights used to train people with super strength. These weren’t quite as well maintained as the ones at Lander, but the dents they left in the ground as Owen pulled them up left no doubt that their heft was still impressive.
Roy came up to the larger man and held out his hands. Owen deposited a dumbbell in each, placing them down as easily as if they were merely awkwardly-shaped pillows. To Roy they weren’t nearly so easy to deal with; his arms were straining with just the effort of holding them up. He wondered if Hershel’s workout had left him weaker than he realized.
“Let’s warm up,” Owen said. “Those are seven hundred and fifty pounds each. Even you should be able to handle them for six reps.”
There was a snapping click as Roy’s jaw set at the words ‘even you’ and a small vein in the young man’s forehead bulged with an effort that had nothing to do with the weights in his hands. It was successful; somehow he managed to hold his tongue and focus on the task at hand. Roy moved the dumbbells up and down slowly, ensuring that the tension on his biceps never slacked. It took more work than he remembered seven hundred and fifty pounds requiring, but he did the six and then did three more on top of that. Whether those last three were out of pride, spite, or some mixture of the two could be debated, but they got done with perfect form nonetheless. Roy carefully set the weights on the ground, all-too aware of the damage that material could do if dropped aimlessly.
“Not bad,” Owen complimented, settled down in sitting position on the weight bench. “So, you remember what I told Hershel earlier, right?”
“I’m guessing you mean that bullshit about us not being shifters.”
“That’s the part. Play devil’s advocate with me for a minute. If you weren’t shifters, what other explanation could there be for your power?” Owen asked calmly.
“I don’t know. Is being fucking awesome enough to make you a Super now?”
“You are pretty awesome,” Owen agreed. “Confident, good-looking, athletic, strong, tough, even charming when you’re motivated. All the things a male wants to be at some point in his life. You got them all. Have you ever wondered why that is?”
“What the hell are you talking about? I’m just me, why would I wonder about that?”
“If you were just a shifted form of Hershel, then why would your identities separate? Why would your personalities diverge so greatly? Heck, if you were just a version of your brother with powers then why wouldn’t you look the same? Not all strongmen have muscular frames after all.”
“I... I don’t really know,” Roy admitted. He resisted the urge to shuffle uncomfortably. That was shit Hershel would do. Instead Roy just kept his gaze locked on his father’s eyes.
“Maybe because you’re not just a stronger version of Hershel. You’re literally everything Hershel has wanted to be, but wasn’t. Do you remember when you first appeared?”
“We were kids. Some classmates were making fun of Hershel. They were calling him fat and slow and ugly. He got really upset and a minute later there I was.”
“A boy who wasn’t fat, slow, or ugly. A boy who couldn’t get beat up, whose ego was strong enough to withstand their taunts.”
Roy realized he was flexing his hands into fists involuntarily. Something about this conversation was making him very uncomfortable. “Can we cut to the fucking point, old man?”
“You two aren’t shifters,” Owen reinstated. “You inherited my power, but you got a better version of it. I adapt to new challenges or injuries, my body improves itself to overcome them. There’s a threshold to how high I can take that. Sooner or later I run out of things I can train myself to be immune to, eventually I can’t find heavy enough things to improve my strength on. There’s a logistical cap to my power, one that doesn’t apply to you.”
“What the- what are trying to say we are?”
“You have the power of adaption. Hershel is the human side, the one who can always find more challenges. When he encounters a need to be stronger or tougher, your maximum potential increases in proportion. The reason you’ve been stuck in place is because Hershel didn’t need to be stronger; you’ve been fighting his battles and doing all the physical work for most of your adult life.”
“That doesn’t make sense. I only hit a wall this year!” Roy seemed unaware of the increasing volume of his voice.
“That’s because you didn’t try until you entered the HCP. You had catching up to do. When Hershel trains, it raises your potential. When you train, it increases your actual strength. You are Hershel’s reaction to the challenges of life; you get whatever he needs in a moment of failure or stress. Physical, psychological, doesn’t matter. It’s why you two are so different and why you have separate minds.”
“I’m not some nerd’s fucking fantasy ego! I’m my own person, and if you’d actually stayed around instead of running off maybe you would fucking know that!” Roy turned and stormed off toward the bar. “You’re full of shit and I’ve wasted enough time here. I’m going to the beach with our friends.”
How a man his size moved so fast, Roy would never know, but Owen closed the gap between them and placed a massive hand on his son’s shoulder. The grip wasn’t too tight, but it was firm enough to send the message that this conversation wasn’t over.
“You think I’m full of shit? Then tell me something, how did you lift nine hundred pounds with each hand a few minutes ago?”
“It was seven hundred and fifty.”
“I lied. It was nine hundred.”
Roy slowly turned to face his father. Owen flashed his son a devilish grin, one that Roy wouldn’t realize until much later he’d seen on his own face in the mirror more times than he could count. It was a smile that said quite clearly the wearer had gotten exactly the outcome they wanted.
“Who’s full of shit now?”