Chapter 16

Her team wasn’t really her team anymore. Mary had difficulty with that realization, yet the longer she mulled it around, the more she realized how it couldn’t be quite denied. It wasn’t just because the team dynamic had been dissolved at the end of sophomore year. They’d been a group long before that had even been a part of their education. It wasn’t losing Nick either, though that damn sure hadn’t helped things.

No, the problem was one of focus. They’d once had a shared goal: keeping their secret and making it through the program for as long as they could. Even after they’d been outed, they’d been the collective of freaks and needed to stick together. It had galvanized them, given them the teamwork they needed to overcome opponents with years more experience than they possessed. Then, somehow, they’d lost it.

Vince still trained relentlessly, but at least one part of his mind was always on his father and the criminal actions he’d taken. Alice dwelled endlessly on the mystery of her mother. Hershel and Roy were focused on the goal of graduating the HCP, but they thought of themselves as a duo rather than a piece of the group. She heard all this swimming about their thoughts, along with the occasional pang of sadness for their lost comrade, one who it was only a matter of time until someone realized had returned to campus. When that happened it would likely only splinter their focus more. On top of that, the addition of these jobs wasn't going to help the situation one bit.

Mary’s own mind drifted back to freshman year, when they’d been left on the mountain. At the time she’d thought it overkill, but in retrospect it hadn’t been a bad idea. They’d bonded, they’d come to rely on one another, and they’d had their first taste of functioning as a team. She wondered if she could talk Mr. Transport into doing it again. No, even if she could, that wouldn’t be much of a challenge anymore. Alice could float them all up with ease and Vince would keep them toasty as she did it. Even her own control had evolved to where she could hold and lift a normal person’s body without accidently crushing them. Strange to think what had been an nearly insurmountable task only two years ago would now be little more than an inconvenient few minutes. Assuming they worked together, of course.

With a groan Mary set her head on her desk. She’d been best at moving them along personally, helping each one find their own strengths and talents. Wrangling Roy’s ego, pushing Vince through his fear of himself, helping Alice stop seeing herself as useless, this was stuff she could handle. Nick had been the one who could move them as a group. He saw the way people fit together, how to use them as a unit and how to tighten the cogs so that it more efficiently. Mary’s chess skills had advanced to where she could utilize each piece for the whole of a greater strategy, but that didn’t mean she knew how to impart in them a sense of unity.

They needed a goal, or a trial, or something to push them back into a solid mass. Right now they were drifting apart, turning into four people working to graduate instead of one team. That might work for everyone else, but they were different. The others couldn’t hear the barbs, the angry thoughts percolating in some of the other student’s minds, but she could. As far as much of the student body was concerned, they weren’t welcome here.

And if Mary didn’t think of something soon, she doubted they’d be here for a whole lot longer.

 *              *              *

Mary wasn’t wrong about Hershel and Roy’s dedication; at that very moment Roy was underground in the HCP gym pushing hard to find his new limit. Only a year ago the concept had terrified him. Not of running out of strength during a lift, but of hitting the sort of wall where no matter the effort his muscles refused to make progress. That had been when he thought such things were permanent. Now he knew better. Now he understood it was his way of tossing the ball back into Hershel’s court.

In a way it had become a game between them: could Hershel ratchet up Roy’s potential before Roy hit the wall. It drove them both to train hard, each brother trying to stay one step ahead of the other, to avoid plateaus and continue growing. And they were growing, that was ridiculously evident. Roy’s strength had risen exponentially and his endurance had nearly kept pace. Even his reaction speeds were improving, though at a slower rate. Hershel had taken up sparring over the summer, the genuine combat experience helping push up Roy’s potential just as effectively as Hershel’s exercise.

It was a testament to the construction of Lander’s workout equipment that the weight bench didn’t shudder as Roy set down the bar after his final rep. No, there was no question of his strength anymore, even if there were still miles to go. The real hurdle facing him was skill. Despite Owen’s belief that their kind only existed to hit and get hit, Roy saw value in learning to punch and dodge more effectively. He had a feeling they weren’t going to move him up the ranks unless he was able to actually land his blows, and Roy absolutely intended to move up the ranks.

Mary had been right about their dedication, but not about their goals. Hershel was focused on graduation, that much was true, but Roy’s eyes were set on another prize. He’d come here with an undeserved ego and been put in his place. He understood now just how far behind the lead of the pack he’d been. But that didn’t mean his pride wasn’t still there. Roy wanted to be on top, he wanted to be the King, to use Nick’s old analogy. This time he didn’t want to claim to be the best from misplaced idiocy though. He intended to earn it.

Roy was aiming for one thing and one thing only: Beating Chad.