This story is a one-shot spin-off of Twinning With a Twist, specifically taking place at the same time as Chapter 18 in that story. Please read that one first before starting this one, as it contains massive spoilers for the main work!
The cannon roared, her ears rang, and the sound of Sammy's screams came and went in the span of seconds. Her hands clenched into fists of sorrow, yet she refused to outwardly cry. They agreed on this. They agreed that she should be the one to go to the end. Rationally, it did not make sense - Sammy was the more athletic one, the one who had the better chance of keeping up with Sky and Jasmine.
And then there was her. She was the one whose strengths did not lie in what this competition focused on. She was the one who had slowed them down from the very beginning. She did not deserve to be here. She should be the one eliminated, the one riding the wind to wherever it would take her. She should not be the one to continue the game. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
But she could not show weakness. Not now, not tomorrow, and not the day after (assuming she survived that long). As much as it did not make sense, as much as she wished the outcome were anything but, she made a promise, and she was going to see it through to the end, come hell or high water.
Taking in a breath, holding it for a moment, and releasing it once more, Ella put on a smile and turned to Sky. "I'm fine," she said, though inwardly she knew it was not exactly true.
Sky seemed just as unconvinced as Ella felt, if the lopsided frown and the crossed arms were anything to go by. She was always looking out for the others, checking on them and making sure they were doing okay. She had essentially been their team's mother, if such a concept actually existed. Sometimes she felt more like a mother than Ella's own mother… Though that was far too rude a thing to say aloud.
She was not able to take any more of Sky practically staring into her soul, and turned her attention back to the host and his assistant. Chris McLean was ending the episode, his grin wide and fake. The moment the cameraman called 'Cut', the smile vanished and he began yelling at the various crew members for slights that, in Ella's opinion, were not severe enough to justify a verbal beating.
A large, warm hand was placed on her shoulder, and Ella looked up to see Jasmine giving her a small, sympathetic smile. "You wanna head out?"
Jasmine was… different, from the type of person she'd expected her to be. She was tall, imposing, intimidating, and Ella had her pegged as someone who'd do whatever it took to get to the end, even if it meant using her strength to overpower anyone who got in her way. But then somehow, Sammy had made friends with her, and sung her praises whenever she was brought up. It took some time getting used to that idea of her, but after actually meeting Jasmine, she had to say, Sammy was not wrong. While she was definitely far more determined to win than Ella was, she was also incredibly loyal to her friends and a gentle soul all in one. She was someone that Ella could see herself looking up to. Figuratively and literally.
"Just… give me a moment," Ella told her, her eyes going back to the hosts. She waited patiently for them, her hands clasped in front of her waist, her thumbs tapping one another. She didn't wish to feel the wrath of Chris, not at this moment, but she needed to ask something and she couldn't guarantee she'd see them again that night.
Chris was berating one of the interns, when suddenly his phone rang and the poor overworked boy ran off when the host's attention was elsewhere. Answering, he listened for a moment, nodded, then began heading out of the area, up the slant and back towards the forest. Chef Hatchet, who had been leaning against the rock wall nearby and allowed the tirade to keep going, seemed to sigh and followed after Chris.
Ella found her opportunity, and approached. "Excuse me… Chef Hatchet?"
Chef turned back toward her, a questioning look in his eye, though he immediately relaxed when he saw who it was. "Oh. Hey, girlie. What do you need?"
"I was just… wondering if you could guarantee Sammy's safety?" He blinked in confusion, and Ella continued. "I'm likely going to worry myself into the ground that she didn't land safely. Are you, ah, sure the cannon is safe?"
Chef pursed his lips in thought, and after a moment he looked back to where Chris had been, only to see the spot empty and no host in sight. He then turned to the crew, who were eyeing him in curiosity, but a glare from Chef made all of them turn back to their tasks at hand.
Grunting, Chef kneeled down so that he was on eye level with Ella. "The cannon is… uhh… relatively safe. There haven't been any injuries with it, I can promise you that. Samantha is fine, and you don't need to worry about her. Instead, you should be worrying about the next few days."
Ella wanted to believe him, she really did - otherwise, she would not have approached him in the first place. But he was just as complicit in the hurting of others as Chris was, if apparently a bit more reluctant to do so. She wasn't sure how much trust she could put in his words alone. "I… I realize I should, but I don't know if I can…" She grimaced, trying not to feel repulsed by her own words. "…believe you."
Being a man significantly older than her, Ella was expecting him to say something along the lines of, 'You're just going to have to deal with it.' It would not have been the first time an adult had said that to her when she had brought her concerns to them. That was why she went to Chef in the first place - of the two who would likely know the answer, he was the only one who did not make her internally frustrated on sight.
Chef must have seen the desperation in her eyes, for at that moment he groaned lightly, scanned the area again, and lowered his voice considerably. "Don't you tell anyone I told you this."
Ella silently nodded.
"She's fine. We know that for a fact."
Ella's heart dared to hope.
"She landed in a net, and is being looked after. She's likely being brought into the P- the, ah, off-site location right now. She's in good hands, so you don't have anything to fret over. Y'hear?"
Sammy was okay. She wasn't hurt. She was alive. Ella could feel the tightness of her chest loosen, allowing her to breathe fully once more. She sighed heavily in relief, a hand coming to her heart.
"How do you know?" Ella asked. "She just left."
"That phone call Chris got."
Ella quirked a brow. "I'm sorry?"
"That was a call from the interns, telling us if the eliminated contestant of the night landed safe and sound. I can assure you, if Samantha had gotten hurt at all, Chris's face and voice would have said so. And considering who her mother is, you can bet he'd be sweating buckets and shouting his head off even louder."
That was it, then. That logic was too sound to argue against. Chris was far too egotistical to not worry about his show being ruined. He would have panicked if anything happened to the daughter of a powerful lawyer.
"Okay," Ella said to him, her smile exuding pure alleviation. "I believe you now. Thank you."
He nodded, a small smirk of his own appearing on his lips. "You kids are alright, y'know that?"
"And you're not so bad yourself, Mr. Hatchet."
"Just 'Chef' is fine. And all that grumpiness is for the cameras. That Chris though…" He shuddered and glared at the spot behind him. "Ooh, he rubs me the wrong way!"
"Why don't you just quit?"
"Because the almighty contract won't allow it. If you ever have to sign anything else in your life, make sure you read the fine print. And then the finer print."
Chef stood back up, stretched his back with a noticeable pop!, and nodded back down to Ella. "You kids take care, now. Tomorrow and the next day will not be easy."
Ella tried smiling confidently. It helped to bolster her spirit, but only by a little. "Total Drama wouldn't be the same without it, I suppose."
"They could certainly try something different. I wouldn't complain." With that, he lightly saluted and followed Chris back up the path.
Ella stood rooted on her spot for a few moments longer, then walked back over to Sky and Jasmine. They had chosen to stay and wait for her, which was sweet of them. They were also rather bad at hiding that they'd been attempting to eavesdrop.
"What were you talking about?" Sky asked when she approached them.
"About Sammy," Ella told them. "She's safe, apparently."
Both of the other girls also sighed; Jasmine wiped imaginary sweat from her brow. "Thank goodness. Where is she?"
"I don't know. That I wasn't told." She paused, and replayed the conversation in her mind. "I think he was about to say it, but he stopped himself."
"Still, that's good news to hear," Jasmine said, adjusting her hat. "And we can probably assume that everyone else made it out safely, too, yeah?"
"Mhm," Ella agreed. She… may not have thought about that part, but it was a good assumption to make.
"Are we sure we can trust Chef though?" Sky asked. She was tapping a finger to her chin in worry. "Isn't he on Chris's side?"
"Chef isn't as bad as Chris," Ella told her. "He's under legal obligation to help him, unfortunately, but I still like to think he's looking out for us."
"Hmm," Sky hummed. "I guess I have noticed him being nice to us off camera."
"I think it'll be fine," Jasmine said. "'Sides, it's not like we can do anything about it. We're just gonna have to trust that Sammy and the rest of them made it out okay."
"Right." Due to the nature of the show, there was a lot of questioning about if all of the previous contestants had made it out… alive, for lack of a better term. Thanks to social media however, the vast majority of them had their safety confirmed in one way or another, whether through a tweet or a news article or what have you. While it was true that there were some regrettable cases in terms of erupting volcanoes or mutation or other unsavory events, it was an undisputed fact that almost all of them were unharmed. For the most part.
Ella prayed that it applied to this case as well.
"Ready to head back, then?" Jasmine asked, jabbing a thumb over her shoulder. "There's still some food left over if you want."
Allowing herself a small smile, Ella nodded. "That would be great," she said. "I'm beginning to get hungry again."
The Final Three began their walk back to the treehouse - Sammy probably would have started calling it the Threehouse now. Her puns are always so silly… - and for most of the trip, none of them spoke. Perhaps it was starting to dawn on them what they had in store for tomorrow. Ella knew she had been thinking about it.
Walking behind the two of them, Ella glanced between Sky and Jasmine, observing their toned muscles and confident gaits. She then looked at her own arms - thin and undefined, with tiny, practically frail fingers and hands. How could she ever hope to beat them in anything?
Then her eyes glanced at her right arm, and she had to fight the rising dread in her gut.
It's okay. I'm okay. Everything will be okay.
She clenched her fist, willing the negative feelings away. She had taken Sammy's earlier words to heart - it would be for the best if she actually did something about the cutting, instead of ignoring it and hoping it would go away. She had always been so scared of admitting it out loud - it was as if just doing it without saying it didn't make it real.
But those days of ignorant bliss were officially gone now, and were never going to come back. That was a reality she was going to have to accept. She had confided in someone about the cutting for the first time, and within months the entire world would know about it. Ella was… not as upset about that part as she ought to have been.
The fact that her parents still didn't know was a different story.
She had always imagined them finding out somehow. She could tell them over dinner. They could find her in the act. They could take the time to actually notice she had always been covering her arms for the past three years.
All scenarios ended with them yelling at her, and then at each other.
Which would have just made everything worse for her.
She had desperately kept it all hidden, and was surprised at how successful she had been at it. Her parents loved her, sure, but she'd be hard pressed to think of the last time they actively paid attention to her. Dad was a layabout, watching TV on a constant basis until falling asleep for the night, usually with several empty bottles and cans surrounding him. And Mom was regularly at work trying to make ends meet for the three of them, then would also be busy when she arrived at home cooking dinner and doing the chores that Dad neglected to do. Ella did her part to help out, but by the end of the day her mom was completely exhausted and run down that she barely had time for Ella herself.
She felt bad for not sharing that particular bit with Sammy, but Ella didn't want to overload her with her sob story.
That said, it wasn't as if Sammy would condemn her for revealing that part. That was what Ella loved about her - her unwavering compassion, her thoughtfulness, how easy it was to simply talk to her about anything. She was a model human being whose only downside was that she was too hard on herself for things that were out of control. Perhaps Ella was playing up Sammy's strong points, but that is what she genuinely felt.
Sammy had been gone a total of 10 minutes and Ella already severely missed her.
But that was just it, was it not? Ella had almost immediately latched on to Sammy, the moment it was known Amy had been tormenting her her whole life. At first it was because Ella wanted to try to cheer her up, to see her smile (And what a dazzling smile it is). But then everything hit the fan, and her attachment to the blonde became nearly a full-on dependence. Sammy was the only person that she had ever chosen to confide in, and when she had been accepted without hesitation Ella had felt warmth the likes she'd never felt before. It was almost inevitable that she'd begin to feel that way towards her.
Was it love, though? She really had no idea.
What was love, anyway? Movies and fairy tales told her something completely different to how real life worked. And she had suspicions that her parents' relationship was anything but loving. She knew she had incredibly strong emotions for Sammy. Was it just that attachment, or something more? How could she even tell the difference? Where did one line end, and the other begin? And why on earth did she have to start developing these feelings on a reality TV show of all things anyway?
All of these new sensations were confusing and made her head hurt. But there was one constant: Sammy made her happy, and that was all she needed to go on.
Their relationship didn't end with Total Drama. Once someone won the prize, they'd be able to see each other again afterwards. And once that happened, they'd be able to figure everything out. Ella just needed to survive until then.
…Figuratively and literally.
That's a depressing thought.
Before she knew it, the trio arrived at their shelter once more. Ella had only spent a single night in there - every other time was in her original team's grounded shack, or in the lovely flower field. Surprisingly, she didn't mind sleeping on the dirty ground and, nightmares aside, managed to get a decent amount of rest from it all. The mattress she had slept on was serviceable, but it just made her long for her own bed all the more.
They ascended the ladder and broke out the bag of leftovers from earlier that day. The three of them spoke about everything but the challenge tomorrow, a trend they seemed to be following when not in the middle of the game. It was relaxing, something Ella greatly appreciated, and she looked forward to doing it again once it was all said and done.
Soon, it got too late to do anything else, and the girls readied themselves for bed. Jasmine, as always apparently, climbed to the top of the tree and secured herself to her branch. Sky offered to take the guys' old room, as the musky smell had finally seemed to disappear. And Ella retreated into the girls' old room, where she sat down in the bottom bunk and looked out the window into the night sky.
"I wonder what you're doing right now," she said to no one in a whisper. "Wherever you landed, I hope you're alright."
After spending a few more moments looking at the full moon and the millions of stars that surrounded it, Ella slipped into the raggedy, dirty covers and slept.
She awoke from a dreamless sleep, just as tired as she had been when she laid down. She had no idea what time it was, but since Chris was not currently bothering them from the speakers, she figured it was early enough.
Rising and exiting the room, Ella leaned on the treehouse's rickety rail, allowing her senses to wake her completely before being forced to do some inane challenge. The sound of the leaves and the smell of the dew-covered grass were welcome greetings, much more bearable than the sounds of car horns and the smell of gas fumes.
She needed to use the confessional sooner or later, preferably before being summoned, so she intended to head there the moment she had fully awoken. She would have followed through with it, if Sky hadn't called at her from below.
"Morning," she shouted up. She was carrying a basket of fruit in one hand, and was waving with the other.
Ella returned the wave. "Good morning."
Sky held up the basket, and Ella could see it was loaded with strawberries, blueberries, and all sorts of other goodies. "Want some?"
"Yes please! I'll be right down."
Traversing the rope ladder down was tricky - I bet Sammy had no trouble with it at all - but she made it to the ground quickly enough. The girls walked peacefully through the canopy of the forest, chatting idly until they reached a decently open and flat area. They settled down and continued talking with their mouths full of fruit. She would not admit it out loud without prompting, but after almost two full weeks of eating either that or fast food, Ella was beginning to get sick of the stuff.
"Think you're ready?" Sky was asking.
"Honestly? No." But that hasn't stopped me yet.
Sky nodded sympathetically. "I guess this all is pretty nerve-wracking. I'm starting to get nervous myself."
"It… reminds me of the plays I used to be in when I was younger," Ella told her. "The butterflies in my stomach, the thought that one false move can ruin everything… But now there's a lot of money on the line, and I think it makes it just a bit worse."
Scoffing, Sky shook her head. "Yeah, I'd say that makes just a small difference than normal. For me, it's like how I'd feel just before a big track meet."
"I'm sure it would."
She nodded. "It's because of that that I wasn't able to sleep very well last night."
Ella was surprised by this admission. "Really?"
"Well…" Sky tilted her head to the side in thought for a moment. "I think it's more like I'm worried about Jasmine."
Even more surprises, it seemed. Sky was, to Ella, one of the more confident members of her newly found friend group. Sure, she voiced her doubts from time to time, especially when it came to how it may or may not hurt her or one of the others. But when it was about the competition, Sky trusted her abilities more than anyone else.
That said, this was Jasmine they were talking about. Anyone would be intimidated to go up against her.
But there was an underlying message to that, as well. Ella had her suspicions this would happen ever since it began, but it wouldn't hurt to simply say it out loud.
"So… I can assume the two of you are no longer working together?"
Sky confirmed it with a nod of her head. "That's right. The moment it was obvious that one of you guys was getting eliminated, our alliance was over. I made that very clear when we talked about it first."
"Oh, it was your decision?" Ella asked her. Sky nodded again. "Well, we were all on the same team, so it does make sense."
Sky did not reply right away, and stared at her lap in thought. Ella knew better than to push her to speak, so she waited patiently.
After a few seconds of pondering, Sky said, "Making friends with you guys was never originally my intention, you know?"
That was what threw Ella for a loop. "Wait, what? Really?" You could've fooled me, she did not add.
"Yyyep," Sky said slowly. Ella was not sure if she looked regretful or not. "When I first had the idea of auditioning for this show, making friends wasn't a goal of mine. I've got a pretty good social life back home, so I didn't really have any need for it. What I wanted was to challenge myself, to push my skills as far as they could go in crazy challenges like these. The money would have been a nice bonus, and I would have used it to hire professional trainers for getting into the Olympics. But…"
"But then we had that campfire talk on the second night."
"Yeah. And that was when Sammy told us about how… terrible her home life had been. She told us how much Amy used to make her suffer, and how there was no end in sight, and…" She sighed and shrugged. "I think something in me wanted to do something for her. Protect her, you know? At that moment, she looked so… so…"
Sky smiled wryly and humorlessly. "I was going for a… stronger-sounding word, but yeah. She was sad. And almost like she'd been trying to reach out to us when she told us that."
Ella thought back to that day. When Sammy had told them all about her life, she looked almost genuinely surprised when everyone took her side without a second thought, as if she had not expected anyone to do that. It had made Ella all that more concerned about her well-being, and what had happened to her that forced her to think that way.
"I wouldn't exactly say she tried to reach out for help," Ella said. "Maybe on an unconscious level, she did. That said, she had been so relieved when we said we'd back her up."
"That's true," Sky said. "And it was then that I knew that I had to befriend this girl, because if I didn't and she went back home friendless, nothing would have changed."
"Things…" Ella looked to her arm. "Things might have gotten worse for her."
Sky's eyes widened. Perhaps she had not realized that was a possibility. "You're right," she said quietly.
That left an uncomfortable silence between them, which was something Ella did not want. "We got a little sidetracked. What were you saying?"
"Uh, right." Sky cleared her throat. "So Sammy sort of made me take more notice of you guys, more so than I probably would have if she ended up on the other team. And after spending so much time with you and her and the guys, I think I've sort of… changed my view on winning."
Sky hesitated, just a bit. "Ahh… Maybe not entirely. But I sort of see now that there are more important things than winning. Like… you know." She casually gestured towards her. "You and the others."
Ella felt the warmth spread in her chest. "Oh, Sky…"
"Plus with all of the close calls we've been having, it's even more obvious that winning should be the last thing on my mind…" She chuckled dryly. "Not to say I'm not gonna try. I told Sammy this but I've come too far now to give up. But, you know, winning isn't everything."
"Agreed." Ella was thankful that Sky had taken this stance. Now that it was known that there was another person on the island who valued friendship over the million, she felt much more at ease.
Also, perhaps on a superficial level, it might be easier to win now.
Ella did not like that she had that thought.
"What about you?" Sky asked.
"I mentioned that I'd use the money to hire myself some trainers. What would you do if you won?"
"Mmm," Ella hummed. "I think the very first thing I would do is reinvent myself."
Sky seemed surprised by this response, though the startled look quickly faded away. "You know, I hadn't thought about that being something you'd do, but I can see that happening."
Ella nodded. "I don't think I'd change too much about me… A new wardrobe might be nice, but I also think a new haircut is in order." She ran her fingers through her greasy black hair. "I had this cut in a way to… accentuate the whole princess look. Now, I don't exactly need it. Or want it."
"That's a really good idea," Sky told her.
"I think so too. But other than that… I think I might pay my way into university, or at the very least a good college or something."
"Oh, now that sounds like an even better idea. Which one were you thinking?"
"That, I haven't decided yet. I was however thinking about going to school for either music, or dance. I'm having a difficult time choosing between the two of them."
The decision to fund her way through school was a very recent dream for Ella, one that sprouted into her mind in the last day or two. It was only really because she had come so far and so close to the end that she dared to think of such things. If she had been eliminated any earlier, she likely would not have even bothered.
"That sounds like it'd be perfect for you!" Sky remarked. "I can see you being a professional singer or dancer. Either one would work wonders for you."
"Yes, I feel the same way! I might also try and further my guitar abilities as well. I'm good, I'll admit that, but I could be better." An idea formed in her mind. "I could play, sing and dance. That would be ideal, I think, though perhaps a bit difficult."
"A three-in-one package, huh? That could come in handy in the future."
"That's what I'm hoping will hap-"
That was when the speakers crackled to life, causing feedback to pierce the girls' eardrums and forced them to cover their ears. Chris, as he was wont to do, insulted them and called them forth for the challenge, before going radio silent once more.
Ella huffed in annoyance and stood to her feet. "Drat. And I had meant to use the confessional too…"
"Like, to record something, or…"
"Just to record, for now."
"Ah, gotcha. I guess you'll just have to wait til after."
"I suppose so." Ella had a lot on her mind that she wanted to say, so perhaps waiting for later in the day was best. It would give her time to organize her thoughts.
"Children of competition!" Chris shouted when she and Sky entered the clearing. Jasmine was already there, and gave them a friendly wave upon seeing them. "Your toughest challenge yet will be in three parts: head, to head, to head."
Ella looked at her opponents, at Sky looking determined and Jasmine cracking her knuckles, and swallowed thickly. This was the do or die moment. She had to make sure she did not fail.
"We'll be doing things a little bit differently today," Chris continued. "Each player gets to create one of those three parts of the challenge."
"I get to make my own challenge?!" Sky asked in shock.
"Yep, you all do, within reason. They have to be relatively simple, and not overly outlandish. The winner of each challenge gets three points. Second place gets two. And last place gets one. After all three challenges, the player with the lowest total points gets to see the inside of a canon." He chuckled darkly. "Briefly."
Ella tried her best to calm her nerves at that.
"The two highest scores get to battle it out in the finale, for one million dollars!"
He gestured to an intern who was holding the briefcase by a fishing hook, which then unfortunately fell to the ground and scattered the money. As Chris berated him and threatened him with termination, Ella attempted to think on what sort of challenge she might come up with. If it was going to be a free for all between them, then she would need something that played to her strengths.
What do I have? She put a finger to her lip in thought. I'm not physically strong, or dextrous. I have pretty alright reflexes, though I doubt they're better than theirs. That limits what I can do. Maybe it would be best if I… Ugh, no, Chris wouldn't allow singing. Although…
"You have one minute to write down the details of your challenge," Chris said to them once the intern left with the money. "After which, we will randomly decide who gets to go first."
"How is it decided?" Jasmine asked him.
"Blindfolded darts, really," Chris said with a shrug. "It's the cheapest method we had on hand."
"Really?" Sky asked. "I would have thought taking them from a hat would be cheapest."
"We don't have access to a hat at the moment," Chris said testily. "Why's it matter, anyway?"
"Doesn't Chef have a hat?" Ella asked, pointing to the man as he stood with the camera crew.
"What, you want me to get my hand chopped off?"
"And mine?" Jasmine asked, taking it off her head and holding it out for Chris.
The host immediately reeled back from it. "No way! Who knows where that's been!"
"Uh, I know!" Jasmine replied. "And I can assure you-"
The sound of Chris's airhorn interrupted her. "Don't care!" He snapped his finger, and another intern approached them with small cue cards and pencils. "Your one minute of writing begins…" The intern handed Ella her piece of paper. "Now!"
Startled, and lacking any hard and flat surfaces, Ella quickly dropped to the ground and started writing on her leg. Normally, she had fairly good handwriting, but given the uneven surface and the time limit, she had to make do with chicken scratch.
It was a simple idea, in concept, and one that borrowed ideas from challenges previously employed on the show. It wasn't singing, so Chris should allow it. In theory, at least.
One minute came and went in no time, and Ella felt she had sufficiently described her idea. She handed the card back to the intern and stood to her feet once more.
Chris accepted the cards and promptly skimmed through them. "These are fine. Some might require a bit of work to set up though, so take a load off for once." He turned around and said to the intern, "Get two of the other interns, pics of these three, and meet me in the forest over there. Oh, and don't forget the blindfold and darts!" The intern silently saluted and scampered away.
"What about the dartboard?" Sky asked him hesitantly.
"What dartboard?" And with that, Chris left them alone.
The three stared after him, disturbed and worried, although Jasmine interrupted them. "So," she said, turning to them both, "what did you guys put down?"
Ella was about to tell her, but Sky spoke first. "Ohhh no," she said, waving a finger in the air. "I'm not falling for that. Telling you now would let you have time to prepare for it. You guys are just gonna have to wait and see."
That's probably a better idea. Ella nodded and folded her arms. "She's right! I'm not going to say anything."
Jasmine laughed and scratched her head. "Welp, it was worth a shot."
They sat down and waited for Chris to return, and Ella found herself once again fighting her anxieties. It's okay. I'm okay. Everything's going to be okay. She wished, not for the first time, that Sammy was still here. But outside of movies and stories, wishes rarely came true like that.
15 minutes of waiting later (and with all of them thinking they heard the sound of someone crying out in pain), the host returned with a sheet of paper in hand. "The results are in!" he called out to them, and the three resumed standing. "For our first challenge… we have Sky, and her 100m hurdle race!"
"Yes!" she cheered, jumping on the spot.
Ella frowned and folded her arms. More racing. Juuust wonderful.
"We're in the middle of setting it up, but should be done soon. If you ladies would follow me."
The trio followed him further into the woods, where a hastily-built track was just getting its finishing touches. Hurdles were placed every so often, aligned perfectly with the others in the three lanes meant for each contestant.
"As is any 100m hurdle race," Chris said once the track was complete, "the rules are as follows: race down the course, jump over any hurdle you reach, and cross the finish line for points. Simple!"
"That's right!" Sky agreed. "Simple!"
"Some might say…" Chris smiled wickedly. "Too simple."
All three contestants' faces dropped into a glare. "Oh, here we go," Jasmine growled.
"See, the Olympics are so boring," Chris said, faking a yawn and earning a scornful gasp from Sky. "Except for a few of them, no one gets hurt! So we decided to spice up Sky's challenge. Be on the lookout for any traps you may come across. Because they will be painful."
"What sort of traps should we look out for?" Ella asked, though she knew as soon as she said it it was pointless.
"Wouldn't you like to know," Chris replied, unimpressed and confirming Ella's thoughts. He lifted up his air horn. "On your marks!"
Jasmine crouched down and prepared herself. Sky fell to her hands and positioned her body as an Olympic runner would. Ella was not sure what to do, and tried to do a mix of both of their poses. It didn't really work.
"Get seeeeet…" Chris drew out the word longer than he needed to, causing Ella's nerves to keep rising. "GO!"
She took off with the others. As hard as she pushed her muscles to work, they quite clearly could not keep up with the athlete and the girl whose legs were longer than the rest of her body. Sky and Jasmine pulled ahead almost instantly, leaving her quite literally in their dust.
"Ah-!" Ella blocked her face from the dirt flying towards it, though she was not able to tell who's feet it had come from. The other girls had already cleared their first hurdle by the time she wiped her eyes clean, and Ella had to psych herself up quicker than she would have liked. She sprang up into the air and…
Jumped over the hurdle without any issue.
"Oh," she breathed, turning back around to look at it in surprise. She had not expected to clear it so easily. Maybe it was all of those ballet leaps I practiced in my room?
With renewed vigour, Ella tried her best to pick up the pace. Sky and Jasmine were still miles ahead of her, but Jasmine looked like she had tripped over a hurdle, so there was some chance of her catching up.
She ran and jumped as fast as she could, and truth be told was likely breaking many of her old running records that day. But she was still little match for the others, and that was painfully obvious. Just as she was about to reach Jasmine, the taller girl regained her footing and picked up where she left off, easily out pacing Ella once more. She refused to give up, however. She ignored the sweat beginning to run down her forehead and neck and kept going.
At one point, she noticed Sky, a little ways ahead of her, disappear somewhere. It wasn't until Jasmine passed her and Ella caught up to where she had been that she saw a decently deep hole snug against one of Sky's hurdles. She could see Sky's hand poking out of the top, indicating that Ella only had a small window to earn second place.
Unfortunately, there was not much she could have done about the bees.
"Bees?!" The sudden appearance of the beehive caused her to slip slightly, and for her jump to be just a little short, enough for her to accidentally kick her foot into it as she was landing. Needless to say, she did not intend on sticking around to see what she had unleashed. Still, it would be far from polite to not warn the others. "Look out for bees! They might be angry!"
"Please refrain from warning the others about the traps," came Chris's voice from the speakers. "It takes the fun right out of it!"
"I will do as I please!" Ella yelled back as she leaped over another hurdle.
Jasmine was now far ahead enough that she nearly blended in with the surrounding forest. That being said, Ella was officially in second now, so if she was just able to maintain this position for another few hurdles then-
"Thank you for the head's up!" Sky shouted at her as she quickly overtook her. "And also I'm sorry for passing you!"
Aaaaand I'm done for. "It's alright, I more or less expected it."
Sky sent a sympathetic look her way, before completely booking it towards the finish line. Before Ella knew it, Sky had cleared two hurdles before Ella had reached her next one.
There was absolutely no contest.
Or rather, no contest that involved her. Even from behind, Ella could tell that Sky was pumping everything she had into running, and started gaining ground at an alarming rate. In the end, unfortunately, Sky's last-ditch burst of energy was not enough to get ahead of Jasmine's long, fit legs.
"Jasmine comes in first!" Chris declared, having taken his jeep to the finish line ahead of them. "Three points for her! Two goes to Sky for second place!"
She could not tell for sure from all the way back here, but Ella swore she heard Sky yell in frustration.
"Aaand…" There was a pause. "One to Ella. Whenever she gets here."
Ella grumbled under her breath, but did not stop running. She was in this to the end, regardless of if she did or did not finish first, and wanted to cross the line anyway. A few more hurdles and she made it, but she had to double over and wheeze out her breaths when she arrived.
"Well, well," Chris said, smiling his same old plastic smile. "Who on earth saw this coming?"
She breathed deeply, and tried not to let her emotions get the best of her. Don't say anything you'll end up regretting.
"What happened to those bees?" Jasmine asked, looking back down the track.
"We put them to sleep," Chris said nonchalantly. "Didn't need them bothering us now that you're done. Anywho," he turned to address all three of them. "Congrats to the winners, and to the losers, sucks to be you. Here are your current standings." He pressed a button on his remote and a TV appeared from the ground, its screen displaying their scores. Jasmine sat on top with three, Sky below her with two, and Ella in last at one. "Now that we all know who's top dog around here, it's time to move on to our next challenge, courtesy of our favorite gal from Down Unda'!"
Jasmine looked less than impressed. "Were you making fun of the way I talk? You were, weren't you?"
Chris ignored her. "Jasmine's challenge is for you all… to build a bonfire from scratch!"
Out of all of the possible challenges for Jasmine to pick, making a fire was one of the last things Ella was expecting. She had assumed Jasmine would choose something akin to wrestling an alligator into submission. Though now that she thought about it, it made sense - a basic form of surviving in the wild was all about keeping a steady fire going. The only issue was, Ella had never done anything like that before. How would she ever be able to start it? Let alone get it up to bonfire levels?
"The challenge should be ready by now," Chris told them after checking his watch, and motioned for them to follow him.
Jasmine was positively delighted at having her challenge next, though it was just as likely she was riding off the high of winning one that was not hers. Conversely, Sky looked like she was ready to throw a fit, with the way her hands were clenched and her feet were stomping as she walked. Ella knew Sky was a bit of a sore loser, though she had never seen it for herself. At the moment, she was not sure if it was a good idea to approach her.
In the end, however, she would not have had a chance to do that anyway. "That must've been rough for you," Jasmine said to her good-naturedly. The smile had not left her face, though she did have the decency to look humble about it. "Sucks that racing was the first thing we had to compete in."
Ella could tell that Jasmine was simply looking for friendly conversation and not trying to rub salt in the wound. Thankfully, the wound was not all that big yet. "Yes," she said, quieter and more bitter than she intended. "It was… unlucky."
Jasmine seemed to notice her tone, and remained quiet. Ella, almost immediately feeling remorse, sighed and ran a hand over her face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap. It's just… there's a lot of expectation on me right now, you know?"
The taller girl slowly nodded, almost like she had only picked up on that now. "Right… I suppose that makes sense."
Ella sighed. "With Sammy gone, I'm the only one who can win for us. And… I'm not strong. I'm not fast, or anything like what you two are. I'm…" Nothing, she almost said. "…scared. Of not meeting expectations. My own included."
Jasmine gave her a once-over, and frowned at her. "I can almost guarantee you Sammy won't think differently if you don't win."
"I know she won't," Ella replied. "She told me as much yesterday. What I'm most worried about is… what I think of me."
A pause. "Oh."
"Yeah," Ella said. "Oh."
"That is…" Jasmine scratched at her cheek. "Not exactly something I can answer, I don't think."
"But… At the same time, I really don't think you should be basing your worth on your performance here. There's more to life than money, right?"
Ella sighed and looked anywhere but in Jasmine's direction. "Right." I know you're right. So why is it so hard for me to accept that?
"You'll be performing your challenge in this clearing here," Chris announced when they arrived at an open area. Three rings made of rocks were placed in a triangle formation, and in the space between them were an abundance of random branches, twigs, dried leaves, and other flammable objects. "Each of you will start at a ring, and collect as much fire fodder as you can to get your bonfire up and going. You can't interfere with each other's work, though you can try and snatch materials from others if you wanna."
The three looked at each other with hesitation in their eyes. No one particularly looked like they wanted to try.
Chris noticed their cautious glances and rolled his eyes. "Just putting that out there. You have a time limit of 10 minutes to get your fire as big as you can, and you'll be judged based on its size the second the buzzer goes off. Now, pick a spot and stick with it!"
Jasmine headed for the one on the right almost jubilantly, while Ella and Sky took a chance to give each other nervous looks. "Good luck," Sky said to her quietly, and headed off to the spot on the left.
"You too," Ella said, unsure if Sky heard. Breathing deeply, she headed straight ahead to the ring at the top. She took a moment to inspect the cluster of items as she walked through them, but nothing really stood out from the rest. There would certainly be enough for her to take, that was for sure. She just needed to figure out how to use them correctly, and fast.
When she reached her spot, Chris readied his air horn. "Get ready to light this place up… Now!"
The three of them dashed forward a little ways and began picking at the things in front of them. Ella reached for several dry branches, leaves, clumps of dead grass, and whatever else she could carry in her arms, and retreated back to her spot when she felt she had enough.
Now came the hard part. She thought desperately back to how fires looked in movies, but they were always never the focus of the scene so she only had a vague idea of what to do. The sticks were always arranged in a certain way, weren't they?
She tried glancing at one of the others for inspiration, and saw that Jasmine had already put her branches in a cone-like pattern.
Sorry for cheating, she thought with distaste, and began copying Jasmine's work.
It was more difficult than she was expecting to get the sticks to stay upright, and part way through she realized that she needed to put some of the leaves and grass in the middle of it and had to take it all apart, but she managed to get it finished soon enough. She would have to be careful not to knock it over, but for now she could move on. The next step would be to get an actual fire started, and though she had an idea for what to do, she had never attempted it before in her life. First time for everything, I guess.
Ella took two of her leftover sticks and began rubbing them together, in the hopes of getting something out of it, a spark or ember or anything of the like. She had no clue how long it might take to start a fire this way, but she had to try something.
Four minutes in, nothing had happened yet, and she was growing afraid.
If I lose this one too, I can kiss my chances in the finale goodbye. A quick glance at the others showed that Jasmine, of course, had a small column of smoke coming from her fire, while Sky was in the same boat as Ella, only she was using rocks to try and create a spark.
Ella briefly considered trying rocks out for her own fire, but a lesson from an old science class reminded her that making a spark from rocks only worked with certain rocks, and if Sky was having as much trouble as she was, then the rocks around here would probably not be the right ones. As such, Ella chose to stay with the sticks.
Three more minutes of rubbing, and a miracle happened. It was only faint, but she noticed that there was a small ember forming on one of the sticks where she had been rubbing. Somehow, she had managed to do it, and quite truthfully had almost lost hope until that moment.
Trying to curb her desperation, Ella slowly lowered it to the tinder beneath and around her house of sticks, tried to experimentally blow on it, and nearly gasped in joy as the ember was transferred to the grass.
What now, what now?! Oh, god, I have no idea! She knew not to smother it, but she needed to get it bigger if she hoped to win, or at the very least get second. She blew on it a bit more, lightly so as to not blow it out, and watched in amazement as the embers started spreading through the kindling and inside the house of sticks. It didn't immediately ignite the sticks themselves, but all of the grass and leaves soon caught fire, and a thin trail of smoke started rising up from them. Ella made sure to keep adding to it in chunks, and before long the sticks themselves started smoking as well.
With one minute left on the timer, Ella breathed a sigh of relief as she sat back down and watched as the fire flickered before her. It was nothing to write home about, and she still was unable to compare to the beast-like blaze that Jasmine already had roaring by this time. But with that said, she still did manage to beat Sky, who unfortunately had nothing to show for her work.
As for Sky herself, she once again looked peeved, but had yet to give up. At some point she must have realized that the rocks were not doing her any good, and had attempted to follow Ella's lead and rub two of her sticks together. Sadly, it seemed that there just was not enough time to get to Ella's level, and when the timer ran out, Sky threw her sticks into the forest in anger.
Remind me never to make her mad, Ella thought, wincing at the sound of the sticks hitting the trees.
"Everyone gather 'round!" Chris shouted after the air horn stopped blowing. "It's time to dole out some points!" They all did so, with a confident Jasmine standing on Ella's left and a resentful Sky on her right. Ella was feeling a mix of both relief and anxiety, and standing between both of them helped neither emotions. "Thanks to all of your hard work - or lack thereof - we don't need to waste time measuring your fires' sizes. Coming in first once more is Jasmine, who gets another three points!"
"Alright!" she cried, pumping a fist in the air.
Chris's plastic smile turned to her. "Ella comes in second place, and secures an extra two."
She did not bother making any noise of joy; she simply nodded to him.
The host seemed unbothered by this, and turned his attention to Sky. "And Sky gets one, even though she didn't even have a fire in the end. So why don't you think of it more as a participation award?"
Sky growled, and turned away in annoyance.
Chris clicked on his remote, and another screen came out of the ground next to him. "Your current totals are: six points for Jasmine, putting her in first place and, if my math is right, a guaranteed spot in the finale!"
"Get out!" Jasmine shouted. "Are you for real?!"
"He's for real," came the despondent voice of Sky. All three of them turned to her in surprise. "The lowest possible amount of points you can earn now is one, which will bring you to at least seven points total. Ella and I only have three points, so the highest score we can possibly get is six. No matter how you look at it, you already won."
Jasmine worked hard to contain her excitement, quietly cheering to herself. She must have known how celebrating now would affect Ella and Sky.
Chris cleared his throat irritably, forcing everyone's eyes back to him. "As I was saying," he said sternly to Sky, "Ella is bumped up to three points, and Sky is tied with her for second place. Our next and final challenge will determine which one of you stays, and which one hits the road."
The bottom two girls looked at each other warily. Only an hour or so ago had they been having breakfast together - now they were fighting each other for the chance to win. Ella really was not enjoying that part.
"What is the final challenge?" Jasmine asked, looking between both Chris and Ella.
Ella allowed herself to raise her hopes just a bit. Now it was her turn for a challenge, and that meant she had the greatest chance out of all of them to win it. And if she won, she'd be… not set for life, but she would have another chance at winning. Coming second in the bonfire challenge might have been a fluke, but this time, she knew she'd be able to come out on top.
"I'm glad you asked," Chris told her. "For our last challenge, Ella has decided to choose…" Even though she knew the answer, he still kept them in suspense for longer than necessary, which was yet another thing about him that Ella was starting to severely dislike.
…Actually, now that she thought about it, Chris had been getting on her nerves for the last two weeks, so…
"A dance competition," she quickly said before he had a chance.
A silence washed over them, and while the girls processed this new info, Chris gave her the stink eye. "Hey, you're not allowed to do that! Only the host gets to announce stuff like this! Now how am I supposed to enjoy leaving you guys in suspense?!"
"Oh, I'm sorry," she said as innocently as she could. She also batted her eyelashes and tilted her head to the side, in an effort to look as cute and blameless as possible. "I really didn't mean to do that, honest! Should we do it over?"
Chris glared even further, but grumbled and walked on. "That's a dangerous power you have."
Ella forced a bright smile his way. "I know!"
The three of them were led to a different location, somewhat farther away from where they had been. Sky was, once again, off on her own, and still lost in her thoughts. Perhaps she was taking her time trying to come up with a dance she wanted to do. Either that, or sulking. Ella hoped it was the former; she felt sick that she might be making a friend miserable in any way.
On the other hand, Ella knew exactly what she was going to do. It had been a year or two since she had fully performed this particular dance in front of a crowd, but she had practiced so many times that she could remember it as if it were on the back of her hand. It was not her favorite track of all time, but she could certainly make it work if she tried hard enough. Plus, it was a public domain song and didn't need the rights to be allowed to have it play, so Chris had no reason not to include it.
This had to be her moment to shine. She was at risk of losing everything if she did not perform well now. She literally had no choice but to succeed, or else everything would have been for naught.
"You think they'd let me sit this one out?" Jasmine suddenly asked, breaking Ella from her thoughts and causing her to jump slightly in alarm. "Seeing how I've already won and all that."
"Umm." She shook herself out of her thoughts. "I don't know. They might."
"Hope so. I'm not much of a dancer." She stuck one leg out as she walked, but then almost completely lost balance. "I pretty much got two left feet. Put me up against a 'croc and I do just fine, but stick me in front of a few judges and I start stumbling."
Ella forced another smile. "Then you're lucky you're already in the clear."
Jasmine returned it. "'Spose I am, yeah."
She did her best to hide the frown forming on her face, and turned back to the path to end the conversation.
Whether she picked up on it or not, Jasmine continued it. "I'm kind of impressed. You actually managed to get a fire going!"
Ella shrugged lightly. "Thanks," she said. "I… really had no idea what I was doing, but apparently it worked out in the end."
"Well, you still managed it, so that's something to be proud of."
"Yeah, I guess it is."
"Are you proud of it?"
Ella was not sure how to answer that positively without lying.
In the next clearing over was an isolated auditorium stage, decorated with brightly colored curtains and eye-catching painted backgrounds. In front of it was a table and three stumps, all of which were occupied by three different people. "Today's dance competition will be judged by yours truly, this intern-" One of the interns they had seen around the island waved sheepishly, "-and the newly rebuilt, repurposed, and reprogrammed Scuba Bear 2.0!" Chris gestured to the seat furthest from him, where the giant robot was sitting. Its eyes turned red and it growled at the contestants menacingly. "Now equipped with upgraded and functioning auditory processors, as well as a newly discovered dislike for singing."
"Somehow I feel like that was directed at me," Ella found herself deadpanning quietly. Jasmine on her right snickered.
"Performers will go in the order of their challenges," Chris announced to them. "First Sky, then Jasmine, and last and probably least, Ella."
"He really doesn't like you, does he?" Jasmine asked her.
"I'm happy to say the feeling is mutual," Ella replied neutrally. "Which is saying a lot, because I actively try to not dislike people."
Chris had the non-performers exit stage right, as Sky prepared herself for her dance. She was wearing a green leotard, and looked terrified out of her mind. Ella felt sympathetic for her, as she knew the power stage fright had over people. But at the same time, she had always felt that watching others' performances before her own distracted her from preparing herself, so with only a little bit of regret she took her leave and headed behind the stage.
There, several clothing and costume racks were placed in the open field, and one or two changing rooms had been built nearby as well (Or were they just moved here using the island's computers?). Regardless, Ella made a beeline for the clothing racks, having an idea already in mind for what she was planning on doing.
The first two challenges may have been a bust and possibly pure luck, respectively, but that did not mean Ella was down and out. No, this was her challenge, and thus her time in the spotlight (literally and figuratively). She had made a promise to do as good as she could, and even if the first few rounds had demoralized her, she could easily make up for it in this one.
Just focus on the positives, Ella told herself. Don't outright ignore the negatives, but use them to remind yourself of the good! Things can always look up, and if I can beat Sky now things will start looking very up.
The sounds of boots on the ground alerted her to Jasmine's presence. "Someone looks like they know what they're doing," she said, a smile in her voice.
"I've been in several plays in my life," Ella told her without looking back. "And a lot of them were musicals, so I know my way around a few dance moves and costumes." Plus all of the YouTube videos I used to practice at home. Those were surprisingly handy.
"No wonder you chose this then." Jasmine sat herself down in a chair. "Aside from when you got that bear to beat down the door, I don't think I've ever seen you this confident."
"I'm in my element, more or less. Like you with making fires, or Sky with running. This is something I can do, and I'm going to do my best with it."
"I had assumed singing was your element."
"Both can go hand in hand. I haven't exactly danced on the island because it doesn't feel right without the singing. And since Chris forbade me…"
"Right, right, I get'cha."
Music started playing from the other side of the stage, signalling the start of Sky's performance. It was an elegant, yet upbeat song, and it sounded fitting for someone doing rhythmic gymnastics in the Olympics. Which is probably why she chose it. Didn't she say something about a sister who does that, once?
After a few more moments of searching the rack, she finally found what she wanted - a brilliant light blue ballerina's tutu with multiple flower designs embroidered on the front. Its pleated skirt came out in a circle almost perpendicular to the bodice itself, and there were even more flowers all along its edges. Small sleeves hung at its sides, and both they and the skirt were transparent. Also attached to the hanger were simple tights and ballet shoes, and they looked just as immaculate as the main piece.
It was, in a word, perfect.
"So I don't know much about the arts and whatnot," Jasmine said, "but I know for certain that you will definitely look good in that."
"Aww, thanks," Ella said. "I have something similar to this at home, but… nowhere near as elegant." Which probably says a lot. "I'm going to quickly change."
"I'll be here," Jasmine said with a wave of her hand.
Ella entered one of the changing stalls and began removing her clothes. In the middle of taking off her blouse, she noticed that there was a mirror in there with her, and the realization that she had not had a decent look at herself since starting the show sunk in.
Taking the blouse completely off, Ella examined herself. She had most certainly lost weight, and considering she was thin to begin with might have started to look a little malnourished. Her cheeks were thinner, and it was more difficult to grab the fat of her stomach. The makeup she had applied on the day of the zeppelin ride had long since washed away, whether through actual water or her crying. It was perhaps both, all things considered.
Her hair was a crow's nest, now especially after she had purposefully messed it up back in the bunker. It no longer looked like a deliberate attempt to copy Snow White's hair, and was not curled up on the insides to give it a bouncy, puffy look. Instead, it flowed naturally (if disorderly) down to just above her shoulders, and looked just a little wavy. That said, it did not look very good, and was in desperate need of a fixing up, just like the rest of her.
Seeing as how that was not allowed, however, Ella simply huffed and put on the tutu.
Miraculously, the garment fit her, much to her relief. She looked good in it, if she said so herself. The tights and shoes were snug on her skin, and she felt like she would be able to perform without a hitch.
There was just one problem.
Ella raised her arm to the mirror, and examined the scars underneath.
She had seen them so many times before, and she could explicitly recall each one. Most were from the bullies at school, while a few others were from when Mom and Dad directed the ire towards her… Ella shuddered at the memories and shoved them away. She reached for the sleeve Sammy had given her, thrown on top of the dirty pile of clothes, and picked it up.
She stared at it and examined it. It was literally just a piece of cloth, cut and frayed at one end with a single, fading white stripe on the other. Yet this literal piece of cloth, and so many others like it, helped her through numerous close calls. It had helped her forget her pains, her struggles. 'Out of sight, out of mind' had been taken to its most authentic meaning, and had been a motto Ella had lived by for most of her life.
Despite all of that, it didn't matter anymore. Her secret was out, and she had acknowledged it fully for the first time.
Once the show was over, she would do something about it.
But for now, she would cover it up again.
She was about to slip the sleeve on when an innocent, ordinary, everyday thought occurred to her.
Actually, wait. This isn't going to match.
Catching herself, she laughed and went to slide it back on. As if that really matters, her mind told her.
But then her heart fought back.
So? Why put it back on at all?
It needs to go back on, her mind defended. I don't want anyone to see.
Everyone already has seen, countered her heart.
Okay, said her mind. Then I don't want to see it.
So? I know it's there. What's the point in hiding anymore? Or am I so scared of it that I constantly have to keep it covered?
It has to go back on.
No. It doesn't.
But what if I get the urge?
I'm stronger than that. Sammy believes in me. If I focus on her instead of cutting, then I won't get the urge.
I really should keep it on.
I really should leave it off.
Keep it on.
Leave it off.
Keep it on!
Leave it off!
She gasped, her heart pounding a mile a minute and her knuckles pure white as she held the sleeve in a death grip. "Uh-" she stammered. "Y-Yes?!"
A sigh of relief from the other side. "Oh thank goodness," Jasmine said. "You weren't answering so I thought I was gonna have to break the door down."
"Oh! Um, sorry!"
"You alright in there?" The concern in Jasmine's voice was heartwarming.
"I'm fine! Just, lost in my thoughts, is all." Or more like at war with myself.
"Really? Must have needed a map to get out of there!"
Ella laughed a bit, and willed her heart to stop racing. Calm down. Ugh. This is the last thing I need right now.
"Listen, Sky's done and I'm about to head up. You sure you're good?"
"Yes, I'm good! What was her score, by the way?"
"22.5! Apparently it wasn't bad. She says she got a lot of inspiration from her sister."
"Ah! I knew her sister was in rhythmic gymnastics!"
"Yeah, sounds like it! Anyway, wish me luck! Not that I expect anything out of this."
"Good luck! And remember, have fun!"
"I'd rather be dead than have fun here!"
Her heavy footfalls signalled her departure, leaving Ella alone to her thoughts once again. But now, everything was silent. Her mind and her heart were no longer arguing, and she could hear herself think clearly once more. That distraction was enough to kick her awake, and put a stop to her trivial spat with herself.
That still only left one thing: what to actually do with the sleeve.
It would be easier to leave it on. It, and anything else she chose to wear over the scars, was essentially her safety net; a protection against any and all negative thoughts regarding her less-than-admirable habits.
But at the same time, she knew that everyone knew, so what was the point? Covering the scars was just a way for her to forget it even happened, but now that she had admitted to it out loud, she felt like she could not go back to ignoring it. So what was the point of hiding it?
There is none, said her heart.
But it will make me feel better, said her mind.
But something needs to be done about it, and the sooner the better.
It's easier to go back to how I was.
It's healthier to deal with it now.
But I don't want to deal-
"Oh, for the love of god, screw it!"
Ella grabbed one end of the sleeve with both of her hands and, with all of her strength and plenty of emotion, tore the cloth in two.
She stood there for a moment, but it felt like an hour. Both her breathing and her heart rate had sped up once more, and her mind was racing and raging and telling her she had made a huge mistake. Maybe she had.
But right at this moment, she didn't care.
Ella was euphoric.
This was it. This was the first step to healing. She had nothing left to fall back on anymore. Her safety net was gone, and with it all of her excuses to keep staying where she was. It was going to be hard, hard to accept and harder still for others to accept. But now, the only way to go was up.
Sammy would be proud of her.
No. I'm proud of me.
Ella breathed in through her nose, and out through her mouth. It felt fresher than any other breath she had taken before.
There was still going to be urges, no doubt about that. But if she could do this, then she should be able to handle anything her head throws at her.
And if not, she had Sammy with her, and her friends. With their help, anything was possible.
I'm going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay. And for once, I mean it.
"Hey, Ella? You doing okay?" Sky's voice came from outside, exactly from where Jasmine had been. "I heard you yell just then."
"I'm fine!" she called out, more cheerful than intended but the exact same to what she felt. "I'm coming out now!"
She gave Sky two seconds to back away from the door, opened it, and stepped out with a newfound sense of confidence.
"Whoa!" Sky exclaimed when she saw her in her new outfit. "Wow, Ella you look gor…geous…" Her eyes trailed down to Ella's hands, which were still holding the torn sleeve. "You… Ella, are you-"
"I'm fine," Ella repeated. "I'm more than fine. And I'm going to stay fine, as long as I have you and Sammy and all the others watching over me. I don't need this anymore," she emphasized her sentence by dropping the fabric and letting it fly in the wind, "or anything like it again. And even if I keep telling myself I do, I'm just going to remember this moment, and remember that I'm stronger than that. That I can overcome these feelings and fears inside me, and become a better person because of it."
She had not intended to make a grandiose speech, but it felt fitting. A little embarrassing, but fitting.
Sky, meanwhile, was grinning from ear to ear. "That's great! I'm so happy for you!" The grin faltered and she glared off to the side. "Not… too happy about my chances at winning anymore, but still!"
"Aw! I'm sorry Sky!" Ella pulled Sky in close and squeezed her tight. "I am, really!"
"I know you are," replied Sky, muffled against Ella's chest.
"That being said…" She pushed Sky back to give her a mischievous smile. "I have a challenge to win, so if you'll excuse me."
Sky pouted at her, but let her pass all the same. As she was walking away, the athlete called out once more. "Actually, you know what would really help out your ensemble?"
"You're not going to suggest tearing it apart, are you?" Ella asked with a laugh.
Sky rapidly shook her head. "Nooo no no! I am so against those sorts of tactics! No, I was talking about fixing up your hair a bit!"
"Oh! You think it needs it?" She remembered exactly what it looked like in the mirror. "Uh, wait, don't answer that."
"It probably doesn't need it, but, I kinda want to help you out, you know?"
Ella gave her a confused look and a tilt to her head. "Are you sure? I'm your competition at this point."
"You are, yes. But first and foremost, you're my friend. And this is the stuff that friends do, right?"
So touched she was, Ella was afraid she would start crying again. "It is what they do, isn't it? Alright, let's do it!"
The two of them stepped towards the stage, just as Jasmine was coming off of it. She was in hysterics, laughing so hard that she was essentially crying projectile tears. "Well that was stupid!" she said between breaths. "That couldn't have gone any worse!"
"I take it you completely bombed it?" Sky asked her. For someone who had spent most of the day brooding about possibly losing, she had quickly regained her composure. She seems like the type to only be a sore loser for a few moments before calming down. That's respectable of her.
"You know it!" Jasmine was not the least bit upset by that, though it was obvious why. "I am not a dancer, and…" It was then that she finally looked up and saw Ella. "Oh, blimey. You clean up nice, you know that?"
"'Clean' is probably not the word I'd use," Sky said, "but she's right! You look beautiful!"
"Oh, gosh, you guys," Ella said lightly, feeling her face burning. "You're both too kind."
Though after looking into the mirror one last time, Ella could not call them liars. She had never been one to call herself beautiful before, but now she honestly did see it, even if she was a bit too skinny and smelly. With her hair done up in a tight bun, courtesy of Sky, Ella felt all the more like a bonafide dancer, and both her determination and confidence to win had soared through the roof upon re-examining herself.
The fact that her scars were out in the open and plain to see did not deter her from her belief in herself, and that feeling only heightened everything else.
"Next up, and our final act for the night, is Ella!" Chris called out through a microphone. "So get your butt up here!"
She breathed in, deeply, and released it. "My time to shine," she whispered to herself. "Wish me luck," she then said to the others. Whether they wanted to or not was another matter, but they still gave their regards.
Ella climbed the steps and in front of the judges, walking lightly and with poise and grace. All sets of eyes - the judges, the crew, the interns, Chef acting as MC, the robot bear - widened in surprise, and almost all gave their nods of respect. One of the interns - the one presiding as second judge, actually - grinned widely, and held up her '10' card. Ella found herself blushing once more and waving her off.
"Put that thing down!" Chris hissed, forcefully lowering her arm. The intern glared at him, but did as she was asked.
Clearing her throat to regain everyone's attention, Ella smiled brightly at the judges and the cameras. "Good evening, everyone! Or, ah, good morning, rather. Uh, afternoon? I don't know what time it is." She laughed, somewhat nervous but overall enthusiastic. "My name is Ella, and I wish to share with you all one of the dances I presented for my school's Christmas concert two years ago. Many of you are familiar with it, and it may be a bit of a classic but I still enjoy it all the same. So please, without further ado, allow me to perform for you, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy."
She gave a nod to Chef - who, by the way, was in a stunning pink ball gown and absolutely making it work - and he nodded in return and pressed a few buttons on a tablet. The spotlights sitting near the judges lit up and shone down on her, but she did not turn away from them. She got into the proper opening position, and the second she heard the opening notes, she began.
The song was, as it always was, slow-paced, delicate, and above all, demanding. She knew the song well, but it had also been some time since she last performed it in full. Her mind was attempting to worm its way back in, to tell her that she was going to mess up and ruin everything.
But she forced those voices away, and instead imagined what it would be like if Sammy could see her now. Dancing on stage, no gloves or sleeves in sight, lost in the music and giving it her all. Ella knew Sammy would be beyond proud. And she also knew that, should this go well, she would be proud of herself, too. This was something she could do - and she was going to make sure it was the best performance of her life.
The twirls were simple, though she had to make sure her head did not move too often. The kicks were equally easy, as years of training had made her quite flexible. Standing on her toes was more difficult, but she hid the pain and focused on the next steps. The pirouettes were also trickier, as it combined all of the above into a series of quick movements. She had to pace herself, and keep falling back onto her heel to give her toes a moment to breathe. When she had to walk on her toes, one after another, she could feel herself almost trip up, but it was not all that noticeable and she caught herself enough to transition nicely into the next steps.
She wound her way around the stage, turning and looking towards the judges whenever she had a moment. The intern was in absolute awe, and seemed almost incapable of looking away. Scuba Bear, despite its new programing, was just as mesmerized and had possibly taken up dance as its replacement for its previous love for her singing. And, most surprisingly, was Chris, who did not look like he wanted to toss her off a cliff and was instead genuinely smiling at her performance. That said a lot about how good she was doing, and it bolstered her confidence even further.
She stopped momentarily at the corner of the stage. This is it, Ella thought, smiling brightly.
The music picked up its pace, and she started off once more. Like before, she began twirling around the stage, though this time it was much faster and less lopsided than before. She moved in a full circle, from one end to the other and back again, never stopping and spinning nigh on perfectly.
After more than twenty seconds of song and several rotations around the stage, she finished just as the music peaked. One hand arched over her head, one stuck out at her side, one leg pointed forward and the other holding herself steady. She smiled radiantly at the audience, and hoped the sweat pouring off of her did not make her look too bad.
What was odd was that no one clapped when the music stopped.
It took a few moments of posing there, but when Ella looked at the judges she was shocked to see all jaws to the floor. She took herself out of the pose and blinked down at them, and in doing so apparently woke them from their stupor. The intern shot to her feet to applaud her, followed by Scuba Bear and, still surprisingly, Chris, though his clapping was a bit more subdued.
"Wow. Okay!" the host cried out. "I know I've given you crap in the past, but holy cow that was an impressive display from you, Ella!"
"Oh! Why, um, why thank you!" Ella replied with a curtsey, though she was not sure how she should process an actual compliment from Chris McLean.
"Judges!" he then said to the others beside him. "If you would display your scores?"
Scuba Bear nodded eagerly, reached underneath the table, and hauled out a 10. Ella inhaled sharply.
The intern wasted no time holding up her 10 one more time. Ella's heart pounded in her ears at the sight.
Chris, despite his glowing review, held up… a seven. "The song is kinda overdone, and I saw you almost trip more than once," he explained, "but that was, without a doubt, a solid performance!"
Ella barely heard him over the math being performed in her head, however.
10 plus 10 plus seven was 27.
Sky had 22.5.
Ella beat her.
Ella was in second.
And now I'm going to the finale.
Tired from the dance, overwhelmed from that realization, and utterly relieved at the news, Ella's legs gave out and she fell to the floor. The judges, the crew, the MC, and her fellow competitors all clapped and cheered for her, for putting on such a spectacular show.
Ella felt the tears trailing down her cheek before she realized she was crying. But these were tears of pure bliss, at having overcome the difficulties set before her and for one final chance at getting the one million dollar prize.
But the prize money seemed so distant right now, as she could not stop thinking about how incredible it had felt to accomplish something so amazing.
Sammy would be proud of her.
She would be. But most importantly, I am proud of myself.
Ella closed the door to the confessional and sat on the toilet. "This is something I will never get used to. Thank god it's ending soon."
She breathed in the rank air and attempted to clear her thoughts. "So. I… didn't lose. I actually made it to the finale. That's… That's not something I would have thought me capable of doing. Not even in my wildest dreams.
"For so long, I had been… the laughing stock, so to speak. And I had accepted my lot in life. No one understood me, and people want nothing to do with what they can't understand. So they resorted to insults and… violence. Sometimes it felt like I would be alone forever, and at that time, that was okay. I was in love with the idea of romance and magic so much that it helped to keep my spirits high when there was no reason for them to be. It wasn't like my parents were stopping me, so why would I stop myself?
"The cutting happened as a result of it all." She held up her arm, now firmly unafraid of its presence. "Bullying and a poor support system led me to… do something drastic, and unfortunately I ended up falling further into my fantasies to navigate my life." She sighed. "It probably wasn't going to work out in the long run, but that had been my reality for so long that it felt like my future had been chosen for me and already set in stone."
Her thoughts turned, and a warm smile grew unbidden on her face. "But that ended up changing. Yes, it was painful and difficult, but in the end it was absolutely worth it. I actually made friends! And… it may be too soon to say it, but I met someone who fills me with such joy and comfort and I think I want to stay with her for as long as possible. Perhaps the old me would have said she was 'the one'… Then again, maybe the old me would have been looking for only a male partner. I've…" She blushed furiously and pushed some hair behind an ear. "I've certainly learned a lot about myself on this island.
"And speaking of this island, so much has happened here… We survived blowing up. We overcame all of the obstacles before us. And now, finally, the end is in sight." Ella breathed deeply, no longer bothered by the stench. "It wasn't easy getting here, especially since the competition was so fierce, but I had all the support I needed to keep me going." She grinned widely into the camera. "Sammy, if you're watching this, at some point in the future when the show airs, I just want you to know that I appreciate absolutely everything you've done for me, and that your sacrifice will not be taken for granted. I will win this competition. And you can hold me to that."
Ella flicked off the camera and exited the shack. The fresh air rejuvenated her, and she felt freer than ever. "That said, there's a solid chance I may not win," she said to herself. "But that doesn't mean I won't give it everything I've got."
"For what it's worth, I'm sorry it ended this way," Ella told Sky as they all walked down the slope to the cannon.
"Yeah, I know you are," Sky said with a sigh. "But I'm not mad. I mean, I'm disappointed, sure, but now that I've had time to process it, I'm not as upset as I thought I'd be."
"Well, I'm certainly glad to hear that."
As much as she wanted to keep it, Ella had to give up the tutu and tights and return to her old, stinky outfit. It felt awful on her, but she would be willing to put up with it if it meant she could win a million dollars because of it.
The tutu would have been a nice reminder about what had happened today. About how she had overcome her own demons and finally managed to take control of her life after so long of denying it. She had work to do - she was far from feeling perfect and fully healed - and just like with Sammy, like with Amy, and like with every other person in the world, it would take time and patience.
But she was willing to put in the work.
"Sky, congratulations on getting to spend some quality time in your namesake tonight," Chris said with a chuckle.
Sky huffed and folded her arms. "I actually haven't heard that one before."
"Hopefully it'll be the last time you hear it," Jasmine said. "Best of luck up there, mate. Write when you get a chance!"
"Yeah, right," Sky scoffed and waved her off, but then gave her a smirk. "I'll call or something." The Final Three, now the Final Two, shared one last hug before the athlete turned around. "I'm rooting for both of you. Try not to hurt each other!"
Ella and Jasmine shared a look. "No promises," they said simultaneously.
Rolling her eyes, Sky approached the cannon. "Let's get this over with."
She strapped on the helmet and entered the machine. She looked pensive, but was not going to back out of this one.
"Last chance for some last words," Chris told her, his remote at the ready.
"I don't think I have any," Sky said. "Nothing that hasn't already been said."
Chris glared at her. "Ugh, fine. Ruin the moment, why don't you?" With an unceremonious press, Sky was launched out and sent sailing through the air. Her shrieks echoed all around them, but a few seconds later and all traces of her were gone.
"Looks like Sky is flying high!" Chris yelled at the cameras, and he made his way over to Ella and Jasmine. "And now the Final Three has been cut down to Two! Will tall and burly Jasmine come out on top?" He gestured at Jasmine who, while surprised, smacked a fist into her open palm. "Or will lean and lithe Ella sneak up from behind and take first place for herself?" To keep the pattern going, Ella curtseyed to the cameras and waved pleasantly. "Find out next time, on the season finale of Total… Drama… Paaahkitew Island!"
The cameraman yelled 'Cut,' and Chris's smile faded, as expected. "Right, I'm out." He headed off towards the cliff, Chef close behind him. "You kids get your sleep. You're gonna need it for tomorrow!"
His manic giggles left them nervous, but Ella refused to give in to her worries. She made it all the way here - she could manage the finale.
Like Chris, the crew had all started setting off, with only a few members remaining. Ella was beginning to notice how quiet it had become with so few people left in the game.
"Welp, I'm going to turn in," Jasmine said to her. "Gotta get well-rested for tomorrow. You coming with?"
"I'll catch up," Ella told her. "I'm going to stay here for a little bit."
She shrugged and turned. "Suit yourself. See you tomorrow!"
"Sure thing," Ella replied. Then, she made a split second decision. "And… And you better be ready to eat… eat my dust, you overgrown… tree… person!"
Jasmine's grin grew wider with each word, until it all culminated into a bellowing laugh. Ella felt her cheeks flare - trash talking was most certainly not her thing. "I'll be sure to come with an empty stomach! But only if you can deliver the goods."
The metaphor started to get lost on Ella, a fact she didn't hide very well.
Jasmine saw her confused face. "Just make sure you bring your A-game tomorrow. Best of luck!" And with that, the taller girl walked off, leaving the songbird to her lonesome.
"My A-game, huh?" Ella asked no one. By this point the whole crew had returned to whatever area they worked out of, leaving Ella all alone. She listened to the sound of the waves, felt the breeze blowing through her loose, messy hair. She smelled the scent of the salty sea, and watched as a few lone clouds travelled the dark night sky.
It was an incredibly peaceful, serene moment.
One that she will likely not experience again for a long while.
Smiling to herself, Ella walked to the cannon, sat at the edge of the cliff, and simply revelled in that tranquility.
I am okay. I am going to be okay. And I will make sure I stay okay.