TITLE: The Quality of Darkness
SPOILERS: Anything from the series is fair game.
DISCLAIMER: I do not own Drake & Josh. All are owned by Dan Schneider, et al. I am not profiting in any way except creatively.

A/N: This is it, guys - the last chapter of what has become an epic saga of galactic proportions! It's more of an epilogue, really, a way to tie up a few loose threads. I hope you like it. THANK YOU to everyone who has followed this story from the beginning; all of your support has been so, so wonderful.

Chapter 22: Signs of Life (Epilogue)

"…three surgeries to repair all the damage," the woman is saying, though Drake is only half-listening.

He's sitting in a small conference room down the hall from the warren of offices in the San Diego County District Attorney's Office with his parents and a formidable-looking African-American woman in a dark blue suit – Assistant District Attorney Shelda Ryan. She's reading from a report she holds open in front of her, a pair of dark red reading glasses perched on the tip of her nose.

"The bullet," she reads aloud, "tore through the back of his right rib cage, narrowly missed his spine, ripped through his right lung, ricocheted off his fourth rib, and nicked his liver before exiting his right abdomen." She stops then, removing her glasses and looking across at Drake, setting the file down on the table. "You say you were standing in front of him when he was shot?"

Drake nods. "Yeah," he says, then corrects himself. "Yes."

She whistles softly through her teeth. "I'd say you're very lucky, then, Mr. Parker. Very lucky."

"Please," Drake says. "Don't call me that."

"You don't agree? You could've easily been hit with that bullet," she says. "If you'd been standing an inch further to your left –"

"No," Drake says. "I don't mean that." He looks away for a second, then looks back at her, his hands curling into loose fists on the surface of the table in front of him. "I mean, please don't call me Mr. Parker. That's what…" His voice trails off for a moment and he swallows. "Just call me Drake."

Ms. Ryan doesn't say anything for a moment, just presses her lips together briefly before continuing. "Alright," she says. "Drake."

The room is windowless, as if to protect the secrets revealed inside. It makes Drake feel a little claustrophobic and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat. Walter's sitting to his right, his mother to his left, and he can feel them looking at him when he moves.

"Drake," Ms. Ryan says, "we're going to file charges against him. But we have to wait until he's out of the hospital. Doing so right now would look like we're bullying a defenseless man." Her face hardens at the words, her lips twisting as though they taste bitter.

Drake feels himself nod, feels the warmth of his mom's hand against his left forearm. "Okay," he says.

"I promise you, Drake. We'll do our best to make sure you get the justice you deserve." The words seem a little made-for-TV to him, but they're reassuring nonetheless.

Word of Mr. Bradford's shooting spreads like wildfire through Belleview High School, the gossip mill a more effective fuel than dry tinder. Of course, despite the story in the paper and the 20-second blurb on the local nightly news, all kinds of far-fetched theories surface – it was a drug deal gone bad; it was a carjacking; it was a gang initiation; it was a case of mistaken identity.

They're all ridiculous; Drake knows that better than anyone, of course. But he plays along anyway, laughing when Devon tells him during Algebra one morning that he heard Mr. Bradford was shot by a prostitute after refusing to pay her.

He's grateful for one thing, though. Since he's only seventeen, his name wasn't mentioned at all in the media.

No one knows he was actually there.

Audrey doesn't want him to go, but Drake insists. He wants to be there for Claire. He'll never be able to explain it to his mother in a way she would ever understand, but he and Claire Hanover are forever connected. They share something no one else can possibly appreciate.

The ride to the courthouse takes place in silence and Drake, Walter, and Audrey duck into the courtroom and find seats two rows from the back, minutes before the proceedings begin. Defendants, lawyers, and spectators shuffle in and out of the courtroom in the first hour and Drake tunes most of it out.

Claire's case finally comes up. She's escorted in by the bailiff, a rather petite-looking woman with a large handgun hooked to her belt that causes her left arm to have to swing out when she walks. Claire is wearing a black skirt and white blouse and her hair is pulled back from her face in a neat ponytail. She makes brief eye contact with someone in the front row, then turns her eyes away quickly as she stands behind the defense table.

The case is called, with all the particulars that go with it, and all the players in the little drama take a seat. The judge, an older man with dark reading glasses and a pinched, bird-like face, clears his throat and says, "Mr. Quinn. Do you have any final remarks regarding your client, Ms. Hanover, before I issue sentence?"

"Yes, Your Honor," the lawyer says, pushing himself up from the table and smoothing his hand over his tie. He's a tall, trim man in a three-piece suit that looks fitted and expensive. He gives Claire's shoulder a little squeeze before moving to stand at the end of the defense table.

"You Honor," he begins, and his voice is clear and steady. Drake tunes him out. He looks instead at Claire, who's seated as still as a statue, staring unblinking at her lawyer as he pleads her case for a light sentence. Drake knows she has a desire to martyr herself, that she feels as though she needs to be punished, but he's hoping she doesn't have to serve too much time.

That's why when Mr. Quinn asked him if he would be willing to testify in a deposition about the events of the night Mr. Bradford was shot, he had agreed. Claire may feel like she needs to be locked away for her sins, but Drake thinks she should have a chance to live her life.

"So, Your Honor," Mr. Quinn says, "while my client committed a crime, she did so under extreme duress, and has shown immense remorse. She is not a danger to society, nor does she have any prior history of violence or other crime. I ask you to impose the lightest possible sentence allowable by law. Thank you."

The prosecutor is given the chance to speak but declines.

"Very well," the judge says. "Then I am ready to pass sentence." He turns his eyes to Claire, gazing at her intently under his bushy gray eyebrows. "Ms. Hanover, if you would please stand."

Drake watches as she presses her palms flat on the table in front of her and pushes herself to her feet, facing the judge resolutely.

"Ms. Hanover," the judge says evenly. "After reviewing the evidence and various statements offered by Mr. Quinn to support your claim of heat of passion, I am inclined to believe his argument. The People have offered nothing to dispute the claim and your obvious show of remorse and lack of criminal history tell me that you are not a danger to society. Therefore, I sentence you to…"

Drake holds his breath, all other sound filtered out, like the world has been put on MUTE.

"…eighteen months. Suspended." The judge bangs the gavel once sharply against the bench. "You are free to go."

Drake feels his breath exit his lungs in a rush and a warmth spreads slowly beneath his skin. He looks at Claire, who's still standing as if paralyzed, staring at the judge in what Drake can only guess is a mixture of shock and disbelief. Two people stand up from the front row and reach for her, but it's the touch of her attorney's hand that seems to shake her from her reverie. Claire looks at him and Mr. Quinn nods, a wide smile of perfectly-capped teeth spread across his face. Then she turns to the two people behind her and almost falls into them, sinking into their embrace as she starts to cry.

After a few seconds, the bailiff whispers something to them and they gather their things and start to head down the middle aisle. Drake watches them as they walk towards the exit, not far from where he's sitting with his parents. The couple she's with are older and the resemblance between Claire and the woman tells him they're her parents. He wants to talk to her, but he doesn't want to disturb her, so he lets them exit without speaking.

"Let's go," he whispers to his parents and gets up as quietly as he can. The next case is already being called at the front of the room.

He pushes through the doors, his mom right behind him, and stops short. Claire is standing a few feet away, enclosed in her mother's embrace, nodding as her lawyer says something to her. Then her eyes catch his and she holds up her hand to silence Mr. Quinn.

Whispering something to her mom, she walks towards him. "Drake," she says, her small smile a bit fragile. Tears shine in her blue eyes, but they're clear and hold his unwaveringly. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm glad you get to go home," he says, feeling Audrey's hand slide across his back as she and Walter walk away a few feet to give Claire and him a moment.

She nods and he can see the sadness creep back into her eyes. "I'm not sure I deserve it."

Drake reaches out, touches her arm. "Yes, you do," he says.

She doesn't say anything for several seconds, just holds his gaze. "Thank you," she finally says.

Drake is taken aback. "For what?"

"For speaking up on my behalf. My lawyer told me how you didn't hesitate to talk about what happened that night."

Drake feels his throat constrict. "I wanted to help you," he manages to say. "You deserve to have a life."

She touches his face then, briefly, a gentle brush of her fingers against his cheek. "So do you," she says. She lets her hand drop, then says, "Promise me something."

"What?" he asks.

"Promise me you'll keep fighting. That you won't let him win." The words are spoken softly, but the voice behind them is fierce.

Drake can't say anything for a long moment, then nods. "I promise."

Three days after Nathan Bradford is released from the hospital, the District Attorney of San Diego County files eight charges against him, the most serious of which are kidnapping with intent to commit rape; assault with intent to commit rape; sexual battery; rape of a victim by force, violence, or fear of bodily injury; sodomy of a victim under 18 years of age; and stalking.

If convicted of all eight counts, he could receive a minimum of nearly 20 years in prison.

Ms. Ryan stands on the front stoop beneath the yellow glow of the porch light, framed by the darkening dusk sky behind her. She's declined Audrey's invitation inside, telling them she was just on her way home when she got the call telling her the grand jury just handed down the indictments. She decided to give them the good news in person.

"The police are on their way to his home right now to pick him up," she says.

"Thank you," Walter says.

"So," Drake says, his heart thudding against his ribs, "he's going to jail?"

Ms. Ryan looks at him across the threshold. "For now," she says. "At least until the bail hearing tomorrow."

"Then what?"

She flashes him a small, knowing smile. "Then his lawyer's going to try to convince the judge he should be allowed to go home where he can await trial in comfort."

Drake presses his lips into a thin line and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans. The idea of Mr. Bradford getting to live his life, even for a little while, without punishment doesn't seem fair. Anger steals his words and he can't speak.

Ms. Ryan seems to sense what he's thinking and nods reassuringly. "Don't worry, Drake. I'll do my best to see that doesn't happen. I'm going to argue he be held without bail until trial. If that doesn't work, I'll ask for a really high bail, something the defendant will have a hard time coming up with."

The defendant. Drake really likes the sound of that. "What happens next?"

The prosecutor smiles at him – a real smile that dances in her eyes. "For you? Not much right now. The trial's a long way off. We'll need you more as it approaches. Defense counsel will probably be contacting you." She looks at Audrey and Walter intently, first one then the other. "Whatever you do, do not talk to them without an attorney present. Do you understand me?"

The words sound a bit condescending, but they all know she's being serious. "Yes," both Audrey and Walter say.

"Good," she says. "That goes for the media, too. When this thing goes to trial, I'm afraid it'll be like a flame, drawing all the dirty little moths out of the woodwork. Say nothing. If they're camped out on your lawn, pretend they're gnomes. Ignore them. Direct all inquiries to your attorney."

Again, Audrey and Walter agree.

The bandages are gone now. So are the stitches. But the scars remain and Drake runs his fingers over them. The sensation is a strange combination of pain and numbness and the skin is soft and puckered. He still hides them away with long sleeves, even from his family.

Even now, few people know about his suicide attempt. He decided on his own to tell the guys, not wanting them to read about it in the newspaper or hear it on the news. They thought he was joking until he showed them the proof.

They had been shocked into silence until Devon had muttered, "Shit, man."

Scotty had actually cried – not snot-producing sobbing, but a quivering of his chin and a welling of his eyes that nearly induced the same reaction in Drake until he had threatened to throw him out of the band if he didn't stop. They had all laughed then and it was almost like it used to be. Almost.

He still hadn't found the nerve to tell them why, though. Perhaps he'll leave that one to the media.

He finishes drying off and hangs the towel on the rack next to the shower. He still wonders sometimes what it must've been like for Josh that night. He's never asked; he's not sure he wants to know. But he thinks about it anyway, trying to imagine what it would be like for him if the tables were turned. Rarely does he get past the sight of Josh lying unconscious in the shower. That part bothers him a lot.

Putting on his pajamas, he stands in front of the sink and rubs away a circle of steam from the mirror with his sleeve, studying his reflection closely. The dark circles under his eyes aren't as pronounced as they used to be and he considers that a personal victory. He still has nightmares, but they're not as frequent. It's as if sharing his secrets with others has diluted his pain a little.

Diluted, but not dissolved. He still carries it with him everywhere and thinks he probably always will.

He brushes his teeth and heads to his bedroom. Josh turns his head to look at him when he walks through the door. "How was your shower?"

Drake shakes his head, smirking. "Wet," he answers. It's the same thing every time, but the routine is comforting.

Josh grins. "And hot?"

"Like a swimsuit model," Drake says, smiling, finishing the bit. He nods in the direction of the open laptop in front of Josh. "Whatcha doin'?"

"Oh, this?" Josh asks, folding the top of the computer closed quickly. "Nothin'."

But Drake knows. "Josh, leave it alone, man," he says. "You've been working on that thing since we were freshmen."

Josh looks sheepish. "I know. But it has to be perfect."

Drake rolls his eyes as he steps down into the room. "It's just a speech, man. No one's even gonna remember it. That's if they're even listening." He hears Josh's strangled snort of indignation and smiles.

"How can you say that?" Josh says. "Everyone will be listening. Everyone."

Drake turns, pasting a serious expression on his face. "Not everyone," he says, lifting one eyebrow suggestively. "I plan on taking my iBot."

Josh's mouth moves soundlessly. "My own brother. A traitor," he finally says, shaking his head. But Drake can see the laughter in his eyes.

"What you should do is write Mr. and Mrs. Crenshaw a thank you note for moving to Zimbabwe and taking Mindy with them," Drake says. "Otherwise, you would never have been valedictorian."

"Yeah," Josh says, but then his face falls and he looks down at his half-closed computer. "You're probably right."

Drake instantly regrets his words. "Josh," he says, "forget I said that. I was just kidding. Really. You deserve it, man. I'm proud of you." He sighs heavily when Josh doesn't look up. "My foot sure does taste good," he says under his breath.

But Josh looks up and smiles at him. "You're proud of me?"

Drake's throat suddenly feels tight. "You know I am."

Josh's gaze fills with what Drake secretly refers to as his marshmallow look: a mushy sweetness that softens his eyes. "Aw, geez," Josh says, that sly little grin curving his lips.

"Yeah, so don't get all twitchy and start sweating tomorrow, alright?" Drake says, his voice casual, stopping the flow of emotion before it starts. "You know how you get."

Josh smirks at him. "No way, bro. I've got it under control. I'm just gonna picture everyone in their underwear." He waggles his eyebrows.

"Not Maddie," Drake says, pointing his finger at Josh. "She's off-limits to your warped imagination."

Laughing, Josh relents, holding up his hands. "Alright, alright," he says. "I promise."

"That's better," Drake says, grinning back.

A moment passes between them.

"We should probably get some sleep," Drake says, breaking the silence. "Big day tomorrow."

Josh opens his laptop as he gives Drake a guilty look. "You go ahead," he says. "I'm just gonna make a few changes. You can turn out the light, though."

"Josh," Drake says, exasperated. He walks over to the far wall and flips off the overhead light. Then he stands and looks at his brother, whose face looks ghostly in the bluish light from the computer screen. "You'll be great. Don't worry about it."

One corner of Josh's mouth curves up into a half-smile. "Ten minutes," he says. "I swear."

Drake shakes his head. "Goodnight, Josh," he says, smiling. Walking over to his bed, he climbs up and crawls beneath the covers, rolling onto his stomach into his comfortable position. Burying his arms beneath his pillow, his head sinks into it as his eyelids close heavily.

He's on the edge of sleep when he hears Josh say, "Drake?"

"Yeah?" Drake says sleepily, not lifting his head off the pillow.

"I'm proud of you, too."

"My boys," Audrey says with pride when Drake and Josh emerge from the stairwell in full graduation regalia. "So handsome."

Drake laughs, cutting through the mush by saying, "Well, one of us is, at least." He casts a sidelong glance at Josh, who predictably protests.

"Relax, dude. I was referring to you," Drake says, batting his eyelashes at his brother facetiously.

Josh makes kissing noises in Drake's direction. "Why, thank you, dah-ling."

"Gag me," Megan says, rolling her eyes. But the smile on her face belies her sarcasm.

"Let's get a picture of the two graduates!" Walter exclaims, shaking a digital camera in the air.

As the two boys mug for the camera, Drake makes a mental note to download the pictures onto his phone. He wants to remember this moment.

As the principal, Mr. Henderson, drones on about the brightness of the future, Drake scans the sea of blue in front of him. Scotty, who's two rows up, has taped three drumsticks to his cap in the shape of a pyramid despite the principal's warning not to alter their caps or gowns in any way.

"Dude," he'd said to Drake in the parking lot, "I gotta stand out for my granny. She doesn't see too good, you know, and I want her to be able to pick me out."

Drake smiles at the thought now because right before they went inside, Josh's Grammy had tried to convince him to paste a big "#1" on his cap. But, Josh being Josh, he had refused.

The feel of his phone vibrating inside his pocket startles him and he digs in his pocket for it just as Mr. Henderson introduces Eric Blonnowitz and Craig Ramirez to the audience. The two actually tied for salutatorian and Josh told him they were planning some sort of extravagant nerd-a-palooza in lieu of a speech.

His heart doesn't freeze in his chest anymore when his phone rings; he's got a new phone with a new number. His old phone was confiscated by the investigators working for the district attorney's office and will be used as evidence in Mr. Bradford's trial, which Ms. Ryan said will be starting in less than a month.

The screen on his phone tells him he's got a new text message and when he opens his mailbox, a slow smile spreads across his face. It's from Maddie.

"blah blah blah"

Drake stifles a laugh, then looks up at the stage, where Craig and Eric are regaling the audience with their rendition of Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)", complete with props and pantomime.

Rolling his eyes, Drake types back, "u r not as fat as u imagine"

Several seconds later, Maddie responds. ":P!! floss"

Drake: "stretch"

Maddie: "sing"

Drake: "get plenty of calcium"

Maddie: "do 1 thing everyday that scares u"

Drake doesn't respond to that one for a long moment, then finally types back, "i love you", being careful to spell the words correctly so there isn't any confusion about his meaning. He stares at the words as he takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. This is it, he thinks. This is today's scary thing. He closes his eyes as he presses the SEND button.

It seems to take forever for her to respond and the breath he's been holding burns in his lungs. Finally, his phone buzzes in his hand and his eyes fly open. He realizes his fingers are trembling as he opens the message.

"i love you, too"

Drake finally lets out his breath as he feels his mouth curve into a goofy smile.

"But trust us on the sunscreen," Craig and Eric say in unison in the background.

The second Josh walks up to the podium, Drake gets a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. It's something in the intense way Josh meets his eyes across the wide expanse and the flicker of something unknown across Josh's face that makes Drake uneasy.

"Good afternoon, everyone," Josh says into the microphone after adjusting it to his height. He nervously clears his throat. Picking up the neatly typed pages of his speech, he holds them up. "I've been working on this speech since I was fourteen. I've agonized over every word, researched inspirational quotes, searched for the perfect anecdotes. I've gone from trying to be funny to trying to be motivational to trying to be a mixture of both. I was still working on it last night." He pauses and catches Drake's eyes again briefly before turning them back to the audience. "But you know what? I'm not going to read it." Then he does something that shocks Drake into total stillness – he tears the pages in half and drops them to the stage.

"I was going to talk about how the future is ours and how it's up to us to change the world. About how great leaders are made, not born, and how we all have the potential to be great leaders. But as I was sitting up here, I realized that none of that really matters. Not because it's not important. Because it is and I absolutely believe every word of it." He pauses, takes a breath, and meets Drake's eyes across the room. "But if there's one thing I've learned this year, it's that life is the most important thing of all. Without it, there's nothing. It's the most valuable, the most…precious thing we have and we need to cherish it. My brother taught me that."

Drake feels his heart thud against his chest, but doesn't move a muscle.

"Drake," Josh says, and suddenly it feels like there's no one else but them in the room. "It's been a tough year. And it's not over yet. But we've made it through so far and we'll make it through the rest." His voice cracks a little on the last couple words and he smiles. "I know you're probably gonna kill me for embarrassing you like this, but I'm willing to risk it," he says, laughing. "Because I just want you to know how much I admire you."

Drake's throat burns and he bites the inside of his bottom lip to keep the tears from falling.

"You did it, man," Josh says. "You made it."

Drake works his right index finger behind the knot of his tie and tugs on it irritably the second he walks out of the courtroom. He's just finished testifying in The People of the State of California v. Nathan Elliot Bradford and feels completely wrung out.

It's been a very long two days.

His family, who'd been waiting for him in the hallway at his request, stands when they see him and he responds to the question in his mom's eyes before she can put a voice to it.

"I'm fine," he says.

"You look exhausted," Walter says.

"I am," Drake says, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I think I could sleep for about a week."

"Do you want to go home?"

"In a minute," Drake says, nodding. "I need to use the restroom first."

His dress shoes click against the hard floor as he walks to the men's room. Pushing open the heavy, wood-paneled door, he's greeted by the strong smell of bleach and industrial cleanser. The air conditioner hums noisily inside the high-ceilinged room and the sound of the stall door closing echoes loudly off the hard surfaces.

He doesn't really need to go; he just wants a few minutes to himself. Sitting down on the toilet, he rests his head in his hands and closes his eyes.

It was weird sitting on the witness stand, answering question after question the way he'd been instructed by Ms. Ryan. "Be specific," she had told him. "Only answer what you're being asked. No more, no less."

She had been right about the tenacity of the defense attorney. He'd come on strong, trying to intimidate Drake with his voice and stature. But Drake had one thing on his side: the truth.

"Just tell the truth," Ms. Ryan had told him. "It's our best weapon."

There was a lot of evidence and none of it seemed to help the defense in the least. The prosecution had taken the two cell phones – his and Mr. Bradford's – and had constructed a transcript using the various text messages, complete with dates and times. The picture it painted was an ugly one.

Then there was the lone voicemail Drake had left once upon a time after Mr. Bradford's very first text message. It had never been erased.

The most damning piece of evidence, however, was the recording Drake had made the night of the shooting. Drake had had to listen to it word by word during his testimony in order to corroborate its contents. Ms. Ryan had even called Claire Hanover to the stand so she could corroborate the part of the conversation she had overheard in the parking lot – the most crucial part, as it turned out.

His testimony had ended with Ms. Ryan, on re-direct, asking him, "Once more for the record. Is the man who raped you in this courtroom today?"

"Yes," Drake had said.

"Please point him out to the jury."

Drake had looked at the jury for a moment – eight women and four men, a combination Ms. Ryan had said was favorable for the prosecution – and then pointed to Nathan Bradford, who was sitting at the defense table in a neat gray suit, looking back at him evenly. Drake had wanted to see him in his prison clothes. "He's sitting over there," he'd answered. "In the gray suit."

Sighing, he sits up. He really is tired, all the way down to his bones.

Standing, he exits the stall and walks to the row of sinks, bending to splash water on his face. Drying his face with a wad of paper towels, he goes out to join his family.

He's done all he can. Now all he can do is wait.

He never thought it would ever happen, but the guitar feels awkward in his hands. Ever since his conversation with Megan weeks ago, he's been afraid to pick it up, afraid to find out he's lost the ability to play.

But the wait is killing him. It's been three days since the case went to the jury. Three days. And still no word.

So he's decided to try to fill the void with music, like he used to.

Tentatively, he strums a chord. It sounds a little a little flat and he tightens one of the strings by turning its tuning peg a tiny bit. He tries the chord again. It sounds perfect, the sound resonating richly from the instrument.

Drake feels himself smile.

The last strains of the song dissipate into the warm night air and Drake opens his eyes. He's spent the last several hours working on it, skipping dinner, tuning out the rest of the world. The muscles in his hands and arms ache, but it's a good kind of ache. It's the kind of ache that reminds him he's still alive.

He sighs and picks up the phone, which lies face-up on the table in front of him. Pressing it to his ear, he can hear her breathe.

"Well?" he finally asks when she doesn't speak.

"Oh, Drake…" she says.

Drake smiles. "Is that 'Oh, Drake, you're so awesome' or 'Oh, Drake, that's eight minutes of my life I'll never get back'?"

"It's beautiful," Maddie says.

"Glad you think so," he says. "'Cause I wrote it for my girlfriend. Do you think she'll like it?"

He can almost hear her eyes roll. "I think she'll love it," she says.

A moment of silence passes between them. Then Drake says, "It's not the one I played at the mall."

"It's better," she says.

"I even had my eyes closed," Drake says.

Maddie laughs. "Good. 'Cause that's how I imagined you playing it."

"I wanted to play it for you in person, but I couldn't wait."

"That's alright," she says. "It's kinda romantic like this."

"Romantic, huh? Well, I try."

She laughs and then the sound fades away, leaving only the soft static on the line and the sound of their breathing.

"I was so scared, you know," Drake finally says, "that I wouldn't be able to play anymore."

"I know," she says.

"I thought that what I'd done…"

"But it didn't," she says, interrupting him. "It didn't."

Another moment passes and he pushes a breath roughly past his lips. "This waiting is killing me," he says, frustrated.

"They'll find him guilty, Drake."

He wants to believe her, but the little voice inside his head – the one telling him that Mr. Bradford, after everything, is going to get away with it – won't shut up. "What if they don't?" he asks, his voice tight.

In the end, the jury decides there isn't enough evidence to prove the kidnapping charge, but Nathan Bradford is convicted on the other seven counts, including rape. If it wasn't for Audrey and Walter holding him up, Drake is sure he would collapse into a puddle on the floor.

A week later, Drake's wish to see Mr. Bradford in prison garb is fulfilled when they all gather back in the courtroom for sentencing. A week in the general prison population has changed the man in profound ways. He looks pale, the dark circles under his eyes making them look hollow. His bright orange jumpsuit hangs off his body, whether because he's lost weight or because it's a size too big, Drake doesn't know.

But most of all, Nathan Bradford looks small. It amazes Drake, looking at him now, that he was ever afraid of this man. But then he remembers the strength in the man's body and the feral look in his eyes and realizes the man standing defeated in the front of the room has a completely different side to him. A dangerous side.

When the judge asks if the defendant has anything to say before sentence is passed, Mr. Bradford mumbles, "I'm terribly sorry for what I've done and if I could take it back, I would," in a voice devoid of emotion and without making eye contact with anyone.

The judge nods, says, "Very well," and passes on his sentence.

Fifteen years.

Drake gazes impassively at the man sitting across from him. He has skin the color of white coffee and kind brown eyes that have seen the darkness in people yet are still compassionate. The top two buttons of his blue button-down hang open and his left ankle is crossed over his right knee in a casual pose that Drake knows is meant to make his patients feel more comfortable.

It works. At least for him.

Dr. Elias Allon smiles slightly, his eyes drifting to the scars on Drake's exposed wrists. They're a dark pink color, not old enough to have faded yet to a shiny white, and they march along his skin like trails of fire ants. It's the first time Drake hasn't had them covered up in all the time he's been coming to see him.

"What?" Drake asks him, mirroring the man's expression, a tentative smile tweaking his lips. They're sitting in matching overstuffed armchairs the color of dust. The patch of sunlight on the carpet has shifted in the last 45 minutes, the edge of it now just touching the toes of Drake's boots. He's been coming to see the psychologist for nearly three months now.

Dr. Allon looks up, meeting Drake's eyes across the small expanse. "Have you ever read The Scarlet Letter?"

The question seems odd. "Huh?"

The psychologist's smile widens. "Not much for the classics?"

Drake shrugs. "Not much for books."

Dr. Allon looks at him appraisingly for a moment, leaning back in his chair and tenting his fingers below his chin. "It's about a woman who has committed adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet 'A' on her chest as punishment."


The doctor meets his eyes. "She has to display it for all the world to see, as a constant reminder of her sin." He lowers his hands and rests them on the armrests, his long, slender fingers curving over the ends.

Drake just looks at him as a tiny seed of understanding begins to germinate in the back of his mind. "Everyone stares at her," he says, understanding. He draws his arms in, folding them across his stomach. The movement is involuntary, like breathing.

Dr. Allon takes a moment before answering. "That's the point," he says. "To shame her."

Drake just nods, biting the inside of his cheek.

The dynamic has shifted into something more intimate. They're not talking about the book anymore. The doctor studies him for a long moment, his brown eyes moving from Drake's face to his hands and back again. "You're not hiding them anymore," the doctor says.

Drake turns his hands over in a gesture of nonchalance, but the movement is careful and practiced. His scars flash defiantly, stark against the pale skin of his wrists. "It doesn't bother me." The words are deliberate, spoken in a voice tinged with defiance.

"What doesn't?"

"The staring," Drake says. "People can't help themselves."

"Why do you think that is?" Dr. Allon asks him, tilting his head slightly.

Drake answers immediately. "Because it comforts them."

"What do you mean?"

But Drake thinks the doctor knows exactly what he means. He sighs, indulging the man by answering anyway. "People look at me, they see the scars, they think, 'Wow, he's nuts. Look at what he did to himself. I could never do anything like that.' " A small smirk twists his lips. "People like knowing there's someone out there crazier than they are."

Dr. Allon can't help but smile a little. "I had a professor in grad school that used to say, 'Luckily for us, everyone's a little crazy.' " His eyes sparkle as he lifts his hands from the chair, then drops them again. "It's good for business."

"I bet." Drake's smiling as he gazes out the window, but the expression slowly dissolves away after a few seconds. The doctor's office is on the fourth floor of a highrise and Drake watches a bird fly past with what looks like torn paper clutched in its claws. Nesting material. Life goes on. It amazes him how so much life can thrive in the city.

Drake can feel the man's eyes on him, but it no longer makes him uncomfortable. Months of calm patience have made Drake feel safe in the doctor's presence. "I've got nothing to be ashamed of," he says, turning his eyes back to the doctor and meeting the man's gaze unflinchingly.

"You're right," Dr. Allon says. "You don't."

"Something happened to me," Drake continues, his voice gaining strength. He unfolds his arms and rests them once again on the arms of the plush chair, plucking a piece of lint off the fabric and rolling it between his finger and thumb before flicking it away. "Something bad." A hard, resolute edge creeps into his eyes. "But I survived," he says, his voice softer, huskier. He holds the doctor's gaze for a long, silent moment. "I survived."


I know, I know. Sappy, huh? Well, I thought since I'd put the boys through so much, I'd give them a little happiness. I think they deserve it, don't you?

Please review one final time and let me know what you thought of the ending. Thank you!