Game Over

Vanity

Drawing a line in your own head between 'reality' and 'illusion' after just having suffered through some I-am-convinced-this-is-real pretend experiences was the sort of thing that could really give a person a headache.

Unfortunately, I was no exception to this.

Equally unfortunately, Zinc apparently couldn't take obvious hints like being told to shut the hell up. "You know, I think you're a natural, Shane," he remarked cheerfully as we approached the gate. "First an Item on your first trip out, and now a Link on your first attempted illusion." He beamed, floating a short ways ahead of me in the oppressive blue haze. "I think this might be your calling, huh?"

I rubbed at my temple, trying to soothe away some of the ache. It was daunting - coming out from thinking I was in a closet during a school day to being in an underwater world at night. "Quit trying to talk me into playing," I snapped at my Guide. I wasn't in any sort of mood for his usual crap.

He chose to ignore my tone. "But it'd be a real waste for you to just quit!" Turning to look away from the glare I gave him, he floated up to stop just before he'd move back through the gate. "It's my duty to talk such a fantastic Player into staying in the Game."

"Bullshit." I almost growled that out, glaring even harder at the back of his head. "You're only interested in staying here so you can play. Don't try to pretend you give a damn about me or duty or whatever."

"That's not - " There was a disorienting moment of silence while we crossed through the gate and emerged in the middle of the street six blocks from my house. " - true! You're my Player, after all."

"Isn't that supposed to be the other way around?" I lowered the hand holding onto the jewel-like Paranoia Link so the position of my hand would look less strange in case someone - Er. In case Sasenti started time up again, and then someone saw us.

Getting used to reality meant remembering the important things too, if I could manage it.

"It's a mutual relationship," Zinc answered, loftily. He had his arms crossed over his chest, floating backwards so he could talk with me face-to-face while I walked. "I'm your Guide, but you're also my Player. We have to watch out for each other."

"Spare me." I really didn't feel like listening to him spout Game ethics at me right then. "And while you're at it, stop talking altogether."

"But - "

"You're a glutton for punishment, aren't you? Both of you, I mean."

I demonstrated my sense of grace by falling on my ass as I tried to stop and turn around at the same time. The voice was familiar enough so that I wasn't shocked by the time I got a look at the girl sitting on the top of the brown wooden fence that half-surrounded the lawn to my right. Bewildered might've come closer. "Uh… Sasenti."

Not my most intelligent moment.

She leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees, and smiled at me, dark hair falling forward a bit but kept out of her face by the light blue bandana. "How'd you do?"

"Um… good. I mean… yeah. Good." It took me a moment to realize she must've been talking about the illusion. I stood up and shook my head, trying to clear away some of the cobwebs that seemed to have settled there. "Why are you here?"

"Better you than one of the others," was the completely unhelpful response. I must've looked about as confused as I felt, because she grinned then and pushed herself down off the fence. "Now that there's three of you, Jade and I can't keep track of everyone at once to make sure you're all back where you belong before I start time up again."

"Jade and you…" I blinked at her for a bit. My mind was too much of a chaotic place right then to make any sense of that.

Zinc was a little quicker on the uptake. "I get it!" he declared, snapping his fingers as if he'd had some stroke of genius. "That's how you know when to stop using your Item! You and your Guide split up and find the other two Players to watch and see when it's safe for them!"

That clicked. "Now that there's three of you…" So when there were only two others, she and her Guide could keep things straight - but there was no way that'd work with three. Which meant she had to let someone in on the trick, so whoever it was would go home and wait while she tracked down the others.

And that, apparently, was going to be me.

I stared at the girl in front of me. "Is that true?" Somehow… it was kind of a let-down. I'd almost had all kinds of wild ideas about psychic powers and stuff.

Sasenti nodded. "I figured I'd let you in on it, if I had to tell someone." The grin didn't fade, but she shrugged at me as if in apology. "You'll keep your mouth shut about this, huh?"

How often did she honestly think I talked to Tristan and Devon? "Yeah… sure."

"Tristan's got you targeted for the buddy routine, you know," she pointed out suddenly, as if listening to my thoughts. "He did the same thing to Devon right after he became a Player."

I shifted uncomfortably at the reminder. "I don't remember that." Embarrassing as it was to admit, I usually noticed inter-classroom relations when they involved Devon.

It was the sort of thing that came along with the hormones.

Sasenti shrugged, not looking very concerned. "We're all in the same homeroom, you know," she said, instead of taking my invitation to explain, "all four Players. Coincidence?"

That was something I hadn't thought much about. Then again, I'd been sort of distracted lately… "Isn't there something that picks us out for this in the first place? Maybe it's got some kind of plan."

Lame. Very, very lame. That had to be my brain's revenge for not allowing it to shut down and reduce me to the level of gibbering moron. Not that I was far from it right then. I covered up with a brilliant, "Uh. Or something."

"Something," Sasenti agreed, solemnly. "Yeah, maybe."

I rubbed at my forehead. Something about talking to this girl was really feeding the pain. "Do you have a translation for that, or do I need to look it up for myself?" At least I was starting to sound more intelligent.

"You want to hear it in Korean?" And then she smiled again, quick and bright and not at all helpful. "Keep playing. It'll come to you."

"See?" Zinc agreed, smugly.

"Right." And that wasn't sarcasm, either. Really. "Well, thanks for - uh?"

Sasenti turned from her retreat long enough to salute. "You've got about half an hour - roughly," she called back, breaking into a light jog. "See you at school tomorrow!"

Then she rounded the corner and was out of sight.

I stared after her for a minute as my brain caught up with the situation.

"She seems nice," Zinc contributed, breaking the silence.

"Nazis probably seem nice to people who don't know better," I muttered back, still feeling grouchy. "Let's go."

"I don't know why you're in such a bad mood." He drifted about a foot to the right of my head as we made our way back to my house. "I wasn't the one being all mysterious. Anyway, you should be happy! You just got yourself a Link, didn't you? It's a great accomplishment!"

I gave him a sidelong glance, then let out a long breath and walked faster. It just didn't seem worth the effort to argue with him any more.

Half an hour was really more time than I needed. It couldn't have been more than twenty minutes before I opened the door to my own house, hung up my jacket, and headed upstairs while trying very hard not to look at the frozen figures of my parents and sister. That was definitely going to take some getting used to.

"I'll check your stats!" Zinc offered cheerfully, floating into my room ahead of me after I'd opened the door for him.

Why he had such a need to make sure every little thing I did in this stupid Game was being recorded, I'd probably never figure out. "Don't close that window - I was typing something." If he made me lose that post, I'd cheerfully take him apart. I couldn't even remember what I'd written.

"Yeah, yeah." He waved a hand at me, and settled down in front of the screen.

I put the Key and my new Link down on the desk. There was something similar and oddly appealing about the way they caught the light… Despite the difference in color, size, and shape, they somehow seemed part of the same whole.

And it did give me an odd sort of satisfaction, having won that Link. Not that I'd ever admit it out loud, but still. I stared at the thing for a while, and felt a lot better. Even my headache seemed to be letting up.

Given that the headache was the Link's fault in the first place, that seemed only fair.

I glanced at the alarm clock while Zinc beamed at the computer screen. Still 7:12. And I was ready to collapse and sleep for a couple of weeks.

My parents were probably going to think I was sick or something.

"So, now that you've got experience…" My Guide pushed himself away from the computer and floated up near my head. "Getting more Links should be easy, right? So we can play more often." He gazed hopefully at my face. "Right?"

"No! Are you kidding me?" He had to be kidding me. Then again, I was talking about a Game-obsessed moron who couldn't take a hint if it kicked him upside the head. "You think I want to go out and ask for more punishment?"

"But - " Zinc squirmed and bit his lip and twisted in mid-air, almost anxiously. "But - "

I was starting to get really good at ignoring him - skirting around where he was hovering, I slumped down into the computer chair and brought up the post I'd been working on. "I need a month's vacation - talk to me when that's over."

"A month?" I might've felt sorry for him under more objective circumstances; his voice sounded absolutely agonized. "But that’s…"

"I didn't mean literally!" I resisted the urge to bang my head on the front of my computer. The damn thing was old and abused enough already. "Just… stop bothering me! I'll tell you when I'm ready to play again, got it?"

I hadn't bothered to look away from where I was glaring at the computer screen, but I could just about see Zinc drooping in the air beside me. "Okay," he said after a minute, sounding positively miserable.

This time, though, I managed to feel no guilt for him whatsoever.

~~~~~~

Something was growling.

I slid one eye open and got a blurry picture of the alarm clock sitting on my desk. It wasn't time to get up yet, so I closed the eye.

Thump.

Consciousness was emerging from the fog clouding my brain, despite all attempts to fight it off. There was something about the noises in my bedroom that was causing the little voice inside my head to insist that now was a very good time to wake up.

Thump. Growl. Thump thump. Growl thump growl thumpthumpthump. GROWL.

What. The hell? There shouldn't be any growling in -

Ah.

I sat up abruptly, shoving the covers off me and glowered across the room - where two pocket demons were rolling around and clawing at each other in the midst of an intense battle. The source of the disagreement was a badly mangled sock that they both had a death grip on with their teeth and were tugging back and forth between them as they scuttled around the room and bumped into walls.

After blinking at them for a moment, I took another look around the room. Zinc, apparently, was no longer present.

The guilt I'd missed the night before managed to nick me at that point. Of course, we hadn't actually fought - I'd just been really disagreeable. But still…

The brawling pocket demons hit the shelf next to my desk with some force, and most of my CDs tumbled free and clattered all over the floor around them. Both creatures let out surprised yowls and jumped apart, releasing the sock. Quickly, almost colliding, they jumped up onto the desk and out the window, disappearing into the outdoors.

From the room next door came the wail, "No bang!" and then Nicole began to cry.

Seconds later, my mother's voice called sharply from downstairs, "What's going on up there?"

I flopped back down onto the bed and pulled my pillow over my head.

My alarm hadn't even gone off yet, and it was already looking like it'd be a terrible day.

~~~~~~

"Nice day, isn't it?"

I looked up from my desk. Somehow, it wasn't surprising to find Tristan grinning at me as he dropped into the seat next to mine - but it also wasn't surprising to feel the cold grip of complete dread take hold of my insides as well.

But I was more or less resigned to my fate by then. "Yeah," I said out loud. "Nice."

He slid his bag under the desk he'd chosen and leaned the side of his face on one hand to look at me. "So how was your night?"

It didn't take a mental giant to realize that he wasn't just asking if I'd done all my homework. "I got a Link," I said, trying to suppress the urge to be proud of myself. "Paranoia."

"You got an Item on your first night, and now a Link on the second?" Suppressing was hard when Tristan looked so impressed. "You must be some kind of natural. Either that or your Guide is just awesome."

I stared at him.

Zinc? Awesome? Half the time he forgot to warn me when I was walking into imminent danger!

Then again… That was probably the reason I took so many risks. Zinc's major strength seemed to be a combination of recklessness and dumb luck.

"You're probably wrong," I said anyway, wryly, "on both counts."

Tristan actually laughed, dropping the hand he was propping his cheekbone on so it was braced across the desk instead. "Funny you should say that. I was kind of getting this idea about Players, you know." He shrugged, and smiled a bit ruefully. "And then you come along and blow the theory to hell. So much for that."

In spite of myself, I was actually curious. And as long as he was insisting on forcing friendship down my throat… "What theory?"

Asking Tristan to talk about his own thoughts seemed to have the same effect as telling a pregnant woman to eat a lot. "I thought Players were chosen for confidence or something," he said, shifting in his seat to face me and bracing his other arm on the back of the chair. "Like, how cocky a person is. So they'd take a lot of risks and stuff."

Definitely not me. It sounded a lot like Zinc, though… "Well, I probably won't be in the Game that long anyway," I admitted, shrugging. "After this Level, I'm out."

"Out?" Tristan looked baffled. "But you have an Item already."

I opened my mouth to tell him I wasn't interested in dealing with Items, Links, or anything else Game-related for any longer than I had to - and lost my train of thought as a familiar classmate caught at the corner of my vision.

"You're not kicked out if you've got a - huh? Oh." Apparently, my self-proclaimed friend had noticed the same thing. Of course, I couldn't really say, because I wasn't looking at him right then. "Good ol' Devy."

Right.

'Good ol' Devy' had stopped short, at the front of the class. The point when my heart took a flying leap into my throat could be tracked to the exact moment when he fixed his eyes on me - narrow, calculating, making my skin prickle and my nerves stand on end. And the point when it went diving somewhere around the region of my stomach was when he looked at Tristan - sideways in his chair and leaning in my direction - and that purple-eyed gaze went on its way toward murderous.

I instinctively shrank back in my seat.

For being the focus of that deadly stare, though, Tristan seemed miraculously calm - probably due to the fact that he'd never been bullied during the course of his life and didn't understand the principle behind 'helpless, unreasoning fear'. "Someone's jealous," he said in a ridiculously conspiratorial tone, with one hand shielding his mouth as if he were so sure that anyone cared enough to listen in.

I didn't really have time to respond, even if I could've kept my voice down to a tone that didn't sound like someone who'd been castrated. Still glowering at Tristan, Devon pushed his way through the desks and stray students and resolutely plunked himself down in the seat on my other side.

I shrank down further. My heartbeat was going like a drummer on Ritalin, and the surface of my desk was suddenly the most fascinating thing I'd ever seen.

Why is he sitting here!?

"How was your night?" Tristan greeted him, pleasantly.

I could feel the waves of antagonism without even looking up and taking a glance at our new 'friend'. He might as well have been glaring at me, because I was feeling it, and it didn't seem like Tristan was. "Where'd you dump your worshippers - in a fucking ditch somewhere?"

Tristan leaned back a bit; I could see him shift, probably to look over at Devon. "You know, whatever you want to believe, the girls I hang around with do have brains. Working ones, at that." There was an undercurrent of annoyance in his voice that he was trying to mask as casual bantering.

Up until that point, I didn't think Tristan Dufraine got annoyed.

"They do a good job hiding it," Devon snarked back.

It had the desired effect; Tristan shifted in his seat again and let out what sounded a lot like a frustrated breath. "Maybe I should hang out with Shane more often then, huh?"

"Leave me out of this," I muttered at him sideways, sinking down even further as I felt the weight of Devon's focus lean my way. My eyes were just about level with my desk, and there were a few people giving me curious looks.

This was starting to get embarrassing, damnit!

"Hey Shane."

I was startled enough at that to risk looking up. Sasenti stood with one hand on the chair in front of me, glancing to either side and then offering a slight smile. "Interesting pair of groupies you've got here."

"Only waiting for you to make your appearance," Tristan replied, abruptly straightening in his seat and calling up a charming smile. "I knew if I stayed close to Shane, you'd eventually join us." He raised his eyebrows at her.

Sasenti smiled a bit, but didn't reply. "You'd better watch it," she said instead, turning to look at Devon. "I'm ahead of you. At this rate, I'll win this Level too."

I couldn't stop myself from glancing over - just in time to watch the almost manic grin he gave her in return spread across his face. "Not fucking likely."

"If you say so." She shrugged, turning around to drop into her seat and pull her notebook and pens from her bag. "Good luck, then."

'Win this Level'… Those words didn't seem to fit in with the picture I had in my head of Levels. And that was based on what Zinc had told me, which - given his track record - was probably not everything I needed to know. "Sasenti," I started, leaning forward and trying to pretend there was no one on either side of me to listen in. "What did you - ?"

"Good morning!" Mrs. Gammond chose that moment to announce her presence, setting her books down loudly and giving the class an appraising look. "With all this noise, you'd think it was a Monday."

Sasenti slid around in her seat, and the rest of my question went unasked.

~~~~~~

Lunch came after P.E., which was not co-ed and wasn't shared with either Tristan or Devon. For which I could be eternally grateful. I wasn't the greatest athlete. About all I could do was run, and as far as speed and endurance went, I was average at best.

At least in grade twelve, the class would be optional. I looked forward to that day.

Mike had Social Psychology before lunch on Tuesdays, and his teacher was completely insane. He'd said once that listening to her was like watching a plane swing up just before crashing into the ground. It was the only class he paid complete attention in.

And it almost always ran at least ten minutes into the lunch hour.

I trudged up hallway B, trying not to make it look like my muscles were aching as much as they were, and leaned against the wall beside the door to his classroom. It felt nice and cool - or maybe my skin was just too hot - so I shut my eyes for a minute and tried to feel human again after the period of enforced exercise. The whole scene was pretty much routine; I did it every Tuesday, so my feet sort of brought me there while the rest of me was more focussed on bigger problems - namely, Links, demons, Tristan, and Devon.

I wonder what Mike would do in a Game like this. I opened my eyes again and settled back comfortably, turning the thought over a few times. Mike and Zinc would probably get along great. He'd want to keep playing, too.

So why hadn't he been chosen as a Player? Why me?

I was starting to think that whoever arranged these things had made some kind of mix-up in their paperwork.

Classes around me were starting to get out. Gym class was dismissed early because we had to get changed, and I always changed fast - a habit formed quickly when you were a target for bullying. So I was usually there before some of the others started filing out of the classrooms, and I could slouch against the wall and watch everyone jostle for the best position to escape.

That was really one of the main reasons I waited for Mike outside his class on Tuesdays, I admitted, smiling a bit wryly. Because next to Social Psych was Advanced Calculus, and in Advanced Calculus was -

I just about fell off the wall, jerking upright abruptly with the realization. Crap!

Not soon enough. One person in the crowd I hadn't been paying attention to suddenly broke free and shouldered the wall next to me, hard.

"Hey," Devon said, as if this were entirely casual, and smiled, showing teeth.

Fuck.

The crowd was rapidly thinning out, and I started to debate the merits of making a run for it. The options were 'bolt like a sissy in front of Devon Cross' and 'shrink against the wall as Devon Cross did who knew what to me in the hallway' and neither one sounded that appealing right then.

Fuck fuck fuck. How did I get myself into this?

My moment of opportunity had come and gone - as the last of the crowd trickled on, Devon rolled smoothly off the wall and trapped me against it with a forearm on either side of my face.

"I wanted to ask you something," he said calmly, as if he didn't notice my desperate attempts to keep from hyperventilating. It was almost possible to feel him breathe.

I called up an absolutely brilliant reply of "Ehhh…" right before my throat closed up completely.

Hormones - one. Shane - minus ten.

He actually leaned back a fraction, and then tilted his head and stared at me sideways as if he wasn't sure what he was looking at. "You're in a Game," he started, voice a bit flat, "where you have to step on your opponents to get ahead. So why the fuck are you making friends with them?"

That… was not what I'd been expecting to hear. I stared at him for a moment, thoughts leaning towards rational again despite the way my heart was hammering. I cleared my throat self-consciously. "Well, Tristan - "

"Don't get me started on Tristan - he's a fucking wackjob." A corner of Devon's mouth twisted up a bit, almost ruefully. "You seem sane - and hell, that Sasenti seems sane, too. So tell me what the point of being buddy-buddy with your fucking opponents is."

My first uncharitable thought was that he must not know Sasenti very well if he thought she was sane.

"I was trying to say," I answered, mentally congratulating myself on how steady my voice was, "that Tristan's making friends with me. Not the other way around." I squirmed against the wall, staring at a point over his shoulder and wishing he would give me a little more breathing room.

He stared at me for a minute, then snorted a laugh. "You don't have much of a spine, do you?"

My cheeks burned. "Yeah, well, call it a defense mechanism," was out of my mouth before I could remember to be nervous.

"Defense, huh?" Devon raised an eyebrow at me, lips curving up slowly.

It took some effort to tear my eyes from his mouth at that. "Uh."

He leaned back in, closer this time. "I usually go with offense."

For a confusing, head-spinning moment, I thought he might close the rest of the distance and actually plant his lips on me. It was hard to keep track of the instincts - to run, to hit him, to lean forward, to sit there and let it happen. My eyes shut; the rest of me went completely tense. I definitely felt him breathing then, and the combination of the whole set-up went straight to my groin.

Along with some other things.

'Tense' was suddenly an understatement.

"You know, you're interesting," Devon said, voice low, almost close enough to talk into my mouth. His fingers moved lightly over the waist of my jeans, exploring, and I couldn't help jerking a bit - although whether it was into the touch or away from it was beyond what I called my thought process at the moment. "I think - "

"What are you looking for there, Dev?" a familiar voice interrupted - the same bucket-of-cold-water treatment from the day before. Devon jerked away from me, and I caught sight of Tristan, standing - thankfully alone - behind him in the hallway. His expression was almost gleeful. "Lose your keys?"

I shrank back against the wall, trying my best to disappear into it.

Devon scowled. "None of your fucking business," he answered irritably. "Don't you have anything better to do? Get lost."

The easy grin on Tristan's face didn't falter; he shrugged, as if the question wasn't important. "I told Sarah I'd meet her after class." He waved a hand at the door next to me. "This is her class. What's your excuse?"

"Didn't you hear me?" Devon snorted, hooking a finger into the belt loop on my jeans almost absently. "I said, none of your fucking business." He was still leaning on the wall with his right forearm braced beside my head, halfway obscuring me from view.

'Halfway' was not nearly good enough. There were a couple of random kids in the hallway giving us funny looks. I coughed a bit, trying to get their attention without really getting their attention. If that was possible. "Do we really need to do this here?"

I was very proud of how clear that question came out. My voice almost didn't even squeak. Almost.

Tristan looked a bit confused at that. "Why not?"

"Who's going to care?" Devon added, and I was suddenly the focus of their combined attention.

Great.

"Uh…"

The door next to me came to my rescue by opening for the usual hoard of kids. Devon unhooked his finger from my jeans and backed off, and Tristan's attention was diverted by a beaming auburn-haired girl at the front of the crowd. He didn't seem interested in escaping her as she dragged him off.

Thank god some things about life were still predictable.

"Hey… Shane?" At the last second, Mike spotted Devon standing beside me and gave him a bit of a wary look, shifting his bag and pushing up his glasses, all the while holding himself stiff to avoid being pressed aside by the moment of bad traffic. "Are we going for lunch, or…?" He let that trail off.

"Yeah. Lunch." I shot a sideways glance at the source of the whole mess. The extremely attractive source of the whole mess, who was pushing himself from the wall and giving me a smile and looking like sex personified. "Right."

"See you," Devon promised - or was it a threat? Then he brushed past us and sauntered off around the corner.

Mike waited until the last remnants of his class had dribbled off, then turned to give me an incredulous stare. "The hell, McMurray? What were you doing making a pact with Satan?"

'Devil' was what Mike called Devon. It was kind of appropriate, really.

"Nothing." I tried to shrug the whole thing off. The last thing I needed was for Mike to find out that I'd just been groped in the hallway. "Some stupid online thing - he found out it was me, that's all. Let's go eat lunch."

"Man, first Dufraine, now the Devil himself." Mike hitched up his bag and started down the hallway, following my lead. "Great company." He frowned. "You in some kind of trouble?"

You could call it that. "No, but I wish they'd leave me alone. It's stupid." Time for a subject change. "Weren't you getting Ultimate Vengeance 4 yesterday?"

"Hell yeah!" Mike brightened immediately. "Oh man, wait until you see the visuals on that thing - it'll blow your mind, Shane, honestly. You've got - "

At least, I told myself, halfway tuning him out, there were some things I could always count on - being able to distract Mike with video games, especially.

~~~~~~

Zinc surprised me after school by being there when I got home - sitting docilely on the top of my computer as I walked in the door. "How was your day?"

When had I stepped into an alternate universe? I shut the door behind me carefully. "Okay, I guess. What made you so happy?"

"What, I need a reason?" He grinned at me, leaning back on his hands with his legs stretched out in front of him. "So how's that Devon guy doing?"

Warning bells started going off in my head. "You did turn that mind link off… right?"

He blinked innocently at me. "I did last time you asked me to."

I stared at him. "You left it open all day today?"

"I forgot!" Zinc protested, sitting up and holding his hands up as if to shield himself from my wrath. "It's not like it's always there, you know - just when there's strong emotions and all, then you can tell - "

"Yeah, right," I interrupted, already getting tired from the upcoming string of excuses building with the situation. "So when you realized it was still there, did you close it then?"

His mouth shut with an almost audible snap.

I dropped my bag on the floor with a thud. "Thank you. All I needed to know." Flopping into my computer chair, I wearily swung the mouse to get rid of the screen saver. "Now go away."

"Aw, don't be like that!" Zinc scooted over to the edge of the computer. "I'm just curious about your life - I'm your partner, aren't I? And it's not like you tell me…"

I slouched in my chair and did my best to ignore him completely.

"Well, you need my help anyway." He drew himself up, trying for self-righteous and not quite managing it. "You're the most repressed Player I've ever known. I'm surprised you haven't blown up, you're so bottled in."

Okay, forget ignoring him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means," he declared, nodding sagely, "that you need to get laid, and fast."

Oh, brilliant. A seventeen-year-old boy, needing to get laid - that was his revelation? "Right," I said, eyeing him wryly. "Because I'd never thought of that before. Getting laid - what a concept. It's only on my mind ninety percent of the time; who would think I might want it?"

"I was only trying to help," Zinc replied, sounding injured.

I knew better. "Thank you for that. My life is changed forever. Now leave me alone."

"You really need to lighten up." Apparently, he'd decided that ignoring me was easier than trying to earn my sympathy. "Know what's really good for all that frustration?"

I raised my eyes again to give him a flat look. "I'll bet I can guess."

His smile was wide and innocent and totally untrustworthy. "A nice invigorating illusion!"

"Know what would also be good for my frustration?" I asked, in an even tone. "Throttling you."

Zinc sighed, leaning back again. "You know, you'd have a much better chance of getting laid if you eased up on the sarcasm."

I gave up. We were apparently going to have a conversation whether I liked it or not. "And you're the expert, huh?"

"Well." He studied his hand, a little smug. "I don't mean to brag, but…"

Despite everything, that got me a little curious. Guides with sex lives… who knew? "Yeah?"

Showing a slight interest was enough to get him talking. "People like me, that's all." He grinned. "Helps that I don't freak out when someone's hitting on me."

"Spare me." I frowned. "What do you do, anyway? Go to miniature bars and pick up miniature girls?"

"No. Well, not always." It was his turn to frown, thoughtfully. "It's… more like just meeting people. Common attraction. Lots of great sex." The grin returned. "The last guy I was seeing - let me tell you, he was awesome in bed. Only thing he did that didn’t make me want to punch his lights - "

"Hold on, hold on!" I sat up straight, giving him an incredulous look. "Guy?"

He blinked. "Yeah?"

That derailed my thought process a bit. "You're gay?"

"If it makes you feel better." He shrugged, and grinned again. "I've slept with guys. I've slept with girls. Call me whatever you want."

My Guide was a walking STD. Somehow, that was almost funny. "So, are you still seeing some… guy? Girl? Or whatever?"

"No." Zinc said that just a little too fast, then frowned a bit. "Well… Yeah, actually, no." He shook his head, apparently having changed his mind about whatever had caused the hesitation. "No, not really."

This was interesting. I raised an eyebrow. "'Not really'?"

My Guide looked a bit disgruntled. "We're not together. We just have sex sometimes. So, not really."

Both eyebrows went up at that. I couldn’t help it. "What, like a fuck buddy?"

"Ehh…" He squirmed a bit. "Is there a 'fuck enemy'?"

"You know, I'm not sure I really want to know any more." I shook my head, but couldn't help the grin building on my face. Somehow, Zinc was a master at giving me the unexpected even when I thought I'd gotten used to him. "Any chance the other Guides are people you know?"

"Probably. There's not as many of us who volunteer for this job as you'd think." Never mind the fact that he'd told me the day before that there were way too many Guides and he hardly ever got a turn. "I know pretty much everyone."

I wasn't sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. Probably bad, knowing my luck. "Is there a good chance that I'll get to meet them?"

Zinc shrugged. "Depends on how the Game goes." His eyes lit up for a second. "Of course, if you decide to stay after this Level, you'll have a much better chance of meeting them."

"I'll bet." I rested my elbow on the desk in front of me and glared at him without much real malice. For some reason I felt much better than I had when I'd just come home from school - a first, considering I was having a conversation with Zinc. But, well, when it came to feeling better, I'd take what I could get.

He shifted around so that he could get an upside-down look at the screen in front of me. "What do you do on that thing all the time, anyway?"

"Nothing really." I shrugged, reaching for the mouse now that my attention had been directed back at the computer. "I post a lot on message boards and chat with people. Sort of like being social, but without having to be there in person."

"So you're kind of a geek, huh?" He said it as if it were a fact rather than an insult, and didn't wait for an answer. "What do you post on message boards?"

"Depends." This was probably the first time we'd actually had a conversation about what I wanted to do. It was refreshing, in a way. "If it's a message board for a movie or a book or something, then I'll talk about plot and character stuff - that kind of thing. Then there's a couple I just put stupid stories on."

Zinc looked up at me, suddenly interested. "Stories?"

"Yeah. Stupid stuff." I was suddenly embarrassed, without really knowing why; it made me lean back in my chair and frown at him. "Nothing special, just about my class and all."

If anything, he looked more interested - not exactly the effect I was going for. "Well, I want to hear them! Read me a couple!"

I could feel the corners of my mouth edging down even further. "No."

"Aw, come on! Why not?"

"Because they're stupid." I spun around in my chair suddenly, still scowling, and reached for my school bag. The idea of showing Zinc the kind of stuff I only really shared with people who I was never going to see in my daily life was not one that appealed to me at all. "I should do my homework."

"If they were stupid and not important or anything," he said, trying to sound sly and not quite getting past moronic, "then it wouldn't matter if I saw them. And you wouldn't have to change the subject all of a sudden. Would you?"

"Do me a favor," I told him flatly, pulling out my English textbook and turning to give him a hard stare as I did. "Shut up."

Apparently my hard stare wasn't hard enough. Zinc grinned, looking triumphant. "I'm right."

"I can't hear the silence," I said, pointedly. "Stop talking."

He opened his mouth anyway - but I never got the chance to hear what he was going to say, because the now-familiar sensation of a nearby Link washed over me in a sudden wave, bringing with it the sensation of…

"Vanity," I mused, out loud.

"Wow! We're lucky!" Zinc jumped up from the top of the computer, eyes shining as he floated up over my head. "This must be a great Link-hunting area - that's three of them nearby in just two days!"

"Right. Lucky." I sighed. The stupid thing was pulling on me. I let my English textbook drop back to the floor with a thud and rested my forehead on the computer screen.

Life was apparently going to have to wait for a little while.

~~~~~~

I got a little more conclusive proof later on that whoever was in charge of 'fate' obviously got a big kick out of irritating people.

Almost as soon as I'd stepped through the gateway, I was greeted by something that had started to become disturbingly familiar over the past couple of days. Something I really wished wasn't becoming so familiar. Something I kind of wanted to just go away and leave me alone.

Something with blond hair and an annoying habit of being friendly enough to keep me from being annoyed.

"Hey Shane." Tristan leaned against the wall of neatly trimmed hedge behind him and grinned at me. His Item was tucked under one arm, jutting out from his relaxed pose at an odd angle. "Found this one too, huh?"

Great… I resisted the urge to groan and bury my face in my hands. Just what I needed - a witness. Or worse… competition. And speaking of which… "Shouldn't you be trying to beat me to it?"

He waved a negligent hand. "I've already got Vanity." If truer words were ever spoken, I had yet to hear them. "Come on, we can go find it." He pushed himself up, brushing a couple of stray needles off of a shirt that was probably more expensive than everything I was wearing put together. "Not that you'll need my help, being the super new Player." That came with a grin.

Somehow, that didn't seem quite right, but I was willing to let it go - after all, Tristan wasn't what I'd call a perfectly sane individual. Sometimes he said or did some strange things.

"Where are we?" I asked instead, looking around. The grass under my feet was neatly trimmed, which matched the straight rows of hedges all around us perfectly. The hedges were cut with sharp edges, arranged like walls, and there were a couple of different directions to go in. It was light out and not too cold, but despite the clear blue sky visible above me, I couldn't see the sun.

And apparently I'd asked a stupid question. "Another world," Tristan pointed out, looking amused.

"Thanks." Yeah, sarcasm. It was hard to hold it back, especially when I was already a bit edgy about the whole situation. I couldn't shake the feeling that something was a little odd about this set-up. Something missing, or not quite right…

Right, Shane, I reminded myself, dryly. You're in a Game where demons fight over socks in your bedroom while you sleep, and now you've just stepped into an alternate world. And you think there something odd. What a great observation.

Obviously what was missing was my common sense.

"Hey, you asked the question." Tristan pointed down one of the paths, which went straight for a while and then turned to the right, with a certain precision. "What do you think? This way?"

Should it matter? I frowned a bit. What difference did our direction make? We weren't going to find the Link by standing around talking about it, but going one way instead of the other shouldn't matter, should it? "I guess so."

"Good enough for me. Let's go." He gave me a friendly thump on the shoulder and started off down our chosen walkway.

And, still trying to shake off the suspicion that something was wrong, I followed.

Diverting my attention wasn't that hard - I just had to look around. There was something familiar about the way the hedges were arranged - like something from a movie, or a comic. After a few more turns and divides, I made the connection. "We're in a maze, aren't we?"

"You think?" Tristan looked around, then offered a sheepish smile, scratching his head. "Looks like you might be right. That'd explain the paths."

It couldn't have been that hard to notice. I glanced sideways at the blond beside me. He's not usually this unobservant, is he? It hadn't seemed like it - but then again, how well did I know Tristan in the first place?

In an effort to distract myself, I voiced the question that had been on my mind since I'd run into him. "How come you're doing this, anyway?"

He raised an eyebrow at me. "Doing what? Walking through a maze in some kind of alternate universe?" That came with a grin. "Seems obvious to me…"

"Depends on your point of view." If that came out wry, I couldn't really be blamed for it. Somehow, I just didn't see what could be 'obvious' about alternate universes and walking around in them. "I meant how come you're helping me? What's in it for you?"

Tristan shook his head and smiled again. "I like you." Then he added, after a second, "In a completely heterosexual way. Is that weird?"

I was surprised enough to snort out a laugh at that. "Probably."

"Well, I'm weird already - what's one more thing?" He shrugged, then pointed ahead to the divide in front of us. "Pick a path."

Something nagged at the back of my mind - trying to tell me my choice shouldn't be arbitrary - but I was a little preoccupied with Tristan's revelation about why he was so intent on tormenting me, so I just pointed to the left, at random. "That way."

"All right, lead on, then."

It was weird. I frowned some more, trying not to act like something was wrong in case I pissed the guy off somehow. Not because guys couldn't like other guys unless they were gay and attracted to them or some crap, but because… well. Because Tristan was Tristan. And I was supposed to be invisible. Besides, what kind of freak went around forcing friendship on people just because they found out they had one thing in common with them? I wasn't that interesting…

… Was I?

I had to find out the answer to this, or it was going to drive me insane. "Hey."

"Huh?" Tristan glanced over at me again, then quickly brought his eyes forward again before he walked into a hedge instead of turning the corner.

"Why me?" I followed him around. The more I thought about it, though, the less uncertain I was about the answer. Why would he spend this much time, if he didn't really think I was interesting? If he was trying to pull some stupid prank, he could've done it already. "If you just want to hang around with a Player, what about Sasenti?"

He gave me a bit of a bemused look. "What about her? Somehow hanging out with her means I shouldn’t want to hang around with you? Anyway, who's more interesting?" At that, he grinned again. "A new Player who seems to know the Game pretty well, or just another girl?"

I felt a little silly for asking at that point.

All right, maybe I just wanted to hear it… So it was strange, but it was flattering, too. I bit my lip against what was probably a really dippy grin. I mean, think about it, Tristan Dufraine choosing to hang out with a completely nobody over another -

Girl. Another girl.

Just another girl?

What the hell? I stopped in my tracks, suddenly not wanting to just shrug off that odd feeling. What happened to the Tristan Dufraine who had been arguing with Devon about how those girls were individuals and not a hoard of nameless faces with little or no brains?

I had a sneaking suspicion…

"Hey, what?" Tristan stopped and turned to give me a confused look. "You're stopping?"

Wait a minute here. I frowned at him, trying to break my brain out of the 'what a great guy, he wants me as his buddy' haze. There was not only something wrong here, there was something wrong in a familiar way. And even though Tristan was almost acting right, things still weren't the way they should be. At least not as far as I knew - and that was enough to work my way through what was going on right then. "You said you had Vanity already, right?"

"Yeah," he admitted, tilting his head a bit. "So?"

"So… you didn't have it yesterday." He couldn't have had it - not if he'd jumped out of his class and went looking for it, just like the rest of us. "You didn't tell me you got a Link last night."

"I forgot." Tristan shrugged. "But yeah."

Tristan Dufraine forgot to point out that he'd succeeded in something? Even if by some miracle that was true when he was talking to me, he would have worked it in somehow around Devon. I hadn't known Tristan for very long, but I knew that much.

But even more than that… What were we doing, walking around blindly? Where the hell were we supposed to be going? Walking around blindly wasn't going to lead me to a Link! I should've been able to sense it!

I gave 'Tristan' a flat stare. "So where's your Guide?"

He blinked at me.

"Your Guide," I reminded him. Suddenly remembering the big dangerous weapon tucked under his arm, I reached into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around the Key. The same cool, clearing sensation that I'd felt in the Paranoia illusion washed over me immediately. I felt much safer holding on to it - at least I knew I could protect myself if I needed to. It made it easier to take in a long breath, and then summon up enough nerve to keep talking. "That miniature person who helps you with the Game? Remember?"

Tristan's lips quirked up, as if it was a really funny story or something. "I - "

It was probably not in my best interests to let him talk any more. Everything he said seemed designed to make my brains ooze out my ears that much more. "Speaking of which," I interrupted, glaring a bit, "where's mine?" I hadn't seen Zinc since I'd walked through the gate. And this hadn't seemed odd to me, either…

Yeah. Brains oozing out my ears. But I was about to make up for it.

"Okay…" I took in another breath, anticipation building. This should do it - I'd almost won. "You're not Tristan, and this isn't really happening." I shut my eyes, and concentrated on the feeling of the Item clutched in my right hand. "Now just give me my Link and let me go home already."

For a second, there was complete silence.

"Pretty smart of you," Tristan said then, voice low and amused, "to figure it out."

My eyes shot open; I almost didn't believe it when I really did see him still standing there, not looking alarmed at all by the fact that he was supposed to be gone. "Why aren't you disappearing?" This was not what I'd expected to happen. When I'd figured out what the Paranoia illusion was, it had disappeared right away!

"Shouldn't you know?" He took a step toward me, still smiling, and I suddenly felt the need to stumble back several paces, the beginning seeds of panic stirring at the pit of my gut. "You're the genius. You've figured this all out. Keep going."

My back hit the hedges.

"It's very hard to play on your vanity," Tristan pointed out, still in that very cheerful tone of voice that characterized him. He was even grinning at me as he pulled up his weapon and drew it back. "You don't fall for flattery. What a challenge."

This - this wasn't right. I stared at him dumbly, my mind screaming in the background over the injustice. Something had gone wrong - it had to have! I had got it right! This shouldn't be happening!

He pulled back the string, and a fiercely glowing blue arrow appeared, held perfectly aligned with my head. "Hold still for a minute, will you, Shane? Thanks."

I shrank back. It's an illusion - just an illusion… He can't really do anything to me…

Zinc's words from the previous day came rushing back through my memory. "The illusions aren't totally just illusions. Because in your mind, they really happen - so if you get zapped by something, your mind thinks it really happened, and then you end up brain-dead. Or, well, something like that."

I was not very interested in finding out what 'something like that' might be. Acting on some odd reflex, I yanked the key out of my pocket, held it up and -

Tristan let the arrow go…

- turned.

The force of the collision made my teeth rattle. In front of me was a spectacular light show - blue and white with sparks shooting off in all directions as the arrow hit my barrier. It would've been great if I hadn't been completely and utterly terror-stricken. As it was, I had to grit my teeth and clench my fingers hard around the Key, and try not to scream like a two-year-old and wet myself.

Jesus fucking Christ… This can't be - can't…

And then it was over and I was left shaking against the hedges, holding the Key out in front of me as if it were some kind of holy symbol and Tristan was the antichrist.

I'd… done it.

He lowered the bow, smiled some more. "Should've known, I guess." And then laughed.

Laughed.

I was in fucking Loony Land.

Goddamnit, what the hell is with this? My mind was still spinning around in circles like some hysterical nutjob on a caffeine high. My hands were shaking, and I couldn't tell if it was from fear or confusion or self-righteous anger. I was supposed to be gone when I realized it was an illusion. Wasn't I? This is supposed to be the easy illusion - I'm not even popular, I don't even care about people thinking highly of me… Shit!

Another arrow hit the barrier I'd set up. My whole body shook with it. Or maybe that was just me shivering in fear. Or both.

I shut my eyes. Just end already! I've done it! I beat you! What more do you want?

Obviously I hadn't beaten it. So what was I supposed to do?

There was another crash against my invisible shield. At least the Key will keep Tristan from zapping me into jelly or something… Because there had to be a way - if I could just think. I wasn't going to get caught up in the whole vanity thing, because -

Because.

I wasn't vain… at all…

Except - The thought slithered into my head, past that defensive wall of indignation. - that it's kind of vain to say I'm not at all vain, isn't it?

And that was what I'd been missing.

I just about laughed. Hysterically. Excellent job you did screwing yourself over, Shane. Here I was, blithely confident because I had no vanity, and my belief that I wasn't full of myself was what was going to kill me in the end. "I'm a fucking moron."

It was almost a relief to say it.

Silence. When I opened my eyes, Tristan was standing there frozen with the bow held up, staring at me like I'd sprouting a couple of extra heads.

"Right," I said, lowering the Key and giving him a wry look. I wasn't helping myself by being confident. There was nothing left but to just admit that I'd been stupid. "I'm a vain little bastard - is that what you wanted to hear? A complete puffed-up freak!"

And then it felt like the world was shifting.

I had to shut my eyes against it, cringing back as the image of Tristan seemed to break up in front of me. When I opened them again, feeling that sense of power settle into a steady balance, the scene had melted back into what I'd seen when I'd first come through the gate.

But without Tristan. And with a glowing yellow pyramid shape floating in front of my face, so bright that I had to squint for fear of going blind.

Instinctively, I held out my left hand, and the Vanity Link pulsed once more before settling down again to become mine.

"Excellent!" Zinc cheered, behind me.

I couldn't seem to stop staring at the thing. That… That was… Somehow, it didn't seem quite real. I couldn't have done it. Part of my mind was telling me flatly that it was impossible. No way. I'd failed. Hadn't I figured that out? I wasn't good enough. I couldn't win. I was too stupid, too arrogant, too full of myself…

But I had done it. I'd won. Un-fucking-believable.

"Look at this, Shane!" My Guide was practically dancing in place. "Your second Link already! You've been a Player three nights! Three nights! And you've already got an Item and two Links! See how easy it is?"

"Yeah, well, I've been lucky." Even my voice sounded shaky - I couldn't seem to move a muscle, just standing there staring stupidly down at the Link I'd somehow managed to get. I really hadn't been expecting that.

But I'd done it. I could handle this.

It was a weird feeling, somehow. Like I was going straight from thinking I was a complete jackass who couldn't accomplish anything to - well - realizing I wasn't. Realizing I was competent.

Who knew?

"Why don't you just admit it?" Zinc beamed at me. "You're awesome at this!"

I looked from him to the Link again. I really can do this. I could still feel the Key clutched tight in my right hand, a cool influence on my rattled brain. It felt… nice.

Maybe it was just vanity again. But then again…

Maybe I could handle being a Player for a little while, after all.

 

~~~~~~

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