“Alex is gone,” Camille noticed as she and Vince arrived back at the flag.
“He only would have left if other people were approaching,” Vince said. “The plan was always to have someone here if possible.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t be standing out in the open then, just in case,” Camille suggested.
“Good idea,” Vince agreed. “If Alex comes back he’ll know we’re here. If someone else wanders by, well, we’ve already seen the value of surprise demonstrated today.”
“I guess we have,” Camille said. The duo headed for the tree line where they blended in as best as their grey uniforms would allow.
* * *
“Hurry up,” Alice urged as Roy jogged behind her.
“Look, Floaty, some of us have to actually navigate the terrain here,” Roy said as he leapt over a fallen log and quickened his pace. True, he didn’t have to deal with normal things like muscle fatigue or shortness of breath, but that still didn’t mean he could keep up with a girl zipping through the air.
“Sorry, I’m just starting to get worried,” Alice said. “The longer we go without seeing anyone the more I think that they all went offensive and are headed toward our base.”
“If they did then they did. Nothing we can do to help them out at this point.”
“We can find their flag,” Alice pointed out.
“Fine,” Roy said, stepping up his jog to a flat out run. “Fair warning, if we hurry our asses into an ambush, I’m blaming you.”
“That’s fair,” Alice said. She lifted up higher into the air and surveyed the landscape, looking for the slightest hint of their objective.
* * *
Michael saw the flag first, dashing ahead to confirm what his eyes suspected was a piece of fabric being flicked by the wind. He stepped into the clearing and stopped, a sense of disappointment filling him. There it was, the goal, the objective, the game finisher. His team was going to win, but he hadn’t gotten the rematch he really wanted.
“Fuck all,” Michael muttered under his breath. He started the slow, steady march toward the flag and his now inevitable victory.
If his opponent had been anyone else, that would have been the end of Michael’s day. Roy, Alex, even Mary would have utilized the opportunity to strike without warning. They would have brought him down before he had a chance to react. They weren’t there, however, and so what next impacted Michael was a set of words rather than an attack.
“I had a feeling you’d be on the offensive,” Vince said as he stepped out from the trees. He was slightly closer to the flag than Michael, but if the bald boy made a dash, it would be a close race. In his peripheral vision, Vince saw Camille edging along the side of the clearing. She was getting closer in case Vince needed help on the interception. He wished he could tell her to stay out of the way where it was safe. Michael was a dangerous opponent; it was best he kept all of his attention on Vince.
“Happy birthday to me,” Michael said, showing a grin that flirted with deranged. He angled his body so that he was facing the silver-haired boy dead on. “I was hoping for this.” Fresh armor crackled over him as he spoke, splintering and fissuring in key places to allow movement. No surprise heat wave was going to stop him this time. Here, at last, they were facing each other on even ground for the first time since their initial fight all the back in freshman year. This was where Michael would finally prove that his win was no fluke, that he was and always would be the stronger warrior.
“I guess telling you this is pointless would be a waste of my breath,” Vince sighed. He wasn’t looking forward to what was coming next.
“I don’t know about a waste. I find begging to be a fine pre-fight appetizer. But let’s be honest, both of us are really here for the main course.” Michael let fly with a series of punches, sending blue bolts hurtling across the clearing. Vince took off running, going the opposite direction of Camille, keeping barely a few steps ahead of Michael’s attacks. Most of them struck the ground uselessly, but one particular blast seemed to stop in mid-air only a few yards away from Michael. It formed into an ice encasement and hung there, swaying gently from side to side. It only took that long for Vince to understand.
“Britney is here! Stall her, Camille!”
Camille hurtled forward, coming to a stop with the hovering ice at her front and flag at her back.
“Well, since my cover is blown, do you mind freezing the healer so I can grab the flag?” Britney’s voice posed the query from near Michael.
In response Michael turned to the sound and let fly two quick blasts to the ground. New mini-glaciers formed, these seeming as though a set of legs were bound in them.
“What the hell!?!” Britney screamed, shimmering into view. She was clearly stuck in place, rooted to the ground by her ally.
“If you grab the flag it’s over,” Michael said flatly. “I’m not letting anyone interrupt this.”
“You are out of your fucking mind,” Britney said, not in shock or outrage, but in a slow, fearful acceptance.
“You’re the one who made the deal,” Michael reminded her. He turned back to Vince and began slowly advancing. “Now, let’s pick this back up. I hope you can put up a better fight than your last friend. He was pathetic.”
“So Alex did catch up to you,” Vince said, trying to keep himself calm. There were rules to this test, people watching. Michael couldn’t have done anything too bad.
“Be careful, Vince,” Britney called, all semblance of camaraderie abandoned. “He’s not stable. He beat Alex half to death.”
“Is that true?” Vince asked as the distance between him and Michael grew smaller and smaller.
“Not my fault he can’t take a punch. Kind of reminds me of you. Maybe when we’re done here I’ll go back and see if he’s awake. Or I can work out the rest of my energy on your little friend by the flag,” Michael said. His face was hidden behind the ice, but the madness of his voice made it clear that the unseen smile had gone from merely flirting with derangement to a full-blown grope fest.
“I see.” If some of the other Melbrook residents had been there, they would have recognized that tone. It was the voice that had come from Vince when he dealt with George last year. It was a vocal vibration that marked the end of his seemingly infinite patience and kindness. It was a set of harmonic undulations that broadcast a single message with crisp efficiency: Vince was pissed, and that did not bode well for those who had brought him to this point.
Michael didn’t notice any of this, however. He was too busy sending multiple bursts of freezing energy toward Vince at very short range. To his mild surprise, his opponent didn’t even try to dodge. Instead Vince stood there as the forming ice engulfed him, sealing him from head to toe in a solid block within the span of a few seconds. There was the series of small pops and crackles as the frozen jail finished growing, and then a brief silence descended over the field.
“Anticlimactic, but I guess that’s the best I can expect from you,” Michael chuckled, turning around and looking to Camille, his last remaining opponent on the field.