“Aren’t you curious how the fight is going?” Mary asked as she and Nick trudged through the grass, the taller boy finally able to shamble along under his own power.
“Nah. It’s Vince and Camille versus Britney and Michael. There are only two ways it can go. Either Britney sneaks past and grabs the flag, or they manage to stall and incapacitate her.”
“And what about Michael?”
Nick snorted. “Come on, you know why I paired up Vince with Camille.”
“Because they represented both combat and non-combat abilities of high level,” Mary said. “Also because she’s in love with him, so I’m guessing that will make her work harder to help him.”
“True, but there’s another reason. Camille is small statured, soft-spoken, kind, and gentle. Her only ability is to heal people and make them feel better. She comes off so decent even I want to feel protective of her, and I don’t really go in for any of that shit. Now, given that we know Vince is the kind of guy who only goes all out when other people are in danger, how hard do you think he’ll fight to keep someone like her safe?”
“Oh, yeah, that won’t be pretty,” Mary concurred.
“I don’t know about that,” Nick said. “I’d put down my money that before that fight is over there will be some truly stupendous fireworks.”
* * *
The thunderous cracking sound filled the field before Michael had made it more than two steps away. He turned around in time to see the ice splintering to the ground, falling away from Vince in rivers of steam and boiling water. The silver-haired boy stepped forth from his former frosty tomb without any overt effort. His blue eyes were locked on Michael, unwavering as he left the collapsing remains in his shadow.
“Guess I shouldn’t be surprised you keep a little more heat in you after our last fight. I wonder how many times you can pull that trick,” Michael taunted.
“Do you know why I told you this was pointless?” Vince asked calmly.
“Yeah, you didn’t want me to beat the hell out of you,” Michael said, attacking with two more bolts. Vince caught both of them on his forearm, but this time the ice began to destruct as soon as it formed. Michael sucked in a breath of surprise. This didn’t seem to be taxing Vince nearly as much as it should have.
“You can’t freeze me anymore,” Vince told him. “No matter what you throw, I can melt through it.”
“Fine, I’ll just kick your ass the old-fashioned way,” Michael declared, charging forward. He opened with a combo of rights and a left hook designed to take Vince’s head clean from his shoulders. The freak might be able to break out of ice, but a fist wrapped in a few inches of it would still crunch his bones. At least, it would have if it connected. Instead, Vince moved around his punches easily, not even bothering to deflect, merely stepping aside as if to imply they weren’t worth the bother.
“You were already a worse fighter than I am. You might have structured your shell to let you move, but it still slows you down. You’re no threat to me physically, either.”
Something about that freak’s voice was really raising Michael’s ire. It was so distant, so unengaged. Like he really didn’t even care. Like Michael wasn’t worth his precious fucking effort. Adrenaline and rage roared through Michael’s veins. Who did this little pip-fuck think he was?
“Kiss my ass!” Michael screamed, striking faster and more violently. His fists kept connecting with nothing but air while Vince’s smug expression stayed out of reach. Michael doubled his effort, his joints screaming in their sockets as he pushed them to their limits. “You’ll tire out eventually, and you can’t even hurt me! My win is inevitable!”
Vince wove through his latest attacks and emerged several feet away. Michael paused to catch his breath, eyes never leaving his prey as he readied his body for the next flurry.
“Where did you get the idea that I couldn’t hurt you?” Vince asked offhandedly. Michael braced himself for the torrent of flame and heat. If he could keep his armor regenerating faster than Vince could pour on the damage, Michael was certain he could run out his enemy’s reserves. This was what he’d been working toward. Once the absorber was empty, he’d be as helpless as always. All Michael had to do was outlast his fire.
So it was that when the lightning erupted from Vince’s palm and struck Michael’s torso there was both a literal and emotional shock ripping through his system. His legs collapsed out from under him and he fell to the ground, muscles twitching but still conscious.
“When did... electricity...” Michael was barely able to talk. His throat felt ragged and he couldn’t seem to focus. He was vaguely aware that the attack had damaged his armor, but repairing it was beyond his capacity at the moment. It took all of his effort just to pull himself up to his knees and look upon his opponent.
“The reason I told you this was pointless is because it is,” Vince said, staring down at Michael as his defense slid away in jagged, icy chunks. “You can’t freeze me. You can’t hit me. You can’t even defend against me. You’re so far below me that beating you isn’t even a challenge. You’re nothing to me, Michael.”
It couldn’t be true. He was just a freak. He’d gotten in a lucky punch on their first day. All the attention he’d gotten, all the friendships he’d managed, all the reputation he’d accrued, it had all been a mistake. It had been unwarranted. Michael was the great one. Michael was the one people were supposed to admire, like they had before he got to Lander. He was going to prove it, prove it by soaking his knuckles in Vince’s blood. So why was he the one on the ground? Why wouldn’t his brain come together and let him function?
“Normally I wouldn’t have been so cruel as to show you this bit of truth, but you just wouldn’t let it go. So try and learn the lesson this time, Michael, and keep it at the forefront of your mind. Because if you ever threaten or touch my goddamned friends again, I’ll show you what I can really do.” Vince turned around and walked away from Michael’s still struggling body.
“You didn’t knock me out,” Michael called, his muddled mind finally forming words.
“I know. Why would I bother? It isn’t as if you can do anything.”
Those words, and the truth behind them, savaged Michael more than any of Vince’s attacks. Britney could see the devastation in her teammate’s face even as Vince walked toward her. It was strange; given what she’d just seen she should be afraid. After all, he still had to incapacitate her. The fear wouldn’t come; whether it was because she just didn’t see Vince being unnecessarily mean or because she was just too drained to conjure any more emotions, it wasn’t there. As it turned out, there was no need for it anyway.
“Attention all students!” Dean Blaine’s voice seemed to echo from all around them, broadcasting from the sky itself. “The match between Teams One and Four has reached its end. Alice Adair of Team One has taken Team Four’s flag. Staff will be coming through for healing and extraction momentarily.”