Sit down, the voice barked, and the princess's eyes snapped open to stare blindly at the ceiling.
Proud, empty, hollow things that you are.
A room full of cringing humans; their terror cloying and overwhelming, and a sense of cold satisfaction that did not belong to the princess--
"Please," the princess said in a choked, pleading voice that she hardly recognized as her own. "Brother, please--"
Let this remind you why you once feared the dark.
When she (he) lifted the gates on the boxes, a rush of wild, righteous (alien, hated) elation stabbed through the princess, a bell being rung against her will, and she strangled a sob in her sleeve.
Every bump in the road sets the contents of the back of the truck to swaying. Nuala startles with the first one; clutches at Abraham's arm before she has the time to think better of it. The flash of perception is sudden, but not sharp; a jangle of nerves that are not her own and fascination floods Nuala's senses. For one heartbeat, she allows herself the fantasy of letting this new consciousness sweep through her, immersing her in these new thoughts and feelings and half-memories that she cannot quite grasp.
Nuala gasps and swiftly withdraws her hand; presses it against the cool, familiar weight of the crown piece tucked against her stomach. "I'm -- I apologize, Abraham--"
In the same instant, Abraham stammers, "Oh! Your pardon." They share a glance and Nuala is struck once again by the kindness that he does not realize he projects; a tiny smile curves her lips. Abraham's head tilts quizzically, but he gestures toward the chair firmly planted in front of a bank of confusing displays. "You ... may want to sit down, Your Highness."
"But there is so much to see," Nuala says, and she carefully picks her way across the back of the truck, her skirts rustling and her hand trailing across the vehicle's opaque side. She peers at the quietly-clucking chickens in their cages, and then she turns back toward Abraham. An inquisitive smile blooms in her voice, even if it does not quite reach her mouth. "Why do you carry chickens in your truck?"
"Ah," says Abraham, stepping toward her, and Nuala can taste (and hear) his relief at the topic. "They're roosters, actually; all black, as you can see. They can be used in vodoun rites, particularly as--"
The world tumbles and Nuala loses her balance backward as Abraham -- Abraham, who moved with such grace in the pool of water outside the mapmaker's shop -- stumbles forward. All the same, he manages to catch her. Nuala understands, through the black-gloved hands supporting her elbows, that the truck has stopped very suddenly.
"Perhaps I should sit down," she says, feeling her heart thundering in her chest, and for the first time in longer than her memory can follow, the daughter of King Balor nearly laughs.
When the prince went into exile, the princess felt a tightness in her chest -- one that she had not known was there -- recede.
She wondered if this was what her father meant.
From time to time, she received flashes: a voice, a name, dripping water; much, much later, the roar of subway cars, bright lights vanishing into the darkness like extinguished fireflies.
The prince did not forget the princess, and he did not allow her to forget him.
He would come for her.
"Oh, this is a bad idea waiting to happen; a bad idea waiting to happen!"
The vaulted ceiling is high, but that does not preclude voices from echoing through the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense garage.
Nuala sits on the tailgate of a truck with her hands clasped and tucked into her skirts. She keeps her head bowed, she tries not to bite her lip, and she feels utterly ashamed for being so much trouble.
"That doesn't even make sense, Manning!" Twenty feet away, Elizabeth is the only woman in the knot of arguing figures. She stands at the side of Hellboy, who is looming over the man who Abraham had introduced as Dr. Manning, the Bureau's director. Dr. Manning is surreptitiously cowering back while still shouting, Hellboy's tail is thrashing, Abraham and Dr. Krauss are attempting to be the voices of reason from different sides of the argument, and Nuala wishes terribly that it would all stop.
"And you!" Dr. Manning bellows, pointing at Elizabeth after she speaks, "why'd you have to go and light on fire on camera? On multiple cameras! You were the one secret weapon I had left!"
"I am not a weapon!" Elizabeth snaps, hands on her hips and chin tilted at a furious angle, and as she watches, Nuala suspects that it is probably a good thing for all involved that Dr. Manning -- or Hellboy, whose stone hand is clenched into a fist at his side -- does not have the chance to respond before Dr. Krauss steps in.
"I am listening to you, Doktor Manning, und I must agree," says the voice from within the suit. "It is far too risky to allow ze princess to stay vizzin ze confines of ze Bureau."
"Thank you, Dr. Strauss," says Dr. Manning, self-important and pleased.
"I hardly think that--"
"Oh, come on; the lady ain't--"
Elizabeth shouts, "Guys!" She has a hand on Hellboy's chest, preventing him from advancing any farther on Dr. Manning, and for a brief second, Nuala can hear the flames in her voice.
Hellboy glances down at her and stands down; Abraham closes his mouth.
"He's got a point." Elizabeth folds her arms. "We don't know the princess and we can't confirm that what she's saying is true--" Hellboy moves restlessly, as if he is about to interrupt, and she goes on swiftly. "--Besides the professor's story from when Red was a kid, and Abe's reading on her. So we can't trust her blindly. But Manning," she wheels on the director, who looks startled, "her story checks out so far and she's the key to saving the world, again--"
"And she really has nowhere else to go," puts in Abraham, earnestly.
"So she's staying."
"No!" objects Dr. Manning. "Absolutely not!"
Elizabeth's face sets. "She's staying, or I start lighting things on fire." She lifts one hand, palm up, and a rippling blossom of flame burns into being.
A tense moment passes, and then Dr. Manning snaps, "Fine!" He throws up his hands. "Fine! I'm being held hostage in my own Bureau, but fine! Let the princess stay! See if I care! But this will be on your," he points at Elizabeth, Hellboy, Abraham, "heads, when it goes bad!" He stalks off toward the nearest truck, shouting instructions at the agents swarming over it.
"Doktor Manning!" objects Dr. Krauss, calling after him, and then he presses a hand to his suit's helmet. "So eine verfluchte Scheiße," he says, heated, and he follows the director.
The other three watch them go; Hellboy mutters something to Elizabeth and she half-smiles, the flames disappearing into her skin. Nuala steps onto the floor and approaches, quick and quiet.
"Thank you, Liz," Abraham is saying.
"Please." Elizabeth snorts. "I've wanted to do that for years."
Nuala slows as she comes closer, and Abraham motions her in. "I am sorry to be so much trouble for you," she says.
"You aren't that much trouble." From this close, Nuala can sense Elizabeth's flames even when they are not visible. The woman is restless and changing; she is angry and smoldering quietly, and intensely secretive and private. Hellboy is easy to read. He does not try to hide his thoughts or feelings from his face or anyone who might be listening. Elizabeth does. She is strong and in love, entirely capable of standing up for herself and those around her, and Nuala has never felt jealousy, not alone without the influence of her brother, but there is a first time for everything.
"Don't worry about it. Manning's that charmin' with everybody," Hellboy says. He is honest, open; a solid mountain of a man who thinks of little but the woman at his side. He is troubled, too. That much is obvious, and has been ever since the crowd became angry under the bridge. Dry, he says, "Welcome to the BPRD."
Nuala murmurs a thank you; watches him go.
Elizabeth mutters something sharp under her breath, says a brusque, "Abe, take care of the princess, okay?" and starts after Hellboy.
"Certainly," Abraham says, and he looks at Nuala just as she shyly glances at him. Nuala's eyes widen at being seen and she swiftly looks away again, as Abraham does the same in the opposite direction.
Halfway across the garage, Elizabeth catches Hellboy. She stops him with a hand on his arm; reaches up and brushes the cut on his cheek where he was struck by a rock, her gentle touch obvious even from a distance. He doesn't flinch, looking down into her eyes, and the way that his face softens is just as apparent as Elizabeth's care.
For a brief moment, sneaking another look at Abraham, Nuala's heart fills and she allows herself to believe that this entire mess may turn out well.
"I will not have a sister who cannot protect herself," said the prince, his eyes firmly on the princess's. The princess's gaze flicked to the sky -- the blood-red tint to the clouds; the battle that waited outside these forests, overshadowing the summer's green -- and the prince took her chin in his hand. The princess stared at him against her will, her eyes captured by his.
"I said," the prince repeated, "I will not leave you defenseless while I go to war."
"I hadn't worried about that, my brother," said the princess, truthful and quiet under the full branches of the tall, ancient trees.
"Perhaps you didn't, dear sister, but I did," he told her. "Hold out your hand." When she hesitated, the prince took a step closer; he tenderly stroked her cheek and the princess trembled and extended her hand. The prince pressed the hilt of a weapon into her palm, and the princess recoiled.
"Yes," said the prince, and he forced her fingers to close around the hilt. The princess looked down to find a ceremonial dagger in her hand, the handle ivory-colored and inlaid with intricate patterning; the blade itself shining small and silver and sharp. "There is not much to worry about, of course; not with the Golden Army about to take the battlefield. But I would be remiss in my brotherly duty," he brushed his fingers across the scar that stretched from one side of her face to the other, "if I left you again without making certain that you will be safe."
The princess watched her skirts, pooled on the grass. "Father will keep me safe."
"Father is an old man who would not do what needed to be done, until I stepped in," said her brother, and he was all strength, all bravery. The shining prince. "Here." He took the princess's hand in both of his and guided her fingers around the dagger's hilt. The princess had never held a bladed weapon in her life, but her hand fell into place with hardly any prompting.
"You are a natural," the prince told her, proud, and the princess swallowed and closed her eyes. "Now, if an attacker comes in at close quarters..." He stepped around her and wrapped one arm around her waist from behind, and closed his other hand around her knife-hand. "You will step and thrust." The prince fitted actions to words and the princess followed suit, more through instinct -- his instinct -- than through guidance. Her arm quivered, outstretched, sunlight glinting off the blade.
"Humans are foolish creatures." The prince's chest rose and fell against the princess's back. "Weak hearts," he whispered in her ear. "Drive the dagger into the ribcage and up, and any man fool enough to touch you will breathe his last breath."
The princess's chest heaved with her breaths, steady and deep; her eyes were too wide.
"My sister," the prince murmured against the side of her neck, and he brushed her silvery hair aside with his nose. He spoke against her throat. "My beautiful sister."
Hellboy tumbles backward in a chair, tail over head, and Nuala's breath is in her throat as her brother gives chase. They cross in front of her and she flinches back, turning her face in horror but unable to break away from the violence, because she can feel the vicious righteousness running through Nuada's veins, because every parry of the spear rings through her bones.
She watches, cringing helplessly, her hand clenched tightly around the hilt of the dagger in her sleeve. Step in; thrust into the ribcage and up, she reminds herself, but her eyes fall upon Abraham standing across the room, the combatants ranging between them, and she lets her fingers fall away from the hilt.
The ladies-in-waiting parted, scattering like dried leaves before the wind. The princess lay silent and still, her hands clasped over her breast, and as the one-armed king of elfland finished his long walk, he sank onto the stool beside her bed.
"My daughter," the king called her, in the old tongue. "My girl." His gnarled hand stroked her cheek, careful but clumsy below the bloodied bandage that crossed her face at the bridge of her nose, and the princess looked up at her father.
"My king," she said, and her eyes were distant and tired, her arm bandaged from another wound that she did not receive.
"I tried to shield your heart from your brother's." The king took one of her hands in his, curling old fingers around young. "I tried to keep you safe, but I have failed you."
"You've failed no one," the princess told him, tearing her attention from distant battles
(the distant battle where she -- he, she must remember that it is he -- slashes across the throat of a warrior and is bathed in his blood; spins in a blur of silver hair to drive a sword into the belly of another Man and has never felt so alive)
to hold her father's hand tightly. "My brother will come home," she told him, and she smiled under the verdant canopy of the grand tree (despite how it pained her face), "and all will be well."
"He will not be the same," said the king, and the princess had never seen her father look so old.
The silence of cold Bethmoora is ghastly, like a soundless death rattle. The room is barely recognizable as the one that once belonged to Princess Nuala, beloved daughter of King Balor and Queen Alva; the dust has gathered. The dark has taken over what was once a place of brightness and laughter. The tree that grew up through the floor is long withered and dead.
Nuala yanks her arm out of Nuada's grip in a whirl of skirts and silver hair, more angry than she thought herself capable of, when she sees this place and remembers how beautiful it once was; when she remembers the flash of Elizabeth's face as she reached for her love too late; Abraham, powerless and trying to save her.
Nuada's face tightens; she can see his fury almost as well as she feels it. He lunges and grabs hold of her arm once again, grip like iron. "I left you too long, my sister," he snarls, his nose inches from hers. "You have gone native; you and your Abraham."
His eyes are wild and Nuala is trapped; she cannot look away. And if she cannot look away-- She will save herself.
Abraham. She thinks of his kindness, of his small jokes and how they made her laugh; she thinks as hard as she can of the music that she heard him play, of how she wishes to learn as much as she can about him. She saturates her mind in deep, deep blue, and she is rewarded by her brother recoiling.
Nuada shoves her away and Nuala catches herself on the dusty corner of what was once her bed. She slowly rises to her full height once again, and when she thinks, dimly, that her father would be proud of her just now, her chin unconsciously lifts several degrees higher.
"Change your clothes," snaps Nuada, and he bends and scoops an armful of ivory and gold brocade from the bottom drawer of the dresser, untouched all this time. He hurls the dress at her. "You reek of fish."
There is not a hint of blue anywhere to be found in the skirts; not even in the stitching.
Long ago, when Aiglin, the father tree, was naught more than a sapling, a prince and a princess played together.
"Wait!" the princess cried, struggling to keep pace with the long strides of the young prince. "Wait, brother!"
The prince turned, laughing, but he did not wait; he walked with his back to the path and his smile turned upon the princess. "Why should I wait?" he called. "You'll have to be faster than that if you wish to see what I promised you."
The princess gathered her strength and her skirts and she ran after the prince, who led her on a merry chase deep into the forest, darting over mossy paths and around slender, young trees. Finally, the princess sank into a heap on the riverbank. "I cannot go one step farther," she said, and the prince laughed once again.
"You don't have to." The prince crouched beside his sister; he rested his hand on her shoulder. "We've arrived."
"It's -- it's quite beautiful," said the little princess, looking around, and it was. Buds dripped from the trees in a shower of pink; the grass shone green and healthy; sunlight dappled the river water. The princess glanced at her brother, doubtful and asking a silent question through the hand on her shoulder. But why are we here?
The prince smiled broadly. "Patience, my sister," he said, and then the princess saw it.
A dance of flower petals and falling tree buds; half-forming shapes rising and falling, distant voices sounding out just beyond comprehension. Pink and white and green eddied and swirled, sweeping and swooping, and the princess swallowed a low gasp lest she announce her presence and end the spectacle. Transfixed, golden eyes huge, she clutched her brother's arm, and he smiled, laying his hand over hers tight enough that she could not escape even if she wished.
At the end of it all, when the last flower petal settled into the princess's outstretched palm and she sent it gently floating away on the breeze, the prince said, "There. Now that was worth a little running, don't you agree?"
"Yes," breathed the princess. Falling out of the spell, she glanced at her brother and she smiled, bright and full of mischief. "But only a little."
The prince raised his eyebrows at her. Then he dipped both hands into the river and tossed cold, clear water on the princess, who threw her hands up to ward it off, too late. "You look lovely in blue," said the boy prince by way of explanation, smile shining like the silver lance that was his namesake.
The lone figure on the dais, forgotten, does not step in, but she drives the dagger into her ribcage and up.
How was that? Nuala thinks furiously over the dizzying pain that nearly sends her to her knees. She does not regret her anger, not even when her brother freezes; not even when she feels the cold shock of his betrayal; not even when she feels his sorrow.
Princess Nuala sways, but holds. Her fury leaves her as it bleeds out of her brother, and as Prince Nuada drops the treacherous knife. Nuala drops her own dagger and the silver blade rings on the floor (an ivory-colored, patterned hilt, smithed for a small hand).
She tumbles in a tangle of skirts.
When Abraham gathers her into his arms, Nuala allows his face to swim out of focus.
"I never got a chance to tell you how I felt," says Abraham quietly.
He sounds sad, Nuala thinks, and it will not do. "Give me your hand," she orders softly, and when he does --
A rush of sights and sounds, colors and memories and smells; Nuala opens her eyes and breathes it all in, breathes Abraham in, as she had wanted to when they met. It is the eddy of buds and flower petals; it is the spread of pungent green moss across a city street; flashes of the life that might have been, of hands clasped gently and a kiss pressed to a blue cheek. Abraham gives and gives, and asks for nothing in return. The thrill tingles through her; her heart swells in her chest and if there are tears in her eyes -- tears of astonishment, of joy, of disbelief that love could be like this -- she is unaware of them.
"It's ... beautiful," Nuala whispers, and she does not regret. Let the Army fade, she remembers, and she would smile at Abraham if that would not take so much effort. Let us all fade.