Kevin slammed into the wall, struggling feebly. "And where were you going, shrimp?" said the beefy teen who had shoved him there.
"Let me go," Kevin said, hoping to sound threatening.
Jonas smirked. "Aw, you can't just leave." The two other jocks behind him fanned out, smiling. "Simon and Zack here want to see your girlfriend."
"I don't know what you're talking about. Let me go."
"Last time she came by to save you when you got hit by a car, right?" Jonas made a fist. "I bet she'll show up if you get crushed to a pulp again!"
Simon and Zack started snickering. Kevin flailed, trying to escape Jonas' grip. Jonas shifted his arm to pin Kevin's neck against the wall of the school building, and lifted his arm for a punch.
Suddenly, Simon yelped and grimaced. Jonas glanced over and did a double-take; Zack whirled and raised his fists. Trent stood behind Simon, pinning the bully's arm behind his back, staring at Jonas with murderous eyes.
"You want to know what will happen if you don't back off?" Trent said. "Your buddy here goes down with a broken arm. Then I'll charge the both of you, unless you're stupid enough to come after me first. One of you will get to know that snowbank with your face. The other will limp away on a shattered kneecap. Who's first?"
Jonas stepped back, releasing Kevin, who snatched his dropped backpack and retreated toward Trent, shaking. "Th-this ain't over, nerd!" Jonas stammered.
"I think it is," Trent said. "Simon, wouldn't you agree?" He tightened his grip.
"Aaaah!" Simon said. "It's over! It's over!"
Trent squinted at Jonas. "Now get."
Jonas and Zack looked at each other, then wheeled around and sprinted around the corner. Trent released Simon's arm and shoved him away. Simon took the hint and ran.
"Oh god," Kevin said, and sagged against the wall to rest his suddenly weak legs.
"You alright?" Trent said, his face falling into concern. "They hit you any?"
"You got here before they could do anything," Kevin said.
"Let's get going before those retards come back," Trent said, grabbing the backpack out of Kevin's hand and walking over to retrieve his own pack from the ground farther away. "This damn school, I swear."
"Thanks, Trent," Kevin said, hustling to catch up and glancing over his shoulder toward where the bullies had run. "Thank you so much. The last thing I needed today was getting beaten up."
"Isn't it usually?" Trent said brightly. "Er -- I mean, you know. What happened today?"
Kevin's face fell. "Mr. Neimand failed me in Algebra 3."
Kevin looked back one last time as they left campus for the day, then grabbed his pack back from Trent and dusted the January snow off it. "He refused to reschedule my final. He says I cut school that Thursday and Friday, and made up a crazy story, so I'd get three extra weeks of study time over winter break."
"What?! That's insane! That's ... that's just bullshit!"
Kevin sighed. "My parents are gonna go ballistic. Maybe they can talk to him. They kept the doctor's note."
"Gah!" Trent fumed. "This freakin' town. This whole planet. Maybe Redwing had the right idea --"
"Hey!" a high voice yelled from behind them.
Trent and Kevin turned. A thin, taller girl, with dull, straight hair and an unexceptional appearance that wasn't helped out by her down jacket adding bulk in all the wrong places, was jogging to catch up with them. "Are you alright, Kevin?" she asked. "I saw those asshole jocks and you guys running in the opposite direction."
"Hey, Crissy," Kevin said. "I'm fine. Trent stepped in."
"Oh, good," she said, slowing to match their pace. "It sounds like you've been through a lot lately."
"What do you mean?" Kevin said, stomach sinking.
"Well," she said uncertainly, then went for broke. "Did you really get helped by a Dragon Legend character after your car crash?"
Kevin groaned. "Jesus. It's only Tuesday and the entire school has already heard that."
"Actually, David told me," Crissy admitted with an apologetic smile. "Is it true?"
Crissy and David wouldn't be described by an outside observer as boyfriend and girlfriend, but they had circled a path of mutual geek attraction for the better part of a month, even going out to lunch once on a faint imitation of a date. David had dragged her to the group's last two Dungeons & Dragons sessions, where Crissy -- with a sharp wit but a newbie's hesitation and an almost pathological avoidance of math -- was doing a passable job of playing a cleric of Teyah.
"Oh," Kevin said, avoiding her question.
"Did you tell anyone else?" Trent cut in.
"Of course not," Crissy said. "Not before talking to him first." She reached out to tap Trent's shoulder with her fist, and, with her characteristic lack of grace, snagged his jacket, almost pulling him off balance.
"Hey!" Trent said.
They walked in silence until the corner.
"So, um --" Crissy started.
"No," Kevin said tiredly. "No, Rosalind did not really help me out, so stop asking. It was just a hallucination."
"Whoah!" Crissy said. "Sensitive much?"
"It's all anyone wants to talk about," Kevin said. "Nobody wants to believe me, and why should they? It made no sense. And now I'm getting attacked over it. I'm sick of the whole thing. Getting hit by the car would have been better."
Crissy's face fell. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean --"
Kevin sighed and waved a hand. "It's okay. I just would rather talk about something else." They crossed the street and turned toward Center.
"Okay, then. So do you have any opinions on what's next in Redwing's big theri war?" Crissy asked.
"Not really," Kevin said.
"Some geek you are!" Crissy chided.
"What war?" Trent asked. "Since Clinton backed down on the internment camps last week, Redwing hasn't made any new threats. It's all just politics and screaming now."
"You don't think the legislators will provoke anything else? With the sorts of bills they're writing?" Crissy shot back.
"They've already made their stand," Trent said. "If anyone was going to play chicken it would have been back after the --" he glanced over at Kevin's face, and left his thought unfinished.
Crissy looked, too. "What is it, Kevin?"
"Do you really think any of that's worth talking about?" Kevin snapped. "How is it going to make a difference?"
"What do you mean?" Trent asked. "Why wouldn't it?"
"We're in the middle of nowhere! No therianthrope would be caught dead out in Pitt Creek. You can't even walk into a Wal-Mart without ten miles of driving!"
"Redwing came from the middle of nowhere, too, over in Kansas," Crissy said defensively.
"Redwing lived in Denver!" Kevin said, turning on her. "He picked the middle of nowhere ... I don't know, to make some sort of point. Then he left and never came back."
"Magic can happen anywhere!" Crissy argued. "You of all people should know that."
Kevin's eyes narrowed. "You think so, huh? Well, why don't you go learn magic yourself, and leave me out of it?"
Crissy crossed her arms. "Maybe I will!" She whirled and walked away.
Kevin scowled at her retreating back, and stomped off toward home.
"Hey, whoah!" Trent said, hustling to catch up. "Kevin, what --"
"Leave me alone," Kevin said, tears brimming in his eyes.
"No!" Trent said. "What the hell has gotten into you since the accident?"
"Everything! You think I wanted any of this?" Kevin said, speeding up.
"You sure did once!" Trent said, effortlessly falling into a fast walk. "How many times did you and David and I talk about what it would be like to live in a fantasy world? How much time have we spent gaming and roleplaying and ... and dreaming?" He sped up and leaped squarely in Kevin's way, forcing him to stop. "Maybe your first brush with magic wasn't quite what you expected, but goddammit, Kevin, don't be such a baby about it!" He grabbed Kevin's shoulders. "I was upset about it too, but I got over myself. This is too big. Magic is real now, man! It's here! This is our world -- Earth with dragons and teleportation and fireballs and -- dammit, how is this not everything you've ever wanted?"
"I -- I don't know," Kevin stammered.
"Then face up to what happened!" Trent pleaded. "Why are you running from your dreams? What the hell is wrong with you? Where's the Kevin I knew?"
Tears poured forth onto Kevin's face. "He died in the car crash." He tried to dodge around Trent.
"Then who am I talking to?" Trent asked.
"I don't know," Kevin sobbed. He squirmed past Trent and ran for home.