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You've been counting stars, now you're counting on me
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The boat had been cutting through the water for about fifteen minutes before anyone spoke to Kimberly in any serious way. By that point, she was wrapped in a blanket. The offer had come after her shivering was noticed, and Kimberly had initially attempted to reject it but hadn't really felt ready to press the point. A little bit of unwanted aid beat being on the bad side of the people with the guns.

That it helped make her more comfortable did increase her resentment.

"I thought it'd be you," Sonia said, breaking the silence.

Kimberly didn't reply.

"We always talk, you know," the woman continued. "Make predictions. I had you pegged to go far as soon as you got over your naïveté. By the last ten, I was pretty sure you'd make it."

Kimberly stayed silent for a while longer. Sonia seemed content to drop it. Another few minutes passed before Kimberly worked up the nerve to talk.

"You're Vietnamese, right?" she said. "Is that why they sent you to pick me up?"

This time, it was Sonia who took a moment to reply.

"They told me you were a snippy little bitch," she finally said. "Dealing with those is my specialty."

"Lucky you."

Nobody else was saying anything. The smell of the sea was overpowering. It was something Kimberly was completely unused to. Minnesota's lakes had their own scents, sure, but nothing like this. She was feeling vaguely ill again. It figured. All the other shit she'd dealt with, and she discovered she got seasick to boot.

"I brought something for you," Sonia said after a little longer.

Kimberly considered brushing her off or laughing at her or firing back with some sort of snappy remark, but she couldn't muster the energy. The only thing keeping her eyes open was the fact that she was in a dangerous situation and was still in enough pain that drifting off wasn't particularly easy.

She waited a few seconds, then said, "What?"

Sonia nodded to one of the other men, who handed her something black and oddly-shaped.

"I thought you might want this back," Sonia said. "The repair team found it in the mansion and brought it back. For a while, it looked like you might be runner up, and it used to be tradition to leave a little something of the runner up's in the weapon pool next season."

Kimberly only half heard the words as she reached out and took the object. It was battered, bloodstained, dusty, but unmistakable.

She looked at the fedora and quickly bit her tongue so she wouldn't cry again.

No such thing as a lucky hat.

What happened, Jeremy? What on earth happened to you?

"Thanks," she said. It was an absurd reflex, the sort of thing she'd never have done had she been thinking clearly instead of choking down her emotions. She didn't owe these people thanks, not for returning her own belongings, not for trying to patch her up and dust her off and act like she'd never been through a hell of their creation.

She decided not to consider the implications of the hat's presence too closely. Sonia had said they'd found it in the mansion. Jeremy had supposedly died in the escape attempt. They'd closed off the beaches as danger zones after that, which strongly suggested that whatever had happened had happened there. Maybe he'd just lost the hat somehow. He'd wanted it badly, badly enough to hurt her for it, but maybe he'd gotten careless. He'd seemed a careless enough sort.

She could remember, so very clearly, the careless way he'd pressed the tip of the blade against her skin. It was all she could do to keep from retching again.

The terrorists didn't seem to notice. Maybe they just didn't care. Kimberly couldn't imagine there was a surfeit of empathy for her in this little gathering. That she was their winner was most likely seen by most as an unfortunate accident. From what she knew of the past versions, making it out had usually involved far more bloodshed than she had engaged in. It made no sense—no, more than that, it was counterintuitive that killing people would pay off. All it did was make the killers into targets. The thought of somebody like Lombardi actually managing to emerge victorious was laughable. He'd made too many enemies too quickly. Injuries added up. Kimberly knew that. She'd avoided getting hurt too badly after that first day, and she was still barely standing. She wondered how those boys had done it, how they had maintained and stayed sane.

One of the soldiers said something to Sonia, but Kimberly couldn't make it out over the wind. The woman took a radio from the man and spoke quietly into it for a few seconds. Kimberly pulled the blanket closer around her, suppressing a shiver. She hoped she wasn't bleeding anymore. Dying now would be worse than dying in the game. It would render everything else, all the sacrifices and death, completely pointless.

Kimberly also hoped she'd been right about other people surviving, though her reasons were far from altruistic. She didn't want the burden and guilt of being the only one. She didn't want the world's eyes on her, watching her all the time, waiting with baited breath to see what she did. She didn't want the pressure of being a legacy, of representing the fates of all the kids who didn't make it. She didn't want to be stalked by tabloid reporters, didn't want to read in the paper about where she was eating and what she was wearing and who she was fucking. The winner was always news, that she knew. She'd heard bits about the other three. That said a lot, given her disinterest in SOTF.

Sonia seemed to be done with her conversation, and Kimberly was done with her line of thought, at least done enough to need a distraction in the most immediate way, so she said, "You said you thought I'd survive. Why?"

Sonia considered for a long second. Kimberly became aware that they were the center of attention again.

"You seemed the sort," Sonia finally said. "You were crazy enough, driven enough, but weren't too far over the line. That, and maybe a little bit of lingering national pride."

She shrugged, then continued. "Really, though, I thought you'd toughen up when the chips came down. Instead, you got lucky. Same result in the end."

Kimberly considered that for the rest of the ride.
Juliette Sargent drawn by Mimi and Ryuki
Alton Gerow drawn by Mimi
Lavender Ripley drawn by Mimi
Phillip Olivares drawn by Ryuki
Library Vee
Misty Browder drawn by Ryuki
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