Chapter 4: Max and Ryan

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Maxine had spent the night in her favorite place to sleep: the big old reclining chair in her brother's room, by the window. The morning sunlight silhouetted her, shining through the vertical slats of his blinds.

Ryan was a genius and a tinkerer, and his projects found places all over the house. In particular, the discarded gizmos ended up in his room. There were screwdrivers, tiny springs, a computer chip from a broken calculator, a cutting board with silvery metal melted to its surface. One jar was encrusted on the inside from some sort of chemical reaction.

Ryan was eleven now, and Max herself was nearly seventeen. Most people would say they were both far too old to be sharing a room, but the bond between them was unique. Neither of them slept well when more than a few yards from each other.

Besides, there was a reason Max's family had moved out to the country. Here, the oddities that had caused bullying and gossip for years could be expressed without worry. Their nearest neighbors, the Fairchilds, were nearly a mile away. Max and her brother were free to use their magic as much as they wished without any fear of consequences.

"I would let you sleep in my room even if people could see," Ryan said directly into her mind. "Let them notice and judge. We're stronger now. And I don't care what anybody thinks."

Maxine opened her eyes to find Ryan sitting on the bed, grinning that lopsided smile, holding a pillow with suspicious anticipation. His aura glowed a soft happy yellow, the colors of his emotions accenting every movement. "It's not enough," she said, switching easily between the mindtalk and speaking out loud.

Ryan struggled to talk out loud, and while his friends and family knew what most of his quirky phrases meant, it was still difficult for him to be understood by strangers. Max was better at it, but she still didn't like talking to new people, and especially groups. It was different between the two of them. With their shared empathy, they understood each other's emotions at such a deep level that they often barely needed words to communicate at all. Their mindlink was an exchange of wordless ideas, feelings, and occasionally the impressions of images.

Maxine leaned to the windowsill, where she kept a handy comb. She spoke simultaneously in images and words, sending Ryan the idea of a waterfall eroding a rock until it was nothing but sand in the sea. "Strength only gets you so far," she said. "Then you're worn down like water on rock. Soon, you have no strength left."

"If you're alone, maybe," Ryan replied. "But you have me! Together, we can stand against any bully. I won't let them take your strength. That's my job."

The digital clock on Ryan's bedside table ticked over to 7:00. The alarm barely made a single beep, and Ryan was in action. He slammed his hand down on the button and swung the pillow in his other hand up, whamming it against Max's shoulder.

Midway through combing her hair, Max shrunk away, laughing. "Hey! What was that for? I'm unarmed!"

He threw a pillow at her. "All arms up!" he said, giggling. "Not unarmed anymore!"

Max swatted him with the pillow. "Ryan," she whined, "I just woke up and I'm tired and why are we having a pillow fight, you're so annoying." She rolled out of the chair, nimbly avoided a length of wire on the floor, then sprang suddenly to her feet. She whipped the pillow over her shoulder, down onto Ryan's head.

"Whaaagh!" he flustered wordlessly, defending with his pillow and retaliating. He whacked her leg and followed it up with a smack to her elbow. "I'm a little brother. That's kind of my job," he said, giggling so hard he couldn't have spoken aloud if he'd tried. "Besides, today's T-Ball! You need to be up!"

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