O

She had been conscious for a few minutes now. Shifting with difficulty in what she had deduced was a simple school desk, bound with duct tape, she ached unbearably and her jeans were becoming plastered to her thighs. Blinking her eyes hard and straining their lids as far open as they would go, she extended her neck until she heard a crack and felt sharp pain shoot along tendons that were uncomfortably close to her spine. Though it startled her, she continued to stare desperately ahead, attempting to bore past the darkness of the indistinguishable room through sheer willpower.

"Now, now, Clare, you don't need me to tell you that's not going to work."

The voice was amused, as it often was. A slight, purposeful, patronizing amusement. Neal was reminded of someone who knew the ending of a book responding to the plot speculations of one who did not. This thought, and the implications it had for herself, extracted from her a self-deprecating semblance of a chuckle—not really a laugh, but a sort of exhalation of resign, an audible embodiment of sarcasm.

The response to her outburst was prompt. "Oh?" Clare could think of nothing more foreboding than the perfectly executed cartoonish cheeriness of that one syllable. "What's that? Something funny?"

For the hundredth time in the past several minutes, Clare darted her rapidly distending gaze about the room. She knew there was no point to it—if her eyes hadn't adjusted yet, there was no light which could have allowed it. And, if no light had been allowed in, the voice did not want her to see where she was. If there was something she had learned in the short period of their acquaintance, it was that when the voice didn't want something to happen, it did not happen. Vice versa, as well—which is why she knew that putting off responding to the voice was just as effective as all of the staring she was doing.

"I asked you a question, Clare." There it was. Might as well get this over with, she thought.

She cleared her throat, an action which somehow sent another mirthless laugh rasping involuntarily out of her. "It's just, I'm starting to see the—" she coughed—"bigger picture." Clearing her throat again, a bit more violently, Clare kept her gaze fixed on where she approximated her knees to be as she spoke. She would have looked in the direction of the voice, regardless of being able to see anything—who knows, maybe the sick fuck could see her—but said voice never seemed to come from just one direction. It emanated from the air itself, taking on its own living quality, cornering her, immobilizing her better than painful layers of duct tape. It was effused from something, everything, and yet from itself. It was an entity unbound by laws of any kind, even those of simple, steadfast physics.

The voice took its turn to laugh, but this one was neither hoarse nor helpless; it was even, strong, all-encompassing—an impossible fusion of unhinged and calculated. This laugh knew what she was thinking. "Good, good! You know, you're doing well, Clarabelle. I'm impressed."

Clare was frozen to her seat. Was she imagining things, or did the voice sound closer? It couldn't be closer. It was already all around her, coating her skin. Eating her alive. Hysteria was threatening to collapse her chest cavity, rend her skull, send cracks through reality, carve rioting terror stories in her arteries and let the leaking ink drown her.

The laugh came again. "No need to go so tense." Noticing everything. "I don't bite." Hell, there was no mistake: it—he she finally had to admit as her stomach and all succedent anatomy constricted—had sidled up to her without a hint, like the satanic apparition he was. She could feel the softest stirring of breath across her face—or was it the back of her neck? Her ear? It was still impossible to tell.

"Usually."

O

A/N— This goddamn fandom needs more goddamn people! I want to do a multichap fic for it so badly, but no one's gonna read it! I have no motivation, dammit! BLLLEEEEEUUUURGGG—

*gun cocks against temple*

Caller: Is this motivating enough for you?

Me: O_O Am I allowed to phone a friend?

Caller: Certainly. *shoves into phone booth*

Me: *hits head* Ow, dammit. Jeez, who knew serial killers were so pushy . . . So, uh, who should I call for inspiration? I have no friends and my family thinks I'm insane, so I guess . . . Aha! *dials number excitedly* Hello? Fanfiction readers of the internet? Yeah, it's me again! Begging for reviews, like the whiny loser I am! So, uh, mind helping me keep my cranium safe from the cold, unforgiving bullets of an . . . AK . . . .47 . . . double, uh . . . shooty . . . thingy OKAY WHATEVER THE HELL THE GUN WAS CALLED

Caller: A 30-calibre bolt-action 700, with a carbon-one modification and a state-of-the-art hands-hold tactical scope?

Me: *mumbles* Yeah, state-of-the-art as of 2002 . . .

Caller: Sorry, what was that?

Me: Nothing! What, did someone say something? Wasn't me! Nope!

Caller: *cocks gun again*

Me: Hey, you can't cock a gun twice! That's just not fair!

Caller: . . . . *cocks gun*

Me: You know what? Never mind. You're Jack Bauer's voice, you can do whatever the hell you want.

Caller: DAMMIT, JAMIE, WE'RE OUT OF TIME! WHERE ARE THE REVIEWS? GIVE ME THE REVIEWS!

Me: Yeah, guys, well, you heard the agent. He wants his reviews , and he wants them now. And you know what happens when you don't tell Agent Jack Fucking Bauer what he needs to know.