Helena didn't expect to be back in this land of dreams, but there she was anyway. She walked through the main street, and it was exactly as she remembered it. She wasn't in her pajamas this time, but an ordinary pair of trainers, denims and a shirt she had somehow managed to take out of her Mum's closet and never return. It was blue and silken, and probably the nicest thing she owned. It wasn't the usual sort of thing she wore, let alone when she was tramping around a dream world.
Then again, that was probably rather the point. This was a dream. It wasn't real, and it didn't have to make sense.
Her feet seemed to bring her closer to the darker side of the world, and Helena looked through the windows of the buildings. She wasn't worried, exactly, but she did feel a little uneasy and had to push it out of her mind. There was nothing of the real world as far as she could see, just random bits of dreaming lives moving about their ordinary business.
The castle didn't look the same anymore. Even the steps looked different, and there weren't any courtiers standing about to play syncophant to the Dark Queen. Helena wondered about that; didn't every ruler need their collection of yes men? The halls were empty, and her trainers made occasional squeaks on the marble floors. They were black shot with even darker black, and Helena had the feeling that she could fall into the floor and simply keep on falling forever.
Taking a breath, Helena refused to look and strode forward confidently. She had been here before, after all. She could do this again.
She found the Princess' room easily. It was still a bottle, still set up for the Dark Queen to easily spy on her daughter through the mirror. Helena didn't know why she was here, but there had to be a purpose. Dreams didn't always make linear kinds of sense, but they always had a purpose. There was a reason why she was here, if only she could figure out what it was.
The first time she was here, she had to save the Light Queen and find the mirrormask. This time...
Helena suddenly felt a weight on her chest beneath the silk shirt she had taken from her mother. It turned out to be a little silver key she had never seen before, and she didn't know why she had it. She somehow knew that it would unlock the Dark Princess' room, that she could let her out for good. No one was there to stop her. No one would protest.
The key was light and ethereal in her hand, and Helena was turning it in the lock before she had even consciously decided that she would do it. No one deserved to be locked into this tiny bottle of a room, not even the Dark Princess. Having lived her life, however briefly, Helena could understand why the Princess would try to leave. Helena could understand the urge to run away from it all, to live a different life, to be something other than what the Dark Queen wanted her to be. Oh yes, Helena understood it very well. She didn't agree with the Princess snogging strange boys and being awful to her father, but the Dark Princess was a different sort of girl. She probably did it just because the Dark Queen said she couldn't.
The Princess was sitting on the bed, staring at Helena warily. "Come to laugh?" she asked, voice brittle and edged, bitterness oozing.
"I've come to set you free," Helena said quietly, withdrawing the key. She tucked it back beneath her shirt, and she suddenly felt a wariness creeping over her. She was reminded of her mother just then, likely because of the shirt. Joanne Campbell had a warm heart, and she never begrudged anyone anything. She wasn't like the Dark Queen at all. Well, maybe in that she thought she knew best how Helena had to live her life, that she was convinced her way was the right way.
All right, perhaps Joanne and the Dark Queen were alike in some ways after all.
The Princess obviously didn't trust Helena. She rose gracefully, the vast expanse of black lace and tulle and crepe seeming almost intimidating to Helena. She vaguely remembered being dressed in such things, of having the gauntlets laced onto her forearms, of having her hair sculpted and the choker pushed into place. This wasn't what the Dark Princess wanted to be. This wasn't the place she felt comfortable in, though Helena didn't think she would feel comfortable anywhere.
"Where do you want to go?" Helena asked quietly.
"You're giving me a choice this time?" the Princess asked harshly. "You sent me back here even when I wanted to stay in that other world."
"You couldn't have my life," Helena told her sternly. "It was mine, and it wasn't yours to take."
The Princess didn't dispute the fact. "You could've had mine." She gave Helena a haughty look, appearing every inch the Dark Princess that everyone had mistrusted. She leaned forward slightly, almost leaning into Helena, making her skip backward half a step to keep distance between them. "It's a perfectly good life, after all. All the cake and ice cream you could want, all the rubies and gold and silk you could ever need." Now the Princess had a sneer on her face that made Helena feel uncomfortable, and she took another half step backward even if the Princess had remained stock still. "You did fit in for a time, after all. Mama rather enjoyed your company, and I didn't want my life here."
"Neither did I."
The two young women stared at each other for a moment. The haughty expression slipped a little. "Sometimes it's not bad," the Princess admitted slowly. "But at other times..." The wistful expression hardened, and the Princess stared at Helena with dark, angry eyes. "It's your fault, Helena. She's tightened her hold. I'm not sure you could even take me anywhere. She'll find you and lock you in with me."
"I didn't see anyone, not even the Queen," Helena told the Princess. "Last time, there were creatures all around."
The Princess didn't seem convinced that this could possibly work, and made rather scathing remarks to that effect. Helena managed not to roll her eyes at the Princess, but simply began walking through the empty hallways. Not willing to be left behind, the Princess followed and let Helena lead her back out the way she came. Helena didn't look down into the floors and tried instead to focus on the gray marble walls and the swish of the Princess' skirts. Their footsteps echoed eerily in the empty space, and Helena had the absurd feeling that she was being watched. Or that something horrible was about to happen.
I should never have let the Princess out, she thought suddenly, and it took sheer force of will to keep walking as if she was confident in her actions. Helena didn't even slow down once they were outside the castle. She wanted as much distance between herself and that castle.
The Princess had a disbelieving cast to her expression even once she was outside the castle walls. The overcast sky was constantly threatening to rain, but nothing happened. The two young women continued to walk into the realm of the Dark Queen, until they came to the borderlands. The sky was lighter here, and there was still no indication that anyone else was even existing in the world but the two of them.
"Why are you doing this?" the Princess asked. There was no inflection in her tone, no accusation or doubt. "I was horrid to you."
"Yes, you were," Helena agreed. She pointed off in the distance to a blur that she knew with certainty would be a house they could stay in. "That way," she said, pointing.
"You don't like me," the Princess continued. "You hate everything about me."
"That's true," Helena replied with a nod, not looking at the Princess as they walked. There was no path here, just a collection of brambles and long grasses to scramble over as they headed toward the house. Somehow their feet found the way without trouble, the brambles peeling back from the ground as they approached. The grasses retreated down into the ground, leaving behind dry dirt that cracked in places. Helena didn't recognize anything around them, yet it was familiar at the same time. She couldn't have said why, since she had never drawn or dreamed of this place before. The entire area seemed to be holding its breath, waiting for something to begin.
"Then why are you doing this?" the Princess repeated. She stood stock still, refusing to move any farther. "This isn't out of the goodness of your heart." Her lip curled in derision as she looked at Helena, and she crossed her arms across her chest. "So? Why did you help me out of the castle?" she demanded. She was every inch a royal, her commanding air enough to make others bend over backward to give her what she wanted as long as it didn't countermand the Queen. "Why help me escape from my mother? This isn't because someone is paying you to do it. You don't get anything out of it by letting me out of the castle. You don't love me. Why?"
Helena stopped and faced the Princess, suddenly feeling tired. "Even you don't deserve that," she began, shrugging. The key around her neck felt heavy now, as if it was a burden and responsibility she could no longer carry. She didn't want to play games with the Princess, and didn't try to sugar coat her words. "Even you shouldn't be locked away like that. No, I don't like you very much. I think you're spoiled and selfish and rotten, but I also think you've never had a chance to be anything else."
The Princess sucked in a pained breath at that, and looked away from Helena. She couldn't deny it, so she didn't even try.
"I think you can be something else," Helena continued. "I think if you got the chance, you can figure out who you're supposed to be."
"And how am I supposed to do that?" The Princess sounded bitter and agitated, and she all but stamped her feet on the ground. "I am only what she made me to be." The Princess was nearly snarling at Helena, as if everything the Dark Queen had done was her fault. "That's all I could ever do. I couldn't be anything else. I was never allowed. I can't grow up."
Helena thought of her mother and fingered the edge of the shirt she had taken. "Sometimes you have to force the issue," she said slowly, then looked up. "Maybe all you have to do is make her see."
"She doesn't care what I want. It doesn't matter to her, and I don't know what I want anyway."
The smudge in the distance that they had been heading toward loomed large suddenly, even though neither had moved. Helena blinked and it was simply there beside them. She had the feeling it was waiting for them, that it needed them somehow, and couldn't wait for them to cooperate.
With a sigh, the Princess entered the house. Helena followed suit, and the house seemed to settle contentedly all around them. Its walls were blank beige, with cracks that resembled the blasted dirt from the borderlands they had walked through. The Princess looked around with a derisive curl to her lip, lifting her skirts in an exaggerated manner as she walked around the front room. Its only contents were a couch in the middle of the room and a single plain wooden chair in the corner, turned to face the wall. There were no light fixtures, yet there was enough ambient light to see how very plain the room was. Helena was confused by this, at what the room was meant for. It didn't feel comfortable or inviting in the slightest.
Helena didn't know what to talk about. Mums were out of the question, as were boys. It was rude to talk of the outside world when the Princess had been imprisoned since Helena had reclaimed her life. All Helena knew was from the circus or out of books, and the Princess didn't even have that much.
Suddenly struck by inspiration, Helena took up three small beanbags that were in the corner of couch. She didn't stop to question how they had gotten there. "You don't know how to juggle, do you?" she asked the Princess.
"It's common," she replied, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "Of course not."
"Then I'll teach you." Just as the Princess opened her mouth to disagree, Helena gave her a conspiratorial smile. "Your Mum will hate it."
"Oh. In that case..."
Time moved differently in dreams. Sometimes Helena felt as though a thousand things were happening at once, and time moved too fast for her to keep track of. At other times, it moved too slowly. While tossing the beanbags at the Princess to teach her how to juggle, time seemed to flow slower than molasses, as if the very air around her was thick and hard to move through. Helena found herself describing the circus acts, her different roles there, what she was trying to read at home and what she was allowed to do. The Princess had an almost wistful look on her face when she wasn't schooling it into a scowl, and she couldn't figure out how to juggle for the life of her.
And then suddenly she was getting it, the beanbags sailing through the air as if she had been juggling for years. The Princess suddenly laughed, delighted at the way she and Helena were able to seamlessly toss them back and forth. It sounded like a child's laughter, not the brittle sound of forced emotion. Helena found herself laughing along with the Princess, and almost liking her. It seemed as though the Princess had simply been lonely, that she had been waiting for years to find a friend that could understand her.
The thought was sobering, and Helena tried her best not to react to the sudden thought. She let her hands move of their own volition, keeping the beanbags in the air as the Princess grew more confident in her juggling skill.
"This is fun," the Princess said suddenly. "And Mum will hate it. She wants me to be like an obedient little doll, a wind up toy she can stick up on the shelf and then pull down to show off whenever she likes. She doesn't want me to be anything else but that." The beanbags abruptly fell to the ground and her hands dropped to her sides. "She doesn't love me, does she? Not like your Mum loves you."
Helena didn't know what to say. Part of her wanted to deny those words, wanted to encourage her that it wasn't so bad. But she had been the Princess, however briefly, and she knew the cold embrace of the Dark Queen. "She thinks it's love," Helena said as kindly as she could. "She thinks it's to protect you, to keep you safe from whatever dangers might be out there. She's afraid that if you grow up, you'll get hurt."
"You're being too nice to her," the Princess snapped, turning away from Helena.
"What do you want?"
The Princess looked at Helena, dark makeup streaking down her cheeks as she cried silent tears. It was a defeated air around her, as if whatever happiness she once had with Helena was a distant memory she couldn't recapture.
"I can't get it anyway."
"But if you could..."
"I want to grow up."
Helena folded the Princess in her arms, hugging her tightly. Maybe you can, Helena almost said, but the Princess grasped her too tightly and it was difficult to breathe. The entire house around them seemed to sigh, and there was the feeling of heaviness all around her.
And then she woke up.
Daylight seemed strange after the half light of the borderlands. Helena pushed herself up to a sitting position and looked around her trailer. The old drawings of that dreamland with the Light and Dark Queens no longer decorated her walls, but she had collected them into a book. After seeing the devastation in her dreams before, she hadn't been willing to destroy them all. Helena dug out this book now, and flipped through its pages. Some of the fantastic creatures and people she had drawn into the dreamland were no longer there, smudged out of existence because they had been too tiny and done in charcoals or pencils. The buildings had been ink, so they survived being pressed into a book.
She stopped when she came to her drawings of the Princess, which she had done after waking from that dream months ago. "You look so sad," Helena commented.
I was, came the Princess' voice from somewhere inside of her head. Helena started and looked around her trailer in surprise, but the Princess continued to speak. I wasn't whole. I wasn't complete. I was a tiny thing, stunted and small, kept angry. I had no purpose. I was just a thing to her, you know. A thing to control and protect. I wasn't separate. I couldn't grow up.
"Are you here now?" Helena asked tentatively. Her heart beat erratically in her chest, and she was almost afraid to voice the fears growing inside of her heart. Dear God, how had this happened?
Maybe. If you let me. If you don't drive me away again, the Princess replied, an edge to her tone.
"This makes no sense..."
Think of me as a shadow, the Princess began, her voice a soft whisper. The anger was gone as if it had never been there. I'm not really here, not like I take up weight or space or time. But I'm here, part of you, growing with you.
"I don't understand," Helena said, her fear beginning to show. It felt silly, talking to herself out loud, a picture of a dream in her lap. Anyone listening in would think she was completely nutters and lock her up.
Things had to change. You were telling me that without really saying the words. I understood it, though. Helena, I understand. Staying in the shadows, I couldn't grow up, I chouldn't change, the Princess crooned in a soft song-song voice that was meant to be soothing but instead sent chills down Helena's spine. I can't replace you, can't take your life. But I could share it.
Helena wanted to scream. This wasn't what she had planned. This wasn't what she meant. The Princess was supposed to create a new life for herself in her own world, not take over part of her mind. "Princess..."
There was a soft little laugh, though it sounded almost crazed. I could share your life, see what you see, feel what you feel. I can't live on my own, can't survive outside of that world. But like this... The Princess' voice seemed to take on an almost manic quality, as if she was about to reach through a mirror and shake Helena. I won't hurt you this time, Helena. I can, but I promise you that I won't. What happened before won't happen again. I promise.
Helena paused and slowly shut her book of drawings. She could hear the day at the Campbell family circus starting up outside. There would be chores to do, acts to practice, costumes to mend, studies to complete. Then night would fall and it would be time to get up on the stage. This wasn't a world where a Princess could survive on her own, even if she somehow managed to pass through from dreaming into real life. If Helena didn't cooperate, she had a feeling that the Princess would simply take over her mind and leave her screaming in the dark. Helena couldn't allow that to happen; the Princess would muck everything up and ruin everything she had worked so hard to build. The Princess had no skills, no tricks, nothing but her childlike self. Even that wouldn't get her very far, since she had never really learned to be charming or sweet. No one would love her. No one would care for her. She would simply fade away and disappear, lost as if she had never existed at all.
And everyone would think that it had been Helena that fell apart. They wouldn't know about the Princess.
"Yes," Helena found herself saying without fully realizing she meant to. "We'll grow up together, then."
Feeling the Princess relax, Helena put away her book of drawings and went out to start the day. As long as she could keep the Princess placated, perhaps Helena could still go on and live her own life. The Princess wanted to be part of that life, after all. Helena had to hope that it would be enough. Dreams or no dreams, the circus wouldn't run itself. Helena still had a job to do even as she was busy growing up.