Once Upon A Nightmare

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all together ooky

King Jack stares at my fear as it gradually vanishes, then at me, baffled. Genevieve draws in a long gasp, her perfect mouth forming an 'o' shape.

Alexander knocks the sword away, giving his brother a murderous look. "What is the matter with you?"

Armand says nothing, sheathing his sword.

King Jack drags a hand down his face and grinds his teeth. "Alexander," he growls.

"Alexander," Genevieve repeats in a motherly tone, crossing her arms.

As if unable to help himself, Armand clucks his tongue. He's enjoying this, I can tell.

"Morpheus—Alexander," King Jack says. "Just when I think there is no possible way you can top the last stupid thing you did. It's like you're half a century old."

"Hey, hey." Alexander holds up his hands defensively. "I did not bring a human here on purpose."

"I'm sorry," King Jack says with faux-sweetness. "And how did you manage it on accident?"

"It's not his fault," I blurt. King Jack looks at me and crosses his arms, waiting. I swallow—he seriously is scary. "I just mean . . . it really was an accident."

I receive three identical looks of pity, like I'm another hapless victim of the tempest that is Alexander but don't know it.

King Jack sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. "I don't believe this. What are you going to do with her? In a city of hungry Nightmares, a human is like dangling a steak in front of a pack of wolves."

That's a particularly vivid metaphor, one I could have done without. Alexander doesn't get a chance to respond. Three more Nightmares converge on our little group.

"Great," Alexander mutters under his breath.

"Where were you, Jack?" the first snaps. His red eyes flash. He looks mean and powerful, covered from head to toe in decaying bandages like a mummy.

Jack winces. "I'm sorry—"

"The Dreams practically destroyed the castle before you managed to pop in, doesn't that—"

"Vince, enough." A Nightmare with wispy white hair puts a hand on the mummy's arm. Despite the hair, his face is young and completely expressionless. His eyes are half-closed, almost sleepy, and a milky white color. He looks strange standing next to Jack's empowering darkness. He looks, I realize, like a ghost.

Which is funny, because the last Nightmare is hairy, rugged and flashing a set of sharp teeth as he says, "Let's all play nice, children," is almost like a werewolf.

I turn to Alexander, mouth opening in excitement.

He rolls his eyes. "I'm aware," he whispers. "Don't give yourself a hernia."

Chimera, city of monsters. I don't think I'm going to get used to this.

"One thing at a time," the ghost continues, still in that wispy, calm voice. "Tomorrow morning we can start on repairs. Johnny?"

The werewolf salutes. "My pleasure."

"Alexander, Vince, and I can follow the Dreams, make sure they're not planning anything else."

"No," Jack says, his voice almost a growl. "Alexander has other things to take care of."

"What?" The ghost turns, confused.

Jack says, "He managed to get a human into the Isle of Morpheus."

Silence. It feels like a spotlight is glaring over my head. I try to appear shorter as they all stare at me. Maybe I should wave or something?

The werewolf breaks the stunned quiet with a bark of laughter. "Well, I daresay this bit of news could be defined, by anyone's standard, as a bigger disaster than the last time . . ."

At his side, the mummy sighs loudly and places a large coin into his outstretched hand.

The ghost quietly regards me. "She's been in a room full of Nightmares for several minutes and I didn't feel a twinge of fear."

"She's not afraid," Alexander says, and for once doesn't sound disgusted by me.

"And also not wreaking havoc on our world," the werewolf says. He steps forward and extends a hand to me. I take it and he kisses my knuckles. "Johnny Nicholas, my dear."

"Violet Darcey."

Alexander breaks our hand contact with a swipe of his own. He points at Johnny. "Off limits."

The werewolf shrugs and backs off, but not before sending me a wink.

"What happened?" the mummy asks.

"Her Circadian Clock was broken," Alexander says. "Is broken, actually. I was stuck in her mind for awhile and when I finally found a way out, she came with me by accident. I can get her back."

"You were stuck?" The mummy seems horrified. I'm surprised. Did his family not realize he was gone?

"Temporarily," Alexander reminds him. He isn't lying, exactly, but that's definitely the Reader's Digest version of what happened. And how is he so sure he can get me back? Last time I was there, my mind was a collapsing sinkhole. I also notice he conveniently left out the part about our souls being bound forever.

The ghost looks at Jack. "Alexander will do the most good with us, not here."

"Simon," Jack says. "She can't just . . . stay here."

"I realize that," Simon replies. "But she isn't doing any harm, which puts her—on the scale of recent events—near the bottom of our priorities."

"Oh please, Daddy," Genn says, taking my arm in hers. She smiles like we're best friends even though we've yet to even speak two words to each other. "Let her stay." Her lower lip begins to protrude, but before it develops into a full-fledged pout, Jack surrenders.

"Okay, fine. Fine." He pushes his hands through the air. "But after everything else is taken care of, get her home." This last part is said to Alexander, who nods. I let out a rush of air I didn't realize I'd been holding in. As the steak to their wolf, I was half-worried they were going to lock me in a torture chamber to harvest my fear.

Jack says, "I'm going to the Eye of the World Mountains to make sure the Night Terrors are going to stay put for awhile."

"I'm coming with you," Armand says. It's the first thing he's said since the monsters arrived. I almost forgot he was there.

Jack stiffens; it takes him a few moments studying Armand through narrowed eyes before he nods in acceptance. "Fine."

"And I'll stay here and give the workers something pretty to look at in the morning," Genn says, touching her hair. "Oh, Violet—I think you have a letter."

The air in front of me shimmers like a heat wave. A white envelope appears as if slipped through a crack in the atmosphere. My name is written on the side in calligraphic gold.

I lean away, afraid it will explode if I touch it.

"Relax, it's just a letter," Alexander says, reaching up to grab it.

Just a letter? A letter that materialized out of nowhere!

Alexander works the envelope open and withdraws a folded note, eyes scanning disinterestedly over the contents. "It's from someone named Gloom?"

I snatch it out of his hands.

Dear Violet, are you alive? I sincerely hope you haven't died. I'll be optimistic and assume that prat of a prince found you and helped you. If you are well, come back to the bookshop immediately. I've drank seven pitchers of tea already. Yours, Gloom.

"Oh, Gloom," I say.

"Does anyone have a postage pen?" Alexander asks.

Simon the ghost rummages in a pocket of his coat. He produces a long, gold pen with a quill of feathers on the end. After taking the pen, Alexander grabs the letter from me and writes on it, using my back as leverage.

"Hey, what are you doing?" I ask, twisting to see over my shoulder. "What are you writing?"

He ignores me, folding it again. I try to reach it, but he fends me off easily with one hand. As he works it back into the envelope, I snap, "Alexander, give it to me!"

He freezes. The fire in his gaze is deadly as he slowly moves the envelope to my waiting hand. My eyes widen in disbelief. I didn't expect him to listen. Then I remember—he has to do what I say.

"Be quiet and wait, then when I'm done tell me how to send it," I command.

His mouth twists, but stays closed. I open the letter. Underneath Gloom's words, Alexander has written: Prince Alexander is amazing, gracious, and handsome and I'm well taken care of, thank you very much. Your help is no longer needed.

Fuming, I draw an X over Alexander's words. In its place I scribble: Prince Alexander is a selfish, obnoxious jerk, but I'm fine and alive and I promise I'll let you know what's happening as soon as I know myself. Much love, Violet.

"Now how do I send it?" I ask.

"Put it in the envelope," Alexander says when he can fight it no longer. "And write Gloom's name on the envelope with the pen."

I do as he says, writing Todd Florence Scrubb in my best cursive (which is really crappy), and the second my pen lifts off the paper, the envelope disappears as it came.

"Thank you," I say curtly. When I turn around, I see all of Alexander's family staring at us with varying expressions of bewilderment. I'm not sorry. Maybe if he did what he was told once in a while, it wouldn't be so shocking.

"That was bloody brilliant," Johnny says. "Well done, Violet."

To my further confusion, Alexander no longer looks furious, but comfortable and pleasant. He's faking, I realize at once—but why?

"We should get going," Alexander says. "They'll have less time to move far."

"He's right," Simon says at last. He moves toward the door, the mummy at his side.

"Just put her in my room, Genn." Alexander leans forward and takes my shoulders in his hands. Before I can question his oddly gentle touch, he presses a soft kiss to my cheek. "See you later," he says. "Be safe, please."

What the . . .?

By the time I comprehend his actual motivation, he's gone. But comprehend it I do; I know him too well. An unspoken question lingered in the room after the letter disappeared: Why did Alexander—who listens to no one—listen to her? And he's just provided a nice alternative to the truth. He likes me. Fantastic.

. . . . . . .

Alexander's room is huge, and really dark. I fumble around, patting the stone walls, but don't find a light switch. With a sigh of defeat, I move to the far end where there's a massive thing that can only be the bed.

Silk sheets, go figure. I curl up on one side, not taking up much space. The bed smells like Alexander. It's odd that I know this, considering he never smelled like anything in my mind. But the smoky scent clinging to the sheets is definitely Alexander. A hint of spice, like cinnamon maybe, and something else I can't define. I like it, and I hate that I like it.

I wonder if he's coming back tonight. In the rush of things, I didn't think to ask. I think there's no way my strung-out body is going to allow me to sleep, but I must drift off, because I wake up when the door shuts. A torch on the opposite wall comes to life. Of course. Why would he need electricity when he can summon fire whenever he wants?

Alexander walks over and, seeing me awake, sits on the end of the bed. He rubs an eye, then shaking his head, braces himself and gives me a hard look. "Well, Violet strikes again. Seriously. What are you doing here?"

"You mean, what am I doing here alive?"

He frowns. "What?"

I thrust my palm in his face. "You knew the gods would kill me when they couldn't find you to kill you!"

He snatches my wrist and turns my hand around, studying the black spot that is now starting to creep around my wrist. "What is this?"

"Morpheus's death."

His lips purse. He drops my hand. "I didn't think they'd kill you. I thought they'd block your portal."

Which would have cut us off from each other. Which would have ruined my ability to dream.

"How could you do that?" With everything that's happened to me, this feels like the hardest blow. "You . . . you know what that means to me. You know that."

"You should thank me," Alexander says.

I suck in a breath and seriously consider strangling him.

"You need to get a life. I spent a month stuck in your head. You're so wrapped up in the fantasy lives of your books, you have no idea what's going on around you. Any emotion you have is pretend. You feed yourself with so many imagined gratifications, you don't even realize the shallowness of your reality."

His words hurt like the truth. And it's an awful, unkind truth that gives me the overwhelming urge to break into sobs and I don't know if it's because I'm scared it's permanent or because the person who told me is the only one with whom the emotion I feel isn't pretend.

There's a lot of things I want to say, but it's all an angry red blur in my head. "Move," I manage through my teeth. "I'm leaving." I toss the sheets aside

He's forced to move. "Stop," he says before I can get past him. He grabs my wrist. "Come on, Violet. Where are you going to go?"

"I can go to Gloom's book—"

"Just wait, please." He guides me back into a sitting position next to him, his hands restrictive on my shoulders. "First thing in the morning," he says. "We'll work it out."

I turn and glare at him, pointing a finger in his face. "I do not trust you at all."

The corner of his mouth curves. Not insulted, he pushes my finger away. "Well. At least you're a fast learner."

I sigh in defeat. I'm too tired. My shoulders slump and I hide a yawn. "I hate you."

"Ah, my dear human soul-keeper." He picks me up effortlessly and places me at the head of the bed. Ignoring my sullen pout, he pulls back the bedding and tucks me in. "I've lived in your mind. I know the truth."

My arm tingles where his hand brushed it as he brought the blanket up. I know the truth, too. My eyes narrow. "I extra hate you," I say in direct contrast to this truth.

"Fine, make me your villain. That's what Nightmares are for."

"I hope you're not planning on sleeping next to me." The bed has plenty of room for two, but there's no way I'm sharing it with him.

"Gee." He shoots me a flat look over his shoulder as he walks away. "As tempting as that invitation sounds—" He hops onto his stone windowsill, crossing his arms. "I plan on being awake the whole time you're asleep."

"You don't have to stand watch over me."

"I'm not." He rolls his eyes. "Ever since the whole soul-binding thing, I've noticed we share a . . . link. When we're asleep at the same time, I'm not awake to guard against it. Your ability to dream transfers over. Nightmares can't dream, so instead I relive memories." He shifts as if warding off a bad itch. "And I'd rather not, so I'm staying awake."

The dream about the flowery sheep girl. It felt like I was in Alexander's head. Was it his memory, and I saw it because of our connection?

"Fine, whatever." I roll away from him and close my eyes.

I sort through my clothes, digging to the very bottom of my closet until I find the jellybean holiday outfit Enna snagged for me. I even put it on, making sure every inch of black is off me, and wrestle a hat over my notoriously wild hair.

Then I look in the mirror, my hands on my hips, and think: What the hell? I change into boots, torn up jeans and a black shirt, shaking out my hair to encourage its craziness. Satisfied, I ditch the carriage I planned to take and tear across town to the Woodland Pastures on my motorcycle. By the time I arrive I'm very proudly and obviously the Prince of Nightmares.

"Hey—you." I balance my bike on one leg and cut the engine so the Dream boy at the edge of the field can hear me. My knowledge of Woodland Pastures is minimal at best, so I hope I've arrived in blazing glory to the right place.

He glances up, jaw dropping. I'm sure not sure what part of me inspires the reaction, but I enjoy it anyway. "Y-Yeah?" he manages.

"Is this the—uh—McGreggor farm?" I ask. (Enna McGreggor? Please.)

"Yes, sir."

"Are you marrying Eleanor Breanna Peep?"

"No," the boy says, clearly frightened.

"Oh. Who is?"

"Peter is, mister."

"Where can I find him?"

He points with one shaky finger toward the barn.

I salute and march over. Inside, a lanky red-headed boy whose face is more freckle than white skin cleans out the stalls.

"Hello!" I say with a broad, friendly smile. "Are you Peter McGreggor?"

Peter McGreggor jumps and looks at me owlishly, raising his pitchfork like a weapon. "Yeah? 'oo's askin'?" His bottle green eyes narrows. "Hey. Ain't you a Nightmare?"

"Handy with a pitchfork and smarter than your average candy farmer. I can see why Mr. Peep chose you as Enna's betrothed."

"Enna . . . ya mean Nell? Wot's it to ya?"

Nell? My jaw clenches against my disgust. Unbidden, the image of a cozy fire-lit cottage floods my mind—and the two of them, equally cozy. Peter Pitchfork here will lean in and say, 'Nell, I sure loved that bubblegum-covered porridge you made,' and kiss her rose petal skin and—

"HOLYMOTHEROFHYPNOS!" Peter squeals. I blink out of my angry daydream, glancing at the pile of hay that just lit on fire. With one sweep of my hand, the flames dispel. A barn filled with lots of dry materials is probably not the best place to have this conversation, but as my own personal motto goes: if it burns, it burns.

The color drains from Peter's face, making his freckles stand out even more. "'Oo are you? And 'ow do you know Nell?" he asks.

I pause, unsure how to answer. It feels a bit anti-climatic to hold up my wrist, flash the bracelet she made me and say, "We're bff's forever!"

"Um . . ." I begin with uncertainty, though Peter would have to be pretty brave to call me on it.

"Peeeee-terrrrr!" comes a sing-song call from not-too-far off. Enna enters the barn and unclasps her riding cloak. She throws it over a barrel and stoops to tie her boot, chattering on without pause as she does. "I brotcha some lunch an' a sip of ale. On the way 'ere I saw yer brother an' 'e told me that some dark fella was askin' 'bout me, isn't that strange, and 'e looked really nervous but I didn't feel much like askin 'im what was up and why's it smell like smoke in 'ere–" She finally looks up from her shoe and nearly drops the lunch pail in surprise.

It takes her a few seconds before she recovers enough to ask, in a nearly-frightened whisper, "Alexander . . . what in blue blazes are ya doing 'ere?"

"What?" I ask, a bit snobbishly. "It's a free realm, I can visit Patrick here if I want to." I replay that in my head, and say, quieter, "Peter, I mean."

"Well?" Peter demands, glancing from Enna to me and back again.

Enna regains her usual spitfire with astounding speed. "What do you mean, 'well'? I don't see 'ow this is any of your business any 'ow. Eat your lunch." She turns an accusatory finger at me. "And you. I want to 'ave a word with you. Outside, if ya will."

We're barely outside and out of earshot when she rounds on me with more anger than I would have guessed her little beflowered body could hold. The dust at her feet stirs as she stomps her foot. "Sandy, just what do you think yer doin' 'ere?! You want to get me in all sorts of trouble? If my people—my parents, their friends, alluv 'em—found out that you 'ang around with me all day long? I'd be dead. You'd be dead." She looks up at me with eyes dangerously close to watering. "Do you want me to not be able to see you no more?"

"Sorry." I wince. "I just . . . I didn't want you to marry Peter."

"What? 'Oo's marrying Peter?"

"Your father and his father were talking about it." I don't want to admit the reason I was in Merrymount's marketplace and how I only came across this bit of gossip because I was looking for the perfect flower to get her for a holiday Nightmares don't even celebrate.

"No . . . you mean . . . my folks want me to marry Peter? But . . .'is 'air is so red!"

I raise an eyebrow, torn between laughing and sighing with exasperation. Yes, Enna, his hair is red. But his second biggest flaw is that he isn't me.

"Very red," I agree seriously. "Ugly red. Think of your poor, numerous children. All eighty of them, running around as tomato-heads."

"Eew." Her nose crinkles.

I swallow. "Enna, please don't marry him. Or anyone."

Looking miserable, she shrugs her shoulders. "It's jus' what 'appens around here. Not that I'm gonna with Peter, but someday, with someone—an' well—"

"I like you, Ennabelle Lee." I can't stand the idea of her married to Peter. She's everything I'm supposed to hate—with her bows and candy and lace and overabundant sunshine—but I can't help it. I'd do anything for a chance to eat her sugar-overdosed breakfasts every morning.

We're in so much trouble.

"Well o' course you do," she says. "I like you too, Sandy."

"No. I mean . . ."

What else can I do? I reach out, take her face in my hands and kiss her. She's sweet and soft and perfect. It takes her less than a second to respond, arching up on her toes to kiss me back with such enthusiasm, we nearly fall over together in a tangle of arms and bows and lips.

I wrench away, trying to escape the sensation of Alexander kissing another girl and as I do, I wake up. Breathless, I reacquaint myself with Alexander's room and remember where I am. On the windowsill, Alexander's head has rolled to one side, his mouth slightly parted. By his deep breathing, I can tell he's asleep.

So much for that plan.

I rub my mouth, though the tingling sensation of kissing lips is not my memory and mere seconds later I can't quite recall what it feels like. Whoever this Enna girl is, Alexander likes her a lot. I don't particularly want to return to his memory of their first kiss, so I stare at the ceiling, determined to stay awake.

But of course, I fail.

And when I fall asleep, they're still kissing.

Or . . . we're still kissing . . . it's so hard to separate myself. I sense that this kiss isn't the first anymore, it's much later. It's familiar, and better somehow.

"All right, get a room you two."

We break apart and Enna winks at me, her cheeks slightly pink.

At the door, a young Dream stands, an amused smile crinkling his eyes. His outfit is old-fashioned and pressed. Soldier-like. He has an attractive, clean cut face and blonde hair that has the same sunlit look as Enna's.

"Sandy, this is my cousin, James Donovan."

"Just Donovan is fine," he says, extending a hand.

I release Enna in order to shake it and open my mouth to introduce myself, but Donovan beats me to it.

"Alexander Ira, I know. As would anyone, Your Highness."

I spare a tense smile. He's smug and kind of annoying. But I can put up with him for Enna's sake. "Just Your Highness is fine," I say. "Or a small bow of at least a forty five degree angle."

Enna punches my shoulder. "Cut it out."

"I'm glad you've decided to help us," Donovan says, ignoring my jibe. "You're the perfect face for the revolution. The Prince of Nightmares in love with a woodland Dream girl. Both defying their families for the cause of love."

I frown. I don't want to be the face of anything, first of all, and secondly, it's Enna's family that has a problem with us, not mine. When Enna told me about the revolution her cousin was part of, she made it sound like a movement of acceptance and integration between Dreams and Nightmares. But the glint in Donovan's eye, the restless energy barely contained in his hands clasped behind his back, has the thirsty feeling of war.

"James," I say—

Wait—wait a minute. I know this Dream. He's the one with the hat and the bandanna, the one who tried to shoot Alexander.

All at once, it isn't hard to separate myself from Alexander. Inside his dream memory, I pull free and see him standing beside Enna. He looks furious. "Get out!" he yells. "Get out of my head!"

Then we're both awake—in his room which has enough morning light I know we won't be going back to sleep. I can't see him, my back is still turned, but I hear his heavy breathing. "Enna," he whispers with a soft groan. He leaps to his feet and storms from the room without warning, slamming the door behind him.

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