The next morning, Michael was up before Max again, casually skipping channels on the TV as he sipped at his coffee. Max took the stairs at a lopping two step gait and smiled as he noticed Michael.
*G'morning, * he thought to his brother in passing, heading for the kitchen. His stomach was making rumbling noises since he had skipped out on dinner the previous night. He quickly poured himself a tall glass of OJ and took a big gulp straight from the bottle as he walked back to the refrigerator. A fresh box of pop-tarts lost two packs as he collected his OJ and walked into the living room.
"Feeling better?" Michael asked, stopping briefly on CNN to catch the sports scores from the previous evening's games.
"Loads," Max said between mouthfuls. "Are we going out to Rocky Fen this morning?"
"Anxious, are we?" Michael smiled.
"I wanna try that Dragonball thing you did yesterday. And I wanna try and lift a rock on my own without killing it."
"Setting high goals, aren't we little brother?" Michael said, draining his coffee. "Aw damnit! Frickin' Bruins lost in OT last night!"
"Bastards," Max said under his breath. "Just watch, they'll find a way to fuck up a perfectly good winning streak… just like the frickin' Red Sox!"
"Yeah, well," Michael agreed, switching the TV off, "I guess we could go out early and get some serious work done out at the Fen. Get your stuff together."
Max downed the last of his OJ and stuffed the remaining half of his second pop-tart into his mouth. The second pack would make a good snack between second and third periods, and so he stashed it in the outer pocket of his backpack.
The drive out to the Fen was short, but Michael and Max both enjoyed it immensely as they cranked up the volume on the radio and sang along with the tunes, badly. They were both laughing and happy when they got to the Fen.
"Okay, little brother. I'll show you the 'Dragonball' thing, but you have to understand one thing. Doing this," he said and instantly his eyes were sparking with energy, a light breeze flowing away from him, "should only be used as a last ditch to protect yourself. I've never had to stop a bullet before, and I'm not sure if I even can. Come to think of it I don't want to even try, but this can push just about anything away from you if you must."
The energy flashed silvery in Michael's eyes and the breeze picked up in intensity and heat. Small stones and bits of cast off litter in the area began skittering away from Michael and he seemed to grow about two inches in height, until Max realized that Michael was actually kicking out enough unfocused energy to actually lift himself off the ground. A slight crackling cascaded around the older boy, further completing Max's impression of Japanese anime superpowers.
Max watched in awe, gasping. "Kewl!" he breathed out.
"Okay, sport, your turn," Michael said, relaxing his powers and coming back to his own feet. The subtle silence of the fen was nearly deafening as Michael turned his sharp gaze back to his brother.
"Um, how do I do that?"
"Simple. First, focus on yourself. Let your mind feel your body from the outside, like you felt that rock yesterday."
Max closed his eyes and let his energy flow, tickling all over himself. He could feel the fleece lining of his ski jacket, the rough bottoms of his Sketchers, and even the loose shoe laces dragging on the ground. His hair stood out, rising with the gathering of static.
"Good, now increase the power on your body focus," Michael said, watching from the hood of the Mustang.
Max nodded and upped the power. His hair stood out higher and he felt his open jacket flaps begin lifting in the breezes that swept away from him. Max opened his eyes and felt his feet lifting. Max nearly panicked. He pointed his toes as he rose, maintaining some contact with the ground. But he lifted up anyways.
"Mike! I'm flying!"
"Not yet you aren't. But you are kicking out enough juice to levitate on your own." Michael looked at small boulder nearby and his eyes focused tightly. The stone jumped up directly in front of Max and hovered there, level with Max's eyes. "He shoots!" Michael said, his voice rising in anticipation. Michael suddenly flicked a finger in Max's direction.
Max almost panicked again as the floating stone suddenly accelerated right at his head. Max's eyes widened in fear, but he never lost his concentration, keeping his body focus powered up.
The boulder smashed into the crackling energy dancing around Max's body, level with his chin, and exploded. Max almost saw the outer layers of the stone peel away as the stone got within two feet of him and then it simply exploded in a shower of shards and granite dust, crushed between Michael's thrust and Max's body focus.
Michael grinned widely as Max looked over still startled and a bit incredulous.
"That was wicked!" Max said, relaxing the body focus.
"And easy, right?"
"Yeah, it was!" Max took in a deep breath and smiled, remembering that the stone hadn't even touched him.
"Now for the hard part," Michael said. "Lift that rock over there, straight up, about two yards."
Max looked over at the rounded stone Michael pointed out. It was immense, easily six feet in diameter, above ground. Much like ice bergs, one couldn't accurately judge how much of the thing was actually below ground as well, or covered by tall grass.
"You must be smokin' crack!" Max cried out, still feeling the adrenaline edge coming on from his body focus defense. "That thing weighs almost as much as the car!"
"Max, you just pulverized about 400 pounds of rock with your weakest, least directed ability. That measly half ton granite pebble should be light enough."
"But Mike, it's gottah weigh like a thousand pounds!"
"It's only a thousand pounds. How much effort do you think it takes to grind granite to powder? I'll tell you this, well over a thousand pounds. You can do this, Maxy."
Max turned and faced the boulder, his eyes frosting over with energy. He took a deep breath and let out a long, low sigh. "Here goes nuthin'," Max said. He focused on the boulder, feeling its edges and curves, the encrusted dirt that banked off the sides, and grew thick with tall grass on its sides.
Once he felt his focus completely cover the giant stone, Max inhaled, and let out his breath slowly, clenching and straightening his fists. He poured his thoughts at the stone, completely filling his consciousness with nothing but the stone. He felt it and knew it and was it. He flooded his power into his focus, surrounding it and feeling its weight.
Breathing tightly, Max raised his right fist, slowly, even with his chest. In his mind, he pictured the stone in his focus point rising in sync with his fist. All sounds were drowned out by the thunder of his own pulse in his ears, the surging rhythm of his own blood, pounding away. No light penetrated the forced closing of his eyes, his concentration intense. The power sang in him, leapt from him, returned to him in a continuous loop.
Michael swore silently, and that subtle use of language managed to penetrate Max's isolated concentration. Max cautiously opened his eyes and looked towards his focus. Then his eyes opened wider in amazement. Michael was at his side, staring up with his mouth open in awe. Max nearly lost control of his focus and had to briefly fight gravity to maintain the rock's position.
The boulder spun lazily in the air, suspended some 12 feet off the ground. He hadn't intended to lift the rock quite so high. But the thing that shocked Max the most was the size of the boulder. The massive stone had only been showing its top quarter above ground. Max had hefted all 25 odd feet of the boulder out of the earth, and the ground had been in an almost frozen state since early October.
"Um, that's not quite two yards, little brother," Michael said in subdued awe.
"I did that?" Max asked, his eyes still as big as dinner plates.
"I'm not doing it, so you must be," Michael replied, his shocked expression turning into one of sly satisfaction. "You've learned a lot in a short amount of time. Can you set her down gently? I don't want anyone seeing that thing floating."
"Uh, I guess. But spot me, in case I screw up and drop it."
The rest of the day flew by, with Max barely taking notice of things around him. He passed a math quiz with a perfect score, but didn't even seem to be phased that he wasn't prepared for it. He went through the routine at Latin class, reciting his lesson as if in a trance. He even seemed to blow through American History like he had wrote the text book.
His entire body still trembled with the energy from the morning training session at the Fen. He felt alive, in tune with nature, focused beyond belief. Everything was easy now, it all seemed simple compared with lifting that rock. The sensation of feeling the rock rise into thin air, supported only by the force of his own mind gave him chills and goose-flesh. He barely acknowledged his friends in the hallways. When lunch came, he eagerly got in line and ordered twice what he normally ate, getting a sly, upturned glance from the lunch lady at the register.
"Mind if I sit here?" a familiar voice asked. It took Max a moment to realize it was his brother. Max nodded, still feeling on edge.
*Maxy, you have to let go of it for a while. People are freaking out,* Michael said, easing in behind his tray. "Eating for two?" he said out loud, to cover his mental conversation.
"Huh?" Max replied, almost shocked to see that Michael was there at all.
"Relax your body focus. You're still on," Michael said, leaning in to whisper.
Max looked into Michael's eyes and realized that something was wrong. His brother had the worried look on his face. Glancing about, Max realized that no one else was within three seats of his table, and several people were giving him weird looks.
"Easy, little brother, just relax the focus and let the energy go down. Leash the Beast," Michael whispered.
"Okay, Mike," Max said and closed his eyes. He looked inside himself for his focus and applied his will to it. "Sleep!" he whispered, clenching his eyes tightly. The sensation of coursing power surging through him receded like an approaching low tide. Max felt his heart beat slowing down, his senses becoming less sharpened. His breathing slowed suddenly, forcing him to sigh through almost chattering teeth.
"Sleep," he repeated once more and felt the focus dissolve entirely. He had leashed his beast again, and now he felt normal. Normal didn't feel as good as with the focus on, however, but it was almost a relief to be normal again. Tension washed away in sheets, like a heavy downpour on angled glass.
Max glanced around, suddenly conscious of the fact that people all around the cafeteria were giving him the occasional long, odd look. Furtive glances that gave him the impression he was some kind of freak. His face flushed suddenly and he hung his head over the remnants of his food. Michael patted him on the back and pushed a milk carton into his hand. Max drank the milk slowly, inhaling the waxy-papery-creamy scent of the carton as it bumped against his nose.
"Better?" Michael asked.
"Yeah. What was that?"
"Your body focus is an almost instinctual power. It comes to you when you get excited or feel threatened. I should have realized that with this morning being your first time consciously using it you might not want to turn it off."
"I felt… idunno how to describe it. It was like everything was…."
"Tweaked? On edge? Supercharged?" Michael offered.
"Yeah," Max replied, getting a worried expression on his face. "Was that a good thing, or a bad thing?"
"Well, chances are you've been unconsciously tapping into your other powers all day. People have been telling me that you've been like a zombie to them, and that you're like a computer in class. You've probably been doing things without even realizing how much effort they normally take. Good thing I got to you before PE. It wouldn't be smart to be setting world records in track while you're just in junior high."
"I guess not. Thanks for talking me down, Mike. I guess I need to watch out for that."
"Felt real good though, didn't it."
Max considered for a minute and then looked over into his brother's eyes. "This is a trick question, huh?"
"Yep," Michael replied, his eyes still intent on Max's. Max knew that he wasn't going to be able to get by without answering. Michael was deadly serious about training and about Max keeping control over his growing mental powers. Max nodded, knowing that it was a question that not only Michael needed to know, but he himself had to answer honestly for his own sake.
"It felt really good. Like I was super-charged and could do anything. Probably could have too, I imagine. But it was creepy too. I was powerful but….um, I guess the best way to describe it would be unfocused, if that makes any sense."
"It does," Michael replied. But his eyes showed that he expected something more.
"Is this the part where I compare leaving the body focus on when I don't need it like using a drug that I don't need?" Max asked, absently playing with the remnants of his mashed potatoes.
"So far you're batting a thousand," Michael prompted.
"And that it can get addictive to use the open body focus when I don't need it, even dangerously so?"
Max sighed loudly, finally feeling his heart rhythm getting back to normal. He could feel the edge of a headache coming on. A full body ache, now that he noticed it. He suddenly felt very tired.
"And because it leaves me feeling drained and tired after using it for too long open like that. And that any major changes in my behavior or alertness because of my powers might get me more noticed and put me in danger."
"Very good," Michael said, raising his own milk for a sip.
"We're becoming a bit paranoid, huh?" Max said, smiling.
*Better cautious than on display in some lab. I'm not done using my body yet; science can't have it!* Michael thought back to his brother. Max simply nodded.
"Speaking of using bodies," Michael said, putting down his milk carton. He rifled though the right back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a carefully folded paper packet. "Message from a friend." Michael said, dropping the not in front of Max's drooping eyes.
A note from Cameron! he thought. Max's eyes flew open wide and he snatched up the note. He opened the cleverly folded packet and folded the note out so he could read it.
I can hardly wait for tonight, I'm so excited. I think we should get some stuff from Market Basket before we head out tonight. Maybe some chocolate and marshmallows and graham crackers, some hot dogs and stuff, make it into a cook out as well as a camp out. I've got about forty bucks so we should be able to swing some supplies.
I hope you bring your appetite. There are many tasty things I want to show you once we get out there.
Max read the note twice through before realizing his brother was talking to him again.
"I said, before you go completely crazy tonight with Cameron, I want to show you something later on. When are you two getting together?"
"Uh, we're gonna meet at the car. Why?"
"Because I don't want either of you getting hurt, and you need to learn something. Okay, you have a free period today, right?"
"Yeah, last period."
"Go to the library. I'll meet you over by the fiction section study cubes."
"Okay, but why, Mike?"
"You'll find out when you get there. Just try to act normal the rest of the day, okay, you're friends are a little worried about you."
"I'll calm them down. I'll just say I didn't sleep well last night and drank three cups of coffee this morning. They'll buy that."
"Okay, I'll see you later, then," Michael said, standing with his tray. Max watched as his big brother left and realized for the first time that Michael had been watching him for a long time. It was almost as if Michael had sensed that Max would need this kind of advice and guidance. Michael himself was more of the independent type. He found things out for himself and took risks when necessary.
Max nodded slowly, folding the note back up and putting it away. I've been the typical kid brother, he thought. Gottah be led around and then shown how, like a tagalong. Well, I'll learn from Mike, but I won't be just a dumb kid brother anymore. Max stood up and took his tray to the trash bins. It's time I took a little more initiative. Mike forged his own trail; once I get my powers under control, so will I!
The phone in the darkened office overlooking the Capitol building in Washington DC rang twice before the man behind the desk lazily drifted his hand out to touch the speaker button. He didn't acknowledge the fact he had opened the line. That was his subordinate's job, to realize that he was listening.
"Sir! We have a positive reading this time!"
"New England. Somewhere in eastern Massachusetts, we think."
"Jesus Christ, Johnson! That's only the third most populous part of the country. Could you be a bit more specific?"
"Not at present, sir. The signal has gone offline. But we should be able to focus a few more satellites in that area and scan more intensely. It was a solid ping. This one is hot sir. Readings were just about off the scale. Next time the…"
"Just do it, Johnson. Whatever resources you need to track the signal down, take them. No matter what those morons at Homeland Security say. And the next time you call me back, I want a search area no larger than a small city. I won't risk my one remaining psychic operative's dwindling sanity by trying to take on the entire state of Massachusetts. Those crazy Yankees probably would drive the poor boy insane just trying to scan through their thoughts with that silly accent."
"Yessir, Dr. Conrad. I'll get right on it."
"You do that," Conrad said, and he turned his chair about in the darkness of his office. He absently clicked off the speaker phone. And once we have another one, we can begin the really tough work, Conrad thought, in the lab.
Max managed to get the hall pass to the library with relative ease, since he wasn't a trouble maker in the study hall and he did have a legitimate reason for going. He told the study hall teacher he was going to do some work on his term paper. As soon as Max entered the library, he scanned with his mind. He felt the familiar pulsing of his brother's thoughts, and even felt them jump slightly at the touch of Max's scan. Smiling, Max walked over to the study cube where Michael had a large reference volume set up with extensive notes already written out in his neat script.
"Okay, I'm here," Max said, feeling somewhat trepidatious. Michael was dead serious about things since Max's power had awakened. He wasn't saying exactly why, but Max had the feeling that it was something he himself couldn't possibly predict or envision.
"Good. Take a seat and get comfortable. We're gonna try to expand that space between your ears a bit."
*How?* Max thought, setting his backpack in an adjacent cube. He sat so that he was facing away from his brother, but so that they were positioned back to back.
*I imagine you and Cameron will be doing something tonight?* Michael thoughtcast, the hint of secondary meanings all but flying from his words. Max suppressed a blush, but couldn't stop the smile. He lowered his head and tried not to think about what he and Cameron might do later that night. Michael nodded slowly, sagely. It was as if he knew what was on Max's agenda, but wouldn't comment about it.
*Well, you know my mind about that already,* Michael said across the link. *And while I know that cautioning you to be careful and only do what you're ready for isn't going to prevent you from trying sex, I do want you to be protected from your own powers. And I don't think you want to injure Cameron in any permanent way either.*
*That's the last thing I'd want to do!* Max replied, his face getting serious.
*Okay then. I once explained to you that sex is going to be different for you because of your powers. You will be able to sense and react to your partner's every emotion and sensation. You'll be able to feel what they feel as well as what your own body feels. You also might accidentally let your own feelings and excitement cross into their mind, doubling things for them as well. That's where the danger comes from.*
*I don't understand,* Max returned. *How can that be a bad thing?* In his private thoughts, however, Max kept returning to the moment he and Cameron had shared the previous night. A mutual and passionate moment that had begun both of them on their new path together. During that moment of passion and joy, Max had inadvertently let Cameron experience everything that Max felt being done to him. His own desire, his own feelings, his own sexual excitement bled through into Cameron's mind at that brief moment. It had been glorious and Cameron had actually cum even though he had only been giving Max head.
Now, because his brother was so serious about it, Max began to worry. What if I hurt Cam and I didn't even know? He thought to himself. His anxiety came across the link to Michael, and although Max knew his brother couldn't get into his mind, he also knew that Michael would undoubtedly be sensing Max's sudden worry.
*Calm down, Maxy. I didn't sense anything wrong with Cameron today in Trig. Whatever you two have already done didn't harm him. I just want to prevent anything that might harm him from happening.* Max sighed in relief, one hand going to his chest as his heart thudded away, slowly ticking back to its normal rate again.
*Now, what I want you to do is remain in this link with me, so that you can see what I am going to do, okay?*
*Okay. This is a precaution I developed after Becky and I split up.*
Through the link, Max suddenly felt a barrier drop across his senses. His vision dimmed, his hearing sounded muffled and distant. His sense of touch was still present but somehow inconsistent. He could still feel the study cube desk under his forearms, but there was the distinct feeling that he was not touching something heavy and solid anymore, like there was a layer of foam cushioning between his skin and the desktop.
*What was that?!* Max thought. Even his mental voice sounded somehow flat and distant, echoing around in the ether.
*I call it Muting. I can mute my own sensory input, or that of others. Now, the reason for this is not to rob you of any kind of sexual pleasure. Quite the contrary. This is so if you see Cam going into a kind of sensory overload shock, you can dull it down and help bring him back.*
*Sensory overload shock?* Max asked as his senses suddenly shot back to their normal acuity.
*Yeah, it's a condition where you get too much input and your brain tries to make sense of it all and shuts down for a while. Babies do it sometimes when they turn away from a touch that they normally go crazy for. Happens with grown people too. You've heard of people coming back from war being shell shocked?*
Max nodded. *So this is a risk if Cameron is getting my sexual feelings and his own at the same time?*
"I just want you to be safe, Maxy," Michael said aloud. "It's a tough world out there sometimes. Finding someone to share that world with is a special gift that most people only get one real shot at." He turned around in his seat and faced Max, Max turning at the same time. "I know what it's like to lose that special person. I don't want you to lose your special person just because you have a talent they could never fully understand or even feel."
Max could feel the depth of Michael's sadness, and knew that his big brother was talking about Becky. Her leaving his life had really cost Michael, Max realized. And it was a cost he would never be able to pay twice.
*So this will help if it gets to be too much?*
*It's something you can do,* Michael responded. *But I don't mean that you should do it first and then explore things with Cam. I just want you to understand. Part of love is a responsibility to the other person that goes beyond your own happiness. If you are truly in love with Cam, as I sense he is with you, then taking precautions for that person is the responsible thing to do.*
Max nearly fell out of the chair. *He told you he was in love with me?* Max said, and even his mental voice squeaked.
*It's not like he's hiding it from me well. I can read minds, you know. But it's more than that. I can see it in how he talks to you, and how he talks about you.*
*Wow!* Max said. *No one's ever been in love with me before.*
*Listen to big brother, then, and don't blow it. He's good people, Max. If you do love him, and I'm not saying you should rush in thinking he is your only chance to find out, but if you do love him, love him enough to take things slowly.*
*Hey, that's exactly what he said the other night,* Max marveled. Across the link, Max could feel his brother smile. Max suddenly frowned, his own eyes going serious. "Mike?"
*Does it make me gay? Wanting to be with Cam, I mean. Feeling things for him.*
"It makes you human, Max. You are who you are, not what you are or what others think you are. You are what you choose to be." Max seemed to sigh through not understanding what Michael meant. *Look at it this way. Is what you feel for Cam just sexual excitement, or do you have feelings for him beyond jack off dreams?*
*That's kinda gross and direct,* Max responded.
"It's the only way you'll figure out the truth," Michael said in a soft whisper. *Sex is only what makes us, or what makes us feel good in the moment. Love is what defines who we are. I could have any girl in school that I wanted, no boasting, and feel nothing for any of them beyond just wanting them, in the sack.*
*But you and Becky,* Max offered tentatively, not wanting to hurt his brother with the memories of his lost love.
*Exactly,* Michael thought with some sadness. *In the end, gay, straight, bi, those are all things that people need to hear in order to classify each other. To figure out where things are in their own heads. If you love Cam and have sex with him, that only makes you Cam's lover. If you want other boys as well, then you are gay. If you love other boys, or even other girls, that only makes you what you already are, Maxy.*
*And what's that?* Max asked, his own mental voice quavering with uncertainty. The answer to this was somehow deeply important to him. Despite what Mike had said about how other people needed to pigeon hole things in their life, he still felt that need himself, especially in order to get a grip on his own feelings.
*My brother,* Michael smiled. *A fellow creature of love, born of love, seeking love.*
"I love you, Mike. Thanks," Max said, smiling. "I don't understand everything you've said, but I think it helped me. I dunno, I might understand it, just can't get my words around it now."
*One more thing will I teach you after you show me you know how to Mute.*
*The opposite of Muting. It can make sex unbelievably intense.*
*Wait, you just told me that it might overload Cam to sense both sides. Now you want me to boost his senses, possibly to overload?*
*Hey, if you're gonna learn, you might as well learn both ways, * Michael said. *It might come in handy in other situations.*
*I'll tell you that later. But we only have a little time left this period, so let's get to work. Let's see you Mute me.*