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the stuff dreams are made of (are someone else's nightmares)

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Calvin’s missing.

Susie’s mother asks her three different times if she’s sure she doesn't know where he is, and every time Susie says no. The last time she saw Calvin he had been heading to the woods with Hobbes trailing behind him in his wagon, and he’d been talking to himself (or, she guesses, to Hobbes) about finding lost Spartans and making Calvin their new emperor. She’d tried to invite him to tea, but he’d made a big stink about how she'd put a ribbon on Hobbes last time and stormed off.

That was yesterday, and Calvin hasn’t come home. Now everyone is worried and Calvin’s mom is crying and his dad and Susie’s dad were out in the woods all night looking and Susie isn’t worried, exactly, but… Calvin always comes home for dinner. It’s weird to think that maybe he’s lost somewhere.

Now Mom doesn’t want to let Susie out of the house, so Susie is stuck in her room on a beautiful day in the middle of summer break while people from the news hang around and ask all the neighbors about Calvin. Susie thinks she could tell them more than Ms Masie from across the street - all Calvin ever did to her was flood her garden once when he tried to make a pond for the frogs he’d collected - but Mom says she’s not allowed to talk to anyone unless she or dad are around.

Her tea party feels empty. Susie'd rather be outside in the sun, and the table in the backyard has room for more of her stuffed animals too. This one only has two chairs so she’s put Mr Bun across from her and left Bear and Binky Betsy to sit on neat piles of books. It’d be better if she could be outside - it’d be better if Calvin and his dumb tiger were here. Susie sniffs: the adults downstairs are shouting again and she hates it - hates hearing them be upset, hates hearing everyone cry and yell and worry because it’s making her worried too. Calvin can’t be in trouble, Calvin is trouble, Calvin makes his own trouble, he can’t be...

Susie covers her ears and closes her eyes and counts to ten. She gets to eight when something soft and warm prods her arm once, twice, and waits. When she opens her eyes there’s a bunny sitting on her table in front of her, knocking the plastic tea set aside.

“Please don’t shout,” he says, which is impossible because rabbits can’t talk. Also he isn’t sitting like a proper rabbit, he’s up on his back legs and sitting like…

“Mr Bun?” she whispers, because if she shouts her mom might come up and if she finds Susie has an animal in her room she’s so grounded, her dad’s super allergic! “How are you -”

“It’s the summer solstice,” he tells her, nose bouncing up and down and teeth actually worryingly long. Do all bunnies have teeth that sharp looking? “It’s the longest day of the year,” he continues - and Susie thinks she knew that was what solstice meant, because she’d read about it in a book, but she didn’t know that was today. “The magic between the worlds is stronger - or I suppose it’s more the barriers between the two worlds are weaker - but that’s less important than the fact that she took Hobbes and Calvin, and I’m going to need your help to get them back!”

Susie looks around her room: none of her other toys are alive and talking to her, but Mr Bun is missing from where he'd been sitting at her table, and this bunny does have the same pink ribbon she’d tied around Mr Bun’s neck. “Are you really real?” she asks, reaching out carefully to touch him. His fur is so soft; it’s the softest thing she’s ever felt ever, even softer than her grandma’s fur coat. “I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming. Bunnies don’t talk, after all. You don’t have the right parts to make sounds like people do.”

“While I’d love to argue the fine details about humans and their assumptions about what constitutes speech with you, we don’t really have the time,” he huffs, cheeks expanding into chubby cute balls. “Hobbes and Calvin need help, and I’m the only one who heard Hobbes call, and you’re the only one who can hear me, so we have to get going! There’s only today and tomorrow to get them back.”

Susie thinks this should absolutely be a dream, but… what if it isn’t? Wouldn’t it be better if she treated it like a real thing, just in case? Because Mr Bun apparently knows… well, he knows about what happened to Calvin and if he knows what happened then they can fix it. “If you know where they are,” she points out, very reasonably she thinks, “then we can tell my mom and the police. They can help, right?”

In response Mr Bun shakes his head, his tiny eyes going narrow. “They’re in the court of the Summer Queen, the ruler of the fair folk, the great witch. Do you really think normal humans can find her? Absolutely not. It takes a child to go there if you aren’t invited,” he puffs up, his fur making him look twice as big. “Luckily I know the way.”

“I’m confused,” Susie admits, still caught between am-I-dreaming and does-it-matter-anyway. “You can’t want me to go rescue Calvin. I’m supposed to stay in my room - Mom won’t let me out, and if I did sneak somehow,” which she absolutely doesn’t think she could do, her mom is super good at knowing when Susie is trying to be extra quiet, “then Mom would worry and ground me for the rest of my life! How can a witch even have Calvin; witches aren’t real.”

Mr Bun stretches up so he’s his full size, which - standing on her table - makes him taller than her. He peers down his fuzzy nose. “You, Miss Suzie Derkins, also know it’s impossible for rabbits to speak. If I am speaking to you now, and telling you that witches are very real, then don’t you think you should believe me?”

That… does make sense. “How can I save Calvin anyway? I don’t want to fight a witch.”

“You can’t fight a witch,” the rabbit sniffs again. His nose is black and there’s a speck on his fur that looks just like the stain she got on Mr Bun when she was really little that Mom couldn’t ever get out with scrubbing. He doesn’t seem to notice how she’s staring - he just continues. “You can’t fight a witch, you have to trick her. Luckily you’ll have me to help, and you’re the smartest girl in this whole neighborhood.”

“Mr Bun, I’m the only girl in the neighborhood!” That’s why she has to play with Calvin, because if she doesn’t she’s stuck playing on her own unless Jessica or Radha have permission to come over from their neighborhoods two streets down.

“Details, details,” Mr Bun waves his paw as if to dismiss the subject. “Now are you going to help me rescue them? Otherwise they’ll be trapped with the Queen forever.”

It’s all a bit much for Susie, really. She’s never gone on an adventure and her playing pretend always involved things like being a CEO Business Woman Lawyer or maybe a Supreme Court Judge who was a baker on weekends. Not… not princesses and knights and castles, the way her books always talked about things, or aliens and monsters the way Calvin did.

But…

But Calvin’s mom and dad are worried and everyone downstairs is afraid and Calvin is just a little kid like she is even if he’s also gross and weird and mean, and it’s important to help people if they need help, her dad said that and Susie wants to help people when she grows up, so she can’t say no now and pretend she’ll just do it later. If Calvin needs help… “I don’t know how to get past Mom without getting in trouble,” she points out, getting up from her chair and heading to her closet to dig out her school backpack. “How can we get to the Queen?”

“There are magic paths we can take; your mom won’t notice. Adults never notice things like this, they’re too old and… stiff.” Mr Bun leaps down from the small table to Susie’s carpet and scratches his ear with his back leg. “What are you doing?”

“If we’re going on an adventure I am going to be prepared,” Susie tells him, firmly. Just because she doesn’t play pretend with princesses and dragons doesn’t mean she hasn’t read all the stories. If there’s magic and witches she should make sure she’s ready to handle anything. “You stay here for a second, I’ll be right back.”

Mr Bun seems ready to argue, but Susie doesn’t let him - she ducks out of her bedroom and heads downstairs to the kitchen. Adventurers should never forget about important things like food, after all.

 

-----

 

“You’re going to get tired, carrying all of that,” Mr Bun complains as Susie adjusts her backpack straps. He’s somehow standing with his hands on his hips like Ms Bernstein does when someone is late returning their books to the library. Susie double checks her shoes to make sure the velcro is nice and tight. Her new shoes have laces but she hasn’t figured out how to tie them on her own yet and she doesn’t want to have to worry about that. Besides, her new shoes pinch.

Mr Bun hop-walks in front of her. It’s not walking the way she does, one foot at a time - he moves like a normal rabbit down on all fours, but the moment he stops he sits up like he’s a person standing. Like that, he comes up to her chin. With his ears he’s almost as tall as she is. Or maybe it’s more she’s nearly as short as he is - she was still the shortest in her class at the end of the year. “Don’t complain about all that stuff,” he waves a hand at her bag, sounding grumpy.

“I won’t.” Susie thinks he’s being silly. She’s had much heavier backpacks than this; she barely has any books in it, after all. “So where now?”

“This way,” is all he says, before looking around outside her room and then bounding off towards her parents bedroom where the door is closed. She’s absolutely not supposed to go in there without permission, but Mr Bun doesn’t seem to care. He opens the door and walks in, so Susie has to follow.

“Perfect,” he declares with satisfaction, staring at the closet. “That will do nicely.”

“What?” Susie looks at the sliding doors. They’re open on both ends a little bit - Mom’s side is more organized, Dad’s side has his shirts all nicely hung up, but there is a bag of clothes spilling out on the floor and Susie knows there are boxes in there, and Dad’s golf clubs because he says he’s going to go golfing again one day so Mom can’t throw them out (and when they’re in the garage Mom threatens to throw them out). “It’s just a closet.”

“We needed an unknown tunnel, and you’re not allowed in here,” Mr Bun tells her with a smile. It does not look comforting. When he was a stuffed animal his stitched mouth was a nice smile for sure, but now when he smiles it just makes his teeth look bigger. “Now just follow me.” He moves forward on all fours, his butt wiggling back and forth as he slides under the overhang of a box, between the door and the bag of laundry and the hanging curtain of shirts. “Come on!” he calls back, and his voice sounds… strange. It’s just a closet, she knows, but Susie decides she just has to trust Mr Bun and this maybe-maybe-not-a-dream. She crawls under the box and hopes her mom can’t hear her when she jostles the door.

There’s not a lot of space - it’s dark because they haven’t turned any lights on, and the closet goes across the whole wall of the room. She can only just make out Mr Bun’s tail in front of her face as she crawls along, next to boxes marked Christmas and Susie’s Baby Things. Mom kept all her baby dresses, Susie knows, so that when she’s grown up and has a baby girl of her own, she can give her her old dresses. That seems like a very smart thing to do, especially because babies grow so fast Mom says she only wore some of her dresses once before she was too big for them.

Susie’s a bit distracted, thinking about her baby things and what might happen if her baby was a boy and even worse a boy like Calvin, so she doesn’t notice exactly when the dusty hardwood floors become hard packed dirt, or when the boxes and clothes become a tangle of thick branches. She’s distracted right up until Mr Bun rushes out in front of her and suddenly she sees daylight and she’s definitely not in Mom’s closet anymore.

She climbs out of the hedge - looking back, that’s what it is: a whole giant overgrown bush - and brushes off her hands and knees of all the dirt she’s collected. They’re standing in a field, and far off is a treeline that Susie knows is not the woods by her house. Her woods doesn’t look like that - the trees here are all wrong. There isn’t a field that looks like this by her house, either. The grass is wrong; it’s too tall and too green. Even the air smells wrong, somehow. “Where are we?” she asks, though she thinks she might know the answer.

“Welcome to the land of the fairies,” Mr Bun says and bows, just like a proper gentleman would. Then he ruins it by straightening up. “Now please stay with me or you’re liable to get eaten.”

 

-----

 

Susie has been in the land of the fairies for about five minutes and she already doesn’t like it.

“Bees shouldn’t be people shaped!” she howls as they run across the field with grass that comes up to her waist, following Mr Bun only by the way he makes the grass move ahead of her and the occasional glimpse of his ears. “This is impossible!”

“More running! Less complaining!”

She tries to speed up, but her legs are still pretty short and if Mr Bun leaves her to be stung or stabbed to death by warrior lady bees the size of Susie’s hand (with big bee butts and stingers and wings but person shaped bodies carrying swords) she is never going to forgive him.

They’re getting closer to the trees that Mr Bun seems to be heading for and Susie hopes they can lose the bee-ladies there - maybe they have a hive they’re protecting and if they get far enough away they’ll turn back? She has to hope so as Mr Bun flies out of the grass and into the woods and Susie follows close as she can but the shift from grass to hard packed dirt covered in roots is a tricky one when running from strange monster lady bees. It’s only a few moments before she trips and falls.

Thankfully the sound of buzzing seems to be far behind as she scrambles painfully to her feet. The bee women are nowhere to be seen: she looks behind her and she can’t even see the field they’d come from, it’s just more and more trees.

That’s both worrying and a relief all at once. She lets herself catch her breath - all that running is tiring - but then she realizes her guide has run ahead - and hasn’t turned back to check on her. “Mr Bun?” she calls, and then shouts, maybe a little frantic. He doesn’t come back and there’s nothing to hear but the rustling of the wind in the trees.

Susie does not like this one bit. She’s on a path, at least, but she doesn’t know where it goes and stories always have bad things happen in the woods. She could meet wolves or a woodsman who wants her heart or a witch with a gingerbread cottage who wants to eat her or be kidnapped by robbers who want her to cook for them or - well. She can’t really be kidnapped by fairies again, right? If that’s why she’s here, at least, to save Calvin. Or maybe if that does happen she’ll find him easier.

She tucks her thumbs around her backpack straps and starts walking. If she meets a talking cat she’ll never complain about Alice making bad decisions ever again.

 

-----

 

She’s going in circles.

Susie stares at the bright yellow LEGO piece sitting on the path. Don’t let anyone say she doesn’t listen to fairy tales, even if they’re not her favourite to read. She didn’t have time to get stones, and besides - how could she tell which stones were hers and which belonged to the woods? But she wasn’t going to do something silly and use bread either. First of all she might need to eat it (and weren’t Hansel and Gretel starving?) and second of all she had far better ways of leaving a trail.

The yellow block tells her what she’d suspected before was true: she’s been on the same path this whole time and she’s looped somehow. She doesn’t know how many times she’s done it either - she only put out the LEGOs this last time because she was sure she’d passed that fallen tree before. Not that knowing helps all that much, actually: she’s not intentionally going in circles after all. The path doesn’t curve, and there aren’t other paths, and stories always suggest that terrible things will happen if you leave the path, but maybe she has to. Maybe that’s the trick to this place - you have to be brave enough to leave? She just doesn’t know. She hates not knowing.

She sits on the fallen tree, the log so big and tall she has to hop up to sit and her feet only touch the ground if she stretches her toes, and sighs. “I hate this place,” she declares to her shoes. Her feet hurt, but probably less than if she’d worn her new ones. Her shoes are also muddy and if she’d gotten her new shoes this muddy her mom would be upset, so that was good thinking on her part.

“Now that’s just rude,” a voice that sounds rather a lot like Ms Wormwood says. “Why would you say something like that?”

Susie looks around but there’s no one there. “Hello?”

Silence.

“I don’t know where you are,” she continues, looking down and up and around. “Where are you? Who are you?” Maybe they could tell her how to get through the woods.

More silence.

Susie hops down from the log and puts her hands on her hips. “Look, you can’t call me rude and then not answer me! That makes you rude!”

“It does not!” the voice retorts, scandalized. It’s coming from the tree just to her left and Susie marches up to it, squinting to try to see if someone is up in the branches. There’s no one to see and she almost gives up when her eyes lower and there - not very far up at all, she could reach if she stretches - is something she thought was a bunch of leaves in an old spider web, except it’s not leaves.

It’s a tiny person - a lady - but she’s like those butterflies that look like dead leaves, except she’s also fuzzy like a moth. She’s all tangled up in the web and it doesn’t look comfortable at all. “Hello,” Susie says, forgetting to be upset at being called rude for having an opinion. “Are you stuck?”

The butterfly lady makes a face. Susie thinks she’d maybe shake her fist at her, but it’s tangled in the web too. “Absolutely not! Mind your own business, rude girl!”

“I’m not rude. It’s not rude to not like a place when the place is mean and horrible and kidnaps people and eats them, and it’s not rude to ask if someone needs help!” She hops up on the log so she can reach for the spider web.

The trapped lady screams. It isn’t an angry scream, it’s a scared one, and it makes Susie stop and stare as the lady-butterfly-moth tries to pull away from Susie’s reach, only getting more and more tangled in the web. It looks like it hurts, and Susie pulls away, worried. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she says, while the lady’s chest goes up-and-down so fast it’s scary. “I promise.”

“Oh, because little girls with dirty hands are so trustworthy! You’ll pull my wings off! Or squeeze me until my guts fall out! Or bop me on the head!” The lady shakes so bad the whole mangled web shakes too, the bits of leaves and things trapped in it with her trembling like there’s a strong wind.

It’s Susie’s turn to make a face because that sounds terrible. “I wouldn’t do those things. That’s something Moe would do, or maybe Calvin.” She isn't sure about Calvin - Calvin's said plenty of gross and mean things, and he's thrown snowballs and pushed her in the mud, but he doesn't usually hurt her, not the way Moe tries to, and she's never ever seen him trying to hurt animals, and she absolutely saw Moe kick a cat once. “Anyway, I wouldn’t do those things. Do you want me to get you down? I won’t grab you.” She can guess it would be scary to have a hand as big as you are pick you up. If you weren’t careful you could squeeze someone too hard.

“Who are you?” the lady asks, which isn’t an answer, but it’s probably a good question.

“I’m Susie. I’m lost, but I’m supposed to be saving my neighbor Calvin. He was kidnapped.

by someone called the Summer Queen and I have to get him back before it’s too late.” So she really ought to be trying to do that, but she’s lost so - well, maybe the lady will help her after, if she knows how to get out.

“I don’t think I need your help, Susie,” the lady’s hands tug and tug at the fine webs all wrapped around them. Her skin is brown like her wings, but where the webs are it’s white, like it’s wrapped too tight. “I’m just fine. I have it under control.”

“Are you sure?” Susie doesn’t believe her. “What if the spider comes back?”

That makes the lady pause.

“I don’t have to touch you,” she promises, and steps down to get a branch off the ground. The first one is too heavy but the second is not too bad and will let her reach. “I can use this.”

There’s a long moment where they wait and Susie keeps her balance on the log, rolling on her toes and then her heels and back again, before the butterfly-moth-lady (who seems a lot nicer, even if she’s scared, than the bee ladies were) sighs. Her whole body sags and flops against the web. “If you can get me down carefully…”

Susie doesn’t like touching spiderwebs anyway. They feel creepy. This is just like clearing them out in the garage with a stick - she prods her skinny branch into the top of what’s left of the old web and curls it around the wood, and then catches the back of the trapped lady gently on the side. She sticks, what with all the web around her, and Susie sets her and the branch very gently down on top of the log as she steps down. “There,” she says, taking off her backpack. “I’ll get the webs off of you too, I just need…”

The lady screeches when Susie pulls out a pair of scissors. It sounds so high it makes Susie’s teeth feel funny. “Please stop,” she has to sniffle - her nose is running too, suddenly. “I promised I wasn’t going to hurt you, didn’t I?”

“You’re going to cut off my wings!”

No!” Now Susie is the one who sounds horrified. “Never! I’m going to cut the web. If I pull it it will just pull on you more, right?” she very carefully points to the poor lady’s arm that has lines all up and down it now. “We have to loosen it up, not make it tighter.”

It’s actually like when Mrs Sherow’s kitten got all tangled up in her knitting, and she had to bring him to Susie’s mom, because someone had to hold him still while someone else cut the strings because he’d gotten all knotted up. “What’s your name, anyway? You didn’t tell me.”

Which is rude, Susie thinks, but doesn’t say.

“Nahal,” she says after a long moment.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Nahal,” Susie curtsies, like they were at a tea party. She can too be polite. “Will you let me help you?”

“Will you go away if I say no?”

Susie frowns. “I don’t want to but… if you really really don’t want me to I won’t do anything. That would be mean.” She’s supposed to help, of course, her mom and dad would be upset if she didn’t, but it was important to listen if someone said no, too.

Nahal seems to think about that and nods. “Then just… be careful.”

Susie couches by the log so that Nahal is at eye level. This close, the web looks terrible, but she can help - she knows she can. Poor Nahal looks very scared, and even if she sounds old like Ms Wormwood maybe she’s not very old at all. Susie carefully cuts away the web all around first, so that the branch isn’t pulling on anything. “I’ve never met anyone who looked like you,” Susie says while Nahal watches the bright orange scissors snip around her. “Are you like the bee ladies? Or are you a fairy?”

“Me? A fairy?” She makes a face like Susie makes when Calvin talks about his lunch. “Never. I’m a wood sprite. Those bees - if you were in the fields, those were the Queen’s guards.”

“What makes a wood spite different than a fairy?” Susie keeps working diligently. Her scissors are new: they’d come from an art kit her grandma gave her for her birthday. “You won’t try to eat me when I’m done, will you?”

“I don’t eat people, I eat grubs!”

“Grubs?”

“Bugs? Worms? Sometimes -”

“Oh no, no no no you don’t have to tell me,” Susie has had enough of Calvin’s lunch stories, thank you very much. “So you won’t eat me. That’s good. Mr Bun said things would, and that the Queen would eat Calvin.”

“...She won’t eat him, not exactly,” Nahal offers, voice suddenly quiet. “She eats dreams, the Queen does.”

“Dreams?”

“Dreams make this place real, and the Queen doesn’t know how to dream - or she doesn’t remember, no one knows for sure. That’s why she finds children who can dream and brings them here.”

Well, that does make some sense. Calvin is the biggest dreamer she’s ever met, and the way Ms Wormwood acts sometimes Susie thinks he might be the biggest dreamer she’s ever met too. “Well, Mr Bun said I have to find him and bring him home, or he’ll be trapped here forever.” She has to pause and hold her breath to cut at the web that sticks Nahal’s arm to one wing, but when she does the arm pulls free. That’s a relief.

“And who is Mr Bun?”

“My rabbit. He wasn’t real before, but then Calvin got kidnapped and now he is and he brought me here, but when we got to the woods he disappeared. Now I keep going in circles.” Susie makes another careful cut. Nahal shakes but doesn’t seem to be so scared, now. “That’s why I said I hate this place, by the way. I didn’t mean to say your home isn’t nice. I just want to go home.”

“It… might be best that you do.” Nahal looks away. “The Queen is dangerous. She’s ancient - she’s the oldest one here, everyone says so, and she used people’s dreams to make up the woods and the gardens and the sky and her guards and everything to trap everyone here so they can entertain her. If she finds you she’ll take your dreams, too.”

“Well, I won’t let her,” Susie is going to grow up to be the best lawyer judge CEO mom ever and no one is going to take that away. “Do you know the way to find her? I can’t keep going around in circles here but I don’t want to go off the path because bad things are supposed to happen if you do that and besides, I’d probably get really lost.”

Nahal nods. “That would be best, the trees don’t always like it if someone leaves the path, and the wolves might find you.”

Susie does not want to meet wolves, not at all.

“I can take you to the edge,” Nahal continues. “But I can’t help you with the Queen. She’s too strong. She’d turn me into dust.”

It’s… scary to have someone who seems like a grown up be scared of something. Susie doesn’t want to have to do this and she almost almost asks if maybe Nahal knows how she could get home instead. Almost.

Before she can she remembers Calvin’s mom and dad and how sad her parents would be if she was taken away by someone, and how Mr Bun is here too and she might need to help him come home… she can’t leave yet.

“There,” she leans back. “I think that’s everything I can get with my scissors, you should be able to -”

Nahal is already unwrapping the last of the web from her arm and shaking out her leaf wings and standing on her toes and stretching. When she flies it’s just like a butterfly, sort of tumbling up and and around Susie’s head. “Thank you!”

“You’re very welcome,” Susie puts her scissors back in her bag and digs out her water bottle she’d filled from the bathroom tap. “Do you need a drink?” She’s thirsty, and she wasn’t trapped in a web for who knows how long.

She pours a bit into the lid for Nahal and drinks a little herself. All this after Mr Bun had said her bag wouldn’t be useful - it just showed what he knew. It was important not to do something without thinking about it first, after all. She bets a lot of fairy tales would have ended differently if people were just more sensible about things.

“I can show you the way now,” Nahal says when the cap of water is empty and Susie puts the bottle away. “You have to ask the trees to let you through. The Queen made the woods to keep people stuck here if she didn’t want to play with them anymore, but since Red and the Woodsman came, the trees listen to them and are pretty nice, if you ask.”

Susie… isn’t sure about what any of that really means, but if she has to talk to the trees she can do that. “Do I need to ask any tree?”

“No, silly, just the guardians. This way,” Nahal flutters ahead and Susie sets her backpack back across her shoulders and follows. Nahal at least isn’t nearly as fast as Mr Bun was, so she doesn’t feel like she’s going to be left behind this time.

 

-----

 

“I thought,” Susie whispers, though she really wants to scream, “that you said the wolves would come if we went off the path?”

Nahal is sitting on Susie’s head, holding onto a piece of hair that Susie can feel the pull of but it doesn’t hurt. “Did I say that? I don’t think I said that. The paths aren’t exactly safe, they’re just safer. Don’t you have a sword or a magic bow or something?”

No!” Susie always thought wolves were big dogs, but this is not a big dog. He’s grey and bigger than the biggest dog Susie’s ever seen by a lot and his fur doesn’t look soft it looks like the things Mom uses to scrub dishes with and his teeth are actually huge how could Red Riding Hood ever ever think her grandma was a wolf? and the way he’s growling makes every part of Susie shake right down to the bones in her toes, like she’s standing on the washing machine and the vibrations are running all through her.

“Fairy godmother? Magic whistle?” Nahal asks, tugging harder on Susie’s hair. “What did you come here with?”

The wolf is getting closer. Susie clutches her backpack to her chest and tries to think - she has scissors, but they’re small, and the first-aid kit from the bathroom and Dad’s camping blanket and a container of LEGOs and a flashlight and some food but she doesn't think that the wolf will want one of Mom’s sandwiches…

The wolf jumps up and Susie doesn’t really think, she just swings her bag at him the way she did Moe that time he'd tried to pull on Yazmin’s hair hard enough to make her fall. She’d gotten in trouble for that because Ms Wormwood saw and her bag was full of books, but Moe had stopped which was the important thing.

Her bag connects with the wolf’s head. It might not be full of books but she did bring one with her, and it might have been a big one, and the bag makes a very satisfying thunk sound while the wolf lets out a very confused whine and Susie gets to feel very brave indeed for five seconds before she realizes she’s hit the wolf but it's just made him angry.

She starts to panic all over again but then a blur of red leaps out of the trees and lands heels down on the wolf, driving him into the ground. An axe whirls around and hits his head and Susie flinches away because she’s never seen anything die, even a wolf who was trying to eat her, but instead of it being bloody and terrible he just… turns into dust and disappears.

“Hi there!” The red figure resolves into an older girl wearing a red cape and red pants with big brown boots and a brown vest over her puffy white shirt. Susie feels very underdressed in her shorts and t-shirt. “That was a good hit!”

Still staring at where the wolf’s body had been, Susie swallows. “Did you kill him?”

“I suppose that depends,” the new girl replies. “If you get hit with an axe in your head, you should probably die, but dreams can’t really die, so he just stopped existing for a while. He’ll be back - they always come back. She shrugs. “But it’ll take this one a bit.”

“Dreams?” Susie remembers how her bag (with her Grimms Fairy Tales, because she thought she might need to reference things) had connected very solidly with the wolf’s face. “He wasn’t real?”

“Oh, they were real, everything here is real.” The girl has a hook on her hip for her ax, and she slides it there and covers it with her cape. “Someone has to dream them up first, of course, but once they do it’s real. That’s how it works here.”

“...Are you a dream?” Susie has to ask, because, well….”You look like Little Red Riding Hood, but. Um. Grown up.”

That makes the new girl laugh. “I’m not a dream, and no one’s called me little in a long time.” she flips her cape back in a big flourish that Susie is a little jealous of because she’s worn capes for costumes and they never flip around like that. “Just who are you? How’d you end up in my woods - I thought the Queen’s new child was a boy.”

That makes Susie remember why she’s here at all and suddenly capes and wolves aren’t very important. “My name’s Susie - and this is Nahal.” She manages a little curtsy without making the sprite fall. “I’m supposed to be rescuing my neighbor Calvin from the Queen but I got stuck in the woods and then I helped Nahal so she was showing me where to go to ask the trees to let me out.”

“Rescue mission, huh?” the other girl crouches down in front of Susie to look at her in the eyes and she just stares. Susie stares back. She’s maybe older than Rosalyn, and she has a big scar on her cheek that makes the skin go in and pulls her mouth to look a bit like a smile. “The Queen’s a tough opponent. She’ll use your dreams against you.”

“I won’t let her,” Susie repeats what she’s said to Nahal already. “I have to get Calvin back - his mom is worried.”

There’s a long pause where they keep staring and then the other girl nods. “Well, Susie, I’m Red. Once upon a time I used to be little, but I haven’t been that in a long while, and I don’t like the Queen very much so if you want to try to save your friend, I can help you get to her.”

“Can you help me save him?” Susie could really really use some help, and Red has an axe. Susie didn’t even think about bringing her baseball bat with her.

“Not exactly,” Red pats her shoulder. “That’s the thing with the Queen, everyone sees her differently, so her tricks are always unique. I fought her when she was a wolf, and I won. If I fought her again I could maybe save you, but I couldn’t save you and your friend. If you want to bring him home, you’ll have to do it yourself.”

Susie was really hoping that wouldn’t be the case, but she isn’t surprised. That’s also something in a lot of the stories. The hero always has to do things alone.

“Everyone could beat the Queen, that’s how the rules work. It’s not impossible,” Nahal adds, quiet and sounding a bit awed. Maybe she was impressed by how awesome Red was when she stopped the wolf. “It’s just very hard because she doesn’t play fair.”

“Oh,” Susie looks up to Red and feels a little better, hearing the Queen cheats. “Well I’m used to that. Do you think she knows how to play Calvinball?”

 

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Red and Nahal lead her to the edge of the woods, back to a big clearing that looks a lot like the first one Susie and Mr Bun had ended up in, but in the middle of this one…..

Calvin is wearing a space suit, holding a ray gun and chasing some strange alien looking thing that shifts and changes shape as Susie looks at it, from green alien blob to Mr Bun running as fast as he can back to an alien with tentacles trying to escape the zap! pow! of Calvin’s ray gun. And following Calvin is Hobbes, except Hobbes is a tiger.

Which yes, Hobbes was always a tiger, but now he’s real - the way Mr Bun is real, except not even quite like that. Mr Bun is a real rabbit, big with maybe some scary teeth but still… bunny shaped. Hobbes (and it had to be Hobbes) walks on his back legs but not like a cat might, all bunched up… he looks like a person more than a tiger, except for his head. Like a person in a tiger suit, but she can see his teeth when he yawns and then he leaps forward and nearly bites Mr Bun and Susie can’t help but shout because “Don’t you dare eat Mr Bun!”

She was supposed to wait and make a plan and see if Red and Nahal could give her more advice. That had been the plan but the plan isn't important when Hobbes is going to eat her best friend. She runs out and the field shifts from green grass to dry dusty dirt with craters like the moon, which is silly because they’re not at all in space and the moon looks like that because there’s no water and asteroids hit it and this is a garden -

The dry dirt shifts back to grass under her feet. When she scoops up the weird alien tentacle thing wearing a pink ribbon around it’s sort-of neck, it turns back into Mr Bun, trembling and pressing close against her chest, scared witless. “Don’t you dare,” Susie scolds Hobbes as he skids to a stop in front of her. “Or I’ll never invite you to tea ever again!”

Susie?” Calvin stares at her in absolute confused horror. “What are you doing here?”

“Saving you!” Susie climbs to her feet, holding Mr Bun close to her chest. “And Mr Bun, I guess, and Hobbes!”

“Is that what you think you’re doing?” The voice comes from somewhere beside them, dark and smooth and reminding Susie of the queen on Mom’s television show she watches after dinner. “Well I think you’re trying to keep Calvin from having fun. You just want to make him play house, don’t you?”

“Ew!” Calvin pretends to puke, which would be really gross while he’s wearing a space suit, Susie wants to point out, but then Calvin grabs Hobbes and tries to drag him off. “I’m not playing house! We have Zogwarg to catch!”

Hobbes is staring down at Susie, and Susie doesn’t know how he’s so tall and he has teeth even sharper looking than the wolf’s, but his eyes aren’t nearly so scary. “Susie?” he asks, and he sounds… confused. “Mr Bun? I didn’t think I’d ever see you awake.”

“You almost ate me!” Mr Bun screeches, though he does it into Susie’s shoulder: he’s still shaking. “You’ve been chasing me for hours!”

“No, I most certainly have not.” Hobbes is defensive and affronted, one clawed hand pressed against his chest. “I don’t eat friends. Besides, I’ve been chasing Zogwargs.”

“And these two certainly look like they’re trying to hide what they truly are, don’t they?” It's that voice again, making Susie shiver. Calvin and Hobbes both look at Susie and they look… wrong. Their eyes go soft, like they aren’t looking at her, and suddenly she sees her arms around Mr Bun start to turn green.

“Oh no you don’t!” she shouts, stomping her foot so hard Hobbes jumps back. “I’m not playing aliens! You can’t make me!”

“You never play anything fun.” Susie spins to find the voice, and standing suddenly very close is the most beautiful woman Susie has ever seen in her whole life.

She’s tall, taller than Hobbes, with gold skin that glitters in the sun and green eyes as bright as grass and flowers that grow in her hair, flowers for hair, red and blonde and brown all mixed together with marigolds and daisies and flowers Susie doesn’t recognize. Her dress is painted like a watercolor, shifting and changing so much Susie can’t decide what color it is, it’s just beautiful. Susie is jealous - so so so jealous - because she’ll never ever be so beautiful, not even when she’s a full grown up. No one could ever be so beautiful.

“Are you the Queen? The Summer Queen?” she asks, looking up at eyes that don’t match the rest of the Queen’s face, because her face is warm but her eyes are cold. “Calvin has to come home with me. His parents miss him.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, Miss Susie Derkins,” the Queen says with a smile that makes Susie think about the monsters that absolutely do not live under her bed. “Calvin is staying with me. He’s having fun here, aren’t you, Calvin?”

“Yes!”

Susie looks over and Calvin and Hobbes are running around again, chasing something else with their ray guns. Mr Bun is grumbling in her arms. “They couldn’t hear me. They can’t hear you, either - she has them. They’d rather play pretend then realize what’s going on…”

“He can pretend at home,” Susie looks back at the Queen. “Do I have to beat you at a game? I know a game you don’t know.” She’s at least wearing socks, and she has scissors to cut the holes for eyes...

The Queen laughs. Her teeth are small, strangely. They look too small for her mouth - tiny, in fact. “Oh I’m not playing with you, Susie Derkins, you with your tiny, boring dreams. What sort of child dreams of growing up? You wouldn't even fill the wolves if I fed you to them. You’re boring.” She laughs again, laughs at Susie. “Your dreams are boring, child. Calvin dreams of dashing detectives and police chases and aliens and galactic conquest insect queens and deep sea adventure and you dream of sensible things. How dull. How lifeless. You are boring, Susie Derkins. You don’t deserve to challenge me: I refuse.”

“What?” Susie pulls Mr Bun closer to her chest, feeling cold cold cold. “I am not! You can’t! There are rules!” Nahal said there were, didn’t she? And Red said she could, just that the queen would be tricky and she wouldn’t play fair and Susie’s dreams would be at risk but… “Just because I’m not Calvin doesn’t mean I’m boring!”

“Dull, boring, lifeless,” the Queen repeats as Calvin’s gun goes pop, zing, zap around them. “I don’t want your dreams, they’d taint my perfect world. Go away. You aren’t even worth eating.” She waves one elegant hand and dismisses Susie entirely.

Susie wants to cry. What’s wrong with dreaming about real things, instead of pretend things? What’s wrong with wanting to be the best of the best at what she does, and helping people, and changing things, instead of dreaming about - about dragons and aliens and weird things? What’s wrong with being her? She’s not Calvin and she doesn’t want to be. Calvin can eat mudbooger alien brain sandwiches for lunch and pretend that space slugs are taking over and eating everyone’s brains and -

“There’s nothing wrong with being you,” Mr Bun nudges her chin. “I happen to like who you are very much, and the Queen doesn’t understand your dreams. She’s afraid of them. Dreams are real here, after all. How could she ever know what to do with your dreams?”

Dreams are real here. Dreams are real. Everyone had said that and Susie had listened because that was why the Queen stole children, why she took someone like Calvin, why Red Riding Hood and Wolves live in her woods, why she turns nightmares into guards and turns dreams into….

“Calvin!” Susie has to think, has to remember - what had Calvin’s comic been called, when he made it for class? She spins to watch him falter and then calls louder: “Spaceman Spiff!”

Spaceman Spiff stops and stares at her. Susie can’t be Susie and Calvin isn’t Calvin, because Calvin is Spaceman Spiff and Spaceman Spiff takes messages from Central Command. “Spiff! You’re under control of the Zogwarg queen! She’s eating your brain!”

“What!?” Spiff howls, instantly turning to glare at the Queen.

“What?” repeats the Queen, stepping away from Susie as Central Command.

“The Zogwarg queen!” Susie points - and the Summer Queen is starting to look green under the force of Calvin’s gaze. If dreams are real here, and the Queen can’t make her own and Calvin can change the shape of Mr Bun… why not the Queen? She’s only changing from one kind of queen to another, after all.

“I am not! Stop this this instant!” The Summer Queen is a lot less beautiful now as her hair starts to shift into tentacles instead. She points with a hand that's starting to look particularly floppy at Susie. “She’s the Zogwarg queen!”

Susie knows what to do. “Objection!” Susie - the prosecution - slams a gavel on her desk. Technically lawyers don’t have gavels but Susie is going to be the first lawyer judge and lawyer judges absolutely get gavels, because gavels are the best part. She also gets to wear a big black robe and a big necklace and pretty heels because she’s going to be a fashionable lawyer judge with her own clothing line. She hammers again because it makes the Queen flinch, bang bang bang against Spaceman Spiff’s zip zap pow. “You are the one on trial, Ms Queen, now answer the question: are you holding Calvin here for the purpose of eating his dreams?”

The Queen is almost fully Zogwarg now and Susie does wonder what on earth inspired Calvin to make them look like that. He’d made a snowman like it too once, all giant mouth and too many arms and gross warts on their skin. “I - you can’t do this! I’m the Queen!”

“Exactly!” Susie looks to Calvin and Hobbes, who are both glaring at the Queen and Hobbes looks very, very angry now, instead of playful. His paws might look like gloves but they do have very sharp looking claws, and his teeth are long and sharp and bright too. “You admit it! You are the Zogwarg queen, holding Calvin and Hobbes here to eat them forever -” Susie gets a strike of genius and adds with a grin almost as sharp as Hobbes’ own. “So they can never get a slush from the ice cream truck for dessert ever again.”

“WHAT?” Calvin is now so furious he’s sputtering and Hobbes is outright growling. “That’s it Queen, you’re going down!”

Hobbes leaps: Calvin (well, Spaceman Spiff) takes aim, and the Queen glares at Susie. She’s no longer beautiful or even scary, just gross. Susie can handle gross, and she can handle cheaters, and she can handle people who think she’s supposed to dream about boring stuff like knights and dragons and princesses. “That’s what you get for calling me dull,” she says with a sniff. “I’m going to be famous and rich and amazing and put bad guys away and make so much money in my business I’ll start schools for kids who can’t go to school and give everyone who needs them houses and I’ll have my own pony and my kids will be geniuses and no one will ever believe in you because you’ll be a gross old alien slug forever if you keep Calvin and Hobbes here.” Susie is very proud of herself as she adds “That’s just bad business.”

The Queen howls. She gets big - very big - and then one huge tentacled hand sweeps out and knocks Susie and Mr Bun and Calvin and Hobbes all back hard while the Queen just screams “Get Out!

 

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Susie blinks awake and she’s cold and damp. She’s back in the woods - did the Queen throw her back? “Nahal?” she calls, coughing a bit because her chest hurts where the Queen hit her. “Red?”

“They’re not here,” Mr Bun tells her, climbing into her lap. “You did very well, Susie Derkins. The Queen kicked us out… literally.”

Susie takes a look around and realizes these woods aren’t the scary woods of the other place, but rather the big ravine at home. The creek is bubbling not far from where she’s sitting and - “Calvin!”

Hobbes is sitting with Calvin who looks like he’s asleep on the dirt. “Calvin?” Susie says, shaking his shoulder, but Calvin doesn’t wake up. He’s got a big bruise over his eye and a lump on his head and is really dirty, like he rolled through the mud a while ago. It’s summer but it’s getting dark out and it’s surprisingly chilly. “What happened?”

“I think he landed wrong,” Hobbes tells her, worried, his tail lashing behind him. “She was very rude, kicking us out like that.”

There’s a stiff breeze that makes goosebumps appear on Susie’s skin. Hobbes and Mr Bun are probably ok because they have fur, but she and Calvin won’t be if it gets colder. “First thing we need to do is move him a bit, the ground’s damp,” and damp is bad, even if moving someone is also bad, it’s probably better not to let him get too cold. Hobbes is strong, at least, so they get Calvin away from the muddy bank of the creek and onto Susie’s dad’s blanket from the bottom of her backpack. The first aid kit has a foil emergency blanket, so she wraps Calvin in that as well, but he still doesn’t wake up.

“Is he going to be ok?” Hobbes asks, and Susie wants to say she doesn’t know, she’s not a doctor - but Hobbes looks so worried and Mr Bun is under the blanket helping keep Calvin warm and she’s not a doctor yet but she will be, one day. “I think so,” she says, and smiles for Hobbes. “He’s probably tired. And his mom and dad are looking with everyone - I can call for help and they’ll find us soon.” Since she doesn’t think she can ask Hobbes to carry him and she could carry Calvin maybe a little tiny bit but nowhere near far enough to get help. She needs to stay with him - if she leaves him who knows what kind of trouble he’ll end up in next.

Hobbes sighs, flopping down next to Calvin and patting Susie’s head. “You won’t be able to see us, the magic’s almost done,” he tells her. “But you were really brave. We would have been stuck there forever.”

“You would have eaten me!” Mr Bun reminds him, the foil blanket rustling.

“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be all bad…”

“Hey!”

“Joking!” Hobbes pats Mr Bun and then strokes Calvin’s hair very very carefully. “Thanks for bringing backup. I only had a few seconds to call, there…”

“You’re just lucky I heard you at all,” Mr Bun tells him. “And that Susie’s a smart kid.”

“Can we have another tea party?” Hobbes says. “I think we need to celebrate. It can be a yay we won against the Zogwarg Queen party.”

“Sure,” Susie promises, and when she blinks - one minute Hobbes is a tiger - a real tiger, or a real pretend tiger, maybe - and the next minute he’s just… Hobbes. The way she’s known him to be since just before today.

She peeks under the blanket and Mr Bun is back to himself too.

“A tea party,” Susie promises. “I’ll use extra glitter on the invitations. You make sure that Calvin brings something not gross for dessert.” She could swear that Hobbes’ black button eyes wink at her. Maybe the magic isn’t entirely gone.

She digs into her backpack and pulls out her recorder. She only knows how to play Three Blind Mice but she knows how to play it really loud and Mom says that the whole neighborhood can hear her when she does it, so if there are people looking for Calvin they would have to hear her, right?

It takes ten plays before she hears someone shout. She tries to call back but it hurts a bit too much to yell, her chest bruised from where the Queen had hit her, so she just blasts a few random notes and soon there are all sorts of people who find them just as Calvin starts to wake up. They’re at the back corner of the ravine that carves its way through the woods and so when Susie says she thinks Calvin hit his head no one thinks that’s strange at all, considering the minute they ask him what happened he insists he was fighting an alien queen who was trying to suck his brains out with a straw. They put him on a stretcher in case he's hurt anything else and Susie gets to go in the ambulance too because she’s dirty and cold and bruised and they want to make extra sure she’s ok. (If she says she fell as well while looking for Calvin, the adults believe that. It isn’t nice to lie but no one would ever believe her if she told them the truth so it’s probably ok; Mr Bun was right about that.)

Mom and Dad are furious she snuck out, of course, but everyone says she did such a good job of looking after Calvin when she found him: somehow no one saw him the first time they checked the ravine. Everyone tells her that bringing her first aid kit and food and water and her recorder was very smart even if she should never do that again ever or she will be grounded for life young lady, and so Susie promises to never do it again which makes Mom cry a bunch and Dad orders Susie’s favorite pizza for dinner, with extra pineapple.

Susie doesn’t feel bad about making the promise, after all. She doubts the Summer Queen - who will never not be the Zogwarg Queen now - will ever try to invite her or Calvin back.

 

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