As he sauntered out of his parent's three-storey townhouse, Trent was shocked when he set eyes on his car.
Sure, the vehicle was yet another of his (soon-to-be) failed success (he had brought it with his first advance check), but there was also something more.
Or rather, someone more. Leaning on the bonnet of his blue Honda precisely.
Six-foot-three with dark skin, dreadlocks, and a peg-leg made out of an umbrella handle, Chip tipped his captain's hat in greeting as Trent stumbled towards the car. Dazed. Shocked at what he was seeing. And certain he had to be tripping from that bad lasagne he ate during Season 2.
His mother would agree, she was always banging on about food conspiracy theories.
But Trent wasn't so sure she would be as convinced about his protagonist being real as McNuggets being made out of chicken bones, particularly when Chip simply slid into the passenger seat next to him. Still real. Still alive. And still stinking of that horrible, rose-water whisky Trent forced him to drink every other scene.
"So, where are we off to?" Chip asked chirpily.
Trent merely stammered in surprise, shocked - and partially petrified - at the unusual turn his mundane journey had suddenly taken.
"I'm sorry," Trent mumbled, jamming his key into the ignition. "But I'm going to kill you."
Chip furrowed his brow. "Didn't that happen in Book 3 already?"
"No," Trent corrected. "As in I'm heading over to my publisher's right now, to kill the series you're a part of."
"Oh, career suicide," the pirate drawled. "I've tried that once or twice myself. Not a good move, especially when a sea criminal turns up outside an orphanage offering sweeties and toys to the kids. That's the last time I ever try to be honourable instead of dirty and thieving."
"Morally grey," Trent corrected again. "Not dirty and thieving, morally grey."
"See," Chip exclaimed, slapping his hooked hand on the dashboard as Trent pulled out onto the highway. "This is exactly why you shouldn't give up the Scum of Arcadia series. You know us better than anyone!"
"Know us?" he queried.
Chip gestured to the side of the road. "Pull over here."
Not knowing what else to do, Trent cautiously pulled up in the empty spot, leaving the engine running. For a moment, he stared at the space, not seeing a thing. And then - out of nowhere, between one blink of his eyes and the next - there she stood.
Valeria. His greatest villain.
"I call shotgun!" the second fictional-turned-real character said, viciously yanking open the passenger door.
True to his nature, a terrified Chip held up his hands in surrender, slid out, and re-joined Trent and his nemesis in the backseat. Settling down next to him, Trent knew that somehow Valeria was real too. Not just bad-lasagne-tripping real, real-real. There was her goats' blood scented perfume. The vivid red shade of her hair. And the cold shadow of her presence which loomed over him, sending a shiver racing down his spine.
"Where are we off to?" Valeria snapped. Permanently angry and malicious as always.
"He's taking us to kill us," Chip piped up.
"Again?" Valeria snarled, glaring at Trent. "I thought that happened to me in Book 4 already."
"It did," the pirate sighed. "Sweet, baby Jesus it was good when it did."
The bloody baroness growled. "Well, come on, then," she sniped at Trent. "If you're going to ruin us, at least get on with it already."
Shaken even more than before, Trent pulled back out onto the highway.
"So, scumbag," Valeria huffed, crossing her arms against her chest. "It looks like we're stuck in this car for the next two hours, doomed to go on this stupid road trip whether we like it or not. At least entertain me with your pathetic piratey exploits in the meantime..."
"Crow," Chip insulted her.
"Wench-lover," Valeria retorted.
And so it went on.
As the pirate and the bloody baroness bickered, Trent felt a strange sense of comforting nostalgia wash over him. He hadn't felt or seen them be this way with each other since Book 1. And not at all since his publishers made him off Valeria and introduce the new villain, the Governess, in Book 4.
In a rush, everything that had drawn him to these morally conflicted, complex characters came rushing back. From Valeria's tragic childhood backstory about how her hate for pirates rose from her father's abandonment, to Chip's first epic battle with her on the Rugged Seas. From their begrudging alliance to find the magic scroll in Book 3, to his enemy's eventual redemption in Book 4. After she'd drank the poisoned grape juice, of course.
The ultimate love-to-hate friendship.
And on the reasons his series had been praised so highly not focusing solely on romance.
"You're going to miss me," Valeria chipped in, shattering Trent's thoughts like her canons had shredded Chip's ships countless times. "Don't deny it. You're going to miss both of us."
"Of course I am," Trent said reluctantly through gritted teeth.
"Then fight," Chip encouraged, thumping his hook on the back of Trent's seat.
"Fight us," Valeria agreed. "You don't want to lose us. You know there was a reason why you fell in love with us in the first place."
"Yeah," Chip said. "I'm the representation of all the good you want to do in the world."
"And I'm the representation of the evil in the world you hope will change," Valeria supported. "Not to mention a few of those naughty, little revenge plans you secretly wanted to act out when Mr. Collins set you those forty hours of algebra homework."
Trent whistled low, nodding. "That was a bad weekend."
Valeria raised a dark red eyebrow. "Not as bad as this weekend will be when you're curled up watching Breaking Bad, wishing you'd never made this mistake."
"Actually, it's Gossip Girl right now."
"Really?" she said exasperatedly. "Still? How many seasons has that got, like five?"
"Well, getting back on topic," Chip said, clearing his throat loudly and emphasising the last few words. "Even if you weren't going to miss us, you'd miss the world."
He reached forward and tapped the glass on Trent's driver side window. And, sure enough, just like magic...the scene of the busy, metropolitan highway leading into New York City vanished. Replaced by rolling green hills, emerald grass, snow-topped mountains and an iridescent waterfall.
"You based Arcadia on that trip you took to Bear Springs with your parents, remember?"
"And you based all the secondary countries and kingdoms off places you wanted to go."
Trent knew that too.
In a blur, hundreds upon thousands of new, exotic and bizarre destinations flashed across his window. Thailand. Japan. Iceland. Antarctic. The moon, Venus and even Mars.
Living vicariously through writing his story, Trent felt a familiarity at the sight of all of the places. Like he had experienced them through writing about them, but in his own way. With his own timelines. With his own rules and limitations - or lack of.
Arcadia has become his home away from. His world away from the world. His refuge, his solace, his dreamland.
And now...now he risked giving all that up too...
"We're almost there," Valeria informed him brusquely.
Just like that, the miraculous mirages disappeared, and the hustle and bustle of the publishing capital popped up again.
"I hope you're still happy with your decision," she scoffed.
But Trent really wasn't sure anymore. Perhaps he was just high off B&J Cookie Dough, but was he...was he beginning to doubt himself?
Somewhere deep inside him, a flame ignites again. There was something in the pit of his soul, an itch he couldn't quite scratch, but just as he was trying to discern what it was Chip piped up again.
"We've just got one last stop to make."