The Fourth Faction

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The Guileless Boy

A muscular man with black stripes across his face ran through the garden of a property overtaken by the men who kidnapped his young daughter. A whole army seemed to be shooting, but not one man could gun this guy down. It was almost unrealistic. No bullet came close to hitting him, but it appeared that he could aim in any direction and it would take down one of the bad guys. In a few minutes, the fate of his daughter would be decided in a knife fight between him and one of the main villains.

"Yes! Take 'em out, Arnol- Ow!" Mark had been face-to-face with the action, his nose almost touching the computer screen, until his adrenaline-induced outburst caused him to hit his head on the shelf above his desk. The white-haired high school boy rubbed the bump on his head without taking his eyes off the screen. He eagerly awaited the next one-liner.

"Mark, oh Mark?" A woman in her late thirties burst through his bedroom door. "What are you up to, my precious baby boy?" She affectionately wrapped her arms around her son's shoulders.

Mark quickly paused the movie.

"Mom, I'm watching a movie," he whined, "And please don't call me that. It's embarrassing." He squirmed as his mother over-affectionately rubbed her cheek against the top of his head.

"How's it going, son?" A man in his late thirties followed his wife through the open door. "What are you doing, son?" He gave Mark a light punch in the arm. "Have a good day at school, son?"

"Yeah, Dad, it was fine," Mark said, annoyed by his parents and their smothering.

His mother suddenly stopped nuzzling him, released him and stepped back. Both she and her husband now looked down on Mark as he sat in his desk chair. His mom put her hands on her hips, and his dad crossed his arms. They had very unpleasant expressions on their faces.

"What kind of a tone was that?" Mrs. Spryt asked angrily.

"I ju-"

"You talk to your parents with some respect, young man," Mr. Spryt said, adjusting his glasses.

"I'm sor-"

"And what's this call I got about you picking fights with the librarian?" Mrs. Spryt forcibly turned Mark's swivel chair so that her face was right up in his. "Worrying your poor mother."

"Don't you know how much we work to put you through school?" Mr. Spryt turned Mark so that his face was only inches away from his son's.

"It's a public school…" But Mark's argument was lost in the flurry of emotions.

"You little brat, I ought to send you to-" Mark's dad yelled, pointing fingers.

"Hold it, honey," Mark's mom suddenly placed her hands on her husband's shoulders. "Do you think we're being too hard on Mark?"

"Do you think?" Mark's father gasped, looking frantic.

Both his parents looked down on him in a brief moment of silence. Then Mark's mother and father both fell on top of him, each wrapping their arms around his neck.

"We're so sorry we let you down, son," Mark's dad wailed.

"Please forgive us," Mark's mom cried. "We don't mean to be so tough!"

Luckily for Mark, this tear-filled moment was interrupted by the sound of his cell phone ringing. He struggled to reach for his phone, flipped it on and opened up a text message. Tally was inviting him to her house to do homework. Mark was more than happy to go. He clumsily slipped out from under his parent's grasp, grabbed his backpack and headed out, shouting back to them where he was going.

"See you later, guys," he said as he left the room.

"Bye-bye son," Mrs. Spryt waved happily to their son from the spot on his bedroom floor where they had landed.

"Have fun with your friends, son," Mr. Spryt added.

"Wait, come back and give your mommy a hug first," Mrs. Spryt reached out to her son, who was well on his way out of the house. Mr. Spryt consoled her.

Mark walked quicker than usual down the sidewalk out of his residential neighborhood. His shoulder-length white hair fluttered behind him in the breeze. He couldn't keep a light grin off of his face. According to Tally's message, her house was on the opposite side of town. Walking wasn't his idea of a good time, but he was willing to do it for her sake.

Ever since they met at the library last week, he had been seeing a lot more of Tally. She had made it a point to sit next to him every day in first period. She greeted him warmly every single time. Tally almost seemed incapable of being in a sour mood. Those pleasant hellos actually made going to math worthwhile. He would usually despise the class, but just having this beautiful, friendly girl there next to him, frantically erasing her frequent mistakes and sighing lightly every time, made it oddly pleasant. He just hoped she would never ask him for help, him having failed algebra last year. That would be awkward.

Mark had never had many friends, much less a girlfriend. He loved movies, particularly action movies. He loved getting lost in the fun and excitement. It wasn't anything like this world. Gunfights like the one he just saw would never happen in real life. No matter how much he wished the world was like that, where every military conflict could be solved by one muscle-bound commando with a few guns, it wasn't the world he lived in. That was impossible. But Mark still liked to lose himself in these pieces of fiction. The rest of the world, every classmate who wanted to hang-out or any girl that wanted to talk was boring in comparison.

He felt like a petty, stuck-up jerk. In middle school, he indulged his fantasies twenty-four hours a day, but now that he was in high school, friendless and anti-social, he figured it was time to put that behind him. He still watched the stuff, but he tried to get away from it little by little. And it finally worked. A hot blonde was asking him to hang-out at her house. This was like winning the lonely-boy lottery.

Oh, I hope he won't be there, Mark thought as he passed by the high school.

Spending time with Tally was really enjoyable for Mark, but there was something that kind of ruined the ride. Whenever he saw Tally outside of first period, at any moment on or off campus, she was always accompanied by her shadow, H. The awkwardly quiet teenage boy had never said more than two words to Mark. He had tried several times to start a conversation with H, but it all amounted to nothing. They were light years from being friends. At this point, Mark had even given up on saying hello to H when they saw each other.

How does a silent, emotionless guy like that become "best friends" with such a nice girl like Tally? Talk about unfair, Mark thought with a sigh.

What really bugged Mark was that Tally seemed to really like H. She did introduce him as her best friend, after all. He didn't know what H thought of her and for the moment he didn't really want to know. It may be an unpleasant answer. Mark didn't think it was likely for them to be a couple or anything, though. He didn't think H was capable of such emotion. So Mark allowed himself to think about dating Tally. He grimaced whenever his quirky romance fantasy turned into him saving her from masked gunmen. He really had to get off that.

H didn't look amused when Book arrived at Tally's house wearing his sunglasses. They were clearly too big for her face, covering up her eyes entirely as well as her eyebrows. They seemed ready to slide off her nose at any minute.

"Those are mine," H said dryly, though he didn't really care.

"Yeah, and they took forever to find," Book said as she adjusted them.

"I don't really own anything worth hiding, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't make it a habit of going through my stuff," H said.

Since her wounds had mostly healed, H had allowed Book to start wandering around town on her own, just to get the feel for the lay of the city. She didn't really have a clear answer for where she came from, but this city was new to her. As such, they really didn't have any idea where she was going to live. She couldn't stay there forever, but for the time being, Book had continued taking up residence in H's house. She didn't seem to have any problems with hogging his bed.

"This is for my own protection," she said, lifting up the glasses so that she could properly scowl at him. "Not all of us are immune, you know."

Along with donating his bed, H also had to get her some new clothes. The ones she was wearing previously had been pretty torn up in the fight. Paying out of pocket, he got her a purple collared-shirt and beige pants. While the shirt seemed to be fine, the pants were too baggy. She had to borrow one of H's old belts. It was disappointing; he had been so careful about choosing, too. He even picked from the kid's sizes.

"Just be careful," H said, turning around to face Tally's front door. He had been staking out her house in the comfort of the oak tree when he received her invitation to do homework. Book didn't have a cell phone so he had to contact her through the landline in his bedroom. He had to call four times before she finally answered. She said it was because it would be suspicious for a girl to answer his phone, but really she was just sleeping.

"I'm always careful," Book said, lowering the sunglasses back over her eyes and following H up to the house. She wasn't sure of what to expect, but she had the little golden cone known as the Pike on a chain around her neck. In one quick motion, she could detach the pocket-watch-sized object, turn it to full size and use it on the enemy, whoever that may be.

The easy access to her weapon did little to settle her stomach, though. Book had never met this person before, but she had heard quite a bit about her. This person, no matter how normal she appeared on the outside, had ruined the lives of countless people. She was the quintessential figure in the Community. She was the variable that no one could predict, but everyone paid attention to. Her presence in this city had caused untold amounts of suffering, pain, death and conflict. And when H knocked on the door, this person came to greet them without any knowledge of what she was.

"Hi H," Tally said with a smile. Her eyes immediately moved to the short girl at his side. "Hey, who's this little cutie?" She leaned down to look Book in the eye. "Hi there, I'm Tally Xavier." She smiled as warmly as ever. "What's your name?"

Cute? Cute? She called me cute? This monster called me cute? What's going on here? What could she be planning?

Even with the sunglasses, Book said nothing and turned her head away to avoid eye-contact with Tally. H sighed internally. She was impossible.

"This is Book," H said flatly. He pushed the short girl forward. "Be friends with her." He didn't bother looking down at the inevitably dirty look she was giving him.

"Yay, hi Book." Tally stuck out her hand. Book kept her eyes fixed on Tally's hand as she hesitantly shook it, ready to pull her hand back to safety at any moment. Tally giggled. "Please come in," she said happily as she stepped aside and let Book and H enter the house.

H removed his backpack and took a seat in Tally's living room. His position on the L shaped white couch gave him a good vantage point. Right in front of him was a low glass coffee table standing on a white, fuzzy carpet. Across the room was a large flat-screen television with two ficus trees standing in pots on both sides. And on his right, sitting a little too close was Book, perfectly erect with her hands tensely on her knees.

Tally came in with her school supplies, set them on the coffee table and took a seat on the floor. After some small-talk, both H and Tally began working silently on their homework assignments. Book didn't really have anything to do so the short girl just sat there quietly.

Tally's eyes gradually moved up towards Book. She tapped the end of her mechanical pencil against her lips as she thought. "No homework tonight, Book?"

Book shook her head.

"She's in middle school," H said without looking up. Again, he refused to look at Book. He knew what look she was giving him. He could feel her negative thoughts.

"Oh, that makes sense," Tally said happily. "I guess they don't have as much as we do. Would you like a book or something to keep you busy? You can watch T.V. if you want."

There were two knocks on the door. Tally jumped up and quickly opened the door. She greeted Mark happily, and he tried to be half as pleasant as she was with his hello. His grin wavered slightly upon seeing H, who didn't even bother to look up at him. Ignoring that the best he could, Mark sat down on the couch across from where Tally was working. He pulled out a notebook and a text book and set them down.

"Mark, check this out," Tally said excitedly as she knelt down on the floor, "this is H's friend Book." Tally pointed at the navy blue-haired girl. "Isn't she cute?" Tally was very peppy today; juxtaposed to Book's worsening mood.

"Hey Book," Mark used his best greeting, "It's nice to meet you. I'm Mark." He held out his hand, and she took it carelessly. It was a very different introduction than she had with Tally. Tally was legendary, but she couldn't care less about whoever this clown was. She kept her mouth shut.

"I love your sunglasses, Book," Tally said, resting her chin on her folded hands. "They're really cool. Where'd you get them?"

Book lowered her chin. She had no idea where these came from. She couldn't well say she swiped them from H's house. It would give away their partnership. She nudged H gently with her elbow.

"Her parents bought them for her," H answered. Book threw daggers at him with her stare. "She was too embarrassed to go out and get them herself."

"Why is that?" Tally asked. "You don't look bad."

Book kept her head down.

"They're really because she's self-conscious about her eyebrows," H said. Book knew he was doing this on purpose. She wanted to slap him.

"What's wrong with your eyebrows?" Tally asked. She cocked her head slightly.

"She accidentally burnt them off." H didn't even bother waiting to see if she would answer. "She tried to use the stove, but didn't think she needed a stepladder this time. And since she's so short the flames just came up right in her face. But it's okay; she just didn't know any better."

"H, don't tease her," Tally lectured with the kind of tone and unconvincing scowl that someone who would never be taken seriously as an authority figure would have. "That's not what really happened, is it Book?"

"No, it isn't!" Book finally said.

Tally, surprised at first, got up, moved next to Book and wrapped her arms around the smaller girl. Her wispy blonde hair tickled Book's cheek as it rubbed up against her. Her touch was gentle, but her body warmth reached Book instantly. It was the kind of physical contact she wasn't used to. She was surprised how soft someone could be when they weren't attacking her.

"Aw," She hummed. "That's the first thing you've said to me. I'm so happy."

"G-get off of me!" Book shouted, struggling to get free.

"Then how about this?" Tally patted Book lightly on the head.

"I guess that's okay," Book said sheepishly.

"You're so adorable, Book," Tally seemed to be barely able to contain her excitement. "This calls for drinks to celebrate." She got up and headed into the kitchen. Her blonde curls bobbed with every bouncy step.

This left Mark, Book and H alone in the living room. Mark's eyes moved from Book, who was steaming quietly with her head down, to H, who kept working diligently on his homework. Mark saw that Book had nothing in front of her. So he thought it was his job to create small talk while Tally was away.

"So Book," Mark said awkwardly, "that's a pretty interesting name you've got there. Are your parents librarians or something?"

"No," Book growled.

"Oh," Mark mumbled. Talk about the queen of the weirdoes. And she's sitting right next to the king of the weirdoes. How fitting, Mark thought bitterly as Tally came back with the drinks.

"How do you like the tea, Mark?" Tally asked after sitting back down on the carpet. "It's the first time I've ever brewed it. Good?"

"This tea is wonderful. It's…this tea…its-its…this tea is…hot. Heh heh." He rubbed the back of his head as he laughed harder and longer than he should have. Tally smiled at his awkwardness.

What an idiot, Book and H thought as they simultaneously took a sip.

Kenneth Arvid Fulton looked up from a piece of paper to make sure he was at the right place. He had only been to the Swiftler's Motel once, and that was when it was still operational. He had been a little kid at the time, staying there with his mother, father and older sister while their house was being fumigated. But Ms. Swiftler had died since then and her relatives let the place fall apart. They locked the doors, surrounded it with a wire fence and threw away the keys. The city council would love to do away with this eyesore, along with several others that cluttered the city, but that has yet to happen. Looking at all the trash, graffiti and weeds growing through the cracked pavement, Kenny started to think nine years seemed like a long time.

Room 205. Where are the stairs?

He ran his free hand through his messy blonde hair. It was scraggly and awkward. He hated having hair this short. It made his eyes look enormous and his head look small, or so he thought. Certain people had been more polite about it, but he never entirely believed them. Kenny couldn't simply blame the barber, though. He'd had to cut his own hair for quite some time and he never got any better at it.

When he found the stairs leading to the second floor, Kenny found that four of the steps were missing. It wasn't as if they rotted away; the stairs were made of concrete. It was more like someone took a sledgehammer to them. The crushed remains were scattered on the ground below. Perhaps the lone tenant didn't want any wayward kids wandering around. Actually, there could be any number of reasons, so Kenny didn't dwell on it. He hopped across the gap like it was nothing. Piece of cake.

That jump was no problem, but Kenny did remember a time when he had been in much better shape. It wasn't that he didn't get enough exercise anymore. Far from it, he was almost always out and about. His strength and agility were still pretty good, he thought. His diet wasn't that great, though. He could definitely go for some more vitamins and some real food. A well-cooked steak and some fresh vegetables are never really appreciated until one has to live on ramen and other cheap ingredients for weeks on end. Kenny thought it was about time he treated himself to a good meal. At least that's what he'd been thinking the past few months. He hadn't quite gotten around to it yet.

The lucky duck has a door, Kenny thought as he knocked twice on the warped piece of wood. He grinned to himself. Kenny had a door on his place for a while. It never seemed to hold on to its hinges for more than two weeks, though. He'd always wander back home and find the screws had been ripped from the wall and the door laying a ways away. Kenny eventually came across a green tarp that someone was throwing away. He picked it up and nailed it to the wall above the door. It worked really well in the humid summer months, but now that autumn had finally arrived, the chill was a bit bothersome.

"Hey Morris, you there?" Kenny called. Kenny tried the door knob. It was unlocked, but that didn't matter. With very little force, Kenny inadvertently pushed the door in, making it fall to the floor, loudly raising a cloud of dust. It wasn't attached to the hinge. It was just leaning up against the doorframe. Kenny retracted his comment about Morris being lucky. He stuck his head in and looked around. "Hello there. Morris?"

There was no furniture in the room. There was no furniture still standing, that is. The torn remains of cushions and broken chair legs were spread out along the dusty, faded carpet. No one was quite sure what happened to the bed, but it had been removed long before Morris started taking up residence in the abandoned motel. There was no light in the building. For starters, the electricity had been cutoff for a long time, and a board covered the drafty hole that used to be a window. Kenny wasn't surprised by this, though. His apartment looked almost the same way.

Empty, Kenny thought, he cancels his cell phone service without telling me and now he vanishes. Kenny had always tried to stay in touch with his colleagues, checking in on them regularly. It wasn't easy because very few of them had access to a telephone. Morris had a cell phone, but he hadn't been answering it for the past few weeks. Kenny looked around the room. Morris wasn't really one to get out much, so it would be abnormal for him to be taking a walk after dark. He took a seat up against the far wall and waited in the dim room, leaving the doorway open to let in some late-evening light.

It had been three months since he last talked to Morris. Kenny had been seated with his legs crossed in a lumpy chair that smelled like mildew. Morris was looking out the window, staring down over the restaurant parking lot that that particular apartment had been looking over. Kenny had offered, but the old man refused to take a seat.

"How have you been doing lately, Morris?" Kenny had asked.

The man refused to turn around and said, "How do you think? I'm still destitute, starving and…" the man stopped. He sounded sad. He spoke with no life at all.

"So nothing's changed then," Kenny said, not really trying to be funny, but not trying to belittle the situation either.

"I had a stable life two years ago," the man said.

"As did I," Kenny said, focusing his eyes on the floor rather than the silhouette of the man at the window.

"A half step away from district manager," he brought his fist up against the window and rested his forehead against his forearm. "That may not sound like much to you, kid, but for a college dropout, like me, scrounging around for grunt-work jobs for years, it was a dream come true."

Kenny remained silent. He folded his hands and rested his elbows on his thighs. He had become very used to hearing people's life stories lately. That's not to say that it didn't really depress him from time to time. And Morris was one of the worst offenders.

"It came on like cancer," he said, looking down at his hand. "No, it's worse than that. If they catch your cancer early enough, they can treat it. But there are no early signs to what happens to us. It's like getting hit with a bus; just as sudden, but without any broken bones. And then we live our lives day in and day out, suffering from it without any end in sight, as it slowly kills us."

"No one has ever died from it," Kenny said. "There's nothing to suggest that you're in any mortal danger. I've told you this before."

"You don't know that," Morris said harshly, "I mean, the earliest cases are only a few years old, right? What if it becomes fatal later on?"

Kenny looked up at the back of Morris' balding head. The man was really letting himself go. He couldn't even guess when the last time he washed those clothes was. Kenny had to wonder if they would all end up like this bitter, broken old man someday.

"It's like a mental disease," he continued. "What am I saying? It is a mental disease. A mentally stable man my age should be able to hold a job and start raising a family. But nope. I'm living like a vagabond with no electricity or running water, too afraid to go in public because I never know what I might do. We should be locked up in an institution, not running around like this."

"Did you ever say goodbye to…What was her name?" Kenny asked tenderly. There had been quite a few men and women that Kenny had never met, but knew quite a bit about. It was tricky to keep them all straight.

"Martha," Morris said, "and yeah. That was just cruel; dumping her out of the blue like that. That was cruel; making me dump her like that with nothing but an excuse as flimsy as tissue. The universe has a sick sense of humor." He stepped back from the window and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

Kenny sat up and watched Morris stare listlessly. Like so many other meetings, this one managed to add a little more wear onto Kenny's spirit. "Don't worry," he said seriously, "this will all be over someday."

"Look at me," Morris laughed at himself humorlessly, "taking advice from a kid." After rubbing his eye with the back of his wrist, his voice became very gruff. "You're right, this will all be over. Don't worry about me, Kenny. I'm just a babbling old man talking nonsense. One way or another, this will all be over. Someday."

Morris was a man in his early forties; past midlife, but nowhere near the golden years. His life had been coming together pretty well. Now he was bum, stricken by a condition that was hidden from the world and barely understood even by those who claim to be experts, relying on the advice and protection of children. And even after getting all this off his chest, there was nowhere to go but back to his dark room in an abandoned motel. He would go to sleep tonight. And then tomorrow he would wake up to find that this nightmare was real. With each passing morning, that realization became harder and harder to accept.

"Take care, Morris," Kenny said sadly as the man started to leave.

That conversation took place at Kenny's old apartment three months ago. He had talked to Morris a couple times since then. The last time he spoke with Morris was right before he found out that the man had severely injured a woman while in a fit of madness. The police took notice, but hadn't done too much to find him. Regardless, when Morris returned to his senses, he seemed to cut himself off from the rest of the world. What little ties still remained were suddenly and intentionally undone.

Foolish old man. He couldn't help but think of the poor guy, the mistakes of his youth and the curse he was saddled with. But Kenny, like his friends and associates, had many things to worry about, including himself. That, however, didn't stop Kenny from waiting in Morris' motel room for four hours, drifting in and out of sleep as the cold crept in on him. Kenny nestled his head back down in his arms. He planned to wait just a little longer. And then he would treat himself to that fancy dinner.

The night rolled on and darkness fell over the quiet residential neighborhood. Normally, once the sun set, H would head home. There was no reason to stay out any later. But he stuck around tonight. First of all, he wanted Book to become better acquainted with Tally. It would make his job easier if they were friends. Secondly, Mark may have had secrets. There was no way he could just shrug off the suspicion that this seemingly hapless teenager had ulterior motives. And then there was Tally, as innocent and trusting as ever.

Mark scratched his head as he stared down at a math problem he couldn't solve. Two attempts had led to obviously questionable answers. If it wasn't an integer, he wasn't buying it. So for the time being, he held his pencil horizontally between his nose and upper-lip as he pondered over his next course of action. It was either skip this problem or redo something he already tried in the hopes of finding where he made a careless mistake.

"Hey Mark," Tally said. He looked to see her with her pencil between her nose and lip like a mustache. She tried to maintain a serious expression, but it quickly gave way. The pencil fell from her face as she began to laugh. Mark dropped his pencil as he chuckled along with her.

Book stood up abruptly.

"H, can I talk to you in private, please?" Her voice portrayed her frustration. The boredom of watching other people do homework quietly was strenuous. And then their frequent bouts of goofing around were just annoying. The short girl had reached her limit.

H said nothing, but got to his feet and followed Book out of the room. He was prepared to hear quite a bit of complaining about calling her a middle school student and saying she was short. He also had to make sure she understood why it was important for her to be here, too. That wouldn't be easy.

Tally looked over at Mark, who shrugged. A light smile suddenly came to her lips. She held a finger up and winked. The teenage girl then stood up and tiptoed over to the front door. She kept watch on the hall that H and Book had gone down as she silently turned the knob and opened the door. She waved for Mark to follow her and the two left.

They walked down the sidewalk side-by-side. Mark barely noticed the cold. He took a look at Tally through the corner of his eye. He briefly wondered if her smile ever left. They were walking in the dark and the cold, but Mark wanted to know if she was enjoying this as much as he was.

"So…um…" he started. She looked up at him with expectant eyes. "Tally's a pretty unique name. Is it short for something?" He felt like an idiot. This was the last time he was going to ask someone about their name.

"I don't think so," Tally said sweetly. "You've got a pretty interesting name, too Mark. Is Spryt a European name?"

"Uh," Mark looked at his feet. "I don't know."

Tally giggled, and Mark smiled.

"Well, what do you think?" She seemed barely able to contain herself.

"About what?" Mark asked.

His question was asked over the crunching of leaves under their feet. Without noticing, Tally had led them to a park at the end of the street. The grass was covered with the leaves of the oak trees that stood in the otherwise open field. The park only had one streetlamp, and they stopped under it.

"About Book and H," Tally answered. Mark still looked confused. "Don't they look good together?"

A chilly breeze suddenly made Mark aware of the cold. The muscles in the back of his neck tensed up as a shiver shot down his spine. A bunch of leaves floated down around them. He was ecstatic.

Incredibly awkward girl dates incredibly awkward boy? Certainly not the makings of a serious romantic film, but it did make sense, Mark thought as he scratched his chin.

"I think they're perfect together!" Mark clenched his fists in excitement.

"I know, right?" Tally cheered, clapping her hands together. "They're so cute together. Can't you just sense the chemistry?"

No, but I'll take your word for it. After all, he assumed she had more romantic experience than he did.

"I don't think H has ever had a girlfriend before. I hope he'll be happy," Tally said. She began rubbing her hands together to fight off the cold. She hadn't even considered bringing her jacket when they snuck away. "And Book seems a little young, but I'm sure she's really nice once you get to know her."

"This is wonderful," Mark said with both hands on his forehead.

"I know!" Tally spun around energetically.

"Wonderful for us!" Mark brought his hands down quickly.

"What do you mean?" Tally suddenly looked confused.

The cold had now thoroughly permeated Mark's body, but the gradual drop in temperature was not what made him freeze up right then. He cleared his throat.

"Nothing," he said as casually as he could. He turned his back to her and looked out over what he could see of the park, which wasn't much at this time of night. The breeze scooted some leaves across the dirt.

Tally cocked her head to the side slightly. She had an affectionate smile. She said his name, and Mark turned around. She skipped up to him and wrapped her arms around his middle. Mark was caught off guard, but accepted the hug. He rested his chin on the top of her head and hugged her back. After this brief and greatly appreciated respite from the cold, Mark let Tally go as she stepped back.

"I'm glad I met you, Mark," she said. There was an almost sad look in her eyes. "You're a really nice person. I hope we get to hang-out like this a lot from now on."

"Tally," Mark said fondly.

"Tally!"

Mark's attention was suddenly pulled off into the darkness. It had to be H. Mark knew that eventually Tally's shadow would come after them. Tally had decided to leave H and Book alone so that they could have a moment of privacy. This meant that Tally obviously wasn't interested in H, but H could have been in love with Tally. It made sense to Mark. Why else would he follow her around like a hopeless puppy? Mark thought he sounded like a jerk, thinking such things about someone he barely knew, but he didn't care at the moment. His happy moment had been so rudely interrupted.

Tally held a hand up to her ear to keep the wind from blowing her golden locks into her eyes. She stepped forward. An expression Mark had never seen before graced her pretty face. Tally was stunned to the point of disbelief. She took several more steps forward until the figure came into the lamplight.

"Hm?" Mark hummed as the shadowy figure came into sight.

It wasn't H.

Mark didn't recognize him at all. He was instantly nervous.

This man had lived on the streets for years. He lacked the mental stability to hold a job for very long. And that same instability prevented him from living in any decent household. That left no money to buy good food, making him severely malnourished, and no place to call home. The wind tossed the grey remains of his hair, thin and lifeless as it was. His clothes were the torn kind one would expect from a penniless scavenger. Even his skin looked like it belonged to a vagrant, yellow and faded like the pages of an old book.

What should I do? Stranger danger came to mind. All those lessons Mark received in his kindergarten class about scary people who would kidnap little kids and do some unspecific things with them had very specific steps for how to deal with a situation such as this. The overall answer was always very clear: get the heck out of there. Maybe I should just take Tally under my arm and run for the hills. Or any house would be good. I'm not picky.

Mark wanted to do that, but he had a problem. Tally was making it difficult to follow his instincts. She wasn't scared at all. In fact, she seemed almost entranced by this stranger's appearance. She took a few more steps forward to get a better look at the guy. She opened her mouth hesitantly.

What's with this, Mark thought as he lifted his hand to his chest, I'm going to have a heart attack if this keeps up. Let's get out of here, Tally.

"Hey Tally, can we-" Mark started to say.

"Are you really," she asked shakily, "Uncle Morrie?"

The man cleared his throat with a loud grunt before saying "Yeah. How's it going, kiddo?" A sad smile spread across his droopy, unshaved face. It almost killed him to see the tears in her eyes and the smile on her face, rejoicing at having rediscovered the family member that she abruptly lost so long ago.

"You," Mark stuttered, "You know him?" He was pretty surprised, and that question, along with the lone finger that he pointed at the man, was the closest thing to a reaction that he could muster.

Tally turned towards Mark quickly. "Don't you see? It's Uncle Morrie!" she exclaimed with tears streaking down her cheeks. She ran towards him, dove into his chest and wrapped her arms around the old man. She sniffled cutely as he hugged her back, allowing her without any regrets to accidentally dab her tears on his shirt. "Uncle Morrie, I'm so glad you're back. Mom and Dad will be so happy when I tell them. We've missed you so much." Her sweet voice was muffled by his shirt but the sentiment was clear.

"I'm sorry," he said. He kept his eyes closed as he hugged her to keep from crying, too.

Mark gave a sigh of relief, but it would be a while before his heart completely settled down. It was an odd reunion however. With so much emotion, he was eager to hear the full story later on.

Tally quickly released him, ran back the twenty feet to where Mark was left standing, grabbed his hand and led him over to her uncle. "Mark, this is my uncle, Morris Xavier." She stood at her uncle's side and waved her hands as if he was a product on display. Then she moved to Mark's side and made the same gesture. "Uncle Morrie, this is my good friend from school, Mark Spryt."

Mark smiled awkwardly. He wanted to apologize for thinking the man was a creeper, but he felt that would be unnecessary. "Nice to meet you, sir." Mark shook his hand. It felt cold. Not just cold like how Mark's hands were cold; more like how a piece of metal in the snow felt.

"Good to meet you too, Mark," Morris said, forcing pleasantries the best he could as he accepted Mark's gesture. He didn't quite have that Xavier smile that Tally had made so famous. She had inherited that from her mother.

This boy was associated with Tally. Morris had to wonder if Mark Spryt had an alternate identity. He was an associate of Tally after all. After that tragic incident two years ago, Morris had come to discover that Tally had a knack for collecting weird friends. But still, was this boy an Artificial? Was he allied with some other organization? Did H know? Did Mark even know what Tally was? Morris finally decided that it didn't matter.

"Sorry about this, kid," Morris said with an expressionless face after he released Mark's hand.

He punched Mark in the face, sending the slender, white-haired high school boy onto his back. The dried leaves shattered underneath him. And the rocky dirt jabbed him as he hit the ground.

Tally gasped and frantically looked back and forth between her friend and her uncle.

What is this? Mark rubbed his cheek as he stared up at the dark sky. The clouds prevented him from seeing stars, but his head was definitely spinning. He clicked his jaw back into place and sat up quickly.

"What the heck, man? Why'd you hit me?" Mark yelled, brushing his long hair out of his face before returning to cradling his cheek, which was starting to throb.

"Just stay out of this, kid. Or if you can walk, just get out of here." Morris lowered his fist and turned his deadly serious sights on the shaken Tally, who stood stunned with her fists clenched against her chest. That look on his face made her knees quiver.

Morris, like all Artificials, suffered from sudden and uncontrollable bouts of insanity, during which they would run around like monsters. They had no idea when it would come on, but there was no hope of controlling themselves and no hope of any rational thoughts interrupting what they were doing. This was not one of those moments. Morris's mouth was straight and his eyebrows were only slightly creased, a look of conviction. He knew exactly what he was doing.

"Uncle," Tally muttered, "wha-"

"No," Mark jumped to his feet so rapidly that he even impressed himself. "If you think I'm just going to run out on this fight, then think again." Mark rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, a cocky smile on his face. "I may not be as big as you, but I thin-"

Mark was cut off by a flying punch to the gut. He flew back and fell to the ground again. The rocks felt even harder and sharper this time.

"Mark!" Tally cried. She ran over to him, dropped to her knees and moved his head so that it rested on her thigh. "Mark, are you okay?"

Well, it was an honest effort. Good try, Mark, but from now on leave it to Arnold and the professionals. You're no action hero. You gave it a shot, it didn't work; no one can blame you, Mark thought from his place on the ground. He forced a bitter smile through his contorted face as it reacted to every ache in his anguishing body. He couldn't even enjoy the feeling of laying his head on Tally's thigh. He cursed the injustice in life.

"Uncle, please stop," Tally cried, again with tears in her eyes. "Why are you doing this?" Her chin wrinkled and her lower lip quivered involuntarily. She had no hope of keeping a brave face now, but that didn't mean she wasn't going to try.

"I'm sorry Tally," Morris said as he stepped towards them. He admired the force of his punch. His fist was as hard as porcelain. It brought him absolutely no sense of satisfaction. "But it's time this came to an end."

Run away, Tally. Go home, call the police; just get out of here. Mark wanted to say this out loud, but that last shot to the stomach had knocked the wind out of him. He was too busy gasping for breath to talk.

"Now," Morris said solemnly as he stood directly above the two teenagers, "won't you do me the honors of ending this nightmare, my dear?" Tally cringed, wrapping her arms around Mark's swollen face, as she used her body to shield him from the heavy blow that Morris raised his fist to deliver unto them.

"Gah! Ah! Ack!" Morris spluttered.

Mark opened his eyes hesitantly after his head had been dropped. He saw Morris being lifted off the ground by a figure with a tight grip on his throat. His vision was slightly impaired from the head wound, but what he saw was real. There was no mistaking it, but Mark still struggled to understand what was going on.

I can't believe it, he thought, I actually died. Is this what everyone sees as they pass into the afterlife? But Mark wasn't dead. He still felt the harsh pains cut through his body. He had managed to catch his breath just in time for it to be taken away again.

Mark struggled to sit up. He got a good view of the back of the figure that now stood directly over him. Tally's golden hair fluttered in the breeze as she clenched her fist around her uncle's neck and lifted him from the dirt. Morris looked down to see that same girl who had been crying earlier, first when she finally saw him after years of being away and again when she saw what a monster he had become. Those beautiful hazel eyes were now entirely coated over with a wavy green light. A bolt of energy that resembled lightening jumped from one strand of hair to another. Her face showed no emotion at all. There was no humanity in the expressionless stare she gave him.

"Tally?" Mark finally blurted.

Morris struggled to breathe.

Tally spun around in a full circle so quickly that her uncle was turned horizontally in her grip. She stopped spinning by firmly planting her foot into the dirt, but the momentum gathered allowed her to throw Morris with the speed of a cannonball. She launched the helpless body further into the park. He collided with a tree, the impact so hard that it forced the bark off the trunk like broken glass, before tumbling across the dirt.

She then launched herself into the air. But there was no build-up of velocity. She took off, reaching top speed instantly. Tally leaped thirty feet into the air and brought her fist down hard on the body of her uncle, the force of which threw up dirt around them as she struck the ground. She punched him several more times before grabbing him by the shirt and tossing him into the air. She followed him above the treetops. In midair, another energy bolt formed from the tips of her fingers. Swinging her arm, she flung the beam of blue-white vibrating energy like a whip, striking her uncle in midair and throwing his limp body to the ground with the force of a plane crash.

Mark hadn't moved an inch as he watched the impossible yet brief fight unfold before him. His breathing became erratic again as he saw Morris laying at the bottom of the crater of dirt his body had formed on impact. He wasn't making a move. In fact, he hadn't even tried to fight back during the whole battle. It happened so fast, Morris hadn't been able to raise his arms to block the attacks or even let out a cry of pain. Tally had been relentless. Mark gulped hard.

Several more bolts of energy crawled up and down Tally's body as she came to a soft landing ten feet away from him. She turned her dead stare on the helpless high school boy, who still lay on his back covered in dirt and shredded bits of leaves. She took several slow steps towards him. But just as Mark's capacity for terror was about to reach its limit, Tally closed her eyes, her body went limp and she fell to the grass beneath her.

Get up? Get help? Run away? Call the cops? Tell his parents? Go see a therapist? Start a blog? Report it to the newspapers? Go on an evening talk show to tell the world about his experiences? Write an extensive essay about what he just saw? Pretend this never happened? All these questions passed through Mark's mind instantaneously. But what had he just seen? He had no clue. He just remained frozen in that same position, not taking his saucer-like eyes off of Tally.

He gasped when he heard his name.

"It seems you've witnessed something quite remarkable tonight, wouldn't you say, Mark?" A dull voice came from out of the darkness. "I'm sure you'd like to know what's going on. It could go far to determining whether you make it through the night in one piece or not." H, in his green t-shirt and brown jacket, looked even less happy at that moment than he usually did. "So why not listen to my story?"


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