Miranda didn't really start to get worried until she was racting the part of Duck, explaining how she didn't want to be an adventurer forever, and would be flying away to settle down and bring up a family.
Of course she'd noticed fewer job offers coming in from Nell's game, and that the narrative gaps between those jobs were growing - but she didn't suspect that this meant any other ractors were working with Nell. From the way that so many of her jobs now started as answers to questions, she suspected that a lot of the time Nell simply preferred to read, rather than ract, only getting involved when she needed to change the direction her story was going. Other times, it was clear from the part Miranda was reading that Nell had spent many, many hours engaged in some kind of quest game with only occasional interjections from other characters.
Although she had played more characters than she could possibly remember over her years working with Nell, Duck and Purple were now the only constants. So it was lucky, then, that it was in character for Duck to get a little choked up as she explained that she had to leave - for Miranda, this was likely to mean even less contact with the child.
Nell wasn't really a child now, of course - by Miranda's calculations she must be somewhere between 13 and 15. Old enough that, when an evening passed without even the tiniest job coming in from Nell's game, Miranda worried about her like a mother - was she at a party? Out with some boy? Of course, normally, the next evening a job came in which made it clear that Nell had spent the entirety of the previous evening scaling a cliff or fighting an eagle to retrieve a quest object - and in activities like these, Miranda had no fear for Nell at all.
Long after Duck's silhouette had disappeared over the horizon, Princess Nell was still sat crying outside the tent. Duck had been the most maternal of her companions, and it hurt particularly hard that she was going away to raise children elsewhere. Nell knew it made sense, but as she herself had grown up as an adventurer it hurt to know that Duck felt this life wasn't good enough for her own children. It wasn't that she didn't love Purple - she did, although Purple sometimes said things that she didn't understand, which scared her. It would just be.. different with just the two of them, that's all.
More and more frequently, in the evenings, Princess Nell would find Purple reading her books of magic. Previously, Nell had only ever seen the books when Purple needed to prepare a particular trick or spell to help them with a particular quest - but now they were always around. Sometimes Purple even left them unattended, which she never used to do - it seemed she was becoming careless about things which were once closely guarded as "too old" for Nell to understand.
One evening, as she watched Purple's hair slip strand-by-strand from behind her ears as she sat cross-legged, engrossed in yet another text, Nell finally plucked up the courage to ask:
"Purple, when will I learn to do magic?"
Purple smiled her strange, unnerving smile, and closed the book.
“Not today, Nell”.
Nell's heart sank as Purple stood up and stepped out of the tent - she felt that she'd upset her, and couldn't work out why.
For the first time she could remember, Nell was angry with the Primer. It always answered her questions when she asked them, that was what it was for. How long was it going to go on keeping secrets?
As she listened to Purple wandering off into the night murmuring a little tune to herself, Princess Nell noticed the patch of ground where she has been sitting - and that her book of magic was still there. It looked so special, bound in leather and shining metal - and Purple had warned her off so often - that she was afraid to touch it. When she finally found the courage to pick it up - she felt, obscurely, that Purple had left it here for her on purpose - she was surprised at how light it was. The metal, which should have felt hard and cold to her hands, had the soft pliability of plastic. Up close, it looked tacky, like a toy from an M.C., and not like the hand-made books of the Vickys at all. Princess Nell’s heart sank - this was not the kind of book that she could learn real magic from.
As she flicked through the pages and chapters, she began to recognise tricks that Purple had used in the past - tricks of suggestion and mind-reading that Nell had once found so mesmerising turned out to be nothing but artefacts of imperfect human psychology, tricks of fire and light nothing but brute science. The time she’d summoned a dragon - that had just been fireworks. Purple had never really bent reality to her will.. she had just found the bits of reality that didn’t work like their enemies assumed, and used that knowledge to her advantage. So much, Nell now realised, had depended on the situation falling out just-so, or on weeks of preparation - Purple had no powers at all. She was just lucky, and clever.
With Duck gone and Purple proved a fraud, the tent suddenly seemed much colder to Princess Nell. She dropped the book to the floor with disdain and, pulling blankets around herself, curled up to think.
Miranda sighed, and took the delivery job. Of course, the food that she was supposedly delivering would be coming out of an M.C., but some clients preferred the “personal touch”. Most food delivery jobs were all administrated through the same central hub, which sold low-end cuisine-and-delivery packages to middle-class sad-acts. They were a gamble for the ractor, because you never knew whether you were going to be an Asian maid from someone’s racist historical fantasy, or the creepy recreation of someone’s dead wife. In the early days, a really common script would see the ractor demanding payment for the food in more and more desperate ways, pleading abusive bosses and sick children, before the client laughed and switched you off.
The kinds of people who needed to order two minutes of social contact with their food, or for whom stealing money from a crying teenager was great entertainment, were not generally the kinds of people that Miranda wanted to be working for. But as long as you weren’t expected to ‘sit down’ and ‘eat’ with the client, the jobs were generally over within five minutes, and Miranda wanted to keep herself available.
For a change, there was nothing creepy about this client - all she had to do was turn up on vintage roller-skates and spin a quick monologue about the dangers and excitements of delivering pizza for the mafia. Miranda figured that the client was probably an old-timer, nostalgic for a world before ubiquitous nanotech, rather than any kind of fetishist.
Once she’d gratefully received a tip and skated away from the client, Miranda found another job waiting - the kind she had been keeping herself available for. She accepted it before she’d even got her breath back from her adrenalin-fuelled monologue, and was happy to find herself again playing the woman with purple hair and a purple dress.
Her joy soon passed, however, as she started reading the lines that made up her part.
“This is just what it’s like to be a grown-up. There are no potions or incantations to make everything better - there’s only knowledge, hard work, and luck.
“When you were younger, it helped that you believed in my magic - your conviction when you told your captors I was coming to get you did half the job for me. Your belief that I would catch you if you fell helped to to climb higher then you otherwise could have done.
“But one day, you had to learn the truth. That there is no magic secret to adulthood, and we are all just making it up as we go along.
“I’m sorry that you had to find out this way, but I have done nothing wrong. I hope you can forgive me.”
Princess Nell looked over her knees at Purple, her face set stony and determined. Purple looked back at her, similarly cold and distant. The tent should have been twice as big as it was to contain the distance between them.
In the instant when the tears came it was as if the whole stony edifice collapsed, and then Nell was wrapped up in Purple’s arms - not like a child, any more, but like a young woman, equal in size and strength and knowledge. Allowing herself to feel sad for a moment, but knowing that soon she will calm, get up, and do what needs to be done.
They cried together, for a time, Nell’s face buried in purple hair that smelt of strange spices, forehead resting in the hollow between collarbone and throat.
And then, with new-found adult courage, Nell lifted her lips to Purple’s ear:
“So much for the secrets of magic. But how about the other boons of adulthood?”
Purple turned her face towards Nell’s, pulling back slightly.
“You were never really meant to teach me magic, were you? It’s all just some kind of metaphor that got out of hand.”
At that moment, Nell understood why Purple had sometimes scared her - because she had somehow known that the time would come for these lessons, but she had dreaded them, and tried to forget. She had thought she knew already, from watching others people’s eyes on her or feeling their hands and worse.. what more could there be to learn?
And yet, as she bunched her hand up in the heavy fabric of the purple dress, Nell realised that Purple had the same role as all of her companions - to teach her to use her body as a tool for her own ends. As Nell brought their mouths clumsily together, and Purple gently coaxed her into movement with the slightest drag of her tongue across her upper lip, Nell knew that the difference now was that she wanted this. Really quite a lot. But the words that she had to describe what she wanted were words of violence, of taking possession or of degrading and destroying. These were not things that she wanted for Purple, or for herself.
Nell pulled away from the kiss, confused. Her body, so long a tool that she had trained to be entirely under her conscious control, was suddenly surprising her with strange yearnings that she had not even the language to express. A thousand little sense-memories, from the flick of a pianist’s fingers to the inflection of a friend’s laugh, all came together to ambush her surprised mind with the concept of desire. But desire for what? Not to screw, or to get fucked, to bang, or to get nailed.
She thought about everything she had learned from Purple so far - that there are no secret rules, that everyone is making up their own - and then she knew. She could not rely on her own experiences, or on her own ideas of “what grown-ups do”, because they would only teach her to hurt Purple, as she had been hurt. Neither could she assume that they would both follow some secret and arcane set of rules for this sort of interaction - she would just have to do this her own way.
“Purple, I would very much like to see what you look like without your dress on. Would you like that too?”
After the first shock of realisation as she read the line “Where would you like me to touch you?”, Miranda felt a strange flush of pride that Nell was being so mature and measured in her experimentations. She briefly considered taking a few weeks off from working with Nell, out of an urge to preserve her privacy, but found that the idea of having this part racted by anybody else made her even more uncomfortable than racting it herself.
Over the weeks as they moved up through the foothills, Princess Nell was unusually keen to make sure that she always had the tent up well before nightfall. Purple always had something new to explain, and there were sometimes complex and subtle discussions or demonstrations. Nell was learning as much about her body from Purple as when she had learnt her first somersaults from Dinosaur, what felt like a lifetime ago. She learnt about concepts like consent, and about how other people might choose to make up their own rules, and how there are times when when Nell should and should not follow those rules. She even found that there are times when when those other-people words, those violent-words, like “fuck” and “screw”, might be applied to her desires, and that was ok too - but only if it was what she wanted.
Princess Nell and the Lady Purple met all sorts of other people as they travelled up the mountain, each with their own story to tell, and many with their own games to play. When they reached the peak together, Nell found that she didn’t mind at all that magic did not really exist.