Once Upon A Nightmare

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which monster

Blowing out a semi-irritated breath, I brush my fear off my arms. "Hi, Sweeney." What's she doing here? It's possible she saw me come in, but I don't know why she'd want to talk to me. "Or Nyx, I guess," I add.

"Sweeney," she corrects, with that voice that sounds like an eighty-year-old woman, despite her hot pink lips and young skin—what little there is to see. "You came to say goodbye to Gloom."

I nod, not bothering to voice my affirmation. Even with the bandages on her eyes, I get the feeling Sweeney sees better than anyone. She leans heavy on her scythe. Her dress is gray and filled with rotting lace. As the only other Nightmare who really knew Gloom, she might be the only person who understands my pain.

"You have Gloom's power?" Her voice cracks and I realize it's the other way around. Her pain is worse than mine. She's thousands of years old and the fear of the unknown; I don't know if she's the type to have normal kind of friends. But if she did, then Gloom would have been one of them.

I take the swirling purple marble out of my jacket pocket. When I asked Genn for a pair of jeans, she looked at me like I was requesting to wear live snakes around my waist. So I'm in a long skirt, but the black jacket hugging my shoulders has pockets.

"May I?" she asks, extending a hand.

"Please give it back," I whisper, but I pass it over without hesitation.

She does give it back, and when she does, Gloom's power is encased in an elaborate iron clasp, strung through with a dark chain. I slip it over my neck. "Thanks."

"Can I give you something else?"

"Yes?"

She levels her scythe over her open palms and extends it to me like an offering.

I stare it, not wanting to touch it, and not wanting to offend her by stepping back, away from it. "Um—why do you want me to—"

"I'm very tired, Violet," she says. "I've lived so long and observed human minds to such an extent that I can do almost everything the Jewel of Imagination can do. And yet, there are limits, because I can't see. Every day there is something new to learn, in spite of my long life. You will see what I cannot."

Slowly, I start to catch on to what she's saying. "What am I supposed to do with it? I'm a human with an expiration date, in case you forgot."

"Alexander shepherded you into this world, he is your link to getting out. With my power, the actions of everyone but yourself is known to you. Your situation is . . . unique. It will show you how to use that bond."

"Why do you care if I get home?" She hasn't shown too much interest in my well-being before—as Nyx or as Sweeney.

"Gloom cared."

For the first time, a hint of something creeps into my confused resolve. Curiosity, maybe? Unless she loved him. I don't particularly want to think about why her scythe is related to my bond with Alexander. If this turns out to be another his-life-for-mine thing, forget it. I'm not biting.

"Um, Sweeney—"

The door swings open and reveals a shadowy form. If I didn't recognize the shape of his silhouette, the feathered wings rising off his back, then the click of his gun as he cocks it would have given him away. Sweeney's back is to him. She doesn't turn, but her mouth curls into a smile.

My skin starts to mist, but I force it down. I won't give him the satisfaction.

Donovan tilts his head up. Even in the shadow of his hat, I can see his eyes, like two green flat buttons. They have no depth, utterly lifeless. It chills me worse than his rage ever has.

When he doesn't move closer or say anything, I resume my initial panic.

Sweeney's grip tightens on her scythe. "I led him here," she rasps to me. "Don't resist this path."

What? What?

Before I can strangle a proper answer out of her, she disappears and her scythe clatters to the ground. As it's the only weapon between me and Donovan's gun, I snatch it off the ground and raise it in a semi-threatening position.

Donovan hasn't budged. Except for the flexing of his wrist when he cocked his pistol, he's unmoved, physically or emotionally. I'm honestly not sure if he's been biding his time, waiting for me to return to Crooked Books'n'Nookslike I inevitably would, or Sweeney somehow called him here like she said. Casting about for alternatives, I look first to the door, then let my gaze wander to Gloom's only window. I dive for it, but Donovan intercepts me, moving faster than I would have thought possible in his muted state. He throws us both to the ground and my head cracks against the wood floorboards. The scythe skids out of my hands and hits the wall. Head swimming, I try to fight off his hands, but he holds me down easily.

I doubt Donovan cares what happens to me, dead or alive, which means I'm what I always was: bait. I clamp my jaw closed and glare at him. He presses one knee over my middle and holds my arms with one hand. "I'm not afraid of you," I hiss. And I'm not going to let out any kind of scream or burst of fear that will draw Alexander here.

"Not yet," he growls, and tears his bandanna off. I see his ruined face for the first time and turn away from the sight. Most of his mouth and the entire right side of his face is burned—but it doesn't look like the warbled, twisted flesh of scars—it looks like the fire ravaged him mere seconds ago. Glistening flesh bleeds and oozes beneath charred scraps of skin. I understand why he doesn't heal himself, why the burn looks so fresh. He's an angel, and he was hit with the fires of hell, whose flames burn in eternal torment. He's in constant pain.

Donovan yanks me to my feet and wrestles my hands behind my back to tie them. He drops me on the floor and I reach a toe for Sweeney's scythe. The edge of my shoe brushes over the handle and I can make out Donovan's—what is it, his soul?—moving across the plane of Gloom's room. I'm seeing with more than my eyes. If anything, my eyes are a distraction from the true vision of the scythe. A hot, bright soul, like shimmering lightning, arrives in my peripheral and a surge of fire knocks Donovan back. Alexander stands in the doorway.

"Alexander, leave," I say. "Go home." This whole mess was clearly coordinated to get him here, but I'm not going to be an accomplice to his downfall, not again.

"What did you do to her eyes?" Alexander growls.

Why isn't he listening to me? I gave him a command. I struggle in frustration against my binds. When I try to focus on Alexander, it's like trying to aim a semi truck down a playground slide. Multiple sources offer me different vantage points to what he's thinking, what he's doing. Gloom's power is hot against my collar bone; Sweeney's warped sort of vision is trying to get me to understand the different paths of his current decisions. And our soul connection opens both of these up so far and so deep I can't concentrate on anything but him.

Then—this thought stands out clear and bold: Alexander is planning to die.

I almost can't separate his logic from my own. In hismind it makes sense. Without Donovan, the Dreams are unlikely to regroup and attack again, but as Jack did with Hina, it's better for their conflict to die with both of them; and, of course, his resolute belief that he will lead the Isle of Morpheus to utter destruction as her king.

Options, I need options . . .

If I knew even a little bit how to navigate Sweeney's power, this would be easier.

The barrel of Donovan's gun spins and clicks. The sound breaks through my haze and I become aware of their murmured, tense voices—arguing. I don't have time. Tell me what I need to know,I think. The idea rising in my brain makes little sense. I can't determine if it's my own wild imagination or from Sweeney's power, but it's worth a shot. He's the guardian of my mind. If I sacrifice my life for his, he'll be free. Our kiss created the bond, my ransom can break it.

"Alexander," I say. "Wait."

"Stay out of this, Violet."

"Kiss me, before you do this."

That gets his attention. He turns to me, startled. All the fate lines around him scissor with uncertainty. He hasn't decided he isgoing to kiss me, but I need our soul connection so wide and consuming we almost swallow each other, and kissing is the best way to do that, since that's how our souls were bound to begin with.

"What?" he asks.

"I know what you're thinking," I remind him quietly. "Kiss me first, please."

He hesitates. Another command he's managing to ignore.

Donovan says, coldly, "Take your pleasure before death."

Donovan's going to die too; he seems glad about it. They both want it, this final agreement between them. WhyAlexander? You have so much to live for.

With Donovan's permission, the curse kicks into gear. Or Alexander decides for himself. Either way, he kneels in front of me. His mouth comes near mine, still with hesitation, and he shifts to the side—to my cheek. But I need his lips. I turn and catch him and then we're kissing.

I think Alexander was expecting a chaste, goodbye sort of kiss. I don't know what I expected. But this is beyond expectation, whatever either of us thought. Our first kiss—so miniscule, so brief—was like a marking. This is a claiming. My inner flame explodes and swells over me, out of control, like a wildfire consuming everything in its path. There's no way either of us can escape it and it's several seconds before my mind returns from the blast of physical sensation enough to remember my plan. He clutches me to him like he's starving and I, with my tied hands crushed between us, can't feed him fast enough.

I feel our link—and it is ours,not two separate things—and push against it, throughit, if I can. It cracks as I meet with resistance, like Alexander's trying to keep me in place. I push harder and all at once, I flood through, like a geyser through a broken dam. I go straight into Alexander's body, overtaking him entirely. I shove one final time—pushing myself forward and him to the side.

I'm standing where he stood. The illusion of his body isn't going to last long, because I'm not just inhim, I am him. With one side step, I'm right next to Donovan. Alexander, on the ground where I pushed him into mybody, is already shifting into himself, leaving my visage behind. Closing my eyes, I remember every good thing I know. I remember my favorite books, my father speckled with oil paint. I remember singing Nightmare Before Christmas songs with Alexander and playing tag with the Night Terrors. Gloom in his tux, Genn brushing my hair. Armand's kiss.

Oh, Armand. I'm so, so sorry.

When I open my eyes, my luminous skin lights up Gloom's small room. I cup my hand gently to Donovan's ruined face and my joy rushes into him. He staggers back as if I've dealt him a fatal blow. My pale fingers reach up to touch the barrel of his gun pressed into my stomach. Too late, I see him press the trigger. A flower of agony explodes through my middle, wet and burning. Whatever I manage to do in that split second keeps me alive long enough to look up and meet Donovan's eyes.

They're wide, stunned to see me in Alexander's place. Somehow, the strength of our bond and my ability to bend this world's reality has welded and done this—as Sweeney's power told me it would. I wish I didn't have to die. Sweeney was right—the mortal subconscious is capable of so many, many things. We might have found another way for me to live, with time. But I amgoing to die. I can feel it.

The oxygen I try to suck in is soggy and doesn't relieve the dizzying pressure in my head. I sink back, but someone catches me before I hit the ground.

Through my rapid blinks, I see Donovan above me, looking down, terrified—then he runs. My body jerks with an agonized gasp. The fire in my stomach is unbearable. I hear the smoky tones of Alexander's voice, fraught with urgency and impatience.

My eyes flutter as I try to focus. He strokes my face with quick, clumsy movements. "Why did you do that?" he whispers.

"I'm going to die anyway," I say, with as much boredom as I can. He kind of laughs, bowing his head in my neck.

"Shut up. Shut up."

I cough; something warm and wet trickles out the corner of my mouth. The world tastes like metal.

"I gave the jewel to Genn, for when I was gone," Alexander mutters. He's holding my face in both hands, but I can't tell if he's actually talking to me, or just himself. "It needed to be like this. Donovan and I, like them."

"No," I whisper. I smile—or I think I do. Everything feels like a hazy dream, so I'm not sure what's sensation and what's reality. "You're going to be so good. As king. I mean it—I told Armand . . ."

I must be crying, because he rubs his thumbs on the corner of my eyes.

"Armand's never going to forgive me."

There's something else I want to say, but it slips away as I fall from Crooked Books'n'Nooksand Alexander's arms into blackness, cold and empty.

. . . . . . .

I resurface through the suffocating fog—with the bereft feeling of finishing a story, but I can't remember . . . My mind insists on shaping the darkness into a familiar form. A cruel trick, I think. I can't remember why, but I know I'm never going to see him again. The mirage looks exactly like him, from the ice-blue eyes to the sly, wicked smile. Wait—that's Alexander's smile. Which one am I seeing? I gasp as a fresh wave of pain shoots down my spine. I feel sick and suddenly claustrophobic; the darkness presses in again.

Violet.

Someone's calling me. Or . . . maybe it's another trick. I can't quite . . . "Violet?" My eyelids feel heavy as stone, but I crack them open. Fluorescent lighting scorches my vision and I squeeze my eyes shut again with a wince. I wait for the pain in my stomach to return, but feel only an overwhelming stiffness settled deep in my entire body. Uncomfortable, but nothing more.

The voice comes again, strangely familiar, with an underlying sense of hysteria and suppressed hope. "Violet, honey, are you awake?"

This time when I open my eyes, I keep them open, trying to isolate the source of the voice. A visage I only hoped to see again swims into focus.

"D-Dad?"

His face crumples with relief, his lips trembling as his hand fumbles for mine. I try to rise up to meet him, but I'm so weak,I barely manage to grasp his fingers. He holds me against him easily. I hear his quiet sobs in his chest.

"Dad," I whisper. My voice is cracked and dusty from disuse. He pulls back, smoothing hair off my forehead. I stare greedily at him, every detail from his horn-rimmed glasses to his ash-brown hair, beginning to show signs of baldness.

"I missed you." I didn't realize how much.

"So did I. The house isn't the same without you holed up in your room reading." His lips slant into what might be a smile, but could just as easily be a grimace.

"I'm not dead."

His laugh is tight. "No. No, you're not. Though anyone here might have said different."

I sag in his arms and he lets me sink back onto the pillows. There seems to be a hole in my chest, under my heart, where something was but is no longer. And I still feel bewildered at my lack of death. "I want to go home."

"I know, sweetheart. You're in a hospital," he explains gently. "You've been in a coma."

A coma. I remember the Isle of Morpheus, and Alexander, but it's like a fleeting dream drifting farther and farther away. Fragmented moments stand out, but they're in the wrong order and don't make sense together.

"Could you get the doctor?"

He frowns, his eyes suddenly panicked, as if I'll slip away again if he leaves my side. He licks his lips and nods, reluctantly. "Yes. Okay."

"Dad," I say hastily, clutching his fingers back as he stands and drops my hand. He turns, waiting. "I love you." Thanks for not giving up on me.

He doesn't say anything for a long time, his head bent, and then he leans over and places a shy kiss on my forehead. "I love you too," he says, voice shaking, "More than anything."

Exhausted, I turn my head into the pillow. A sudden, stabbing emotion whistles through the hole beneath my heart. I feel a dull, foreign hurting there. Our link,I remember, it's not my pain.

And then I see him, on his knees and curled over on the floor of Gloom's bookshop, his head in his hands. The Jewel of Imagination blazes against his chest.

Alexander.

The distance between us feels enormous—I'm not sure he can hear me. But he looks up, gazing at me with empty eyes.

Violet?

The link closes, and my emotions are my own again.

The screen monitoring my heartbeat beeps wildly out of control. Three nurses and my dad rush into the room. "Violet? Violet!" A hand is on my cheek. "She's hot as the desert," a twangy voice says. "Get some ice."

I remember everything. Donovan's pistol, the hot burning pain as the bullet pierced my flesh. I died. I must have died. I should have died. But I'm alive, back home. Was it simply dying that sent me back to my body, or the wayI died? Sweeney said I wouldn't be able to see my own fate laid before me. I wonder if she knew I'd choose to do something that would inadvertently save me.

"Wait—she's stabilizing. Her temperature is dropping."

A wave of relief washes over the room. My dad grabs my hand. "Violet, can you hear us?"

I open my eyes and nod. With a feeble smile, I manage a whispery, "Sorry."

One of the nurses chuckle; Dad scowls. My inner flame is a chilling hollow in my chest.

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