“And that’s... how you fucking... do it!”
Roy’s voice echoed through the nearly empty gym: only the equipment and Professor Fletcher were around to provide acoustic absorption. He dropped the weights, one thousand pounds per hand, to the ground in a concrete-cracking clatter. The ultra-dense dumbbells sent up a cloud of fine dust that drifted upward, almost all the way to Roy’s beaming grin.
“Seven reps. You definitely broke through that wall of yours.” Professor Fletcher’s face was hard to read, but if Roy had taken a stab in the dark, he would have gone with curiosity as the emotion of the moment. He had no idea how right he was, or how embarrassed Professor Fletcher would have been if he’d known it was showing. “And that big of an increase in only a week. That must have been some incredible training.”
“Was it ever. Totally worth every minute of it.” Roy was glad he could say this with honesty. Although Hershel had done the lion’s share of the work over break, he knew his brother had no regrets about the effort spent. He could still feel the pride practically glowing off the memories at the end of each day. Hershel was finally a part of being a Super, and for that he would have suffered hundreds of times as much pain as a few stiff muscles.
“I’m impressed,” Professor Fletcher finally admitted. “With a few months until your final match, if you continue to improve at this pace, I expect you’ll put on quite a show.”
Roy nodded solemnly. This was their first day back from spring break, and at the entrance had been the usual nonchalant piece of paper announcing a match. The worrying thing was that this time it was only a date, May 20. There were no lineups listed. It was possible they’d left them off because there was only one more unique combination of adversaries to pit against each other, but somehow no one was quite willing to bank on that theory. Nearly two years in the HCP had taught them to avoid assumptions. It was best to go in ready for anything.
“I’m going to try my best. Actually, that’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Yeah, I wanted to see if you could help me come up with an exercise regime that would really push someone who is out of shape. Nothing too dangerous, just enough to make sure they are constantly hitting their limits.”
“Given the fact that you are several hundred pounds of relatively solid muscle and just curled a literal ton of weight, I’m guessing this isn’t for you,” Professor Fletcher speculated.
“No, sir. Actually, it’s for Hershel.”
“Is it now? While I can appreciate your concern for your brother’s health, especially given how he thought you would react to your trip, I’m afraid my time is supposed to be dedicated to helping those actually in the program.”
“It does help me,” Roy protested. “Look, it’s a little complicated, but I promise, this is part of my training.”
“How about you uncomplicate it and we’ll go from there?”
* * *
Vince thought he was the first one done with class on Mondays, so he was surprised to come back and find Nick sitting in the living room. He was reclined in a chair facing the television, and from the way his sunglasses sat slightly skewed, Vince wondered if he was taking a nap. Taking care to be quiet, Vince headed over to the boys’ side door.
“Good first day back?”
“Depends, is it your first day if you skip all of your classes? Aside from the HCP ones, of course.” Nick’s tone was distant, one he’d chosen specifically for this performance.
Vince shrugged off his backpack and let it settle to the ground. This was a new mood from Nick, and that usually meant things were going to get interesting. “Why’d you skip your classes?”
“Let me answer your question to my question with a question. Did you see the announcement?”
“Yeah, final match is in May.”
“Then, given that it is currently late March, you can probably take a good guess at why I skipped my classes today.” Nick jerked himself out of the chair and took a few steps away, simultaneously smoothing out his hair and straightening his sunglasses. “I’ve had a rather unexpected hitch thrown into our plans. All my previous months’ efforts have been devising a myriad of strategies to use against Team Three. The sheet didn’t announce any such match up, which means I now have to account for how we would beat Two, Three, Four, or any strange combination of them, not to mention factoring in surprise elements like the potential of shifting a Captain’s team members at the last minute.”
“Are you okay? You seem stressed.”
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“Sure, but that’s me. You’re very rarely stressed, and even less rarely do you show it.”
Nick let out a long sigh and desperately wished this character smoked. It would have made such a nice touch. “Damn your bouts of perception. Yes, I am stressed, because while I expected some sort of monkey wrench, I wasn’t quite prepared for no direction at all. It invalidates all logical planning. No team can realistically prep for every scenario.”
“It’ll be okay, Nick,” Vince assured him. “We’re a strong team, and we’ve only gotten better through the year. You’ve helped us get further than we would have without you. Just believe in the team and think of some fluid strategies like you did for the first one.”
“The first one had parameters, Vince, even if they were only knowing who we would face. I will give you that we have a solid team, much better than we did at the beginning of the year. For the most part everyone pulls their weight.”
Vince rolled his eyes. “For the most part? It’s okay to be positive, you know? I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t give their all.”
“I can,” Nick replied immediately. “You.”
“I... excuse me?”
“You. You don’t do your best. You don’t pull your weight. In our span at Lander you have won two, count them, two fights. Thomas in freshman year and Michael in our first match this year. Congratulations, that makes you tied with me.”
“And that’s not even mentioning how long it took you to actually start using your power. Even now I bet you’ve only got that leftover forest fire and maybe a car battery’s worth of electricity inside you. Then there’s your supposedly new weapon, kinetic energy. Have you done any training that I didn’t lead you in? I’ll take anything, even a game of catch against a wall. Anything?”
“I... no. I haven’t.”
“I know you haven’t because I know you.” Nick ran his hands through his hair again, giving the illusion that he was calming himself down. “Vince, you’re one of my best friends and you’re probably the most selfless and loyal person I’ve ever met, but you’re always fucking terrified of going all out. From day one you might have been one of the strongest people here, yet your record is shit because while the rest of us are pushing our limits, you haven’t even tested yours. And that’s why I tell you all this now. You need to push yourself. I need you to push yourself. Because this last match is going to be the big one, and if we fall short, I’m positive that this dormitory will have some vacancies next year.”
Vince’s gaze had been drifting toward the floor, but at Nick’s final words, his demeanor grew stiff and his eyes rose. “Why? Our team has a win and a tie.”
“By hook, crook, and skin of our teeth. We’ve done well, but not amazing. And remember, they don’t move us up as a team. A few of us would get through, but as for the others, they’re at risk. If we don’t kick as much ass as physically possible on that last match then that will be the end for some of our friends. We can’t be good anymore. We have to be goddamn unstoppable.”
Nick analyzed his friend’s posture carefully, noticing the gentle gripping of his fists and the way his feet naturally shifted into a balanced stance. He’d seen it a precious few times before: it was the stance Vince took when he was pushed far enough to get serious. Of course, he would only reach that point when his friends were in danger, hence Nick's theatrics. He needn’t have bothered with all the analytical effort. The depth of Vince’s resolve spilled out from his voice in glorious waves.
“Tell me what we need to do.”