“You’re not training anyone until you get yourself in shape.”

“Was that an offer?”

A slow smile spread across his face. “Why? Think your monster can keep up with mine?”

I thought mine could run circles around his. Tie his into knots.

“There’s no simple fix, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Cole said, tilting his head toward the treadmill. “I get strong and I get fast, so if I can’t fight the monsters off, at least I can run them out of my head for a little while. When was the last time you trained seriously?”

“Before...” Jesus, when was the last time? A week before I left to find Liam? The training at HQ had been brutal at first, the very definition of an uphill battle—one that was fought with limp, weak limbs. I’d had blisters on my feet and the heels of my palms, and the endless string of bruises had made me look like I’d been in a major car accident. The pain had flared and pulled and twisted me, like it was reshaping my body to its own standards.

Most of the kids had been in the program long enough to hone their bodies for Ops at the same time they were trying to sharpen their Psi skills. It meant weightlifting and cardio every other day, with self-defense, kickboxing, and weapons training thrown into the mix for variety. When you’re working that hard, you’re focusing on every movement your body is making, trying to train each and every muscle to be as sharp as a knife. You get out of your head for a little while.

There had been a window of time when it had all come together for me—I’d been strong, mentally and physically, and more than a little driven to see each Op through. And somehow, in the process of looking for Liam, I’d managed to lose that piece of myself. I’d let the doubt back in, the insecurity. I’d lost control of myself.

“I want to be pushed harder than the instructors worked us,” I told him. “I can’t keep falling apart and waiting for everyone around me to put the broken pieces back together. I want to take care of everyone.”

Cole held up his hands. “I get it.”

“You don’t,” I said, hating the edge of desperation in my voice. “It’s like every time I turn a corner, I find myself right back in that tunnel with all the walls collapsing, and it feels like—”

“No.” Cole stood. “We’re not going to sit around, holding hands, and use the Cate Conner method of coping—art therapy with finger painting.” He crossed the room in two long strides and dug through a blue plastic bin to retrieve an old, worn pair of sparring gloves. He tossed them my way.

Cole crossed his arms but didn’t relax his posture in the slightest. I slid them on without hesitation or consideration for my hand and was rewarded with a nod of approval that warmed me at my center. If I was ready, he was ready.

He pulled out a pair of gloves for himself. There was a stretch of black mats on the far side of the room, and I crossed over to them. Plastic, sweat, rubber—it was a familiar smell. I took in a deep breath of it and set my stance, letting my weight sink into what little give the mats offered.

“Just so you know,” Cole said, knocking his gloved hands together as he turned around, “getting strong means taking hits. A lot of them. You ever act like it’s too much, or you can’t get your ass off the ground, then this is over.”

“Fine,” I said. “As long as you don’t pull back because you think I can’t take it.”

He snorted. “And Gem? One last thing. You don’t tell anyone what we’re doing. Not Conner, not Vida, not Lee, not any of them.”

Who the hell cared if we trained together?

“Let’s see if you can actually hit me first,” I taunted, but his eyes were still grave, darkened by something I didn’t understand. “Are you embarrassed or something?”

“Let’s just say, I doubt they’d approve of this method of coping,” he said, one foot sliding back, his hands up to guard his face. His voice was so quiet, I almost didn’t hear it. “They don’t burn, do they? Not like us.”

His fist flew out and clipped the side of my temple. I staggered back, but stayed on my feet. Anger—at myself for not paying attention, at the flash of pain—flooded through me. His lips twisted into a smile as I threw an arm out toward him, and he stopped, correcting the motion, forcing me to do it again and again until I landed the hit the exact way he wanted me to. Cole gave a playful punch to my shoulder, and was still grinning when he lashed a foot out and I caught it with mine. He bounced back, driving another hit to my center.

Minutes flew by, and I seemed to move with them. My body’s muscles remembered how to fight, even if my heart had bowed out of the game. A hot rush of exhilaration went through me as I blocked a blow and landed a hit square in his stomach. His breath escaped in half a laugh, half a gasp of pain. By the time he remembered he was supposed to be teaching me, we were already flat on our backs on the mats, trying to catch our breath.

No, I thought, reaching up to wipe the sweat-slick hair out of my eyes. Not like us.

Hours later, with my muscles like jelly and the fog of my nightmare cleared from my mind, we gathered in the rec room to officially begin planning the camp hits.

I surveyed our group, including one last, newly arrived car, which had rolled in while I was rinsing off in the showers after training with Cole. The kids, all four of them, were valiantly fighting through their exhaustion, explaining that they’d been held up by car problems, when Cole strolled in behind me and gave me a gentle push forward, toward the circle of kids sitting on the floor. I reared back slightly, confused, but his smile was encouraging. “It’s just what we talked about, remember? Give them the rundown.”

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