Rule 40: Never Say Never

It sure wouldn't be true TAOP fashion if Rina and stray didn't show up comically late to their own farewell party.

If you'll recall...

Wawanakwa Island, Four Weeks Ago

Episode Production Code 0112: "Basic Straining"

Duncan stared at the full moon over Camp Wawanakwa. It was heavy and dazzling over the tallest peak of the island, and bright enough to obscure the stars around it (not unlike the girl he was waiting for). Duncan hoped the sky would stay this way, so they'd have some light to guide them.

"Look at you, Miss Rebel," he chuckled when the door to the Bass cabin squeaked open. "I was starting to think you wouldn't show."

"Oh ye of little faith," Courtney said, guiding the door back to the jam as silently as possible. Grinning, she hopped the cabin railing and ran to him. "I always keep my appointments, unlike some."

Duncan stepped forward from the shadowed treeline and offered her his hand. He couldn't help the flutter in his chest as she slipped hers into his. "Wasn't gonna miss this one," he said, and drew her into the dark of the woods.

Courtney followed close, taking increasingly wild guesses at their destination while Duncan used the moon and the mountain to get them there. "So it' the woods? No, on a boat. Or: underwater."

"All I'll say is this: it's better than the campfire ceremony."

Duncan could sense Courtney's eye-roll even in the dark. "Well that's hardly an achievement," she said with a snort. "Though I suppose we should make sure we're back in time."

Duncan shrugged. "Ceremony, shmeremony. They won't miss us."

"We're a third of the team, Duncan," Courtney reminded him, "I think they just might." Then, she thought more on that fact. "Although...with those numbers, they really can't start the ceremony without us." She giggled. "Guess they'll be running late tonight!"

"That's the spirit!"

He led them farther into the trees until at last he stopped and released Courtney's hand. "Okay," Duncan announced, squaring Courtney by the shoulders, "this is it."

Courtney looked around the area. They were in the dead center of the dense woods, and the nearest object was a tree. In fact, the nearest many objects were trees.

Courtney glanced sidelong at Duncan. "Are we lost?"

"Oh ye of little faith," he clucked. He gestured to the clearing with open arms. "Notice anything missing out here?"

Courtney sat herself primly on a fallen log and considered her surroundings. "I dunno, a functioning ecosystem? It's not like—"

Duncan watched it dawn on her slowly, smirking all the while. Courtney stared at the branches around them, the rocks on the ground and the bark on trees. When she was finished examining every piece of foliage in sight, her eyes were bright. "Duncan, do you mean to tell me...?"

Duncan was nodding, more and more as she talked. "Welcome," he said, taking both her hands in his, "to total privacy."

"There's no way," Courtney breathed, though she let Duncan pull her gently to her feet anyway.

"No cameras, no microphones: hidden or otherwise," Duncan promised, beaming. "I made sure of it." It had taken the better part of several afternoons, first scoping out the place, then painstakingly checking every tree knot and bird nest for concealed technology. But it was the best gift he could think to give, in their world where every word belonged to someone else. This smaller place, in the middle of the forest, was theirs alone.

"This must have taken ages," Courtney said, her face close to his. He could see her freckles, just by the light of the moon. " know this is the right spot?"

Keeping one hand in hers and guiding her by the small of her back, Duncan stepped them around until they were facing the far side of the nearest tree. "X marks it."

Now she could see it: a giant "D + C" carved into the bark, surrounded by a heart and several miniature skulls.

"Ta da," Duncan said softly, wrapping his arms around her from behind. He plopped his chin on her shoulder. His next words were a whisper, the only hint as to how nervous he truly was. "Do you like it?"

Duncan felt Courtney's smile where they were nestled cheek to cheek. "I love it," she whispered back, turning into a kiss. For the first time, they had the space to appreciate it, slow and unhurried, and only for them. "It's a gift only you could give," she said.

When they pulled apart, Courtney turned back to the carving. She touched her hands to it lightly, feeling it out, and when she looked back to Duncan, her eyes were sparkling. "So," she said, "got anything else up your sleeve? Maybe of the criminal variety?"

"What, cutting the campfire ceremony not enough for you?" Duncan laughed. "I knew once you got a taste you'd be back for more."

Courtney cocked her hip at him. "I recall that to get me out here, you promised quite a lot of rule-breaking, and now it looks like you had all the fun without me."

"Not all the fun..." Duncan said, eyeing her up and down.

She pushed him away by the chin and Duncan laughed again, louder this time. "Well, I have one more gift for you," he said, running his fingers over the shape of the meticulously carved skull in his back pocket, "but I think I'll wait until after the ceremony. You're spoiled enough as it is."

Courtney smacked his arm. "I am not spoiled!" Duncan cackled at her indignation—harder still when she punched his shoulder.

"Here," he said. From his other pocket, he pulled out his switchblade and held it out to her. "Go to town."

Still glaring halfheartedly, Courtney snatched the blade from him and jogged over to the closest tree. With a wicked grin, she scratched with rudimentary precision, "Chris SuX."

"Not bad, not bad," Duncan said, rubbing his chin like an art critic. "Your technique is good, but the concept needs work."

He slipped the knife from her palm and added to the bottom, "Chef's" and then the unmistakable outline of a penis.

Courtney giggled maniacally and clapped. "Bravo! Magnificent! Stick it in the Louvre." Then she swiped the knife back from him. "My turn."

She turned her attention to a different tree and started working on her next masterpiece. Duncan watched her in the light of the full moon, feeling woozier than he had a couple hours earlier: hanging upside down in a tree for a challenge that didn't matter half as much as this moment.

Eventually, Courtney caught him staring and blushed. "Finish this one for me, would you? I'm going to pick out the next tree," she said.

"You got it, Princess."

Courtney walked over to a neighboring tree as Duncan further sharpened the edges of Courtney's etching. They worked in quiet for a while, listening to the sounds of the woods rise and fall around them. Duncan was about to call her over for review when Courtney marched over herself, looking determined.

"Okay," she said. "I was going to wait until after the ceremony to talk, but if we don't have this conversation now, we might not get the chance to. Not without a camera in our faces."

Duncan stopped carving. Dread dropped into his stomach: she's dumping you. Courtney hated him. She always had. Nothing had changed, he was an idiot, and her poker face was better than his.

Courtney took a shaky breath. "Are you—are we in..." Then, in one rushed breath: "Is this an alliance?"

Duncan blinked at her, trying to hide the sudden uptick in his heart rate (and the sheer relief). "Uh...yes?"

"I mean, do you want to be in an alliance?" Courtney amended quickly. "With me?"

Duncan put a hand to his tree, leaning on it heavily and hoping it played as nonchalance. "Sure," he said again. "It would be my first, you know."

"I'm not sure how they work," Courtney admitted, playing with her fingers. "What happens when we're the final two?"

"When?" he repeated.

She rolled her eyes. "Obviously. I always knew I'd make it to the top, but with your considerable brawn in addition to my brains, I could bring you along for the ride."

"Uh-huh," Duncan said, fighting the corner of his mouth from twitching into too damning of a smile.

Courtney started to pace. "I guess we'll figure out the final two when we get there. And the merger! Ugh, there are some Bass that we need to get rid of as soon as possible." Pausing, Courtney frowned at her feet. "I've never been in an alliance before. I guess there's a lot to figure out."

"We'll figure it out together," Duncan said, his heartbeat finally steady. "Can't imagine it's any harder than being a CIT." Duncan tossed the closed switchblade Courtney's way again before she could resume pacing. "Relax, Princess. You can go back to being a human stress ball tomorrow. What do you want to do tonight?"

She looked from the switchblade, to him, and back again, before tossing it off to the side with a smug smile.

"This," she said, and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, mashing their lips together.

"Not that you'll catch me complaining about being kissed," Duncan panted after some time, "but you taste so much better when you haven't just puked."

Courtney grabbed his chin teasingly. "You're such an asshole."

"Look at you, babe," he grinned, kissing her neck. She giggled at his tickling stubble and Duncan made a point to repeat the motion. "Stealing from craft services, talking back to Chef, kissing handsome men in the woods. I've completely corrupted you."

"Ha ha, not completely," she snarked. "I can still—" Duncan sucked on her pulse point. "Ohhh, do that again," she purred.

"What's next?" he murmured into her neck. "I've got bleach in my duffel and all the gear for a dye job. You'd look so hot with a stripe of green."

"No thanks," she said, "I've still got my pride."

"A piercing then? I've got everything I need for one of those too." He nipped at her unpierced ear. "I could even lend you some jewelry."

She scoffed. "Over my dead body." She rolled her head to the other side, allowing Duncan access to the other side of her neck. "Next, you're going to tell me you brought a tattoo gun."

He smirked into her throat. "I left that one at home."

"There's got to be a step between making out in the woods and semi-permanent body modifications," Courtney insisted.

He pulled back and looked her in the eye, grinning with challenge. "It's a slippery slope called, 'starting an alliance to destroy the competition' and 'second base'."

"Well, I say we start mapping eliminations after the campfire ceremony." She reached up and started undoing his dog collar. "And under no circumstances are you getting to second base tonight."

"Tomorrow?" he teased.

"Hmm, maybe," Courtney replied, already distracted by her attempt to reciprocate his earlier attentions.

Duncan let her get acquainted with his neck and throat, his encouraging noises mingling with hers, curious, where no one else could hear. It almost didn't feel real. After so long chasing after this girl, she was finally in his arms.

This was usually the time when his interest vanished into thin air. His attention moved to the next thing he shouldn't be doing. And yet…

"Psst," Courtney murmured, taking his face in her hands and angling it to look her in the eye. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he said quickly, "just thinking about tomorrow." He'd meant it as a smarmy excuse but found it ringing oddly true. He was looking forward to tomorrow. And this. And her.

Courtney tsked at him and jabbed a finger in the center of his chest. "If I can't worry about tomorrow, then neither can you. Deal?"

Duncan kissed her. "Deal."

Playa de Losers, Present Day

Episode Production Code 0126: "The Very Last Episode, Really!"

Duncan sighed and turned over in the penthouse bed, piling blankets as high as they would go. Without power, whatever Chris had done to buy tropical weather for the island was gone, and the resort had gotten closer and closer to freezing throughout the night.

Maybe this was cosmic payback for the last week of Duncan wishing for cooler temperatures. Guess Chris had gotten the last laugh after all.

He squinted and pulled a pillow over his eyes. The sun was finally starting to show through the windows on the far side of the room. Duncan had also spent the night wishing for this, and found now that he didn't want it either.

He rolled over in bed again, away from the morning and the expectation that he get out of bed and on a boat to hoot and holler at the finale. All this, while pretending Courtney hadn't just acknowledged and apologized for everything he'd been resenting. Because if she had, Duncan would probably forgive her. And if Duncan forgave her, they might still have a chance together.

Duncan didn't want that—he'd already decided. He'd decided he never wanted to see Courtney again. He'd decided that Courtney was not worth the heartache. Every last decision had been made, and he didn't regret any of his choices. So why did he have the uneasy feeling that there was still something left to do?

Maybe because Courtney had apologized. Courtney, who never apologized for anything because she was always right, had said sorry to him, sincerely. She'd told Duncan everything he wanted to hear. But a dark part of his mind was skeptical. Courtney was a politician, and she'd told him everything he wanted to hear. Was she still manipulating him, even now?

Duncan chewed on that. Misguided as her party had been, she probably wanted a clean slate, before they all parted ways. Duncan knew that a clear conscience was an underrated thing, and he'd done his best to give it to her, in the end. What more did he have to offer? Their summer was over. Nothing remained here for either of them.

On the other side of the high penthouse windows, a parrot squawked the only word it knew ("Leshawna!") and Duncan startled. He forced himself to sit up and throw the covers off. It was just as well—he had a boat to catch.

Getting back to his room would be difficult in the funhouse Playa had become without electricity. Last night, he'd manually forced his way into the penthouse via a hearty shove to the rotating bookcase. In last night's blurry tunnel vision, he'd been able to ignore all the feelings and stuff that hid in Playa's ridiculous prop room. Today, it would be impossible.

The slide to the pool deck would be faster anyway. Sluggishly, he put on his shoes and pushed aside the shelf that hid it.

From the mouth of the slide, Duncan looked over the room a final time. Without the interns around, there would be no resetting it. No returning to the pristine condition of Chris's gaudy preferences; no returning to the beautiful chaos he and Courtney had created together. Like the slide, there was only one direction to go in.

Duncan slid down to the pool and nearly ate concrete when the automated (i.e. electric) cushion didn't inflate. The only thing that saved him was his quick reflexes and some ridiculously perfect timing: an apt metaphor for his life, he thought dryly.

Shivering in the cold, Duncan made his way past the pool and poolside areas. It seemed completely ludicrous to him now that they'd once frozen the pool to escape the heat. That memory of warmth felt years in the past.

It was late enough now that Duncan had to hold up a hand against the sun, and yet he made it back to his room without running into a single soul. Was everyone already at the dock? Sleeping in? Or maybe they'd all left him already, and Chef hadn't bothered to do a headcount. The thought filled him with peace and panic in equal measure.

And it made him think: what would happen if he just...decided not to show up today? Let the boat sail away into the sunset and flipped it off from the shore? He'd be alone, sure, but that didn't sound bad right now. He had the chops to survive without food and electricity and human interaction. Plus, he had a motorcycle to fix. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to be stranded on Playa de Losers forever—stuck in a penthouse of multi-story possibilities and the unanswered question, whatever became of that girl you were so fond of?

Duncan shook himself. That thought was dramatic, and crazy. He needed to pack. He needed to get off Playa before he decided to live out his life on an abandoned, slowly decaying, once-tropical resort with the ghost of the girl who broke his heart.

In one sweep, Duncan grabbed all his odds and ends and tossed them in the middle of the mattress. From under his bed, he pulled out his duffel bag, unzipped it, and tossed those contents out too. He'd have to repack if he wanted all the extra crap he'd acquired on Playa to fit.

First in was the giant video camera he'd stolen from Camera-Crony on his first night, complete with the incriminating footage of Courtney throwing him out of her room in the morning.

He willed himself not to think about it, not to feel anything about it. They were over. He'd made his peace with it. Cut to credits.

He packed up his toiletries next, his wardrobe, and an extra room key he seemed to have. Next, he mentally catalogued all the items he'd stolen from Playa—including a handful of watches from Chris's penthouse (to pawn) and several pens (just because)—and those took the space that had first belonged to one of his spare shirts. He hadn't seen the one with the skull since Courtney had accidentally worn it herself. He was pretty sure she'd burned it.

Duncan started packing more haphazardly. Whatever fit would fit—everything else was getting left behind. After forcibly shoving in the bedside clock, Duncan balled up his last pair of shorts and stopped cold.

The wooden skull was sitting on his bed. Wawanakwa maple, painstakingly sculpted and expertly sanded. Just looking at it, Duncan remembered every cramp in his hand, every hour he'd spent working on the tiny thing. A gift for Courtney.

Duncan weighed it in the palm of one hand. He'd never carved something so small before. At the time, he thought Courtney would appreciate something she could carry with her anywhere. Small and secret, like how she felt about him.

But why was it here? His heart leapt at the realization: it must have fallen into his duffel bag on the first night. Probably from Courtney's bedside table, where it would be easy to knock over if someone were to, say, grab a lamp to throw at someone else's smug head. Unbelievable. The biggest romantic gesture of his life, back in his hands to give again. Or to keep.

He wondered if Courtney would want it back. Did she even realize it was gone?

Duncan turned the skull in his hands, feeling its smoothness. He had worked so hard on this. On himself. On becoming the person that Courtney believed he was. He'd spent so much effort hiding the darkest parts of his past, only for that act of hiding to be what did him in, in the end.

He could keep the skull, and his feelings, and his secret. He'd earned it, after all. They were his, and he'd be totally within his rights to keep all three to himself. Or, if that didn't feel right, he could just...leave the skull behind. Future explorers might wonder, who left such a tiny monument in this echoing, abandoned place? Maybe, it would carry a curse, like the tiki doll on Boney Island: you are hereby doomed to have a girlfriend who meddles in all your business and makes your life hell, because she cares about you more than anyone else ever has!

Duncan turned the skull again and felt the initials before he saw them. Carved onto the bottom with an eager, inexperienced hand: DxC.

He hadn't done that part.

Duncan could leave the skull, he could keep the skull...or he could return it to its rightful owner. He'd always intended for Courtney to have it, as a token of how strongly he felt for her. It was a perfect snapshot of the summer they were going to conquer together. It had been, anyway.

He saw something different, looking at it now. It wasn't a summer they'd conquered, but one they'd survived. Weeks of secrets and lies and adventure and more than a few painful jabs to his ribcage. It was the two of them, working together, getting closer, head over heels for each other. It was all the mistakes they'd made, trying to make that feeling last.

It was the most cinematic, spectacular trainwreck he'd ever witnessed and still, still, he wouldn't change a second of it.

Duncan could give Courtney the skull, and tell her the truth of his past. He could take it with him, and try to forget things had ever gone wrong. Or he could leave it here, and do absolutely nothing.

DxC. Duncan and Courtney.

Duncan took a deep breath and tossed the skull from hand to hand. Maybe he had the heart to make one last decision after all.

Courtney stared at her ceiling. The sun was up, the boat was nigh, and Duncan wasn't coming.

It was over.

So, like a zombie, Courtney unraveled herself from the blankets she'd buried herself in. She felt like hell, and probably looked it too. But she had a boat to catch.

The party had been a disaster. Baring her heart in the penthouse hadn't been enough. She'd even left him the key to her room, afterwards! Left it right in the middle of his mattress in the hopes he'd take the pathetic, last-ditch hint and change his mind about them. It was a literal open door, but he hadn't walked through it.

She was out of moves. Check and mate.

Courtney staggered to the bathroom, executed and then packed her morning routine. She'd sorted and stored the rest of her belongings already but made another sweep of the room anyway, and then another, and another, until it was clear even to her that she was delaying the inevitable.

Courtney wished she had more time. She'd use it to convince herself that she'd be perfectly fine seeing Duncan again on the dock. If Duncan wouldn't take her back, wouldn't look at her, then she would just remember that he was doing what he thought was best.

Courtney could be mature and strong about this. She could face him as a colleague and then resign herself to never seeing him again. In a way, it was a relief to realize there was nothing left to lose, since she'd lost the most important thing already.

Courtney was running out of dark corners to search now. She lowered herself onto all fours to check under the bathroom sink and...froze. From behind a cracked plastic bucket, she pulled out a balled up black t-shirt. She'd tossed it there, all those nights ago, after she'd accidentally worn it instead of her own pajamas.

Holding the shirt limply in her hands, Courtney sat back on her heels. The stylized yellow skull smiled up at her, and she willed herself not to cry on it.

Maybe she could return it! Yes, that would work. Courtney stood up. She had thirty minutes before the boat departed: she could return Duncan's shirt to him and… And something. She could still do something, couldn't she?

The skull graphic in her hands seemed to sneer at her. Desperate, aren't you?

"He doesn't want you," she murmured, sinking back onto the counter. "He doesn't want me either."

There was no pretending otherwise. No pretending she hadn't been conceited and selfish and reckless. No pretending Duncan didn't have every right to feel the way he did. Courtney folded the shirt carefully, tucking the skull away so it couldn't mock her anymore.

But—speaking of skulls—wasn't she missing one? The wooden skull Duncan had carved for her, that she kept on her nightstand. She'd just swept every centimeter of the room... It had to be somewhere in her luggage, right? Where else would it be?

Throwing the shirt over her shoulder, Courtney bent down to search. She rifled through clothes, toiletries, food she'd stashed in case Chef took the long way back to the island…

Courtney frowned. Here were the lovely shells Bridgette had found for her a few weeks ago. Her copy of War and Peace. She'd snuck a handful of Total Drama Island: Season One! embossed pens from the interns' desks, hoping to turn a profit on original merchandise once the show aired. But pocket after pocket yielded no carving, nor did meticulously sweeping the room two more times, nor did dumping every single item out of her luggage and willing the skull to materialize in places she already knew it wasn't.

It was gone.

With regret squeezing her chest, Courtney folded all her clothes back up and arranged them back in her luggage. She told herself that this didn't change anything. She'd awoken planning to be brave today, and she still would be, even if she'd lost her dearest memento of the summer.

With a centering breath, Courtney zipped her bag shut. After a final, silent goodbye to her room, she wheeled her luggage to the door and pulled it open.

To find Duncan standing there.

He had one hand lifted, almost ready to knock. In his other hand, he held the wooden skull he'd made for her. The one she'd been searching for.

Courtney stared at him, brain uncomprehending. "Why are you knocking?"

Duncan stared back at her. "What do you mean, why am I knocking?"

"I left you a key," she said, stupidly.

Duncan blinked. "You didn't burn it."

Now Courtney was confused. "Burn what?"

"That. My shirt." He pointed to the dark garment over Courtney's shoulder. "You said you were going to burn it."

"Oh, ha. Did I?" Courtney didn't doubt she'd said such a thing. Before the events of the last week, she might have even gone through with it.

She offered his shirt to him and held out an open hand. "That's mine, this is—"

"Yeah, right, uh..."

Awkwardly, they exchanged each other's belongings. Courtney stood with the wooden skull held protectively against her chest. Duncan wrapped the shirt into a ball around his fist and stared at it.

"I was out of clean shirts," he noted, gesturing to the fabric.

Courtney wrinkled her nose. "How long since you've washed the one you're wearing?"

"You do not want to know." His gaze darted from Courtney's suitcase to her bedside clock, then back to the shirt before he met her eyes. "Can I walk you to the boat?"

"The boat? Oh, yes. I… Yes."

She tucked the wooden skull carefully into a compartment of her suitcase, and Duncan put on his second shirt over his first.

Walking with Duncan was...quiet. There were no campers around, and no words exchanged between them. Courtney almost spoke up when they passed the elevator. "Ha! Did you know I scaled that in an evening gown just for the chance to talk to you?" she'd say. Or when they passed by a sign pointing to the gym: "Do you remember when I betrayed your trust, you called me a terrible person, and then I exercised until I nearly passed out?" Somehow, neither of those seemed like the proper way to start off what was potentially their last conversation, ever. So it never really started at all.

The campers had been directed to leave their room keys in the lobby before departure, and Courtney to leave the interns' key rings as well. When they arrived, there was already a perilous pile of silver room keys on the front desk.

Duncan snorted. "High tech."

"Ha, yeah," she replied, then immediately wished she'd come up with something more articulate.

As she chided herself, Duncan deposited his key onto the pile, mic-drop style, and held up his middle fingers to the lobby at large. "Screw you, Playa, and goodnight!" he shouted, spinning in place with the gesture before backing towards the door, fingers still up. His sneakers squeaked on the pristine floor until he exited out onto the beach.

Resigning herself to the end of his company, Courtney searched herself for her own goodbye. Maybe she'd finally succumbed to the drama, but Courtney was feeling oddly...warm towards the place that had incontestably, incalculably ruined her summer.

"Thanks, Playa," she said at last. "You might've been a tortuous hellhole dressed like paradise, but you had your moments. And regardless of what your eventual narrative becomes...I don't think you were all that bad." She placed her room key gently among the others, smiling to herself. "But thanks for the bad stuff too."

She deposited the interns' key sets in the designated drawer, stole a couple more embossed pens, then walked outside. She was surprised to find Duncan leaning against the wall of the resort, idly scratching a rude word into the paint with his switchblade. Waiting for her.

"Ready to bust out of here?" he asked when she approached.

Courtney nodded. "Am I ever."

They walked side by side and things felt a little before. More like them. Courtney wouldn't get her hopes up, but if this was what they had left—if this was what being at peace with Duncan felt like—she would savor this until someone on the season finale called wrap!

They were still a way off from the dock when Courtney spotted the crowd, and the boat. Her immediate feeling was one of relief: Chef was driving the luxury skipper that had ferried each of them to Wawanakwa on their first day. It wasn't as big as the yacht, to be sure, but it was leagues ahead of the scrap pile that had ferried each of them off Wawanakwa, and big enough to safely carry twenty campers from one place to the other.

Whether it was big enough to contain everyone's individual chaos, of course, was another matter. Already, Geoff was surfing the boarding ramp on Bridgette's least expensive surfboard. Izzy was being torn away from Esperanza the rhino by a 100% done Leshawna. Cody was inspecting the boat while Justin inspected himself. Heather sat at one end of the deck, hoarding her suitcases and practically hissing at anyone who came too close. On the other, Lindsay, DJ, and Beth were saying their goodbyes through what Courtney suspected was an interpretative dance, set to Harold's beat-boxing. And through it all, Chef was attempting to control the situation with nothing but intimidation and a clipboard held together by duct tape.

Courtney smiled. Some things never changed.

"And LAST but not LEAST," Chef bellowed when Courtney and Duncan approached, "it's Romeo and Juliet! How kind of you to JOIN US!"

"Actually, it's more like Troilus and Cressida," Courtney said lightly, "but I wouldn't expect you to get that reference." She stepped past him and onto the deck with her suitcase. "Though I'm astonished you can name even one of the bard's plays. Good job."

Duncan snorted behind her, and Chef threw out a hand to block his path. "Something FUNNY to you, small fry?"

Duncan ducked underneath Chef's outstretched arm without breaking pace. "You should really talk to the props department about that Chef mask." He saluted him from the boarding ramp. "It looks like someone threw a half-melted candle into the blender."

"Ohhhh!" Ezekiel shouted, followed by an absolutely terrible attempt at mimicking air horns.

Chef sputtered in multiple directions. "For the LAST TIME—don't you dare—is that a DOG?"

Courtney and Duncan watched from the deck as Noah argued to Chef that Lady should be allowed on the boat, seeing as she was better trained and groomed than some campers (Owen). Those who weren't still enthralled by Lindsay, Beth, and DJ's dance routine had crowded around to watch Noah intellectually vivisect Chef. And while that normally would have been a delight to watch, it held no interest for Courtney today. Nor for Duncan, judging by the look on his face.

Courtney jerked her head to the other side of the boat. "I'm gonna..."

"Yeah," Duncan said, "right behind you," and followed her to the far corner, out of view. They leaned on the railing, side by side, and stared at the water, and Courtney tried to think of something interesting and normal to say.

Duncan, as usual, needed no such prep time. "Sick burn back there," he said to the skyline. "Romeo and Juliet, my ass."

"Well, it is a tragedy," she sighed, "he got that part right. Not that Troilus and Cressida isn't a tragedy, they just don't die in the end." Once the comparison was out of her mouth, however, Courtney straightened up, embarrassed, and tried to backpedal, "I mean—or rather I don't mean to imply—it's not like we are—"

"I wanna tell you why I went to juvie," Duncan said.

Courtney cut herself off. She wasn't sure she'd heard him right. "What?"

"I want to..." Duncan trailed off, staring into the waves. After a moment, he looked over at her, forearms on the railing. From that position, he looked very small. "I want to tell you what happened."

"You don't have to," Courtney said quickly. "If you don't want to, I mean. I destroyed the footage, so no one can see it." She tried to look encouraging. "And besides, I think I know you well enough. Who you really are."

Looking her straight in the eyes, Duncan said, "Who I really am really stabbed a person, Courtney."

He waited. Maybe he expected disgust or fear, but in her chest, Courtney only found cautious hope. Why was he telling her? What did it mean?

"You told me there was more to that story," she said at last.

"It was an accident," Duncan said heavily. "I was young and scared and thought I was getting kidnapped, or worse." His fists tightened on the rail. "And no one believed me when I said it was a case of wrong place, wrong time, because I was already a troublemaker. So I went to juvenile detention." He put his forehead on the railing. "My uncle's fine, by the way. Six months of physical therapy and a grudge he'll carry into the afterlife when he haunts me, but he's kicking."

"Duncan," Courtney said quietly. She placed her hand over his. He closed his eyes, and his hand twitched under hers, like he didn't know what to do with it.

"I know I give people a hard time, but I never meant to hurt—" He cut himself off, took a moment to wrestle something down. He picked his head up and looked so, so vulnerable. "It's the worst thing I've ever done," he whispered, finally. "It changed the way my family looks at me. It changed the way I look at me." He inhaled and exhaled, slowly. "I didn't want it to change the way you look at me, too."

He looked at her. His eyes were so blue. Piercing, and very, very fragile.

"...Does it?"

Courtney didn't answer. She swallowed, looked back at him, and saw the same boy she'd always known. Rash, impulsive, and crude—but also decent, and fair, and more caring than he wanted anyone to know. And here he was, giving her everything.

"I think it makes me like you more," she said hoarsely. "To know. To have you tell me."

Duncan turned his hand underneath hers and laced their fingers together. "The truth is..." he said, "I'm crazy about you, Courtney. And I want to be with you."

Duncan closed the distance between them so their noses were nearly touching. He squeezed her hand. Courtney couldn't breath. "So...what do you think? Do we have a shot?"

It took a moment for her to process the words. Then Courtney was laughing. Then she was kissing him; then trying to do both at once.

"Obviously, you magnificent oaf," she said with a watery laugh. She punctuated the answer with a kiss. "As if my dumb party wasn't answer enough."

Duncan laughed too and touched his forehead to hers. They kissed again, messily, through their nerves and their relief, even as the boat filled with the noise of the other campers beginning to climb aboard. It was time to go into the finale. And beyond that, into the real world.

Courtney wiped the corners of her eyes, smiling as she indicated the approaching campers. "As usual, your ridiculous timing couldn't be more perfect."

"I love you."

Courtney blinked. Stopped breathing. Stopped thinking. Pulled back from Duncan, as her brain came back online. "What?" She waved a hand, fanning the words away. "No, you don't."

Duncan's expression was deadly serious, but he smiled at her with one corner of his mouth. "Says who?"

"You're seventeen."

"Yeah," Duncan said, "and?" He turned her face back to him, so she could see the truth of it in his eyes, in the soft grin on his lips. "I love you."

Courtney was blushing furiously, and had to look away. "You shouldn' saying things like that," she murmured, "at our age."

Duncan smirked and stole a kiss. "I'm always doing things I shouldn't."

The crowd was creeping closer. Courtney buried her face in his shoulder, where it felt like no one could see. Duncan was warm and sturdy against the chill air as he wrapped his arms around her. "I hate you," she mumbled into his neck.

"What was that?" Duncan nosed at her ear, the smirk still evident in his voice. "I didn't quite hear you."

" you."

She felt his small intake of breath, then his breathless laugh. The tension in him drained away, and he teased, "Pretty sure that isn't what you said the first time."

"Do you need me to say it louder for the folks in the back?" she asked dryly. "Do you want it in a ringtone?"

"Once is fine." Duncan nuzzled her hair. "That's more than I thought I'd ever get." He sounded like he didn't quite believe she'd said it. Courtney hardly believed it herself, but the words felt right in her mouth. "Though I wouldn't say no to a ringtone..."

Courtney held him close. Close enough to feel him melt against her as she quietly repeated, "I love you." Without the bells and whistles, the caveats and qualifiers, it felt terrifyingly bare. "I love you, Duncan."

The boat's engine came to life with a roar. It seemed impossible that everyone had boarded and left them undisturbed, yet as the boat maneuvered into the open water, she could see that the dock was empty. It was either a bonafide finale-day miracle, or Duncan had spent the last few minutes glaring at people menacingly from over her shoulder to keep them out of their business. She was grateful either way.

As their friends began to fan out across the deck, Duncan put his arm around Courtney, and she leaned into it. Bridgette and Geoff had already set every camper's threshold for acceptable amounts of PDA, and the bar was much higher than this.

After a few minutes, Duncan made a sudden noise and leaned down to his bag. "I have something for you."

"Oh, yeah?" Courtney said, waving at Bridgette and Geoff (speaking of!), who were having a Titanic moment on the stern of the boat.

Duncan straightened up with a video tape in hand. "Recognize this?"

Courtney gaped. "Is that...?" Duncan nodded. "No way! The tape from your first night?"

"Our first night," he corrected with an eyebrow wiggle.

She tried to snatch it from him, but he held it out of reach. "Have you had it the whole time?!"

"Only most of the whole time," he said, chuckling as he outmaneuvered her. "Had to protect your honor, you know?"

With a well-placed jab to his back, Courtney twisted his arm around and took the tape from his fingers. "Like you're so concerned with your girlfriend's honor. I can't believe you let me stress about Chris having this for weeks."

Duncan raised an eyebrow, delighted. "Girlfriend?" he repeated.

Courtney shot him a flat look. "You heard nothing else I said, did you?"

"I'm sorry, I thought this was an alliance," he said with a shit-eating grin.

Courtney rolled her eyes. "No need for those anymore," she said, ripping out the film and tossing the tape overboard. "Thank goodness."

"Aw, I wanted to keep that," Duncan pouted as the skipper quickly passed it in the water. "Play it on our anniversary. If I'd never wound up in your room that night, I might not be your boyfriend right now."

Courtney rolled her eyes and casually placed Duncan's arm back around her waist. "I'm going to overlook the implication that Chef takes any credit for our relationship—" Duncan grimaced "—and instead suggest that my boyfriend find and/or make some new memento of our time together."

She had more to say, but the boat abruptly filled with shouts and groans as, in the distance, Wawanakwa came into view.

At the sight of the titular Total Drama Island on the horizon, a shiver of nerves ran through her. They were almost there: to the cameras, and the competition, and then to their regularly programmed lives. Courtney had no idea what happened then, when the cameras stopped rolling and they all were let loose on the real world. A part of her was terrified to find out.

"Duncan…" she asked, taking his hand. She looked between it and the island. "What if we…what if this...doesn't work out?"

He didn't say anything for a moment. Instead, he too looked between their destination and their joined hands. The woodworking calluses on his fingers were rough across her palms.

"What if it does?" he asked.

Courtney made a face, so Duncan took her other hand and squeezed it together with his between their hearts. "I know, I know, but hear me out," he said. His blue eyes reflected the water, and Courtney wondered if she'd ever think of those two things as unrelated ever again.

"Courtney..." He grinned. "What if it does?" His smile grew, infectiously hopeful. "Wouldn't that be amazing?"

Courtney laughed, soft but genuine, at the utter simplicity of his answer. She had never understood how Duncan could believe in something impossible with no proof at all. And yet Courtney found herself thinking, it would be amazing, wouldn't it? An alliance for the ages.

"Delinquent," Courtney whispered, leaning in for a kiss.

"Princess," Duncan answered, against her lips.

There were far worse ways to wrap up a season.

Do you have a heart to spare? I think I broke my own.

From strayphoenix:

So there's a lot of back-of-house "feelings and stuff" that comes with ending 10-years writing a fanfiction with your very best friend. Stuff like letting you all know that we plan on combing over all our work in the coming year or two and publishing it on AO3 as a coherent read-in-one-sitting fic; stuff like teasing you all with a fun little epilogue we've had brainstormed for this fic where we see what Owen and Gwen have been up to all this time; stuff like going through reviews and making an effort of thanking each and every one of you that has come along on this once-in-a-lifetime journey with us.

There's also feelings and stuff about that very scary bit of business regarding current global events, to which I say this: In times of crisis, the human race has always turned to art before all else. Even silly, wonderful art like fanfiction goes a long way to keeping the world turning on its axis. If you're reading this, I'm asking you to keep creating. Make art like the world depends on it, because it does.

For ten years, TAOP has been my playground to improve as a writer, a storyteller, and a collaborator. I will miss the flood of touching reviews with each chapter post, the ridiculous amount of research I've put into falling off roofs, operating cruise ships, and the survivability of refrigerators, and the countless hours spent with Rina on the phone brainstorming and debating whether that sentence should have "the" or "an."

Even more than that, I will miss setting the calendar of my life to this love story. Fun fact about me: I have a photographic memory. (Rina can corroborate!) I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing as I wrote and posted every single chapter of this story. It ends in my own apartment, living in a city I'd always dreamed about and working a job that lets me use my superpowers for good. It started, however, in the fifteenth row, third seat from the right, of a Philosophy 101 lecture hall. I don't remember the course or anything I learned in it; I do remember that it was there that Rina's answering private message appeared in my inbox, saying she'd love to write this fic with me.

If I'm being honest, expressing feelings and stuff about the last ten years of having Contemperina in my life and not having it turn into another 200,000-word magnum opus is the real task here. Much like the contestants on the series that brought us together, we had no idea the amazing adventure we'd signed up for in the fall of 2009 when I asked if she wanted to write a really, really, REALLY, really, really short story about these two dorks falling in love with each other.

Rina: For ten years you have been the island refuge in my life, first through the fantastic fictional escapes of fanfiction, and then through voice calls, video chats, visits, and vacations. Whenever the world grew to be too much, I knew I could always come home to Playa and to you. Through more ups and downs than any real (or fictional!) reality show could dream up, you have kept me honest, humble, and grounded. It is a proven statistical fact that I never write better than when I'm trying to make you laugh or break your heart. It is just as solid a fact that you never shine brighter than when you so clearly see to the soul of something you love (a sentence, an idea, a person) and pull the very best of it to the surface for the rest of the world to love like you do.

There is no pretending that you aren't one of the best things to ever happen to me. Here's to the next adventure.

I still answer private messages on this site, but you can also find me on AO3 ( strayphoenix) and if you ever catch me on tumblr ( fireonallwires), I'd be glad to fight you over the Oxford comma :)

From Contemperina:

Wow. Bye, everyone.

Just kidding—but it really is difficult to find the words to end this story. It feels like the world is in chaos right now, but I hope that the end of Duncan and Courtney's tale can bring you peace and entertainment (and dare I say hope) in this otherwise scary and troubling time. I know they've done that for me.

The world has changed so much since strayphoenix and I began this story ten years ago. For one, the inciting incident of this story (Duncan being in Courtney's bed without consent? oops) would never fly nowadays, for good reason. It's funny for me to look back on that, now that I've grown so much and my perspective has changed. This time only, I'll give Duncan a pass for his Me Too moment, since I am the narrator of their story and know that it all worked out in the end.

Ten years ago, when I was just a kid, there was something about Duncan and Courtney's relationship that was really special to me. To this day, I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. I think it's something about the wit between them, and the energy, and how they both push each other to be better versions of themselves (even when it's uncomfortable) while still loving each other for their flaws. Of course, there's a lot that I don't like about their relationship, too. But that might just come from the fact that they are sixteen-going-on-seventeen in this story. I think they have room to grow, like we all do.

Now that it has concluded, I can honestly and definitively say that TAOP has changed my life. Despite the fact that strayphoenix and I have never lived in the same state, she is one of my dearest friends. They say that if you have been friends with someone for seven years, then you'll be friends for life, and I believe that will be true for us.

TAOP has also helped me in my career, believe it or not! In writing a story as long and complex as this one, and with strayphoenix's partnership, I have learned what it takes to tell a story. And humans tell stories all the time! Without saying too much, teaching, communicating, presenting, or otherwise holding people's attention for long amounts of time is critical to my job, and I never would have built my talent for this without TAOP. Plus, I'm really good at criticizing movie plotlines that don't make sense. And editing in general. It's one of my strange passions!

It means so much to me that so many of you have not only read this story but remembered it and cared to follow up with us so many years later. I am so happy to know that TAOP has meant something to you, as it has to me, and to stray, and I want to sincerely thank you for every kind word you've ever given us. stray and I talk about each and every review and comment we receive, and we are so appreciative of the little community we've built here on Playa de Losers.

In keeping with the winds of change, you have probably noticed that has declined in popularity over the past...decade. So, this update will be the last thing I post here. If you would like to get in touch with me (and I beg you, please do!), I rarely post on AO3 ( Contemperina) and often post on Tumblr ( contemperina). It would mean so much to me to hear from you—about anything.

With love and gratitude,

Credit and thanks to phido on Instagram for the new story cover image.