Once Upon A Nightmare

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this can be no trick

I try very hard to stay conscious. Beneath the hum of my fever, I'm confident Armand will catch me if I slip off, so I'm less worried about it than he'd probably like me to be. Lana's with what remains of the Dream camp; Donovan is still missing. I'm not worried about that either, or anything, really, except holding in the contents of my stomach as Armand flies us back to the castle. We rise high enough I can see a vast expanse of ash on our left side, ending in the glowing, jagged line of the Edge. We pass what I never got to see inside a Reality Skipper. The deadened trees at the base of the Eye of the World Mountains gradually thicken into a wild forest the farther we fly. After a while, the forest on one side becomes rural hills, picturesque landscapes and blossoming orchards. On the other, it sinks into swamps, cemeteries and haunted mansions. Armand swoops toward Chimera.

I see the castle, high on its hill, before anything else. For the first time, I dare to sit up straight. The night air tugs at my air. The leathery flap of Armand's wings is hardly noticeable among the bats, gargoyles, and other dark-loving creatures. It really is beautiful,I think, watching the city unfold below us. Remembering Alexander's face when he first showed it to me in my mind, I know he'll be a good king.

Armand heads for the castle and panic tightens my grip on his neck. "Armand, no, wait," I say, hoping he can hear me. He slows, hovering mid air. I dimly recall already arguing about this, but my mind is so fuzzy, it's hard to grasp what the conclusion to that argument was. "Alexander will notwant me there."

Armand flies faster, pointedly ignoring me.

I startle awake, unaware I'd drifted off, when cool fingers touch my cheek. "She's burning up. What's wrong with her? Is her body dying in Real World?" Genn—I'm pretty sure.

"No. I would know if it was." That's Alexander. His hands find my face next and I try to shy away, already predicting the additional warmth his fingertips will bring. Instead he sucks the heat out.

"I'm—" I croak, trying to tell them I'm thirsty. I think I'm lying on something—a bed? And then a torrent of water lands on me. Genn squeals in surprise. I cough, unable to get my eyes to focus, but I'm more awake now, soaked and blinking.

Alexander laughs.

"This is hardly funny," I hear Armand snap at him. Where is he? I try to find him, groping for his hand. I wish I could get my vision to cooperate.

"I know," Alexander says. Finally, his face forms in front of me. He's smiling, despite Armand's reprimand. "Honey, try not to create vivid images in your mind. With the fever, you can't control them."

Honey?Angrily, I do the opposite of what he asked and envision a whole downpour of honey sticking him to the side of the wall, away from me.

The room is swirling, but I try to sit upright and an arm comes around my shoulders to support me. Genn's on one side—tilting a little—but I can make out her hand over her mouth covering a laugh.

"Gross!" I hear Alexander complain.

Armand's soft chuckle is right by my ear, and I turn, seeking his face. I find his blue eyes and sigh with relief. Luckily he's holding me up, because I sag, dizzy again. "I think you're going to be just fine," he says.

He says something about getting me out of the wet bed and then a drink, which perks me up, but not enough to keep me awake. I drop off again before I realize what's happened.

When I wake up again, my head is aching, but I'm almost grateful for the sharpness after the hazy stream of images still plaguing my mind. With a small groan, I sit up and see Alexander sitting by my bedside. He's leaned back, arms crossed over his chest and one ankle resting on his knee. I don't recognize the room I'm in. It's not as dark as his bedroom, not as girlish as Genn's.

"So," I say, rubbing my forehead. "I'm not dead."

"With that pistol of a mind? Not a chance."

The more I wake up, the more uncomfortable I become sitting alone in a quiet space with Alexander. I stare at my lap for a while. I raise my head, about to ask where Armand is, and he hands me a glass of water. "Here."

Grateful, I chug the entire thing and hand it back to him. He sets it aside, saying nothing else. "So, um." I clear my throat. "Sorry to disappoint you, with the staying alive thing." I just want him to leave. I know I'm being a little brattish, but if it pushes him out the door, so be it.

As I should have known, Alexander isn't going to feel uncomfortable unless he chooses to be. He reaches over and grabs my hand. I try to tug out of his hold, but his grip only tightens. "I'm sorry, Violet."

This, at least, makes me pause. I narrow my eyes. "Sorry for what?"

"Everything." He takes a breath, glances down, then looks up again. His eyes, as ever, nearly bowl me over with their intensity. "I don't want you to die." A brief grin flits over his mouth. "And I'm not just saying that now that all hope has been lost and whatever."

I choke a small laugh, as if the destruction of the Stitch in Time is in any way humorous, and try and pinch him. He dodges without thinking.

"I have this idea that I can fight my way out of pain," he says. "Like, if I feel bad, then all I have to do is go get rid of the source, like slaying a dragon, and I'll be okay. Um, but—" His voice gets thicker and he looks away again. "As it turns out, I'mthe source of most of my pain."

I sigh. He's such an idiot. So am I, since despite everything, I'm not mad at him. I never was. Maybe if I hadn't seen the pain he's describing so clearly, it would be different. But I understand him as I understand myself—and I can't hate him. Sometimes, it's just really hard to like him. I squeeze his hand. "You were my first friend," I whisper.

His eyes snap up, surprised.

"Remember that time we played jazz music with the band of skeletons?"

He stands, still holding my hand. Without hesitation, I scoot over, so he can sit beside me on the bed. "With the xylophone ribcage," he says. We lean back together on my pillow.

"I told you to give me a voice like Bessie Smith, and you made me sound like Mr. Toad."

"I didn't know who Bessie Smith was."

"Which is ridiculous—you're two hundred and thirteen years old."

"Excuse me, but there's seven billion people on the planet. That's a lot of minds to explore in two hundred years and do you know how many know about Bessie Smith? Not that many."

"The goodminds know. As a prince, I think you can afford more expensive food."

He laughs. "I'm not sure you get to make jokes about it like you're some kind of expert."

"I'm the onlyexpert. The only human one." I turn to him. "If I don't die—"

"Don't." He pauses, then quieter, "I need this."

"Bad jokes?"

"No." He shifts. Our noses are only a hair's width apart as we lie side by side on the pillow. "Your forgiveness. I had this whole speech planned out and then I didn't even need it because you know me so well. And I know you so well. I can't believe you know everything and you're still here. I need that."

"In Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff are like that, but they go insane and kill everyone."

"Well, obviously, we're going to do that too, so I don't really see the problem."

"Okay, but you're Cathy and I'm Heathcliff, because Cathy dies first."

"In that case, I think you'reCathy, because I'm a little thing called immortal."

"You have a potentially long lifespan. There's a difference."

He turns onto his back, looking up. His tone becomes solemn. "The sooner I'm not in charge, the better."

I lean up an elbow to look at him better. "Why are you being so doomsday right now?" First, asking for my forgiveness like one of us is on our deathbed. I thought it was me; now I'm not so sure. And then this—the way he said the sooner the better makes it sound like he doesn't think he isgoing to be king for much longer. "You're going to be a good king." I reach out and tap the Jewel of Imagination resting on his sternum.

"No, I'm not."

"Yes you are. I know you better than anyone, remember? Including yourself. And I say you are. Is there a coronation ceremony?"

"God, no. Of course not. Stop being so annoying."

"You need me."

"And there's the rub."

"Are you quoting Shakespeare to butter me up?"

"Why would I butter you up? You're trapped, baby."

Genn comes into the room, holding a plate of food. "Violet!" Her happiness darkens to irritation as her gaze travels to Alexander. "How long has she been awake? Why didn't you say anything?"

With an exaggerated groan, Alexander kisses my temple and pulls himself upright. "I suppose I better go find Prince Charming too, let him know his sleeping beauty is awake."

I pretend I don't know what he's talking about, but my blush gives me away and he laughs—with good humor, but I notice the edge. I grab him before he makes it fully off the bed. I don't know what I plan to say, but he speaks first.

"Thanks for making me laugh again," he says softly, then goes.

. . . . . . .

"You didn't have to come with me." I glance at Armand, walking alongside me. It's a short distance to Crooked Books 'n' Nooks and I told him I wanted to say goodbye alone, but since Donovan is still unaccounted for, he insisted on accompanying me at least to the bookshop.

He shrugs his answer.

"Are you always going to be this over-protective?"

"Does it bother you?" he says it casually, but as usual, he's much too serious for anything to be fully light or nonchalant.

I bite my lip against my smile, turning away. "Nope. I mean, it probably should. Feminists everywhere are crying in agony as I say it, but . . . I kind of like it."

"Then stop complaining." A ghost of a smile passes over his face. In this, he's joking. But one joke alone is not enough to sway him from his mood.

I shuffle closer and poke his stomach. "Stop taking this so seriously—"

"Would you start taking it a little more seriously? You could—"

"I know, Armand." After sleeping a day and a half and eating a few decent meals, I feel fine, but it's an illusion. I know I could die even before we make it to Gloom's shop. "We're going to find a way." I'm not sure I believe myself. If Sweeney, goddess of the Isle of Morpheus, fear of the unknown, thought my only chance was with the Stitch of Time, I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, I don't want to be miserable. I want to see Armand smile.

"And then?" he asks. I almost don't hear him. He stops walking and I face him. "We find a way, and then you go. Either way, you're gone."

"I meant that as a two part find a way. First we find a way to get me home, then we find a way to get me back without me dying in a coma."

Armand sighs. "You're optimism is irritating me."

I laugh and wrap my arms around him. "Sorry. Stop acting protective and caring whether or not you see me again. That's part of the problem. It's making me happy, in spite of everything else."

We keep walking and I have to admit—I miss the sun. A normal sun, that's not glaring sparkles and surrounded by chirping birds. Just daylight, and weather. And jeans and English class and Chex cereal. I'll be sad if I never see it again.

When we arrive, the bookshop's door is locked. Gloom left on purpose. To find me,I think heavily. My hand wraps around the door handle. I barely have to concentrate and it clicks open.

"I'll be back," Armand says softly.

"Wait." I walk back to him. His brow creases in question. "I barely understand you, I know that. You just lost your father and your whole identity isn't what you thought, but I forget that because when I'm around you I feel like I'mthe most important thing, even though I know I'm not. And I don't know if any of us really see you, Armand, because you're too good at seeing us. But, to me, you are basically perfect. And also, that, um . . . I think I love you the best way I've loved anyone, which isn't that well, since I haven't had a lot of practice. But I do. And I wanted you to know."

I say it all without looking away once, though I want to. My cheeks feel like they're on fire. I can't read the newly intense quality in his eyes, but he puts a finger under my chin and kisses me, and then I don't really care. The kiss can't grow beyond the small moment it contains, so it ends soon. There's a disappointing rightness about its brevity.

"You see me just fine," he says. His lips brush my forehead, then he's gone.

I step silently into the bookshop, hugging myself. It smells like old books, like Gloom. I let the sadness wash over me, determined to experience it. "I'm so sorry," I whisper, my eyes filling with tears.

When the sadness has shuddered through me, I search along the dusty rows of books until I find Edgar Allan Poe's dreams. Hugging them to my chest, I move to the rickety staircase, not bothering with a light. The darkness doesn't scare me. But once in Gloom's room, I rummage around and discover matches in the drawer by his bed. I light a tall, crooked candle and turn, almost screaming as Sweeney's outline materializes in the glow of the flame.

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