Grim Reality

Chapter Sixteen- Editing the Future

Author's Notes
I will waive any author notes until the end.

Day Eleven- Mercy Hospital- Room 66- 4:08 PM

Never in a million years did Mike expect to find himself here. Rika did nothing to deserve this. She didn't deserve to be lying on a hospital bed, teetering between life and death. She didn't even deserve to be in this game to begin with. It was unnecessarily cruel and Mike knew it. But there was no doubt in his head that what he may have to do to her next was the worst fate of them all.

Mike was within reach of the large plug that connected everything to the power supply. It was a relatively mundane task- pull it from the outlet. Doing this would disrupt the electrical connection, which was used to power most of the machines, which in turn were used to regulate her breathing and monitor her vital signs. Thinking about it that way sounded like it was a lie. What he was doing was killing her.

Still, an obligation was an obligation. He held the phone to his ear, waiting for Manny to give a signal of any kind. He heard someone breathing heavily outside. Mike thought he had successfully evaded Izzy and Yui.

"I don't know what he's doing in there," Mike could faintly hear from the hallway. Apparently Izzy was trying to prevent Mike from hearing. It didn't work. Izzy continued, "I don't think he knows we're out here." Wrong.

Mike looked at Rika again. This was going to be even more difficult than before…

Moore Facility- Cafeteria- 4:08 PM

"I was never a fan of violence, and this is why."

It took all of Gary's mental strength not to collapse in shock. The situation was particularly bad for him- he had nothing to do with any of this, yet he was the one with the business end of a pistol in his face. He wasn't involved with the theft. He didn't want to be involved with the theft. Gary knew exactly where his loyalty lied.

"Jokes over you three… you might want to consider giving it back," he said with staggered breathing. He could only pray that Tracey wouldn't do anything stupid.

"Mr. Wenzler, can we talk about this?" Henry attempted to reason with Dave.

"I think our conversation at my house was enough talk." Dave clutched the gun, his finger resting on the trigger. "We really want that key back, and I wouldn't test how badly we want it back."

"Tracey… what are you waiting for?" Gary was now officially panicking.

Tracey folded his arms. "There's a problem. We don't have it."

"What?" Gary and Dave replied simultaneously.

"We… we gave the key to Tai," Takato explained.

Tracey remained calm, "If you want it, you're going to have to talk to him. So stop threatening to kill Gary. Go threaten to kill Tai. Gary has nothing to do with this, so leave him alone."

Dave didn't budge. "I have a better idea. You go find your best friend Tai, and bring him down here so we can chat."

That was when Tracey noticed a shadow behind Dave. He couldn't see who it was, but perhaps he was siding with the good guys.

Tracey moved forward. "All right. I'll, uh… be right back." Cautiously, he walked towards the exit, making sure that Dave wasn't going to do anything sneaky. Now Tracey could get a better view of the figure. Whoever it was, it was calculating the move carefully. An arm reached towards the gun. Tracey stood on the opposite side of Gary, and Dave eyed Tracey carefully.

It didn't take a second for it to come to a head. The arm lashed out at Dave, grabbed the arm with the gun, and pulled it behind Dave's back. A second hand carefully ripped the gun out of Dave's palm. Now free from the icy stare of the gun barrel, Gary instinctively ran up and threw a punch to Dave's face. Dave was knocked out; the crisis was averted.

Henry and Takato ran up to make sure Dave was down for the count. After verification, they looked back up at the mysterious savior. "Ryo, what are you doing here?" Henry asked.

Ryo carefully put his hand around the gun. He wasn't exactly sure as to how it was supposed to be carried. "Oh, hello. I was just returning a favor to Gary. He helped me beat Ryoga."

Gary was still in shock. Partially because it all ended so fast, partially because his brain barely registered when he socked Dave, and partially because he had virtually forgotten about his deal with Ryo. He shook it off and flashed his usual arrogant smile. "Well thanks a lot. I guess we're even now."

It was almost too strange for Tracey. "If this weren't such a serious situation, I'd probably face fault," he muttered.

Gary looked down at Dave. It must have been a good decking, since Dave was clearly unconscious. "If Wenzler here was this desperate, somebody better go tell Tai what happened." Suddenly, the cause took on a more personal meaning to Gary. Suddenly, he wanted to be a part of it.

"Henry and I can take care of that," Takato volunteered.

He and Henry started down the hall. On the way, Henry stopped when he saw Ryo analyzing the gun. "Hey Ryo, what should we do with that?"

Ryo eyed Henry, "Well, like Gary said these guys are pretty desperate. Also I saw Manny Edwards here too. So to answer your question…" Ryo aimed the gun straight ahead, at a wall, "…what else are we going to do with it?"

1st Floor Hallway- 4:09 PM

The occupants of the room- Tai, Miaka, and Kari, had exited upon hearing Manny's threat. His phone was at his side, and at any moment he could give Mike the command to end Rika's life. It certainly wasn't an idle threat.

"What are you talking about?" Tai wasn't sure exactly what Manny was implying. He didn't want to take chances, but wanted to make sure he knew the situation.

Manny shook the phone, "I got Mike at the hospital on the other end. One word… and he pulls the plug. I'm sick of goofing around with this. Now hand over any keys you have on you."

Kari shouted, "You… you're sick, Manny. What makes you think this is okay?"

"Kari, do you think I like killing twelve-year-olds?"

"So far, it's been hard to tell," Miaka said with a tone of cynicism.

"You have no idea how much we want this series to be completed."

Tai stepped forward. "Look, before was bad enough. But think about this Manny: you're talking about killing her. Forever."

"And even worse, you took that group in the middle of their adventures." Kari backed her brother up. "Without Rika, Takato and Henry will be in the thick of things with one less fighter. They won't be able to save the world without her."

"What's going on?" All four turned to see Takato, running into the hallway. "What's this about Rika?"

Manny remained calm, eyeing both Takato and the triumvirate on the other side. He addressed Kari's concerns, "Unfortunately, you're right. The other Tamers would be deposited back into their series down one member. The series of events would progress without her... Beelzemon, D-Reaper and all." Manny glanced at Takato and turned back to Kari. "It doesn't bother us. We have the series filmed to completion. Once it's on tape, any changes don't affect it. But yeah, her friends would certainly notice. You may be dooming more than just Rika if you don't give me the keys."

Tai stepped back. He looked at Takato. The poor kid wasn't sure what was going on, but the tone of the conversation had left him silent and scared. If only there was a way for him to make sure Manny was serious and capable of following through.

"What?" Manny put the phone up to his ear, still keeping an eye on the four. "Okay. Yeah, that sucks, but you still might have to do it. Sorry…"

Manny put the phone down and turned to Tai, "I bet Izzy and Yui are starting to regret stealing Tom's car. It won't be a pretty sight for them to see."

The keys were in Tai's pocket. He stuck a hand in there and felt them. Takato was witness to Tai's decision. Izzy was actually at the hospital. Manny knew about it, so Mike must have been down there as well. This wasn't a joke, and unfortunately the risk was too great. He couldn't force Izzy to make the sacrifice. He couldn't force Takato or his friends to make the sacrifice.

He fetched the two keys and placed them in Manny's outstretched palm, "Okay, take them… just leave her alone. She's gone through enough as it is."

"Got 'em Mike. You can breathe now," Manny dropped the phone to his side and turned around.

He was met with a gun in his face, held by Ryo Akiyama. Takato and Henry flanked the Tamer.

Ryo wore a wicked smile, "Did I hear you threatening to kill Rika?" Ryo shook his head. "Not smart." It was Ryo's turn to extend a hand. "Hand them over."

It didn't take long for Manny to think about the decision. Negotiations were a lot easier when cold metal was involved. Manny silently cursed Dave for bringing the damn thing into the building in the first place, and he handed them to Ryo.

"Tai- stop goofing around and get these out of here." Ryo held the keys out.

"Hold on… what about your key Manny?" Tai said as he took the keys from Ryo.

"You think I'm stupid enough to bring them here? Good luck finding them, Kamiya," Manny spat back.

Ryo took a second to analyze Manny's words. "He's not lying Tai. Get going."

Tai pocketed the keys and swiftly ran past Ryo. Kari and Miaka followed him, both expressing their gratitude on the way out.

Ryo continued to point the weapon at Manny. Manny slowly sidestepped in an effort to get away from Ryo, but Ryo simply sidestepped along with him. "Okay, he's got the damn keys. Will you drop that thing?"

"Why should I? I mean, think about it- you've been watching all of us get killed pretty much guilt-free. The way I see it… a little payback wouldn't be all such a bad idea."

Manny gulped. "Ryo… you can't do that."

"Why? Because we're supposedly fictional characters while you're reality?" Ryo waited for Manny to nod before smiling, "Too bad this gun is real too. And like you, I don't have to worry about getting into any trouble. At least if Tai knows what the heck he's doing with those keys. I'll be back home in a jiffy, and nobody will be the wiser."

"Ow… damn…" Dave entered the hallway, clutching his head. He was only out for a couple minutes. Immediately, Ryo pointed the gun at Dave. "Aw, shit…"

"Be careful, Dave, he's serious." Manny warned.

Dave promptly whapped Manny across the back of the head. "Manny, the damn thing's not loaded. You think I'm some sort of nut?"

Suddenly, the tables had turned. Manny was now the one approaching Ryo.

Ryo smiled, "Huh. Well, that sucks. Too bad you gave the keys away anyway!"

"You gave him your keys?" Dave asked Manny, in shock.

Manny wasn't listening. He was still staring at Ryo. Without looking, he brought the cell phone to his ear. He no longer had any hesitancy about it.

"Mike- kill her."

Ryo charged after Manny, but was immediately restrained by Dave.

"Yes. The situation has changed. They need something to fear." Manny concluded his conversation, put the phone away, and walked past Ryo. "That should teach you to not fuck with us."

Ryo was helpless to do anything but fall to the ground. He was supposed to be the big hero. Instead, he killed Rika…

Mercy Hospital- Room 66- 4:12 PM

He thought the situation had subsided. He thought it was all over. He was about to calmly walk out of the room and coax Izzy and Yui back to Moore.

Mike dared not make a move towards the plug until now. If necessary, he was hoping one swift motion would end it all before the two kids would realize what happened. He extended a hand towards the outlet. He gripped his hands around the plug. One tug would do it.

"What the hell are you doing?!" Izzy rushed into the room.

"Hold it right there!" Mike threatened to pull it. That stopped Izzy fast.

"Mike… what's going on? What are you doing to her?"

Mike gulped. He was supposed to be the one in charge of the situation. He was taking the hostage. He was the one whose demands should be met to ensure stability. Yet, he felt like everything was flying over his head.

"Just turn around and walk out Izzy. I'll give you and Yui a head start towards Tom's car," That sounded demanding enough. Mike reassured himself that he was supposed to be the bully. It was the only option.

"And leave you here with Rika's life in your hand? You know I can't do that, Mike."

Mike hesitated. As long as he kept his palm on the plug, Izzy was powerless.

"What is this supposed to accomplish?" Yui stood out from behind Izzy. She was going through a nervous breakdown. Therefore, the bickering between Izzy and Mike was starting to annoy her.

She continued, "I mean, look at this- you're threatening to kill her. Why? What's the point?"

Mike remained silent.

Yui chuckled grimly, "That's what I thought. Everybody's so concerned about what they're supposed to do to get they want. Somehow they forget two things- what they're doing, and what they want."

After trying to think about the statement, Mike shook his head. "Stop that."

Now Yui smiled, "What? Am I confusing you? Admit it- you forgot what the point is. You forgot why you're doing all this. And like everybody in your situation, it's a selfish motivation that clouds judgment and impairs vision."

"Shut up now. Another word and I kill her," Mike was trying to remain in control. He really was. But Yui was on a roll, and she wasn't to be denied.

"See what I mean? You're not even thinking about it. You have no idea what you want. All you know is that killing this girl will get you there. As much of an ass as she was, I don't see how it relates. Unless killing her will somehow save your precious little game." Yui looked at Izzy. "But it won't. Go ahead and kill her. It won't stop me. And it definitely won't stop Izzy."

Mike looked over at Izzy for verification. "She's right." Izzy folded his arms, "If there's one thing we've learned… if you kill someone's sister or brother… you're pretty much screwed."

"I… I was given the order to…"

"Doesn't matter. Nobody has to know." Izzy took a step forward. "All of this has gone way too far. It has to be stopped and you know it. And we can stop it. Just have faith in us, and by this time tomorrow Rika will be back home… and your co-workers will never notice that you didn't kill her."

Mike had been thinking the whole time. He didn't act like it, but the gears were turning. They had been for a few days. He definitely didn't want to have to kill Rika, but disobeying an order like that was bound to have a negative impact on his career.

"If it's really a problem, just say we beat you up," Yui added.

Mike looked at Rika one more time. There wasn't enough reason for it. Maybe if the path was clearly marked, and that her death would have a profound positive impact, then perhaps he'd be willing to bite the bullet and do the deed. But whether or not she died didn't seem to have enough impact. It was unnecessary, gratuitous, and cruel.

His hand slid off the cord and into his right pocket.

"Take it." Mike held his key towards Izzy. He just wanted it all to be over with.

"Thank you," Izzy said, taking the key, staring at it before placing it in his own pocket. "Doesn't it feel good to do the right thing for a change?" He and Yui ran out, leaving Mike alone in the room.

It didn't feel like the right thing. Mike was trapped. He was stuck between either killing Rika or a clear act of defiance. Both were wrong. Perhaps with the key, the children would be able to end it swiftly and everything could be forgotten. Mike wanted nothing more than to return to his routine. Most of the shows he held domain over all had happy endings. He was able to create a happy ending out of one show that didn't have one. Right now, it was what Mike longed for most. Even if his side fell in defeat.

The infernal phone's ringing jolted Mike out of his thoughts again. He didn't dare answer it. He couldn't lie and say she was dead, and he was definitely not about to tell Manny what really happened. Perhaps he would use Yui's excuse and say they used force against him. Perhaps he'd come clean eventually. Right now, it didn't matter. Mike was going to go for a quiet drive and sort everything out, letting whatever happen at Beeda or Moore or Kohler happen on its own.

The phone was his last method of contact with the others. Mike set it down gently on a table next to Rika's bed. After all, she was the one that gave it to him.

Moore Facility- Lobby- 4:13 PM

Just because our show representatives are losers doesn't mean our shows have to be!

Tai and the girls didn't have much time. Fortunately, they had some help.

"Tai! Do you have all the keys you can get here?" Gary was running up to them.

"Yeah. I'm pretty sure of it. We need to hit…" Tai stopped, "Wait a second, when were you involved with this?"

"Let's just say I'm really pissed off at them right now. That…" Gary fetched his own set of keys from his pocket and swung them at Tai, "And Tracey and I did some rummaging after I cold-cocked Wenzler. I think you have a ride back to Kohler."

Kari was in shock, "Are you the same Gary from before?"

Gary smiled and looked into Kari's eyes, "You know something… I don't think so."

"Good thing I grabbed the map when we left," Miaka pulled it out from under her shirt and handed it to Tai.

"That's… great… but it's not like any of us can drive," Tai said, although Gary didn't seem to hear him. He just continued to smile.

They heard a commotion from across the room. "But Tracey! I was just about to get Kodachi's phone number!!" The first third wheel was complaining about the second third wheel dragging him across the room by the ear.

Tracey ignored Brock, "Found him Gary!"

Gary gestured at Brock, still looking at Tai, "Your carriage driver awaits." He dropped the keys in Tai's hand.

Tai clasped them and nodded. "Great. Which car does Dave have?"

"It's the black Grand Prix across the street outside," another voice entered the discussion. Tai turned around. It was Sora.

She approached him. "Tai, I know you have to get going, so I'll only tell you to be careful… and good luck." Regardless of her statement, she brought her lips forward and kissed him. It was just a short peck; she leaned back a few seconds later, "And that we'll have to have a long talk with Matt when we get home. We should have done it a long time ago."

"Well, Tai's gotta go save the day, so we better not keep him waiting!" Tracey stepped between the two, and pushed Tai towards the door. Brock followed them out. Tai made sure the gate was unlocked, and they hopped in Dave's car.

Inside, Tai turned to Brock, "Did I just hear Tracey cheering me on?"

Brock smiled as he pulled out and headed towards Main Street, "No… I think what you heard was Tracey stepping between you and Sora."

"Ah." Tai dropped the issue, "Well, we have other things to worry about right now."

Dave felt his pockets, "Shit Manny- they took my keys!"

Manny looked outside the window and said, "Worse than that- I think they took your car. Come on!"

They both ran outside and into Manny's vehicle. They both buckled up and drove off after Brock and Tai.

"Any word from Mike?" Dave asked.

"No… but right now we have to get back to Kohler. I'll drop you off at Beeda and you can make sure things are still secure there."

"Right. Can I ask why?"

"Because. Barb's the only one at Kohler… and Artie's the only one at Beeda."

Dave stared at his own car, quite a few lengths ahead. "We're screwed."

Lounge- 4:15 PM

While the commotion was going on all around them, Takato and Henry were concerned with another issue- Madison. She was still lying on the chair where Manny left her.

"Madison… snap out of it." Henry said. He had to take her pulse to check.

 "I wonder what happened." Takato replied.

Finally, they managed to get her to open her eyes. She looked completely blanked out.

"Madison? Are you okay?"

She turned and looked at Henry. "Who… who are you?" she asked, sounding pale, a little higher in pitch than normal.

"It's me… it's me Henry. Don't you remember?"

"Who… who am I?"

Henry turned to Takato. "Something's wrong with her. Let's get her back to her room." Henry motioned for Takato to pick up her feet.

On their way up, they passed Ryo. The legendary Tamer seemed drained of all his energy.

"Hey, Ryo, what's wrong?" Henry asked in passing.

Ryo looked at the two. He considered delivering the bad news of Rika's death.

"It's… it's nothing. We'll worry about it later," Ryo walked past them. They were in the middle of something. The last thing they needed was more to cry about.

Kohler Complex- Control Room- 4:16 PM

"Manny… you stupid bastard!" Barb did not like the temptation. It was right there in front of her. For ten days, the cameras had been the enemy of the children. It stalked them everywhere. But now, in the most critical moment… it worked against the AA.

Barb replayed the footage again. The monitor picked up exactly what Manny was doing- he was hiding his keys. She knew exactly where he put them.

She told Tenchi her days of betrayal were over. She claimed her allegiance once and for all. Barb was not going to be caught in a trap again. As much as she wanted it to end, she was not going to bring attention to herself.

A knock on the door stirred her out of her thoughts. It was them again. She didn't dare open it. That would be giving into temptation. That would be giving them the window.

"Barb! Is anybody else in there!?" Akane yelled from the other end.

"No! I'm alone in here! And you can't come in!" Barb reassured herself that shutting herself in the control room was the best way to avoid confrontation from either side.

"But Barb!" Akane was not one to avoid confrontation, "Something's wrong with…" She left her last sentence hanging.

Thirty seconds later, there was another knock on the door. "Barb! Open the damn door or I'm liable to break it down myself!" This time, it was Artie. Barb quickly stopped the tape she was watching and opened the door. Denying Artie access would have been asking for trouble.

Men's Restroom- 4:17 PM

While they were all in the reception room, Sakura had drifted off to sleep again. Before the others could do anything to help her, Jeri spotted Artie Elker heading for the control room. They all took cover in the nearest room.

"Matt, you know we're not supposed to be in here?" Jeri said.

"It's a good hiding place… assuming Artie doesn't have to go," Matt countered.

"Is it okay to leave Sakura out there?" Akane asked, looking around to make sure nobody else was in the room with them.

"Artie's not going to suspect Sakura of anything. Let's go, I think the coast is…" Matt was interrupted by the sound of a toilet flushing. The three backed up against the wall, and watched Tim exit a stall.

"What? Smoking between classes?" Tim asked.

"Mr. Jacobson! You haven't been completely corrupted by evil, have you?" Akane approached him.

"Last time I checked, no."

"Could you take a look at Sakura? Something's wrong with her."

Tim nodded and the four exited. Sakura was still lying on a bench. She looked unconscious. Tim only needed one look at her before announcing his diagnosis, "Damn, Manny, you really did it this time."

"What did he do? What's wrong with her?" Jeri queried.

"Physically- just a bit of exhaustion. It's the reason for it that's a bit complicated. Hold on…" Tim pulled out a device. He turned a knob. Nothing happened.

"Mr. Jacobson? Was something supposed to happen?"

"Nothing that you'd notice immediately. I used the personification modulator on her series wavelength."

"That sounds painful…" Matt said.

Tim smiled. "In English… I set the show back in sub mode. She'll still be out, but she'll stop losing energy."

"Why was she losing energy to begin with?" Akane asked.

"Because Manny was fiddling with the D-setting again." Tim explained, "You see, every character has two personas- S-setting is an unalterable, uncontrollable state. We can't influence that in any way. The big problem is that sometimes a persona doesn't work for some reason. Usually, it's just your names."

"What's wrong with our names?"

"When adapting a series for American audiences, we have to change them sometimes." Tim continued, "For that, we have D-setting. We can use D-setting to manipulate a character so that they can recognize a certain name as their own, or in certain situations- change their personalities. Usually we only make very minor adjustments… but I have this funny feeling that Manny went a little overboard with it for Shougai. He must really want this to be a success.

"Since D-setting is completely flexible… I'm guessing that Manny altered the Cardcaptor series to ensure that they would be more competitive than naturally allowable." The four looked at Sakura, resting peacefully, as if she didn't have a care in the world. Tim continued, "Compile that with the D-setting he already had maintained for the series itself… and it was almost too much for her. The S-setting can never be fully eliminated, and the two can only be conflicting up to a certain point. If it's too much… they both collide and negate each other… and ultimately the character is left with no persona at all."

"Oh my God," Akane mouthed what everybody was thinking.

"No kidding. It's a good thing I switched her back. I doubt she would have made it through her next match. I'll have to tell Manny to keep her on S tomorrow." Tim walked away, patting Akane's shoulder, "Lucky you."

Control Room- 4:20

"You haven't heard anything from Manny or Tom?" Artie felt increasingly threatened with every minute that passed. Whatever these kids were doing, it was working. That was scary.

"Nope." Barb was calm. At this point, it didn't matter either way what happened.

"They stole my key… using brute force! This is serious, you should be showing a little more concern."

"Artie, Tim was just over there setting it up so that all of them must be in for it to work. Therefore, unless they get all seven keys, which is extremely unlikely, nothing will happen." Barb was very quietly scanning the cameras. Matt, Akane and Jeri were waiting for something. Sakura was sleeping, as it seemed like she had been for the last two days.

"Barb- you know that they're going to try for all of them. Maybe you should get out of here so they don't get yours." Barb wasn't listening. She was still thinking about everything. Knowing where Manny's keys were was huge. It was a shame she couldn't use that information. At this point, there was no way she could tell Tenchi. If he was to somehow magically spot the keys, all eyes would be on her. She couldn't let that happen.

"Barb?" Artie was growing suspicious, "You do have your key… right?"

She looked back at Artie. "Um…" she fiddled around her pockets. Barb knew she wouldn't find it. She had already given it to Tenchi. But the question now was to lie and say she had it on her… or lie and say she misplaced it. One look at Artie, and one look at the cameras, gave her the answer.

"Oh shit…" Barb feigned surprise, "I set my keys on the end-table in the lounge in Beeda last night. I must have dropped that one.


"Artie! Quick! Go see if it's there! It's probably on the floor somewhere. Maybe they haven't found it yet!"

Artie urgently ran for the door. "Gotcha! I'll be right back!"

He slammed the door shut. Her mouth curled into a smile.

"Baka baka."

Since the group in the reception room had no keys, they were pretty much useless. They saw a machine off in the corner. Judging by the colored keyholes on the console, it was the machine they needed to stick the keys into in order to get home. Therefore, Akane, Jeri, and Matt were guarding it diligently.

Almost immediately, Akane noticed the door to the control room open. She was running up to Barb before Barb was completely out of the door.

"Barb! What is it?"

Barb held out a piece of paper. "Read it," she said, "Understand it. Then give it back to me."

Confused, Akane did so. One look at the paper made her understand. She handed it back, "Thank you."

Barb sighed, then walked back into the control room. It still felt uncomfortable, but at least she did it. It was definitely over now.

"What was it?" Matt asked.

Akane didn't answer. Instead, she obeyed the instructions and crouched down under the standings board. She would never have noticed the loose brick in the wall. She found it, and carefully tried to pull it out. It didn't pull- it swung open.

"The hell?" Matt bent down for a closer look.

Akane pulled out a large box from the hollowed out part inside. On it were a series of placards with everybody's name on it. Clearly, they were stored here for use on the board. She rifled through them, not knowing what she was looking for.

Matt, meanwhile, looked inside the crevasse. A slight gleam of metal, reflecting the light from the room, was all it took. He reached inside.

"Akane…" Akane looked over as Matt pulled out the pink and yellow keys.

Parking Lot- 4:30 PM

The station wagon pulled in first. Izzy and Yui stopped the car, but neither got out.

"What are we waiting for?" Yui asked.

"I don't know. I'd presume that we're supposed to use the keys here, but I don't know where." Izzy paused, then smiled at Yui, "And it would hardly be gentlemanly if Tai and I were the first to leave."

"Wow. We're really going to do this. We're going home. And we'll never see each other again." There was a tone of sadness in her voice.

"That's how it has to be. I wish there was a way around it, but there's no sense dwelling on our obligations."

"I guess this is it then. Goodbye…"

She turned to look at him, and was met with a kiss. One that was different, more powerful, than all the others either had experienced.

They heard another car approaching them and eventually parted lips.

Yui took a couple seconds to breathe. The overwhelming emotion felt with the simple action had gotten to her. "Now that… that was prodigious."

"IZZY!!" Izzy could only smile for a moment before he heard his name being called from outside. It was Tai.

He jumped out of the car. Tai and Brock had both reached Kohler safely and were already running for the building. "What's the status?" Izzy asked them as Yui exited the car.

"So far so good, Izzy. Takato and Henry pulled through, and everybody went nuts," Tai pulled the keys, "We got Tom and Dave. Is Rika okay? We know what happened."

Izzy smiled, "Thanks to Yui, we're fine. She and I talked Mike out of it." He pulled out the blue key, "Maybe they have a conscious after all."

Tai stopped for a moment. Something didn't seem right with all of that…

Brock came running up from behind, "Tai, let's get this over with. Manny and Dave will be here any minute."

Tai shook off his thoughts and the four ran towards the entrance.

"Am I late?" They all turned towards the source of the voice- Tenchi, completing the march from Beeda, "Does that mean I have to sleep in the smart car?"

"Tenchi!" Brock shouted.

Tenchi approached them, "Don't worry. I know everything." He flashed his keys- green and gray. "And I brought gifts."

"Go Chichiri…" Yui stated, in awe.

"Score another one for the fox-eyes!" Brock shouted.

"So all we need to get now is Manny's," Izzy said.

"He said he hid them somewhere. C'mon." Tai beckoned for the fellowship to enter the complex.

On the way to the reception room, Tenchi called out for the others, "Akane! Matt!"

Tai almost stopped. Matt was involved with all this?

Sure enough, he was. Akane, Matt, and Jeri stepped into the hallway. The look on their faces said it all as the living and the dead were reunited. Akane was the first to let her excitement loose, running up and hugging Brock. He gladly accepted it. Matt and Jeri were more contained, although both were pleased to see everybody. Tai and Izzy joined the two.

Jeri finally lost it and hugged Tai. Tai received it, but kept his focus on Matt. He tried to read into his best friend's eyes. There were hints of shame, guilt, and regret. Perfect…

"Good work," Tai said.

Matt didn't acknowledge it. He had but one question, "Where's Sora?"

Tai looked down at Jeri. How was he going to explain what happened? Obviously he knew she was alive- there was no other way he'd be in the same room as Jeri.

Tai decided simply to tell him that she was safe, "She's in good hands." However, a chuckle escaped, "She's with Tracey."

Matt seemed to accept the answer, "Okay. Good. Let's go home." Matt unclasped his palm, revealing the two keys.

"How the heck did…" Tai was in shock. He released Jeri to go in for closer inspection, "Manny said he hid them."

"We found them. Akane and I." Matt dumped them into Tai's palm.

Jeri tugged on Tai's shirt, "The control panel is in the reception room. There's a colored slot for each key."

Tai had to take a moment to stop and look at the two. When he left, Matt had hated Jeri's guts. Now they were working together. He immediately presumed that Jeri must have done something…

Yui stepped in from behind, "I hate to interrupt this love fest, but didn't Brock say that the assholes were right behind us?"

"Right," Tai agreed, then gathered everybody together. Before addressing them, he turned to Matt, "Go out in the parking lot and distract them any way possible. It's too late to take chances."

"Sure thing Tai," Matt replied with a smile, "How will I know when I can come back in?"

Tai looked at the keys. All seven were in his hand. He had the power to send everybody back, "If this all works the way it's supposed to… you won't have to come back in."

Matt seemed to understand. He ran out as the other six gathered around Tai. Tai began to walk towards the reception room. The others followed.

Tai began to call on people, "Jeri…" Jeri looked up as Tai handed her the purple key. "Akane." Tai turned around, found the bluenette, and gave her the red key. "Tenchi." Tenchi made his way forward to Tai, and received the gray key back again. "Yui." Tai didn't have to look for Yui, she was still close by. She received the green key. "Brock." He was still standing near Akane, but snuck over to take the yellow key. "I'll take this one," he said, hanging on to the blue key. "And finally…"

They reached the reception room. Sakura hadn't moved from the bench.

"It's a long story," Akane and Jeri said simultaneously.

"Uh… okay…" Tai turned to Izzy. "Congrats Izzy, you're a Cardcaptor now."

Izzy sweatdropped as he received the pink key. "Uh… thanks."

"Well…" They approached the console, keys in hand, "Let's do this."

Parking Lot- 4:35 PM

Matt patrolled the area. He wasn't sure what to expect, but his task was understood. This was his chance to make up for everything. This was his chance to shine.

He saw a car approaching. Whoever it was, Matt knew he had to stop him. The car slowed down to enter the lot. He drew closer to see who was inside. It was Manny.

Determined to deter him, Matt stepped in front of the already slowing car. He wasn't afraid- he was still alive in the eyes of the game. Manny couldn't touch him. His judgment was accurate, as Manny was forced to stop.

Already irate, Manny poked his head out the window, "Get out of the way!"

"No." Matt held his ground.

Manny stared Matt down for a few moments before emerging back in the car. He pulled into reverse. Matt sighed in relief, which quickly dissipated when the car pulled forward again, this time to the right of Matt. Matt again moved to get in the way. This time, Manny didn't stop.

His right arm collided with the left headlight, sending him reeling past the car. His already injured arm fell onto the hood of a parked car. The pain left Matt frozen, until he could no longer retain consciousness.

With Matt out of the way, Manny parked the car and went inside.

Reception Room- 4:36 PM

It wasn't what Tai had expected. So far, Akane, Brock, Jeri, and Tenchi had turned their keys. The question was whether or not they were still there.

Yui kept a hand on the green key, still in its designated slot, but she was focused on Brock. He was… sort of standing next to her. He was fading in and out of existence. As if the settings on a television needed to be fixed. She ran a hand through him and felt nothing. He wasn't there. It just looked like he was… sort of.

"Yui… I'm sure you'll be fine," Izzy reassured her.

"You better be right about this." After a moment of framing Izzy's face in her memory, Yui turned her key. She too was distorted and blurred.

"Goodbye Yui," Izzy remained solemn.

"Izzy, I have a question- what happens if this doesn't work? There won't be anybody to make sure we all get home."

Izzy looked down and turned his key. Getting Sakura out of there seemed to be more important than answering the question.

"I don't know, Tai. I guess you should just turn it and find out."

"Well… here goes nothing." Tai put a hand on the key.

"You got that right!" Tai quickly turned to his right. Apparently, Matt hadn't distracted Manny for long enough.

"It's over, Manny. Akane and Sakura are gone. You can't have a series without them."

Manny cautiously stepped forward. He kept at a distance, so that neither Izzy nor Tai would do something drastic. "Not true Kamiya. They're just stationary. You need them all turned for it to work. But before you do that, maybe you should think about this."

"Think about what?" Tai barked back. "Going home? Getting out of this hellhole? Starting to put all of this behind us?"

"Start to? Don't you get it Tai? It's on the default setting." Manny smiled, "You pull that and every memory of this series, and all the others, will vanish."

Izzy scoffed. "You're not exactly putting up a compelling argument, Manny. We want to forget about this."

"Are you sure? It'll be as if none of this ever happened. You never met Misty, or Ash, or anybody else you care about."

"We're willing to make that sacrifice," Tai clutched the key; another line from Manny and he was pulling it.

"You never were here, and thus your series will unfold the way it always had… spiraling downwards to the most disastrous conclusion I'd ever seen." Tai and Izzy now were at full attention. "We wanted to show what happened to you all in the future." Manny smiled. "Big mistake."

"What happens to us in the future?" Izzy asked.

"Most of you are miserable. A few bad decisions, a couple unhappy marriages, and a few brief but nasty affairs. I must say Mike really strained himself to make it look like you guys were marginally happy. But he did, because we're such nice people. After all, everybody deserves a happy ending. Even if it is from a very slanted and biased perspective such as ours."

Tai briefly let go of the key. But as soon as Manny stepped forward, Tai returned a hand on it.

"Don't pretend that you don't want to have a good future. Heck, through us you can have a good future with Sora."

"Sora?" Tai had never considered that she'd come into play.

"Of course. I heard that you and her were doing something behind Matt's back. Which leaves you with two options- you can either accept fate and settle for your low-paying unappreciated government job… or roll the dice. You've already confessed to Sora- the hard part's over with."

"You're saying that if Shougai is completed, then we can still retain the memories of our experiences?" Izzy asked.

"Usually we don't, but with you guys… sure. We'd be willing to make an exception. Anything for the course of business."

"Tough." Izzy spat back, "We're not going to let you guys win for a chance to rewrite the future. If that's the hand we're dealt… we'll have to deal with it. Right Tai?"

Tai frowned. It was compelling. His future could be so much brighter if Sora was a part of it. He had been tensing up, preparing for the long talk with Matt. Unfortunately, Izzy was right.

Before Tai could speak, Manny took back his conch shell, "You say that Izzy, but you're not the one with anything on the table. You're one of the lucky ones. But Tai's the one I'm asking. A turn of the key and he sacrifices Sora. She'd be left to marry Matt… and sleep with whomever she can get a cheap thrill with."

"If that's destiny…" Tai said.

"You say destiny as if it's a good thing." Manny looked at Izzy. "I doubt Yui would agree."

Izzy understood, "You mean… she'd just end up back with Nakago and everything I told her would be…"

Manny nodded. "And believe me. The hell she's been through pales in comparison with what she'll go through when she gets back. Izzy, if you care about her… maybe you should think about this."

Izzy froze up. He couldn't possibly do that to someone he cared for. But he couldn't tell Tai not to turn it. He started to run. "Tai… you're on your own. I don't want you to do anything stupid because of me." Tai and Manny could make out tears forming as he ran down the hall.

"So what am I supposed to do?" Tai shouted.

"Give me the key. We'll finish this series up as if nothing happened, and we'll send you all back. Memories intact."

Tai frowned angrily, "And… and you'd just sell it, make a million dollars and do it again next year."

"Well we're not doing another one. After the trouble you put us through… God no. Whether you pull it or not won't change the fact that we're going to leave you alone once you do go back. The question… is whether that will work for you or against you."

Tai looked down at the key. It was a simple motion, which Manny was not physically interrupting. It was a battle of the minds. Ending the game would require a sacrifice. From everybody. Tai felt himself coming apart. His sacrifice was large. Not as big as Yui's perhaps, but still overwhelming. Tai had all that he needed to make a decision.

And he made it.

Odaiba, Japan- One Month Later

"The stars are so pretty tonight," Sora mused as she and Tai laid on the beach blanket together. The beach was hardly hospitable for any beach activities. It was cold, and the water didn't seem safe to look at, much less to go into. As a result, they were alone… almost.

"Sorry I'm late. The doc kept me longer than I thought he would." Matt came walking up to them. His right arm was in a sling, and he wore a neck brace. Sora scooted up next to Tai to make room for Matt. Tai quickly glanced away as he kicked off his shoes and lied down next to Sora, kissing her quickly in the process.

"What's the word?" she asked.

"Should be off in a couple weeks. It doesn't even hurt anymore."

Sora didn't delve any further. He dislocated his shoulder, and he broke his collarbone, but Matt stubbornly refused to explain how it happened. Eventually, Sora and Tai both gave up trying to figure out how it happened.

This wasn't the place for it anyway. The three did this frequently. During the summer, the beach was a featured attraction in the tourist trap that was Odaiba. But at this time of year, it was desolate, and despite the lights across the bay, the stars were still shining. When they were here, they had nothing to worry about.

"So what classes do you have next semester?" Tai started the conversation.

"Eh, usual boring crap," Matt replied, "Although my science teacher convinced me to sign up for astronomy. Who knows? That might be kinda fun."

"It has to be better than chemistry," Tai replied.

They didn't speak for a few minutes. All three quietly took in the atmosphere. Sora quietly snuggled up with Matt.

Tai could still sense her lying next him. He still was in love with her. But he figured that he'd get over it eventually. He wasn't going to take any risks and come forward and say anything about it. Perhaps if Matt was somehow out of the room, and out of mind temporarily, then maybe Tai would say something. But that wasn't going to happen. Sora and Matt were inseparable, and as far as Tai was concerned, nothing he would be willing to do would change that.

He had few regrets about it all. Tai's feelings weren't strong enough to make a big fuss over, and to say anything would seem to Sora as if it were out of left field. He was just going to grin and bear it, and whatever would be would be. He would not regret anything. Not anything in the past, and not anything in the future.

He especially didn't regret giving up the chance to change this fate. After all, he never remembered having the opportunity.

The Amazon- Two Months Later

It was as hot as hell, and Dave wasn't afraid to show it.

"How the hell do you survive out here, Mr. Burnett?"

"Air conditioned huts, Dave. And please, call me Mark."

Dave was led to said hut. Sure enough, it was dramatically cooler inside. Dave let the frosty chill soothe him for a moment before turning to the other man, "Still, must suck living here for a month and a half."

Mark smiled, "Well, I look at it this way- it's a lot harder for the contestants out there."

"That's true."

Mark sat down, "So why the hell did you come all the way? I thought your kids brought the series down."

It was Dave's turn to smile as he found a seat, "Well, they did, and they didn't."

"It's a shame too… I was dying to see Shougai put in action. It's the ultimate series. A situation where people actually have something to lose besides their pride. A series where natural instincts come out. A series where alliances do jack shit. One of these days, Dave, it will be a reality," Mark continued to reflect on his failed creation.

"In a way it will. We're selling it anyway."

Mark looked confused, "But it doesn't have an ending. How can you have a series without an ending? You got to what? The final four in each group?"

"And that's where it ends. But here's our idea… we air the revolt. The kids were miserable the whole time. Sure most people will treat this like any of our other series- they'll pick their favorites to win and cheer for them like normal. But as it goes on and they're exposed to the 'injustices' we throw at them..." Mark seemed interested now. Dave continued, "…People will be cheering for them to try to stop it. And when they do… score one for the good guys and everybody except the lowly Animation Alliance goes home happy."

Mark smiled, "And despite the self-defamation, you walk away with the revenue."

"Exactly. Our biz doesn't make use of our good names, so there's no harm."

Mark pondered the idea. "It's the reality series gone wrong. It's the final blow against the foul oppressors who force them to eat worms and suffer in harsh climates… I love it."

"ABC loved it too. They offered to put it up next to Survivor, but I didn't think you'd like that much. So we sold it to Fox."

"Excellent. The only thing I ask is that you take my name off it. Obviously, my peers won't be happy if they learned I contributed to the 'fictional' story of the doomed vessel that was Shougai."

"Sure thing."

After thinking about it for a moment, Mark raised another idea, "Are you going to call the actual series Shougai?"

Dave nodded in reply, "You know, we were all thinking about that. A different title would be a hint that things aren't as they seem. That something was going to happen."

"What are you thinking?"

"How does 'Grim Reality' sound to you?"

The End

Author's Notes
Once again… where do I begin? During the time that I was writing this, I had two possible endings in mind. One was an ending where the series is stopped, and one was an ending where the series continues, despite the interruption. In the ending here, the fates of the various characters are unchanged (with some room for interpretation- see below), while the AA makes the necessary changes and adapts. The other endings featured some characters with improved futures, including a Taiora ending and the situation in Kutou being resolved easily, while the AA's success with promoting the series isn't discussed (incidentally- Tenchi and Jeri won, with Tenchi's wish actually being to go home and forget it ever happened). Ultimately, I went with this ending because there's a lot of room for interpretation, and it does convey the message of being grim, without necessarily being an unhappy ending.

There's a lot of room for interpretation. So much, in fact, that I can't possibly discuss all the ramifications here. I will address one, however. Although it's hard to imagine Manny's statement about unchanged fates to not be true in the case of Fushigi Yuugi, it may have flaws with Digimon Adventure, Digimon Tamers, and Cardcaptors. Although the memories are wiped out, physical injury is not. Therefore, the injuries to Matt and Rika may carry over (as seen in the epilogue, it clearly does in Matt's case), and somehow may carry influence on the eventual course of those series, for better or for worse. As for Cardcaptors… I'm not going to give away what happened to Madison, but it almost certainly would have an impact on their future, although it is never revealed (I took Cardcaptors at the end of the dubbed series, although it's important to note that Li and Sakura never formally get together in the dub).

Regarding the symbolism and layers of meaning in the story, it's best if I let you develop your own conclusions. I'm definitely not going to say anything as conclusive as denouncing the evils of writing reality knockoff fanfic… especially since I'm writing another one soon (although it is Alliance-free). The allegory of fanfiction in general is probably the most interesting, especially considering the fact that each member of the AA, except for Barb, is representative of various people in the reality fanfic biz. Just to prove that I'm not out to get anybody… Tom Wallace represents myself. You could probably figure out a couple more on your own.

It was interesting having Manny be the final AA member they had to deal with. Manny ended up becoming the primary figurehead to most people. This is despite the fact that he was not the first character I created (which was Tom Wallace, for a previous fanfic), and that although he was involved with all five series, he was never the center of attention in any of them (let's face it- Artie stole the show in AS2). Yet he turned out to be the most "popular" if you can use that term, and thus became the last line of defense for the AA.

Incidentally, going back to Tom for a moment, it was really fun using him for this series. He was introduced in a previous, uncompleted Simpsons fanfic, and when I used him for Animation Survivor, I had to tone down his character quite a bit, making him more light-hearted so he'd fit the host position better. His original persona was much closer to that in which he is portrayed here. Since the AA were never supposed to be considered cool or popular, and most certainly not the good guys, it was nice to go full circle with him.

For a chapter that didn't have that many anime references, this is one hell of an Author's Notes section, so I'll leave you to think about the series. Thanks for reading, especially those who stuck with the series for almost a year. Feel free to leave a review or e-mail me with your comments. I'll entertain any that have good concepts or questions about the series. As I said before, I am writing another reality knockoff, but it's more for fun than anything else. I nice friendly game to ease everybody out. Look for that later this month, and contact me if you want to be part of the Pick'em contest. Also, my current serious project, Level 1: Worlds, has its first three stages online, so check that out if you haven't had the chance to already. Until then- take care and don't let the fanboys bite!