Chapter 146

“Welcome, all, to this week’s meeting of The Loyal Order of the Water Buffaloes.” Nick stood before his teammates, hands spread open in a welcoming manner. They were huddled in the common room, their default meeting place, for what Nick had called a “necessary tactics overview conclave.” Mary had sent the texts and the people had rallied. Nick stood there, waiting for some reaction to his announcement, before finally giving up and dropping his arms.

“Really? No one here watched The Flintstones as a kid? I’m the only one?”

“Hermit,” Mary said with a shrug.

“Wanderer,” Vince added.

“My parents didn’t have cable,” Alex chimed in.

Nick turned to the remaining three, who stared right back at him.

“What?” Alice said at last. “Not everybody remembers random details from cartoons in their childhood. So yes, you are the weirdo.”

“Well damn. Fine then, since you all want to be spoilsports, I guess we’ll actually get right down to business.” Nick’s tone was flippant but he still looked oddly disappointed that no one had gotten his joke. “I’m sure you all noticed the notice this morning, and have all come to the conclusion that a lack of listed matches means we have no idea what to expect. I’ve given the matter ample thought, and after speaking to our dear telekinetic captain for approval, have designed a training regimen that I feel will best prepare us for whatever the challenge might be.”

“This ought to be interesting,” Roy chuckled. “You going to pull out more playing cards?”

“No need. The concept for this two-month stretch is simple enough that it requires no visual illustration. To put it simply, we will be training in pairs. You, for example, will be spending your free time fighting Vince.”

“Whoa now, I’ve already got a lot of training to catch up on, and no offense, but I don’t think fighting him would be as beneficial.”

“As beneficial as what? Weight lifting? I’m glad you found a way to advance yourself, but you do realize you were already able to pick up more than almost anyone else in our class, right? Raw hitting power is an important part of your arsenal, but it’s not the piece that’s most lacking right now,” Nick countered.

“Then what is?”

“Control. You’re so goddamned strong that we can’t fully utilize you. You ever wonder why surgeons don’t use a katana to operate? In terms of sheer cutting it’s far more effective than a scalpel.”

“Because they need precision,” Roy said, his lips thin. He didn’t like being talked down to, but Roy was astute enough to know that Nick rarely went on these tangents without a point.

“Exactly. The only people you really can fight against are ones like Chad, who you don’t have to hold back against. Everyone else is just a matter of you catching them and breaking their limbs. It’s fine for some one on one, but eventually you’ll need to take on multiple people and be able to punch just hard enough to take them down without killing them. That’s why you’ll be sparring Vince. He’s a better fighter than you, but if you hit too hard you can seriously hurt him. For his part, training against someone with your strength will put real risk on the line, so hopefully he’ll get his shit together with the kinetic absorption.”

Roy glanced over at Vince. He hadn’t taken into account the risk his teammate would be taking by training with someone like him. Roy expected to see uncertainty or worry in his friend’s crisp blue eyes. All he found was restless determination. Vince wasn’t afraid to spar Roy: he was excited about it. He looked like he would start fighting right now if Nick gave the go ahead. Roy had seen Vince when he got serious; it meant the taller boy shouldn’t take their matches lightly.

“Okay. I’m in,” Roy said at last.

“Glad to hear it,” Nick said, turning back to the room at large. “Next up will be Alex, Mary, and Alice. I know I said pairs, but there’s seven of us so one team had to be bigger.”

“Why us three? Not objecting, just wondering what I’m supposed to be focusing on,” Alice said.

“A fair question. You three are put together because you and Mary need to work on your delicacy. Both of you have ample force in your powers, but neither of you have anything near the level of precision that Alex does. For his part, he needs to up his force a good bit, and training against a pair of people that can accidently tear him limb from limb should improve his raw power considerably.”

“Hang on, if those are the teams then doesn’t that make the last one you and Camille?” Vince said, the process of elimination making the last pairing quite clear.

“Indeed,” Nick confirmed. “She and I are similar in that we both fight from a place of weakness. Neither of us is particularly tall or strong, at least in relation to other people in the HCP. We have different styles, however, so sparring and learning from one another should significantly expand both of our repertories.”

“If Vince is in constant risk of getting his bones broken, shouldn’t I be somewhere on hand when they fight?” Camille pointed out.

“Absolutely not. The whole point of their training is to gain understanding about the consequences of failure. Roy will seriously hurt a friend if he hits too hard. Vince will get significant injuries if he doesn’t learn to absorb blows. If we remove pain as an instructor, we reduce the effectiveness of their efforts.”

“Don’t worry,” Vince told her. “I’m not going to get hurt.”

“You? I’m fighting the strongest girl in the class and someone who can bend gravity to their will,” Alex pointed out. “How about a little concern over here?”

“Yeah, I’m more worried about taking on two people with a lifetime practicing their power instead of months,” Alice joined in.

“Listen everyone, I know this seems a little intense, and in truth it probably will be.” Mary stood from her seat to address her team, not that it made much difference. “I had a long talk with Nick before I agreed to this and I had those same concerns. The truth of the matter is that he’s right. Fighting people who have what we lack will be the fastest path to rounding each one of us out. Since we have no idea what the last test will be, increasing our various skills will give us an element of surprise and the ability to splinter off as needed.”

Mary took a breath to steady herself. It had been jarring that afternoon when Nick told her what was really on the line. “We’re going to win. We’re going to show everyone that we belong here.” Her eyes might have flicked tellingly to Vince, but if so, no one other than Nick noticed.

“We have to.”