The Fourth Faction

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Sparring Partners

Mark muttered in his sleep.

"Mommy, get me an aspirin. I've got a headache," he whined from his bed.

"Of course, Mark," his mother said, "I'll be right back."

"There, he's alive. Can we go now?" Mark heard a grumpy but feminine voice.

"Just sit back down and be patient," said a bland voice.

Mark groaned and brought his hand over the violet bump that jutted out from just under his hairline. He groaned again as he pealed his eyes open. His vision was blurry, but he soon came to recognize his own bedroom, as well as Book, standing anxiously by the doorway with her arms crossed, and H, sitting comfortably on Mark's desk. They watched him as he struggled to sit up in his bed.

"How did I get here?" he asked.

"We carried you," H answered. "You're a little heavier than Tally, but we managed."

"Yeah, you're welcome," Book added snottily.

"Oh, thank yo-" Mark's face contorted as his memories came flooding back to him. His dreamy, but pained wake-up face was suddenly gone and replaced with an angry mug. "What the heck, Book? Why did you hit me?"

"Don't go blaming me," she said sternly, slapping her hand over her chest. "I told you not to hold back, and what do you do? You fire one Blazer at me!" She walked right up to Mark's bed and pointed a finger in his face. "I was so insulted you should be happy I didn't crack your skull."

"You just about did!" Mark said, swatting her finger out of his face. "You just go and bludgeon your student on the head when he does something you don't like? What kind of teacher does that? How does that help me learn anything?"

"It tells you not to hold back!" Book roared, gritting her teeth. "You see this little girl attacking you, and she gives you a specific warning not to underestimate her. And then what do you do? You underestimate her. Are you an idiot?"

"I wasn't intentionally holding back. I didn't realize we were really going all out for a training match!" Mark argued. "I'm just a beginner. I know nothing about combat. What happened to teaching me the basics first?"

"You want the basics? Fine!" Book jabbed a finger between Mark's eyes, pushing him back a little. "Lesson number one: don't hold back. Your opponent could be anyone or anything. I can tell you for certain that the Society isn't above sending little kids into combat. Are you going to pull any punches when a five-year-old has a gun to your face?"

Mark, a little taken aback, turned towards H. "Does that kind of stuff really happen?"

H sighed. "Can't say it doesn't."

"Okay, you're right. I'm sorry. I'll try to listen better from now on," Mark said, bowing his head slightly in an act of subservience. He looked up at Book, who stood above him, arms crossed with a demonic smirk on her face. She took too much joy out of being right. All she needed was a back-drop of fire and snakes and the image of the devil would be complete.

H threw a pen at the back of her head, breaking Book out of her reverie. "Apologize to Mark for hitting him," H ordered.

"What for?" she asked. "Were you not paying attention? I was right. He admitted it; case closed."

"Do it anyway," H ordered again, his eyebrows knitting.

"No," she said, pounding her fist into her palm. "It's not that bad. He just needed some tough love. That's all it was." Then she suddenly flinched at the sight of Mark's smiling face gazing up at her. "What's wrong with you?"

"You love me, Book? Really?" he said in a high-pitched, teasing voice. "That's so sweet. And here I thought you hated me. I guess I was way off, huh?"

Book took a step back and held her hands out in front of her. "No way!" she yelled. "Th-that's ridiculous! Geez, you're such an idiot. Have I ever told you that?" She crossed her arms and closed her eyes, a light blush dashed across her cheeks.

Mark smirked. Finally got her back.

"Goodness, so much yelling," Mrs. Spryt said as she flipped on the overhead light. She brought with her a glass of water and a small pill. She handed them to her bedridden son. "Here you go, baby." Mark accepted the offering, but before he could finish thanking his mother, she wrapped her arms around him like a boa constrictor. "Please be more careful! You're going to worry your poor mommy to death if you keep getting hurt like this!" Overdramatic tears streamed down her cheeks like twin waterfalls.

"Mark, my son, what happened? Are you alright, son?" Mark's father exclaimed as he rushed into the room after returning from a late shift at work. He cupped his son's cheeks in his hands, preventing him from speaking clearly. "How did this happen, son? What's that, son?"

"Book smacked him over the head," H said flatly.

Book, shocked by H's straight-forward answer and embarrassed by the surprised looks of both of Mark's parents, said, "Well, he ticked me off!"

Both Mr. and Mrs. Spryt hung their mouths open in disbelief.

"What's the matter with you, boy? Apologize this instant!" Mr. Spryt ordered, tightening his grip on his son's cheeks.

"We didn't raise you to be so inconsiderate to your friends. And to think they were nice enough to bring you home, too," Mrs. Spryt yelled.

Mark pulled his face free and said, "I already apologized. We're cool now."

Mrs. Spryt lunged across the room and embraced Book from behind. "We're so sorry our son offended you. Please don't think we didn't try our best to raise him. He's such a disappointment sometimes."

"Mom!"

"Oh, did I go too far?" Mrs. Spryt covered her mouth with her fingers. "Please don't think I don't love my son. I treasure him more than anything. Thank you for taking care of him. You and H are such good friends. He's lucky to have you around."

"Yes, yes, she's right," Mr. Spryt nodded in agreement. He stepped over to H and rapidly shook the stoic boy's hand. "Thank you, thank you, thank you. This world needs more young people like you two."

"Absolutely," Mrs. Spryt agreed as she nuzzled her cheek against Book's.

The short girl was surprised by the older woman's sneak attack. She gritted her teeth as she pushed her hands against Mrs. Spryt's face, trying desperately to struggle free from the woman's bear-hug. "Yeah, yeah, whatever; get off me please."

"Such a polite young lady," Mrs. Spryt said, releasing Book and standing up straight. "Come, dear, we're ruining their fun."

"Who? Us?" Mr. Spryt asked, finally dropping H's hand. "Mark doesn't think so, do you son?"

"Please go," Mark begged, hands folded, embarrassed almost to tears.

Once Mark's parents had left the room, much to the relief of their mortified child, Book glared at Mark and expressed her annoyance with their peculiar behavior.

"They're so embarrassing!" Mark whined. "If they keep smothering me like this, I'm going to develop a complex. Or claustrophobia or something."

"For goodness sake," Book scorned, "learn to handle your parents, man."

"I bet Tally would like them," H said. He sounded distracted as he pulled out the little white square from his pocket. Eager to get off the subject of his parents, Mark asked what the paper was. "I'm not sure," H answered. He unfolded the paper and read it aloud. He kept his voice low to make sure Mark's parents could not hear.

Dear H and company,

How are you? I hope this school year has been treating you well. No, you weren't wrong. I saw you wracking your brain trying to remember if you had ever seen me before. Rest assured, your senses aren't dulling. I've never gone to your school. I'm sure if I had, we would have been well acquainted by now. It's a pity, isn't it? Rodney High School has such a pretty campus, too. Your friend must really like it. She's always so eager to eat lunch outside rather than in the cafeteria. It's rather unpleasant for me, though. Her love of fresh air is starting to chill me to the bone in this weather.

Say hi to your new friends for me. Young Mark Spryt seems to be quite the klutz. I hope he'll be careful with those Double Blazers. Those things can take an eye out if he's not a bit more prudent. He does get carried away, doesn't he? To his credit, Mark can put on quite the light show when he practices. Lucky there aren't many people traveling down the river that way. By the by, tell that little shorty that she needs to find better hiding places. Under the bed is always the first place anyone looks, silly.

Now, I'm sure you're wondering why I decided to contact you out of the blue. Well, I've heard that you were asking about us, that being myself and my associates. You may also be wondering why I didn't introduce myself when we met earlier. Let's just say that I like to have a little fun every once in a while. I'm a beautiful actress, no? But I digress. Since you wanted to know, let me introduce myself: I am a field agent of the S. Organization, a group that has dedicated itself to aiding in humanity's survival. We may not be as influential or as forceful as the other groups, but you have my word that we are working very hard behind the scenes. I can assure you that we are not a threat by any means. The reason our presence in the Community is limited is that we didn't want you to think of us as a danger. I'm the only member of the S. Organization in the city. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. If you're up to it, H, I'd love to let you take me out to dinner so we can talk it over. Just kidding. ;-).

With much love,

Your stalker, Kathryn Word.

There was also a number of X's and O's following her signature, but H did not bother reading those out loud. The letter was handwritten in a neat script with very meticulous cursive, as if she had spent a while carefully jotting it down. H folded the paper again and tucked it away.

Mark folded his hands behind his head and leaned back onto his pillow. "That wasn't really as threatening as I expected. I thought it would be more of a 'bring Tally to this address if you ever want to see your family again' kind of thing. What a let-down," he said with a disappointed groan in his voice.

"What's with this saving humanity garbage?" Book said, visibly irritated. "How is slaughtering people saving humanity?"

"People are killed when they are assumed to be a threat to others," H said. He did not seem shaken by the letter at all, but his eyebrows were knitted thoughtfully.

"That's stupid," Book belted, "the only people that are threatening others are them!" She clenched her fists. "Why are you defending them?"

"I'm not," H said sharply.

"Chill out, Book," Mark said sleepily. "Why are you getting so worked up about this?"

"Shut up," Book said angrily. "Don't tell me what to do. You're the one being too laid-back, and it's ticking me off."

"Please don't hit me again," Mark cringed.

"And you," Book threw an accusatory finger at H. "Why are you so calm about this? They're watching us! They know everything about us! It's implied that there are more of them, and now they're just waiting for the right chance to knock us off!"

"I find this letter comforting," H said flatly.

"What the heck?" Book yelled through clenched teeth. She violently clawed at her own hair to relieve frustration. Her companions were making her crazy. "Show some freakin' emotion, won't you!"

"Think about it," H said as he leaned forward and folded his hands. "If they wanted to take us out, then they could have. She walked in on you when you were helplessly hiding under the bed with a serious stab wound. For the time being, it appears that they want us alive. This letter doesn't shed much light on what they're up to, but at least now we have a face for the enemy. Regardless, we have to let the Artificials know so they can keep an eye out."

"And that's it?" Book held out her hands expectantly. "That's all we're going to do?" H nodded affirmatively. Book collapsed face-first onto Mark's bed. She pounded the comforter with her fist. "I need to start writing a will. I'm going to die working with you two."

"There, there" Mark cooed as he petted Book's hair with his bare foot. He hollered when she grabbed his little toe and twisted it. After freeing his toe, he rubbed it and looked over at his companion. "Hey H, this girl came right up to you? Did she say anything?"

"She slipped the letter into my pocket when she thought I wasn't paying attention," H said. "She didn't say anything important. All she did was hit on me."

Mark tried to stiffen his face to keep from smiling. He was completely unsuccessful once Book started laughing out loud. He covered his mouth to stifle the snickering.

"You know, H," Mark said. "With that stone face you've got, it's hard to tell if you're being serious or just kidding. But when you say something that outrageous, I can see you do have a sense of humor."

"Yeah," Book laughed, "she must have been a good actor if that's what you thought." Book's laughter was high pitched and oddly giggly for such an irritable girl.

H looked neither embarrassed nor annoyed, but he did stand up and announce it was time to go. Book wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and eagerly agreed. On his way out the door, H turned back and made another announcement. To give Mark more variety, H thought that he would train his white-haired acquaintance for the next few days while Book kept an eye on Tally. Book was not too eager to agree to that, but H did not feel like compromising.

"Go team," Mark said with a yawn as he pulled his sheets back over his chest, listening to Book's complaining and H's silence all the way down the hall and into the front yard.

As H and Book made their way down the front walk, they were stopped by Mr. Spryt, who jogged out the front door to catch up with them, followed by his wife. Mr. Spryt had a soft smile on his face as he placed a hand on H's shoulder. Mrs. Spryt stood behind him, sharing his warm expression.

"You probably think we're a little weird, huh?" Mr. Spryt asked.

"Extremely," Book said honestly. She was almost two feet shorter than him, but the feisty girl wasn't intimidated by the middle-aged man. He raised Mark; what kind of threat could he be?

He chuckled softly.

"I just wanted to thank you two again," he said.

"Mark has never been very good at making friends," Mrs. Spryt added, "He would come home from school and do nothing but watch T.V. every day. He never talked about his classmates or brought anyone home. We started to worry about him. But then, right out of nowhere, you two appeared."

"Mark's seemed a lot livelier recently. I bet you guys have something to do with that," Mr. Spryt ventured. H and Book looked at each other, not really sure of what to make of that. "Thanks for looking after my boy. He can be a handful, but he's a good young man. Just whip him into shape if he ever slacks off." Mr. Spryt winked.

"With pleasure," Book said, crossing her arms and smirking. She had no intention of disregarding such an appealing suggestion.

"Any time," H nodded.

Mr. Spryt patted H on the shoulder and shook Book's hand. Then the husband wrapped his arm around his wife's waist and went inside, and H and Book headed back to H's house in the dark of the night.

"They're a couple of weirdoes," Book commented. "I'd go crazy if I had parents like that." She walked slightly ahead of H with her hands folded behind her neck. "Never a moment's privacy; constantly up in your business. And they baby him like he's a two-year-old. Seems like such a pain. Being on your own is the best way to grow up. You can't live life in Mommy's arms; you have to get out into the world. No wonder Mark's such a wuss. Glad I don't have parents like that."

H looked at Book's back thoughtfully. "What about your parents, Book?"

"Who misses their parents? I've got my own survival to worry about. Crazy murderers are running around with swords. I don't have time to worry about two idiots I've long since forgotten," Book sounded serious. "Stop being ridiculous."

H said naught, but reached out and laid his hand softly on Book's head. She wanted to shake him off, step away, scowl and tell him to keep his hands off of her, but at that moment, for reasons she did not quite understand yet, she chose to accept H's comforting gesture. Book walked along, staring wearily at the ground in front of her. She was suddenly overcome with exhaustion; too tired to even argue.

The following day, H walked with Tally up to the same house where he had met her to walk to school just after sunrise over nine hours ago. After waving good bye, Tally went inside, and H headed back the way he had come. Before reaching the end of the block, a short girl with navy blue hair walked passed him. Neither of them looked at the other. No motions were made to even suggest they recognized each other. H kept walking on to where Mark was waiting to meet him at the high school.

Book stuck her head around the white picket fence that bordered the left side of Tally's front yard. She eyed every window that was not cover with blinds, and when she saw that the coast was clear, she lunged across the lawn. She pressed her back against the oak tree so that she could see the street, but not the house. She peeked around the trunk to see if Tally had spotted her. It did not look like it.

Book put her hands on her hips and looked up at the tree's thick branches and withering leaves. She could never understand it, but H sat up in that tree every evening for hours. And that was on school days. During the holidays and summer vacation, he would have to sit up there from sunrise to sunset. It was no wonder he had no time to actively pursue the S. Organization. Playing guard dog was so time-consuming. Not to mention it was also extremely inefficient.

Can't we just get some security cameras or an electric fence or something? Book thought. Waiting in the tree was bothersome, but it did mean that H was always on hand in case Tally went into a state. But that was H, and Book was not too keen on the whole concept. Waiting and watching for something that in all probability would not happen felt like an entire waste of time. Tally's states were few and far between. Book could leave right now, grab a bite to eat and come back in an hour with there being little to no chance of anything going wrong. But H would not like that.

Book waited for a car to drive by before she leapt into the tree. She may not have been as nimble as H, but she could easily jump to one of the lowest branches. After that, climbing the web of branches was a piece of cake. She grunted under her breath as she hauled herself up onto one of the highest branches. With a quick turn of the head, the loosely packed leaves allowed her a sight of both the street and the house. She tried leaning back, but there was no comfortable way to sit on the branch. She finally settled on sitting as if it was a bench, leaning sideways so that her head rested on the trunk. She was not happy.

This is horrible, she thought a half-hour later. She had slouched so that her spine ran parallel to the branch, leaving her arms and legs to dangle in the cool air. The back of her head was pressed against the trunk of the tree, from her perspective the most uncomfortable pillow ever. It baffled her how H could do this every single day. Her teammate had a freakishly large amount of patience. Book figured he had to be deranged or something. Book's eyelids were starting to droop, but she caught herself.

"No, forget this," Book whispered to herself. She reached into her pocket and pulled out H's sunglasses. But the effort made her lose her balance, and with a shriek, Book fell through the covering of leaves and onto the ground beneath her.

At the sound of several forceful knocks, Tally opened the door and looked down at the short girl in oversized sunglasses with twigs and leaves in her tangled hair. Keeping a straight face, Book made the awkward invitation to hang-out. Tally agreed with a pleasant cheer, took Book's hand and led her into the house. Book did not like the idea of observing Tally face-to-face, but as far as she was concerned, that oak tree deserved either to be firewood or eaten alive by bugs. She had yet to determine which one would be a more painful death.

"What were you thinking of doing?" Tally asked as she walked across her living room, taking apart the silver-colored hollow rod she held in her hands. "I haven't finished my homework, so I can't hang-out for too long." Tally smiled at Book as the shorter girl stood awkwardly in the middle of the living room. "You can sit down."

Book moved to take a seat on the couch. "You…can play that?"

"Yeah, I play in the marching band at school." Tally held up her instrument. "I'm not very good, but I love the flute. It's my favorite instrument. Do you play anything?"

"No," Book shook her head.

"I could teach you if you're interested." Tally offered cheerfully, but then she thought of something else. "Or maybe you'd like H to teach you?"

"H play's the flute, too?" Book said with a mischievous smirk on her face. She really hoped H was very embarrassed about this kind of thing.

"Yeah, we've been in band together since freshman year. It's a lot of fun; playing in football games and parades and stuff. You should join band when you get into high school." Tally disassembled her instrument and tucked it away in the small black case it came in. Then she took a seat next to Book on the couch. "So what do you want to do?"

"I don't care," Book said, avoiding eye contact.

"Would you like to watch T.V. or walk around the neighborhood? Maybe you'd like to play a game. I have board games and playing cards? Do you like checkers? H always beats me, but it's still a lot of fun." Tally smiled at the memories.

"Doesn't matter," Book said, uninterestedly looking away.

"Is something wrong, Book?" Tally cocked her head to the side. A look of concern came to her eyes. "Is there something you wanted to talk to me about?"

"Nothing's wrong," Book said coldly. "Why would you even think that? Geez."

Tally raised an eyebrow as she thought of what to do. She reached her hands out and gently slid the sunglasses off the girl's face. Book tried to object, but stopped when her purple-tinted irises became locked on Tally's hazel eyes. Tally pursed her lips as she studied Book's child-like features. Book had a stunned expression, like a deer caught in headlights, a light blush pinkening her cheeks.

Suddenly Tally closed her eyes and smiled. "You have really pretty eyes, Book. I've never seen anything like them. They're gorgeous."

Book's surprised face quickly turned to one of frustration. She swiped the sunglasses from Tally's fingers and stood up, her face now beet red. "T-teach me how to play something on the flute!" Book had wanted it to be a casual suggestion to show that she was not the least bit flustered, but it did not come out the way she had hoped.

"Yay!" Tally agreed heartily.

She pulled the pieces back out of the case and put them back together. The blonde high schooler demonstrated how to hold the flute between her two hands and put her lips up to the mouthpiece. She handed it to Book, who tried her best to recreate what she saw. Book tried blowing into it, but the noise was less majestic than it was wispy and coarse. Tally smiled and took the instrument back. She brought the silver mouthpiece up to her pink lips and played one of the songs she had to learn for concert band back in spring. It was a complicated piece, intended to symbolize the changing seasons and the beauty of nature. As the notes danced into Book's ears, she realized that Tally had been right. She really was not that good.

When H returned to the school, Mark was waiting on the corner with his backpack over his shoulders. The white-haired, slender boy gave a small, futile wave to H as he approached. Both boys were silent as Mark led H to the muddy riverbed where Book had been training him the past few days. H took a seat on the hood of the rusty car, its worn tires sunk in the mud, and told Mark to go about his exercises the same way Book had instructed him. So Mark went about doing his running and push-ups without any interruption from H. At first, Mark thought the brown-haired boy just wanted to see how Mark was progressing, but at one point he looked over and saw that H was sitting with his eyes closed.

What the heck? Mark thought as he panted. He struggled to do a few more push-ups before pulling his dirty palms out of the mud.

"Now what?" Mark asked, shaking his hands clean. They remained a darker shade than the rest of his pale skin.

"Done already?" H asked, turning to face Mark. H had been sitting, facing the sun, with his legs and arms crossed. His posture was incredibly erect.

"Yeah, that's all Book usually has me do," Mark explained.

"Oh, I see," H said, sounding uninterested. He closed his eyes again. "Do it again."

"Huh? Again?" Mark blanched.

"Yes," H said. When Mark did not move and did not speak, H decided to explain. "You don't build muscle by doing the same routine every day. You do it by pushing yourself harder each time."

"You know, Book usually runs with me," Mark said, frowning.

"Good. She could use the exercise."

Mark got no other explanation. He stifled his great desire to complain and just turned around and started running up the riverbed. Despite his tired legs, he ran a little further than he usually did. The idea was to make it so H would not order him to do his routine a third time. It backfired a little, a Mark was too tired to keep running the whole way, and was only wobbling slowly as he returned to H.

It was dark out when he did.

"Hey there," a friendly voice called out. "You must be Mark Spryt. I'm Kenny Fulton." H had gotten off the car and was now leaning against it with his hands in his pockets, and next to him was a skinny, ghostly-pale guy that looked to be about the same age. He grinned from ear to ear and waved to Mark casually. His clothes looked old and kind of dirty, and his blonde hair was cut strangely, like an amateur beautician used the poor guy as a guinea pig for an untested technique. "I'm an old friend of H's, though I wouldn't be surprised if he's never told you about me. He never has been much of a talker." He looked to the person on his right with a wry smile.

H just shrugged.

"Um…nice to meet you," Mark said awkwardly, not sure why this person was here or if he was in the Community.

"Likewise," Kenny nodded. He stepped forward and shook Mark's hand. "We're probably going to be working together for a while, so I just wanted to make a formal introduction and thank you for all your hard work. You have my gratitude."

"No problem," Mark said, both embarrassed and confused. "But what do you mean we'll be working together?" Mark wanted to ask if Kenny was also in the Fourth Faction, but was careful not to drop any unnecessary words.

"Well, as far as why I'm here now, H asked me to have a practice duel with you," Kenny explained. "You see, I'm an Artificial. I'm sure you know what that means. We both agree that you should have some sort of idea of what you're going to be dealing with. So here I am."

"A duel? Like a practice match? You want us to spar?" Mark turned towards H and asked, eyebrows set aloft. "That last time I tried sparring with someone, I got this huge lump on my head," Mark said, pushing back his bangs to reveal his purple welt.

Kenny laughed, "Don't worry. I'll try not to give you any lumps."

Mark chuckled meekly, not sure whether he was happy to be dueling or not. He did find himself liking Kenny, though. The slightly shorter boy seemed to emit positive energy, and thus Mark lacked the will to refuse his request. As the evening wind strengthened, tossing Mark's white locks, he moved opposite Kenny, brandishing his Double Blazers between his fingers. Mark stood stiffly, feeling kind of silly as he held out his arms, aiming his Blazers at Kenny.

Kenny smiled at Mark one last time before shifting to a look of confidence and focus. It was not a serious or angry look, but one of excitement. As H watched him, the stoic boy remembered how Kenny had once loved the adrenaline rush that being in real combat had provided. Kenny did not see it much anymore.

"I am Kenneth Arvid Fulton, Artificial number fourteen," Kenny yelled his introduction boldly. Mark was taken aback by the confidence in his voice. Kenny positioned one leg behind him, pointing his toes at a ninety-degree angle. He held his arms out at about waist height, his palms facing up and his fingers tense. They were spread apart and bent like claws. "Electrostatic Discharger," Kenny yelled.

H watched blankly as Kenny's hands blurred for the briefest of seconds before lighting up with a bright flash. A flurry of bluish bolts of electricity twitched and sizzled as they climbed upwards. The sparks did not reach higher than his shoulder before disappearing, but the sudden appearance of electricity, coming from a human's hands no less, and the blue light they bathed Kenny in was enough to stun Mark to the point of gawking.

"Don't be too impressed," Kenny said, seeing Mark's saucer-like eyes. "My time as a high school student was all too brief, but based on that minimal education, I've guessed that my cells vibrate in such a way that allows them to generate static electricity. No ordinary human has this kind of control. But that's just a guess. If you can think of a better explanation, I'd love to hear it."

Mark gulped and tightened his grip on his weapons. He creased his brow. "I am Mark Spryt," he yelled, "Um…uh…third member of the Fourth Faction." Mark's eyes darted passed Kenny to where H was holding up five fingers. "Fifth member of the Fourth Faction," Mark quickly corrected.

Kenny chuckled, turning his head just enough to catch H in the corner of his eye. "Thanks for that," Kenny said. He turned back towards Mark and asked, "Are you ready?"

"Yeah," Mark said, sounding determined, the sweat from his earlier work-out now chilling him in the frosty wind.

Kenny nodded and lunged forward. "Then come on!"

Mark fired both of his Blazers at the same time, but Kenny evaded them by ducking to the right. The blonde boy spun around, flinging his arms out, launching the centers of the electrical mass from his fingers. Still spraying bolts, the arrow-like projectiles slammed into the ground to Mark's left, spraying the teenager with mud.

Mark fired again, but with only one Blazer this time. Kenny was too fast, though. He dodged the cylindrical beam of flames and began a fierce barrage of attacks on his white-haired rival. He launched one projectile after another, throwing them overhand like he would a baseball.

"Ah!" Mark blurted as he ducked and dodged the attacks. He stepped aside to avoid one going towards his chest. He pulled his arm back to keep his fingers from frying. One attack even singed a lock of his long hair. He was so focused on not getting hit that he could neither fight back nor keep himself from tripping on a wine bottle that was partially sunken into the riverbed. Mark took a sharp breath as he fell backwards.

Before Mark could open his eyes and long before he could get back to his feet, Kenny had closed the distance between them. Mark was stunned again as he looked up and the first thing he saw was Kenny standing over him, his arm raised high above his head to deliver a final blow to his novice opponent. Instead, as the blue light cast by his own superhuman abilities lit up his face amongst the darkness of night, Kenny gave Mark a genuinely friendly smile.

"Nicely done," Kenny said as he stepped away. He dispensed with his electrical projectiles, tossing them underhanded into the river, before helping Mark to his feet. Kenny's hands were surprisingly colder than Mark had anticipated.

"Are you kidding? If you took me out any faster, it'd just be pitiful," Mark sighed with a tired smile on his face. "Were you even going all out?"

Kenny shrugged. "Well, I held back a little. I didn't want to roast you or anything. This was just to give you an idea of what we can do. Just remember that when Tally goes into a state, you have the ability to think straight. I don't. And I don't think I'm as strong as I usually am when I'm going all crazy like that anyway," Kenny said with a chuckle that only he would understand.

Kenny turned and walked towards the abandoned car, stretching his arms over his head and taking a deep breath. "What do you think, H? Not bad, right?"

H said nothing for a moment as he glared at Kenny. Then he raised one eyebrow and said, "Electrostatic Discharger?"

Kenny laughed as he took a spot leaning against the car next to H. "Maybe you can be serious all the time, but I sure can't. I've got to have a little fun every once in a while."

Mark tapped his finger against his chin and mused aloud, "Maybe I should come up with a cool name, too? It should be something heroic. Hmm." After a few seconds, Mark's face brightened and he snapped his fingers. He swung his arm around as if he were doing a wind-up pitch and then jutted one Blazer out in front of his body and the other behind it. "Mark Spryt, Dragon Toaster!"

"Except we don't fight dragons," H pointed out.

"I went with dragons because, you know, dragons breathe fire," Mark said dejectedly. He scratched the back of his head as he thought about it. "I guess it is kind of dumb."

"It's in the right direction, though," Kenny said gently, "Keep thinking about it."

Just as Mark was feeling grateful to have Kenny around, as Book barely said anything positive and H barely said anything positive or otherwise, a young man, appearing to be a few years older than Mark, approached them from out of the darkness. He had no hair, but his muscles were visible through his dirty, white t-shirt. He walked through the brown mud without any shoes on. Catching Mark's attention instantly, however, was the pair of peculiar silver shorts he wore. They were not a kind of silver cloth. They had a metallic shine to them that reflected the brightening moonlight. He was another Artificial.

"Mark Spryt?" He asked as he extended a hand to the slightly taller boy. Mark nodded and accepted the gesture. "I've heard a little about you. Maybe now the Fourth Faction can finally get something done. Welcome to the bitter struggles of the Community. I'm Peter Meister. Call me Pete if you feel like it."

Mark suddenly grinned widely. "Can I call you Pete Miser?" he asked in a high-pitched, excited voice.

"No," Pete said with the kind of tone and look on his face that gave the implied warning that he would kill Mark if he ever suggested this again, leaving Mark looking like a rejected puppy. After casual greetings to Kenny and H, Pete wanted to get the show on the road.

As Pete and Mark moved away from the car, H turned to Kenny and asked, "Are you staying?"

Kenny looked up at the starry sky. "Well, the sun's down. Do you want me to leave? I was thinking of sticking around."

"Suit yourself," H said stiffly.

Mark and Pete positioned themselves the same way he and Kenny had just a little while earlier. Mark brought one Blazer up close to his face and held the other out at arm's length, aiming both at Pete; a stance that he hoped to turn into a signature pose. Pete had a signature look, too; one that did not involve a shirt. The burly young man planted his fist in the palm of his other hand and flexed his muscles. His light skin slowly went from white to pink, looking like he had sunburn. His coloring continued to rapidly change until it became a dark red. At that point, his t-shirt caught fire and soon fell from his body in a burning mass.

Mark blinked twice, taken in by the sight. He was pulled from his reverie, however, when Pete gave a scarily loud battle-cry as he charged at Mark, who quickly recomposed himself and delivered his own hardy "Hya!" as he fired both Blazers at his opponent. Both fiery beams struck Pete straight in the chest. After a couple of seconds, Mark ceased fire. "Huh?" he grunted when he saw that Pete had not even put up his arms to guard against the attack. He just took it, and to Mark's surprise, Pete did not seem to feel a thing.

I get it. His shirt burned off because he can increase his body temperature. The Double Blazers aren't going to hurt him, Mark thought as Pete began charging him again. Think fast. That's it!

Mark turned around and ran, leaving Pete scratching his head behind him. Mark smiled at his own plan as he jumped, placed his hand over his nose and plunged into the cold river. "Ha ha!" Mark yelled back as he splashed the water around him, "Come get me, Heat Meister!" A little unsure, Pete ran into the water. "Yes! Now face my ultimate technique, Ice Water Splash of the Dragon Toaster!" Mark fired a single Blazer so that it struck the water a couple feet in front of him. As Mark had predicted, the impact had sent a splash of water over Pete.

The grin was lost when Mark saw the result. Pete had been dowsed with cold river water, but his body temperature had not been affected. Bubbles formed on his shoulders where water boiled against his skin, and steam formed around his body. When it was very clear that the ultimate technique had no effect, Pete began moving through the water towards Mark, who shrieked and blindly started splashing water wildly towards his opponent. He continued until Pete planted a firm grip on Mark's wrist. Mark looked dumbly at his captured wrist for a second before screaming, expecting his arm to burst into flames or melt off. The scream trailed on until he ran out of air. At which point, Pete released Mark's arm.

"Yeah," Pete said. "A word to the wise: don't let me touch you when I'm all fired up. I could burn your skin clean off." He sounded a little uncomfortable as he spoke, unsure about Mark's overreactions.

"Right," Mark squeaked with tears in his eyes. "Duly noted."

When the third Artificial arrived, Mark and Pete were sitting closely together on the ground by the old car. Pete was not too happy about the close proximity in which Mark was sitting, but the white-haired boy had yet to dry off after his plunge into the river and desperately wanted the extra body heat.

Mark jumped up to meet the over-weight Artificial as he approached. He was very tall, pushing seven feet, but his stomach seemed to spill over the top of his shorts. Like the boy that had arrived earlier, this guy was also hairless. But unlike Pete, this guy was not nearly as muscular. Or rather, if he was, his muscles were blanketed with a healthy layer of fat.

"Pete, what happened?" the big guy called out, ignoring Mark even as he approached. "I thought we were going to get dinner." He did not seem angry as much as confused.

"I said we'd go after this, Wally!" Pete called from his seat by the car. "You never listen, you whale! We'll grab a bite when we're done." Pete did not seem angry either.

"Excuse me, fellas," Kenny said with a wry smile on his lips, "You do remember why we discourage Artificials from associating too much, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, don't worry about it, Kenny," Pete said with a wave of his hand. "It's night time already, so there's no problem."

"Yeah," Wally said as he nodded vigorously, shaking his jowls in the process. "Pete's already thought of that."

Mark looked from Kenny to Pete to Wally. When he saw that no one was talking, he took the moment to introduce himself. "I'm Mark Spryt. Nice to meet you, Wally." He extended his hand.

"Mark Spryt?" Wally said as he shook Mark's hand. "Oh yeah."

Once Wally Mikkelsen released Mark's hand, the large guy clenched his fists. He flexed his muscles, and before Mark's eyes, the fat seemed to readjust itself on Wally's body. It shifted so much that he went from the body shape of an eggplant to one of a professional bodybuilder. His pectorals bulged against his white t-shirt, as did his arms, while his stomach line shrunk immensely.

"Whoa! That's ama-" Mark was cut off by his own grunt. Wally had punched him right in the gut, sending the slender teenager sprawling backwards, his body flopping across the mud.

"Can we go now, Pete?" Wally called over.

Kenny made sure Mark was okay. Mark was not too upset, but he did demand that Wally make it up to him. The white-haired boy delayed Wally's dinner even longer as he forced the now-muscular guy to do one heroic pose after another, all while reciting Mark's favorite action movie quotes. H watched silently, but Kenny and Pete got a chuckle out of it.

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