Chapter 29

Hershel sat in algebra that afternoon, his brain barely able to pay attention to the equations on the board. His mind was otherwise occupied, and not in a place it recently frequented. Hershel found himself worried about Roy (instead of by him) for a change. He knew he shouldn’t be; heck, if anything there was a time when Hershel would have killed for Roy to be this focused and controlled. Still, there was something in Roy’s thoughts that seemed off, dangerous even. Not to others, but to himself.

Roy was set on becoming stronger at any cost. Weights, training, sparring, no one besides Hershel knew the amount of time Roy had already put in this year. He’d been fair about it, too, giving Hershel all the time for friends, study, and Mary that he wanted. When Roy’s time came, however, it was always given to training. He’d barely even seduced any girls since school started. Hershel couldn’t believe it, but he was beginning to think Roy really needed to cut loose and have a little fun.

“Need help?” The voice asking came from Hershel’s side. It was his neighbor, Steve, with whom he’d been exchanging notes since the class’s first meeting. Steve was a nice guy, crew cut and large shoulders hinting at his post college ambitions, and had been a help for Hershel in documenting formulas even as Hershel helped him in understanding them.

“Huh? No, no, just distracted.”

“Good, because if this stuff is sending you off into la-la land then I’m hopelessly screwed,” Steve half-joked.

“It’s not that bad once you grasp the basics,” Hershel assured him.

“Then why the mental drifting?” Steve asked.

“Just a little worried about my brother,” Hershel said carefully. He didn’t want to give too much away about his and Roy’s particular circumstances.

“Ah, going through a rough patch?”

“You could say that. More that he’s been pretty focused on his work lately, to the point of neglecting things that usually matter to him,” Hershel explained.

“Such as?”

“Women and drinking.”

Steve laughed. “Well, seeing as neither of those ever held much appeal for me, I’m not sure how to help you rekindle his interest. I’ll just say this: letting go of some of one’s more unsavory pastimes and putting that energy into self-betterment is a big part of growing up.”

“It is; it just seems like... I don’t know. Too much, too fast.”

“If you’re that worried why not invite him out with me and my friends one weekend? I may not be a drinker but they’ve been known to shut down a bar or two on occasion,” Steve offered.

“I appreciate it, but he lives out of state,” Hershel lied quickly.

“Gotcha,” Steve said. “Well, the offer stands for just you and your friends. Lord knows after all your help the least I can do is buy you a beer.”

“I just might take you up on that one weekend,” Hershel said. They turned their attention back to the professor as he began working on a new set of problems. Hershel’s mind wouldn’t stay focused for long, unfortunately. His thoughts kept swirling back to Roy. He knew it was futile to worry, yet all the same he kept remembering the night last summer when George had kidnapped Mary and him. He remembered how angry Roy had been when he’d taken over, angry that someone would hurt his brother that badly. Hershel remembered the days when they were younger, the days when Roy was always ready to appear and fight to defend his sniveling sibling.

Even if he couldn’t do much, Hershel felt himself resolve to do something, anything, to help Roy stay balanced.

*    *    *

Britney had a fly in her team’s ointment. Or rather, an ice cube. Michael had been belligerent, uncooperative, and generally subversive ever since she’d first formed her team. It was clear he felt he should have been one of the captains, and honestly, even with his high rank, Britney would have given anything to go back in time and trade him for another student. At this point she’d even take the practically powerless Powered Nick over Michael. There was no undoing what was done, not until some Super was born with time-travel powers, so as Michael sauntered into the practice room that evening, Britney steeled herself to press forward.

“Am I early?” Michael asked, already preparing himself to leave and come back later.

“No, you’re late as usual,” Britney informed him. “But this meeting is just for you and me. I called the others and cancelled.”

“Oh, so this is one of those meetings,” Michael said with a greasy smile. “I can’t say I haven’t noticed how you look at me, so I had a feeling we’d get here eventually.”

“Wow. No. Christ, no. I cannot emphasize enough how wrong you are. I called you here so we could talk about your attitude,” Britney said, doing her best to remain composed.

“What attitude? Just because I call you out-”

“You’re obnoxious, disruptive, and a disgrace to have on my team,” Britney interrupted. “So let’s cut the bullshit. You know what a pain in the ass you are. My question is, what is it going to take for you to fly right?”

“I want to be captain,” Michael replied immediately.

“Never going to happen,” Britney snapped back. “Even if it was in my power, which it isn’t, you’ve blown all credibility with the team by acting out since day one. No one would trust you; they’d all look to me and it would split the already-fragile command dynamic.”

“It’s what I want,” Michael said.

“Funny, here I thought you wanted to win,” Britney replied.

That one gave Michael pause. He did want to - need to, really - win this first match. It was against the freak team, and it was his chance to remind Vince of who the stronger one in their rivalry was. He owed him for the surprise heat wave a few weeks ago and he was fully prepared to deliver a payload of hurt. Still, it wouldn’t do to just hurt Vince anymore. Now Michael had to crush his friends as well, and totally destroying them in the match was a very convenient way to do it.

“Let me handle the combat training,” Michael said after some thought. “It’s deferring to me on what actually is my specialty, and most of the people with fighting capabilities are already partially with me anyway.”

“Fine, as long as you use your combat strategies only in compliance with the overall plan I produce,” Britney stipulated.

“I can work with that,” Michael agreed. He stepped forward and offered his hand. Britney hesitated, then grasped it and shook to seal their deal.

“There is one more thing,” Michal said as they were still clasped.

“Of course there is. What?”

“When the match starts, I’ll comply with any plan you put out. But you need to know that if the opportunity for me to fight Vince comes up, I’m going to take it, all strategy be damned.”

Britney stared into Michael’s chilly blue eyes and suppressed a shiver. She didn’t know what was going on between these two, and she didn’t really care to. Vince had always been nice to her, nice to everyone as far as she knew. Still, it was better that he be the target of Michael’s aggression than her team. God forgive her.

“It’s a deal.”