“Jared, don’t,” Saya pleaded. She put her hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it off with obvious irritation. His hand twitched as though he was thinking of backhanding her for interfering.
He probably was. Avery did not have a good opinion of Jared. He was the sort of person that made a fight out of anything he could, even silly and pointless stuff like someone tripping over his foot, or looking at Saya the wrong way, or spilling some water on his sneakers, as Avery had just done.
Jared was a tall fellow with broad shoulders, the type that should have been involved in sports, and who wanted to be, but who was disallowed because of his status as a Type-1 Powered. Instead, he was here, at play practice, where nobody — especially Avery — felt like he belonged.
“Just let him be, Saya,” Avery said. She couldn’t control him. Nothing could, not even the threat of expulsion Jared faced if Ms. Bolt had to be called again. Their drama teacher, Mr. Farman, was already headed toward the phone.
“Shut up,” Jared said. “Both of you.”
“You don’t want to do this, Jared,” Saya insisted. “It’s just water.”
“It’s the principal of the thing,” Jared said. “He disrespected me.”
“It was an accident, man,” Avery repeated. “I said sorry.”
Avery was not afraid of Jared. He wasn’t afraid of him as a person, and he wasn’t afraid of Jared’s powers. He was pretty sure his own were better. Yet as far as anyone knew, Jared was the only Powered kid in the school. It didn’t help with Jared’s ego, but Avery wanted to keep it that way. Avery’s mom wanted him to keep it that way.
Generally, Avery tried to avoid Jared. Jared hadn’t actually hurt anyone yet, or he would already be gone from the school. He’d probably be in a juvenile facility for Powered, if he ever was allowed to get to the point of using his powers on other students. As it was, he usually just postured, using his size and his fists, and showing just enough of his Talent to make sure people knew he had one.
When Jared had auditioned for the play, one of the few things Saya had ever been able to say she made him do, Avery had groaned. The further he stayed away from Jared, the less likely it was that his own status as a Powered would be noticed. It was this exact situation that he had feared.
Avery avoided fights in general. If Jared struck at him, what was he supposed to do? Pretend like the blow hurt him? It worried that it would be obvious that it hadn’t. He worried that, if Jared struck him, it would be Jared who wound up hurt. He also worried that he wouldn’t be able to hold himself back, and that he’d strike back out of reflex, hurting or killing Jared.
Jared stepped up to him, chest thrust out, hands clenched into fists. “Why’d you do it, man?”
“I already told you it was an accident,” Avery said, exasperated.
“Nah, man,” Jared said. “I know you don’t like me. You think I don’t noticed that shit?”
Jared pushed his own chest against Avery’s. His face was inches from Avery’s own. Avery was tempted to resist, to stand his ground. Jared was several inches taller than Avery and had quite a bit more muscle mass. It would have shocked him if he couldn’t even budge Avery.
But Avery gave way, pretending to be pushed back by the blow.
“I don’t dislike you,” Avery lied. “Even if I did, what would spilling water on your shoes accomplish? Nothing.”
“Those are new shoes,” Jared said.
“So what? It’s just water. The shoes will dry.”
“It’s the principal of the thing.”
“I feel like you just keep saying that because you don’t really have a reason,” Avery said, though he immediately regretted it.
“What did you say?” Jared said, his nostrils flaring.
Whatever. Jared was just going to keep rolling forward, regardless of what Avery said. That’s just who he was. “I said you’re just looking for a reason to act like a tough guy.”
“Act?” Jared said, backing up, his hands spread wide. “Bitch I am a tough guy. I’m the only Powered in the whole school.”
Avery flinched. “Except for Ms. Bolt.”
“Man, she doesn’t count,” Jared said, waving a hand dismissively.
“She gonna count for something, as soon as she gets here,” Avery said.
“You relying on her to protect you, man?” Jared said, rolling his shoulders. “You scared.”
“Not of you,” Avery muttered.
Jared heard him. Avery knew, because his face shifted from fake, needling, asshole mad to real, actual mad in an instant. “What did you say?”
“I said I’m not afraid of you,” Avery sighed.
He was sure he imagined it, but he thought he heard a gasp ripple through those gathered. The other kids had drifted to the edges and wings of the stage as Avery and Jared had conversed. Even Saya had stepped away, having given up, as she always did, on corralling Jared’s tendencies.
“You’re not afraid of this?” Jared said, a knowing, incredulous grin spreading across his face. He held up an arm, fist clenched. With a cracking sound, like rocks shifting over one another, a second fist formed around it, one made of hard black stone. It faded away, becoming transparent, closer to his elbow, giving a question as to whether it was physical or merely some sort of projection.
“I’m not,” Avery said. “If you use it, you’ll be expelled.”
“I don’t care about that,” Jared assured him. “School isn’t doing shit for me anyway. I’d rather be out there, using this.” His hand opened. The projected rock-hand was almost twice the size of his head. Avery studied his arm. If the rock-hand had weight, Jared’s muscles didn’t seem to be straining to hold it.
“You’ll be jailed, then,” Avery said. “Or at least sent to a juvenile education facility. You’re stupid if you try to use that. You’re stupid just for waving it around.”
“Man, screw you. I ain’t stupid.”
Jared advanced, feet digging into the wood of the stage, each step thumping with anger. He held his rock-hand high, telegraphing his move. Avery felt a thrill. He wasn’t afraid of Jared at all. He was excited. He wanted to stand still and take the blow, just to see the look of shock on Jared’s face when Jared’s Talent, on which Jared based the majority of his self-worth, did nothing to him.
That would mean revealing himself to all of his classmates. That would mean being forced to enter the registry of Powered individuals. It would mean submitting to tests to determine the nature and extent of his Talents. It would mean his mother would be very, very angry at him.
Instead, Avery stepped to one side. Jared’s blow was clumsy and unpracticed, like he’d never had a chance to actually use his Talent, or like nobody had actually taught him how to fight. If he’d come from parents who were better off, he might have gotten the training he needed. In a way, he was right to want to be expelled: going to a regular school was doing him no favors, at least not in regard to his Talent.
There was nothing on the stage to grab to defend himself. Avery didn’t need it, but it would certainly look more believable to block Jared’s blows with an object. He’d have more deniability, even if he extended his durability into the object. He could just say Jared’s blows were weaker than they looked.
He didn’t want to get in a straight fight, so he jumped off of the stage.
“‘I’m not afraid,’ he says,” Jared mocked. “You’re literally running away. That’s weak, man.”
“You’re the weak one here,” Avery countered. “Swinging at a regular person with your Talent. You can’t even face me on even footing.”
Jared grunted angrily. He jumped from the stage. In midair, two boots of the same black rock formed around his feet. Apparently they cushioned his landing somehow. Avery felt a twinge of doubt — should the landing have been harder for him? But no, he’d seen his classmates make that jump before, which always resulted from a scolding from Mr. Farman. Jared was just showing off.
Around Jared’s other hand, a second fist of rock formed. He smashed them together. The sound rebounded through the auditorium, echoed throughout it by the well-designed acoustics. He charged.
Avery backed up a bit, watching Jared closely. He would have to keep dodging him in order to keep up his facade of being Talentless. He darted to the side, running between the rows of seats. It was awkward, the way he had to turn his hips, and he ended up skipping more than running. Jared, though, was a bit thicker than Avery. He couldn’t pursue as swiftly.
Jared growled in frustration and, to Avery’s surprised, punched the back of one of the chairs with one of his manifested fists. With a crunch, the chair went flying through the air, spinning toward the back of the auditorium. Avery flinched, ready for a secondary impact, but it never came.
Both of them froze. Their heads whipped around, in comic unison, to see Ms. Bolt standing in the open door of the auditorium, her silhouette outlined by the sunlight from the hall outside. From one of her hands, a white strip of fabric reached out. It had grabbed the chair back before it struck the wall. She lowered it to the ground.
“Come with me, Jared,” she called.
Jared stepped out from between the auditorium seats, tentative and, Avery might have thought, afraid. Yet he did not dismiss the stone hands that had formed around his own, and it wasn’t quite fear on his face. It was still anger.
“Put your hands away, Jared,” Ms. Bolt said. Her voice, always low for a woman, was deep and serious. Dangerous. Avery had never heard her speak like that. He shivered. He didn’t fear Jared, but he did fear her, at least a little bit. There was a reason she’d been chosen for her position.
Jared didn’t move further. He looked down at his hands, still encased in stone. He spread his fingers.
“Once more, Jared. Put them away, or I’ll put them away for you.”
Jared clenched his fists. His head snapped up. His eyes were open and, perhaps, glistening. Was he crying? Perhaps it was Avery’s imagination. Regardless, Jared took a step forward, with his hands still active, and that was a step too far for Ms. Bolt.
She held out her hands, and black fabric, long and thin, leapt out of them, streaming across the space between her and Jared. He backpedaled, but Ms. Bolt’s fabric was faster. It curled around his upper arms, looping about them even as he tried to tear his hands away. The more of it wrapped around his arms, the more faded his fists became, until they disappeared entirely.
“Come with me, Jared,” Ms. Bolt said. She tugged at the fabric, and Jared stumbled. “We’re going to see the principal. I expect he has some things to say to you.”