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Jade is four, and she wants more than anything in the world to be a princess.

What she needs, she finds in her books: castle-towns, fairy-queens, adventure that she craves and the sugar-sweet bleed of romance that she doesn't understand now, but thinks she might someday. She reads and she knows that in five pages, Snow White will get her kiss and her prince and her happily-ever-after. In thirty, Rapunzel will be locked in her tower to wring her hands and sing. (In two weeks, Jade will wonder how long her hair would have to be to scale her own tower, and decide to never cut it, ever, even if it's the wrong color.)

It helps her to dream it. When her grandfather takes his trips around the world and leaves her behind, she sits at her window, looks out at the ocean, and acts like how she thinks a princess should: chin up, shoulders drawn, and a strong smile that knifes through the loneliness. She feels pinpricks at the corners of her eyes sometimes, but that's never any good; she just bites her lip and squeezes her eyes shut and laughs until the pressure is gone. Tears are only for real sadness, she thinks, and no princess could ever be truly sad. They are women who feel only the most exquisite of sorrows.

She sits, and she waits for her story to start.

xxxxxxx

A year later, during the rainy season, it does.

She knows a lot about guns. The sweet-sour chemical smell of solvent tanging the back of her throat is how she knows he's home; the first thing he does when he comes back from a trip is clean his rifles in his study, mechanical guts arranged in precise order on the glossy mahogany of his desk. He told her the names of every part, once. After that, she just remembered how they all fit together.

She's only curious. She's only ever curious.

The pistol grip is slick with sweat and it fumbles out of her hand, and then Bec is there, fur hitched in needles and the burn of barium in her eyes, the gunshot lost beneath the electric crackle of space bending. She doesn't know how he does it, or even what has happened, exactly; she only knows that he's saved her then, heart humming in her throat and hard to swallow. Her first thought--and for awhile, her only thought--is maybe grandpa won't know. Her legs carry her back to the tower, a shortcut through the tall grass that makes her skin itch, and she puts the pistols back like she found them in a display case at the foot of her grandfather's bed.

He never comes back to chide her. He never comes back at all.

(In two days, she will find him, slumped and sticky-brown. Later than that--much later, when everything has been taken care of--she will realize that she's forgotten to cry.)

xxxxxxx

She comes to learn that she does not know how to take care of herself. Everything after that becomes a lesson.

Bec helps, does what he can to keep her safe, the work of a shepherd more than a dog. She learns what's right and what's wrong only through body language and cues, barks and their absence. He won't let her touch half the island's flora, and it isn't until she digs out a dusty botany book from the library and carries it out with her that she learns: jerusalem cherries, boxfruit, babai, sea mango--he barks, fiercely, until she dumps the basket and it all rolls off into the underbrush. And when it comes to maneuvering around the island, he sets limits there, too. If she tries to swim when the winds are rough, he drags her back onto the beach, gently, like she's a pup. (And she is, she thinks, sort of.) If she wants to try her luck with the cliffs carved into the dormant volcano, though, he growls and snaps at her heels and, if she insists on batting at his nose and pressing onward, upward, he'll take her back to the tower by reality-folding force. Bec never says a word, and he is always crystal clear.

But he can't do everything, and that is where she flounders.

The first is that the tower is simply too big for her to take care of, too many rooms that need her attention. Dust all over her grandpa's treasures in the long gallery that takes her most of a day to clean, and shows up again just a week later. The smell of mold growing in a few of the north-facing guest rooms, damp with the humidity and hot with the sun on them all day. Leaks and waterstains in the rooms below the bathtub where the water kept running while she slept. Sometimes she doesn't even know the problems, let alone the solutions, and rooms simply start feeling Wrong--so over the course of a weekend, she gathers up all the linens she can find, and decides what rooms she'll leave to herself.

(It's preservation, she thinks, towers of white to keep the dust and the sunlight out, but as she closes the doors on the drawn-curtained dimness of her grandpa's study, it feels more like amputation.)

The second is that her science textbooks have told her, quite definitively, that there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine, but it never clicks until things start breaking down--and they do. Her solution before would just be to tell grandpa, and he'd say he'd take care of it. The tangle of plumbing beneath the kitchen sink doesn't seem to care about what she tells it, though, and grandpa can't do anything now. (She bites her lip, squeezes her eyes shut, laughs until the pressure's gone.) She fixes it in an afternoon with a wrench and a book on plumbing, but the next week, a fuse blows and she has to learn about electrical systems. Four months after that, the shower spits ice cold water all over her and it takes a week to diagnose the problem with the water heater.

She learns. It takes time. Nothing goes down that can't be repaired--yet. That doesn't mean she doesn't worry about a day where something will break that she lacks the resources to fix, and it won't matter how smart she is or how clever with her little fingers. When the generator sputters and stalls around her seventh birthday in the middle of the only cold snap she's ever known, she thinks it's finally come. The better part of a month is spent huddled with Bec in the dark, listening to his strange heartbeat. Her friends will make fun of her someday for shivering at 55 degrees, but right now, she's freezing and trying not to cry into her only living comfort's starlight fur.

Princesses do not cry over power outages.

(Princesses, she thinks, do not have any power to cry over.)

She fixes it, eventually, and spends the night down in the turbine room--not sleeping, but sitting in the choking heat, feeling the whum-whum-whum-whum of resuscitated machinery with her whole body in a way that makes her skin sing. There is nothing gentle or reassuring here, just a world of noise and vibration, but maybe that is why it makes her feel so much better. She can't stoke her fears if she can't hear herself think.

xxxxxxx

Her life becomes a strange mix of luxury and practicality in equal measure, to the point that she can't even tell where one ends and the other begins, doing whatever she wants and wanting to do what she must. The older she gets, the more it all smacks of Supposed to Happen--like someone or someones had already written it out and she just gets to play along.

Grandpa was one of them. She dug through his study for clues years ago--what why how--and had found a plan instead. There were letters that began if you're reading this that made it hard for her to blink and swallow, and there were folders of paperwork, finance ledgers full of numbers that meant nothing to a girl who'd never known money. Easier to understand were lists and directions, and she follows them to this day. Lesson plans, mostly. She's good and diligent about her lessons.

(Usually. Sometimes she spends days sprawled on the beach instead of reading her books, waves licking the soles of her feet, and only goes back inside when her cheeks are bitten rosy with sunburn. It takes longer and longer and longer, as she builds a deep tan--and sometimes she just falls asleep until a wet nose nudges her awake. She is a princess in her dreams, and goldleaf streets are more interesting than chapters on grammar.)

Supplies and mail are still airdropped every month like the swing of a pendulum, just as it had been for as long as she could remember. The second Thursday of the month will roll around and she'll wake up to the brief passing of engines, or just tents of white that she can see from her bedroom window, crates draped in their parachutes. She wanders out barefoot into the scruffy grass with a crowbar and spends a day prying those crates open, dragging their contents inside: canned vegetables, dried fruit, packaged meals, meat and eggs and milk packed into ice and styrofoam; medical supplies, bandages and peroxide, nutritional supplements; sundries like toothpaste and shampoo and sunscreen.

There are things that she can expect every time. Other things are less predictable. One month, she might get sheaves of paper when what she really needs are pens; another, she might expect lightbulbs--might need lightbulbs--and get fuses instead. She turns it into a game of balancing and rationing, filling in and smoothing over gaps of need with careful, measured pragmatism that makes her feel both like a real adult, and much too old.

(It has to be a game, or she'll panic for long stretches, do things like skip meals and count cans of peas and corn like compulsion with the logic that if she doesn't eat now, she'll be able to eat later, when it really counts.)

But perishables don't pack themselves into ice and items don't choose which to ship of themselves and when, so she knows that there are people at work, more than just whoever's flying the planes. That is what scares her now: that there are lists and plans and schedules that she can't see being followed by people she doesn't know, and her life depends so much on the uncertainty. The months of routine never sway her worry, because after every drop, briefly, before she buries herself in sun-rich naps and tending her flowers, the certainty of it spikes deep between her ribs: it's going to stop someday. If her grandpa taught her anything, it's that people are a little like machines, too. There is no such thing as perpetual motion.

She lives on borrowed grace right now, mouthwash and peaches in metal cans. Soon enough, she'll have to live for herself.

(Some nights, she wonders about the people who wrote the plan. What if they don't even know she's there?

And worse:

What if they do?)

xxxxxxx

She had thought at first that it was the end of the world, the way it made her heart hurt when her grandpa left. It wasn't; it was just the closing of a book.

It isn't as lonely as it could be without him. She's thankful for that. Bec is affectionate in his distant, ancient way, content come when she calls for him and lie still when she nestles into his hollows. As she needs to be watched less and less, he roams the island more and more, but he's there when she needs him and she's grateful.

There's Prospit when she sleeps now, too. It was jarring, first, the aching whiplash of falling asleep and waking up instantly in a way altogether different than what she was used to. And oh, how she fell. She had screamed and twisted her body midair like a cat might, desperate to right herself, watching her not-bedroom window get smaller and the glittering streets get wider.

And then she flew. Things got better after that.

She meets people. They aren't people as she knows them (doesn't know them, really), but they're friendly and a little awed and a little worshipful. They herald her with bows and kneeling and, once, flowers. She doesn't know why, but does it matter, when it's been so long? Her dreaming life is golden and gleaming and filled with this brand new press of people. It's so overwhelming sometimes that she has to retreat back to her tower, watch it from high up and take long, slow breaths.

(She meets the Queen, who reminds her oddly of a mannequin--they all do, a little--with her burnished white carapace linked like chainmail into uncanny joints and pieces. The eyes are strangest, beetle-black and infinite; Jade feels like she's going to tumble into nothing and nothing and nothing if she doesn't look away.

The Queen tells her in that low, stretched-out voice of hers that she is their dreaming princess. And there is a prince. And there is another moon in the gullet of a whispering mass of demons, with a princess and a prince of its own. Jade can't help but grin until her face hurts.)

(She grins less when she learns that they are all asleep, and she's still the only one.)

When she wants to talk, she visits John. He's the closest, the most like her, bright and shining, though the pained look on his face says otherwise. She hates seeing him like that, so she sits at the edge of his bed, stroking his hair the way she remembers her grandpa doing when she had nightmares. His face relaxes and she tells him about all sorts of things, Bec and trade winds and beaches, growing out of her clothes and learning how to cook. He's a good listener. The way his face shifts sometimes makes her feel like he can actually hear her.

(The Queen warns her against traveling through the Medium. She's spoken of Derse before, talks in a voice that is hard like ice and diamond, but now she tells Jade of what is beyond and there's a quiver to that royal cadence. She says that those voices are not meant for a Prospit dreamer's ears.

Jade takes earplugs with her and flies off into the black.)

She visits Rose rarely, always in grave-silence. Rose sleeps like a corpse--or like a real princess, Jade thinks--with her head tilted so slightly to the back, hands flat on her belly, fingers linked, face drawn in neutral lines. Where John fights his sleep, Rose submerges wholly; never twitches, never moves, Sleeping Beauty self-bewitched in magic and needles. Jade sits across the room, quiet, like she is attending a service. There is a rightness for the role in Rose where Jade feels only a wrongness; she thinks that if she spoke a word, she'd ruin everything.

Later, it will make defining marks on their friendship. Right now, though, Jade lets herself be jealous of the differences between them, the gap that she could bridge, maybe, if only she had the long golden hair she'd always wanted. But gold is owned by Rose and spun in spider-silk threads, hacked off in cruel angles; all Jade owns is weighted curls to her thighs in the wrong color. And she wonders a little why they are dark and light and light and dark, black and Prospit, gold and Derse--if they were always meant to be diagonal opposites, the bishops who could never meet.

These are the things she thinks about in the silence of Rose's room. It's why the visits are rare.

(And it's funny, she thinks as she is leaving: two princesses, each what the other isn't. It's a riddle with insufficient data, an infinite regression of a paradox. A says B is a liar, and B says A is the liar. Which is it?)

There are times when she craves contact that is more than talking to the catatonic, or quiet contemplation. She wants arms and warmth and a beating heart. Those times, she visits Dave.

When the Queen had told her that the rest were sleeping, she had expected Dave to be like the others, somewhere between John's clawing for the surface and Rose's sleep of the dead. It surprised her, then, when she floated down into his window and saw him shambling around like a half-aware sleepwalker. (Her heart jumped, just a tiny bit, when she thought that maybe the Queen was wrong, maybe he's awake, maybe she could have a friend. All it took was a short conversation with him to bring it back in line. He spoke in symbols and non sequiturs, the domain of a boy still dreaming.)

There's a rawness to his state that she likes. He dreams and has no control over where the dreams go, consciousness without a filter; she sits and listens to him talk, drinks in the drawling music of his voice, files away details that she almost feels guilty about. He'd never tell anyone these things if he knew what he was doing. (If he knew she existed.) He is inside-out and she learns him backwards, peeling dream-film off his words.

She learns that he is tactile and a part of him craves contact the same way she does, touch-starved and gun-shy. She starts holding his hands. When that no longer satisfies, she hugs him. When he starts hugging back, she curls against his chest, listening to his heart. It flutters in strange rhythms, like Bec's, but he feels so much warmer. In those times, she wonders what kind of prince he is in the waking world, and if he would mind a princess who's all the wrong colors and up to her elbows in engine grease.

They never get enough time together for her to ask. The trip to Derse is long, and she rarely sleeps much longer, and maybe it's for the best. It seems like a question to ask a friend. He doesn't even know her name.

(He is a horrible prince anyway, she finds out eventually. The way his words cut into her at first leave her eyes full and stinging, but she won't cry. She refuses. Boys are nothing to cry over. And it's funny, how she avoids making the trip for a long time after they trade chumhandles; has to be funny, or else the way her happily-ever-after slips out from underneath her is just too sad to think about. No one’s coming for her--least of all this prince who talks with knives.)

xxxxxxx

She thinks about her grandpa sometimes. She tries not to, but it's like blinking or swallowing--one moment she is not, but the next moment she's handling something that used to belong to him, and then she is.

(The not-him in the foyer never triggers it for some reason, something she laughs about for the same off-key reasons she can laugh about a lot of things. Bec had taken care of that unpleasantness, because she was five years old and stunned comatose with the sheer sudden reality of death. She wouldn't even look at him--it--for the longest time, but now she passes it on the way out the door and it feels like a stuffed animal made to look like him.

There is nothing left there of her grandpa, so it doesn't remind her of him at all.)

When she is old enough for it to not hurt so much anymore, she pulls all the sheets off the furniture and opens up the windows to air out his study. All his plans for her--the paperwork and the ledgers and the vague instructions--are still there on his desk from where she left them years ago, thick with dust. She reads them again just to see if they'll make any more sense the second time around. (They don't.) The desk drawers yield other treasures that she's almost forgotten about, too: his favorite fountain pen, his passport, a taped-together photograph of himself and a girl Jade doesn't recognize who looks so very, very much like her. A battered Swahili-English dictionary, fourth edition, 1968. A velvet box of tarnished medals.

A small key. It fits the lock on his gun cabinet. And as she takes out the rifles to clean them, for something to do--the .416 Rigby that he always took with him on safari, the 1855 Springfield he said belonged to her great-grandfather, the Lee-Enfield .303” that he never took with him anywhere and never talked about at all--she thinks about him.

Her memories of him are fractured, incomplete. What he was clings to her more than what he did, because what he did was leave, a lot, for long stretches at a time. When he came back, the presence of him was more immediate than the stories; the smell of sea and salt and smoke overrode tales of safaris and desert expeditions. The rumble of his voice and the sinewy prosody of his (false, she'll learn when she's older and dealing with the doubts cast on her own) accent mattered more than the words that came in hand. He had been confusing to her, too, in that messy human way that she doesn't fully understand yet, all full of opposites--firm and gentle, stern and laughing, the way he could fill up a room even when he was gone, gone, gone.

She used to think that he hadn't meant to leave her. (He hadn't said anything, after all, and he would always say goodbye before he left.) That changed, slowly, as she realized that murder is impossible without a second party. Things about him made more sense after that. He had always been insistent on her lessons, always pressing on her the importance of being able to protect herself; like he knew all along he was going to leave her sooner over later, a plan and a secret that he didn't intend on sharing until it was too late. He left her a legacy of ghost-scents and the instruction manual of her life written out for her in Indian ink, all of it Supposed to Happen, designed and executed. He left her to clouds and cryptic prophecies and the vague threat of something terrible if she didn't do as she was told, bright and brilliant as she was. He left her to stasis, this long stretch of years where she does nothing but exist in waiting and wondering with her guts all in a knot if she'll do it right, if she'll keep being bright and brilliant by the time it actually counts.

He left her on purpose. She doesn't know why. Like the rest of his plans, it never made sense to her.

She puts rifle pieces back into place, orderly and precise, stock mates to the receiver assembly mates to the trigger group just like he taught her. Then she fits them back into the cabinet, stock down, barrel up; swings the door shut, hinges creaking; and then she locks it with just the tiniest whisper of a click.

And then she throws the key out the window.

Her sinuses ache and she can feel tears coming on, hard and fast and inevitable, that she has to pinch the bridge of her nose and clamp her tongue between her teeth, forcing a laugh through the bitter, painful lump in her throat. She's gotten along for so many years by following directions, sorting the world into useful and not useful, boxes of keep and throw away. There's no point in crying.

(And she remembers that lesson, from when she was tiny and volatile:

The last time she ever asked--no, demanded--to go with him on a trip; a tantrum, and screaming, and tears. He had humored her, briefly, but his patience had always been something of a chemistry set and her thrashing and wailing was all the catalyst needed. He had hoisted her like a gunny sack then, and tossed her over the side of the boat.

She broke surface, sputtering in gaping, surprised mouthfuls, and she remembers exactly what he yelled down to her.

The ocean does salt water far better than you do, love.)

xxxxxxx

One prince is rude

TG: your dedication to the character is kind of admirable
TG: that or youre some assholes autistic little sister who just got lost on her way to gaia online

And one prince is kind

EB: aw, jeez, i have to go. :(
EB: can i add you? we have so much to talk about!

And Sleeping Beauty is corpse-cold

TT: And to think I'd woken up this morning afraid I wouldn't meet today's random solicitations quota.
TT: Hello, gardenGnostic. That is a rather fascinating collection of exclamation points you have there.

and Jade adorns her fingers in bands of red and blue and purple and green, two dozen reminders that mean something different every time she takes them off and puts them back on. It's been hard enough keeping track of her own life; now she's added three more and it runs her memory ragged. She loves her friends, but sometimes she has to remind herself to remind herself.

Her hands feel weighted. It's a weird feeling at first; reminds her of dogs she sees in cartoons, scratching at their collars. She plucks at them, wishes they were gone, until she finally gets used to them and forgets they're there--which is its own problem.

Red on the right thumb below the knuckle, talk to Dave this evening. Green on the right ring finger, water the tomatoes in three days. Purple above the knuckle on the left pinkie, ask Rose about her dream next week.

Resetting her hand-calendar is a nightly affair. Armed with the notebook that has everything written down in deliberate curlicues, she pulls off all the bands, considers, and snaps them back on one event, one finger, one day at a time. The process takes an hour at its most involved and feels more tiring than it should, even long after she's streamlined the future into a chain of mobius strips. Bec nudges the palm of her hand with a cold nose. She can't help but feel like he understands, even if he is a dog.

She nuzzles into his fur face-first and wonders aloud to his ribs--if this is all supposed to happen, why doesn't the person planning it just do it themselves?

(The day will come where she'll run out of mobius strips and things she needs to remind herself of. She'll shed the bands like a colorful molt for the final time and think nothing of it, but her hands will feel wrong for the weeks afterward.)

xxxxxxx

It has been seven years since the bullet and the rainy season, and Jade has living on her own down to a well-oiled science. Science is what she is best at, after all.

Nothing in the tower that matters is a mystery anymore. She knows the whole skeleton, from the piping that runs in its walls to the pressure pumps for desalination that supply all her water. She knows the geothermal binary cycle system that runs in her basement, every generator, every turbine, every condenser. Leaks spring and connections short and she can fix them all inside of a day, plenty of time leftover to nap on the beach or curl up in the library. (Six years ago, there would have been cantilevered piles of fairy tales on the tables; now it's just a spread of scientific journals, quantum mechanics and radiochemistry. She does all her dreaming on Prospit, these days.)

Horticulture is an uncanny forte of hers--one of many skills that just bubble unchecked out of her--with a controlled jungle of an atrium coaxed from potting soil to prove it. She doesn't just know how to grow plants; she knows how to breed them, how to select for characteristics and pollinate with careful purpose. Most of her food comes from her own two hands now, and has for years. If the supply ships never came again, she thinks she'd be fine without them. She has crops year-round and cans what she can't eat and the thought of running out of food hasn't made her insides coil in a very, very long time.

Bec hasn't needed to keep as close an eye on her in a long time, either. She can recite the scientific names of the all the island's flora by heart, long since graduated from her botany book. She can read the ocean, knows how to tell when a storm's coming, knows when to swim and when not to swim, knows the necessary conditions for riptides and avoids them. He still shows up if she tries to wander any further into the steam tunnels than she needs to go (or if she tries to go out in the thick of night, or if she edges too close to the temple), but for the most part he spends his days sprawled on the rug in the parlor, lifting his head up in quiet acknowledgment when she goes outside. (She teases him about getting old and lazy, scratches at his belly and behind his ears, but she sees ages in his eyes and tries not to think about it.)

Her life takes no thought anymore. It starts to feel like sleepwalking, a world folding itself inside out; she finds herself wondering if it's Prospit that's real and it's her island that's the dream. Apprehension at five eased into dedication at seven, but by twelve, it's the rise and fall of the tide, easy as breathing. Stasis. Routine maintenance.

There is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. She is twelve and a half when the day finally comes.

The path is not a well-tread one. Climbing vines sinew up the rock face and tangle into the dirt, and that is usually enough purchase for her deft, bare feet, but it's the rainy season and explosive storms have left it slick with mud. She knows she shouldn't in a way that strikes her in the spine--but that's what makes it easy to ignore.

Logically, she has walked this path a hundred times before.

Logically, she can handle herself just fine. Her record is sterling.

She knows she shouldn't, but she wants to check on the breadfruit tree, the one taken with root-rot that she's been trying to nurse back to health. (It is the worrier in her, again, and the mechanic; she needs everything in her world to function, scared of what might happen if it fails.) She takes handfuls of vine and walks slowly to keep her balance, toes curling into mud, and makes her way along the path as it curls around the volcano, onward and onward and upward. For a moment, there is nothing in the world but tactile sensations: the kiss of a salt breeze, the burn in her calves, the sun in her eyes. For a moment--

black. gold. in and out, snapped-line whiplash, one foot in one world and one in the other and

She is falling before she even knows where she is, and when, and why; she is falling and the trees scourge her on the way down, stinging red strike-marks from the snap of branches, falling and screaming and twisting herself midair like a cat might, but this isn't Prospit, this isn't her moon, this is the wrong tower, the wrong world, she is not a princess here--

Reality cauterizes in colors like flare signals, red and white heating the edges of her vision, and there is nothing but a firecracker snap in her ears and pain that lances through the whole of her. If she were a machine, she would be using words like overload and killswitch, but she is a little girl of a human and all she can think to do is not think, shut down, curl fetal on her side and keen.

She doesn't know how long she lies there, skull ringing in an off-key pitch, panting in diluted breaths; she doesn't know what's wrong, exactly, just that there is something or somethings or everything broken, can't pin it down from the sunbursts of pain radiating from everywhere. What she does know is that she's a full mile from the tower and she left while Bec was sleeping in the parlor on purpose and if he isn't here right now in a teeth-humming crack of ozone, he won't be for awhile.

Logically: She needs to pull herself together, chin up, shoulders drawn, a smile to counteract the pain, something to occupy her muscles, give herself something to focus on that isn't I'm going to die, I'm going to die, I'm going to die.

Logically: She needs a doctor. Pain is triggered by a spiderwebbing of nociceptors whenever something is wrong. The way they're all screaming, she can only come to the conclusion that nothing in the 110 pounds of her is functioning correctly. She can alert someone--

(Illogically: She panics. She can't do that she can't that's not the way the story goes, that's not what grandpa said to do, that's not what she sees in the clouds; everything in her life happens has always happened will always happen for a reason and if they take her away it will change it will be ruined she'll have failed and her friends will die because she is a coward and couldn't take care of herself)

(she is crying for strong arms and the smell of sea and tobacco like she should have years ago)

Her nerves are overloaded and even just the sensation of tears carving hot paths through the mud on her cheeks registers as pain, foreign and wrong. They are trickles at first, like condensation on a glass; and then she is shaking on the forest floor, face contorted, paralyzed with a seven year backlog of sobs that are bottlenecking in her lungs.

She reaches for logic, for science, but only comes up with one thing: gravity. This is the dam breaking. This is the weight of her situation. The one person she needs is not going to come back for her.

No one is. She's on her own.

xxxxxxx

Bec finds her eventually, waterlogged and shivering, and takes her back to the tower before she can even register he's there. The infirmary smells like rubbing alcohol and a smoking TV set, white walls pulsing an uncomfortable green from the afterimage burn. She spends an hour on the bed with a medical text propped open on her lap. By the time it comes for her to pull on her leg to stabilize the fracture, she's all cried out; she screams and gulps down air and feels like she's going to throw up from the pain of it, the sick greasy crackles of it, but her eyes go glossy and that's that. She finds a brace the right size and a set of adjustable crutches in a cabinet and tries to believe that she's just lucky.

And she doesn't know it then, but she will, eventually: that there are people who care that she's there, and people who would care if she had only told them. She'll never know what would've happened if she'd ever succeeded in flagging the supply ship pilots with her makeshift little flare gun, cobbled together by a girl with too much time and strontium nitrate on her hands; she'll never know what would've happened if she'd simply opened up a chat window--any chat window, she had three to pick from--and said i need help. It was always about fear and responsibility and believing with the strength of superstition that it would only--could only--end badly.

She starts wondering about the choices she's made four days after the fall, when she finally feels confident maneuvering up the stairs to her room and finds her lunchtop humming away in idle. And then, a flood of colored text:

EB: i know you have a weird schedule and everything jade, but it's been a couple of days.
EB: we're getting worried!
EB: rose has been asking her mom if there's anything we could do for you, so...don't be surprised if a yacht made out of crystal shows up to get you, i guess?
EB: is everything ok?
EB: ...ok you probably wouldn't be able to answer that if it wasn't, nevermind.
EB: dumb question.
EB: just check in soon, jade. please?

TT: What is it about the helpless maiden that makes men work themselves into a froth?
TT: Tell me your secrets.
TT: In other news, John has been inquiring as to the National Guard's availability for civilian rescue missions.
TT: Worse yet, Dave has only been encouraging him. I think they might be serious.
TT: Can you imagine? Egbert and Strider, joining forces in the name of unwavering sincerity. The world has truly descended into madness in your absence.
TT: Jade?
TT: And here I was hoping I would come swooping in right as you sat down to message me. I even had a proper “the tables have been turned” speech prepared. Alas.
TT: If this was a scheme to get us all worried sick, Harley, you've succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imaginations.
TT: You can come back now.

TG: egbert and lalonde are getting their panties in a twist something fierce over here jade
TG: might want to set the record straight before it takes surgical removal
TG: i know youre just drooling in your sleep all over your atrium or boudoir or whatever hilarious rich person room youve decided to take a coma in today
TG: but theyre legit worried and it stopped being funny dealing with them three days ago
TG: like what are you just having trouble staying awake long enough to hold a conversation
TG: chev chelios has some advice for you
TG: and i swear to god if you mention to egbert i ever dropped a reference to that piece of shit i will stone cold murder you
TG: well not murder
TG: seems harsh it wasnt that bad
TG: but ill be pissed
TG: jade
TG: jade
TG: jade
TG: hows this for an ultimatum
TG: if you dont come back in half an hour im sending you so much furry porn your harddrive will be puking up technicolor horse dicks for the next month
TG: a world of endless foxgirl nipple fractals
TG: some kind of patchwork surrealist abomination made entirely out of wolf vags

She tells Rose and John that she's fine, she's tired and she'll talk to them later; but Dave's messages are still rolling in when she gets to his window and she can't not roll her eyes and grin, the sleepwalking not-prince spending his Saturday trying to coax her back, graceless and obvious.

GG: ewwwww!!!!! dave!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
TG: knew it
TG: nothing wakes a girl up from a snow white routine like the threat of animal genitalia
TG: youre welcome

GG: lol you are so ridiculous sometimes
GG: and all of these offline ims to catch up on.....why mr strider its almost like you missed me!

TG: so whats the verdict
TG: were you actually sleeping

GG: well...this will sound a little weird i guess
TG: holy fuck call cnn
TG: jade harley says something that sounds a little weird
TG: most important news development of the decade

GG: oh hush!!!! :P
GG: lets just say that im awake now ok?

TG: ok
TG: that makes perfect sense i dont know what you were worried about

GG: and besides!
GG: if that was my snow white routine and you woke me up, doesnt that make you a prince??? :P

TG: the answer to this question banks entirely on whether or not youre playing housewife to seven smelly bearded douchebags
TG: do you or do you not have a fleet of midgets living in your tower jade

GG: nope!
TG: then i guess its a negative
TG: youre just a narcoleptic whos friends with basically the coolest guy in the universe
TG: no snow white for you

GG: thats ok, i never liked snow white much anyway
GG: it seemed silly she was a princess, she never did anything
GG: hmmm
GG: maybe nourie hadig

TG: nourie hawhat
GG: nourie hadig!
TG: oh of course why didnt i get it the first time around
TG: thanks for clearing that up
TG: are you sure you arent still asleep
TG: this reeks of your alleged cyberpunk robot shenanigans
TG: none of this conversation has actually made any sense

GG: consider it payback for all these years :P
GG: but really dave i will tell you all about it someday
GG: i promise <3

(She does, long after the dust settles. She tells him about her grandpa and Bec--the real things, not the little-girl-mythology she used to spin, though at times it's hard to tell the difference--about the island and the ocean, about her month in the dark, about the fall. He listens with a growing crease in his brow, the tiniest downward quirk to his lips; and when she's done, he closes the distance and presses their mouths together, frustrated and still graceless after all these years.

It's a message, she thinks, after her mind passes over the irrational options--to quiet her, to distract her--because this is how Dave works when the words mean too much to say. It's in his body language, like it always has been: too little, too late, and helpless to save her.

She settles into his lap, then, shifts his shades into his hair, cups the sides of his face with her hands, and sends her own:

I never really needed saving.)

xxxxxxx

Jade is thirteen, and she does not want to be a princess anymore.

When the time comes for the world to end, she is angry. This is not what the clouds promised; this is not what her grandpa told her would happen. Her dreams are gone and Bec has left her and her friends are hurting and dying and mourning their losses all around her, and it's her fault because this is what she's worked for all her life, isn't it? All her life thinking she was preventing the worst and it happens anyway, this demon of her own making and a shadow on her heels. She is a character in a story that's been planned since long before she was born, her life on rails made of words and ink and binding glue.

She's tired of it. And she is angry.

Princesses don't do anything. They sit in their towers and wait for their princes, their inevitable rescue; they wring their hands and mourn their fates in beautiful,elegant silence, so exquisite in their sorrows. And she wonders:

What would've happened if Rapunzel had just braided her own hair?

If Snow White hadn't simply run away to hide?

(What would have happened if she'd just told someone?)

Jade stands knee-deep in snow, rifle in hand--her grandfather's Lee-Enfield dripping with alchemy, cold and smooth and perfect--and decides that she's not going to wait anymore. She's not a princess; this is not a fairy tale with a happily-ever-after.

And if the rest of it has already been written--if someone has already planned it from the once upon a time to the fin--then she thinks with no small stab of defiance that it's time to start tearing out the pages.