Castle Roland


by Rilbur


Chapter 5

Published: 8 Apr 14


Copyright © 2012 - 2015 by Rilbur and the Revolutions Universe Partnership.

All Rights Reserved

Thursday Nov 8, 2012, 05:00

Charleston, West Virginia

Resistance LogoMat's eyes snapped open instantly as his phone began vibrating on the desk below him.  Across the room Frank snorted and rolled over in his sleep, not quite disturbed by the quiet buzzing sound.

Mat shook off the covers with a small yawn, then rolled over onto his stomach and stuck his legs off the edge of the bed.  A quick moment's search found the top of his chair, leading his toes quickly to the correct resting place on the edge of his desk.  He'd learned his lesson last year about being careless; thankfully he hadn't earned himself anything worse than a couple of bruises and a minor, if annoyingly persistent, headache.

With practiced ease, Mat shifted his weight to the balls of his feet and let himself finish sliding off the bed, maintaining his balance by holding onto the edge of the frame.  It was an embarrassing position if anyone walked in to take a photo of him with his ass hanging out and post it to Twitter.  Thankfully, Ralph had learned his lesson and wouldn't try that again.  And last year's roommate had learned not to let anyone try that again, not to mention the disadvantage of sleeping in the nude when practical joke time came rolling around. Luckily for him, Mat hadn't posted it to Facebook, just printed out a couple of copies and left them in the lobby. The girls had complained in between giggles, but for all their complaints and exuberant disgust, they certainly didn't avoid the guy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Mat hopped off the edge of his desk and landed in a nearly silent crouch, then quickly scooped up yesterday's pants and pulled them up over his briefs.  He checked that his wallet was still in his back pocket, then nabbed his shirt off the bedpost and headed for the door.

He had the shirt halfway over his head and his hand on the doorknob before he hesitated, stopped, and turned around.  He opened up one of the drawers under his dresser and put his hand on a pair of pocketknives.  It was a long moment's thought before he picked up his good one, the one his father had given him.  'Tool, not weapon,' his father had warned him, but...  A knife really was both.  And today, something told Mat he might just need a weapon.  His good knife not only looked slightly more classy, but it was also larger and much, much sharper than the knife he normally wore.  Gran would throw a fit over him bringing a knife to the breakfast table, but Gran wasn't here.

He clipped the blade on firmly, and slipped out the room to the long, drawn-out sound that sounded like the lovechild of a snort and a snore.  Even with only half the lights on, the hallway was brightly enough lit that he was blinded for a long moment before his eyes could adjust. Down the hall, Sam slipped out of his room just in time to join Mat in visiting the restroom. Their morning ablutions completed, they walked down the hall to knock on the door to Harry and Ralph's room.

Mat hadn't even had time to raise his hand to the door before he heard Harry's firm, exasperated voice. "Yes, this really is the time you asked to be woken up, no you can't have five more minutes, and yes, you really absolutely have to get the fuck up!" Harry ordered, clearly annoyed.

Mat knocked gently, and Harry opened the door. "Hey guys," Harry said as he let them in. "Sleeping Beauty here still needs to be kissed awake, but I'm all out of Prince Charmings."

"Well, there's a solution to that," Mat grinned wickedly, and opened up the mini-fridge that came with the room. He frowned at the small can of beer that his questing hand found first, but decided not to say anything. Not everyone could be expected to hold themselves to his high standards, and he was wise enough to pick his fights. Still, he grinned as he pulled Ralph's chair out from under his desk and hopped up on it. "Wakey wakey," Mat sang softly, giving Ralph one last chance.

One last chance or not, he didn't hesitate long enough to let Ralph recognize the amused edge to his voice. Ralph barely had time to realize something was up before Mat used one hand to pull up on the pillow covering the back of his head. A muffled 'Oh shit!' came out just before Mat applied the beer can to the back of Ralph's neck.

"Fuck!" Ralph swore as his entire body jerked upward, his back arching as he pulled his head up. He quickly flipped off his belly and put his back against the wall, pulling his covers closer. "Fuck man, couldn't you at least have warned me first?" Ralph complained.

"Hrm," Mat replied thoughtfully, grinning at his friend. "No," he replied gleefully, after a moment's thought. "I think you had warnings enough." Mat's grin spread even wider as he realized this was a perfect moment to twit his friend without actually causing a fight. "I mean, I've told you and I've told you," he said in sing song, "that alcohol in your room was just going to get you in trouble!"

Harry and Sam laughed while Ralph growled. "Fine, fine," Ralph complained, wiggling out of his covers. Grumbling, he crawled backwards to the foot of the bed, then made his careful way down the 'ladder' formed by the cross-braces there. It wasn't the best of ladders, but it served well enough as he made his way down. "Breakfast, right?"

"Yeah," Mat agreed. "Breakfast, then we need to start getting ready if we're going to have this protest rolling in time."

"Actually, on that subject you and I need to talk," Harry yawned as he stretched, the explosive sound of his joints popping shattering the morning quiet. "I could use a ride to a place out in town, and sooner would be better."

"Oh?" Mat asked as Ralph slipped into a pair of sweats, then out the door, presumably headed for the restroom.

"Yeah," Harry nodded as he twisted his torso left and right, causing even more popping. Sam still winced at the sound, but Harry and Mat had enough sleepovers as kids and teens that Mat was used to it by now. Both he and his father were just weird that way. Let them sit still for any length of time, and when they started moving they imitated rice krispies by snapping, crackling, and popping. They had adjusted to it by not sitting very still for any length of time, and Mat wasn't even prepared to argue.

"I think I'll let the details be a surprise, but I assure you it'll be a pleasant one," Harry grinned. "Why don't we get ourselves headed out to breakfast?"

"Alright," Mat nodded. "Let's get Kayla, Ralph can catch up with us later."

As matters turned out, Ralph caught up with them just as they entered the girl's wing, quietly descending on their next victim.  Much to Mat's surprise, as he raised his hand to knock gently he heard the muffled sound of Kayla laughing.  "She's already up?" Harry muttered, surprised.

"Hell, I thought her roommate had to head home for a week to attend a funeral," Ralph added.  "So who is she talking to?"

Mat knocked, gently, Kayla's laughter cut out instantly, replaced by a much clearer and extremely upset, "Oh shit!"

The four guys shared another look as they waited for further response.  Mat knocked again, a little louder.

"Just a minute!" Kayla shouted.

"You hardly need to put makeup on for the four of us," Mat replied, just loud enough to be heard through the door.

"I'm dressing!" she retorted, causing the four men to share another long look.  Since when did she bother with anything more anything other than her cutesy pink pajamas to breakfast?  "Just go on ahead, I'll catch up!"

"We can wait," Mat replied, mystified.

"Oh fuck," Kayla swore.  "Fine then!"  The four men were even more shocked by the low, rumbling sound of laughter that followed her comment.  Male laughter.

"Well I'll be," Ralph grinned, salacious comments clearly already forming in his head.  If life were a cartoon, the cartoonist would have drawn him as a goat-legged figure crouched over a pit of flame, cackling as it rubbed its fingers together in pleasure, pitchfork leaned carelessly in the crook of an elbow.  With a goatee, of course, and a mustache both long and curly.

"Maybe we should go ahead and take off," Mat suggested, ignoring the burning sensation in his cheeks.  It wasn't his fault if she'd decided not to save herself for marriage, he told himself firmly, resolutely ignoring the snide snigger emanating from the darker parts of his own soul.  He wasn't better than she was, he simply held himself to a higher standard.

"Oh no," Ralph sniggered as he shook his head, grinning broadly.  "I want to know who managed to melt the Ice Bitch."

"What did you just call me?" Kayla snarled, stepping out through her door, having clearly rushed her dressing beyond even her normal, lax for a woman standards.

Sam dropped his face into the palms of his hands, and Mat distinctly caught the word 'idiot', despite Sam saying it under his breath.

"The, uh, Ice Queen?" Ralph temporized, stepping gingerly backwards.

"Better, but still not good enough," Kayla growled angrily.

"So, uh, who's the lucky fellow?" Harry tried to change the conversation.  Mat dropped his face into the palm of his hand, groaning at the inept attempt to defuse the ticking time bomb.

"Lucky fellow?" Kayla growled, head swiveling like the turret of a tank to zero in on a new target.

"Well, he must be incredibly lucky to have managed to earn the attention of a woman like yourself," Harry replied glibly.

Kayla opened her mouth to snarl, then, closed it with a slight smirk. "Well, at least one of you has a little sense."

"I didn't say anything!" Mat protested, only to become the next target of the tank.  

"Oh really, Mr. 'We'll wait for you'?  You didn't do something at least a little stupid?"

"That was an effort to be polite," Mat complained.

Kayla sighed, clearly rolling that around in her head, prompting Sam to point out, "And I didn't say anything either."

Kayla glared at him for a long moment before sighing. "Fine," she shrugged, then turned her glare back to Ralph.  "You, at least, are still in trouble," she warned him before her door opened back up.

"Um, I'll just..." Rob, the thug from the night before, muttered.

"You-" Kayla whipped around, voice dangerous, to point at Rob. "Are coming to breakfast with us," Kayla finished sweetly, tucking herself under his arm.

Mat could have warned Rob that Kayla being sweet was Kayla at her most dangerous, but he didn't particularly want back on her shit list at the moment. Besides, the syrupy look Rob bestowed on her suggested that the man wouldn't believe the warning, and would likely respond unfavorably in any event.

"Yech, no sugar for my coffee today," Ralph muttered.  Thankfully Rob and Kayla were too busy making little cuddly noises at each other to notice.  At least, that's what Mat thought until Kayla turned to lead the group off.  As she passed Ralph, she shifted her stride slightly to stamp her foot on his.  As Ralph hopped on his left foot, clumsily comforting his right, she strode off happily.

"You know Rob," Kayla commented idly to her new boyfriend, "hopefully that will restore Ralph's appetite for sugar. His disposition needs a lot of sweetening. Right now, every time he tries to talk to a girl, she winds up running for the nearest toilet thanks to the sour taste he leaves in her mouth." OK, maybe Kayla wasn't too busy to notice.

"So, uh, when did you guys meet?" Harry tried to temporize.

"Oh, last night," Kayla replied, slowing down enough to let Harry catch up. "We had a nice discussion about physical fitness last night, and then after you men went to bed, he showed up and offered to take me out for drinks."

"I see," Harry temporized, clearly meaning the opposite.

"I just hope the two of you didn't stay out too late," Mat decided to cut that line of conversation short. "I'd hate to find out you only slept for four hours last night, and need to take naps today."

"Naps are probably going to be necessary," Rob laughed. "They won't substitute for lack of a good night's rest, but we're young enough that we can survive one or two nights worth of..." Rob grunted as Kayla elbowed him hard. "I was only going to say discussing physical fitness, Kaylie," Rob complained.

"Even that is probably too much," she grumbled with a small laugh.

"Let me guess, you only got a couple hours sleep," Mat groused. "Kayla, you wouldn't treat your car engine that way so why do you do it to yourself?"

"It costs me a lot more to fix a car than it does to go to bed early tonight," Kayla answered him through a yawn. "Don't be such a worry-wart."

Mat shook his head in exasperation and let the subject drop. "Fine. Whatever."

Rob laughed as they left the building. "So, you guys all ready for today?" Mat asked.

"Other than that errand I mentioned," Harry replied. "We're lucky, too. They were going to be a surprise for this weekend, but when I called last night, a friend said he'd be able to get them ready to go this morning. All we have to do is swing by."

"This weekend?" Mat asked. "Oh, the paintball game?"

Harry laughed. "You'll learn more soon enough," he promised. "You will drive me, right?"

"Not a problem," Mat agreed instantly. "As long as we can get back by eight."

"All I should have to do is sign some paperwork and load the trunk. We can be there and back in thirty minutes," Harry offered.

"Then we should leave by seven, give us a nice fat half hour buffer," Mat decided.

Kayla laughed at something Rob said, or at least that's how Mat chose to view it. "So is there any news this morning we should know about?" Ralph yawned.

"I haven't had a chance to check yet," Harry yawned back, and Mat found himself infected by the urge to join in. Harry pulled his phone out of its hip holster, and frowned at it. "That's odd, no signal," he grumbled. "Oh well, I can check after breakfast."

They joined the small line in front of the cafeteria and filtered past the register, each swiping their keycards to 'check in' for the meal. Student ID, room key, and meal ticket all in one, the plastic cards saw as much use as a teenager's bottle of lotion. They had to wait a minute as Kayla signed Rob in under her card, then they made their way to the food together. Harry and Ralph, as always, went for the cold cereal, while Sam had some eggs cooked to order. Kayla and Rob got into line for some omelets, and Mat thought longingly about joining them for a moment. Unfortunately, the butter substitute they used in cooking didn't agree with his intestines, and he couldn't afford any emergency restroom trips this morning. Waffles, on the other hand, only took a minute to cook on the irons they had available, and there wasn't anyone else using the irons yet. While he was waiting, he grabbed some bacon and sausage to go with the waffle.

Mat, Ralph, and Harry quickly got their food together and trooped into the cafeteria. Mat snagged a pitcher of maple syrup and sat down with his friends. They bowed their heads for a moment's grace, then in unison grabbed their silverware and began to raven. For a minute or two, the only sound was the clink of silverware and other food related noises. "That was good," Mat commented as he stood up.

"A waffle sounds good," Ralph agreed, while Harry stood up and wandered over to the fruit cart. Mat and Ralph walked back into the serving room and swapped places, Mat getting a pair of fried eggs and considering the french toast sticks while Ralph made himself a waffle. As they walked back out into the dining area, they slowed a little so Kayla and Rob, whose omelets had finally finished, could catch up.

"Already on seconds?" Kayla smirked.

"I'm a growing boy; I need my food," Ralph said virtuously. Mat snorted, knowing full well that if his friend ever had a halo it would be crooked. Horns, on the other hand, would probably suit his figure well.

"Yeah, I'm sure you're growing," Kayla sniffed as she sat down, setting her apple juice carefully beside her veggie-heavy omelet. "Especially around the waist."

Ralph snorted as he resumed ravening. Mat didn't join the conversation, his desire to twit Ralph further far less important than his need to finish inhaling the pair of over-easy eggs on his plate. Washing them down with the last of his orange juice, he picked up his silverware and dishes and carted them off to the back kitchen window, where a worker whisked them away before he could finish setting them down. Harry was waiting for him a few steps away from the window.

"Shall we take off now?" Harry suggested, glancing at his phone.

"I'd like to shower first," Mat replied.

"Alright," Harry agreed as Ralph walked past them to get his own dishes taken care of. They walked in silence until they left the cafeteria, then Harry looked around quickly. "Do you have your phone?"

"Yeah," Mat nodded.

"Can I borrow it?" Harry asked, slipping his own phone back into his holder.

"Sure," Mat handed it over instantly.

Harry turned it on for a second, then grunted. "Whoops," Harry commented as he slipped the battery cover off, then smacked the phone's battery out. "How clumsy of me," he snickered. "Just in case, even if it didn't show a signal."

"What's up?" Mat asked as Harry examined the phone in closer detail.

Harry grunted, then handed it back to Mat. "I wanted to check the model you had. Unfortunately, it's not the right one. I was going to offer to disable the NSA's ability to spy on you through it."

"Disable?" Mat asked, raising an eyebrow.

Harry pulled his phone back out and waggled it back and forth. "I rooted my phone and installed a custom OS on it. Open source, so there aren't any backdoors for the NSA to use. I validated the hash and checked the SSL certs by hand before trusting the OS image, too. The certs were from a German company, so unless Ashwood's hackers are about a million times more capable than I think they are they can't possibly have compromised the download. Since I had to hack around three different firewalls to get outside the US, I suspect they aren't that good."

"Oh, cool," Mat grinned. "So they can't listen in on your phone now?"

"Yup," Harry nodded, pulling his card back out to get them back into the lobby of their dorm building. The lock was unusually stubborn this morning, forcing him to swipe the card several times before the door would open. "Though I'm going to continue yanking the battery if we have a really sensitive conversation, just in case. I own the software, but it's always possible there's something in the hardware, too. I doubt it, given that the phone is manufactured overseas, but..." Harry shrugged. "Anyway, your phone isn't the right model. There were four versions of the phone released, and the Linux build I found last night will only run on two of them. The other two need a different build, and while I did get that build, I don't think it's a clean copy. It doesn't match the hash it's supposed to have, anyway."

"Huh?" Mat asked, eyes crossed.

Harry laughed. "You redneck," he twitted Mat, punching him in the shoulder lightly. "Anything more complicated than a wrench and you get all confused."

"Who, exactly, managed to ruin his car?" Mat pointed out, resisting the sudden urge to throttle Harry. He'd told him and told him, don't go there. Redneck cracks made Mat see red.

"That's not fair," Harry complained. "It's not my fault the stupid thing leaked! I only missed the one oil change, too! Even with a leak, I should have had weeks to deal with the problem!"

"And who exactly ignored the oil pressure light?" Mat added.

"I was driving it to the mechanic to get it checked!" Harry protested angrily. "That's hardly 'ignoring' it!"

"No, but it did manage to wreck the engine beyond repair," Mat pointed out reasonably as Harry unlocked his door.

"I know that," Harry snarled, shoving Mat angrily against the far wall before darting into his door. "Go take your fucking shower," he added before slamming the door shut. Mat snorted. Apparently, Harry was still just a little bit sore. Not that Mat could really blame him, but he'd started it. He knew full well how much Mat hated redneck cracks. Mat had told him often enough!

Card already out, Mat was able to get in his room and out again in seconds. His shower caddy was waiting on its hook right next to the door, along with the towel he tossed over his shoulder. This early in the morning, he had his pick of shower stalls, but he had to start the water going before he undressed if he didn't want ice water. With years of practice, he still managed to strip before the water could quite heat up, but he didn't let that deter him from stepping into the stream and starting his shower.

He wasn't a naval officer, but his family had never approved of wasting water, so he was almost as good as his mother at taking a quick shower. The water warmed up quickly until steam rolled off in waves. Mat felt his muscles relax under the magic ministrations of steam and hot water, which simply let him feel even more guilty about his behavior. For all that Harry had managed to tick him off with the redneck comment, before he'd even gotten into the shower Mat had known full well that he'd been the one who'd fucked up. Harry's car had been a run-down junker whose day had come and gone, but having the engine destroy itself had just about ruined last semester for him. And it wasn't like missing that oil change had really mattered, anyway. They might have noticed his oil was a little low, but no one would have really thought much about it in such an old car. And even if they had noticed, it wouldn't have helped much when the gasket finally blew completely. As soon as he'd turned the engine on, the slow leak turned into a rapid gush, draining every last drop of oil out of the engine in minutes, and by the time anything had been apparent, Harry was already on a busy highway. Just pulling over wasn't much of an option, and the mechanic he wanted was just past the next exit.

It was just bad luck that by the time he'd gotten off the highway, the engine had already done irreparable damage to itself. Really bad luck, but just luck.

Mat sighed as he dried off. There really wasn't much for it, he was going to have to track Harry down and apologize. This was going to be the second time in as many days that he'd have to eat crow, and he hated that taste. Pulling his shirt over his head, Mat thought he heard the door to the restroom open, but didn't pay much attention, at least not until he opened the stall door. "Oh," he managed to say coherently as he nearly ran into Harry.

"Mat," Harry said tersely.

"Harry," Mat replied uncomfortably. The silence stretched out for a moment as they looked at each other, each uncertain what to do.

"I'm sorry," they said simultaneously, then giggled nervously at their echoing each other.

"No, I'm sorry," Mat managed to beat Harry to the punch. "I was out of line. You didn't mean anything by the redneck comment."

"Yeah, but I should have remembered," Harry argued. "I know you hate being called a redneck, and I certainly know what it's like to be called names you don't like."

"Yeah, but you didn't mean anything by it," Mat countered, "and I just let my temper flare up. I deliberately hit a sore point, you just did it by accident."

"I provoked you," Harry responded. "All my fault."

Mat opened his mouth to argue some more, then sighed. Shifting his shower caddy to his left hand, he reached out. "Sorry. Friends?"

"Friends," Harry agreed, taking the hand. "And sorry."

"I'll let you get to your shower," Mat stepped fully out of the stall.

"Thanks," Harry nodded. "Sam asked if he could come along, by the way."

Mat almost groaned. As much as he liked Sam, the guy was a real trial in the backseat. Or shotgun, too. The only thing worse was him driving, if that's what you could call it. "He's not that bad," Harry told Mat, struggling to keep a straight face. "I mean, imagine if Ralph were coming along too."

"The mind boggles," Mat groaned as Harry closed the stall door behind himself. "I'll see you in the lobby in five minutes. Not a second more!"

Mat carefully snuck into his room. Frank didn't stir at all as Mat quietly put his shower caddy away and swapped out flip flops for socks and a pair of real shoes. There was a minor interruption in the logging operation when Mat grabbed his keys, but the noisemaking resumed after a second or two without really disturbing Frank. How as light a sleeper as Frank could sleep through the racket he put out was a constant source of amazement to Mat, and 'proof' for Frank's position that he absolutely, positively did not snore. Mat glanced over at him with a smile before turning to leave, then noticed a blinking light. Wandering over, he saw that Frank's alarm clock was blinking midnight, trying to alert all concerned that the power had failed.

Mat sighed and pulled his phone out. It was still a bit early, but Frank would probably need to be up before Mat would get back. "Hey," Mat said softly, reaching up to grab the edge of the bed. "Wake up," he continued, shaking the bed lightly.

"What?" Frank complained, eyes opening.

"There was a power outage last night, your alarm lost its settings," Mat told him.

"I know," Frank yawned. "I used my phone. The power was out when I went to bed."

"Oh," Mat apologized. "Sorry, shouldn't have woken you."

"It's fine," Frank blinked. "I'll go back to sleep now," he said, rolling over to put his back to Mat.

Taking the hint, Mat turned and walked out the door. Closing the door softly behind him, Mat turned to head to the lobby and froze. With half the lights in the hallway off at night, there were always plenty of shadows to trick the eye and frighten the foolish. The effect was particularly pronounced near the door at the end of the hall, where a light fixture had been damaged and never repaired. And in the shadow at the end of the hall, a malevolent figure waited, crouched in the corner, radiating hostility and hatred.

Normally, Mat would have flatly denounced any suggestion that he'd use such melodramatic language, even in the silence of his own thoughts, but it was the only thing that fit. He wasn't prepared to go so far as the call the figure a demon, but deep in the darkest recesses of his soul something shrieked in religious terror. If this wasn't Satan himself, it was certainly one of his works. The figure radiated pure hatred and rage, anger and despair. Mat could feel the raw power of the emotions, their fiery but unfocused strength almost forcing him back a step. Something in the way the figure held itself, the way it leaned against the wall spoke eloquently of its emotional state.

The figure shifted slightly, as if looking over its shoulder, then opened the door and stepped through it. Mat hesitated for a long moment, then shook off his superstitious dread. "Just the shadows," he muttered to himself. "Just someone taking a moment to check that their fly wasn't down or something before heading out to breakfast." His reassurances sounded flat, even to his ears. He'd felt the hatred, the despairing rage. It had struck him with almost physical force, and that wasn't something you could just shrug off and ignore. With the moment past, he could convince himself readily enough that it wasn't a demon, but the bedrock certainty that he'd seen Satan's handiwork would not pass.

His instincts shrieked contradictory advice at him. His fears insisted he should flee, but his iron-willed discipline insisted even more strongly that he needed to find out who that was. Logic told him he needed to know who it was, but emotion assured him he didn't want to know. He hung between the two imperatives for a long moment before he remembered where he'd last felt that same, unfocused anguish.

Decision made, he jogged towards the lobby. Unfortunately, by the time he got there, whoever it was had managed to vanish. He hadn't waited long, but he'd waited just long enough. Mat closed his eyes as he mentally whipped himself. It had taken him far too long to recognize that the rage, the hatred, the despair, was self-directed. It had felt familiar because he'd felt it himself just last night, if not as strongly.

Whoever it was was internally conflicted, and needed help. Needed an outside viewpoint to help break the logjam that they'd caught themselves in. And whatever else Mat was, he couldn't see such pain, such despair, and not reach out to lend a helping hand. It was a Christian's highest duty to comfort the sick and dying, to ease pain wherever he saw it. Those who sought to follow in Christ's footsteps could do no less. And Mat had let his superstitious fear, an early morning willingness to indulge in fantasy, interfere with that imperative.

Mat sighed, and let up on himself. It was early in the morning, and the sheer strength of emotion whoever it was had projected had taken him by surprise. Even at his best, Mat would have hesitated to wade into such a storm, and the early morning, with darkness still pressing around and a mind still half-asleep was not him at his best.

Whoever it was would get the help they needed. No one could see such pain and not be moved. Remove the shadows, the darkness that had twisted and concealed, and the pain would be obvious. And whatever his opinion of the quality of college students at UCWV, Mat knew full well they weren't evil. Weak, misguided, foolish, stupid, an entire gamut of negative pejoratives... But never evil.

"Hey," Ralph said, walking around the corner, mail in hand. Mat hadn't even noticed him there, thanks to the way the mailboxes were tucked into a corner formed by the currently empty lobby office.

Mat nearly hit his head on the ceiling he jumped so hard, and it was all he could do to keep himself from hitting Ralph in the face as he came down. Heart pounding, he took a deep, cleansing breath. "Hey Ralph," he said, trying to keep his breathing calm.

"You ok?" Ralph laughed.

"You startled me is all," Mat excused himself.

Ralph snorted. "Don't think this counts as revenge for the way you woke me up this morning," he warned. "But I suppose I can understand why you'd be so easily startled. It's a big day today, and the morning feels..." Ralph hesitated. "Nevermind," he said dismissively.

"No," Mat shook his head, "I know exactly what you mean." It was part of why Mat had spooked so readily. There was a feeling in the air, and it was just like Ralph to put his finger right on it without even trying. If this had been a movie or something, Mat would have said something pretentious, like 'a red dawn rises', but this was real life. He'd settle for simply acknowledging that this morning felt scary. Like the universe was waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Even if it does sound silly to say it out loud."

Ralph nodded. "I'll see you guys when you get back from your trip."

Mat nodded, then walked over to the lobby entrance. The early morning gloom was giving way to the half lit twilight of dawn, and he shivered, wishing he'd grabbed a coat. The cold radiating off the glass panes of the door wasn't that bad, but it looked cold out there. Sure, he'd already gone out there and it wasn't all that cold, but now that the sun had actually begun shedding its light, it looked colder out there than it was.

Mat hadn't been waiting long before Sam joined him. "Aren't you going to shower?" Mat asked, not even turning to face his friend.

"Already did," Sam told him. "You feel it too, don't you?"

Mat considered, briefly, temporizing on the subject. "Yeah," he said after a moment. "I was just thinking about it. Like the entire world is waiting for the other shoe to drop."

Sam sighed. "Damn. I'd hoped I was imagining things."

"We probably are," Mat told him. "We know that we're planning to run risks today. To do things that we'd call stupid if we were older, less certain of our immortality. It's funny. My mother always told me about how kids my age are certain of their immortality. She didn't exactly joke about it, but she wanted me to be aware of it. Of the effect it has on how I think. I always thought she was absurd. Of course I know I can get killed. But then last night... when I realized we forgot to turn off our phones..." Mat shook his head. "I finally began to understand. And instead of hesitating, instead of taking the time to think things through, five minutes later I had a shovel in hand and was digging for all I was worth." Mat laughed, the sound flat and empty. "I still think they won't get me. That they can't catch me. That I can't die. I'm too young for that." Mat's words could have been derisive, insulting. If he'd been addressing them to someone else they would have been. But self-addressed, they were merely thoughtful. Filled with wonder at his own stupidity.

"You're too young to be that wise, man," Sam shook his head. "What do you do, take old juice in the mornings?"

Mat laughed, the sound dispelling the gathering gloom. "I listen, I think, I try to apply the dribs and drabs of wisdom my elders have shared with me. That's all."

"I'm going to stick with asking you to share the old pills," Sam told him, laughing. "Or maybe not, I don't want to get wrinkles like yours."

"Wrinkles?" Mat asked, turning to face him. "I don't have wrinkles!"

"Or your gray hairs," Sam continued, managing to keep a reasonably straight face. "I mean, you've grown like three of them since last night."

"I have not!" Mat protested, grinning. Sam's jocularity finally shredded the last of the morning's gloom, turning the shadows outside back into mere shadows. They joked back and forth for a few minutes before Harry showed up.

"You guys ready to go?" Harry asked.

"Yup," Mat nodded. "Where we going, anyway?"

"I'll give you directions," Harry told him. "It's a small electronics shop on the edge of town. I got them to do a custom order for me."

"A custom order?" Mat asked, waving his hand in front of the door to open it. The door slid open, allowing a blast of the autumn air to hit them. "Isn't that expensive?"

"The shop owner owes me a few favors," Harry responded. "Actually, his son owes me favors. A lot of them. I helped him out in some of his introductory courses, and I'm still helping with more advanced coursework. The old man really, really, really wants his son to follow in his footsteps. Enough that he doesn't begrudge doing the occasional odd job for a future employee."

"Future employee?" Sam asked, surprised. "I thought you were going to try and keep going with the library for a while."

Harry laughed. "Future as in after I graduate."

"Oh," Sam blinked. "Wow. You've already got a job lined up?"

"I thought you were going to be some kind of engineer or another," Mat commented, taking the lead as they approached the parking lot. "Isn't it awfully early to give up on that?"

"Electronic engineer," Harry agreed, "and who said I was giving up? The deal requires me to keep up with my coursework and get certification after I graduate, but the guy in question wants good engineers, not just ones that can do the job. He thinks I qualify, or will once I've had a chance to grow a little."

"Wow," Mat grinned. "You should have told me. I would have arranged a party!"

"That," Harry laughed, "is exactly why I wasn't going to tell you. Under the circumstances, though, I don't think I'd be able to avoid it for much longer."

"So," Mat asked as he unlocked the passenger side doors. "Sam, in the back!" he ordered harshly as Sam moved for the shotgun seat. Sam pouted a little, then slid in where he was ordered. "And no backseat driving," Mat added when he opened the driver's side door.

"Why'd you put him back there then?" Harry quipped as Mat got in.

"The forlorn hope that if he didn't see as much of the road, he'll be less prone to giving useless advice?" Harry asked.

"Useless, he calls it?" Sam laughed. "Not my fault I'm a better driver than you are."

"That is debatable," Mat ground out as he started the car. Turning around in his seat, he was treated to the sight of a large grin on Sam's part.

"Oh, I don't know," Sam said thoughtfully. "Harry, your opinion, please? Is it really possible that my being a better driver than him is my fault, not his?"

"Hrm," Harry pondered as Mat forced his face not to show the slightest trace of the laughter that fought to escape him. "Well, I suppose technically both parties are involved. You did spend time learning to be better than he did, so some responsibility definitely lays on both of you. But since the word 'fault' is used, and means there's some sort of blame to go around, I'd have to say the party that didn't spend time working on his skills would be the one who was 'at fault'. So I guess I'd have to come down on your side of things. It's completely his fault you're a better driver."

"Not, helping!" Mat snapped, putting the car in forward and carefully giving it gas until the speedometer hit ten miles per hour.

"You know, you can go fifteen in a parking lot," Sam pointed out, leaning forward to check the speedometer.

"Yes, I know," Mat responded. "I prefer ten. Just to be safe."

Harry couldn't resist and just started laughing as the two of them started their usual game. Still, when Mat didn't gun the car up to the speed limit to catch the light before it turned yellow, he'd had enough. "You know, we are in a bit of a hurry," he commented as they waited for the light to turn green.

"There's always enough time to drive safely," Mat pronounced innocently. "However, your point is taken and I shall endeavor to apply all reasonable precautions as well as all reasonable efforts to move more quickly."

"Oh my, we might actually reach the freeway before we die of old age," Sam quipped.

Thursday Nov 8, 2012, 11:03

Charleston, West Virginia

Mat eased his way through the crowd, listening to its noise like a doctor checking a pulse. If it was a pulse, it was slow and steady, but very, very firm. Angry, but not worked up about it at the moment. Which wasn't much of a surprise, as Mat hadn't given a speech in nearly an hour. Touching his thumb to the tip of his forefinger, Mat brought the contacts on his radio control glove together. How it worked he couldn't even begin to explain, but Harry had pulled a real miracle out of his hat this morning. "Anything I need to hear about?" Mat asked softly, trusting the headset to pick up his voice over the crowd.

Harry's reply came across the radio with crystal clarity, despite the fact that the signal was apparently 'untraceable'. Something to do with randomly changing frequencies and low power transmissions. The clarity was also helped by the fact that the noise of the crowd around Mat was suddenly hushed in favor of Harry's voice, the headset doing some kind of 'active sound damping' to help Mat focus on the communication. "The crowd appears to still be growing, but the rate of growth is slowing. One of the volunteers is monitoring the public police bands and caught a scrap of chatter about people leaving. My best guess is that we still have people coming in at more or less the same rate, it's just that people are starting to leave as well."

"Alright," Mat replied in a voice just above a whisper, careful to enunciate clearly. The miracle device Harry had handed out could help tremendously with amplifying his voice, but it couldn't do a thing to fix his pronunciation if he didn't say a word right to begin with. "I think it's just about time to turn the heat up."

"Agreed, but..." Harry's reply was hesitant. "I spent a little while listening to the radio bands myself. Something's wrong."

"And that's a surprise how?" Mat replied icily. "I think we kinda knew something was wrong ever since we got back in time for the power to go out again." That had been an extremely unpleasant surprise, to say the least. Kayla hadn't seen fit to mention the fact that the power was out all night until just before they got up, but when the power went out again before the morning was even well started she'd managed to curse up a storm. Thankfully that didn't appreciably interfere with getting the radios handed out, though they were going to need to change batteries sometime in the next hour or two. Alas, the stupid things didn't take regular AA or AAA batteries, something Harry was still kicking himself for overlooking.

Still, Mat wasn't going to complain. Harry's radios were a miracle enough in their own right that one or two minor details wasn't worth complaining over. At least he'd designed the batteries as external units from the start, something that could be changed out quickly and easily. Better yet, he'd gotten four times as many batteries as there were radios, so at least they could change them out often, even if they couldn't recharge the batteries until the power was restored.

"Do you have anything other than cold feet?" Mat asked Harry, trying to be more pleasant.

"I don't think it's just cold feet. The cops have mentioned at least three other rallies, but as far as I can tell, they aren't even trying to keep an eye on them, much less break them up," Harry responded, plainly ignoring Mat's first question. "That is not procedure, and we both know it. They should be monitoring them at the very least, with a visible presence on the ground. Do you see anyone in uniform?"

"Three campus police officers, but one of them is clearly trying to enjoy an early lunch, and another is just passing through. The third is the one usually stationed near the entrance to the student store," Mat responded instantly. He'd been in the free speech area during one or two other rallies, and there was always more cops on duty than this. He just hadn't put that together with the fact that the regular police were missing... And apparently this wasn't the only rally they were missing out on. "Shit. I get your point. This stinks."

"I'm trying to find out more, but... One moment," the line dropped dead as Harry left the conversation. Mat glanced around the rally, remembering this morning when it had started. They'd gotten back in plenty of time, and after Harry had shown off his toys, they'd moved out into the lobby. Their fellow students had begun trickling in at seven, an hour before the rally, and Mat and his friends had discovered that for once, the morning news had most definitely been worth watching.

President Asswood -- even in the privacy of his own thoughts, Mat had begun to put a derisive emphasis on the mispronounced first syllable -- had declared martial law, shut down business, and tried to order everyone to stay at home. He'd spouted some bullshit about election fraud, but after the last several months, the leopard's spots were pretty well-known to everyone. Asswood talked a good game, but at this point no one would believe him if he announced the sun rose in the east. At least, not without checking for themselves. His assertions had simply pissed the students off further, which fit perfectly for Mat's plans. They had to make noise, and lots of it. Congress would act eventually, but they needed to put as much pressure on Congress as possible to get the ball rolling, make as many waves as they could to help make it clear that Bryce had the support of the people, not Asswood. Asswood deserved a firing squad for his actions, and Mat damned well intended to be a cog in the machine that put the bastard in front of one. Maybe not an important cog, but every bit helped.

Still, even when everyone agreed that Something Had To Be Done, the discussion mounted steadily in both temper and volume. Combine that with more and more students showing up, and it took less than fifteen minutes for an RA to show up, wearing only a robe belted tightly at her waist. A single shrieking whistle cut through most of the noise, and lowered the volume enough for the girl to be heard over the sound of the room as she bellowed "Yo, idiots!"

The room fell dead silent as everyone turned to face her, anger on every face. "In case you were unaware," she told the room icily, "this is a dormitory, not a bar. People are still trying to sleep, and until about five minutes ago that included me. Furthermore, as a safety precaution the office has ordered that there will be no public gatherings of more than five people at a time, and I happen to know that's posted on the notice boards in each stairway and hall. And even if you went and undid my hard work by tearing those down, I can see it's still right there on the door."

Mat glanced over at the door and saw the paper. He'd seen it earlier, but he rarely actually noticed the announcements. They were usually silly, and not too terribly important. Still, restricting the right to gather? What was the administration thinking?

"I'll admit, it's a stupid order," the RA continued. "I don't care for it myself. But it's a valid order from the school, and you will obey it. No public gatherings of more than five people are allowed in the dorms." Mat felt his ears perk up at the slight emphasis she placed on the final clause of that statement, and he flicked his eyes over the announcement. Yup, it was restricting gathering in the dorms. Very specifically the dorms. And while Mat was already quite certain there were similar orders posted almost every other place on campus, there was one place the campus bylaws explicitly disallowed such things. The free speech area was required, by campus regulations, to be available to all. The only restriction was that it had to be available to everyone. If a second rally showed up, then the first had to make room for them. In theory the platform could get pretty crowded, but Mat hadn't ever seen more than two groups there at one time, and that rarely. Well, rarely unless you counted counter-demonstrations, but that was really one event with two sides.

"Alright," Mat pitched his voice to carry. "We won't make any trouble for you, ma'am."

"Thank you," she inclined her head graciously. "I suggest all of you head back to your rooms then."

"Oh no," Mat smiled. "I think it's time to head out to the free speech area, just a little early."

"I don't think you're supposed to do any gatherings," the RA responded dryly, "but as long as they aren't in the dorms, I'm not required to take notice of them." She smiled softly, and for a moment Mat could swear he saw her left eye droop ever so slightly as if about to wink. Then the moment passed, and she left the room.

"Alright everyone, let's head out to the free speech area," Mat ordered. "If you're willing to stick around all day, line up at the door. We've got some equipment to hand out. Otherwise, just head straight to the speech area, and we'll join you shortly." Mat waited a minute for the bulk of the students to file out, then nodded sharply. "Once you're given your gear, head outside and wait. We'll show you how to use it once everyone has theirs."

"Please do me a favor and do not try to connect the parts yourself," Harry added in. "I'll explain how the parts connect once everyone has theirs. Do feel free to pull the gloves on and clip the other parts to your clothing, but don't try to wire them together until I explain which cord goes in which port."

While Harry was giving his orders, Mat grabbed Sam and Kayla and pulled them over to where Harry was already getting his boxes set up. "One headset, one battery, one radio, and a pair of connecting cords each, right?" Mat asked.

"Yeah," Harry nodded, annoyed. "I wish I'd had a chance to finish assembling more than three of them."

"Give these guys disassembled units," Mat ordered. "Kayla will hand out the radio, Sam will hand out the battery, I'll hand out the headset. You give the connecting cords. One each as people file past." As Mat talked, Jeremy began backing the line up. Once he had the start of the line where he wanted it, Jeremy turned to Kayla and gave her a little half-bow. She handed on a radio, which Jeremy ostentatiously clipped to his belt before taking the headset, which he quickly put on in an equally showy manner. The line behind him took the queue, and quickly began to file past, walking out the door with just the connecting cables in hand, and the rest of the gear attached to their clothing. It slowed things down a little, but watching people fumble with the procedure, Mat rapidly realized the genius of Jeremy's last-minute innovation. If people had this much trouble clipping just one part on, imagine trying to do it while juggling the other parts!

All too soon, the end of the line filed past, leaving Harry with a half-dozen spare sets. He quickly condensed them down to a single box and set that on top of the box of batteries. Mat took the boxes away from him, then led the way outside. "Thank you again everyone for coming out today," Mat announced, pitching his voice to carry. "I know you all have other things that need doing, and that it requires a sacrifice to be here."

"Sacrifice hell," someone shouted back, "between classes being cancelled and the power being out, there's not a lot else to do today!"

Mat half-heard a rather obscene reply about what else the first individual could do with -- or to -- himself, and shook his head as the entire crowd laughed. "Alright, calm down, calm down," Mat asked them. "What we're doing here is important. Too important to waste time bickering back and forth about alternative ways to spend our time. However entertaining those alternatives might be. I'll go over the rest of our plans in a minute, but first Harry is going to walk you through how to get the devices we just gave you set up."

As if timing his return to Mat's recollections, Harry broke in just as Mat's mental replay of the morning had him starting his explanations. Mat cleared his head by shaking it, returning to the present. "Sorry about that. The volunteer I have on radio heard something interesting."

"Define interesting," Mat ordered.

"Someone started chattering about a military unit on the edges of town, then was promptly shut up by command," Harry replied. "Looks like whatever is going on, they're only supposed to use encrypted channels to discuss it. And I don't have the equipment to track those."

"Military unit?" Mat frowned. "What kind of unit?"

"From the sounds of it, I think it may have been some kind of hazmat unit," Harry answered. "At least, there was mention of gas masks, and I can't think of any other type of unit that would be deploying with those."

"Wouldn't a hazmat team have full suits?" Mat asked. Harry didn't reply, clearly thinking it over. "All right, we'll discuss it later. It's just about time for a speech. Feed me what I need to know."

"Will do," Harry replied instantly. Mat swapped channels to general broadcast, the required gesture familiar after a morning of using the glove Harry had provided. "All right everyone, just about time for a speech. Spread out, be ready to act as my microphone if needed. You have about five minutes to get into position. Feel free to start talking the people's mic up a bit. The more people who understand the concept, the better. And if someone else beats me to the punch, let them."

Mat mused on how useful the fa- With a wince, Mat stamped his initial thought down. Jeremy had proven to be incredibly useful. In addition to his experience with the local GSA, Jeremy had been involved in a couple of other protests recently, and had brought in more than a few useful ideas.

The protest had been running for nearly half an hour, and Mat had decided it was time to get up and make another speech. Others had gotten up and spoken, but it was like Mat was the only person on campus who'd bothered to stay awake through any of the speech courses. They mumbled. They meandered around their actual point. They tried to draw connections and then gave up halfway through. They used overly simplistic language, or rapidly drowned the crowd's interest in a cloud of verbiage. And not a single fucking one of them knew how to speak up!

But with the protest running in full force, the sound it put out was rapidly becoming a physical, tangible force. Mat got himself up on the platform with every intention of waiting out the current speaker's turn, but as soon as the speaker saw him come up, she broke herself off and gestured for him to take center stage. As soon as he did, Mat realized he was in over his head. The noise was loud enough that even his stentorian bellow wouldn't be heard more than a few feet away. It would simply be yet more background noise, a part of the rising tide of humanity that had gathered here today.

Jeremy, at the head of the crowd, saw Mat hesitate. Darting up, he stood beside Mat and surveyed the crowd for a long moment before cupping his hands to his mouth and shouting, "Mic check!" He repeated that once or twice before something echoed back. Then more echoes on the third and fourth, and then the crowd's noise began to die down. "Ladies and gentlemen!" Jeremy bellowed, only to have the words bellowed back at him.

"I give you!" was the next phrase to go out, followed by "Over the people's microphone!" Short phrase by short phrase, Jeremy worked his way through a short speech. Unfortunately, 'short' didn't mean 'quick' when you had to wait for people to shout your words back to you. "The man who brought us here today! The man whose anger! Whose thirst for justice! Whose drive and determination! Whose raw will has gathered us! The man who will see Ashwood brought down! I give you! Matthew Peterson!" Jeremy pointed at Mat, then backed off the stage as the crowd went wild. The only person who could see his exaggerated wink was Mat, who stood taller and surveyed the crowd again.

Mat couldn't really remember the rest of the speech he'd given. The necessity of the people's microphone had forced him to toss aside his planned speech, focusing on a different form of expression. Short phrases, shouted back and forth across the crowd. Shockingly, it worked. It didn't just work, it worked well. Over the course of the day, there had been occasional efforts by someone to shout him down. Those efforts didn't simply fail, they backfired as even the people who might have just listened to him joined the thunderous roar, his words repeated by so many throats that nothing human could possibly overcome them all. He'd tried to give a speech every twenty minutes or so at first, but now was giving it a good hour's break between speeches. And despite the growth of the crowd, his face was still recognized. Last time he'd stood up, the current speaker had again just bowed out, willingly giving him their space. He smiled, knowing that this was his protest. It was a heady feeling.

Still, it was just about time for his next speech. Mat began rehearsing the words in his head as he worked his way up to the free speech platform. Surprisingly, it turned out someone else was already using the people's mic. Mat began to smile at how much easier that was going to make his job in a moment, but then the words began to penetrate. For all that he'd been cold, derisive, and even outright dismissive of Asswood, Mat had drawn some very careful lines in his own speeches. Lines the current speaker was crossing with gleeful abandon. "The blood of the innocent has been spilled! We demand the blood of the guilty in vengeance!" For all that the pulse at the edges of the crowd was slow and even, the closer Mat got to the free speech area the harder and hotter it grew. This wasn't right. This was outright wrong. "Mat, we've got a problem," Harry cut in suddenly. "The volunteers near the free speech area just started reporting in. The guy who's currently speaking-"

"I can hear him," Mat cut in. "Well, the people's mic of him anyways. Bloody minded bastard, isn't he."

"He's whipping everyone that can hear him into a frenzy," Harry agreed. "From the sounds of it, things are going to flash over into a riot soon. I don't know where the hell this came from. I'm sorry, I know it was my job to let you know-"

"Harry," Mat cut him off. "You let me know as soon as it became clear something was happening. That's the best we can ask for. Get Jeremy in here."

"Jeremy, got a moment?" Harry asked after a second's pause.

"Not really, trying to get myself into position to shut down a bastard who's misusing the people's mic," Jeremy replied angrily.

"That's what I wanted to ask about," Mat told him, beginning to force his way through the crowd. There was an art to using the crowd's Brownian motion to navigate, but it was a slow art, and Mat didn't have time. Instead, he turned sideways and applied his shoulder to the problem at hand. "That idiot is whipping everyone up into a frenzy, and if we don't shut him down we're going to have a riot on our hands. Ideas?"

"If I can get into position, I'm going to mic-check him," Jeremy replied. "Basically, start my own speech up while he's trying to do his. Let's see who the crowd prefers."

Mat nodded sharply. "Good idea, but you haven't been getting the same response I have today. People listen to you, they shut everyone else up so they can listen to me. Warm my audience up for me."

"Alright," Jeremy sighed. "Get everyone in position that you can."

"Going broadcast," Mat agreed. "Heads up everyone," he announced. "We've got a problem. Some idiot is trying to turn this protest into a riot, and I have no intention of letting that happen. Get your asses to the free speech area. We're going to mic check him. Jeremy is going to start calling mic check, then introduce me. By then, I should be in position to hop up and really get the ball rolling. Help him get the mic check going. Do not, I say again, do not support this idiot's people's mic. Talk over it. Ignore it. Don't try and actively shout it down, but don't help it. Let me and Jeremy be the faces here. Jeremy... Go!"

Jeremy pushed his way up onto the platform. Mat couldn't hear a word of it, but he could just barely see Jeremy's mouth moving, calling out desperately for a mic check. The rumble of the crowd shifted oh so slightly, but not enough. Mat could sense more than see the other volunteers hauling ass, doing their own imitation of icebreaker ships as they pushed through the crowd to support Jeremy. But if anything, the blood and violence speech grew louder, grew stronger.

Two or three men broke free of the crowd and tried to pull Jeremy back into it, but he stood tall and shrugged them off, still calling out his mic check. By now, Mat could hear the responses to his effort as volunteers and a few more steady-minded members of the protest began to support him over the other speaker. Mat and his friends weren't the only people who could see what was happening, and Mat felt his heart swell with pride. Clearly, there were more people with sense in this crowd than you'd think. Humanity wasn't a hopeless, bumbling idiot. But it wasn't enough, Mat knew. It bought time, it helped slow things down, but it couldn't stop what was happening.

Still, he was almost there. Just another minute and he'd be able to shut that idiot down before he hurt anyone. Mat crouched lower and let his shoulder hit harder as he pushed his way through the crowd. Almost there. Just a few people-

Mat stumbled back a step or two as he was halted, completely, by the last line of people. Shaking his head, he pushed forward again, only to be rebuffed again. They weren't busy listening to the speech, this wasn't a passive obstacle, this was deliberate. He didn't recognize any of the faces, but he could tell that they were ready and waiting for him to try again.

His eyes drifted over the face of one in particular, and froze for the barest of instants. He knew that man, but from where? Mat shook himself and focused on the here and now. Wherever he knew the man from, it wasn't important. What was important was the fact that he wasn't going to let his protest get turned into a riot. "I'll get you through," Kayla murmured from his side. Mat glanced over and smiled. "Didn't see you there."

"We just got here," she told him, shifting over to his other side. "Rob, on three." Rob shifted in from the crowd behind where she was standing.

"If we can manage it, no violence," Mat ordered. "Just push through. Stack up, Rob in front, then me, then Kayla. I'll push Rob through, then Kayla make sure I get through before they close up."

They reorganized instantly, then began moving. Rob's sheer bulk was the key. The line of men trying to stop them might, might, have been able to stop Rob alone, but his size and strength would probably have been enough to push through on its own. With Mat pushing for all he was worth and Kayla adding her own indomitable will, they hit with the smashing force of a train, shattering the line. Jeremy was nowhere to be seen, clearly 'escorted' off the stage, but Kayla and Rob stood on the first step and ran interference for Mat as he turned and bellowed at the top of his lungs. He drew deep on every last reserve, shouting loud enough that he could feel something in his throat begin to give. "Mic check!"

Instantly, a dozen other voices joined his, rumbling back, "Mic check!"

"Mic check!" Mat repeated, and this time dozens of voices joined in, actually drowning out the speech of the man to Mat's left. "Mic check!" Mat called one final time, and the crowd as a whole shifted. Mat could feel it from the crown of his head to the toes of his feet as the focus of the near-riot changed.

"Justice!" he called. "Justice!" he repeated for good measure. "We don't want revenge, we want justice!"

Mat ignored his competition's response, just waiting out the moments as his own microphone relayed his words. "We cannot bring back the dead! The children who fell at Breckenridge are gone! Their parents are gone! Their brothers, their sisters, their friends are all gone! We can only cry out one word! Justice! Justice, I say! Justice is our cry!"

Below him, Rob and Kayla were overwhelmed, and men moved forward with violence in their eyes. But behind them, more people surged forward, their rage redirected in an instant. The men who wanted to 'escort' Mat off the free speech platform were grabbed from behind, and found themselves bodily ejected by the crowd. Mat's crowd. He'd circulated through it all day. He'd spoken again and again. Even those who hadn't seen him yet moved to defend him, spurred forward by those who had. This could have been a spontaneous outpouring of rage, but Mat's actions the night before, Mat's co-ordination this morning and over the course of the day, had refined and directed it. This was his crowd now, and he reached out towards that and grabbed hold with both hands. "Don't let Ashwood win," he begged. "Violence begets violence. Sometimes, violence is right. Sometimes, violence is necessary. But for now, rule of law! Let the rule of law have its chance! Destroy him with the rule of law! The rule he has so gleefully discarded! Show him the power of the law! Bring him down with it!"

"And as for you!" Mat turned and pointed at his opposite number as the crowd rumbled his accusation. "You are not wanted here. Begone."

"Like hell I'll leave," the man snarled.

"Begone," Mat repeated, and the crowd rumbled it with him. The man looked nervously at the crowd, then back at Mat. "Begone. You are not wanted here."

Slowly, the man began to give ground. "Begone," Mat repeated, praying the man wouldn't push the point much longer. Mat couldn't back down without losing the crowd, and he refused to do that. He refused to let this idiot turn the crowd into a riot. Even if that meant letting the crowd turn into a riot. There was a difference between charging out to tear down every government building, and ripping one idiot into shreds. Either way, there would be blood shed. Either way there'd be trouble. But at least this would minimize the damage to the efforts to get Asswood removed from office.

Finally, the man stumbled back into the crowd. "Let him go," Mat ordered, letting the heady feeling of his power fill him. "Let him go." He looked out over the crowd, quiet for a long moment as he processed what had just happened. "Thank you," he told the crowd after a long moment. "I am arrogant. I called this my protest. My rally. That's not right. That's not true. It's yours. This is your rally! This is your protest! A protest against Ashwood's violence! A protest against Ashwood's tyranny! Thank you. Thank you all for making it a worthy one! Don't let hatred destroy that!"

"Hate Ashwood! Hate his works! Fight him! But don't become him!"

Mat closed his eyes and let his head drop, as if weary. "And don't let anyone make you into him," he ordered, then stepped down from the stage. Instantly, Kayla and Rob were there. "Harry, I need to know if I defused this riot."

"Checking," Harry responded, even as the crowd began to surround Mat. When they'd first done this, Mat had just about freaked out, but now he was used to it and shook hands and exchanged small talk with all the aplomb of an experienced politician. "Looks like the riot's completely defused," Harry came back after a minute. "Word on the street is that we need to do this non-violently if at all possible. Something about 'rule of law' is getting repeated a lot too. There's definitely some chatter about violent methods, but only as a fallback position."

"I did it then," Mat murmured to himself.

"That you did," Harry agreed.

The crowd was finally relaxing around Mat, and he took the opportunity for a quick breather. Looking around, he saw a familiar face again. One of the men who'd tried to keep him from defusing the riots was alone in the crowd for a brief moment, and Mat saw the unmistakable outline of a firearm tucked away under his coat, at the small of his back. Mat's eyes snapped upward as the man turned, and this time Mat wasn't distracted by the need to diffuse a riot. He didn't just recognize the face. He placed it. "You," he snarled, unaware that he was still broadcasting.

"What's wrong Mat?" Harry came in instantly.

"It's him" Mat almost snarled, body vibrating with the rage coursing through his body. But how? It didn't make sense! The bastard wasn't even up for parole until next week! And more than that, how would a felon get a hold of a gun? That wasn't exactly legal, either. "He's here, Harry," Mat hissed. "The fucking bastard is here. Free. A week early. He's here. And armed."

"He who?" Harry asked. "And what do you mean a week-" Harry cut off as he suddenly understood. "Holy shit. I'm calling Dad."

"Mat. Out," Mat spat into his headset, then dropped it to hang around his neck. "Kayla," he growled.

"Yes?" she responded.

"He's mine," he ordered through the red haze. "You don't get involved. Understand?"

"Who's yours?" she asked. "What's going on?"

"Stay out," Mat hissed. "Just stay out of it. Or so help me I will break your neck myself."

"No one addresses me like-" Kayla began to reply angrily, but Mat just began to move forward. "Hey, wait a second!"

"Andrew McClarence!" Mat thundered once he was close to the man. Behind him he heard Kayla hiss in sudden understanding.

Andrew turned, running his hand through his close-cropped brown hair as if to brush nonexistent bangs out of his eyes.

"Do I know you?" he asked, voice almost melodious. "Have we met?"

"You bastard!" Mat roared. The crowd began to thin out around them, people drifting away to give them space. "Murderer!"

"I think you have me mistaken for someone else," Andrew tried to bluff, but the lick he gave his lips gave lie to his cool composure.

"Oh no I don't," Mat disagreed. "Still, I'm not going to argue about that. What I'd like to know is what you're doing here. Now. With a gun tucked into your pants. Stupid place to keep it, by the way. You're likely to blow your own ass off when you draw it. Or even your balls, if you had any."

"Gun?" Andrew tried to look innocent. "I don't have a gun."

"Pull the other one, it's got bells on," Mat snapped.

A heavy hand landed on Mat's shoulder. Before he could turn and snarl, Kayla pulled him close and whispered in his ear, "Mat, we've got other problems. Jeremy is missing. Can't raise him on coms."

Mat half turned his head to respond, then his eyes landed on another gun, tucked 'safely' into the back waistband of a second pair of pants. His eyes darted up and he recognized another of the men who'd tried to block him when he was trying to stop the riot. Pieces began to fall into place as his eyes danced through the crowd. Each time he found one of the men, he tried for a look at their backs. He couldn't always get a clear glance, and the outline wasn't always visible, but once he started looking for it they couldn't hope to hide it. Guns. Lots of guns. On a lot of freshly shaven faces. His first reaction would be undercover police, maybe using a modified holster that just looked like they were tucking the gun into their waistband. The only problem was he knew Andrew McClarence was no cop. It was a completely unjustified piece of inductive logic, but his mind slotted down the rail it provided in an instant. They were all cons. Cons working together towards a goal. Someone had armed cons and unleashed them on an unsuspecting, peaceful rally.

Again and again his mind made the same leap of faith, trusting his instincts as his thoughts gained speed. Ashwood's increasingly illegal behavior made him the only likely candidate for having done this. And if he'd done this here, he'd probably done it elsewhere. Nationwide, even. Why would he try to incite riots right after declaring martial law? Justification for martial law. Aimed against Bryce.

In less than three seconds, Mat understood completely just how badly he'd been played. He'd fucking walked right into Asswood's trap. He'd actually helped the bastard, unintentionally. The fucker wanted riots, the better to justify a crackdown. He wasn't going to wait for Congress; he was going to kick the civil war off right away. He didn't need the time to get his own pawns into place, and he wasn't stupid enough to give Bryce a chance to put counter-plans into motion.

Mat pulled his headset back on, finally able to hear Harry's angry demands for a response. "Can it, I need broadcast," Mat said, mind still racing. None of the contingency plans he'd built had been meant for this scenario. "Bungee," he said quickly, "I say again, bungee is now in effect. It's not cops trying to break us up. We've got agent provocateurs trying to create a riot, and they're armed. If they don't get bloodshed one way, they'll get it another. Bungee bungee bungee. Get the hell out, and break the crowd up while you're at it."

Andrew McClarence was just close enough to Mat to overhear what he said, and shocked expression was all the confirmation Mat needed. That wasn't a man surprised by a false accusation. It was someone who had expected to be able to game the situation until the very end, now faced with the unexpected reality of someone seeing through every last mask.

"Kayla, he has a gun," Mat said, voice almost conversational.

"I noticed," she said, easing forward on her feet. Around them, the crowd had almost frozen, looking at Mat like he was insane. All except three of the agent provocateurs, who stepped forward to give Andrew some backup. Unfortunately for them, the crowd had them hemmed in far, far too close to do the job effectively. Fortunately for Mat, they were stupid enough that they didn't know it.

"Rob, this isn't your fight," Mat said.

"Her fight. My fight," Rob shrugged, tilting his head from side to side as he pulled his shoulders back in a very subtle not-quite-stretch. Cracking his knuckles afterward perfected the effect.

Mat's hand had already drifted down to his side, where his pocketknife was hidden by the edge of his jacket.

Andrew's right hand had drifted oh so casually to his back, but thankfully none of the other goons had followed suit. They were probably convinced that Mat would back off. McClarence, on the other hand, was watching Mat's eyes. One fencer to another they hovered for a long moment, their wills clashing invisibly across the space between them as the tension ratcheted upward.

Later, Mat wouldn't be able to tell who moved first. If either of them could be said to move 'first' at all. It felt more like a long-rehearsed, well-practiced maneuver, both of them going at the same time. As if their motions were a signal, the crowd panicked, instantly, even as Rob and Kayla barreled forward. Mat's hand flashed with long-practiced dexterity as he drew his knife, the hilt slapping into his hand and spinning around to the exact angle he needed as if by thought alone. Never before had he drawn it with the intent of drawing blood. Gran would have killed him... Dad would have worse than killed him. But today there was no doubt, no hesitation.

In front of him, Andrew moved with equal speed and fluidity, twisting sideways to reduce target area even as his hand darted under his jacket, grabbing his pistol. Whether or not Mat wanted a fight, he had one. He howled in rage as time seemed to stretch and dilate around him, every footfall taking an eternity. A gleeful tune rose in his ears as he realized that finally, at long last, he had an opportunity to avenge his father. Come hell or high water, he would kill Andrew McClarence, even if it killed him. The man was dead. He just didn't know it yet. The only question was if Mat would survive the killing. Rage sang in Mat's heart and hatred pounded in his ears as he dealt the first blow of America's Second Civil War.

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