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Spring
(the time has come / shake off all your sins / let us be brave / let us be brave)


They will be married the day after tomorrow.

Rue threads those words into her hair with each sweep of her brush, presses them to the creases in her skirt, wears them snug at her collarbone like little jewels. Her reflection glimmers at the edge of the mirror as she turns, ready for the day. Her skin has a warm color to it. Her eyes look darker, almost brown at the edges (and this makes her wonder for the briefest moment: were they brown in that sliver of unknowable time before she was taken? Was there once something in her face, something fractured and distorted but never entirely erased that perhaps was a shadow of a mother’s features, a father’s?) It may be just a trick of the light, but she shares a smile with her reflection nonetheless, small and graceless, simple in a way that’s still unfamiliar to her.

The men, meanwhile, have shed their warm natures as though they were pieces of clothing. Now, they spend the hours cloistered in hallways with the fewest windows, their murmurs burning in the castle’s dour air, echoing like ghosts in the spaces they leave once they hear her approaching. The priest passes her in hallways no longer, preferring to stay locked in the room appointed as his – though whether this is because of his displeasure or because he can barely support his own weight at this point, as thin and brittle as dried parchment, Rue is not sure. A part of her wants to force her way into their clusters and demand to hear what they have to say; a part of her wants to laugh in their faces, sharp-edged and with abandon. Instead, she prepares tea, a blend that has soothed her on several sleepless nights, and carries the kettle and cups all over the castle until each man has been warmed to the bone, not even bothering to look at them when they turn to her with surprised eyes. It takes strength and something else in her, something rawer than courage, but whatever small kindnesses she can muster will serve as her shields now. She will not draw lines in the sand. Not anymore.

It is late in the day when a knock on glass startles her as she stands in the kitchen. Flour scatters from her fingertips into the air; she stands straight and turns to the window at the far wall. Tutu’s lady stares back at her, her fingers splayed open in a clumsy wave. Dirt is smeared across her palms, spotted along her cheeks like dark freckles.

“Do you have a moment?” She asks, sniffling. “There is something I would like to show you.”

Rue does not know how to hold herself in the doorway, if she should sharpen her eyes and shoulders or turn her wrists outward, as if to invite her into an embrace. She wonders if she has heard talk of the wedding, how much, how little.

“I’m in the middle of something,” she says, her lips thin against her teeth. “It requires my attention.”

The girl’s eyes are, as ever, unwaveringly bright. “Please,” she says.

Rue arches an eyebrow, but still, she goes with her across the expanse of the field, past the forest’s edge, down a thin, winding path long-reclaimed by dead vines and clusters of growing flowers. Three times, she nearly trips over branches and stones, little, ugly pinpricks left in her skirt. All the while, Tutu’s lady moves like water in front of her, a bright shape of white amidst all the muddled color of the trees. She is so thin, so slight; with every swell of wind, Rue fears she will scatter like unbound sheets of paper. Dark, wet spots have colored the dirt where she walked, and Rue cannot tell if they are blood or something else entirely.

“Can’t you tell me what this is about?” She calls after her, clutching at her cheek where a thorn tore a thin scrape. Again, she nearly stumbles. “They’ll be wondering if I’m gone too long –”

“Just a little further,” comes the answer, distant and lilting. “It’s a surprise!”

At last, a clearing. Sunlight spills between thick branches, touching the earth around them in wiry lines. At the center, a wide hole has been dug by hand. Tutu’s lady bends over it deeply as if in prayer; she takes up a worn wooden box hidden within and holds it to her chest. The sight of her makes Rue feel quiet suddenly. In a single fluid movement, she drops to her knees on a clean stretch of ground, her skirt fanning out around her. Tutu’s lady follows.

“Before the Raven came,” she begins, her voice little more than a whisper, “my sisters and I wished to make for our princess a gift, for she had given us so much over the years. She loved the prince dearly, we knew this – though she did not speak of it to us.” She bows her head. Her eyelashes flutter, dark against her pale skin. “Even if she could never truly be with him, we still did not want her dreams to die. We thought it would surely make her happy, and if the need ever arose, she would have it and think of us fondly forevermore. We did not know…”

Her lips pull thin. With dirtied fingers, she slides the cover free, letting it fall just past her toes. She holds it out for her to see, and Rue catches her breath.

A wedding dress.

“We thought it would make her happy,” she says again, and the words scrape in her throat like metal on stone.

Rue cannot help herself. At once, she reaches out, touching the soft fabric, the long veil spooled above it, the intricate shapes of beading, all so startlingly white. At its back are wings, large and elegant, made of such gentle satin that wrinkles bloom there from the weight of her touch.

“I would like you to have it,” Tutu’s lady whispers, as though it is a secret to be kept from the trees, the wind. She tilts the box until the dress seeps out into Rue’s open lap, smiles behind her fingertips like a shy child would. “You have need of it, after all.”

Rue does not know what to say at first, the gown a sudden weight upon her. In that space of time from her first disdainful impression of Tutu as a child that she took from that single illustration and being forced to watch as she paraded around Kinkan, suddenly, impossibly real, it was true that she had nursed a stinging jealousy of her – or rather, of Ahiru clothed in her skin. Everything about her was effortless, and perhaps that was what had hurt most of all; the prince saw her and bore more light in his eyes than ever before, as though it were really that easy, as though it were simple, everything Rue would have given for him to look at her only once in that way rendered wholly worthless. There were nights where she dreamt of herself clothed in those same white feathers, so bright they hurt her eyes, the pieces of his heart as hot as burning coals when she tried to gather them in her hands. She dreamt of speaking her love aloud and dissolving into light then warmth then nothing at all, and woke in her bed frightened, no longer sure if she were real at all, if she’d become something intangible, a chill in the air, a feeling. Towards the end, nearly consumed by all her pain and fear, she’d even begun to believe it would be a blessing to suffer such a fate, that it was the role she had truly been intended for all along in this cruelty of a story. She was not a princess, had never been one at all, she was only a ruined human girl with black blood and limbs full of aching and a stone for a heart that only believed it could beat, and if the only thing she had left to her in the world was her voice, then so be it. She would be the one to disappear because she loved him. She would be the one to say –

Rue breathes in, then out. Her fingernails trace delicate shapes down the length of the dress, from the bodice to the fringe. She wonders if Tutu ever wore it when she thought herself alone at the quietest edges of the forest, if she danced or sang or simply stood tall and ignored the steadfast aching of her heart, a feeling both different and similar to a child’s whose lips were wet with the Raven’s blood, who begged for her prince to stay only a moment longer. To wear it would be like wearing another person’s skin, would be like pretending with a glamour, a purity that did not belong to her, would never belong to her. Rue does not want to pretend anymore. She remembers herself near the end, self-hating and hollowed, wanting more than anything else to escape herself – and yet, it is she alone, severed from all the lies and trappings, who was strong enough to speak. They are still strange, these words warm on her tongue, stitching themselves so painstakingly into the lining of her heart: she is enough. She is enough.

“No,” she says to Tutu’s lady, and the word pierces the heavy silence that’s settled around them. “Thank you, but no. It would be wrong.” With careful hands, she folds the dress back across the length of the open box. “I do not need it.”

The girl simply nods, her smile wrinkling at the edges. She wipes her hands on her knees then takes up the dress herself, hugging it to her chest as one would a person. Her fingertips twitch as they brush the edges of the wings.

“It is hard, sometimes,” she says, “to let go of dreams.”

Rue nods in turn, and knows she does not mean her own.

Silence. The wind ribbons through the foliage, warm against the lines of her back, and she turns towards it without thought, looking up at the trees trembling above her, still blackened but with color already budding across each branch. The castle’s highest towers bleed in just overhead, casting shadows. Rue rubs one wrist, her nails caught just above her pulse. There are words clustered in her throat, so simple but still held back by the slightest of hesitation. She wills it away, for she is no longer too proud to ask this of such a simple, tender-hearted girl. She is not too proud to try and build a bridge between them.

“If you’d like,” she starts, still facing away, and surprises even herself with how easily it comes, “you could return to the castle with me.”

No answer. Rue purses her lips then brushes away the curls sticking to her neck, sweat already beading there in such fair heat. She clears her throat.

“Surely you would prefer some company to staying here alone. It is still cold on some nights, after all. You could help me with my preparations, as meager as they are.” Rue hates the sound of her own voice. The words sound nothing at all like she meant them to, so uncertain, so soft. The girl stays silent, and oh, she must think her a fool. She is no good at this. Friendship is still an utterly foreign thing to her, difficult to articulate, impossible to quantify. Not once had she been able to make a friend while at the Academy, she thinks – only to realize a moment later that that isn’t entirely true.

Besides, we’ve walked together and talked all this time, so we’re already friends now!

A familiar rawness rushes to her chest, so suddenly she is ignited by it, desperate for this question to be answered no matter what the outcome is, desperate for something (a warm face, an outstretched hand, the sound of her name ringing through an empty room, happy and unthinking, like a prayer) that she once had a world away from here, that she was too blind to realize was hers until it was already half-gone. With a harsh breath, she turns to face the girl again. “If you don’t…”

The rest is struck dead in her throat. The white dress is fluttering helplessly in the breeze, caught between the box’s edge and the ground. Tutu’s lady lies on her stomach, her face pressed flat to the grass. She is still.

Rue does not remember the sound that leaves her mouth, nor how her body moves at the sight. It is like looking at photographs – one minute she is still, the next she is crouched over the girl, raising her up by the shoulders, touching a careful hand to the swell of her cheek. Her closed eyes tremble beneath her fingertips. The colors of her skin and dress stick beneath Rue’s touch, loathe to move as fluidly as they should; they leave bright-colored smears in the soil as she shifts her once, then again. Her weight is nothing at all, like bed sheets, like – like paper, she thinks, and realizes the truth in that moment. Tutu’s lady has lived within the story for several months now, far longer than the men. She will soon…

Rue swallows the words like water; she steels herself. She is still breathing, still whole. It isn’t too late.

“You have to leave,” she says, and settles the girl’s elbows in her lap. “Another story. I’ll take you there.”

Tutu’s lady turns away from her touch, though. Her eyes do not open.

“No,” she says.

“Please.” Rue’s voice cracks, an ugly sound. She does not know where the boundary between the tales lies or how long it would take to find on foot, but still, she reaches for the woman’s arm, meaning to sling it around her neck and carry her, drag her if she must. “Do you not know what will happen if you stay? Let me help you!”

No,” the woman cries out, and it is the harshest thing Rue has ever heard her say. She twists in the ocean of her skirt, as if drowning. “Don’t you see? My sisters are here. My princess. Her bones are…”

She begins to cry. The tears trace lines down her face, catch and glisten against Rue’s nails. It strikes her in that moment that she doesn’t even know the girl’s name, that she has never spoken her own to her. The thought hurts more than she would have imagined.

“I remember,” she says, and when she opens her eyes again at last, they are bright and wild, like stars in daylight. “I saw it. I saw her across the lake. I called for her, but she would not come to me. She was smiling, and I heard her voice, heard her speak to him and I thought, ah, how wonderful. I didn’t know. I didn’t, I swear I didn’t, and then she was the sun, and then a star, and then a flame, and then, and then—”

Rue feels her pulse, fast and swollen in her throat. Her legs will not tense. Her arms will not rise. She can only hold the woman soft against her, like one would hold a frightened child. She does not know what to say, and it is silly, it is silly, this tightness in her chest, these stinging tears just behind the color of her eyes. She has only known this girl briefly, has only spoken with her twice before, and yet –

“I hope you will be happy,” the girl says, and touches the fingers on one hand to Rue’s hair, dark on her shoulder. “Please be happy, princess.”

She breathes in. “Rue,” is all she can say in response, so softly that it’s barely heard at all. “My name is Rue.”

Tutu’s lady smiles.

“How lovely,” she says, and Rue closes her eyes to the sound as though it is rain, cool on her face.



*


Her prince, frantic, finds her there not much later, sitting alone in the clearing. Her skirt is pressed to her knees; her hands are stained with color thick like blood and dark like ink. She holds her gaze to the pieces of frayed parchment that sweep the dust at her feet, shuddering helplessly in the breeze before allowing themselves to be carried deep, deep, deeper into the forest and away.



*


The dress, they bury just outside the garden.

It is a strange request, but one the men do not question. They roll up their sleeves and clutch at rusted shovels and tear away at the earth until she is satisfied with their efforts. She holds it tight across the bridge of her arms as she waits, thin and dirtied and without a body to fill it. Siegfried hides his sadness in every brief shadow, in the corners of his bright eyes like rain that lingers at a border but does not cross. This is a loss that belongs more to her than to him. He knows this, holding her when she wavers, squeezing her hand before letting it go as she lays the dress upon the soil, her chest cold, her throat hot.

The soil is tucked around its edges like a blanket, so thoroughly there are few signs it’s even there at all. Siegfried’s hand brushes hers again. His touch is soft and careful, his fingers ghosting over her pulse, swollen in her wrist, a simple reminder that he’s there should she need him. “It’s finished,” a voice vaguely comments from somewhere behind her, deep within the throng of men, and that is what makes her finally move again, struck by a thought.

“No,” she says. With a small, grim smile, she picks up two of the shovels. One, she holds out for Siegfried to take. “Not nearly.”

It only takes him a moment to understand. At once, her prince calls to the men, who turn to him like flowers turn to the sun. Before long, they form a procession that curls in and out of the castle doors, everyone’s arms filled with embroidered gowns, children’s bonnets, skirts and tunics of thread both cheap and exquisite, their insides stiff with the memory of bodies long gone. All are laid to rest, in graves that soon spread far across the field, clean and even, emptied then filled with a subdued speed. The process is exhausting, and never mind if their limbs are not all that is aching. By the end, everyone’s knees and hands are dark with mud. On a nearby hill, the priest has appeared, assisted by two men who stand at each of his arms.

“Thank you,” Siegfried says once it is finished, an earnest murmur that is meant for no one in particular, that is given as fully to the newly settled ground and what has been stitched deep within it as it is to the men breathing heavily at his back. His voice is small and wounded but with a touch of something put to rest at last. Rue takes his hand and gently turns him into her embrace, ready now to be his strength as he was hers.

“It is not enough,” he sighs against her neck, “but it is something.”

She closes her eyes. “Yes,” she says, warm. “It is something.”

The priest murmurs a few prayers, quickly lost to the wind.



*


They eat their dinner in the garden, calmed though still pensive, and when a robin jumps from Siegfried’s knee to eat from her open palm, Rue thinks her heart may burst.



*


In the end, it’s simple.

There is little use for the old traditions and decorum; the time for such things has passed, alongside the lives of those who would have enforced them. They dress in opposite corners of the same room, unfolding the royal garments they arrived in, touching them with warm, careful hands, greeting them like old friends. Rue adjusts her prince’s crown until sits evenly on his head; Siegfried holds her hair for her as she ties ribbons in her curls, silver and gold and even some colored a dark, dark red. Once finished, they walk together, hand in hand, through the empty hallways, across the green and even land, quieted by rainfall. The men have organized themselves into rows in the field near the pond, their hats held against their thighs. The priest stands as tall as he can manage in his state, waiting until they’ve reached them before he begins.

Rue’s heart is a violent, shuddering thing in her chest, Siegfried’s hand like cool water that settles and resettles over the lines in her palm. She says what is asked of her and hardly hears any of it. Fear grips her at her harshest edges, as familiar as an old skin. Despite everything they’ve been through, she finds herself still cautious, still half-expecting to come to any moment and discover it was all nothing but a feeble, dying dream, her true body still helplessly captivated by one last dance in the Depths of Despair. She will not fully believe any of this, not until it is finished, and at that uncertain thought, the Raven’s blood murmurs somewhere deep within her, still burning and still cruel – but faint, it’s faint now, as faint as a half-forgotten dream, as far away as her memories are growing from her, like trinkets stored in chests closed but left unlocked, coming to her in only colors and words, black feathers and pearl-colored tutus and endless gray landscapes, my beloved, pitiful daughter and say that you love me and not a raven a person my name is my name is my name is

“Rue?”

She comes back to herself once again; it is not as long of a trip this time. Siegfried is waiting, his eyes bright, his lips parted in innocent anticipation. Her smile, in turn, is effortless, and she cannot even bring herself to care that it is surely as graceless and lopsided as a child’s. She has had quite enough of waiting. At once, she pulls him in.

(It would be wrong, she now understands, to forget what came before, to force it down and smooth over it like a false grave. These are things she must carry; these are things that will remain carved into her, scars on her skin. But that does not mean she cannot build upon them, around them, within them and out, with seeds that she plants in the husks they have left, with simplicities that must be learned slowly and carefully, through practice and error. Happiness will have to be one of them. There is time. There is time.)

His kiss is sweet and lingering, and in it, she feels his love for her a thousand times over, casting echoes across every one of her bones, scattering light in places still dark. Rue takes it in, and responds in kind. The men dutifully applaud, and at last, they are married.



*


Afterwards, they gather their bags and their horses, and with heartfelt farewells to their prince and his princess, take their leave into the forest, their shadows long across the land in the heavy light of sunset. For a time, they will wander and they will grieve, but soon enough, other stories will call to them as they did to those who came before, ones needful of their characters, of simple, unnamed men and knowing priests. They will find themselves stitched into new lands and kingdoms, new tales that need their support to thrive, and they will learn to forget.

“Well,” Siegfried says once they’ve vanished, his voice heavy with a relief only barely contained until now, “that went much better than I’d hoped.”

Rue smiles, but says nothing. Behind them, their castle groans helplessly, like a great animal that has fought a brutal, decisive battle, only to lose it in the end.



*


What Siegfried does not know:

They had come for him the night before the wedding, the priest and his men. Rue had known it would happen the moment she smelled the tea they’d offered her after dinner, the scent reminding her faintly of medicine and smoke, its surface cloudy; she had known it the moment she saw that Siegfried had been led to the other side of the room, the men rooted like trees to the space between them until he’d drained his cup, having not noticed a thing. In turn, she’d discreetly spilled hers into the nearest half-empty bowl of soup and thanked them. She had expected some final desperate gesture, but never something so underhanded, so cruel. It did not matter. She was prepared, regardless.

Sure enough, that night her prince would not wake no matter how hard she shook him, his breathing slow and deep. There was no time to hide him; already, she heard footsteps, heavy on the floors below their bedroom. Instead, she closed her eyes and laid still, so still she could be dead, even as she heard the door open and heavy breathing fill the room, even as Siegfried’s weight was gently lifted from the bed and away from her, despite how she wanted to reach after him in that fearful moment. She waited. She didn’t move until they’d left the room and started down the stairs again. Her eyelashes fluttered, heavy on her cheeks. Her heart stuttered in her chest, a quick, painful beat. She counted to ten, and then followed them.

Thankfully, the men had not been in any sort of hurry, thinking her safely out of the way. Some brandished lit torches, while others carried swords and daggers in hilts. They moved loudly through the hallways, one of them carrying Siegfried over his shoulder, the rest arguing over where they should go, what they should tell their prince once he awoke, what would become of her here, alone in this dying land. Their fleeting concern was touching, she’d thought dryly, her lips pulled thin as she hurried down an adjoining path, her bare feet light enough on the cobblestone that she knew she would not be heard. At the corner, she paused. Their lights bobbed wildly in the next corridor, approaching fast.

“Don’t tell me you planned to leave without a proper goodbye.”

She nearly laughed at the way they jumped. At once, the light was thrust towards her, so near that all of her was made clear at once, her bare feet, her dark hair wild with curls, her bright-edged gaze. In turn, they seemed endless, a shaking mass of limbs and faces half-covered with shadow that easily arched above her. For a moment, she felt very small. But then that moment passed.

“You must have known this is how it would end,” the one nearest to her said, his face young, his eyes so, so old. “The prince will not listen to reason, he refuses, but it is best for him to come with us. Do not be selfish. This is not what was meant to happen.”

Rue could not hold back her chagrin. “Yes, because what you’re doing is so much better,” she said, sharp and even. “I commend you on your wisdom. Spiriting him away in the middle of the night to God-knows-where is clearly the wisest choice.” She sighed, pressing her fingertips to her forehead, then began again. “He trusts you. He sees you all as good, honest men. What will he think when he finds you have betrayed him? Do you really believe he will not come back for me?”

“We are willing to take that risk,” another answered.

The flames flickered and popped, painting the stone a dull gold. Near the wall, she saw the man who carried Siegfried standing behind two others, his hair brightening as the light caught it once, then again. Unthinking, she started towards him – but the men brandished their swords and daggers, and she pulled back.

“Not another step,” the one nearest to her warned. Still, his voice shook, a near-imperceptible crack amidst all the bravado. She looked from him to each of the others in quick succession, taking in their bared teeth, their wide eyes, the broad, clumsy way they clutched at their weapons. At once, she understood.

“You’re afraid of me.” She had meant to laugh, but the sound caught, wet and strangled in the low of her throat, and she did not try again. “Are you waiting to see if I’ll turn into a raven? Is that it? Do you want to see some sort of dark magic?” Her voice had risen nearly to a yell; it echoed back at her, hoarse and vicious, cracks at the edges of every word. She would not be bothered by it. They were not worth any decorum, any control. She would give them what they thought they wanted. She would drown them in her anger if she damn well pleased.

She touched one hand to her chest, her nails fluttering across the sharp bow of her collarbone, her palm flat above her heartbeat. The other, she held out. “I will show you, then.”

She had not called on Kraehe’s powers in months, had not worn the feathered tutu and dark, silk toe-shoes since she had discovered that they had only been false glamour, since she had cut them open like film and slid through, small and raw. She didn’t even know if it was possible any longer – but still, she curled her hand, flicked her fingers as though trying to create sparks. Sure enough, with the softest of hisses, a single black feather materialized in one of her hands. The men recoiled with audible gasps.

“We knew it,” one near the back shouted. “We knew it! You are—”

“No,” Rue answered calmly, cutting him off. “I am not.”

She allowed the feather to slip from her grip, not even looking as it settled on the stone. The men watched instead, and were silent. She breathed in.

“Do you want to know the truth about me? You’ve all proven how much you value honesty, after all,” she continued. “The Raven came to me when I was very young. Or rather, I was brought to him. He told me lies, and I believed every last one of them. I was only a child, and all alone. What other choice did I have but to love him?” A private corner of her heart stirred with pain, faint and half-forgotten, father yes father anything father. She swallowed. “I drank of his blood– so yes, there is a part of him that will be with me forever. But I have never been anything other than human.” She held each man’s gaze for a long, stern moment. “It is true that I have done horrible things. What’s happened to me does not excuse that. But you must see that I am just as much his victim as you all are.”

Silence. The group exchanged glances, quick, steady looks that she could not interpret. She brushed her hair back from her face; beneath her touch, the muscles in her neck trembled, heavy with words she still wanted to say, to cast down upon their heads as if they were a violent rain. She would wait.

Then, Siegfried screamed.

The man holding him cried out, nearly falling against the wall, his limbs wild and senseless shapes in the faint light. The others came to his aid at once; Rue watched, shocked into a brief stillness by the sudden rush of noise and movement. At a loss, they laid her prince upon the cobblestone and formed a hasty circle, watching as he shook, his eyes still closed, his brow already slick with sweat. Some tried to touch him, but it only made his cries grow louder, thicker with pain.

“What is happening to him?”

“Don’t let him hurt himself!”

“He is sick. He is possessed—”

“Oh, move,” she said with a sigh, already recovered. She brushed past the two men blocking her view, who stumbled back at the weight of her touch at once, too shocked to protest. In one fluid motion, her knees folded to the stone. Her gown fluttered at the edges as it settled in a ring around her.

“What is happening to him?” The same man asked again, quieter. None of them were moving any longer, instead frozen shoulder-to-shoulder, resigned to spectators.

“He suffers from nightmares.” She didn’t even bother to look at the man as she said it, instead lifting Siegfried’s head and resting it against her bent legs with the utmost of gentleness. “His demons prefer to come to him when he sleeps, I’ve learned. Step back.”

They did, their torches fluttering.

“Ah,” her prince cried. He raked his fingernails across the stone again and again, as though he was trying to grab hold of something, as though he was trying to keep himself from being dragged into some unfathomable darkness. “It burns! Inside of me, it’s – no, no! It hurts—”

“Shh,” she whispered. With both hands, she touched his face; she curled over him, her hair spilling around them both like a curtain pulled close. Her lips stilled the trembling of his own then parted, and she spoke into his mouth, pouring words in as if they were water, as if they were light. “It’s all right. Do you hear me? Please, my prince. I love you. I love you. I will say it as many times as you need. Now come back to me again. Come back.”

It took a moment, but at last, he calmed. With a sigh, he turned his face into the curl of her hand, settling into her touch; he whispered something unintelligible against the lines in her palm. In turn, she kissed the corner of his mouth, her body heavy with relief.

“What will he do?”

She looked up. The men stood a few feet away, so still, their weapons catching the light in sharp bursts of silver and bronze – but their faces had colored with something softer than fear, and in turn, Rue’s anger eased at the edges.

“What will he do when this place is gone?” The same man asked again, his voice cracking. “He is not well-versed in the ways of the world. How will he survive without his kingdom?”

“He is stronger than you think,” was her answer. Her hand settled in his hair; her long nails brushed away the beads of sweat left at his forehead. Siegfried breathed easily. “Besides, I more than make up for his weaknesses.” Her smile was a shy thing, half-hidden in the darkness. “As he does mine.”

“But would you fight for him like we would?” Another yelled from the back of the group. “Are you willing to die for him?”

“I have already done so once,” she shot back, even though her chest hurt with it, even though she knew they would not understand how that could be so. She remembered: the endless darkness of a mouth as it closed around her, shuddering skeletons dancing en pointe. She could not explain what it had felt like to them. She could not convey the pain with real words. “What makes you think I would not do it again?”

Silence. Again, the men looked to one another, the lines of their jaws and throats severe in the faint light, the meaning of it lost to the shadows. One cleared their throat, a brusque, unsettling sound. Rue swallowed; her knees throbbed, ground into the cool stone. With a glint of sudden color, they raised their weapons up to the length of their chests and began towards her.

“Stop,” she said, and stood at once, moving in front of Siegfried. “Stop,” she said again when they did not, the word burning her tongue. “You may be afraid of me, but I am not afraid of you!”

They stopped.

“Yes,” the man nearest to her said, almost kind, and closed his eyes. “We knew that from the start.”

A great clatter echoed through the hallway as they threw their swords and daggers on the stone before her. Rue stared down at the pile, inches from her bare feet, near enough to grab one by the hilt should she see fit. She looked up again – but they were not there to meet her eyes with their own any longer. They’d all crouched to one knee, the men in the front all the way to the half-clear faces in the back, a sea of dark heads and light-edged outlines of backs and shoulders all she could see. For a moment, she did not understand. It was only when the man closest extended his arm to her in a manner of unbelievable grace that the meaning struck fast. They were bowing to her.

“We are sorry,” he said, his words half-muffled against his knee. “We cannot help but worry for him. He is our life. This – this was wrong, though. Forgive us.”

Rue could not speak. One by one, they slowly raised their heads to look at her again, and in their wet eyes, she saw herself reflected a hundred times over. Her heart felt fit to burst; she settled a stricken hand over her chest to cover it. She should have known better than to think of what they felt as anger instead of sadness, as cruelty instead of a terrible, terrible fear that turned one into something harsh and dangerous. She, of all people, should have known better.

“We were wrong to judge you as we did,” another man spoke, his face unbearably young for all the age it bore. Please forgive us, princess.”

“All right,” she’d said, not unkindly, and held out both her hands to him. He took them and stood, as did the rest of the men. Most of them would not be able to see the soft look she wore in such faint light, but it did not matter; she looked to each hollowed face regardless and gave it to them, a kindness carefully afforded. “Enough of that.”

They understood one another, then. Some of them approached Siegfried, still and silent on the floor, but Rue shook her head, worried he may wake in the midst of being moved, worried that it might trigger another night terror. Instead, they gathered their relinquished weapons and left, heading back to their rooms high in the castle walls, their footsteps quieting until they were little more than distant echoes all around her. It was only when the last one had left, pressing his torch into her hands, that she’d noticed there was still another in the hallway. The priest was steadied against the far wall, his dark eyes briefly turned bright when the flame caught his outline once, then again. With great effort, he started towards her, his bones cracking inside his thin, thin skin, his face folding into itself as the shadows caught it, like paper torn and crumpled. Rue did not move. When he at last stood in front of her, he did not smile nor frown. He only took her hand, so whole and heavy against his own.

“Since the beginning, I thought you were extraordinary,” he said. His voice was unfamiliar; he had not spoken in so long that she’d forgotten the sound of it. He patted her palm with his fingers. “I still think that – but in a different way now, it seems.”

He left her too, then. She nearly started after him, seeing how he was struggling to take even simple steps forward, only for one of the men to appear from the darkness, having waited until he’d said what he meant to. She watched them until they’d vanished around the corner then sunk to her knees, all but overcome.

It was not until late morning that Siegfried finally woke. Rue was leaned against the wall, half-asleep herself, his head pillowed in her lap.

“Rue?” He reached out to touch her arm, his voice still slow with whatever they had given him. She helped him sit up, her exhaustion all but forgotten in lieu of such warmly-felt relief. She’d begun to worry something was terribly wrong. “W-What happened? What are we doing here?”

“You were sleepwalking,” she said, and had no doubt that this was the right thing to tell him. Even if it was a lie, it was a kind one. “I didn’t want to leave you alone when you came to rest here.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said. He smiled, briefly fitting both of his hands to her face, his little fingers brushing soft over the skin that had darkened beneath her eyes. Together, they stood. “I would have been all right.”

She smiled in return, leaning against him as they walked back the way the men had first come, back to the looping corridor of stairs, back to the room that was theirs.

“I wanted to be sure,” she said, and turned her face into his shoulder, closing her eyes.

(It was a small thing, but still, Rue allowed herself a moment of pride. Only once had she touched the hilt of the knife she’d hidden beneath her gown – and then, with great prejudice.)



*


(What Rue does not know:

After the kingdom and the subjects and even the beloved prince have been lost to turned pages and forgotten, they will still speak of her, the men to their new families to people in ink-and-color lands impossibly far away from anything she ever knew. She will become her own story, whispered into the ears of inconsolable children at night who find comfort in it, not knowing that they are pieces of tales themselves – a princess strange with hair like night and jewel-red eyes, whose Brother was darkness and whose Sister was pain, who knew well of hate but even more of love, and was stronger than any of them for it.)



*


The night after the wedding, after the men have left and they have been left alone again, Rue finds herself at the end of something both exhilarating and unbearable. The castle creaks with every step and touch no matter how careful, the sound so vivid that it is a wonder it can even support their weight at all. Every stone ripples like water; the color of the walls smears in streaks across their open palms. The sky is too dark, a distant thundering on the horizon even though the air is too dry, too thin for rain, and Rue knows it is only a matter of time. Siegfried knows it, too – and yet, they cannot help but be happy too, married at last. It is a strange conflict, and so they compromise with themselves. Still in their wedding best, they drink wine from the cellars, not too much, just enough to ease the harshest edges of it all away. They dance, not caring that their movements lack their usual grace and precision, their shoes kicked off and their bare feet cool on the marble, twisting in clumsy circles as they cling to one another. They run up stairs and around dark corners like children; they dance in every room, no matter how small or plain, filling the spaces that had once known many more bodies, looking at all the things left on shelves that someone had used to think were precious. At times, they separate – Siegfried makes a point of straightening the tapestries hanging in the main hall, while Rue briefly loses herself in a nameless child’s bedroom, the bones in her fingers aching as they reach out to touch the painted faces of dolls left all in a row – but it is never for long. Rue pulls the ribbons in her hair loose one by one, leaving them strewn across the stone, a trail for him to follow. He finds her time and time again, having gathered them to give back to her.

Once they’ve finished, the night has grown old. The full moon burns through every window, their shadows silvered on the stone. It is inevitable, the warmth of her hand as it folds into the small of his back, the careful way he brushes the ties of her dress with his knuckles. “Rue,” he says, almost shy, and that is enough for her to press him back against the wall and kiss him fiercely. His hands fit to the curve of her neck, urging her closer; her fingers tangle in his shirt. Their heartbeats pulse in frantic rhythm, echoing close beneath their wrists and knuckles like little bursts of heat.

Upstairs, she peels her heavy dress off her shoulders, one sleeve then the other, letting the collar and lace fold into waves at her waist. The moonlight darkens the bow of her collarbone, bent low as she unties herself further; her skin burns, her arms striped red where the material clung too firmly to her. At the bed, her prince sits with his back to her. His shirt is half-shed, caught at his elbows. He looks to a far window, still.

“What is it?” She steps out of her last trimmings and lace, leaving them in glinting piles on the stone. In the darkness, her body only catches the odd burst of light as she crosses, shoulder and ankle and neck, her limbs slivered to pale, quick things lost in the night. “What’s the matter?”

For a moment, he doesn’t move. Rue sits on the other side of the bed. His skin shines with heat through the white of his shirt. She reaches out a hand to him, her fingertips ghosting across the bones in his back, and that is what makes him turn to her at last, stricken.

“What if I am to suffer the same fate?” He did not mean to ask it; she can tell as much from the hoarseness of the words, the way he touches his hand to his neck as though trying to cage them in, already far too late. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I have thought about it often, but I – I did not want to worry you.”

“It’s all right,” is all she can say in return, painfully soft. She does not want to tell him that she has thought about it too, has watched the men grow thin and slow and become mere caricatures of themselves, so brittle that she feared they might shatter when she touched them, might burn as though she was fire and they were ice. She does not want to tell him that she has dreamed of holding him in her arms and feeling him ebb away from her into fragments as thin and easily lost as the pieces of his heart, her hands wet with blood and ink, so dark she cannot tell the difference. That was what became of Tutu’s lady, after all; her heart burns with the mere memory of it. She does not want to say any of it, so she says nothing more.

“I am not like you,” he says. “I came from here, from the story. What if my time has only been extended? What if I one day, I will—”

She takes his face in her hands and muffles the rest with a kiss, not able to bear another word. Beneath her palms, she feels the steady line of his jaw, the muscles working in his throat. He turns to meet her fully. The buttons on his shirt graze her breast, cool, before he shuffles it past his wrists and off. He touches his hands to her wreath of hair, cradling her head beneath, and the feel of him is nothing at all like the men, like Tutu’s lady, who bent and smeared and half-crumpled at her very breath. He is solid, warm. She smiles against his mouth.

“I think,” she begins after pulling away, “that being outside the story has made you real. You think differently about things now. You make choices that you wouldn’t have made before.”

His mouth curls, nearly a smile but still heavy with worry. “Do you really think so?”

She nods, truly believing it herself now. “Listen to me. Mytho—”

She stops, her breath catching in her throat. She has not called him that in nearly a year now, since they were still struggling inside the story. The echo of it feels strange in her mouth, like a relic long-forgotten in a locked trunk or attic, old enough that dust scatters from it when touched. She doesn’t know why she said it. It seems a silly thing to do, now that it’s already happened.

“I’m sorry,” are the words that first come to mind, even though she knows there is no reason to apologize; his expression does not convey shock or anger in the least, only a wondering sort of interest. “I didn’t mean to—”

“No,” Siegfried says, and now he is truly smiling. He gently tangles a few loose strands of her hair around his fingers and tucks them past her ears. “Please call me that. My first name should stay here, buried with my people. One last sacrifice for all they have done for me.”

Rue nods and turns her face into his hand, smiling again too. Her own hand settles on his chest, just above the shudder of his ribs. With a chuckle, he allows her to press him down against the bed. Her arm ghosts over his stomach, settling against the inside of one of his upturned wrists. Slowly, she curls over him, her shadow folding over the edges of the bed, dark on the white sheets.

“I should think better than to question your judgment,” he murmurs into her long hair, spilt over her shoulders and onto his neck, scattering into strands across his cheek. “Thank you, Rue. You are right. You are always right, it seems.”

“I’d like to think so,” she says wryly, even though it is flattery, however genuine from his mouth, even though it would be painfully easy to think of times when her choices were quite the opposite. She will pretend tonight. She can give herself that, at least. “I’ve thought of an example of how you are different from before.”

“What would that be?”

“I very much doubt,” she says softly, playfully, but still edged with a careful shyness she cannot divorce from such a topic, “that such a beloved prince from the storybooks would ever have chosen a common girl whose only talent was dance, no matter what her background was.”

He looks up at her, something in his face softening so absolutely that it nearly brings her to tears. “I would have,” he says. “I would have found you, no matter what. I love you.”

He begins to say it again, but she shushes him with a laugh, with yet another kiss, not needing to hear the words again to know they are true. He smiles into her embrace, the tension easing away, and that is that. Like the moonlight, she covers him, and he, at last, surrenders.



*


Rue wakes to rain, heavy on her face. With a groan, she opens her eyes only to see the sky, bruised with violet, so close that for a moment, it feels like she could reach out and touch it. Thunder echoes, a startling sound, and that is what makes her sit up straight at last, confused, unsure if she is dreaming. She is lying in the field, next to the little pond all the birds would gather by in the summertime, its muddled surface stricken with circles that grow and fade as the rain worsens; her hair is heavy with it, so cold, making her shiver as it sticks to her bare neck. Dirt and grass catch beneath her nails. The castle, where is the castle, she thinks, and turns in all directions – but it is gone. She cannot even find the forest’s edge, the road leading into town. She only sees a great expanse of darkness in all directions, shuddering and surging closer, and only at that moment does she realize that it is all truly over now. Beside her, Mytho stirs, his hair darkened in spots with mud.

“Mytho,” she says. Again, he shifts, half-hidden beneath her dress and his shirt. A sudden rustling at her back makes Rue turn, her breath burning in her throat – but it is only the swans, the ones who first brought them here, drinking from the pond. They look to her with dull, glinting eyes.

She touches a hand to his face. “Mytho,” she says again. His cheek trembles beneath her fingertips as they sweep over; his eyes flutter then open, his face warm at the sight of her at first but quickly startled into something darker. He reacts in the same way. For a moment, he does not understand, he is confused why his face is wet with rain, why they are in the field and beside the pond instead of in their bedroom. It only takes one long look in all directions for the truth to sink in.

“It is,” is all he can get out. Stricken, he reaches for her. She takes his hand and holds it hard. By now, she has noticed the chariot, still resting on a near hill, the way the swans make clipped, frantic sounds as they draw their wings close and look towards it, as though they have known all along.

“We have to go,” she says.

He nods.



*


Their chariot flies for days and nights and does not seem to think of stopping. Mostly, they rest, exhausted by all that has happened. Still, Rue has never been a heavy sleeper. She wakes often, sometimes three times in an hour, jolted awake by a chill in the wind or Mytho shifting against her shoulder or simply her own thoughts, plentiful, much too loud and harsh inside her head. The fourth time it happens, she’s jolted out of a shapeless dream, only to see that it’s dawn. The sky above her is a distant expanse of swollen darkness, threads of color curling at the edges of it like fire. She can almost see the land beneath them now, houses and fields and forests outlined in shadow and the faintest rims of light. They look so small from far above, like toys, like miniatures she could hold in her hand if she wanted to, and for a moment, Rue can hardly breathe, consumed by the sight, by the world splitting open above and around her, endless and startlingly beautiful. Mytho breathes easily, asleep against her shoulder. Everything is quiet. Without meaning to, she starts to cry. The rising sun seeps over them, coloring her hands, warming her face. She wipes her eyes on the insides of her wrists and laughs a little to herself, not understanding how such a simple, inconsequential moment could make her so happy. But then again, she thinks, maybe such things don’t always have to make sense. She supposes that’s the best part about living outside stories.

Hours later, she wakes again to Mytho saying her name, his hand soft on her face. They’ve come to rest in what looks like a forest. Sunlight filters through shuddering branches in streaks, warm on the back of her neck when she stands. Through the trees, she swears can hear voices, distant and scattered.

“Where are we?” She asks, keeping the words hushed, as if not to disturb them.

Mytho steps out of the chariot. He turns back to take her hand, helping her down. “I’m not actually sure,” he admits after a moment. The wind ruffles their clothes. Her dress strays through some mud, a length of it darkened. “When I woke, we had already landed.”

Rue opens her mouth to answer, only to gasp instead as the chariot dissolves into light at her heels, burning so bright for a moment that they both raise an arm to shield their eyes. When they are able to look again, it is gone. The swans remain, their wings swollen above their white bodies, still tethered to ropes that now lay aimless in the grass. Mytho frees them, thanking them for all they’ve done; Rue soothes their ruffled feathers, her heart full when they nestle against her bent knees. At last, they fly away, the final pieces of the story having joined the rest, gone where they cannot follow. Now, they are truly on their own.

“Well,” Rue says. She takes his hand in hers. “Let’s find out where we are.”

It doesn’t take long. As it turns out, they have only landed in a brief expanse of trees. There is a road a few paces away filled with travelers, goods being transported, families with children that chase each other into the foliage then out again. In the distance are tall, red-stone walls, broken in the middle by a great, opened gate that leads into a town. Rue stares and stares, confused by how the sight can seem both new and familiar. Still, there is no mistaking the towers that appear at equal intervals around its edge, the grand, arching shape of a cathedral glimpsed through the gates, dark against the bright sky.

“Kinkan,” Mytho says, and he sounds as startled as she feels. They fall into pace with the others, ignoring the curious looks cast in their direction concerning their elaborate clothes. Rue swallows and clutches tighter to him, briefly overcome.

“We’re on the outside,” she murmurs against his shoulder. “That’s why it seems so strange. Before, there – there was no outside. Or at least, not one we could fathom ourselves.”

Mytho nods. “The story that took place here is over,” he says. “It was one thing to know it, but to see it is quite another.”

Rue breathes in. She looks back over their shoulders, over the heads trailing behind them, following the path of the road over hills and past buildings, winding so far into the distance that she cannot even fathom where it might draw to an end. The last time she was in Kinkan, it was the entire world. Now, there is so much beyond it that she is nearly dizzy with the possibilities.

Once within the walls, they stop in the first shop they pass, reluctantly trading their clothes for money and something more practical to wear. The woman at the counter is red-faced with excitement, thinking them wealthy foreigners from a distant land, and pays them handsomely. The crowns, they keep. Rue dresses quickly in a backroom then looks at herself in the store window, not able to remember the last time she did so. She takes in the shape of her face, the length of her neck and shoulders and legs, and realizes for the first time that she is older. It’s such a simple thing, but still, she has to convince herself of it. She is taller than she was before, just a little, but there is something more, something she can’t quite place her finger on. Or is it only her imagination? She watches people passing behind her in the reflection and thinks them all older-looking, even faces she can’t remember from before. It must be true. Time has passed, after all. They spent a year inside the story, but maybe it has been more here. Change is something else they will have to learn in this strange, new world.

Mytho emerges from the shop then, adjusting the cuffs on his new shirt. He, too, looks older. Rue realizes it with a jolt, the line of his shoulder more solid, something like age having taken root in his face, slight but still a noticeable shadow when he turns to look up at the sky. She finds herself relieved by this more than anything else, knowing for sure now that he has truly become as real a person as she is. He holds a simple bag containing their crowns in one hand.

“I hope it’s all right that we kept these,” he says, his voice heavy as he looks down at it. “I know it’s…”

He falters, then, but Rue knows what he means to say. They are not truly royalty any longer, but it is still too precious a memory, too familiar. She takes the bag from him and slings it over her shoulder before leaning in to kiss him, quick and chastely, like young sweethearts still unsure of themselves might. There is nothing wrong with wanting to remember, she tells him with it, and he smiles against her mouth, understanding. It’s all right, she tells him.

They continue on. In the distance, she hears the song of the church bell. Students from the Academy begin to pass by, clad in the blue and gray uniforms they themselves had once worn, talking and laughing amongst themselves. They look to her and Mytho briefly but wonderingly, as if remembering them from a dream, before passing by. A soft-eyed girl brushes her shoulder, a pair of worn toe shoes tucked under her arm. The bones in Rue’s feet ache with the mere memory of it, a welcomed, wanting pain. Again, she looks back towards the gate, the landscape bright and unclear in the distance.

“I think,” she says, sure of it now, “that I would like to travel. Maybe we could join a troupe, or simply perform on our own.”

Mytho nods. “That sounds wonderful. To tell you the truth, I haven’t thought much about what we would do next. Did you not want to stay here for a while first?”

Rue doesn’t know. The town still feels like her home, somewhat, but it has eaten the years away and left her with little else, so near and familiar to every one of her bones that it’s almost too much to bear. “I suppose,” she concedes, as they pass the pizza shop. A family of cats is milling under the tables, brown and white in color. “I suppose there is still much I could do at the Academy.”

“Only if that’s what you want, though,” Mytho is quick to say. He turns fully towards her, taking both of her hands in his. “Say the word and we’ll turn and go now. It may take me a while to discover what I am most interested in doing myself, so in the meantime, I am yours to do what you will with.” With a smile, he steps back in a lighthearted bow and kisses her knuckles. Two girls in Academy uniforms giggle at the sight as they pass, whispering fervently to one another. “Lead the way, my princess.”

She laughs and pulls him back upright. “All right,” she says, easy and warm, smiling fully now too. “I’ll think about it.”

They keep walking, making a few more stops as they pass, first at a florist’s stand where Mytho insists on buying a rose she paused to admire (“we will need to save some of this for things like food, you do realize,” she comments wryly but does not refuse it, her face coloring as she inhales the sweet scent of it) and then in front of the gurgling fountain before the church, the heat already so stark, the water cool as they dip their hands in up to the wrists, and Rue thinks, not for the first time but the firmest by far: they will be fine. She cannot pretend it will always be this easy. Sacrifices have been made, and she knows more than anyone that such things strip you and leave you in newer, rawer skin, thin to the touch, easily worn further down. There will be sadness and there will be pain, she is sure – but she has only just wet her toes in the ocean that is happiness, and she must believe that there will be much of that as well, endless shades and depths that she will be glad to welcome in and learn every inch of. Wandering around another corner, they notice a little girl, fair-haired and half-drowned in tears, crouched over on the stone. It’s as simple as a reflex to Mytho; he kneels at once and says simple, kind things to make her smile, jokes and compliments, reassurances. Rue keeps her distance and watches. She is sorely familiar with her lack of experience when it comes to such basic, necessary things as kindness and comfort; she isn’t sure if it will ever become an easy response instead of something that feels foreign, so far away from her. Still, when the girl finally stands and wipes her face dry, she holds out the rose to her, struck by an impulse, and is nearly overcome by the light that fills the child’s eyes, so genuine that it takes her breath away.

“Rue,” Mytho says, a sudden urgency in his voice. She is still looking over her shoulder, watching the girl go, marveling at how her little fingers stay curled around the swollen petals, protecting it as though it is something truly precious, irreplaceable. “Rue,” he says again, and touches her arm. She turns.

They are standing a few paces away from the front of a shop, shimmering clothing arranged in the window. There is a single man standing in front of it, looking in. He is tall, his dark hair tied back, his shoulders clearly sturdy when he turns further away from them, oblivious.

“Fakir,” Mytho says, a moment before she thinks the name herself. He does not say it loudly; Fakir doesn’t notice. Rue is surprised by the look of him. His face is much gentler then she remembers – though maybe that was because all he ever greeted her with were angry demands and cruel eyes. She wonders if time has changed him, eased away his harshest edges. Time, or something else entirely.

Rue swallows. She looks around anxiously, beyond him, back the way they came. She shakes her head when Mytho looks to her, silencing his question before he can even ask it; she knows she cannot articulate what is in her head. It is silly to have thought it, so silly (of course she would not be here of course of course) but still, the words gather, harsh in her throat, hurting her, where, where is –

“Fakir!”

Neither she nor Mytho had spoken again. The door to the shop flies open, the bell atop it jingling noisily, and – and Ahiru, human, so much taller now, stumbles out, her braid dancing around her as she turns towards him. Her face can only been seen in slivers as she stands with her back to them; she speaks quickly and excitedly about something Rue can’t hear more than a stray word or two of. After a moment, she takes Fakir’s hand in hers and holds it tight. He doesn’t pull away. “Just one more place, I promise,” she says, half-laughing, and turns around only to come face-to-face with them at last, Fakir pulled up alongside her.

At first, no one moves. For a fearful moment, Rue is sure that they have forgotten as well, time having ground their memories into ash – but then Ahiru’s face lights up, as hopelessly warm and open as it looked the night they searched for Mytho together, as the first time she’d first called them friends as though it were the simplest thing in the world. Yes, Rue thinks, her mouth heavy with a smile she cannot hold back a moment longer. Nothing has changed at all.

“Rue! Mytho! You’re back!”

She only has a moment to spread her arms before Ahiru practically tackles her. Her small hands knit at the dip in her back, squeezing hard; Rue’s dark hair spills over her face and she doesn’t even move to brush it away, laughing instead. “I missed you,” she whispers into her shoulder, so softly that no one but them hears it. Rue can only cling to her tighter, her heart fit to burst.

“How,” she finally manages to say after Ahiru has hugged Mytho as well and turned to face both of them. “How are you –“

“Oh!” Ahiru looks herself over with a befuddled grin, as though just recognizing the change herself. “That’s right! You didn’t know I turned back! It was super amazing, it really was, you won’t even believe what—”

“It’s a long story,” Fakir interjects. He touches her shoulder, his voice edged with a note of familiar sternness. Still, he doesn’t look away from Ahiru for a long moment, and Rue hides the wry quirk of her lip against her hand, understanding at last. “Welcome back,” he says to them both with more warmth than she thought him capable of, and Mytho reaches out to clasp his hand in turn.

“Whoops,” Ahiru says, her face reddening. “I’m sorry! I’m sure you want to rest first, you must be exhausted after such a long trip! Are you hungry? We have plenty of food at home, anything you could want! Do you want to come?” She bounces on the balls of her feet. “They’ll be plenty of time for me to tell you all the long stories I have then, I’m sure!”

Mytho laughs. “What a coincidence,” he says. “We have a long story to share as well.”

It’s clear he would like to go, but still, he looks to Rue, obviously not wanting to commit until she’s made her own choice. He doesn’t have to wait long; there is honestly no question.

“Of course,” she says, and smiles. “Of course we do.”

And that is that. Ahiru takes her hand and begins to pull her along down the road, talking endlessly about little things, friends and dance and the Academy, about all that’s changed since they’ve been gone, the sound of her voice spilling past her turned shoulders and over Rue like sunlight. Fakir walks behind them, seeming as distant as ever at first, only to surprise her when she nearly trips and he reaches out to help steady her, his hand ghosting across her back, brief and warm. Mytho follows at her side, holding her other hand. She looks over at him and he looks back, smiling, nodding just a little, as though to say yes, this, this is it, this is why we will be fine. Rue squeezes both his and Ahiru’s hands tight; she doesn’t doubt it for a moment. They surround her, keeping her safe and warm. They are all with her, for better or for worse.

Yes, she thinks. She wouldn’t mind staying for a while.