The Fourth Faction

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Induction

It was almost midnight by the time Tally finally woke up. She would have kept sleeping if there was not something pressing that demanded her attention. It was hot. It was way too hot. The air was so thick and muggy that she could barely breathe. The feeling reminded her of visiting a sauna when she was a little kid. People were supposed to sit in the blistering, dry heat to relax, but to Tally, it was like sitting in an oven. She didn't enjoy it at all.

This was different, though. She wasn't trapped in an oven; she was tucked neatly in her bed. Yeah, it was definitely her bed. She recognized the flannel sheets that she put on a week ago. The main reason Tally loved the winter was that she got to experience that wonderful sensation of roasting in a warm bed before cooling off in the chilly morning air. There was a certain novelty to it that made her so excited that she put her winter sheets on in the middle of October. As she was cooked alive in their tight embrace, it started to seem like a bad idea.

Her eyelids twitched as she opened them slightly. The dim lamplight was enough to make her squint as she sat up slowly in her bed. Tally carefully brushed back her blonde hair that fell messily over her face. Once her eyes adjusted, she saw that she was still in the clothes she had on earlier. She sniffled cutely and wiped off the beads of sweat that had formed on her forehead. The cool air in her bedroom was very refreshing.

She smiled softly when she saw the source of her discomfort. At the most, even in the coldest weather, Tally only needed one extra blanket. And with the fuzzy sheets she had on her bed now, she didn't need any extra blankets at all. Despite that, she had been buried under a pile of four heavy blankets. She ran her fingers across them gingerly, letting the cool air envelop her rosy skin. She kept her mouth closed, appreciating the silence of the night. She looked up with a loving glimmer in her hazel eyes.

Across the room, sitting cross-legged in Tally's desk chair was H. He poised his elbow on the arm of the chair, lightly pressing his fingers against his temple. In his other hand, he held the book that their English class had been assigned to read, Willa Cather's My Ántonia. Rural Nebraska wasn't doing much to capture H's fascination, but he kept his eyes focused on the page even as Tally woke up.

He took a silent breath through his mouth and exhaled through his nose. Still avoiding Tally's smiling stare, he quietly clapped the book shut and got to his feet. He walked over to Tally's bedside and put his hand on the lamp switch. He gave her a moment to lie back down and pull the covers back over her nose, though H could tell she was still smiling underneath. He flipped the switch, letting darkness fall over the whole of the room, and made his way for the door.

Tally didn't ask how she got home. She already knew. She didn't ask why H had stayed to wait for her to wake up. She already knew. And she didn't ask about what had happened. She didn't need to hear it again. She had been walking with Mark when she suddenly fainted. Anything aside from just walking and talking had to be a dream. She didn't need to ask. She already knew. Or at least, she thought she did.

"Thanks H," she said sweetly. Though her voice was muffled by the blankets, the affection in her tone was unobstructed. H nodded silently, even though he knew she wouldn't be able to see it in the dark. She suppressed her giggles the best she could as H left the room. Tally waited until she was absolutely sure he had left the house before seeking relief from the unbearable heat.

Mark leaned up against a freezing metal railing. The breeze rustled his long hair as he gazed out over the city. It was an observation area, a rest stop where one could get off the dirt hiking path and step onto the square orange tiles that covered the ground. Beneath him was a sharp incline that eventually led to another path farther down the hill. Book sat on a wooden bench, and behind her was the lightly forested area that was allowed to continue its existence half a mile from Tally's neighborhood. The two waited in silence as the streetlight bathed them in a green-tinted glow.

So that's how it is, Mark thought. He lowered his head so that his chin rested against his folded arms. He exhaled slowly through his nose. And here I was surprised that this guy had something to say to me.

Beside Mark, with his back against the railing, was H. He stood with his eyes closed and his hands in the pockets of his jeans, pushing back the ends of his unbuttoned jacket. H had spoken for several minutes. He had a way of explaining the situation in a way that impressed Book. It was simple, almost rehearsed. His slightly raspy voice was not heard by many. And Mark was surprised to hear so much of it at once.

The light breeze shook the tree branches loudly. It tossed their hair carelessly.

"That man you just met," H said, "he was what we call an Artificial. Periodically and without warning, Tally will go into a state of unconsciousness. During that time, her body will freeze up and her eyes will open. If you are unfortunate enough to look into that eerie green glow, you become an Artificial. It's as simple as that."

Mark twirled a strand of his white hair in his fingers.

"But why did you call her a catalyst?" Mark asked. He remembered hearing the term before; perhaps in his biology class the previous year. He couldn't remember what it meant, though.

"People don't really understand how the Artificials work. There are no physical changes to the body or brain that anyone has been able to detect. But after looking into Tally's eyes, they can somehow acquire these supernatural abilities. One moment you're a completely normal, powerless human and the next you can do things that only exist in the world of comic books. Not even the Artificials can explain it."

H opened his eyes and looked over at Book, who sat listening with her chin touching her chest and her arms crossed.

"They call her the Catalyst because certain people who claim to be experts believe that these powers are natural. Other than the fact that they differ for every person, I can't really see how they would come to that conclusion. There's nothing natural about them."

"But why did Uncle Morrie attack us?" Mark asked, keeping his gaze over the city lights that shined before him.

"The Artificials have some kind of psychic link with Tally. Whenever she goes into a state, they are all attracted to her. They can't help it. No matter where they are or what they're doing, they will drop everything and run after her. And they always know exactly where she is."

"I see," Mark said in a breathy tone.

"But that's not what happened just now."

Mark closed his eyes and scowled.

"Then what is?" he asked, somewhat annoyed.

"When Tally goes into a state, she's defenseless. She has no control over it, she has no idea what's going on while it happens and she can't even remember it happened after it's over. When she's not in a state, however, she's the most powerful being on the planet. At least, as far as I've seen."

Not too long ago, Mark had seen his beautiful, sweet classmate jump higher than the trees and shoot lightening from her fingertips. He wouldn't have a hard time believing she was the most powerful person on the planet, especially if that was just a minor setting. Maybe if she got to a stronger opponent, he would see a battle that could shake the strings of the universe. At this point, nothing seemed impossible. After seeing what she could do, Mark had no problem believing every monotone word that came out of H's mouth.

"She can do all that whenever she wants?" Mark asked, "Jump around and fight, I mean." Mark straightened up and looked over at H, who returned Mark's stare.

"No, she isn't aware of that aspect of her power either. We call it the defense mode, and it only seems to happen when she's in genuine danger. Just think of it as her power's ability to protect its host. You were lucky she didn't think of you as a threat."

Mark looked down and swallowed.

"Would she have attacked me?" he asked cautiously.

"She may have."

The breeze picked up again. Mark pumped his heal up and down rapidly. The cold had been getting to him. When he finally found this place, at H's instruction, Mark hadn't been able to sit still. He paced and waved his arms frantically as he tried to explain to himself what had just happened. When Book had arrived, he plagued her with questions, which she swatted away as if they were a swarm of gnats. At first, she didn't care much- at H's request she kept her silence- but Mark's frenzy had gotten on her nerves. She tried to get him to calm down in the gentlest way she knew how, which involved a lot screaming and insults.

Mark was able to settle his nerves after that. But as the clouds cleared up, the moon shined through and the night meandered on, Mark had to wonder where H was. Mark had been waiting with Book for quite some time before the expressionless boy wandered down the path just after midnight. The waiting had bubbled up an aggravation within the slender teenager until it set him off again. His complaining was as annoying as his questions, so Book settled him down in the gentlest way she knew how.

"And what about Uncle Morrie? What was up with all that?" Mark crossed his arms and leaned back on the railing, raising an eyebrow as he asked.

"Who knows?" H looked out into the dark mass of trees that jutted out from the Earth behind Book and the bench she sat at.

"You don't?" Mark couldn't hide the surprise in his voice; it had spilled out too abruptly to check.

"I'd like to ask him, but it seems as if he's disappeared." H narrowed his eyes as Book's flew open. A scowl immediately scrunched her face.

"Is that his superpower?" Mark cocked his head to the side. "Or did he just wander off?"

"After a beating like that, I don't think so," H said in a low tone.

"For the love of Pete," Book said angrily. She slammed her hands down on her thighs. "It was the S. Organization! They picked him up to avoid leaving any evidence!"

"I think you may be right," H agreed. He removed his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms.

"Wait, he's not dead, is he? And what's the S. Organization?" Mark asked with urgency in his voice. His hair swished as he looked back and forth between H and Book.

"You see, the S. Organization should be our first priority!" Book jumped to her feet and pointed a finger at H. "Why are you wasting our time playing tea party with the Catalyst? Lives are at stake, you moron. The more time you spend on homework dates and babysitting that girl, the more of us are going to end up dead!"

"Our first priority is and always will be keeping Tally safe," H said coolly. Despite Book's dissent and disapproval, he barely batted an eyelash. It was an unmovable resoluteness that Book both respected and hated about her colleague.

She turned her flustered glare at Mark.

"The S. Organization is a group of maniacs with swords that go around killing people in the Community. That means topping their hit list are H, me and now you." She pointed at Mark with a taunting smirk.

"Me?" he pointed at himself dumbly. "Why? I haven't done anything!"

"Now that you know of the existence of supernatural stuff, they will be targeting you. You won't be able to make a move without being watched. They'll monitor you constantly, and then at the right moment, when you're all alone, they'll finish the job." Book ran a finger horizontally across her throat.

"But I'm harmless!" Mark had a helpless smile and scared eyes as he placed both his hands on his chest. "Uncle Morrie took me down in two hits. I was useless; not even worth their time."

"It doesn't matter," Book said with a wave of her hand, "they want to remove all memory of the Community from the world. Sorry, but I guess you can say your fate was sealed when you made friends with the Catalyst." Book shrugged as if Mark was already lost. She seemed to enjoy his panicked shaking.

"Then don't tell me anymore!" Mark shouted as he clamped his hands over his ears. He curled up into a ball and closed his eyes.

"I already told you that it's too late!" Book barked. She was having trouble suppressing her cruel grin.

"What should I do?" Mark straightened up.

"Say goodbye to everyone you ever loved, buddy," Book said, turning around to hide her grin. "I'll call the mortician in the morning. You probably won't make it through the night so I better get on that." She pressed her hand over her mouth when she heard Mark gasp.

"Actually," H raised his voice slightly to get their attention before dropping back to its usual volume, "there is something you can do that may guarantee your safety."

"Really? What is it?" Mark gasped as he folded his hands and brought his jubilant eyes too close to H. He placed a slightly green-tinted hand on Mark's shoulder and pushed him back a few inches. Then he folded his arms again and leaned back against the railing.

"Join us," H said flatly.

Mark waited for H to elaborate, but H had silenced the conversation just before a jogger came passing through. He greeted the kids, to which only Mark returned an awkward wave, before passing along. Book watched the man until he turned the corner. Then she turned abruptly back towards H.

"H, you can't be serious." She clenched her fists. "Look at this buffoon! He's not going to be any help. We're going from babysitting one child to babysitting two!"

"What do you mean by 'us?'" Mark asked. "How do you guys fit into this?"

Book blew a strand of hair out of her face before sitting down on the bench, crossing her arms and slouching. Being ignored irritated her.

"Book and I make up the Fourth Faction," H explained. "Tally is susceptible to going into a state during all daylight hours. To make sure no one hurts her when she does and to prevent her powers from affecting anyone else, we stand guard over her at all times."

"You watch Tally all day?" Mark asked, a little uncomfortable with the concept.

"If she ever goes into a state, we'll be there. We're not spying on her. She has her privacy. It's a necessary step to making sure her powers stay in check. And by working with us, you would get certain protection from the other factions. We're not exactly popular, but they do recognize us as a group worth keeping around."

"What are the other factions, and how does just joining your club keep them from slitting my throat while I sleep." Mark rubbed his neck as he asked.

"It's not really a guarantee. But the other factions rely on us. We may keep Tally away from one of them, but at the same time we keep her out of reach of their rivals, too. And we would never use Tally as a weapon against them. It's like entrusting a neighbor with the spare key to your house because you know they would never use it to your disadvantage. It has been unofficially decided that she is safest in our care, even though the others would like to use her power for their own agendas. When she goes into a state, she's helpless, and that's when we step in."

Mark scratched his head and gazed at H with a quizzical look.

"So you just follow her around all day, fighting off bad guys and keeping her blissfully unaware of what's actually going on right under her nose?" Mark summarized.

"That's right," H said with a nod, "It's all in the effort to keep Tally safe and allow her to live a normal life. She didn't ask for this, so it's only fair."

Mark's adrenaline was pumping again. He had long since forgotten the cold. This was too exciting. It was that moment where his world altered dramatically. The ordinary world he thought he lived in six hours ago was a relic of another lifetime. This world, where he could be a hero and have a reason to fight, was all too appealing. Nothing, not even the threat of some secret society murdering people, would make him change his mind.

"It's stupid," Book said. She got up, walked over to the two taller boys and began wagging her finger as she explained. "All our problems would be solved if we just set her loose on the S. Organization. The Catalyst could rip those worms apart in an instant."

"We can't do that!" Mark said immediately. "Tally's just an innocent girl, not a weapon. Using her like that would contradict everything you guys have been working for all this time!"

H looked from Mark to Book.

"See," he said nodding his head in Mark's direction, "he gets it."

Book steamed.

"This is so awesome, the Fourth Faction," Mark said excitedly, "Mark, Book and H; fighting evil, protecting the innocent and maintaining order in a messed up struggle for power. I love it!" He giggled like a hyperactive school girl. Book didn't look impressed. "What kid wouldn't love this? Didn't you guys think it was cool when you first found out?"

Book's scowl tightened.

H looked away. "You'll learn," he said solemnly.

"Well, what do I have to do?" Mark asked, feeling uncomfortable that they didn't share his enthusiasm. Thinking about it, he didn't really expect them to anyway.

H held up one finger.

"Don't tell anyone. Aside from the Society, who is just waiting to make its big debut, most members of the Community would like to keep our affairs out of the eyes of the public."

"Well of course," Mark shrugged. "Civilization as we know it would collapse if the secrets of our reality made their way out of the shadows and onto the airwaves. This is basic knowledge. Although, if you're not careful people are going to think it's a cheap copout to avoid any sense of realism and indulge in hiding-a-pet style slapstick humor. You see it all the time in children's movies."

H looked annoyed. He held up a second finger.

"Keep an eye out for anyone suspicious. There are a lot of people out there that could be a threat. We like to believe the official positions of the opposing factions also extend to the individual members, but that's not always the case."

"What are the other factions?" Mark asked.

"The Society of Higher Life," Book said.

"And C-Unit," H added, "You'll know them when you see them." He raised a third finger, but didn't say anything for a moment. Mark gave him a puzzled look. "Two hits, seriously?"

"I was caught off guard!" Mark said, stepping back and raising his arms defensively. "And he had super crazy powers. How long would you expect me to last in a fight against that guy?"

Book looked up at H with a glare that said she seriously doubted his decision in trusting this dud. H could tell that she was not the type to have a great deal of patience for beginners. Mark was just a learner, and Book was an expert in comparison. She didn't want his lack of experience getting in the way of her ultimate mission: defeating the S. Organization. To H, it was very clear what had to be done.

"Regardless," H said, "Until you have more experience in combat," he pointed a thumb towards the short girl next to them, "Book is going to train you."

"Book will not!" She said sternly.

"Book will," H said, staring at her with a look that said he wasn't about to be questioned. "After school tomorrow, start conditioning him. Just get him to the physical state necessary to deal with the Artificials."

"Fine," Book groaned, staring daggers at H for the tenth time that night.

"And find him a weapon; something that doesn't require a lot of skill to use. You clearly know how to track down magic weapons."

Mark clenched his fists and gasped.

"Make me a wizard, Book!" he shrieked.

Book was so angry that her eyebrows twitched involuntarily. She went on a rant about how they shouldn't be wasting their time with some loser with no skills. Halfway through, H gave Mark permission to head on home, and Book continued long after he was out of earshot.

Mark walked quickly home. He found that, despite his freezing body and fatigue, a smile kept appearing on his lips. He couldn't help it. Mark chuckled at himself. He tried to stifle it, seeing as it was nighttime and someone was probably sleeping somewhere, but eventually it turned into loud laughter anyway. He had to clutch his bruised sternum when the laughing started to hurt. After a minute, he turned down the giggles until it was just a toothy grin. He ran a hand through his hair.

Finally, he thought. He tightened his fists and straightened his spine. His lip curled into a smirk as he stared down the empty sidewalk with a self-assured mien. He took a couple short breaths before taking off, running down the street as fast as he could. There was no time to lose. Look out, Arnold! The next protector of humanity is on the rise and his name is Mark Spryt!

Mark should have taken it as a sign, a bad omen of what was to come, but he didn't. The run home that night, even in the freezing cold wind that turned his ears and nose red, drenched him in sweat and burned his muscles. He had decided not to take gym this year, and that choice from eight months prior now left him in a physical condition that one would find undesirable if he or she had dreams of becoming an Olympic contender. Mark couldn't even make it onto the high school track team in the condition he was in, and those coaches let everyone join.

His health and strength only began to concern him when they were put to the test. Just after three o'clock in the afternoon the following day, Mark had met Book waiting on the corner of Rodney High School. While his classmates strolled home, Mark followed the much shorter girl off campus, off the main road, down a rocky hill and onto the shores of a small river. The river was small after a summer free of rain, and the banks it left behind in its decline were squishy and covered in garbage. Book selected a relatively clean area near an abandoned car, and even though their shoes sunk into the mud, it was here where she decided to train Mark.

"Run you big baby!" Book yelled.

Mark jogged along the river at a slow pace. At first his hair trailed like a kite tail behind him, but soon his long white locks became plastered to his clammy skin. He huffed and puffed as he ran. The suction created by the mud's attempts to steal his shoes only made the task more tedious. He pumped one arm back and forth. The other was pressed against his stomach to combat the sharp pain in his side. He had been going like this for ten of the fifteen minutes they had been jogging. At his side, keeping up with an even pace and controlled breathing, was Book, who encourage Mark the best way she knew how.

"You idiot, what are you, an idiot?" She taunted harshly. "Yeah, I used to think that even an idiot could run, but you proved me wrong, Mark."

"My legs," Mark wheezed, "they burn." Mark stopped running and leaned over. He held his hands on his knees as he panted heavily. Sweat dripped from his face and he felt like he was about to throw up. He remembered learning that there was some acid that went to his legs when he ran. It was from his biology class, but he didn't remember what it was called.

"Geez, how pathetic are you? We're barely warming up," Book shook her head disapprovingly. "Come on, be a credit to your fellow morons and go another ten minutes." Book started jogging in place as she waited for Mark to stumble back into form.

The pain in his side returned immediately. It was so awkward to run with his hand digging in his side, but he didn't know what to do. He remembered hearing in a P.E. class several years ago that the pain was caused by the liver being pressed against his side, and that breathing when one foot hits the ground would solve the problem. He couldn't remember which foot was the right one to breathe on, though. It was becoming more and more apparent to Mark that he should start paying more attention in class.

They kept going for a few more minutes before turning around. Once they reached their starting point, Mark fell to his knees. Then he fell to his face, not even caring about the mud smeared against his cheek and clothes. After slowing his breathing to a reasonable pace, Mark clumsily got to his feet. Then in a zombie-like state, walked into the river, ducking his head under water until the sweat and mud had been washed from his face. He then crawled back onto shore and begged Book to call it a day.

That was his first day and things had been more or less the same for the three days since. On the fourth day, he managed to stay out of the river after the run. He still had to sit up against the abandoned car to catch his breath, but it appeared that things were at least getting a little easier. It wasn't what he expected when he thought of being a savior of mankind.

Needless to say, he wasn't quite getting along with Book. She wasn't much for small-talk and everything she said to Mark was bossy or condescending or both. Mark wasn't sure how to act around people like that, so he just did as she said while avoiding any unnecessary verbal punishment. He was glad Tally wasn't like that. After the events at the beginning of the week, their relationship had returned to normal. She even hugged him on sight, thanking Mark for bringing her home that night. Mark wished Book could be more like Tally.

"What now, Book?" Mark said with a dry mouth. He struggled to swallow. "Can I go home?"

"No," she said. "Now that you're running faster, it's time to start doing some muscle building in your arms." She wagged her finger as she explained. Then she ordered him to do push-ups. She of course sat cross-legged on his back to enhance the experience. "Man up you baby; only ten more!"

Mark managed only a handful of push-ups before his arms gave out. "Book," he said shakily, "Sitting on my back; is that for my benefit or yours?"

Book brought a single finger to her lips and said "You're right, this does seem kind of suspect. Hold on." She got up and walked away. When she came back, Mark squealed as she dropped a cement block on his back. "There, now no one will get the wrong idea. Twenty more, beanpole," she ordered as she clapped the dust off her hands.

As Mark crouched down by the river, washing the mud off his hands in the freezing water, he asked "So how much more of this are you going to make me do?"

"What, you're tired already?" Book said in a condescending tone. "Do you have any muscles at all? It's been easy so far!"

"Would you stop insulting me already," Mark said, standing up and shaking the water from his fingers. "I mean when are we going to get to the good stuff? Where's the ninja training? Teach me how to fight or shoot a gun or something."

"Ha," Book laughed mockingly, "you think you're ready for combat when you can't even do two dozen push-ups? It's about forming a foundation first. I was professionally trained so trust me when I say that strength training is a must. You can only rely on a weapon so long as you have it. Otherwise you have to depend on your own fists."

"Well that's great," Mark exclaimed, "but at this rate, if I get attacked by an Artificial person, all I can do is run away." Mark waved his hands dramatically as he spoke. "How can I protect Tally like that?"

Book narrowed her eyes as she sighed through her nose. She crossed her arms and smugly said, "Fine." When Mark gave a beaming smile, she fought the urge to deny him and pulled two circular objects out of her pockets. She tossed them over to Mark, who caught one and dropped the other.

"What are these?" Mark asked as he examined the two heavy objects. He dangled them from thin chains in front of his face. The circular figure of the two identical objects was shaped by three lizards eating each other's lower bodies. Each metal lizard had successfully swallowed the next lizard in the circle up to the stomach, leaving only the front pairs of legs to extend to the center of the circle, where they worked together to hold a hazy red marble in place. The marble had a similar wavy coloring that Tally's eyes had when she went into the defensive mode. In total, each object was about the size of a CD and aside from the red center, had a dirty bronze coloring.

"They are called the Double Blazers," Book explained. "They're a fairly common tool, more useful as a fire-starter than an actual weapon, but they still took forever to track down. So be grateful!"

"How do they work?" Mark said, gripping a Blazer in each hand.

"You just…" she hesitated for a moment. "You just do it." She jutted her hand outwards as if she was punching someone.

Mark looked at the objects thoughtfully for a moment before extending his arm quickly and shouting "Hya!" Mark kept his pose for a moment, but nothing happened. He then spun around and did it again. Then he held both of them out at once, pointing in Book's direction. He looked passed his hands at Book, who sneered at him.

"Pathetic," she scoffed as she walked over to the abandoned car and took a seat on the rusty hood.

Mark kept trying. He tried a number of different poses and a number of different battle cries, but nothing seemed to be happening. He started to wonder if they were broken. He'd ask Book, but he was afraid she would call him an idiot again. Mostly losing conviction, Mark extended his arm above his head, aiming the Blazer at the sky. "Kapow!" Nothing happened. He jerked his arm back slightly and then pumped it back up.

A bright, fiery beam of red and orange flew straight up into the air, lighting up Mark's astonished smiling face and the darkening area around him. The cylindrical beam was as big around as the CD sized object it came from, though it appeared in front of the marble without seeming to touch it. It continued to fire vertically above Mark's head until a flick of his wrist shut it off.

"Oh, my gosh! Did you see that?" Mark turned towards Book, who gave him a shrewd smirk. He turned towards the river and flung out his arm dramatically. "Hya!" Mark yelled as the fiery beam flew into the water, sending up a splash that peaked at ten feet above the surface. "Awesome! These are amazing!"

Book allowed Mark to play with his new weapons for a little while longer. She couldn't really tell him how to use them, but she was more than willing to scold him every time he set fire to the garbage around them or made too much noise that could potentially attract an unwanted audience. After it had grown dark, and Mark's excitement simmered down, Book hopped off the car and called for his attention.

"Are you about ready?" she asked, standing opposite him at a distance of twenty yards.

"Ready for what?" Mark asked, panting from all his dramatic posing and laughing.

"You said you wanted to prepare for combat." Book said. She pulled the little golden cone off of the chain around her neck. She tossed it up in front of her, let it transform to its larger form and grabbed it by the handle at the base of the cone. She held her Pike out at Mark and said, "So let's have a sparring match."

"Yes, let's do it," he agreed eagerly. He tightened his grip on the Double Blazers. He had a cocky smile as he held them out in front of him, targeting Book as the chains around each one dangled at his wrists.

"Like I said," Book clamped her other hand further down the wooden pole, "I'm professionally trained. Don't you dare pull any punches. Show me everything you've got. I'm not going to hold back here."

"Right," Mark said with a nod.

"Ready?"

"Ready!"

The moment Book lunged forward, Mark fired a Blazer at her. Even though his aiming was only slightly off, the beam was nowhere near hitting its target. Book jumped quickly, moving out of the way of Mark's first attack and coming up on him rapidly. He adjusted his aim, but Book jumped again, this time coming down above him. She slid her hands until they met halfway down the pole, allowing her to swing her weapon down like an axe.

The blunt end of the Pike struck Mark just above the left eye. His teeth clenched tightly and his head fell down to the muddy ground while his body followed a moment later. Mark, laying face-down in the dirt, didn't seem to be moving, let alone getting up to continue the match. Book looked down at his body with an unimpressed glare. She scoffed as she fluidly flipped a lock of navy blue hair out of her eyes.

The night had been quiet as H walked home through the darkened city streets. Aside from his own nearly silent footsteps, H couldn't hear anything. There were no people walking around. This stretch of office buildings had been largely closed up before sunset, and no cars seemed to be passing by. Relying on the unspoken will of the Community to remain hidden meant that he was safe from being attacked while in a large crowd or even when there was any chance of being seen. If someone was going to lunge at him with weapons raised, it would be here.

It was that thought that made him turn around suddenly when he did hear something. The light footsteps of a girl twenty feet behind him had been enough to set him off. But when he saw her eyes widen at his abrupt about-face, his shoulders slacked a little. They stared at each other for a brief moment before H wordlessly unfurled his knitted eyebrows and turned back around.

"Um…H," the girl said in a voice that shook, possibly from the force of overcoming her shyness.

Now what? Since stumbling across Book the week before, H had not only gained a roommate and a coworker, but also urgent information about a very dangerous organization that could do much to hinder his ambitions. And then not long after, he stumbled across Mark -or rather- Mark stumbled into this mess, and now demanded training and protection in exchange for helping any way he could. As he turned around to face the girl with a quizzical look, H wondered who was going to reveal themselves next.

"Have we met?" H asked. He was used to meeting people that had heard of him long before he had any knowledge of their existence. He had met many members of the Society that way. Being closest to Tally, many people wanted to contact H, seeing if they could bride or threaten their way into a closer examination of the prize they were so eager for: the Catalyst. If that was what this girl wanted, H already had a response lined up for her.

"Ah well," she nervously rubbed her forearm through her grey sweatshirt. "Maybe not." H raised an eyebrow while she took a long pause. "We've gone to school together for the past four years."

"Oh," H said. A spy maybe? She doesn't seem like the kind of person that C-Unit would send out into the field. It might be that the Society sent her. Maybe this nervous-girl façade is just to make me less suspicious. She could be dangerous. Watch her carefully. "Did you need something?"

H didn't remember ever seeing this girl before, but he would be lying if he said he was all that invested in the activities of his classmates. He kept an eye out for any potential problems, but the actions of only one classmate demanded his attention. This only added to his uneasiness. A number of people over the years had tried to get to know him, but this girl didn't come to mind. It could be that they had classes together, but if that was true he had long since forgotten. If she had been spying on him from a distance, it must have meant that she didn't want him knowing she was there. The question then was why she chose to reveal herself now.

"I just wanted to ask you something," she said sheepishly. H's eyes had unintentional molded into a scowl. The girl shrunk slightly at the sight of his intense stare. "Do you have a girlfriend?"

H remained frozen. There had to be more. The girl remained silent, allowing a pink hue to bubble up in her cheeks during the convening interlude. You've got to be kidding me, H thought. His tense muscles in his arms and shoulders relaxed, but his face still looked unpleasant. "No, I don't," he said.

The girl suddenly smiled despite her blush. "Oh, would you like to go out sometime then? We could get dinner together; I'll even pay if you want." The girl came right up to him, stopping when he was only inches away. She had held her hands folded against her chest, as if praying for a favorable response, but now she reached out and gently placed them on the sleeve of his jacket. Her eyes shined hopefully on her slender face.

H looked away so that he could hide his uncomfortable grimace. "I'm sorry. I don't think I can," H said, his voice bogged down by a slight clench in his throat.

"Oh," she muttered, taking a few shuffles back. "I'm sorry." She folded her arms as if hugging herself and hung her head at a slight incline.

"Don't worry about it," H said, putting odd inflections on the wrong words.

"If-if you don't mind my asking," she said hesitantly, "is there someone else you like? You always hang around with Tally Xavier, right? Are you two…?"

"No, my relationship with Tally is not the least bit romantic. She's a close friend that I care about very much. I have no time for messing around with high school girls. And I'll thank you not to ask about my personal life again," H said harshly. His scowl had been reacquired and he once again composed himself. "I'm going home." He turned around and started walking away.

The girl had made no attempt to say anything as he spoke. He had seen tears well up in her eyes, and her lower-lip quivered as he berated her. And now that he was walking away, he could hear her sobbing as she ran in the opposite direction. H sighed, but had no regrets about how he treated her. In fact, he was a little miffed. Most people probably thought that there was something between him and Tally, but that was inevitable. If it didn't bother Tally, then those misunderstandings certainly weren't going to concern him. He had too much to think about as it is.

He reached into the side pocket of his jacket. Pinched between his thumb and forefinger was a white piece of paper folded into a little square. He held it up, unsuccessfully trying to look through it with the aid of the streetlamp. H began to unfold it, but his attention was suddenly stolen by the ringing of his cell phone.


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