In The Cut: Epilogue

2021, Undisclosed Location.

One Minute After Victory.

"Rylan Poucette has been eliminated. One contestant remains. Congratulations Matthew Belmont, Winner of The Cut Season 8."

It's over.

Matt's legs tremble beneath him as the short phrase echoes through his skull. It's over. He doesn't force himself to open his eyes; he doesn't have to. Matt can imagine the thick blood dripping from his fingertips. The beats are still clear against the debris below. There's no need to pry his eyes back open when the thought of death is still fresh in his mind.

He doesn't realize that they're already gone. Both contestants have already sunken beneath the concrete, the set taking them silently just moments ago. He's alone. Matt doesn't need to look around to find the emptiness pouring down his throat, but he doesn't know how true it rings.

The stillness is overwhelming. It feels as though every tiny movement that shrinks over him is nothing more than an interruption to what should be perfect silence. Matt's every breath hovers in front of him before sinking down to the bloodied cement he still refuses to look at. The shivers that creep across his skin send ripples through the thick air. All of it ricochets back at him and threatens to send him back to the ground.

He doesn't know if he's crying. He can't be sure that the moisture slipping down his cheeks is tears when it could just as easily be more blood. Matt doesn't have to look to know that it's everywhere. He can feel it. He can feel them. Neither contestant ays beside him but Matt would bet the opposite.

They don't feel dead, even if there's no doubt in Matt's mind that they are.

All of them are dead.

He's alone.

Seventeen bodies under the cement floor, empty hearts that no longer beat because Matt's refused to stop. Bear. Vanessa. Alex. Rylan. How many more are gone that he can't even remember? As still as the kitchen feels around Matt, he could never say that it truly feels empty.

It's thick with their ghosts. He can feel every single one of them.

And they hate him.

"Drop your weapon."

Matt cranes his neck up to the concrete above which forces the blur from his eyes. He hears something fall beside him yet his hand is no lighter. It feels as though he might crumple to the ground at any moment, not from exhaustion like he should but from the weight of the thick air on his limbs.

Matt glances down towards his hands. The only thing he sees is a trail of splattered red before the room blurs again.

"Put your hands up. Step away from the knife."

He can't process the instructions. They sound like meaningless syllables, all of them pressed together into just another announcement Matt won't hear. All he can think about is the blood. It'll still be there the next time he opens his eyes. It's still drying under his fingernails without a care in the world that he's not looking.

"Put your hands up!" The voice is different. Loud. It echoes through the thick air, bouncing off every shattered surface but it doesn't register. The only thing Matt does is turn in the direction of the door. This simple movement sends his head spinning.

There's someone else in here.

He stares at them. Matt doesn't know what else to do. The person in the door repeats themselves. Their voice is louder this time. Matt understands.

He lifts his hands above his head.

He remembers the last time those words were yelled in his direction. Matt allows the person to turn him around. He hears metal as it clips the wall beside them. There are more footsteps but Matt doesn't turn to see how many legs they belong to. He stares forward, his entire body trembling just like the first time.

Whatever touches Matt, it's not skin. He flinches as something cool and smooth slides over both wrists, binding them together with fibers much softer than metal. They tighten, gently, until the pull behind his shoulders makes Matt tense. The cuffs don't release. It only hurts a little bit.

Next, gloves. It's almost certainly fingertips that dot his skin with firm pressure, but there's none of the expected warmth. They feel like plastic. They feel colder than the material that wraps his wrists. The poke and prod into wounds, forcing pain from skin that moments ago felt numb and heavy.

Finally, more words swell the fog coating Matt's inner ear. "He can walk."

He doesn't remember if he does. All he remembers is that, suddenly, the set is gone.

2021, Undisclosed Location

Twenty Minutes After Victory.

The breeze that cups Matt's chin isn't cold like the air flowing through the prison vents. It's not stale and reeking of stained concrete, with vague hints of iron he could taste with each inhale.

It's cold like the outside and his pace quickens between the unfamiliar people.

Matt takes in a slow breath as he's led through the final hallway. As they reach the end of a wide staircase, he can see the open doors sitting at the top. There is only a haze of bright light to hint at what's beyond it, but the fresh scent of leaves is enough. Matt knows it's not more prison hallways and that's enough.

He imagines the tall barbed walls that will surround the trees, if the breeze can be trusted and they're there at all. He shrinks back a step and a firm hand lands at the center of his back. It doesn't push him forward and the guard in front of him doesn't continue on. They wait in silence as Matt swallows down another breath.

This is the way out. He's won, he's leaving, and it's everything he's wanted since stepping behind the first iron bars.

He's afraid.

The shoes beneath don't feel like his as they continue their calm steps. The fibers deep set behind his skin tremble but when Matt looks down his feet are firm against the ground. He glances up, almost thankful for the guard that stands between him and the outside. The air feels even colder as they continue forward. By the time Matt's standing at the bottom of the stairs, it feels like pure ice as it slips past his lips.

2021, Toronto ON

Thirty Minutes After Victory.

Matt turns away as the other occupant reaches forward. He closes his eyes as the windows roll up and the cab darkens around him. He hears the man lean back into his seat and it's not hard to imagine his dark eyes still combing Matt's face. The man hasn't said a single word to Matt since he was deposited in the vehicle. The only time Matt heard his voice was during his instructions to the guards.

"We'll ride alone."

And the guards left him with this unfamiliar figure, his arms wrapped in a brown coat with medical gloves sticking out from one pocket. The way that he observes Matt is different from the guards whose eyes are a mix of hesitation and curiosity. This man's gaze is perfectly at peace staring across at a kid he's never met.

"I'm Dr. Liu."

Matt looks up again, his shoulders tight around his neck as if that will make his frame less noticeable. His hands had been unbound by the guards before he was let in the cab, then tied again in front of him. Matt can see now that the handcuffs have been knotted around with slick leather to cover the metal.

He nods in response, but the movement makes his head spin. Matt wants to look out the window again, never mind that it made him nauseous. The inside of the cab is claustrophobic even if there's a solid three feet between them. The man may as well be sitting right on top of him.

"This all must be extremely overwhelming, Matthew," Dr. Liu says softly. Matt turns back towards the window, squinting at the tinted glass until it blurs into the rest of the interior. The description is far too simple to encapsulate everything he's feeling and not yet able to understand.

Less than an hour ago, Rylan was still alive. Matt doesn't know exactly how long it's been since he'd dropped the bloody knife that'd changed that easy fact. In those few minutes, he'd felt alone. His racing heart felt like the only one beating for kilometers.

That feeling had changed when he saw the guards. Suddenly, there had been too many people and Matt could hear every one of them far too clearly. There were three of them clothed in slick corrections uniforms and another that wore nurse scrubs. Four people. More that Matt could sense as he was led through underground hallways coated with just as much concrete as the upstairs.

And not one had helped them.

2021, Toronto General Hospital

Two Hours After Victory.

The creaking of footsteps through the outside hallway makes Matt's stomach turn. Every sound in the new quarters is too loud, despite the fact that no one's spoken since leaving him here. The guard seated in the far corner has been silent; she doesn't even look in Matt's direction. He knows she's listening, but how can she hear anything with all this noise?

Matt sits on the bench by the window, one hand pressed behind him because the cold glass is the only thing that feels remotely real. The cushions underneath him may as well be more shattered ceramic. The plush shoes that he was given upon arrival could either be splintered wood or earthbound cloud. It's all a perfect temperature between warmth and chill. It's all too beautiful to be real.

So much has happened since he last saw Dr. Liu, yet it feels as though no time has passed. Matt's injuries have been dressed and he's been given a dose of pain medication that's done nothing but contribute to the numbness surrounding him. The nurses said that he'll need to wait to use the shower in his new living quarters. The layers of grime were peeled away with wipes and combed from his hair but Matt can't remember more than a moment of it.

The doctor said that he would need to stay here until he's feeling better. Matt wanted to argue that's an impossible goal. If there's nothing to feel, how could anyone expect it to become better?

Matt doesn't know but Dr. Liu seems so confident.

It's hard to look at the man and truly believe he could be wrong about anything. Still, Matt can't begin to even consider what 'better' might feel like. Everything is different. The world outside of the prison bars has only brought more walls down on top of him.

He's as trapped in this place as he was on the set or the jail that came before that.

He doesn't recognize the sterile walls or the straight picture frames of satisfied smiles. None of it matches the swirling cloud of absolute nothingness that's taken the place of organs in his frail body. The small shadows that fight through the room's fixed brightness still make him flinch. The constant noise makes Matt want to cower against the window with both hands covering his ears.

He doesn't belong in this room. He's not sure where he could even begin to belong. All Matt wants is to go home but that's started to feel further away than ever.

He isn't sure at what moment he turns around. Matt stares at his reflection for what could have been hours or mere seconds. The frosted window carves his features in the glass until they no longer look anything like him. Matt sees Bear, but just as suddenly those parted lips are gone and he's staring back at Rylan whose throat is cloaked in blood.

Matt gasps as Vanessa's red hair blossoms from the wound. Her eyes stare back at him as brave tears burn down her cheeks. Her mouth opens and Matt knows what she's going to say, but she can't speak. The only sound that comes out is a pitiful gasp as steady hands pull him away from the window.

Matt stiffens as he hits the ground before his entire body dissolves into tremors all over again. The voice sounds far away. The voice sounds like Rylan as it yells for help but Matt can't help him. He can't move. He's not certain he can even breathe.

The numbness settles over him all at once. Matt has no choice but to allow it.

2021, Toronto General Hospital

One Day After Victory.

When Matt had woken up, the window had been covered. Instead of glass that was frosted from the outside, all he could look out now was dull metal with backlighting that served as barely a replacement. Matt said nothing about the new feature, but he would never sit on that bench again.

Food came and went, but he isn't sure how much actually made it into his mouth. None of it tasted like anything, as if the beautiful greens and yellows were nothing more than expensive dye. The shower wouldn't turn on when he tried the handle, letting Matt know this was still off limits. Instead, he dressed in a new set of the same cotton clothes and waited.

The office that Matt eventually finds himself in is bright and cheerful, decorated in various shades of green. Though the curtains are drawn when he enters, the overhead lights more than make up for it. Matt hesitates before stepping inside, and the grinning face of a woman beckons him further.

"Welcome, Matthew," she says, standing from her suede chair. "You can call me Dinah."

Matt's surprised to see her and not the doctor who had ridden with him yesterday. He doesn't ask where he is. Matt remains at the threshold even after Dinah motions to the matching chair positioned across from her. The woman reclines back into her seat, folding her hands in her lap. Matt still doesn't move.

He hears the guard stir behind him, but Dinah shakes her head in their direction. Matt tells himself to sit down; he understands that's what is expected of him. It takes several more minutes before Matt finally follows instructions. The chair is plush underneath him, swallowing his hand as he lowers himself down.

"I'm sure this must be extremely overwhelming." They're the same words that Dr. Liu used on their way here. From Dinah, they don't feel quite as sincere. Matt just nods in response.

"Has anyone told you why you're here?"

Matt swallows. Dr. Liu had told him some of the story, that Matt would have to stay in the hospital until his injuries were healed. He spoke of mental injuries, mentioning that the staff here had been made aware of his specific needs. Dr. Liu told Matt that the hospital would prepare him to re-enter the outside world, something that he'd earned the right to do the moment that Rylan's heart had stopped beating.

Dinah waits for a response. Her smile wavers slightly in the silence, but she doesn't stop watching him. Matt finally feels bad enough for the woman to answer.


"Excellent," Dinah chirps. "You don't need to worry about a thing, Matthew. We're going to help."

The reassurance slips down Matt's chest without sticking for even a moment. He half-listens to the next few minutes, where Dinah goes over what will happen in the next week. He'll meet with her every morning. He'll have various therapy sessions throughout the day with time to relax in between. He'll be prescribed medications as needed and there will always be someone monitoring him to ensure that he feels safe.

"And, when you're ready," Dinah says finally. "You can call your family. We'll try to keep your contact with them as regular as possible throughout your time here."

Matt's chin lifts at the mention of them. "Can I call them now?"

This is the first time that Dinah's eyes leave his as they flicker over the guard still standing by the door. "We'd like to wait a few more days. It's a big step."

Matt's heart sinks. "How many days?"

"Not too many," Dinah replies. "Now let's get into your daily review."

2021, Toronto General Hospital

One Week After Victory.

Not a single day stands out in Matt's first week of treatment. Each one seems to bleed into the next, fragmented by dreamless sleep that he never truly seems to wake from. While his dreams back at home and in prison were full of vivid imagery Matt tried to pull together, in the hospital they're as sterile as the white walls around him.

The routine has helped to quell the memories, but they often find ways to peek through. The reflective surface of a spoon is enough to bring hating eyes or screaming mouths forward. Sometimes, Matt doesn't realize that he's staring until the utensil is ripped away and he's given more pills to swallow.

On the days where the images aren't so easily torn away, a pinprick and more empty sleep awaits. Matt will remember being in Dinah's office or one of the treatment rooms then wake up groggy in his bed, draped in new clothing that's not slick with sweat. He knows when this happens that no one will come for him until the next morning.

2021, Toronto General Hospital

Ten Days After Victory.

Matt is already awake when the knock comes, but he doesn't stir. The guard opens the door and Matt continues to stare up at the ceiling, its sterile colour no more interesting than the dream he'd awoken from hours ago. The sheets are neither warm nor cool as they form around his body. He would liken the feeling to floating, though that sounds almost too enjoyable.

"Good morning."

Matt turns as he recognizes the voice. In the open door, he sees Dr. Liu and his lips consider a smile for little more than half a second. The man is wearing his usual white coat with street clothes underneath that look like something his step-dad might get groceries in. Dr. Liu always appears so relaxed, so different against the constant array of sameness.

Matt nods a greeting. As the days go on, words are no easier to come by. His lips feel as numb as the rest of his body, never finding the words to describe what's happening in Dinah's daily reviews or his treatment sessions. It's as if Matt is experiencing all of it but living through not a single second.

"Would you like to take a walk with me?" Dr. Liu asks and Matt doesn't reply. They both know that there isn't a way nor a reason to decline the offer. He appreciates that the doctor still insists on giving him the illusion of a choice.

Matt sits up at the edge of the bed, pulling the sheets off though he feels no colder. He waits for the guard to come over, opening his palm in preparation for his daily pills. There are four of them every morning, then two more with lunch, and three more at dinner. Matt isn't sure that he could say with certainty what colour each of them is.

The guard doesn't come, instead it's Dr. Liu who steps over and deposits a single white tablet into Matt's hand. Matt looks up at him with a confused frown.

"Today's about change," Dr. Liu says with a nod. "You've been doing very well, Matthew."

Matt swallows the pill dry, not caring about the chalky film that it leaves behind. The doctor steps out while Matt heads to the washroom. To his surprise, the water for the shower actually turns on when he tries it.

"I'm very impressed with you," Dr. Liu muses as they walk casually through the hallways. Matt can still hear the guard behind him, but she's keeping a distance this time. He can't feel the breeze of her swinging arms on his back.

Matt glances at the doctor for a moment but again doesn't answer. No words come forward and it feels futile to search for them anymore. They continue walking.

"I'd like to show you something," the doctor tells him. "I think you'll quite like it."

He's right. The pair steps through another door and the cold air strikes Matt's face, shivering through the numbness on his lips so that he can almost taste it. The room is a beautiful shade of white, not pure like the hospital corridors but something else entirely. Long branches and rows of twisted vines cover every surface, and on top of them is a layer of crystal snow.

"Outside?" Matt asks. The word sounds slurred, as they always seem to, but the voice is unmistakably his.

"Yes," Dr. Liu responds. "They had this area carved out of the main building. If you look up, you'll see we're not actually in the hospital anymore."

Matt cranes his neck and the blue sky greets him. The clouds above are an imperfect gray, as though they haven't decided whether to storm or be still. Matt feels dizzy from looking up, but he doesn't want to look anywhere else.

"Soon, Matthew, things are going to get very difficult," the doctor says softly. "I know that you're ready, and I promise that we're here for you."

2021, Toronto General Hospital

Twelve Days After Victory.

After Matt's visit in the garden, the next two days are spent in tears.

They don't come all at once, but in waves separated by frustration that swirled in hurricanes around his hospital room. The blanket of immaculate numbness had been stripped away, leaving Matt shivering with vacant tears while at the same time burning up with anger. There were too many emotions to discern and every time he tried it felt impossible.

In those days, no one came for him. He woke up and went into fitful sleep alone, with food appearing on a tray by the door along with solitary white tablets. Every ounce that slipped past his lips landed in a wave of nausea and was quickly followed by more tears. Matt didn't know who or what he was specifically crying for. It didn't seem to matter that it didn't make sense.

He would look down and see blood on the floor, yelling for help as cuts appeared across his body and leaked into the sweat soaking his shirts. Matt knew that it wasn't real; none of it hurt more than the echoing sickness in his stomach. He understood that the walls here weren't made of concrete and that the dead screams outside his door weren't cursing his name.

When the numb cloak was pulled away, it brought no more clarity forward. Matt could scream and shiver without slurring, he could feel the warmth of the sheets when he bothered to lie down. The room didn't feel like it was suspended in clouds but Matt felt just as confused. The adrenaline bubbling in his chest made no more sense than the groggy mist spread across his eyes days ago.

Matt's eyes burn as he wipes them again and cracks burst beneath his nose with the next sharp inhale. He stares at the door, but no one knocks. He's already spent hours prying at the doorknob. He's already tried to stuff his knuckles beneath the door as if maybe it's just stuck. He's slammed trembling fists against the window that's now dulled black instead of glass.

No one came. Still now, as the sobs heave in silence and his voice has gone raw, no one comes.

He doesn't want to wonder how long it's been.

2021, Toronto General Hospital.

Two Weeks After Victory.

Matt doesn't hate the familiar face that finally steps through his door. He sits up on his bed, shoulders still for the first time against the wall, and he just stares at her. The guard walks inside and takes her usual place in the corner, a neutral expression turned in his direction. Matt realizes that he doesn't even know her name.

The question is quiet on his lips but there's no denying that she's heard him. The guard's eyes flash in Matt's direction but she says nothing. When her gaze drops for a moment, Matt decides not to ask again.

He doesn't want her to leave. It feels as though the slightest mistake might pull this speck of comfort away again. Matt hasn't even decided if he likes the woman, but just seeing a breath that's not his makes him wholeheartedly believe that he must.

"You should get ready."

Matt glances back at the guard, but she says nothing more. He nods and does as she says. When he looks in the closet, he sees that fresh clothes had been put there while he was asleep. He doesn't bother to shower. He doesn't even move to the washroom to change, refusing to take his eyes off the guard for fear that she'll disappear.

He's walked to Dinah's office and takes a seat in that green suede chair as if nothing at all is different. This time, Matt finds answers to every question beyond a tired nod or shrug. Dinah seems pleased. Matt tells her the truth each time.

"What's the dominant emotion right now?"

It's a common question, one that Matt's only ever given a handful of answers to. Tired. Heavy. Asleep. Today, he's none of those things.


Dinah looks up over her tablet, raising an eyebrow as if she doesn't believe his answer. Matt has no reason to lie to her. She's never reacted to any of the things he's managed to say. As far as he knows, she's always been honest with him.

She slides the tablet down on the desk behind her and turns back to Matt with her usual smile. He's not prepared to return it, and he doesn't. He keeps his face neutral, though Matt can still feel the slight redness in his eyes from the night prior.

"We're going to try something new today," Dinah tells him. "I think you're going to really enjoy it."

As the door to the treatment room opens, Matt's eyes go immediately to Dr. Liu. The doctor smiles and waves him inside, the door closing behind him as his escort leaves. Matt doesn't have to ask where to sit. There's only one empty chair in the entire room.

The seat isn't as plush as the one he'd just left and Matt finds the treated wood cold against his skin. He doesn't complain or even mention it. As Matt slides into the chair, he notices the other man seated across from him but Matt doesn't recognize the face. He's dressed similarly to Dr. Liu, in a casual sweatshirt and jeans, but the colours are darker.

"It's nice to finally meet you, Matthew," the man smiles as he leans forwards in his own chair. "I'm Teo."

"Hi," Matt nods softly, but he's no longer looking at the stranger. His eyes are glued to the case sitting on the floor at Teo's feet, just visible from where Matt's sitting. With a quick glance he can already see what's inside.

"I was told you're a painter," Teo says. "Is that true?"

Matt shakes his head, already feeling the desert return to his tongue. "Not really."

Teo smiles. "No need to be modest. You're really talented, Matthew, though we both know you could use a fresh medium. Art can be therapeutic, did you know that?"

He did, but Matt doesn't remember to answer. His eyes are still stuck to the kit laying harmlessly by Teo's feet and the tight feeling creeping up his throat.

"Relieved, right?" Teo tries again. "That's the word you used. I want you to try and show me what that looks like. You can take all the time you need."

Matt leans back in his chair as Teo pulls out an acrylic pad and various unopened tubes of paint. They look expensive, like the kind that Matt might have seen in Youtube videos being used to make art that wouldn't dream of getting rained on. Matt's only experience with paint tubes was from high school art class back when he still let himself dream of a fine arts degree.

His eyes begin to burn again as he stares down at the empty pad. When he glances to his right, the paint tubes are gone, replaced by crumbling circles coated in water stains. Matt closes his eyes, his heart pounding in his ears because he knows what he will see when he looks up. Instead, the image appears behind his eyelid.

Matt's hands curl around the edge of the table, biting into his palms as they shake the surface. His scrunched eyes keep the tears at bay until the moment they're cut back open. The image of Bear disappears along with curls of blood on his friend's chest and the gasping breaths that splatter more across the table. Matt pulls his hands away, tears coating his cheeks until he can't see any of the curious faces staring back at him.

"I can't," Matt whispers. He hugs his arms around himself, lifting his face to the ceiling to prevent even his tears from touching the pad in front of him. Neither of the men says a word in response.

Matt turns his gaze to Dr. Liu, begging him silently to stop this because he can't find the words to say more. He doesn't want to paint. He hates that one of the only memories he has of Bear is now cloaked in as much red as his final one. There's not one thought in Matt's mind that wants so much as to touch one of these brushes.

"It's okay," Dr. Liu says finally, rising from his seat and motioning to Teo to take away the equipment. "Let me take you back to your room."

Matt all but pushes himself up out of the chair, fighting every urge to cling to the man as he leads them back down the corridors. Dr. Liu doesn't say anything else by the time they reach Matt's room and he's gone without a goodbye before Matt even turns around. He realizes just as quickly that the nameless guard is gone once again.

That night, no meal comes; the only thing that appears with the tray is the same white pill.

2021, Toronto General Hospital

One Month After Victory.

In the following weeks, Matt doesn't see Teo again.

He spends every morning with Dinah and most afternoons with one of the parade of therapists that Dr. Liu brings in. Matt's drained after every one, regardless of the difficulty. During most of them, they just talk and Matt tries his best to be honest. He tells them about his family and how much he misses them. He asks when he'll be allowed to speak to them. He never gets more than a vague answer.

Today, there's another new face waiting for him in the treatment room. This woman introduces herself as Dr. Onai and she's the first to greet him without a smile. Matt doesn't immediately step inside the room. A hand on the top of his back gives him a gentle reminder not to be afraid, but it doesn't work.

The room feels different. It's colder, though barely. Matt's grown accustomed to the temperature of the hospital- a comfortable warmth that makes even his cotton t-shirts feel cozy. As he finally convinces himself to step inside, Dr. Onai's sharp gaze makes him shiver.

"Please take a seat facing the screen," she says with a gesture towards the only empty chair in the room. In the back corner, Dr. Liu nods encouragingly and Matt does as she's asked. This chair is as soft as the ones in Dinah's office, but he can't help but feel uncomfortable. Matt reclines against it for a moment before realizing it doesn't make a difference.

"I'm going to play a series of images on the screen," Dr. Onai instructs. "Watch carefully, you'll be asked to describe them back to me."

Matt nods carefully, the sinking feeling not moving from the base of his stomach. He's not sure what he expects to see when the screen finally brightens, but a patch of grass isn't it. Matt stares for the next few seconds, but nothing changes.

"Well?" She asks sharply. "What do you see?"

"Grass," Matt replies.

"Describe it."

He lets out a fraction of the next breath. "Green. Straight lines."

"Very good." The screen shifts, this time revealing a frame streaked in cracked gray. Matt describes this as well, though the tremble in his voice is more pronounced. He can guess what they're working towards and he has every inclination to stop it from ever getting there.

The next image is a piece of paper, blank except for a few spots of discoloration near the edges. Then, a ceramic plate. It's whole, not at all how Matt remembers it, but it's stiff pattern is unmistakable. He grabs the arms of his chair and clamps his teeth together, but already tears begin to bite at the corners of his vision.

"Can we stop?" He asks quickly. His voice is rigid through his tight jaw, but it's the only sound in the room. Matt knows they heard him.

"What do you see?" Dr. Onai's tone is just as measured.

Matt tries to speak but more cracks form in the dish the longer he stares. He forces his eyes shut, but the sound of shattering glass has already broken through his eardrums. Matt turns his head to one side, shutting the screen out entirely as he tries to find Dr. Liu. The first eyes he meets aren't his, their dark irises clinical as they watch over her notepad.

"Breathe, Matthew." This is Dr. Liu's voice, as calm and clear as it's always been. Matt tries to follow the instructions and takes another sharp inhale. It clears his head for half a second before everything starts to make its way back inside.

2021, Toronto General Hospital

Two Months After Victory.

"Your progress is slowing. We're starting to get concerned."

Dinah's words echo along with Matt's steps down the hallway. He's trying; that's all he could tell her. He's trying to look at the pictures on the screen without bursting into tears. He's trying to tell the truth and let them help him. He's trying to get used to going to bed without dinner most nights and falling asleep alone.

"Matthew," Dr. Liu smiles as the guard leads Matt through the door. He stops immediately upon entering, palms slick the second he locks eyes with the man behind the doctor. "You remember Teo, I'm sure?"

Matt nods, but any chance at a greeting falters from his lips. He stands frozen just a step inside the door, legs trembling before Teo's even said a word. The memory of the last time they met is still fresh in Matt's mind.

"It's been a while," Teo says with a hesitant smile.

"We're going to give this another try," Dr. Liu explains. "I'm confident that this is the right path to take with you."

Teo watches Matt for an answer, but when it's clear he won't be getting one he sticks a hand out towards Matt. Matt stares at it for a moment before glancing back at Dr. Liu. He tries to convey without words how much he doesn't want to do this; how much he can't do this.

"Let's get started," Teo nods as his hand drops back to his side. Matt's guided to the same desk as last time, the supplies already set out across it. There's more paint tubes than before, graphite pencils in every texture, and an assortment of paper to choose from. As Matt takes a seat, the chair feels like it may as well be made of sewing needles.

"Take your time, Matthew," Teo says softly. "There's no rush. All we want is for you to try your best."

Matt nods and stares down at the paper, willing himself to pull it closer. Even that feels like an impossible task. He glances up again and both men are by the door, watching carefully. He wants to tell them he can't do it.

There's nothing in his mind worth putting to paper.

All of it's just varying shades of gray, empty of design or shape. When he looks down at the pages, all he sees is red falling across it. He doesn't want it to be real.

He doesn't want to make it real.

Matt's palms collapse against his face, bringing with them the welled up tears from the morning. He knows that he's not progressing. He knows that he's not feeling better. He knows that he's not better. He can still see all of their faces in the moments before falling asleep. He can find a hundred guilty features in the mirror over the sink.

He's not himself anymore. He doesn't want to do this.

"I'm sorry," he whispers. His elbows shake against the desk, disrupting the expensive materials that he doesn't want nor deserve. Give them to someone else.

The walls are empty when Matt finally looks up. The view to the door is unobstructed where the men had just stood. He glances quickly around the room, but before he's even halfway he knows that they're gone.

"Please," Matt says, trying to force some volume into his trembling voice. "Come back."

He stares at the door until a fresh wave of tears blurs it all over again. Still it doesn't open. Matt stands from the chair and steps over to it. He knows before trying that it's going to be locked. That doesn't stop him from pulling at the handle until his hands are too slick to grasp it.

He walks back to the table, but before he can even sit down he's shaking too hard to stay upright. Matt rests his forehead against the table, trying to calm his breathing but it's not listening to any of the techniques he's been taught. He knows that the moment he looks up, he's going to see them. He's going to see the dead eyes, the still chests, and the lines of red that appear on every blank page Matt sees.

Even with his eyes closed he can see them.

He won't make them real. Whether they should be or not, they're gone.

Matt's too afraid to paint their faces. They're the only things he can see well enough right now to even attempt. Why can't Teo understand that he shouldn't do this? Why can't he just look at screens or talk to Dinah or practice breathing because that's the thing that feels so impossible right now?

His gaze spins between the locked door, the floor, and the ceiling tiles. Matt refuses to look at the paper. His hands won't let him reach for the brushes. Teo's words echo through his mind until they're the only thing Matt can hear. His limbs shake and his chest flinches with sobs. The minutes pass by until Matt's convinced himself it's the next day and the door still doesn't open.

Dr. Liu doesn't come back until the next morning, but Matt's not the first thing he rushes to.

It's the tiny lock in gray paint that dots the edge of the paper.

That's all that the doctor cares about.

2021, Toronto General Hospital

Three Months After Victory.

They don't care if he feels better.

It was the most difficult realization for Matt to come to, but as the weeks went by it became so painfully obvious. When he did as they instructed, the facility all but smiled down on him. That tiny painting earned Matt his first call home and another visit to the hospital garden.

If Matt couldn't perform, the air tightened like a vice around his chest. Meals simply wouldn't come. Sessions would last longer. Dinah would tell him that he wasn't trying and Matt would always be too exhausted to argue.

He wanted help but they never intended on it.

"What's the dominant emotion right now?" Dinah asks.

For the first few days after leaving the art room, Matt simply didn't answer. Dinah would stare at him in silence. He would go through every session afterwards in silence. Dr. Liu would raise an eyebrow and the therapists would end their time early, all of it without a word from Matt. He doesn't trust them. He feels used even if he doesn't know what for.

They want him to paint. They want him to answer their questions and smile as he does so. Matt decided in those days to give them none of that. He gave them nothing.

One meal a day left Matt's stomach growling non stop, but he didn't care. He cried in his bed the first few nights of complete darkness, but that also wasn't enough. It was his own little revolt against them. If they didn't care to help him, then Matt wouldn't participate either.

Then, the phone card they'd given him stopped working. He entered his home number a dozen times and not a single one went through. Matt tried again the next day with the same result.

He hated Dr. Liu even more.

"Tired." The same answer he's given all week. It seems to be enough to satisfy Dinah, who taps her tablet a couple more times before placing it on her desk. He doesn't offer a single extra syllable.

During Dr. Onai's picture sessions, Matt stops looking at Dr. Liu when he wants them to end. These are the only ones that the doctor still sits in on but Matt makes a point not to even glance in his direction. He knows now that Dr. Liu isn't going to help him.

The images have gotten more difficult. This month, they've started on what Dr. Onai calls the 'highlight reels'. Matt doesn't recognize most of the faces in the various scenes he's been shown. He can name even fewer of them, one being last year's winner. That doesn't mean that every session with Dr. Onai isn't horrible.

He's watching The Cut from the last seven seasons. Every image that appears on the screen in front of him would be enough to grow a whole new crop of nightmares. Almost thankfully, however, Matt's dreams have remained just as empty as the moment he arrived here.

The evenings with Dr. Onai vary in length, ending only when Matt's a shaking ball of tears barely able to keep himself upright. As the days go on, they begin to last longer. Sometimes, Matt can pretend that he's proud of this fact. Most times, he doesn't bother.

The sessions with Teo pass in near-silence no matter what's happened the rest of the day. Matt spends every afternoon in the art room, though he's not been graced enough to know the precise hours. He goes from Dinah's office back to his room where a tray of lunch food is waiting, then the nameless guard takes him to Teo.

It took Matt three weeks to finish the first real piece.

It's as meaningless as the tiny lock was. In total, Matt likely spent less than a day's worth of hours with his brush to the canvas. Double that was spent pacing the four narrow walls. Triple that was wasted willing the red away from the outline. On the eighth day, Matt squeezed all of the warm toned tubes into the trash. Most other colours followed soon after.

Teo said nothing. He started the first couple days off with encouraging words that Matt met with blank stares. When Matt pulled a second canvas off the stack and Teo realized that his piece was complete, he spent the rest of the day examining it for artistry he wasn't going to find.

Matt knows that Teo must be disappointed. He certainly is.

There's no beauty in what he's creating. There's gray strokes and rigid shapes from half-baked memories. That's all Matt can bring himself to make.

2021, Toronto General Hospital

Four Months After Victory.

Matt turns his eyes towards the fountain, allowing it to lightly shower his skin as it does the ledge below him. The garden is empty as usual except for the two visitors who sit mere meters apart but don't acknowledge the other. Dr. Liu seems set on his tradition of having discussions alone out here. Matt finds it difficult to mind as the sun warms the back of his shirt.

"I suspect you know why I've brought you here," Dr. Liu says finally. Matt keeps his eyes closed for another moment, basking in the warm spray before turning his back on it.

Matt tilts his head to one side, his expression neutral as usual when it comes to the doctor. He's been a constant during Matt's time in the hospital, as sure as the sun rising through his newly exposed window. He used to think of the doctor as almost a friend. Dr. Liu was patient, he seemed to know exactly what Matt needed with just a hurried glance.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Matt had been ashamed that he'd fallen for it, looking back at his dark eyes and wondering how he could have been so naive. This was a man that worked with the people who thrived off violent ratings and painted paychecks with blood on their hands. Dr. Liu was never going to be a friend.

No one in this place is.

Dr. Liu glances down at the concrete tiles before his gaze returns with a sad smile. "You're being cleared for release, Matthew. I wanted to be the one to tell you but everyone got a little over excited by the news."

Matt allows himself a nod to acknowledge the statement. It's true that he's known for about a week now, specifically because of Dinah dropping hints. Matt knew that she wanted him to ask her about it. It was the first time in weeks that he'd actually wanted to go beyond his practiced morning answers. Even this hadn't felt worth it.

After four months behind these sterile walls, Matt had managed to convince himself that he'd never be leaving. It was easier to believe that home was out of reach than to wonder all night when he'd see it again.

"I thought you'd be excited?"

I am, Matt thinks and it's true. His lips don't turn up in a smile, but they haven't for weeks. There's a lightness in his chest that he hasn't noticed for just as long. It makes the rest of him not feel quite as heavy. It's the highest above neutral Matt can remember ever feeling.

Dr. Liu slides onto the ledge of the fountain across from Matt who has to turn his head to avoid his gaze. Matt's careful not to pull his feet away, but he can't help his posture from stiffening. He's not confident enough to believe the doctor doesn't know how Matt feels about him, but honesty has never gotten him very far in this place.

It's better to pretend. Matt watched the other winners giving interviews, speaking brightly about the production team and their experiences on the show. He doesn't think he'll be nearly so convincing. He's not sure that he wants to be.

They all look so happy.

Are they?

"I know that this might not mean much coming from me," Dr. Liu says. His hand hovers for a moment near Matt's knee before settling into the light touch. Matt stares at the doctor's hand until he removes it. "But I'm extremely proud of you."

Those words pull Matt through the next few weeks no matter how hard he tries to forget them. Matt's mornings are still spent with Dinah, but instead of talking about him they go over interview tapes. He still sees Teo most afternoons, painting more gray shapes that sit like lead in his stomach. In the evenings, however, Matt begins new sessions where he answers questions from fake press and poses for pictures he doesn't ever get to see.

"There's no danger in this." He hears Dr. Liu's voice through the door as Dinah taps away on her tablet. Matt's chin lifts automatically along with the therapist's, but she's the one that stands up to acknowledge it.

The casual pace of her steps makes Matt believe he's supposed to be hearing this. He vaguely recognizes the other voice as one of his new instructors. The name has never mattered very much to Matt.

"He could use some more time."

Matt pretends not to be paying attention as Dinah opens the door, magnifying Dr. Liu's next statement. If he hadn't already been listening, it would have been impossible to ignore now. Dinah reminds the men that there's a session going on and they both apologize profusely for the interruption.

But Matt isn't listening anymore. He's still thinking of the doctor's last words.

"We can always bring him back."

2021, Toronto General Hospital

Five Months After Victory.

Matt knew what today was, but it didn't feel any different until he saw the new clothes in his closet. For the many months he'd spent here, there had always been a sea of white cotton staring back at him. Every piece of clothing was spotless, blending Matt into the walls as if he were just another feature of the long corridors.

He gently pulls the forest green shirt from its hanger. It smells exactly as it did when it hung in his closet back at home. It's not as soft as the white pieces and the thick pants don't fit quite as well, but he wouldn't have picked anything else.

When he looks in the bathroom mirror, there's already a smile lifting his lips. Matt stares at the image for as long as he can stand even as the corners of his mouth begin to slowly drop. He runs a hand through his hair, messy from sleep but still smoother than it's ever looked. He's disappointed to see that, white clothes aside, it still doesn't look like him.

As the nameless guard leads Matt out of his bedroom, the hallways are lined with staff members. They smile as he walks by, whispering congratulations as Matt wonders if he's met even a fraction of them. He's led down a single staircase, makes one left turn, and he can already hear them.

Matt stares at the set of doors, wider than many of the treatment rooms and nearly the same colour as his shirt. All these months trapped in the upstairs hallways and the outside's always been this close.

Dr. Liu meets him in front of the closed doors with a bright smile that Matt makes a single attempt at returning. He taps the corners of his mouth and motions to the door. Matt's already been told exactly what to do from here, but the dread doesn't begin to creep in until right now.

How many people are going to be waiting for him?

Matt places his hands carefully on the middle of the door. It barely takes any pressure at all to push it open and, when he does, the sound is immediately overwhelming. Matt had already heard them from the staircase, but this is something else entirely. He instinctively glances again at Dr. Liu, but the doctor's already stepping forward to guide him the rest of the way.

Matt finds himself standing above the crowd, with more recognizable faces already waiting. To his left are his therapists and instructors, most of which smile brightly at the cheers coming from the crowd surrounding the hospital grounds. Matt, remembering instructions, heads to the right where there are only two people with their hands clasped in front of them.

Alexis Lassiter nods a welcome as Matt reaches her, putting both hands forward for him to take. He shakes them carefully, stiffening at the intensity of her eyes. He's seen her a hundred times through a television screen, heard her voice answer every question as though she's always known the answer. She ends the contact before Matt can think of it and he takes another awkward step to stand in front of Rajan Bhau.

Where Alexis is proud and confident, Rajan is all bright smiles. Matt brings his hands forward but Rajan pulls him into a tight hug instead. He's almost relieved to see the uncertainty in Rajan's eyes when they pull apart again. It looks as though Rajan's worried that he's done something wrong. Matt gives him an appreciative nod before taking his place between them.

"Today is a joyous day," Dr. Liu begins. "Five months ago, Matthew Belmont was given a chance. He rose above the life he'd mistakenly chosen years ago and, with the help of this beautiful facility, he's ready to show the nation that he's become so much more. Today, I am honoured with the opportunity to re-introduce Mr. Belmont to the world. I know that he will make each one of us extremely-"

The doctor's last word never makes it from his lips as a boom erupts from the crowd, followed by at least a dozen screams. Silence follows, the air thick with a thousand held breaths. In the distance, Matt can see papers raining down at the back of the hospital grounds. His body remains frozen along with every other person on stage.

Matt's heart is beating so loud in his ears that he doesn't hear the next boom, or the next. Following the first, they explode like dominoes across the crowd. Matt feels something grab his shoulders, turning him back towards the hospital doors. He can hear screaming from all directions. Another crash.

When he looks up, all he can see are thousands of papers fluttering down from the sky. Matt manages a single step away from the person corralling him. His sneaker catches on one of the papers and he's on the ground. There are people running; even more screams. Matt's hand barely brushes the front of the poster before the doors close in front of him.

It had been his own face staring back at him alongside a single word.


No one outside of the hospital was injured that morning. The guards that accompanied Matt, Alexis, and Rajan in the helicopter that arrived were more talkative than the ones in the hospital. They laughed and assured them that they were only rigged with soundware and paper, not enough to cause anything beyond a bit of chaos and more work for their colleagues.

That doesn't stop Matt from wondering about what he saw. He spent the short ride to the airport with headphones firmly pressed to his ears and his face turned to the window. He could feel eyes on him, but didn't look to see who they belonged to. By the time they reached the tarmac, Matt was exhausted.

Matt watched Alexis jump out of the docked helicopter the moment it landed, but Rajan and him stayed back a little longer. Matt stared as she made her way inside, a guard hanging back lazily for probably no other reason than to say he kept watch on her. Alexis seemed as though she'd done this a hundred times. Matt, however, was not so confident. His hands were still trembling from takeoff.

"Hang tight, we'll take off again once they fuel up," Rajan said softly, resting his head back on the plush seat and looking just as at ease.

It was at that moment that Matt found out he wasn't going home just yet. Despite the fact that he'd never been on an airplane and he wasn't quite sure how he'd even felt about their twenty-minute flight, Matt wished more than anything to follow Alexis inside. Instead, Matt tried his best to emulate Rajan's relaxed stance and didn't say a word even after landing in Mississauga.

It wouldn't be his only trip that night.

Rajan showed him around the apartment, seeming almost embarrassed to do so. It was small and coated in colour, but more than enough for one person. According to Rajan, most of the previous winners lived alone. Matt wasn't sure what to say in response. He can't remember giving more than a couple of half-interested nods and hums. Matt was exhausted, but even beyond that he simply didn't want to be there.

At dinner, Rajan offered a multitude of options for local takeout before deciding to cook instead. Matt could hear him in the kitchen and every instinct told him to offer help. He couldn't bring himself to do it. He just wanted to go to sleep no matter how rude that felt. Rajan was trying so hard to make him feel welcome. The simple truth is that he didn't.

"I hope you like dry chicken," Rajan said with a clumsy smile as he carried two plates into the living room. He put one in front of Matt and in all honesty it smelt amazing despite his statement. That didn't change the fact that the last thing on Matt's mind was food.

Rajan's smile flattened in the silence as Matt fumbled for something to say. He'd watched Rajan along with the others for the past few weeks. He knew more about them than he suspected they knew about him but still there was nothing to talk about. The more Matt stared at Rajan's disheartened expression, the more guilty he felt that he was only making this harder on both of them.

"I'm sorry," Matt said finally and those words are what finally broke the dam that'd been building throughout the day. Matt tried to cover his eyes but there was no subtly to the sobs that shook against the couch cushions.

He heard Rajan stand up. "Don't be."

Then he was gone. The next time Matt looked up, there were two plates still spread on the coffee table, but Rajan's seat was empty and the door behind him was closed.

An hour later, the same guards came to escort him back to the airport. Rajan still hadn't come out of his bedroom and Matt hadn't even attempted to knock. He spent the entire flight to Calgary with a lump in his throat wishing that he hadn't said anything at all.

By the time Matt's walking up the steps to the next apartment building, there are still sticky tear stains dotting his cheeks. No one told him on the way over where he was going. Matt had been too tired to even think about asking.

When Mina Coffman answers the door, the scowl on her face tells them all how excited she is about the interruption. She takes one look at Matt before her eyes turn immediately to the guards.

"Absolutely not."

Mina also lives by herself but while Rajan's apartment was filled with bright colours and trinkets, hers only has a few large pieces of furniture. The night that Matt arrived, she tossed a bundle of sheets on the couch and went straight back to bed. Matt couldn't say that he minded.

The tiny footsteps that woke him up the next morning were a different story entirely. The sharp cry from behind Mina's door all but made Matt jump off the couch. When she walked out holding a floppy mess of black and white fur, Matt smiled so hard he had to cover his mouth. Mina didn't even look his way as she carried the fuzzy bundle into the kitchen, all the while the cat chirped incessantly. Apparently this was not a one time occurrence.

"What's its name?" Matt asks. His feet are cold against the kitchen tile but he doesn't think to grab a pair of socks. Mina deposits the cat on the floor in front of a bowl of what looks like mystery meat and eyes him almost suspiciously.

"So not a bad dream," she comments softly. "Alright, then."

Matt eventually learns that the cat's name is Nugget, which he has to force himself not to smile at. Nugget is nothing like his human companion, in fact he seems to make a point to stick around Matt whenever possible. He isn't much of a lap cat, but Nugget enjoys staying just in reach of receiving chin scratches. During his first few days with Mina, it feels as though Matt's more Nugget's new roommate than anything else.

He rarely sees Mina, but that's more than fine with Matt. Just as he didn't know what to say to Rajan, he doesn't know what to say to her. She spends most of the day in her room and if Matt listens hard enough he can hear her typing away. He remembers that she writes poetry, but he doesn't know enough about it to make a conversation. He's grateful that she doesn't seem to mind the silence.

It's only a couple of days before FFN delivered an easel and paint supplies directly into Mina's living room. As they started to set it all up, Mina came out of her room with another deep set frown. She didn't say anything, but Matt could feel the moment her stare turned on him. Mina could convey an entire conversation in one look, and this one told him that all of this was his fault.

He knew that she wasn't wrong.

Matt didn't touch the paints for another week, and even then just to move them into a smaller area. There was no Teo around, no one to lock him in the art room and force the colours onto a palette. Matt wasn't interested. He spent the majority of his days waiting for seven o'clock, when he knew that both his mother and Douglas would be home from work. Mina never came out of her room during those times.

Time passed in a sort of fog for that first week. Matt's mind felt as blank as it had the last weeks of treatment, reacting with nothing but silent tears to the memories that cropped up. He quickly figured out that television was too unpredictable. A single wrong word from an actor ten years ago could send his entire body into shakes violent enough that his jaw ached for hours afterwards.

Nugget seemed to know every time. Matt can remember the first Saturday he spent with Mina, when sleep simply refused to come. Played over the bruises that began to pattern the ceilings above him was the sound of light scratching on her door until Mina woke up to let Nugget out.

Early in their second week, Mina pauses by the couch with a takeout bag in one hand. She watches Matt for a moment almost as if considering what she's about to say. Matt crosses his arms over his chest. They've spoken only a handful of times, usually about Mina going out for the day or meal orders.

She never mentions the nights Matt spends pacing the living room, his legs restless despite the exhaustion that shrouds the rest of him. Mina doesn't make any attempts at conversation beyond the minimum so there's little reason for Matt to feel guilty about doing the same. She's there to watch over him and his 're-entry into normal life'. A mandatory babysitter for another few weeks. That's it.

Which makes it that much more unsettling when Mina doesn't retreat to her room as usual.

After what seems like hours of awkward silence, Matt finally finds out why. "We're leaving tomorrow. I've booked an 'inspiration trip' for my next series and because you sort of live here, I guess you're coming too. I've already cleared it with the network but it's a long flight so bring something to do."

"What?" It's all Matt can think to say. He hasn't left this apartment since he got here and can't even begin to process the thought of taking another plane ride he didn't ask for. To say he doesn't want to go is an understatement but it's not as if he has a choice. It sounds like a done deal.

Mina pauses again, but he doesn't expect what comes next. "We're going to Abbotsford, be ready by seven tomorrow."

The plane trip was the closest that Matt could ever remember being to Mina, but he was too anxious to care about that. Unlike the journey to get to Alberta, Matt spent the whole trip flipping between staring out the window and watching the plane icon get closer to Abbotsford. He found that he can do neither for more than a few minutes at a time. The fact that Mina didn't stir the entire time from her nap is either a testament to her patience or determination not to chitchat.

When they finally landed, it took all of Matt's will not to run immediately home. He knew exactly how far it was and the fact that he was not at all dressed for a sprint, but he didn't care. The only things that kept him at a calm walk were the guards just a few steps behind. Matt hadn't considered that they'd join them on the trip, but it only made sense.

The fact that there were two of them, not just one like Matt's flight to Alberta, showed that they were there to watch Mina too. To her credit, she didn't pay them any attention as they walked through the airport. Matt can't say that he was nearly as unbothered, but it didn't matter.

He was home.

Their hotel was in the direction of his neighborhood and Matt's heart all but sank when they had to stop in front of it. Mina jumped out without a glance back, leaving their bags for the guards and Matt followed suit. They were alone for less than a minute in the hotel room, but Mina closed the door and turned immediately to him.

"One of the guards will go with you tonight," Mina said, reaching for his wrist as if noting a speck of dirt on his cuff. "I've asked them to give you your space, but you know the network. They want to make sure everything goes smoothly."

She glanced down at his arm, placing her thumb in the middle of his palm where a barely visible scar still sat. Mina moved it slowly up to the middle of his wrist before adjusting his sleeve back into place. Matt pulled his hand back quickly, not out of discomfort but surprise. He watched her for a moment, but by that time the guards were opening the door.

There had been no time to ask a single question. Matt knew about the trackers, it'd all been explained to him in treatment. The network had implanted them during his first day on The Cut, after Matt had stupidly signed that waiver. They'd used it to track his whereabouts on set and monitor his vital signs throughout the show. It's how the network had known the others were actually dead.

Of course there are a few other features, Dr. Liu had said with his casual smile. Matt wished at that moment that he had asked the doctor what he meant by that.

Mina knew something about the trackers. She was trying in some roundabout way to warn him, but why hadn't she just said so. Why be so secretive when the guards couldn't hear them?

Unless they could.

Even the thought of that made Matt's throat go dry.

As Matt steps out of the taxi, Mina's warning is all he can think about. She's only a few paces behind him after a long conversation with the guards in the hotel room. Matt wants to see his family, wants to actually hold his mother and prove that he's some version of alright. He doesn't care that he's not doing it unaccompanied.

He's home.

The next time Matt looks up from the driveway, he sees her. His mom doesn't even have her shoes on, though she's dressed in one of her favourite blouses. Matt sinks into the embrace the moment her arms wrap around him. His handss are trembling, but so are hers. Neither of them cares and for those few seconds, Matt forgets about everything that came before this.

His mom grabs his face as they break apart, bright eyes examining every angle. Her expression is a mixture of disbelief and absolute reprieve. Matt has to scrunch up his face to try and stop the tears, but the moment his mom sees she's already crying and he doesn't stand a chance.

"Thank you." She pulls Matt into another embrace, this one even tighter. Matt doesn't have to answer, all he does is sink his chin further onto her shoulder.

Brianna takes her place at Matt's side and he pulls her up onto his chest. She squeals as her legs lift from the ground and wraps both arms around his neck. Matt closes his eyes as her hair brushes over them. Normally he'd make some big gesture of spitting it out as it got too close to his mouth until Bri laughed so hard she let go. Today Matt just wants to hold her no matter how heavy she's gotten.

"I missed you," she whispers, nuzzling her head against him until even more hair makes its way towards his lips. Matt doesn't say a word about it.

Douglas is waiting behind his mom when Bri finally drops back to the ground. Matt wraps him in a hug that's just as tight. Neither of them say anything, but that's how the pair have always been. Since Matt's biological father moved across the country, Douglas has been that patient figure smiling behind his mom's intensity.

"Who's this?" His mom asks, stepping forward and grabbing Matt's shoulder as if worried he'll disappear. Matt turns back down the driveway and sees Mina and the two guards have barely gotten a step beyond the car. Matt gives them an awkward wave, suddenly self-conscious about not introducing them sooner.

The guards allow Mina to take the lead, but she's just as tentative as she was back at the hotel. While the neutrality of her expression was usually laced with confidence back in Alberta, here it reveals all of the uncertainty Matt felt before stepping out of the car.

"This is Mina," Matt says, gesturing towards her. He wonders for a moment if he should have used her last name but decides it's too late now. "She's who I've been staying with."

"Hi." Of course Brianna is the first one to speak. She stays close by Douglas' side, but her smile easily reaches across the driveway.

"It's nice to finally meet you," his mom says. Unlike Brianna, she closes the distance and wraps Mina in a hug. Matt has to stop himself from laughing at the flash of surprise that comes across Mina's face. "Matty told me you're on a business trip in Abbotsford?"

Mina shrugs. "Sort of."

"For how long?" Matt can already hear the heartbreak in her voice at the thought of him going back to Alberta. He tells her every night that it's temporary, and that soon he'll be home for good. He knows that's not nearly enough compensation for him being gone for so long.

Mina stares at Matt for a moment before she answers. It's as if she too can sense the tears that'll soon be coming and doesn't want to deal with it. Matt can't say that he blames her.

"Until the first of next month." Matt's head snaps back up at her answer. He figured that they'd be here for a few days, maybe a week. Not until the day he's set to move back home.

2021, Abbotsford BC

Six Months After Victory.

Matt stares at the invite link for another second before turning off his phone's screen and tossing it across his bed. It lands harmlessly near the wall and Matt makes no move to pick it up again. He'll decide what to do about it in the morning, maybe.

It's only been a week since he moved back home to Abbotsford, but already things feel different. Every night that he was visiting town with Mina they had to go back to their hotel rooms. Matt had his own space and didn't have to worry about keeping anyone up. It had been even better than staying with Mina. He didn't have to feel guilty on the nights when sleep felt impossible.

His childhood bedroom feels tiny as he moves around it. The furniture is exactly as he'd left it, though there was not a speck of dust across a single piece of it. The glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling are just as faded as he remembers.

Matt didn't have to mention the paint cans he was getting rid of because his mother never knew. The night after he'd first arrived, Matt had grabbed his old backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He'd walked until he was certain that he was far enough away and found a public bin to throw them in. By the time he'd gotten home, his mom had been all but frantic with worry.

He hadn't realized that she still checked on him during the night. That was the first time that Matt felt the familiar concrete guilt start to rebuild in his stomach. Every day since it's grown a couple of centimeters. Now, sitting on the edge of his bed, Matt finds that he can hardly breathe against it.

His mom acts like nothing's changed. None of the family mentions The Cut, but she'll yell for someone to turn off the television at the slightest hint of it. She's cooked every single one of his favourite meals, despite the fact that eating is the last thing Matt feels like doing. After the first time, Matt started to hear her checking in on him at night. Sleep now feels even further away when he thinks about how sick with worry she must be.

Bri's the same, but Matt expects it's because she doesn't know where he was. She's only a kid, barely aware of anything related to The Cut which is exactly how it should be. Douglas and Matt's older sister, Alexis, are the only ones who seem remotely different. They both seem caught between trying to dance around Matt and doing the same for his mom. At least when Matt looks at them it doesn't feel so insane to think that things are different.

Matt knows that they are. He would give anything to be able to even pretend that nothing's changed. He just can't.

His mind is still clouded with half-hearted memories that, months later, make him shiver. Lately, there's been only one that's stuck in the cracks of his mind- a promise that half a year later he's never managed to keep. When he's most tired, which isn't all that uncommon anymore, the patterns on walls and ceilings bring those memories back to life. It's like he's living in a home being haunted by things that only Matt can see. He feels insane and frustrated at the same time. He knows that his family doesn't understand, in fact he thanks god that they don't every chance he gets.

Even so, part of Matt wishes that, for a single day, they would.

His phone buzzes and Matt snatches it from his duvet, for no other reason than to distract himself. He's surprised to see that the incoming message is from Mina.

Is ʏᴏᴜʀ ᴘʜᴏɴᴇ ʙʀᴏᴋᴇɴ ᴏʀ sᴏᴍᴇᴛʜɪɴɢ?

Matt sighs, but doesn't answer. He knows what she's referring to and once again opens the invite link. It's from a number that he doesn't recognize, but the name attached to the message he certainly does.

Yᴏᴜ'ᴠᴇ ʀᴇᴄᴇɪᴠᴇᴅ ᴀɴ ɪɴᴠɪᴛᴇ ᴛᴏ ᴊᴏɪɴ Zᴏᴇ Sᴛᴀɴғᴏʀᴅ's WʜᴀᴛsAᴘᴘ ɢʀᴏᴜᴘ! Cʟɪᴄᴋ ʜᴇʀᴇ ᴛᴏ ᴀᴄᴄᴇᴘᴛ.

Matt hesitates for another second before tapping the link. Immediately, the app opens on his phone and Matt waits for it to load. Then, within the app, another download begins. Matt's forehead wrinkles and he wonders whether the link is some sort of spam. Before he can think to tap out of it the download's already complete.

ᴡᴇʟᴄᴏᴍᴇ ᴛᴏ ᴢ-ᴄʜᴀᴛ. ᴛᴀᴘ ʏᴏᴜʀ sᴄʀᴇᴇɴ ᴛᴏ ᴄᴏɴᴛɪɴᴜᴇ.

(ᴀɴᴅ ᴅᴏɴ'ᴛ ᴛᴇʟʟ ᴀ ғᴜᴄᴋɪɴɢ sᴏᴜʟ)

2021, Winnipeg MB

Eight Months After Victory.

Matt knows the moment he gets off the plane that he's made a mistake. He knows what he should do. He should find a payphone and call the network. That's what he's supposed to do in these situations, right? Dr. Liu made him swear up and down that he would before Matt was fully cleared to be released from treatment.

"If anything happens, you call us. We'll figure out everything you need."

It's too bad that Matt left his phone tucked under his pillow that morning. Even that was stupid, but he didn't want to be tempted to make it right. Matt doesn't want to go back to treatment. He doesn't want to explain to them what he's trying to do even though he's certain they're already well aware. They're always five steps ahead and Matt's only recently learned why.

There is every odd stacked against him in this mission to nowhere. Matt just hates himself more every time a day passes where he doesn't even try. It's all he's been able to think about since he moved back home.

Matt reaches through the rolled down window and gives the driver a note with the town he's looking for. He hopes that if he doesn't say its name, maybe no one will stop him before he reaches it. He wasn't able to find the exact address, but The Cut's website gave him enough of a hint.

Bear lived near Rainy River, Ontario. The Tranquil Settlement must be nearby but Matt didn't dare type that into google. He hopes that if he gets close enough, he'll be able to ask someone. Then he'll find Bear's father.

The driver shakes his head and tells him it's too far. Matt doesn't argue as he rolls up the window and drives up to the next potential passenger.

"Need a ride?"

Matt doesn't recognize the voice, but the face that greets him is unmistakable. Matt stuffs the piece of paper back in his pocket and tries to think of some sort of excuse for why he's here. Calvin Delinger doesn't wait for one, instead waving Matt towards the parking lot.

Matt follows silently. It doesn't feel like he has a choice.

Calvin motions for Matt to get into the passenger side of a gray jeep. The seat is cold when Matt slides in, but that's not what makes him feel uneasy. He searches his mind for an explanation and opens his mouth before one even has the chance to form.

Calvin holds up a hand to stop him then reaches for the radio. He taps one of the pre-programmed channels and a light static plays through the speakers. Matt glances around, waiting for Calvin to change the station but he doesn't.

"This is a scrambler," Calvin says finally. "Now we can talk."

Matt's brows furrow. "A what?"

"Zoe made it," he explains before tapping the inside of Matt's wrist. Matt pulls his hand away almost immediately. "They can't hear us. I don't know how it works so don't ask."

"Oh." It's all that Matt can think to say. He's not certain that he believes it.

The invisible group chat? A scrambler? Matt's never met Zoe, but these don't sound like things that could exist without the network knowing. How can any of them be sure that they even work?

"You don't have to believe me, just listen." Calvin stares straight ahead as they exit the parking lot. Matt wishes that he knew which direction he was supposed to be heading. "We know where you're trying to go. I'm here to tell you it's not a good idea."

"We?" Matt asks.

Calvin glances over as they hit a red light. His eyes carry the same heavy intensity as his photos, but in person it's even more intimidating. Calvin was the first person to ever win The Cut. As far as Matt knew he'd spent every day since in North Bay working with rescue animals. He has no reason to be hanging around the Winnipeg airport.

"I told the network you were coming up to help me with my rescue mission in Steinbach," he says slowly. "It's 50/50 whether they buy it or not."

"I'm not." Matt's surprised at the steadiness in his voice but he has no desire to turn back. He doesn't care where the network thinks he is or isn't.

"Your friend isn't there anymore," Calvin says. There's no sternness to his voice, it's as if he's stating a simple fact like saying the road is gray. "I know why you want to go, but they're never going to let you get close. The network has eyes everywhere."

"So I can't try?"

Calvin pauses again, then a thin smile comes across his lips. "Of course you can. If you want another five months at Toronto Gen."

Matt sits back in the seat and says nothing.

"I know. Who am I, telling you what to do? Mina would have come herself but-" Calvin stops as if he were about to say something he shouldn't. "She's visiting someone."

It takes almost an hour to reach Steinback and neither of them says another word. Matt resigns himself to the fact that Calvin's not going to turn around. He tries to comfort himself by saying that he did try even though he knows he never got close. Matt tries not to think about what Calvin said about going back to treatment. He tries even harder not to remember what he overheard during his last week there.

"We can always bring him back."

Maybe that's what stops him from arguing as they pull onto a dirt road that splatters both of their windows with mud. Matt takes in every inch of the farm as they get closer, but it doesn't look anything like what he expected. The fences are windblown and half of them are ripped straight through. The ground is easily as uneven as the driveway, probably more so. Matt doesn't see a single animal the entire way up to the house.

"I don't live here if that's what you're thinking," Calvin says and Matt meets his eye for a split second before looking away. "Someone called this place in saying that there were strays being dumped nearby. My farm in North Bay is immaculate."

Calvin parks in the only remotely-even part of the driveway and his hand hovers for a second over the radio button. He looks like he's trying to decide whether to say something. Matt pulls his hand away from the console and the pair lock eyes again. "What is it?"

He hesitates but Matt doesn't break contact. Whatever it is, he wants to know. "They might still come. And if they do, just let them take you."

2021, Abbotsford BC

Nine Months After Victory.

Just like the plane ride to Winnipeg, the one back to Abbotsford a month later is spent in silence. Matt could feel the lazy gaze of the guard beside him, but he didn't acknowledge it once. During his stay in treatment, he once again grew used to having constant eyes directed towards him.

Matt's heart sinks the moment the car doors unlock in his driveway. Unlike the last time he was here, there's no eagerness as his grip searches for the handle. All that Matt can feel creeping up his throat is dread.

Even more than the last time, he feels like a failure.

He doesn't want to see his parents or Brianna running out the door to greet him. All Matt wants to do is walk to his room and sleep off the new layers of fog still collecting in his brain. He doesn't even want anyone to be home right now. While last time he was desperate just to hug them, now he's too ashamed for them to so much as look at him.

Matt was still dressed in the white shirt and pants when he was brought up to the roof to meet the helicopter this afternoon. There was no cheering crowd or journalists waiting to take his picture, not that Matt wanted any of that even the first time. Last time was made to feel like a celebration that he was finally well enough to be out of the hospital.

Today was made to feel like a shameful secret. Matt was embarrassed to have spent another month in those sterile hallways. He stared at the white walls in a medicated cloud, sometimes seeing Dr. Onai's images projected on them and sometimes seeing nothing at all. He started over with the highlight reels, where pictures of Rylan and Vanessa and Bear were thrown in with faces he didn't recognize. Matt began to wonder if they were just the contestants he could no longer remember.

Matt spent hours at a podium, his feet aching as more impossible questions were thrown in his direction. They would ask the same one, over and over until the answer was good enough. Then, it was his expression that was wrong. It was the fact that he didn't believe it that was wrong.

He can only remember the first time that the ink began to spread across the podium, the same opaque water that filled the set's hallways almost a year ago. After the first time, all Matt can remember is the pain as it reached his fingertips.

You know what to do, Matthew.

Place your hands back on the podium.

This is only to help cue the appropriate responses.

Matt is shivering by the time he steps through the front door, but he's not certain he should be blaming the cold. He can see the light on in the dining room, but he hopes that Douglas just forgot to turn it off again.


Matt's expression stiffens as his mother walks around the corner. Her eyes widen when she sees him and the cell phone drops from her hand onto the carpet. He doesn't have time to say a word before she runs around the couch to reach him and pulls him into a tight embrace. He's almost glad because, in his mind, there's nothing to say.

"Matty," she breathes. He can already hear the tears in her voice, but none spring up to his eyes. He's too exhausted to even think about crying. "What happened?"

Matt doesn't answer, he just pulls her in closer. There's nothing that he can tell his mom that won't worry her, but saying nothing also wouldn't be any easier. Matt's learned every line of the story that he's supposed to tell. Thankfully, he doesn't have to think as it pours out almost automatically.

He'd gone to surprise Mina for her birthday. Someone on the flight reminded him of Bear, no of Rylan. He'd gotten off the plane and immediately called the network to come get him. He's sorry that he couldn't call her himself. The network wanted to make sure that he felt safe being at home again.

She listens intently to every dull word. It doesn't feel to Matt that he's formed a single one, more that they're simply slipping off his tongue because they've been told to. When he's done, she hugs him even tighter. It feels like hours before she lets go. Maybe it is.

"You're okay?" She asks finally. Her hands shake as they fall against his shoulders. Matt doesn't consider for a moment telling her the truth.

He nods, pulling at the corner of his lips to find the closest thing to a smile. "I'm okay."

A/N: That's it, that's all.

I love Matty and that is the only explanation I will give for why this is as long as it is. Seriously, this kid means too much to me and I simply decided this level of clownery was necessary. Momo, I hope you have fun reading. I know I did not.

I hope that all of you enjoyed this first look at victor lore and I promise there is more to come. As I finally say goodbye to this story, I am happy to say that I don't have to do the same to Matty B. He'll be following me into the next installment of this verse, as will many of the other characters introduced in this chapter. In addition, all of the rest of the posters have been put up on the blog for your viewing pleasure under 'The Cut - Live'.

Thank you to everyone that's joined me on this amazing journey. I've never taken on a project that was quite this involved and while it was nerve-wracking at times, I can't say I didn't love it. I appreciate everyone who read, reviewed, discussed, or otherwise interacted with this story over the past year and a bit. I can't say how much it meant to me without sounding sappy so I am simply not going to.

I'll likely be posting details for my next story early next year in addition to a special project that I've been working on over the past few months. I'm extremely excited about everything I have planned over the next little bit.

I hope that you've all enjoyed my first chaotic journey into AU stories. There's more where this came from.

Until next time,

~ Olive