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Spelunking; Day Two, half an hour after the announcements
Topic Started: Sep 24 2010, 01:24 AM (4,067 Views)
MurderWeasel
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((Jennifer Perez continued from Somewhere That's Green))

Taking a detour through the mountain, Jennifer was beginning to suspect, was one of the dumbest ideas she had ever had in her entire life. It had seemed like such a good plan, when she stumbled upon the entrance after a few hours of walking. Once again, she had managed to avoid people. She had even, while passing through the inland woods, managed about five hours of sleep, propped up against a tree and shielded from view. Her back had been stiff for the next hour, and her left shoulder still ached, something not helped by the bag she carried over it, but it was worth it for the energy she now had. She had started moving again a few hours after nightfall, and had found the tunnels, and, after checking her map, had determined that they would let her dodge the wide open area in sight of the gazebo and the fun fair, and reach the house of mirrors from the East.

She didn't know for sure why she was going. The odds of Bill having delivered her message by now were low. He probably wouldn't share it all. Most likely, he'd warn Maf away, tell him some crazy girl was setting a trap for him.Maybe that would be enough, though. Maybe he would understand, would turn up anyways. Or maybe Bill would sneak ahead, lie in wait with Deidre, and they'd murder Jennifer. That was why she was moving quietly and slowly, why she planned to scope things out before rushing in.

The tunnels looked like a fairly straight shot on the map. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case at all, and she was no longer really sure which way she was going. There had been at least two branches. She didn't know how to use a compass. Didn't know how to find the surface. She was navigating by the dull blue glow of her cell phone. There was a flashlight in the first aid kit. She'd seen it. But that had limited batteries, and she figured she might need it more later. Besides, the glow of the phone would be so much easier to mute in a hurry, if it came down to that.

Also, the phone had a clock. It wasn't right, she was fairly sure; whatever had jammed the phones had prevented it from automatically adjusting its timezone, and the number it showed seemed somewhat implausible, making her wonder if it had been scrambled somehow, to prevent it from being a tip to any would-be rescuers. Still, the minutes side of the equation seemed about right. Right now, that part read :58:47. Another hour nearly gone. How long had it been? She was pretty sure she'd woken up fairly early on in the program, and she'd been doing a lot of walking. The rest and her slow pace were the only reasons she still felt as good as she did.

A short time later, a crackle rang out, echoing through the tunnels. Jennifer jumped and tried to fumble her phone away, but instead dropped it. It landed on the floor with a crack, and there was no more light. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. She remained silent.

And then it started. The awful voice. Danya. The man who had had their teachers murdered. The one responsible for all of their impending deaths.

It did not surprise Jennifer that the killing had already begun.

She sat down on the tunnel floor, ignoring the dirt and dust, and leaned against the wall, as the names and the jokes flowed over her. She didn't want to hear. Didn't want to remember. Didn't want any of those faces coming back. She had to listen for a few, though. Just a few names. The others didn't matter. Could be ignored. Could be dismissed. It was terrible that people had died, but she just couldn't feel anything for them right now. They were statistics, just like she would be before this was done, before long at all if she wasn't careful.

The names that she was listening for—Maf, Victoria, Bounce, Melissa, Alice, and all the others—failed to materialize, on either side of the equation. Her friends and those she cared about were not dead, or killing. A small comfort. She failed entirely to take note of the killers, which, once she realized it, caused her some concern. There'd be no way to know if she was in danger, so she'd have to keep her guard up, but not devolve into paranoia. Just... just stay sane. Normal.

The only bit that gave her any pause was the naming of Paige Strand. She hadn't known the girl well, but Paige had a boyfriend. A now presumably distraught boyfriend. He was the person on the island Jennifer felt for most at the moment. The survivor. The bereaved. For the dead, there was nothing. For the boyfriend, there was nothing left.

She almost cried again.





Some time later—she didn't know how long; her cell phone had been destroyed by her earlier carelessness—Jennifer started moving again. The house of mirrors was not a danger zone. Neither were the tunnels, or she'd have been dead already. She was still lost. She kept her right hand on the wall, walking in a straight line. Wasn't that supposed to help with mazes? Her left held the flashlight. The icepick remained in its customary position.

She would get out of these tunnels, and find somewhere to hide, near the mirror house. Then she could search from there, using it as a base, until time ran out, one way or another. She'd have to be careful, careful not to hurt anyone, careful not to be hurt herself. Careful, cautious, calm. Sane.

Even though the whole fucking world had gone crazy.
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Jennifer was not expecting words. Not expecting a voice so soon. The flashlight had been a mistake. She didn't jump, this time, but she did click the light off, and quickly ducked to the other side of the tunnel, hoping to throw off anyone who was aiming at her. She hadn't seen the speaker, Nick Reid. A quick search of her memory brought to mind a tall, lanky, unkempt-looking boy. Black hair. Was it the right Nick? She hoped so. No way to tell if he was dangerous, though. Probably was. Who, besides Jennifer, wasn't dangerous now?

He said he deserved an explanation. Deserved. Fucker. As if anyone here deserved anything more than the others. As if anyone deserved this entire situation. It figured she'd bumped into a self-centered asshole.

"Um, N-nick? It's, uh, Jennifer. Perez not Romita. What would you, um, like me to explain?"

She did not mention that she was lost. Did not tell why she had shut the flashlight out. It should be more than evident. She was still decently far away, she thought, but it was hard to tell, with both of their voices echoing off the walls. The positive side of this was that she could get a little bit closer, hopefully without him being able to tell exactly where she was. Step step. Step step. Moving softly, putting as little weight on her feet as she could.

"I, uh, why are you down here?" she asked, speaking a little more loudly, hoping her voice would cover her movements. Hoping he didn't turn his flashlight on and shoot her. She had to be ready. Ready to dive for cover, to run. To get the fuck away, or, failing that, to protect herself. Step step. Protect herself. Would it even be possible? Nick was pretty tall, if she was thinking of the right guy. Didn't seem the strongest, but then, she'd never really paid attention.

She hoped he wasn't the killing sort. Hoped they'd just laugh this off, say fancy-meeting-you-here-of-all-places, that sort of thing. But it was too much to count on. Every interaction she had been involved with had ended in tension and flight. While nobody she had met was dead yet, it was only a matter of time. People had murdered, and she didn't know who. The only person she knew to avoid was Clio, and only because Allen had told her. This was not a promising start. Step step. She was close to the wall, but ready to spring away to the other side again if it came to that. She felt goosebumps on her arms and back, not from the chill (though it was not exactly warm), but from the tension. She felt as if, any second, someone or something would jump out and attack her. It was a good thing she was ready, icepick in hand, to stop any attack.

Wait.

Sure enough, her hand was clenched tight around the icepick. It was raised. That wasn't right at all. Not the way to approach things. She wanted to giggle, but instead took deep breaths, and lowered her arm. Don't break down. Don't lose yourself. Talk to Nick. Step step.

She had moved ten paces closer to him. It seemed like a good stopping point. She probably still had room to run, but maybe also to rush him if he did have a gun, did attack her. If that happened... she wouldn't hurt him. Right. Just use the icepick to knock his gun aside. Disarm him, so no one got hurt. Only that. She would never hurt someone. Never.

Right?
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The conversation with Nick quickly took a turn from the awkward to the menacing, as the boy stumbled through an attempted explanation for his presence, then gave up and admitted to having killed someone. Daniel Vaughan. Jennifer hadn't the slightest clue who Daniel had been. Couldn't force herself to care right now, either. Right now, she was fuming, furious at Nick for his ineptitude. Couldn't he have done just a tiny fucking bit of a better job lying to her? Put an ounce more effort into not appearing to be in some kind of bizarre game of fatal cat-and-mouse with unknown assailants out for revenge? But no, he had to just dump all this on her. Had to make her his confidante. And, fuck, what if he was lying about it all, just trying to get her to drop her guard so he could put a knife through her stomach?

She wanted to tell him this. Wanted to tell him to fuck off, tell him she didn't care that it'd been a mistake, he was still a killer, he was still a monster and a menace, he'd been playing with fire and was now whining about getting burned, laying it at her feet as if it was her fucking problem.

"It's alright," she said instead. "I, um, I don't know which Alex or, uh, or Maxwell you mean, but I... I haven't seen, um, any of them."

She was too weak. Just too weak. Couldn't stand up for herself. Couldn't scare off a potential threat, because she couldn't bring herself to ignore the pain in his voice, the helplessness. Couldn't make herself disbelieve him. She tried to rationalize it. He'd given away his position, given her a clear shot. She could've killed him. He was clearly innocent. But no, it could've been a trap. It could have so easily been a trap, a deception, and yet she didn't give a fuck if it was. Nick needed someone to talk to. Jennifer was there. That simple.

She didn't know quiet when she'd put the icepick away again. Surely it hadn't been early in his speech. Surely she wasn't that naive. Regardless of the timing, it was again tucked into her skirt.

She stepped away from the wall, into the beam of light, a thin smile on her face. She couldn't see Nick, but she didn't need to. Let him stay hidden if he wanted, if it made him feel safer. If her life was going to end here, in a hail of bullets, well, it'd be an absolute disaster, the worst mistake of her whole life, but at least she'd have gone out trying to do something nice. Maybe being a pushover, being an emotional doormat for this near-stranger, this boy who had killed someone, but surely that was not the worst way to die.

"It's okay," she said. "It, um, I think it'll be okay. Well, um, as much as it can be. I don't... I don't even know anymore, Nick. People are killing, but, uh, but they can't all be bad. This..."

It wasn't working. Not at all. No way to express coherently what she was feeling, that sense of resigned optimism, that feeling that, though their world was for all intents and purposes over, though nothing they did would matter in the end, there was still something worth being for. Something worth finding people for, worth sharing with others. It was the reason she wasn't ready to die. The reason she would never be, even should she, by some miracle, survive this experience. There was always more to the world, always something else to do. And she knew she wasn't the only one who felt this way. She knew that there were still happy moments ahead, that even if she died tomorrow, there would have to be a few good instants first. She knew that the killers were scared, were maybe even sadistic, but that it was only because they'd lost themselves, because they'd been replaced in their own minds by caricatures, projections cooked up as a desperate attempt to survive. But how to convey that?

"I don't even know," she repeated.
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Nick understood the meaning behind her gesture, and vocalized it, causing Jennifer to smile a bit. So, this wasn't going to go badly, then. There was hope. Even amidst all of this, two people could still bring themselves to trust each other, to show a little faith in the basic decency of near-strangers.

She was not surprised when Nick joined her, the beam of the flashlight he left behind illuminating his form. What was shocking was the state he was in. Battered. Beaten. Damaged. His face a terrible mess, his arm bandaged. Clearly, he had been through some pretty terrible experiences. Nick's injuries made Jennifer flinch for a second, and she hated herself so much for it. That was the last thing he needed right now. She just... she'd never been this near anyone with nay sort of serious injury before, and it was terrible. And the worst part of it was, in a few days, that could be her state. All it would take would be a single mistake, a single moment of misplaced trust. Nick made that clear with his statements, and then... he thanked her. He thanked her for something she never would have imagined to be deserving of praise.

"Um," she said. "No pro—uh, nobody deserves to die."

It was simple but true. No one here had asked to be kidnapped, asked to be turned into some sort of sick psychological experiment/television phenomenon. Jennifer couldn't even find it in her now to blame those who had killed from fear. They were scrambling to avoid dying, but they were already gone. Already irretrievably altered. The others—and she was sure there would be others, if there weren't already—those who killed from some sense of sadism or revenge or some other stupid motive like that, she did blame, but she also pitied. They were the ones who lost the most. The ones who destroyed everything about themselves that anyone had ever valued.

"Here," she said, looking back at Nick. She had no idea what she was doing, but the words came naturally. "Let me see if I can help you a bit."

She dropped her daypack to the ground, unzipped it, and located the first aid kit. She had no idea how to use any of the items in it. Had never dealt with any sort of serious injury before. But she wanted to patch Nick up to any degree that she could. As she rummaged in the kit, she marveled briefly at how well it was stocked, packed to the brim with esoteric packages and wraps and pills. Finally, she came across a few packs labeled as antiseptic wipes, looking for all the world like those little moist towelettes provided by KFC along with sporks and napkins.

She straightened up again, and realized she hadn't even thought to ask Nick's permission. That was inconsiderate. Maybe he didn't want help.

"Um, that is, if you'd, uh, like. I don't... I don't really know how to use most of this."
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For just those few moments, strange though they were, everything was alright. Jennifer wiped at Nick's face, cleaning it a little, and tried to change the dressings on his arm. She had no clue if she was doing things correctly, but she didn't seem to be hurting Nick, at least. He still looked awful. Nothing would change that, except perhaps time. Time, Jennifer realized, that he was unlikely to have. Most of them would be dead before long at all. Looking at Nick, she found it hard to imagine him as a corpse. He'd look the same, just... not move. Not talk, not breath, not think, not feel.

She'd be that way too. Couldn't be too long. She was no fighter.

She was about to say something, distract herself from her dark musings with words, when a much more effective diversion came around. A voice, from the darkness. Phil. Looking for people from the hockey team. A quick search of her memory. Phil. Ward. From what little she'd heard from her friends in the lower grades, he was a real jackass. What did that even mean anymore, though? If so many people, normal, sane people, could become so much worse, what was stopping someone like Phil from turning over a new leaf, showing newer, better colors?

Nick seemed nervous, on edge. He told Phil it was just the two of them, a bad move from a strategic point of view, but a good one in terms of trust. Thing was, Phil was still in the darkness. They couldn't know that he wasn't aiming a gun at them, ready to mow them down as soon as he knew they had no backup. Or, worse, maybe he had a whole team, a group of hockey players roaming the island and killing and looting everyone they came across. Groups were sure to form in this sort of situation, and not all of them would be positive.

"Um, no," Jennifer said. "I, uh, I haven't seen any of them. But, uh, if I... if I do, would you like me to, um, deliver a message?"

It seemed the polite thing to ask, given that she had requested the same in her last encounter. And she would share Phil's words, if he had any. She knew how it felt to be looking for someone, to be alone and scared.

All assuming, of course, that Phil didn't kill her on the spot.

And then, from nowhere, the shouts, the angered voice. Someone else. Was this it, then? Was Phil really here with an ally? Were she and Nick going to die? Though, the voice sounded upset at Phil. What was going on?

One thing was sure: If Jennifer was going to die, she wasn't going to get killed by an unseen assailant. Quickly, she ducked down, scooped up her flashlight, and flicked the beam on, pointing it at the sounds. The sight that met her was surprising. Phil, a short, tough looking boy, was who she'd thought, but he had blood on his shirt, and it was singed. Had he been on the announcements? Worse, behind him was another guy, thin, short black hair, carrying a sword. A sword. And it looked like he and Phil weren't together, and they both meant business, and she suddenly realized there was a good chance things were about to get unpleasant.

And then another figure rounded the corner, just a bit too far outside the beam of the flashlight for her to make him out completely, and Jennifer instinctively ducked back, pressing against the wall of the tunnel, wishing for something to hide behind. Wishing that she'd never come down here.





((Aaron Hughes continued from My Kingdom for a Plan!))

Aaron was in an absolutely awful mood. After their late night (or, more accurately perhaps, early morning) encounters in the woods, Tom had just kept moving, almost like he was trying to lose the group. Aaron would have been glad to have him gone, except for one little fact: Tom was a serious danger. He was a constant threat to Aaron's authority, way too independent for teamwork, and if he left like this, running off, it would look like desertion. That would imply dissatisfaction with Aaron's leadership, which would sow discontent and doubt, and, in the long run, tear the group to pieces and tank all of their chances at escaping.

So, when Tom had gotten far enough ahead that Aaron had been forced to decide between following him or sticking with his actually loyal partners, he'd shouted back to him that he was going after Tom, asked them to hold up for a bit and maybe get some rest, and taken off. He was going to bring Tom back. Drag him if necessary. Even if Tom immediately said he was through with them, threw a petty fit, and left. Aaron was sick of being ditched after Rekka, Francine, and Lily. He was done tolerating it. He had determined that, if anyone else quit the group, they'd be doing it on his terms.

He'd figured out how to load the gun, how to use it, sneaking glances at the instruction manual by flashlight during the walk. It had been his first priority. Better safe than sorry. Better prepared for anything. Better to have a credible way to get Tom to follow him if the other boy proved reluctant.

None of this, though, was the real reason for Aaron's annoyance. What had him most irritated, most on edge, had come courtesy of the announcements forty five minutes beforehand. Most of them had been fairly meaningless, or predictable. None of his friends had died. The only victim he'd known at all was Amber, that awful, vindictive girl he'd been forced to endure at the mall. One of the killers, though, was different.

Jacquard Broughten was a prime contender for the position of Aaron's least favorite member of the Bayview student body. She was a snide, pretentious bitch, a real killjoy too, and Aaron still wasn't over the incident at the gazebo. She'd mocked him, insulted him, made him look like a fool. It didn't grate so badly now, but Jacquard had shown before that she had it out for him, and now she was a killer. He wasn't surprised she'd play, but he'd been hoping her bum leg would stop her, that she'd be an early out.

Whatever. He'd shoot her if he found her. Nobody would blame him, since she was a psychotic threat to the safety of everyone.

Aaron had nearly lost Tom at one point, as the boy ducked into the tunnels. It wasn't a good sign. He drew the gun from his pocket, keeping it ready but at his side. There was a chance that Tom had planned this all, that it was an ambush. He would lure Aaron into close quarters, neutralizing his advantage, then attempt to run him through. A sound strategy, but it wouldn't work, not if Aaron was prepared. He walked softly, following the faint sounds of Tom's footsteps. There were voices, too. At least one female and one male, possibly more. There was too much distortion to tell.

And then, Tom was yelling. Aaron picked up his pace, spun around a corner, and found himself facing a beam of blinding light. Someone was ambushing him. Someone was going to kill him. He ducked backwards and to the side, out of the light, and dropped to one knee, only to see that he was wrong. Tom had just run smack into Phil Ward, second only to Monty Pondsworth in terms of Bayview students you didn't want to meet in a dark alley. And, behind Tom and Phil, stood Nick Reid, who Aaron remembered had killed somebody, and also a very frightened looking Jennifer Romita.
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Of course, things got even worse. Jennifer watched as everything unfolded. Unlike in movies, it didn't move in slow motion. Even with the adrenaline rush that came from being this close to combat, Jennifer was barely able to tell what was going on. Phil yelled at the boy (Guthrie? His first name was on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn't quite conjure it to mind), telling him he wouldn't be hurting anyone, and also that he deserved to be attacked. Had Guthrie killed, then? Was Phil really protecting them? Or was this some sort of vengeance from before, for some forgotten schoolyard wrong?

Did it matter? Of course not. What mattered was that they were fighting, that Guthrie had a sword, that one of them was likely to be seriously hurt or even die. It was time to run, time to get clear. Time to find somewhere better. She couldn't, though. Couldn't abandon them to their fates. Couldn't just hear them on the announcements the next morning. She couldn't bear the thought that there had been a fight, a conflict, one that she could have stopped but had chosen not to.

The fight continued, Tom backing off, taking aggressive action with the sword. Nick was moving, inching closer. Was he going to try to break them up too? If he was, it would be better if she stayed back. Better if she didn't get in the way. Nick was stronger than her, almost certainly. He'd have a better shot at subduing one of the two. Of course, he also might get hurt. That wouldn't be fair at all, if Nick got wounded, or even killed, trying to stop two other people from murdering each other. Had he considered the possibility of his own injury? Was he prepared to take that chance, make that sacrifice?

Was she?

All of a sudden, Jennifer found herself frozen. Unable to decide. She couldn't run, but she couldn't move in to help either, not yet. She wasn't ready to die. She was weak and pathetic and cowardly, but she just couldn't put her life on the line here. Not with so much left to live for. Not with so much about the current circumstances unknown.

Like... what had happened to that other guy? He was gone, outside the light from her flashlight, and also Nick's. Had he stumbled down here by mistake, seen the conflict, and done the smart thing and ran? Or was he waiting until the dust settled, letting them eliminate some of his opposition before gunning down the survivors? No way to know. She had to just hope for the best.





Aaron had backed up even further, making sure to stay out of sight. It seemed none of the others had noticed him, or, if they had, they were too preoccupied to make anything of it. So now he had front row seats to this odd dance, where Phil growled something about protecting the others and lunged at Tom, and Tom slipped away, trying to bring his sword into play. Aaron was impressed with the way he handled the weapon. Tom clearly knew better than to slash around with a sword made for stabbing, and he also knew to keep his distance. He even managed the limited space of the tunnel fairly well. Aaron was quite glad that he was not the one facing the business end of the weapon.

He wondered at Phil's motivations. Clearly, the boy was playing Danya's game. Tom had done nothing to provoke him, nothing except be a clumsy oaf in the dark. Yet here, Phil was apparently ready to beat him silly, under the ostensible motive of protecting Nick and Jennifer. True, the two of them looked like they could use it, with Jennifer cowering in the background and Nick slowly making his way forward, looking, to Aaron, somewhat unsure.

All of a sudden, he realized that there was a very good chance that things were about to get incredibly ugly. Tom could come running down the tunnel, bumping into Aaron or leading pursuit to him. He could kill Phil, go crazy, and attack everyone nearby. Phil could kill him, then turn on the others. Jennifer could whip out some sort of surprise, stab the three boys from behind while they were distracted. The only certain thing was that the situation was incredibly dangerous.

All in all, it was a good time to be the most heavily armed person in the vicinity.

Aaron held up his gun, two handed, like the instructions had showed. He checked the safety. Off. The gun was fully loaded, which meant that, if push came to shove, he had twenty shots to remove all threats. He'd have to stay calm. The gun was trembling wildly in his hands, so he took a few deep breaths. He loosened his grip for a second, readjusted it. The wavering lessened. He wondered whether he should just open up now, maybe blow a hole in Phil's head. It would certainly mean Tom owed him one. Only thing was, he probably couldn't safely shoot past Tom. In fact, any shot in here could have easily hit any of the four down the tunnel from Aaron.

And, more than that, he found that he wanted to see Tom sweat a little, see how he did The boy had the advantage. He had the sword. Aaron could just step in if things got out of hand. If they didn't, if Tom killed Phil, well, his name would go up on the announcements. It would be the end of his stay in Aaron's group, and it would establish him as a danger. Aaron would slip out, unseen, and by the next day, his credibility would be completely restored, and Tom would be a fugitive. Yes. That would be best. If Tom just got beaten up a little, Aaron could bring him back, and maybe he'd have learned some respect, learned the value of a team. It seemed there was no way this situation could go poorly.

Besides, Aaron couldn't kill Phil because it was important that he not kill, period. He did not want to be on that happy morning broadcast, shown as someone dangerous to the entirety of his surviving class. It would, among other things, be sure to put Bounce on edge, and he needed her if his plan was going to work. Although...

He had a sudden temptation to just fire a couple rounds into Tom's back. The boy was an asshole. A traitor. Someone who had joined Aaron under a pretense of friendship, only to betray him, humiliate him, force his hand in various unpleasant ways. Back at school, Aaron would have given Tom a piece of his mind some time ago, and then avoided the boy. Probably found somewhere to be alone and seethe. He'd kept it together here because people were counting on him, because it was life and death, but Tom was a danger. He would continue to be a danger. And it would be so easy. The gun had a sensitive trigger.

No. Better to let Tom make a fool of himself. Aaron couldn't get his hands dirty. The future of their escape attempt depended on it, and he could subordinate his personal feelings to that. After all, no matter how problematic Tom was, he wasn't worth losing all credibility for.
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The fight did not go how Aaron had expected. Specifically, he was entirely unprepared for Tom and Phil to battle their way toward him. He didn't have enough time to duck fully out of view. Didn't really have time to do anything but get a few feet out of the way. He was standing right there, right next to the fight, with a front row seat as Tom actually managed to give Phil a good jab. The wounded boy toppled over, letting loose a cry, and hit his head on the ground. He stopped moving. Was he dead? Had Tom actually done it, actually killed someone? Had Aaron's plan worked?

Regardless of if it had, he didn't feel so good about things. All of a sudden, Tom wasn't a minor threat anymore. He wasn't a small deal. He was a full-on fighter, a potential killer, and, above all, within arm's reach of Aaron, still slightly illuminated by the distant glow of the flashlights. The gun was wobbling again. Breath in. Breath out. Stabilize. Aaron had the weapon pointed at Tom now. Had the other boy seen him? It was only a matter of time.

But... no, this was insane. Aaron couldn't shoot Tom. After all, the boy had just been defending himself. Only acting reasonably. No, they had to run. Tom was useful, that much was sure. But he was dangerous, too. There was too much to process. Just too much.

And then, Nick was there. He grabbed Tom, spun him, in the almost shadows, in the dark, and, for a second, Aaron's gaze locked with that of his ally. Aaron's gun was perfectly still, now pointed at Nick's head. Aaron could see the fear in Tom's eyes as Nick disarmed him. Could see so clearly, could imagine what would happen. It was simple. A flick of the trigger, a bang, Nick falls dead. No trouble. Certainly no morals keeping him from doing it. Nick was a murderer. Soon to be a double murderer, if he got his way with Tom. It came in a flash. Perfect clarity. Aaron knew exactly what he had to do.

He lowered his gun, shot Tom a shrug and a wink as Nick slammed his victim into the wall headfirst.

Crack.

Sorry, Tom. Looks like you're taking one for the team.

Aaron turned and started walking, heading back out of the caves, back into the early morning, back to his team. The part of his team that hadn't abandoned him.

Crack.

Good thing Nick hadn't noticed Aaron yet. Good thing it was dark, and there was nobody there, nobody to see the smile slowly spreading over his face. Nobody to watch as he abandoned his erstwhile companion to the hands of a murderer.

Crack.

Sometimes, things did work out for the best, it seemed. What Aaron had realized in that moment, that second when he could have pulled the trigger, could have saved Tom and removed a menace, was quite simple. Tom was worth a hell of a lot more to the group dead.

Crack.

And, oddly, Nick was worth more alive. In a day, Nick would be announced as a killer. Tom as his victim. The group would be devastated. Well, maybe not, since Tom wasn't exactly the most popular guy in the world, but dammit, Aaron would be devastated for them. He'd make them devastated. Make them angry. Make them want revenge, fear for their lives, imagine Nick Reid behind every corner, waiting to grab them if they left the safety of the group. Because, after all, it was true, wasn't it?

Crack.

In a manner of speaking, it certainly was. There were killers everywhere. Too many people had wandered off alone already. Aaron was willing to bet that at least one of the others who had declined his offer to team up—Francine, Rekka, Machine-Gun-Lily, the guy from the woods, and the stupid girl—had already been wasted. Likely more. They weren't playing this smart. Weren't going to have any hope of escaping. They deserved what they got. Just like Tom did. Tom had been a liability. A danger. A constant irritant. Aaron would've probably had to shoot him anyways. Nick had spared him the necessity, and at the same time, provided Aaron with a double helping of motivation for his team. A martyr and an enemy.

Crack.

Any good story began like that. Some terrible villain hurt the heroes, maybe killed someone important to them, and they banded up for revenge. Revenge was a fine goal. Of course, Aaron had already had his, letting Tom (the rebellious traitor) die. The others would be upset, though. They'd want to get back at Nick. Want to do something. Or, maybe it would just help them have the strength to see their escape through. Yes. That was how he'd play it. Tom hadn't been abandoned. He'd died heroically. He'd known that Aaron was their only hope. He'd died to protect his leader, loyal to the end, a shining example, had nearly turned the tide, but then cruel, villainous Nick Reid had taken his life. Yet, even then, he had held the killer, screaming at Aaron to run, to save the others, to tell the cameras that Tom loved his family.

Brilliant.

The story just needed a little verisimilitude. At the exit to the tunnels, Aaron knelt, and, gun still in his right hand, ready in case of surprises, he dipped his left index finger into the dirt. Rubbed it in his eyes, just a little. They stung, teared up, and he rubbed them clean again, smudging his face, tracing it with tear tracks and residue. Then, for a little color, he smacked each of his cheeks, hard enough to sting. Good. He would, of course, be back in control by the time he found the others—and just where were they, anyways? He'd left them some time ago—back to the calm, confident leader they expected, but he would have a quiver in his voice, seem sadder, perhaps nearly, but not quite, break down as he related the story of Tom's heroic end.

And nobody would dare question it, especially once the next announcements hit. Nobody would dare speak poorly of Tom, insult the memory of one who died to save another. For the rest of their stay, every time someone flinched, showed weakness, acted up, he'd just need to remind them of Tom's sacrifice, and ask them what their fallen compatriot would say.

Turns out, Tom had been the most valuable ally Aaron could have had.

((Aaron Hughes continued in Where Do You o From Here?))
((Post order change and GMing approved. Jennifer's keeping her slot in the post order.))
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Jennifer hardly even realized what was happening as Phil rushed the other boy, then went down with a bleeding wound in his side. She almost shrieked. Almost said something. Tom positioned himself for the killing blow, as Nick moved forward. For a moment, Jennifer was worried Nick wouldn’t make it in time. Worried he wouldn’t be able to stop this from ending in death.

Then, that seemed minor. Positively trivial compared to what came next. Because Nick wasn’t content simply to disarm Guthrie. Instead, he knocked the boy over, into the shadows. Jennifer swept the area with the beam from her flashlight, and then froze. The hidden boy was still there. More than that, he had a gun. Had it aimed at the combatants, like he was about to shoot, or maybe to tell them to knock it off, quit playing around. She hoped it was that. Then the boy (she still couldn’t make out who it was) just lowered the gun and walked away. Just left Nick and Tom.

And then, the noises started. One after another. Sickening smacks and cracks. Again and again. Nick was beating Guthrie's head against something hard. Each hit accompanied by a shout. Again. And again. And again.

It didn't make sense. This couldn't be right. Nick wasn't like this. He was nice. He'd killed someone, but it was by mistake. This wasn't someone acting by mistake. This wasn't self defense. It wasn't an innocent screw up. It was a killing. A killing, right in front of her eyes. Guthrie had been ready to kill Phil. Nick had killed him instead. Was that how the world worked now? Was that the reality she had to adapt to? No. No, it couldn't be. She wouldn't accept it. Couldn't deal with it. What the fuck had pushed Nick over the edge? Why had he gone mad all of a sudden?

It stopped. One final, sickening crunch. She was able to hope for a moment that Guthrie had survived somehow, that Nick had pulled back from the brink. She walked closer, shivering, though she was not cold, and flicked the flashlight's beam towards him.

It dispelled any hopes that Nick victim still lived. Not with his head looking like that. Nick was shivering, sobbing, looking for all the world like he was the one who had just been killed. He looked so sad. So pathetic. So lost. She wanted to just walk up to him, hug him and wash all the pain away, cry with him, feel with him.

And then he broke it. Shattered it into a thousand pieces.

He apologized.

A cold wind of rage blew her sympathy away.

And, for the first time in years, Jennifer's thoughts and words unified.

"You're sorry, Nick?

"You're sorry?

"You just killed a guy, and all you can say is that you're fucking sorry? Do you get it? Do you have any idea what you did? I don't think you do, do you? I bet you really don't know. That guy down there? I don't even know his fucking name, Nick. Do you? Do you know him? Do you know who he was? Do you have any idea who's crying right now? Who'll be crying tomorrow when you get celebrated over the announcements?"

It was a strange feeling. This was what she'd always been afraid of. Losing control. Letting the barrier between her mind and her mouth break. She'd thought it would feel like a release, like a great weight lifted from her. It didn't. It didn't feel like anything at all. It just was. She was dropping the smiling veneer she wore every day, the happy face that never glowered, never swore, never said a mean thing. And the scary was thing was, it didn't feel different at all.

She was shouting, screaming her words, caught up in the reverberation as they echoed throughout the tunnels, bouncing back to her again and again.

"I don't think you do. I don't think you gave a fuck, Nick. I think you were scared and angry, and you just decided, fuck it, you'd go ahead and blow off steam, or protect yourself, or whatever the fuck it is you thought you were doing. Or maybe you had some noble purpose. You know what, though? I don't give a fuck. I don't give a fuck why you did it. Doesn't change that he's dead. Doesn't change that you did it.

"You know what? I thought you were gonna go break 'em up. Gonna go stop them from killing each other. Going to be a hero. And here you turn out to just be a fucking coward. You say you're sorry? I don't buy it. You aren't sorry you killed him. You're just sorry you have to live with that guilt. Just sorry you fucked up your own comfy little situation here.

"Well, fuck you, Nick."

The icepick was in her hands, like it had materialized there. No memory of drawing it, just like every other time. Nick up against the wall, caught in the glare of her flashlight beam. She knew she was smiling.

She took a step forward, raised the icepick a bit.

Knelt, sent it spinning across the floor to bump gently against the side of the dead boy, near Nick's foot. Straightened again.

She was calm, now. Not yelling. Speaking evenly.

"Take it. I don't need this. Fuck off and play with the other killers, Nick. Just leave me that guy's bag so I can try to keep Phil from dying, since I'm a bit short on medical supplies at the moment."

She locked eyes with him for a second, her smile broader, brighter.

"Unless you're gonna kill us. I won't stop you, but I'd ask you to at least look me in the eyes when you do it."
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Nick's reaction was not what Jennifer had expected. She was prepared for dismissal. Anger. Even, though it scared her greatly, violence. She was not counting on a strange mix of kindness and patronization, on a pep talk from this boy who had just bashed another student's skull in. She was not counting on Nick comparing her to himself.

Just like that, everything broke. She found herself looking back on what she had just said, what she had just done, with a sort of horror and disbelief. She had lost it. She had lost herself. In that one instant, she had let herself get swept up in the drama, the excitement, the danger, the insanity, the sheer difference of it all. She had forsaken her own awkwardness in favor of an ill-fitting faux-heroism, a martyr's confidence.

She wanted to apologize herself. Wanted to take back her words. To mend things. Smooth them over. Repair everything. But it was too late. No way back now. No way to undo the mistakes of the past. Something she and Nick had both learned. As he slowly moved, slowly picked up his bags, slowly took up the icepick, she knew it was too late. It wasn't Guthrie who had destroyed their moment of peace. It wasn't Phil, or Nick, or the boy with the gun, or even Jennifer herself. It was the situation. It was the tension, the group dynamic, everything put together. The circumstances they were in put each of them far beyond conventional blame. Nick couldn't be held responsible for overreacting. Guthrie couldn't be held responsible for attacking. They were just scared.

Did that mean she was off the hook for her outburst, then?

No.

No, it couldn't. Because she had better control than that. Always had. Always had needed to. To abandon that for convenience, to prove a point, was a weakness, not a slip up. She had to be stronger than that. Surely her anger had done more than hurt Nick. Surely it had hurt her family, her friends, tarnished their memories of her, left them wondering whether they had ever truly known her. And, in the end, had they?

Yes. Yes, because even though her kindness, her politeness, was often a mask, a lid keeping her anger from boiling over, it was still her, still a part of her being.

Nick was gone. Jennifer stood for a time, alone with her thoughts. With the thoughts of the last words he'd said. Something in them had been wrong. Off. If he was announced twice, once alone... No. No, he couldn't be thinking of... Shove it aside. Force it under.

"Be safe," she whispered, far too late for him to hear.

And then, it was time to turn her focus to the most pressing issue. Phil was still bleeding. She had been ignoring him, fucking letting him bleed to death on the ground while she pondered her own emotional issues. Pretty messed up priorities, come to think of it. Quickly, she moved to Guthrie's bag, rooted around for the first aid kit. She didn't have a clue as to what she was doing. She'd never helped someone wounded before, except Nick, and he had been much better off. This would be far more difficult.

She had to focus. First priority was stopping the bleeding, right?

Then, Phil spoke. Asked for help. And at that, all other thoughts vanished. Jennifer pulled a bandage out, looked for something to prevent infection, and got to work, doing her best to keep Phil out of pain, to keep him safe.

"Um, it's, uh, Jennifer, Phil," she said. "Just... just, um, hang on, okay? I'm trying to, um, help you."

She would keep Phil alive. It was the least she could do.
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Jennifer tried to wrap Phil in the bandages, tried to stop the bleeding. She had no idea whether the wound was a bad one. It looked bad. It was a cut, from a sword, and there was blood, and surely that couldn't be minor, right? Anyways, time to worry about that later. Maybe, if he didn't get better on his own, she could stitch him up. Was sewing a person up similar to sewing fabric? She still had her travel sewing kit.

Phil called out to her. Called her by the wrong name. Fuck. Jennifer didn't say anything, kept up a smile. She couldn't be mad at him, not now, not given his situation. Even if he had made the social mistake she hated most. Sharing a name with another girl of the same ethnicity was bad enough. It practically guaranteed confusion, even though the Jennifers looked nothing alike. Romita being one of the biggest sluts in the school, however, took the issue from the realm of the unfortunate into the land of constant irritant. It didn't happen often, but, a time or two a year, younger guys would bug Jennifer, hit on her, that sort of thing. It was one of the few areas where she felt comfortable just walking away, regardless of the rudeness.

She couldn't dwell on that, though. Couldn't afford to worry about things like school drama. She'd set Phil straight later, calmly and kindly. Right now, she had to keep him alive. Had to keep wrapping the bandages. Looking down, she saw his eyes come into focus a bit more. Then he realized his mistake, apologized. Jennifer's smile broadened, no longer strained in the slightest.

"It's, um, it's alright. I don't mind. Thanks."

She continued working on Phil's side until the bandaging materials had been used up. Hopefully, it would be enough. It had to be. Phil would be fine. She couldn't fail him too, like she'd failed Guthrie, sitting back and assuming someone else would take care of things. That was a fucking awful way to be. For some reason, she found herself thinking back to a night in the real world, sitting at the Varsity, watching Dustin Royal take advantage of a drunk Rosa Fiametta. What had she said at the time? "Someone should stop that"? Something like that. That was her method, wasn't it? Leave the hard work for someone else. Let the others take the risk, the blame. She only stepped up when there was no other option.

So, she'd failed Nick too, then, hadn't she? She was good at talking people down. It was one of the few areas of social interaction she actually felt somewhat useful at. And yet, she'd stood by, not even tried to do anything. And now, Phil was hurt, Guthrie was dead, and Nick was gone, run off by Jennifer herself. It was a fucking lovely beginning to the day.

Her smile was forced, now. She hoped Phil didn't notice, as she tied the bandage off.

"Um," she said, "I hope that'll hold. Are you, uh, how do you feel?"

She had no idea what she'd do if he wasn't alright, if he needed more extensive treatment, but she'd help him. Somehow, she would help him.
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Phil didn't seem like he was going to die, at least, not right away.

Good.

It was, at this point, all Jennifer could ask for. Her day had been pretty rough, and the last thing she needed was for her effort at helping this boy to turn into a complete failure. Of course, she nearly expected it. Her time on the island had held very few positive moments, and it seemed unlikely that that would be changing anytime soon. Phil closed his eyes, and drifted off to sleep. Jennifer deliberated for a few moments, then grabbed one of the duffel bags (she wasn't sure whose anymore; it was too dark to see and she didn't care enough to turn on her light), scrunched it up, and carefully slid it under Phil's head.

She was going to wait with him. Going to stay by his side until he was better, to... well, not protect him, she didn't have much of a way of doing that, now that Nick had taken her weapon, but to at least be there to make any potential attacker who came by think twice. It was honestly her plan. She had no intention of falling asleep again, but, as the adrenaline left her system, she found her eyes drifting shut.





The stench was what awoke her. She had no idea how much time had passed, but it had been enough for Guthrie to begin smelling incredibly foul. She wanted to kick herself for not thinking of that sooner. Here they were, underground, without great airflow, next to a corpse. It would be a fucking miracle if she and Phil didn't contract horrible diseases and die from that alone. And Phil was still sleeping, and she wasn't sure if she should wake him, if that would mess up his health even more. Best to let him sleep. But she had to get him away from the odor of rot.

Which left exactly one choice.

Jennifer looked into the darkness, towards the body, and shivered. It was revolting. Horrible. Something she had never imagined doing. Still couldn't, really. But it had to be done, so she found her flashlight and started towards Guthrie's corpse.

Standing over it, she flicked the flashlight on, using her body to shield Phil from the light. It was a big, big mistake. She'd heard the boy's death, but hadn't quite been able to picture it. And then, there he was. Head smashed open. Blood everywhere, dried now.

Off with the flashlight.

It took a lot of effort for Jennifer not to throw up on the spot. She couldn't, though. Couldn't wake Phil. Couldn't make the area smell even worse. She just had to power through this. Had to be strong. So she bent down, grabbed the dead boy by his arms. She was expecting them to be cold. They weren't, not exactly, more room temperature. Limp. Wasn't he supposed to be stiff or something? Didn't matter. Couldn't think like that.

She got to work dragging Guthrie along the tunnel floor, heading in the direction Nick had left in, hoping it was the way out, hoping it wasn't too far, hoping she wouldn't run into someone else and have to explain, because this sure as fuck wouldn't look good. The body was not exactly light, and Jennifer certainly wasn't notably strong, so she had to stop every couple of minutes and rest. She never let go of the corpse's arms, though. She doubted she'd be able to force herself to grab them again, logic be damned.

She didn't know how long it had taken, but she found her way to the exit, managing to avoid hurting herself in the dark hallways in the process. What she saw shocked her. It was dark out. How long had they been out for? It had been morning when the encounter occurred. Had she slept all day?

Didn't matter. She vaguely considered burying Guthrie, but she simply didn't care enough, cold as it sounded. A grave wouldn't do him any good. He was now pretty much nothing more than an object. She didn't want to spend the rest of her life looking after objects, not when there were still people who needed her. She pulled him a ways away from the entrance to the tunnel, forcing herself to ignore the noises of him scraping of the ground, the slight wet trail he left. Finally, she couldn't take him any further, so she dropped him to the ground and went back to the tunnel. Her back hurt. Wonderful. Just what she fucking needed.

Then she realized she wasn't quite sure whether she knew the way back. There could have been branches in the tunnel, turns she missed in the dark. She tugged her flashlight from a pocket and turned it on, looking for—there it was. Dragging the body had left a clear trail in the dirt floor of the tunnel. She'd just have to follow it back. So she started to, and then she saw it. Right at the exit. Her icepick, propped up by two rocks. A piece of paper impaled on it. Left by Nick, assuredly. Left waiting for her.

She didn't want to touch it, to be reminded of her mistakes, but of course she picked it up. Of course she read the note.

Jennifer

I don't deserve your company but I hope I can still help somehow. I couldn't leave you helpless if someone tried to hurt you. There's nothing left for me but I'll use that, to stamp out everyone else who has lost their humanity so someone who deserves it can come out on top. I'm sure you want nothing to do with this icepick, but every angel needs their flaming sword.

NR


So that was what he would do. That was the result of her choices, was it? She'd thrown his actions in his face, and now he'd given up. He'd given up, and he was calling her, the one responsible for it all, and angel. Like fuck. It was her fault. She was tearing up. Wiped her eyes. Sorry, Nick. I should have been better. Should have been understanding. You say you don't deserve my company? You're wrong, Nick. Neither of us deserve any of this.

But she couldn't get mired down in the past. Phil was still hurt. Still needed her. How long had it taken to move Guthrie? Half an hour? All sorts of awful things could have happened in that time.

Now she could protect him again, though. So the icepick went back in its place. Some grand moral stand she'd made, in the end.

As she got closer, she could hear Phil, calling out, calling her name. Asking who was coming.

"It's, um, it's me, Phil. I'm, uh, I'm sorry. I had to, um, take care of something. Are you alright?"

V7:
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Phil seemed relieved. That brought a flash of guilt to Jennifer. Had he been scared? Thought she'd abandoned him, perhaps? She was about to fumble her way through an apology, when he continued, asking her how long he'd been asleep for.

"It's, um, well, I don't know. It's dark now. It, um, could be any time past sunset, but we were, uh, out for at least half a day."

Phil suggested they get out. That meant all her work clearing the body out, actually touching the thing, had been totally fucking pointless. That didn't matter, though, because she couldn't agree more. She was ready to be back in the fresh air, in the open. She gathered up her stuff, too, making sure she had her backpack, the one she had packed for the trip. It really was stupid to still be holding onto it.

She wasn't going to leave it, though.

Then Phil did something that took her off guard. He thanked her. Offered to pay her back. Implied he owed her something. Owed her? No, no, not at all. She'd just done what she had to. Worked to help someone. Would anyone have taken another action? She wasn't special. Phil was making too big a deal out of this.

"Um, I... You don't have to do anything, but if you, um, want to stick together for a while, that'd be nice. I am, uh, looking for someone, actually. Um, it's Maf. From the, uh, the football team. And... and we can find your teammates too. I'll help you, too."

There. She'd proposed it. Made an offer to stick with someone. It was worrying, actually. She had responsibilities now. Was back to watching out for someone else. From here on out, she couldn't just run if things went badly. Not unless she was sure Phil would be okay.

Time to worry about that if it came up. For now, they were moving out of the tunnels. She would steer them away from the body, and they would continue their search. Check by the mirror house at some point. Keep moving.

Keep alive.

And maybe, just maybe, they'd be able to catch up with Nick again, and she could fix some of the damage she'd done.

((Jennifer Perez continued in Still Going Strong))
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