Ben knew, when he walked into Dale’s room, that he was going to have an interesting week.
There were two slightly younger teenagers standing next to Dale’s unorganized desk, both about fifteen or so. They seemed to be arguing vehemently. The taller of the two was glaring at the other and only glanced at Ben. The shorter one was sizing him up, as if they were about to start hand-to-hand combat. He looked bulky enough, but he wasn’t even close to the brutes that Ben usually faced. Yet there was something about the way he held himself. The air of dignity around him. His eyes scanned every detail of Ben, trying to read him, trying to understand him. He seemed very guarded, yet still congenial.
The taller one, on the contrary, was quite scrawny. Of course, Ben knew that didn’t mean he wasn’t a threat. Strengths and weaknesses come in all different shapes and sizes. The trick is to avoid their strengths long enough to capitalize on their weaknesses. Speaking of which, he was acting angry and tough, and while Ben knew he could probably hold his own, he could see through the facade of toughness. Behind the glare was a scared boy. Someone who had recently suffered a loss, either a close friend or family member.
Ben decided to ignore this until he knew the boy better.
Smiling, he approached the group and stuck his hand out to greet himself. “Hi,” he started. “My name is Ben.”
The shorter one took his hand and shook. “I’m Michael.” Ben noticed that he had a strong grip.
The taller one merely nodded. “Alex.”
Dale, grinning to himself, said, “Well now that we are all properly acquainted with each other, let’s get down to business.
“Jaq Stone, Praesidium’s old nemesis,” he continued, “is gathering an army. He is planning to strike at the end of the next fortnight. We need a small group of undetected, trained individuals to infiltrate the army and undermine their nefarious scheme. You three each have the special talents we require. Michael has already accepted the leadership position.”
“What?!” Everyone looked up. The outburst had issued from Alex’s mouth. “Him? Lead me? Sir, I beg of you . . . Don’t do this!”
“Alex, I will have no more of that foolish nonsense from you. What I say goes. I am your rightful leader and you will respect that or pay the price.”
Alex’s fists were clenched and shaking. His eyes pierced through Dale’s intensely, as if he was attempting to burn two holes where Dale’s pupils were. Ben and Michael looked nervously back and forth between Alex and Dale, waiting to see which would crack first. Alex’s face contorted into rage and he took a step toward Dale. At this sign of opposition, Dale stood up to his full height and, towering above Alex, looked menacingly down at him. This show of dominance did not discourage Alex in the least, however, and he glared into Dale’s eyes for a moment longer before reaching into his pocket and throwing down a piece of paper onto Dale’s desk in disgust.
When he spoke, he spoke in a hushed whisper. Somehow, that made it all the more powerful. “He died out there. If he couldn’t do it, what chance do I have if I have to answer to him?” Alex stuck a rigid finger at Michael.
“You have a chance if I say you do,” Dale responded in the same quieted tone that Alex had used.
“Yeah, but you thought he had a chance too. That didn’t work out so well then, did it?”
“Alex, I implore you to stop. You are treading on dangerous ground. If you start blaming me for your brother’s death, where does it end?”
“It ends when whoever did it feels the painful sting of justice, preferably the sting of my knife against their throat.”
And with that, Alex walked out of the office.
• • •
Michael and Ben stood there silently for another minute, letting it sink in. Dale didn’t give any recognition to their existence in the room for a while. He just stood there, the anger dispersing and replaced by sadness. He was now staring at the letter with a melancholy expression on his face.
Finally, he muttered to himself. “It was a shame. He was a good kid, and a tragic loss. But a necessary loss. Alex would never understand. He can never know.” Hearing himself speak aloud, he forced himself unceremoniously back to reality.
“Oh. Michael. Ben. You two are dismissed until further notice.” And then, he continued, more to himself than to Michael and Ben, “Alex’ll come around in due time, I’m sure of it…”
And with a curt nod to each other, Michael and Ben departed. It would be a while until the three crossed paths again, but it was destined to happen.
The Trifecta will unite. They must.