Game Over

 

Demon

 

Tristan seemed a little surprised to find me already in my seat when he strolled into homeroom – usually he was there before me. “Something happen last night?” he asked curiously, setting his bag down beside his desk.

 

I didn’t bother raising my head from where it rested on my folded arms. “Not much,” I answered truthfully.

 

“Getting yourself a Lust Link is ‘not much’?” He grinned, looking more amused now. “Did you and Devy take things up a notch already?”

 

Yeah, great. I loved the way that felt like being punched in the gut. “No.”

 

“Sure, okay.” I could tell by the look on his face that he wasn’t buying it, but thankfully, he chose not to push the issue. “So that makes three for you now, right? Paranoia, Vanity, and Lust?”

 

“Pretty much.” I pushed myself back into a normal sitting position with a sigh. Fear and Despair. Neither one sounded all that great. I probably should’ve been worried, but I couldn’t manage it right then. For one thing, I hadn’t exactly slept well the night before, and I was too tired to think too much about Links. And for another… well, I was kind of preoccupied with other things.

 

The idea of seeing Devon some time soon had my stomach in knots again.

 

Then again, would he even still want to sit with us? He’d pretty much told me that the reason he hung around was because he found me interesting, but that couldn’t be true now, right? Maybe this would end up being completely painless, even after all my worrying. Maybe he would go back to being distant, and I could avoid this whole messy business forever.

 

Tristan prodded at my shoulder. “You still with me?”

 

I realized I’d been sitting there staring at the front of the classroom for probably a few seconds longer than was normal, and shrugged, feeling awkward. “Yeah. Sorry.”

 

He gave me a searching look. “Something’s up, isn’t it?”

 

It was probably pointless to try denying anything at this point. “I really don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

 

“No worries.” He shrugged, then offered one of those really annoying grins. “I’ll find out what it is eventually.”

 

Great. Just what I needed. “Whatever,” I muttered, slouching back in my seat even more and resolving not to look at him. It was probably childish, but I couldn’t bring myself to really care.

 

“Yeah, ‘whatever’ to you too,” Tristan responded, infuriatingly cheerfully as always. “Maybe I’ll get more out of your good buddy over there – hey, Devy!”

 

That one greeting felt like a handful of ice dropped down the back of my shirt. My skin prickled uncomfortably. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Just keep not looking up…

 

“Hey,” I heard Devon respond, cool as ever, and couldn’t help risking a glance. He was dropping his bag by the desk on Tristan’s other side; when he looked up and met my gaze, I turned away, feeling my face burn.

 

Good job, Shane – make things even more awkward. Just what everyone needs!

 

“Wow – no response to ‘Devy’, and he says ‘hello’ to me.” Tristan looked from me to Devon, and back again. “He’s acting as weird as you are. Sure you don’t want to change your answer to my earlier question? I mean, something happened, right?”

 

“None of your fucking business,” Devon responded, shortly. He sounded about as willing to talk about it as I was. I stole another quick glance in his direction, just as he let out a sharp, irritated-sounding breath and turned his head away from us.

 

“That sounded like a ‘yes’ to me,” Tristan drawled, turning his stupid smile on me.

 

I leaned forward and braced my elbows on my desk, deliberately ignoring him. Devon was right; it really wasn’t any of his fucking business.

 

“You guys need to lighten up; it couldn’t be that bad, could it?”

 

Yeah right. Maybe Mr. All-girls-harem wouldn’t think it was so bad. Then again, he said himself that he never led anyone on. That put him one step above me, even if I hadn’t done it on purpose.

 

Even if the whole thing didn’t keep playing out in my head, over and over, so many times that I was sure I was obsessed.

 

I shifted my seat in agitation. It wouldn’t leave me alone! No matter how guilty I felt, or how much I wished it had never happened… Was this even normal? Did everyone have this problem the first time they fooled around with someone?

 

Was Devon thinking of it as much as I was?

 

That shouldn’t matter, though, should it? After all, I was the one who’d turned him down, so what sense did it make for me to try and guess what he thought of me? He probably wanted nothing to do with me, in his thoughts or otherwise. But, then again, it wasn’t like I exactly wanted these thoughts either; maybe he was having just as hard a time as I was.

 

“Good morning.” The normal-sounding greeting coming from Sasenti was enough to snap me out of my thoughts. She set down her bag on the chair in front of Tristan, and glanced from me to Devon quizzically. “I somehow get the feeling I’ve missed out on something big.”

 

“You and me both.” Tristan’s voice was uncharacteristically wry; when I looked over at him, he raised an eyebrow at me – almost as if in challenge.

 

Weird.

 

“You and her can both shut the fuck up,” Devon muttered – just loud enough that I could make out the words. There wasn’t much force behind them.

 

This time, I didn’t bother to look. I was actually a little afraid of what kind of expression I would see.

 

Maybe it was about time I made a proper apology.

 

 

I didn’t get the chance for a private conversion until after the school day had ended. Devon wasn’t in my last class, but I knew where his locker was, so it wasn’t hard to find him.

 

He didn’t look up when I approached, but continued to pull books out of his backpack, obviously sorting out what he needed to bring home with him. “What?”

 

I couldn’t help but wince at his tone – not that I could really blame him for it. “I just wanted to say – about what happened yesterday…” A glance told me there were still a lot of other people in the hallway; I couldn’t help but hesitate.

 

“Fuck, of course it’s about ‘yesterday’.” He said the last word with heavy sarcasm, still not looking at me, but shoving books into his bag with what was probably unnecessary force. “I’m not going to tell anyone, if that’s what you’re so fucking worried about.”

 

“That’s not what I came over here for.” I managed to get the words out evenly, although that last bit had really stung. He seriously thought I was that much of a jerk? I guess he had a right to, but still. “I wanted to say sorry, that’s all.”

 

“You already said that.” He zipped up his bag, and then actually looked at me for the first time since I’d joined him. I could tell he wasn’t too impressed. “What, you think it makes the apology better to say it a million fucking times? Can we just get over this already?”

 

“Look.” I struggled with trying to find the words, feeling caught between rising frustration and the guilty impression that I didn’t really have the right to be frustrated with him in the first place. “This isn’t easy for me, but I’m doing my best. I just don’t want – ”

 

“Yeah, it's all about you, isn't it?” Devon slammed his locker shut and glared at me, not minding the people giving him funny looks. “I guess it doesn’t fucking bother you that there’s someone else involved aside from your precious self.”

 

I could feel my face grow hot. “I’m trying to apologize, okay?” It came out more defensive than I’d have liked. “I really am sorry,” I added, as sincerely as I was able.

 

He let out a short, frustrated breath, and looked away from me. “Look, I know that time in the washroom was an honest mistake. Fine. What-the-fuck-ever. Apology accepted and all that other bullshit. But you don’t have to keep rubbing my face in it.”

 

Rubbing his face in it, by trying to apologize? I was just trying to put this behind us, so we could go back to acting like nothing had happened. “What does that mean?”

 

He scowled at me. “Don’t try to act like you’re stupid or something.”

 

Hate to break it to you, but that’s not acting. “What are you talking about?”

 

Devon stared at me for a moment, eyes narrowed, like he couldn’t believe that I hadn’t somehow magically figured out what he was trying to get at. “How long have I been fucking hitting on you? It’s not like I’ve been trying to hide it or anything. You think I was doing it to be funny or something? I fucking like you, dumbass.”

 

I felt like the ground had disappeared from underneath me. My mouth fell open, but I couldn’t have uttered a sound even if I had something meaningful to say.

 

Yeah, there had been a possibility that he actually wasn’t playing around with me, that he actually was interested in me, that it actually was serious... But I knew – just at that moment when he came out and said it – that I’d never really believed it was possible before.

 

I think my heart was exceeding the speed of light or something, and I was starting to feel trapped again. This should’ve been easy. He liked me – and, I mean, I’d been lusting after him since I first saw him. Shouldn’t I jump at this chance?

 

Somehow, the thought filled me with dread.

 

I shut my mouth; it felt too dry, but I swallowed anyway out of reflex. “Okay,” was about all I could manage; it came out embarassingly small and shaky-sounding. I looked away from him, too full of conflicting thoughts to even figure out what reaction I should have.

 

He snorted. “Yeah, I got the message the first time. Unlike some people, I can take a fucking hint.” He busied himself with zipping up his bag, frowning at it as if in deep concentration. His expression looked strange; it wasn’t one I recognized. A lot of it was anger, but the rest… “So if you’re all done messing with me, you can feel free to leave.”

 

“I’m not messing with you!” I couldn’t help blurting that out, feeling my hands ball up into fists. Somehow, the thought that he might think that was more than I could stand, and the rest of what had been right on the edge of my tongue the whole time came spilling out. “It wasn’t like that stuff in the bathroom came out of nowhere – I’ve always liked you, you just never noticed! You didn’t even know who I was at first, but I… uh… ”

 

I wasn’t really sure where I was going with that, so I shut up. Devon’s eyes had widened, and the way he stared at me was more than strange – it was like looking at someone I’d never seen before, someone who was at least as inexperienced and uncertain about all of this as I was. There was something disturbingly defenseless about that look; it was unsettling.

 

Then he frowned, and his expression gained that wary edge back again. “You turned me down, but you like me? How the hell does that work?”

 

What had I been trying to gain by giving that away? At that moment, I wasn’t sure. I shifted, clenching my fingers uncomfortably. My skin was prickling. “I just can’t do it, that’s all.”

 

“Can’t do what?”

 

“This…” I waved my hand between the two of us. “You know.  It freaks me out. I can’t do it. Anyway, I’d probably get hassled.”

 

He was still frowning at me, like I was a puzzle he just couldn’t figure out. “Who hassles you?”

 

“Nobody right now, but – ”

 

“Okay, so some make-believe person who might hassle you needs to be satisfied, but it’s okay if the person you like fucking hates you?” Devon’s lip curled derisively. “Nice attitude.”

 

I couldn’t help bristling at that. “What the hell would you know about it? It’s not like you’d ever have to worry about that sort of thing! I’ll bet you never had to deal with something like – ”

 

“Oh, fuck you, Shane!” He suddenly looked angry – so angry that I lost whatever righteousness had been spurring me on. “You think you're the only one who ever got bullied at school? When I was ten, the kids in my class used to dare each other to throw erasers at my head when the teacher wasn’t looking and see who could get me in the most trouble if I fought back! But you don’t see me whining about it all the fucking time!”

 

All I could do was stare at him. It had honestly never occurred to me that someone like Devon would ever have been bullied. I could barely process that fact, much less react to it.

 

“And why you give a flying shit what assholes like that think of you is a fucking mystery to me,” he added, deliberately shouldering his bag. “But whatever. Not my fucking problem.” He turned away from me, hesitating for just a second or two as if he hoped that I’d say something else – like there was anything I could say to all of that – and then stalked off down the now-empty hallway.

 

I stood there and watched him leave, then shut my eyes tight and leaned back against the lockers, feeling like even more of a loser than I had before I’d come over.

 

Screwing up seemed to be one of the few things I was good at these days.

 

 

On the other hand, Zinc seemed to have gotten exactly what he wanted, because I was on a roll in the Game again.

 

“Four Links!” he crowed, pumping a fist into the air enthusiastically as my fingers curled against the Fear Link that had settled on my palm. “We’re just about there!”

 

I blinked a few times, feeling oddly light-headed. It hadn’t been as bad this time… Why hadn’t it? “Nothing even touched me,” I managed, after a few seconds.

 

Zinc looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

 

“I mean, things came after me, and it seemed like they were trying to get me, but nothing ever actually did.” It felt like a revelation somehow; after the adrenaline rush from the illusion, this was all going straight to my head and making me drunk with it. “You said that these illusions were dangerous and I could go insane if something hurt me in one of them, but nothing’s ever done anything like that. It’s like they can’t.”

 

The look he shot back at me was unusually cautious – like I was acting crazy and he didn’t know how to respond to it without setting me off somehow. “Shane…”

 

“What? Have you ever been in an illusion?” I was probably being unreasonable, but it wasn’t like he’d been the most reliable source of information. Besides, his attitude was irritating. What made him think I was going to go crazy with this now, after I’d always been so careful? “I’m just telling you what I noticed. It’s not like I’m going to turn stupid and stop trying not to get hurt.”

 

He still looked wary. “I’ve seen players who came out of illusions after being hurt in them.” His unusual seriousness helped a little to soften my irritation. “It’s not pretty. I’d really rather you didn’t turn into one of them.”

 

I pretty much felt the same way. “But you don’t know what hurt them.” Somehow, now that the idea had taken hold, it was hard to just give it up. “You’ve never seen what an illusion is like. Getting physically hurt isn’t the only way to drive a person crazy.”

 

“Maybe.” Zinc gave me a doubtful glance – one of those ‘I know better but I’m not going to point this out because I don’t want to argue about it’ looks. Then, surprisingly, he offered, “It could just be you, though.”

 

That caught me off-guard. “Me?”

 

“Yeah, you. Who else?” That cheeky grin was back; he tucked his hands behind his head again, seemingly more comfortable with the direction this conversation was going. “Illusions are supposed to be targeted at whoever goes into them – that means all the illusions you’ve seen are meant to attack you.”

 

“So…?”

 

“So, that probably means the best way to really get to you isn’t by hurting you. It’s by making you go all mental until your brain overloads.” The look he gave me was more than a little smug. “Makes sense, really. You’re the biggest head case I’ve had to work with. All that thinking, it can’t be good for you.”

 

“Thanks.” I frowned at him, but it was hard to argue. After all, I probably really was a head case. Would I have turned down Devon’s offer if I wasn’t?

 

Sometimes I really envied Zinc. Not having to think too hard about anything – it must be nice.

 

“Well, anyway, we should – ”

 

I never found out what we should do at that point. The Link in my hand suddenly flickered, and then lit up brighter than ever. In my pocket, the Key made a sort of shuddering motion, and at the back of my head it felt like someone had just whacked a big gong. I didn’t actually hear anything – but it sure felt like I did.

 

What the hell…?

 

When I looked to Zinc for an explanation, his eyes had gone wide, and his relaxed posture had gone completely. He met my gaze, and then scowled. “Damnit!”

 

That couldn’t be good. “What?”

 

“Someone beat us to it!” He gave me a baleful look, as if I were somehow responsible. “If you hadn’t been so stubborn about that Lust Link…”

 

Oh, nice. Blaming me before explaining what had just happened. “You know, it would help if someone told me what the hell was going on when stuff like this happens. A helper maybe, or… I don’t know… a guide.”

 

He blinked, then shifted a bit and scratched his head. “Oh yeah. I keep forgetting you don’t know this stuff. Y’know, sometimes it seems like you’re a veteran, what with having that Item right from the start and all…”

 

“Zinc.” I struggled to hold onto my patience. “You still haven’t told me what that was.”

 

Considering it could mean anything from some intergalactic being hitting the pause button to the imminent destruction of the world, I thought it was reasonable for me to be concerned.

 

“Right. Okay.” He had the grace to look a little sheepish. “That was someone picking up their last Link. Probably that girl, Sasenti. She’s the one who always seems to be in the lead.” He frowned, then. “We’re seriously going to have to think of some way to get ahead of her. She’s probably kind of sneaky.”

 

Well, that wasn’t as bad as I’d been thinking, at least. “So, when someone picks up their last Link, that means…”

 

“That means we’ve got a deadline.” Then, unexpectedly, he grinned at me. “Because it’s just about time for Endgame.”

 

 

“One more week to collect Links.” Tristan looked a bit rueful. “I’ve only got three so far. Maybe I should stop going on dates and focus for a bit.”

 

I raised an eyebrow at him. “How many dates do you go on?”

 

“As many as I can get.” He shrugged. “No one’s usually home at my house anyway, so it gets pretty boring.”

 

There was that ‘boring’ thing again. “Your parents let you go out every night?”

 

“Sure, why wouldn’t they?”

 

Tristan’s parents didn’t sound very “parent”-like to me. I wondered if he’d had a nanny growing up. It sounded like something rich people would do. “Don’t you have homework or anything?”

 

“Sure, but homework isn’t that exciting. Sometimes I skip out on it.” He waved a dismissive hand. “My grades are okay, so that’s all that matters, right?”

 

Must be nice not to have to work for it. “I guess.”

 

Devon wandered into the room then, sliding into his new seat on Tristan’s other side. “Hey.”

 

He didn’t look at me, but I felt my gut clench – and then I felt irritated for feeling my gut clench. The reaction almost surprised me. On some weird rebellious impulse, I looked straight up at him and responded, “Hey.”

 

It didn’t sound nearly as casual as his. The tone of my voice was all tense, and the word felt wobbly coming out. It was embarrassing, really. But I’d said it now, and it would look pretty dumb if I tried to sink back into my chair and pray for a natural disaster to end my misery, so I stared straight up at him, waiting for a reaction.

 

His eyebrows came down; I wasn’t sure if the frown he shot me was hostile or just wary – or both. Then he made a funny little almost-shrugging motion – could’ve just been him shifting in his seat, really – and turned his gaze to the front of the classroom.

 

Well… it was something.

 

“Good morning,” Sasenti greeted us, plopping herself down in front of Tristan. She smiled at me when I caught her eye. “Shane, congratulations on the Fear Link.”

 

I blinked at her. Oh right, they can see all of that… I still hadn’t asked Zinc how it was done. “Thanks. Were you the one who got all five? Because if so, I – ”

 

“Yeah, she wishes.” Devon snorted, and I turned in time to see him lean back in his seat, folding his arms. When he met my eyes, his gaze was directly challenging. “I unlocked Endgame this round.”

 

I turned to Sasenti automatically, and she spread her hands with an untroubled sort of smile. “He gets lucky every once in a while,” she admitted, then added, “I still haven’t found a Paranoia.”

 

Tristan whistled. “Well, that’s what I get for not checking the stats – looking good there, Devy.”

 

Somehow… in some weird way… I felt really irritated. It was the dumbest thing, and I couldn’t even explain it. “Congrats,” I told him, and the way my voice went flat, it had to be pretty obvious I didn’t mean it. I barely managed to avoid adding ‘I guess’ to the end of it.

 

Devon gave me his trademark smirk, but didn’t comment. “Thanks,” he responded, like he just didn’t care one way or the other, and looked away – like we bored him or something.

 

Ugh. This was dumb. Why was I so annoyed, anyway? I turned back to Sasenti, who met my gaze with an eyebrow raised. “So what happens at Endgame?”

 

“Zinc didn’t tell you?” I could tell by the way the corners of her mouth edged up that I didn’t really need to answer that one. “A portal leading to the prison of one of the Beings of Light will open, and anyone with five Links can bring them to unlock it.”

 

“First one to get there wins,” Tristan added, helpfully. He offered me a shrug when I turned to look at him. “Depending on the terrain in the prison, the final stretch can get pretty interesting.”

 

Which probably meant ‘dangerous’. It figured.

 

“What do you care, anyway?” Devon cut in. He was looking at me sideways, leaning back in his seat with his arms crossed over his chest. “You don’t even fucking like this game. You’re probably going to quit, like you said. What the fuck business do you have even knowing about Endgame?”

 

There was a burning feeling in my chest, like his words struck up a fire inside me. Everything he said today was just… ugh. What the hell? “What the fuck business do you have telling me if I like this game or not?”

 

He spread his hands. “You were the one talking shit about it. I’m just quoting you.”

 

“Yeah, well.” It was true, so why was I so pissed about this? I took in a long breath. “Maybe I changed my mind. It happens.”

 

Devon snorted, and gave me an unimpressed look. “Yeah, you and changing your fucking mind. Seems like it’s a habit.”

 

Okay, I knew what he was getting at there. And it was probably fair enough that he would be bitter about it. And he had good reason to think low of me. But somehow, when he said it like that, the world seemed to flash red around me.

 

“Say that again when I beat you at Endgame.”

 

Somewhere, inside my head where everything was rational and not outlined by all of this anger coming out of nowhere, I felt cold shock at those words. At me saying those words. To Devon Cross, no less.

 

Tristan and Sasenti were both staring at me – I could feel it. Hell, I didn’t blame them. If I were outside of myself, I’d be staring  too. This wasn’t like me. I was quiet, timid Shame McMurray. I didn’t talk back, especially to people who stood out. I got intimidated easily. I ducked away from attention. I didn’t get mad or upset or anything that would make me stand out.

 

Devon’s eyes had widened a bit, but they narrowed a second later. Then he smirked – the look I’d seen on him countless times before. It felt almost familiar. “You fucking wish.”

 

I caught Tristan looking over at Sasenti in the side of my vision. “Okay, wow,” he said, for once sounding sincere.

 

Homeroom started before I had to think of a response to that.

 

 

~That was amazing!~

 

Three hours later, and Zinc was still going on about it. I resisted the urge to sigh, instead reaching for my sandwich. ~It was stupid. I lost my temper, okay?~

 

~Yeah, but still!~ I could sense his elation, un-dampered by my lack of enthusiasm – as usual. ~The way you said it, it was just so perfect! A challenge! A Gamer response!~

 

~A mistake,~ I added, trying to add emphasis that wasn’t really going to cut it through mind-to-mind chat. It didn’t help that I couldn’t feel the conviction I would’ve expected – a fact that I really kind of hoped Zinc hadn’t picked up on. I hadn’t talked to Devon since then, but I also hadn’t been avoiding him. It was nerve-wracking, but… saying it had felt so satisfying.

 

There was definitely something wrong with me.

 

“Hey, Shane?” Mike was giving me a funny look. “What’s up? You seem really out of it.”

 

“Sorry.” I made a mental note to ask Tristan or Sasenti how to shut your Guide out of your head, and offered him an apologetic shrug. “Lots on my mind these days.” I shifted a bit on the grass sloping down towards the street outside the school grounds, and raised my sandwich for a healthy bite.

 

He surprised me with a rueful sort of grin. “Yeah, I noticed. Kinda hard to miss. That’s sort of what I meant by ‘what’s up’.”

 

I probably should’ve expected that, but somehow, it caught me completely off-guard. I had stopped in mid-chew, staring at him, and had to remind myself to finish. “Uh,” was my totally eloquent response – I honestly couldn’t think of what to say.

 

It hadn’t occurred to me that other people might notice something was going on, even without knowing about the Game.

 

“Hey, it’s cool if it’s personal or something.” Mike held up his hands, one still clutching the remains of his slice of cafeteria pizza. “Just seems like you’re stressed – maybe venting would help. I dunno.”

 

Given how Mike got uncomfortable whenever anything remotely resembling human emotion came up, that was a surprisingly generous offer. “It is kind of personal. But thanks.”

 

“No worries.” He looked a little relieved. “Just keep it in mind, okay, man?”

 

“Yeah, I will.” I was sincere about that, too. Maybe one day… Mike would’ve loved the Game. Again, I wondered why he wasn’t chosen instead of me. “I didn’t know I was acting that different.”

 

He shrugged. “You’re weird either way, it’s cool.” A sidelong glance my way, and then, “Hey, you finish the math homework last night?”

 

“Nope.” Actually, I’d forgotten about it. Whoops. “Sorry.”

 

“Aw, man!” He sighed, then offered me another grin. “Guess we’re facing the music together this time.”

 

I could think of worse things.

 

 

~Can I talk about it now?~ Zinc’s ‘voice’ in my head was just this side of whiny. ~You’re out of school already, come on!~

 

~I have to work,~ I reminded him, struggling to remain patient. It was really hard to keep from rolling my eyes or sighing or doing something else that would look odd when I was walking down the street by myself. ~Look, it’s only for four more hours. I’ll go out Link hunting with you if Sasenti stops time later, okay?~

 

~Yeah…~ I could just feel the reluctance oozing out of that one. ~But what if she doesn’t?~

 

~They were talking about Endgame only being a week in class today,~ I pointed out – pretty reasonably, if I did say so myself. ~She’ll probably be out every night. Devon’s the only one with five Links, remember?~

 

That seemed to the trick, if the hopeful optimism I could feel through our connection was any indication. ~You think so?~

 

Proof that Shane McMurray could sometimes think of a smart thing to say. I was actually even a little proud of myself. ~Yeah, so just wait, okay?~

 

~Okay!~

 

It was Jared working before me that day – when I pushed open the door and stepped in, he grinned at me. “Hey Shane.”

 

It felt like a long time since I’d talked with him. It had probably only been a couple of weeks, but – well – they’d been a busy couple of weeks. “Hey.”

 

“You working cash tonight, or just clean up?”

 

“Clean up,” I answered, feeling a little odd for some reason. This felt like a separate world now, almost – a world where the Game didn’t exist. “That new person is trained up now, so I don’t really have to cover cash. Dad wants an inventory count, though.”

 

“Makes sense.” He reached under the counter for the supply keys while I dropped off my backpack in the lockers behind him, and pulled out my uniform vest. “With you busy covering shifts, I guess it’s been a while.”

 

“What’s he gonna do when I graduate and go work somewhere else?” I joked, shrugging on the vest.

 

Are you going to go work somewhere else?” Jared turned to hand me the keys; his gaze was quizzical. “I kind of figured you’d eventually take this place over when your old man retired.”

 

I stared at him. That thought had never occurred to me. And it wasn’t like I had other plans… but still. Running a store?

 

Somehow, it felt – I don’t know – kind of boring.

 

“Well, hey, you probably have your own plans – I don’t know you that well, right?” He shrugged, offering an apologetic smile like he was trying to put me at ease. “Or maybe you just don’t want to run this place. It’s not for everyone.”

 

“I guess.” I realized that he was still holding the keys out, and reached out to take them from him. “I haven’t really thought about it.”

 

“Well, don’t listen to me – I don’t even know what I’m talking about half the time.” He shook his head, leaning forward to rest his elbows on the counter as I moved off towards the storage closet. “Hey, got any funny stories about your weird classmates?”

 

That was safer territory. “Yeah, always.” The conversation from that morning – before the whole bit with Devon being a jerk – flashed into my head. “Turns out rich kids live on a different planet. Tristan told me that – ”

 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Jared actually pushed himself off the counter; when I turned to meet his gaze, he was gawking at me. “You were talking with Tristan?”

 

For a moment, I just stared back at him blankly. What’s so weird about – oh. The anti-social thing. “Uh, right.” I shifted a bit, feeling awkward. “I guess we’re kind of friends now.”

 

We were, too. I mean, I’d known it. We’d hung out after school. He sat next to me in every class we shared. But it was actually starting to sink in now – I was even starting to take it for granted. Who knew?

 

“Wow.” Jared blinked at me – then grinned. “So what happened to that guy who just sat back and observed stuff? You gonna become part of your own stories now?”

 

I hadn’t even thought of that. “Maybe,” I admitted, sincerely. It was already kind of happening. I thought about the exchanges between myself, Devon, and Tristan. Even Sasenti and me, or the four of us together. Some of it would make a good story.

 

And hell, the Game would make an awesome story! No one would believe it, but still…

 

“Well, awesome!” He leaned forward again. “So, what was it that Tristan said that was so funny?”

 

The three hours of my shift ended up going by pretty quick after that.

 

 

“We’ve totally got this, Shane!” Zinc was looking somewhere off into the distance, his eyes suspiciously shiny. “You’re gonna be the Endgame winner, for sure!”

 

I sighed, slowing my pace to put some distance between us. “I only said that because I got annoyed. There’s no way I’ll beat Sasenti and Devon.”

 

“Don’t think like that!” He whirled on me, balling one hand into a fist. “Besides, Sasenti doesn’t even have all five Links yet.”

 

“Neither do I,” I reminded him wryly.

 

“But you will!” Zinc nodded vigorously, and beamed at me. “Tonight, for sure, we’ll get you a Despair Link. I can feel it.”

 

There probably wasn’t anything I could say that would dampen his enthusiasm – but being the pessimist that I was, I just had to keep trying. “And what if she gets one tonight, too?”

 

“Then we’ll still beat her to the prison!” He balled the other fist, like he was preparing for a fight of some sort. “You and I, we’re unstoppable! Not even Devon will – ”

 

My subconscious searching tapped into the familiar Link feeling at that point, and a wash of something that made me want to cry flooded my brain. It was like everything was pointless – I might as well not even go on.

 

Despair.

 

And then it settled back into that sort of pulsating awareness. I took in a breath. “This one’s going to be hard, isn’t it?”

 

Zinc didn’t even deny it – but he offered me an encouraging smile. “You can handle it, Shane!”

 

I wasn’t so sure about that, but it was pointless to tell him that. “I think it’s pretty close.” Very close, in fact. I was a little surprised I hadn’t noticed it sooner. “This way.”

 

The Link was about two blocks from my house. I saw it even before we were close – through a doorway into some appropriately bleak-looking world. I wasn’t sure if it was the grey glow from the Link that was causing the place to look all black and white or if it was the natural coloring there, but the landscape looked pretty bare either way.

 

I could feel the sense of despair around the thing even from that distance. It got stronger with every step. Like it was trying to discourage me from getting closer to it. I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore it, focusing on that glow…

 

And then, all of a sudden, it flashed – and disappeared. Even the sense of it was gone.

 

I stared at the empty street for a moment, then looked to Zinc. “What just happened?”

 

“Uh…” He gave me an uncertain look. “I’m not sure.”

 

Figured. “Something your training didn’t cover?”

 

“No, no, it’s not that!” He waved both hands in denial. “I mean, normally they don’t move like that, but when they do, it usually means someone’s messing around with the gateways. Trying to go somewhere specific.”

 

I had to think about that for a bit. “What, like trying to travel between worlds or something?”

 

Zinc nodded. “Yeah, something like that. But as far as who did it…” He spread his hands helplessly.

 

Yeah, that would probably be hard to track down. I wondered if it had been one of the other three Players – and then a thought occurred to me. “Are there other Players out there?”

 

“There are other Games, yeah. Lots of them.” He shrugged. “But they get their own portals and Links and stuff. These ones are focused in this area only – so if they get messed up, it means someone nearby did something.”

 

“How big is ‘this area’ exactly?”

 

Zinc frowned, eyes growing distant for a moment. “Probably just around the outside of your city. Maybe as far as the next city over. Kind of hard to say – it shifts sometimes.”

 

Well, that narrowed it down a little. “Then it’s probably one of the others, isn’t it?”

 

“Maybe.” He looked doubtful. “Players don’t usually know how to manipulate portals and stuff. Even I don’t know how that stuff works. We’re not supposed to mess around with it.”

 

“Well, someone did.” Honestly, I couldn’t see why any of the others would bother. It wasn’t like you could tell which worlds had which Links in them, so it wouldn’t exactly help with winning the Game. But who else would do it?

 

I tried to push that thought aside – it wasn’t going to do me much good to wonder about it. When I got a chance to talk with Sasenti, maybe she would have an idea. “Should we keep looking for Links, or do you think it’s too dangerous?”

 

He seemed to brighten at that. “I think it’s probably – ”

 

“Shane!” That was Sasenti’s voice. I turned quickly, and found her running towards me. Before I could ask, she yelled, “Come with me, quick – Tristan’s been hurt!”

 

“What?” For a moment, the words didn’t seem to make sense – and then I abruptly felt cold. “You mean, an Illusion…” I couldn’t even finish that thought. It was just… I had no qualifier for it. My mind blanked.

 

Tristan’s been hurt…

 

Sasenti came to a halt beside me, breathing heavy. Her bandana was askew and I could see that she was sweating from the exertion. The normally untouchable air around her was pretty well gone. “He ran into a spirit demon,” she explained, tensely, and tugged at my hand. “Come on.”

 

I let her pull me along. Spirit demon… That was worse than an Illusion. One hundred times worse. An icy shiver ran down my spine – and I had to force myself to ask the next question, because I had an awful feeling that the answer wouldn’t be good. “So, when you say hurt… how badly do you mean?”

 

“Really bad.” Sasenti was jogging now, and I had to join her in order to keep up. “Ivory’s with him. I sent Jade to get Devon. She said the three of us might be able to do something. Without the fifth Item, we can’t be sure, but hopefully…”

 

Hopefully. I quickened my pace.

 

Tristan turned out to be close to the school, a good ten blocks from my house. Considering how athletic I was (not), the fact that I managed to jog the whole way there was a miracle. My lungs felt like they were going to explode, but at the sight of the prone body on the grass in front of us, I forced my aching legs to speed up.

 

“Found him,” Sasenti wheezed out as we came closer, and collapsed onto her knees at almost the same moment that I did. “Jade’s on the way, too.”

 

At first glance, I was convinced that we were too late – Tristan looked like he wasn’t moving, wasn’t even breathing. And if the spirit demon had – had snatched his soul, what could we do? How would we help?

 

As I stared, though, I noticed his chest was still rising – not much, and not like a healthy person’s would, but it was something.

 

So there’s still a chance…

 

The tiny auburn-haired figure who had been hovering over Tristan’s ashen face with one small hand on his cheek looked up at us, and I was startled by the stubbornly set expression on her face. “Lend me your power,” she demanded, holding out her free hand imperiously. There was no trace of shyness – or tears – about her; she was all business.

 

Zinc floated to the ground to my right. “Take out the Key, Shane.” His voice was strangely subdued.

 

I reached into my pocket without question and held the Item out.

 

Ivory placed her hand over the silvery surface, and I felt a jolt as she seemed to literally suck the energy from me, through the place where my palm pressed against the Key. My vision gained a red tint, and I choked on my next breath, feeling my whole body twitch.

 

What…?

 

“You’re taking too much!” I heard Zinc protest, his voice gaining a panicked edge. “Stop it!”

 

Little black spots were dancing in front of my eyes; I struggled to remember how to breathe.

 

“I know what I’m doing!” Ivory snapped back at him. I felt another pull, and heard myself squeak embarrassingly; in front of me, Tristan’s body jerked like he had been struck by electricity.

 

And then her hand lifted, and it was like whatever had been holding me upright let go abruptly; I fell forward onto Tristan’s chest, too exhausted to move.

 

What the hell was that?

 

“Shane! Are you okay?” I could feel Zinc’s hand on my shoulder. My eyes were open, and I was looking right at him, but he was a hazy blur. “Answer me!”

 

“I’ve got him,” Sasenti’s voice said suddenly, and then her hands were pulling me backwards. For a disorienting moment, it felt like I was floating, and then she laid me back against the grass. “My turn?”

 

“We need to wait for Jade to get here,” Ivory responded, her voice strained but clear. In the part of my brain that was struggling to regain consciousness, I had to marvel at the complete turn-around her personality had done.

 

Having someone important to you in danger obviously did that to a person.

 

“Shane…” Zinc was beside me again; I felt his hand on my forehead. “I told you you were taking too much, Ivory!” he accused, sounding angry. “He’s not even responding! It’s only supposed to make them tired!”

 

“I did not take too much! I did exactly what I was trained to!” Ivory sounded understandably frustrated. “Your Player was already tired from running.”

 

Pulling in a long breath, I managed to summon enough energy to force words out. “I’m… all right.” It was kind of a pathetic-sounding whisper, but better than nothing. My eyes, on the other hand, still wouldn’t focus properly, and my muscles felt like they’d turned to jello. “Tristan…”

 

“Just let him rest,” a not-very-familiar female voice said. I closed my eyes and then opened them again, and saw another blurry Guide shape above me. “Humans are resilient. He’ll be up in a few minutes.”

 

“What the fuck is going on?” Devon’s voice demanded from somewhere a little further away, and I heard rushed footsteps. “I thought you said this thing attacked Tristan – what happened to Shane?”

 

“He didn’t react well to whatever Ivory did,” Sasenti answered him, obviously struggling to sound calm. “Apparently he’ll be fine in a bit. Jade, come on – our turn.”

 

“Fuck.” I felt someone sit down hard beside me. “What the hell did she do?”

 

I shut my eyes again, and when I opened them the next time, my vision was a little clearer. Devon was staring down at me; when I met his gaze, he grimaced.

 

I guess it’s kind of nice that he cares even when he’s pissed at me.

 

“… hey.”

 

He shook his head. “Fucking ‘hey’, he says. What the hell?” My vision was clearing, so I could sort of see the tension in his expression and posture. “Are all four of us supposed to end up in a fucking coma or what?”

 

“It takes a fair amount of energy to draw his soul back to his body before the demon consumes it,” Coal’s drawling voice pointed out. “Even more to ensure that the tie is severed and it’s not drawn right back out again. Being in a coma is an improvement for him – and it’s certainly preferable to being dead. The rest of you are far better off.”

 

I felt Devon tense up; his hand reached over his shoulder instinctively. “Could it come back, after we’re all fucking laid out?”

 

“It went back into the portal, and closed it,” Ivory answered him, a little too evenly.

 

“Unlikely, then,” Coal conceded.

 

“We’re done,” Jade announced, and then I felt someone else slump down on my other side.

 

“Holy hell,” Sasenti’s voice said, tired and fervent. Her head rested near mine, and when I looked over, her eyes were also unfocussed. “That was… intense.”

 

Devon pushed himself off the ground. “Guess we’re up.”

 

Zinc snapped his fingers suddenly. “That’s what caused the Link to move! That spirit demon was closing portals on us and moving around! No wonder.”

 

“Is Tristan… gonna… be all right?” The words still weren’t coming easily. I turned my head towards my Guide, and was relieved to be able to see him more or less clearly. Obviously I was starting to recover.

 

Zinc looked over his shoulder. “He’s got a lot more color now,” he told me, and offered a reassuring smile. “Plus, he was still breathing when you got here, so his chances are good.”

 

Thank god. I shut my eyes, letting out a long breath and feeling even more boneless than before. The sweat that had built on my skin from the run was starting to feel chilly, and goosebumps were forming on my arms where the T-shirt didn’t cover them.

 

We’d managed to save him, then. It was okay.

 

so it was probably okay if I rested my eyes for a bit, right?

 

 

The fact that I was moving was probably what woke me up – the talking didn’t register until I was already partly awake.

 

“… nice if one of us had found Healing,” Coal’s voice drifted through the rapidly clearing haze over my mind. “This would have more or less been a moot point, if that were the case.”

 

I vaguely realized that my head was resting uncomfortably on the back of someone’s shoulder – I was being carried piggy-back-style.

 

“Figures that’s the one that’s still missing,” Zinc’s voice responded, from somewhere in the world outside of my half-awake mental fog.

 

I probably should’ve realized who was carrying me, but it didn’t quite click until I heard Devon’s voice say, from right next to my face, “Any chance one of us could – I don’t know – go fucking look for it?”

 

The effect on my nerves was pretty similar to the time I’d absent-mindedly stepped into an icy-cold shower. I shot bolt upright.

 

And realized immediately what a bad idea it was to sit up when you’re riding on someone’s back. Devon stumbled and just about fell; the motion gave me some unpleasant vertigo. “The fuck?” he demanded, glaring over his shoulder at me once he’d managed to steady himself.

 

“Sorry! I just – didn’t exactly expect to be… here.” I could feel my face getting red, and tried to focus on something else. “What happened with Tristan?”

 

“He woke up,” Zinc supplied, helpfully. He floated over to where I could see him, peering at me anxiously. “You were out way longer than he was – are you okay?”

 

“Yeah.” I felt a little shaky – and still tired – but I didn’t feel like admitting that. It was kind of embarrassing that I was worse off than the guy who’d actually been hurt. “Uh, you can let me down,” I told Devon. All things considered, it was a little awkward being that close to him.

 

“Good. You’re fucking heavy.” He bent his knees and let go of my legs so that I could stand on my own. Trying not to think about how little I actually wanted to let go of him, I ended up pulling away too fast – and then had to try to hide the fact that my legs buckled as soon as I was standing on my own.

 

I was just doing great overall, wasn’t I?

 

“So what happened while I was sleeping?” I asked, desperate to divert some attention away from my pathetic state. Zinc was eyeing me suspiciously, Coal looked a bit amused, and Devon had already turned away, rolling his eyes. “Is Tristan okay now?”

 

“Well, he’s not exactly one hundred percent,” Coal answered me, as we started moving along again. “Your friend Sasenti was going to see him home – at his particular request. Something about taking a walk with a beautiful lady.” He spread his hands with overly exaggerated innocence. “Therefore, the two of us were in charge of getting you back to your house.”

 

Particular request? Tristan had never had any luck hitting on Sasenti – and I kind of doubted he’d been serious about his attempts. I glanced sideways at Devon, who raised an eyebrow at me. He obviously didn’t buy it any more than I did – but he hadn’t protested being pretty well manipulated into carrying me home.

 

It was probably better not to bring that up, though. “Did he say anything about what happened?”

 

“Yeah, it was – ”

 

“He did, in fact.” Coal talked right over Zinc, earning himself a glare – which he ignored. “He was pursuing a Link – Despair, I believe – and the demon took him by surprise by emerging from an entirely different gateway. There was not much fight, and it left shortly after draining him.”

 

Draining. That thought was enough to make my blood run cold. “Not that I’m complaining, but if it already ate his soul, how did we manage to get it back?”

 

“‘Ate his soul’?” Coal raised an eyebrow at me. “That’s an… interesting way to put it. Although I can make an educated guess where the idea came from.” He glanced sideways at Zinc.

 

“Shut up! It’s basically the same thing.” Zinc’s expression was irritated. “And it makes it easier to explain.”

 

Coal nodded sagely. “The simple minds always take the easier path.”

 

“What was that!?”

 

I cut in before they could get distracted. “So spirit demons don’t take people’s souls?”

 

“That one sure as hell took his,” Devon reminded me. “This is the first time I found out you could get it the fuck back, though. Is there an expiration date, or what?”

 

“Not precisely.” Coal easily took up the thread of the conversation again, ignoring my Guide’s continuing glares. “There’s a connection between soul and body that doesn’t like to be severed. If the soul is removed, the person’s energy will be spent maintaining that connection. A single person doesn’t have enough to pull the soul back – that’s where the other Players come in.” He motioned towards Devon and myself. “A Guide can transfer energy from another Player to their own by means of the Item.”

 

“Yeah, Guides are synced up to their Players,” Zinc added, apparently willing to let go of his grudge temporarily in order to add his two cents to the conversation. “But not other Players – so you need the Item.”

 

That kind of explained why Items were so important. It didn’t give me the answer I was looking for, though. “Okay, so spirit demons take souls, but don’t eat them – if that’s the case, what do they do with them?”

 

“Being a second level demon – that is to say, not a pocket demon – requires an aura of power,” Coal explained. “For shadow demons, the power comes from negative energy – for spirit demons, souls. The body needs to release the connection to the soul before it can be absorbed, which takes a certain amount of time.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “That’s probably the reason most spirit demons make contracts that are fulfilled upon death. I’d imagine it simplifies the process.”

 

“I’ll fucking bet,” Devon commented, sounding wry. Then he frowned. “Ivory said it looked like this one was looking for something – like it came out thinking it was close, noticed it wasn’t, and went back in to move the portal somewhere else. Tristan was just in the wrong place at the wrong fucking time.”

 

“Certainly a plausible theory,” Coal commented, with a shrug. “Spirit demons are rather intelligent, and they’re known for fixating on their targets. It wouldn’t be surprising if it were to attempt to track a person who’d eluded a contract or been aggressive in refusing.”

 

Fixating? That triggered a memory. Zinc’s voice, back on the first day we’d gone hunting for Links and found the Key. “It’s probably all fixated with you now, so it’ll keep searching until it finds you.” That had been after I’d gotten the Key and used it to get away from –

 

I stopped in my tracks.

 

“Shane?” Devon came to a halt a few paces ahead of me, turning. “Something wrong?”

 

Yeah, there might be something wrong. “Zinc.” My voice came out sounding kind of funny. It wasn’t quite fear – yet – but I felt tense. On the verge of a really bad realization, almost. “Remember that spirit demon guarding the Key?”

 

He blinked at me. “Yeah, but that was – oh.” His eyes widened. “Oh.”

 

Yeah, oh. “Say it tracked me here.” That was the obvious part. “Say it got close enough to run into Tristan.” The obvious connection.

 

“How long do you think it would take to find my house?”

 

Zinc bit his lip. “Well…”

 

Answer enough. I could feel the beginnings of a swell of panic swirling around at the pit of my stomach. “Could it do anything to my family, if time is stopped like this?”

 

Zinc’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. Beside him, Coal was conspicuously silent.

 

I broke into a run.

 

 

To be honest, I have no idea how I managed to keep running the rest of the way to my house. I also have no idea how I kept ahead of Devon, because I knew he was following me. Maybe he did it on purpose, just keeping pace with me. Or maybe he was still kind of tired himself and didn’t have the same adrenaline rush that gave me the motivation.

 

It didn’t matter, because all I could think was that my parents were at the house… my sister was at the house… and they were trapped in time, frozen and helpless, and that thing was going to find them – it probably already had – and I had to get there. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there, but that didn’t matter either.

 

I was the one who’d caused this. I brought this to them.

 

Please be okay!

 

The house looked normal when I burst through the door, heart pounding away at my chest like it was trying to break free. My mother was at the table, frozen in the middle of reaching for a puzzle piece, and my father was caught with the milk carton halfway pulled out of the fridge.

 

Neither of them looked hurt, but I couldn’t relax yet.

 

Those your folks?” Devon asked from behind me, sounding a bit on the breathless side. “They look all right.”

 

The play area in the living room was empty. Her nap, the small corner of my brain that was still attempting rational thought told me, She’s probably in her room sleeping.

 

Without bothering to answer Devon, I turned and bolted up the stairs.

 

The hackles on the back of my neck were raised before I even reached for Nicky’s door handle. My instincts were screaming at me not to open it, but I gritted my teeth and swung it open anyway.

 

There was nothing disrupted in the room. The dresser, the bed, the curtains – nothing was even the slightest bit out of place. But Nicky wasn’t in her bed.

 

She was at the window, frozen in a sleeping pose.

 

In the arms of the same spirit demon that had attacked me before.

 

No…

 

The demon’s white glowing eyes trained on me, and it smiled – a small upturn of its colorless lips that sent icy tendrils of fear shooting through my veins. A portal opened behind it, and it stepped through, still meeting my gaze. Then it stepped away, vanishing into the darkness somewhere beyond.

 

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