Once Upon A Nightmare

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i love thee against my will

It doesn't feel like I wait very long before Donovan comes in and sets an oil lamp on the ground by the stool. I tense, expecting him to tell me to get out of his bed, but he gets something from inside the chest and sits down. The soft light exposes what he holds in his hand.

A book.

I almost start salivating.

He removes his hat, revealing a muss of blonde hair. A wince of pain flashes over his face. Reaching behind his shoulders, almost stretching, he pulls free a singular white feather, then opens the book to a bent corner, which he carefully smoothes before beginning to read.

"Hey." My indignant voice shatters the quiet. The steady movement of Donovan's eyes over the page doesn't falter.

"That's Gloom's Shakespeare book."

This time, Donovan does glance up. "It was his book."

My mouth opens. I mean, I've stolen the occasional library book—sometimes on accident, sometimes not—but the presence of actual literature in this oppressive atmosphere, so close but out of reach, is mocking me. "The least you could do if you're going to read in front of me like that is read aloud."

Donovan pauses, almost surprised. He waits just long enough to allow me to hope, then once he has that hope to fulfill or disappoint, he squashes it into the dirt. "I don't think so."

Well, fine.

"Which one are you reading?" I ask after a moment. I can't help it.

"Othello."

"You should try Much Ado About Nothing. That's my favorite."

Donovan drags his eyes back to me. "You're very annoying."

"I'll probably get worse."

"Here." Donovan flips through some pages, and then seizing a chunk between his fingers, rips them clean out of the book. I gasp in horror. I feel like breaking out the sign of the cross or something. Lord forgive us, for we have sinned.

"I can't believe you just did that."

"Do you want it or not?" Donovan asks, holding the torn pages out to me.

I hesitate, my fingers twitching. To take those pages would dishonor the wounded and mistreated book, but . . .

". . . yes."

I get up from the cot to grab the fourth act of Much Ado About Nothing. "Um, thanks."

He nods without looking up.

Setting the pages on my lap, I read. For several minutes, only the sound of rustling paper disrupts the quickly darkening night. When I feel Alexander pressuring our link, I hold him off. Without his simmering hatred in the back of my mind, Donovan doesn't seem that bad.

I mean, he is. I know that. Letting me read a book (that he stole from my friend) doesn't mean I've forgotten everything else he's done. But he's not . . . totally terrifying. He is a Dream, after all, beneath that crust of meanness.

"Do you mind if I go read to Genn?" I ask. Donovan looks up, eyes narrowing. "She's really scared right now, and . . . I think this would help."

I wouldn't expect even close to the same allowance for Alexander, but as I suspect . . . Donovan has a soft spot for Genn, like everyone else. He rubs the top of his brow, then finally rolls his eyes. "Whatever. Go."

I try not to show my relief. I leave the tent and expand my inner flame. The opening transition happens remarkably easy this time, as simple as extending a limb.

Took you long enough.

I ignore him, folding my Shakespeare papers in half and stuffing them in the waistband of my pants. Whatever happens next, our common purpose is Genn's safety and that's all I'm going to concentrate on.

After grabbing another water canteen from the food tent, I go to Genn and Alexander's temporary prison. Lana glares at me as I enter. "What now?" she asks. She also has an oil lamp, but unlike Donovan, she isn't reading. She's polishing one of his guns.

I hold up the ripped sheets of paper, tiptoeing by her without waiting for permission. "Just here to read."

Lana gives me an incredulous look before finally muttering, "Humans are so weird," and returning to her work.

I sit cross-legged beside Genn. We face fake-Alexander, but I make a special effort not to look over. Something about him unnerves me, and it's not entirely based on fear.

Poor Genn. She hasn't slept. She looks as terrible as is possible for her—which isn't really terrible, just tragic and beautifully pathetic.

"You're going to read?" she asks, arching her brow like—is this your plan?

"Yep—I, uh, I thought it might take your mind of things. It's Much Ado About Nothing, by Shakespeare."

"The human writer?"

"Mm-hmm." I move a hand against the binds behind her back, rubbing the chords between my fingers.

"Where did you get it?"

"Donovan."

Her lips curl and I shoot her a pointed look. Beggars can't be choosers. She lifts a shoulder and averts her gaze, so I start reading. It's a good thing I know this play so well. As I work on changing Genn's bindings into something more breakable—gray play dough, if my strength holds out—the lines come out unbroken and clear.

"And, I pray thee now, tell me for which of my bad parts didst thou first fall in love with me?" I recite. The chords are softening. "Suffer love! a good epithet! I do suffer love indeed, for I love thee against my will." I stop. It's one of my favorite lines, and my fingers just squished through the chords around Genn's wrists.

In my head, Alexander is oddly focused on Benedick's words. A familiar sensation, hot and prickly on my skin, alerts me to his gaze—but it isn't him, it's his counterpart. I look up. He stares at me, eyes glowing almost brighter than the lamp in the tent.

"I do know you," he says, so softly I almost don't hear him. "And I'll tell you something about yourself. I don't think you hide in your books. It's the truths you love—not the magic. Because we need something to be true, some kind of explanation, in whatever life we have."

I recognize that face—not only the features, but how looking at me like that makes me feel like he knows things about me even I don't know.

Alexander, it's Armand. I don't know how, but it is. It's him. We can't do this. We can't leave him alone.

His disagreement rumbles like an activating volcano. —No. And it isn't. Before I can voice my rebuttal, he starts again. —You have to save Genn. It's not him. Armand came home already.

I . . . he what?

He shows me a quick, flashing memory, gone before I fully process what it is. —He's home. Now hurry.

Okay, okay. Alexander cares about Armand as much as Genn; I have to trust he wouldn't lie. I take a deep breath and unscrew the canteen lid. Fake-Alexander looks confused. I don't know how much of my silent conversation played out on my face, but it's the only answer he's going to get for his disturbingly insightful comment. I leap up and dump the canteen's contents all over him.

Steam whistles into the air, filling the tent.

"Hey!" Lana shoots to her feet, assuming—I hope—that Alexander is the cause.

I grab Genn and yank her up. The play dough breaks easily off. Lifting the back wall of the tent, I drag Genn along after me into the night.

"Violet—what are you doing? We can't leave Alexander!"

"It's not him, trust me. And he can take care of himself."

We sprint to the Reality Skippers. Genn lets me pull her, but she keeps glancing over her shoulder behind us.

You have to imagine a place—with as much detail as you possibly can, otherwise it might not work. Where it is, what it looks like, what it feels like . . .

There's only one place that will work. I place my hand on the skipper and think about Gloom's bookshop, recreating Crooked Books'n'Nooks in my mind: the dusty smell, the poor lighting, the crowded shelves. Beneath my hand, the Reality Skipper glows.

"Get in," I say, helping Genn inside. No one's around—yet. Shouts filter up from the prisoner tent. Guilt turns like ice in my stomach, but I remind myself it isn't Armand. And they won't kill him. They need him.

"What's going on?" Genn asks, eyes wide.

"Please, please trust me—I'll explain on the way."

"But Alexander—"

"That's not him! I know because, he and I . . . our souls are bound—"

"What?!"

We don't have time!

Before I can climb in after her, a gun hammer clicks behind my head. I turn to face the barrel of Donovan's pistol. Licking my lips, I try to summon the focus I'll need to alter his gun, but my imagination sputters and fails. I'm tired. I haven't eaten since last morning and I used any energy I had to free Genn.

"The princess liked Shakespeare?" Donovan asks.

Let me take over.

Take over? As in, my body? I inwardly recoil in disgust. —No.

Alexander ignores my rejection, his attention as sharp as a predatory cat. —He's too relaxed, unconcerned about you escaping. You have a chance . . . can you run?

Run? Run where?

Donovan's eyes lift, looking over my shoulder. He grabs my shoulder and spins me around, putting the gun to my throat. Genn has gotten out of the carriage and moves toward us, her eyes locked on my captor.

"Let her go," she says huskily. I feel Donovan quiver a little behind me.

He lets loose a snarl of . . . fear? He pushes me away from him and points the gun right at Genn's forehead. I stumble, then whirl around.

"James," Genn says, and coming from her lips, it sounds strangely intimate. In spite of the weapon in his hand, he backs up. He doesn't get far before she grasps his wrist. Her fingers squeeze and he drops the gun. It clatters loudly on the rocky ground.

Donovan's eyes are wide with panic. He manages to jerk his hand out of her hold, but she reaches for him, gripping his waist and the collar of his shirt. She tilts her head up as if offering her face to him.

All at once, I realize I'm seeing the first display of Genn's power. James Donovan is afraid of beauty. With visible effort, he looks away from her, turning so he can only see her from the corner of his eye. He looks like a demon cringing from the celestial radiance of an angel.

The hand holding his waist comes up and wraps around his neck. He tries to get away—and almost does—but then freezes as Genn kisses him over the bandanna.

Without warning, she puts both hands on his chest and pushes. Staggered, Donovan goes down.

"Come on, Violet!" She waves a hand at me. I rush forward, but just as I start to follow her into the skipper, Alexander takes me by surprise, shoving me to the back of my own mind. I'm no better than an audience member as Alexander uses my body against me to push Genn the rest of the way inside and slam the door. "Go!" my voice commands and the Reality Skipper blurs away. He makes me pick up the gun and point it at Donovan's fallen form.

Only when the skipper's out of sight does Alexander let my arm fall. He leaves entirely, and the jolt of contrast between having him possess me to his utter absence drops me to my knees. I sink onto my heels, the pistol lying harmless in my limp hand.

Donovan kicks my wrist, sending the gun across the dirt like a skipping stone. My hand throbs with pain, but I don't move it. I hardly feel it. Alexander never meant for me to escape with Genn; he deliberately planned it so I'd get left behind. With a fake Nightmare prince, Donovan won't be able to find the Stitch in Time. And then what? He lets me go—so sorry for the misunderstanding? Yeah, right. Alexander's doomed me. I should have seen it coming, but I didn't, and that's what hurts. My surprise is humiliating.

After retrieving his gun, Donovan towers over me. I look up, tears on my cheeks. I don't find compassion in his hard gaze, but neither is he hurting me. He doesn't need Genn, not really, and we both know it. He surprises me by reaching down a hand, which I shakily take.

He leads me into camp, back to his tent. I'm too tired to protest—or care.

Did it work? If Genn isn't safe, it was all for nothing. My concern is so similar to what Alexander is feeling at the exact same moment, our link opens up again without him realizing.

When I close my eyes, I'm with him, running toward Crooked Books'n'Nooks. His breath is only slightly labored, despite his fast pace, but his chest is tight with worry for his sister.

The pod arrives at the same time he does. Hesitant relief blossoms where the worry was. "Genn?" he calls, ripping the door open. She stumbles out, clutching his shoulders.

"Alexander! Oh—she was right. Violet—Alexander, they still have Violet."

"Ssh . . ." Alexander soothes, running his hand over her hair as she clings to him. Gingerly, he moves them away from the Reality Skipper. He isn't paying attention, but a shadowy form hovers beyond the window of the bookshop, the outline of poofed hair.

"I'm going to get her, don't worry," Alexander placates his sister, guiding her down the street toward where he parked his motorcycle. I can't tell if he's lying. He's so absorbed in his sister he's barely processing his own words. I don't know if he'll come after me, or that it matters if he does. The Stitch of Time was my only plan to get home. Even if our soul-binding forces him to my rescue, I'm dead anyway.

I open my eyes, jolted to my own present by noise. Half the camp is awake, alerted by Lana's cries. Everything sounds muddy. She doesn't think their captive is Alexander; he's too composed, those are her words. Donovan sighs in irritation and brings me back to his tent, then leaves me alone.

Sitting on the cot, I let my eyes drift close. In the darkness, I can nearly pretend I'm asleep. I want to go home. Wake up. I count to three, and open my eyes. I'm still in the tent. I try again—shut my eyes, so tight. Open. Home. Please.

It doesn't work. I try again. And again, and again.

I'm still trying when exhaustion finally drags me to sleep.

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