875K 33.6K 12.8K

My fellow trainees stand in an uneven circle, some laughing and others looking disgruntled, like they'd rather be in a six-hour math class than here. My mouth expands into a wide yawn, as there's nothing I want to do besides curl up under a tree and take a long nap.

It's mid-afternoon on Sunday, and it's the day of the first team challenge. Our hard work should be paying off right now, but I feel more drained than ever.

I look up from the small mound of dirt just under my white sneakers to find Axel off in the corner, leaning against the back of the central building next to Austin. Their chuckles practically float all the way over to me, making me realize Martina was right that they're friends. He turns his head and sees me looking at him. He gazes at me for a few seconds and then gives me a nod of assurance with a whispered something before leaving.

Good luck?

Martina runs up to me and taps my shoulder, a wide smile on her face.

"Why are you so happy?" I ask with a laugh.

"Because we get to compete in groups now, which will make our fuck-ups less noticeable. Plus, you're in my group, so that makes it better."

Cindy jogs with another young woman towards us, clad in bright green workout clothes that probably glow in the dark. "Hello everyone, and welcome to your first team challenge!" she exclaims, as peppy as ever. "I know you may not all know each other as best as you wish, but these challenges are designed for you to learn how to work together and compete for yourself."

A wave of chatter runs through the girls, and a couple race to the front, as if that will earn them more points—or any points at all.

The other girl steps forward. "Some of you may already know me as Isla, but if not, hello guys." We all smile and nod, but Natalie appears unamused. She must be the blue-haired trainer, although the style is less garish than I thought. "For the first half of the challenge, we'll start with a basic half-mile run. We hope that you've had plenty of time to sharpen your running skills this week, but if not, just remember there's no pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow, so try to have fun—if you can."

Cindy continues. "We'll follow the same route as last time, only now we've divided the road into four lanes. To change things up, team D is up first!"

Grumbles and groans sound throughout our group, but I remain quiet. I have no qualms about running, considering the marathon I ran this week with Axel. I am worried about the rest of this competition, especially if it involves rope climbing. I have to convince Axel to take me back again some day.

"On your marks, get set, go!" Cindy calls, clicking the button on her stopwatch.

We dash from the starting point, each zeroed in on the road ahead of us. I cruise in front of the other three girls in my team, confidence only slashed by a steadily creeping Willow, presence right by my shoulders. She strides ahead of me with her long, lean legs. Gritting my teeth, I press forward, finding the strength to close the gap and bolt past her. She whips her head to the side in shock.

My lead lasts only a few seconds, once again cut short by Willow, but some supernormal strength soon builds in my legs, absent whenever Axel and I run. I use it to overtake her by several feet, not even looking back once.

For the next leg of the race, I enjoy my solitude, even staring off at the greenery while I run. But right as I can eye the finish line, my legs start cramping, impeding my inhuman speed. Willow takes my fall from glory as the perfect chance to beat me once again.

Fucking bitch, I seethe in my head, as I cross the finish line ten seconds later.

Our eyes lock when I can stand up straight, despite my nearly collapsing lungs.

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