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Fanon Award for Outstanding Writing in a New Series
|(2012) - (2013) - (2015)|
"It's incredible isn't it?"
Fay wore a childish grin as she looked up at the heavenly lights.
"I've never seen anything like it."
Her husband held her close.
He felt the reassuring warmth of her body that made butterflies in his stomach. No matter how strong and determined she was on the outside, he always marveled at her delicate frame. It reminded him of how he gently held the white lotus at the pond, careful not to bend the slightest petal. He wrapped his arms round her waist and felt her gentle hands fold over his.
"We've really come a long way. Haven't we?"
Her eyes grew distant.
The couple unconsciously began swaying back and forth, their hearts beating in perfect rhythm.
"Yeah, we have."
"But, we still have a ways to go."
He rested his chin against her soft, silky hair and smiled.
The lanterns intertwined higher and higher, burning bright. Fay let herself sink slowly into his chest, trusting that his steady arms promised to support her. He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and she blushed at the sensitive contact. Whether she knew it or not, her brown eyes flicked to the corner of her sight every time she blushed, and her lips turned up in a secret smile. During moments like this, she felt embarrassed that she still felt like a little girl giggling behind a bush as her crush walked by.
She noticed energetic little children running around chasing each other, pointing and laughing at the lanterns. They were probably on sugar rushes from all the candy they ate during the festival. Likewise, she saw older villagers admiring the scene with a different type of admiration in their eyes. No matter the age or situation, the lights seemed lift everyone's spirits.
For a split second, Ren turned his attention from his wife and examined the night all around him. He inhaled a deep breath of air and sighed through his nose. He could vaguely hear the rolling cadence of the ocean. Only then did he realize they rocked back and forth to the same rhythm of the waves, too. He tightened his grasp and kissed the top of her head.
"Just look at them. It's like they fly without a care in the world, without a second thought about where they're going. I guess that's freedom."
She spoke into the open air, not really paying attention to whether or not Ren was listening. It didn't matter because the combination of beautiful sights, tender contact, and soothing motion settled her into a state of silent euphoria.
Nothing in the world could bring me down from this moment.
Soon they would be on a ship to a new future, a future with so many possibilities and so much promise, but it wasn't just that. She couldn't get over the fact that it was really happening. For so long she dreamed of the day when she could leave the island, and the fact that Ren and Grace would be with her only added to her happiness. She didn't care where they went or where they ended up. All that mattered was that they were together; free to shape their own destinies, free to live the lives they chose.
They swayed back and forth until they forgot they were swaying in the first place. The lovers remained that way, enjoying each other's warmth, gazing up into the sky with starry eyes, trying to see how far the lanterns would go.
The methodical bobbing of the boat lulled Wake into a pensive state of mind. He struggled to keep his eyes open as the soft orange glow faded into the clouds, and then a blink later the sky was pitch-black and filled with pale stars. The light died away and the water reflected the blackness of night. Perhaps his eyes were closed, or maybe the entire world was too black to see anything. Either way, the calm rhythm of the boat coaxed Wake to sleep.
He relaxed against the side, his head resting on the wood. He didn't care where the boat floated. Maybe he would wake up on another island, or maybe he'd drift aimlessly.
At least his friend was resting peacefully now. Part of him wished he could've spent more time with his friend. There was still so much to see, so much to do.
Inasahan's voice echoed in his mind, Life isn't going to stop and wait for you to catch up! Don't be afraid to take a risk. When you're lying on your deathbed will you be filled with regret for the chances you missed? Or will you be filled with regret because there isn't time to do more?
Wake grinned unknowingly.
The Old Man always had such a way with words. He was so wise, even if he didn't always listen to the lessons. Every time Wake made a dumb mistake, The Old Man simply shook his head and smiled as if he had been there before. The young man in the back of the boat spent his entire life with his friend, yet he still wanted more time to spend together, and it was hard for him to accept the reality. Even so, he was thankful there was any time at all, and he was thankful Inasahan died without regret.
Life hasn't been all that bad to me.
For the first time in his life, he was thankful that things turned out the way they did. For the first time in his life, he was excited for the uncertainty of tomorrow because he had the freedom to choose his own path in life. He simply never realized it until now.
Fire is an interesting thing. It can shed light on a room from a hearth, candle, or lamp. In those ways, it is beautiful, life-giving, and bright. Just like people, fire can be helpful in times of need, washing away the darkness. People aren't perfect though and neither is fire; they are ambitious, greedy, and malicious. A little bit of power can be dangerous in the hands of a person. Power drives out the loveliness and leaves an insatiable hunger, a hunger for more power. In this way, fire and people are one and the same. With a little bit of freedom and power, a fire will grow violent, unable to satisfy its burning desire.
It has been this way since the beginning of time. People and fire take every chance, even the smallest slip-up, to gain the upper hand, to manipulate; the two are interconnected. Lust for power drives men to conquer, to shed blood in their quest for control. Civilizations have risen and fallen in the past and will continue to do so for as long as men walk the earth. It's ironic that vengeful men think themselves the masters of fire because all will be quiet when the last man falls and only flames remain, flickering softly over charred ruins and dust.
With all of the lights, music, and colors, it's not a surprise nobody noticed a tiny candle lying on its side. Perhaps a child inadvertently tipped it over while he or she built a floating lantern. Maybe a man knocked it down as he tripped over in a drunken stupor. The reason doesn't matter; it was an accident. Sadly, the mindless fire flickering on the candlewick doesn't care about deliberate or accidental actions. All it cares about is its proximity to a crumpled piece of paper.
The tip of the candle shriveled and blackened like a worm on hot sand. It screamed greedily and demanded more fuel, and liquid wax dripped and pooled on the ground. The tiny flame lapped against the dry paper, and before long the tip ignited. The fiery line devoured the white paper and left a trail of brown ash. Silently, blazing cinders landed on the alcohol soaked ground. The cinders would've faded right then and there, and all of their fun would've been over, but another accident taunted them with power, enticing them to live a little bit longer: a spill. Perhaps a man poured himself a little bit too much and the cup overflowed: no big deal. Alcohol is excellently flammable though, and more than one cup spilled during the festival.
It's just too easy.
The fire found it comical, even hysterical that there was a perfect trail leading all the way to the village.
The dry summer grass wavered back and forth in the breeze, and the air was cool. Blue and violet wildflowers enjoyed the calm moonlight of the open field. Somewhere deep in the forest, tiny frogs chirped their songs at the edge of the lotus pond, and the fluffy tops of the cattails fluttered in the wind. Under the shade of the trees, the pond was serene. It looked the same as it did years ago when a young man sat alone on its mossy banks.
Ever so patiently, the fire spread, growing larger with each blade of grass. In a strange sort of way, its destruction was beautiful. The crimson flames lapped over the grasses, radiating brilliant light that stood out against the blackness; the sound was both quiet and dazzling. Emotionlessly, the fire crept over the wildflowers, their pale petals burning softly.
When the wildfire met the trees, it latched onto the trunks and stripped away the bark like a cleansing force. It burned all the way through the branches and to the leaves. When it was finished, nothing was left of the tree besides a charcoal skeleton. Low-lying shrubs and ferns burned even faster. The flames cackled maniacally as they devoured everything green, everything alive. The sheer heat created heavy ripples in the air.
The entire forest screamed simultaneously as the constant roar of the fire drowned out everything else. The sound was both earsplitting and silent at the same time. Trees and animals stood in petrified fear, in paralyzing confusion as they began to realize their fate, but during this brief stillness the fire continued trying to fill the hollowness it felt inside. The entire forest could only focus on the powerful way in which the fire engulfed everything around it. Like an evil machine, the fire combusted all forms of foliage and flesh, rapidly converting all material into fuel. Not even instincts could spur the animals to move; they could only watch in frightened awe as the flames grew higher and higher, closer and closer, the blazing light flickering in their wide eyes.
In a matter of minutes, the entire forest ignited in a giant tempest, a pyre that reached high into the sky. Fiery wind scorched the trees and obliterated every plant and animal. It all happened so fast and on such a large scale that there was no way to escape. Streaks of fire swept over the small pond, annihilating the cattails, spider flowers, and white lotuses in a torrid heat wave. The place was tranquil as ever, even as it completely burned away.
The girl wearing the light, silk dress stretched her arms behind her head and yawned. She spent most of the time at the festival traveling from group to group, adding in conversation here and there, and making small talk.
Everyone said things like "Oh! We are going to miss you so much! We hope you have a safe trip. Don't forget to write!"
Seeing how much people cared was both eye opening and a bit depressing. Watching the lamps served as a nice remedy for all the nostalgia she felt; she couldn't possibly feel sad as she watched them float carelessly into the night.
"What is that sound?"
Grace peeled her eyes from the floating lamps.
She looked behind her where the tree line was supposed to be. Instead, raging red and impenetrable black smog blotted out the stars. Birds flew from the forest in every direction, squawking and cawing. Villagers sensed the disturbance, and the peaceful feeling of watching the lamps transformed into confusion. The bitter smell of smoke masked the sweetness of grilled fish, and the music stopped abruptly. Blistering flames ripped over the dry ground and through the village.
Her stomach dropped, and her throat went dry as if her saliva turned to sand. She stared blankly at the flames right before her eyes, but they were unrecognizable to her because she had never seen them so vicious.
How can candlelight and this wicked beast be one and the same?
Her mind simply couldn't connect the massive flames to her perception of fire, and she wondered if they were even real.
A horrible crack jolted her back to reality as a hut on the North side caught fire. Each twig, each piece of straw wheezed for air and exploded into ash as the heat shriveled them dry. Fire is especially dangerous because it grows exponentially. While a small candle would've taken a lot of time to burn down the house, the powerful wildfire reduced it to ash in almost no time at all. The roof blazed, fire ate away at the walls, and in a matter of seconds the entire structure gave way into a broken bonfire. The flames could care less for all the laughter shared under that roof, how many priceless memories lay in ashes, and how many lives it uprooted. The festival streamers guided the fire to the next victim like a chain. One by one, the huts ignited, screaming in both anger and disbelief that the same homely fire that warmed their walls had decided to betray them, opting to devour them as fuel instead.
Screams of anger and horror pierced the smoke infused air. Mortified children clung to their equally petrified mothers. Villagers ran, knocked each other down, and fled in a scene of utter chaos. The flames weren't planning on letting any bit of fuel escape; they were still starving. Not a single person had time to even set a food outside the village before the flames spread to every hut, creating a ring of fire around the village square. The wall of heat burst with raw power and energy. The huts collapsed and exploded into cinders, searing anyone nearby with a shower of scorching-hot flakes and causing yelps of pain. Fueled by dry wood and straw, the flames flared high and wide, creating an impenetrable barrier.
"Get to the water!" a villager yelled.
Hope: what an interesting concept.
It is perhaps humanity's greatest strength and greatest weakness. It is hope that drives people to break through the limits of what they previously thought was impossible. No matter the struggle, no matter the pain, hope can never die; it is impossible to eradicate, even until the dying breath. It is their unbreakable hope that separates people from the rest of the world. Battered, bleeding, and defeated, a human will pick his face off the charred earth to stand tall, in hope he won't get knocked down again. A woman will drag herself through the sharp-edged debris and wreckage of destruction simply to touch the cheek of her child for the last time, in hope the moment will be worth the pain.
Human life is so very delicate, fragile like a lotus bud, and hope is its greatest weakness. Ignorance, bliss, and recklessness all stem from the same thing: hope. Even when there is no chance for survival, a human will lay down his life for the false dream of hope that he creates before his eyes. He will crawl on all fours, pulling himself inch-by-inch through the muck and stretch his shaking hands for a sliver of light that doesn't exist. He will climb for eternity to reach the top of a jagged mountain, and even when the air thins and his blood solidifies he will continue onward. In reality, the tunnel is completely black and the mountain endless, but he chooses to see differently; he chooses to hope, and hope is for fools.
Hope flashed before their eyes; the only thing that stood between them and life was a wall of flames. Beads of sweat rolled down the face of a desperate man as he turned to his fellow villagers, deciding whether or not to take a leap of faith. The others nodded in approval. Even though they didn't think they could make it, blind courage drove them to do anything and everything to escape. Mustering up a last bit of strength, they ran towards the flames, screaming last battle cries of defiance, abandoning all fear. Time slowed as they dove through the fire, and for a brief moment they could've sworn they saw the ocean, freedom, but it was simply just a figment of their imagination.
The fire caught their clothing and spread over their bodies. Their bloodcurdling shrieks of agony sent fear through the rest of the villagers trapped between the walls of fire. Their limbs caught fire, their skin boiled to the bone, and their eyes dissolved in their sockets. Blind and writhing on the ground, they saw nothing but endless fire and felt nothing but unimaginable pain. They screamed and screamed until the pain rendered them senseless and they completely burned alive, not even in sight of the ocean, their hope reduced to ash.
Amidst the chaos, a frantic mother panicked.
Where is she?
Her fear spoke out loud to nobody in particular. Each bonfire she passed howled in anguish, and Fay's heart beat faster and faster as more and more kept appearing and at the thought that the next one could be her daughter. It all happened so fast. One second she was nestled in her husband's arms, watching the lanterns, and the next she was caught between walls of fire. The sweltering heat made it hard for her to think clearly, but she fiercely pulled herself together; she had to.
There has to be some way out of this.
There has to be a way. Think damn it!
All she knew was she was running out of time and fast.
"Grace!" she called out in desperation, her eyes red and on the verge of tears.
The fire heartlessly moved inward, using everything as fuel. Bodies writhed in the flames until they dissolved into smoldering piles of ash. Children screamed, and tears streamed down their mothers' faces as they shared their last, scorching moments in each other's arms. But of course, the tempest paid no attention to its sobbing victims as it emotionlessly swept through the village.
Grace stood center square, and her head felt faint and empty, her chest hollow. Even so, she wanted to vomit. All around her the people she knew and loved contorted in agony as the flames enveloped them. Immense power and energy radiated, blinding her eyes, so she could only see shadows and hear the wailing victims. The atrocious screams muddled into a continuous drone of torture. Countless blackened bodies littered the village, twisted into grotesque positions. Her mind was too numb to even grasp what was happening. There were no words to describe what lay before her, and all she could conclude was that it was simply evil, everything around her, too evil for words.
She wanted to run, to hide.
This is just a nightmare, right? It has to be.
She had to get out; she needed to escape, but her legs were frozen stiff as if her blood condensed in her veins. Her body refused to obey her, and a painful numbness began at her toes and spread up through her body until she was no more than a statue, cold and paralyzed in the middle of the burning village. The roar of the flames slowed down as it reached her ears. For some reason the low drone grew quieter and quieter every time another hut collapsed over its inhabitants and another shrieking body impacted the ground. Soon, all that was left was the aching beat of her heart, the cruel reminder that she was awake.
Inside her chest, the organ beat in slow motion, and she heard each individual pulse over the roar of the flames. She wanted it to go away, just like the wall of flames closing in, but it persisted, and the forceful pulse permeated her entire being. It started with the sky and then her surroundings; the world around her began to fall away. The outlines of people and houses faded into the red and orange, and the pulse grew louder and louder, throbbing in her ears. The only things she could distinctly make out were two shapes quickly approaching through the smoke.
Ren and Fay spotted the silk dress and white hair standing deathly still with her back turned. At that moment, the world stopped spinning and blood returned to their veins. He took his wife by the hand, covered his mouth with his forearm, and made his way through the smog. He could only think about one thing, and that was getting to Grace.
A firm hand rested on her shoulder, and she turned to her parents. The contact brought her back to earth and feeling returned to her body. Their compassionate expressions seemed so alien compared to the constant glow of fire. For a moment she stared, wide-eyed in disbelief that something else existed in the world after she witnessed death and suffering for what seemed like forever.
"Grace...it's going to be okay," Fay whispered under the destructive noise.
"We can figure a way out of this."
She placed a smooth hand on her cheek.
Ren hugged his daughter close, swearing to himself that he wouldn't let her go again for as long as he lived.
When a parent tells their child that monsters don't exist or nothing bad will happen to them during a thunderstorm, are they lying? Either way, the child will accept the words as reassurance and nod off to sleep, no questions asked. They wear expressions of pure innocence as they dream sweet dreams, completely trusting of their parent's protection. They have no doubt they'll wake up the next morning, fresh and new, ready for the day.
As the bloodcurdling screams stung her ears, Grace wished with all her heart that she could be a child again, that her parents words could lull her to sleep, and that she would wake up the next morning, good as new. She'd probably go out and run around without a care in the world. The world used to be such a magical place, a place full of discovery where everything was good. She wished she could believe her mother when she said, "It's going to be okay." She wished her father's embrace would shield her from the flames, but she knew, in the bottom of her heart, that this just wasn't true.
Everywhere she looked, she saw pain, suffering, and death. She knew her parents' words were exactly that, just words. The magical world of her childhood looked so different now.
It wasn't filled with goodness; it was cruel.
No matter how badly she wanted her parents' words to be true, she had already accepted the cold reality. There was no way out, not everything would be okay, and she was going to die. In the middle of the village, she was going to burn to death just like everyone else. She wasn't so special that she could avoid death, and nothing was going to save her, not even her parents.
Her voice came out small fragmented.
"I want to pray."
Tears formed in Fay's eyes because she knew why her daughter wanted to pray. She felt a pang in her chest as her heart sunk and a lump formed in her throat.
"Okay. If that's what you want," she stuttered.
Grace smiled weakly at her mom and offered her hand, and then she did the same for Ren.
She tried to tune out the screaming in the flames and found it difficult to express the words.
"Spirits, if you are here, I just wanted to say thank you. Although I don't understand why I'm going to die, and I probably never will, I am thankful for the life I've lived. I'm thankful to have met the people I've met, to experience everything I have. Thank you for bringing us together, even in our last moments."
She looked up at her parents for a moment, her throat constricting and her eyes fresh with tears.
"I just wish, I-I...I only wanted..."
The knot in her throat prevented her from her from going any further, so she gave up and threw herself into her father's arms, digging her face into his chest. Her tears soaked through his shirt.
Ren ran his fingers through his daughter's hair, and he began to speak softly, his tone slow and soothing.
"It's okay. Close your eyes."
He looked up into the night sky and ignored the cinders and smoke in the air.
Holding her tight, he spoke softly.
"Imagine the world was colorful again, no fire, no blackness. Imagine it's just you and me, sitting on the moss at the edge of the pond."
His eyes were glistening, but he smirked.
"You were so small back then. You had tiny hands and feet and you always had scabs on your knobby little knees. I remember you would always run ahead of me, your hair trailing behind you. Think about how the sun felt on your skin, how it tasted to breathe fresh air. Remember the way the cattails swayed in the breeze and how I put the white lotus in your hair."
He felt her pulse begin to ease, and he continued to stroke her hair.
"It's memories like those that should stick in your mind. It's okay to be scared. It's okay to cry. Just don't forget the times that mattered. Let those memories remind you of a life worth living."
The fire closed in.
Tears streaked Ren's sooty face as he smiled a last smile, and then the glow illuminated his features. Black smoke crept up his body and the fire began to claim its new fuel. He felt the heat first and pushed Grace away.
When she looked down and saw his clothes on fire, she tried to go back to him, to embrace him one last time, but he shoved her away, forcing her not to join him in his departure. It's a father's job to protect his daughter for as long as he possible can. He made that promise the day she was born.
The fire blackened his skin, and he winced in pain. He couldn't scream. He had to stay strong for her.
"Dad no! Dad!" she shrieked.
He crumpled to his knees and gritted his teeth. The fire spread up his body, and he tried to ignore the pain, but he couldn't. It felt like a thousand knives stabbed and twisted in his flesh.
Grace cried, "Dad! You have to get up! Please Dad! You can't go!"
All she could do was keep yelling his name. She tried to go to him, but Fay held her back with all her strength. She covered her daughter's eyes with her hand, but Grace violently broke free. She refused to believe it was too late, even though the end couldn't have been more obvious. Her eyes went wide, and she forgot how to blink as the fire engulfed Ren's entire body. Even as he burned alive, he tried not to scream, but the pain was too much, and he struggled and thrashed on the ground. The fire burned his hair, skin, and eyelids. He could barely make out the form of his daughter, but he could still feel the excruciating pain stabbing every fraction of his body.
Despite the pain, he returned to memories of meeting Fay for the first time. He remembered the way her eyes sparkled with life, how beautiful she was without having to try. The day he met Fay was the day he truly lived for the first time. He could never forget her gentle touch, her trusting eyes. He remembered holding Grace on that fateful day, how small she was in his arms, how amazing it felt to be a father. Ren found solace in these memories until he could no longer think, no longer move, and the life drained from his body.
Grace opened her mouth to scream, to explode with all the pain and rage trapped in her heart, but instead no sound came out, and the bottled up agony bore down on her mind and tried to force its way out from inside her. She lost track of where she was, and she saw what lay before her, what was left of her father, but she couldn't connect the ashy remains to the man who held her tightly through the fire.
That's not my dad. He doesn't look like that.
"Dad! Where are you?" she called out in a demented voice.
"I know you're out there somewhere! I know you're just joking with me. You can come out now!"
Fay covered her mouth and tried to hold back her tears, but they were far beyond her control by now. The only thing that kept her from breaking down after the death of her husband was her daughter who needed her more than ever. She could barely concentrate as numbness washed over her body, but all she knew was she had to calm down the girl who stood before her. Grace's deranged screams filled her ears, and she couldn't bear to listen to the pain in her daughter's voice.
"Look at me!"
Grace turned to Fay and looked at her with wide eyes filled with fear.
She shook her and yelled again.
"Look at me!"
Soot and grime smeared across Fay's face, and she looked to be on the verge of breaking down.
Grace collapsed into her arms.
Fay could feel her daughter's body physically shaking from shock.
"Shhh, it will all be over soon," she cooed.
Mother and daughter spent their final moments holding each other tightly as the walls of fire closed in from all directions. There was no more screaming to be heard, and there was nothing to see but the bright blaze. The sheer amount of heat caused Fay to squint. She couldn't even tell if Grace was listening, but she said it anyways.
Her voice was calm.
"There is only one truth in this world, and that truth is death."
She wrapped her arms even tighter around Grace, shielding her from the noise of the converging firestorm.
"The Way of the Sword focuses on the physical and the spiritual, the internal and external. Even when the physical body erodes away, nothing can destroy the human spirit, not even this damned monster around us."
Fay felt the heat at her back, and she gently pushed her daughter away.
Her tone softened.
"Don't be afraid. I'll see you soon darling."
The sinister glow illuminated her beautiful features, and smoke swirled up her body. This time Grace knew exactly what was coming, but she couldn't think of any words to say. She didn't know why she couldn't speak; she didn't have time to think about that. She didn't have time to think about anything because her mother was about to die.
Fay mustered up courage, and looked at her daughter with fierce eyes. As she burned, she wore a final grin of defiance. Grace watched as the fire scorched her mother's fair skin and singed her lovely hair, yet the woman didn't collapse in defeat. Instead, she stood resolute as the fuel source of her own funeral pyre and left her daughter with an expression of rebellion, a testament to her fighting spirit that the fire could never take away.
Instead of finding her comfort in memories, Fay dreamed. She dreamed of a future, together with her husband and child. She dreamed of Ren and what it would've been like to grow old together. It would've been a rocky hillside, overlooking the ocean. The grass would've been soft and green. Every morning they would wake up to the gentle breeze caressing their faces. When autumn came, the trees would change and fill the world with color. She imagined the leaves spiraling down all around her as she walked with no particular destination in mind.
She dreamed of Grace. She imagined what she would look like as a young woman, her expression confident, as if she wanted to take the world by storm. The images muddled together as the pain made it harder and harder to think. Eventually, she could no longer picture distinct images, and her dream was simply that of a future. She refused to let go of this future until the heat made her sleepy, until the smoke she breathed made her head too heavy to lift, until she came to a place that was all white, and all she could see was Ren holding out his hand.
Grace couldn't move, paralyzed and motionless as the flames consumed her mother's flesh, and the remains of her blackened skeleton crumbled to the ground.
The deafening noise around her faded to a forced silence, and her legs gave way as she collapsed to a helpless kneel. The smoke and shock constricted her breathing, but it didn't matter. Everything she ever knew or loved was gone. One moment she was standing in awe of the floating lamps, and now she was about to join her mother and father somewhere far away, somewhere where there was no more smoke, no more fire, no more suffering. She no longer felt anger because she didn't have enough energy to even feel any type of emotion besides loneliness. She knew that in a few seconds it would all be over, and that her parents were eagerly waiting for her to return, but all she could think about was how much she wished they were there with her for these final moments: she had never felt so alone in her life. She gradually lost consciousness as the toxins in the air dulled her senses, and she gasped for breath only to inhale hot smoke. The will to fight drained from her face because there was nothing left in the world for her to fight for.
Mouth dry, body bruised, knees bleeding, and eyes bloodshot, Grace shivered.
The girl with white hair wept quietly as the walls of fire claimed her, too.
- Special thanks to for helping me get the angst just right in this chapter. Without her meticulous time and effort, this chapter never would've come to fruition.
For the collective works of the author, go here.