Game Over

 

Pause

 

"It's happened to all of us," Sasenti told me, in a matter-of-fact tone, when I came back.

 

I felt dull and stupid - actually, beyond that, I wasn't sure what I should be feeling. Disappointment should probably factor in there somewhere, shouldn't it? Somehow, I just couldn't care that much.

 

Then again, I hadn't wanted to play this stupid Game in the first place. "Okay."

 

She gave me something of a sympathetic look, which didn't help. "You get over it," was all she had to add, with a bit of a shrug. "Or, if you can't, wait until the end of the Level and quit. Lots of people do that, so you won't be alone."

 

So I wasn't the first. Somehow, that didn't surprise me. "Yeah." I really didn't feel like explaining to her that this had been my plan from the beginning. Let her think I'd lost my nerve after being scared out of my mind by a Fear illusion.

 

I was used to being a loser, anyway.

 

"Well, up to you," Sasenti said in an offhand sort of way, and gave me a reassuring grin. "Devon's back safe - or so Jade tells me - and Tristan made it in a while ago, so I'll see you in school tomorrow, huh?"

 

As if it was no big deal.

 

Well, it's not, to her. "Okay." Oddly, that made me feel a little better.

 

She flicked her fingers at me casually and then backed away from the counter and wound that silver watch again.

 

And the world came back to life around me.

 

Sasenti's parents didn't stay long; apparently convenience stores were not among their favorite places to be. I rang their order through and gave them a fake smile and a 'have a nice day', and pretended I didn't know their daughter. Sasenti glanced sideways at me behind her mother's back while they left, and added an overly cryptic wink - probably for effect.

 

Three hours left in my shift. I leaned back against the counter, letting out a breath. It seemed… normal. I mean, normal in the sense that I really wanted to be at home messing around on the computer rather than at work waiting on customers. The illusion had worn me out a little, too; I was starting to wish I had a chair.

 

So, yeah. Normal stuff. Nothing at all to do with not being able to get the Link.

 

It bothered me, somehow. Like I was forgetting something; missing something.

 

Good grief, just forget it, Shane. I firmly picked up a comic from the rack by the counter and opened it up to read, determined to ignore whatever it was. You never wanted to be in the Game. It makes sense that you don't care about it, right?

 

Except that I'd have to do another Fear illusion… I wasn't looking forward to that at all – just the thought made my stomach churn. I mean, it scared me. Terrified, even. And that had to be what was bothering me. I didn’t really care about failing, because that would mean I’d have to have cared about the Game in the first place. I just didn’t want to be scared again. That was all.

 

But maybe there was a way around it. Maybe I could talk to Zinc or something, or find out a trick from Sasenti or Tristan. Or even Devon. I shouldn't really… have to go through that again, should I? There had to be a way out of it.

 

Somehow, that thought was just as unsatisfying. I pushed it aside.

 

The rest of my shift was uneventful - no Players wandering in to visit, a minimum of angry customers who didn't like the prices, and no Guide pestering me at the back of my head. As a matter of fact, Zinc had been oddly silent since I'd left him behind to go back to work.

 

Not that I cared, of course. Hell, I was happy now. Happy. I'd wanted Zinc to leave me alone, and now he was. Thank god for that. Maybe now he'd stop pestering me to play the Game and just let me fail the Level at my own pace.

 

Another disturbingly unfulfilling thought.

 

The girl on night shift - Terri - came in to cover me right on time, as usual. Terri was a little creepy sometimes - she was tall, quiet and brooding, and she tended to move slowly and deliberately, with narrow canny eyes taking in all sorts of things. I somehow got the half-paranoid impression that she was just waiting to turn homicidal.

 

It didn't encourage a lot of conversation, at least from me.

 

"How's the store doing?" Dad asked when I came in, distractedly. He had to talk in an undertone, because he was carrying a drowsing Nicole toward the stairs - and her bed.

 

I slid my shoes off. "Good."

 

"Good. I saved you some supper - on the table there." He hitched his bundle of sleeping daughter a bit to hook one thumb back over his shoulder, and nodded. "Your mom's with a client until late tonight."

 

"Okay." I didn't really need to add that; he was already halfway up the stairs, rubbing Nicole's back a little as she stirred.

 

There was something surreal about the normalcy of the scene - but I was even starting to get used to that. After all, this was my third illusion - even if it was the first failed one - and people adjusted, right? Living two separate lives was something people could do; I'd seen it in the movies.

 

So, I made myself a burrito with the left-over fixings, half-watched whatever mildly interesting game show my dad settled on when he came back downstairs to watch TV as I ate, and then passed on his invitation to sit down and watch more in favor of retreating to my room.

 

I just… didn't feel like interaction of any kind. With anybody.

 

"Shane…" Zinc immediately pushed himself off his perch on top of my computer when I opened the door to my room. His expression was almost comically anxious as he hovered there, obviously unsure about coming any closer. "It - "

 

"Spare me," I interrupted him, surprising myself a little with how abrupt it sounded. For some reason, I felt annoyed - it had started when I saw him, and only got worse when he talked. I walked right past him and plunked myself down - hard - in my computer chair, staring fixedly at the screen.

 

I didn't want to see my Guide. I didn't want to see that stupid Key, either. I didn't want to pay attention to anything to do with the Game, not then and probably not for a while.

 

For whatever reason, Zinc chose to honor my request for once.

 

------

 

"Well, that makes me feel better," Tristan drawled, and gave me a shrug and a smile, leaning back in his seat as if it wasn't news at all. He was there earlier than usual, which meant he'd beaten me to class and saved a seat; I got the feeling he wanted to talk for longer.

 

And I must've been getting used to him; my only real reaction was to frown. "It's good that I failed an illusion?"

 

"I didn't say that." He raised an eyebrow, looking amused. "Suspicious much? I said it makes me feel better. I fail illusions all the time, you know, and you've been doing so well, it makes me look bad by comparison."

 

"So you want me to suck so you look good." I shook my head at him, but couldn't help how the corners of my mouth tugged up. Tristan had that effect sometimes - I actually felt better after telling him. Which was amazing. "Thanks. Your support is overwhelming."

 

He stretched a bit, and grinned at me sideways. "Great. So you'll do it?"

 

"I don’t know if I’m that overwhelmed." By then, I wasn't too worried about bantering with Tristan. Except for the little paranoid voice at the back of my head, most of my anxiety about pissing him off somehow was gone. I had a feeling that voice was going to be there for a while, but at least I'd gotten better at ignoring it. He was the one who wanted to be my friend, after all.

 

Tristan snickered. "You're no fun at all, you know that, Shane?"

 

"So I've been told." I couldn't even remember how many times Zinc had said it. That thought made me smile a bit - then frown again with the addition of more recent memories.

 

Zinc… He actually hadn't said much to me at all that morning. I wasn't too sure what I thought about that. On one hand, it was probably a good thing. This meant maybe he was coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t the perfect Player he'd wanted to be partners with, and that I really would be quitting at the end of the Level. But on the other hand…

 

One the other hand, I was starting to think the little guy was really growing on me. I might actually miss him when he was gone.

 

"You're really off today," Tristan commented almost casually - almost. He was giving me a funny look. "Still thinking about that illusion?" The question had something of a wary feel to it, like it wasn't really what he wanted to ask.

 

Usually I was the one being wary around him. This kind of role reversal was surreal in a way. He didn't have any reason to be nervous around me, did he? "Yeah, sort of," I told him, honestly.

 

He spared a quick glance for the door - looking for Sasenti or Devon, maybe? Neither of them had made it to class yet. "Some Links are pretty rough," he added, again with that tentative feel.

 

What the hell had happened to this conversation? I stared at him. "Are you okay?"

 

Tristan let out a breath and rolled his eyes upward with a wry smile. "Yeah. Subtlety's not my strong point." He shrugged, then turned to look at me straight-on. "What I really want to know is whether you're going to stick around or not."

 

I probably should've expected that, but somehow I hadn't, so the question caught me off-guard. "Huh?"

 

"It sort of goes like this." Tristan pulled on the lazy grin again, sitting sideways in his chair with one elbow braced on the back of it and the other on his desk, with his hands clasped in the middle. "I told you why I play, right?" He didn't wait for me to answer that. "Basically, right now this Game is the most interesting thing in my life - at least, from my perspective." He shrugged a bit. "I want to be able to share it with someone, that's all."

 

That actually explained a lot. "So you want me to be your Gaming buddy."

 

"Yeah, I guess you could put it that way." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "It sounds bad, but that's why I was kind of hoping we'd hit it off, you know?" Then he grinned again. "And as it turns out, I like you."

 

So quitting wouldn't suddenly negate our friendship? I had mixed feeling about that - just like the whole business with Zinc. As it turned out, I liked Tristan too. Which meant I was definitely doomed, and nothing could stop it - I was going to be Tristan Dufraine's friend, whether I wanted to be or not. "Couldn't we still talk about it even if I'm not playing?"

 

He gave me another one of those funny looks - disappointed, maybe? "So you're really thinking about quitting?"

 

It was my turn to shrug, glancing away - I felt kind of awkward. "Well - yeah - I was never really going to keep playing after I got through this Level." And now, instead of worrying about being ridiculed and beaten up, I was starting to worry that he'd think less of me.

 

Where had that come from?

 

"Oh. Well, that's okay." Tristan titled his head to the side a bit; I could see him out of the corner of my eyes. "The Game's not for everyone, right?"

 

"Yeah, I guess." That just made me feel worse. I wished he would stop being nice about it… It was like he was being condescending or trying to guilt-trip me into playing. No pressure, huh? Really.

 

"It's no big deal or anything," he went on, in that typically upbeat tone, with another shrug and a quick grin. "It's not like you'll even remember quitting."

 

That got my attention - I did look up then, to stare at him blankly. "What?"

 

"You forget the Game when you stop being a Player." Tristan shook his head, still with that look on his face like it was nothing special. "Ordinary people aren't supposed to know about it, remember? Even former Players."

 

I hadn't thought of that… It made things even weirder. "So I'd forget meeting you guys as Players."

 

"I don't really know how it works or anything - obviously I haven't tried it." He let his hands separate and leaned forward a bit. "But you probably get something to fill in the gaps - otherwise, you'd start to wonder about your sanity."

 

"Oh." Logically, that should've made me feel better - after all, I wouldn't remember giving up or disappointing a friend or even having Zinc around at all. I wouldn't be able to regret it or anything. This was like the cheap, easy way out.

 

Wouldn’t it make sense to jump at the chance?

 

"Well, don't stress over it for my sake." Tristan gave me another typical grin - at least I thought he did; I wasn't looking directly at him - shifting a bit so that his arms were resting parallel to his body rather than across it. "I can always harass Sasenti about the Game - and hey, we'll still be friends. No big deal or anything."

 

Right. Because nothing would change at all. "Yeah, well, whatever." I sighed, and sank back in my seat, turning to face him as I did. It was better not to think about it; I already knew what I was going to do. "I wanted to ask you something."

 

"Okay. Shoot."

 

Now the problem was, how did I ask this without losing even more of his respect? I wondered if other Players had ever tried to get out of facing the Links. Maybe I was the only cowardly one. In any case, I'd rather have asked than fail – face – another Fear illusion, so I took in a long breath, and started. "About those illusions and all, you know, I was wondering if - "

 

Someone abruptly slumped down into the seat on my other side, making me jump and losing my train of thought. "Hey," Devon said coolly when I instinctively spun to face him, sparing me only a brief glance before pulling out his books and pen. For some reason, he was wearing a black button-down shirt instead of a T-shirt, untucked and with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows.

 

It looked sexy in a way that I thought was not good for my control over my libido.

 

"Morning, Devy!" Tristan replied brightly. It looked like that nickname was going to stick; he seemed attached to it. Or, more likely, attached to the venomous look that Devon shot him in response. "Catch any good Links lately?"

 

That earned him a smirk. "Two left - and that puts me one ahead of you, doesn't it?"

 

"One ahead of Shane, too," Tristan pointed out cheerfully. "We don't mind being behind, do we, Shane?"

 

Did I mind being behind Devon? It was hard to push away certain… less than innocent mental responses to that question. Oh yeah, I minded. Really. "I think Zinc cares a lot more than I do," I said wryly, trying to cover that moment.

 

Devon was giving me a sort of quizzical look. "You didn't get anything last night?"

 

Somehow, I knew he was going to ask that. I shook my head, and tried a shrug, hoping to copy Tristan and Sasenti's 'it's no big deal' act. "I didn't get through the illusion."

 

"So you're not some great Game-messiah after all." For some reason, he seemed a little smug about that, but he was still studying me, eyes serious. "What Link?"

 

Why couldn't I get used to that look? There should be some way to face down sexy people with intense eyes that didn't involve stuttering and losing your train of thought. Stupid hormones… "Fear." At least my voice didn't crack.

 

Devon just shrugged. "Everyone fails Fear the first time," he said, in an off-hand sort of tone, and then glanced away from me to Tristan, with another malicious little smirk. "At least you didn't fail an easy one, like Vanity."

 

Tristan leaned back a bit in his seat, slowly. "What's the one you keep missing again, Devy? Lust? I wonder what kind of illusions you keep failing with that one." He raised his eyebrows at me, and grinned.

 

I was really not appreciating being used as a weapon in their war of wit. Squirming a bit in my seat, I frowned irritably at Tristan. "Didn't I tell you last time to leave me the hell out of this?"

 

"Oh, and what makes you think this is about you, Shane?" Tristan looked thrilled to death with the new turn in the conversation; he leaned his head on one hand and grinned wickedly at me. "Full of yourself, aren't you?"

 

Goddamnit… I'd walked right into that one. "Shut up," was my eventual, brilliant reply, and I focussed on not looking at Devon while trying to get my face back down to a normal temperature.

 

"If he's so full of himself, why are you the one who has trouble with Vanity?" Devon came to my defense. He snorted derisively. "And grow the fuck up; we all knew what you were getting at."

 

I wasn't sure I wanted to examine the implications of that.

 

Tristan raised both hands in mock surrender, with a placid sort of smile on his face. "Sorry, my mistake - it was about you, Shane, so I apologize." Mercifully, he decided to let the subject drop after he'd managed to get the last word in, and tilted his head at me. "What was it you wanted to ask, before Devy showed up?"

 

Oh, great. The opportunity to ask whether or not I could wimp out, and in front of the single sexiest person on the face of the planet. Thanks, Tristan. "No big deal," I told him, and shrugged, trying to act casual. "Just something about illusions. I'll figure it out."

 

He raised an eyebrow. "Was it something to do with you quitting the Game?"

 

Fantastic – just what I needed. I could hear Devon shift abruptly in his seat, and willed myself not to look at him. "Sort of," I ground out through my teeth, irrationally wishing I had some blunt heavy object I could whack Tristan upside his dumb blond head with.

 

This probably won’t end well.

 

"What?" Devon's voice was typically flat with an edge of disbelief, like he wasn't sure whether or not this was another attempt to throw him off. "You're quitting?"

 

I had to face him then - and hell, if I was going to do this, I was going to stop being such a wuss about it. I raised my eyes up and stared back at him a bit defensively. "Yeah, so?"

 

He actually looked surprised - wide eyes and all. It made him a lot less intimidating. I filed the image away somewhere I could call it back up again when he was smirking or glaring at me. That could be useful.

 

It took him a moment to recover - and then he frowned. "Because you failed an illusion?"

 

I was even less enthusiastic about him thinking badly of me than I was about Tristan. "No, I always wanted to quit." My voice sounded way too defensive, like I was justifying this somehow. Which wasn't it at all - I mean, I did want to quit. I'd always wanted to. Right? "I never wanted to play in the first place."

 

Devon stared at me for a moment, and I couldn't place his expression. He didn't look disappointed or disgusted - confused, maybe? In any case, no hostile emotion - and that surprised me. Wasn't he supposed to get pissed off? That seemed more like him.

 

Somehow, I felt a little self-conscious about that gaze. "What?" I had to ask, after a minute.

 

He shook his head, and the expression became more obviously just perplexed. "What the hell is your deal, anyway?"

 

This was getting annoying. I frowned. "What does that mean?"

 

"I think it means he wants to know why you keep playing if you don't want to be in the Game," Sasenti told me succinctly, and leaned her arm on the edge of my desk from in front of me.

 

I just about fell off my chair. What the - ? "When did you get here?"

 

Tristan laughed. Sasenti looked more than a little pleased. "Oh, a while ago," she said, with a cryptic smile.

 

Her other words were catching up to me about then. "Why do I keep playing…?" I repeated, slowly. A quick look around showed that both Devon and Tristan were watching me, too. "Um, because I need to get through the Level before I can get out of the Game?"

 

A moment of silence followed that, and I was all too aware that they were all still staring at me.

 

"Now what?" This was really getting frustrating.

 

Tristan shook his head, an almost comically pitying expressing on his face. "Shane, you poor bastard," he commented.

 

What was that supposed to mean? "Huh?"

 

"You must have the worst fucking Guide in the whole Game," Devon said instead of answering, and smirked again. "Either that, or he's a selfish little bastard. You really think you need to play to get through a Level?"

 

I stared at him. What does he…?

 

"It doesn't work like that," Sasenti told me, with typical infuriating calm. She shrugged a bit when I turned to look at her, and went on. "Levels have to be won, not passed - once somebody wins the Level, it's over for all the Players and we all start over again."

 

I could feel a revelation hanging over my head, hovering, building, like a tidal wave waiting to come crashing down. "So… that means…"

 

"You don't have to play." Tristan looked thoroughly amused; he was grinning at me, the bastard! "Just wait until one of us wins the Level, and then you can get out of the whole thing."

 

"Oh…" I was a little too shocked at the revelation to even manage to be mad at Zinc for not telling me. This meant I didn't have to go through another Fear illusion. I didn't have to play. I didn't need the Key, and I didn't need to worry about Spirit demons. I could go about my normal life and ignore the Game and just wait until it was all over.

 

I didn't have to do anything. Nothing at all.

 

This… was good news. Right?

 

Somehow, I didn't feel as happy as I'd thought I would.

 

Sasenti smiled at me in a typically unruffled way, waiting for my mind to really get back to the current situation before going on. "You can give your Item to Devon now if you want," she pointed out. "He's a little behind, so he could use it."

 

Devon scowled at her. "Fuck you."

 

"Not me, no," she replied blithely, without missing a beat.

 

Tristan snickered. "She's got you there."

 

"Shut up." Devon glared at him, and then turned towards me, with some of the anger I'd been half expecting before. He didn't say anything, but I squirmed in my seat, turning my head awkwardly so I didn't have to face him.

 

He probably knew what was going through my head. What a complete loser I was, giving up now that I had an easy way out. So I wasn't the great Player he and the others had thought I was - not so interesting now, even if he hadn't given me a straight answer about why he'd thought that in the first place. Obviously he was pissed off, since I'd just wrecked whatever illusions he had about me.

 

Well, so what? I'd never asked him to think I was special or anything. Just because I had a stupid thing for him didn't mean I wanted to ever have anything come of it. Maybe now he'd stop harassing me.

 

It wasn't a good sign that that thought disappointed me.

 

"So, Shane," Tristan began, breaking up what was rapidly becoming an uncomfortable silence between the four of us. "Since we're not doing anything special after school" - at that, I caught his eyes sliding briefly towards Devon; looking for a reaction, no doubt - "would you mind if I invited this beautiful lady along as well?" He grinned at Sasenti.

 

I opened my mouth to reply to that, but Devon beat me to it. "What are you doing after school?" His voice was deceptively casual; the eyes on me had totally different intent now.

 

My skin prickled. The sudden subject change had caught me a little off-guard, and it wasn't helping that Tristan's obvious plot to Make Devon React was working. I could feel him staring at me, almost accusingly, as if it was somehow all my fault that Tristan was a crazy stalker who forced people to be his friends.

 

Apparently him not harassing me was out of the question after all.

 

"Uh. Nothing much. Hanging out." The words actually came out almost steady. I thought that was pretty good, all things concerned.

 

I had a feeling I knew what was coming… I just hoped to god it wouldn't -

 

"You don't want to come along, do you, Devy?" Tristan drawled out, with a lazy grin for the other boy. He looked entirely too pleased with himself.

 

My earlier wish for the blunt object was coming back to me. I glared at him out of the corner of my eyes, willing him to shut up and let the subject die.

 

Unfortunately, it was too late, even if he would've complied. "Fine," Devon said shortly, and slouched in his seat as if he didn't care. "Whatever. After school, your car."

 

Hanging out after school with Devon Cross. I had only one thought. Shit.

 

"I might as well join you, in that case," Sasenti cut in casually, before I could decide whether it would be worth the trouble to strangle Tristan right then and there. She winked at me when I turned her way instead. "If you don't mind, of course."

 

"Uh." It was a little sudden - a little weird - but at least there'd be someone around who was on my side. "Sure." Feeling a bit awkward about it, I smiled back at her.

 

"What a waste of a good fucking afternoon," Devon muttered without much feeling - just before Mrs. Gammond walked in and ended the conversation once and for all.

 

------

 

I could still feel Devon's intense gaze even after I'd left homeroom. And I meant that literally, because he followed me out. Freaky-stalker style.

 

"You don't have class with me," I said a bit warily, eyeing him sideways when he shouldered through the crowd to walk beside me. Both Tristan and Sasenti were off in the opposite direction.

 

Why weren't people ever clingy when it was convenient?

 

"Fuck class," he said in an offhand tone, then caught my arm to pull me off to the side of the hallway. I hadn't been expecting it, so it didn't occur to me to protest until we were up against the wall while the traffic rush passed us by. "I want to ask you something," Devon said, still staring at me as if he thought he could read my mind if he tried hard enough.

 

I could guess what ‘something’ was going to be - or at least what it would relate to. Irritably, I shrugged off his hold on my arm. "Why not try answering my question first." It was snarky, but hell, by then I was really getting sick of being intimidated.

 

He got that surprised look with the wide eyes again - not for very long, though, before it settled into a puzzled frown. "What question?"

 

"The one I asked yesterday when I was trying to find out why you gave a shit about me." The crowd was starting to thin out; we were still getting a couple of curious looks, but the more the audience diminished, the less self-conscious I felt. "I don't dress weird, I'm not rich or hot or great with people. All I ever do is read, go to school, and talk to people online." The more I came up with, the more I really wanted to know the answer. "I'm boring. What the hell could you get out of harassing me?"

 

Devon didn't seem impressed by my little outburst; if anything, the look he was giving me had 'are you telling me you really don't get it?' written all over it. In a completely flat voice - and totally ignoring my question - he asked, "How come you're quitting?"

 

Aggravating. That was definitely the word for it. I brought up a hand to rub against the side of my forehead, feeling a headache building. "Are you always like this, or is it something you do just to piss me off?"

 

Devon snorted. "Fucking rich, coming from someone who tries to be boring just to get rid of people." He shifted in front of me, close enough so that it wouldn't be easy for me to make a break for it. For once, I didn't find the closeness as hard to handle as the words. "Pinning your past traumas on us is pretty ass-backwards if you ask me."

 

That struck a nerve. "No one asked you!" I snapped back, starting to tip over the edge from annoyed to angry. "Fuck off."

 

"Yeah, right." He leaned forward again, resting his hands on the wall behind me like he had before. It meant that I could feel him breathing, and I had a hard time holding onto my anger. A corner of his mouth edged up in a half-smirk. "You know, feeling sorry for yourself is really fucking productive; if you're quitting so you have more time for it, maybe you do have a good reason."

 

Why was it possible to want to jump someone so bad and be so pissed off at him at the same time? I frowned, trying to cover up the confused mix of emotion that was heating my face. "Yeah, because it's really your business why I quit." Or how sorry I felt for myself. What the hell would he know about it, anyway?

 

"Just like it's really your business why I'm interested in you," Devon retorted with another snort, and the half-smirk became a full one. "Stupid fucking question, too."

 

I tried to pretend I wasn't shrinking back against the wall. "Thanks. I really want to answer you now." Suitably sarcastic - that wasn't too bad. I congratulated myself on not totally wimping out as usual.

 

That self-satisfaction lasted about as long as it took for Devon to lean even further into my personal space, bracing himself against the wall and sliding to a slow halt some very few inches from my face. "Maybe I could get it out of you some other way," he murmured out in a very different tone from before.

 

I meant to answer back with another smartass comment. I did. It was just that I opened my mouth and - Devon was there - went to talk and - he was so close, I could've twitched a bit and kissed him by accident - the words just didn't come. I had a feeling I wouldn't have made any sound above a squeak, anyway. My whole face flushed, and I think every nerve in my body was on alert. I wanted to shut my eyes and will him to lean forward, but fear kept them open. Hell, I was probably being obvious enough as it was…

 

Abruptly, instead of closing the rest of the space between us, Devon pushed himself back to arm's length, another hint of a smirk playing on his lips. "Or maybe I really don't care that much."

 

… Cold. Water. Same effect.

 

The comment was also more hurtful than it should've been allowed to be, even though I knew he was bullshitting me. I braced my now-sweaty palms against the wall, and managed to glare in return. "You're an asshole."

 

"You love it," Devon retorted and grinned, baring teeth, before backing off entirely. "See you after school," he added over his shoulder as he left, without turning around.

 

I ran a hand through my hair, slouching against the wall for a moment, and forced myself to not stare at his ass as he walked away.

 

Brilliant, Shane - just brilliant.

 

------

 

Weirdly enough, I wasn’t thinking much about Devon for the rest of the day. Which was good, because he was obviously baiting me and I didn’t like it much. But what I actually thought about wasn’t a lot less uncomfortable.

 

Mostly because it was about Zinc, and by default that meant the Game.

 

I never wanted to play, though. It was stupid that the fact that I hadn’t heard a thing from him all day was bothering me. And he tricked me! I stopped just short of slamming my locker door shut at that thought. He didn’t bother telling me how Levels worked because he wanted me to play.

 

Still… even if he was worried about my reaction to that news, I would’ve at least thought he’d make some comment when Devon was acting like he was going to do stuff to me that I couldn’t really pretend I didn’t want. He said he could feel my emotions when the link was open, and there was a lot of emotional crap going on there, that was for sure. Which meant he’d actually closed the link. For once.

 

That just seemed... odd, somehow. Not like Zinc at all.

 

Not my problem, though. I shifted my backpack and joined Mike in heading for the school doors, letting out a sharp breath. I won’t even remember him after this. He’ll be gone, and I’ll never have to face another illusion.

 

That thought was good. I wasn’t going to go through another Fear illusion and be terrified out of my mind just for the sake of doing it. No way. And anyway, I couldn’t even beat it. I just freaked out and failed. Like usual. Shane the big loser. Maybe a couple of easy illusions made me think I could do it, but the truth was out now.

 

Just get over it already and move on.

 

“You’ve been acting weird lately, Shane,” Mike pointed out, nudging me with his elbow as we left the school building. “Anything going on?”

 

“Sort of,” I admitted. It was kind of a guilty feeling, not being able to confide in him. I stole a sideways glance, but he was already craning his neck to look for his ride. “It’s kind of personal, though.”

 

“Well, let me know if you need me for anything.” He glanced back at me with a sudden grin. “Except for you-know-what – I like you, but not that much.”

 

I had to roll my eyes, but the answering smile made its way onto my face anyway. “Yeah, whatever.”

 

“Hey, you gotta have limits. There’s my ride, though! See ya, Shane!” With a careless wave, he was off.

 

“See you.” It was kind of dumb to say that when he was already gone. Oh well. I wandered onto the main path leading to the edge of the school grounds. Maybe if I could just get far enough away, I could say I just forgot…

 

“Hey, Shane! Over here!” Tristan waved a hand at me out the window of his car. He had it in the spot where people weren’t supposed to bring their cars around. A couple of parents who were collecting their kids were giving him hard looks.

 

Typical. I bit back a sigh and tried to be at least a bit inconspicuous about heading over to him. It wasn’t easy. People tended to notice you when you were being hailed down by an enthusiastic popular kid who also happened to be driving an expensive silver Mercedes.

 

One of the many reasons he never had a problem finding a girlfriend, despite the fact that his openly fickle attitude was legendary.

 

“Thought you were going to keep going for a second there,” he said cheerfully, when I got closer. “Did you forget we were supposed to meet?”

 

Caught. I shrugged a bit, trying to cover the moment. “Just on auto-pilot, I guess.”

 

“I hear you. School does that to me too, sometimes.” He grinned, and waved a hand at the seat next to his. “The others aren’t out yet, so the front seat is yours if you want it.”

 

That actually might be a smart idea. “Sure,” I agreed, and made my way around the front of the car to claim it before he could take back the offer. Sitting in back with Sasenti wouldn’t be too bad, but I got the feeling if I didn’t take the front seat, I’d end up back there with Devon.

 

High on my list of ‘things to avoid at all costs’. That last conversation was still fresh in my memory, and I didn’t like a lot of the implications in it.

 

Well, pretty soon he probably won’t bug me any more, at least.

 

It really didn’t help that my brain wanted to be disappointed about that.

 

“Hi, Shane.”

 

I banged my knee with the car door. “Ow!”

 

Tristan laughed. Sasenti smiled, looking a bit apologetic. “Sorry,” she said, tilting her head a bit. “I meant to startle you, but I didn’t think you’d hurt yourself.”

 

“It’s all right.” I lifted my pant leg and grimaced. That would probably leave a bruise. “I tend to do stupid things that you wouldn’t expect from most normal human beings.”

 

“Like quit the Game when you were lucky enough to stumble across an Item,” Devon cut in from my other side. He just raised an eyebrow when I turned to glare at him. “The last few Players would’ve killed to find one of those and be able to keep going.”

 

“I’m not a Player.” I spared a quick glance around us – there were a few people looking, some of them specifically at me. Wondering who the scrawny kid was who seemed to have three school celebrities gathered around him. “I don’t even like games. Can we just get going?”

 

He shrugged, maddeningly unperturbed. “Ladies get the front seat,” he offered to Sasenti, eyes still on me. “Be a little more polite.”

 

If anything, this was just making me more annoyed. I could feel the scowl building on my face. No way was I going to sit in the back with him and let him bite chunks out of my already pitiful self esteem. And he was making people stare… I hated it when people started at me. “What century do you think this is? I got here first – the front seat is mine. Now kindly fuck off.”

 

That earned me the surprised look from him again, and I heard Sasenti whistle. Tristan pitched in with, “Guys, guys, there’s enough of me to go around. No need to bicker about who sits with me.”

 

Devon shot him an unnecessarily fierce glower. “Nobody asked you.”

 

“Hey, I didn’t hear Sasenti ask you to defend her womanly rights, either.”

 

I’d just about had enough of the whole business. Ignoring any response there might have been, I moved around Devon and through the door, slamming it behind me as I slumped into the seat beside Tristan. “Asshole,” I muttered – for the second time that day.

 

Tristan gave me something of a conspiratorial grin. “I hope you don’t mean me.”

 

“You should stand up for yourself more often, Shane,” Sasenti commented, sliding into the seat behind me as Devon stormed around to the other side of the car. She looked suspiciously like she was holding in laughter. “It sure throws him off balance.”

 

“He’s due.” I was actually a little surprised I said that out loud. She smiled at me in response, eyes sparkling.

 

Somehow, I felt better.

 

“Well…” Tristan gave Devon a brief glance in the rear-view mirror as he slouched angrily into the last seat, and evidently decided not to comment. “Where should we go?”

 

Before he or anyone else could answer, the familiar sensation of a Link moving nearby slid its way into my brain – into all of our brains, no doubt. With it came the unmistakable feeling I’d recognized just last night – the nightmarish feeling that had nearly overpowered me in the dark village.

 

Fear.

 

I was already shivering even before it had lasted a second. God. The thought of facing something like that again made my skin crawl, but it wasn’t just that. This stupid feeling was my failure – and I’m sure everyone in the car was thinking just that. The illusion that revealed Shane’s wussy side.

 

My fingers curled around the edges of Tristan’s car seat.

 

“That is totally mine,” Devon announced, with an almost dangerous calm.

 

Sasenti was already winding her pocketwatch, smiling sedately. “Pass,” she said, and winked at me.

 

“What makes you think it’s yours?” Tristan drawled almost lazily; he was smiling. From out of nowhere, that blue glowing bow seemed to materialize in his hands.

 

“The fact that I’m twice as fast as you and way better at this fucking Game.” Devon’s grin was savage as he opened Tristan’s car door and took off at an abrupt run onto the school’s front yard. I could see the gradually sharpening form of his huge sword taking shape on his back; he grabbed it in one smooth motion and swung it forward and away from himself.

 

Tristan shrugged, and gave both Sasenti and me an apologetic look. “Be right back,” he promised, and also moved to open the door. “Look after my car,” he added, trotting off after Devon.

 

“What are they going to do, fight over it?” I wasn’t sure I liked that idea. That sword and those blue arrows seemed like they’d make a pretty deadly battle.

 

Sasenti shook her head. “Unlikely. But Items are useful in dealing with illusions.” She regarded me seriously. “They provide clarity.”

 

I thought about how the Key had cleared my head when I’d held it during the Paranoia illusion. “But you can use them for fighting with too, can’t you?”

 

“That’s what they were made for in the first place – some of them, anyway.”

 

I reached into my pocket, almost without thinking about it, and brought out the Key. Honestly, I hadn’t had time to look at the Item for a while – maybe I hadn’t even bothered the first time. It was a little longer than my hand, and decorated with some obscure designs. The silvery sheen that had captured my attention when Zinc and I had first found it was still present, as if it caught on some kind of secret light. Looking at it, my mind felt calm. Somehow, it seemed as if the Key was confidant of something about me, and was just patiently waiting for me to figure it out and do what it wanted me to do.

 

Probably waiting for me to quit so it can get a competent owner. Still, I felt a little shaken. “This one doesn’t seem like it’d be much use in a fight,” I commented, holding it out to Sasenti.

 

“Mine’s not an offensive, either,” she pointed out, and shrugged. “There are other ways to win a fight, Shane. The fact that we got the Items we did means that we’re probably more suited to indirect combat.”

 

I wasn’t sure I wanted to be suited to combat at all. “Yeah, well…” And I didn’t know how to finish that, either. I gave up instead and tucked the Key back into my pocket. There was something that tugged at my memory… A question Zinc hadn’t been able to answer. Maybe Sasenti would know. “This Item creates unbreakable barriers, right?”

 

“That’s what I’ve heard.”

 

“And Devon’s sword – what was it, again?”

 

“Severance,” she answered promptly, tilting her head at me in a way that made me flush – just a little. I got the feeling she suspected something about why I was asking. “It has the ability to cut through anything.”

 

“That’s what I was wondering about.” I closed my fingers around my Item again, somehow feeling that the answer to this question was more important than it had been before. “If that sword – Severance – can cut through anything, and the Key creates barriers that nothing can break, then what would happen if you tried to use them against each other?”

 

She pursed her lips a bit, and then looked up with one of those all-too-serious gazes and a cryptic little smile. “That would probably depend on the spirit of the people using them, wouldn’t you think?”

 

I let out a low breath. “That’s what Zinc said too, when I asked him.”

 

“Well, there you go, then.”

 

Oh, thanks. Fat lot of help that was… “Never mind,” I muttered, turning back around in my seat again. Somehow, it seemed like she’d missed the point of the question – that, or I had.

 

I felt her lean against my seat. “What are you so afraid of, Shane?”

 

I couldn’t help but tense a little, but felt too awkward to move forward and away from her. “What do you mean?”

 

“Every time I see you, you look like you’re ready to bolt.” One of her hands waved expansively; I saw it out of the corner of my eye. Her tone was placid and even. “It’s not just me, either – you’re the same with both of the others. I know you said last time that you don’t like to be noticed, but why does it scare you so much?”

 

What could I say to that? “Um,” was my intelligent response. How do you explain to someone who goes out of her way to avoid ‘normal’ that being different got you nothing but grief and you’d like nothing better than to be just like everyone else so that you could blend into the background?

 

Would she even get it?

 

“You seem to have a real thing for Devon,” she went on, as if my feeble response was a good enough answer. “In his own special way” – at that, I sensed amusement in her words – “he’s made it pretty clear where he stands on that. What stops you from taking the opportunity?”

I couldn’t help it – my face was burning. It must’ve been bright red. This time I didn’t even get out a coherent stammer. It was just a small, strangled-sounding noise that couldn’t even have turned into meaningful sound if it tried.

 

She actually sighed. It was hard to believe Sasenti would do something so normal. I couldn’t help but turn and stare, and her expression had an edge of something almost like frustration to it. It looked really weird on her. “I can’t ever understand not wanting to stand out,” she admitted. “But that’s just me. It’s not about other people noticing you, though – you do it when no one’s around. What makes being with us so scary?

 

“You – ” Again, I couldn’t finish the thought – couldn’t put it into words. I looked out the window to where Devon and Tristan had run. There was no sign of either of them just yet. And now, ‘you make me stand out’ wasn’t a good answer any more, after she’d decided to cut that ground out from under me. I wasn’t sure how to explain exactly how or why I felt the way I did.

 

She leaned back away from my seat, suddenly seeming as distant and mysterious as she had before – without me even looking at her. “If you don’t like us, you don’t need to be afraid to say so, you know.”

 

“It’s not that.” I was probably as surprised as she was when those words came out of my mouth. I hadn’t meant to say them out loud. “I’d really like to – ” My breath caught in my throat suddenly; there was something simple right in front of my face, right there.

 

I’d really like to be your friend. The thought didn’t seem directed at Sasenti alone – it was to Tristan, and Devon. And Zinc, too. I’d like to play this Game and show you what I can do. I’d like your respect and your admiration. I’d like to be able to talk and laugh with you as if I’m worth as much as you are. But I’m – just –

 

Afraid.

 

Maybe that was the real significance of that Fear illusion. I stared resolutely down at my lap, desperately hoping that Sasenti didn’t really have strange mental powers and couldn’t see into my brain to get at these thoughts. I didn’t want her to know! I didn’t want any of them to realize that I really liked them and wanted to be around them, because I didn’t want to face their disappointment when they found out I didn’t match up. That I really was just a loser who couldn’t be worth their respect.

 

My heart was thundering against my chest, and it felt like the echoes reverberated all through me. I’m afraid, I realized. It didn’t exactly lift a weight off my chest. I don’t want to fail and let you all down!

 

“Other people do fail illusions, you know,” Sasenti pointed out, as if she really could read my mind. “Tristan more than anyone. It’s not like you have to be superhuman.”

 

I shook my head. “It’s not the illusion.” It wasn’t. It was life. I was failing at life. I couldn’t even accept friendship when it was offered. What kind of big-time loser was I?

 

“Well, whatever it is.” I could almost sense the shrug. “Failure’s just a challenge, not the end of the world.”

 

~Shane?~ That was Zinc’s voice – small and hesitant at the back of my mind. ~I don’t think you’re a big-time loser,~ he said, almost timidly.

 

That struck home. I had to blink a few times, because somehow, I almost wanted to cry. And wouldn’t that look awesome, me sitting there crying? ~I should’ve known you didn’t really close the link.~ It was hard to keep that flat, and I got the feeling I wasn’t fooling him. How could I, after all?

 

~Plus, perseverance is way more impressive than talent.~ He was obviously following up on his advantage – his ‘voice’ already had more confidence to it. ~I mean, look at me. I’m a failure as a Guide, but I just can’t give it up.~

 

~You’re not a failure as a Guide.~ That might’ve been a bit of a lie – but he was working on it. We were kind of a matched set – maybe I could work on it, too. Shane the failure at life and his failure Guide. ~Okay,~ I said finally, after a moment of ‘silence’.

 

~Huh? Okay?~

 

~Okay,~ I repeated, and couldn’t help but smile, just a bit. Maybe this was a big mistake. I had to admit I was scared out of my mind that it would be. I might end up in even worse shape than I had been, socially. It made me want to run off and hide in a corner somewhere.

 

But somehow the other possibility was so bright that I just couldn’t back down. No matter how slight it might be.

 

~I guess tomorrow we can go look for another Fear Link.~

 

~~~~~

 

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