Author's Note: I've got another one, JN fans. This one will be five chapters. I hope you all enjoy. As always, I'd really appreciate reviews and will be happy to answer any questions or comments you have.
Hidden inside the ventilation system of Lindbergh Elementary School, James and Cynthia sat across from each other. The tight squeeze slammed their hugged knees together. Any movement dragged skin across skin; touch was unavoidable. Yet any flirtatious air flowing through those vents had been long been dissolved.
"How long's it been?" Cindy's croaky voice reverberated off the dusty aluminum walls boxing her and James in.
Jimmy glanced at his watch and felt his eyes twitch from the effort. "It's ten-thirty."
"Six and a half hours," Cindy mumbled in disbelief while sliding a grimy hand down her face.
"Maybe we should head down," Jimmy offered as another blast of icy air rolled through the vents. Sweltering heat was once more replaced by frozen wind. As he and Cindy hugged themselves, they both struggled to recall when they were last comfortable.
Cindy surmised this was back at the graduation party, when she and her friends had still adorned dress clothes and mortarboards. She smiled while remembering the gang celebrating in Lindbergh's gym, sharing cups of punch and plans for summer vacation. There were laughs shared over awkward memories over the past year. They'd recalled the time Carl became drunk with power while trying to impress Elkie, back when a giant-headed Sheen had tried to usurp Retroville, when all of Libby's birthday presents had been smashed by a frantic James. It was a good party, filled with sugary snacks and drinks and good company. The parents had mingled and left the kids to their own endeavors. That is, until the parents abruptly disappeared and Willoughby had made that announcement that had changed everything.
"Attention graduates!" He'd cried out in that sing-song reverie of his. "I have a little game planned for you and the rest of the school, and a wonderful prize for whoever wins!"
Cindy shook the memory from her head and instinctively reached for the rifle at her side. The yellow Deploy CS-6 had served her well since that announcement; she remembered finding it taped underneath the refreshment table. This gun, and the darts inside it, had enabled her and Jimmy to escape. She ensured the orange clip was in place, made certain that a blue foam round was chambered, and aimed the gun down the vent at the hallway below.
"Anything?" James whispered. He gripped his Hammershot revolver, pulled back the hammer, and waited for Cindy's response.
"All clear," Cindy whispered while settling back across from James. They lowered their guns and sighed in tandem. "How many kids are even left?"
"No way to know," he answered. "It looked like half the school got mowed down in the first hour. After that?" James could only shrug.
A growl of annoyance leapt from Cindy's throat. "Did Willoughby even think this through? How do we know when it's over? What if…we're the last ones left?"
Cindy's questions sent both her and Jimmy's fingers twitching towards their weapons. The friends locked eyes and froze their hands in place.
"I think," Jimmy cleared his throat, "the answers you're looking for are no, I have no idea, and not yet."
Cindy grinned and rubbed her arms in a vain attempt to ward off the cold. "Any food left?"
Jimmy rifled through his nearly empty backpack. All that greeted him were two dented cans of Purple Flurp, a single granola bar, and one spare magazine for Cindy's rifle. He offered her a soda and half the granola bar.
"Might as well take our minds off the cold," Cindy said while popping her tab and taking a tentative drag from the Flurp. "Want to play a game?"
"Different than our current affair?" James motioned at her Deploy.
"Much different," Cindy playfully assured him. "Let's play Never Ever. Know the rules?"
James had never played, but he was familiar enough with the drinking game. If you've done what the other hasn't, you take a drag. "Ladies first," he cracked open his own drink and settled in.
Cindy rapped her nails along the can and settled on, "Never have I ever cheated on a test."
"Really?" Jimmy cocked a skeptical eyebrow. "You've never even given Libby one of your answers?"
"Really," Cindy promised. "Grades are sacred, Neutron."
Jimmy shrugged and prepared to take a drag. "I'm assuming that you'd count modifying Sheen's brain as cheating."
"That's a fair guess. Drink, Big Head."
Jimmy took a sip and felt the sugar swim through his veins. "I've never been in a fight."
"No way," Now it was Cindy's turn to cock her head in doubt.
"Terry stole my lunch, but he never hit me," Jimmy offered. "What about you?"
"Does t'ai chi count?" After both kids pondered this, Cindy huffed in amusement. "And you were in a fight! Yolkus, League of Villains, N-Men? Those count?"
Jimmy chuckled at his lapse in judgement. "I suppose if you're persistent in being technical. But that means you're drinking too."
"I can deal with that," Cindy smiled as both kids chugged their soda. Cindy's mind began to fog over from the combination of sugar, fatigue, and hunger. She stared across the vent at James and found herself reflecting his easy smile. How absurd was it that after fighting for their lives for hours, after being cramped in an icy coffin, they could make each other smile?
"I got one," she whispered. "I never would have thought it'd be us two against the school. And that we'd not only make it work, but…enjoy it."
Cindy's words hung in the frozen air until James said, "Same here." Both kids raised their glasses and shared a drink.
"Well, I never," Jimmy began, but his turn was cut short by the distant pop of a Nerf gun. The sound had barely breached the ventilation system when Cindy grabbed her rifle and aimed the barrel through the vent's grills.
As Cindy readied her weapon, James plastered his right ear agains the vent and closed his eyes. "Footsteps," he whispered while feeling around for his revolver. "And voices. Two."
Cindy nodded and sucked in a deep breath. "Distance?"
"Right below," Jimmy's whisper was barely audible. He could make out a deep baritone voice directly underneath, relaying instructions to his quieter partner.
Beads of sweat poured down Cindy's forehead and stung her eyes. She blinked hard, stared through blurry vision at the ground below, and saw a single orange sneaker pop into view. One more leg strode forward, a purple t-shirt appeared over umber skin, and she pulled the trigger right as a frenzied scream erupted from below.
"Vents!" A hysterical squeak echoed through the halls.
Cindy's target immediately juked to the side, just in time for Cindy's dart to whistle by his ear. He spun around, allowing Cindy to catch sight of the enormous orange rifle in his grasp. Cindy had just enough time to spot a pair of dark mirrored sunglasses reflecting her terrified expression. "Dirty campers!" Ike Burke roared. He flipped on his Stampede's rotor, the machine gun revved up, and a hail of orange darts blasted towards Cindy.
Cindy fell backwards and scurried away from the grills on all fours. "Did you get him?" Jimmy cried.
"Obviously not!" Cindy screamed back as Ike's 18-round clip was emptied at her perch.
"We're safe until he finds a way up here, right?" Jimmy asked. "Nerf guns can't shoot through ceiling tiles."
Jame's question was poetically answered by a rack-roosh, then an ear-shattering Pop! An enormous orange mega dart punched a hole clean through the ceiling tile by James' foot. It slammed into the aluminum above them and both kids scuttled away from the dart as though it were a true bullet.
"What the heck?!" Cindy screeched as the sound of Ike chambering another round into his modded sniper rifle filled the halls. "Split up and drop!" She scooped up her rifle and crawled back towards the vent as another mega dart spiked past her shoulder.
Cindy kicked the grill plate to the floor, jumped down, and rolled forward to absorb some of the impact. She heard another dart scream past her ears, popped up from her roll, and saw two third graders barreling towards her.
Cindy wasn't sure if they were working with Ike or drawn by the commotion. Either way, she raised her rifle, slammed the stock against her shoulder, and launched a dart center of mass. The closer third grader was struck in the chest at ten feet away. The second, a brunette sporting a long fishtail braid, closed in before Cindy could rack the pump and chamber another round. The girl was two feet away and had a FalconFire pistol aimed between Cindy's eyes when she made her move. Cindy spun her rifle around and slammed it down like a club on the girl's wrists.
The girl cried in agony and dropped her pistol as Cindy tossed aside her rifle. With fluidity that only five years of t'ai chi could muster, she performed a perfect somersault. She scooped up the fallen pistol with her left hand, threw her right around the girl's neck, and squeezed the brunette in a chokehold as she landed on her feet.
Cindy heard another rack-roosh, spun the girl around, and let her victim take the incoming dart straight in the chest.
"Sorry," Cindy sincerely offered as the round slammed into the child's sternum. Cindy could imagine the deep purple bruise spreading over the girl's chest and raised her FalconFire at Ike. She didn't hesitate to fire, but Ike dove behind a bank of lockers and dodged the dart.
Cindy clasped the struggling girl tight as she stared down the empty hallway. She had no idea where James or Ike's accomplice were. All she could see was the bank of lockers that hid Ike, a classroom door across from it, and behind that the corner of a new hallway.
"Toss the Sledgefire!" Ike roared. Cindy took a few cautious steps forward and watched as Ike's enormous sniper rifle slid towards the bend in the corridor.
A set of plump pale fingers reached around the corner and yanked the rifle back just as the same squeaky voice from before shouted out, "Which one's that again?"
Cindy couldn't help but lower her pistol as she finally recognized the tone. "Carl?!" she cried out in disbelief.
A mop of curly red hair peeked out form bend in the hallway. His eyes lit up when he recognized her. "Cindy!"
Cindy huffed in disbelief. With the knowledge that Ike was without a gun and Carl was no threat, she loosened her grip on her human shield and raised her voice. "Jimmy, you still around?"
"Yeah." The door across from Ike's hiding place creaked open and Jimmy poked his head out. "Was trying to get a drop on him from the side," he explained.
Cindy nodded in approval as Ike's deep voice grumbled, "Guess we're calling a truce? For the moment?" He clarified.
"For the moment," Cindy agreed while dropping her human shield. The third-grader hurried off to her fallen friend without a word, and Cindy paid her no more mind. She, James, Carl, and Ike slowly met up in the middle of the hallway.
Even after the most exhausting day of her life, Cindy managed a grin as Carl and Jimmy reunited.
"Jim!" Carl shrieked while wrapping his best friend in a bear hug. "You're alive!"
"Still breathing," James confirmed. He clapped his friend's back and pulled away. His jaw dropped as he finally got a good look at Carl's appearance. His striped shirt was covered by a bandolier which housed spare darts and orange magazines. A dozen various pistols were duct taped to his body, and another half dozen long guns were dangling from straps on his shoulders. "Huh?" Jimmy struggled to articulate.
"I'm a pack mule!" Carl eagerly answered.
"And a dang good one," Ike emerged from the locker and awkwardly plucked at his shirt. Cindy cocked his head; the boy seemed heavier than just hours before at graduation. He clapped Carl's shoulder before motioning at the classroom James had emerged from. "More secure in there."
"Good thinking," Cindy agreed. She and Ike trailed inside, then barricaded the door with the teacher's desk. "How have you guys stayed alive all this time?"
"Same as most," Ike answered while collapsing to the floor and leaning his back against the teacher's desk. Carl plopped down beside him. James and Cindy hopped atop of two nearby desks in the front row. "Sticking to the shadows, mopping up the remains after other groups fight. And setting a few ambushes ourselves." Ike pulled a crumpled carton of cigarettes from his pocket and placed one between his lips.
"We've seen things," Carl quivered as Ike lit his smoke.
"So have we," Jimmy agreed. The four kids fell silent, each becoming lost to their own memories. James settled on the Massacre at Gruber's Gym and felt his mind tumbling back to that fateful time hours before.
"Hurry!" Cindy screamed while shoving James' shoulders down to the ground. Both kids collapsed onto the harsh linoleum and felt drops of blood flow from their scraped elbows. Inches above, a half dozen darts flew past their heads from the guards at the bleachers.
"Working on it!" Jimmy promised while activating his laser pen and flashing it on the padlock before them. The cursed impediment to their escape crashed to the ground, and James flung open the gymnasium's door. Without thinking, he grabbed the back of Cindy's shirt and flung her through.
James dove through the door and grabbed onto it with both hands. He swung it closed with all his might, but not before one last image forever burned itself onto his brain. Yards away, back in the prisoner pen he and Cindy had escaped from, were a half-dozen first graders forced to their knees.
Four lay crumpled on the ground, the fifth was sobbing uncontrollably as he realized his fate. Butch stood behind him, Maverick revolver in hand, and racked the slide. Yet it wasn't Butch or the wailing soon-to-be victim that James was drawn to. It was the first-grader beside him; the one that had helped Jimmy and Cindy escape, the one who had assaulted Butch's guards himself. And even as that first-grader's friend was shot in the back of the head, even as that child whose name Jimmy didn't know accepted his own fate, all he could do was mouth the word, "Go," to James. And so as Jimmy watched the dart bounce harmlessly off the back of this boy's head, he did what his friend asked.
The four kids sat silently in the dark, until at last the memories faded from their minds' eye. Eventually Cindy inquired, "Any idea how many are left?"
Ike shook his head. "No idea. We're definitely running across fewer people each hour, but no one knows a firm count." He pulled off his shades, narrowed his eyes, and said, "People are starting to turn on each other."
For the second time that hour, Jimmy and Cindy felt their fingers twitching towards their weapons. Out of all they had witnessed that day, the cruelest thing of all would be when the game was down to its final leg. Only one person could win The Prize; that was the fiery open secret that constantly singed at every alliance throughout Lindbergh.
"So what do we now?" Ike asked the boy and girl across from him.
James answered his question with another. "Have you two seen Sheen or Libby?"
Carl shook his head. "We tried to find all you guys at first. We heard rumors that we thought might be about Sheen."
Ike shook his head. "People are mumbling about someone called Eagle who can snipe a target from a hallway away. That he's got a partner called Falcon who circles around with a rifle, scaring off anyone who gets close to him. But it's not a rumor, it's a myth."
"It might be real!" Carl rebutted.
"If it is, it's not Sheen and Libby," Ike answered as gently as he could manage. He sucked a deep drag off his cigarette and swirled the smoke in his mouth. Blowing it out through his nose, he repeated his question. "So what now?"
Jimmy felt Cindy's gaze on him, but all he could do was smile at Carl. "You kept Carl safe. We should all team up." He felt Cindy's gaze harshen just as the loudspeakers turned on. All four kids swiveled their gaze to the ceiling in shock.
"Attention students!" Willoughby's angry roar crackled through every hallway and classroom of Lindbergh elementary. James flashed another glance at his watch; he'd assumed Willoughby had long ago retreated from the war-torn halls.
"This game has gotten out of control!" Willoughby continued to rage on. "I thought I'd learned my lesson after last time; I switched paintballs to Nerf guns! How you all ruined this school with foam darts I'll never know! Do you have any idea how many times I've been shot in the eye? Do you know the damage that could do? My optometrist isn't even open tomorrow! So enough's enough! If this doesn't end by midnight, no one gets the prize! Figure it out!"
James and Cindy shared a horrified glance. Neither could believe that after everything they'd been through, after all the horrors they'd witnessed and experienced, that Willoughby could pull The Prize away.
"This changes things," Ike grumbled while throwing his cigarette on the ground and crushing it beneath his heel.
"It does," Jimmy agreed. He faced Cindy, who was clearly broken by Willoughby's news. "We can't just hide in the ceiling anymore. We need to go out and fight. And four people doing that are stronger than two."
Cindy thought back to the Deploy she'd left lying in the hallway, then stared at the FalconFire in her grasp. There were five darts in the rifle, six in the clip in Jimmy's pack, and three left in the pistol. That wasn't enough to take on the rest of the school.
"Fine," Cindy agreed. "We team up."
Ike stared hard at the blonde across from him while rising to his feet. "I'm sorry," he earnestly answered, "but I don't think so."
Cindy instinctively raised her FalconFire. Jimmy lagged a second behind but had his Hammershot aimed at Ike's heart by the time Ike was done ripping a Doublestrike blaster off of Carl's shoulder.
Carl's throat tightened and he began living up to his last name as two pistols were aimed at Ike and one at Cindy.
"The way I see it," Ike growled while cocking his two-barreled pistol's hammer, "is that if we all make it to the end, it's me against you three. Or five, if we manage to find Sheen and Libby. My odds are better on my own. If you want to pay me back for keeping Carl safe, let me leave here with all the guns I can carry."
Jimmy glanced once more at his panicking friend as he pondered Ike's request. "Neutron," Ike's voice boomed in his ears, "it's the right thing to do. Let me walk out of here. We had a truce," Ike reminded him.
Jimmy nodded and lowered his Hammershot. "It's only fair," Jimmy agreed while lowering his revolver.
Ike grinned and lowered his own gun just as a crisp pop filled the room. Ike stumbled back in shock as an orange dart spiraled into his chest. He gripped his heart and felt his eyes widen as he turned to Cindy, whose finger still lay over the trigger.
"Ike!" Carl screamed while catching catching his falling friend and gently laying him onto the floor.
Ike pulled his hand away and stared bloody daggers at the dead-eyed blonde across from him. "Vortex!" he seethed. "What the hell! We had a truce!"
"Yeah," Cindy answered without an iota of emotion. "For the moment. And the moment's up."
Ike shoved Carl away and leapt to his feet. Fingers trembling in fury, he leveled his Doubleshot against Cindy's eye.
"It won't count," Cindy quietly warned him.
"It'll make me feel better," Ike growled back. He waited a long moment, weighed his options, and then holstered the pistol. "Screw you, Vortex." He used all his strength to pull the teacher's desk away from the door. Before stepping out into the hall, he cast Carl and Jimmy one last glance. "When she betrays you two, Ms. Fowl's class is meeting at the Candy Bar for breakfast."
"Hey Ike," Cindy's calm voice halted the boy's exit. He glared over his shoulder at her, and she simply said, "Leave the gun." Ike shook his head in disgust, dropped the Doubleshot, and stormed away.
Both boys, still stunned by Cindy's betrayal, watched Ike disappear down the hall. At last, they pounced on Cindy at the same time.
"He kept me safe!" Carl screamed.
"You didn't need to do that!" Jimmy roared. "He was lowering his gun, Vortex!"
"He didn't want to stick with us!" Cindy screamed back while scooping up the Doubleshot and tucking it into her right sock. She motioned at Carl while adding, "And look at those guns! Do you really want Ike Burke roaming the halls with a dozen rifles? He'd take us all down! Do you even want The Prize?"
"Not having to do summer reading isn't worth this!" James shouted back. He leaned towards Vortex as she did the same; their furious faces met an inch apart. "It's not worth losing who we are!"
Cindy shoved James back as gently as she could manage. "We're the people who left those first-graders to die!"
That blood-curdling image returned; the solemn first grader accepting that James couldn't alter his fate. "There was nothing we could do," Jimmy moaned. "We didn't have a choice then!"
"And we didn't now," Cindy shot back. "We let him go, we lose The Prize. We kill him, we just might get it. Simple as that."
Before Jimmy could figure out a retort, Cindy faced the wheezing Carl. She let out a calming breath and clasped him on the shoulder. "I'm glad you're still here," she assured him. The boy's breathing calmed, and Cindy studied the weapons he carried. She plucked a fully-kitted Retaliator rifle off his shoulder, stared through the scope, and jammed the stock against her shoulder. Retaliator pointed at the ground, she grabbed a Lawbringer rifle from Carl's other shoulder and handed it to James.
James and Cindy stood motionless; him refusing to accept the weapons and she declining to back down. She let out a weary sigh, and for the first time since Willoughby's announcement some life returned to her voice. "I did it for us."
Though Jimmy couldn't agree with her choice, he saw no option except to push forward. He holstered his trusty Hammershot and accepted the new weapon. After ensuring that the circular drum was was filled with darts, he cocked the hammer. He studied the few remaining long guns dangling off Carl's shoulders and asked, "Have you had to fight, Carl?"
Carl's gaze dropped down. "When we were first getting started, when we were collecting the guns," he paused and abruptly whimpered, "there were these second-graders. Ike was distracted, so I…I…"
"It's alright," Jimmy assured him. He plucked an Elite Rought Cut shotgun off of Carl's shoulder, handed it to his friend, and said, "Drop the other long guns so we can move better. And use that if you have to."
Carl sucked in a deep crisp breath, nodded in resolution, and racked the fore-end. Together the trio stepped out of the classroom into the school beyond.