Game Over

Fear

"Seriously?" Tristan sat back away from his desk in homeroom, looking a bit surprised. "I was there?"

I shrugged. Somehow, the previous night's illusion wasn't as headache-inducing as the night before it. I was actually willing to talk about it when Tristan plunked himself down beside me - confirming my fear that the seating arrangement was going to be a regular occurrence - in the first class of the day.

Of course, that could have something to do with the fact that my day had started off pretty well. No pocket demons fighting in my room. Zinc snoozing, safe and sound and blissfully quiet on top of my computer. I hadn't gotten any whining about playing more of the Game the night before, either. Just a lot of satisfied Guide keeping to his own devices while I did my homework and then posted on my message boards.

All in all, I was feeling pretty good.

And that was probably why I slipped up and let my mouth start moving before my brain caught up with what it wanted to say. "Maybe I just associate you with Vanity."

There wasn't too much time to pray for mercy - but instead of turning vengeance-seeking on me, Tristan actually laughed out loud. "You know, Vanity's always the hardest for me," he admitted, without looking even a bit pissed off. "Takes me two or three illusions every Level."

I guess I should've expected that kind of reaction - but instincts were hard to override. I managed a slightly shaky grin, willing my skin to un-prickle and my heartbeat to slow, and took the opportunity to ask something I'd been curious about. "What happens when you fail an illusion?" It had to happen to me sooner or later, so it'd be good to be prepared.

"Don't know what you're worried about." Tristan shook his head and grinned, looking very much like he had during the illusion. "But, it kind of just… goes away. I can't explain it very well." He held up his hands as if trying to illustrate, then shrugged helplessly. "The illusion goes away and the Link moves somewhere else."

That didn't sound too bad, especially when compared with being reduced to a gibbering moron, like Zinc had said happened sometimes. "What do you do in an illusion that would make it just disappear?"

"Honestly? Not a clue." He smiled ruefully. "I'm still not sure I understand how you win an illusion. But I'm the newest Player next to you, so maybe I'm not the right person to ask."

I couldn't help but smile back, sincerely. Much as I wanted to resent him, it was hard not to like the guy. In a completely heterosexual way, if that wasn't impossible for me. "How long have you been a Player, anyway?"

"Uh… gimme a second." Tristan frowned thoughtfully for a moment. "I think about… six months? Something like that."

That wasn't very long. Of course, that didn't matter much. I'd been playing for a little more than two days, and it seemed like it'd been weeks. Feeling more confident after his reaction to my earlier comment, I joked, "And you play to teach yourself humility, huh?"

"Not exactly." He grinned again, then rested his face on one hand casually, expression showing off a certain lazy calm. "Actually, I was just bored."

My thoughts came to a screeching halt right then and there.

Bored?

Bored?

He signed on to play a dangerous, deadly Game… because he was bored?

It didn't look like he was joking, either. I stared at him. "… huh?"

"I know it sounds kind of stupid." A little of that defensive tone I remembered from yesterday's conversation with Devon crept back into his voice, although his expression didn't change. He let his hand drop, resting one elbow on his desk and the other on the back of his chair. "I don't know if you'd noticed, but I'm a little eccentric."

Oh yeah. "Kind of hard to miss," I agreed, still eyeing him skeptically.

"Rich," Tristan confirmed, raising the hand resting on the chair and waving it expansively before letting it drop back down again. "I mean, not like I get served champagne on silver trays or anything, but we live in a big house with a pool and a library and a private gym and all the good stuff. " He shifted a bit and gave me an apologetic look. "I can't explain it without sounding like I'm complaining about something you'd probably kill for. I get just about anything I want, without having to work for it. Trust me when I say you'd be bored, too."

I wasn't sure about that, but it was probably better not to comment. "Okay."

Obviously, listening to Tristan give his extremely weird motivations had completely distracted me, because I didn't even notice Devon was there until he sunk down into the seat on my right, tossing his bag onto the floor.

"Morning!" Tristan greeted him pleasantly, earning himself a glare. "Hey, Devy, how long have you been playing for? Shane's curious."

Thanks a lot. I swallowed almost audibly as Devon shifted his gaze to me. "I… uh…"

Either he'd decided to take pity on me, or he didn't want to wait for me to try and form a sentence. "A year," he interrupted, and frowned curiously. "Why the interest?"

I took a moment to make a valiant attempt to stuff the large part of my mind that was screaming at me that I was talking to someone I didn't think would ever know I existed into a corner. "Uh. Just curious."

"Sure." He snorted, but one corner of his mouth edged up. "I forgot. No one cares about winning this fucking Game but me."

"And you're not the one that's winning, either," Tristan pointed out, resting his face on his hand again with a smile that would probably be infuriating if it were directed at me.

Devon scowled at him. "Fuck off. Not like you can talk. Shane's doing better than you, and he's just started."

My mind caught up with the conversation just about then. "Wait a minute," I interrupted, before Tristan could reply. "How do you know how well I'm doing?"

The dark-haired boy raised an eyebrow at me. "Does your Guide not tell you things?"

Annoyance was stronger than nervousness - at least for the moment. What the hell? All I'd done was ask a question. "No, my Guide doesn't tell me things. So?"

He looked a bit surprised - I had to fight back a momentary wave of apprehension. But, like Tristan, he didn't seem to want to beat me up for it. Actually, he grinned. "When did you grow a spine?"

My heartbeat was going a little too fast, but that was simple enough to hide. I could talk back. After all, they were just people. Right? It was just a conversation. I could handle a conversation. "Do I look like a biology teacher?"

"Is that an answer?" Tristan asked before Devon could say anything, and grinned.

Now that I knew I wasn't going to get beaten up, it was easier to grin back. Annoying people to death with questions wasn't exactly the most mature way to get to know them, but… well… no one ever said I was mature. And if it worked…

Devon wasn't the sort of person who refused challenges. He leaned forward in his seat, eyes lighting up a bit as his mouth curved upward. "Are you going to get to the point sometime?"

"Do you really think there is a point?" I replied, ignoring how my stomach flipped around. No matter how many times I realized it, the impact was never any less: hormones were the worst evil known to man.

"What counts as a point?" Tristan added, leaning back in his seat and grinning lazily.

"Well, how are you looking at things?"

I think the three of us all looked up at the same time, and Sasenti smiled back at us, sitting down in front of me. "Should I say good morning, or would that ruin everything?"

"Don't think you can win?" Devon challenged her.

"Well, who do you think always wins?" she answered him, raising both eyebrows and leaning an arm on the back of her chair.

"Got some proof to back that up?"

Tristan shifted his weight forward again, leaning his elbows on his desk. "Is this how you treat all the pretty girls?" he asked Devon.

"Something special about being a pretty girl?" I cut in, before Devon could respond to that with something less than complimentary. Not that Sasenti would get offended, but Tristan might, and things could probably get ugly really fast.

The blond actually laughed. "Well, it's not like you'd notice if there was."

I could feel my face burning, and tried not to react otherwise. Obviously no one really cared that much, but still. Knowing that someone knew about your gender allegiance wasn't the same as hearing them say out loud that they knew about it. Even indirectly.

"You just lost, didn't you?" Devon reminded him - and then caught my eye and offered me a grin.

Which really didn't help with the embarrassment. I summoned up some kind of weak smile and then stared down at my desk willing him to stop noticing me.

"Think we should give up before we embarrass Shane even more?" Sasenti suggested, sounding more amused than contrite.

"Why?" Obviously, Devon wasn’t cooperating with my wish to suddenly turn invisible, and he managed to look really hot while smirking at me.

Goddamn it…

"Is that a good enough reason?" Tristan pointed out, nodding towards the front of the room. Mrs. Gammond had just walked in, and set her satchel down on the desk.

The game was unofficially declared a draw, and we all shut up for the morning.

------

Apparently Devon was in on the conspiracy to make my heart explode - not that I didn't know that already, but it was nice to have confirmation. Said confirmation came in the form of him staying behind to wait for me as I was slowly making my way out of homeroom.

"Walk with you," he said calmly, and didn't wait for a reply before falling in beside me. It hadn't even sounded like a question.

I must've been getting used to all of this, because I only had to swallow about five times before managing to get words out. "How come?" This was not good for my nerves…

He gave me a look that seemed to suggest that the answer should be obvious. "We're in the same Chemistry class."

"Uh." I knew that - of course I knew. I just didn't think he knew. I gripped the straps of my bag nervously. "Didn't know you remembered that."

"What, you think I don't notice stuff?" Devon snorted, then smirked a bit as if to show that he wasn't really offended. "I saw you. The quiet kid who never said much. I just figured you weren't that interesting." He shook his head. "Not that I mind being proved wrong."

All right. I took in a breath, trying to keep myself relatively calm. Like I'd said earlier, he was just a person. Maybe a very sexy and intimidating person, but a person all the same. I could do this. "You were right the first time - I'm not interesting."

As long as he stayed at arm's length, I could do this.

"Well, I think you are." He gave me a sideways smile - one that, for a change, didn't look like a smirk any more. I somehow had trouble placing that expression. Not that it looked out of place, but I'd never seen him like that before. "And my opinion's worth more than yours."

That was enough to displace the hormones. "Says who?"

Devon shrugged. "Because you're so fucking determined to sell yourself short." He stopped at the door to our classroom, waving a hand with a bit of a self-mocking expression to let me through first. "Go ahead."

"Why are you so interested in me, anyway?" I could feel the stares as I slumped into a seat and he immediately took the adjoining desk. Some people were whispering, too - this was starting to get embarrassing. If it kept up, I was going to start getting noticed even when I didn't have a school celebrity glued to my ass. "Is it because of Tristan, or what?"

He almost looked offended by that. "Fuck, no - if anything, he harasses you because of me."

I had my doubts, but I wasn't brave enough to voice them just then. "Okay. So why do you harass me?"

"Is this conversation on fucking repeat, or what?" Devon actually looked serious without being smug for a moment - he was staring at me in kind of a strange way, purple eyes thoughtful. Up close, I could almost see the separate shades of blue that gave them that particular tint. "I think you're interesting."

That statement should not have made me feel like someone had just dropped an ice cube down the back of my shirt. But, it did. I wanted to jump up and down or dig a hole and bury myself - it was hard to tell which.

Neither was a good idea at the moment, anyway.

So I settled for tearing my eyes away, and it almost felt like physically ripping something. My face was heating up - it made me feel awkward. He has to know, right? What's stopping him from coming right out and saying something about it? "Tristan talks like that too," I mumbled instead of asking, and examined my desk with a certain forced fascination.

"Yeah, well, I'll bet he doesn't mean it the same way."

Someone had carved their initials into the edge of the desk. Fascinating. Absolutely fascinating. "Uh-huh."

Maybe if I agreed with him, he'd go away and stop tormenting me.

I heard him take in a long, slow breath beside me - as if he were trying to calm himself down. "Look, Shane. If you - "

"Quiet, please, everyone - quiet!" Saved by the teacher. Our short, plump, prominently-voiced Chemistry teacher, to be exact. She set her books down on the desk at the front and eyed us levelly. "We've got a lot to cover, so no chit-chatting."

I glanced sideways, in time to catch Devon's wry look, and then focussed on the front again quickly, as the teacher started on her usual droning lecture.

------

Wednesdays, Mike's gaming friends always met at the arcades for lunch, so I didn't see him. It wasn't really a big deal. I could either hang out in the computer lab or the library - and as long as I didn't get caught, eating lunch in there worked out fine.

The yearbook committee was meeting in the library, so it was computers that week.

Our school's "official" computer lab - the one used for classes - was always locked during lunch hour, because a few things had been stolen and admin got pretty paranoid. After the school got new equipment, they set up the old ones in a "student lab", for kids who actually wanted to work on them during their spare time. It was considered kind of a creepy place to the general student body - that is, those who weren't geeks or hackers. It was actually one of the few rooms located above the ground level that most of the school was built on - part of the attic that stretched over a few of the classrooms in the B hallway. To get into it, you had to go into the biology lab and take the stairs up. There was no doorknob on the door at the top, so you couldn't exactly lock people out.

Surprisingly enough, not a lot had been stolen from that room.

Sasenti was in there when I got up the stairs. That wasn't really a surprise. Sasenti liked computers - she didn't keep it a secret. Not like she was a genius or anything, but it'd probably end up having a lot to do with her career choice some day.

At least she had a clear-cut career in front of her. Must be nice.

"Hey. Shane." She spotted me right away, offering a short, two-fingered wave from the back of the room with a little quirk of a smile at one corner of her mouth. The lighting wasn't great in the room, and the shadows made her look kind of spooky.

Too late to run off by then, though. I crossed the room, trying not to make a complete stuttering idiot of myself. "What's up?"

Sasenti shook her head at me, still with that funny little smile, and then turned back to the computer. "Do I make you nervous or something?"

"Uh, sort of." Not much point in hiding it. In any case, I was more confident since the encounter that morning. I took the seat beside her. "I can give you names if you need people to thank for it."

"That's all right. Thanks anyway." She gave me a quick, good-natured glance. "What brings you here? Last-minute homework?"

"No, just killing time." I probably should've guessed that she'd been in there - of course, she'd never noticed me when we happened to be there at the same time before… I switched on the computer in front of me. "How about you?"

"See for yourself." She leaned back a bit and waved at the screen in front of her. A quick glance revealed several different chat programs and something I didn't recognize. "Actually, I'm technically doing extra credit work - I've been told it'd be "good" for me, since I'm so far ahead." That came with an ironic little smile. "But I'm slacking off right now."

"For Info Tech, right?" I knew Sasenti was good with computers. "They're not holding your grade hostage, are they?" That'd be pretty cruel…

"Nope, not exactly." She didn't seem concerned, kicking back from the desk a bit. "But I'll probably apply for scholarships next year, and I need good things in a letter of reference." At that, she made a face. "It's a pain, but I see the point."

So she had a plan already? Lucky for her. I brought up the Internet as my computer finished booting up. "College seems like a long way away."

"A year and a half - that's not long." Sasenti's smile was a bit wry; her attention turned back to the screen as one of her message windows started blinking. "You planning on going?"

"I don't know." Actually, I felt kind of awkward when people asked me. Was I supposed to be thinking about the future? I didn't even know what the hell my present was half the time - how was I supposed to know where I was going in life? "Doesn't really make sense - I don't exactly have plans or anything…"

"Yeah, well, I do." She still wasn't looking at me, deftly typing something in and then hitting 'enter' hard, and sitting back again, still with that wry expression. "I love working with computers."

That didn't sound as enthusiastic as it probably should've been. I glanced at her sideways, a bit confused. "At least you've got a career in mind, right?"

Sasenti nodded, eyes still fixed forward. "Yup. Not much to think about."

Somehow, I felt that the conversation had taken an uncomfortable turn. I wasn't really sure how to fix that, though - my social skills weren't exactly the greatest. I settled for the absolutely brilliant fall-back of, "Oh," and turned back to my own computer, hoping she'd just let it die there.

Apparently it wasn't my day, though. "You don't like talking to people much, do you?"

"Are you sure the term 'people' applies to kids at this school?" I lowered my voice so the other few students in the room didn't catch that. "I like talking to people fine. I have trouble with morons."

She actually grinned at that. "That's direct enough." Another message box caught her attention, but she didn't stop talking. "I like to think I'm not a moron."

"Yeah, well…" What was I supposed to say to that? 'You attract the attention of morons' probably wouldn't go over all that well.

Sasenti shook her head, once again keeping her eyes in front of her. "I'm not out to get you or anything, you know. If you've got something to say, let's hear it."

Okay… fine then. She'd asked for it. "People notice you."

"Oh, yeah." That earned me another grin; she looked over sideways, obviously pleased. "This stuff." She plucked at the front of the tank top she had over her T-shirt.

"Yeah, that stuff." Why'd she have to look so happy about it? "Look, I don't want to be noticed, all right? That's all."

Sasenti looked a bit surprised at that - she turned toward me fully, blinking a few times. For a second, I thought she was just going to stare at me, but after that initial moment she spoke again. "How come?"

"Because." I really didn't feel like going into the whole bullying thing. Most of the guys who used to bug me had either graduated, transferred out to other schools, or just lost interest. I wanted to keep it that way, and talking about it wasn't going to help. "Never mind."

She shrugged a bit, still looking kind of baffled. It was an expression I hadn't seen on her before - but for most of the times I'd met up with Sasenti, she'd been the one who knew things that confused me. "Okay, if you say so."

"Yeah." I turned back to the computer, determined to end the conversation there.

I must've done a good job of making my point, because she didn't try to talk again. When she left at the end of the period, though, she did offer me another slight grin before gathering up her things and heading out.

And somehow, I got the feeling she got more of the point than I'd really meant for her to.

------

"Shane! Hey, Shane! Wait up!"

I instinctively froze in my tracks - the reaction made me think of a deer with a car zooming toward it. There was a part of me seriously considering pelting down the walk away from the school as fast as I could to get away…

"Hey!" Tristan caught up, beaming at me. I noticed several girls looking a bit put-out and a couple of others watching us curiously, and had to force myself to smile back.

Great…

As usual, my rich blond tag-along seemed totally oblivious. "What are you up to now?" he asked brightly, as if my weak response signified enthusiasm in his home universe.

"Uh…" What did he want to know for? "Working at my dad's convenience store."

"You work?" He looked kind of surprised by that - then again, I guess a rich kid wouldn't comprehend 'work' as well as someone else might. "Okay. So what about tomorrow?"

I was starting to see where this was going. Trying to push down a wave of apprehension, I forced out a, "Nothing, I guess."

Tristan grinned. "Great! Want to hang out for a while?"

I looked at him. His expression was open and enthusiastic - obviously, he thought it was a great idea. And in a way, I wanted to. Tristan was a nice guy. Somehow, all that cheeriness he lugged around with him was catching - like a particularly infectious disease. I didn't see any trace of dishonest intentions or mockery. He honestly just wanted to be my friend - even if he had to kill me to make it happen.

So… it couldn't hurt to play along, could it? It'd be outside the school anyway. And if he was going to force friendship on me, I might as well try to enjoy it. Pushing aside the apprehension at the thought, I shrugged. "Sure, okay."

"Awesome!" Tristan looked up as we came to the street, eyes catching on a nice-looking red sports car. "There's my ride. Hey, that reminds me, I'll have my car back tomorrow, so that'll work better anyway - we can go wherever." He left me to jog off in that direction, looking over his shoulder with a quick wave as he did. "See you!"

"Yeah." I wasn't sure he heard me - before he could make it away, one of the girls from earlier ran over to grab his attention.

"Tristan! Wait for a second!"

I shook my head, and turned to head home.

Tomorrow was going to be interesting, that was for sure.

------

"Hi Shane!" Jared was working again when I got to the store - surprise, surprise. Sometimes I got the feeling he wanted to buy the place and take it over. "How's school?"

With anyone else, that would've been a casual question. With Jared, it was feeding his hobby.

"Bizarre," I told him honestly, moving around a couple of customers to get behind with him and grab my vest. "Tristan Dufraine wants to hang out tomorrow after school."

Anyone else would've asked who that was. Jared was more interested in my life than I was, though, so he just raised his eyebrows and whistled. "What'd you do, strap on a set of fake boobs?"

I shook my head. "Do I look like I have 'beat me to a pulp and leave me to bleed to death on the bike rack' stamped on my forehead?"

He grinned. "What, no one told you about it?"

"Ha ha. Thanks for that." Did I mention his sense of humor? Really killer, that. "I don't know why he's suddenly stalking me." It wasn't quite a lie. I shrugged, and tried to act like it was no big deal. "Just a whim, I guess."

"Or maybe he's looking to try an alternative lifestyle." Jared seemed like he was getting a lot of amusement out of my life - he was grinning like mad. "Seriously, Shane, he's been hanging around with just girls so far - maybe he just wants a guy friend." The grin became suspiciously smirk-like. "And you happen to be his randomly chosen target."

"Yeah, maybe." Or maybe he was just bored, since that seemed to be his motivating factor. Either way, I was starting to not mind being Tristan's friend. And that was kind of scary in itself. Slowly but surely, I was being bent to his will.

It was a depressing sort of thought. Theoretically.

"Well, let me know how that goes." Jared pushed himself away from the counter he'd been leaning on, slid off his vest, and hung it up again on the hook. "I've got a Chem exam to study for, so I'm going to get out of here. It's been slow - you'll probably have a quiet shift."

"Okay." I nodded - quiet shifts were always good. I could read some of the comics if I got bored. "Good luck."

"Thanks." He shot me one more good-natured smile and a wave before heading out the door. "Have fun!"

Right. Fun at work. Thank you, Mr. Optimism. "Sure," I told him dryly, after the door had already shut, and then turned around to help out a middle-aged couple who had just approached the counter.

Actually, working at Dad's store wasn't that bad. The other clerks were more or less okay, and we got enough decent customers to make up for the really nasty ones. The neighborhood was pretty good, we took in enough to make a profit, and the job wasn't difficult to do. Plus, I didn't have to worry too much about getting fired. All in all, I could've done a lot worse.

I probably could've done a lot better too, but I had enough to be depressed about already without worrying about that. Considering some kids' luck, I was fortunate to have a job at all.

Some time near the end of my shift, when I was trying to get my cash counted before Jared showed up, another one of those strange things happened.

Seriously, by then I probably should've been used to having my views flipped around on me. But I still found the small oriental couple with their neatly dressed daughter - who was a head taller than both of them, at least - a bit of a shock.

Especially since the neatly dressed daughter was Sasenti.

Sasenti. In a skirt. And sweater. And with her hair in a pretty, popular pulled-up sort of style. No bandana. No designed jeans. Only one shirt.

She looked… normal.

It was bizarre.

"Does this store have what we need?" The woman's - Sasenti's mother's? - voice had a distinct accent to it. She pursed her lips and looked around, as if the convenience store was somehow not up to her standards of fine junk food and canned goods. I noticed that she was small and compact-looking, like a china doll. Other than that, she didn't have any remarkable features. Her hair was the same dark shade as her daughter's, but it was pulled up with pins and the remainder hung long down over her back. She was dressed as if she had come from somewhere a bit fancy.

"I see pickled walnuts there," her husband answered, and looked over his shoulder at the girl behind him. He was a bit taller, but with grey hairs mingled in on his balding head. "Get us a cart, Victoria."

Victoria? I couldn't believe that. Victoria. It sounded way too ordinary. I tried to pretend I was keeping myself busy rather than gawking at them.

But… Victoria?

Wow.

"Sure," Sasenti - Victoria? - agreed, and turned to take one of the worn, plastic red carts that we had available at the door for customers. As she did, her eyes met mine, and she blinked, looking a bit startled.

I opened my mouth to try and say something - anything, really - but instead of greeting me, she reached to her waist, pulled out the silver watch I'd seen in Info Tech the day she'd been revealed as the first Player, and gave it a quick wind.

Her parents, along with the few customers in the store and the clock hanging behind the counter, froze instantly.

"Hey Shane." And then she spoke.

I looked around at the forced inactivity around me, feeling a bit baffled. "Was that really necessary?"

"Yeah, kinda." She shrugged a bit and walked over to lean against the counter casually. "My parents get weird when I have guy friends. It's easier to just avoid all that."

"Oh." That explained that. My expression was probably kind of wry by then. "Would it help to tell them I don't like girls?" It was about as close to an actual confession as I was likely to get - it wasn't like she didn't know already anyway.

Sasenti laughed at that - not really humorous laughter, more ironic - and returned my look. "Then they'd probably think you're in league with the devil and trying to steal my soul or something."

Well, that told me what kind of people they were. Not that I wasn't used to the idea. "Oh," I said again, not knowing how else to respond.

What do you say when you're told that someone you've never even met thinks you're inherently evil?

"They're a little strict about that sort of thing," Sasenti said, tilting her head in the direction of the stiffly polite couple she'd come in with. "But it's not as bad as you think, most of the time."

A little strict? Maybe that was understating it a bit. But it would definitely explain the radical change in her usual fashion statement. I gave her another look over, and had to mentally shake my head. That's… a change.

"Mom thinks dressing like riff-raff attracts riff-raff to you," she explained as if reading my thoughts, and shrugged. "Her word, not mine. Anyway, I don't usually like to look this ordinary."

"You don't look - uh." Actually, 'ordinary' was a good word for it. Sasenti was pretty, but not beautiful. Thin but not too thin. With her hair back neatly and without the bandana and weird clothing, you couldn't have picked her out in a crowd. "Not that ordinary," I finished lamely.

It felt like lying. I squirmed a bit, kind of uncomfortable with that. Somehow, this 'normal' image fit more with the description she'd been giving me about her plans to go to college, get a good job, and live out an unremarkable life. But it also seemed like something she didn't want to hear - and that didn't surprise me much, now that I'd made the connection.

Sasenti didn't like 'normal'. That was all there was to it.

"I envy you, Shane," she said, and made a kind of rueful face.

"Uh-huh." And somehow, in jeans and a T-shirt, with a mind that had gotten me beat up and shunned before I learned to hide it, I still kind of got that. "That just proves you're weird, no matter what you think," I told her wryly.

Sasenti smiled. "Thanks," she replied with an exaggerated superiority, and nodded.

I had to smile back, and felt my shoulders ease up a little, relaxing.

Maybe that was why I felt bold enough to ask about something that was making me pretty curious. "What's wrong with the name 'Victoria', anyway?" I was probably the only one out of an entire school of people who had that information - might as well find out what it meant. "I always thought you had this terrible, embarrassing name that you didn't want anyone to find out about - Victoria's not that bad, is it?"

"Maybe it is," she replied promptly, and gave me one of those cryptic smiles.

Nice to know we were back on familiar ground again. I'd missed the headaches. "Okay…"

"Another secret you can keep for me, huh, Shane?" Sasenti turned sideways and leaned a shoulder against the counter, looking at me from the corner of her eyes. "I've got an image to keep up, you know."

Did I ever. I shook my head. Maybe it was impossible to understand someone completely - and I could count on Sasenti to always have something about her that I just didn't get. "Sure, why not?"

"Good."

She was just stepping back then, bringing up the silver pocket watch I'd noticed before, but there wasn't a chance for her to do whatever it was she did with it to start time moving again. Because a second later, we were both hit with the unmistakable sense of another Link in the area.

Fantastic.

It was a shivering sort of feel this time, and I recognized it from my nightmares, when I was just a kid in the dark with the threatening shadows of imagination plaguing me. I could almost feel it vibrating at the base of my spine, sending chills all through me with the familiar, haunting, mocking sensation of it.

The feeling only lasted a second - as usual - and I was left standing, shaky, behind the counter with the store coming into focus around me and the urge to hide or run away fading reluctantly.

Holy shit.

That had been… a little different from the others.

Sasenti suddenly laughed a bit sheepishly, and I noticed her uncurling her fingers from where they'd clenched on her Item. "That one gets me every time," she admitted.

I could see why. "So… uh… are you going to try and get it?" I could feel the thing tugging at me - not too hard yet, but it made me apprehensive after what I'd just felt from it. Maybe if she went, I could just not bother - after all, she was the first Player, and it was only fair to give her the first shot…

"I've already got Fear." Sasenti shrugged, then offered me a slight grin. "It's all yours - I'll start time up when you get back. At least," she added, almost as an afterthought, "as long as Devon and Tristan don't take much longer than you do with whatever they've been up to since I stopped it."

I got the feeling her Item wasn't as easy to play with as she made it look sometimes. "How do you remember all that?"

She gave me an amused look. "You haven't done a lot with computers, have you, Shane?"

That was true, and probably made a pretty good point. "No… I guess that might make a difference."

"Anyway," she raised an eyebrow, "Unless you think I can wait here forever, quit stalling and get going, huh?"

Caught. I reluctantly pulled my apron off and left it behind the counter, moving around the other side to get to the door. "I'll try not to take too long," I promised - although I wasn't quite sure who I thought I was kidding. Who knew how long illusions lasted for? It was hard to tell when you were actually in them.

"Half an instant's not going to get any longer if you don't take shortcuts." Apparently Sasenti was thinking along the same lines. "Take your time. And good luck."

I felt a bit weird about just leaving the store like that - somehow, it just seemed… wrong. Like I was living in another person's skin or something. Stepping outside and seeing people frozen in the act of walking down the street didn't help much, either. I'm never going to get used to that…

~Shane!~

I just about jumped out of my skin - don't know why I wasn't used to that by now, but it still gave me a heart attack whenever it happened. ~You forgot to close the link again?~

~Wha - but - That's not important!~ My Guide's 'tone' was defensive. ~You sensed a Link, didn't you? I'll be there soon!~

That was good news - although it wouldn't help that much, judging from what I'd seen of illusions so far. I kept walking, letting the pull of that Link guide me. ~It's okay if I go in on my own, though, isn't it?~

He felt surprised. ~You sure?~

~Well, you can find me after, right?~ I'd already picked up two Links - I could handle this one, couldn't I? It wasn't like he could do much by being there that he couldn't do in mind-to-mind contact with me. ~I'd rather get this over with.~

~Hey, well… yeah!~ For all the surprise, Zinc seemed pretty pleased. ~Shane, this is awesome! You're finally taking initiative! You're getting into the Game! Man, and I thought you were hopeless!~

I was pretty sure that was an insult, but it was also probably true, so I chose not to answer it. ~This is only so that I finish this Level sooner, just so you know,~ I shot back instead. I didn't want him getting any crazy ideas. ~So don't start thinking I'm going to keep playing or anything.~

~Yeah, of course!~ He said that just a little too quickly. ~You go on ahead - I'll catch up in a bit!~

His voice was gone, but I could still feel the lingering excitement and hope. Forgot to close it again, didn't he?

Then again, maybe he needed it open to find me. I decided it probably wasn't worth it to say anything. Zinc wasn't going to change, no matter what I did.

The gate I was looking for turned out to be inside someone's house - thank god for Time, or I'd never have been able to go in and get to it. As it turned out, it was just a little creepy sneaking into the laundry room around some guy who was frozen in the act of folding his shorts to get to a big empty space that was sitting just in front of the dryer. I found myself looking warily around for pocket demons.

Get a grip, Shane - you've got things to do, remember?

And there wasn't much point in putting them off. Taking in a deep breath to calm myself down, I stepped forward into the gate - and everything went dark.

I meant that literally. Everything went dark. I'd just stepped into wherever this world was in the middle of the night, it seemed like.

The place didn't look inviting - but then again, maybe that was just the darkness. I was standing on a dirt road, directly in front of at a town that looked like something out of an old medieval movie. The buildings were stone, and there was forest all around, cradling the entire place and blowing slightly in the wind. There wasn't a sound other than that rustling, and I couldn't see a light anywhere other than the moon's.

It was… a pretty good place for a Fear illusion, that was for sure.

Okay. I reached into my pocket. The Key was still there, still with its calming influence… I was really coming to rely on that thing a lot. Just remember, it's an illusion. You have to beat it, that's all. You can handle this.

The question was… had the illusion already started, or was this just the world I could find it in? I couldn't feel it any more, so probably it had started already - but it might've just moved somewhere, too.

In any case, I wasn't doing myself any favors by standing there thinking about it, so, with my fingers still clenched around the Key, I started forward into the village.

The doors were open. I couldn't help but notice it, passing by the houses as I sort of slunk into the place. Every single door was ajar - just enough so that I could see inside. There was some sparse furniture, some minor possessions… but no traces of people or living things. And why were the doors open?

It was enough to creep me out.

Somewhere to the side, something cracked - and I just about jumped out of my skin.

There was nothing there, of course - it was all forest beyond the line of houses. Probably just an animal or something… Come on, Shane, keep it together! I ran my free hand through my hair, trying to brush aside some of that extreme nervousness, and kept going. There were no other sounds.

That's… weird, isn't it? If there were animals out there, there should be sounds. If what I'd heard was an animal, it shouldn't just be sitting still and keeping quiet, right?

Unless, of course, it was hunting something.

Maybe it was time to start exploring houses.

The village didn't seem to be laid out with any sort of plan in mind - there was just a sparse scattering of homes with various tracks leading through where people had walked often. Even the road I'd come in on was more like just a path - the forest seemed to linger around everything, hovering just on the edge of whatever little sanctuary these people had built, as if it was waiting for the time when it could swoop back in and reclaim it.

Somehow, that made me even more nervous. I stopped by one of the houses, and pushed tentatively at the door so that it swung inwards. "Hello?"

My voice sounded far too loud in the oppressive silence that was hanging over the place. I couldn't help but glance over my shoulder uneasily. If something was hunting me, I'd just told it exactly where I was.

Calm, Shane - stay calm.

There was no answer from inside the house, so I moved inside and pushed the door shut behind me. At least that way it'd be less likely that I'd get eaten by some wild animal.

It seemed really surreal to be wandering around the house - the place didn't seem like it should be empty, but the door was open… I wasn't really sure what that suggested. In any case, the room was clean and cozy. There were chairs and a table, and little traces of personal things - books, scrolls, and various other things. There was even an old-fashioned pen - one of the ones with the feathers - left out on the table as if whoever lived there had been writing, and had put it aside to go wherever.

That was interesting. I started for the table, reaching out to uncurl the scroll that sat beside it.

A light gust of wind abruptly blew in through a window, and the scroll slid almost to the edge of the surface it was perched on, rustling loudly. The movement and sound struck at my tightly strung nerves, and I ended up jerking back, feeling my heart do a fast staccato.

Maybe I shouldn't touch anything… I was starting to feel more than a little disturbed by the lack of life in this village. The neat house and the open doors and the casually abandoned scroll somehow didn't fit together at all. What had happened to all the people? It didn’t look like there'd been a disaster…

But it seemed like everyone was just gone.

Which meant I was alone in what was essentially a ghost town - which someone had abandoned, or been forced to leave, and I didn't know what their reasons had been.

That was definitely a trickle of fear sliding unchecked down the back of my spine. I swallowed hard, and tried to ignore it. This is just the illusion, right? It's trying to scare me. It is supposed to be fear, after all. That's what it's supposed to do.

I found Zinc's voice coming back to me then… with that part about the illusions that I just couldn't forget, even if I'd thought it would be a good idea to ignore it. "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."

In a far corner of the room, something shifted from the shadows.

I didn't get a good chance to see what it looked like - instinct took over, and I bolted from the house, slamming the door shut behind me. The sound, echoing loudly in the silence as it did, just made the irrational moment of panic worse. Without waiting to find out one way or another about whatever had freaked me out so badly, I jerked away from the door and looked around wildly.

Nothing. It didn't make me feel any better, though. My heart was still going at a fast buzz, and I was sure anything within a mile could hear me breathing.

Something crashed into the door from the inside, and I heard claws scraping against wood.

Jesus fucking… I suddenly didn't care if this was a real world or an illusion. Either way, I was going to die a horrible, painful death, and the self-preservation part of me didn't care for that thought. Panic asserted control of my body, and I turned and ran blindly down the street.

It was probably instinct that had me shove through the door into the first house I came to - I mean, if I was thinking about it logically, I might've considered that a dangerous thing hiding in one house could mean dangerous things hiding in other houses. All I could think about right then and there, though, was putting more barricades between… whatever that was… and me.

Once I was in and the door was shut, I backed away from it until I hit a wall and stood there hyperventilating for a while. Find a closet, find a gate, dig a hole…

The door rattled against his hinges, and there was some frantic scratching against the wood. I cringed back, feeling my mind go completely blank. I was shaking and frozen and couldn't get my body to work. All I could think - the only thing that made any sense to me - was the chilling, almost numb thought, I'm going to die.

And that triggered the mess of self-preserving thoughts all over again.

Curl up, hide… Run away… Grab something, hit it… Panic was not much help in a crisis - I know that now from intense personal experience - but I did have at least one rational thought in the midst of all that confusion mix of conflicting instincts. Key, Key, use the Key, get it away…

I plunged my hand into my pocket, fingers shaking so badly they almost didn't make it - and then, before I could do anything more, the door creaked open.

Any trace of rational thought fled. "Get away!" I shrieked, and tried to scramble away, hitting the wall again and falling down. My eyes shut and I flung both hands up over my head instinctively. "Get away, get away, get away - !"

"Shane!"

That didn't register immediately. My brain was on 'animal fear' at the moment, and I struck out violently at anything coming near me, yelling at the top of my lungs and feeling my heart thunder in my chest with the adrenaline rush.

"Shane - whoa, seriously, calm down! Stop it! Shane!"

Zinc. That was Zinc.

I stopped flailing in mid-swing, still breathing way too fast, with my eyes squeezed shut and my whole body tense and shivering. Zinc… It's Zinc?

"That's it… It's okay, right? Calm down."

I raised my head and opened my eyes, very slowly. I was not in a medieval house with some unknown creature coming at me. I was in a forest, and it looked like the forest from before, but it wasn't dark. And the gate was less than a foot away from where I was sitting in a defensive curl, with the laundry room visible just beyond it.

There was no sense of a Link.

"Shane?" Zinc hovered near me. He looked a little blurry - probably because I was still having some trouble focussing - and sounded worried. "Are you okay?" he asked, when I just sat there breathing quickly and not answering.

Somehow, that question was too much - I pulled my knees up, buried my face in them, and covered the back of my neck with both hands.

The shaking didn't stop for quite a while after that, but it wasn't so much from fear any more.

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