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V3 Epilogue: We Did It, When We Were Young
Topic Started: Jan 2 2011, 11:43 PM (3,374 Views)
Ares
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V3 World Heavyweight Champion
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((OOC: Ryan's letter was written by Korazon. It was a pleasure to write this and a pleasure to write with those who made V3 possible and a hell of a good time for me. Whether or not you liked J.R., I do hope you enjoy what you are about to read. Thank you all again.))

"Come on in Mr. Rizzolo," said the voice John had grown to know over the last 13 days, "We have much to discuss."

Victor Danya's office was not quite what John has been expecting. Then again, he wasn't sure what he was expecting since Adam Dodd never explicitly told anyone about what happened after he was taken off the island. John thought for a moment about whether he remembered if Bryan Calvert had ever talked about what happened after he had won. A wave of realization came over Riz as he realized that he hadn't heard anything about Calvert after the previous installment. It was like...he disappeared. That was it. The Channel 10 news had done a small program every week for a month or two after Bryan's win, calling it Calvert Watch, but nothing was ever reported.

A rough shove to the back snapped John out of his daydreaming state.

"Something wrong Mr. Rizzolo?" The voice said again with an almost fatherly tone.

John stepped into the room and got a better look at the man.

Victor Danya was shorter than Riz had expected him to be, though Riz's guess about Danya being slightly on the pudgy side had been spot on. There were traces of a dark spots amidst a head of graying hair. The next things John noticed were two very visible scars. One rested upon Danya's cheek, the second was on the side of his neck right above the shirt collar. Danya looked expectantly at Riz, before John realized that he must be expecting an answer.

"Actually, yeah, something is wrong," John began as he sat down in the single chair in front of Danya's desk, "You see sir, I just went through hell and back all over that island. Ruined my pants, scarred up my face and lost two fingers. Now, your crew here brings me on board, sends me to your nurse to get patched up, and then, on top of having cold hands, the bitch makes me put back on my bloody clothes. All the resources in the world to pull off what you just did Mr. Danya, but you can't even spare me a clean shirt?"

The guards standing in the open doorway held their breath as they waited for what Danya would do.

Danya himself sat in his chair and stared at the boy in front of him. John was almost positive that he could sense the curiosity in Danya's eyes. Then suddenly, Danya reached down and pulled out a pistol. A very familiar looking pistol. The very same Type 67 Silenced Pistol that John had carried with him on the island. The look on Danya's face went from one of curiosity to one of intensity as he pointed the gun at John. John closed his eyes as he anticipated what would happen next.

Strangely though, the expected shot did not come. Instead the room was filled with Danya's chuckling.

"You know Johnny boy, aside from the fact that you lost me some money in the office pool, I like you. A new shirt...that's a good one. We'll see about fixing that problem when we're done in here. Now is there anything you'd like? Something to eat, something to drink?"

John was still breathing heavier than he would later admit, but the prospect of something decent to eat or drink was too tantalizing to pass up.

"You guys have any soup?"

"Matthews!," Danya barked at the door, "Go get my guest some soup."

"Why should he get any soup? He should be grateful he's even here!" The guard said loudly.

*BANG*

*thump*

Danya sat behind his desk, the Type 67 pointed towards where the man now formerly known as Matthews lay on the ground with a hole in his face.

"Would anyone else like to question me on what Mr. Rizzolo should and shouldn't be grateful for?" Danya said menacingly.

No one said a word.

"Now, one of you go and get this young man some soup. And one of you dispose of Matthews."

John was once again staring blankly at the ground where two large men were hauling the body away. The sound of Danya's voice brought him back once again.

"Not a bad little weapon if I say so myself. A little heavy for my tastes, but it seemed to serve you well. I hope you don't mind, but I decided to keep it. I have little mementos from each of our esteemed winners. The knife that Mr. Dodd used on Cody Jenson is right in that case there."

John's eyes found a small glass case with a bloodied knife inside.

"Bryan's famous shotgun is actually in my office back at the headquarters. I was really debating whether or not I wanted this gun or your tire iron, but looking back to what just happened, I'm happy with the choice I made. Speaking of weapons John, I must commend you. This far into my conversations with Adam and Bryan, both of them had insulted me and made attempts on my life. It is nice to sit down with someone who can understand me. You are similar to me John."

"I'm not like you Mr. Danya."

"Pardon me?"

"I'm not like you at all. I understood how I had to get off that island. I understood what I needed to do, and who I needed to be out there to get the job done, but I'll never understood why exactly you do this."

"Do you really want to know John?"

Riz looked Danya in the eyes and nodded.

"It is about fear John. Capitalizing on the fear of others keeps people on their toes. It might sound cliché to you, but by kidnapping you kids and forcing this situation upon you, everyone else can have a better appreciation for the lives that they live John. Does that make any sense to you?"

"It does sir. I just don't get why you choose random kids like us. Wouldn't this be more of a statement if you had important people stuck on the island?"

"You mean like adults?"

"Yes."

"Where would the ratings be John? Trust me when I say that we make a lot of money when we do this. Kids your age are perfect since you all display such a range of emotions. It is much more unpredictable and that is the factor we love. You must also remember that the public heartstrings are tugged more when it is young people in danger John. Hell John, some of the scenes that you partook in this time around were in the highest ratings we’ve ever had. You are a star of this show. That fight between you and Sullivan..."

"Stop."

"Excuse me?"

"Don't talk about Eddie Sullivan to me. To be honest Mr. Danya, I could give a fuck about any of the people I killed, except Eddie. Sullivan pushed me to my absolute limit sir. Hell, we blew up a good chunk of the forest trying to kill each other. Say whatever you want about any of the others, I really don't care, but please, do not talk about Eddie Sullivan. He is the only person that gets my respect from that class."

"Fair enough John. I can understand that."

"Speaking of explosions, if you don't mind me asking, what was that huge one we all heard? Something big happened, but it was on the far side of the island from where I was. Never had a chance to check it out."

Riz could sense the slightest bit of hesitation from Danya.

"That would be chalked up to the incompetence of my staff team. Do you remember seeing an old armory on your map?"

John thought about it for a moment then nodded.

"Well, it turns out that during our sweep of the island, one of my team forgot to turn off a gas-line. Your classmate Adam Dodd decided to try and rally the troops to make a laughable try to escape. Well, one thing led to another, and Adam said one too many fucks to the wrong person. One single bullet Mr. Rizzolo. A single bullet hit the gas-line where it goes into the building, and well, ka-boom."

"I never liked Dodd anyways." John said with a slight smile.

"Did you ever have to talk to him in school?" Danya inquired.

"Nope. He was a loner. Hardly talked to anyone. Probably a shitty leader. No wonder he got everyone killed."

"Precisely. Consider yourself lucky for never having to talk to him though. Between the fucks and the shits and the fuckshits, you can barely make out the other words."

Danya's hand moved up and touched his cheek scar.

"Moving along though John, there is the matter of your return home. Now, normally we'd knock you out, and just toss you on your front lawn, but as I said before, I like you John. We'll just skip the knockout part and."

"I don’t want to go home," Riz interrupted, "I'll probably be arrested, and if I'm not arrested, I'll probably be killed by an angry parent or something."

"You'd be surprised John. Look at what happened with Dodd."

"I think I'm in a little bit of a different situation than Adam, Mr. Danya. I'm the bad guy remember?"

"John, you said it yourself on the island there. Your friends and family will be happy that you are even alive. I've seen your acting, you can play it up. Play the sympathy card. Go on Oprah. You'll figure out a way John. It also won't hurt your chances that my little organization has some pull in your homeland, so we can help you in terms of protection."

Riz sat in the chair thinking about what the man in front of him was saying.

"Alright. So what is going to happen to me when I get back? Am I going to be arrested or something?"

"You know Johnny, for a guy who radiated arrogance and confidence no more than a few hours ago, you seem to be worrying a lot."

"I don’t have the luxury of hiding behind an organization like you do Mr. Danya."

"Don't you worry. We'll set everything up. Same way Dodd and Calvert got out of it. Victims of the situation. John, the public might know you killed those other kids but they'll be more focused on the fact that you were being held as a hostage of a terrorist game."

Answers for everything. John could tell that Danya prided himself on having these answers ready. Something about Danya's guarantees were still setting John off, but he had no other option than to trust that the guarantees would be true.

"So John, before we end our talk, I do have to ask, what was going through your mind when you killed Emma? I mean, that segment scored huge numbers for us. I really though you were done for. I was sitting in my office thinking, 'There goes Rizzolo.', but you somehow got out of it."

John chuckled remembering the situation.

"A combination of luck and the right person holding the gun. Any of those other bitches and it would be a different person talking to you right now, but I got lucky. The way she hesitated let me know that I could get out of it."

Danya shook his head smiling.

"Well played John."

There was another pause that was soon broken by Danya.

"Well, I think that pause indicates that we should be getting on with getting you home. Go with that man there. His name is Dunlop. He'll take you back down to the nurse to make sure she didn't miss anything, and get you a fresh shirt. Congratulations again John."

"Thanks." John replied curtly as he stood up and walked over to the man pointed out as Dunlop.

"Oh, and John, sorry that your soup never came."

---

((19 Hours Later))

"That motherfucker." John mumbled as he rose to his feet.

It had turned out that Danya had indeed lied to him. The trip back down to the nurse had been a ruse. The bitch told him he needed an IV to get some fluids back in his system. Turned out, he was unconscious within 30 seconds. When he came to, he was in the back of a van surrounded by men with guns, throwing him out of the aforementioned van, and onto the grass in front of a house.

John turned around and instantly recognized where he was. He was home. The lights were out on the house, but that didn't stop a smile from spreading across his face. John excitedly rushed to the front door and found it unlocked. He pushed the door open and dashed inside.

"Hello?!?" He yelled.

No response came.

"Hello...anyone?" John called again.

John began to walk around the house. Something was very off about the situation. The pictures on the walls were gone and the house itself felt empty.

"What the hell?" John muttered as a lump began to form in his stomach.

He went to his parent's room and found nothing. The drawers had been emptied. The same was true with his sister's rooms. Finally John came to the door that led to his own room. Slowly he opened it and found that it was untouched. It was exactly how he remembered it. The first thing he noticed was an envelope on the bed with "J.R." written on the front in what he recognized as his sister Kelly's handwriting.

Dear J.R.,

As you've probably seen, Mom had us pack up our stuff and leave. What you did on that island was unforgiveable. I cannot fathom how you went from being my big brother to a murderer so easily. We couldn't deal with it. We couldn't take the stares from our friends and neighbours. You broke our family John. Mom has moved us away. I will not tell you where we are. You hurt us all so badly. It pains me to write this, but I no longer think of you as my brother. John you may have won and lived through that game, but you are dead to me, and you are dead to this family.


John's face contorted with rage as he remembered Emma Babineaux's warning of what his family would think. He had been so confident that they would understand that he did what he did so he could see them all again.

John roared with ire as he threw the letter back down on the bed. Breathing extremely heavily he sat down on his bed, only to hear a crumpling noise. He reached back to his pocket and felt the letter he had picked up off of Ryan Atwell’s corpse at the airfield. All John wanted to do was rip it up when he saw the writing of 'Hey there, winner!' on the top, but he didn't. Instead he began to read,

Hey there, winner!

Ryan Atwell here, and if you're reading this, then you're probably the only person left standing in this hellish glory-hole of an island. God only knows what kind of shape you're in after the final battle, but God turned his eyes away from this place a long time ago.

That is, if you believe in God. I don't, so let's move on.

When you picked this letter up off of the ground next to or near my corpse, I really couldn't say what you were thinking. Maybe you thought that it was funny that someone had something that desperately needed to be said, so much so that they'd write you a letter. Perhaps it was curiosity, or maybe you're just bored and trying to pass the time. Nonetheless, I DO have a few pearls of wisdom that I'd like to send your way.

I spent a lot of my time in Survival of the Fittest looking around, and observing people. I figured that the best way to survive was to fly under the radar, and it got me pretty close to the end. Not close enough, of course. That's why you're sitting here with a letter, and I'm probably a corpse on the ground at your feet. While I was observing everyone's reactions, I figured a few things out - chiefly that none of this is our fault. No, really. It seems strange to say, but none of this is really our fault at all, and you, the winner, you can't hold that burden over yourself. We all saw that Dodd kid, and how his guilt destroyed him. It chewed him up, spit him out, and the result was someone that nobody wanted to know, and everyone tried to steer clear of. Truth was? Dude wasn't that bad of a guy, he just carried that guilt around with him wherever he went.

YOU CANNOT DO THE SAME.

The fact is, I don't know which of you is going to come out on top. As far as I know, there's six people left alive after I die, and any of the six of you could be the winner. A couple of them, I know pretty well. I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I know everyone's motivations, because I don't. I don't know why a suitably decent guy like J.R. went off and started shooting people, nor do I know why Lenny apparently went ape-shit crazy a few days in. What I can tell you is that in the end, you did what you had to do. You had the resolve, the fortitude, and the luck to come out alive at the end, and the rest of us couldn't pull that off. You have absolutely NOTHING to be ashamed of. So you killed someone, or many someones...that's not worth damning you for. The fact is, that YOU are the lone representative of our memories. You are what people are going to refer to when someone thinks of Ryan Atwell, or Steve Digaetano, or whomever.
If nothing else, you need to be the keeper of our legacy. I won't hold you responsible for the actions that you've done on the island. But you need to ensure that you remember just who has come before you and justify our (needlessly short) existences to the rest of the world.

If you can bring respect to our memories, and justify that you are an adequate keeper of our lost aspirations and our dreams, then...well, you've earned the right to stand there and call yourself the sole survivor. You have my respect.

I'm starting to feel really weak, and I can barely keep the pen to the page, so before signing off, there's one thing that I've got to ask you to do. There was one dude that I stuck with near the end of my time; a really good guy by the name of Steve Digaetano. He just died about forty-five minutes ago, and he asked me to tell his family some things, to make some apologies for him. Now...obviously, I'm not around to do that, so I need you to pass some things along for me. I get if you can't do it in person, but even if you could just mail a letter, or something...that'd be great. It's all about keeping a promise, you know?

Steve asked me to tell his parents that he was so sorry for them. He cared enough about what they thought to feel like he let them down, but we all know that it wasn't true. He was thinking about them, though. Right down to the bitter end. His sister Jen, too. He loved her, that much was obvious. I didn't have any siblings, but they seemed to really have a bond. Finally, Steve never really forgave himself for not being able to save his buddy Gabe, and wanted me to apologize to his parents for it. Fact is...most of us were beyond salvation out here, but Steve was the one really good guy that I ran into out here. If I can do his memory right, at the very least......well, it's a start. At the end. How ironic.

I guess that's really all that I've got. You've got your life, winner. What you choose to do with it from here on out is your own decision, but...for what it's worth? I think you'll make the right choice. Enjoy your life, you've earned it!

-Ryan Atwell

P.S: Find your humanity. You'll need it for what's ahead.


John re-read the line of find your humanity several times before he once growled with anger and began tearing his room apart.

---

((One Year Later))

The next year had been a whirlwind for John Rizzolo. It didn't take long for the police to show up at his house after he began tearing his room apart. A neighbor had heard the noise and reported the disturbance as a possible robbery. Once the police realized who John was, he was whisked away to the station where they waited for the official word on what to do with him.

John was right when he had talked to Danya. Some people wanted his head on a stake, but Mr. Danya had been more right. No charges were ever raised against the boy as it seemed that the American media painted a picture of John as the tragic victim of circumstance.

What surprised John the most was the changes in his lifestyle. With his family nowhere to be found, John had no choice but to embrace the image painted of him. News outlets from not just America were paying him top dollar to make appearances. Publishing companies were in a constant bidding war of offers to John for him to write about his experience on the island. He even became an endorsee of a line of action figures that had a kicking feature. The cliff set was sold separately.

With his newfound wealth John moved into Los Angeles, to get away from his former home. The Hollywood life was perfect for what John needed. It was an outlet for him to not think about his family. It was an outlet for him to not think about Southridge. At the first announcement from news outlets that another class had been kidnap and that the Survival of the Fittest game was occurring once again, John was once again in the spotlight. Every media form possible wanted his take on everything from whether he would watch it to his predictions for a winner.

One night after giving an interview at a local LA news station, John arrived home and opened the front door. He kicked off his shoes and made his way to the kitchen.

What the hell?

John's eyes had found an envelope on his kitchen counter with his name on it and no other markings. John looked around as if expecting someone to pop out and yell surprise but nothing came. John carefully opened the envelope and scanned what was written. His eyes widened nervously as he checked the digital clock on the microwave. John let the letter fall to the ground as he hastily put his shoes back on his feet. He slammed the door behind him as he ran down the steps.

John ran as fast as his legs would carry him to a nearby park where he saw a figure sitting on a nearby bench. John approached the bench and sat down.

"You're late." The voice of Mr. Danya was unmistakeable.

"I had an interview to do. I didn't know you guys would start up another one of these things."

"John, I don't have a lot of time here, so I just wanted to make sure you understand that we'll be watching you. You are a publicity blessing. With you doing the interviews like this, our ratings for this installment are huge."

"I'll be fine."

"Just remember John. Keep up the good work. Oh, and this might be a little bit late but take this. It is a bit chilly for California tonight."

John accepted the brown paper bag before watching Danya rise and walk away. Before rising up, he opened the bag to see that it contained a soup container and spoon. Letting out a small chuckle, John rose off the bench.

John walked back to his house and up the front steps. He placed his key in the lock only to discover it was unlocked already.

I need to stop forgetting to lock the damn door.

John checked the digital clock once again. It read 11:43pm. After confirming with his calendar that he had another appearance to make in the morning, John heated up the soup bowl before heading upstairs to his bedroom.

He opened the door to his bedroom and flicked the light switch, only to find that it was not working.

"I spent a shitload on this place and this is the quality I get."

"I wouldn't fret about th' quality John." Said a voice.

"What the hell," John yelled in surprise, "Who, who is there?"

John strained his eyes looking around his room in the pitch black. Finally the source of the voice stepped into the moonlight coming through John's window.

"YOU?!? You're dea...you're dea...YOU FUCKING DIED!" John yelled in panic as he dropped his soup.

"Did I now?"

"Fuck you!" John roared as he scrambled to his dresser drawer, opening the top right one.

"Lookin' for this John?"

The figure was brandishing exactly what he had been looking for.

"You fucking b-"

The sentence was cut-off by a loud pop, followed by the thud of John Rizzolo hitting the ground, the hole in his forehead gushing blood on to the floor.

B58 - Johnathan Rizzolo - Deceased
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The gunshot was loud. Damn loud. Too much noise to dawdle, not that the plan had been to take a tour, but this would need to be prompt.

A pair of eyes roved around the room, lingering briefly on the corpse of Johnathan Rizzolo and the bloody crater in his forehead. His expression was furious, indignant. Good. He didn't deserve a calm death. The figure's gaze moved on, until at last it alighted on what it had been searching for. The spent bullet casing from the shot lay in the beam of moonlight shining from the window. A stroke of luck, really, it could easily have gone flying into the recesses of the room. A gloved hand descended, plucked the casing from the floor, and stowed it away.

The figure examined the gun in their other hand, Riz's gun. Using it had been an unnecessary flourish, in spite of the sense of justice from the act. After all, trying to murder somebody whilst unarmed wasn't the greatest of ideas. There was a momentary temptation to put the pistol into Rizzolo's hand, but that quickly passed. Even gloved, holding the weapon might have left some sort of trace on its grip. Too risky.

Riz's firearm was stashed, and then the figure gave the room a quick once over. No doubt something had been overlooked, but without combing through the house with a microscope, something being missed was inevitable. Hopefully what had been done here would throw any investigation off, and with the plan... any delay to pursuit meant a getaway.

Walking over to the bedroom door, which Riz had left obligingly open, the murderer cast back one last, brief look at their victim.

And Maxie Dasai smiled, just a little.


~*~

Finding out where Johnathan Rizzolo lived wasn't hard. He hadn't exactly been keeping a low profile since returning to the states as the sole survivor (...ha) of Survival of the Fittest, Version 3. In fact, he'd practically been lapping up the publicity, embracing the image the media fabricated for him; the teenager that was forced to kill, forced to watch his classmates die. Blameless, really, who else could claim that they wouldn't have done the same in Johnathan's position? He, after all, had no choice in the matter.

Except that he had done. Except that Maxie could make that claim.

But in spite of the bullshit, which at times had reduced her to screaming rage and obscenities at the TV, Maxie had watched it all. Every interview she could find. TV, Radio, it didn't matter. Every segment on every talk show. Every published psychoanalysis, every commentary on Rizzolo's game. Even some of the endorsements. She'd scrounged up all of it, as much as she possibly could, for every shred of information. Every last damn thing about him.

Maxie had passed on buying the action figures though.

LA. LA. LA.

A mantra that had been drumming through her head for close to a year. A mantra that came with a set of intentions, intentions which hadn't been made known until a few days previously. Old Maxie, impulsive Maxie... she might've gone bolting off the second the notion struck her to kill Riz. That wasn't her any longer. Maxie thought things over, considered her options. She was still aggressive, short-tempered and brash... but reckless she wasn't. That, more than anything else, had probably convinced Lucas Grossi of Maxie's seriousness when she'd told him of her plan. He hadn't been happy, but he hadn't stood in her way either, even offering a small amount of assistance. Before Maxie had left, though, he'd warned her that she was on her own if she was caught.

That was fine by her. If ten months of plotting wasn't good enough to evade capture, Maxie deserved to fail.

By the time Maxie made it to LA, V4 had started. It might as well have been Riz's cue to erect a gigantic flashing neon sign screaming 'HERE I AM!' The media circus went wild around him all over again. Maxie would've been grateful for the heads up if she didn't already know her target's exact address. Still, confirmation that he hadn't moved in the meantime had been comforting.

For a few days, Maxie had just kept a low profile and surveyed the lay of the land. Renting a dirt cheap room in a seriously seedy motel, Maxie had used that as her base of operations to stake Riz's place out. In that she'd again been fortunate, as the sidewalk opposite the house gave way to a narrow strip of grass, upon which was a worn old bench. Maxie had sat there for many hours, a suitable distant from Riz's place not to be obviously keeping tabs on it, an illusion aided by the paperback novel she brought with her every day. A beanie pulled over her head and a set of eyeglasses with fake lenses perched on her nose, Maxie had barely attracted a second glance. Just some college dropout with nothing better to do with her time.

Riz, she'd discerned, didn't have a set schedule. He came and went to and from his house very inconsistently, more than likely dependent on what kind of interview offers he'd had recently. One thing became clear though. At whatever hour he eventually came home, he came home alone. Checking out of her motel room, Maxie had tossed the beanie and glasses, swapping to a set of mirrored aviators and a trilby. Looked stupid, but anybody looking would focus on the hat and the shades, not the woman wearing them. She'd spent those next days hanging out in a couple of local dives, carefully avoiding getting drunk, then roughed it for the nights, something which called back memories of her time on the island. Although the streets were a hell of a lot less humid than the jungles of V3, even if they probably carried a similar risk of getting stabbed.

Then, she'd shed that disguise and returned to Riz's place.

Maxie had been intending to break into the house in the small hours. So seeing Riz bolt out of the front door like his ass was on fire hadn't exactly been her expectation. In truth, Maxie had almost turned around right then and there, to try again the next night... but the wide open door had been far too tempting to pass up. Sneaking inside, Maxie had quickly walked through the place, memorising the layout. Finding a room with a bed, she'd deemed that as good a place as any to await her prey and, unscrewing the light bulb, Maxie had waited.

She didn't need to hang around for long.


~*~


Sean O'Cann's breathing was laboured, struggling. If he wasn't hurting too badly to turn over, Sean would've been able to see that he was lying in a pool of blood. He was, at least, sheltered from the intense gunfight taking place on the beach, given his position in the bottom of a boat. Somehow, he didn't think that the result of the battle was going to affect him too much.

"Shit..." Sean let out something like a giggle. "Shit. All this, all that time... and THIS is what happens? ...My nickname is the worst fucking piece of irony in the history of man."

Really though, what had Sean done to deserve an out? Busted his head, got wet, and bitched a lot. He never helped anyone out, or tried to win the game... he just wandered around, somehow managed to dodge all the psychos (well, apart from Gabriel and Dominica, but subject B had returned from 'the Dark Side' and subject A had been fucking nuts anyway), and through sheer blind chance, had stumbled across the armoury.

Sure, he'd had it shit, but who hadn't? Everyone's friends were dying, everyone's partners. Fuck, in some cases, it was even family. Sean had been an asshole. A grieving asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. That he'd made it even as far as the armoury without friends; well... that was some feat, in the end.

Maybe, at least... maybe he'd taken the shot for somebody who deserved to get out of there more.

Sean thought of Tyson. God but they'd been a pair of douchebags. Tight, but a pair of douchebags nevertheless. His best buddy, always in with the stupid jokes, hanging around the popular crowd and trying to be one of the 'cool kids'. Never bullied anyone unless he had at least three 'buddies' to back him up. Yeah, Tyson was a dick, but Sean had hardly been any better, back then. Sean wondered once again... what had he done to drive Tyson away? He never did learn what came between their friendship. That secret died on the island. Really, it didn't matter. Sean just wanted to hear one more, stupid, groan inducing joke. Just one.

Sean thought of Ric Chee. He should've apologised to the poor bastard. Fuck, he should've gone to jail for what he did to the guy. Practically ruined his life, certainly gave him the death sentence on the island. He would never have been on the trip if he hadn't suffered those injuries, he would've graduated the year before. That was a regret. A big one. Sean hoped his remorse would be enough.

Sean thought of Simon. His cousin. Never close, Sean had always thought of him as a nerdy square... but family was family. The guy came back from a crippled arm and the destruction of his life's dream. That deserved props. He'd deserved better than this, after surviving what he had.

And Sean thought of Andy. He thought of his boundless exuberance, his endless encouragement when Sean finally bit the bullet and came out. He thought of their first date, still awkward, Andy grabbing his hand and Sean not sure how to react. He thought of soft lips on his, and of warm bodies pressed close to one another in bed in a tight embrace. He thought of that devilish smile...

As Sean's eyes closed... he felt peaceful.



Sean O'Cann: DECEASED


~*~


There was a jolt, and Maxie started awake, instantly alert. Her heart hammered for a few seconds as she peered into the darkness... then she relaxed. It had just been her transport getting going again. That was a reprieve. What she was doing – hitching a ride on a cargo train, wasn't exactly legal. Maxie had been forced to bail from two of her rides already after being discovered hunkered at the back of a carriage. Since it was dark, and Maxie was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, neither security guard had got a proper look at her.

She'd thought that the jolt might have been somebody finding her sleeping... which would have wound up messy. Maxie would have been forced to fight her way out of it, and an unconscious inspector would have only attracted unwanted attention. Instead, the jarring movement was just the train leaving the station en route to its next destination. Maxie had covered her tracks pretty well so far, she believed, but she didn't even want to give the cops a hint. Riz's pistol had been dumped in a trashcan several blocks away from his home, Maxie's own gun was lying at the bottom of a river somewhere (she still had her switchblade, but a gun was just going to raise questions). She'd tossed the bullet casing off the side of one of the trains, and her gloves had wound up in another trash can whilst she was figuring out how to hitch a ride on her current transport.

If they managed to pick up and stay on her trail after all that... well, Maxie would give the head of the investigation a fucking round of applause herself. Idly, Maxie wondered if Rizzolo's body had been discovered yet. It'd been an entire day so... more than likely. Missed appointments would be noted, even if the sound of the gunshot hadn't. Still... Maxie smirked. Good luck drawing up a list of suspects for the murder of a SOTF winner during a season of SOTF.

Especially one that included a dead woman.

Still, falling asleep had been careless. Maybe even complacent. It didn't matter that she was running on fumes after sleeping on the streets for two of the previous three nights, and not at all the other. This would mean a hell of a lot less if she wound up in jail for it. Tomorrow, Maxie promised herself. Tomorrow she'd be able to relax a little, once she made it to where she needed to go. Until then, she had to stay awake, had to stay vigilant. Wasn't like Maxie hadn't had practice.

Just another thing that the island had so kindly taught her.


~*~


Maxie looked at herself in the mirror and heaved a long sigh of relief. She wasn't home safe yet but... the hard part was over. She could drop the super-spy shit now. Her cruise ticket was legitimate, insomuch as anything gained with a fake passport could be legit. Nobody had any cause for suspicion. Grossi had done a great job with the false ID, which proclaimed her to be Cassandra Bailey. Maxie had no idea how the government man had got it made, and frankly, she didn't particularly care. So long as it did the job right – and it did, Maxie was satisfied.

Looking at her reflection, Maxie managed half a smile. They didn't come easily, these days. Finally though... finally she felt like herself again. No irritating disguises, no need for subterfuge. Just Maxie Dasai. She brushed a hand across her head, liking the feel of the buzzed hair underneath her fingers. In fairness, it had been her haircut that had made all the hats necessary... a skin headed (or near enough) woman was liable to attract attention. But fuck it. This was her. How she wanted to look.

Stepping away from the mirror, Maxie left the bathroom to return to her cabin proper. It wasn't exactly spacious, but Maxie wasn't too bothered. She wouldn't be spending all that long on the ship, and after the places she'd been sleeping... a room with an actual bed that wasn't flea infested and stained with unspeakable substances... it was a godsend. Flopping down onto the quilt, Maxie fell into the best damn sleep she'd ever had.


~*~


Maxie hated islands. Too many memories, especially if they were jungled. Hanging around at the terminal building of the island's harbour was making her edgy. The cruise ship had only departed half an hour ago, but Maxie had never been very good at waiting... and the closer this trip came to its conclusion, the more she just wanted it to be over and done with. Go home. Well, what she called home now. Her real home, where she'd grown up, that was back in Highland Beach. Around Southridge.

She hadn't seen her parents since just before the trip, Maxie realised, with a slight pang. They'd never been the closest knit family in the world, she and her brother had spent most of their time driving their parents up the wall. But even so... this was her mom and dad. She couldn't even let them know she was alive. Lucas, her brother, Maxie had seen. Not personally though. On TV. He'd been planning a career in MMA for a while, and had applied for and made it onto that UFC show, the Ultimate Fighter. His fellow contestants had brought up SOTF now and then, sometimes even Maxie's involvement, before Lucas shut down the topic firmly. Whenever it showed a shot of Lucas's bare arm, though... it showed a tattoo. Her name. The first time Maxie had seen it, she'd spent the rest of the day crying.

Something caught Maxie's ear, a news story, being broadcast from a large TV mounted on the wall of the terminal building's waiting area. She looked up from where she was sitting.

"...zzolo, who was found dead in his Los Angeles home by his publicist two days ago. The winner of the third version of the terrorist kidnapping plot known as Survival of The Fittest, Rizzolo had been the subject of considerable media interest upon the announcement of a fourth set of kidnappings. The police have revealed that they are treating the death as murder, and are appealing for any witnesses to come forward.

In related news, the fourth version of the terrorist kidnapping plot known as Survival of The Fittest is continuing..."

Maxie looked away from the TV and stood, feeling nothing more than satisfaction. Odd, really, given how she'd steadfastly refused to kill any of her fellows on the island, even when her life might have depended on it, to decide to murder Riz. Except-

"Ma- Cassandra! Cass!"

Startled, Maxie whirled around to see a dark haired young woman rushing towards her. Before she could say a word, she'd been wrapped in a tight embrace. Maxie went rigid, then hissed.

"Don't. Touch. Me."

The other immediately let go, stepping back from Maxie with a sheepish look on her face. "I'm sorry, I forgot about your touching thing-"

"I don't have a touchin' thing, it's just... nevermind. Hi, Torrie."

Torrie Taylor, STAR reconnaissance, grinned. "Hi. What say you we go catch a plane?"


~*~


That one was for Emma. Ya lyin' son of a bitch, that one was for her. Ya used her, not once, but twice. Ya really thought after all that... after Cara, after Anton, after Ed, after Joe, Dawn, Velvet, Lyn, Nicole, after Eddie Sullivan, after Lu...

Ya thought you'd just get away with it? Well... ya knew Dodd. Happens ya probably did.

That was for everyone, Johnathan Rizzolo. Everyone you killed. Everyone you 'overcame'. She fuckin' told ya about Andrea. She fuckin' told ya about the shot we had to get out, and what'd you do? Ya fuckin' murdered her. Ya had it comin', ya prick. Nobody else on that damn island deserved it, Riz, well... bar one.

Ya might have claimed in those interviews that you killed because you had to... took the excuse that you were fed. But I know that's not true. Ya killed because ya wanted to, Riz. A murderer doesn't play with his victims. And ya did. If your hand was forced... then why'd ya torture, why'd ya maim?

I didn't have to shoot ya, John.

But I wanted to.



~*~


The 4X4 tore along the track at a speed unlikely to be safe, kicking up gigantic plumes of dust in its wake. Torrie drove, Maxie stared out of the window on the jeep's passenger side. She never learned to drive, let alone on roads which were sometimes little more than dirt tracks. It would probably be a waste to die in a car accident, after everything that had happened.

Not that Torrie was a careful driver, but hell, there was nothing on the road for miles around, and she was used to shuttling through the Outback anyway. Faster they drove, the sooner that Maxie could get home, or what passed for home now. Funny, really, that somebody like her would actually like this kind of isolation. The partygoer, the raver...

Maybe it was because that's who she used to be.

At length, the jeep pulled up to a sizeable house, which looked as if it might have been part of a ranch sometime in the past. Torrie looked over to Maxie, tipping her sunglasses to regard her over the top of them.

"So, here we are. I... I can't believe you really did that... Congratulations, I guess."

Maxie shrugged. "Dunno how happy th' others will be. I asked Grossi not t'say anythin' until I was already gone."

"Well, STAR's opinion was mostly that it was on your own head. They didn't want you bringing everything down."

That garnered another shrug. "Fair enough. Never expected them t'want ta lend a hand. This wasn't anythin' ta do with them. It was personal."

Torrie grinned. "I'm glad, at least, that it worked out for you. As for the others, well..." Torrie inclined her head towards the house. "Why don't you go ask them yourself?"

"Was plannin' on it. ...Thanks for th' lift, Torrie."

"Some lift," she chuckled. "I'll see you around. The rest will drop by now and them, I'm sure."

Maxie cracked open the jeep's door and jumped out, her trainers kicking up small puffs of dust. The solitude of this little ranch was nice. The arid surroundings? Well, Maxie could live without them. Walking up to the house, Maxie ascended the steps leading up to the front door and paused, hand raised to knock. No.

She tried the door, it was unlocked.

Maxie stepped inside.

"Hoooooneeeeeeey. I'm hoooooome."


MAXIE DASAI: ALIVE


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Ciel
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"That’s not a prediction, that’s a spoiler.”
[ *  *  *  *  *  *  * ]
Bourbon. A Southern comfort. Heaven in a bottle. A burn that runs down your throat like a forest fire, the bowels of hell, and you love every minute. People say that bourbon is just whiskey, but it’s not just that, no, there was a special quality to it. Bourbon was different. It had its own special vibe, the kind that can’t be described. You’d have to taste it, study it for a minute to really understand it. It makes you feel like you’ve been walking through an endless dream. The kind of dream you wanted to wander through, the kind that helped you forget.

"Hoooooneeeeeeey. I'm hoooooome."

And Brad Kavanagh wanted to fucking chuck that bottle at the door. Wanted to hit her square in the head too. Too bad the strength in his arms had all but left him.

“Where were you?”

“Out."

It took Brad a minute to come up with a response. “Out. Don’t know where that is. Sure hoped you would have stayed there.”

Maxie didn’t appear to be affected by the insult. “Did ya hear? Riz is dead.”

“… of course. You were the one that did it."

“See, there’s somethin’ in that head of yours after all.”

Brad just glared.

"Dude, I’m just jokin’. Grossi already told ya’ll didn't he? So ya know already. Don’t need me ta tell it t’ ya twice."

Maxie Dasai. Brad really hated the way she joked around. He snorted. " 'course he did. Don't see how murder is a laughing matter."

Maxie snorted. "I ain’t laughin’, but Jesus, are ya actually sad t’ hear that Riz bit it?"

“Glad he’s dead,” Brad said without a moment’s hesitation. “I always fucking hated him. Stupid curvball throwing, smug ass mother fucker. Someone should have hung him the second he got on shore.”

Maxie shrugged. "Theeeen I can’t see where th’ problem is."

Brad just huffed and held onto the bottle in his hand. For the first time, Maxie seemed to notice it and she gave him an incredulous look.

"... ya drank half th’ bottle? Shit, ya got a problem Brad. And I thought I was bad."

Brad tried his best to ignore her. She thought he was bad? He wondered how she felt about him not giving a shit about her opinion. He considered chugging the rest just to spite her. Wipe that smug look off of her face. Abruptly though, that option was taken from him as Maxie wrenched the bottle out of his grasp.

"Ya know, I always pictured ya’ll as a lightweight." Maxie stared at the bottle, frowning.

Brad fumed, reaching towards her. "Give it back."

Maxie looked at him for a second, then shook her head. "Why should I? I mean jeez Brad, is it really that important?"

Brad felt his blood boiling over. "Give *it* back."

“No...” Maxie said thoughtfully. “No, I think ya need some help. And I’m in a really good mood.”

“Like I care.”

Maxie smirked. “That’s pretty much what ya say about everythin’ nowadays, ain’t it?

“Go. Fuck. Yourself.”

She bristled. “No.”

Brad sighed. “Why the hell are you bothering me? Just give it back. That bottle cost me a lot of cash.”

“I should imagine,” Maxie shrugs. “All that money you manage to mooch off Grossi and the rest. Yeah, I can see how ya would want to spend that shit on important stuff.”

“Stop putting your nose into other people’s business. You just went halfway around the world to murder somebody. You’re the one who needs some fucking help.”

"C’mon Brad. I know that I just came back from killin’ that bastard," she turned away from Brad, "I mean, I was pretty satisfied after, and even I can admit that’s kinda sick," she bit her lips. "But fuck, dude. That’s a guy who tried t’ kill me. That’s a guy who killed eleven of our friends. Jesus, look in the damn mirror. Ya wanna say that I need help? Cause that’s not how it is from where I’m standin’."

"I don't need help."

"Bullshit," Maxie rolled her eyes. "Really, think for a sec. Ya’ll are about ready ta explode right now. And why? Cause I took away this?” She held up the bottle of Bourbon. “Ya need ta take a long hard look at yourself, Bradley. Seriously. I mean jeez dude, do ya even know how long it’s been since ya last shaved?"

"I don't need help." Brad repeated.

She grinned, but there was an edge to the smile "I don't care how ya feel about it. Seriously. Wanna know why none of th’ others give a damn about ya, these days?"

"No."

Maxie stared. The smile finally faded. "Ya know, I'm tryin’ t’ be real nice ta ya Brad. I honestly don't think ya’ll are a complete asshole. Maybe just a regular one, sure, but -" she took a step back, as Brad made a snatch for the bottle. "- Hey! I ain’t givin’ this back, not with how ya reacted.”

Brad sneered. "Are you done preaching yet?” he reached out again. “Seriously, can I have it back?"

"No I’m not and no ya can’t."

"Well I'm done with this shit. If you think I'm going to just stand here and let 'you' try to fix me, then-"

"Brad," Maxie’s expression was completely serious now. "I ain’t screwin’ with ya. I ain’t fuckin’ around. Ya. Need help."

"Last time. Give it back."

Maxie sighed. "Earth callin’, Brad. Why is it that everything ya don’t wanna hear goes in one ear and straight out the other? Are ya that dumb? I ain’t going t’ give it back Brad. And ya wanna know why?”

“No.”

“Shut up, I don’t care. It’s been a year Brad. We all went through hell.We’re all fucked up here. If I can move on from... from what happened to me... in any case, we can help. We ain’t just pretendin’ ya’ll don’t exist.”

“Fuck you,” Brad growled. “And DON’T talk to me like you know me either. Because you don’t.”

“I know ya well enough t’ know that ya’ll aren’t dealin’ with these problems in th’ right way.” Maxie shrugged.

“The alcohol helps. Now give it back.”

Maxie opened her mouth to say something before closing it again and scowling at him. She looked down at the bottle, then back over to Brad. Before he could react, Maxie went over to the door, threw it open, and emptied the rest of the bottle out.

“Ya don’t need it.” Maxie said.

“Fuck!” Brad was almost too astounded to be angry. “God fucking damn it!”

“Ya should be thankin’ me,” Maxie scolded. “I don’t go out of my way t’ help everyone y’know.”

“You call that helping?!”

Maxie folded her arms, leaning on the door frame. “Yes. Yes I do. What else did you think it was?”

Oh how Brad wanted to just punch her right now. There was a long silence. Maxie had just thrown out his purpose. What else did he have?! She couldn’t understand. Nobody could understand! Brad had to get out of there. He had to leave.

“I’m going out.” Brad mumbled.

“Ta get drunk?” Maxie did not sound amused. “Brad – it’s not going t’ help, ya know.”

“I don’t care. Better than staying here, listening to you lecture me.”

“The next town is fuckin’ miles away. No one’s gonna want t’ drive you, and ya can’t just walk there.”

Heh. Just watch me bitch. That was what he wanted to say, but he kept his mouth shut.

“I’m tryin’ ta help ya out here, Brad.” Maxie pouted. “Least ya can do is work with me on it.”

“Did you ever talk to me in school?”

Maxie stared at him. “What?”

“Did you ever speak to me? At all?” Brad coughed into his hand. “Ain’t that difficult of a question.”

Maxie looked confused. “Uhh, yeah. We had a project together, once. I ain’t followin’”

“No,” Brad spat. “I didn’t mean that. I mean just come up and start a conversation? YOU KNOW, friendly shit?”

Maxie shook her head. “No, but I don’t see how–“

And Brad interrupted her before she could retaliate. “Yeah,” Brad hesitated, “well,” he continued, “then let’s keep it that way. Because I sure as hell don’t want help from a bitch like you.”

He stormed out before Maxie could put in another word.

~

The drinking age was eighteen in Australia. Had Brad come to Australia on vacation before the camping trip, that might have mattered. As it stood, it really didn’t matter. Not to Brad or, fuck, anyone. In the grand scheme of things a drink was a drink, and it didn’t matter whether he was going to drink it off of the sand or on a table with a bartender looking at him with a quirked eyebrow.

“Looks like ya’ need a shave a hell of a lot more than a drink,” the bartender said.

“I'd beg to differ."

“You look like a damn roadside attraction mate. You with the circus?”

Brad didn’t have time for this. He wanted a drink. He glared at the comedian,. “If I admit to being the bearded lady, will you pour me a fucking drink? Because I’m pretty close to doing that.”

“Chill out mate,” the man said, “You need to lighten up.”

“I can fucking chill when it’s winter,” Brad retorted, then he added. “It’s the middle of May.”

The bartender stared, shrugged and then walked away. It was better this way, Brad figured. Better that the asshole didn't bother with him. After his colorful conversation with Maxie, the task of actually talking to another living breathing human sounded like a nightmare. Let him dream in peace, away from everyone else.

The tender came back with the glass. The hell of it was... the second that glass was placed down on the counter, Brad realized that he didn’t want it. The bourbon in his hand did not look like bourbon anymore. For all he knew it could have been chlorine, dish detergent, rat poison but it sure as hell wasn't bourbon. He still drank it though. All the way down. Nothing more than a second’s hesitation.

He felt empty afterwards. Strange. Usually, Bourbon was like gas to Brad's fire, but today it wasn’t working as well. He grumbled. Fuck, this wasn't working. He blamed Maxie. Why the hell did she have to go flinging that passive aggressive shit at him? Why couldn't she go back to ignoring him? Why did she have to talk to him today, of all days? Couldn’t she go back to killing people? Because she sure as hell did a great job of that!

Brad turned his head away. He wanted to stare at something. Anything. He wanted to distract himself from the thoughts swirling around in his head, like a whirlpool.

There was a phone on the wall. A corded phone, a mix between tan, yellow and gray. The kind of phone that should be in an office, not a bar. Even so, it was a phone.

He wasn't supposed to call. They told him that. That was one of the rules that Brad always followed but he was damn sure were being bent all the time. He bet that Maxie broke it, what with the way she’d sit in front of the TV for hours on end watching that brother of hers rolling around with other guys, half naked. He was supposed to stay where he was. He could start some real shit if he called. All of his instincts, every fiber in his body told him no. The alcohol said yes. Fuck the rules. Fuck them. The alcohol was telling him sweet nothings, that everything would be fine if he just made the call. This whole week was special to him, after all. Do it. Feel better.

Jesus. Brad really wanted to feel better. He just...

Brad got up from his seat and walked over to the wall. He picked up the phone.

“Can this thing make calls to other countries?” Brad gruffed.

“Yeah,” The bartender looked like he had been distracted by a lovely blond blowing up chunks in the corner, he sneered, “But there’s a charge, mate Pretty steep too. I suggest waiting ‘till you get home.”

“I’ll pay for it.” Brad said, fishing out his wallet. “I need to call someone.”

The bartender looked at him, a sense of pity in his eyes. “Important?”

“Maybe.” Brad mumbled. “Can’t wait until I get home.”

The guy nodded. “Sure,” but he raised a hand. “That’s a twenty.”

“Bullshit.”

"Twenty. Or else you can't use the phone." The bartender shrugged. "You know, gotta pay the bills."

"Fuck," Brad growled. “That much for a call?! That ain't paying the bills, that's just plain robbery!"

The bartender didn't look too concerned. "You said it was important, right?"

Brad wanted to argue with the guy... but he gave up. He didn't want to. He grumbled and threw a twenty at the guy. He clicked the receiver, dialed a few numbers, waited.

His heart pounded in his chest. The bourbon from earlier was starting to get to him. He could still talk, and he could still see, but thinking was hard for him. He sighed. His mother picked up. She sounded rushed when she said hello. Was she in the middle of something? Brad knew she was had to work. She always worked from home. He probably called her while she was in the middle of her calculations. She got cranky whenever someone interrupted her when she was using the calculator. It made her lose her place – she was always forgetful like that. The silence on his end bothered her, but Brad’s throat went dry and words were a challenge. Maybe just as much of a challenge as killing someone, and he certainly did a bang up job of killing absolutely no one. Fuck. He was getting lost. Now the woman was screaming. Why the hell was she screaming? She never got this angry, she was always so quiet. It was what Brad loved about her.

“Who is this?!” She asked.

Brad almost told her the truth. The whole truth, nothing but. About how he watched countless people die. About how he leached a ride off a bunch of freedom fighters. About how he was now a drunken lout, blowing off cash he mooches off of others for the medicine he needs. About how he loved her, so god damn much. Almost. Brad was never a good liar.

“My name is,” Brad stumbled, trying to make his voice hoarse. “Michael Loveland.” Fucking lame as hell name, but it was going to have to do. “I’m a representative here at the electric company.”

“The electric company?” The voice said. Brad could feel the skepticism in her voice.

“Southern Californian Edison."

"Oh, right, yes."

Brad sighed. Yes. He was Michael Loveland, polite worker at the electric company. Not Brad Kavanagh, the drunken member of the walking dead. "We’re just taking a poll real quick, a census on how many people we’re serving.”

The voice calmed. “Oh yes. I don't mind." Silence. Brad imagined her moving the telephone from one ear to the other. Normally she hung up on representatives, and normally she never picked up when the area code was different. Odd, Brad had just noticed that. She answered, catching him off guard. “I suppose I could take it. How long will this take?"

"Only a few minutes."

"Yes, right."

Brad fell silent. Jesus Christ, he had only called her just to hear her voice. Now the snowball affect was in full swing and he was piling lies on top of lies. What was he supposed to do?! Just hang up! Just hang up!

“O-Oh, yeah, right. We have you listed as –“ he looked away, his heart pounding. “A-As having four people in your household. If it’s at all possible, I’d wish to speak to all of them.”

Silence. “Who is this?”

Fuck. “Uhh, I work for the electric company ma’m.”

“That’s ridiculous. Why are you calling?”

Shit. Brad’s lie was crumbling. He scrambled. “I’m here for the census. I-I explained that-“

“Then why were you asking to speak with my children?!"

Fuck. He didn't expect to snap at him. Brad took a second, realizing that he was panting. "I-"

“That was a rhetorical question!” She screamed.

"I-I know! I was only asking! It would help us to get - get their side of the story. The children I mean."

Brad could feel the heat of her rage through the earpiece. “We don’t have four members in our household. We only have two.”

“Oh,” Brad’s heart sank. “We have you listed as having two children… D-Did they move out?” He stammered.

“Why are you asking me this?”

“I-I’m only collecting information –“

“Information?!” She was angry again. She huffed. “Listen here, asshole. I want you to stop calling me. You and your other reporter friends.”

“I’m not a repor-“

“Don’t lie to me! Our family is going through a difficult time! We don’t need you constantly badgering me and everyone else over our losses! It’s hard enough as it is!”

“Your losses?" Brad tried playing innocent. It didn't work.

“Don’t play coy,” she said. “Our eldest died on live television. Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing ever since! How the hell can you live with yourself, torturing people like this?

“I-I'm no-

“Yes! It was all over the news, I can’t get a wink of sleep now. Reporters are always calling me up, asking me about my youngest! You people are sensationalising her death as this overblown situation! Our daughter did not hurt that girl because of her pent up rage! My family is not a group of criminals, not like you try to spin it!”

“Vicky… hurt someone?”

“Yes! She stabbed one of her own classmates and – why am I explaining this to you?! You already know all about it! You even know her name! Don’t lie to me! You’re not from the electric company! You’re just some hot shot asshole looking for a scoop! Our daughter killed herself – can’t you and your friends just understand that and leave us alone?! … Hello?! Hey! Why are you -"

The phone made a loud ringing when it collided with the floor. The vibrations alone made Brad want to puke – and he damn near did. The bartender growled something that Brad didn’t quite understand. Or bother to hear.

“Oops.” He said. He sounded dead.

“Asshole! What the fuck was that for!?”

Brad just looked up at the man. Just stared. He wished he had a gun. Blow this jerk’s head off. He just clenched his fist. Brad wasn’t a hateful person. But he felt a lot of hate. He was drowning on hate. He could shoot this guy. Yeah. He could. Then he remembered, whoops, he'd probably miss anyway, even if he was only a foot away. Brad was a damn loser. The only thing he was good at was shrinking in his boots and backtracking.

“Sorry.”

“Sorry? Sorry?! Is that all you have to say?!”

"I'll pay for it," He wheezed.

"Asshole! You think I'm going to take your fuckin' money? That phone was my mum's!"

He reached into his pocket. "How much was it?"

The bartender took out his cellphone. Brad's eyes widened. "Didn't you hear me?! I ain't taking your friggin money!"

"Just... I don't want to cause any trouble."

"Who the hell do you think you are?! I'm going to call the cops to come haul your ass down."

"I-I don't want to get in trouble. Just - I need this, alright? Let me pay for this and I'll get out of your hair."

The bartender didn't answer. He started typing into his cellphone.

Brad fished the wallet out and threw all the money on the table. “Take it. Take it all. I don't care."

The tender reeled back. "What?!"

“I don’t need it. Just take it.” He moved.

The bartender yelled. “Hey! Asshole! Get back he-"

Brad was out the door. He walked for awhile. The town nearby was empty, no people, only a few parked cars. No police. The asshole behind the bar didn’t come chasing after him but Brad was damn sure he’d call the cops. The cops were lax but they still worked. Brad didn’t feel like getting a private cell for the night. He turned the corner. There was a nice looking car, already started. Looked like a Holden. Looked fast. Someone must have parked it and went inside to get someone. Brad didn’t check to see if anyone was looking.

The car was a bright neon green that stung Brad’s eyes, and the seats felt like they were made out of concrete. It was fast though. He made sure to drive out of the city. Brad didn’t have a license. He used to, but he was pretty sure it would be revoked. He was given one, as a gift. The name on it said his name was Jason, as an alternative to running around screaming about he was Brad Kavanagh, one of the survivors of SOTF that managed to hitch a ride off of all the other amazing heroes. It was a joke, one without a great punch line. It didn’t really matter. The roads were devoid of life. No cops, nothing, except for him and his thoughts.

Brad liked this car. It handled okay. He wanted to go as fast as possible. Maybe if he managed over one-hundred he might forget how he’s got nothing left. The dream was turning into a nightmare, one that took place on a straight road that went on forever. It felt like forever. Brad had his seatbelt on. Even in the deep dream that he was in, he was still a putz who was overly concerned with safety. Maxie had a point. Brad was probably a selfish asshole but at least he followed the rules. Gotta click your seatbelt on after all. Especially when you’re running eighty miles per hour to your own fucking doom, the kind of doom that sounded very appetizing because it sure sounded better than the shit he found himself in. No job, no life, just a drunk.

“God... damn it.”

He was mad and he understood why. He was fuming. His hands were shaking. But why the hell couldn’t he cry? For fucks sake! He wanted to cry, and he thought about forcing the tears out. No dice. The road had bumps but Brad wasn’t focused on it. Why the hell couldn’t he cry? His sister was gone! Hell, she wasn’t the sister he knew anymore either, just some girl with a knife! His parents were miserable... and yet all he could feel was an overwhelming sense of anger. No tears. Why could he cry so easily for himself and not for anyone else? Not for his sis, not for his family... not for Ter-

The bumps in the road were violent now, so violent that it snapped him out of his trance. Brad looked up and finally realized that he wasn’t on the road at all. In fact, he was out in the desert. He gripped the wheel and turned.

The blackness was as wide as the Grand Canyon. No echo. He tried to scream but his lips were sealed shut. He drowned.

Why...

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Why...?

Why was right. Why was the question Brad asked repeatedly, almost compulsively. He really wanted to know why. He certainly had reason to know. Fuck, if there was anyone who deserved to know why it was certainly him. Of course he didn't dare ask anyone. No one could possibly have the answer. He would be pretty surprised if someone had the answers he needed. No, instead he asked himself that same question. Over and over. He would sit up in his cot, hands wrapped around his knees, spending hours upon hours pondering. The tears that poured down his face did not have the answers. They certainly made him feel better. Like an anti-depressant - they didn't solve the problem but they satisfied a certain part of his psyche that was pleading.

So Brad took his medicine. It made things bearable for the first few nights. The pain was still there. Especially that very night. That night was one of the worst nights he had. It was the anticipation. The waiting. He didn't get a wink of sleep, although it wasn't like he got much sleep anyway on a cot that felt like it had been made out of jagged rocks.

There was a nasty stench in his cell. Brad couldn’t identify what it was. It was definitely not shit, because the toilets was the only thing in his cell that was semi-clean. He assumed it was body odor, but even then he wasn't quite sure. There was a certain metallic smell in the air that mixed with it that made things confusing. Brad had enough time in the world to identify it, to study it like a scientist, to break down every component of the smell and figure out what it was. Yet, at the same time, he had no will to do such things. His mind was elsewhere, far away from his own senses. The only thing he did know about it was that it was fucking his sinuses hard.

Perhaps that was why he teared up so easily at night, Brad thought as he fell off of the cot. He landed on his feet just as a guard appeared. The guard had short brown hair, and unlike the other guards was very young. The skinheads across the block called him Bitch Boy, mainly because he was new and very eager to please. Brad thought that the man took a liking to him. Maybe it was because Brad wasn't the kind of inmate that liked to push buttons.

"Shower time," he said sternly, but at the same time in a very friendly tone.

"Which block am I in today?" Brad asked, trying his best not to wake his cellmate Johnny. Brad asked the question very dully, as if he were a robot.

"B," Bitch Boy said, scratching the back of his head. "S'only one that's open today."

"Can I bring my toothbrush?"

The guard shrugged. "I don't know. Can you?"

Brad picked up his toothbrush from the heap on the floor, a thin green thing that was smaller than Brad's hand. He held it in his hand, far enough for the guard to see the brush. The guard did not see a problem, nodded and stepped out of Brad's way. Brad let out a sigh, thought for a moment. He was the only guard escorting him, though Brad had come to expect this. It was good enough for Brad. Less prying eyes. Brad got out of his cell and followed the straight white line that paved the way along the corridor. He could see other guards with bigger groups of inmates ahead of him. Again Brad only assumed that he was getting special treatment, like an A student in a dead end college might get.

The grime was palpable in the showers. They had warm water but Brad did not dare step his foot in where the floor was green. So here was Brad, trying his best not to get anything on his feet. His attempts to clean himself were half-hearted at best. He kept glancing over at opposite wall. Carlos was over there, eyes closed. Brad was nervous. Not of Carlos, oh lord Carlos was peaceful to say the least. He kept looking over, between the slime-covered shower and the large man across the way.

There was a loud crash. An alarm, in this case. Brad turned and looked for Carlos to find that the man was gone. Brad turned away and moved.

The other side of the shower was full too, but many of the onlookers were distracted by the sounds across the room, past the big divider that made the shower room into an exaggerated zero. He didn't feel any eyes on him. Anyone who had turned to look were trying desperately to see what was happening. There was a loud crack. Brad winced as he arrived at his destination.

Everyone called him Bridge. It was because he had such terrible posture that you could have sworn he was making an arch with his spine. He was fifty. A school teacher. Brad didn't know the reasons why he was brought here. He had heard that Bridge's hands were curious little monsters. That was a bad combination, a teacher with dirty hands. He didn't know if it was true or not, but he figured that knowing wasn’t important. Brad had to do this.

There was hesitation, he could feel it. Then he tried to imagine Vicky sobbing into her mom's shoulder, her innocence lost. The scene nearly broke Brad's heart, even though it was pure imagination. He didn't know Bridge, and frankly he wasn't in the least bit interested in knowing him... but he kept Vicky straight at the front of his mind. What if it had been her? The hesitation ceased.

Brad heard a whimper and then a thump. It had come easier than he expected. Brad quickly turned away right to his post. His heart threatened to leap right out of his chest. He steadied himself, stepped into the mold on the floor, and quickly wiped the blood off of the toothbrush.

The sounds from across the divider were still pounding. Brad could hear clanking. The guards were getting involved. Brad figured it'd take them a moment to realize.

Brad snapped the brush in half. Let the sharper side slide right into his sleeve while he held onto the brush handle for dear life. He scrubbed his teeth hard enough to burn them away completely. He pretended that nothing was wrong. Made him believe it too. The guards believed it too - to them he looked harmless. A little pussy inside a wide cage of wolves. So they didn't bother to pat him down. He was thankful of that.

He left the showers. The one called Bitch Boy led him to the cell. Johnny was up, combing his hair. The cell opened and Brad stepped inside. Johnny looked up.

"Ey." He greeted Brad.

Brad opened his mouth to say something. Closed it. He just nodded.

"Guess it's my turn?" Johnny asked the guard.

"Might have to wait on that," the guard replied. "Some shit happened down in B block. Give it a half hour. I'll be back then"

"Whatchu do bitch boy? You fuck someone real good?"

"Not me."

"Oooooh. Why you defendin' yourself Bitch Boy? Makes you look mighty' guilty!"

The guard didn't answer Johnny. He closed the cell and walked away. Johnny smirked, ran a hand through his greasy hair, and then turned to Brad. Johnny was an ass and his smile was crooked but his eyes were bright. He dug his hand out, made a motion for Brad to toss it.

"You get it done?" he asked.

Brad passed the broken toothbrush.

"... yeah." Brad forced a smile. The muscles in his lips ached.

~

The light stung. A moan brushed past his lips. Everything was a blur. Brad shifted. Was he dead? Jesus.

“I wouldn’t suggest moving too much,” the woman in the mahogany chair said. “You’re still very battered up.”

Brad’s response was very short. “… Nngh…”

“See? I told you. Oh. No one ever listens to me. You would think that they would stop and actually consider what I say.” The woman had a pout that made her face especially fish-like, puffed cheeks and all. “But no. They only brush what I say off. And you know what always happens to them? They always get themselves into trouble. That’s what. My word, it’s as if I am the only sensible person on the planet.”

“Where… the hell…” Words were hard. Brad had difficulty forming them.

“Are you?” The woman finished, setting down her handiwork - A very nice quilt of a pattern that Brad could not recognize. A triangle… pyramid thing? “You’re in my home of course. You should be lucky that I found you. You managed to veer off of the road and somehow roll all the way over here. Yes, very lucky indeed, it’s miraculous that you survived. The car is a disaster and yet you escaped with a twisted ankle and what appears to be a broken rib.” She smiled. “And a few bruises and cuts, though, considering the circumstances, those are quite unimportant.”

This woman liked to hear herself talk. It was getting on his nerves. “Where are my glasses?” He managed to ask.

The woman nodded, reaching out to the table beside her. She put the least amount of effort into handing him the glasses, not even bothering to get out of her seat. Brad put them back on as the woman continued to gab.

“You’ve been knocked unconscious though. Perhaps you suffered brain damage. Or! Or perhaps the crash was so violent that it knocked all sense out of you! Do you have amnesia? Can you remember what your name is?”

Fuck. There was a crack in the frames. Brad seethed.

“Hello? Are you blanking out on me again? Oh dear. Oh dear.”

She couldn’t have been over forty, though the wrinkles certainly confused him. She had this very elegant look to her, although her lips must have been assaulted by lipstick and now glowed with a very deep red. It was almost revolting to stare at. Brad kept his focus on her nose the whole time in fear for what little lunch he still had in his stomach.

“I don’t have amnesia.” He responded.

She pouted. “Well, that is very good then.” She didn’t sound too glad about that. Moreover she looked disappointed. “The ankle and the broken rib are bad enough dearie. I certainly hope there is nothing else wrong with you.”

Yeah, there was. He was getting a headache from all her yammering. He kept that to himself though.

“Who are you?” Brad asked.

“Oh! My apologies, I didn’t introduce myself.” She smiled a fishy smile. “My name is Annabelle Rosette. A British woman born and raised in Oxford, a nurse by trade and living in Australia with my wonderful husband Chester and my lovely daughter Lotti.”

Brad was sure he didn’t need to know any of that. “Yeah, alright. Just… where the hell are we?”

“I already told you that dearie.”

“I know. Your home. But where exactly is your home?”

“Oh,” Annabelle thought for a moment. “In Australia.”

“… where in Australia?”

“Off the roads. In the outback, well, the more forested outback. More green grass than sand here. I can’t really tell you dearie, I don’t really give directions to strangers. Even if the stranger in question crashed right in front of your doorstep. But if you-“

“Uhh,” Brad interrupted. “Wait… How long was I out for?”

“Oh,” she said, finger to lips. “A few days, I should suspect.”

Fuck. Brad winced. “You… suspect?”

“I wasn’t really counting dear. I’m terrible with dates, always have been. Less than a week, over three days?” She shrugged. That’s the best estimate I can give you.”

Brad sighed. She wasn’t giving him any definite, but he knew exactly what happened. He really fucked things up didn’t he? Grossi was probably out looking for him, like some fucking hound dog. Or maybe they were glad he was gone. “Hey, Brad’s gone? Thank god, he was a waste of space.” Brad could believe either, actually. It wasn’t like Brad’s disappearance would be considered a tragedy, or that his episode would be called “A tragic turn for the worse,” as if life were just a big 48 Hours Mystery.

“Alright,” Brad sighed. “Thanks for the help lady but I… think I should be going.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle put a hand up. “You can’t go anywhere dearie, you’re still on the mend!”

“I’m fine.” Brad said as he struggled with the tightly wound blankets. “I just need to-“ Pain shot through Brad’s leg. “Ahh - Shit!”

“You see?” Annabelle finally got up from her seat and pushed Brad down. “You can’t afford to leave. You did a nasty piece of work to your ankle. If you leave now, you’ll be howling in pain. Please, just lay there. The bed is very comfortable, yes, you’d much rather stay there.”

“I can’t stay here,” Brad insisted right back.

“You can. And you will. I insist.”

Brad grit his teeth. “Listen lady. I’m thankful for all you did, but I gotta leave. I need to be somewhere, and a twisted ankle isn’t going to stop me.”

Annabelle thought for a minute. “Where, exactly?”

“… what?”

“You said you needed to be somewhere dear. But where exactly?”

“I don’t have to answer that.”

“Well,” she gave him a very charming smile. “Let me put it this way. If it is so important that you can openly ignore your own inflictions, then it would be in your best interests to tell me. I have the key to our car you see. You cannot get back to civilization on foot – not in your condition anyway – and my husband will certainly not condone me just giving the car away to a stranger. I would be more than willing to drive you but I would need to know where to go.” She put her hand out, waving it around as if she made a very intelligent argument. “You see? Curiosity aside, I would need to know where you’re going in order to drive you there.”

… Jesus. This woman could talk. Brad was tongue tied.

“Still not going to tell me?”

Brad shook his head.

“Ahh. I see. Then I must tell you that I told you a tiny lie there – ahh ahh! There is no need to look so suspicious. It’s just that my husband Chester took the car out. It’s a rather slow one and it’s the only way we travel to and from the town. So even if you had cooperated, you would have to wait here anyway.”

Brad sighed. “… seriously?”

“Indeed, it’s the truth.”

Brad groaned out a loud “Fuuuuuck”, and then added, “How the fuck did I manage this?!”

“I certainly don’t know why dearie. Perhaps your dirty mouth may have had something to do with it.”

Brad bristled. “… Wha’sat got to do with anything?”

“Oh,” Annabelle shrugged. “Nothing really. It was only a joke dearie, no need to get yourself wound up.”

“Right. Thanks.” Brad settled back on the bed. He sighed.

“Are you hungry?” Annabelle asked.

“Not really.” He lied.

“Well you should be. You haven’t eaten a single thing in days.”

“… I said I wasn’t –“

“It will only take a minute.” Annabelle rose to her feet, brushed her skirt off with a wrinkled hand and smiled. “I’ll be right back dearie, you just stay put.”

Brad liked when Annabelle was out of the room. It gave him time to think of how much of a complete fuck-up he was. But the silence in the room was too oppressive for him. It made him uncomfortable. He shifted in his bed, trying his damn hardest not to turn his bad ankle. He hated this house. Even when it was dead silent Brad felt like he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

“Was she talking a lot?”

Brad looked. There was a girl peeking her head in through the doorway. She looked young, had to be around fifteen at least, and she seemed confused for some reason.

“Yeah,” Brad agreed.

“She’s always like that,” the girl explained, “but today she’s excited. We never get visitors.”

“I could tell.”

“I’m sorry if she annoyed you. She can be a handful sometimes.”

Brad stopped speaking. The girl looked behind her. She looked nervous about something but Brad really couldn’t tell what.

“Are you feeling any better?” She asked.

“I guess,” Brad said. He was glad the kid wasn’t a chatter box.

“Your ankle hurts doesn’t it?”

“Yeah. Pretty badly.”

“You were drunk, right?” She asked. “When you crashed. Were you drunk driving?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Yeah. I can’t remember much of what happened. “

“Oh.” The girl thought. “Well, I just figured you had to be drunk. You made a big mess.”

“… what exactly happened?”

“You flipped it over. The roof was smooched like a pancake, it was really cool.”

Brad heaved a sigh. “Really.”

“Yeah. I’ve never seen a car get totaled like that.” She thought. “I’ve never actually see a car get totaled in real life,” She slumped her shoulders, “So I guess I’ve got no grounds to say that.”

Brad blinked. “Never seen a totaled car?”

“No. Well, not that I can remember. I don’t see a lot of cars out here. Do you total a lot of cars?”

Brad was getting annoyed. “I’ve never totaled a car before.”

“Really? You must be really good at it. Like a master at destroying cars.”

Brad just shrugged.

“You’re an American.”

Brad gave a puzzled look. “What?”

“You’re an American. Right?”

“I… guess?” Brad shook his head. “Yeah? I am?”

“Oh. That’s probably why you totaled it. The car I mean.”

Brad didn’t respond to that. He just turned his head and looked at the wall. He thought that maybe if he didn’t speak to her, she would just get distracted by something and wander off. Hell, he fucking hoped she’d leave.

“What’s your name?”

Brad didn’t respond.

“Oh. Well, I already know what it is. Jason, right?”

Brad turned back. “What?”

“It’s Jason. Your name.”

Brad waited for her to say something else, but it looked as though that was all she had to say. She just blinked at him. Brad narrowed his eyes. “… how the hell did you know that? Weren’t you just asking - ”

“Your ID has your name on it. It was in your wallet. I was only checking.”

“You went through my wallet?”

“I guess?” She shrugged, looking a tad embarrassed. “I mean, how would we know who you are if we didn’t? Annabelle and Chester bickered about looking into it; Chester wanted to look in it to see if you were a criminal or not but Annabelle made sure that didn’t happen. But I really wanted to know, so I took it when they weren’t looking… I wanted to ask myself but you couldn’t exactly tell me yourself… is something wrong? You look really red. Is it hot under those blankets? Annabelle tucks in the blankets really tight sometimes.”

“Why the hell would you take my wallet?!” Brad growled, looking over at the table next to his bed. “Did you put it back?!”

“No.”

“Well why the hell not?!”

“You’re really broke.” Lotti mused, avoiding his question. “Was it because of the car? It doesn’t look that expensive. Did you steal it?”

Brad wanted to say something. Of course, that was the moment Annabelle had to wander back in.

“Oh,” she said, holding a plate in her hand. “Lotti, there you are. Am I interrupting your conversation? You both sounded very excited.”

“Yes,” Brad said.

“Nope,” the girl interrupted. “I just wanted to say hi.”

Brad opened his mouth to say something, before closing it begrudgingly.

Annabelle nodded. “Well, I certainly hope you’re being kind to our guest Lotti.” She placed the plate down on his table. “A cheese sandwich with a few vegetables from my garden – and a few odds and ends.”

Brad poked the sandwich. “… are those cucumbers?” He hoped they were. He prayed that they were.

“Oh no, I used up all of my cucumbers last week. Those are pickles.”

Fuck. Brad didn’t like pickles. He didn’t say anything though. He just picked up the sandwich and bit into the outer crust, pretending that he was taking a huge bite. If it got the bitch off his back… Annabelle was fooled. She smiled graciously and turned to Lotti.

“I think it may be best if we left the boy in peace.” She said.

Lotti nodded. “Oh. Okay.”

As Lotti left the room, Annabelle turned to Brad. “She’s a very nice girl. Very innocent too.”

Brad wasn’t too sure about that.
V6

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"That’s not a prediction, that’s a spoiler.”
[ *  *  *  *  *  *  * ]
Time went at its own pace. And by that, it moved like molasses while Brad was stuck a few strides ahead waiting for it. Brad hated it. He didn't even want to be there. It was as if a crazy British woman was holding him hostage or something. He assumed that Annabelle would find a reason for her to wander into the room and talk to him for hours on end, but surprisingly he saw little of her. The few times he did see her was when she passed by the door, or when she asked if he needed anything. Of course, he always said no, but it was a nice gesture and she always went on her way. He thought he would have been happy that she kept her distance from him but he soon learned that having a chatty woman stammering would at least pass the time, a luxury Brad did not have.

The whole day dragged. Perhaps it would have been easier had Brad been able to move around, but unfortunately he had to lay on his back the whole time and stare at the ceiling. Brad figured he might fall asleep if he kept staring at the ceiling. This was a lost cause however. At least in his case, when someone gets knocked out for over a day, any semblance of a sleep pattern gets fucked up. He prayed for anything. A video game, a tv, hell, give him a paddle with a ball tied to it with a bit of string and he would be happy. The only other thing he could do was to zone out and think. That wasn't an option. The things he saw while he was unconscious was proof that living in his dream of a dream would be more of a nightmare than sitting in bed. So he sat and waited.

Lotti came to see him again. Brad didn’t know what time she came but he figured that it had to be nighttime. The crickets were loud as hell. Lotti had a very small smile, not very shy but very reserved.

“Hi,” she studied him for a minute. She frowned. “It’s the crickets, right?”

Brad pretended that he didn’t hear her.

“There’s a window open across the hall.” She turned and walked out. He heard a window slam close and Lotti returned to the room, closing the door behind her. “They’re really bad this time of year. You should have told me about it, I would have closed the window earlier.”

“…”

“You’re still mad.” She said, tone dipping. “You’re mad about the wallet, aren’t you?”

“…”

Lotti walked over and placed his wallet on his leg. “Here. I didn’t take anything from it. I promise.”

“…” Brad looked down at the wallet before pulling his head up.

“Everything’s fine, right?” Lotti said, voice spiked with concern. “I didn’t think you would be mad if I took it.”

“You’re pretty sheltered,” Brad mused.

Lotti looked startled. She nodded. “Yeah,” she agreed. “I guess I am, kinda, sorta.”

“People get mad if you take their crap without asking.”

“But I thought sharing was fine,” Lotti scratched at a mosquito bite. “I mean, I wasn’t planning on keeping it.”

“No one just shares their wallet.” Brad put it bluntly.

“Oh,” Lotti said, hesitating. “I’m sorry.”

Brad sighed. “Look, it’s fine alright? I was annoyed but… just make sure you don’t do it again.”

“Uhuh.” She nodded. “Umm. I was curious about something, actually.”

“I stole it.”

Lotti looked confused. “What?”

“I stole the car.” Brad said, refusing to look her in the eyes. “I didn’t break into it. Someone was just dumb enough to leave the thing unlocked with the key inside. It was spur of the moment.” He looked at her. “Don’t tell your mom, alright? She’s bad enough when I’m on her good side, I don’t want to know what the heck she’s like when she’s mad.”

“Umm, Annabelle doesn’t get mad,” Lotti scratched her head. “Chester gets mad for her. Annabelle is very calm and collected.”

“Do you always call your parents by their first names?”

“They aren’t my real parents.” She shrugged. “We’re a… weird family. We don’t really, like, call each other mother, father and daughter. I don’t know, I’ve just gotten really used to it.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“I wasn’t planning on telling them,” Lotti looked behind her. “Annabelle has a habit of telling everyone everything and Chester… doesn’t really care about people other than Annabelle and me.”

Brad closed his eyes. “Cool, thanks.”

Brad heard a door open, and Lotti turned her head. “Oh,” she said, blinking. “That must be Chester.” She turned. “I don’t know if Annabelle told Chester that you were staying here. She never does. Annabelle only called Chester, she didn’t – she never talks about these kind of things. She always just – helps people without really thinking and Chester gets mad about it.”

Brad just nodded. “Cool. I’m sure he’ll understand.”

“Chester?” Lotti said, looking confused, “Oh, Annabelle said Chester was her husband, right?”

“… right?” Brad said. He could hear footsteps from somewhere in the house. “I think she said something to that affect. What? Are they, like, not married or something?”

"Oh, they are. They just –“ She stopped and turned her head. “Hey Chester.”

Brad was surprised. He was never easily intimidated, not after all the shit he went through. This woman scared the shit out of him. She was a goddamn brick house, and she towered over Lotti as came to a stomp at the door. Brad winced when the woman turned to look at him.

“This ‘im?” Chester asked.

Lotti nodded. “He woke up in the afternoon.”

“What’s wrong with ‘im?”

“Annabelle said he had a twisted ankle – “ she said, “- but I think she was exaggerating or something. I saw it, it wasn’t that bad. You know how Annabelle is, she exaggerates. He doesn’t have a concussion – or at least I don’t think he does, he’s pretty coherent.”

“You know for sure?”

“Iunknow. Annabelle’s the doctor.” Lotti turned. “I’ll go tell her that you’re back.

“Fine.”

Lotti left, leaving Brad alone with the father. Wait, wasn’t Chester Annabelle’s husband? Brad was so fucking confused. Maybe he did have a concussion. He didn’t know what one felt like – but he sure as hell knew that he was completely lost here. Chester turned back to look at Brad and Brad winced again. The woman said nothing.

“Uhh,” he started. “Hi.”

Chester stayed quiet. A man – Woman of few words. Great.

“Hey,” Brad’s throat was so dry, jesus, it tightened up as he tried to speak. “Thanks for uhh,” This chick looked like she could punch Brad’s face in, “Letting me stay here?”

“Yep.” She said. “S’alright.”

Brad wanted to say something else. He didn’t. In fact he had to stop himself from hiding under the blankets.

“S’matter?”

“Oh,” Brad said. The nervous laugh that followed hurt a hell of a lot more than his ankle. “Um, no, it’s just… well-“

“Yes?”

“It’s just that I’m a – haha – little surprised.”

“Oh.” Chester said. “I ain’t a guy. S’that right? Annabelle likes to call me a guy. Guess’n it’s just habit for her.”

“Oh,” Brad nodded. “I… think I get it?”

Chester stared at him for a minute before turning again and walking away. Brad let out a sigh of relief.

Annabelle and Chester came back a few minutes later. Brad had to keep his eyes closed and his head turned away the entire time. They were having an argument, or at least, it sounded like it. Annabelle sounded way too cheerful and Chester’s tone was that of a hillbilly robot, so Brad had a hard time telling. Apparently his ankle was not as bad as Annabelle had first anticipated. He had sprained it, of course, but it was only slight and Annabelle had blown the whole thing out of proportion. Chester was not amused by this. She didn’t want Brad in the house. She didn’t say it directly, but at some point she said something to the effect that keeping the boy around would be much more trouble than it was worth. Annabelle disagreed. She had posed an argument, a long-winded one that Brad did not keep track of. It certainly convinced her husband, as Chester suddenly agreed to keep him.

Brad wasn’t sure how to feel about this. He turned, trying his best not to move his bad ankle too much. Their kindness was appreciated, but Brad honestly didn’t want to stick around. The faster his ankle healed meant the faster he could get back to the others. He was quite sure they didn’t miss him too much… but it was certainly better than sticking around in a bed.

Unfortunately for Brad, sticking around the bed was the only thing he was allowed to do. For the next few days, he was stuck to his little room, living in a dream he couldn’t break out of. Annabelle would come in now and again to check up on him and to ask if he wanted something to eat. At first he always refused, but as time passed the hunger grew too great and he gave in. The things she cooked were very healthy. The kind of crap Brad hated, but he ate whatever she made and he never complained. Lotti would poke her head in once in awhile – if only to ask him about what had happened, or talk to him about a book she was reading. His conversations with Lotti were easier to keep track off, simply because Lotti actually gave Brad a chance to speak. Lotti helped pass the time, much more so than Annabelle. Brad almost never saw Chester.

His ankle got better. Soon enough he was able to get out of bed. His ankle stung but it was enough to bear. He managed to walk out to the hallway once before he had to go back to his bed. At least there was progress, he figured. Maybe in a few days Chester might just kick him out, and he’d be finished with all this bullshit. Brad wanted a drink. A hard one, not even bourbon. Something that would put him out and let him forget that any of this shit ever happened.

Later that same day, Annabelle came to his room. Thankfully her message was short.

“Dear, your ankle is on the mend. Right?” She asked.

“Yeah,” Brad answered, “I was moving around earlier. My foot still hurt like hell but I managed.”

“Very nice, very nice.” Annabelle nodded. “So if it isn’t too much trouble for you, would you perhaps like to help my dear husband with his work tomorrow? He’s been a little short-handed seeing as how his worker up and got himself locked away. Poor thing. He was always so nice for a bloody criminal." She smiled. "Do you think you could help, Jason dear?”

“Of course,” Brad shrugged. “Why not?”

Annabelle left it at that and left. He didn't see anyone else for awhile, not that Brad wanted to. He was much more concerned about walking. Sooner he could walk, the sooner he could get out. The hallway had a pole, and Brad managed to balance himself on it. He didn't risk heading down the steps. They spiraled down and the gaps between each step were small. He didn't want to end up breaking his back too.

He saw Lotti later that afternoon. She came out of a room that Brad figured was her room. She was eating an apple, and she looked surprised to see Brad.

"You're up." She said abruptly.

"I guess," Brad responded, half-paying attention.

"Can you walk?" She asked, her brown eyes staring down at the railing that Brad found himself clinging to.

"Just barely," Brad tried to adjust himself. The limp was making him lopsided, and he definitely did not want to fall down.

"Just... barely?" Lotti seemed puzzled. "But I thought you were helping Chester tomorrow.”

"... Yeah?" Brad asked, squinting his eyebrows. "What does that have anything to do with it?"

“Oh, they didn't tell you?”

“… tell me about what?”

Lotti shrugged. “Chester grows crops."

"... what?"

Lotti shrugged again, "Umm, you didn't know we lived on a farm? Well not a farm, we mostly grow vegetables in the outhouse. It’s enough to get us by" She blinked. "I... thought they would have told you that much.”

“… Seriously?”

“Uhuh. That's what I said."

Brad slumped. “And why the heck didn’t your mom tell me about this before I frigging agreed to help?”

"Iunknow. I was wondering that myself, remember?"

"That was a rhetorical question."

Lotti thought. “Umm. Well, if you want my opinion," She gave a slight, thoughtful tilt of the head. "I think,” she paused. “She was afraid you would say no.”

“Great. She’s sending a guy with a bad ankle to go do farm work. Great. Just great.”

Lotti smiled. “Well, if it makes you feel any better… we have satellite.”

“You have TV?”

Lotti shook her head. “No. Internet access. Only on my computer though. Annabelle doesn’t like TV, says it ‘feasts on the brains of the viewers.’ Whatever that means.”

“… right. Cool. What does this have to do with farming?"

Lotti blinked. "Nothing really. I just thought it would cheer you up."

"It didn't."

"Oh." Lotti shrugged a third time. "Well, by the time you're done, you would definitely be too tired to use it anyway."

"... Lotti." Brad really did not want to ask this question. "When the heck will I have to get up?

“Chester always starts around four. So I guess that’s when you have to get up too.”

Brad had his hands to his temples. Why the fuck didn’t he just die in the crash?

~

Brad could have sworn working like that made the time go faster. He forgot about getting out of the farm. The work with Chester was challenging, and it definitely accentuated just how out of shape Brad was. Even so... Well, Brad didn't want to admit it but the work was satisfying to say the least. Working his tail off was fun in some backwater, 'got-nuffin-else-better-to-do' way, and while he thought Chester was going to be a slave driver, he was pleasantly surprised that Chester was happy with the work. Or at least 'happy' in the way that involved sage nods of the head and an occasional slap on the back that always made Brad wince.

Brad almost forgot about where he had to be. Almost. He knew he had to go back at some point. He couldn't stay on the farm. It wasn't where he was meant to be. Even if he had no one there waiting for him, Brad didn't want to leave for too long. It was the only place he had. Annabelle had promised him she would drive him back to where-ever he needed to go but Brad didn't have the nerve to do it. A week ago, Brad would have been all too happy to get the fuck out of dodge. Now he hesitated.

And the hesitation was the part that scared him the most.

It was night. Brad had forgotten the date. Annabelle was always going on about how a farmer always needs to keep track of time, but Brad wondered if that extended to what day it was. How long had he been on this farm, breaking sweat? A month? A year? It felt like forever. Chester patted him on the back again and went inside the house. Brad followed and went straight to his room on the second floor. Annabelle and Chester stayed down on the first floor, and so he waved Chester good night.

He didn't feel tired though. Every night, Brad would hit the bed like a sack of bricks. Tonight was different. Tonight Brad found it extremely difficult to close his eyes. So he sat up and stared at ceiling. Maybe if he stared long enough he would fall asleep. Or maybe he hoped he wouldn't fall asleep at all. He wasn't sure of that. Brad was beginning to realize that he was becoming unsure about everything, or maybe he had always been unsure like this and it took two fucking lesbian farmers holding him as a metaphorical captive to realize it. It was all silly really. He always thought he was certain about everything.

There was a voice down the corridor. Brad had his door open so he could hear it. He figured that it was Chester, what with the voice being so low. He put it out of his mind.

Brad ran a hand through his hair. It was a damn mess. How the hell did it grow so long so quickly? His hand left his hair and tugged on the wife-beater Chester lent him. It was boiling hot, even at night. His mom told him once about how hair always grows faster in the summer. Something to do with the humidity. Not that Brad was an expert. He hadn't shaved in a few days too. Jesus. He must look like some freakish bear. It really bugged him for reasons he couldn't figure out.

Brad heard the voice. It was loud, and it definitely did not sound like Chester. It was coming down the hallway, somewhere. Brad got to his feet and stretched, the floor creaking as he walked. He peeked his head out of the door way. There was light coming from Lotti’s room. Was she still up? Brad rubbed his eyes and staggered forward, leaning his head inside of the room.

“... but, yeah, you don’t think I have fucking balls? FUCK. YOU.”

Lotti was setting legs crossed in a chair, staring at the monitor. She had a pair of headphones around her neck and she didn’t seem to notice Brad standing there.

There was a gunshot.

“What the fuck is that?” He asked.

Lotti leaped out of the chair, looking over her shoulder. “J-Jason? Don’t scare me like that, seriously! I thought you were -”

Brad was well aware of what she was watching. It was against his better judgement, of course, but Brad was upset. He was mad. What the fuck was she doing watching that shit? Brad didn’t even want to look at it! He didn’t even want to think about it! And the fact that Lotti was even watching it while he was in the room was - was -

“Turn it off.”

"I'm just - " Lotti appeared generally upset about this. Odd, normally the only emotion Lotti appeared to have was a baffled one. Seeing her like this felt out of character. He could have felt concern. Could have.

"Turn that shit off."

"Sorry!" Lotti waved her hands. "I-I was just watching the reruns! Someone put them online!" She turned the monitor off.

“Why the fuck are you watching that?!” Brad protested,shutting the door behind him. “Do you even understand what that shit is? Fuck Lotti, you’re watching kids die!”

“I - “ Lotti was tongue-tied. It was hard for her to get anything out. “I didn’t think that - “

“Didn’t think that watching it would hurt anyone?!” Brad squeezed his fist so hard it turned white. “Tell that to all of the dead kids Lotti!”

Lotti stared at Brad. She looked almost ready to cry.

“I-I’m sorry Jason, I didn’t... I wasn’t aware you were against it.” Brad didn’t respond. Lotti moved awkwardly in her chair. "You're not going to tell mo-" she stopped, "Annabelle right? If she knew that I was watching this she would - well she wouldn't get mad but - she doesn't like - "

Brad sighed. "...Lotti. It's okay. Alright? Just... don’t watch it. At all.”

“Why not?”

“Just don’t, okay?”

Lotti lowered her head. “Did you know someone that died?”

The question stung. “Uhh, no...”

“Then what is it? I mean, I’ve been watching it for a few days. Reruns, you know? But you...”

“But I - what?”

“You were really mad. Like you were screaming. I know what it’s about but...” She stopped herself and got to the point. “I was just curious.”

“…” The pause felt like an eternity. “I – I can’t say.”

“Why not?”

“I just can’t.”

“I’m good at keeping secrets.” Lotti said. “Real good, you can trust me.”

“Just... let it go Lotti.”

“But if it’s really bad... like, super bad,” Lotti pouted. “is it really bad?”

Brad regretted ever saying anything. Was she going to keep pestering him? And those eyes she was giving him...

“Seriously, Lotti, drop it.”

“I think I have a right to know...” Lotti pleaded.

“...” Brad looked down. Jesus, she was giving him a guilt trip. It was hard pretending to be mad now. “I can’t.”

Lotti just looked at him.

Brad sighed. “Jesus... you’re never going to leave me alone about this, are you?”

Lotti just shook her head.

Brad couldn’t breathe. He was being so fucking stupid! Damn it! He closed his eyes. This was risky. This could get him killed.

“... my name, uhh... Isn’t Jason.”

Lotti looked confused. “You’re an illegal alien?”

“What?” Brad growled. “O-Of course not!”

“Oh,” Lotti nodded.

Damn it. Brad sighed. “... this is really hard. I’m just going to come out and say it.”

“Okay.”

“You promise not to tell anyone? You swear? Because I’ll never frigging forgive you.”

“Uhuh.”

Brad didn’t feel so reassured about that, but he just shrugged. “I’m not Jason. I’m...” He shut his eyes tight. “My name is Brad, Lotti.”

“Brad?”

“Yeah. Brad Kavanagh.”

“Ka... ven-egh?”

“Ka-va-nah. The G is silent.”

“Oh...” Lotti scratched the back of her head. “Umm... is that it?”

Brad blinked. “Yeah? Of course? I was... from the third game.”

Lotti had to think for a minute before it clicked. When it did, her eyes went wide. She studied Brad for a minute.

“... that Brad?”

Brad found it hard to speak, so he just nodded.

Lotti sat there for a minute. “But you... look nothing like him.”

… wait, what? “But I am him.” Brad explained. “I’m alive.”

“Yeah.” She said, rubbing the back of her head. “Brad was, like, the school president’s right hand man. A boy who killed someone in cold-blood, a reformed monster on the mend.” Lotti looked in confusion. “But you can’t be him. Brad’s dead. They popped his collar, I thought.”

Brad found a painful throb in his heart. A… cold-blooded killer? Was that what they thought…?

“Besides,” Lotti added. “You’re way too, um, cold to be him. Brad was always so emotional and thoughtful, like put other people before himself – “ She stopped. “No offense.”

He was a reformed killer? Lotti’s words made him feel very hollow. Brad staggered. Thoughtful? Brad was never thoughtful. He was a fuckup, he couldn’t do shit right. How the hell could he be thoughtful? He let his whole group – he shook his head. His hands were trembling.

“… Jason?”

Brad snapped out of it. “Ahh – I –“ He shook his head. “They popped my collar. Yeah. But I…” He was hesitant. He was floating into territory that he wasn’t supposed to be in. “I… someone took it off.”

Lotti’s eyes were wide. “Wait, I’m confused. Are you… saying that… but how could someone get the collars off? Aren’t they supposed to explode if they’re tampered with?”

“Some computer shit? Andrea - I didn’t know, I wasn’t the one who knew the specifics. Fuck, I don’t even remember how they got it off, all I remember is that – “

That he chickened out and couldn’t hit shit? Or maybe it was how Terrie was more of a man than he was and that he let her die saving him? Or maybe the only thing he could remember was the year of drinking his fucking mind out because he was so fucking useless and he had nothing else to do fuck why the fucking hell did Lotti have to fucking start this HE DIDN’T WANT TO BE IN THIS POSITION GOD DAMN IT HE JUST WANTED TO GO HOME HE HAD NOTHING LEFT WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T HE JUST DIE IN THAT CAR? WHY CAN’T HE JUST GET AWAY FROM THIS?

“- that I got out.”

Lotti looked at how he was suffocating on his own memories. “… you escaped?”

“… that’s a word for it, yes.”

Lotti looked at him skeptically. “… who else got out?”

“Lotti,” Brad said. “I… I really don’t want to talk about this.”

“I mean,” Lotti looked sad. “I’m sorry but this is really hard for me to believe that you – got out. That you escaped. How is that even possible?”

“… I can’t… I don’t know. I only know that there was a boat.

“You don't know?"

"No..."

Lotti stared at him skeptically. "I'm sorry but that's just too much to believe. I mean," she looked back at the computer, "He, the Brad on TV, was in jail, like real jail. And he was really optimistic and stuff. And you’re like... really negative."

Brad wanted to punch himself too. After worrying so much about spilling the beans, he ends up spilling them anyway and she doesn't take them. Shit.

Brad felt his legs give way. He fell back onto the bed. Lotti looked at him with that same befuddled expression.

"Jason?"

“… I didn’t kill her."

Lotti blinked. “What?”

“They pinned me for the murder of this one woman. Really old. I came in and dropped something off – her body was upstairs. I never saw her. We never even spoke! But they – “ Brad choked up. “She was this popular woman in the community and they needed a suspect. I don’t know the details, everything just went over my head. But they got a guilty verdict. And I was sentenced as a minor – but they put me in a regular jail and it was so fucked up – and they got me out. They found the real guy, they overturned the decision, got me out of jail, the DA apologized and – And I knew it would amount to shit because – “ Brad held his head and closed his eyes, “BECAUSE no matter how nice a person was or how they spoke to me, I knew, I knew that they were judging me and I knew everyone would think I was a creep, an old lady stabbing freak and – and… and…”

Brad trailed off. Lotti stared with a look that asked why he was telling her all of this. Brad sighed.

“… Terrie asked once to know why they convicted me. She asked if I really did kill someone because she… “ A bullet to the back of the head Brad. Remember? “ – She thought I was too nice to… kill someone. And I had promised to tell her everything. I had promised a lot of crap.”

Lotti looked ready to gasp. “That’s…”

Brad looked at her. He couldn’t force a sneer. His face looked pitiful. “… and you had said that I killed someone. And that’s true… I didn’t kill that lady though.”

"You killed someone...?"

Yeah. Let Terrie take a bullet. She was more of a man than you'd ever be Brad.

"In jail. It was an accident." Brad turned his head. "I was only supposed to send a message. He wasn't supposed to die... I

Lot good that did you Brad.

And when Lotti couldn’t speak to him, when he knew that she couldn’t say a word, Brad finished. “And I… figured I would tell you the truth. Seeing as how you thought I was a hero."

“You’re really him,” Lotti exclaimed.

“Yeah,” Brad said, “I guess so.”

“You’re really him, you - “ Lotti looked stunned. “You’re really alive, you aren’t dead, you’re – “

Brad rubbed the back of his neck. “… don’t tell your parents, alright?”

“R-Right! No. Of course not!” Lotti gasped. “I just thought - there are others?"

"I guess." Brad said. “This is where they corralled us.”

“B-But you got out! You escaped! Why didn’t you go back home? Why didn’t you – “

“It's not that simple,” Brad said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I kinda did too… me and Terrie and… we all did. But me and her especially. We thought once we got out, we’d be able to just go home. I learned that we could never go home even if we wanted to. Only home I have now is the one the assholes who helped us get out let us have.”

Lotti thought for a moment. "... That was where you were trying to get back to? The first day you woke up?”

“Yeah.”

“Wouldn't they come looking for you? "

Brad shook his head. "No. I don't think they would bother."

“Why not?" Lotti looked upset. "You escaped, the same as them, right?"

“Because I never bother with them. And whenever they do bother with me, I just pretend that they don’t exist. There’s one that I – I talk to. But she's been getting on my case lately, like she's some fucking therapist or something. So I don't think I would be terribly missed.”

Lotti looked absolutely upset. "... why would that matter? I mean... what if they thought Danya got you?"

"Danya wouldn't want shit from me. That's why."

"Why'sat?" Lotti said, hunching her shoulders.

"Because!" Brad stopped. He was frustrated. He didn't want to talk about this, not to Lotti of all people. "I was just there, you know?! I waved down a fucking ride from a bunch of people who actually did shit. I was - me and Terrie and Ianto were just there. Me especially! I was the leech Lotti. He wouldn’t want me, he would want someone important.”

"..." Lotti tilted her head. "I don't think they would care whether you did anything or not."

“What, Danya? I guess. Just the fact that I got out is grounds for a lynching.”

"No, I mean the people you escaped with." She spun a finger around a strand of hair. "I think the only reason they don’t bother with you is because you won't let them."

Brad squinted. "And how the hell would you know that?"

"Because." Lotti said, thinking for a moment. "I can just tell in your voice. Instead of trying to think of the escape as a success, you just... got really negative about it, beat yourself up over everything that didn't go right on your end and put up a wall from the others. It's not them who are thinking badly of you. It's you who's thinking badly of you and, umm, I guess the others..." She paused, noticing that Brad went quiet. "I mean, maybe I could understand better if I knew who got out with you? I promise I won't tell anyone."

Brad just glared.

"You don't have to tell me. I guess you're trying to hide but... I'd like to know. It might help me to understand."

"What? So you can go online and tell everyone in the world?" Brad sneered. "Like hell. I'm fucking up just telling you this much."

"That wasn't - " Lotti hunched her shoulders again. "I was only trying to understand Jas - Brad. I mean I've never been to a high school much less been through what you have. I've never killed anyone before, I can't imagine how much you're suffering. I don't even know whether I'm reacting the right way, I just thought..." She stopped, noticing Brad's silence. It took her awhile to finish. "I'm just trying to help you. You need help."

Brad swallowed. Jesus, Lotti was starting to sound exactly like Maxie… was this what Maxie was getting at?

"No," he lied. "I don't need any help."

"I really think you do." Lotti insisted. "This isn't some tragedy that a hug and a tissue's going to help with - "

“Just forget about it Lotti. Nothing you can do is going to help in the long run.”

She turned her head. "Brad, I don't like to speak my mind. I'm just some home-schooled girl, I don't really know everything and sometimes things really confuse me but..." She blinked. "We've only known each other for a little while and I think you're really sweet, a guy who's just pretending to be tough. Up to now I didn't understand why but now... You're my friend Brad. Nothing's going to change that. So you're not a terrible person alright? Don't say that."

"Lotti..." Brad sighed. He was choking up. Fuck. Why the hell did he get trapped here? The look Lotti was giving him was breaking his heart. He wanted to believe her. He wanted to hug her, tell her that he finally saw the light, that he would change. But he couldn't. Because she was wrong.

"... I'm sorry Lotti. But I don't think you know the real me."

He tried not to look at her. He was afraid she was going to start crying.

She wasn’t crying though. Instead she got up from the bed and wandered over to her computer. She quickly plopped down and turned the monitor back on. She looked back at Brad.

"Come over here.” Lotti motioned for him to join her.

Brad was wary. What the hell was she doing over there? He wandered over, looking over her shoulder. Lotti was clicking on pages pretty quickly and Brad couldn’t really get a good glimpse of what she was looking for. She came to a list and slowly scrolled down.

“What the hell are you on?” Brad asked.

“Give me a minute.” Lotti said, before clicking a link. “There.”

There was a black page with gray text. Brad couldn’t see what was on the text, but he could sure as hell make out the title. It was his name in giant letters.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s you.” Lotti said, before pausing. “Well, it’s what I’ve seen of you. This is a site that captures all of the footage that’s shown on the broadcast. The SOTF Archive – real unoriginal name if you ask me.”

“Right,” Brad said, staring at the page. “… so why the hell are you showing me this?”

“You’re going to watch.” Lotti said, pulling out a pair of headphones.

“… what?”

Lotti shrugged. “The way I see it, you have this misconception about yourself. You think you were being cowardly and that you didn’t do anything to help anyone. Which is fine, I guess. I really can’t blame you for feeling that way… But I know for a fact that you’re wrong.”

"What about Chester?" He asked.

"I'll tell her you're helping me with my homework." Lotti smiled. She held the headphones out. "They kinda drop everything on me and expect me to get it through it all. If I tell Annabelle that you’re helping, she’ll just pressure Chester to leave you alone. So you’ve got a day, I figure."

Brad hesitated. “This is stupid. Really really stupid.” He still took the headphones. "There's gotta be like five days worth of footage on there, at the most.”

"I don’t know about that," Lotti lifted her head. “Could be plenty more than that. And I can only cover you from now until tomorrow. I guess that just means you have to get started."

Brad closed his eyes. "I don't want to."

"I'm not telling you that you have to," Lotti shook her head. "You don't have to. But I think it's the only way you're going to get closure. Isn't that what you want?"

"Not exactly."

Lotti smiled again. "This is the way to get it."

"You're talking like you know this for sure."

"It isn't going to hurt Brad." Lotti pushed the headphones against his chest. "I mean, it’s like watching your actions without the veil you have pulled. The worst thing that could happen is remembering the crap that happened? ”

Brad didn't know what to say. He stared down at the headphones. He really didn’t want to do this, but Lotti had a point. It was funny when he really thought about it. He looked back up, took the headphones and walked over to the computer. He sat down, plugged the headphones into the computer and placed them on his head.

The page had his name at the top with big silver letters. Nice to see that someone spelt his name right, for once. There were baseball card stats but Brad didn’t pay much attention to them. The page was detailed though, a little creepy in Brad’s mind. Had he seen this page a year ago it probably wouldn’t have bothered him so much. He scrolled down and saw a bunch of links marked under a subsection Videos.

Archangel.

How foreboding. Brad moved the mouse over the link.

He stopped himself. What the hell was he doing? How was any of this going to help him?! He already knew what happened! Hell, he had seen the events firsthand! There was no reason he should be doing this! He wasn't standing to gain anything! Brad could back away. He could just get up and walk out of the room. Yeah, that's exactly what he should. Just go back home to the other escapees Brad, there's a drink waiting for you.

Brad clicked.

The videos were bright. They hurt Brad's eyes to watch for a long time. He took his glasses off. At first he didn't see anything. Just an empty field with a bride at the left corner. Seconds passed. Brad checked the time and turned to look at Lotti. Lotti was on her bed with a book open, but her eyes were left hovering on him. He turned back again. Still, nothing. Brad vaguely recognized it - the broken bridge, the bushes. He found the place when he woke up, the first place that wasn't just a sea of trees.

That's when he saw it. He saw someone stumbling in the trees. A boy with brown hair and glasses. Slightly stocky but mostly stringy.

This Brad Kavanagh looked like shit, and it was only the first day.

Brad couldn’t believe it. He looked so different on the video. The Brad on the screen looked around. It appeared as though he was muttering to himself about something. He looked towards the bridge, then out across the expanse off-camera.

“I wouldn’t cross that if I were you.”

The Brad on the screen looked up. The camera changed to an overlook of the bridge itself, near the other end he figured. There was another boy. Brad remembered the asshole immediately - it was that one kid with that limp. Gabriel. He looked just as mad as Brad recalled. The leer on his face was much more sinister. Brad shivered in his seat.

“... Terrie...”

Brad couldn't believe how much of a pussy he looked. Of course the kill count mattered! He knew he was only faking it, but he honestly thought that line was cooler in his head. He looked back at Lotti, who had turned to reading the book. Brad wondered if he could leave the room without her noticing.

And then Brad heard it. At first he wasn't sure what it was. It . A sob.

“I... I can’t...”

Brad knew that voice. He turned back to the screen. There was a girl with her back pressed against a rock. She was curled up, and it was hard to make out any details. Brad knew who it was.

"Terrie..."

Brad leaned forward.

Everything happened as he remembered it. Simon came along soon after. Gabriel flew in and attacked Brad, but some boy that Brad couldn't identify leaped in and saved them. It took Brad a moment to figure out who he was. It was Adam. Shit. He almost forgot about him. ... he never did thank him, didn't he? The cameras turned to Gabriel and Adam, because that was where the action was. Brad winced. Jesus. How the hell did they survive?

The video ended. Brad went on the second one. How the Stars have Fallen... Who the heck was coming up with these names?

The brook was smaller than he remembered. Brad and Terrie were all alone - Brad remembered how they left Simon and Adam behind. He had felt so bad for doing that, but Terrie was crying. Terrie always cried, Brad knew that, but he remembered how he felt the need to reassure her. He really sucked at talking to girls though so he sounded like a tense mess. Damn it. How the hell could he be so cold to Terrie?

Terrie asked for Brad to take his shirt off. Brad felt his chest. He looked down at his leg. Jesus. He had completely forgotten about that. Terrie patched him up. Brad could remember how he wanted to scream like a baby. Brad smiled. Man, he was a mess. Simon showed up soon enough and Terrie finished up. Brad frowned again. Simon never knew about the plot, didn't he? He wasn't so bad.

What happened next surprised him.

Brad made a speech. It was short. It was shitty. The speech was jerky. It was forced. It felt like Brad was grabbing at strings, like he was trying to sound positive despite how he was clearly dreading the worst. The Brad on the screen admitted that he might be ignorant. Brad knew that was the truth. He was being stupid... why the hell didn't he remember ever making a speech like that?

Brad couldn't believe how he was forgetting so much. Why the hell was he being so fucking positive? Didn't jail teach him that you had to keep to yourself? This was pointless. All he could remember was how he spent his entire time on the island doing nothing significant. Like a leech. So why was he making speeches like that? Jesus. Way to act out of character.

He had to click on the next video.

Brad's memory was fuzzy. It turned out that he had forgotten a lot of things that happened. It was almost embarrassing. He forgot about the kid with the mask - Blood Boy was always a stupid name. He was the one who shot him in the leg. Brad remembered how he was limping for such a long time. He was reminded of everything major that happened to him, every step, every word spoken. He was ashamed too. Were a lot of people watching him be a complete loser?

He wasn’t sure what time it was. He was drowsy but he struggled to keep his head up. Lotti was still up. How the hell did she manage to keep awake like this? Brad clicked the next link - The Brad on the island had lost his friends, and he was looking for them. It took him awhile to stumble across them... and then? The Brad on the screen started rambling.

”I can't do shit for you guys and... I want to protect you all. I want to protect you guys because... I-I'm not sure how I'll do without you...

“Even though I want to help you guys, I can't. My purpose in life is to be the guy that stands in the background, not to stand in front and be a leader. That's just how it's always been...

"Every time I take the initiative something bad happens. That's just how it is.”


Brad thought the other Brad was being stupid. Incredibly stupid.

Except it sounded familiar. Can't save anyone. Completely useless. A leech. Yeah sure, the plea was selfish and childish. He was only thinking of himself, even he knew that but that was just it, he was being selfish but - but he was worried! It was a fact Brad knew. It was nothing he wasn't aware of. This was different though. The reaction was immediate.

Brad didn't realize that he was crying until Lotti put her hands on his shoulders. For the first time in a year, Brad cried, and all of the weight on his shoulders suddenly fell.

"I-I - I wasn't -" He sobbed. "I wasn't bad - "

Lotti didn't say anything, she just stroked his shoulder.

"I was looking out for them. I-I thought I had to protect them, I wanted - " He shut his eyes. "Fuck, why was I so stupid? Stupid, damn it, I just - I thought I was using them but I - "

"I know." Lotti reassured him.

"How the fuck could I be so stupid?" Brad shuddered.

"I don't know Brad," Lotti reached for her tissues. "Brad, just let it out."

Brad's heart was pounding. He wiped his eyes. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I just -

“Brad, it’s okay. I’ve got you.”

That. That made Brad stop.

"I have this, right?"

Lotti seemed confused. "What?"

"I have this," Brad stared at Lotti in desperation. "This room, this chair - it's mine right? I'm not just - " He shook his head. "I have something, right? "

"..." Lotti looked confused. She smiled regardless. "Yeah. This is yours. Ours. It's fine."
V6

G052 - Reed, Jasmine - 0% - Falchion - START END
G060 - Pfeiffer, Scout - 100% - Sawlaska Thunderfuck 5000 - START
G025 - Reyes, Audrey - 0% - Nunchaku - START END

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Ciel
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"That’s not a prediction, that’s a spoiler.”
[ *  *  *  *  *  *  * ]
I'm leaving," Brad said, letting his small suitcase sit at his feet.

Grossi seemed to be occupied with something else. Funny. Brad expected a reaction out of him. However Grossi just placed down the papers in his hands, looked up at Brad and said nothing. Made what Brad had to say a little harder to choke out.

"I'm leaving," Brad repeated, unsure of what else to say. "I've already got my stuff packed. I figured I would just say something to you since... y'know, you're the guy watching us."

Grossi looked down at the suitcase before looking back up. He didn't seem amused.

"Why so suddenly?" He asked.

Brad did to have an answer for him. He looked at a plant off to the side, closed his eyes and thought. Suddenly? It didn't seem so sudden to him. Fuck, it felt like he took this decision into consideration and thought deeply about it. The idea of this being spontaneous had never occurred to him.

"I just," he stammered, "I've done some thinking -"

"On the farm, I presume. The one a few miles away."

Brad choked up again. "Y-Yeah. And I just realized that I'm just not happy. So I decided living there will be a bit easier for me.”

Grossi was silent for a time. “Alright.”

Brad was surprised. No, he was even a little insulted. “Alright? Just alright?”

“Yes.” Grossi looked towards the door. “If you want to leave, then that’s fine.”

“… that’s it? You’ve got nothing else to say?”

Grossi waited. “There’s a difference between what I want to say, and what I need to say. If you want my opinion, I believe staying here is the better option.”

“Not gonna do that,” Brad shook his head.

“I figured as much.” Grossi turned his head back to Brad. “I’m not going to hold your hand Brad. If you want to leave, that’s just as well. As long as you don’t go out of the country – or turn rogue – well, I really don’t care. Frankly I would rather you stay and help us in the future. We’re all a team here Brad. We look out for each other. And if you want to leave, then you have to understand that while we won’t exactly cut all the strands away, you’ll be out of sight and out of mind. You will be on your own Brad. Do you understand that?”

Brad nodded. “I understand. You guys won’t be protecting me or handing out cash. I get you.”

Grossi made a sour face. “I don’t think you really understand Brad. What I mean to say is that you’ll be on your own. Your decisions are yours. The consequences are yours and yours alone. So if you make a mistake and it just so happens to crumble what we’ve been working up, then it’ll be your fault.”

“That’s fine.”

“You still don’t understand,” Grossi shook his head. “Think about it. If Danya finds where you are and take you in, they can connect you to us. This isn’t just about you looking out for yourself Brad. This affects the rest just as much. I don’t want you to stay because I particularly like you. I want you to stay because your moving out is risky. From what I’ve seen, you aren’t capable of living out on your own. I’m perfectly fine with keeping you, if that’s what you’re worried about. And I’m perfectly fine with you leaving. I hope you do realize that this decision just doesn’t just affect you, it affects everything.”

Brad had never considered that. He hesitated for a moment.

“This was never about the group.” Brad answered. "Whatever consequences come of my choices, well, I'll deal with them. Maybe one day I’ll come back and help you. This might not be temporary. But for now, I need to get out of this house. It’s for the best.”

Grossi nodded. “Do you have a phone number?”

Brad shook his head. “I think the caretakers have a phone, I don’t know the number.”

Grossi nodded again. “You can give it to me later. We already know the location. We’ll keep our eyes peeled.” He turned his head. “I just want to remind you that if you ever think of leaving the country, or coming out and talking about the escape attempt in any way… we will know. Is that understood?”

“I understand.”

“Right then. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Brad didn’t see anyone else on his way out. Which was for the best. Brad figured it would be better if he left without a tearful goodbye. It wasn’t like anyone was going to miss him anyway. Brad dragged his feet. He was so tired all of a sudden. It made sense - he had plenty of weight on his shoulders. He lifted the back as he kicked the door open, letting it slam behind him.

“Ya know, when I said ya needed help I didn’t mean rehab.”

Brad turned. Was Maxie waiting for him? Jesus.

“I’m not going to rehab.” he responded.

Maxie smirked. “Why the hell are ya leavin’ Bradley? We all really that bad?”

Brad felt his heart sink. “I don’t hate you guys. I just…” He looked over at the banged-up jeep. “I just can’t be around here. The atmosphere is clashing with me. It’s the last thing I need right now. It’s got nothing to do with you.”

“This got anythin’ to do with that new girlfriend ya’ll found somewhere?”

Brad shook her head. “She’s a friend. Like a sister.” Not like his sister, but she was close. “It’s complicated.”

“Ehh, whatever. At least ya’ll are sober.”

“… yeah. Two weeks. I’m happy about it.”

Maxie laughed in a semi-mockingly. “You want a frickin’ medal or somethin’ champ?”

Brad found himself smiling.“To be honest, I didn’t notice until you pointed it out.”

Maxie nodded, smirking. “Good t’ see I was able ta help ya, I guess. Least I ain’t gettin’ mixed up in ya’ll’s business.”

Brad swallowed. The lump in his throat was back. “Maxie?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry. For calling you a bitch. Okay? When we spoke the other day, I was in a bad spell. It was hard for me to see clearly. I knew you were trying to help but the only thing I could do was to push you away. And that was a mistake.”

Maxie didn’t say anything. She looked surprised.

“… yeah. So sorry about that.”

“It’s cool.” Maxie smiled. “I’m just kinda shocked that ya managed this much change so quickly. I’m impressed.”

“Thanks.”

“I still think that ya’ll are an asswipe. Just less so now.” She crossed her arms. “And I still wanna know why ya wanna leave so bad. I don’t believe that bullshit about this place suffocatin’ ya or whatever. But ah... fuck it. I doubt ya’ll would ever tell me anyway.”

Brad smiled faintly. "... hey Maxie? Can I ask you a question?"

Maxie shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

"Do you regret killing Rizzolo?"

Maxie looked surprised. Brad couldn't blame her for it. Maxie thought, eyes flicking between Brad and the shag carpeting. It took her a very long time to come up with an answer.

"Sometimes I kick myself. I ask why I didn’t kill a soul on that island but stooped ta that after we all got outta there. Now and then I think about it and say that killin’ was beneath me. I guess I've got a little regret, somewhere inside."

She smirked. "But whenever I feel like I should be regretful, I remind myself that I was killin’ Riz, the prick that tortured my friends. That got told we had a way out and decided that he didn’t wanna take it. I was makin’ him suffer like all of the people he killed. And then I remember how killin’ Riz left me feelin’ so damn satisfied that it kinda makes up for all the shit that’s happened. Well, almost, but that ain’t somethin’ that’ll ever go away... So no, I don’t regret it. In fact I'm feelin’ damn happy about it."

Brad took a second to process that. He nodded.

"... Guess that’s all that matters, in the long run." And that was that. He waved goodbye and headed off.

Brad wasn’t sure if he would ever return. He hoped he could. Perhaps he was wrong about the whole group. Maybe they were more caring than he ever gave them credit for. He knew that, in the long run, it didn’t matter. The ranch was a cage for him, and if he ever wanted to return, it would have to be when the time was right. He was conflicted about it, but not overly so. He wasn’t broken up because while he lost his family and friends, he managed to gain something back. He didn’t know what to call them. He knew it was something though. And in the end that was all he wanted - something.

Brad had a dream later that night. He couldn’t remember all the details of it, but he knew it was dark. So dark that he couldn’t see where he was going. He knew that he had no idea where he was going. He didn’t even know why he was walking. He just knew that he had to, for some reason. Things were flying past him and they kept startling him. There was a voice calling out but it was muffled and he didn’t know what it was saying. Brad kept walking towards the voice, hoping he would find someone or something. Then the floor disappeared and Brad landed into water. A long, black sea that threatened to pull him under.

Brad wondered if he was going to die. Was this it? Was he going to drown? And that was when he realized that no, he couldn’t die! He went through so much shit that he couldn’t die now! Not here! So he tried to swim, fought his damned hardest to keep his head above water. He was losing his strength. The water was black and he could have sworn something was pulling him down under the water. Brad kept fighting it, struggling to keep afloat.

That was when he heard his name. “Brad.”

Chester was looking was peering into the room. She smiled. A smile. Huh. Chester never smiled "You awake now?"

Brad opened his eyes. “Yeah.”
V6

G052 - Reed, Jasmine - 0% - Falchion - START END
G060 - Pfeiffer, Scout - 100% - Sawlaska Thunderfuck 5000 - START
G025 - Reyes, Audrey - 0% - Nunchaku - START END

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Theseus
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Yeah Yeah Yeah
[ *  *  *  * ]
Neil Sinclair hit the pavement hard. He layed with his arms outstretched as crowds of people pushed past, some looking down on him, no one offering to help. Everything was blurry, and the lights, the bright neon flashing lights didn’t help. He could see three figures standing over him.

“Grab the junkie's wallet.”

One of the figures kicked Neil, and rolled him over and fished for his wallet.

“Jack Ponder? Fuck you Jack.”

Another kick to Neil’s side and he winced and let out a grunt. Everything was swimming, and he vomited all over the sidewalk. He was only a couple weeks off the island, and this was what he aspired too. Getting his ass kicked in front of a night club in Australia. As the swarm of people walked past, he realized how utterly alone he was.

“Fuck…”

Neil shakily put his hands on the pavement to stand up, and when he got himself propped up, he looked in time to see another kick heading towards his face.

Then everything went black.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

A week and a half earlier

He had been in Australia a couple of days now and barely had left his room.

Neil Sinclair lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. Or was it Jack Ponder now? That was what his new ID said. That was what his new identity was.

Leaving the island, that fucking island, he was ecstatic. More than happy, he felt like he accomplished what he was searching for the whole time. Escape. And the next day he was happy, the adrenaline still pumping into his system, and all he could think of was taking down Danya. So many ideas, thoughts, spun around his head. All he wanted to do was bring down the organization. Stop the game.

Then the realities started to sink in. So many rules. So much more things you can’t do than you can do. At first it was his desire to get in contact with his parents. He wanted them to know he was ok. He wanted them to know he won, he beat them, and they don’t have to cry anymore.

Then, just as bad, it started to hit him that he didn’t win.
SADD didn’t win. Everyone was dead. He failed. He promised so many people he could get them off the island, and how many did he fail? He failed so many. That was what tore him up every night. And that was why it was here, this night, that Neil Sinclair sat in his room, hating everything.
Fuck. I tried so hard. I did. Why am I here and not the rest of you?
He had tried. But not hard enough. At least that is what he told himself. He got up, and walked quickly out of the house they were told to stay at. Getting in a car, he drove to the nearest city.

He drove, and drove, and when he got there the first thing he did was go to the bar. With a hoodie on, and the hood over his head, he ordered a shot.
Then another.
Then before too long, the night was away from him, and he liked that.

That was how it went for the next couple days, going to the city, getting drunk, never talking to anyone, just numbing every sense he could. It made it easier. It made it easier to deal with the fact that he was a failure. That they all died because he wasn’t good enough. That he got off the island, he lived, but SADD, the ones he promised life to, dead.
Every night, the scene of him on the beach in the beginning of the game, singing that song to Danya with the original members of SADD, played in his head. And every night he drunk it away, until one night a short skinny man approached him.
Neil was sitting at the bar, when a man, probably mid 20’s, wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt, approached him.

“Hey, Mr. Depressed, what’s your name?”

Neil looked at the man for a moment then said, “Jack.” He then turned to continue to nurse his drink.

“Look, I see you here every night alone. I don’t know why you’re here, but I think I got something for you. Something a little better than that drink. You know what I mean?”

Neil turned, looked at the man, and smiled.

A couple days later Neil was in the bathroom of a night club, people coming in and out. It was a dirty bathroom, and he quickly glanced around as he took out and spread a line of cocaine on the counter. Using a dollar bill, he quickly snorted the line.

“Fuck!”

The man from the bar, the one that re-introduced Neil to drugs, came in. He was sweating badly, and he was talking fast.

“Jack! Come on we need to get out there! The bitches are tearing it up out there!”

Neil turned to him and said, “Hold on Mark, one more hit ok?”

Mark nodded and said, “Here, I just got some good stuff last night.” Mark reached into his pocket and pulled out a needle and said, “Already loaded, just inject that shit, then let’s go get laid man!”

Neil grabbed the needle, lined it up to a vein on his arm, and pressed the top until the sweet venom entered his system. People coming in and out of the restroom looked at him, some in envy, most in disgust. Neil watched as the world became bright, loud, and numb.

Heading out to the dance floor he watched as Mark broke off and started to dance and suddenly it flashed before him. He saw as Corbin was dying. He saw the screams of pain, the looks of anguish of everyone on the island. Suddenly his world became very dark.
I couldn’t save you all. I’m sorry! Just fucking leave me alone!

Neil ran to the bar and ordered a shot. He needed something, anything to keep it back. He wasn’t a hero. He failed them. He failed SADD. Hell, he was failing STAR right now.

The shot came, and he threw it back, and collapsed.

He felt someone pick him up, and he turned to see it was Mark. “Fuck man, come on. Let me take you home.”

Neil never told Mark where he lived, instead he always had Mark drop him off at a spot that was far enough away from the house not to be noticed, but close enough to walk. “Sure you want me drop you off here? And not your pad?”

“Yeah.”
Neil stumbled home, and in the dark he fumbled with his keys and staggered into the house.
Grossi was waiting up.
He knew what Neil had been up to the past week, everyone knew. It was no mystery. Every night. It was the same.

“You’re better than this Neil. You were a voice of reason on the island. You gave people hope when they had every reason to have none”

“Yeah, and what happened? I failed. I..I…Fuck…” Neil’s head was spinning and he collapsed on the couch.

“You’re a disappointment. I really thought you would have seen this differently.”

--------------------------------------------

The next morning Neil felt the pain shooting through his head. It was a hangover he definitely deserved. He didn’t remember much of the last night, but he did remember Grossi.
You’re a disappointment
It stung. But fuck him. Neil took a shower, and got dressed, and started to leave. Grossi was in the kitchen.

“It’s not even 2pm yet. You need your fix that bad? This is how you are going to get by now? This is who you are now? You are putting yourself at risk, and this entire group. Do you know that?”

Neil looked at him and said, “Let me live my fucking life ok? You don’t know. You don’t know anything!”

Grossi went back to reading his newspaper and didn’t look up when he said, “Go. Go chase your high. Ruin the memory of SADD. Ruin their memory. Disappoint the rest of us. You’ll be dead in a month if you continue this. No one is going to help you.”

“Fuck you.”

Neil started to leave when he heard “What would your parents think?”

Neil spent that day chasing his high. Well into the night, and he ended up at a popular night club. Mark had to cut out early, but he left Neil with enough stuff to take care of him. So Neil shot up, snorted up, and smoked up. And he danced on the dance floor, and when the images of the island started to take over, he fought it back with alcohol.

He then bumped into a large man with a Mohawk. “Watch yourself!”

Neil looked him up and down and said, “Fuck you!” The man punched Neil and he fell back. Neil looked up to see two more people join the mohawked man. Neil stood up and laughed.

“Do you know who I am!?! Come on you mother fuckers! Bring it!” Neil ran at the men but was quickly layed out. It wasn’t so much as a fight as an ass kicking. Neil was thrown outside on the sidewalk, and that’s where he vomited, and blacked out.

-----------------------------------------------------

Neil opened his eyes, he was in his bed. Was it all a dream? Attempting to stand up he felt the pain of last night’s ass kicking course through his body and he knew it was real. So how did he end up here? Fighting his way downstairs he saw Grossi in the kitchen.

“So you’re among the living.”

“How did I end up here?”

Grossi paused then said, “We got you. I didn’t want the police or anyone picking you up. You would have ruined this for everyone.”

Neil was silent then sank into a chair across Grossi.
“Look…I’m sorry.”

Grossi didn’t say anything, he just read the newspaper.
Truth is, before he went out last night, what Grossi said stuck with Neil. What would his parents think? What would those who died that believed in SADD think? Neil had made it his goal on the island to escape and bring down Danya. He could still honor the memory of SADD by completing what he originally set out to do.

“I want to join STAR.”

“Out of the question.”

“Why!? You know I’m dedicated to the cause of stopping Danya! I formed SADD!”

“You also showed that you are unstable. You only care about yourself. Look at you. On the island you fought for escape, now look at you. Every day you fight for another hit. I don’t trust you Neil, and STAR doesn’t need someone like you. So no. You can continue to stay here, but you will never be a part of STAR. Got it?”

The reality started to sink in for Neil. All he wanted to do was fight Danya and the game, and he let himself sink into despair. He lost sight of who he was as a person. He lost sight of who he was on the island. He didn’t say anything as he stood up and left the house.

----------------------------------------------------

The next year was intense. Neil Sinclair was out to prove he had what it took to be a part of STAR. In fact, he would be the MOST dedicated member they had. After that conversation with Grossi his first step was fighting his addiction. He detoxed, and it was terrible and painful, but he beat it.

Then the next step was proving his worth. Neil went to the library and read every book he could find on working out, martial arts, weapons, military strategy, anything that would make STAR want him. He went to the barber and shaved his signature long hair completely to a buzz cut. He joined a gym, and took up Krav Maga at a studio. Slowly, as the months passed by, Neil went from the skinny punk rocker to something else. His head was shaven, his face was more serious now, it lost its childhood innocent look. The goofball, who he used to be, it all seemed to transform as Neil seemed to only be at the house to sleep and eat. Every moment, every hour he was out, transforming himself. He gained muscle, a much more chiseled body, and confidence.

Every day he pushed himself. He got SADD tattooed on his knuckles on his left hand. A letter on each knuckle. He got STAR tattooed on his right hand knuckles the same way.
And he continued to push himself, bearing little resemblance to the boy he used to be.

Neil sat in front of the house, an acoustic guitar resting on his lap. He bought it hoping to pick it up again, and put it off until. He positioned it and started to play it. A familiar tune started to play, as he played one of his favorite songs by one of his favorite bands.

“My ship went down, in a sea of sound.”
“When I woke up alone I had everything.”


Neil was standing in the Krav Maga studio, the other students formed a circle around him. His instructor shouted, “Remember Neil, technique! Go!” One by one, and sometimes at the same time, the students pushed in on him and Neil fought each one.

“A handful of moments I wished I could change.”
“And a tongue like a nightmare that cut like a blade”


Neil fought his way through punches and kicks, throwing his own kicks, punches, elbows, everything he had at the group. He saw Danya in each and every one of them.

“In a city of fools I was careful and cool.”
“But they tore me apart like a hurricane”


One of the students attempted a choke hold on Neil, and the instincts from training took over as he expertly broke out and brought the student down. The whistle blew and Neil let his hands collapse to his knees as he caught his breath.

“A handful of moments I wish I could change.”
“But I was carried away.”


-------------------------------------------------------

The year went by fast for Neil. He was a different man. Focused entirely on one thing. He transformed himself. When he woke up in the morning he saw a note lying on his nightstand. Opening it, all it had was a picture of a star and one line.

You’re in – Grossi

Neil smiled as he stripped off his shirt, put on a pair of running shorts, and left the house. He went for his morning run, a new feeling of energy collapsing over him. He did it. He was in. He got accepted to STAR. He could make a difference now. As his run neared his end and he was running back to the house he saw a vehicle approaching the house. In the distance he could make out Maxie getting out of it and knew she was back from America. He continued his run towards the house, this time he had a purpose. He belonged now.

He would honor the memory of those who didn’t get off the island.

He would bring down the game.





Edited by Theseus, Oct 10 2011, 08:23 PM.
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Mitsuko2
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Slutty Dwarf
[ *  *  *  *  * ]
It was bright out today… from his little window, partially left open by his last visitor, he could feel a soft breeze rustle through and over his body. He felt a small smile grace his face for a moment. It was nice… being alive. If that’s what you could call it. He was alive yes… but he did not exist. The person he was, only a year before… that person, according to public record, had died back on that miserable island, alongside the rest of Southridge High, and the person he was now was a non-entity. A no one. A person without a past, without a name. Without anything that makes him feel human. It was a scary thought, but the last time he felt human was on that terrible island.

Now he felt like an animal trapped in a cage.

There was a knock as his door, and he wheeled his char around to face it. The boy in the wheelchair had shaggy brown hair that came down about to his shoulders. His eyes had bags under them that seemed almost permanently placed. He was skinny, but had a look about him that showed rough times. There were quite a few scars along what could be seen of his body, coming out his shirt sleeves and running down his calves. One even slashed across his right cheek from his nose to his ear.

“Come in.” His voice cracked a bit. He must have been sitting staring outside longer than he thought.

“Hey.. Thought you’d like to know, Maxie just got back. You should go see her. Get out of this room for a while.” The man, Grossi, said to him with sad eyes.

“Oh she is? Maybe… could… could you ask her to come up here… I-I don’t like leaving this room…” He felt his voice shake a bit when he spoke, and rubbed his hands up his arms as if he had a chill. “It is a nice day out today though…”

“Matt… You have to get outside… Jordan said you have to do your exercises if you want to walk. Go do them outside. Ask Neil to help you. He should be on his way back.”

Matt sighed. He did need to do them today. After the final battle at the shore, his body was so bad, Grossi told him he didn’t know how he survived o the boat. When they got here, to Australia, members of STAR who knew about medicine did their best on him, but even now, more than a year later, his body still was not well enough to move on it’s own. Jordan Redcrest, a member of STAR who’d become his personal physical therapist of sorts, came by once a week and left him exercises to help him move better.

“Yeah…” Matt turned his head to look out the window. “Okay… I’ll go outside for a bit… maybe I’ll feel a bit better.”

“That’s the spirit Matt.” Grossi said with a smile, and grabbing the handrails of his wheelchair, wheeled Matt into the hallway, and outside.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

“Hia, Matt! How are you feeling today? Was this week any better for you?” The sight of Jordan Redfeild once again made Matt blush crimson. The man was gorgeous. Short blonde hair on a five foot ten lead body. Eyes like emeralds shining with laughter. Matt never understood how he always seemed so happy. After all… Jordan had gone through the same kind of hell they had.

“I did my exercises… but I still cant hold myself up… I’m moving my legs better now though.” Matt smiled slightly at the older boy.

Jordan grinned. “That’s great! don’t worry, the more we work at it, and I think we’ll have you back on your feet by the end of the year, huh?” Jordan patted Matt on the shoulder. “By the way, you’re way cuter when you smile, so do it more often for me, kay?”

Matt blushed even harder and nodded, sending Jordan into a fit of laughter.

“You’re so fun to tease Matt! Haha! C’mon, lets go do our exercises outside today! Grossi told me you went outside, and I’m keeping that train on track!”

Matt smiled. Jordan always made him smile. He made him feel human again. He made him feel like he existed when he was around. Not to say Grossi, Neil and the others didn’t, but when he looked at them and spoke to them, he remembered things… things he didn’t want to remember… He loved all of them like family… it was just different with Jordan.

“Yeah… I’d like to go outside again…” He grinned and allowed himself to be wheeled outside.

He missed his old life. His mother, his father, his home… his future… but maybe he could build a new future here. And when all of this evil was over, and Danya’s terror was ended, he could show up, and tell them he was alive. Matt sighed inwardly. That’s what kept him going. The thought that one day, he’d be with his family again. For now though, he had his new family, and god did he love them… and for now, he’d create a brand new future.
The Dan: she won me over with card games, brownies, sex and handcuffs

Edited as of 12/1/11

Alive: Norelia Concepcion, Elliot Stone, Allegra Hoffman

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do you want to go to war, balakay?
[ *  *  *  *  *  * ]
June 7, 2015
The Office of Dr. Ben Jardine, Ph.D
Melbourne, Australia



"Dr. Jardine, Mr. Stone is here to see you."

The phone had startled him, breaking the tranquility of the quiet twenty-fourth floor office. If there was a routine that Dr. Ben Jardine had when it came to appointments, it was always keeping the office as quiet and serene as possible before his patients arrived. It helped him dismiss any of the mundanities of his own life and allowed him to focus further on the mysteries buried within the minds of the men and women he treated.

Forty-six years old (years young, he would often say in jest), Ben was a lean man with only the slightest hint of a paunch in his belly. Adjusting his glasses slightly as he stood, he moved from his desk to stand beside the large floor-to-ceiling window at the edge of his office. His building overlooked the coast, and there was a wonderful view of the ocean, the ferries and cargo ships that would come and go frequently throughout the day. The office space had been obtained at a premium cost when he'd began his private practice six years prior, but Ben firmly believed that natural light and a nice view was often conducive to a beneficial therapy session.

Of course, he mused with a small smile, for the times that it wasn't, he'd had thicker-than-normal safety glass installed to prevent anyone from getting any bright ideas, like doing a pratfall from his office window.

Looking out over the water, his thoughts shifted to his incoming patient. Ben had known Chris Stone for seven years - he had in fact been the first patient who'd come with him from his old clinic when he'd started his own private practice. Happily, Chris had turned out to be somewhat of a success story, and had gone from a traumatized young man, barely able to function within the confines of normal society to a mentally healthy twenty-something, virtually indistinguishable from most.

As he watched the boats come and go from the harbour, he heard the door open behind him. Closing his eyes for a moment, he listened as his patient stepped into the carpeted room. His footfalls were heavy, revealing a man who walked everywhere with a purpose. Turning around, Ben smiled and stepped towards the new arrival, extending his hand.

"How're you going, mate?"

The man in front of Ben grasped his hand in a firm, solid handshake. Chris Stone took after his name in many ways. Probably an inch or two under six feet, Chris was well-built, his skin sunbrushed from many hours spent outdoors. With a bald, shaved head and a thick brown beard, the man in front of him was definitely a tad imposing, if not in height, then in physical stature. Chris wore a smile as he released the doctor's hand and moved to sit down on one of the couches, but his eyes had a dark look in them that betrayed the smile.

Ben followed behind and sat on one of the other couches, perpendicular to Chris. The other man had let the question hang in the air for a moment, but as Ben sat down, he finally replied.

"Doc. It's going. You know how it is."

The doctor nodded. This wasn't a usual visit. Chris had sessions scheduled every couple of months, just so that Ben could check in, see how he was controlling the post-traumatic-stress disorder that he was suffering from. The twenty-six year-old in front of him would not have called to schedule an appointment - an emergency appointment, had something not happened.

As for what had brought the young man in? Ben had an idea.

"I do, I do. How's the business going? Last time you were here, you were optimistic that things were about to take off...?"

Chris' eyes brightened a bit. "Oh, uh, yeah! Actually, it did. You can advertise all ya' want, but if you do a good job, people talk, and suddenly you're doing four basements and a back patio set." He laughed. "No, work's going well. Things are actually boomin'."

Not work, Ben had been correct. Chris was an electrician - a damn good one, actually, and had started his own business six months prior. Ben had actually hired Chris to do some work in the office when they'd expanded, and had been more than happy with both the work and the price.

"I'm happy to hear it. So what's going on, Chris?"

The man's face tightened up and he stammered, confirming Ben's hunch immediately.

"Well, it... t-they..."

Lowering his voice, Ben moved to confirm his suspicions - what he already knew.

"Survival of the Fittest has returned, hasn't it?"

The young man in front of him slumped back on the couch, and nodded, saying nothing.

Chris Stone had been an unusual case from the get-go for Dr. Jardine. He'd been referred to this particular patient by a private clinic that he'd been doing some work-study hours at. He, at the time, had been a nineteen year-old who had obviously seen some sort of combat. Ben had guessed him by accent and demeanour to be American, though Chris wouldn't volunteer any information about his background, and he found it odd that the entire time he'd been in the clinic, he'd had a shadowy man lurking around him, rarely leaving his side.

"Chris Stone" was almost certainly an alias in and of itself, so Ben's first guess had been that he was an American military deserter, who'd seen combat and gone AWOL. Of course, the details were of secondary importance to Ben - he had never been a stickler for rules, for being anal-retentive about reporting every little thing to the governments or embassies. The man who had been with Chris in the clinic had confirmed that the young man in his care just wanted to start fresh, but was deeply troubled. That was all fine for him. Dr. Ben Jardine was a lot of things, but paramount in his mind was helping people. He was a doctor first. That had been the oath he'd taken, so if the man used a fake name and wanted to escape his past, as long as he wasn't an out-and-out criminal, he was fine with that.

As the years had ticked by, Dr. Jardine had managed to gleam certain details from Chris, but the well-built young man was always reticent to divulge much of anything about his past. What he had always suspected was that his trauma was in some way related to Survival of the Fittest. There had been three kidnappings thought to be the work of the dastardly organization behind SOTF, and each time, the doctor expected Chris to call and schedule a number of emergency sessions. This time had been no different.

"I see. There has been an awful lot of news coverage as of late." Ben wasn't much for the news - he saw enough grief and suffering in his day-to-day life, but it was hard to avoid. Chris nodded slowly, still slumped back in the chair.

"It's all over the place. Just hits me... right in the chest. I get anxious, y'know? Scared. Same shit we've gone over all the damn time."

Ben furrowed his brow. Chris was decidedly more agitated now than he had been in years. There had been an unusual upswing of criminal activity as of late, perhaps corresponding with the Survival of the Fittest kidnappings - he couldn't be sure. Just this morning, his receptionist had been telling him about some gang battle that happened in her brother's neighbourhood.

These were strange times.

"Of course. You know that it's completely natural to have those feelings. In the age of technology and social media, it's difficult to hide oneself from war, from death, from that chaos. You do a very good job doing so, for the most part. I take it you've been doing the breathing exercises?"

Chris sighed, and nodded. "Yup. Not doin' much. This... uh." He started to say something more, but quickly stopped himself. That got Ben's attention.

"You stopped yourself just then. What were you going to say, Chris?"

"Fuck." Chris grimaced, shooting a glare at the ceiling. "Well, I guess it doesn't really matter anymore. It's all gonna fuckin' come out sooner or later anyway."

Dr. Jardine shifted forward. This kind of unfiltered transparency was unheard of from his patient. The shields were down.

"What is?"

Chris stood up, and walked over to the window, looking out at the sea. Ben could see the manic energy coursing through him, the agitation basically radiated from his body.

"Survival of the Fittest. I'm fuckin' involved."

Ben's jaw dropped in surprise, but he quickly composed himself. "You- you're what?! Involved how?"

"C'mon, Doc. You really think I served in some army somewhere?" Chris glanced behind and rolled his eyes at the doctor. Back in the early days of his therapy, the doctor had posited the theory and Chris had shot it down immediately. "Not a chance."

Ben was aghast. Was Chris admitting to being a conspirator? This was concerning, both morally and immediately: was his own safety at risk? Cautiously, the doctor stood up and took a few steps towards his patient.

"What did you do, Chris? You... you helped those monsters?"

Thud. Chris' head softly hit the window in front of him and he slowly shook his head, his skin slightly smudging the glass. "No... I was in it."

THAT caught Ben's attention even more. Everyone knew about the rescue that the mercenary group had enacted years prior; it had been world news when those twenty-nine students had come home alive, but Chris had been a patient of his when that had happened.

So how was that possible?



Survival of the Fittest: Version 3
May 30, 2015: Day 10
The Coastline, Unidentified Island



"KEITH, BUDDY...we've gotta go! She's gone, man, we've gotta go!"

Dean Portman punctuated his words to the wailing senior with a couple of gunshots at the terrorists that seemed to swarm the beach from every angle. They were SO close to escape - too fucking close. Keith was a good dude, but watching his friend take a bullet in the face while right next to her was enough to crack anyone's eggs.

Right now, someone had made an omelette with Keith Jackson's proverbial eggs, because he had checked right out. He continued to shake the newly deceased shell that was once Kallie Majors, muttering her name over and over. Taking a few more shots at the terrorists on the beach (and nailing one right in the throat, score), Dean swore. There was no more time. Dean liked to use his words, but when they failed him, sometimes the best thing to do was to take action. So take action he would.

Taking a couple more shots from his Daewoo at the soldiers shooting at the boats, Dean wrapped a beefy arm around Keith, and forcibly yanked him away from Kallie's body. He let the rifle swing back around his side, giving him both arms to help control the flailing senior. Keith was strong, and was admittedly giving him a run for his money, but Dean was stronger. Wrapping his arms around Keith, he started dragging him back towards the rescue boats. As they got a few steps away, Keith realized what was happening and let out a primal scream.

"KALLIE! NO! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"

The scream pierced Dean right down to the bone, but he just kept going. He could hear and feel bullets as they whizzed by him. Who knew how many other students had managed to find their way here - how many others had been cut down already?

It felt like he was back in World War II, on Normandy Beach. Except this time, they were storming the boats.

It took everything he had to exert the strength to get Keith even within a few feet of their escape vessels, and when he did, the struggling senior clued in to the fact that they were leaving - and that Kallie was not coming with them. This awakened a new kind of fury within him, and he finally started struggling with a purpose. As he tried to shake Dean off of him, Keith finally managed to get an arm loose and elbowed him square in the jaw. Staggered, he stumbled back, releasing Keith and clutching his face.

"Kallie, I'm comin' for 'ya!" I'm comin'!" The words were twisted, his face red and the tears streaming down his face as he beelined for Kallie's body.

Back near the boats, Dean tasted the blood from his lip, and cursed to himself. The boats were right here, but Keith...

"SHIT."

Dean couldn't leave someone behind. He'd never be able to live with himself if he did. So he again started back towards the broken teenager. Breaking into a run, Dean mentally cursed to himself. If Keith resisted again, he'd clock him and bring him back under duress if he had to. Enough was enough. Arriving again at the spot where Keith was begging Kallie's faceless corpse to get up, Dean reached down and grabbed the boy's shoulder.

"Keith!"

His half-crazed eyes barely focused on Dean's face. He went to turn away, but Dean wasn't having it. He reared back and slapped him. That caught Keith's attention.

"Dude! Kallie is dead. She got shot in the fucking face. We're standing in the middle of a war-zone, and there are boats waiting to take us the fuck out of here! Let's get fuckin' GOING! Are you HERE? You with me?"

Eyes slowly focusing on Dean's face, he blinked. "She's... dead?"

"That's right, bud. She's gone - and we've gotta go too if we don't want to end up like-"

Dean was insistent - he was trying to hurry Keith's brain back into his head from the little vacation it had gone on. So insistent that he hadn't noticed the terrorist who had come up from behind him and bashed him on the side of the head with his rifle. He crumpled to the ground, sub-machine gun falling to the side, leaving Keith to stare at the masked man, who raised his rifle and aimed squarely at Keith's head.

"You... killed her?"

The man ignored the retort and braced to fire the weapon, when Dean pulled himself from the ground and at the man's rifle. The shot went wide, the bullet whizzing a few feet past Keith's head. He blinked to himself, his mind slowly starting to piece itself back together.

The terrorist didn't take kindly to his weapon being attacked, and so he let go of the assault rifle with his right hand and punched Dean in the face with it. The burly teenager grunted, and tossed the rifle to the ground, bull-rushing the man and sending the two sprawling to the sandy beach. He fired punches at the man's sternum and connected a few times, the terrorist trying to roll away from Dean to avoid the blows.

"Where the fuck d'you think you're going, you piece of shit?"

This was Dean's wheelhouse. The burly teenager was a bona-fide NHL prospect, and he wasn't one to shy away from the rough stuff - it was how he'd made his name. Grabbing the terrorist by the collar of his tactical vest, he began to punch the man repeatedly in the face. The terrorist's mask came off from the blows, his nose breaking and blood starting to pepper Dean's fists. The teen shouted at the man as he battered his face.

"Think it's. Fucking cool. To kidnap. A bunch of. FUCKING KIDS?"

Keith sat still; in a trance, watching the brawl, Kallie's body still sitting in front of him. Nothing made sense anymore. Kallie wouldn't wake up. Her face was gone. Dean was beating that man.

Why did that man have a knife?

As Dean battered the terrorist, losing control as the man stopped fighting back, he didn't realize that the man's left hand had slipped down to his belt and unsnapped a nasty-looking combat knife, which he now held in his left hand.

Dean grabbed the man by his hair and readied to strike what would likely be a final blow. "It's time for you to fuckin' go to hell!"

He never saw the knife coming.

The terrorist's wickedly-sharp serrated blade thrust upwards, cutting right through Dean's neck and impaling itself right through his brain stem. Eyes wide, Dean's grip on the man loosened as he gurgled. Blood poured from his mouth and his eyes rolled back into his head as he collapsed to the ground. His body twitched a few times on the ground, and then lay still.

Keith still watched. Numb.

The terrorist took a moment and then gingerly pulled himself to his feet, getting himself to his knees. His face was a bloody mess. Teeth were missing, one eye looked misshapen and his nose was bent at an unnatural angle. Reaching over, he pulled the knife from Dean's throat, causing blood to pool from the wound and soak into the sand.

He took one look at Keith, dragged himself to his feet, and started towards the comatose senior.
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June 7, 2015
The Office of Dr. Ben Jardine, Ph.D
Melbourne, Australia



Dr. Jardine couldn't believe what he was hearing. That Chris Stone had been abducted and forced to be a participant in Survival of the Fittest explained the panic attacks, it explained the PTSD, it explained why he had some shadowy man glued to his side for the first year that Ben had known him.

So it was almost embarrassing that he, a trained psychiatrist, didn't put it all together.

As he listened to Chris tell his story, he had to force his mind to pay attention to the man's words rather than chastise himself. Chris needed Ben to listen - now more than ever. There would be time to reassess his own professional performance later on.

"Sometimes... I'll wake up and grab for the shotgun. I forget that I'm not sleeping in some dilapidated shack somewhere, an explosive collar around my neck."

Chris still stood by the window, Ben keeping his distance but standing himself, leaning against his desk while the man looked out at the coast beyond him.

"It's no wonder that you find yourself in my office every time this happens, then." Chris nodded at Ben's musing.

"It's no different than the nightmares that I keep havin', but they're real. It's all over the damned news. You can't escape it."

Chris tapped the window. The thick glass made a small thud with each tap. The allusions to a cage were all there. Ben didn't doubt the man sometimes felt trapped within the recesses of his own mind - he'd said as much.

"But you did, mate. You're one of the few. So few, nobody even knew. Heck, mate. I didn't even put it together."

Head sagging by the window, Chris turned to look at his psychiatrist, wearing a wry smile.

"Yeah. Guess so. That... I'm sorry, by the way."

Ben raised an eyebrow. "For what?"

"All of the..." Chris paused, searching for the right word. "... the lies. The omission."

Ben pursed his lips. "Ahh." It was an apology he felt was both unnecessary and yet needed. From a professional standpoint, he couldn't help like he'd failed this man - and yet it was as though he'd been playing a card game without being given all of the cards.

"No worries. I honestly understand why. Nobody knew what happened to you and... all the others. Everyone just assumed you all died. That's what the world was told."

Chris nodded, and walked back towards the sofa. Scratching his beard, he remained silent as he walked across the room and sat back down. Ben waited a few moments for Chris to collect himself, and then posed a question to the younger man.

"I think I get it, mate. I do. You couldn't risk getting exposed. Look, I know how much we've worked through the past few years. You've got a damn good life for yourself here." Chris nodded in agreement. "But why now, of all times? Why tell me all of this now? What's changed? I know Survival of the Fittest is going on, but..."

He left the sentence open, but Chris picked up exactly where he was going with it.

"They're dead. All of them. So it doesn't matter anymore."

Ben stayed silent, but wore a quizzical look on his face. Chris continued.

"STAR, I mean. Danya figured out what they were in to, and fucked 'em up. They're the ones who've kept us all safe this whole time. Some... most of the ones who got out went to work for them. Take down the bad guys, get revenge for our dead friends. They felt like... like they owed it to them, or some shit."

He coughed slightly. The doctor took that moment to lightly interject.

"But you?"

Chris scoffed at the suggestion with an ugly laugh.

"Me? That shit did a number on me, doc. Congrats, you're alive, but you can never go home again - never see your folks again. Everyone you know thinks you're dead, and by the way, you have to live here down under or the bad guys will get you. But work with us, and we'll take 'em all down. Yeah, thanks, but fuck that. I got lucky, doc. I like living."

His gaze again shifted towards the window, more vacant than before.

"I told them to shove their offer up their asses. I just wanted to get on with my life. Some of the others resented me for it, too. Gave me some bullshit about being a coward. If wanting to live a long life is being a fuckin' coward?" Chris shook his head and stared straight into Ben's eyes. "Then I guess I'm a fuckin' coward."

Ben understood that. Hell, he'd been accused of being a coward a couple of times before - back in medical school he'd done a placement at a sanitarium and had shrunk away from some of the more severe cases of mental difficulty. People had called him a coward, but Ben had been fine with that. He knew his own limit, and he supposed, so did Chris.

"STAR was the organization... that man who was around you in the hospital all of the time. He was STAR?"

This was an illuminating visit. So many of Ben's unanswered questions were coming to light, but so many new ones were springing up, too. He had the sneaking suspicion that he should clear the rest of his schedule for the day.

"You bet. Fuckin' spook, that dude. What was his name... Quinn, I think. Weird fuckin' guy. Him and I spent a whole lot of time together - I was probably the most fucked up of all the ones who got away. He pretty much babysat me while I..." Chris stopped and smirked. "... while you put my brain back together."

Ben nodded. The first year of therapy had been very, very difficult for Chris. Carefully monitored medication and a lot of difficult sessions had thankfully helped, but that first year was difficult.

"So I told them all to fuck off; let me live my life, now that I have it. I'll give that creepy fuck credit, Quinn argued a pretty good game for me, there. I think he saw how messed up I was. Go figure, that stubborn shit saved my life. Doc, STAR got fuckin' wiped out. They had a home base here in Australia, and it looked like a fuckin' gang war once Danya and his boys were through with it."

That piqued Ben's attention immediately. Gang warfare wasn't super common in his country, and he'd just heard about something that sounded an awful lot like what Chris was talking about.

"A gang war? Wait, not in Ivanhoe?"

Chris shrugged. "Yeah, I... I think so? It was a pretty basic lookin' house. Sounds about right."

"Wow." Ben felt like he'd been punched in the gut. That hit awfully close to home for his liking. There had been a lot of reported dead in the 'gang war', too.

"So yeah, doc. It doesn't fuckin' matter right now. STAR's basically toast. Quinn somehow made it out and told me that whatever I do with my life is up to me - those fuckers can't protect us anymore because there's not enough of them to go around anymore. Plus with Danya and those fucks at it again..."

Standing up from the couch, Chris stretched out his back. It popped several times, leaving the muscular man feeling visibly better. As he did so, his t-shirt rode up a bit on his arm, exposing a small bit of a nasty scar visible that extended up onto his shoulder. As he finished with his stretch, he caught Ben as he looked at it.

"Yeah, that was a nasty fuckin' wound. Left me with a couple of zippers. Thankfully it doesn't fuck with me too much. I'd assume in the cold, but... who knows."

For once, Ben wasn't really sure what to say. As a man who was used to knowing exactly what to say in most situations, he was really taken aback. Only one thing came to mind, so he uttered it with a minimum of professional demeanour.

"So where does that leave you?"

Running his hands across his bald head, Chris sighed slightly, and shrugged. The look on his face betrayed him, though. This was obviously something that he'd given great thought to - and Ben quickly realized that this was the reason for the visit.

"Honestly, doc? I'm tired. Tired of livin' a lie. You're right. The business is booming. I don't hate living here. You've got a cool country. Hell, I've even come to love your damn accents. But I'm exhausted, doc. With STAR gone, nobody's gonna give a fuck about me. Not what's left of 'em, not the terrorists."

The next words out of his mouth came slowly, as though unfamiliar, but were said with conviction.

"I think maybe it's time for me to come back from the dead, doc. I think it's time for me to go home."



Survival of the Fittest: Version 3
May 30, 2015: Day 10
The Coastline, Unidentified Island



The terrorist had fury within his eyes, and an almost primal desire to gut the well-built teenager from head-to-toe as he dragged his bruised body towards Keith. It was all Keith could do to watch the bloodied man lurch across the beach, away from the freshly murdered Dean Portman and towards his next victim.

That victim being none other than Keith himself, whose mind finally clicked in with the fact that he should probably move. Unfortunately, his legs wouldn't pay any attention, and he found himself paralyzed, watching his impending doom as though he were but a passenger within his own body.

This was it. This was how he was going to die. He'd join Kallie, Guy, Darnell - even Dean, as just another statistic. Another dead kid who wasn't going home, ever again. Frantically trying to regain control of his limbs, Keith watched helplessly as the hindered terrorist pulled himself to his feet, finally straightening up and spitting out blood, his face quivering with rage, the bloody knife impossible to miss in the sunlight.

Keith tried to say something, to warn off the terrorist, but his mouth only made the vaguest of shapes, no sound coming out at all. The man took one more step towards Keith, and raised the blade, his murderous intentions clear as day. Keith tensed, and waited for the inevitable meeting of flesh and steel.

One sudden report later, there was indeed a meeting, but this one was between flesh and lead. The gunfire came from somewhere behind Keith, and the terrorist didn't even have a chance to glance at wherever it came from before his body was doing a macabre dance, twisting and falling down onto the sand, blood spraying the beach - some splattering on the sand, some on Keith's leg, and some landing as far back as Portman's corpse.

Bounding forward, the dispatcher of the terrorist came into Keith's field of view, and as his mind continued to come back into focus, he found a familiar feeling of chagrin at learning the identity of the teenager who had just saved his life.

Adam Dodd. Of course it was. Why wouldn't it be him?

The dishevelled teenager checked the chamber of his M1 Thompson submachine gun and took a quick look at the terrorist to ensure that he was dead. The multitude of new holes in the man's body affirmed that fact. Dodd then looked at Keith and near-incredulously threw up his hands.

"Come on, man! What the fuck are you sitting around for? Do you wanna live or not? Let's fucking go!"

Keith could only stare into the other teenager's brown eyes, starting to come back to life and finally being able to utter two words.

"F-fuck... you..."

Adam rolled his eyes, and shook his head, cursing to himself. His skin had taken on an unhealthy pallor, and the dark circles under his eyes made his scowl even more pronounced. He was so done with this shit, in both body and mind.

"Really? I save your life and that's the thanks I get? Fuck sakes. This really is goddamn amateur hour."

Sighing in frustration as Keith didn't move, nor respond to his comment, Adam reached forward and pulled Keith to his feet, a motion that was surprisingly simple, given the teenager's size and muscle mass. His formerly dislocated shoulder throbbed as he did so, the morphine that he'd injected earlier starting to dull and bringing the pain right back to his attention. He had half a mind to leave this silly bastard on the island, but then...

What kind of person would that have made him? He'd committed so much time, so much energy to believing that escape was possible. Hawley and Amanda... they'd believed it. Madelaine, Marcus and David had all died thinking that a way out was achievable. Bill Ritch had gotten oh-so-close, and had sacrificed himself to give them a chance. And Izzy...

Adam had no idea where Izzy was.

But this asshole sitting in front of him, Keith Jackson? He'd kept Izzy safe. He'd helped her survive this hellish ordeal, and had obviously done it at a great cost. His mind was obviously collapsing under the stress, and hell - Adam had been there before, so who was he to judge?

So fuck it. Hopefully Izzy had gotten to one of the boats, and he could at least have managed to save somebody. He'd sure failed enough times. A win - an escape win, for that matter, would be really nice right about now.

Adam knew all about the other kind of win, a Pyrrhic victory if he'd ever seen one. To have one of those under his belt was enough for a lifetime.

Being yanked to his feet seemed to do a lot towards clearing the fog that had settled into Keith's mind, and he tensed his legs to keep from falling over again. Suddenly, he had control over his limbs again.

"S-sorry. You... you're right. Let's go."

Oh, look at that. He remembered how to do full sentences again. Adam was nonplussed at Keith's apology, and gestured to the boats at the coastline. There were two of them, and one of them had already started to pull away. As they'd said in hockey video games for years, time was beginning to become a factor.

"Let's do it. You good?"

Keith shook his head, and glanced down at Kallie's body in the sand. His eyes then scrubbed past Dean's body, and the terrorist corpse beside him.

"Fuck no, I'm not good. But sittin' 'round here ain't gonna help any of them, so..." He trailed off, but Adam understood. He nodded at Keith, and scanned the area behind them. The beach had become quiet - oddly so, in fact. The destruction of the warehouse had obviously taken out a large number of Danya's reinforcements, but Adam was a little surprised how easily they'd managed to clear things out. Adam had picked off four terrorists with the M1 before he'd shot the man menacing Keith (thank goodness for automatic weaponry), but he could have sworn that he'd seen-

"SHIT! RUN!"

Giving Keith a shove towards the boats, Adam saw the tree-line come alive with movement, and turned, spraying the trees with his machine gun as he backpedalled towards the sole remaining boat. This time, Keith's legs worked, and the two teens started to run towards the boat.

Gunfire started to tear up the sand behind them as they zigged and zagged towards their destination. Adam had started doing it, but was slower thanks to his leg wound, and Keith had caught on quickly.

"FUCK YOU, MOTHERFUCKERS!"

As a shred of bullets tore through the sand to his right, Adam jumped back and turned, firing in the direction of the trees and yelling as he did it. He could have sworn he saw at least one man go down. Bastards. Once upon a time, Adam's mind had virtually shut down upon taking a life. Now? He almost relished killing these monsters. After a particularly loud burst of his weapon, he then heard a sound that made his blood run cold.

CLICK.

"Shit."

Cursing under his breath, he tossed the M1 to the ground; the weapon was useless to him now. Time to make a break for it. Turning, he set off as quickly as he could, trying to ignore the burning feeling that was spreading through his leg. Adam got four or five steps before he felt himself being knocked off his feet, his face meeting the sand heavily.

Gasping for breath and pulling himself up, he glanced up at the hollow face of Keith Jackson, who'd just tackled him to the dirt. Grabbing the teenager's hand as leverage, Adam made it back to his feet, nodding in thanks but saying nothing. There was no time for niceties. The bullets continued to fly in their direction, and the boat was meters away.

The two quickly continued on, reaching the boat and only narrowly missing one more spread of bullets. It was a larger vessel, almost resembling a yacht more than any kind of smaller fishing boat, and a ladder sat at the side of the boat, beckoning the two teenagers towards it.

Pushing Keith up the ladder ahead of him, Adam noted with alarm that the larger boy clutched at his side as he climbed up the ladder on the side of the boat, Adam quickly on his tail. Bullets clanged off something metallic as he climbed, and it got to the point where Adam basically shoved Keith over the edge and dove over himself, landing on the deck of the boat.

Almost on cue, the sound of a motor started up and Adam felt the boat lurch forward, speeding off into the ocean. The sound of flying bullets became fainter, and fainter, until finally, after several moments, he couldn't hear them anymore.

He looked over at Keith, who was slumped out on the deck, same as him, chest rising and falling as he tried to catch his breath. Adam's lungs burned. His legs burned, virtually his entire body hurt. Blood and sand were everywhere, including his throat. Days of deprivation and injury had taken their toll on his physical fitness. He felt weak.

But he was alive. Keith Jackson was alive. Adam Dodd had finally accomplished the one goal he'd had, the first time he'd woken up on an island with an explosive collar around his neck. He'd finally made it happen.

He'd escaped.

At such an insane, impossible cost, but it had happened.

He couldn't help himself; Adam started to laugh. It was an ugly sound. It was a mix of a laugh, a wheeze, and an almost hysterical cry. Keith pulled himself to a sitting position against the side of the ship, wincing as he did so, and slowly began to understand why the laughter.

"We... we did it!"

Adam closed his eyes, nodding and wiping away a stray tear that he didn't even recall shedding. He smiled at Keith. "Fuckin' right we did! We're free, man. We..."

He trailed off as his eyes finally caught wind of why Keith had been labouring on the way to the boat - a slowly spreading red stain was making its way from the side of his shirt towards the front.

Keith was bleeding.

He'd been shot.
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June 7, 2015
The Office of Dr. Ben Jardine, Ph.D
Melbourne, Australia


Ben stood in front of his desk, leaning back on it, lips pursed in thought. Chris had every right to want to go home. He was a man without a country, so to speak, living under an assumed identity. All because some monster had thought to kidnap him and put him through hell, and he'd escaped.

It truly didn't seem fair, Ben agreed. But what concerned him was not whether or not the situation was fair, it was rather the logistics of the thing. Chris had lived in Australia for several years. He owned a business, he had bank accounts and an educational diploma all under his name. For all intents and purposes, Chris Stone was a well-adjusted member of society.

But he didn't actually exist. As his doctor, Ben was bound by doctor-patient confidentiality, but in revealing that he was actually someone entirely different and that his identity was a forgery... this was going to cause a lot of issues for Chris, and Ben was concerned how the stress of that would impact his patient.

"Not to mention..." Ben and Chris had been hashing this particular point out for the last several minutes, but now something else entirely came to mind. Chris stood by the window again, facing the doctor but occasionally glancing out at the water below.

"Look, I get it. I do. You miss your family, you want to get back from living under an alias, but... legal ramifications notwithstanding, it's going to be a media circus. Everybody assumed that the third major kidnapping had no survivors. Some of you are out there, some of you are... were working with STAR, but publicly, you're all dead. I'm concerned how you're going to handle that kind of stress. That kind of scrutiny."

Tapping on the window a few times again, Chris nodded. He'd done a lot of thinking over the past few days, and Dr. Jardine made a lot of really good points. He would essentially be upending the entirety of the life he'd built for himself here, but... what good was a life if it was fake? He wanted his kids to have his own name. He wanted to go back to the United States, and see his parents, his siblings... if he had to deal with the fallout of living under a fake name for a few years; if that was the cost? So be it.

"I get it, doc. I really appreciate you lookin' out for me. I do. But how long am I going to be able to live like this? STAR's gone. At least if I go back stateside, there'll be enough attention on me that maybe... at least some people can get some closure. Maybe what I know can help 'em out. You know someone has to be looking for these motherfuckers."

Chris shrugged.

"No point in hiding anymore, doc. Live or die, I might as well do it as my damn self."

Ben's face fell. Were it up to him, he'd have forbade Chris from going, from putting himself through any more stress, any more trauma. Even though what he'd been doing was technically illegal, Chris really did have a good life in Australia. No, Chris Stone had a great life. Whomever the man standing in front of him was would undoubtedly have a far more difficult path in front of him.

"I can appreciate that, mate." Ben paused, adjusted his glasses, and looked back at his patient, who had walked away from the window and towards him, standing an arm's length away.

"But promise me one thing?"

Chris raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"

"You're embarking on what's going to be a very difficult time for yourself. You're going to be facing a lot of difficult memories, a lot of things that you've managed to put to bed and move past. People will want to know the answers to things that you won't want to admit to."

Ben took his glasses off, holding them in his hand. They'd suddenly started itching.

"If things start to close around you, if you ever feel like you're going backwards... like you're having an attack? I want you to call me. I'll talk you through it. Night or day, doesn't matter. If you get detained and they need a character or material witness... just call." Ben reached back onto his desk and grabbed a business card. Chris already had all of Ben's contact information, but he quickly scrawled the number of his emergency line on the back. Nobody had this number but family and some close friends.

"Wow, Doc... I appreciate that." He took the card from Ben's extended hand, and glanced at it, stuffing it into his pocket. "I've got to be honest... I would expect a few calls."

Ben nodded. He knew that if Chris did what he expected him to do, it wouldn't just be Chris calling in need of some quick therapy. Government agencies and people in both the United States and the Australian government would undoubtedly want to speak to him about what he knew about this young man. It would probably be a lot of Ben re-affirming 'doctor-patient confidentiality' and saying nothing; it would be a lot of aggravation.

He kept this to himself. Instead, he extended his hand to Chris.

"Anytime, Chris. I mean that."

Chris clasped Dr. Jardine's hand in a firm handshake. There was no one in the world that he owed for putting himself back together more than this man, and to know that he had his doctor's full support gave him a boost of energy.

"Thanks, Doc. For everything. I... I don't know when I'm gonna get back, but..." He paused. "Those fuckers are at it again right now, so... maybe it's the best time, you know? I guess..." He trailed off, unsure of how to complete the sentence, but Ben smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Good luck, Chris."

Nodding back at his doctor, Chris walked towards the office door. If he was going to do this, there was a lot still to do. He was half-way out the door when Ben called out at him. He stopped and glanced back.

"One thing I've got to know, mate. Who the hell are you? Really?"

He sized up the older man, and laughed. That truly was the question of the day, wasn't it? Who was he? He'd decided that he wasn't Chris Stone anymore. It was time to come back to life.

"My real name? Shit, doc. You're a smart guy, I woulda figured you to guess it by now."

He smiled, the weight of the world coming off his shoulders as he unlocked his past.

"Keith Jackson, at your service. Take care of yourself, doc."

One last smile, and Keith was out the door, leaving Ben to lean against his desk. It had been more of a curiosity rather than a need-to-know. Ben would always think of his patient as Chris Stone, and he knew that in a way, the man who had walked out of his office would always carry more of Chris Stone than Keith Jackson within him. He'd lived horrors that would have broken most, and the part of him that had existed as Keith, the high school senior, had disappeared on that island.

Ben hoped that the life that he had lived as Chris Stone would be enough to help Keith Jackson re-enter the real world. He hoped that the walls he'd erected to guide the young man's fragile psyche would hold.

Only time would tell.
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June 9, 2015
Southbound on St. Kilda Road
Melbourne, Australia



As Keith Jackson manoeuvred his bicycle through the very moderate amount of traffic on St. Kilda Road, he couldn't help but marvel at the weather in Australia. While June, it was a little on the chilly side, but the sun was beaming and the wind on his face made him feel alive. To feel alive - what a concept. Keith couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this rejuvenated. Years, at least. Probably before he'd been kidnapped, most likely.

Part of it probably had to do with the feeling of actually having wind on his face - after his visit with Dr. Jardine, he'd gone home and immediately shaved off the heavy beard that he'd grown and coloured for years. With his face visible again, he was now very recognizable as himself. It was as though he'd shed a skin, and damn, it felt great.

As far as his hair was concerned... Keith laughed to himself as he stopped at a red light. Some people weren't meant to have hair past a certain age, and sadly enough for Keith, male pattern baldness had showed up quickly and ruthlessly. It was brutal by the time he'd turned 21. Dr. Jardine had been the one to suggest getting rid of it might help him regain some confidence, and of course, his doctor had been right. The bald look took a bit of adjusting, no doubt, but once he did? It worked - plus it had the added benefit of making him more anonymous.

That was such a damned nice problem not to have anymore.

It hadn't taken much for Keith to set his affairs in order. Sure, his business would be left in the lurch, but he'd called his regular clients, including those to which he had outstanding jobs, and had informed them that he wouldn't be able to complete the work due to a personal matter. Most had been understanding enough, and he'd only had to deal with one asshole bogan who'd cussed him out and screamed at him.

"Barely started on his fuckin' house, anyway..."

Muttering to himself as he continued on down the street, he watched as a bus barrelled on past him. Everything else had been easy. He'd made a copy of his house key and mailed it to his doctor, figuring that of anyone, Dr. Jardine would be the most capable person of sorting it all out once he turned himself in. Aside from that, there wasn't really much else that needed doing. He'd packed a few important possessions and clothes into a knapsack - he'd shipped a few things to a PO box that he'd rented in the United States under his Chris Stone alias, and everything else that he couldn't bear to be without was on his person.

Wiping some sweat from underneath the strap of his helmet, Keith stopped at another red light. He was currently headed towards the American Embassy, where he was certain that someone walking in and claiming to be one of the V3 survivors would at least be met with a little bit of scrutiny. That had been his assumed best plan - that way, he would be on 'American soil' and likely would avoid an immediate arrest for any fraud he'd committed while living under false papers. Hell of a thing that would be.

As far as STAR was concerned, Keith hadn't heard from Quinn, or any of the rest of them since Quinn had informed him of the group's destruction, and judging by the news coverage, a lot of information was definitely being kept under wraps. A report had gotten out days before about potential survivors from his version, but somehow nothing else had been reported. He would always be grateful to Grossi, Garnett, and the others for what they'd done for him, but thanks was all he was prepared to give.

For now, at least.

Keith couldn't help but smile as he thought about the gift he was essentially giving the United States by turning himself in. If they didn't know of any other survivors, odds were that most of them had gone to work for STAR and were likely dead. Rizzolo had been murdered a year after he'd gotten back to the States, and so as far as anyone was concerned, no living remnant of those kidnappings remained to tell their story.

"Some fuckin' story..."

When it came to the others, Keith himself had lost track of all of them. Once he'd recovered, nobody else was still in hospital and had moved on with living their lives. He could have sworn he'd seen Neil Sinclair in a bar once, but the two had locked eyes and when Keith had looked up again, he'd vanished. It was just as well. A lot of them had been gung-ho about fighting against Danya - he was certain Dodd would have walked a nuclear weapon into Danya's fortress himself had he the opportunity, but as he'd been hammering into his own head lately, he just wanted to go home.

He just hoped there was still a home to go back to.

As he cycled down the street towards the embassy, a sign caught his eye as he passed by: "Six Degrees Coffee & Food Co.". Slowing immediately, he was reminded of the rumbling in his stomach. A coffee and a sandwich didn't sound like a terrible idea - who knew how long until he'd eat anything again. Coming to a stop and pulling his bike up on the curb, he turned and walked towards the coffee shop. It looked relatively busy, but Keith was in no rush.

Locking his bicycle to a post on the sidewalk, Keith glanced at the shop in front of him. The front was obscured by a lot of greenery, and the entrance was hidden off to the side of the building. Glass windows linked the square space and Keith could see several tables of varying sizes arranged within. A decently-sized line had formed within the shop, but nothing that would keep him for too long. Venturing over to the door, he pushed it and entered the shop.

As soon as he opened the door, he could smell the fresh beans and the varying smells of muffins, sandwiches, and other coffee shop fare. Again, his stomach rumbled.

Sauntering over to the end of the line, Keith glanced in at the glass counter at the front of the store. Almost everything seemed like a good option - a last meal of sorts would be a tough choice. Some of the sandwiches looked to be delectable enough to do the trick.

"Kyyyyyle! Come on, man. What good's a vacay' if you're not gonna live a little!?"

That voice.

There was no way.

Spinning around, Keith searched for the source, and immediately the walls started to close in on him as he found it. Standing across the room by the coffee station were three men, but the one to the left was the owner of the very American - no, Canadian-sounding accent that had drawn his attention.

The man stood at almost six feet tall, leaning against the wall, chastising one of the other two men. He wore well-fitting blue jeans, a black hooded sweatshirt over-top of a grey t-shirt, and black sneakers with green trim. He wore a blue baseball cap, and Keith could see short, reddish hair poking out from underneath it. He couldn't see the man's face completely, but he could see the red beard that obscured it.

Keith felt the blood draining from his face. His heart rate increased. He would know that voice anywhere. Eyes wide, he strode purposefully towards the man, catching a glimpse of his hat as he got closer - the blue hat bore an insignia: that of the Toronto Maple Leafs. As he closed the gap between him and the man in the hat, the other man could barely realize what was happening before Keith had grabbed him by the collar and slammed him up against the wall.

"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?!"

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Unknown Date
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A Boat Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean



"You're lucky, kid. You have no idea."

Keith Jackson snorted sarcastically as Brandon Garnett finished applying the bandages on to his abdomen. Lucky? What a crock of shit. The two sat within the cabin of the large boat, Keith having removed his shirt so Garnett could tend to his fresh bullet wound. That was the name he'd given, claiming to be a friend, but he wore the same nondescript body armour as the rest of the terrorists. The eye patch didn't exactly scream 'good guy' either.

Friend or not, this guy was a veritable Judas to the terrorists and Keith wouldn't feel comfortable until they were on land again.

"That right?" He winced as Garnett patted down the adhesive on the bandage. He'd given him some sort of shot for the pain, and so while everything was dull, he was still acutely aware of how much everything hurt.

Garnett shot him a scowl and backed away from the injured senior.

"Yeah, it is. Five more minutes and you weren't getting off that island alive. The only reason I didn't take off is because I saw you two coming."

Leaning over gingerly, Keith grabbed his bloody shirt and carefully slipped it back on. The ugly wound in his shoulder from Randy Flagg's pick-axe attack had crusted over and it looked pretty nasty, so Garnett had tried to clean it out as best he could. Keith would inevitably need an extended stay in a hospital once they got back though - that much Garnett had assured him.

It was bizarre, really. The large boat had room for many, it had been used to transport a squad of the bastards to the island to deal with their little escape group, and so to see it so empty felt... like a missed opportunity. There'd been so many of them in the warehouse who'd gotten their collars off, and at this point, it felt wrong that it had just been the two of them. But they had gotten away.

"I can't believe that we're the only ones who escaped...? One of the other boats was leavin' too, I saw. D'you know who was on it?"

Keith's sudden recollection of the other boats left him hopeful. There'd been three boats when they'd gotten to the beach at first, then the shooting had started and Kallie had gone down. Once he'd gotten his mind back and him and Dodd were making their break for it, there had only been two - and one was already taking off. Surely someone else had to have escaped?

Garnett frowned and gave his head a half-shake. "Grossi told he got a few off. I think he had Maxie Dasai and Brad Kavanagh. Maybe the O'Cann kid? Oh, and Neil Sinclair. That one'll piss Danya off something fierce. He was starting to get into his craw as much as Dodd. As for the other boat, I don't know who was driving it. Grossi said he gave some girl instructions on how to drive it and where to meet us. Otherwise I don't know much. We'll find out when we get there."

Keith's eyes went wide. Thank God for small favours. That they weren't the only survivors maybe made all of the death a little easier to swallow. But he was genuinely curious about one thing.

"Which girl?"

Garnett's eyebrow raised and his one good eye narrowed.

"Does it matter?"

Keith unsteadily rose to his feet, the gesture meant to intimidate but only proving to make him remember how precarious his health was. Garnett's expression softened as Keith wobbled a bit, and held up a hand.

"Okay, okay. Izzy Cheung, I think. She was driving the third boat."

Relief flooded through Keith's body. Izzy Cheung had been someone that he'd spent a lot of time with on the island. He'd vowed to protect her, to try and see her to safety - some way, somehow. She was a good person and she'd had a couple of close calls. At one point when she'd been shot, Keith had thought he was going to watch her die, but she'd been patched up, and once they'd managed to meet back up with Dodd...

"Oh, thank God. That's amazing. Does Dodd know?"

Her and Dodd had some sort of... thing. Keith wasn't sure if they were dating, if they were fooling around, or what was going on, but they had become close. She'd mentioned to Keith at one point that Dodd had been the one person she'd been looking for. He'd been less than thrilled at the prospect of hooking up with an Adam Dodd group; Keith knew what tended to happen to people who got close to Dodd in Survival of the Fittest, but Izzy had been earnest about finding him. Hell, the odds said they were all doomed anyhow, so why not, right?

And now go figure - all three of them had beaten those odds.

Garnett shook his head and shrugged, moving back to the controls of the boat. He'd set it on an autopilot of sorts, and was now looking over their course. He didn't say anything more. Somehow, Keith wasn't surprised. The man was probably as conflicted as Keith was. Trusting this man was the only reason he was alive right now, but the decision to betray Danya couldn't have been one he'd taken lightly.

Keith really didn't give a shit, though. He was going to live. That was all that mattered. He figured he might as well tell Dodd the good news. Taking a few uneasy steps towards the cabin door, Garnett held up his hand again and called out, Keith taking hold of the wall to steady himself.

"Hey, don't go walking around too much. We're hauling ass for the meeting point and I can't be fishing you out of the ocean if you fall in. Besides, you're pretty banged up. I've bandaged your gunshot and cleaned out your shoulder, but... I can't stress this enough. You got shot. That's not just something you walk off. I'm pretty sure you won't die right away, but I'm no medic. Don't go fucking around."

Feeling a moment of dizziness come and go, Keith nodded. The one-eyed man was right. Whatever drugs he'd shot Keith full of were doing the trick, but that he still felt really unpleasant made sense. Taking a pick-axe to the shoulder and a gunshot to the side weren't things that were supposed to make you feel good.

Opening the latch on the cabin door, Keith stepped outside, steadying himself on the sides of the door frame. His side ached with each step. Searching around, he saw Dodd, sitting near the aft of the boat, his legs hanging off the stern side, his body braced against the protective metal railings that stopped people from falling off while the boat was in motion. Keith guessed that the boy was enjoying the feeling of the wind in his hair, as it was blowing all over the face. Adam himself had his face tilted back, smiling.

Freedom.

Slowly making his way over towards Adam, Keith's legs shook with every step he took. He was getting tired. Kicking his shoes off onto the deck, he peeled his dirty socks off and threw them into the water. Grabbing the railing, he grimaced as he lowered himself down beside the red-head, letting his feet hang off the edge, feeling the water as it splashed upon them.

"Feels pretty good, huh?"

Adam Dodd had a smile on his face the likes of which Keith had never seen. Ever since the boy had moved to California, ever since he'd joined the Southridge High class, he'd been sullen, didn't talk to many people, and just generally hadn't been too pleasant of a guy to be around. Keith - like everyone, knew the back story. But going through trauma didn't excuse you from being a dick.

Of course, going through shared trauma often made you see people in a very different way, so Keith smiled back at him.

"You're goddamn right. Of course, that might just be the drugs talkin', y'know?"

Adam laughed. He did know.

"Good ol' painkillers, man. I've had my fair share of times with those. Probably good you can't buy 'em on the street, eh?" The boy's expression seemed light, as though so much weight had been removed from his shoulders. Indeed, Dodd looked gaunt and pale, heavy stubble all over his face and neck. His eyes were sunken, dark circles underneath them.

Keith would have hated to see what he looked like.

"I just talked to Garnett. He told me we're not the only ones who got away."

Adam's eyes widened in surprise. "No shit? Who else?"

"As far as I know, Maxie, Brad, Sean and Neil are on the boat with the other guy who jumped ship. He's not sure who's on the third boat, but he knows who's driving." Keith grinned. "Izzy."

Several emotions exploded all over Adam Dodd's face at once. First confusion, then surprise, followed by something that Keith saw (oddly enough) as anguish, and then finally, he smiled and burst out laughing.

"You're kidding. She got out? Oh, thank fucking God. That girl's such a badass. Just... such a damn cool girl, you know? I'm so happy... fuck, so damn happy she got out okay."

Keith agreed. "Me too, man. Spent a lot of time with that chick in the last few days."

"Yeah, about that." Adam tapped the metal bar he was leaning on. "Thanks. I know a huge part of that is because of you. Not sure I'll ever be able to repay you for that. She's really important to me-"

He was cut off by a coughing fit, and he spat a big wad of phlegm over the side of the boat. Wiping his mouth off, he chuckled weakly.

"Probably owe you one for taking a bullet for me, too. Got a gullet-full of sand down my throat too, thanks very much. By my count, you're up two to one on me. I'll have to return the favour someday." He looked back out at the ocean speeding by. "Someday."

Keith took the moment to look out at the ocean himself. He could barely see any land masses in the distance. He hadn't gotten a look at the island as the boat had made its escape - both him and Dodd had lay, splayed out on the deck and unable to see it. Once Garnett had been totally assured that nobody had been following them by land or by air, he'd stopped the boat to treat their wounds as best he could.

Pinching his brow, Keith shook away the wave of dizziness that hit him. Even seated, pumped full of painkillers, his body was demanding more professional care. Hopefully this boat had enough gas to get to where they were going. Wherever that was.

"So... what's next?"

Adam turned to glance at Keith, and shrugged.

"Dunno. I've never done it this way before."

Made sense. The last time Adam Dodd had walked away from a Survival of the Fittest, it had been with thirteen bodies on his resume and a tete-a-tete with the big cheese himself. Keith had never asked him anything about Survival of the Fittest - frankly, he hadn't cared. He'd barely exchanged two words with the redhead during his time at Southridge. Their lockers had been in the same quad at school, but Keith... had generally just avoided him. Out of sight, out of mind.

"Guess so, huh. That time... you... you killed thirteen people to get out?"

Adam's shoulders sagged slightly and he nodded.

"Twelve, but yeah. Basically. A lot."

The words came out a lot weaker from Keith's mouth than he would have liked, but he wasn't usually one for introspection and the question wasn't so much for Adam, it was for himself.

"How didja... how'd you deal with all that?"

The smile Adam gave Keith was sad, but kind. He got it.

"Shittily. I could tell you each one of their names, their faces. I put it all up here." He tapped his temple twice, his arm then falling weakly to his side. "Most were self-defense, so people got that. You get some shit, but when half the people you meet are trying to shoot you, most people will understand that shooting first isn't an option, it's an instinct."

Keith frowned. "Most of 'em?"

"Yeah. Three weren't." Adam sighed and coughed again, spitting over the side of the boat once more. "Marcus fell into a coma and I put him down. Maybe it wasn't the right thing to do. Probably wasn't. Amanda looked at me like I was a monster when I made that decision... but fuck, man. It seemed humane. Couldn't just... leave him there."

Adam looked up at the sky for a moment, and brushed some hair away from his forehead. Keith could see the scarring on what was left of Adam's ear quite well as the wind blew his hair all over.

"With Jack, like... fuck, it was him or me. At that point I would have done anything to make sure it was him. So I figured I'd challenge him to a duel - he was big in to honour and respect and shit like that. It was easy, at that point. Turn at three or four and blow the fucker away. Funny thing was, he figured I'd be the same way and beat me to it. But I walked down a hill by accident and he missed. I didn't."

Keith nodded. They'd been the last two. That much, he knew. Everyone knew that about Dodd. He also knew where he was going next.

"Cody..."

Adam trailed off. He stared into the distance for what was a very long moment. His voice picked up again, weaker than before, his words slurring a tad.

"That fucker was a monster. Between him and Jacob Starr... they took all of my friends away. Every. Single. One. And like, fine. I get it. You want to survive, so play their game. I get it, man."

Adam met Keith's gaze, eyes haunted.

"But why stoop to that level? Why rape someone before you kill them? Unless you're an evil fuckin' monster. Going after them was basically what kept me going after everyone died. So when I killed Cody, it was..." He stopped, swallowing hard. "... it was like every bad feeling I'd ever had went into making him pay. Felt like I had to become a monster to beat one."

Scratching his eye, Adam sighed.

"That was the only one that really fucked with me afterwards. Did I feel bad? Sure I did. But I did what I had to do. With Cody, though? That really scared the hell out of me. When I killed him, it felt like I became a completely different person, and I was terrified that I'd never get back to who I was." He paused, looking Keith up and down. "You have some blood on your hands, don't you?"

He did indeed. Keith felt an odd feeling, like a claustrophobia closing in around him. He assumed it was just the odd pharmaceutical cocktail Garnett had given him, so he ignored the feeling and just nodded, holding up two fingers.

"Yeah... thought I heard your name. You murder 'em, or did they come at you?"

The darkness was pushing through and Keith could barely squeak the words out.

"They came at me. It was self-defense... I think."

The last two words slipped out, betraying Keith's uncertainty. Adam took note of them immediately. "You think?"

It was getting harder and harder to focus, so the thoughts just tumbled out of Keith's mouth.

"One guy pickaxed me, y'know? So I shot him. But the other guy... he didn't... he just had an Uzi in his hands, and... it wasn't... it happened so fast."

Adam's eyebrow raised at Keith's use of "pickaxed" as a verb.

"That sounds an awful lot like self-defense to me. You got fuckin' 'pickaxed', what're you supposed to do? Tell you what, man. Y'know what helps? Therapy. A lot of it. You'll have nightmares. Probably PTSD. But... there are people out there who are pretty good at helping you get through that. I was in therapy til the day these fuckers kidnapped us."

Keith blinked, his breathing heavier now. He tried to calm himself down. It only half worked.

"Really?"

Dodd looked out at the ocean again and sighed. "Yessir. You're a pretty good dude, Keith. Killing someone's fucking you up that much... if you weren't, it wouldn't. Got another three to add to the list this time around, myself. Fifteen people. Twenty if you add those terrorist fucks."

The blonde senior could only stare at the boy sitting beside him, the information barely computing within his damaged mind. Twenty people - basically either a soldier or a spree killer. The line was too fine for Keith to know.

"It's not supposed to be easy, man. It should never be easy. When it is, you've gotta... take a look in the mirror, y'know?"

Keith did. He wasn't sure what his family would think when he got home. If he got home. Would his sisters shy away from him? Would his father have written an editorial vilifying his murderer son? All of the thoughts clustered in his head. The closed-off feeling was disorienting now, Keith wasn't sure which way they were going and he wasn't sure he'd be able to balance were he to stand. There was his mouth moving, again.

"I just wanna go home."

Adam smiled at that thought, seemingly oblivious to Keith's inner distress. He coughed again, spitting once more over the side of the boat. "Fuckin' sand." Narrowing his eyes, he looked out at the sea once more, eyes scanning the horizon.

"Home... yeah, that sure would be nice, eh? Family's waiting for you back in Cali?"

Keith managed a curt nod. His focus was now on keeping himself from slumping backwards on the deck. It felt like the ship was spinning, circling a giant drain.

"Nice. Mine's all... up in Canada. True north, strong and free, and all that. I can't wait to see them. Give my mom a big ol' hug. Go shoot some pool with my bro. Rough-house around the damned French doors with the other."

Grabbing the bar with both hands, Keith shut his eyes, trying to stop the spinning. He was barely able to contribute to the conversation. "French... doors?"

Adam laughed. He sounded almost drunk, his voice becoming hoarse.

"We always had this set of French doors in the hallway of our house... and Oliver and I would wrestle around, tackle each other, I'd pick him up, fling him around... y'know. Sibling shit. My mom was paranoid that we'd smash 'em. We started doing it just to mess with her after a bit. Directly in front of those doors every time."

The spinning was subsiding a bit, and Keith forced his eyes open. They were blurry, but his sense of equilibrium was starting to come back to him.

"Would you... what'll you say to 'em when ya get back?"

Adam snorted, and put his head against the railing for a moment. When he lifted it, he had tears in his eyes, but he still remained grinning.

"I'd tell my dad that he was right. Moving to California was such a mistake. I should've stayed home. He never wanted me to go. He was so right, Keith. I should've stayed home with my family; with my dad. I miss him so much. He was always my hero, y'know? Strongest fuckin' guy I ever met."

Adam wiped the tears away from his face, and coughed again, a few more times, this time leaning over the edge and spitting out a huge loogy. Keith barely noticed, he was still trying to get everything to come back in to focus. Thinking about his family helped. Keith had lived such a mundane, average life before all of this. Sports, video games - hell, he probably had a hundred messages from his Warcraft guild demanding to know where he was by now.

It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Everything did. Rugby games. Those intense tennis matches with his younger sister. Getting to tour the 49ers locker room on his dad's press pass. Losing his virginity. Helping plan prom. Prepping Melissa for the fight. Sitting bored in geography class. Laying on his bed at home, trying to sort through college applications. Hitting the gym. Eating dinner. Being eighteen.

Keith couldn't even fathom how any of those memories actually involved him. It was surreal, and he felt almost outside of himself. Rubbing his temples, the claustrophobia eased, and he lifted his head to look at Dodd as the boy chuckled beside him. It was an ugly sound.

"Hawley once told me he just wanted to prove that he was a good person." Adam spoke slowly, his voice hoarse, eyes squinting at Keith. "That's all... all I ever wanted to do. Be a good person. Be a good man. Help my friends... people who needed it. Be someone my dad would be proud of."

The tears had returned, and Adam smiled at Keith. The sorrow was gone though, his face serene, relaxed.

"I tried... and y'know what? I think I did okay. I think he'd be okay with how I did."

He smiled, and nodded weakly at Keith.

"I think I can live with that."

Wiping the tears away, Adam rested his head on the bars on the deck of the ship, and focused his eyes on the far away, invisible shoreline. His shoulders sagged a bit, and he didn't say anything more.

As his mind came back into focus, Keith couldn't help thinking that it was a decent aspiration. Adam Dodd had been through hell - twice. Keith couldn't measure up to that, he'd only gone through one hell, but if trying to get through it as a good person was a feasible goal... it was as good a way to try and get through this as any. Dodd had been sullen, withdrawn, obviously damaged by his experiences in Survival of the Fittest. He'd moved away from his family. There had to be some reason for that.

It was then and there that Keith decided - no, he vowed that he would not become like that. He would not let his trauma define him. He would not think himself invincible. Life was for living, and he'd been lucky enough to have been gifted a second chance at it. If he needed therapy, then fine. Whatever it took, he'd do it. His mind hadn't managed to fully decompress yet, but if what he was starting to realize might have been an anxiety attack was any indication, this was likely to be the start of a very long battle with his own mind.

Keith Jackson wasn't afraid of a fight, though.

Physically weak but feeling mentally empowered, Keith sighed and glanced at Adam, still looking out over the sea. The weather wasn't cool, but the wind (he hoped) was giving him a bit of a chill. Taking a deep breath and finding some of his strength again, he stretched his legs, hearing his knees pop as he did.

"Damn straight, Dodd. You're not as much of an asshole as I figured you for. Guess you're okay in my book." Keith smiled at the redhead, who did not meet his gaze.

Gingerly pulling his legs up from the side of the boat, Keith pulled himself to his feet, grabbing the bars at the side for support. As he did, he looked down at Adam, still staring out at the water.

"I think it's time to head inside, man. Gettin' chilly out here. Maybe get Garnett to tell us where the fuck we're goin'?"

Adam did not move, did not speak.

"Dodd?"

Nothing.

Confused, Keith peered over the side of the railing to see what Adam was looking at, but was met with an awful feeling, an awful sight. Adam had been coughing since they'd gotten on the boat, and on his right side, where he'd been coughing, the side of the boat was stained bright red with blood.

Adam's right hand was at his side, and now slumped limply on the deck. His hand was smeared with streaks of dull red. Keith's eyes went wide, and he unconsciously started to shake. Adam hadn't had sand in his throat. He hadn't been coughing out phlegm at all. Keith felt that darkness beginning to envelop him once more.

Slowly leaning out over the railing, he looked at Adam's eyes, peering out into the sea.

They were empty, but he was smiling.
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do you want to go to war, balakay?
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June 9, 2015
Six Degrees Coffee and Food Co.
Melbourne, Australia



It was an impossibility. The man standing in front of him simply could not be feasibly standing there, and the thought of reality turning on him like that made Keith Jackson see red. As he held the man by the collar up against the wall of the coffee shop, he was barely conscious of the fact that every eye in the room was staring.

"HOW DID YOU DO IT?!"

Before the man had any chance of responding to either question, Keith felt a strong pair of hands forcibly separate him from the redheaded man that he'd grabbed, wrenching his hands from the man's collar and giving him a quick shove backwards. Keith stumbled a bit, and found himself falling backwards on his ass. His adrenaline stopped spiking and his vision slowly cleared as he looked up at the men in front of him.

He'd been wrong.

The man he'd grabbed absolutely from a distance resembled Adam Dodd, but now that he saw him with clear eyes... there was no scarring, the face was older, with fewer worry lines and a different facial structure all together. All of that could have been explained away by various reconstructive surgeries, he supposed, but what did it for him was the fear that virtually emanated from the man. His eyes betrayed what Keith surmised was probably a cool exterior. He'd scared the hell out of this man, and for what?

Ghosts didn't rise from the dead. People didn't come back to life. You can't fake death.

What a mistake.

The taller man beside the redhead stepped into his field of view, and Keith quickly realized why he was laying on his back on the ground. The man who'd pried them apart was tall and bald, with short black stubble and a muscular build. The white v-neck t-shirt fit loosely and his jeans fit in all of the right places. Of all the people to potentially pick a fight with, this might have been a bad call. The man stood in front of his friend, staring down at Keith, obviously ready to protect his friends.

"Hey, what the fuck is your problem?"

Hand going to his forehead, Keith was flooded with embarrassment. You could hear a pin drop in the coffee shop, and as he took stock he quickly realized that the baristas were probably moments away from calling the police. While he was planning on spending the next few hours in custody anyway, this wasn't the way he was hoping it'd go down. Holding up his hands in a non-threatening gesture, Keith pulled himself back to his feet.

"Look, I'm... I am so sorry. You look an awful lot like... someone else."

The tall man scowled at Keith while the redhead glanced at his third friend, a shorter man with styled brown hair, sharp, Italian features and a well-trimmed beard of his own. The short man wore a concerned look, and had a hand on the redhead's shoulder, midway through asking if he was okay. The redhead shrugged his friend off, and took a second to compose himself.

"Y-yeah, it's all good. No worries, man. It, uh... it happens."

The tall man turned his head and gave the redhead a look of disbelief, but Keith knew the body language anywhere. The redhead wanted to get the hell out of there, immediately. His fight-or-flight responses were screaming flight. Keith didn't blame him.

"That was totally out outta line. I can't apologize enough. I just... like I said, y'look like someone I used to know. Someone who shouldn't be here."

The shorter man looked like he was about to say something; a vein in his neck had started to bulge, but the redhead stifled him with one hand. "Nah, Jon. All good."

Looking back at Keith, he could see the man's heart rate visibly slowing down as he collected himself more. Brushing his shirt off, he grabbed his coffee from the stand.

"Like I said... don't sweat it. Shit happens."

Making a move to remove himself from the situation, the redhead made a move to walk past Keith, but Keith stopped him with a remark before his friends could follow.

"You... you guys from Canada?" He indicated the hat. The redhead uncomfortably shifted in his spot.

"Uhh, yeah. Just here on vacation, you know?"

Keith nodded. "I'm from America, myself. Don't get back very often."

The redhead shot his friends a helpless look, and the tall one followed behind the redhead, pushing his friend along gently.

"Nice. Hope you get back sometime." The tone in the tall man's voice informed Keith that this conversation was definitely over, and he acquiesced, moving to the side to allow the tall man and the other man; Jon to pass by.

As the short man passed by, Keith could hear him: "Okay, Joey, what the fuck was that? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine Jonno, but fuck this coffee nonsense. After that shit, I need a beer. C'mon Kyle, you in?"

The redhead clapped the tall man on the back as the trio walked out of the coffee shop, Keith only able to hear the final part as they left the confrontation behind.

Sighing to himself, Keith realized that most of the people in the coffee shop were still staring at him. The staff hadn't stopped keeping an eye on him, and Keith slowly met the gaze of one of them; a girl in her mid-twenties. She slowly shook her head, and he realized that his coffee and sandwich idea had just gone up in flames. Taking a moment to collect himself, Keith hung his head and slowly walked out the front door himself.

He couldn't believe how stupid he'd been. The decision to return to the United States hadn't triggered him as much as he'd expected, and save for the one visit with Dr. Jardine, he'd felt pretty good about the whole thing. The fact did remain that Survival of the Fittest was all over the news, and maybe the subliminal impact of seeing it mentioned in the news media was one that he couldn't discount. Stepping over to his bicycle, Keith unlocked it from the post and started to ride on down the street towards the embassy.

As he felt the wind breeze over his face, he couldn't help but be reminded of that day on the boat. How the wind had felt going through his hair. How he could barely escape from the dark dungeon of his own mind. He couldn't remember getting to Australia. All he remembered was waking up in a hospital room days later, his various cuts and bruises having been tended to. Speaking had been difficult, and after the last words he'd spoken on the boat had ended up being to no one in particular, he didn't feel a whole lot like engaging with anyone.

He supposed that he could have joined STAR. He could have gone to fight - seen his fellow escapees again. Keith had the chance. Grossi had really tried hard to sell him on the idea. Keith was smart, they'd said, and they could use someone with his smarts. He was fairly sure that they'd managed to recruit several of the others. He never knew for sure.

After the warehouse, they may as well have been ghosts as well. As far as he was concerned - and far as the public was about to know, Keith Jackson was about to be the only person to live through Survival of the Fittest's 2007 edition. That was fine. Living his life seemed just fine to him. Dodd had said it well enough. Those words were the only thing that he could hear echoing through his mind, again and again.

I think I can live with that.

Each time they'd tried to recruit him - that was all he could hear. Joining STAR sounded like a veritable death sentence. He'd always figured that a terrorist organization like Danya's would catch up with them eventually.

Terrorists and mercenaries? No thanks.

As he pulled up to the small American embassy building, he wondered what would be waiting for him back home. Would his parents have stayed together? How about his siblings? Did he have any nieces or nephews yet? Had his family moved? How would they react to seeing him again - and knowing that he'd been out there for years? Keith could never bring himself to look. Knowing that he'd never go home again had pushed those temptations out of mind, and as he'd tried to jump as far into Chris Stone's life as he could, he forgot all about the Jacksons - he could barely remember what his parents looked like. Brad and Teresa. At least he'd never forgotten their names.

As he locked his bicycle to a post outside of the embassy, he felt a twinge of regret. This bicycle had served him well over the last couple of years. Leaving it here frankly sucked. He'd have to ask the Doc to pick it up whenever he had a chance for a phone call. Of course, using what might be one singular phone call to ask his psychiatrist about a bicycle probably wouldn't be the smartest thing in the world. Kris always had called him an idiot. Keith wondered if his eldest brother would be flattered that Keith had ended up being called Chris, too, or if he'd be horrified. Hard to say. Kris always was a bit humourless. Of the five, Kris had always been a bit too stolid.

Pushing through the double-doors in front of the building, Keith shifted his knapsack to his left shoulder and grabbed his fake passport out of his pocket. He would inevitably have to surrender it, but he figured that he might as well be upfront, versus trying to hide anything. The time for hiding had passed.

As Keith walked through the foyer, and in towards the office that the embassy resided in, he couldn't help but laugh. The radio was on a generic pop station, and seconds after he walked in, the DJ finished saying whatever they'd been saying and the opening chords of a very popular, very familiar song followed him down the hall towards the office door. Before he left the hallway, he paused to listen to it: "I Gotta Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas.

Smirking as he opened the office door, he mused to himself.

"Gonna be a good night, indeed."

The room was heated nicely, and unlike many American embassies in other countries, the embassy in Australia was essentially a small government office. Glancing around, Keith was pleased to see that the office was all but empty. One man stood at a kiosk at the end of the room, filling out a form and yet to see anyone at the desk.

Perfect.

Striding up to the front desk, Keith looked at the man opposite him. He looked like a pleasant fellow, a nondescript American with brown hair and a cleft chin. He wore a few extra pounds, probably the result of sitting in this desk day after day. Looking up from his computer screen as Keith approached, he flashed him a pleasant smile.

"Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to the American Embassy. How can I help you?"

Keith smiled at the man in front of him. He was about to ruin his day.

"Well, I'd..." Moment of truth. The words were difficult, even though he'd practiced them in his mind a thousand times since that morning.

"... I'd like to speak to someone about Survival of the Fittest."

The man's demeanour immediately changed. His pleasant smile turned into a weary expression. Keith was certain that there were probably all sorts of crazies wandering in wanting to talk about conspiracies and the like. "Is that right?"

"Yes. Particularly, the 2007 kidnappings."

The man stared at Keith with skepticism. "What about them?"

Keith smiled at the man. Poor guy wasn't going to get a lunch break.

"Namely, that I was involved in them." Alarm washed over the man's face and Keith saw him adjust to be in perfect position to hit the panic button that he figured was under the desk. Keith ignored it.

"When I say involved, I don't mean from the terrorist end... I got out. I was one of the kids who escaped. I've been living in Australia for eight years under an assumed name that STAR set up for me. Now that they're... well, gone?"

As he said the words, a wave of adrenaline surged through his body - not the same kind as back at the coffee shop, but a feeling he hadn't felt in a very long time: pure, unadulterated excitement.

He couldn't be sure, but he was awash with the overwhelming feeling that everything was going to be okay.

It was time for the next chapter.

Time to live his life. His real life.

"The name's Keith Jackson, and I think it's well past time for me to finally come home."

---

Final Status


((Thank you sincerely for waiting, and reading.))
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