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G First Day of Class - This role Play is open to any and all.

90 posts in this topic

Max couldn’t help but chuckle to himself as Ms Clearwater marked him nearly immediately. He hadn’t figured she might have known his sister but upon turning his head to look at her, he revised that thought. Ms Clearwater was probably the youngest teacher currently in the school; she looked like she was just out of school herself. He nodded to her but turned away again as she spoke to Kess about some paper or other that she had written. For a moment, Max was confused; wondering why Ms Clearwater had wanted to meet and yet all she wanted to talk about was Kess’s schoolwork. When she stood up and walked away, Max swivelled on his backside and looked down at the note the teacher had left for Kess.

 

Well, well, she is cleverer then I could have guessed. He thought as his eyes quickly scanned the message. Ok, I get that she wants to meet in the library. But what is the ‘records 1929’ bit about. I’d imagine a meeting time of some sort? I’ll have to figure it out soon. As he was thinking to himself, Kess swung herself to her feet and announced she had left her history stuff in her locker. Max pulled himself to his own feet and nodded in answer to her question.

 

“Sounds like a plan Kess. Although I won’t be able to share everything before you have to rush off. I’ve also got my Physics class to get to.†Kess hopped over the patio wall and onto the grass on the other side, Max following suit by stepping over it with a twisted lunge, and headed towards a set of double doors. When they were through them, Max ducking under the frame, Kess immediately shot across to her locker while asking Max what he was going to explain first. It was a question Max was thinking of and he decided to start with John and what really happened to him.

 

“Look, I’m sorry about last night when I mentioned John. It was stupid of me and I shouldn’t have said anything, his death was…†he stopped as he noticed Kess completely out of it trying to get in to her locker. Before he could continue when she was paying attention, Kess started speaking again and Max smiled. Kess was certainly a talker, she could talk for an Olympic sport, and she currently wasn’t giving Max a chance to carry on.

 

And he never did as Kess suddenly drifted off and stared down at her notebook. Max followed her gaze and noticed the yellow petal pressed between the pages. A pleasant breeze brushed against his back but he ignored it as Kess wondered how the petal had gotten there. Then she commented on a breeze and Max suddenly stood up straight as Kess shoved her notebook into his hands. A breeze, with no windows? Wait…why does that sound wrong? Something about the windows? He tried catching the thought that had snagged like a twig in a river but it escaped before he could get a hold of it.

 

Kess was saying something about smelling and feeling but Max was oblivious as he could only feel a pressure behind his eyes that was building, like someone was drilling into his brain. As he gazed at Kess, and the wall behind her, a flickering image of glass appeared and he had to raise his hand to his head, massaging his temples. “Kess…†he said as the girl spoke about Culver removing their awareness of the windows. The pressure was still building but as he stared at the wall, it flashed to windows a couple more times but the image wouldn’t hold.

 

I can feel something actively inhibiting my ability to perceive the windows. Max thought through the pain of the pressure. But Kess seemed to break through it without a problem, and that means it can be done. He focused on seeing the windows and believing they were in front of him and suddenly, like a taught wire snapping under pressure, the windows appeared in front of him and the pain in his head was gone. Kess seemed perplexed and Max was equally so.

 

“This is beyond anything Culver has done before, Kess. It was always so normal before, easy to deal with or fight against. My logical mind tells me this affect can be achieved through science and technology but as for your last question; I cannot even fathom why Culver would do it like this instead of simply removing the windows. I wonder if anyone else has been able to break through the illusion.†He muttered quietly before looking up to a clock at the wall and realised they had 5 minutes till the beginning of their next class. They had been staring at the wall/window for about 20 minutes without realising it. What is going on? We need to talk to Ms Clearwater, to find out what she wants and what she knows.

 

“Kess, we’ll go to our classes now. I’ll get a note to Ms Clearwater and we’ll meet her in the library after school. They have those study rooms in there and it’ll just look like Ms Clearwater is tutoring us. Obviously with us being separate years, if anyone asks, she’ll be tutoring you and I’m there to help and alleviate the boredom you would no doubt feel in such a session.†He paused and passed Kess’s notebook back to her. “I’ll explain what I was going to in the privacy of that room, I’m not sure I trust anywhere else at the moment. I’ll see you later, Kess.â€

 

With that said, Max quickly strode off without waiting for Kess to reply. Culver was up to something more dire then he had attempted previously and he wasn’t about to let him get away with it. The problem was he was going to have to attend school to keep up appearances and to keep Culver satisfied that he was under his watch. He briefly considered skipping school altogether but with his Father home shortly, he didn’t dare. He could probably persuade his sister eventually, but not his Father, that was a whole other ball game. One that he wasn’t willing to start playing just yet, not until he figured out exactly what Culver was up to.

 

Without looking he ripped a poster off the wall, something about band practice, and folded it in half to hide the writing, leaving him a blank page to write on. He pulled out his pen and quickly scribbled a simple message.

 

Message received, after school, library.

 

It didn’t look anything like his normal handwriting and that was exactly how he wanted it. Max then detoured towards the teachers’ lounge/office area and knocked politely on the door. There was a pause of a couple of seconds before the door swung open and a man in his fifties opened the door, glancing up surprised at Max. Max thought his name was Mr Greenwood; he wasn’t one of his teachers. He was also pretty harmless.

 

“Can I help you?†Mr Greenwood asked.

 

“Sir, you wouldn’t happen to have an envelope nearby would you?†he asked as politely as he could.  Mr Greenwood paused for a second, seemingly confused by the request, but disappeared into the room and reappeared with a standard envelope in hand. Max took it with thanks and slipped his note into it, sealing it and handing it back to Mr Greenwood. “Could you put that in Ms Clearwaters’ pigeon hole please?â€

 

“I don’t know if she has one yet, I’m afraid.†Mr Greenwood said but he kept hold of the envelope. “But I can ensure she gets it if you want, is it important?â€

 

Max reached up to scratch his head. “Not particularly, but it’d be nice if she received it today; you know, the quicker the better and all.â€

 

“I’ll see what I can do.â€

 

Max nodded his thanks and Mr Greenwood disappeared back into the room, leaving Max to stride off in the direction of his next class. Not that he would be paying much attention; he needed to think hard about what Culver was up to.

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Kess spent the remainder of school searching for hidden windows. Every now and then, a dull pain would roll through her head, but it was more of an annoyance than anything. It was much more difficult when there weren't any open; even when running a hand along the wall, Kess could still miss them. She found (during class) that if she pictured the moment she'd first seen through the illusion, the other illusions around her would sometimes become more evident. Once she saw the difference she couldn't quite name, all Kess had to do was call up a memory about that spot. The view, the smell, whatever had happened in that location would wake up her perception. It was harder since she hadn't been in the building very long, but it was better than nothing.

 

"Science and technology, huh?" Kess mumbled. Max and her had lost 20 minutes of time and forgotten that the hall windows existed. Losing time was normal for Kess, but there was no way that sanctuary of light would have left her memory on accident. On the other hand, there could be another factor she was missing that worked in tandem with the illusion.

 

No way, Kess crossed her arms. She eyed the spot behind the teacher's desk until the window appeared.

 

This can't be scientific business without Culver having physical access to our brains, right?

 

The bell jerked her out of her musing and, when the aisle was clear, out of her classroom. She spent a few minutes taking pictures of a girl's lecture notes and promising to return the favor later. Between that time and reaching her row of lockers, Kess was one of the later ones left inside. She worked the locker combo and switched out all her books before noticing a boy with bright red hair squinting at the window bank.

 

Seconds later, the kid yelped in surprise. Kess was going to shoot him a smile, but he seemed more terrified than triumphant. He ran straight to Dawn Knight, who was passing through the hallway, and pointed frantically at the broken illusion. Before Kess could warn him, the kid had spilled the whole story. Kess shouldered her bag and slammed the locker shut. Miss Knight would probably scold him and send him off. It would be fun to see her face when the illusion broke for her, though. Kess reopened her backpack and pretended to fish for her phone.

 

The kid got a scolding all right, but he didn't get sent off. Miss Knight kept a hand clamped around the kids' arm and tugged him right past Kess instead. Kess hurriedly shoved headphones in her ears and pretended to pick some music. She tilted her face as much as she could to see where Knight and the kid were going. Rather than turning down the hallway, Knight unlocked the door to the teacher's lounge and led him inside. Kess frowned in apprehension and tucked her phone into her pocket. Should she text Max?

 

Miss Knight re-emerged two seconds later and locked the door from the outside.

 

"Miss Carter," she strode toward her, "what are you still doing here? Stop lagging around and go home so you can get your homework done."

 

Kess edged the slightest bit backwards before forcing her feet toward Knight. Two days, and Kess' name was already known at the office. Great. Kess sped toward the doors as fast as walking could take her.

 

"Okay, sorry, I was just...never mind. Bye."

 

____________________________________________________

 

The lounge door opened, and the kid edged behind a small round table.

 

"No need for any of that," a deep voice filled the room, "you're not in trouble yet. We only want to ask you what happened to cause you to see."

 

Freckled hands clenched the table's edge.

 

"Well," his voice squeaked out, "the first thing was watching a really tall guy and someone staring at the wall. And then all the sudden they jumped back and then I had to get back to class so I didn't see, but some of the walls were different, so I wanted to know why. I'm not gonna get kicked out, right? Miss Knight said-"

 

The boy quieted as Culver interrupted.

 

"What do you remember about the two of them?"

 

"Not much about whoever else, cause the guy was so tall, he basically covered- Oh! I know him," the kid jumped at the info, "everybody knows him. The guy who can't fit through most doorways. Can't quite catch his name, but I could show you..."

 

"No need," the President reassured the kid, and strode toward the lounge door.

 

"Uh," the kid shifted nervously, "it's all good now, right? Like, I can leave?"

 

Culver stepped into the hallway, ignored the kid, and locked the door. He ran a hand inside his jacket and fingered the letter from Val that he'd just stolen back. It was time to set up a warning conference with Maxwell Ruine.

 

___________________________________________________

 

Kess shucked her backpack and let the house door hang open.

 

“Hey Dad, you home?†Kess called, just in case. Of course, the rooms stayed quiet. As the bus trundled slowly off, Kess folded her arms and held back a sigh. She forgot just how much space there was in the living room sometimes.

 

That was true even when her dad wasn’t jumpy and paranoid. The current change in his conduct just accentuated the need for a serious conversation about phone tracking and leaving the room completely empty.

 

“Not completely,†Kess dumped her Chemistry and History texts onto the stairs.

 

“His books are still there. And the flashlight by the door. And that other thing, whatever it was.â€

 

After Kess did dishes, did laundry, reorganized her room, and read through some History, there was no avoiding the silence in the house. Kess wandered into the kitchen and opened the butterscotch chips, thinking about everything at once. A few handfuls in, Kess’ eyes landed on a bowl full of apples.

 

“Muffins!â€

 

Kess smiled at her idea. She hadn’t made caramel apple muffins in a long time, and she could bring them with her. It would make the meeting seem more casual to anyone walking past. Kess immediately raided the kitchen for everything necessary.

 

Is there any possible way Dad could know that school’s doing something illusion-y? What’s this stupid conference about, anyway? Is it the same conference as Val’s letter?

 

By the time she’d set the timer for the oven, Kess had processed through the kid after school, the librarian and Ms. Clearwater, and her dad’s tentative promise to return in a week. She’d avoided thinking about what happened in Culver’s office until sitting down to wait. Her notebook was still open to flashlights and storm clouds from Language class. Kess mind played last nights’ events one more time, and she leapt up to get her laptop.

 

“Okay, Google, I know I’m probably overreacting, but…†Kess kicked her feet while the page loaded. She spoke as she typed.

“Can you choke someone to death with one arm?â€

 

The search turned up with several different answers and a few chokehold how-to videos. Kess bit her lip as she read through them. The answers weren’t very helpful for Kess’ purpose. She found herself ignoring them to stare at one of the videos’ icons. She’d never wanted to learn anything like that, but due to what had started happening, it could be important enough…Kess picked one at random and clicked. About an hour later, Kess had two dozen steaming apple caramel muffins and theoretical knowledge of a sleeper hold. She doubted she actually understood the mechanics and didn’t think she’d put them to use. However, it was nice to know it was called ‘sleeper hold’ instead of ‘toxic instant death hold’ or something.

 

The muffins cooled on the kitchen table while Kess laughed at herself.

 

“Toxic instant death hold. I have no idea what I’m doing. Time to think about something else.â€

 

As soon as some muffins were wrapped in layers of protection and warmth, Kess eased them into her backpack with her Language notebook. At the last moment, Kess ripped the page with flashlight sketches out. There wasn’t any need for those at the meeting.

 

There was just enough time to grab dinner before heading to the library. Kess double-checked the walking time before heading out the door. She’d seen a café her first day in town that she had yet to try. Plus, the idea of staying in the house to make dinner gave Kess a slight headache. At least in town there’d be other people. Kess locked her door behind her and breathed in the last bit of summer air. The forecast was cooler by the day, and soon the leaves would be brilliant and beautiful. Kess would also be seventeen. If she found the right place, if she passed all the tests, she could finally learn to ride…some bike or another.

 

She resolved to ask Max where he’d learned. Maybe she could go from there.

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At last, the final bell rung and Max strode out of the classroom with the intent to get home as soon as possible. As he moved through the corridors, heading to the main entrance, he caught sight of a girl looking confused while staring at a wall. He guessed she was a freshman and for a second he wondered what she was doing. Then he moved his gaze to the wall and with a pulse of pain through his temples, he realised it was one of the banks of windows that Culver had somehow removed from people’s perceptions. It didn’t take Max long to realise that the illusion had broken for the girl as well. Teems of students were pouring into the hallways now, but before Max could push through to the girl, Dawn Knight appeared and dragged her away.

 

Max started moving, people quickly getting out of his way, but when he rounded the corner he saw Dawn taking the girl through a doorway and when he tried to open it, he found it had been locked. What the hell? He thought but decided not to hang around; the meeting with Ms Clearwater couldn’t come fast enough.

 

So without further delays, Max left the building and headed over to where he had parked his bike. However, as he was about to mount, he felt a tingling in the back of his neck and he turned around to see Culver stood at a window, looking out at him. Max returned his stare, locking his eyes and telling the man he would stop his game, all through his stare. Max also now knew that Culver knew about his and Kess’s night time adventure; Culver’s stare told him that. He also knew about the guard Max had knocked unconscious, but Max still didn’t know why he had covered that up; he could have used that to get rid of Max if he had wanted to. With a grin and a wave, Max got on his bike, slipped his helmet on, and drove off quickly, leaving Culver to stare at his exhaust fumes.

 

When he got home, he found his sisters car parked outside; alongside a heavy silver car that Max was pretty sure was a Dodge Charger. Who the hell’s car is that? He thought as he parked his bike behind his sister’s car, blocking her in but leaving enough room for the Charger to get out when it needed to. When he entered the house, he placed his helmet on the table by the door and walked straight through to the living room, where Kit was sat on the sofa next to a man Max didn’t recognise.

 

“What’s up Kit?†Max said and both Kit and her visitor looked up to him stood just inside the doorway.

 

“Max, are you staying in tonight?†Kit asked immediately, without preamble.

 

Max narrowed his eyes slightly but decided the question was innocent enough with strangers about. “No, I’m going to the library later.â€

 

“The library?†Kit said with a disbelieving tone.

Max just smiled. “Yeah, the library, with Kess.†Kit raised an eyebrow with a look that said ‘really?’ “Don’t worry, it’s nothing nefarious. There’s going to be a teacher there and everything. Kess has got some remedial type lessons and I’m going along to lend her a hand and alleviate the boredom. But anyway, are you going to introduce me, or is he going to have to just stare at me until we exchange greetings telepathically?†he pointed down at the man.

 

The man stood up, barely coming to Max’s shoulders, and extended a hand in greeting. “Hi Max, my name is Tony, I work with your sister with the police. Specifically, I work in the area of crime prediction and prevention.†Max nodded but didn’t return the handshake, instead slipping his hands into his pocket. Tony didn’t seem to mind a simply dropped his hand to his side. “It’s a relatively knew area the local PD are working on and I’m one of the foremost experts in the field. I basically use information to predict when, where, and how a crime will be committed and put into place measures to prevent it ever happening.â€

 

Max nodded but couldn’t figure out whether Kit was using it as a warning to him or whether she was interested in him, or even if she was just professionally meeting with him. Whatever it was, Max wasn’t that interested. “It was nice meeting you, Tony. Kit, I’ll eat out tonight.†With that said, he exited the room and quickly made his way to his own room.

 

As soon as he was in, he locked the door behind him and fired up his computer, pulling Kess’s photos out of his pocket as he did so. Then he realised that the letter from Val to Culver was missing; he patted down each individual pocket in his trousers and jacket but it definitely wasn’t there. Culver. He thought immediately, although he didn’t know how the man had managed to sneak out the letter from his person. He shook his head; there was nothing he could do about it now, instead he he started researching the letterheads and symbols Kess had photographed in Culver’s office.

 

Sometime later it was time for him to leave, but nothing he had gleaned from Kess’s photos really helped them in anyway. He shrugged and put the photos in a draw, which he locked, before heading downstairs. Tony was still in the living room with Kit, but Max ignored them as he grabbed his helmet from where he had left it and quickly got onto his bike. He started the engine and was gone just as Tony stepped out of the doorway to get into his car. It started up with a rumble, and slipped out onto the street, heading in the same way Max had gone.

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Kess Carter?

Ms. Clearwater's voice wasn't fuzzy and distant like Aaron's. It so exactly matched her real one that Kess almost responded. A split-second before she did, something like a needle prick popped in her brain. A distinct memory spilled between the words of her reply; that of the Language teacher calling Kess' name on the roll sheet. The cadence, the slight hesitation before her first name, the question at the end, were all exactly mirrored in the voice Kess now heard. She  blinked a few times, hoping that would quiet whatever it was. It didn't work, so Kess stopped humming and scarfed the rest of her sandwich. The librarian had instructed her not to say anything, so she left cash under her plate and booked it for the library. Pseudo-Clearwater hushed after another minute, and Kess slowed her pace. Hopefully she could explain to the others before it came back. It would be too distracting if she suddenly stopped talking and no one knew why.

 

Kess shoved a hand into her bag and eventually scooped out a muffin. Someone else snatched immediately snatched it from her hand.

 

"Max, let me have just one-Val! It's you!"

 

Val Henders grabbed Kess in a huge hug before setting her down on the sidewalk. Her bright red hair spun over her face in the soft breeze and she let it stay.

 

"Kess, it's so good to see you, but don't go shouting my name everywhere, yeah?"

 

Val gestured ahead and Kess resumed her course to Records 1929. Val kept pace.

 

"Look, I have to be gone by the time you cross that street up there, so I can't answer most of your questions."

 

"But-" Kess cut in. Val recut over her.

 

"Hon, listen for a minute. Your dad and I pulled some pretty tight strings to keep you from being in the first round. There's got to be some strange stuff happening in your head right now, but it shouldn't get any worse for a while."

 

Kess wedged a hand in her backpack strap.

 

"Okay. Are you doing the voices, then?"

 

"Nope. But I'm trying to temporarily hold them back."

 

"What?"

 

"Kess Carter, you need to forget it and listen. You're gonna be safe as of now. But if you're involved in anything, if Culver or higher up finds out, then you're moving forward with the second group instead of the last one, and we probably won't have a safe method figured by then."

 

There was only time for one question, so Kess asked the most pressing.

 

"What about Max? Dad said not to talk to him-"

 

"And don't," Val stopped Kess in the middle of the sidewalk, "You can't be seen with him outside of normal circumstances, and you definitely can't be caught calling him. That kid's phone is so wired, but your dad's in charge of that, so he's made some stuff disappear. He is trying to help."

 

Kess crossed her arms and stepped forward. Val reluctantly let her walk and talk.

 

"This is all completely crazy, but if Dad is in charge, he can make more stuff disappear, so we can keep trying to find answers. Right?"

 

"No way. It's too complicated for that."

 

The two of them reached a rounded street corner filled by a flower shop's display. Val had come to a stop, so Kess leaned against the glass and drank in the bold color while Val continued.

 

"Kess, are you listening? There's no soft way to put this. Culver's pissed at Max. You're hanging out with Max. Very soon, if you keep this stuff up, Culver's going to be pissed at you. Your dad and I can't protect you from him after that. We'll have to move you up."

 

"Move me up to what?" Kess questioned. She traced the outline of a huge yellow flower painted on the shop door. "Is Max on the moving list?"

 

Val laughed.

 

"He's at the top, hon. Quick side note: This is really not the time. Talk to some other kids in class. I bet there's another guy with a motorbike who'll take you out somewhere."

 

"Val!" Kess glared her way, "He's not- we're just- this is business. We're working together."

 

"Then how come you're so red?" Val smirked and tapped her cheek. Kess cut her eyes back to the display flowers.

 

"Don't be stupid," she muttered. Val eyed her with a bit more seriousness.

 

"I've got to go, Kess. Just, don't you be stupid either, yeah?"

 

Kess nodded. After half a second, she turned back and grabbed Val's arm.

 

"Make sure Dad's okay?"

 

"Yeah," Val committed. The wind pulled the hair across her face again, and she hurried back down the sidewalk. Kess focused on the library doors across the street.

 

"Don't be stupid," she repeated, and began an irritated French braid. By the time she put her feet on the first cement step, Kess had her hair tightly drawn.

 

"Caramel, I just need some caramel," she murmured. She grinned at the second muffin to come out of her bag. 

 

Two bites in, Kess' face scrunched in. She forced herself to swallow against the awful taste attacking her mouth.

 

"Disgusting!" she chucked the rest of her muffin into a nearby trash can, "disgusting, I hate caramel..."

 

Kess quieted as she entered the front doors and made for the appropriate floor. Usually, this was to absorb the atmosphere and, as her aunt said, "fixate on some strange detail and go off on a rabbit trail, of those two are possible at the same time". She'd try to decide whether her aunt was right, or if Kess just enjoyed the possibilities behind things. Today, Kess ignored every floor she passed and the staircase she was climbing.

 

Why did I put caramel in them? Do people forget they hate caramel?

 

It hadn't just been forgetting, though. She'd specifically looked forward to that taste, remembered the moment she'd tried and enjoyed it. Except now she remembered that exact same moment, and not enjoying it. At all.

 

"This is too weird," Kess accidentally voiced. It would be almost cool, except for the list in Max's pocket. Her pace sped as she found the correct floor and searched through the aisles. Finally, Ms. Clearwater and some sort of answer! An idea struck her when she found Max, and she edged down the opposing side of the shelves. She pulled the foil-wrapped plate out of her bag, wincing at the slight crinkling sound. When she could see Max's arm through a gap in the shelving, Kess aimed the plate at him.

 

"Catch!" she grinned and threw it.

 

He didn't even flinch.

 

"Man," Kess grimaced, "I was so quiet! How do you do that?"

 

Don't be stupid.

 

Kess grimaced and spouted three things at once to avoid other conversations. She stuck her face through the gap to ask them, in case he couldn't make out words otherwise.

 

"Where do I learn how to ride a motorcycle? I just remembered the same memory twice different ways. Where's Ms. Clearwater?"

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Max spotted the car tailing him pretty much immediately; it was probably the only silver Dodge Charger he had ever seen. He wondered what Kit had told Tony about what he was doing, and what he had done in the past, but decided that she wouldn’t risk telling him anything specific or serious. Max suspected she had only passed on concerns that Max might be getting into something illegal and dangerous. What Max didn’t know was whether Kit had deliberately sought Tony out to try and prevent him from starting again, or whether there had been a passing comment that Tony picked up on and offered his services. Max thought about it for another minute and then gave up; how and why didn’t matter as long as Tony didn’t actually hear what was being said between Max, Kess, and Ms Clearwater.

 

In fact… Max thought … he might even leave once he sees me meeting up with Kess and a teacher; exactly what I told Kit I would be doing. As this thought passed through his head, a sharp pain like the one he had felt at school followed and Max clutched at his head. It didn’t stop though, only increased in magnitude, until Max had to swerve across the road and pull into a small gap between two cars parked along the sidewalk. He ripped his helmet off and dropped it to the ground by his feet while he swung himself off his bike; he staggered forward onto the sidewalk, clutching his head in pain.

 

In the corner of his vision, he saw the silver Charger pass by him, Tony looking at him out of the driver’s seat, but it wasn’t the focus of his attention. That was focused on the man standing before him; a man Max could swear was John Loader. “Impossible.†He said, resting a knee on the ground. “If this is Culver’s doing…†he started before a bullet hole appeared in John’s chest, right above the heart. A second hole appeared in his lower abdomen before a third one appeared above his right eye. As the last one hit, John smiled sadly before a gust of wind passed over Max and John shimmered into nothing.

 

Max could do nothing but stare, but quickly pulled himself to his feet before anyone decided to be helpful. He took a deep breath to steady himself and then pulled his phone out to look at the time. It’s not far to the library; I’ve got enough time to walk. He picked up his helmet and looped it around the handle of his bike, before locking the wheel and slipping the key into his pocket.

 

It didn’t take long before Max was in the library, not that he remembered the journey, his mind being focused on John. He came out of his stupor briefly to remember about ‘records 1929’ from Ms Clearwater’s message and he pulled out his phone to see he had 10 minutes before the allotted time. Max shrugged and continued to the meeting place anyway. When he got there, he saw that he was the first to arrive so he picked a random row of books and started looking at them like he was interested in what they were about.

 

What he didn’t see, or hear, was Tony a number of rows down form him pulling out his phone and hitting a quick dial number. It rang three times before a low rumbling voice answered it. “He’s in the library; he said earlier he was meeting with Kess, I presume of the Carter variety, and a Ms Clearwater.†He whispered into the phone. The voice replied and Tony nodded. “I’ll hang around until he’s finished and then tail him afterwards to see where he runs off to.â€

 

Max didn’t hear any of this but what he did see was a glimpse of Kess sneaking through the aisles. He didn’t react, pretending he hadn’t seen her yet, and watched out of the corner of his eye as she reached into her bag to pull out a foil wrapped plate. He frowned to himself just as she “Catch!†with a grin plastered all over her face. Max just smiled to himself as his long arm whipped out and caught the plate between his nimble fingers.

 

“How did I do that? Shouting ‘catch’ before throwing something is usually a giveaway.†Max replied in answer to her question, a grin of his own on his lips. Kess was on the other side of the aisle to him and stuck her head through a gap to speak to him. Before Max could say anything she spouted three different things in a row, two of which he could answer, one of which just confused him.

 

“Around these parts? I couldn’t tell you, I learnt out of state. I’ve no idea where Ms Clearwater is and finally, you what?†Max said, answering her questions in one go. “You remembered the same memory in two different ways? That’s a little bizarre.†He thought about sharing his own impossible mystery, but decided against it; John was personal. “I suppose we’ll have to wait for Ms Clearwater now and see what she wants. She better not be trying to stop us though.â€

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“So…it’s been like half an hour.â€

 

Kess was seated in the group study room. She’d spent the time balancing her chair on it's back two legs and folding paper cranes. Just one crane again and again, actually. As she spoke, the paper ripped along one of the early folds. Kess unceremoniously flicked it across the table.

 

“Do you think Clearwater’s okay? Who would we call?â€

 

She drew her phone from her pocket, but failed to think of a helpful number. Clearwater was less than an hour late, anyway. It was entirely possible that she simply had to take care of school stuff first. Kess Googled ‘places to get a motorbike license near me’ and paid absolutely no attention to the results.

 

“It’s probably fine. She’ll get here soon.â€

 

Kess rocked her chair forward until all four legs touched the ground.

 

“In the meantime, I can’t sit still, and this is still a library. I’m gonna go find a book or two- wait! It’s that red-headed boy!â€

 

Kess snagged Max’s arm.

 

“He broke the illusion too, but Miss Knight locked him somewhere! But apparently he got away.â€

 

She hurried after the kid’s orange hair, past a man in the records aisles and a woman on a computer. The kid’s pace picked up until he was jogging. Kess frowned when he ducked into the stairway door.

 

“Come on,†she tugged at Max to pull him through. As the door closed, she called to the kid.

 

“Hey! You got out!â€

 

The boy spun and stumbled back against the stair railing. His chest heaved and soaked hair stuck to his forehead. Jogging shouldn’t have taken that much out of him.

 

“Sorry,†Kess hastily explained, “I saw you break the illusion thingy. We both broke it, too. What's wrong?â€

 

He kept his mouth shut tight despite his heavy breathing.

 

“Oh, are you hearing something?†Kess suddenly understood. The boy froze, then stared at the ground and nodded again. Kess noticed his arm jerk against the railing, even though he kept a white-handed grip on it. Panic rose on his face and he pointed at the door.

 

“We’re not leaving,†Kess stepped toward him instead, “is there anything that might help? What can we do?â€

 

The kid shoved her in the stomach. His hand compulsively clenched her wrist, but he made himself let go. His hand on the railing unclenched too. The metal underneath it was dented to match his fingers. Shock spiked through Kess. Immediately after, pain spiked through her brain. She squinted through watering eyes at the boy’s hand. There had to be something she wasn’t seeing. This was different than the illusions though; all she could get was some sense of shadow. The illusion wouldn’t break before Kess vision dulled and she had to look away.

 

She pushed down fear and spared Max a glance.

 

“Have you seen this before? You had better tell me whatever you were going to say at lunch! Not now, though. What can we do?â€

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Why is she late? Max thought, pulling out his phone to look at the time just as Kess said that Ms Clearwater was more than thirty minutes late. Max narrowed his eyes; being late wasn’t necessarily a worry, she was a teacher and an adult after all, but Max didn’t like the coincidence. He had been vaguely watching Kess fold and refold a paper crane but really he had been thinking about things. Some of the things had been relevant, like trying to figure out a way Culver was apparently affecting the students’ ability to see physical objects, while other thoughts had nothing to do with anything, like why speed limits were a pain in the ass. He wasn’t too far deep to not notice Kess suddenly swinging forward and bouncing onto her feet, however.

 

As she said she was going to find a book, her attention was apparently drawn by someone and she explained quickly about the boy who Dawn had taken away. Even as Kess grabbed his arm and started pulling him away, his mind thought back to the girl he had seen Dawn take away after she had apparently broken the illusion of the windows. Max shook his head to bring himself back to the present and saw that Kess had moved after the boy without him. “What have I brought myself back into.†He muttered before striding after her.

 

He suddenly noticed Tony but didn’t stop to chat; in fact he didn’t do anything to indicate he had seen the man. Mmm, he could be a problem now that Ms Clearwater hasn’t shown up. He probably thinks running off with Kess was the original plan. Well, he’s not a problem as long as he sticks to only tailing…not unless Kess decides to do something dodgy; I’ll have to be careful about that.

 

Max came back to the present as Kess grabbed his arm again and pulled him through a door that led to the emergency stairs. Max finally laid his eyes on the red haired boy Kess had been referring to. He didn’t look familiar but Max noticed the fact he seemed to be completely knackered. Not knackered…scared. Kess was talking to the boy so Max let his gaze wander around the stairwell. Nothing caught his attention but he dropped his hand behind him and rested in on the handle. If he felt it move then it was probably Tony thinking they were trying to make an escape. If it moved, Max was ready to jerk the door out to knock him off balance and then closed again before ushering the boy and Kess down the stairs. Max didn’t want to have a conversation with Tony about anything; not just yet anyway.

 

Max suddenly realised that Kess was talking to him and looked back at the boy. “This is all so confusing. When I was with John, and the short time afterwards before the accident, Culver was just an annoying ass. He wasn’t altering people’s perception, or ordering receptionists to drag people into locked rooms. This is all new to me.†He paused and glanced down to his pocket that held his phone. “There is someone I could ring, John knew her, but I’d rather not. Let’s get this kid outside, he looks like he needs some air.â€

 

Max moved forward to head down the stairs, leaving Kess to prompt the boy to follow him, but as he drew level, the red-hair reached forward and grasped Max’s forearm. His head felt like someone had split it with an axe and as Max reared his head back in pain, he saw John standing at the top of the next set of stairs.

 

“No!†Max roared and twisted violently to make the red-head let go.

 

Max was 6ft 7 inches tall and his strength was proportionate; the red-head was about 2 feet smaller and built like a twig. He also didn’t let go immediately meaning that as Max spun, the boy was thrown violently through a half circle before being thrown free; directly down the flight of steps. Max watched with wide eyes as the kid cracked his head on a step and tumbled down to land in a tangled heap at the bottom step.

 

Max’s breathing had become heavy as he stared at the now immobile red-head. “Shit.†He managed between breaths.

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Max’s roaring voice punched through the stairwell. Kess jumped back at the sheer force, jolting the door in its frame. Then her own voice pierced through it while the red-haired kid flew through air. She flinched with the crack of his head against the stairstep, stopping her scream with both fists. The kid hit the landing in an awkward heap. Shock speared Kess against the door.  Max’s breathing rolled down the stairs, the only sound in dead quiet.

 

Finally she found the guts to force herself down the stairs. Just in case there was still something they could do. There wasn’t. Kess stared mutely up at Max, horror pounding in her chest.

 

“He’s…you…â€

 

She scrambled to her feet again when the door handle turned. A gun appeared first, followed by the man from the Records aisle. He kicked the door shut behind him.

 

“Hands on the railing, Max.â€

 

He’d followed them, and he knew Max by name. Kess watched the man move to cuff Max to the rail. Her weight shifted forward and her knees bent enough for a head start. But the boy on the floor stopped her. Even if Max did get away, could they just leave the kid, sprawled on the ground like that? There was still enough shock in her to freeze her to the spot, just looking.

 

“Kess.â€

 

Kess had heard her name recently. She fought to place when, and found the sidewalk on the way to the library. She couldn’t remember who’d said it, though.

 

This doesn’t matter right now, Kess shook off the thought trail. Whether Max had fought or complied, whether he’d been cuffed, knocked out, or was pretending, he was still on the higher landing. The man’s frame blocked most of Max from her sight. He repeated her name.

 

“Tell me what you just saw.â€

 

“Can we please take care of him first?†Kess pointed at the kid with a shudder. Up by the door, Max may have moved. Kess couldn’t risk a double-take, and wasn’t quite certain. She kept talking anyway, so Max could keep going. Also because she meant what she asked.

 

“What if they can, you know, revive him or something?†she tried. If there was the slightest hope…the man shook his head.

 

“He’s dead, Kess.â€

 

Kess stared down at the kid and edged toward the wall.

 

“But-â€

 

“Max killed him.â€

 

“That was completely accidental! And...he might not be dead...â€

 

“It won’t look that way later.â€

 

The man gestured to Kess’ wrist with the gun. There was a ring of purple already growing where the kid had seized it. Kess half processed his action, too busy with his words.

 

“It won’t look that way?â€

 

Reset, reset, reset.

 

Three short waves of calm kept her mind from the panic of the previous night. Kess took another step back. The man continued.

 

“It’s your call: do you want to be a victim here,†he pointed his gun back at Max, then swung it forward to her, “or an accomplice?â€

 

In response, Kess yanked a large poster off the wall and into the man’s face. He was better trained than the guard, and got his gun level with her collarbone anyway. There was a split second, while she was still dodging back, when he could have fired. But he didn’t. Kess saved that moment for later and launched upstairs toward Max.

 

“I hope you’re ready!â€

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Dead?! No, no, no, no, no, no, no, I can’t be the reason someone is dead; I can’t be! Max thought as Kess crouched over the inert red-head and confirmed his fears. I can’t have killed someone, that’s not something I’m capable of. I know! It’s Culver, it’s his ability to alter a person’s perception, he’s just making me think I killed him; he’s trying to break my mind! Max’s thoughts raced, and as they did his body froze. He had no reaction to the door opening behind him and still nothing as Tony entered with a gun in hand. Even as Tony approached and spoke to him, Max didn’t move, didn’t speak, didn’t react. Tony seemed to sense it and tucked the handcuffs he had pulled out back into his belt; Max didn’t need to be cuffed in that state.

 

This is all Culver, that son of a bitch; he’s trying to get rid of me. Trying to make sure Kess and I don’t uncover whatever the hell it is he is up to. This is way beyond what John ever told me…John, why the hell was he here? How the hell can he be here?! Max’s thoughts still held his body locked and he didn’t hear any of the conversation between Kess and Tony. Even as Kess attacked Tony with a poster off the wall and bounded up the stairs to him he didn’t react; even as she grabbed his arm to pull him back through the door they had entered, Max didn’t move. Kess’s lesser stature and strength meant neither of them moved as Tony pulled the poster off his face and aimed the black metal gun at them.

 

“MAX!† 

 

The roar was massive, making Max’s own shout sound like a whisper, and echoed up and down the staircase. Tony physically ducked as if someone had thrown something at him and Kess stiffened at Max’s side. But Max finally moved, the voice had somehow knocked him out of his stupor, perhaps because it sounded reminiscent of his own voice.

 

Tony had also recovered and was lunging up the stairs, gun held aloft in front of him but not firing, and Max reacted quickly and without thought. With a half lunge of his own he fired out his boot in an attempt to kick Tony in the face. But Tony was better trained them some half-arsed school security and weaved out of the way; but it had surprised him and he couldn’t move out of the way completely. Max’s heavy motorcycle boot caught Tony on his right shoulder and due to his own momentum added to Max fully extending his long leg, Tony was spun around and sent sprawling down the stairs.

 

“C’mon!†Max said and grabbed Kess by the hand to drag her through the door back into the library.

 

Max slammed the door behind him and ran down the aisles with Kess in tow, making sure to temper his steps less he end up literally dragging Kess along the floor considering his step would account for about 3 of Kess’s own. He didn’t look back to see if Tony was following and concentrated all of his effort on pulling Kess along and trying not to knock anyone flying. In a matter of minutes, he burst out of the front door and out onto the street. Max skidded to a stop and whipped his head back and forth to look up and down the street.

 

“Shit, shit, shit, where the hell do we go?!†He muttered, swiping his free hand through his hair to settle back in place; sprinting through a library tended to mess up a person’s hair. “Sorry, Kess, were you saying something?â€

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“I said where’s your bike parked?†Kess quickly repeated. When Max didn’t immediately reply, she glanced back at the doors and spun over the side of the stairsteps. A couple seconds later, Tony burst from the library. He favored his right ankle a bit while calling for support. In the time it took for him to check over the opposing edge of stairs, Kess and Max just managed turning the street corner. Kess copied Max and slowed down to keep at least some attention away from them. She thought that’s what he was doing, anyway. It could have just been that he didn’t have to run as fast as her.

 

Either way, Kess thought, it’s a good idea. She walked as fast as she dared, the kid’s face still fixed in her vision. Her eyes stung; she had to say something to focus again. Three short resets just weren’t enough for this.

 

“At least one of us can get out fast that way- with your bike. I can, I don’t know, blend in or something. Nobody knows me yet, so that might work.â€

 

Was everyone in the library already on the lookout for them? How long til Tony showed other cops the security footage? There weren’t any cameras in the stairwell, but there must be some clip of her and Max tearing out of the library.

 

All her questions blinked out of her mind when Tony and another cop veered around the corner. Kess and Max barely avoided running right into their silver car. They sprinted for the alleyway while the car pulled u-turn through the intersection. Kess thought about knocking trash cans and such into the road, but before she’d decided, they jumped through a clothing store’s back door.

 

Kess heard car doors slam behind her. She and Max shoved through a side door and shut it fast. Kess tripped over a rack of gardening tools and knocked a couple birdfeeders off their shelves. She threw a ten dollar bill behind her, hoping that would pay for any damage. The confused shouts of the employees were drowned by the business of the next street.

 

“A crowd,†Kess whispered between breaths, “that’s good.â€

 

Max’s height meant that all Kess had to do was stay behind him. It also meant that they were still easy to pick out. Kess’ legs were already wobbly, she felt like her head and chest would both explode if she didn’t get some water in her soon. She braked for a high-class elderly couple, who made sure their irritation was known before they resumed their walk. Kess wrenched herself out of a freeze, certain the couple would run into Tony next. Cold weight filled her as they followed the road in a wide curve. Anybody here who saw them could run into Tony, or Culver. Anybody they talked to could be working with them.

 

“So, um, we can’t go back to school,†Kess mumbled. Max was the only one who’d catch more than two words in this crowd.

 

“We can’t hide out at home. We could’ve shown real police the illusion and had them on our side, but now…â€

 

Kess pointed at some coffee shop’s outdoor seating. When Max’s head was finally not above everyone else’s she continued as quietly as she could.

 

“There’s emergency cash in my dad’s safe at home. After that,†Kess pressed her voice through a catch, “after that, I have no idea what to do.â€

 

Tony and the other cop appeared, scanning the mass of faces three doors down. Kess and Max left their chairs and ducked through the next door available.

 

Slick metal sinks. Grease on the floor. Alarms, voices, and heavy smells filled the air. The back of a fast food kitchen flew by Kess until she and Max were watching the walk-in fridge‘s door ease shut.

 

“Did they see us?â€

 

Kess thought Max shook his head. It was a small motion, though. Preoccupied. Kess sank greatfully onto a couple empty crates and swiped sweat off her face. She flexed the hand that Max had grabbed between deep breaths. It’d felt like he was crushing it, but it looked fine now. She tried to be subtle about working through some already-sore bits, but gave up. Her hands were too shaky. Kess tilted her head up to meet Max’s eyes. The redhead boy cracking his head burned through her mind. They had to run again soon, and before that, Kess needed this question answered. She asked before she could think it through any more.

 

“You could have pinned that kid with one arm. Why did you-“ Kess pushed her voice through a catch,  â€œwhy’d you throw him down the stairs? And yell like that? Was that you both times?â€

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“It wasn’t intentional!†Max growled, a little more angrily than he had meant. “Sorry.†He muttered before breathing out slowly to calm himself. The chase had blurred past in his mind, his instincts leading him more than any active choice. Kess being next to him had kept him moving until she had manoeuvred them into the large fridge. “It’s Culver; he’s done something to me, that’s the only explanation, Kess.†Kess was looking up at him at Max met her gaze; he was ashamed at what he had done, but he knew it had been orchestrated somehow.

 

“When the kid touched me, it was like the pain of breaking the illusion, but multiplied by a thousand. It felt like someone had shoved a red hot poker deep into my brain, into my very mind. But that wasn’t what caused my outburst, not completely anyway. John appeared, Kess.†Max stood up and paced along the little amount of space in the room. “As in the ‘shot-to-death’ John, as in the ‘long-dead’ John, as in the god damn John I never wanted to remember!†Max shouted the last sentence and kicked a box of something across the room, where it crumpled against the wall.

 

“I’d seen him earlier, on my way into the library, stood on the sidewalk with bullet holes leaking blood. I didn’t even see his body, Kess, how did I know where he was shot!?†he took a couple more calming breaths and leant back against the cold wall. “I have literally no idea what is going on, or why, or what to do next. I can’t even use my phone since Culver’s probably got it bugged to hell.†He reached into his pocket and pulled out the device, throwing it without car into a corner. “It’s the only way Tony could be so well placed to get in with my sister and intercept me. I just hope that Kit isn’t involved in any way.â€

 

“I don’t think she is though, she was aware of my jaunts with John and although she didn’t necessarily agree with our methods, she understood the reasoning behind it. It became a sort of secret between us and then my dad found out and then things got crazy, and then…what is going on? I’m rambling, I don’t normally ramble, is it the company? The situation? The running? No, wait…†Max paused in his torrent of words long enough to head butt the wall hard enough to send a reverberating sound around the room.  

 

With his control finally regained, Max stood up straight again and offered a hand to Kess, who took it and allowed Max to pull her to her feet. “Sorry, I shouldn’t really say that I don’t know what to do next because that’s not entirely true. That voice you heard in the stairwell, the second time, that wasn’t me. I don’t know who it was, not definitely, but the only person I know who sounds that much like me is my dad. As to whether it really was him or not is up for debate, a debate we don’t have time for. Now, we need to get out of here; grabbing the cash from your house seems like an intelligent first stop. After that we can find a pay phone and I’ll give one of John’s friends a ring; they’ll be able to help us.â€

 

Max turned to open the door but as he did so, it swung away from him on itself. Waiting for Tony’s gun to appear, Max took an intake of breath and braced himself to explode forward. There was no need to, however, as one of the kitchen staff stood at the door with a very confused look on his face. Max smiled and pushed past the man with Kess in tow. “Thanks a lot, mister!†he said over his shoulder as he led Kess out of the kitchen’s back door and onto the street again. With a glance around he didn’t see Tony or his little helper and looked down to Kess.

 

“Lead the way then, Kess. It’s not like I know how to get to your house.†He smiled before laying a hand on her shoulder. “I should mention I don’t want to hear any more about splitting up alright, staying together is always the better option.†Just don’t show her you really don’t have any idea what you’re doing! Max thought to himself while he smiled on the outside.

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Kess tucked her knees up onto the crates and nervously watched Max. She jumped as the cardboard box crumpled against the fridge wall. How close was he now to his previous freakout? What if John showed up again?

No, Max was fine til the kid grabbed him. It was the kid. Or Culver through him.

He’d been sort of fine, anyway. Kess let her feet fall back to the chilled floor while Max revealed he’d seen his best friend with bullet holes in him. That’d make Kess loose her cool, too.

“I’m sorry, Max,†Kess quietly voiced. Max leaned tiredly against the wall and kept talking. Kess leaned against some shelving and listened. Before she could ask what Max meant by “things got crazyâ€, he rammed his head against the metal plating. A second later, he was standing calmly in front of her, waiting. Kess stared at the huge hand he’d avoided extending before. There was the pronounced scar, twisting into his sleeve. She saw partly that, and partly a dim spark of an image, something distant if not imagined. Like the bit of an idea that refuses to be remembered.

Kess almost chased that spark, but Max was still waiting. She took the hand with no further thought and followed, glad that Max had a plan. It was a good thing he spoke before Kess could flash back half an hour. The quiet weight of his hand on her shoulder pushed the tension back just a little. If he was confident, maybe things weren’t so completely bad.

“No splitting up. Okay.â€

It was a gigantic relief. Kess would have hated going two steps by herself at the moment.

She shifted to double-check what intersection they were on. A slight tug told her that her hair had completely fallen wild from its bun and was now all over both shoulders. Kess yanked it back with a scowl and gathered it again as she strode for the street signs.

“Yeah, good point about the house. You’re not that strange. I mean, that’s not the kind of strange that…you…Bell and Oakbrook, that’s good. We just have to keep going this way.â€

Kess turned right, took five steps as Max took two, and halted.

“Wait, hang on. Dad’s house is straight that way. My bad.â€

She spun one-eighty degrees and started again.

“Because that way leads uphill, and the house is downhill, on Cypress…Cedar Street.â€

Kess’ stride slowed as they passed through another intersection.

“No, it’s still this way, whatever street it’s on. We just have to look for the brown one on the corner with the columns. Wait, wait, the blue one. I meant to say blue. Brown is the neighbor.â€

About a minute later, Kess breathed relief as a blue corner house with four white columns appeared between a few of the trees.

“Oh, good, I was right. Come on.â€

Kess beckoned Max to the keypad on the door handle. Four digits later, the two of them were inside.

____

“So where are they?â€

Kess’ dad reluctantly moved so Culver could see the screen.

“They’re at my house,†he mumbled to the keyboard, “I don’t know why and I don’t know where they’re going.â€

“Keep watching them. I’m sending Val in the next time they stop. I want to know where they’re headed.â€

Culver was three steps away when Kess’ dad got the nerve to ask.

“Sir? How’s Kess doing?â€

Culver almost smiled.

“She’s who we need alright. Max is the next-best fit, but he’s too strong. He wouldn’t cave until he was dead, and then there’d be nothing left to link to. Kess, though. She’s so open, a perfect pathway. If she can figure out how to seal off mental corners in other people like she has in herself, she could be the best Key we’ve had in decades. And if we’ve got one of those two, I’m sure we have the other. The compliance of someone with Max’s inherent strength could open up entirely new levels for us.â€

Culver shoved his hands into his pockets.

“But, they’re both starting to fray at the edges. That’s why they need to get here, now. Before they implode like the brat Tony allowed to escape,†Culver’s frowned as he left the room, “That idiot’s got one more chance. Call Val and tell her to go in on my signal.â€

_______________

“I’m gonna go pack. I’ll throw in an extra toothbrush for you. Wanna grab some things from the kitchen?â€

Kess was up the stairs before he could reply. She stuffed the backpack that the librarian had returned, and changed into men’s cargo pants and a salmon tank top. She tied a grey button-down overshirt around her waist as she ran for the stairs, and slid down the curved railing.

“Okay, getting the cash! Just a minute!â€

Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled that, Kess grimaced. Oh, well.

The hallway to her dad’s room was dark and hollow, the room itself still painfully clean. Kess fidgeted with her backpack on her way across the soft carpet. She shoved mattress back and, after squinting at the bottom of the thick headboard, worked a smooth wood cover off of a small keypad. Kess punched in the eleven-number sequence and held a hand out to catch what came through the unlocked door. The cash envelope came easily, and Kess stuck it in a random pocket. The other items took a couple pulls, but no more. Kess opened the other envelope and all but emptied its contents into another couple of pockets. Then she clicked the safe shut and drew the last item from its case.

Kess took the remaining magazine from the other envelope and pushed it into the handgun in her left hand. She double-checked both the safety and the date taped to the case. Apparently her dad had cleaned it three days ago. That was one good thing, at least.

Alright, then, Kess stood, took a quick breath, and stuck the handgun under her belt. The backpack, overshirt, and loose men’s pants took care of any obvious bulge. Someone might still be able to tell, but only if they were already looking. Kess looked in her father’s mirror uncomfortably. It was entirely too easy to hide.

“Max, can I ask you something?†Kess got the cleaning stuff to fit next to the flashlight and rushed down the hallway. “What do you mean by ‘stuff got crazy’?†Maybe Max’s dad was on their side. That’d be great, since who knew what happened to Clearwater? Kess bit her lip. Hopefully nothing. Hopefully, whoever Max was calling would help, and they could get on to wherever they were going.

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Max waved an ‘ok’ gesture at Kess’s question as she bounded up the stairs and disappeared from view. He stepped across the hall and stuck his head through a doorway and found himself looking into a living room, so he pulled back and aimed for the doorway opposite, leading him into the kitchen that Kess had mentioned. Max used his elbow to push the door open and ducked through to enter the room completely. When he was a couple steps in, he slipped out of his leather jacket and hung it on the back of a dining chair, leaving him only in his long sleeved t-shirt.

 

He made a cursory glance around but didn’t pick anything up or attempt to pack anything they might need. An area where Kess and I differ, apparently. He thought to himself as he picked a banana up from a fruit bowl and started bouncing it from hand to hand. Max could hear Kess rummaging around upstairs so he peeled half of the fruit and took a bite just as she shouted down that she was grabbing the money she had been talking about earlier. “Slightly loud there, Kess.†He muttered to himself and wandered further into the kitchen to take a seat at the table, twisting it so that he was facing the door.

 

Max finished the banana off and was trying to figure out where the bin was when he heard Kess quickly descending the stairs. He stood up, leaving the banana skin on the table, and stepped across to the door, opening it as Kess seemed to be doing so from the other side. This left the two of them face to face, or rather face to chest, and it left Kess open to ask a question she had clearly had on her mind since he mentioned it.

 

“I can be a bit vague sometimes, can’t I?†he said as he moved back into the kitchen with Kess just behind him. He had noticed her change of clothes but didn’t comment. “I suppose the first thing I’ll need to do is show you.†He said and without waiting for Kess to ask what it was he wanted to show, Max reached behind his head and grabbed the fabric of his top by the collar before hauling it over his head. This left him bare chested and it was clearly obvious what it was he had needed to show; the scars.

 

Firstly there was the one Kess had glimpsed before on his arm, except that it was probably much longer than she had guessed. It ran from the back of his hand, between the knuckles of his middle and ring fingers, around the back of his elbow and stopped at the curve of his shoulder. The second dark scar was on his stomach running upwards alongside a stretched six pack of muscles, and was about 8 inches long.  A third scar ran from the edge of his left armpit, across his chest on a downwards slant, and finished around the bottom right hand rib. Yet another scar ran diagonally across his left shoulder, around 6 inches long. Max turned on the spot and showed a final scar on the lower right hand side of his back, about an inch and half long but if a person knew their scar tissue, they could tell that the wound and been much deeper than the other scars.

 

“I mentioned the accident before, right? One of the reasons I stopped my extracurricular activities after…after John’s death?†Max faltered at his friends name, but continued. “Well, that accident was when my mother tried to kill me.†Max paused but kept his back to Kess; he didn’t want to see her face while he spoke of that day. Heck, I don’t want her to see my face! He thought before speaking again.

 

“It was the same day my dad discovered what I was doing with John, but he wasn’t the problem. He had decided that confronting me in front of my mum would be a way to stop me arguing too much, and he would have been right. However, as soon as John’s name was mentioned, something changed about her, she turned into something I had never seen before. Her first strike was lightning fast and cut through my skin like butter; to be expected from proper chef knives.†He ran his finger along the angled scar along his chest. “My dad had been standing in the doorway, while my mum had been at the counter on the other side of the room; I was nearer her than him.â€

 

“I managed to get my arm up in time for the second swing…†he followed the scar running up his right arm. “…and twisted to get away. My dad had started to move but my mum didn’t relent. The third shot caught me in the stomach…†his finger moved along the scar “…followed by a spinning attack to my other shoulder.†The same finger moved from his stomach to his left shoulder. “My dad was nearly there but my mum wasn’t finished as she buried the blade in my back; to the hilt. Then he was there, his hands clasping my mother around the head before twisting violently; an instant kill. Not that I knew at the time, of course, seeing as I was on the floor with a knife in my back.â€

 

“My dad works for some shady part of the government by the way, hence his reaction to someone attacking me with clear intent to kill. He used his contacts to help him clear the incident and discovered that my mum was working for a group based in Japan. They had kill orders out on anyone working with John Loader. As for why she was working for them, my dad still hasn’t figured it out. He uses Dawn as a way to keep people away from what happened to my mum.†Max picked his top up and slipped it back over his head, smoothing out the front with his hands. “But, hey, enough about me, we need some help, and I know exactly who to call. We’ll have to find a random pay phone though, I can’t risk the call being traced or listened in on. This person wouldn’t like it very much if that happened.†Max smiled sadly and pulled himself into his jacket. “Come on, let’s go.†He swept past Kess without looking at her and headed for the front door.

 

* * * * * * * * *

 

The imposing figure stood in the shadow of the doorway, using the darkness to hide his features from the people in the room in front of him. However, it was clear he was tall, considering his head was brushing the upper frame of the door. His bulk was also clear as his shoulders nearly touched either side of the door frame, giving him a clear muscled bulk.

 

The room he was looking into was some kind of large maintenance room filled with pipes and metalwork and the like. Steam hissed out at various intervals and there was the ominous sound of a continuous drip somewhere. A table had been set up in the centre of the room with a number of chairs set around it. All the chairs were occupied and woman sat on a row of pipes away from the table.

“He’ll call you soon Katy.†The figure in the doorway said, his voice rough and deep. “You know you cannot help him, right?â€

 

The woman who was sat on the pipes wiggled her legs below her and chuckled. She had vivid orange hair tied into a ponytail on the back of her head and clear green eyes. She was wearing what could only be described as military uniform complete with a heavy belt holding a number of pouches as well as a leather pistol holster on her right hand side. It was currently empty, however.

 

“Like you, eh?†Katy replied, her voice heavy with a German accent. “I’ve never listened to you before; I don’t know why I should start now.â€

 

“Because you will be pulled into something you do not want to be a part of, Katy, trust me.†The shadowed figure replied without moving from his spot in the door. “These people that are chasing him, they are not the kind of people you are used to fighting against. They are not the American government.â€

 

Katy slid of her perch on the pipes and crossed her arms under her breasts. “I know who these bastards are. These are the bastards who killed John while he was trying to help them. These are the bastards who I am going to kill one by one with my bare hands. Your concern is appreciated but do not think for a second that I am going to run away from this one. Your son is simply the quickest and easiest way of getting involved.â€

 

The figure in the doorway remained silent for a minute before speaking again. “It seems your decision is made, Katy. My warnings go unheeded. I will only say this, if any harm comes to Max because of your plan of revenge you can consider your little band of revolutionaries disbanded.†With a nod of his head, the figure turned around and disappeared into the darkness.

 

“Who was that guy, Katy?†one of the men at the table asked, his accent clearly placing him from New York.

 

Katy frowned and jumped back onto her perch on the pipes. “No one of any concern. Now, we need to figure out a plan of getting Maxwell Ruine into the fold without ant protest.â€

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Max brushed past Kess, and she automatically turned after him. The wood floor passed unfocused beneath her while Max’s story blared through her head in vivid detail. A couple corners of her mind were aware enough to wonder what Japan had to do with anything, and how Max’s mother had managed five strikes before his dad had arrived. Mostly though, it was the ‘accident’ itself: proper chef’s knives and skin like butter. Also scars over defined muscle, but Kess blinked those pictures away.

Kess gave up trying to find something to say. It would have been stupid, whatever it was. Instead she remembered the kid on the staircase compulsively grabbing her wrist. She’d seen the fight on his face before he’d pried his hand loose. The twitching jerk of his arm, stopped by his own grip on the railing. The way he’d warned them away from himself. Had that kid fought a command to go after Max and Kess on sight? Had Max's mom tried to keep control and failed? Kess didn't know which answer would be worse. She wrung her overshirt’s sleeve, unaware that she'd veered from the front door. How far did Culver’s business with mental experimentation go? Who was John Loader and why was he appearing after he was dead?

Or an illusion of him. It’d be nice to know which of those two options we’re dealing with.

Kess found no answers before she came face-to-face with the garage door. She stared at it for a second before a smile popped onto her face.

“Hey, Max! We don't have to walk!â€

She swiped a couple sets of keys from their hooks and pivoted toward the front door. On her way back through the living room, Kess felt a twinge of a headache. She slowed her pace and rubbed her head, ready to count it as overload. Until, just at the edge of her vision, Kess spied an out-of-place indentation on the seat of her dad’s chair. There was a distinct dent in the right armrest, as if someone was leaning an elbow there. Uneasiness bled into Kess’ voice.

“Max? Could you come back in here for a second?â€

As soon as Kess’ words were out, the indentation disappeared.

Somebody’s in my house.

Immediately, soundlessly, Tony appeared a foot in front of her and aimed a pistol at her face. Kess backed into the wall and clenched the keys in her hand until something cut her palm.

Tony pointed at them, then at himself.

“No, you’re not coming,†Kess hissed, “I know- I know you’re not gonna shoot us because you didn’t before.â€

Tony raised an eyebrow.

Kess’ certainty wavered. Maybe the situation had changed. Maybe Tony had only messed up last time. Maybe it had been too public a place. There were way too many ‘maybe’s involved. Kess’ calming breath died in her throat when Tony whacked the gun across her cheek. Jolting pain spiked across her face and rang over her thoughts. Kess shook disorientation out of her head, amazed. She’d thought getting hit in the face would hurt. This was way more than expected, though, especially since Tony obviously hadn’t used his full strength.

Tony shoved the muzzle into her shoulder. Kess kept a groan quiet and focused her vision again. Her mind focused too, and she got his point. Tony’s only restrictions involved their deaths; anything else was fair game.

Just let him come, Kess.

That was the first thought-person Kess didn’t recognize. Her tone was urgent, worried, and definitely not a mirrored quote of something from before. This one wasn’t stealing familiar voices, it was speaking with a new one.

Kess thought she heard Max making his way back. Tony apparently did, too, as he returned his finger to his lips and tapped her shoulder with the handgun. Kess flinched back from it and nodded at Tony. She put a hand to her shoulder and shut her eyes for a second before looking toward the door. Hopefully she wouldn’t feel like puking by the time Max was back.

Kess held up a set of keys in each hand and called to him.

“Hurry up and pick a car! Let’s get out of here faster.â€

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Max could hear Kess walking behind him but she didn’t say a word, and neither did he; meaning it was very silent between the two of them. Max headed straight for the front door to leave, stopping on the threshold and leaning a hand against the top frame to rest against. Man, talk about an awkward silence. Max thought, still facing the door and avoiding looking back at Kess. Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite so blunt about my mum. It’s not like I needed to get so detailed. Also, mentioning my dad killed her probably wasn’t a good idea adding to that I said he worked for some shady part of the government was stupid. I’m doing well with this, aren’t I? As his thoughts whirled, he suddenly realised that Kess was very quiet behind him and turned around to see her gone.

 

“Kess?†he said just as her voice appeared from down a turning at the end of the short hall.

 

“Hey, Max! We don’t have to walk!†she shouted and Max smiled. Not a bad idea actually. But his smile disappeared when half a minute later Kess’s voice emerged again, but this time with a hint of worry. “Max? Could you come back in here for a second?â€

 

Max didn’t move immediately, instead he leant towards where her voice had come from, listening intently. He waited a couple of seconds but after he heard nothing, Max moved down the corridor slowly. The way Kess’s voice had sounded gave him the feeling that something wasn’t right. Despite the fact that he really hadn’t known her very long, he could tell something was wrong; just not exactly. So Max stepped slowly down the hall until he rounded the corner into the living to see Kess leaning against the wall with a set of keys in each hand.

 

“Hurry and pick a car! Let’s get out of here faster!†she said.

 

Max smiled and strode forward to swipe the set of keys out of her left hand without any hesitation; he’d spotted the emblem on the back of the black fob. What Max failed to notice was the red smear on the second set of keys or the cut across Kess’s hand. “C’mon, let’s get out of here then.†Max said and headed back to the front door with Kess in tow.

 

He led them around the side of the building the the garage door he had seen when they had gotten there, and Kess opened the door with a remote she had obviously picked up along with the keys. The metal door swung upwards on its motor to reveal two parked cars; one was dark red, a Toyota something, but that wasn’t the one Max had picked. Max had spotted the familiar cross coloured circle emblem that signified a BMW. That was the second car in the garage; a dark blue BMW M5 clearly less than a year old.

 

“Well, we might as well drive in style.†Max said with a grin before unlocking the car with a click of the fob and striding forward to open the driver’s door. “ Kess seemed to hesitate for a second before moving towards the passenger door.

 

Max racked the seat back as far as it would go as he got in, swivelling his long legs in when it was all the way. He adjusted the mirrors as Kess climbed in and closed the door behind her. It was at this point that Max thought he heard a squeak of leather from behind him and turned to see Tony sat in the back with a pistol pointed at his head.

 

“I wondered how long it would take before you broke it, Max.†Tony said with a smirk, his pistol unwavering in front of him.

 

Max’s eyes and moved up from the pistol to settle them on Tony’s; Kess was sat quietly next to him. “How did you find us?†he said. Kess knew he was here! She didn’t show any reaction when I noticed him. He thought as Tony smiled.

 

“You’re a kid, remember? It doesn’t take much to figure out how your little brains work.†He chuckled and moved the pistol away from Max and settled it on his knee; pointing straight at Kess’s back through her chair. Max gritted his teeth but Tony raised a finger on his free hand a waggled it back and forth. “Now, now, Max, I wouldn’t want to twitch involuntarily.â€

 

Max glanced across toe Kess Well, at least she wasn’t withholding Tony being here voluntarily. He thought before glancing back to Tony. “What do you want with us? You work for Culver, right?†Max said, keeping his eyes locked on Tony’s.

 

“Listen carefully, Max-y boy. You’re going to drive to a motel with me, and Kess of course. We’re going to use some of the money Kess has in her pockets and we’re going to stay the night there. Tomorrow we’ll be picked up by a friend of Kess’s and we’ll all go and have a nice chat with Culver.†Tony said, bringing the pistol forward until it was pressed into Kess’s chair and no doubt poking her in the back. “No funny business, understand?â€

 

Max growled and slumped back into his seat, starting the ignition with a twist of his hand as he did so. “Just one more question, Tony; is Kit involved with this in anyway?â€

 

“Your sister? No, she’s not involved.†Tony said quickly before smiling and speaking again. “But don’t think I won’t hesitate to involve her if I think I need to.â€

 

Good. At least Kit doesn’t have anything to do with this; she probably doesn’t know about Tony’s true nature then. Max thought as he shifted the car into gear. “So where is the motel you speak of then?â€

 

“Just past the mall, a short 40 minute drive at best.†Tony replied. “So let’s get going.†Max grimaced inwardly and rolled the car out of the garage and into the road. The garage door closed down mechanically behind him.

 

===================================================================

 

Across town, back at Max’s house, Kit was slumped in the sofa with her mobile phone in her hand. It had Max’s number on the screen and she hit dial to ring it. However, it hadn’t even gotten to the dial tone before an electronic voice informed her that the phone she was trying to call was currently switched off. She sighed and dropped her phone to her side on the sofa cushion.

 

Where the hell have you gotten to Max. I hope dad gets back soon; he’s the only one who I’d trust to stop you before something goes wrong.

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Kess clenched her hands on her knees and stared at the dashboard. Tony hadn't bothered to keep pushing the pistol into the seat, but Kess knew it was still aimed at her lower back. The taut silence was counterproductive; it deepened the sharp fear from the library and brought to light all the things she could have tried besides letting Tony kidnap them. Whacking him with something, ducking and running, throwing a couch cushion at his face, anything besides calling Max back into the freaking room.

But that's just what's been happening, Kess flung both feet on the dashboard. She thought back: the night at school, the nerve-wrecking following day, the library, the house. Every single time she remembered, Max had been the one keeping them both safe. All she seemed to be able to do was freeze.

"Hey," Tony snapped, "what do you think you're doing?"

Kess jumped.

"Nothing! I'm not hiding anyth-"

Tony reached around the seat and knocked the gun against Kess' leg.

"Get your shoes off that dash!"

Kess gave him a look of pure incredulity before she thought better. Thankfully Tony only glowered in return. Kess quickly moved her feet, and the quiet tension returned.

Kess leaned her head against the window. She hadn't quite frozen on the staircase, where John appeared and Max's dad had...done whatever he did. Her action hadn't really helped in the long run...except for one bit of knowledge. Tony wouldn't suddenly kill them if he got irritated.

That was good, because she had to ask at least one of her questions.

"Tony?" Kess swiveled in her seat so he could hear her better. She wasn't quite brave enough to meet his eyes, though, so she watched Max drive instead.

"Do you know what happened to Clearwater?"

Tony gave an abrupt laugh.

"Shawyne? Forget about her, she's nothing. She broke a couple illusions, but her brain couldn't even handle the preparations for a link. That's what happens when we don't get them before about twenty-two. I don't know why Culver even bothered with her."

Kess bit back a number of replies to ask what a link was. Tony raised an eyebrow, an action that now sent chills across Kess' back.

"A link, Kess. A thing that links you."

Apparently Max and Kess were supposed to respond, because Tony was annoyed at having to explain.

"Ok, look. You didn't honestly think humans were the only beings in existence, did you?"

"Well, no, but-" Kess attempted. Tony talked over her, filling the backseat of the car between his voice and accompanying gestures.

"Here's the deal, kids: there's a whole slew of them. And some of them would kill - have killed - for a chance at getting into a human mind. I don't really know the back story drama stuff, but I don't have to. All I've got to do is round up kids with the ability and strength to break an illusion or two, and bring them to Culver so he can see if they'll survive the brain prep for the link. A lot of you snap during that and aren't much use after. You two, though, you've already-"

Tony cut his own sentence short.

"Don't think I'll be giving away anything important, kid," he set his arms back down again, "if I did, I'd have to shoot both of you."

Kess decided not to point out that they weren't allowed to die just yet. She did not want to know what getting shot felt like. Instead she leaned forward and propped her elbows on the dashboard to watch highway fly by. She'd figured it was something like Tony had said, but of course that helped nothing. Now there was a whole new way to dread reaching Culver. Total submission or 'implosion'? Would they even be able to choose when the moment came?

At least Max was driving as fast as he could. There probably wasn't any way to escape a moving car when the guy behind them had a gun and they had nothing. Their chances were better at the motel, if they had any chances at all.

___________

Jenny pulled her little car up to the curb in front of the correct address. She double-checked the street to make sure no windows were open and no one was outside, and quickly hopped out. The motorbike wasn’t parked anywhere Jenny could see, but maybe it was around back? Anxiety pushed Jenny up to the door and she knocked before she could run.

When the girl answered, Jenny cleared her throat and spoke quietly.

“Kit Ruine? I’m Jenny, the librarian at Max’s school. Is he here at the moment? I have something very urgent to communicate to him.â€

____________

Kess had somehow managed to doze off during the car ride. The adrenaline crash had finally caught up with her, and she only woke up as someone’s door opened. She held out the amount of money that Tony demanded. He snatched it away, and she rubbed her eyes with her newly freed hand.

How do we get away?

She didn’t hear a clear answer, so she climbed out of the car. She didn’t remember why she threw her backpack on so quickly, but it was probably important. Good thing she at least remembered what to do, even if she didn’t remember why.

Deep in one of her pockets, her phone buzzed. Kess jumped and snatched it up. Her dad's picture blinked onto the screen. Kess' heartbeat stuttered. Answer or ignore? Was he finally going to tell her something helpful?

Tony saw the screen and let her answer. Kess didn’t care whether he went inside or heard every word, so she turned her back to him.

"Kess, I have seconds before I've got a really important meeting-"

"Stop it Dad!†Kess hissed into the phone, “What aren’t you saying? You know what, it doesn’t matter, because Max and I have been freaking-"

"I know. I've been promoted," Kess' dad answered. His voice was soft, heavy, and filled with what had to be guilt.

"Promoted. What's that mean?" Kess demanded. As she spoke, a cold suspicion touched her mind, "And why right now?"

"Because I made a choice…Kessa. I'm sorry. I had to. They would have killed me. And it’ll start to kill you. That’s why you have to come with Tony; because Culver can teach you how to possibly survive this.â€

“Dad! You got me involved in whatever this is? Are you freaking serious?â€

"I'm sorry," he whispered back, "Culver would have killed me. I would have died."

Disbelief swept through Kess. Her voice came out shaky and sharp.

"I would have for you."

"Kessa-"

Kess hung up, pried her phone from its case, and smashed it on the corner of the building screen first. It fell into a trash can as Kess entered the lobby with a deep headache that spun her vision. She put a hand to the wall and tried to blink it away.

Something shifted between her backpack and her back, and she paused to figure out what in the world it was. After a couple of seconds, she shrugged. She’d shift stuff around her pack when she got to a room. It was probably just a shoe or something. Nothing that would do more than poke her in the back like Tony’s gun. Which Tony still had. Kess grimaced at Max. Hopefully he could somehow still contact his friend. They’d just have to find a way.

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Max had been using the time while driving thinking of possible ways to get away from Tony without getting either Kess or himself shot. He could vaguely hear Kess and Tony talking but was too deep in thought to actually register what was being said. So far he wasn’t doing particularly well with ideas; except for deciding that escaping while driving would be impossible. Sure, he could probably escape on himself, a dive out of the door at high speed would do it, but he wasn’t about to leave Kess in the car alone with Tony. They couldn’t jump out together for two reasons, one being that Max didn’t have a way to communicate with Kess without Tony overhearing, and two, he suspected Kess wouldn’t fare as well as he would jumping out of a speeding vehicle. With that option out of the question, Max was left with figuring out a way as soon as they arrived at the motel.

 

It meant Max had to somehow distract or incapacitate Tony, which wasn’t going to be easy, long enough to escape with Kess. As he was thinking, he suddenly recognised the turn-in for the motel and managed to pull in before he missed it. He glanced at Kess as he turned and saw that at some point she had fallen asleep. Probably due to the adrenaline crash; it’s been a hectic few hours for her. He thought as he slowed the car to a stop in one of the motel’s parking bays. Before he was even able to put the handbrake on, Tony was out of the car and standing next to Kess’s window, tapping politely on it with his finger.

 

Kess had woken on Tony opening his door and now rolled down her window to hand him the amount of cash he had asked for. As Tony snatched the money away, he indicated with a finger movement for Max to get out of the car. Tony’s gun was out of sight, no doubt in one of the large pockets in the coat he wore, but Max wasn’t about to take any chances so opened his door and unfolded out of the car. Tony rounded the hood to meet Max as he did the same and Kess exited the vehicle with her backpack on her shoulders. She ignored both Tony and Max as they turned to look at her, instead pulling her phone out to look at the screen that told her that her dad was calling. Tony glanced at the Caller ID to see who it was but shrugged and turned back to Max as Kess picked up the phone.

 

“Right Max-y boy, this is how it is going to work.†Tony said, standing a bit away from Max so he didn’t have to look up quite so much and drowning out Kess’s conversation with her dad. “I’m going to give you this money, you’re going to go into the lobby and purchase a room for one night, and then we’re all going to go to the room. Easy enough to understand, kid?â€

 

“You’re a piece of shit.†Max said, the words coming out before he could temper them.

 

Tony pushed the money into Max’s hand and smiled. “Just remember I’m a trained piece of shit, so don’t try anything funny with the porter. Me and Kess will be in right behind you, so I’ll hear what you’re saying.†He patted his right hand pocket, no doubt indicating his gun, and then gestured to Max to head off towards the lobby. Max didn’t move immediately, instead he locked eyes with Tony and clenched his hand at his side. Tony still had his smile on his face and tapped his right hand pocket again, reminding Max of his guns location. Max’s hand relaxed and he folded the money away into his pocket.

 

“Fine.†He said and strode off towards the entrance to the motel’s lobby. By the time Max had finished talking with the porter and had acquired a key to one of the rooms, Kess was just walking into the lobby herself, Tony a couple of steps behind. She grimaced at him but Max didn’t respond past looking at her. He walked up to Tony and pushed the room key into his chest. “There you go, we’re down the far end.†He said and exited back outside again.

 

As Max was about to pass their parked car, he heard Tony’s voice and turned around to receive a fist to the stomach. Tony wasn’t a large man in any way, but he was clearly built of stern stuff as Max felt the blow like a baseball bat and dropped to one knee in front of Tony, gasping for air. Tony stepped forward and grabbed his hair, pulling it up so Max was looking at him.

 

“You better sort your attitude out, Max-y boy, or you’ll receive more than just a punch to the gut. I don’t even know why Culver wants you, the snivelling kid that you are. You remind me of that Loader kid, always full of himself and poking his nose where it didn’t belong.†Tony said, bending down so that his face was inches away from Max’s.

 

Max tensed at John’s name and Tony released his hair so that Max was looking at the ground. “Oh, that’s right. You and the Loader kid used to hang out with each other, didn’t you?†a smile had started creeping onto Tony’s face again. “Too bad he went and snuffed it, eh? Not that I care, he was a prick for all I was concerned; we shouldn’t have wasted our time with him.â€

 

Max’s face was hidden from Tony’s view, but it was one of pure fury as he cried out and threw a clenched fist and the closest part of Tony to him; his knee. Max’s anger fuelled him and Tony couldn’t react quickly enough as Max’s fist crashed into his knee. If he had received the blow full on, his knee would have probably shattered, but Tony was quick enough to spin his leg and allow his knee to fold properly and deposit him to the floor. Tony was already reaching for his gun but Max’s anger wasn’t done as he stepped forward, grabbed the back of Tony’s head and rammed him face first against the wheel arch of the car.

 

As Tony slid down to the ground, apparently unconscious, Max’s breathing became ragged and he glanced up to see Kess watching him with a hand over her mouth in surprise. Max took a second to control his breathing, not being very successful with it, but suddenly stepped back when Tony started moving, reaching towards his gun that had skittered across the floor and ended up under the car.

 

“Kess, come on!†Max cried and stepped towards her to grab her hand and pull her in a run away from Tony. “We need to get to the mall!†he said to her as he ran, glancing left he saw a man running past them but he didn’t pay any more attention to him as he pulled Kess towards the mall not far from where they were; it was next to the motel after all.

 

Max risked a glance behind him, but Tony was still out of view, Max figured he was still crouched behind the car. Well, that wasn’t planned but it worked. Now all I need to do is get to a phone. At least Tony isn’t going to shoot us while we’re in the public’s view in the mall. He still had a hold of Kess’s hand and was nearly pulling her along as he headed to enter the brightly lit building in front of him.

 

===================================================================

 

Tony had recovered from the blow to the head, but he was currently splayed out on the ground with a man pinning him there with a knee across his back. The man was the same man that had run past Max and Kess while they were making their escape, and had tackled Tony just as he was about to pull the trigger on his gun; the gun that was now wedged in the man’s belt. As Tony struggled, his strength apparently no match for the average man on top of him, a woman walked up and crouched down by his head, pulling him by his hair so that she could look at him.

 

Katy smiled as Tony cursed at her before slamming his head against the concrete floor a couple of times to knock him out. She was no longer dressed in the military clothing from earlier; instead she was sporting white trainers, skinny blue jeans, a white shirt with the top three buttons undone to spread the collar, and a slim brown leather jacket. She was, however, still wearing her belt that held a number of pouches and pistol holster. Unlike earlier, the holster was now occupied with a sleek black pistol; the strap that usually held the pistol in place was undone, ready for a quick release if Katy needed her weapon. A gold FBI badge was now attached to the front of her belt as well.

 

“Where did they go, Jake?†she asked the man as he stood up and brushed off his jeans.

 

The man was of average height and build, although it was clear he was extremely fit, and had a head of shaggy blonde hair. He was wearing a similar ensemble to Katy; black trainers, blue jeans, white shirt, and a pouched belt with a holstered pistol and a gold badge. “They made a run for the mall.†He said, pointing towards the brightly lit building. “Sorry I didn’t stop them, Ma’am this guy here was about to shoot and I thought it would be prudent to prevent him from doing so.†He brushed a hand through his hair but Katy just waved his apology away.

 

“No worries. I want an inconspicuous surveillance perimeter around the building immediately. He doesn’t know anyone but me and I doubt he’s currently in the mood to trust anyone except me. If either of the pair exits the building, I want to know but Max is priority here.†Katy said, resting her hands on her belt as she spoke. “We cannot let him get away from us here, understand?â€

 

The man nodded. “Yes, Ma’am, the men will be in position within minutes.â€

 

Katy nodded in return. “Good, I’m going in then.â€

 

===================================================================

 

 What the hell is the librarian doing here? Kit thought as Jenny asked after Max. “I’m afraid not, he’s out at the moment. I’m not sure what the hell a librarian wants with him though, it’s a teacher he’s with.†She narrowed her eyes as Jenny nervously glanced around, up and down the street. “Look, come one in, you can tell me what you want to tell Max and I’ll pass the message on as soon as possible. Although it’ll probably be tomorrow now.â€

 

Kit stepped back and pulled the door completely open, gesturing for Jenny to enter the house. “Do you drink coffee?â€

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Her angle gave Kess a perfect view of Tony punching Max in the gut. She pivoted and ran out the door, only to stop on the sidewalk at Max’s knee-twisting fist. Kess turned, expecting Max to jump up and run now that Tony was down. Instead he gripped Tony’s head in his huge hands and smashed his face against the car. Not even the back of his head. His face. Kess clapped a hand over her mouth, keeping a surprised cry from giving Max away.

 

Kess stared at Max’s furious face until he grabbed her hand.

 

“Kess, come on!â€

 

Her migraine was gone just as fast as it had come, but now Max’s long strides were almost too fast to keep up with. Kess sucked in a breath as they cut through a double row of parked cars.

There still wasn’t time to think, but there was space in her brain for a vivid replay. That hadn’t been a strategic move of Max’s, slamming Tony’s face like that. That had been a tiny snapshot of violent, uncontrolled anger.

 

And why now, of all moments, did the back of Max’s head look so familiar?

 

Kess set both thoughts aside for the moment as the two slowed. She spent the steps through the airlock in fierce debate as to whether Max knew he still had her hand. They passed through more double-doors as she wondered if he should.

 

“The customer service desk is on the other side of this store, if I-“ Kess laughed before she said the next phrase, “if I remember correctly. Never mind. It’s probably on, like, the third floor on the opposing end or something.â€

 

A half-smile bounced onto Kess’ face. It was alright, Max probably knew where everything was in this mall. Sure enough, there was a phone closer. Kess stepped back so she wouldn’t hear anything that wasn’t her business. Her eyes roved around the area and came to rest on a set of glass shelves displaying various crystal figurines. Kess grinned. They were much better to focus on than anything else in the past twenty-four hours.

 

She had planned on staying within five paces, but the crystal shelves were only six back. Close enough. Kess clasped her hands behind her back and bent in close to a long-haired girl with intricate butterfly wings. The lights’ reflections slid right, then left as she tilted her head. One of these tilts brought her face-to-face with a tiny yellow flower, clearly out of place on the glass shelving.

 

“You’re a ways from home,†Kess commented to the flower. She extended a hand, but before she could reach all the way, someone else’s grabbed it. The kid stuck her face in front of Kess’ and she immediately recognized it: one of the underclassmen girls from school.

 

“What are you doing here?†the girl demanded, “forget it, no time. Come on, there’s a way out!â€

 

“But Max is still on the phone-“

 

The kid tugged her arm anyway. Kess bit her lip. Technically the other side of the door, while seven normal steps away, was probably five Max-steps. It counted. Kess eased the door shut behind her. They both scanned the carts, boxes, and storage shelves and found no one nearby.

 

“So,†Kess began, “are you okay? Did you break the illusion too? What happened after-“

 

Kess’ head exploded again, from the outside this time. She wasn’t quite blacked out, but darkness blurred her sight. She didn’t understand what had happened until the girl’s hand pressed duct tape over Kess’ mouth. Kess panicked, but her legs only responded to her after her hands were already taped. When they did, her left leg braced and her right foot swung up behind the girl’s knees. She didn’t fall like Kess had wanted, but she did stumble. Kess rolled back toward a supply table and somehow got to her feet. She had time to spot a box cutter lying on the edge of the table, but the girl drove her back to the floor again. She got one loop of duct tape around Kess’ ankles before Kess swung a frantic two-handed fist at her. The girl dodged it, but that meant Kess struck the table’s leg. It moved just enough to drop the box-cutter right by Kess’ arms. She scrambled to get it; the other girl just thought she was trying to get away and wound more duct tape around Kess’ ankles. Kess held the box cutter in place with her hip, and jerked her hands toward it. It punctured the duct tape, but then the girl saw what Kess was doing and kicked it out of her reach.

 

Kess twisted toward it, and something dug into her back. Kess wouldn’t have noticed except that it was also sliding onto the floor. She knelt over it when the girl dragged her up to fix her wrists’ tape. While she was ripping the end off, Kess yanked her hands downward and back. She grabbed the object with both hands, and was astonished at the gun now pointed at the other girl. The other girl rocked back on her heels. There was caution in her eyes, but not fear.

 

“Go! Before I call police!â€

 

There was Val, sprinting around a set of shelves.  The girl looked between Kess and Val, then made a petulant face.

 

“Fine,†she turned a smirk at Kess, “I’ll get the other one, then.â€

 

Kess’ eyes widened and she shot a look through the door to Max. The girl kept her smirk and made for the exit. Val pulled the tape off Kess’ mouth. Kess’ eyes watered at the sting.

 

“You okay?â€

 

“Yeah,†Kess responded shakily. She held up her gun and continued, “how did I…when did I…â€

 

Val took the box cutter to Kess’ tape. She also interrupted.

 

“Did you fall asleep on the way here?â€

 

Kess affirmed the fact, bewildered.

 

“That’s good,†Val responded, “I’ve got to take care of something. Don’t touch the yellow flowers.â€

 

“Wait, Val! Dad just told me- and Tony said- and is Max-“

 

Val’s eyes narrowed.

 

“Your dad hasn’t been in the same room as a phone for the past ten hours…but look, don’t listen to Tony. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,†Val rolled her eyes and disappeared behind a set of shelves.

 

“Val!†Kess cried in exasperation. By the time Kess got to the shelves, Val must have left them.

 

“Come on, Val!â€

 

She had to settle for shoving her gun back in her belt and retying the overshirt. After that, she pressed her face into her hands and tried to not dissolve. It did take a few moments, but Kess only needed to wipe her face off once before heading to the door.

 

“What was that even about, though?†she murmured, “Don’t touch the yellow flowers…â€

 

Kess edged the door open, peering between the crystals and the dining plates before ducking through the frame. As soon as she was clear, she leapt the seven steps back to Max.

 

“Max! Max. I have to talk to you ASAP,†Kess held up her wrists, whether or not there were visible tape marks.

 

“Someone’s gonna try to bind you with duct tape! Please say your call worked. Oh,†her voice quieted, and she gestured at Max’s stomach.

 

“Are you alright?â€

__________________

 

“Thank you, but I’m afraid I can’t stay that long,†Jenny entered the Ruine house, but stayed just by the doorframe. She clasped one hand with the other and made eye contact with the picture to the right of Kit’s face.

 

“Miss Ruine,†Jenny started. Her voice was small and heavy, a kind of low-toned whisper.

 

“I’m sorry to tell you in such a blunt manner, but I’m afraid…†she glanced at Kit, then away again, “I’m afraid that if Max has already left today, he may not return for a while. However, should you see him before December, tell him he must bring John Loader’s murderer alive to Val Henders. Also, If Culver doesn’t have him within the next few days, he’ll be labeled too dangerous and added to the List.â€

 

Jenny dug one sandaled toe into the floor.

 

“As for yourself, I would highly recommend that you leave this house, at least for a time. Will you remember all of that, dear?â€

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Once they were inside the mall, Max immediately glanced around for the nearest payphone. Kess started speaking about the customer services desk but dismissed her own thoughts with laughter; Max didn’t want to mention that talking to the customer service desk was probably a stupid idea. However, he spotted a phone and turned to Kess. “Don’t wander off too far, I don’t know how long this will take.†He said before striding over to the phone to pick up the receiver. He glanced over at Kess who had moved to look at some kind of glass statuette display before digging in his pocket for some loose change that would allow him to make a call. He found some and inserted it before dialling a number he had memorised a few months after meeting John, on his mentor’s suggestion.

 

The regular ringing tone started up and Max was nearly holding his breath in the hop that she would pick up the phone. Although John had told him that she would respond whenever he called, he didn’t know if she would pick up on an unlisted number as opposed to his mobile. It kept ringing, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40 seconds. Just as Max figured that she wouldn’t pick up, the tone changed followed by a voice.

 

“Max, it’s been a long time.†Her German accent was unmistakable and Max breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

 

“Katy, I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear you voice at the moment.†He said, resting an arm against the top of the phone and leaning forward as if he were trying to whisper to the phone. “Things have really…wait, how did you know it was me calling?†Max asked, suddenly wary.

 

There was a chuckle on the other end of the phone before Katy answered. “Did you really think I would just leave you to your own devices after John’s death, Max? I’ve always been watching you in one way or another.â€

 

Max couldn’t help but smile at her words. “Then you probably know what’s going on at the moment. With Culver?â€

 

“Yes, I know what’s going on; which is why I was expecting you to call. You’re the only person I know who knows this number and would call it on a phone other than their mobile. I know what trouble you’re in and I plan to give you a hand.†Katy spoke quickly but surely and Max was glad that someone was finally in control.

 

“Hang on a sec, are you watching me right now?†Max resisted the urge to glance around.

 

“Yes, I am in fact watching you right now, personally. Glance to your left, all the way down to where the cheese shop was closed down last month. You should see me leaning against the window; jeans and a jacket.â€

 

Max glanced in the direction and caught sight of her immediately, her vivid hair standing out. “I see you, I see you.†He said before looking back down to the phone. “Does that mean you were there at school? In the library? At the motel? At the places where I could have really used your help?â€

 

“We’ll talk about it later in person, Max. Although it was good thinking contacting me on a payphone, it is hardly secure so the quicker we meet the better. I’ve got a vehicle outside, in the larger parking lot along the side of the building; it’s a black SUV, the driver’s name is Jake, and I’ll meet you there. Don’t wait around, grab the girl and get out of there as soon as you can.â€

 

Before Max could answer, the phone went dead and he glanced to his left to see Katy moving from her position and disappearing around a corner. Max held the phone receiver in his hand for a second before replacing it and turning around; coming face to face with a frantic Kess holding her hands up in front of her.

 

“Max! Max. I have to talk to you ASAP.†She said. “Someone’s going to try to bind you with duct tape! Please say your call worked. Oh…†Max’s eyes furrowed in surprise and confusion at what she was saying before she gestured at his stomach. “Are you alright?â€

 

“I’m fine, what the hell happened?†Max started before remembering what Katy had said.  “Actually, tell me later. My call worked, Katy’s got a vehicle waiting already, she’s got us covered!†Max didn’t even try to conceal his smile. “Come on, we’ve got to meet her outside.†Without waiting to see if Kess had actually listened to what he had said, he turned around and strode confidently towards the exit of the building; one of the ones that would lead them to the large parking lot.

 

The black SUV was parked in a pick-up zone with a man of average build, with shaggy blonde hair, stood resting on the open driver’s door. Max presumed this to be Jake and started moving quickly towards him, only to come to a stop when he saw the golden shield attached to his belt. The man noticed him and stood clear of the door with a look of confusion on his face. Before Max could decide anything though, a firm grip caught him at the elbow and propelled him forwards. He glanced down to see Katy next to him, pulling him along.

 

“Since when were you part of the FBI?†he hissed towards her and nodding his head towards Jake.

 

Katy smiled. “Do you really think I would just up and join my enemies; do you even think they’d let me join?â€

“That’s why I’m a little confused.†Max replied, pulling his elbow free of her grasp as they reached the car.

 

“It’s a cover. As long as we don’t bump into any real FBI agents, then the police will leave us alone. Now, we’ll talk about this once we’re underway, get in the car.†She gestured and Max pulled open the door and slid into the back seat, moving all the way along to allow Kess to follow him in. Katy stepped quickly around the hood and jumped in the passenger seat as Jake got in the driver’s seat and took off. As they moved off, a radio on the dash crackled into life.

 

“Ma’am, we’ve just caught a girl following the target, what do you want me to do with her?†Katy reached forward and pulled the radio’s microphone towards her.  

 

“Sit on her for now; she may be working for Culver. I’ll give you the go ahead to let her go but wait until then.†Katy replied and hooked the microphone back up before turning in her seat to face Max and Kess.

 

“What was that about? And I hope Tony isn’t still trying to follow us.†Max said, glancing out the rear window.

 

“Tony?†Katy asked. “You mean the man you were with in the car?†Max nodded his agreement. “Don’t worry, he is being dealt with as we speak.†Max didn’t want to know what Katy meant by that. “But we’ve got more important things to discuss, mainly what I want you to do for me Max.â€

 

“What?†Max said, a little bit confusion leaking into his voice.

 

“Max, I want you to let Culver get you; I want you to walk into school tomorrow and present yourself at Culver’s office; he’ll take you then and there.â€

 

Max’s face had hardened when Katy had spoken. “What?†he said again, but this time with anger and slight puzzlement.

 

===================================================================

 

Kit allowed Jenny to hover in the doorframe but made a face of disapproval. When Jenny spoke, that face turned into one of stoic anger. People assumed that Kit was the more mature of the family, but they were mistaken; Kit was just more control of her emotions then the rest of her family. When Jenny had finished speaking, Kit smirked to herself before stepping forward and gingerly grabbing the librarian by the collar. Jenny’s eyes widened in surprise but Kit didn’t hang around as she spun the woman into the corridor and slammed the door shut behind her with her foot.

 

“I don’t know who the hell you think you are, coming here and sprouting crap like that to my face. But you clearly have an idea about what the hell is going on with max at the moment and I would be so honoured if you would share that information with me now.†Kit said, her face remaining calm and agreeable. “So before I start popping things, do you care to share?â€

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“My call worked, Katy’s got a vehicle waiting already, she’s got us covered!â€

 

Kess returned Max’s smile and followed him outside. Max and his friend were speaking in low voices, so Kess watched the parking lot trees twist in the wind and listened.

 

“…do you really think I’d just up and join my enemies?â€

 

What? Kess wondered. Max climbed into the car per the Katy's order, and Kess slid in after him. The driver casually locked the door before closing it. The shine of his fake badge finally caught her eye.

 

Enemies?

 

What kind of friends did Max have?

 

Kess peered through the window’s tint at the people milling about the patio. Nobody had even noticed them, as far as she could tell. She leaned back into the seat, but the relief in her sigh cut short. The gun was still in her belt, but her backpack was at the motel.

 

“Guys, my bag-"

 

The radio cut in before Kess could bring up the problem. She unbuckled and knelt on the seat as Max asked what that was about.

 

“That’s the girl who almost kidnapped me,†she said quickly, trying to find her. Of course, there were so many people that she quickly gave up. Kess was glad Katy was letting the girl go, whoever she was. It wasn’t like she could catch up to a moving car.

 

The woman eased any worry about Tony, so Kess quieted. Hopefully whoever arrested him wasn’t working for Culver, too.

 

“…we’ve got more important things to discuss, mainly what I want you to do for me Max.â€

 

Kess mentally echoed Max’s question. To her, he sounded as confused as she felt. Wasn’t this team helping them?

 

Katy spoke again. Nope, they were definitely not. Kess fell headfirst from shaky relief to exhausted fear.

 

“You can’t do that,†she protested, “Culver could kill us!â€

 

Of course, no one was going to take her seriously. Kess turned wide eyes to Max, then back to Katy as she spoke. Midway through her words, an afterimage popped up in Kess’ head. It was like the two she’d had before, of Max. This time it was less like déjà vu and more like a suggestion: a shattered windshield. A possible distraction.

 

When Katy radioed instructions to free the girl, Kess impulsively followed the picture. She caught Max’s eyes with wide, fearful ones. Then, still without thinking, she pulled the gun and moved to fire.

____________________

 

Though Jenny’s eyes darted nervously toward the door, her voice was low and firm.

 

“People have tried ‘popping things’ before, dear. It’s quite unpleasant, but it doesn’t work.â€

 

Jenny’s gaze was fastened on something out the window, her face a few shades paler than normal.

 

“Believe me, you’ll worsen things if you attempt to help him in any way save relaying the message. If I’ve not left within two minutes, we’ll both be taken in by the ones who are watching this house. I will not tell you where Max and Kess are headed. I will make you aware that the group targeting them handpicks specific people whose minds they believe will survive their process. They are attempting to open, or reach, or perfect, something. We are not certain of their goal. However, we do know it involves the purposeful erasure of specific points in a target’s will and memories. Possibly to insert their own material, possibly to keep something from happening.â€

 

Jenny uneasily checked the clock on the wall. She laid a hand on Kit’s balled fist.

 

“If there is a way you can help, we will inform you. Now, if you want to keep your mind intact, I must be gone in one and a half minutes.â€

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Max was still slightly stunned by what Katy had just said to him; she wanted him to go and surrender to Culver? But before any coherent thought on the matter could be brought into words, a problem rather more immediate presented itself. Kess had proclaimed Katy’s idea as mad, which Max agreed with, but now she had reached behind her and pulled out a pistol. Max watched in slow motion as the pistol was brought up and levelled on Katy. Except when he followed the line of fire, it wasn’t actually aimed at Katy but at the space between her and Jake’s shoulder at the wheel.

 

In the time Max hadn’t reacted, Katy had most definitely done so; she was more trained than Tony, and she showed it as her own sleek black pistol came out of the holster and started to level on Kess. Max figured that Katy would aim for a flesh wound along the side of the stomach; it would be the easiest place to hit from where she was twisted in the seat. But Max didn’t really want anyone to get shot and finally his mind kicked into action about what he should do.

 

Max had never actually come into contact with a pistol before today, Tony’s weapon from earlier had been the first in his life, but John had explained the best ways to prevent someone shooting him should that ever become an issue. John had originally proposed it for the Tasers that the school guards carried at night. The first step was to move the barrel out of position so it wasn’t pointing anywhere dangerous. From where Max was sat in conjunction to Katy and Kess, it put him at a diagonal to both of them so he would be able to reach both at about the same time. The second step was to prevent the weapon going off at all, so that no noise would be made and no accidents would happen.

 

That was harder to do with Taser’s and certain pistols because the trigger was solid and fed back into the weapon. But with the pistols that both Katy and Kess were using, the triggers were separate lengths of metal, leaving a space behind it to fit something that would prevent them being pulled. Max had discovered that his long, solid fingers were perfect for this, so he lunged forward at the waist and grabbed both Kess’s and Katy’s weapons, slipping a finger behind the triggers to prevent them from firing.

 

Once that was done, at the surprise of both of them, Max pulled Kess towards him so that her arm was pulled across her chest and she was pulled across the seat towards him and jammed a knee into her side to prevent her from moving, while at the same time pulled Katy’s arm down and locked the elbow against the top of the seat, pulling it tight against the headrest to prevent Katy pulling it free.

 

“What the hell are you two playing at!†he said to both of them, not shouting but loud enough for his voice to reverberate around the car. He turned his head to Kess. “I don’t know where the hell you got your hands on that weapon, but did you really think it was a good idea to pull it out and point towards the person trying to help us?!†It was the first time Max had spoken to Kess in anything more than a jokey or serious manner; he was angry. He rounded on Katy next. “And you’re drawing your weapon on a damn high schooler who, in the most likely scenario, has never touched a weapon before.†He still had a hold of the two of them and took a calming breath.

 

“Now, I’m going to release both of you and I don’t expect to hear any weapons going off; understand? Jake?†he turned to the driver. “Pull over, please.†Jake looked at Katy but she nodded so he slowed the can and pulled into the shoulder. As soon as the vehicle came to as top, Max released the girls and exited his door onto the road. He moved around the vehicle, banging Katy’s window in the process, until he was stood on the dirt at the side of the road. Katy got out of the car and came to stand in front of him.

 

“I called you because I thought you’d be able to help me; I didn’t expect you to try and send me back to Culver, why the hell do you want me to do that?†he said. He was still angry but he was holding it in well.

 

Katy crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I understand that whatever Culver has planned for you, it’s probably bad. But the girl never let me explain any further.†She paused and glanced towards Kess. “I don’t know if you know already, but Culver is responsible for John’s death; I’ve been trying to find a way to get to him ever since. I know I’m using you, but I thought that you’d want him to pay as much as I did.â€

 

Max’s eyes widened as he thought back to what Tony had said before they had clashed at the car. “So it’s true…†he paused and glanced at the ground. “What was your plan?â€

 

Katy supressed a smile. “I wanted you to get captured so that Culver would take you to his main base, to wherever it is he does things. My team and I will follow you in and a soon as we’ve confirmed that the building is legit, we’ll storm it and I’ll shoot Culver through his god damn head. It’ll be like surgery, nothing bad will happen to you.â€

 

Max raised a hand and ran it through his hair. “What if his base of operations is at the school itself; underground or something?â€

 

Katy nodded. “We’ll have a time limit. I’ll surround the school with my team and if you haven’t left in, say 10 minutes, I’ll storm the place under the guise of the FBI.â€

 

Max considered it for a second. “If it will bring me face to face with the one who killed John, I’ll do it; just don’t be late.†As he started to smirk with the joke, a figure appeared in the headlights and Max’s eyes widened with surprise. “John…†he said before a pain like having an axe lodged in his brain ricocheted around his head. It didn’t stop and suddenly Max lost all feeling in his body as he collapsed forward, into Katy’s arms.

 

Katy struggled under his weight for a second before twisting and lowering him to the floor. “Max? Max?!†she said but Max didn’t respond, he was completely unconscious.

 

===================================================================

 

“What the hell are you talking about?†Kit said with a growl. “And what the hell do you keep looking at?†she started to move towards the window but she was interrupted by a voice from further down the hall, by the door to the kitchen.

 

“Catherine, let her go.†The voice said.

 

Kit turned to the voice quickly and it took her a second to realise who it was. “Dad? What the hell are you doing here?â€

 

“We have no time, Jenny, leave now.†Ray Ruine said to the librarian before striding up the hall and grabbing Kit by the elbow. “Come to the kitchen, I have some things I need to tell you, and you have some things to explain to me.†With that said, he completely ignored Jenny and pulled Kit into the kitchen.

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Max’s words weren’t a problem. It was the reverberating anger, the pull on her wrist. The knee bruising her side, pushing her into the seat. His voice was startling enough, but being physically pinned down was something she hadn’t expected from Max. Kess had been sure he was going to slam a fist in her head or something. She’d bent her free arm over her head and tried to curl into the seat cushion- not that Max had noticed while being mad at everyone- and still didn’t want to move her hand away from her face, though he’d already slammed his door. If she could just stay here until her heart stopped jackhammering against her rib cage…

That seals it, Kess shakily sat up, everyone in this car is crazier than me.

Despite this new certainty, Kess couldn’t even bring herself to throw the car door open and sprint. Katy might shoot this time. Max might catch her. For all she knew, the driver might just run her over.

Katy glanced right at Kess through the windshield. Another picture superimposed itself over Kess’ vision, but aside from Max’s long-limbed form and a splash of red hair, Kess could see nothing. She blinked it away, partly frustrated and partly worried Katy was pointing another gun in the present. Thankfully she wasn’t, but that didn’t mean she was safe to be around. The driver either.

Max either? Kess wrapped her arms around her knees and tried to squeeze the remaining nerves out of her hands.

If Max ever thinks I’m following him anywhere ever again- Kess glared. Before she could find an end to that thought, a thin, tanned face appeared at her window. Kess almost yelped, but managed to keep her voice down for once. It was the girl from the mall, here impossibly soon, unseen and unheard by any of the trained people around the car. She must have been perception deflecting.

Or whatever it was called.

The important bit was her expression: half insistent and half terrified. She held Kess’ gaze through the glass, one fist against the surface. Kess had seen the same fear hours ago, on the face of the boy in the library. Only this girl didn’t want Kess to run. There was something else she needed.

Give me the keys!

Kess jumped at the voice she hadn’t identified- until now. The girl’s eyes were still fixed on Kess’. They widened just a fraction, confirming that she’d just put the words in Kess’ brain. Her hand spread against the window. Kess uneasily remembered the boy’s hand twisting the metal stair railing.

Okay, okay, fine, the voice- the girl’s voice- conceded, just one key. My brother’s. Keep mine, I don’t care. Just hurry!

What keys? Kess finally managed. The girl didn’t react. Apparently this conversation was a one-way thing. Kess hoped the girl could read lips and repeated her question. If she meant the driver’s car keys, there was no way.

You don’t know? The girl pressed her face against the glass, peering in at Kess. She drew back just as suddenly.

You don’t know. You don’t know.

Kess felt the girl’s panic turn to shock. Her face whipped around to Max and Katy.

John?!

Kess scrambled over the front seat just in time to see Max fall. The driver gripped her arm with one hand and his gun with the other.

“What did you do?†Kess yelled. Katy didn’t hear, so Kess turned on the driver.

“What’s wrong with Max? What did she do? Let me go! Let me out!â€

Neither demand was answered. Kess followed the driver’s gaze out her window. Apparently everyone could see the girl now, who was sprinting across the road with both fists twisted in her hair. The same odd jerking as the library boy’s kept pulling her off course. By the time the driver was out the door, the girl was over the rise of the road and probably stumbling down the other side of the hill. Kess stuffed her pistol into her belt and crawled out of the car.

“Katy!†Kess raced to the head of the car, keeping a cautious three steps back in case Max woke up.

“What’s wrong with him? Did you do something?â€

In the middle of her last question, some kind of explosion slammed Kess in the head and chest. There was no sound, and no force knocking her or Katy off their feet. Just a strange kind of snapping that, apparently, Katy hadn’t felt. Kess’ had to catch herself on the hood of the car.

“What was that?†Kess breathed. It had come from the direction of the girl.

“Did you feel that?†Kess questioned Katy, “and what do we do about Max? And you know what? Legitimate authority doesn’t impersonate the FBI. Who are you?â€

~~~

“Ray Ruine, how could you come back here in the midst of all this? You’re aware of the target on your back?†Jenny called after them. She pursed her lips as she cast her eyes once again toward the front window. That must be the very reason he’d returned, in spite of the heightened risk. Max was gone, but Kit was still around, a fact which Culver’s superiors would use to their advantage if they got the chance.

Apparently they’d been planning to already. A shadow detached from the trees across the street, headed for the Ruine house. Driving away was no longer an option. Whatever Ray wanted to say to Kit, he’d better say it fast and get ready faster.

Jenny carefully re-pinned a few strands of hair and stepped quietly out the front door. Someone seized her arm.

“I’m an old woman, I’m not going to outrun anyone,†Jenny reminded the shadow. The grip didn't loosen. She was swiftly led across the street to the shadows on the opposing side. They enveloped her as someone zip-tied her hands, someone else checked for hidden weapons, someone else pulled her forward to the person in charge.

“Jenny? Why the hell are you here? Unarmed?â€

Jenny stiffened at the familiar voice. She shed her neutral mask and allowed dark accusation to soak through her words.

“Valerie Jordyn Henders, how dare you?â€

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My head feels like someone decided to bash it in with a baseball bat…seriously, ouch.

 

Max’s voice echoed around him, like he was standing in a vast cathedral hall. Except, it wasn’t really his voice but more like he was screaming loudly in his mind and the words were echoing around in his head instead. But he was pretty sure his brain was filling his head up; there wasn’t enough space for his mind-voice to echo and fade like it was doing.

 

What am I talking about? Mind-voice? Echoes around the brain? I think I’m losing it…or have I lost it already?

 

He tried to stand up but found that he didn’t really have control over his legs, or any other parts of his body for that matter. Even when he tried to open his eyes he found that he couldn’t and he started to panic. Not that he could show it seeing as he couldn’t move, but it was there, bubbling in his mind.

 

Am I paralysed? Can’t paralysed people open their eyes? They can usually see, maybe control a finger or something… they must be able to… it would totally suck if I’m paralysed. Wait…is this something to do with culver?

 

Perhaps I can assist you with that…

 

The voice slammed into him like a wall, although it wasn’t actually a voice; more like another version of his mind-voice replying to his normal mind-voice. Suddenly what had been nothing but black shone with the light of the sun before settling into all white. Max could feel it burning his eyes slightly and blinked to recover his sight quickly. This made him realise that he could blink and when he glanced down he noticed that he could now move his arms and legs. He hopped from one leg to the other as a test before remembering he had more important things to do.

 

I really am losing myself…anyway, who the hell is that!

 

There was no immediate reply, but Max saw a patch of light suddenly warp and bend before forming into a figure glowing with what felt like the power of the sun.

 

What the hell are you? Who the hell are you? What the hell is going on here? What happened to Kess and Katy?

 

There still wasn’t a reply, but the figure lost some of its brightness before fading into a shadow. Max started to move towards it and when he did, it pulsated twice before forming into a person. Max came to a stop when he realised who it was.

 

John! What the hell is this!?

 

You say ‘what the hell’ a lot, don’t you? You should really be more creative, it’ll help you expand you horizons.

 

The voice that wasn’t really a voice slammed into him again and Max couldn’t help but take a step back. Before he could open his mouth to speak, the figure in John’s form got their first.

 

I’ll say now that I am in no way, John Loader. I’ve merely taken his form because it was the most prominent image in your mind. If it distresses you, as it seems to have done on previous occasions, I could change to someone else?

 

Without waiting for an answer, John’s form simmered before it shrank and became skinnier until Kess was stood with her hands on her hips. Max bent his knees before dropping himself to the floor, stretching his legs out in front of him.

 

I am officially confused. Can you explain to me what the hell is going on?

 

The not-Kess crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side.

 

You’ve fought a little bit harder than I was expecting. I better explain…

 

===================================================================

 

Katy checked his breathing and did a quick body check to make sure there wasn’t anything poking out that shouldn’t be, but she couldn’t find anything wrong with Max. It was like he had just decided to fall asleep while in the middle of a conversation. She glanced up and saw a girl sprinting into the distance but decided reaction now would be a little bit too late to do anything useful. She looked back to the car to see Kess climbing out and dodging around the hood of the car before coming to a stop a couple of steps away, somewhat afraid.

 

“Katy! What’s wrong with him? Did you do something?†Kess said quickly and as Katy got ready to tell her to calm down, she suddenly staggered and caught herself on the car.

 

“What was that? Did you feel that? And what do we do about Max? And you know what? Legitimate authority doesn’t impersonate the FBI. Who are you?â€

 

Katy stood up without a wood, and motioned Jake out of the car. He still had his gun in his hand but slipped it back in the holster attached to his belt. “Put him in the back seat, be careful with him, he’s not injured at the moment…not as far as I can tell.†Jake nodded and picked up Max with a grunt, slinging him over his shoulder and carrying him back to the car. Katy turned back to Kess with a frown on her lips, although it didn’t seem to be directed at her.

 

“Think for a second, Kess. John used to work with us on a many number of jobs, going by what you know so far, even if it is but a fraction, do you really think he would work for a ‘legitimate’ authority?†she stopped frowning and resting her hands on her belt. “All I’ll say at the moment is that the American government would really like it if we left them alone. But we have more important things to deal with; like finding out what’s wrong with Max, and killing Culver. Come on, or stay here, I’m not entirely fussed.†Katy walked back to the car and slid into the passenger’s seat, shutting the door and fastening her seat belt before staring out of the window. Jake was still busy getting Max comfortable in the back seat.

 

===================================================================

 

Ray heard Jenny’s call but didn’t reply; it had been 20 odd years since he hadn’t had a target on his back in one form or another, it came with the territory. He pulled Kit into the kitchen before releasing his grip on her elbow. She pulled away and rubbed the area he had been holding, even if it hadn’t really hurt.

 

“What the hell was that about, dad?†Kit said, stepping clear of him.

 

“I’m afraid things are about to escalate beyond my capability to contain it. Max is already in trouble and I suspect the girl that is with him, Kess, won’t be far behind. I’m…†he suddenly stopped and turned his head as if he was listening to something. Kit attempted to speak but Ray lifted a finger to his lips to silence her. He stayed there for a couple of second before moving in close to Kit and leaning towards her ear to whisper.

 

“I need you to step into that corner and remain silent; no questions.†Kit recognised the tone as one of absolute command; a style he no doubt used on his subordinates. Kit couldn’t disagree and had wandered into the corner of the room, on the hinge side, before realising she had actually done it.

 

While she did that, Ray had pulled a pistol out of the back of his trousers, complete with the shape of a long thick-ish cylinder attached to the muzzle. Even Kit recognised it as a silencer. He stepped across to the opposite side of the room to Kit, and crouched to the floor, and wedged himself into the corner. For a man as big as he was, he did a great job of disappearing into the background as if he was nothing more than a shadow. He held the pistol in his right hand while cupping the butt of the pistol in his left.

 

The door to the kitchen suddenly burst open and a man clad in black exploded into the room, coming to a stop near the centre, looking around for his targets. Ray wouldn’t admit he hadn’t been expecting that but anyone watching, like Kit, wouldn’t have guessed that as they saw him react. He sprung out of his corner like a bullet and was upon the man in a second, the muzzle of his pistol jammed into the back of his neck while his massive hand reached round and covered his mouth, while simultaneously pulling him back into the pistol.

 

“Struggle and I will kill you.†Ray said in a near-whisper, with a similar tone to how he had spoken to Kit.

 

The man didn’t answer, except he tried to twist violently to free himself of Ray’s grip. Ray released him halfway through his spin and they ended up facing each other. Ray, being about a foot taller than his foe, kneed him in the gut and wrapped a massive arm around his neck from above. Then with flexibility not commonly associated with people his size he wrapped his leg around the man’s and pushed down on the back of his knee. This meant the man was forced to a lower position but didn’t get all the way as Ray pulled up at the same time, strangling him. Ray probably could have held that position and killed the man by asphyxiation but he didn’t really want to wait around. So instead, he stamped down hard with the foot caught on the man’s leg while at the same time, twisting viciously at the neck.

 

There was the sound of grating bone, loud enough to reverberate around the room, followed by the sinister sound of a man’s neck breaking under extreme pressure. Kit couldn’t help but gasp, while raising a hand to her mouth in surprise. Ray let the body fall to the floor and walked over to Kit. He grabbed her by the elbow, as he had done earlier, and pulled her across to the door that would lead to the back of the house.

 

“They have the place surrounded, I would guess, but that isn’t going to stop us. I’m going to kick the door down and you’re going to sprint as fast as you can to the fence. Vault it and the next one and make a hard left, jump that fence and you’ll find a tan Crown Vic parked on the curb; that’s mine. Get in and drive as fast as you can to the location in the Sat Nav; do that without stopping. Do you understand?â€

 

Kit worked with the police, although not on the front lines admittedly, and had been given long enough to work through what had just happened and what was about to happen. “What are you going to do?†she said, noting the fact that Ray had left himself out of his plan.

 

“I have a job to do.†He said simply before rounding on the door. “Ready?†Kit nodded so Ray bounced forward and slammed his heel into the door, just above the handle, exploding it out violently.

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Kess sighed at the car’s gleaming hood.

 

“Don’t be ridiculous, leave room for me.â€

 

That wasn’t very careful of him, Kess eyed the driver critically as he slung Max over his shoulder. Maybe he was just a hired hand or something, without a connection to Max like Katy’s. Though, since Katy had been about to force Max back toward Culver, Kess wasn’t sure what sort of tie linked them. Either way, she was unfortunately the best chance either of them had. Apparently she wasn’t on Culver’s side?

 

“Whatever,†Kess muttered. She crawled into the backseat and wrestled Max’s feet out of her spot.

 

“You need to pick better friends,†she informed him. Maybe she’d actually repeat herself when he woke up.

 

Kess squinted out the window above Max’s head, the one facing the street. Would the girl necessarily let Kess know if she was okay? Was it bad that Kess mind didn’t hear anything at all coming from that direction?

 

Maybe that explosion she had felt earlier was John. Maybe it was something else, though, something that meant trouble for the other girl.

 

“Um, Katy? Can we go check on the kid? I think something happened to her.â€

 

Or something happened to Max.

 

Which on one foot was fine, cause that meant there were no John-induced freakouts in the near future. On the other foot, it was bad, cause something else was wrong with Max. Besides the whole pin-Kess-down-for-trying-to-help thing.

 

Kess crossed her arms over her chest and leveled a glare at Max’s unconscious face.

 

On the other other hand, should I even be worried about him?

 

Maybe he was friends with a lot of shady people because he was a shady person. He’d even said as much about his dad. Sure, he was against Culver, but that didn’t automatically make him on the right side.

 

One of Max’s feet slipped from where Kess had placed it on the seat, jabbing into her arm. Kess grabbed it and replaced it twice before wedging it awkwardly in the gap between the front seats.  After a second’s thought, she shoved the other foot on top of it.

 

As soon as that was settled, she sat back uneasily into her seat. There was no way Max was headed to Culver’s office if he was like this for long. What if Katy made him go back when he was still weak from whatever this was? What if she just had him dropped off in the office unconscious?  Wouldn’t anybody fair better than an unconscious person?

 

Like I just said… Kess’ mind began. It faded to a stop as Kess flicked her eyes to Max a final time. Underneath some tangled hair, right over the jugular vein, curled a tattoo of a tiny yellow bloom.

 

That had definitely never been there before.

 

Val’s warning not to touch the odd flowers folded over itself in Kess’ mind. The most important thing Kess could do at the moment was find out what these things actually were. Val wasn’t here to give reasons, and it was very possible that this ‘tattoo’ impostor had something to do with Max’s sudden collapse. Kess took those two points and refolded Val’s warning until it was a tiny triangle of words. Then she held out two fingers as if to take a pulse, and flicked the folded words out of her mind.

 

There was no rushing sound, or darkness, or brilliant light. Just a shift in sight. The quiet motion of the car even remained, translated into the lulling rolls of a gondola drifting over a very familiar river. Any conversation Katy and Jake held was replaced; a hushed rain touched Kess’ face through arcing trees festooned with the golden pinprick flowers. When Kess peered to the left bank, she found an ornate door shut firmly into one of the trees. When she turned her gaze back to the gondola, she found she easily propelled it with two fingers.

 

A swell of anxious confusion broke over her, but there was no time to handle it. She guided the gondola over to the door, taking in the scars and dents crisscrossing its surface. One foot landed in water as Kess impatiently jumped for the bank. It had to be Max behind this door, somehow.

 

Still don’t have any keys… Kess thought, but again, no answer from any mind-voice.

 

Until she was about three steps away.

 

“Don’t you dare.â€

 

“Max!†Kess cried, but it was immediately apparent this guy wasn’t him. Sure, he spoke with Max’s voice and currently wore his form (down to the scar on his hand) but he didn’t feel like Max. Kind of the opposite, actually, whatever that meant.

 

“Get out!†the not-Max roared at her, “If you mess this up, everything collapses! Get out get out get out!â€

 

The not-Max whipped an arm forward, and before Kess could blink, she’d drawn her gun and shot him twice; once in the ribs and once through the center of his hand. Foreign hatred wrung her gut; she couldn’t even feel shock at the not-Max’s scream.

 

“Where are we? What is this?†Kess yelled over him, “What happened to Max?â€

 

“He’s so close! We’re so close!†was the only response he gave her. She leveled the gun again. She ought to have been suspicious that he wasn’t still writhing on the ground, wasn’t even bleeding from the side.

 

“Tell me how to open this door!â€

 

“Hell if I know! And now’s really not a good time for anyone but me to-never mind, just give me that!â€

 

The not-Max ripped Kess’ gun out of her hands. Some deep reflex of hers sent a kick lashing at him, but that turned out to be a terrible idea since he just grabbed her foot and pulled. He released her at just the right timing to send her flying halfway back to the river. While she was still in the air, he sank nearly every bullet in Kess’ pistol into the door. It shook and even cracked in a couple of places, but stayed shut tight.

 

“Cut it out!†Kess impulsively jumped the last step forward and bit the not-Max’s wrist. He had to drop the gun, but kicked it back from Kess’ reach and scooped it up twos steps away from her.

 

“Keys are idiots,†he growled. Kess’ eyes popped wide at the sight of his hand. It was whole and healed where she’d shot it through seconds earlier. As she watched, it shrank and changed, followed by the rest of his body, until not-Max was Culver raising the pistol toward her.

 

“You’ve got two minutes to get out!â€

 

Kess stayed still. Another seemingly evil guy who didn’t kill her as soon as he could…Why was this a theme?

 

“Do you think I can’t kill him from here?†not-Culver questioned. Then the air tightened. Not like the anxiety Kess was quickly becoming familiar with, but physically tight, like some hand had wrapped around every molecule and squeezed. Suddenly Kess couldn’t draw in a full breath. Not-Culver clasped his hands behind his back, and Kess could barely draw in air at all.

 

“This is what’s happening to Max outside,†he explained, calmly, like he was showing her how to steer the gondola. Kess sucked in a huge breath, with far too little air to show for it. Wasn’t he lying? Wasn’t this her own mind? Kess couldn’t say for sure.

 

“You’ll continue to feel what he would feel if he was conscious. No idea if he’s experiencing it himself right now, but either way, you’ll experience it until the instant he dies. You won’t be linked with him after that, of course, but you’ll feel that moment. And then you’ll be back in Katy’s car, almost able to pretend this whole adventure didn’t happen. Except that Max will be dead, that’ll be hard to explain.â€

 

“Okay, stop it!†Kess breathed, as that was all the oxygen she could waste on talking, “I’m leaving! Let go!â€

 

Not-Culver made a show of debating, but to Kess’ intense relief, he let up. The air settled back to normal, Kess leaned her back against Max’s door and breathed in deep. Not-Max gave her about three seconds.

 

“Okay…bye,†he whipped the gondola staff from the deck and shoved it at Kess. She instinctively grasped it in both hands, and sat up in the back of Katy’s car.

 

Kess screwed her eyes shut, gulping air and running shaky fingers through her hair.

 

Somebody’s got to freaking tell me what the hell that was.

 

The question she’d been about to ask Katy tumbled out of her mouth as if it had been waiting until she returned.

 

“Hey, Katy,†Kess heard herself ask, “d’you think I could fill in for going back to Culver?â€

 

~~~

 

Val masked the smallest of cringes, but motioned the rest of her team away. They silently joined the others fanned around the Ruine house.

 

“Jenny. You honestly expect me to believe that tiny strip of plastic can hold you?â€

 

“I was affirming for myself that it was you who led them here,†Jenny’s normally warm face stayed frigid.

 

“Jenny. You knew it was me. You can’t not know when it’s me.â€

 

“Ray Ruine, Valerie? Have you any idea-“

 

“Well, I can’t bring you to Culver, can I?†Val cut in, “Ruine’s my other option. Or Kit. Now-“

 

Val broke off at the sound of a splintering door.

 

“No one’s directly behind me until the second block,†Val hissed, “they’ll only be there til we’ve nabbed Ray or Kit. Get out of here.â€

 

“Valerie.â€

 

“Leave, aunt Jenny! Now!â€

 

Val unmuted her mic and circled around the house, picking up her pace at the sound of things through her earpiece. A shadowed figure flung itself over the back fence.

 

Finally, Val silently exulted, and veered to intersect it. In just a few more seconds, Kit Ruine would be Culver’s. Val would be fully trusted by his superiors, free from their suspicion over her family ties. Soon Val would have all the time she needed.

 

Jenny watched Val melt from one shadow to another, but Jenny’s old eyes quickly lost track of her. It would be an impossible thing for Jenny to attempt keeping Kit away from Val. Kit herself was far more qualified in that regard. There was only one thing Jenny could do; relay what she’d just witnessed. So she breathed a single deep sigh, let the zip-tie pass through both of her wrists, and walked through the nearest treetrunk on her way home.

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He’s not the top of the chain, you know? He just likes to think he is.

 

Max had finally gotten used to the foreign voice rattling around what he presumed to be his head. It was no longer like slamming his head against a wooden board; he could now compare it to slamming his head against a wooden board wrapped in cotton. The being opposite him still had the form of Kess and she had formed a set of chairs and a table where a pot of tea and two cups sat, steaming from the heat.

 

I always got that impression; just by the way he acted. But then, how many levels are there above him?

 

The two of them weren’t moving their moves as they talked; instead it was simply a passing of thought between them. Even when not-Kess had explained the process, Max hadn’t really understood it. He just nodded and accepted that this was a way of communicating; although not-Kess had been very adamant not to try it in the waking world. Max had pondered over the comment ever since she had said it, wondering if it was possible in the waking world but repercussions make it not worth it.

 

Only one, I’m afraid. He’s not the top, but he is second-in-command. I’m trusting you will be able to keep your end of the bargain? Although there isn’t much I could do if you didn’t; with the exception of haunting your mind until you do.

 

The not-Kess shrugged and stood up, waving her hand to disperse the tables and chairs. The firmness underneath Max’s bottom disappeared but he didn’t fall over; instead he kept the position he had been in as if holding himself up by the muscles in his leg. He held it for a second before standing up and turning to the not-Kess.

 

Do you have a name, by the way? I can’t really be calling you ‘Not-Kess’ for ever.

 

Not-Kess seemed to pause in consideration before turning to Max to answer him.

 

 Perhaps when your end of the bargain has been fulfilled; a name is not something to hand out for free.

 

Max was about to question such a comment but suddenly a heavy pressure slammed down from above; it lasted about a second before not-Kess stepped in and pulled him to his feet.

 

What the hell is that?

 

Didn’t I tell you to find something more creative to say? But it is a sign that our time conversing has come to an end. If we prolong it any further, your life will be in danger. Are you clear on your end; will you uphold the bargain?

 

Enough with the questioning! I’ll uphold my end of the bargain; I just expect you to do the same.

 

As I explained, it is impossible for me not to. Now, you need to wake up.

 

A number of pulses rocked the white world but not-Kess ignored it as she pierced her hand into Max’s chest and grabbed hold of his heart.

 

===================================================================

 

Katy watched Kess quickly accept that she needed to go with them to stay safe and eyed her as she clambered into the back of the car and shoved Max’s legs across to give herself room. Once she was settled, Katy nodded to Jake and he slid the car off the shoulder and back onto the road. Apart from a single vehicle passing them in the opposite direction, the roads were completely empty and Jake accelerated a little harder than he would usually.

 

Kess spoke to her but Katy didn’t respond, instead she simply gazed out of the windscreen with Culver on her mind. Is it him doing this to Max? Has he already figured out who I am? She thought but decided not to speculate on it any further; it would do her no good. Katy glanced back at Max again, looking as if he was sleeping soundly, and noted that Kess seemed to have zoned out; the look in her eyes wasn’t focused on anything in particular by the looks of it. A strange girl that one; I wonder where Max picked her up? She let that thought wander and settled into her chair; her HQ was about an hour away.

 

20 minutes into the ride, Katy glanced in the mirror and saw Kess with her eyes screwed shut and her chest heaving with heavy breaths. Katy turned around to find out what was going on when a question burst from Kess’s lips.

 

“Fill in?†Katy said, maybe with a hint of incredulity. “I trust Max because John trusted Max; I’m afraid the same courtesy isn’t extended to him. Just because he trusts you does not mean I automatically trust you.†She paused and fiddled with her pony tail. “But then again, trust isn’t the issue that bothers me the most. The thing with Max is that he’ll be driven; much more than you would be in the same situation. Although having said that, if Max is still in this condition then I might be forced to send you in his place instead. It’s not like I can just dump his unconscious body into Culver’s office; that’s a little bit unfair.â€

 

Before Kess could reply or argue, Max suddenly shifted in his seat and tried to spring up into a standing position. Instead, being as he was in a car, he cracked his head on the roof and slammed back down into his chair, rubbing his head.

 

“Just a little bit; but it doesn’t matter, she’ll be coming with me anyway.†He said, cringing at the somewhat satisfying normal pain running through his skull.

 

“Max!†Katy said, twisting completely around in her chair to face him. “What the hell happened to you?â€

 

Max grinned, brushing his wild hair back along his head. “You should really find something more creative to say.†He chuckled before turning to Jake. “Jake, take a right here and take us back to my place.â€

 

“Your place? Max, you’ve clearly let your brain leak out while you were out. They’ll be watching your place, the girl’s as well.†She gestured at Kess but didn’t let her speak. “I’m taking you back to my base and we’ll talk about the plan when we’re in the clear.†The car lurched as Jake took a sudden right and headed in the direction Max had indicated. “Jake, what the hell are you doing?â€

 

“What I’ve been asked to do.†He said, leaving Katy with her mouth agape in surprise.

 

“Don’t worry about it Katy, I’ve already got a plan. I hope they’re watching the place, it’ll make my plan progress that much more smoothly. You’ll have to forgive Jake, he’s such an amiable person.â€

 

Katy arched an eyebrow before turning back in her seat to face the front. “So am I going to hear about this plan?â€

 

“No.†Max said simply and Katy couldn’t help but turn back around to face him with a look of surprise. “When we arrive, I’ll explain the plan to Kess but you’ll need to be somewhere else.â€

 

“Where?â€

 

“Culver’s base of operations is under the school; Kess and I heard fragments of its operation when we were there overnight. That’s where he will take us when he gets his hands on us. You need to be watching it from the moment you drop us off until the moment you see us enter the building. You’ll see us; Culver will want us to walk into his den under our own power and decisions. Do you understand?†Max settled back into his chair and crossed his arms.

 

Katy couldn’t help but stare for a couple of seconds before she could answer. “What makes you so sure you’re right?â€

 

Max laughed out loud, to Katy’s surprise, before answering. “Because it’s so damn obvious! Jake, a little bit faster, please.†Jake nodded and pushed the accelerator further down, launching the car forward.

 

===================================================================

 

Kit was light and athletic, so was over the fence in less than a second; she saw the surrounding shadowy figured but ignored them as she followed her father’s instructions. She countered the fall on the other side of the fence with a perfectly executed combat roll, coming to a stop at the base of a tree. A figure lunged out but she was prepared as she countered the lunge but tipping herself forward and driving her shoulder into the man’s gut. The blow knocked the air out of him and Kit stepped around to his side quickly, placing a foot behind him and elbowing him in the chest to knock him backwards; causing him to trip over her foot and land in a heap on the floor.

 

She didn’t wait to see him get back up, which he would once he got his breath back, but instead dashed forward to the second fence. As she scaled that one, just as quickly as she had the last, she saw another figure stood in front of the brown Crown Vic; it was smaller and slighter than the others, clearly female. Kit didn’t attack immediately but instead hung back with the back of her foot touching the base of the fence, telling her how far away she was from it.

 

“Who the hell are you? And more importantly, are you going to get out of my way before I cram your face in the dirt?†she snarled, deciding that being nice would do no good at this point in time.

 

===================================================================

 

Ray watched his daughter sprint like a pro athlete across the grass and leap the fence like it was 2 feet high. The moment she was over it, Ray burst out onto the grass and made an immediate hard right towards the next door neighbour’s house. He easily gleaned the numerous shadows surrounding the building, but none of them worried him; they were fodder as far as he was concerned. He leapt the small bushes that separated the properties and aimed for the back door of the house. A shadow ducked into his path, but Ray didn’t even miss a step as snapped an elbow out and sent the man flying to the side with a blow to the head. Ray was big and he was moving at a fairly swift pace; the man didn’t stand a chance.

 

The back door crumbled beneath his weight and he stepped into the kitchen of the house. He knew it was empty, he had asked for it to be empty. He also knew that he had about a minute before his assailants followed him into the house. With a practiced motion, he slid his hand to his back and withdrew his pistol again, complete with silencer still attached at the muzzle. As he did that, he let himself drop to the floor and orientated himself so that his weapons was levelled on the door.

 

Nearly exactly on the minute mark, one of the men burst into the door with a vicious looking knife in his hands. Ray didn’t even wait for him to start looking around before putting a bullet between his eyes. A millisecond later, before the dead man had hit the floor, the kitchen window smashed in and another figure landed gracefully on the counter. Gracefully, that is, until Ray grabbed him by the ankle and yanked forward, causing him to topple and crash his back into the counter. Ray placed the muzzle against the flesh of his neck and pulled the trigger a second time. More sounds echoed around the house and Ray guessed they were entering in nearly every entrance to the building.

 

Two minutes later, he had 6 more dead bodies spread about the house before his shadowed assailants retreated. Ray reloaded his pistol with a spare magazine and then spent a second refilling his half empty one with loose rounds he had in his pocket. Once that was done, he pulled out his mobile phone and pressed a quick dial number; it had hardly sounded the first ring before it was picked up.

 

“I need a clean-up crew at my location within 15 minutes; nothing obnoxious, just enough to clear a couple of carpets. You’ll also want to inform the boss that he can finally make his move. Culver can’t get away with attacking directly.â€

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