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Expect the Unexpected

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December 2, 2020 4:06 pm

“You know you want to kiss me!” Apple sang, her soft, pink lips hovering tantalizingly over Darling’s slightly gaping mouth.
Darling stared intently into Apple’s wide cerulean eyes, her heavy gaze smoldering. Apple’s heart leapt. Butterflies erupted within the depths of her stomach, their flapping wings creating a warm, pleasant tingling to spread throughout her middle and gradually seep into her chest.

Even after being together with Darling for nearly two years, a single glance from the blonde warrior princess still managed to send Apple’s heart racing frantically and her stomach fluttering dizzyingly. She could, with one look from her girlfriend, be instantly swept back to the early days of their relationship.

The days where each moment spent together felt like embarking on a fresh new adventure. Where every hug was a journey which their bodies and minds took to learn the insurmountable power that every simple, innocent touch sparked. Where every kiss was a quest, in which both girls were hungrily seeking the key.

The key to each other’s hearts that were so eager to be opened, but didn’t understand how just yet. When wonderful months spent together gradually, happily transitioned into years, Apple slowly began to feel as if this metaphorical key had been discovered by both herself, as well as her chivalrous companion.

She didn’t know if they had both found it in the same exact moment, but somehow this key had ended up just where it needed to at precisely the right time. Their hearts had opened up wide, shone light outwards that was so blissfully warm, so unwaveringly bright, condensed with such tender, genuine love.

Ever since this light had begun glowing, neither girl had been able to resist the magnetic pull that persistently but gently squeezed them tighter together with each passing day. Their connection had evolved into one of passion and intimacy, deep and unrestrained emotion. Their bond evoked a seemingly perpetual and indescribably pleasant feeling of warm, reassuring comfort inside of her.

It was as if Apple knew, deep within her core, that whatever happened, if Darling, her beautiful princess, her courageous knight, the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, was by her side, she was capable of conquering any obstacle that stood in her way. Even if Darling happened to not be physically there at the time, her strength and, most importantly, her love had embedded itself so solidly within Apple, that she never felt truly alone.

Apple had always been a self-assured person, but being with Darling made her the strong,confident woman she had always aspired to be, but never actually believed she could amount.

Apple’s mother, Queen Snow White, had always, for as long as she could remember, told her that she had the heart of a princess beating within her chest. A pure heart filled with such benevolence and love for all people that it simply couldn’t contain its radiant light and would gladly shine its glow into the lives of others.

Apple had taken this compliment to heart more than Snow White probably expected she would. As determined as Apple was, she couldn’t take her mother’s words any less seriously than as a role she must,
fulfill.

Ever since she’d started spellementary school at the tender age of five and quickly started making friends with her fellow fairytale companions, she had made it her top priority to ensure that everybody around her was safe, healthy, and happy at all times. She made a promise to herself to always retain her cheerful demeanor no matter how unhappy she felt so that other people in her presence would continuously be uplifted.

She wanted to inspire those around her, to be a queen that people could look up to and always depend on. This expectation that Apple had created for herself as a young girl used to sometimes weigh her down, cause her to feel paranoid that she would somehow mess up and ruin everything she had worked hard for, that she would disappoint people, not be the ruler that they desired.

Most of all, she was terrified of letting her mother down. Snow White had trained Apple from early childhood to be a perfectionist in all aspects of her life. She must be cheerful, outgoing, charming, courteous, hard-working, caring, intelligent, and most of all, popular. She had to be such a wonderful person in all possible ways that nobody would be able to resist loving her.

As Snow White had once metaphorically explained to Apple, she needed to be a magnet that people couldn’t help but be attracted to.
“But, mommy,” insisted the nine year-old. “Don’t magnets pull things toward them really forcefully? Shouldn’t I always be gentle in every way like you told me to be?”

The queen had smiled brightly, as she frequently did, and crouched before her daughter, her sapphire eyes gazing intently into Apple’s lighter blue ones. She reached out, gently tucking a blonde lock of hair behind her daughter’s ear.

“That’s a very good point that you’re making my sweet little Applepie,” Snow White chirped. “When you’re destined to be a ruler, though, charisma is an extremely important characteristic to have. Of course you never want to be harsh or too insistent when forming a friendship or acquaintance with somebody. You simply need to shine brightly like you do, my dear Apple dumpling, and nobody will feel forced to enjoy your presence. Your personality is positively too alluring to be easily overlooked by anybody. You’re something special, and if you just keep being confident and kind, nobody will ever doubt it, alright sweetie?”

Apple sat, dumbfounded, for a moment following her mother’s passionately given speech, before shaking her head slightly and giving the queen her dazzling smile.
“Alright, mommy. Thank you.”
She pulled her mother into an embrace that the queen quickly reciprocated, wrapping her arms tightly around her daughter.
“You’re welcome, my little Apple,” Snow White murmured into the young girl’s apple-scented hair. “You’re very welcome.”

Ever since that conversation, which Apple so vividly remembered over a decade later, she had never lacked confidence. Still, there was always an underlying fear of failure inside of her. This feeling had caused Apple to often work unnecessarily hard to compensate for the self-doubt that she felt.

Since senior year, however, when she had started dating Darling, the anxiety and doubt that she felt had gradually begun to melt until eventually it plagued her no more. Darling made her believe in her own self-worth. She didn’t necessarily make Apple appear more confident and poised, but she made Apple
stronger.

Maybe nobody else could tell the difference in the young princess, but Darling’s love had drastically changed Apple’s view of herself. She didn’t feel that burning urge inside of her to always be the perfect example for everybody else, the flawless royal leader. She still always tried her best, of course, but she didn’t so strongly fear messing up. Mistakes taught you how to be a better leader, an overall greater person.

Apple had always strived for perfection, but she had accepted that it wasn’t possible. She now focused on being the best version of herself, always trying her hardest to listen to others, gain as much knowledge as she could, be a compassionate friend and lover, as well as a dedicated scholar.

And if there came a time when she messed up, wasn’t the greatest example of royalty that day, she knew it wasn’t the end of the world. The earth would continue moving, the sun would keep shining, and so would she.

Gone were the days of anxiety-induced panic attacks, fatigue from extreme overworking, the general feeling she had long carried of working hard but still never quite being good enough. Darling had helped her become a more comfortable version of herself, an apple that wasn’t always perfectly shiny, but nobody could possibly care because the taste is just too exquisite to ever deny.

The ordeal in junior year with the release of the Evil Queen had been a wake-up-call for Apple. She could still hear Raven’s angry accusation echo in her mind, stinging her heart like arrows, but each word holding truth.
“Because you don’t listen! What kind of a friend refuses to listen?!”

Apple had sworn to herself that she would never refuse to listen to anybody again. Now, in her junior year of college, she still hadn’t broken that promise. She was best friends with Raven. She had the best girlfriend anybody could ever ask for. She was in majoring in medical science. She spent her time at school, studying, ruling her kingdom at her parents’ side, and of course, spending time with her friends.

She was more happy and fulfilled than she’d ever been. Each day, she woke up excited, yearning to experience the joys of the coming day, even more than she had in high school. Life was good.

 

Apple began to feel slightly awkward as the moments stretched by.Darling’s piercing gaze never left Apple’s eyes. She seemed to be looking into the very depths of her soul, every thought and emotion that Apple kept concealed pulled out by the sparkling pools of crystal clear water glistening within Darling’s ice blue orbs. Darling’s hot breath exhaled, warm against Apple’s cheeks.

Apple held her own breath, as she continued gazing into her girlfriend’s eyes. She lost herself in the glittering expanse of sea, picturing herself bobbing slowly up and down in the midst of gently rolling waves.

The next thing Apple registered was a soft sensation fluttering across her lips. Her eyes, which she hadn’t even been aware were closed, shot open. She found lips brushing lightly against hers, gentle and warm. Apple’s tongue slipped from her mouth, licking the glossy pink skin. The taste of Darling’s vanilla lip balm pervaded her mouth as Apple kneaded the lips between her teeth.

Darling’s mouth opened, allowing Apple’s tongue entrance. Darling’s hands reached up, fingers tangling in Apple’s curly tresses. Lips pressed tightly, as tongues twisted together, circling around and around each other.

Darling had barely let out a moan when a high-pitched beeping sounded. Darling groaned as Apple pushed herself up to her knees.
“What did you do that for?” Darling grumbled, licking at the taste of apples that clung to her lips.
Apple exhaled. Her hair was matted to her red, sweaty face.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, picking her phone up from the bedside table. “It’s Raven.”

She thought she saw Darling roll her eyes, as she brought the phone to her ear.
“Hi Raven,” she said cheerfully.
“Apple!” Raven cried hysterically.
Apple’s heart plummeted.
“What is it, Raven?” she nearly yelled. Her hand trembled by her ear. “Are you hurt?” Barely contained hysteria tremored in her voice.
“No! Dexter is!” Raven screeched. “H-he h-hh-ee-”

The connection crackled as she burst into sobs. Apple closed her eyes, taking a deep breath through her nose. She needed to be the calm one here. Darling grasped Apple’s hand, her eyes wide.
“What’s wrong with Dexter?” she asked, her voice shaking.

Apple put the phone on speaker.
“Raven.” She addressed the other girl calmly. “What happened to Dexter?”
Raven sniffled, her breath hitching.
“D-dragon a-accident,” she choked out.
Darling gasped. Apple took the girl’s hand in hers, squeezing.
“H-hunter s-said h-he w-was p-passed o-out a-and h-his h-head w-was b-bleeding a-a-an-and…”
She broke down, hoarse sobs echoing over the line.

“Raven, where are you?” Apple asked urgently. She breathed deeply. “Are you at the hospital?”
“Y-yeah.” Raven’s voice cracked. “St. J-John’s M-Medical C-Center. P-please g-get h-here!”
Darling’s hand trembled in hers.
“We will,” Apple promised, her voice soothing. “We’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Just hold tight, okay?”
“O-okay,” Raven gasped.
“Ok. Bye, Raven.”
“B-bye.”

Apple took the phone from her ear, turning it off. She faced Darling. The girl’s eyes were glazed over. Her breathing was erratic. Apple gently pressed her lips to the girl’s temple.
“Everything will be okay,” she murmured. “Let’s go.”
Darling slowly nodded. Apple helped her to her feet. They walked out of the bedroom, into the hallway. Apple grabbed the keys from the metal hanger.

She held the car door open for Darling, gently slamming it shut after she got in. She entered from the other door, turned her keys in the ignition, pushed on the brake, and they sped off. Apple held Darling’s hand the whole drive.

The two girls raced down the hospital hallway, the white walls blurring past them as they ran. Darling flung the waiting room door open, and they hurried in. Apple could see Raven curled in on herself in a gray metal chair, her entire body quaking with sobs. She ran forward, Darling at her heels. She dropped to her knees in front of the girl and reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Raven,” she said gently.

Raven unburied her face from her arms, reaching them outward.
“A-Apple,” she sobbed, leaning forward.
Apple hurriedly pulled the girl into her arms, wrapping them tightly around the girl. She gently guides her head to rest on her shoulder. Sobs resounded from Raven’s quivering frame, blaring in Apple’s ear like an emergency siren.

Apple held her close, soothingly rubbing her hand in circles along her back.
“Shhh, Raven. I’m here. It’s going to be alright. You’re gonna be okay. Shhh.”
She rocked her back and forth, softly cooing in her ear. Raven only responded with more sobs that echoed through the waiting room, bouncing off the blue walls.

Darling took a seat next to them. She sat stiffly, twisting her fingers together in her lap. Apple glanced over at her. She had to comfort Raven right now, she told herself. Raven was in a much more dire state.

 

Moments expanded into minutes and Raven continued to cry, her tears soaking through Apple’s sleeve, hot against her skin. Apple kept soothing the girl the best she could.
“I’m here, sweetie. Shhh, shhh. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere. Dexter’s gonna be okay. He’s going to be just fine. Shhhh.”

Eventually, Raven’s sobs reduced to hiccups and sniffles and she pulled herself up by fistfuls of Apple’s shirt. Apple reached out, stroking her thumb across her tear streaked cheeks. She brushed the hair away from her sticky face, tucking the locks behind her ears. Darling handed her a handful of tissues.
“Thank you, Darling,” Apple murmured.

Darling slowly nodded, her eyes still glazed over. Apple wiped away Raven’s tears with a tissue and helped her blow her nose. She then walked across the room, throwing the tissues in a wastebasket in the corner.

When she returned, she sat down in a chair between Raven and Darling. She placed a hand hesitantly on Darling’s tense shoulder.
“Are you alright?” she murmured.
“Yeah,” Darling softly replied.

Apple nodded, turning her attention back to Raven. The girls were different. Darling often needed space rather than affection. Raven, on the other hand, always needed affection and never needed space. Apple wrapped her arm around Raven’s shoulders. Raven sank into the embrace, her head falling upon Apple’s shoulder. She closed her eyes, sniffling.

Apple, for the first time since arriving, took notice of their surroundings. Other occupants of the waiting room looked at them, some with sympathy, others with annoyance. Some didn’t even seem to notice them. Apple sighed, closing her eyes. She stroked her fingers through Raven’s thick, dark locks.

Minutes of relative silence passed before the waiting room door opened. Ashlynn Ella walked in, her two year-old daughter, Willow, resting upon her hip. Her dirty blond hair was assembled in a high ponytail. Her large, forest green eyes were set forward, determined as she walked, her legs moving in long strides towards the girls.

“Have you heard anything?” she asked when she approached them, her voice soft, as always, but tight with anxiety.
Willow looked at her mother with wide green eyes. Her lips made an o shape, revealing a full set of shiny baby teeth in her small mouth. Her long dirty blond hair cascaded over her shoulders. Her pale, chubby cheeks had a faint rosy hue.

“No,” Apple replied quietly. “We’re just waiting.”
Ashlynn slowly nodded. She turned to Darling.
“Hey,” she said gently, “if it’s not too much trouble, can you please hold Willow for a few minutes? I’m going to go check on Hunter.”

For the first time that afternoon, Apple’s attention was turned to Hunter who was sitting on the other side of the room, slouched, his face in his hands. She’d been so fixated on Raven that she’d forgotten all about him. She shook her head at her own ignorance.
“Sure,” Darling replied, her voice soft.

She reached her arms out as Willow was handed to her. Darling held the toddler close, gently placing a kiss to the top of her head. Apple smiled. Seeing Darling interact with kids made her hopeful for the future. She shook her head again. Not now.

She turned her attention back to the other side of the room as Ashlynn sat beside Hunter, enveloping him in a hug. Apple gave a small, sad smile. Even though Ashlynn and Hunter had broken up years ago, right around the time of Willow’s birth, it was just in Ashlynn’s nature to be nurturing. She couldn't help but comfort somebody in distress. Her soothing qualities were part of what made her such a good mother.

Apple turned to Raven, who was still lying her head on her shoulder. She could feel her shaking. She wrapped her arm around the girl tighter.

As the minutes passed, Darling got up and began to pace in circles in front of them. Apple silently watched her for a moment. Before she could open her mouth to tell her to sit down, the waiting room door flew open, and in came Lance and Marie Charming in all their glory.

Lance walked, his head of blond hair held high. His clean shaven face shone in the eerie glow of fluorescent lights. His eyes were the exact shade of ice blue as Darling’s. His arm was wrapped protectively around his wife, Marie, whose long chestnut brown hair flowed down her back. The couple strode forward.

Darling sat back in the chair, her eyes wide with surprise and fear.
“Have you heard anything, Apple?” Marie demanded.
She looked directly at Apple, averting her gaze from Darling, whose eyes traveled over the floor. Apple’s stomach churned. Heat rose to her cheeks. She took a deep, shaky breath, schooling her features into a neutral expression.
“We haven’t heard anything, Your Majesty,” she calmly replied. “All we can do right now is wait.”

Marie flopped into a chair three seats down from Darling, burying her face in her hands. Lance sighed, running his hands over his face. He approached Darling, placing a large hand on her shoulder. Darling looked up at him, ice blue eyes meeting his.
“Hello, dear,” he said.
“Hi, Dad,” Darling muttered.
“Everything will he fine,” he assured her.

She nodded, though her eyes remained dull. He smiled weakly before sitting next to his wife and hugging her. She sobbed into his chest. Apple watched as Darling gripped her fingers together in her lap, her eyes cast towards the blue carpeted floor.

Apple reached out with the arm that wasn’t around Raven, grabbing the girl's hands. Darling’s eyes shot up, startled. Apple smiled gently at her. Darling wanly smiled back as Apple stroked her thumb over her knuckles.

A relative silence overcame the room before sobs again overtook Raven. Darling slipped her hand from Apple’s, motioning for her to tend to Raven. Apple nodded before turning and wrapping both arms around Raven. The girl buried her face in Apple’s chest, letting out choked sobs, muffled against the fabric of her shirt.

Apple ran her fingers through Raven’s hair with one hand, caressing her back with the other. She remained silent this time, the words seemingly drained out of her. She squeezed the girl tighter as the volume of her sobs increased. Tears seeped through her shirt as the minutes stretched slowly by.

The waiting room door burst open a few minutes later, and Daring and Rosabella quickly walked in. Daring was crying, tears dripping from his dark blue eyes, streaming down his pale cheeks. His straw blond hair swept down his neck, some of the locks matted to his tearstained face. Rosabella’s arm was wrapped around Daring’s back. Her long brown hair was pulled into a low-hanging ponytail, cascading down her back.

Apple uncurled her arms from around Raven and took Willow in her arms as Darling handed her over. Darling surged forward, her arms outstretched, as the couple approached. Daring rushed towards her, his arms wide. They met in the middle of the waiting room, quickly enveloping each other in an embrace.

They remained that way as minutes passed, Daring’s face pressed into Darling’s shoulder, crying silently. They separated after a few minutes, slowly walking back to the chairs. They sat beside each other, their arms around each other’s shoulders. Daring rested his head on Darling’s shoulder.

Rosabella sat down in the chair beside Daring. Apple held Willow close with one arm, reaching across to rub Raven’s shoulder with the other. Raven sobbed into her hands, her shoulders quaking. Apple worried her lip between her teeth as Willow began to fuss, squirming.
“Mommy,” she whined. “I want Mommy.”

Apple glanced over at Ashlynn, who was still comforting Hunter, an arm slung over his shoulders as he continued to shake with sobs.
“Shh, shhh,” Apple murmured. “It’s okay.”
She attempted to comfort both Raven and Willow. Her heart pounded. She leaned down, kissing the top of Willow’s head. Her lips lingered as she breathed in the toddler’s sweet scent.

In a couple minutes, Ashlynn left Hunter and walked over to where Apple and the rest of the group were sitting. Her shoulders were slumped.
“Hey,” she breathed. “I’ll take Willow. Thanks so much for watching her.”
“You’re welcome,” Apple replied tiredly.

“Is he okay?” Apple asked, her brows furrowing with concern as she glanced across the room at Hunter who seemed to be relatively calmer now.
Ashlynn gently sighed. She pulled a strand of hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear.
“Yeah,” she says softly. “He just feels bad. I guess Dexter didn’t even want to go dragon-riding, but Hunter insisted, and the, ” she sighed, “this h-happened.”

“Mama,” Willow said, reaching her arms out.
Apple gently kissed the little girl’s head before handing her back to Ashlynn.
“Hey, sweet girl,” Ashlynn murmured, propping Willow on her hip. “I take it you don’t feel like walking today.”
Willow looked around the room with wide, innocent eyes, blissfully oblivious to the situation.

“Well, it’s not his fault,” Apple said gently.
“I know.” Ashlynn sighed.
“Mama,” Willow whined. “I want to eat.”
“You’re hungry, baby?” Ashlynn asked, gently kissing her daughter’s forehead.
“Uh-huh,” Willow murmured, resting her head on her mother’s shoulder.

“You can go home and take care of Willow now, Ashlynn,” said Apple, her voice soft. “She’s looking pretty tired, and we’re all good here, or as good as we can be, in this situation.”
Ashlynn smiled gently.
“Okay,” she said.
She looked down at Willow whose eyelids were fluttering.
“Yeah, she didn’t go down for her nap today. She’s tired.”
“Yeah,” Apple said sympathetically. “Everything is fine here. You just go home and get Willow to bed. I’ll keep you updated.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Call me if you need anything!”
“Will do,” Apple replied. “Bye.”
“Bye.”

Apple turned to Raven who was sniffling and shuddering, her head heavy against her shoulder. She embraced the girl, gently pulling her head to lie on her chest. She leaned down, placing her own chin atop Raven’s head. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply. All they could do was wait.

Chapter Text

December 2, 2020 (day of Dexter’s accident)

As Apple sits, her arms wrapped around Raven, tears soaking her shirt, she closes her eyes, swept back in time to two years ago.

February 18, 2019

She sits in a cushioned chair in the hospital hallway, her fingers twisting together in her lap. She holds hands with Darling, who is sitting in the chair next to her. Darling looks down at the white tile floor, her platinum blond hair covering her face like a curtain. Raven sits on her other side, Dexter’s arms wrapped tightly around her. She lies on her head on his shoulder, still and silent. Her face is pale. Her eyes are bloodshot, ringed by purple circles.

Apple glances at the clock overhead. The black numbers blur against the blinding white backdrop. She needs her glasses. Squinting, she can just barely make out the time. It’s eight forty something.
“Eight forty three,” Darling whispers to Apple.
“Thanks,” Apple mutters.
She lets out a trembling breath.

They’ve been waiting for over three hours now, and still no news. She’s just about stood up to go talk to a nurse when Dr. Kent walks over, his silver spectacles reflecting the harsh fluorescent light.
“Raven,” Dexter murmurs.
Raven’s head shoots up. She jumps to her feet as Dr. Kent approaches. She walks across the hall to meet him. Dexter, Darling, and Apple quickly follow. They stand around him in a semi-circle as he nervously adjusts his glasses. He rearranges his clipboard before turning to Raven. His face is strained.

“Raven, dear,” he says gently.
Apple’s stomach contorts. Her breath goes still in her throat. She quickly glances over at Raven who is standing, stiff, her hands trembling at her sides.
“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Kent says. “We’ve done everything we can, but your father isn’t going to make it. He’s got two hours at best.”

Apple gasps. Her heart climbs into her throat, pounding hard. Raven immediately collapses to her knees. She hunches over, her fingernails digging into the tile floor. Dexter crouches down next to the girl, wrapping his arms around her.
“Would you like me to escort you to a more private area?” Dr. Kent asks softly.
“She’s having a panic attack,” Dexter worriedly announces.
“Thank you sir,” Apple replies, taking a deep breath to calm herself. “I don’t think we could get her there right now, though.”
“Of course,” he says. “I’ll leave you guys alone.”

He hurriedly walks away, his black shoes tapping against the floor.
Apple walks over to Dexter and Raven, her legs wobbly. She places a hand on Dexter’s shoulder. He nods his head, moving out of the way so Apple can kneel down beside Raven.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she murmurs in Raven’s ear.
Apple presses her lips to the top of the girl’s head. She closes her eyes, breathing in the scent of cinnamon.
“I’m right here. You’re going to be okay.”
Her voice is low and steady, as if coaxing a frightened animal out of hiding.

Gently, she pries Raven’s trembling hands away from her face and grips them firmly in her own.
She takes one look at the girl, the dark rings under her red, swollen eyes, the tears streaming down her soft, pale cheeks, the panic and fear contorting her features into an expression of pure agony that Apple has never seen on her friend before, or on anybody, really.

It frightens her, turning her insides to ice. She feels helpless. There’s nothing she can do to relieve Raven of the unbearable pain that she cannot only see in the girl’s face, but can feel coming off her in thick, dark waves. She takes a deep breath, collecting herself.
“Com’ere, baby,” she whispers.

Momentarily unwrapping her arm from the girl’s shoulders, she quickly re-situates herself, setting herself down beside Raven. Her heart pounds against her ribcage, as she delicately puts her arms around the girl’s heaving shoulders, pulling her in close.

She handles her carefully, as if she might break, shatter under the impact. Raven does, and it’s far more devastating than broken glass. She immediately crumbles under Apple’s hold, desperately throwing her arms around the blonde’s middle, holding onto her tightly, as if the girl is an anchor, the only thing within this raging sea that will keep her afloat. She seems to shrink into Apple’s arms, sinking deeper into the embrace like quicksand, until she’s curled in a fetal position, her face pressed against Apple’s chest.

She grips Apple’s blouse like a lifeline, her fingernails digging into the soft, red fabric. Apple holds the girl close, as a cacophony of sons resound from her, ringing in Apple’s ears, reverberating through her skull.They’re slightly muffled by Apple’s shirt, but are just as impactful as if they’d been yelled in an echoing cavern. Each strangled cry stabs more painfully at Apple’s heart, the white hot knife twisting into the tender muscle deeper and deeper. Raven’s frame quivers like a lone leaf mercilessly blown by gusts of wind. Her breath comes out in sharp, unarticulated gasps. And all Apple can do is squeeze her tighter and tighter against her own body, terrified that she’ll somehow shake apart. Crumble into dust-no different than the ashes her father will soon become.
Apple’s trembling hands caress Raven’s back. Up, down, up down, side to side, rubbing circles across her spine. Her lips lightly brush against the top of her head, peppering soft kisses along her scalp. She can taste the cinnamon. It dances along her tongue, a warm whiff of spice, her only pleasure in the midst of the carnage that surrounds her.

Raven gasps for air as the panic presses harder against her chest. She has never felt this level of fear before, the pure, unbridled terror coursing through her veins, turning her blood to ice. Her veins become numb, and the painfully sharp cold spreads throughout her body and into her chest. All she sees is darkness, inky hues of black, twisted and tangled together like vines. Thorny vines that relentlessly rip away layer upon layer of reality until she’s submerged under an icy current, blind, deaf, numb.

A painfully sharp wail the girl emits pricks Apple’s heart like a needle. Her maternal instincts kick in, and she begins to coo at the crying girl.
“Hey. Shhh, shhh. It’s alright, baby. It’s alright You’re gonna be okay. I’m here. I’m right here. I’ve got you. Shhhh.”
Like a mother soothing their newborn, she sways, slowly, side to side, side to side. She absently starts to hum, a low melody rising in the back of her throat, scarcely audible, but there. A tiny ripple on the surface of a dark expanse of ocean. Apple is barely aware of its presence, but some hidden nuance within the tone reaches the girl in her arms.

Raven’s mind begins to buzz, like static on a radio. Gradually, her thoughts start to move as the current slowly resumes its flow. Most of the ice recedes. Darkness is still there, but it doesn’t consume her anymore. She feels lighter, as if a leaden weight has been removed from her chest and has been replaced with light, fluffy air.

Smell is the first thing her hazy mind registers. Although her thoughts seem to be travelling through pools of syrup, she immediately identifies it. The smell of Apple. The scent of cherry blossoms, but also the girl’s natural odor, the one that Raven had hungrily inhaled as they lay in bed side by side one day in high school.

 

November 12, 2016 (beginning of junior year)

Apple’s eyes were closed. Light puffs of air exhaled from her pink lips. Raven lay next to her, flush against Apple’s warm body, breathing in the scent that seemed to emanate from the fair girl’s very pores. Apple had been having yet another emotional breakdown from stress about school. Raven had sat on the bed and held her close as the girl sobbed about how she’d gotten a B on a Kingdom Management hexam, how her mother, Queen Snow White, was going to be so incredibly disappointed in her.

Apple mumbled sleepily. Her eyes fluttered slightly. Her brow furrowed. She glanced down at the sleeping girl. Her face drew Raven in like a magnet. She couldn’t look away. She stared, her eyes wide, her mouth agape, at the round, pale face, the plump, pink lips, the thick, dark lashes framing the closed eyelids. A rosy hue covered her snowy white cheeks.

The only thing obstructing the perfect image was a blond ringlet that framed the girl’s face. Raven had a sudden urge to move it. Before she could wonder why, her hand reached out, slowly moving forward. Her breath caught in her throat as it tentatively rested upon Apple’s cheek. She tucked the lock of hair behind the girl’s ear, but her hand lingered. She stroked the girl’s cheekbone, a soft, white petal against her thumb. It’s smoother than she ever could have imagined it would be, like white silk, the most exquisite fabric money could buy.

Unconsciously, Raven’s head moved forward until Apple’s breath was hot upon her face. A scent wafted up her nostrils. She paused, trying to decipher it.
It's cherry blossoms, she realized after a moment.

It wasn’t until a few minutes later, when Apple stirred, that Raven was able to figure out the girl’s real scent, though. Not just the smell of her shampoo. Apple’s eyes fluttered open. The sudden presence of her bright blue irises was startling to Raven. She backed away slightly. Apple blearily gazed at her. She yawned.
“Raven,” she murmured sleepily. “What are you-” She yawned again, her hand instinctively rising to cover her mouth--”doing?”
She blinked languidly. Raven opened her mouth to reply, but her suddenly tight throat could emit no decipherable sound. Apple gave the girl a soft smile.
“Com’ere,” she mumbled, her arms motioning for Raven to lie down.

Raven blinked, pulling herself out of her stupor. Apple smiled, pulling the blanket aside to make room for the girl. Raven flopped down, slowly scooting herself over to lie a considerable distance from Apple. Not enough to be considered weird, but not close enough to be suitable for cuddling. Apple draped the blanket over Raven before snuggling closer to the girl. Before Raven knew what was happening, Apple wrapped her arms around Raven’s shoulders, pulling the girl tightly against her body.

This definitely qualifies as cuddling, Raven thought. Apple seemed to be enjoying it, though. She sighed contentedly, giving the girl a squeeze, tight, yet not suffocating. Raven found it to be perfect. She lied still for a few moments, stiff in the embrace, before finally deciding to give in. Apple’s body radiated warmth, and she hadn’t been held this way in
long. The last time anybody had cuddled her was when she was a little girl, no older than eight.

January 4, 2008
A thunderstorm had been raging outside, and Raven had cried out in fear. Panic had immediately coursed through her. What if her mother had heard her? She’d be outraged.
she’d say.
Thankfully, it was her father, the Good King, who had heard her yells and came to check on her. He’d entered Raven’s room to find her a blubbering mess. He’d taken one look at his sobbing daughter before lowering himself onto her small bed, lying down beside her. He’d embraced her.
“It’s okay,” he’d murmured. “It’s just a storm. Everything’s alright. Daddy’s right here.”
Raven had snuggled close to her daddy, pressing her face against his chest. He’d smelled like the woods, she remembered. He’d held her in his arms until she fell asleep. She’d woken up the next morning alone. But the storm was over.

November 12, 2016

That’s what Raven had done now. She'd buried her face in Apple’s chest, pressing herself as close to the girl as she could. Apple sighed appreciatively, squeezing her tighter. Raven closed her eyes, breathing in Apple’s scent. It wasn’t cherry blossoms anymore. She didn’t know what it was. It was something that humans couldn’t smell, she decided. Sunlight, rainbows, white, fluffy clouds. That’s what Apple smelled like. Endless possibilities stretching on the horizon, like a never-fading sunset. She inhaled the scent, greedily, desperately trying to soak it in, so it would stay with her forever. Even if Apple couldn’t.

February 18, 2019

Raven starts as she’s pulled from the memory. As she begins to comprehend the meaning of her senses again, she blinks. Something soft is pressed against her face. It’s preventing her from seeing, but her mind is still too fuzzy to possibly fathom what it could be. Sensation grows more and more acute as the moments pass. Arms are tightly holding her against something warm. A hand trails along her back, sending a slight shiver down her spine. Soft lips ghost along the top of her head, gently kissing her, again, again, again.

Raven doesn’t have to be in her right mind to know that the person is Apple. Nobody else can be so light and gentle, yet so warm and secure. Nobody else knows the exact right spot to rub her back. Nobody else would be humming in such a soft, sweet voice.
“A-Apple,” Raven chokes out, her voice cracking. Her throat is raw. “A-Apple,” Raven repeats.
“Shhh, Raven. I’m right here,” Apple murmurs. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Her voice is the most beautiful music Raven has ever heard. Raven squeezes her friend tightly, burying her face deeper into the fabric, where she can only smell the natural scent of the girl. No shampoo. No antiseptic. No death. Apple quickly reciprocates, giving the girl a tight squeeze. Her hand travels to Raven’s hair, where she begins to stroke the thick, dark tresses, like black silk between her white fingers.
“I’m right here, Raven,” she whispers into her ear. “I’m right here. You’re gonna be okay. I’ve got you.”
She speaks low and soothingly, but she can’t quite hide the slight wobble in her voice.

Raven gasps. “P-please n-never l-leave m-me,” she weeps.
She exhales, a ragged gasp that burns Apple’s lungs, just from hearing it.
“J-just a-always b-be th-th-there t-to h-ho-hold m-m-me a-and-” She breaks off, as sobs again consume her.
Apple hugs Raven tighter, if even humanly possible.
“Hush now, baby, hush,” she cooes. “I will always be there to hold you. I will never ever leave you. I promise.” Her voice is thick with emotion, yet every word is enunciated with such conviction that Raven instantly feels a surge of reassurance rush through her.

Apple pauses, breathing heavily. A tear drips from her eyelid, slowly tracing its way down her cheek.
“I love you too much to leave you,” she adds, her voice a hoarse whisper.
She leans down, pressing her lips to Raven’s temple. She shakily exhales. Raven feels a sudden surge of panic.
“My dad! I need to see him!” she exclaims.

She jerks out of the embrace, rising shakily to her feet. Apple stands up, taking her hands.
“Stay calm, Raven,” she soothes. “Dexter, can you go get Dr. Kent please?”
Without responding, he ran down the hallway.
“Come sit down for a moment,” she gently instructs.

She leads Raven over to the row of metal chairs. Raven’s legs wobble as she walks. Apple keeps her arm around the girl’s shoulders, steadying her. Raven flops into the chair, sitting, stiff, her jaw clenched, her left foot tapping impatiently against the floor. Apple grips her hand, gently squeezing. Darling sits on her other side. She takes Raven’s other hand. Her grip is stronger than Apple’s, but just as warm, just as grounding. Dexter slides on the white tile as he returns. He bends over, placing his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.
“Dr. Kent will take you to your father’s room,” he pants. “Here he is.”

Dr. Kent strides over. Raven stands, walking over to meet him. She turns around, slowly waving at her friends. They wave back. Just as she turns the corner, she thinks she hears a sob. She turns and sees Darling pulling Apple into her arms. She turns back around, continuing to follow Dr. Kent down the white-walled hallway. They come to a halt outside Room 224.
“Thank you,” Raven mutters.
Dr. Kent nods sullenly before turning on his heels and stalking away.

Raven breathes deeply before walking into dimly lit room. Scenes flash on a television screen, but no sound emits from the black box. Raven slowly approaches the bed where her father lies, disturbingly skinny, his sallow cheeks holding a greenish-gray hue. A mass of wires hooked to machines connects to him. A tube is trailing down his throat. Green lines rapidly move up and down on a black screen. A steady beeping rhythm fills the still air.

Raven moves forward, setting herself down in a gray chair beside the bed. Her father’s bald head glistens in the moonlight pooling through the window. His eyes slowly open, twinkling blue orbs travelling around the room until they rest on her. He tries to speak through the tube in his throat, but all that he can emit is a garbled, strangled noise from deep within his throat. Raven reaches out, gripping her father’s cold, bony hand. She scoots her chair closer.
“Shhhh. It’s alright, daddy,” she murmurs. “You don’t have to talk. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.”
He relaxes, a faint smile gracing his gaunt face. Raven squeezes his hand. She clears her throat, swallowing down a sob.
“It’s almost summer,” she says, her voice low. “Four more months, and we can go visit Cedar and Pinnochio.”

She pauses, reaching a hand up to swipe across her eyes. She can’t cry right now. She sniffs.
“We’ll take your boat and sail across the blue water together.” She closes her eyes, envisioning her words. “We’ll play card games together, like Canasta. I’ll always try to go out concealed, and you’ll always win.”
A laugh bubbles in her throat, coming out more like a sob. Her father smiles warmly, squeezing her hand back weakly. Raven can feel his pulse slowly beating beneath his skin.
“And we’ll play our guitars around the campfire together,” she continues, her voice raw. “We’ll play ‘Stars Like You’ as a duet together, and we’ll sing, our voices melding together in perfect harmony.” She shakes her head, squeezing her eyes shut. “You know we were made to sing together, right, Dad?” she asks. Her voice cracks.

He slowly nods, his head scarcely lifting off the white pillow, as his head lolls back and forth. Raven sniffs. Her eyes burn like flames, but her face is dry. She reaches down, stroking the pads of her thumbs over his cold, pale cheekbones. His eyes gaze at her, blue as forget-me-nots.
“I love you,” she breathes, her hot breath washing over his face.
She leans over, brushing her lips against his forehead. Her lips linger, as she inhales his woodsy scent, for the last time.

A high-pitched beeping pierces the air. Raven slowly opens her eyes. Her father’s eyes are wide. His pulse is slowing beneath his skin. Raven’s heart crashes in her chest.
“Dad!” A hoarse wail erupts from her chest. “Daddy!”
She leans down, kissing his forehead frantically, over and over again.
Please let true love's kiss work the way it's supposed to, just this once, she thought desperately.
His pulse continues to lengthen, though. The numbers on the black screen lower. As a blue 0 lights up the screen, an alarm blares. Voices fill the room. Raven continues to pepper him with kisses, his temple, his nose, his cheeks.

She doesn’t know how much time passes before she feels a large, cold hand on her shoulder.
“Ms. Queen,” a man murmurs. “He’s gone.”
The next moments register in flashes. She’s guided back down the hallway, the reflection of fluorescent lights against white walls blinding. She feels warm arms folded around her. She can hear a heart rapidly beating, as she lies her head against somebody’s chest. She hears the motor of a car start. She can’t see a thing.

 

February 27, 2019

Raven sat, slumped, in the black chair before the computer. Her eyes ached from the glare of the screen. Se winced at a sudden burst of pain that radiated through her cramped neck. Resting an elbow upon the oak table, she allowed her eyelids to slip closed. She stroked her thumb in circles along her temple, silently willing the splitting headache to recede. Tiredness washed over her in fuzzy blackness before her shut eyelids. A wave of dizziness, bleary and white, overcame her. She could feel her head slowly slipping from its position in her hand, lower and lower and- just before it hit the table, she snapped her head up. She yawned, rubbing her knuckles across her eyes.
“I can sleep after the funeral,” she murmured to herself.

She shook her head from side to side, hoping to relieve the heavy grogginess pressing against her skull, but to no avail. The sleepiness remained draped over her like a thick blanket.
“Okay,” she muttered. “What do I need to do now?”
She clicked the mouse, exiting out of her e-mail. She’d just sent a message to a catering company, the same one that had catered at Rosabella and Daring’s wedding.
“Alright, I need to get napkins and paper plates for the food.”
She picked up a pen, scrawling it upon her list. No ink appeared upon the white paper. She furiously scratched, adding more and more pressure until the point of the pen stabbed a hole in the paper. She cursed, throwing the pen onto the floor. Her hands trembled.
“Calm down,” she chided.

She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She relaxed slightly, as her lungs filled with oxygen. Her head felt clearer now, like scribbles of ink had been removed, and it was now a blank slate. A sudden thought occurred to her.
“I should get the plates and napkins in Dad’s favorite color, which is…”
Her voice trailed off. Wait a second...Dad’s favorite color. The oxygen was sucked from her, like a flame had been lit within her lungs. Her heart began to pound, crashing against her ribcage. The computer blurred, the whiteness of the screen fading. All she could could see were the typed words becoming one large, black blob that swayed before her. Numbness seeped throughout her legs, all the way up her thighs.

The only sound she could hear was her own shuddering breath gasping in her ears. She was unaware of any time passing before she felt a warm hand rest upon her shoulder, and everything zoomed back into focus.
Her head sluggishly turned to see Apple standing beside her, concern etched upon her delicate features.
“Raven,” she breathed, her voice scarcely above a whisper. “Why don’t you come lie down?”
Raven opened her mouth to speak, but her throat closed up. All she could emit was a strangled sound that seemed to worry Apple even more. She slid an arm around Raven’s shoulders.
“Breathe, Raven,” she urged gently.
Raven stared at Apple, gazing intently into her cerulean orbs.

They're so beautiful, she thought, her voice distantly echoing in her head.
The blue evoked a sense of peacefulness, yet strength. She focused more and more closely on the eyes until all she could see was blue. Until she was floating on an expanse of glittering sea, her eyes closed, her chest rising and falling in rhythm with the gentle waves.
“Raven.”

The softly uttered word sweeped Raven back to the present. She could suddenly see all of Apple again, the mane of curly blond hair tumbling over her shoulders, her round, pale face, her rosy cheeks, her light pink lips, her creased brow. Placing her hand on her chest, she realized she was breathing again. Her vision sharpened as the oxygen reached her brain. She looked up at Apple.
“I don’t know my Dad’s favorite color,” she croaked.
She felt as if she’d been punched in the gut as the words left her mouth. She shakily exhaled. Apple reached out, gently tucking a stray lock of hair behind Raven’s ear.
“Come lie down with me,” said Apple, her voice calm and inviting.

She held out her hands. Raven allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. She nearly collapsed as she stood, her legs numb from hours of sitting. Apple wrapped her arm around Raven’s shoulders, securely holding her in place. Slowly, she guided her to the bed across the room. Raven climbed in, Apple following right behind her. Apple set herself down, criss cross applesauce, next to the girl. She scooted, situating herself to sit against the wall. She patted her lap, smiling gently at Raven. Raven took the silent invitation. She lay on her side beside Apple, slowly resting her head on the girl’s lap. She shifted into a comfortable position, then lay still.

She sighed relievedly as Apple began to caress her forehead, her fingers gently massaging at the site of the headache. Raven closed her eyes, finally allowing herself to relax. Apple’s fingers were soft and warm, and man-where had she learned to massage like this? Quiet minutes passed. The only audible sound was Raven’s deep breathing as she relished the sensation of Apple’s tender strokes. Gradually, the terrible throbbing in Raven’’s head reduced to a mild twinge. She opened her eyes slightly, gazing blearily up at Apple, who stared straight ahead, a thoughtful expression on her face.
”I mean, I know your favorite color,” Raven1 muttered, breaking the long-lasting stretch of silence that had enveloped the room.

Apple whipped her head around to look at Raven. She gave the girl a soft smile.
“Yeah, light green like a tasty sour Granny Smith apple” Apple said, her tone light.
She mentally cursed herself. Why would she use humor at a time like this? Raven was devastated. She needed to say something encouraging. She sighed. Her stomach swarmed with butterflies. Her heart thumped, pounding in her throat. Why was she so nervous?

Slowly, Raven’s facial muscles turned up, a faint smile briefly replacing the sheen of darkness that had recently shrouded her pale features.
Apple shakily exhaled, releasing a breath she hadn’t been aware she was holding. Raven had smiled for the first time in weeks. It was small, pained, fleeting, but it was a smile. The leaden weight that had been pressing gradually harder against Apple’s stomach for the past three weeks suddenly lightened. She allowed herself to smile, too, if only for a moment.

Raven’s face quickly darkened again, though, the reality of her situation weighing her down again.
“No,” she murmured. “I know your favorite color is red. Red like a Red Delicious apple. Cerise’s is red, too. Dexter’s favorite color is blue, as is Maddie’s and Darling’s.”
She paused, sucking in a lungful of air. Apple gazed at her, her lips slightly parted. Raven’s tangled hair surrounded her face like a silky, purple curtain. The girl released a tremulous sigh before continuing.
“Briar’s favorite color is pink-hot pink, to be exact. Ashlynn’s is green. And so is Hunter’s. See? I know all the details of my friends’ color preferences. I never bothered to learn my dad’s, though.” Her voice broke.

She bit down on her lower lip, kneading the flesh between her front teeth. Her brows furrowed. Tears welled in her eyes. Apple sat, frozen, her eyes glued to the girl. She stared as droplets of blood formed on Raven’s lip, slowly dribbling onto her chin. Apple sighed, willing herself to move. She grabbed a tissue from the light blue box on the bedside table. Bending over, she dabbed at the spots of blood, gently applying pressure. After a few moments, she threw the bloodstained tissue to the end of the bed. She sighed softly, desperately racking her brain for something comforting to say.
“It’s okay, Raven,” she murmured. “You loved your dad so much. I mean, what his favorite color was is trivial in the grand scheme of things. You took care of your dad when he needed you most. You showed him so much love and compassion. You are an amazing daughter, Raven.”

She gripped the girl’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Raven smiled warmly, despite the tears pooling amongst the glowing purple in her eyes. She sniffled.
“Thanks, Apple,” she whispered hoarsely. “That means a lot.” She cleared her throat before continuing. “I know it doesn’t mean I’m a bad daughter. I’m just really sad that I’ll never get to know. I’ll never ever get the chance to ask him.”
Her voice grew gradually more hushed throughout the sentence until the last word was scarcely audible. Raven squeezed her eyes shut, knowing there was nothing she could do to block the flow of her tears. They burned, pressing painfully against her eyelids. A choked sob burst from her throat, followed by more hot tears that trailed down her cheeks like streams of hot lava. She threw her arms tightly around Apple’s waist, weeping into her lap.

Apple’s heart clenched. Tears pricked at her eyelids. Gently, she stroked Raven’s hair, like black silk between her fingers. She stayed silent, forcing herself not to speak, as sobs continued to rack the girl’s frame. She knew Raven had been withholding her emotions the past few days as she feverishly planned her dad’s funeral, so she kept quiet, letting her cry without interference. She continued running her fingers through the cinnamon-scented tresses, breathing deeply as the smell wafted to her nose.

After about ten minutes, Raven’s crying gradually began to cease. Her erratic breathing slowed to quiet gasps. The sobs reduced to hiccups and sniffles. She slowly rolled over to lie on her back. She gazed up at Apple, her face slick with tears. Apple thought the redness of her eyes was a beautiful contrast to the purple irises. As she blinked,her tear-laden lashes glistened, flashing nearly silver in the reflective beams of moonlight pouring through the window. Apple reached down, gently cupping Raven’s wet cheeks. She stroked her thumbs across the cheekbones, wiping away the trails of tears. As she finished, she reached down, tenderly pressing her lips to Raven’s forehead. They lingered, as she breathed in the warm scent of spice. She pulled away after a moment, slowly sliding her tongue across her chapped lips.

Raven, grabbing a fistful of Apple’s wrinkled shirt, hoisted herself into a sitting position. Apple quickly reached over to the nightstand, grabbing a handful of tissues. She pressed them into Raven’s hand. Raven blinked at the sudden contact, as if coming out of a trance. She shook her head.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, her voice soft and hoarse.
“You’re welcome,” Apple replied sweetly, reaching out a hand to rub Raven’s shoulder.

Apple looked away as Raven blew her nose. She gazed across the room at the milky moonlight pooling on the tile floor. As silence fell over them, Apple turned her head. Raven sat, her shoulders hunched, her eyes glazed, the tissue limp in her hand. Apple winced with sympathy. The poor girl was exhausted. She reached down to grab the wastebasket at the foot of the bed. She held it in front of Raven.
“Here,” she said softly.
Raven glanced up, the cloudiness fading from her eyes. She flicked her wrist, tossing the tissue into the can.

Apple bent down, gently setting the wastebasket on the floor. She turned to see Raven sitting, her elbows resting upon her thighs, her cheeks cupped in her hands. Her eyes flickered, rapidly shifting between open and closed.
Apple placed her hands on Raven’s shoulders.
“Come here,” she murmured.

Sitting with her back against the wall again, she reached out, opening up her arms. Raven crawled across the bed towards Apple. Her body dropped, the girl slumping into Apple’s arms. Apple encircled her arms around her, holding her tightly. With one hand, she cradled her head against her chest. With the other, she trailed her fingers along the girl’s back. Apple closed her eyes, resting her cheek atop the girl’s head.

Minutes of peaceful silence passed. Raven grew gradually heavier in Apple’s arms, sinking deeper and deeper into the embrace. A sudden thought that popped into Apple’s head was on the tip of her tongue before she could even process it.
“Raven, isn’t your favorite color purple?” Apple asked quietly.
Raven shifted slightly in Apple’s arms.
“No,” she murmured against Apple’s chest. “It used to be, but it changed. It’s blue now.”
“Really?” Apple asked, genuinely curious. “Wow. I always assumed it had stayed purple. What made it change?”
“Your eyes,” Raven replied simply.

Apple’s breath caught in her throat. Her stomach fluttered dizzyingly.
“My-my eyes?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
Raven turned her head, gazing up at Apple.
“Yeah,” she breathed. “They’re beautiful. Absolutely gorgeous. Cerulean, I think the color is. They remind me of the ocean, calm and peaceful, but at the same time, mysterious and formidable.”

Sweltering heat simmered in Apple’s stomach, rising into her chest. Her head buzzed, like an emergency alert on the radio.She wondered fuzzily how Raven could still be so articulate when she was this exhausted. Her hands started to numb, but she held them tighter around the girl, refusing to let them fall. She let out a trembling sigh.
Raven buried her face in Apple’s chest again. Apple squeezed the girl tightly, holding her close against her warm body. The silence returned, thicker this time, lingering with passion that hung heavily in the air.

Moments transitioned to minutes before Apple finally opened her mouth, daring to convey what she thought to be true.
“You know, Raven,” she said huskily, “I think your dad’s favorite color was purple.”
Her heart crashed like a cannon in her head, as the girl in her arms remained still and silent. Moments passed, and Apple felt that she ought to open her mouth and say more, when Raven shifted in her arms, turning her head around to look up at Apple. A wisp of a smile fluttered like fairy wings over her face. Her purple orbs glistened in the dim light.
“I think so, too, Apple. I really do.”

Chapter Text

Present Time (December 2, 2020)

The sound of Raven’s sobs becomes a low buzz droning in the back of her head as the hours pass by. Darling sits, shoulders slumped, gazing downwards. The carpet is a blur of blue fuzz. A cold draft blows through the room. She shudders, wrapping her arms around her chest. Only when she feels a soft tap on her left shoulder does she slowly glance up. Apple is smiling softly at her.
“The doctor’s here, sweetheart,” she says.

Darling shoots to her feet as a surge of panic rushes through her. Apple takes Raven’s hands, helping her stand. The girl’s eyes are red. Her entire frame trembles. A gray-haired man in a long white lab coat stands before them, eyeing a clipboard in his hands. His blue eyes twinkle behind his silver glasses as he looks at them.
“Good evening, maam’s,” he says kindly. “I’m Dr. Pine. What are you lady’s names?”

Darling wants to scream. She just wants to know what the hell is going on with her brother! Apple takes her hand, squeezing. Darling closes her eyes, trying to draw strength from Apple’s grip. She breathes deeply. Her mind clears as the oxygen reaches her brain.

She clears her throat before looking up and plastering on a smile.
“Hello, sir. My name is Darling Charming. This is Apple White and Raven Queen.” She motions to the two girls.
“Hello,” Apple says politely.
Raven remains silent, gazing at Dr. Pine expectantly. Tears glisten in her eyes.
“Hello Raven, Apple, and Darling,” says Dr. Pine. “Now, I’d like to discuss Dexter’s condition with you.”

Darling nods fervently. Her stomach twists itself into knots. She breathes heavily as flashes of heat overcome her. She plants her feet firmly on the ground. She digs her nails into her palm. Her heart pounds in her ears.

Just then, Marie, Lance, Daring, and Rosabella who had gone down to the castleteria re enter the waiting room. Seeing the doctor, they hurry over.
“Doctor!” Lance booms. He clears his throat, then says in a much softer tone, “How is Dexter?”
Marie stands off to the side, her legs crossed. She keeps her gaze determinedly averted from Darling, looking only at Dr. Pine. Daring stands still, tears swimming in his eyes. Rosabella holds his hand.
“Well, Dexter did well in surgery,” Dr. Pine says.

Immediately, the lead in Darling’s stomach is replaced by a gust of calm air. Her jaw unclenches, and she can suddenly breathe right again. Her vocal cords unconstrict, and oxygen easily passes through. She closes her eyes, letting out a sigh of relief.
“Unfortunately, though-”

Immediately, Darling’s stomach clenches. Her throat tightens. Her hands curl into fists at her sides.
“Dexter suffered extreme trauma to his brain. We were able to stop the bleeding, but it went on long enough that much damage may have been done.”

Marie cups her hand over her mouth, muffling the sobs that rack her petite frame. Lance wraps his arm around his wife’s shoulder. His face contorts as he struggles to hold back his emotions. Raven weeps helplessly, her hands over her face. Apple’s arms encircle her shoulders.

The girl keeps shooting concerned glances at Darling, who continues to stand still, her eyes focused, as Dr. Pine continues to speak.
“He’s in what we believe to be a coma now, so we won’t have any way of knowing how extensive the damage is. Memory loss is definitely a possibility.”

He stops, breathing deeply. Deep sadness is held within the sky blue orbs. Darling’s legs tremble. Her entire body feels numb. She opens her mouth to speak, but no sound comes out. Raven’s sobs are the only sound that shatters the thick, still air. Apple is the first to speak up.
“Can we see him?” Her voice is steady.

Dr. Pine slowly shakes his head. Darling resists the urge to scream. She clenches her teeth, biting down on her lower lip until the metallic tang of blood enters her mouth. Tears swim in her eyes, but she won’t let them fall. Won’t let them trail down her cheeks. Not in front of her mother. Not in front of the doctor. Not when Dexter needs her to be strong for him.

She breathes deeply, blowing a puff of air from her thick, peach-colored lips.
“I’m so sorry,” Dr. Pine says, his voice shaky. He takes a deep breath before cautiously asking, “Is there anything I can do for you folks?”
Darling doesn’t trust herself to speak, but she clears her throat timidly and speaks up anyways.
“No, sir. You’ve already done so much for us.” Her words come out surprisingly smooth. Her soft, rich voice flows like a calm stream through the air.
“Well, I’m glad I could help you guys,” Dr. Pine says, smiling. “I’ve gotta go now. I’ll keep you updated, folks.”

He strides away. And Darling is left standing, feeling like all the oxygen has been sucked from her. Marie is dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Lance is looking at the floor, his eyes squeezed shut. Apple is hugging a hysterical Raven. Daring is sitting down, his hands over his face. Rosabella has her arms wrapped around his shoulders.

 

Darling startles as she feels a tap on her shoulder. She whips her head around to see her father smiling sadly at her. She must have zoned out.
“Your mom and I are going to head out, dear,” he says, his voice strained. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Dad,” Darling croaks, her voice suddenly choked with emotion.

He gathers her into a hug. She melts into the embrace, burying her face in his broad chest. He rubs her back, holding her close. Then, with a kiss on the head, he gently pulls away. Darling glances over with brimming eyes to see her mother already standing by the door. She’s tapping her foot against the tile. Her arms are crossed.
“Goodbye, sweetheart,” Lance murmurs.
“Goodbye, Dad,” Darling whispers.

He walks over to join Marie, and with a slamming door and hurried footsteps, they’re gone. Darling stands, motionless, staring into the distance. She starts as a gentle hand is set on her back. Apple places her chin on Darling’s shoulder.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she whispers in her ear. She brushes her lips against the side of her head. “What do you think about going to the castleteria and getting something to eat?”

A long moment stretches between the girls before Darling quietly answers.
“Okay.”
Apple rubs her back.
“Okay,” she says. “I’m going to go get Raven.”

When she returns, she has her arm around a relatively calmer Raven. Darling still sees the occasional shudder rip through the girl’s body, but at least the heartwrenching sobs have ceased.
“Let’s go,” Apple says.
The three girls exit the waiting room and walk through the bare white hallway.
“Let’s stop by the restroom,” Apple suggests, as they approach the wide, gray door.
Darling holds the door open.
“Thank you, Darling,” Apple says, as she and Raven walk through.
“You’re welcome,” Darling quietly replies.

She leans against the blue tiled wall, as Apple leads Raven over to a sink. She wets a paper towel under the faucet. Reaching up, she gently wipes it around Raven’s swollen, tearstreaked face. She hums under her breath as she works. She then grabs another paper towel, which she hands to Raven.
“Blow,” she murmurs.

The noise of Raven blowing her nose echoes across the bathroom. Darling shudders. She’s always hated that sound.
“Good girl,” Apple croons, as she hands her another, discarding the used one.
Darling can’t ignore the glimmer of happiness that shines through the murky gray shrouding her mind. Seeing Apple’s motherly instincts in play always makes Darling think of the future. A future where kids are definitely a possibility.

The gray instantly clouds over again. The heaviness in her gut intensifies, and her thoughts begin to race. Dexter. Dexter in critical condition. Dexter might die. Her stomach twists, and for a second, she thinks about running into a stall and vomiting. She closes her eyes, breathing deeply through her nose.

Only when a gentle hand takes hers do they blink open. Apple is smiling sadly at her. She reaches out, tucking a stray lock of hair behind Darling’s ear.
“Come on, baby,” she murmurs. “Let’s go get something to eat.
Apple, holding Darling’s hand with her left and Raven’s with her right, exits the bathroom.

XXX

 

Raven sits at the table and sobs. Tears drip into the heap of mashed potatoes below. Apple sits next to her in the booth, holding her hand. Darling sits on Apple’s other side, stirring her spoon through the helping of applesauce.
“Come on, sweetheart,” Apple murmurs. “You’ll feel better if you get something in your tummy.”
“No!” Raven wails. “I won’t feel better until I know Dexter is okay!”

She plops her head down on the table, bursting into loud sobs. Apple rubs her back, looking more concerned than Darling has ever seen her. Darling shakily brings the spoon to her mouth. As she swallows, the applesauce feels like a brick in her throat. She gulps. Apple glances concernedly at her. Darling waves her hand.
“I’m fine.”

XXXX

 

“I’m fine” is the same thing she utters when they settle back down on the cushioned chairs in the waiting room. Rosabella and Daring have gone home. The three girls are alone. Apple’s heavy gaze lingers, but she soon turns around again to tend to Raven. Darling sits, hunched, her elbows jutting into her knees, chin placed under a hand.

She rubs her temple, wincing at the fluorescent light glaring down at her. She wipes a hand under her nose, grimacing at the burn of antiseptic in her nostrils. She whips her head up as she hears Dr. Pine’s voice. He’s smiling brightly. She springs to her feet. Her heart races in her chest. Her pulse throbs in her neck.
“Hello ladies,” Dr. Pine says.
“Hello, sir,” Apple replies, her arm around a trembling Raven.
“I’m delighted to announce to you ladies that Dexter is much more stable now. His oxygen levels are up, and his heart rate is a lot more steady. He may have visitors now, one at a time for now, please.”

Darling’s heart soars. She can’t resist the upturning of her cheekbones, as a glowing smile graces her pale features. She turns to Apple and Raven.
“Y-you g-go f-first, D-Darling,” Raven stutters.
Darling gives her shoulder a pat.
“Thanks, Raven,” she murmurs.

She follows Dr. Pine down the hallway and up a flight of stairs. She hurries past doctors and nurses down a white-walled hallway, her heart pounding furiously. As soon as Dr. Pine leads her into the dimly lit room, though, the excitement recedes.

Lying motionless on a bed, hooked to tangles of trailing wires, is Dexter. His gaunt face is purple with bruises and covered in bloody scratches. His nose is twisted sideways, as if it had been crushed. A white bandage is wrapped around his head. Brown tresses peek out, plastering themselves to the pale, sweaty forehead. His eyes are closed. Darling’s hand unconsciously moves to her mouth.

She feels frozen in time, standing still, staring at her injured brother. Her heart thumps in her ears, clanging against the side of her head. Her stomach writhes around inside of her. Her numb fingers trace along her cheeks. They’re wet, streaked with hot tears. She runs. Her legs are jelly, but she races towards the bed. Her vision spirals as she stands beside Dexter.

She reaches into the spinning tunnel to take his hand. It’s cold and heavy against her small, warm palm. She shudders.
“Dexter,” she breathes.
All she can see is his pale, bloodied face, his chalk white hand in hers, blurring in and out of focus.
“Dexter,” she repeats.

The tube coming out of his mouth zooms into her vision. She can see it winding its way down his throat, trailing into his esophagus. She breathes rapidly. With a trembling sigh, she plops down into a chair. She sits there, squeezing Dexter’s hand tightly, trying to warm the clammy skin.
“Dexter,” she murmurs, tucking a stray lock of brown hair behind his ear. “I’m here.”
Her breath ghosts along the shell of his ear. His eyelids are unmoving.

She sits, staring with glazed eyes at her brother’s motionless form. Moments or minutes or hours could’ve passed when a warm hand touches her shoulder. She slowly turns around. Dr. Pine swims into focus, the images of Dexter receding.
“Come with me, dear,” he says kindly. “It’s been ten minutes. Visiting time is up. I’m sorry.”

His lined face is etched with deep sadness. Darling shakes her head. She clears her throat.
“Thank you, sir,” she says quietly.
She stands on wobbly legs to follow Dr. Pine away from Dexter and back to the waiting room.

 

XXX

 

Darling faintly registers when she reenters the waiting room that Briar is now sitting in Apple’s place. Raven is slumped, her head on her shoulder, her eyes shut. Apple is sitting on a chair next to Briar. Her gaze is tilted downward. She worries her lower lip between her teeth. When she sees Darling, her face lights up. She waves. Darling wearily waves back.

She takes a seat next to Apple. Immediately, she hunches over in the chair. Apple wraps her arms around Darling’s shoulders. Darling sinks into the embrace, her head falling defeatedly upon Apple’s shoulder. Apple brushes the loose strands of hair back from Darling’s sweaty face, then continues to run her fingers through the tangled platinum blond locks.

She’s silent for a moment, then proceeds to ask in a soft, cautious tone, “How are you holding up, sweetheart?” She gives Darling’s forehead a soft peck. Darling feels a tug in her gut as the words come pouring out of her like rain.
“Not great,” she replies, her voice choked. “My brother may never wake up, and even if he does, he’ll most likely never be the same. I don’t know what to do. There’s nothing I can do. I can’t save him.” Her voice cracks. “Some hero I am.”

Apple gently squeezes Darling. She gently presses her lips to her forehead. This time, she lets them linger for a moment, thoroughly inhaling the sweet scent of vanilla that perpetually resides within Darling’s pores before gently pulling away.

“You’re the most amazing hero I’ve ever laid my eyes upon, Darling,” Apple says softly into Darling’s ear. “There’s nothing heroic you could’ve done to save Dexter. That dragon he was riding was going to crash no matter what. No hero could’ve done anything. Dexter does have a hero, though, and you know who that hero is? It’s you. Who’s here for Dexter right now? Who talked to the doctors and made sure he’s getting the best medical care possible? Who believes in him so strongly that she won’t let any cynical doctors tell her he won’t make it? Who has faith that he will, even though the odds may be betting against us? Who’s going to be right there beside him until he wakes up? And when he does wake up, who’s going to be with him every step of the way through all the challenges he’ll inevitably encounter? Who is brave, loving, strong, and loyal? The answer to all of these questions is you, Darling. Just by being here, taking care of what needs to be taken care of, fighting hard, and never giving up is what makes you the hero you are. Dexter is beyond blessed to have a sister and hero like you, who will never stop believing in him and fighting for him. And I’m the most fortunate girl in the world to have a girlfriend who I can always count on, who I know will be there for me, and everybody else who needs her. You are the most brilliant friend, lover, sister, and hero that I know, Darling. I love you so much, and I never want you to doubt how exceptional you are.”

Breathing heavily after her long speech comes to a sudden stop, Apple looks at Darling who is biting her lip, her eyes swimming with unshed tears. Apple kisses the top of Darling’s head. Darling suddenly jerks out of the embrace and turns to Apple, who is looking at her with concern.
“I need to use the restroom. Excuse me.”

She jumps out of her chair and strides out of the waiting room, her arms swinging furiously at her sides. She walks, her head down, through the hallway. The white walls blur around the edges of her vision as she hurries past. The scent of antiseptic burns her nose. She quickly walks in the direction of the restrooms, remembering where they are from her time spent here during the death of Raven’s father.

As she bustles by, she bumps shoulders with somebody. She can’t see who it is through the tears blurring her vision, and she doesn’t care. It could be a homeless person, or the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company. When tragedy strikes, we’re all in the same place.

She pushes the bathroom door open with her shoulder. Inside, the harsh glow of fluorescent light reflects off the white sinks. The smell of bleach tickles her nose. She stands, clutching the edge of a sink, her knuckles white. She breathes heavily, her shoulders hunched under the crippling weight that presses upon her spine. A low buzz fills the still, heavy air.

She glances up to the mirror, eyeing the figure staring back at her. The pale face, half illuminated, in the room’s artificial glow. The sunken eyes, ringed by dark circles. The shroud of tangled platinum blond tresses. Her shallow breath echoing in her head. Her rapid heartbeat pounding in her ears.
These are the only sounds her hazy mind registers until the sound of Apple’s heels click along the tile floor. Her girlfriend comes into view in the smudged mirror.
“Darling.” Her voice is soft.

Tears press against Darling’s eyes like a hot iron. She squeezes them shut, gripping the sink harder. Her entire hand is white. She bites down on her lower lip until droplets of blood form, but to no avail. The sob pushes its way up her throat. She bows her head, looking into the white basin, as a pained whimper forces its way out.

She clenches her teeth, but more sobs follow, emitting from her throat like a dull blade. Her shoulders quiver.
“Oh, Darling.” Apple’s voice is laced with such sadness, such genuine empathy for her girlfriend, Darling finds even more wails bursting forth.
“Sweetheart.”

Apple rushes forward, grabbing a paper towel from the dispenser. She walks over to a sink, wetting it under the faucet. She then gently wipes Darling’s face. Darling closes her eyes, savoring the cool water against her hot, sweaty cheeks. As Apple draws the towel away, she places a kiss to Darling’s temple. Darling let out a strangled sob.
“Shhh, baby.”

She walks away, throwing the towel in the trash can before walking back over to Darling and wrapping her arms around her. Darling allows Apple to draw her into an embrace. She buries her face in her shoulder, breathing in the scent of apples.

Apple holds her tight, rubbing her back, as she lets out choked out sobs against the fabric.
“I’m here, baby,” Apple whispers, her face pressed against her hair. She brushes her lips across the side of her head. “I’m right here.”

Slowly, Apple sways from side to side. She continues to hug the girl, letting her cry, until her arms go numb and her legs wobble. She kisses the top of her head.
“Let’s go sit down, sweetie,” she murmurs.
Darling pulls away, lifting her red, tear streaked face from Apple’s soaked shoulder.
“Here, let’s go back to the waiting area, sweetheart.”

Darling is too exhausted to even care if people see her as Apple guides her through the halls. Tears stream freely down her cheeks as she leans into her girlfriend who’s holding her close as they slowly walk. Darling can barely see through the veil of tears, but she hears the opening and slamming of a door as they enter the waiting room.

“Here, the seats don’t have arms separating them here, so you can lie down,” Apple murmurs.
She slowly leads Darling forward and helps her sit down on the cushioned seat.
“Here, let me dry your eyes,” says Apple, her voice soft.

Apple gently wipes away Darling’s tears with a tissue. Darling blinks, looking around with blurry eyes. She squints, the fluorescent lights creating a dull ache behind her eyelids. Only a few people remain, sitting in chairs around the large room. In the chairs across from them, Raven and Briar are asleep. Raven’s face is pressed against Briar’s shoulder, and Briar’s cheek rests atop Raven’s head.

 

“Here.”
Apple pats her lap.
“Just lie your head on my lap and stretch out as much as you want. Nobody else has to sit in these seats right now.”
Darling obeys her girlfriend, lying down on her back across the cushioned chairs and resting her head on Apple’s lap.

It’s not the most comfortable position, but as Apple begins to run her fingers through her hair, a soft, pleasant sensation drapes over her.
“Just go to sleep, my love,” Apple whispers. “I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Darling releases a trembling sigh, nuzzling her face against Apple’s lap.

The last thing Darling registers before she drifts off is Apple’s soft voice
“I love you, baby,” Apple whispers. “I love you so very much.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

December 3, 2020

Dapples of light dot the edges of Raven’s vision, as she slowly transitions from the dreamland to the chaotic waking world. As she stares ahead at the fuzzy white walls, comprehension slowly dawns on her. Before she can think to breathe, her head snaps up, and she’s quickly released from an embrace.

She disoriently glances around the room. The scent of antiseptic clings to her nostrils, as she gazes at the people sitting in chairs. Her vision darts to the side, and she takes in the sight of a sleeping Briar Beauty. Her head is leaning against the back of the chair. Her mouth is agape as she heavily inhales and exhales. In, out, in, out.

As Raven furtively looks around, the scent of cherry blossoms blooms in her mind. Apple, she thinks. Blonde curls swaying down the smooth expanse of back, round, blue eyes, wide with adoration, pink lips curled, smiling kindly at her. I need Apple. Her heart begins to pound. Leaning over Briar, she shakes her shoulder.
“Briar,” she says, her tone urgent. “Wake up!”

Surprisingly, wide, magenta eyes immediately blink open. Briar sits up straight, letting out a yawn. She reaches her tanned arms up, stretching. As she gazes at Raven, concern instantly shrouds her features.
“Hey,” she says gently. “How you doing?”
Raven shrugs.
“I’m okay,” she replies, her voice hoarse from hours of crying. “I just feel…numb, I guess.”

Briar looks at her, a delicate expression on her face. She gingerly places her hands on Raven’s shoulders. Reaching forward, she tucks strands of hair behind Raven’s ears.
“That’s alright,” she says, her voice soft. “Any way you feel is okay. There’s no wrong emotion.”

Raven can faintly feel the tears, warm behind her eyelids, but they won’t fall, won’t cascade down her cheeks, like they should. She blinks rapidly. Briar tangles her fingers in Raven’s mane of matted tresses, gently stroking through the purple locks. Raven closes her eyes, breathing deeply, as she relishes the soothing sensation.

Hurried footsteps pound on the floor, drawing closer and closer to the girls. Raven’s head whips around to see Apple and Darling walking towards them.
“Hi, Raven,” Apple says cheerfully, as she approaches.
Darling follows close behind, her head bowed. Apple settles in the chair next to Raven. She sets a gentle hand on her back, giving her an encouraging smile.

Darling plops in the chair. She sits, slumped, elbows resting on her knees. Dark circles ring her sunken eyes. Her face is unusually pale. Raven feels a sudden pang of sympathy for her friend. She was too focused on herself, her own panic and grief yesterday.

Today, though, the emotions are less raw, glazed over, almost. She’s more aware of her surroundings, and she can’t ignore the exhaustion in Darling’s slumped shoulders, the strain on her face.
“Hey, Darling,” she says gently.
Darling glances up.
“Hey,” she replies, her voice weary.
She immediately looks down at the floor again.

Apple gazes concernedly at her girlfriend, her big blue eyes shining with unshed tears. Raven places a hand on her shoulder. Apple’s head whips around. Her eyes meet Raven’s, and she smiles, the corners of her mouth turning up slightly.

She reaches out, giving Raven’s shoulder a squeeze.
“How are you holding up, sweetheart?” she asks.
Raven shrugs.
“I’m okay, I guess.”
Apple nods.
“Good.”
Raven sighs. Apple wraps an arm around her shoulder.
“Hey. I know you’re scared, baby. I know. But Dexter is going to be okay.”
Raven slowly nods. Her insides clench, squeezed by the iron grip of fear.

“You can go see him now,” Apple adds. “Dr. Pine told us earlier.”
A swell of excitement courses through Raven’s stomach.
“Really?” she asks.
Her breathing quickens, coming out in sharp, unarticulated gasps.
Apple gently squeezes her.
“Yeah,” she says gently. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“Yes,” she instantly replies.

Her own voice sounds strange in her ears. It’s like she’s yelling through a hollow tree. The sound takes longer to reach her, for some reason. Maybe it’s just her heartbeat, pounding like clashing knives in her head. A sudden thought occurs to her.
“Where were you before?” she asks.
“Oh. Darling and I went to the castleteria to get some breakfast. Would you like to get some first?”
“Nah. Let’s go see Dexter.”
“Okay.”

She untangles her arm from Raven’s shoulders. Raven stretches out her arms, emitting a yawn. She glances over at Apple, who’s leaning in, talking in hushed tones to Darling. She turns back to Raven a moment later.
“I’ll stay here,” says Briar, taking Darling’s hand. “You guys go ahead.”

“Thanks, Briar,” says Apple, smiling brightly at her friend.
She turns, taking Raven’s hands in hers.
“Let’s go, sweetie,” Apple says.
Raven stands on wobbly legs. She glances over at Darling, who is still sitting, slumped, in the chair.
Before walking off, Raven cautiously approaches Darling. She crouches down in front of her.
“Can I hug you?” she asks, her voice soft.
Darling quietly nods as Briar lets go of her hand and turns, saying something to Apple.

Raven leans forward, gently wrapping her arms around her. Darling remains stiff in the embrace, unreciprocating, but Raven gently squeezes her. She can feel the girl trembling.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs. “We’re all in this together.”
Darling doesn’t reply. Raven presses her lips to the side of the girl’s head before pulling away.

She gently squeezes the girl’s hand before standing. Apple gives Darling a chaste peck on the lips before leading Raven out of the room.
They walk side by side up a winding marble staircase. Raven’s legs are shaking so badly, she nearly slips. Apple holds her hand the whole way down the hall.

Raven keeps breathing, refusing to let the panic restrict her airway. Her stomach clenches, as tight as a closed fist. For a moment, she considers going to the bathroom in case she throws up, but Apple’s tight grip keeps her grounded. She’s not going to vomit. She needs to see Dexter. Identical wooden doors flash by as they walk past.

As they approach one, the same as all the others, Apple comes to a halt.
“This is it,” she says.
Raven squeezes Apple’s hand tightly as they slowly enter the room.

Through the dim light, Raven, through squinting eyes, takes in the sight. Dexter’s pale face is bloodied, covered in deep purple bruises. Strands of chestnut brown hair are plastered to his sweaty cheeks. As she walks towards him, her hand unconsciously moving toward her mouth, smaller details pop out at her like jump scares in a haunted house.

His lips are swollen, bloody cuts dotting the pink skin. His narrow nose is twisted, jutting out to the left. His closed eyelids are a blend of blue and purple, like a sunset without the sun. Tiny cuts fill his entire face, red marks etched upon every area of smooth skin. Tangles of cords and tubes connect to his body. One clear plastic tube slides down his throat, giving him oxygen.

Raven doesn’t realize she’s crying until she tastes the salt in her mouth. As a shuddering gasp resounds from her, her legs suddenly surge forward. She races to his bedside. Collapsing in a chair, she leans forward, lying her head on the bed. She buries her face in the blue blankets and lets the sobs rack through her body.

She can’t look at him. She can’t look at her fucking boyfriend without waves of terror coursing through her. It’s wrong, so inexplicably wrong, it makes her sick to her stomach. Creates a sensation worse than nausea that stabs at her gut. She scarcely registers Apple’s soft hand rubbing her back. All she can focus on is her own suffocating misery.

As minutes slip by, as more and more tears drain from her, as her hysteria gradually calms, she can hear garbled noise. Indistinguishable time passes before she begins to register words, softly spoken words being uttered to her.
“I’m here, Raven. Shhh. I’m right here.”

She slowly lifts her head. Through blurry eyes, she sees Apple standing beside her, a hand slowly caressing her back. As the image of Dexter flashes into view, sobs again tear at her throat. She throws her arms around Apple’s middle, letting out muffled wails against her stomach. Her sobs drown out all background noise. All she can hear is the insistent buzzing in her ears. All she can feel is Apple’s warm hand against her back, her fingers brushing through her hair.

All she sees is pitch darkness, as she keeps her eyes tightly shut. As her cries calm, she’s reduced to shudders and hiccups. She slowly opens her sore eyes and pulls away from the embrace. She shifts in the chair, drawing her knees to her chest. She places her chin on them, staring ahead at Dexter’s unmoving figure.

Her gaze travel to his closed eyes. She imagines the dark blue irises gazing at her, his thin, pink lips curving, as he gives her an adoring smile. An unwarranted sob bursts forth. She clamps her hand over her mouth. Apple crouches down beside her, wrapping an arm around her trembling shoulders. Raven rests her head on the girl’s shoulder.

Silence stretches between them as they continue to sit, watching Dexter’s motionless figure, listening to the steady beeping of the heart monitor. Raven’s heart thumps in her chest. She breathes deeply, squeezing Apple’s hand tighter.
“I love you, Dexter,” she says, her voice hoarse.
She reaches forward, carefully taking his cold, clammy hand in hers. She looks down at their entwined fingers. She gently strokes her thumb across his dry palm.

She loses herself in her gentle ministrations, in the ceaseless beeps of the heart monitor, the jagged cuts on his pale face.
“I love you, baby,” she whispers every few moments.

She hasn’t felt this overwhelmed and helpless since her father was sick. This dreary situation of sitting by a bed, your loved one lying, pale and unconscious in it, is all too familiar to Raven. For a horrifying moment, she sees her father in the bed, attached to dozens of tubes, his bald head glistening with sweat.

“No,” she whispers, her chest tight. “No. It’s Dexter.”
Her hand clasps over her mouth as the image of Dexter flickers back into focus. Chestnut brown tresses cover his head. She bites her palm as a sob builds in her chest.
“No,” she chokes out as more overcome here. “Not again. I can’t-” She shakes her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I-I c-can’t…”

 

She bursts into gasping sobs as Apple’s arms fully embrace her.
“It is Dexter, sweetheart,” the girl whispers, hugging her tight. “It’s not your dad. This is not the same circumstance. I promise.”
Raven holds onto her friend, harshly sobbing against her chest as images of her dying father invade her mind.

“I-I d-don’t want D-Dexter to d-die, A-Apple,” she weeps. “I-I n-need h-him.”
Apple holds her close, gently rubbing her back.
“He’s not going to die, love,” Apple says, her voice low and soothing. “He is not going to die.”
“P-pr-promise?” Raven chokes out.

 

Raven is met with only silence, and she cries even harder.
“Everything is going to be okay.” Apple’s voice is hoarse. “It’ll all be okay, sweetheart.”

When Raven’s chest aches too much to sob any longer, she does nothing but hiccup and sniffle. Apple continues to caress her back, making gentle shushing sounds and humming under her breath.

Raven pulls away a few minutes later. She feels terribly weak as soon as she’s out of Apple’s arms. She sniffs, swiping her sleeve roughly across her face. Apple gazes at her concernedly.
“I just-“ Raven motions helplessly to the bed-“can’t. I just can’t.”
Apple nods. She reaches forward, gently cupping Raven’s cheeks.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs, kissing her forehead. “
Raven squeezes her eyes shut, tears spilling down her face.
“Do you want to leave?” Apple asks gently, wiping Raven’s tears away.

Raven silently nods.
“Okay, sweetheart. Let’s go.”

Gently pulling Raven to her feet, she steadies her. Raven’s legs tremble. She turns to look at Dexter one more time, gaze upon his scarred face, before her stomach churns and she runs, dashing through the hall toward the bathroom.

 

XXX

 

January 17, 2018
Senior year is hard. Raven hexpected that after junior year final hexams, school would be a breeze. She’d have more time to play guitar and hang out with her friends. Nope. This year so far has been nothing but hexam after hexam. Raven has lost count of how many nights she’s been slouched over a notebook, her hand aching from holding the pencil so long.

It’s not so bad when Apple helps her, though. She bends over Raven, scrawling the answer in her neat handwriting. Raven gazes up at her, a faint smile curving her lips, as she sees her friend’s apple red glasses glinting in the light. Her face scrunches up in concentration, as she erases the answer with a sigh.
“Sorry, Raven, I did it wrong. Disregard everything I told you. Let me try again.”

Raven sits in class, shoulders slumped, sketching musical notes on her paper. An idea for a song has been blooming in her mind the past few days, its petals expanding by the hour. The notes glow, in shades of blue, behind her eyelids, against a pitch black backdrop. Her eyes are closed, the chords flashing by.

“Miss Queen! Please report to Headmaster Grimm’s office.”
Raven is pulled out of her reverie by Headmaster Grimm’s voice blaring over the intercom. She rapidly blinks, as the notes float away like kites blowing in the wind. A faint blush dusts her cheeks, as heads turn, sets of eyes staring at her. She quickly glances to the front of the room, where Professor Rumplestiltskin stands on his desk.

“Okay, Raven Queen,” he growls. “You can go, but if you’re not back soon, it’s DETENTION!”
“Yes, Professor Rumplestiltskin,” says Raven.
With a quick nod, she stands up and darts out of the room. She catches a glimpse of Apple, gazing at her concernedly, before gently closing the door. Raven lets out an irritated groan, as she walks down the hallway.

She hasn’t gotten in trouble in ages. Ever since the destiny dilemma blew over, she hasn’t been called to Headmaster Grimm’s office once. She’s been free to do pretty much anything she wants to do without being badgered by the irritable, broad-chested man. As she approaches the tall oak door, her stomach flutters with nerves.

She sweeps her gaze around the empty hallway. For a moment, she considers ditching, running outside and escaping to the Enchanted Forest for a few hours. She quickly reasons with herself, though, that she may not even be in trouble. If she runs, she’ll definitely face consequences. So, she takes a deep breath, straightens her shoulders, and opens the door.

Headmaster Grimm is sitting behind his desk in a brown leather chair. His eyes, usually alight with anger, seem to be a lighter shade of green today. His posture is slumped. He looks almost…sad. Raven cautiously approaches the desk.
“Hey, Headmaster Grimm,” she says awkwardly.
“Hello, Miss Queen,” he replies hoarsely. “Please take a seat.”

She plops down in the mahogany chair before his desk. Her stomach twists with anxiety. She drums her fingers on her thighs, abuzz with nervous energy. Headmaster Grimm lets out a trembling sigh reaching up to swipe a big hand over his mustached face.
“Miss Queen,” he says, the hand still covering his face. “I have some bad news.”

Raven’s heart begins to pound. Her hands shake in her lap.
“What?” she asks, hysteria creeping into her voice.
Her eyes swim with tears. Headmaster Grimm sighs. He removes his hand from his face, placing it on the wooden desk. He pushes a box of tissues closer to her.
“I’m so sorry, Raven,” he says, his voice breaking. “But I got a call earlier. Your father has cancer. I’m so sorry, dear.”

Raven’s heart thumps in her throat. Her insides feel like they’re alight with fire, white hot flames sweeping through her gut. She grips the side of the table, her knuckles white. Her vision begins to tunnel as the moments slip by. The walls blur together into one blue sheet, spinning before Raven’s wide eyes.

She holds the edge of the table tighter. Headmaster Grimm reaches forward, taking her small hand in his. He gives it a gentle squeeze. Raven jerks away. Rising on shaky legs, the world swirling around her, she runs out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

She casts her gaze to the tile floor as she walks through the crowds of students. Her stomach churns, squirming inside of her like a worm. As she approaches the bathroom on swift legs, her shoulder bumps into somebody else’s. Her head shoots up.

Through her bleary eyesight, she sees Holly O’Hair, her thick, auburn hair cascading down the backs of her legs.
“S-sorry, Holly,” Raven stutters.
“It’s okay, Raven,” replies Holly, smiling. “I’m sorry, too.”
She tilts her head. Her blue-green eyes fill with concern.
“Hey,” she says, her voice soft. “Are you okay?”

She reaches out her hand, but Raven steps out of the way. She gives the girl a weak, forced smile.
“I’m fine,” she says, her voice tight. “I just need to go.”
“Okay,” Holly says worriedly. “Bye.”

Raven waves before dashing into the bathroom. She bursts into a stall and drops to her knees beside the toilet. She groans, as a heave racks her frame. Bile creeps up her throat. Vomit spills from her mouth.
Almost immediately, she feels a warm hand on her shoulder. Her hair is arranged into a hastily made updo, before the person sets their hand on her back, gently rubbing.
“It’s okay.” The voice is Maddie’s. “Let it out.”

Raven obliges, as she doesn’t have much choice. Her heaves slow after a few torturous minutes. She sits back on her knees, leaning her head back. She lets out a groan.
“Here.” Maddie hands her a wad of toilet paper.
“Thanks,” Raven croaks.

She wipes her mouth. Maddie flushes the toilet. She grabs Raven’s hands, helping her stand up, before guiding her to the sinks. She wets a paper towel, as Raven rinses her mouth.
“Here,” she murmurs. “Let me wipe your face.”

She gently swipes the towel across Raven’s sweaty cheeks. Raven sighs, closing her eyes. After Maddie throws the towel away, she walks back to Raven and pulls her into a hug. She wraps her arms around her tightly, rubbing circles over her back. Raven sets her chin on Maddie’s shoulder, squeezing her eyes shut.

“Do you know?” she asks, her voice hoarse.
“Yeah. The Narrator told me,” Maddie replies sadly.
She lets out a sigh.
“Well, I’m here for you,” says Maddie. “Always. Just let me know what I can do.”

That’s the thing about Maddie. She’s the maddest, most illogical person until somebody is in trouble. She then has the ability to act with all the seriousness of an average human, and can be the most compassionate and accommodating friend you could ask for.
“Thank you,” Raven mutters. “I think I just need to be alone right now, though.”

She draws away from the embrace.
“Okay. I understand. Just let me know if you need me. I’m always here.”
Her voice is filled with such sincerity, Raven’s eyes burn thinking about how lucky she is to have a friend like Maddie.
“I know you are. Thank you,” she replies, her voice thick.

Raven gives Maddie a quick hug before exiting the bathroom. She walks up the flight of stairs, growing weaker with each step. As she enters her empty dorm room, sunlight streaming through the large windows, her legs are like blocks of lead.

She collapses in her bed, falling on her back on the mattress. She blankly stares up at the ceiling, the peeling white paint faded before her misty eyes. Her mind is racing a million miles an hour, but she’s stuck, trapped in a rut, the walls steep and rocky. There’s nothing she can do.

She doesn’t know how long she lies there, motionless, before Apple is suddenly next to her on the bed. The girl lies down, her blonde hair splayed on the white pillow behind her. Raven glances over at her before gazing back up at the ceiling. The girls remain silent, Apple worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, Raven continuously swallowing, licking her dry lips.

Minutes of quiet pass before Apple gently clears her throat.
“Hey,” she murmurs.
Raven tries to answer, but she can’t speak. Her throat is thick with words she wants to say, sobs she wants to emit, but she simply cannot. Apple looks at her, her eyes filled with tears.
“Oh, sweetie,” she murmurs. “Come here.”

She wraps her arms around the girl, pulling her close. Raven’s head lolls to the side, falling defeatedly upon Apple’s chest. She shuts her eyes. Apple strokes her hair, combing her fingers through the thick, dark tresses.

 

She stays silent, which Raven appreciates. Raven snuggles into the warmth Apple provides, keeping her eyes closed. She thinks about her father’s strong arms, folded securely around her tiny, trembling shoulders. His low voice, calming her down after her nightmare, telling her that he's here, that he’ll protect her. The smell of woods drifting to Raven’s nose. His large, warm hand rubbing her back, as she sobs into his chest.

As Raven snuggles in the embrace, images of her father, his twinkling blue eyes, his kind face, flashing through her mind, tears well in her eyes. They drip from her eyelids, streaming down her cheeks like raindrops on a windowpane.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Apple cooes.
Her thumbs rest on her cheeks, stroking the tears away.
“M-my father has c-cancer.”
“I know, baby. I heard.”

Raven’s eyes burn, pooling with more tears that continue to flow, rolling down her cheeks. Apple squeezes her tight, reaching her hand up to pet the girl’s head.
“I-it’s not f-fair,” Raven chokes out. “M-my father’s a-a g-good person. H-he doesn’t d-drink. H-he doesn’t s-smoke. H-he just w-wants the b-best for h-his d-daughter.”

“I know, baby. I know. I wish there was something I could do to change it.” Apple’s voice breaks. “I’m so sorry,” she murmurs.
She presses her lips to Raven’s tear streaked cheek. Raven squeezes her eyes shut.
“I -I j-just c-can’t d-do i-it,” she whispers. “I-I r-really j-just w-want t-to d-die!”
“Hush, baby, hush,” Apple cooes. “Of course you can do it. You’re so, so, so strong, love. And I’m here with you. I'll be right here with you the whole time."
She shakily sighs. "And of course you want to live.” Her voice trembles.
“No, I don’t.”

Raven burrows her face in Apple’s shoulder, choking out sobs against the sleeve of her wool sweater. Apple doesn’t reply. Raven feels her fingers stroking through her hair. All Raven can do is cry as seconds transition to minutes. She feels physically incapable of doing anything but letting out the hoarse sobs that continue to build in her throat. Close her eyes tight against the neverending flow of tears that stream from her eyes.

 

She can think of nothing but her father. Her loving, compassionate father. And what it will mean for her when he dies. How she’ll have lost the connection that is her lifeblood, the bond that rejuvenates her, gives her the strength she needs to function.

Every image that flashes by of him, him smiling widely, reaching out to hug her, his fingers on hers as he guides her hand to the correct cleft on the guitar, his deep voice harmonizing with hers, is like a stab to her chest. And her sobs grow louder with each passing memory.

It feel as if hours have passed before she’s finally able to stem the flow of tears. Before she’s able to get her rapid breathing under control. And through hiccups and shudders is able to pull herself up by fistfuls of Apple’s sweater. She lies on her back, blearily staring up at the ceiling with sore eyes.

Even if she tries, she doesn’t think she can move. Speaking seems like it will be even more difficult. She’ll immediately start crying again if she makes a sound, and her body can’t take it anymore. Her muscles ache, her eyes hurt, and her throat is scratchy.
Apple sits up, leaning forward on her elbows, and speaks to Raven, the way she would a wounded animal.
“Okay, sweetie. I’m going to get you some water and painkillers. I’m here. I’ll be right back.”

She bends over, placing a soft kiss to Raven’s temple, before climbing out of bed. Raven keeps her gaze on the ceiling. She can’t see the chipped white paintwork, though. Images of her father are burned to her eyelids, his scratchy gray beard, his old, wood-scented brown jacket, his polished black shoes pressing on the brass pedals of the piano.

Only when Apple’s soft voice infiltrates the ringing in her ears do the images float out of sight.
“Okay, baby. I’m going to help you sit up. Do you think you can do that?”
Raven mutely nods.
“Okay.”
She grips Raven’s hands and slowly pulls her up. Raven grunts, the effort much harder than it’s ever been.
“Here, baby,” says Apple, giving Raven a handful of tissues.

Raven takes them with a nod, still not trusting herself to speak. She lifts the tissue to her nose, her hand trembling. After she finishes, she throws the used tissues on the floor. Apple reaches forward, pulling Raven’s hair back from her sweaty face, gently tucking the stray locks behind her ear. She then hands Raven a glass of water, along with two orange pills.
“Drink the whole glass,” Apple gently instructs. “It will save you from a major headache.”

Raven does as Apple says, gulping the pills down with swig after swig of water. The cool liquid soothes her raw throat. By the time she’s finished, the glass is completely empty. Apple takes it from her, setting it on the nightstand. She then turns to Raven, a sad smile on her face.
“Do you want to lie down?” she asks, her voice gentle.

Raven slowly nods. She furiously racks her brain, but her thoughts seem to be encased in gel. There’s nothing else she can think to do. So she flops on her back, lying her head on a soft, pillow. Apple settles down next to her, draping thick, purple blankets over both of them. S

he then turns to Raven, who is shivering, and throws her arms around her, pulling her against her body. Raven lets her head be drawn to Apple’s warm chest. She closes her eyes, resting her cheek on the girl’s shoulder.

A wall of exhaustion suddenly hits her, the hours of crying causing her eyelids to slip closed. I can’t sleep, she thinks. I doubt I’ll ever sleep again. But as the minutes wear on, the warmth of the blankets, as well as the heat emanating from Apple, serve to lull her into a fuzzy state of semi-consciousness. Before long, she feels herself drifting off, to the feel of Apple’s hand stroking over her hair, again and again.

February 15, 2019

Raven sits, slumped, on the leather cushioned seat. She closes her eyes, focusing on the soothing sensation of Dexter’s soft, calloused hand caressing her back. The smooth motor of the limousine emits a low growl as it drives. Squinting, she sees Apple and Darling sitting across from them, hand in hand.

Apple glances concernedly at her, while Darling looks down at her phone. Raven lets out a long sigh, reaching up to swipe strands of hair out of her face.
“It’ll be okay, Raven,” Dexter murmurs.
“No, it won’t,” Raven tearfully replies.
Apple bites down on her lower lip, her eyes welling with tears. Darling looks up from her phone. She gazes at Raven, deep sadness in her ice blue orbs.

Nobody says another word until the limousine slides to a stop.
“I think we’re here,” Apple cheerfully announces.
Raven glances up, staring out the window at the gray stone castle looming before them.
“Yep,” she says. “Let’s go.”
Standing up on stiff legs, she makes her way out of the car.
“Thank you, Matt ,” she tells the driver, as she opens the door.
“No problem, Miss Queen,” Matt replies. “I hope everything goes well.”
“Thank you.”

Raven exits the limousine, closely followed by Dexter, who rushes over to her.
“Hey,” he says, grasping her hand. “Wait for me.”
“Sorry,” Raven breathes.
“It’s okay, sweetheart.”
Apple and Darling, walking hand in hand, catch up to them.

As they approach, Raven throws open the tall, wooden doors. Walking in, they enter a dim stone-walled room, lit by torchlight. The floor is white marble. There is a large wooden table with a long white lace tablecloth in the center of the room. An extinguished crystal chandelier hangs from the ceiling over it. A fireplace stands on the eastern side of the room.

Pictures hang from the walls. One is a professional portrait of Raven that was done when she was ten years old. Another is a photo of her and her father standing on a pier, the ocean stretched out to the horizon behind them. Their arms are around each other. Large smiles light up both their faces. A ghost of a smile flutters at the edges of Raven’s mouth as she gazes at her father’s positively joyful expression. Another is a crayon drawing of them that Raven drew when she was five.

“Raven.”
A soft voice permeates the heavy stillness of the room. She pivots on her heel to see Cook coming down the stairs, her dress swishing against her knees.
“Cook!” Raven exclaims.

She runs across the room as Cook finishes her descent and walks toward Raven. Raven throws her arms around her. Cook quickly reciprocates the embrace, gently squeezing her. She places a hand on the back of Raven’s head as she gently strokes the other along her back.
“I know it’s only been a week,” Raven gasps, gently pulling back.
She swipes her sleeve across her eyes.
“But I’ve missed you so much!”

 

She stifles a sob against her hand.
“Oh, my dear.”
Cook reaches forward, gently cupping Raven’s cheeks. Raven closes her eyes, breathing in the warm, delicious scent of spice that Cook always carries with her. The woman gently presses her lips to Raven’s forehead.

“I missed you, too, love,” she murmurs. “I missed you, too.”
Cook pulls away a moment later. Raven sniffs, wiping her eyes.
“Hello, my dears!” Cook exclaims, turning to Dexter, Apple, and Darling.
“Hello, Cook. It’s so nice to see you,” says Apple cheerfully, stepping forward and hugging her.

 

Cook gives Dexter and Darling hugs as well.
“Well, then,” she says. “Let’s get some light going here!”
Chuckling, she walks over to the wall where she flicks a switch. The room is suddenly bathed in a low yellow light. Raven smiles, feeling the slightest bit comforted, both by the brightness and Cook’s warm, solid presence.

“How is he doing?” Raven asks suddenly, the dread instantly returning to her gut.
Cook sucks in a sharp breath. Her gray eyes are stormier than ever.
“Not too good, sweetheart,” she murmurs.
Dexter steps beside her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. Raven takes a deep breath, leaning into him slightly.

“I know you were just here a bit over a week ago,” Cook explains, “but his condition has gotten remarkably worse in such a short amount of time.”
Cook sighs, glancing downward for a second before looking back up and smiling softly at Raven.

 

Raven shakily sighs.
“No more hospital,” Raven mutters, shaking her head. “No more doctors or medication except painkillers.”
A tear slips down her cheek.
“Leave the rest to nature.”
She sniffles, biting down on her lip.

Cook’s eyes are glistening with tears.
“As hard as it is,” she says gently, “we must respect your father’s wishes.”
Raven quickly nods.
“Of course,” she says.
She roughly wipes her eyes. Dexter gently strokes her hair.

“He was excited for your arrival,” Cook murmurs. “It was the first smile I’ve gotten out of him since you were here last.”
Raven smiles through her tears. A laugh bubbles in her throat but comes out more like a hoarse whimper.

Cook smiles tenderly at her.
“Well, it’s about time I begin getting dinner prepared,” she says. “Why don’t you and your lovely friends get settled in, and I’ll call you when it’s time?”
“That would be wonderful, Cook,” says Apple, smiling brightly.
Cook smiles back at the girl.
“Alright. Well, see you then.”
With a small wave, she turns and walks out of the room through the kitchen door.

“Okay. Let’s go to our rooms,” says Raven.
The four of them walk up the winding marble staircase. Colorful woven tapestries hang along the walls. Apple, Darling, and Dexter follow Raven down the hall. She stops at a tall, wooden door. The hinges creak as she opens it. She peeks her head in.
“Here’s the guest room you girls stayed in last time,” she says.
She glances at the two blondes.

“Well, we’re happy to stay in it again,” says Darling.
She smiles, leaning forward to give Apple a chaste kiss on the lips. Apple giggles, her hand moving to her mouth.
“It’ll be perfect, Raven,” she says. “Thank you.”
She and Darling roll their suitcases in.
“We’ll just settle in,” says Apple.
They gently close the door.

Raven walks forward, opening another door that’s across the hall.
“And here’s our room,” she says.
“Cool,” says Dexter.
He bends forward, gently kissing Raven’s cheek. Her eyes close at the contact. She releases a long sigh. Dexter places a warm hand on her back, slowly rubbing.
“Hey,” he says, his voice soft. “I’m here.”

Raven’s eyes blink open. She gazes up at Dexter, into his sapphire eyes.
“I know you are,” she murmurs. “Thank you.”
She leans in, brushing her lips against his. They linger for a moment, relishing the velvety softness. She pulls away after a moment. Dexter’s eyes snap open.

“I’ve got to go see my dad,” she mutters. “Why don’t you settle in?”
“Alright,” Dexter replies. “Sounds great, sweetie.”
Raven nods before continuing down the hallway.
“I love you,” Dexter calls after her.
She turns around. A faint smile tugs at the corners of her lips.
“I love you too.”

He smiles at her brightly, his pale, dimpled face shining with pure adoration. Raven blows him a kiss before turning and walking away.

As she approaches her father’s bedroom door, her hand set on the brass handle, she closes her eyes, taking a deep breath. Her heart races in her chest. Her hands shake. There’s no telling what state he’ll be in.

As she turns the handle, the latch opens with a click. The door swings open, and Raven slowly walks in. Nothing could have prepared her for what she sees.

In a king-sized wooden bed lies her father. Thick, blue sheets cover him up to his chin. His face is sallow, drenched in sweat. His pallid cheeks are tinted a gruesome hue of grayish green. His lips are cracked. Beads of perspiration line his forehead. Each breath he draws is a wheezy rattle. His eyes are closed.

Raven steps closer, her hand unconsciously moving to her chest, to rest against her rapidly beating heart. She stops at his bedside, standing over his sleeping form. Hot tears sting her eyes. She reaches up a hand, swiping angrily with her sleeve. She sniffs. Bright blue orbs blinking to life startle Raven. Her heart jumps into her throat.
“Dad,” she breathes.

She immediately crouches down, reaching out to take her father’s cold, pale hands in her own.
“I’m here, Daddy,” she whispers. “I’m here.”
He slowly turns his head to look at her. The skin under his eyes crinkle, as a smile spreads across his ghoulish face.
“Raven, my little birdy,” he rasps.
He reaches out his arms. They tremble like leaves in the wind.
“Come here, sweetheart.”

Raven quickly climbs into bed, settling down next to her father. His large arms envelop her. They struggle to pull her close but shake with the effort. Raven scoots over, drawing closer to her father. She buries her face in his chest.
“I love you, daddy,” she says, her voice choked by tears.
“I love you too, little birdy,” he whispers. “I’m here.”

His lips brush the top of her head. His clammy fingers stroke through her purple tresses. Raven desperately tries to compose herself, squeezing her eyes shut against the fabric of his shirt.
“There’s my birdy,” her father coos. “So strong.”

Raven barely is able to suppress a sob.
“I-I missed you, daddy,” she mutters.
“I missed you too, baby,” he murmurs. “I really did.”
She pulls her face away after a moment. Lying in her father’s arms, she gazes into his eyes. They still twinkle, like bright stars on a clear night.

“I love you,” she whispers, reaching out, stroking her thumbs across his tear streaked cheeks.
“And I love you, my birdy,” he croaks.
She presses her lips to his forehead. He closes his eyes, a smile gracing his face.
Raven lies her head on his shoulder. He gives her a weak squeeze. Her eyes slip closed, as she breathes in the scent of pine trees. Silence envelops the room. They each lie in the other’s arms, holding each other close.
“You know, maybe later I’ll feel up to playing guitar for a little while,” he murmurs after a long stretch of quiet.
“That would be wonderful,” Raven replies.

She kisses his forehead.
“Only if you feel up to it, though,” she adds.
“We’ll see.”
More minutes of silence sweep by, and soon, light snores fill the still air. Raven’s eyes blink open. She slowly slips out of the embrace.

Sitting on the bed beside her father, she studies him. His parted pink lips, forming an o shape, as he exhales. The gray stubble covering his chin. The dark circles beneath his closed eyelids. The thick gray hair plastered to his sweaty forehead. Raven feels the tears cascading down her cheeks. A sob builds in her throat. She quickly puts a quivering hand over her mouth. She needs to leave.

XXX

Raven sits on her old bed and cries. The walls surrounding her on all four sides are a chipped blue blur. The indistinct figure of Katy Fairy covers a poster hanging across from her. She reaches out, seizing her weathered stuffed panda bear, Sully, and squeezes him tightly to her chest. Tears fall on his black and white head.
“M-my d-dad i-i-is g-going t-to d-d-die,” she whispers. “A-and th-there’s n-n-nothing I-I c-can d-do.”

A harsh sob scratches her throat. Her shoulders quake. She kisses Sully’s fuzzy head. The scent of mothballs evades her dripping nose. She sniffs. A clicking sound echoes across the small room. Raven drops Sully, reaching up to wipe her tears. Her vision clears, and Apple stands before her, concern etched upon her pale face.

“Raven,” she breathes. “Can I sit?”
Raven hiccups.
“Y-yes.”
Apple settles on the bed next to Raven. She gazes at Raven, clasping her hands together in her lap. Tears, again, swarm Raven’s vision.
“I-I’m s-sorry,” she chokes out. “I-I’ve b-b-been tr-trying s-so h-h-hard to k-keep i-it together. I-I j-just-” she motions helplessly around the room, “c-can’t.”

Her voice cracks. A sob bursts from her throat. She clamps her hand over her mouth, as if terrified of the strangled noises she is emitting.
“Oh, baby.”
Apple wraps her arms around Raven’s trembling shoulders, pulling the girl into a tight embrace. Raven buries her face in Apple’s chest, coughing and sniffling against the soft, pink fabric of Apple’s shirt. She hugs Apple back tightly.

“I-I’m s-s-sorry,” Raven sobs, her voice muffled.
Apple gently squeezes Raven, lightly brushing her lips over the top of her head.
“No, sweetheart, don’t be sorry,” she murmurs. “Cry as much as you need to. It’s okay. I’m here.”

Her hand rubs circles across Raven’s back. Raven squeezes her eyes shut, trying to stem the flow of her tears, but they only fall faster, spurting from her eyes like blood from a broken jugular. Her sobs heighten with each passing moment, tearing at her throat like claws. Apple doesn’t say a word. Every few moments, she kisses Raven’s head.

Eventually, exhaustion shrouds Raven’s body like a dark cloth, and her sobs gradually taper off. Apple continues to hold her tightly, running her fingers through her tangled tresses. Raven snuggles closer to the girl, seeking out the comforting warmth her body emits. Apple squeezes her tight.

After a few minutes of relative silence, save the occasional hiccup or sniffle, Apple quietly speaks.
“I love you, Raven,” she murmurs.
Raven sniffs.
“I love you, too, Apple,” she croaks.

XXX

December 3, 2020 (present time)

Apple rubs Raven’s back as she vomits. Raven squeezes her eyes shut, moaning. It’s been going on for several minutes now. It feels like her stomach will never stop heaving.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Apple coos. “Just let it all out. It’ll be over soon.”

Finally, Raven’s stomach settles. No heave pitches her body forward for several minutes. She sits back on her knees. Apple wipes a wad of toilet paper across Raven’s chin. Raven closes her eyes. Her heart pounds in her head.
“Here, blow your nose, sweetheart,” Apple says, handing Raven more toilet paper.

“Do you think you can stand?” Apple asks after a few moments.
Raven clears her throat.
“Yeah.”
“Okay.”
Apple grips Raven’s hands, helping her to her feet. Raven’s legs wobble, as her vision spins, but Apple holds her steady.
“Do you need to sit?” Apple asks.
“No, I’m good.”

Raven breathes deeply, waiting for the wave of dizziness to pass. Apple rubs her back.
“You need food and water,” says Apple, her voice gentle.
“Yeah,” Raven croaks.
The room gradually spins back into focus.
“Okay, I’m good,” Raven breathes.
“You sure?” Apple worriedly asks.
“Yeah.”
“Okay. Let’s go to the castleteria.”
“Sounds good.”

Chapter Text

Darling gazes out the smeared window with glossy eyes. Trees whip past, like a line of green paint. The low growl of the engine and and her own pounding heart are the only sounds she registers. The sudden screeching of a brake and a force that jerks her forward snaps Darling from her haze. Her head snaps up.

“Damn it!” Apple growls. “Fucking idiot cut me off!”
Apple gasps.
“Excuse me,” she mutters. “That was rather undignified of me.”
“It’s okay, Apple,” Raven says from the beak seat. “That guy was an ass.”
“No, it’s not.” Apple sighs. “I should control myself better.”

Her eyes are glued to the road before her. Her knuckles are white, as she grips the steering wheel.
“It’s been hard for all of us,” Darling says, the words creeping up her throat like a cough. “It’s okay to let off some steam. No reason to feel ashamed.”
Darling can’t be selfish enough to only focus on herself right now. Her girlfriend has carried her and Raven on her back the last twenty-four hours.

Darling can’t pretend that she doesn’t see the dark gray circles forming under Apple’s eyes. She’s not going to pretend to not hear the yawns she’s emitting every thirty seconds.
“You need to get some rest when we get home,” says Darling, her voice soft.
Apple lets out a high-pitched yawn. She raises one hand off the steering wheel to cover her mouth.
“I think we should all get some rest,” she murmurs.

Darling’s stomach clenches. She struggles to take a breath. Sleep, right now, seems such a surreal concept. She finds it difficult to wrap her mind around the feel of eyelids fluttering closed, body sinking, deeper and deeper, into a soft mattress, the drifting sensation coursing through her body.

Darling glances out the window, her cheek resting in the palm of her hand, as the car turns left. A warm sensation enters her stomach at the familiar sight of two-story stucco white houses. The car slides up the steep driveway. Apple turns the keys, and the engine sputters to a stop.

XXX

Hot water cascades down Darling's back. She glances down at her bare, pale legs, covered in blond stubble. Steam rises, drifting out of the shower into the cavernous room. Darling's arms tremble at her sides. Her ears ring. As if a wave has crashed into her chest, sent her pummeling down into the deep, she sinks to her knees on the slippery tile. She presses her hands to the floor for support, as sobs rack her frame.

Her hair, heavy with water, covers her face. Hot droplets of shower water mingle with the tears on her cheeks. Her sobs echo through the bathroom, resounding off the white tile walls. She lets out a shuddering gasp as a hand strokes through her hair. She glances up.

Through blurry eyes, she sees Apple, honey blond hair flowing over pale shoulders, cerulean eyes wide with concern.
“It's just me, baby,” she murmurs. “I'm here.”

Darling emits a choked whimper, as Apple's smooth hand continues to stroke through her wet tresses. She squeezes her eyes shut, as helpless cries continue to consume her. Warm water ceases to fall from the shower head, as Apple turns the silver handle. Darling shivers, as cold air surrounds her. Apple's hand stills.

“Do you think you can stand up, baby? she gently asks.
Darling opens her mouth. A chorus of strangled whimpers and heavy breaths are all that she can manage.
“Shhh, love,” Apple coos. “I'm going to help you stand up, okay?”

Apple grips Darling's hands in her own and gently pulls. Darling shakily rises to her feet. She nearly slips, but Apple slides her arm around her shoulders, holding her steady. Darling steps out of the tub onto the cold tile floor. Apple lets go of her hands. Darling reaches up, swiping a hand across her streaming eyes. A fluffy towel is draped over her shoulders.

“There we go,” murmurs Apple. “Nice and warm.”
Darling doesn't know what happens then, but her knees suddenly slam into the ground. Apple's arms are immediately around her, pulling her against her chest.
“Come here, baby girl,” Apple coos.

Darling sinks into the embrace, her head falling heavily on Apple's shoulder. She grips fistfuls of Apple's flannel pajama shirt, digging her fingernails into the soft fabric. Apple pulls the towel tight around Darling's shuddering body. Her fingers brush through the girl’s dripping curls.

She soothingly hums, a low sound registering in the back of Darling's mind. Apple's damp hair tickles the back of her neck. She faintly detects the scent of cherry blossoms. Phlegm rapidly streams from her nose, though, quickly blocking any trace of smell. Tears roll down her face, hot against her cheeks.

Apple continues to smooth her hair down, fingers running gently through the snarls. Darling squeezes Apple tight, afraid of losing contact. She wants Apple now more than she ever has. She desires her smooth arms, curled around her, her soft hands, gently caressing, her hot, sweet breath breathing in her ear.

She cries even harder at the thought of losing Apple, of not being there in her arms. Apple, as if sensing her thoughts, whispers to her.
“I'm always going to be here, Darling. I will never leave you, my love. You are so very precious to me.”

Her voice trembles. Her lips press gently against the top of Darling's head. Her hand slips under the towel, resting on her back. She rubs in slow, circular motions. Her lips stay pressed to Darling's head, peppering her scalp with kisses.

Darling focuses solely on the soothing sensations. Gradually, the tension seeps from her frame, like a towel losing excess water. She relaxes in the embrace, falling heavier in Apple's arms. Apple continues to hold her long after her sobs have ebbed. Darling hiccups and sniffles against her soaked shirt.

Apple's fingers trail up and down her back, light and warm. Her ministrations don't cease until Darling's body begins to quake with shivers. Apple suddenly seems to become aware that only a thin towel separates Darling's naked body from the cold air.
“Okay, sweetheart,” she murmurs. “Are you ready to get your jammies on?”

Darling slowly pulls away. She nods. Her head is fuzzy. Her hand roughly swipes across her eyes. Apple rips toilet paper from the roll. She reaches forward, gently wiping Darling’s tears from her eyes and face.
“There we go,” she coos. “Let's just dry those beautiful eyes.”

Darling can't help but give a weak smile. Love for her girlfriend, for her sweet, caring nature, swells like a wave in her chest.
“Now let's blow that pretty nose,” Apple says.

Darling doesn't feel the least bit of embarrassment. This isn't close to the first time Apple has mothered her. If she weren't feeling so depleted, she may actually be enjoying this. Apple's soft fingers stroke her cheeks. She smiles tenderly.
“Let's get those jammies on now. And then we’ll go to bed.”

 

She kisses Darling's cheek before rising to her feet. She helps Darling stand. She unwraps the white towel from Darling's shoulders, hanging it over the rack. Darling slips her light blue flannel pajamas on. As the fabric clings to her damp body, she stands, frozen.

Apple walks over, gently takes her hands in hers and squeezing.
“Come on, baby,” she says.
She guides a dazed Darling out of the humid bathroom. Raven is lying in bed, eyes closed, hands folded over her stomach.
“Aww,” Apple coos. “Poor girl is already asleep.”

A strange feeling rises in Darling's stomach at Apple's soft words. She doesn't know what it is. It's something about the way Apple is gazing at Raven, her blue eyes wide and dovelike. Darling shakes her head. This whole experience has got her thinking weirdly. Right now, she needs to focus on herself for once. She needs sleep.

She lets Apple lead her over to the king-size bed. Apple pulls down the blue comforter as Darling slides in. Apple climbs in, settling next to her. She pulls the blanket up to Darling's shoulders, just the way she likes it. She scoots forward until their bodies are flush, then loosely folds an arm over Darling.

Her girlfriend knows well that she can't fall asleep with cuddling. She knows that Apple, at least, wants to demonstrate some level of comfort to her, though. The last thing she wants is for Darling to feel alone. Darling knows this more than anything right now. Darling's eyes slowly flutter shut.

“Okay now,” Apple whispers. “Just relax, baby.I'm right here.”
“Okay,” Darling sleepily murmurs. “I'll try to get some sleep.”
Apple gives Darling's forehead a soft peck before closing her own eyes. Darling sighs. She highly doubts sleep is in the cards for her right now.

A floating sensation instantly falls over her, though, as her head sinks deeper into the pillow. Her breathing, a slow inhale and heavy exhale, is the only sound her mind registers. The last thing she remembers is Apple's lips gently pressed to her forehead before she drifts off.

XXX

She awakens to silence. As her vision focuses, she sees an empty bed, the white sheets wrinkled. She rolls onto her back, starting with sore eyes at the white ceiling. She hears a faint buzzing, but as her head swivels, gazing around the area, she can't locate it.

She turns on her side. A glass of water rests on the nightstand. The ice cubes clink against the glass as she picks it up, raising it to her parched lips. The cool water slides down her scratchy throat. She closes her eyes, emptying the cup in gulps.

She sets the glass gently upon the wooden table before sliding out of bed. She glances at the alarm clock. 7:21 pm. She's been out for eight hours now. She reaches up her arms to stretch as she pads across the tile floor. She walks through the dim hallway, glancing briefly at framed photos on the walls. She follows the sound of voices to the living room.

Apple and Raven sit across from each other at the game table. Each girl holds an assortment of cards. A deck rests between them. Apple looks up as she enters. She smiles brightly.
“Hey, babe,” she says cheerfully.
“Hey,” Darling croaks.
“Hey, Darling,” Raven says, her voice hoarse.
“Hey, Raven,” Darling replies.
She forces a smile.

 

“How did you sleep, sweetie?” Apple asks, as Darling sits down next to her.
“Pretty good,” Darling replies.
Her hand rises to cover her mouth as she lets out a yawn.
“Excuse me,” she mutters.
Apple lovingly smiles at her.
“Are you hungry?” she asks gently.
“I guess so,” says Darling, shrugging.
“I made spaghetti,” announces Apple. “I'll go dish up some.”
“Oh no, it's okay,” says Darling. She stands up. “I'll get it.”
“No, baby, I will,” Apple insists.

She grabs Darling's hand, gently pulling her back down. Darling plops onto the chair.
Apple scoots her chair in.
“Now, I'll be right back,” she says.
She heads into the kitchen. Raven places her cards facedown on the table. She rests her cheek in the palm of her hand.

“How did you sleep, Raven?” Darling hesitantly asks.
“Okay,” Raven replies. “I had really bad dreams, though.” Her voice cracks.
Darling frowns. She reaches out, taking Raven's trembling hands in her own.
“About Dexter?” she ventures.
Raven nods. Tears swim in her violet eyes.
“It's okay,” Darling murmurs.

She doesn't know what else to say. She gently squeezes Raven's hands, hoping that conveys the comfort she fails to articulate. Darling gently lets go, as Apple reenters the room, holding a steaming bowl of spaghetti. She places it before Darling.
“Here you go, my darling,” she says.
She kisses the top of her head.
“Thank you,” says Darling.
“You're welcome.”

She settles back down in her chair beside Darling. Darling twirls a strand of spaghetti around her fork. Just as she's lifting it to her mouth, a One Reflection song that Darling doesn’t know the name of blasts from Apple’s MirrorPhone. The table vibrates.

“I better answer it,” Apple says, an anxious edge to her voice.
Apple answers, bringing the phone to her ear.
“Hello,” she says.
Darling can faintly hear a deep voice on the other end. Apple lets out a trembling breath.
“He is?” she breathes.

Darling’s fork clatters, landing onto the plate. Darling grips the arms of her chair.
“That's great news!” exclaims Apple.
Darling shakily exhales. She rests a quivering hand over her racing heart. Thank the gods. Dexter isn't dead. He’s alive.

She wants to jump for joy, but all she can seem to do is shake uncontrollably.
“Thank you, sir,” says Apple. “Goodbye.”
She hangs up. She smiles brightly, wrapping an arm around Darling's quaking shoulders. She reaches across the table with her other arm, taking Raven's hand.
“Dexter’s awake.”

Chapter Text

Holly growls under her breath, furiously scribbling the quill against the paper. The glow from the lamp reflects off the white sheet, shining blindingly through her closed eyelids. She groans, stroking her thumb in circles across her temple. Her head throbs, the pound of her heartbeat crashing against her skull. She squints, gazing through blurry eyes at the lines of black ink etched on the paper. They swim across the pasty surface.

She faintly registers the click of an opening door. Footsteps tread upon the tile floor. Holly keeps her head tilted downward, staring at the worn blankets heaped over her legs. She can feel the presence at her side like a wall closing in. She doesn’t have to look to know who it is. Tears press against her eyelids like a steaming iron.

She shakily exhales, reaching up a trembling hand to wipe away the lone tear tracing its way down her cheek. A ragged sigh fills the room.
“Holly,” Poppy breathes, her voice scarcely above a whisper.
Her hand rests on her shoulder, soft and warm again. Holly’s tightly coiled muscles relax slightly under the gentle touch.

A hoarse sob bursts from her chest. She clasps a hand over her mouth. The mattress sinks.
“Hey,” Poppy murmurs.
Gently, she pulls back the curtain of hair that covers Holly’s face. She cups her cheeks, stroking a tear away with the pad of her thumb.

She gazes tenderly at Holly, wide blue-green eyes staring into their mirror image.
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispers.
She reaches a pale hand out, stroking her fingers through the auburn tresses. Holly swallows the sob rising in her throat. She lets out a trembling breath. She squeezes her eyes shut.

“N-no. It’s not o-okay. You don’t get it, Poppy. Y-you have no idea the th-things people are s-saying about m-me.”
She sighs defeatedly. Tears drip from her eyes, landing on her face, where they stream downward like salty rivers. Poppy places her hands on Holly’s cheeks. She leans forward, pressing her forehead against Holly’s.

“Listen, Holly. Duchess is a conceited bitch. She’s so insecure that she has to bring others down to make herself feel better. Her telling people about our birth order mishap is just a way for her to earn some measly credit. People are noticing her for once. But you know what? People aren’t going to care soon. Duchess is a nobody. br /> . The only reason people do care about which of us becomes queen is because they’re so caught up in years of tradition that they can’t see any other way. But you know what? When people see how passionate you are about being queen, when they see how little I care about it, they aren’t going to care anymore. This is all going to be over soon. Okay?”

Poppy heaves a great sigh as her speech stumbles to a stop. She squeezes Holly’s shoulders before pulling away. Holly looks down at the crumpled blue sheets, running her finger across the soft material. She sniffs, swiping her sleeve under her nose. She takes a deep, shaky breath, struggling to ward off the onslaught of tears.

 

Poppy looks up, gazing sadly at Holly’s contorted face, at the tears streaming down her rosy cheeks. Her eyes, usually alight with joy and excitement, are red and puffy. Holly chokes out a sob as Poppy leans forward, wrapping her arms around her. She hugs her tightly, pulling her close against her chest.

Holly doesn’t reciprocate, her arms limp at her sides, but Poppy just squeezes her tighter. Holly rests her chin on her sister’s shoulder, as she gazes blearily at the periwinkle walls across the room. She bites her lip, refusing to give into the tears pooling in her eyes, refusing to allow the sobs ripping at her throat to consume her.

As Poppy’s fingers trail through her hair, agitation starts to prick at Holly’s skin, begins to pull at her muscles. Her legs ache to move, to run away from here. Away from this place where her breath sits like a rock within her chest, where her body burns with flashes of heat, where her heart thumps in her chest, pounds in her throat.

She jerks out of the embrace. Poppy looks at her, her mouth agape.
“I-I’m sorry,” Holly gasps, as she shakily rises to her feet. “I’m sorry. It’s not you. I just need to go!”
Dashing to the door, she flings it open and races out. Poppy doesn’t follow.

She runs through the maze-like halls, the commotion blurring past on either side as she hurries past. Her footsteps pound against the tile floor, echoing in her ears. Her heart thumps against her ribcage, as if it will burst right out of her chest.

As she bustles past the rows of lockers, she crashes into somebody. Books and papers sail through the air. A girl gasps. Holly’s cheeks burn when she sees a startled Apple White, her arms still reached outward to slow the impact.
“I’m so, so sorry, Apple!” Holly splutters.

She immediately crouches down, gathering the fallen stack of books and papers with trembling hands. Apple crouches beside her to help. She places a hand on Holly’s shoulder.
“It’s alright, sweetie,” she says, in her usual cheerful, reassuring tone.

They stand. Holly shyly hands her the pile of books. Apple takes them, frowning.
“Are you okay?” she asks softly.
Her thin brows furrow with concern. Holly swallows.
“I-I’m fine,” she squeaks. She clears her throat. “I should be asking if you’re alright.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Apple says, smiling brightly.

The expression of concern quickly returns. She steps forward, delicately setting a hand on Holly’s shoulder.
“Are you really okay?” she asks gently. “Is there anything you want to talk about? We could go to my dorm.”

Tears press against the backs of Holly’s eyelids at the kindness in Apple’s voice. For a moment, she considers taking the girl’s generous offer, spilling out all the sadness and worry that has been festering within her the past week, letting it out and crying in Apple’s warm arms, listening to the girl quietly reassure her that she’s a good person, that she doesn’t deserve to feel this way, that she’s there for her.

Holly closes her eyes, slowly exhaling. No. She doesn’t need to burden anybody else with her endless stream of problems. She snaps her eyes open, plastering on her most convincing smile.
“I’m doing good,” she says with as much enthusiasm as she can muster.

Apple doesn’t look convinced.
“Really?” she asks. “Because it’s got to be really hard with…”
Holly cuts her off.
“Oh, look at the time.”
She hurriedly glances at her pink wristwatch. Her heart races.
“I’ve got to get to writing club! See you later, Apple!”

With an overdone grin and a wave, she briskly stalks away. She’s not going to go to writing club. Not like this, with the tears welling in her eyes, the shaky gasps forcing their way up her throat, the uncontrollable shudders racking her frame.

As she exits the school, she instinctively begins to walk somewhere she feels safe, somewhere she can finally relax and allow herself to cry. She strolls along the road toward the dragon stables. People she knows smile and wave at her as she passes. She gives them halfhearted greetings, then quickly walks away before they can ask questions.

 

She looks around as she walks, the line of trees a blurred stroke of green on either side of her. She sniffles, reaching up every other moment to wipe at her dripping nose and eyes. Dust swirls around her as she hurries down the winding dirt trail. She begins to cough, which rapidly transitions to a sneeze that she muffles against the crook of her arm.

The sun’s rays beat down on her. Beads of sweat roll down her forehead. Finally, she arrives, panting, at the dragon stables. Its wooden doors stand tall before her. She pulls at the metal handle. The doors fly open with a loud creak. Musty air wafts out.

She enters the dimly lit vicinity, quickly scanning the area. It’s empty. She lets out a trembling breath. Shoulders slumped, she walks slowly over to a wall in the corner. It’s darker there, immersed in shadow and away from the dragon’s stalls. She leans against the hard wooden wall, her back slowly sliding down until she lands softly on the dirt floor.

Drawing her knees to her chest, she encircles her arms around her legs, burying her face in them. As darkness infiltrates her vision, as the mild scent of laundry detergent from her wool sweater reaches her nose, she finally allows the sobs release. They resound through the cavernous room, echoing off the opposite wall.

She gasps and shudders, relishing the sensation of hot tears streaming down her cheeks, soaking into the sleeves of her sweater. She isn’t aware of how much time she sits there, weeping, before a hand delicately touches her shoulder.

“Hey, Holly,” a distinctly feminine voice murmurs. “Are you alright?”
Holly’s head snaps up. Her auburn tresses are matted to her tear-streaked face. She sniffs, pulling away as much hair as she can. She tucks the strands behind her ears.

As she wipes away the trails of tears with the pads of her thumbs, she sees that the girl is Darling Charming. She’s crouched on the wooden floor, dressed in her usual pastel blue dress. Her platinum blond hair cascades over her shoulders. Her brows are furrowed, her plush, pink lips parted.

Holly stares at the girl, as her gasps and sniffles slow to a stop. Darling waits patiently as she collects herself. Finally, Holly speaks, her voice hoarse.
“I’m okay. I just-”
Her voice breaks. She swallows.

When she speaks again, the words come pouring out.
“It’s just been so hard the past week! The news segments about me, saying I’m a liar, a cheat, a fake, that I don’t deserve anything, to be queen! I-”
She hiccups. A tear slides down to her chin.

“And people actually believing it!” she tearfully exclaims. “People glaring at me in the halls, people blocking me when I’m trying to walk, then proceeding to insult me! All this bullying-” She shakes her head. “I just can’t take it! And Duchess-I’ve never hated anybody. Truly, I haven’t. But I-I want to hurt her! I want her to feel pain! For what she did to Poppy and I by telling everybody! I-I hate this feeling, this fire in my chest! I feel like a horrible person for just thinking of injuring her! A-And I never actually would, b-but-”

A cacophony of sobs overtakes her. She curls in on herself protectively as tears begin spilling down her cheeks. She gasps as a pair of arms encircle her, pulling her close.
“It’s okay, Holly,” Darling whispers in her ear. “Just let it out.”

Holly releases a trembling breath as she relaxes into the embrace. Darling’s strong arms hold her tight as she sinks further into the warmth. Holly buries her face in the fabric of Darling’s dress, sniffling and hiccuping against the poofy sleeve.

 

Darling doesn't say another word. She embraces the girl, stroking deft fingers through the thick auburn locks. Holly squeezes Darling, clinging to her like a lifeline. As the shudders intensify, she holds tighter.

Darling only strengthens the embrace, shifting slightly so that she can rest her cheek atop the girl’s head. Her fingers trail along her back, tracing shapes against the material of her shirt.

Gradually, the soothing sensations, along with Darling's solid presence, serve to lull Holly into a state of relative calm. Her sobs slowly quiet, reducing from wails to gasps to hiccups. Finally, silence envelops the room, as Holly manages to even her breathing out.

Darling is quiet, her hand alternating between petting Holly's head and rubbing her back. She sits, completely still, as Holly slowly regains her composure. Now that Holly's anguish has decreased, she can think more clearly. She silently marvels at how Darling's arms can be so strong, yet hold her so gently. Holly can feel the muscles beneath the surface of her skin, yet her arms hold her delicately, as if she might break.

As Holly closes her eyes, truly relaxing for the first time in over a week, she becomes aware of Darling's breath, hot against the back of her neck, the slow, steady rise and fall of her chest. Holly breathes deeply, soothed by the ceaseless rhythm.

Holly has nearly fallen asleep when Darling gently speaks.
“Do you feel a little better?”
Holly shifts.
“Yeah,” she croaks.

She slowly pulls back from the embrace, settling back down against the wall. She sighs, reaching up to swipe her sleeve across her tearstained face. She sniffles, wiping her nose. Darling sits down next to her. Holly watches as she rifles through her purse.

She brandishes a silk blue embroidered handkerchief, which she gently places in Holly's trembling hands.
“Here,” she says, her voice soft.
“Thank you,” Holly hoarsely replies.

Darling politely looks away, as Holly wipes her eyes and blows her nose. Glancing down at the now soiled cloth, Holly's face flushes. She clears her throat.
“I'll get this washed for you,” she says, averting her gaze.
“Alright,” says Darling.

Noticing Holly's embarrassment, she smiles.
“Hey,” she says. “It's totally okay, Holly. I'm the one who gave it to you, after all.”
“I guess you're right,” Holly mutters.
“Of course I am.”

Darling smiles brightly. Holly can't help the grin that graces her features as well. She lets out a wet chuckle. Darling takes her hands, gazing intently at her, her ice blue eyes bright and focused.

A tingly sensation, like an electrical current, races down Holly's spine. Her breath stills in her throat. She stares back at Darling, unblinking.
“And for the record,” says Darling. “I know that you are an amazing, strong young woman who deserves everything that you have, as well as what you've earned.”

Holly's heart swells. If she could peer inside her chest, she’s certain it would be glowing with a pure, golden light. That's how she feels. Warm, fuzzy, the single most foreign but pleasant sensation she's ever experienced.

She gazes into Darling’s eyes. They’re mesmerizing, like sheets of snow, reflecting off a pool of water. Thin, blond eyelashes surround the pale eyelids, like dapples of sunlight shining upon a lake.

 

Holly is pulled from her reverie by a soft sensation against her face. She starts. Darling’s thumb strokes Holly’s cheek, wiping away a stray tear.
“There,” Darling murmurs, drawing her hand away. “You’re too pretty to cry.”

A wide smile spreads across Holly’s dimpled cheeks. The heat in her stomach is like the sun on a hot summer day, shining its rays upon the earth. Holly lets out out a shaky laugh.
“Aww, thank you.”

She hopes that the burning in her face isn’t presenting itself as it usually does-a pink sheen surrounding her pale, chubby cheeks. Darling smiles, a soft, wispy expression that releases yet more butterflies into the depths of Holly’s stomach.

“I-I mean,” Darling stutters. “I’m not saying it’s bad to cry. It’s always good to let it out. I mean, not that I’m any expert on that. I usually hold it all in until I explode. But, it’s okay to cry. I’m glad you felt safe enough around me to.”
Darling motions with her hands as she speaks.

 

As her words stumble to a stop, she reaches up a hand, swiping a stray lock of hair out of her face. Holly laughs. Could this girl be any cuter?
“Yeah. I know it’s okay to cry. I usually don’t have any problem with it. Just, this week, I don’t know why, but I’ve been trying so hard to hold it back.”

Darling looks at her as she talks, a soft, understanding expression on her face. Holly averts her gaze slightly, finding that Darling’s eyes somehow muddle her thoughts. She absently twirls a strand of hair around her index finger.

“I think it mostly has to do with Poppy. I-I want to be strong for her. I want to show her that I can handle this without breaking. That I’m strong. You know, I spent most of my life thinking of myself as the older sister. That’s a role that I worked to fulfill our entire childhood. I wanted to inspire her. I wanted to be there for her-to comfort her, to give her advice, to encourage her. And, even though I know that I’m actually the younger sister now, it’s difficult to just let go of something I’ve been doing forever after. I don’t want her to see me crumble. I want to set a good example. Be that source of strength for her. You know?”

She gazes at Darling, who nods. Darling hums in affirmation.
“I totally understand what you’re saying, Holly,” says Darling. “I’m not trying to make this about me, but-”
“Oh, it’s fine,” Holly interjects. “I’d love to hear your perspective.”

Darling smiles. Holly’s heart races. Something about the way her face seems to light up, the one dimple on her left side, the upturning of her thick, pink lips.
“Thanks,” says Darling. “Well, I’ve always felt that way about Dexter. He’s younger by three minutes. I mean, you articulated it a lot better than I ever could. I always had this fierce urge to protect him. Not just physically. I wanted to make sure he was happy. Make sure he believed in himself. See, he’s always lacked confidence. It’s partly his personality, but some of his self-doubt definitely stems from being Daring’s younger brother. I always want him to know how amazing he is. Even though he’s not especially strong and heroic like Daring, he’s smart and kind and caring and-I just want him to see what I see in him. You know, since he started dating Raven last year, he’s come into his own a lot more. I definitely don’t have to work as hard to get him to see his own self-worth, which is good. But, yeah, I can sure relate to you on that one.”

Holly smiles.
“Well, it’s really nice having somebody I can talk to about it. Thank you, Darling.”
“Of course, Holly,” says Darling. “You can talk to me anytime. And, by the way, I understand that Poppy doesn’t want to be queen. I just can see it in her personality. I mean, obviously I don’t know her anywhere near as well as you do. But, you know, from what I can tell, she’s just herself. She’s more laid back. She’s eccentric. She prefers to forge her own path. I know a lot of people are harassing you, saying you don’t have the right to rule. But, honestly, you have every right to if she doesn’t want to. You’ll make an outstanding leader for your kingdom, Holly. And I think that once people see how you’re meant to rule, it will all settle down. You just have to keep being the bright, kind, and intelligent girl you are. Don't let any of this cause you to act any differently.”

Holly doesn't know why Darling's kind words cause her to feel such joy. If anybody else were telling Holly the exact same thing, she wouldn't believe them. With Darling, somehow, Holly is certain that she's telling the truth.

Holly adores words. She always has. That's why she writes. The sounds, rich as dark chocolate, brittle as broken brick, smooth as velvet, fill her with delight. She wants to ride the wave of every nuance, soak up the beauty of each syllable like a sponge.

Words, though, no matter how majestic, have never meant more to her than the ones Darling just now said to her. Holly doesn't even realize she's zoned out until a soft hand cups her cheek. She blinks. Darling is gazing gently at her, big, blue eyes filled with concern. Holly is confused until she senses the tears streaming down her face.
“Oh, I’m crying again,” she mumbles.

She's immediately flooded with embarrassment. Darling strokes the pad of her thumb across the damp skin.
“It's alright,” she murmurs.
Holly sniffs. Darling lets go of her cheek. She places her hand on Holly's shoulder.

Holly wipes her eyes. She lets out a wet chuckle.
“I don't know why,” she murmurs. “You're just so sweet. Nobody ever really compliments me like that. And, you know, I'm emotional in the first place, so…” Her voice trails off.
Darling gives her a soft smile.
“I understand,” she says.

Holly smiles, more genuinely than she has in weeks. It takes no thought or effort on her part. It simply lights up her face, like stars do the night sky.
“Thank you, Darling, for everything,” she says. “I feel so much better.”
Darling draws her hand away. She smiles brightly.
“Oh, I'm so glad,” she says.

Holly’s smile fades. An awkward silence ensues. The wings in Holly's stomach have just transformed from wings of pleasure to wings of discomfort when Darling clears her throat.
“And, Holly,” she says, “I just want you to know that I’m always here for you. Whenever somebody is bullying you, just send me a hext. I'll be there quick. You know, I’m pretty fast.”
Holly giggles.

“I'll set them straight,” Darling continues. “Since everybody knows I'm a knight now, they've started taking me more seriously. One of my duties as a knight is to defend people’s honor. And, Holly, you're one of the people whose honor I’d be happiest to defend.”

The wings flapping within Holly's stomach are, without a doubt, now pleasant. Holly’s face feels like it's being consumed by heat. God, does she hope that she's not furiously blushing. She exhales.
“Thank you so much, Darling.”

She struggles to keep her voice even. Her heart has started pounding. She feels restless, like she needs to move. Not how she felt earlier when Poppy was hugging her, though. This is different. She wants to stay with Darling. There's no urge to be anywhere else. She feels like her body is surging with energy, though, from some unknown source.

 

She gazes at Darling, at her crystal clear eyes, and clears her throat.
“I'll always be here for you, too. If there's anything you ever want to talk about, I'm here.”
Darling smiles.
“Do you want to exchange numbers?” she suggests.

Holly’s heart leaps. The heat is submerging her now, covering every part of her body like a heavy quilt does on a hot July night. Holly prays that her voice won't tremble.
“Sure.” It's clear as a bell.
“Okay.”

Both girls pull their phones from their pockets. They tell each other their numbers, as the other types it in. Holly looks down at her phone as she types, grateful for the excuse to not focus on Darling's face for a second. She doesn't understand what's happening. Why does she feel so hot? Even her private area is heating up, which has never happened to her in her entire life.

She closes her eyes, taking a deep breath. She saves the number to her contacts before glancing up. Darling is smiling at her. Holly doesn't even have to remind herself to smile back. It's a process as natural as breathing. Another moment of awkward silence occurs, in which Holly feels like crawling out of her skin.

Darling looks down at her phone.
“It's 11:45,” she announces. “Rosabella and I were planning to meet for lunch at noon.”
She gazes at Holly.
“I have no problem with cancelling, though, if you still feel like you need to talk.”
“Oh no, I'm fine now,” Holly assures her. “Go and have fun.”

Darling smiles and opens her mouth. She pauses.
“Do you want to come with me?” she asks. “Rosabella and I would love hanging out with you, too.”
Holly’s stomach tingles with nervous excitement. On one hand, she wants to go with Darling.

Spending more time with the other princess sounds like an adventure, fresh with possibility. However, she feels the need to see Poppy, to apologize for running out on her like she did.
“Thank you so much for the offer,” she says, “but I need to go spend some time with Poppy. I kinda ran out on her earlier.”

Darling nods, an expression of understanding visible on her face.
“Alright.”
Darling stands up. She turns to Holly and extends her hand. Holly stares blankly for a moment before realizing she's trying to help her up. Holly's face flushes.

She reaches out her arm. Darling grips Holly's hand and gently pulls her up.
“Thank you,” says Holly, dusting off her backside.
“No problem,” says Darling.
Holly folds the handkerchief before stuffing it in her pocket.

She follows Darling out of the stables. The sunlight is blinding as Holly steps outside. She shields her eyes.
“Well, bye, Holly,” says Darling.

She steps forward, giving Holly a hug. Holly begins to melt into the embrace, but Darling pulls away a quick moment later. She smiles.
“And remember, just call or hext me if you need anything,” she says.
“I will. Thank you,” replies Holly. “Charm you later!”

Darling waves before turning and walking in the direction of Book End. Holly stares, watching the platinum blond hair bobbing behind her. She shakes her head, turns, and heads back toward school.

XXX

As soon as Holly enters the school, she knows something is wrong with Poppy. Call it a twin sense. She rushes up the winding staircase, hurries through the hall, and approaches her dorm room. She knocks.
“Poppy,” she calls. “Can I come in?”

There's no answer. Holly places her ear against the wooden door. She hears sobbing. Her heart races.
“Okay, Poppy, I'm coming in!”
She enters the room before quickly shutting the door. The lights are off, and the curtain is closed.

Through the dim light, Holly sees Poppy. She's sitting in bed, her knees drawn to her chest. Her face is buried in her arms. Holly can see her body shaking from here. She runs over.
“Poppy,” she breathes.
She settles on the bed before her. She reaches out, squeezing Poppy's legs.
“What's wrong, Poppy?” she asks, her voice soft.

Poppy lifts her swollen face. Her eyes are red and puffy. Her face is streaked with tears.
“Oh, Poppy. What happened?”
Holly reaches out, wiping Poppy's cheeks with the pads of her thumbs.
“I-I j-just,” Poppy shudders. “d-don’t kn-know wh-what t-t-to d-do.”

Holly's heart sinks. She reaches out, pulling Poppy into a hug. Poppy is stiff. Holly can feel the trembles racking the girl's frame. She gently draws Poppy closer, guiding her head to rest on her shoulder.
“It's okay, Poppy,” Holly murmurs. “Everything will be okay. I'm here.”
I
t's as if a switch has been flicked. Poppy lets out a shaky sigh, which is closely followed by a hoarse sob. More follow, and in seconds, the girl is consumed by her tears. Holly doesn't think she's ever felt sadder, listening to her baby sister cry like this. She squeezes her tighter.
“It's okay,” she coos. “It's okay. Shhhhh.”

 

She strokes Poppy's back. Tears soak through Holly's blouse. Holly feels gutted, thinking about how selfish she's been. She's only been thinking about herself this past week, about how the situation affects her.

It never even occurred to her that Poppy is struggling as much as she is. At that moment, she feels like the worst sister in the world. Tears sting her eyes as Poppy's sobs only grow louder. She rests her cheek atop her sister’s head. Her hand travels to Poppy's hair, where it smooths over the auburn and purple tresses, again and again, a perpetual rhythm.

She becomes entranced by the sensation of Poppy's silky locks between her fingers. She's so occupied by her gentle ministrations that she doesn't even notice Poppy has calmed until the girl speaks, her voice muffled by Holly's shirt.
“I'm sorry,” she croaks.
Holly gently squeezes her. She kisses the top of her head.
“No, Poppy, no,” she murmurs. “I'm sorry.”

She resumes rubbing Poppy's back.
“I've been so focused on myself, I haven't even bothered to ask how you're doing. I feel terrible.”
Her voice cracks. Poppy lifts her face from Holly's shoulder. She sniffles.
“Oh, Holly, it's okay.”
Poppy squeezes her back.

“You've been so stressed out. I don't have it nearly as bad as you do.”
“I know, but-” Holly sighs. “That doesn't mean your feelings aren't valid. If you're upset, I want to hear about it. Don't refrain from telling me just because I'm struggling a bit right now.”

Poppy sighs. Holly gently pulls away. She reaches out, wiping a tear from her sister’s cheek. She leans forward, kissing the soft skin where the teardrop had lay, glistening in the glow of the fluorescent light. Poppy smiles, touched by the sweet act of affection they’d performed every time one of them cried for as long as they could remember.

Smiling back at her sister, Holly reaches out her arms, wrapping Poppy in another embrace. Poppy hugs her back tightly. They sit, silent, their bodies entwined, enjoying the familiar warmth and security. Holly exhales, feeling, for the second time that day, that she's able to completely relax.

She still has to face the harrassment, the false news articles, portraying her as selfish and power-hungry. She still has to handle the students, their reactions, ranging from sympathetic glances to fiery insults. She still has her entire destiny before her, stretched to the rosy horizon.

She has new feelings stirring inside of her, a type of emotion she’s never experienced before bubbling in the pit of her stomach. The only time she’s ever felt such a powerful, enthralling, but all the while foreign sense was in the stables with Darling today.

Her soft hand brushing against Holly’s cheek. Her bright blue eyes, wide with concern, with genuine sympathy for Holly. Her breath, hot against Holly’s ear, whispering. It’s okay, Holly. Just let it out.

Holly doesn’t understand how a casual acquaintance could, in one hour, invoke this new depth of emotion within her. She’s going to listen to Darling, though. It is okay. She has Poppy, always. She has caring, loyal friends who will stand by her side.

She has her creativity, dropping and blooming petals simultaneously every moment. She’s going to just let it out. No longer will she let negative emotions cause her to push those who love her away.

She has a heart. A big, loving, scared, unsure heart. And she will share it with the world.

Chapter Text

Raven struggles desperately to not succumb to the panic ripping at her chest. She takes deep breaths, in through her nose, out through her mouth. In, out. In, out. She glances over at Apple, whose knuckles are white, as she grips the steering wheel. Her eyes are glued to the road before her. Raven squeezes her eyes shut, fighting off the tears that prick the backs of her eyelids. She needs to keep it together. She's been a blubbering mess the past couple days. She's fully relied on Apple, her best friend, for comfort and support. She’s noticing, though, that the situation has taken its toll on her as well, though. Though the girls did get some rest today back at Apple's house, Apple must've not slept well. Dark bags lie below her bright blue eyes. She’s been stifling yawn after yawn the whole drive. Raven lets out a shuddering breath, as the image of Dexter is conjured in her mind. His pale, bloodied face, eerily illuminated by the harsh glow of a fluorescent light. The memory of her father, his pale, lifeless figure lying, unmoving, in the decorative wood coffin. Raven standing before him, tears rolling steadily down her cheeks. Apple's soft hand in hers, gently squeezing. Dexter’s arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders. Raven lets out a shuddering breath, as she fails to block the image from her mind. Apple glances over at her.

“Hey,” she soothes. “It's okay, Raven. Everything is going to be okay. I just need you to stay calm right now, okay? Just breathe. Deep breaths. Deep, deep breaths.”

Raven nods. She shakily inhales, trying to ward off the tears welling in her eyes. Apple takes a hand off the wheel, reaching over to hold Raven's hand. She gives it a tight squeeze.
“You're okay, sweetie,” she murmurs, as Raven slowly gains her composure. “You're okay.”
She draws her hand away after a few moments, placing it back on the steering wheel. Raven leans back, resting her head against the headrest. Breathe, she thinks to herself. I just need to breathe. Keep breathing. Deep breaths.

XXX

Raven's heart pounds, crashing against her ribcage like a sledgehammer. She races down the hall, the white walls a blur on either side of her. Apple and Darling rush directly behind her, hand in hand. The girls approach Dexter's room. Dr. Pine is standing by the open wooden door, gazing down at a clipboard. He looks up as he hears their footsteps.
“Dr. Pine,” Darling breathes. “How is Dexter?”
“Girls, before you enter, I must warn you-”
“I’m sorry!” Raven exclaims. “I need to see him!”
She darts past Dr. Pine, dashing into the dimly lit room. She scarcely registers the vicinity is occupied by many others-Dexter’s parents, Daring, Rosabella, and Briar. Dexter is sitting up straight, his head still bandaged. His face is still scraped, marred by bloody cuts, but his glasses are on. His tousled brown locks cover his forehead. Raven's stomach flutters. Tears of relief stream from her eyes. She gasps.
“Dexter!” she shrieks.

She surges forward, scrambling to his bedside. She settles next to him. She gently wraps her arms around him. She presses her face against his shoulder. The scent of antiseptic pervades her nose.
“Baby,” she chokes out. “I love you so much!”
She lets out a hoarse sob. His arms slowly envelop her. He holds her lightly, not with the same intensity and warmth that he usually embraces her with. She weeps into his shoulder for a couple minutes, the fear and anxiety of the past twenty four hours draining out of her, appearing as tiny, warm droplets on the sleeve of Dexter's gown. He pats her back. Raven is so overwhelmed by joy that she doesn't even consider how flimsy the hug is. She pulls away after a few moments. She gazes at Dexter, at his smooth, pale face, his blue eyes, dark as the night sky. She reaches out, stroking her thumb across his cheekbone.
“Dex,” she breathes. “I love you. I couldn't stand the thought of living without you! I-”
She chokes out a sob. Tears spill down her cheeks, dripping upon the white blankets. Through her blurry eyesight, she notices an apologetic expression spreading over Dexter's face. He takes a shaky breath. Raven draws her hand away from his face, delicately setting it upon his shoulder.
“What's wrong, baby?” she whispers.
“I-I,” he stutters. “I-I’m sorry, I just-do I know y-you?”
Raven's hand goes limp, collapsing upon her lap. The wind is knocked out of her, as if she's been punched in the gut. She keels over, clutching her stomach. She hears a faint echo, against the ringing in her ears.
“Dr. Pine!” Darling frightfully exclaims. “Wh-what is he talking about?”

Raven's trembling hands cover her face. A hand is placed on her shoulder.
“That's what I was going to tell you, girls,” says Dr. Pine, his tone somber. “Dexter has suffered memory loss. We don't know how extensive it is yet. We’ll have to run some tests-”
Raven's heartbeat, thumping against her skull, overpowers all background noise. She clutches her head. An arm slides around her shoulders. She can't be here right now. She can't look at anybody. She can't touch anybody. She lets out a strangled scream. Jumping to her feet, she runs, hunched over, head ducked, out of the room.
“Raven, wait!” Apple yells.
Raven is already gone, dashing down the hall. The world is an overwhelming blur of color and sound, as she rushes down the stairs. She trips on the last step, falling to her knees on the tile floor.
“Are you alright, miss?” a voice worriedly asks.
Raven scrambles to her feet. The physical pain is s fuzzy sensation, compared to the sharp pangs traveling rapidly throughout her chest and stomach. T

The wind pushes against her, whipping past her ears, as she runs down the sidewalk. The parking lot is a black stroke of paint, flickering in and out of her focus on her right side. She dashes, her feet pounding against the white asphalt. She comes to a sudden stop at the entrance to an alleyway. She makes a sharp turn, entering the area,shoes scraping against the narrow road of gravel. She runs past the dumpsters, past the white walls of graffiti. She slips. Her ankle rolls, and she collapses facefirst, on the ground. A stabbing pain rushes through her foot. She lets out a groan. She slowly sits up.

Vision spiraling, shoulders heaving with sobs, she crawls over to the wall. Pieces of gravel become embedded in her palms. Leaning back against the bumpy white cement, she breathes rapidly, struggling to not scream. Her ankle throbs, but the pain is nothing compared to the screaming agony in her chest, the fire smoldering within her gut. The worst thing that could possibly happen, in Dexter's situation, has occurred, and there's nothing that Raven, or anybody, can do to stop it. Raven would do anything for Dexter. She would bear any amount of pain, fight any evil, withstand any curse. She'd die for him. She'd fucking jump in front of an approaching grenade for him. Now, though, when Dexter needs her the most, she's helpless. There's nothing she can possibly do. She wishes, more than anything else, that she could reach inside his head, flick a switch up on his brain, and he'd remember her. He'd remember all the memories, happy, hexciting, romantic, and heartbreaking that they'd shared. It breaks Raven, shatters her heart like glass, that he may never remember the adventures they'd experienced, the challenges they'd faced, the seemingly eternal days of pure bliss, where they’d lay in each other's arms, kissed the other’s lips, wings of a butterfly flapping against each other.

Raven hears a sudden heartwrenching scream. Her heart races. She lets out a guttural gasp. It takes her a long, blurry moment to realize that she's the one who emitted it. She raises a trembling hand to her mouth. A strand of hair falls over her face. And she loses it. She curls in on herself, her knees rising against her chest, her head sinking to rest against them. Her vision fills with darkness, and she cries. Each sob causes her to shake more and more violently. As the minutes stretch by, her wails only intensify. She's choking on her own tears and snot. She lets out hoarse screams. They tear at her throat like rusty blades.

XXX

“Shit,” Briar mutters.
She bends over, resting her hands on her knees. She breathes heavily, her heart pounding against her ribcage. She's not as fit as she was back in high school. Her days of thrill-seeking activities, requiring large amounts of both stamina and adrenaline, have become increasingly rare occurrences. She pulls her phone out of her pocket, checking for calls or texts.
“Shit,” she repeats.
Apple evidentially hasn't found Raven either. The girls had split up after ten minutes of unsuccessful searching. Briar had been jogging around the hospital grounds, looking, for nearly fifteen minutes now. Trying to ignore the burning in her legs, she begins running again. She spots the entrance to an alleyway out of the corner of her eye. It's worth a try. She makes her way over to it. The narrow road is located just off the side of the hospital building.

Briar takes a few steps in. Gravel crunches under her black heels. Piles of trash are scattered around the ground. The scents of cigarette smoke and garbage fills the air. She suddenly registers the sound of sobbing. She walks faster. A heartwrenching wail pierces the air. She runs, her heart pounding. She follows the crying noises. She quickly stumbles upon a girl, her knees drawn to her chest, her face buried in them. Purple hair flows over her hunched shoulders. The breath is sucked from Briar’s lungs.
“Raven,” she breathes.
She surges forward.
“Hey, sweetie,” she murmurs, crouching down before her.

She places a hand on the girl's leg. She worries her lip between her front teeth. Raven's sobs echo through the alley. They crash against Briar’s skull, slice through her gut. A wave of nausea overcomes her, just from thinking about the pain Raven is in right now. She quickly draws her phone from her pocket. She hexts with her right hand. “I found her. She's in an alley right off the west wing of the building.” Her left hand gently rubs Raven’s leg. As soon as the hext sends, she places her phone back in her pocket and turns her attention to her hysterical friend. Frankly, Briar doesn't even know if Raven notices her. Whenever Raven gets this worked up, she tends to scarcely register anything until she's calmed down. Still, Briar can't just sit there. She needs to offer the girl comfort, even if it won't help.

She settles next to Raven, resting her back against the cement wall. Taking a deep breath, she reaches her arms out, wrapping them around Raven’s shoulders from the side. Slowly, she drags the girl closer, gently pulling her head to lie against her chest. Raven, between sobs and shudders, melts into the embrace. She sinks into Briar’s lap, rests her cheek against her bosom, and grips fistfuls of her hot pink sweater. Briar cradles the girl's head against her chest. She slowly caresses her back, her soft, tanned hand stroking over the smooth expanse. Raven nearly convulses with the intensity of her sobs. They rack through her frame with the force of an earthquake. Briar instinctively hugs her tighter, momentarily afraid that her friend will break, shatter into shards of glass. She breathes deeply, trying to keep herself together. Her friends are being sucked into the earth, swallowed whole by quicksand, and there's nothing she can do to pull them out. She can only hold Raven in her arms, rub her back, repeatedly kiss her head. Tears stream down Briar’s cheeks. She quietly sniffles. She rests her chin against the top of Raven’s head, staring through blurry eyes at the dirty white wall ahead.

Briar starts at the sound of crunching gravel. She lets out a quiet gasp, as a figure comes into view. Relief washes over her, as she realizes the person is Apple. Apple hurries towards them, her blond curls bobbing against her shoulders. She sits down in front of Briar.
“Hey,” she murmurs.
“Hey,” Briar croaks.
She sniffs. Apple gazes at her concernedly.
“Are you okay?” she asks, her voice soft.
“Yeah. I-I’m just sad.”
Briar takes a deep, shaky breath.
“I know,” says Apple. “It's gonna be okay.”
Briar slowly nods. Apple reaches out, wiping the tears from Briar’s face with the pads of her thumbs. Briar smiles.
“Thanks.”
“Of course.”
As Apple slowly draws her hand away, she places it on Raven's back. She gazes at the crying girl, her eyes filled with tears.
“Poor baby,” she whispers. She sniffles. “I wish there was more I could do.”
“I know,” Briar soothes. “I know. Me too.”

Briar gives Raven a squeeze, as she emits an especially loud wail. She presses her lips to the girl's head. As Raven's sobs only continue to increase in volume, more tears replace the ones Apple had wiped away. They trail down Briar’s face, hot against her skin. Briar, knowing that Apple always feels the need to be doing something, lets her take on the role of rubbing Raven's back. Silent tears roll down Apple's cheeks as well.

Briar loses track of time, but eventually Raven's sobs cease. She hiccups and sniffles against Briar’s shirt. Her body continues to tremble. Apple strokes her back, while Briar runs her fingers through her hair. After minutes of relative silence, Raven groggily lifts her tearstained face from Briar’s chest. Briar loosens her hold slightly. Raven swipes her fist across her swollen eyes.
“Briar?” she mumbles. She hiccups. “A-Apple?”
“We’re here, Raven,” Apple murmurs. “We’re right here.”
Raven shifts in Briar’s lap, turning to rest the back of her head against her shoulder. Briar continues to stroke her hair. Apple brandishes a packet of tissues from her purse. She pulls out a handful. She moves closer and helps Raven blow her nose. She then dabs away the tears from her face. She kisses her forehead before pulling away and putting the tissues in her purse.

The girls sit in silence for a few moments, letting Raven recover slightly from her breakdown, before Apple quietly speaks.
“I think we should get out of here and get you home,” she murmurs.
Briar nods.
“That sounds like a good idea. Do you think that sounds good, Raven?” Briar gently asks.
“B-but D-Dexter-” Raven's breath hitches. “Wh-what a-am I-I g-going t-t-to d-do?”
Briar hugs Raven tighter.
“Sweetie, that's nothing you can handle right now,” says Apple, her voice soft. “You need to go home and rest.”
Raven sniffles. Briar thinks that she's going to cry again, but moments of silence then ensue. Briar figures that Raven has sobbed herself dry.

Finally, Apple stands and stretches.
“Here, Raven. Let me help you up.”
Apple reaches down, extending her arm.
“M-My a-ankle,” Raven stutters.
“What's wrong with your ankle?” Apple asks, her voice laced with concern.
“F-Fell. T-Twisted i-it.”
Briar winces. A sprained ankle. Just what Raven needs, on top of everything else, she thinks.
“Alright,” Apple says calmly. “It’s okay. How much does it hurt on a scale from one to ten?”
Raven thinks for a moment.
“Probably l-like a f-five,” she mutters.
“Okay. So, moderate,” Apple remarks. “Do you think you can stand on it?”
“It’ll h-hurt,” says Raven, still breathless from her sobbing. “But I-I think I can.”
“Okay,” says Apple, her voice gentle. “We’ll go slowly.”
She grasps Raven, and slowly, as she said, pulls her up. Raven stumbles at first, but quickly regains her balance. Briar shakily rises to her feet, reaching up to stretch her stiff arms.
“Is it manageable?” Apple hesitantly asks.
“The a-ankle is,” Raven mumbles.

Briar’s heart breaks for her friend. She wants nothing more than to hold her in her arms again, but she knows that it's best if Raven doesn't break down again until they're home. Then, at least, she can be physically comfortable. Instead, Apple steps forward and envelops Raven in a hug. She holds her, rubbing her back for a moment before slowly pulling away and taking her hands.
“Let's go home,” she murmurs.
Raven nods.
Apple wraps an arm around Raven's shoulders, holding some of the girl’s weight, as they begin walking out of the alley. Briar holds Raven’s hand.
“We have to take your car, Briar,” says Apple. “I have to leave mine here so Darling can drive it when she decides to come home.”
“Alright,” replies Briar. “Sounds good.”
The girls make their away across the parking lot, slowly heading to Briar’s car. Raven breathes heavily.
“Are you doing okay, baby?” Apple asks worriedly.
“I-I’m fine,” Raven pants. “It just h-hurts.”
“I know, sweetie,” Apple coos. “We’re almost there.”
Briar squeezes Raven’s hand.

After a few minutes of walking, they arrive at Briar’s hot pink bug. Briar settles in the driver’s seat, while Apple and Raven sit in the back.
“One minute, guys,” says Apple. “I need to check in with Darling.”
Briar and Raven are silent, as Apple holds the phone to her ear.
“Hey, sweetheart,” says Apple tiredly. “How’s everything going?”
Briar can faintly hear Darling's voice on the other end.
“Alright, baby. I left my car, so whenever you're ready, just come back to my place. Just don't stay too late.”
Apple is quiet for a moment, as Darling speaks.
“Okay, sweetie. And if you need anything, call me. I can come anytime.”
Another pause.
“Alright, baby. Bye.”
She hangs up. As soon as she slips her phone into her pocket, she turns to Raven and wraps her arms around her. Raven rests her head against her shoulder. Briar takes a deep breath before starting the car. The stress is starting to get to her. Her heart is pounding. She feels a migraine coming on. She pulls out of the parking spot.

XXX

Raven lies her head back against the propped up pillow. The ice pack resting on her foot burns her skin slightly. She gazes at her red, swollen ankle before glancing over at Apple, who is sitting beside her. Apple gives her a soft smile. Raven tries to smile back, but she figures it looks more like a pained grimace. Apple reaches out, gently tucking a lock of hair behind Raven’s ear.
“I love you, sweetie,” she murmurs.
“Love you, too,” Raven mutters.
Her eyes prickle. Briar enters the bedroom, holding a glass of water.
“Thanks,” says Raven, as it’s given to her.
“You’re welcome, sweetie,” replies Briar.
She hands Raven two blue Motrin pills. Raven gulps them down with a swig of water.
“Drink the whole glass,” Apple says gently.

Raven reluctantly obliges. The water slightly soothes her scratchy throat. Briar takes the glass from her when she's done and sets it on the bedside table. As soon as Raven settles back against the soft, white pillow, panic and despair again overwhelm her. Dexter doesn't remember her. Every beautiful memory has been erased, roughly scrubbed off a blackboard, a blackboard completely filled with colorful drawings. All that's left are the soggy remains of chalk shavings.

She becomes lightheaded, as her breathing shortens. Shit. She can't take it. She can't fucking take it. The Dexter that she knows is gone, possibly forever, and there's nothing that she can do to reach him. She wants to claw her face, scratch the skin until it bleeds, until rivers of blood stream down her cheeks. She’s not strong enough right now, though. All she can do is burst into tears. Only tears slide down her face, fat, warm droplets that slide into her mouth, filling her tastebuds with salt. She scarcely registers Apple’s arms encircling her. She feels her head being gently drawn to rest against something soft and warm. She chokes on her sobs, gasping for air between each one. Her body shakes, and she clutches the body that's holding her, grasps the material of their shirt. She desperately desires death right now, to painlessly fall into a never-ending sleep. She doesn't want to live in a world where Dexter doesn't remember her. She just knows that she won't be able to. Her wails consume her. She holds onto the person tighter.

She soon begins to cough uncontrollably, to gag on the snot filling her nose and throat.
“I think she's going to puke,” she faintly hears a voice say.
She’s pulled into a sitting position.
“Raven, sweetie, you need to stand up.
It's Apple, her voice like a songbird, somehow elegantly flying in a bitter cold sky, weaving past the fat raindrops, through the bolts of lightning. Raven slowly opens her eyes. Apple is standing before her, holding her hands. Raven's body racks with a heave. She lets out a gag.
“Come on, baby!” Apple exclaims.

Raven allows herself to be pulled to her feet. She stumbles half-blindly forwards, letting herself be led by the warm hand grasping hers. She gags again as they enter the bathroom. She rushes forward, falling to her knees before the toilet. Another heave causes her to jerk forward, and she begins to vomit. The acid burns her throat. She grips the sides of the toilet. She faintly registers her hair being pulled back. A hand is placed on her back, rubbing slow circles. The sobs continue to rip through her, bursting out between each heave.
“It's okay, baby,” Apple coos. “It's okay. You're doing great. Everything's alright.”
Raven squeezes her eyes shut, trying to focus on the soothing sensation of Apple's strokes.

Even when the vomiting gradually slows to a stop, the sobs don't. Her body trembles more violently with each passing moment. She gasps and shudders, unable to stop herself.
“Here, blow,” murmurs Apple, holding a tissue to her nose.
Raven blows. Another tissue is wiped across her mouth. Her throat is raw, as she's continuously inflicted with more and more sobs.
“I don't think we should have her rinse her mouth right now,” Raven hears Briar say, against the buzzing in her ears. “She’ll probably choke.”
“You're right,” replies Apple.
She continues to caress Raven's back.
“Raven,” she murmurs into her ear. “Do you think you're done?”
Raven nods, unable to speak through her sobs.
“Okay, baby,” she says.

Raven allows herself to be hoisted to her feet. Arms are wrapped around her shoulders from both sides. She leans into the support, as they walk back into the bedroom. Raven, through her tears, sees the bed as they approach and collapses into it. Her body sinks into the mattress. She buries her face in a pillow, not wanting to see anything right now but total darkness. She smells lavender, traces of the essential oil that Apple puts drops of on her pillows to help her relax at night. Arms are, for the upteenth time that day, wrapped around her, and she cuddles into the warmth, pressing her face against a soft chest. Another pair of arms hugs her from behind. Raven continues to cry, as images of Dexter swarm like hordes of wasps within her mind. She feels his lips pressed against hers, as soft and comforting as a flannel blanket. She tastes him, she smells him. His fingers are trailing through her hair. Her senses are on fire, but she loves it. She desires it more than anything else in the world. But she can't have it.

Chapter Text

December 3, 2017

“Holly, Holly, let down your hair!” Darling calls.
She hears a high-pitched giggle from above, and within seconds, Holly is at the window.
“Darling!” she shrieks. “You were serious?!”
“Well, yeah,” says Darling. “I pretty much always am.”
“Hmm, interesting,” replies Holly, “given that you recently told me you always have your head in the clouds.”
Darling can’t help but laugh. Holly chuckles, as she hoists herself up to the window’s ledge. She stands, turns around, and her incredibly long mane of auburn hair flows behind her, cascading outwards into the wind. She stretches her arms out to her side and falls backward. She sails through the air, laughing with glee, and Darling, being a Charming, has no problem catching her. Holly giggles, and lying bridal style in Darling’s arms, reaches out, tucking a strand of the blond’s hair behind her ear.
“Oh, my beautiful, heroic knight,” she says, feigning astonishment. “Thank you for saving my life!”
Darling rolls her eyes before setting a standing Holly to the ground.
“Can’t help being a Charming,” she mutters.
“Weirdos!” Poppy yells before shutting the window and drawing the curtain.
Both girls look at each other and promptly burst into laughter. Their mirth is contagious, and Darling laughs until her belly hurts. She then breathes, trying to control herself, and turns to Holly, who is still giggling.
“Well, I promised you an adventure,” she says, “and I think I have an idea of something you may like.”
Holly smiles. Darling can scarcely make out the bright blue-green hue of her eyes through the yellow light of the lantern. Holly takes her hand.
“Well, as I’m not used to being out at night, you’ll have to hold my hand and protect me.”
Darling laughs.
“Well, of course,” she says. “I’ve been to the place a few times by myself, and I assure you, it’s very safe. It’s through the Enchanted Forest, after all. Not the Dark Forest.”
“Good,” replies Holly. “If it was in the Dark Forest, there’d be no chance of you getting me to go.”
“Yup. There’ll be no risk-taking tonight. Just some good old-fashioned fun.”

Holly smiles, and the girls walk, hand in hand, to the entrance of the Enchanted Forest.
“Gods, I’m glad I wore two jackets,” says Holly. “It’s freezing out here.”
“Yeah. Freezing but no snow.” Darling sighs. “I really hope we have a white Christmas.”
“Well, we had a white summer when Crystal Winter came,” says Holly. “Maybe we already used up that privilege for this year.”
Darling chuckles. Holly looks up, as they enter the forest.
“Wow, look at all the stars,” she marvels. “The sky is so clear tonight. You can see so many.”
“Yeah,” says Darling, gazing up at the twinkling white lights spread across the indigo sky. “Just wait until we get to our destination.”
“No spoilers, remember?” says Holly, laughing.
“Well, all I’m saying is you’ll see stars.”
“Well, it sounds wonderful then.”

A comfortable silence ensues, as the girls navigate their way across the path. Darling breathes in the crisp, pine-scented air. She watches as Holly looks around, awestruck by everything, from the tall trees to the brown earth beneath their feet. Darling smiles, her heart warming at her friend’s childlike wonder.
As they come to a rocky part of the trail, Darling holds tighter to Holly’s hand, helping her across. The ground begins to slope uphill. The trees are shrouded by pitch darkness on either side. Darling shines the lantern’s light at the ground before their feet.
“Just a little farther,” she says. “We’re going up the mountain now.”
“It’s not too steep,” says Holly, panting slightly. “I just can’t wait to see what’s at the top.”
Darling smiles, as they continue to ascend.

Within a few minutes, the trail ends and they arrive at the top. The mountaintop is relatively flat and wide. There’s virtually no danger of falling. Darling, now not having to pay attention to the trail, is finally able to look up. Her heart instantly swells with wonder, as it always does when she is faced with this sight. The inky night sky spreads, an immense navy canopy stretching farther than either girl could possibly fathom. Glistening white stars decorate the pallette like fairy lights. Packed together with scarcely any space between, they remind Darling of a giant twinkling blanket. Holly gasps. She squeezes Darling’s hand, as she looks up, gazing open-mouthed at the astronomical did play.
“Oh, my gods!” she breathes. “It's just-gorgeous!”
Her breath hitches, and Darling momentarily wonders if she's going to cry. Both girls stand, silently marveling at the perpetual beauty before their eyes. Several minutes pass before Darling pulls herself from her reverie.
“You want to sit down?” she asks.
“Sure,” Holly absently replies.
She hasn't looked down since their arrival. Her grip on Darling’s hand hasn't ceased. Darling smiles.
“I'm going to need both my hands for just a minute,” she says, lightly laughing.
Holly looks down. She glances down at their intertwined hands.
“Oh, right.”
She gently laughs before letting go. She crosses her arms, gazing up at the sky again, as Darling retrieves a blanket from her satchel and lies it on the ground.
“Here,” she says, lightly chuckling at Holly’s ceaseless amazement.

Both girls settle side by side on the blanket. Holly scoots closer, placing her hand on top of Darling’s. Darling smiles before gazing upwards again. As quiet minutes stretch by, Darling's face grows numb from the freezing air. She blows a puff of air from her lips, watching as her breath forms a small, white cloud.
“I can't tell you just how inspired I feel,” says Holly, her voice soft.
Darling smiles.
“I know. It's something.”
“I feel more creative than I have in months. I've been having pretty had writer’s block lately, and I feel it slowly fading the more I look at this gorgeous sky.”
Darling’s stomach flutters with pleasure at Holly's words. Oftentimes, the girl doesn't even realize that she's talking like she writes. Darling, having been a bookworm practically her entire life, derives a sense of calm and fulfillment from beautiful writing. She knows that Holly writes, but they've never talked about it much.
“Tell me about your writing,” says Darling, the words flowing forth before she can even process them. “It seems to mean a lot to you.”
Holly, her face illuminated both by the glow of the lantern and starlight, brightly smiles.
“I don't talk about it much,” she says. “It's just second nature to me, I guess. I mean, I can't imagine my life without it.”

Darling rests her elbow on her knee, cupping her cheek with a hand, as she gazes at the girl. She listens intently as Holly begins talking, the words streaming from her with a poetic frequency. She tells Darling everything, from her fanfiction to her original characters to her adventure short stories to her two finished novels that she’s too scared to show to a publisher. Darling never takes her eyes off the girl as she speaks, as she absently twists her index finger through a strand of hair. She talks so passionately about every character, and Darling is transfixed, imagining each one. As Holly eventually grows silent, not knowing what else to say, Darling feels a strong urge to read Holly’s work.
“Can I read one of your stories?” she quietly asks.
She feels that if she speaks any louder, the moment will somehow be altered, that the lingering passion in the air will subside. Holly tucks an auburn lock behind her ear, bowing her head slightly.
“I've never had anybody but Poppy read them,” she admits, her voice low.
She turns, gazing at Darling, a thoughtful expression on her face. A moment of silence ensues before a smile slowly spreads across her features.
“I would love to have you be the second person to read them,” she says.
Darling smiles, feeling warmer than she has in a long time.

Several minutes of silence stretch by, in which both girls stare at the sky, entranced again by the infinite beauty right before their eyes.
“Do you like Apple?”
The question is so quiet that Darling scarcely hears it. She does hear it, though, no matter how softly it was uttered. She closes her eyes, wishing she could just pretend she didn't. Holly takes her hand, though, and Darling sighs, unable to ignore her friend, let alone deny her answers.
“I don't know,” she mutters. “I don't know what I feel.”
She pauses, licking her dry lips, as she continues to gaze at the stars. She sighs again.
“All I know is that I technically must be her true love. I didn't ask to be. It just happened, and I don't even know what I'm supposed to think, let alone feel.”
Holly gently squeezes her hand.
“But she's beautiful,” she murmurs. “And she's kind. We haven't discussed the whole “kiss thing” since summer. But when we did, she was so sweet, so understanding. She thanked me several times. She listened to me vent about my mother.”
She lets out a low, whistling sigh.
“She was everything I needed at that time. And we haven't hung out much since then, but we were partners for a Kingdom Management project. She was so easy and fun to work with. She was respectful, letting me contribute just as much as her. She organized all our meeting times. She even brought me a hocus latte every time.”
She chuckles, smiling at the memories.
“She's changed so much in the last year or so. She's always been nice and sweet, but there's this whole new side to her. This considerate, thoughtful side that she never possessed before. And her hugs-man, I-”
She laughs.
“They're so warm and soft and I just wish--I could get more of them.”

She looks down, a blush creeping across her cheeks. Holly squeezes her hand.
“Awww!” she coos. “Somebody definitely has a crush!”
She squeals with delight.
“Oh, gods,” Darling mumbles, burying her face in her hands. “I do. And with the most popular, loved girl in the entire kingdom! The future queen of Ever After! And apparently I'm her true love! Oh, gods!”
“Awww, Darling,” Holly coos.
She wraps her arms around her from the side.
“You two will make a lovely couple! And who cares if she's the loved, popular future queen of Ever After?! You're more than good enough to be her lover!”
Darling lets out a surprised speak.
“Don't say lover!”
Holly chuckles, squeezing Darling tighter. Darling sighs, lying her head on her friend's chest.
“If only love was as simple as our fairytales say,” she mumbles. “I wouldn't have to be experiencing a lesbian crisis right now!”
Holly snorts.
“Cutest lesbian crisis ever!” she exclaims, mussing Darling’s hair.

Darling groans, gently pushing away from her. She stares up at the sky, thinking ruefully that this “crisis” is only a microscopic speck of dust within the sprawling realms of the universe. She feels incredibly small in that moment, more insignificant than she ever has. Holly taking her hand only slightly grounds her.
“Would it help if I wrote a story about you two?” Holly asks, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe that would help you put this crisis in perspective.”
She guffaws as Darling playfully shoves her. She collapses to the ground, rolling side to side as she hysterically laughs.
“Definitely not!” Darling exclaims, unable to stop the laughter bubbling in her throat. “That would be the one story of yours that I would never read!”
Darling’s words trail off into a bout of laughter that both girls gleefully maintain until their bellies begin hurting, and then they just laugh a little more until silence eventually envelops the mountaintop.

Darling squeezes Holly's hands as a chilly wind blows past.
“It's nice talking with you up here,” she says, her voice soft. “I mean, it's always nice talking to you, but up here, it's just-”
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” replies Holly, squeezing Darling's hand. “We don't have to worry about anybody overhearing us. We’re free to be only ourselves.”
She pauses, turning to gaze at Darling, an unreadable depth swimming within the blue-green orbs.
“And that's all I ever want to be around you.”
Darling smiles.
“And that's all I ever want to be with you, too,” she says, a soft, loving warmth rising within her chest.
“I guess we'll have to start doing this every night then,” says Holly eventually, looking up at the sky again.
“I guess so.”

XXX

December 11, 2017

“Darling, you're staring,” whispers Holly.
Darling whips her head around.
“What do you mean?” she stutters, tucking a platinum blond lock behind her ear.
“I mean, somebody's starting to notice,” Holly murmurs in a playful sing-song tone of voice.
Darling's head swivels again. Apple is gazing at her with big blue eyes. Briar whispers something in her ear, and Darling can see the blush that suddenly covers her cheeks from here. Raven cups a hand over her mouth, her shoulders shaking with laughter. Darling's stomach squirms uncomfortably. Her heart is pounding so hard she can hear it thumping in her ears. Her face burns, and she looks down, pushing piles of rice around the tray with her fork. Holly giggles. Poppy just affectionately rolls her eyes at her sister. Ashlynn glances across the castleteria at Apple, then back at Darling. She quizzically raises an eyebrow.
“What's going on?” she asks, her voice soft and sweet, as always.
“Young love,” Holly replies, patting Darling's head.
Darling rolls her eyes, breathing deeply in a futile attempt to slow her racing heart. Ashlynn's mouth makes an o before she looks down and lifts her fork, taking a sudden interest in her salad.

“Well, I'm trying to convince Holly to read some of her poetry at the Holiday Talent Show,” says Poppy, casually trying to change the subject.
“Oh, Poppy, I just don't know!” Holly exclaims, shaking her head.
“You should,” Ashlynn says encouragingly. “I'd be royally excited to hear it.”
“Aww, thanks,” replies Holly.
Darling is once again staring at the blond princess across the room. Her elbow resting on the table, her cheek cupped in one head, she gazes ahead, her eyes furtively following every subtle movement the girl makes. Darling knows she shouldn't. She knows it's wrong. She understands that it goes against everything in both their stories for a princess to be in love with a princess. She can't look away, though. Her entire body is tingling. Her stomach is fluttering, wings flapping against her gut. She knows the term for it is “butterflies,” but she likes to imagine they're dragonflies. Dragonflies are her favorite type of bug. The way they fly so gracefully in the sky, their blue bodies fading in and out of focus against the pale, muggy haze.

The image of dragonflies, dancing in a gentle breeze, momentarily blur out Apple, and the next thing she knows, her name is being called.
“Darling!” Holly exclaims.
Darling’s head jerks up. She rubs her eyes. As her vision clears, she lets out a sudden gasp. Apple is standing by their table, directly across from Darling. Darling’s gut is infused with heat, so intense that she feels like she may melt. Her throat swells up, and her heart pounds, crashing against her eardrums. She feels desire (well, what she assumes has to be desire) infiltrating her body, in some places that just the thought of, in this circumstance, make her blush even harder.
“Hi,” says Apple, giving her a small wave.
Darling stupidly waves back. Apple's eyes are bluer than she's ever seen. They're wide and bright, filled with such vibrancy and intellect. Darling, in that moment, feels like everything she ever needs to know about Apple is right there in front of her, residing within those cerulean orbs. When Apple opens her mouth, Darling at first only hears a buzzing sound. She shakes her head, and the low drone slowly forms into words.
“I was wondering if you wanted to study together later after classes,” she says, her voice laced with uncharacteristic nervousness.

Darling notes that she, too, is blushing. A rosy pink sheen dusts her plump, pale cheeks. Darling feels a sudden rush of exhilaration at the realization that Apple wants to hang out with her. She resists the urge to erupt into gleeful laughter and stutters out the response that comes to mind the quickest.
“S-sure. Um-I’d love to. Yes.”
She does her best attempt at a smile, which at this moment is surprisingly hard. This is strange, considering the princess training that Darling has undergone throughout her childhood. Apple smiles back, a big, beautiful, white-toothed smile that makes Darling feel like she's floating. She's resting on a fluffy white cloud, surrounded by a twilit sky, and she scarcely registers what Apple starts saying. She shakes her head again.
“4 o’ clock in the library sound good?”
“Sure,” says Darling, the words coming to out a tad easier now.
“Or we could go somewhere we could actually talk,” says Apple.
“We could go get hocus lattes and study at one of the tables there,” Darling suggests, saying the first thing that pops into her mind.
She knows that Apple loves hocus lattes-double foam, extra apple caramel, to be exact. Apple's face lights up.
“Sounds hexcellent!” she exclaims.
Darling smiles back, doing a cheesy thumbs up. She instantly blushes at the cheesiness and unconsciously ducks her head. Apple lets out a soft giggle, and Darling glances up, not knowing what else to do other than smile.
“Alright!” Apple says cheerfully. “It's a date!”

With a smile and a wave, she turns and strides back to her own table. The dragonflies soar out of Darling's stomach into her chest. She must be hyperventilating because Holly whispers “breathe” in her ear. She sucks in a shaky breath, reaching out to grip Holly's hand. Holly gives it a gentle squeeze. Poppy seems to be attempting to hold back her laughter, while Ashlynn gazes at her with mild concern.
“Are you okay?” she asks gently.
Darling nods, picking up her glass of water and taking a large gulp.
“I'm fine,” she manages.
Holly squeals, wrapping her arms around Darling from the side. Darling appreciates the security of the embrace, as she can't seem to stop shaking at the moment.
“Awww,” Ashlynn gently coos.
She presses a hand against her chest. Her heart is racing.
“I know it's just an expression,” Darling says lowly, “but it's a bit nerve-wracking that she said it's a date.”
Holly giggles.
“Yep, you're going on your first maybe, not-so-sure date, girl!” Holly exclaims. “I'm going to have to help you get ready!”
Darling affectionately rolls her eyes.
“Of course you have to. As you know, my fashion sense is quite misguided.”
All the girls laugh. The bell rings, and Darling goes to her afternoon classes, buzzing with anticipation throughout each one.

XXX

Darling is sitting at a round wooden table, nervously smoothing her dress down. A chilly wind is blowing. She adjusts her hat, pulling it down to further cover her ears. She rests her hands on the sides of her paper cup, filled to the brim with hot coffee. The heat warms her bare hands. She glances around the area, searching for Apple. It's 4:02 now, and her heart is beginning to pound with anxiety. Relax, she tells herself. It's two minutes! Negative thoughts continue to race through her head, though. What if Apple noticed how much she’d been staring at her and was just hanging out with her to be nice? Apple is nice after all, an extremely kind girl whose sole purpose in life is to help people.

Darling thinks back to a day in spellementary school (first grade, to be exact) when she and Daring had been swordfighting with sticks. Daring had roughly poked her in the stomach, causing a bloody welt to rapidly rise on her abdomen. Darling had started crying, and Daring had just laughed. She clearly remembered what had happened next. Apple had dashed over, her blond curls bobbing past her shoulders. She'd first crouched down in front of Darling and grabbed her hands.
“Where does it hurt?” she'd asked, her eyebrows furrowed with concern.
“M-my tummy,” Darling had sobbed.
Apple had hugged Darling.
“It's okay,” she had cooed, patting her back. “It'll feel all better soon.”

Darling remembers putting her head on the girl's shoulder, wanting so badly to just stay there in her comforting arms. The embrace reminded her of her mother, but something was definitely different. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but it felt better, in a way. The hug had promptly ended, though, as Apple pulled away a moment later. She'd helped Darling up, dusted off the girl’s light blue dress, and turned to Daring, her hands on her hips.
“Daring Charming!” she'd exclaimed, using her strict “queenly” tone. “You do not hurt people!”
Daring's jaw had been slack, his dark blue eyes wide with shock. Darling remembered feeling the slightest bit of pleasure seeing this expression on his face.
“You're going to be the king of Ever After someday, you know, and I'm not going to marry a boy who hurts people!”
“I'm sorry,” Daring had stuttered before bursting into tears and running off.
Apple had smirked, apparently pleased with how she'd handled the situation. She had then turned to Darling and taken her hand.
“Come on. I'll take you to the nurse, and she can put a Bandaid on your owie.”

She had walked with Darling, hand in hand, to the nurse, stayed with her while the owie was treated, and had then walked her back to class, which had resumed by that time.
Darling smiles, remembering this day. She hasn’t thought about it in years. That is only one of the times that Apple has shown her kindness. The girl has never been anything but sweet and helpful to Darling except, of course, that time she knocked her off her dragon during Dragon Games. She was, at the time, being manipulated by the Evil Queen, though, and Darling had quickly forgiven her.

Darling is so lost in her thoughts that she’s startled by a gentle tap on her shoulder. She softly gasps and looks up. Apple is standing by the table, looking more beautiful than ever. Her bright blue eyes stand out like tropical ocean water against her cheeks and nose, pink from the bitter cold air.
“Hey,” Apple breathes, gently setting her pile of books on the table. “How are you?”
“Good.” Darling stutters slightly. “I'm doing well, thanks. How are you?”
Apple smiles brightly.
“I'm great.”
She plops down on the chair opposite Darling.
“Stressed about this Kingdom Management hexam, though. It's why I wanted to study together.”
She pauses, her eyes wide.
“I mean,” she stutters, “that's not the only reason I wanted to study together! I also just really want to hang out.”
A scarlet blush blends with the pink sheen already spread over her cheeks. Darling giggles, not knowing what else would be an appropriate response.
“Me too,” she says. “I mean, I really want to hang out with you, too.”
Apple smiles, her face becoming even brighter if possible.
“Great,” she says, her voice a little squeaky. “Let's get started.”

They open their books. Apple takes sips of her latte, and Darling, suddenly remembering hers, takes a sip. They open their books.
“I think we should go over the reading guides from every chapter in chronological order,” says Apple. “Does that sound good to you?”
“Yeah,” Darling replies. “I can't think of a better way to do it.”
Apple grins.
“Okay. How about one person reads the questions and the other answers? We can switch on and off for each chapter.”
Darling nods.
“That sounds good.”
“Okay. I can start with asking questions in the first chapter. Is that okay?”
Darling smiles, adoring the cuteness and sweetness of Apple's constant checking in.

Noticing Darling's amused expression, Apple smiles, twirling a strand of curly hair around her finger.
“I'm trying this new thing where I ask people how they feel before plowing ahead and doing what I think is best.”
Darling nods.
“The events of Dragon Games made me realize some things. I've been pretty pleased with myself since starting high school, and I never really stopped to consider if other people were okay with what I was doing.”
She blows a puff of air from her lips. A hint of sadness shrouds her sunny expression.

Darling is tempted to reach out, take her hands, and tell her not to blame herself, that she made mistakes but she's a wonderful person no matter what. She remains silent, though, not wanting to interrupt Apple's train of thought. She assumed that Apple had been doing some soul searching since the previous spring. Apple gently sighs.
“Raven's been trying to spell it out for me practically since the beginning of sophomore year. And I was so ignorant. I-”
She shakes her head.
“Oh-Raven, that reminds me. I’m sorry I was late. I was helping Raven out. She has this date with Dexter tonight, and on top of it, she has a ton of schoolwork. And she failed her last Home Evilnomics exam. She's super stressed out, and-”
Her eyes grow wide. The blush returns.
“And I probably shouldn't be telling you this,” she says, her voice tight with anxiety. “I'm not usually one to blurt out my friend’s personal business or anything. Just-”

Darling reaches across the table, taking Apple’s hands in hers. Apple gazes at her, wide-eyed. A burst of shock surges through Darling. She just surprised herself more than she ever has. Well, other than when she woke Apple (her princess apparently) with “true love’s kiss.” Boldly gripping Apple’s warm, delicate hands without even a second thought. Her heart races, and she imagines her blush must be brighter than Apple’s.
“Apple,” she says, her voice slightly shaky. “It's okay. Just relax. You're not on trial here.”
Apple smiles. She lets out a quiet nervous giggle. Darling gives her hands a gentle squeeze before letting go. She's clueless for a moment as to where she should put them, so she finally settles them on her lap.
“Sorry,” says Apple, her voice soft. “It's just been a hectic week. I've been stretched to what I believe may be my limit. I didn't know I had one, but apparently I do.”
She laughs. Darling smiles.
“Hey, don't be sorry. Seriously. We all get stressed out sometimes.”
Apple grins.
“I would never guess that you are. You always seem so cool and collected, so confident. I mean, obviously you have emotions to deal with, but you never show it if you’re feeling sad or stressed.”

Darling shrugs. Her mind has always been a huge mess. Worries are always there. As a young child, she always fretted over proving herself to be strong and competent. She would often be unreasonably competitive with Daring, as she sometimes felt the urge to upstage him. By the time she was a preteen, the perfectionism had kicked in. This mostly stemmed from her persnickety mother, who was always relentlessly critical of her. From her clothes to her hair to her her class to her schoolwork-everything had to he immaculate. Darling had internalized this expectation and nearly made herself sick with anxiety. Over time, though, she'd learned by herself to control it. She became better and better at managing everything. Eventually, she had settled down and mastered the art of appearances-always appearing poised and in control no matter the circumstance. The relentless drive and the compulsion to prove herself never died down, but she gradually found outlets to channel her desires into without anybody else noticing. Her becoming the White Knight had been her largest and most defining milestone. It signified her independence, her ability to be herself and do what she wanted to do. She'd kept her double identity hidden for over a year, but had been inspired by the events that took place in Wonderland to reveal that she, shy, well-behaved Darling Charming was truly a knight. A hero who risked their life to protect people at all costs. This had been the most freeing experience of her life. She no longer had to silence her dreams, not follow that voice in her head-the voice telling her who she wants to be, what she needs to do to be happy and to make a positive impact on the world.

Smiling as she pulls herself from her reverie, she looks at Apple.
“Well, it's nice to hear that I hide it well.” She sighs. “Because I'm stressed all the time.”
Apple gazes at her, blue eyes filled with concern. Darling laughs, though it sounds forced.
“It just comes with being a princess, though. We all have a lot to deal with. There's no use complaining about it.”
She lightly laughs, shaking her head. Apple’s concern doesn't cease.

Before Darling knows it, warm hands are grasping hers. Darling gently gasps, glancing down at their intertwined fingers. Her head shoots up as Apple speaks, her voice soft and more inviting than ever.
“You can talk about it, though. I'd be more than happy to listen.”
Darling gazes into her eyes, her mind numb, as the cerulean irises stare back at her. She swallows, licking her lips before she replies, her voice low.
“Thank you. You can talk to me, too. Anytime. About anything.”
Apple gives her a dazzling smile. She squeezes her hands. Darling's stomach feels like a mosh pit. Her heart is stumbling around in her chest, tripping and staggering. She breathes deeply. Apple lets go of her hands, setting them, folded, on the table. She clears her throat.
“Alright. Let's get to work.”
Darling smiles.

As they read and answer questions, the atmosphere gradually loosens. Darling feels more and more relaxed as the minutes stretch by. They make casual conversation between the questions. They laugh and joke as they read about Norman Chuckledwirth, the composer of the Five Simple Rules of Kingdom Management Song. They order two more hocus lattes as they finish the first ones. Darling feels blissfully warm inside, and she somehow knows it's not just the hot drinks.
After nearly an hour and a half, they've read through all the chapters, and Darling wishes more would magically appear. Apple stretches her arms. They walk over to the trash bin, throwing their cups away.
“That was royally fun,” says Apple, as she grabs her purse, slinging it over her shoulder. “We need to do it again.”
“Yeah, definitely,” Darling replies as they walk down the sidewalk. “Would Wednesday work? I'm swordfighting with Daring after school tomorrow.”
Apple laughs.
“Now that I’d love to see.”
Darling chuckles.
“He just keeps wanting to do it over and over again thinking he's finally going to win. Sorry, it's not going to happen. This damsel’s got better technique.”
Apple guffaws.
“Well, of course you do! You actually pay attention in class! Daring just thinks he knows everything without any instruction!”
Darling laughs.
“Yep, that's my brother alright.”

They both smile, as they make their way down the trail towards Ever After High. The sun gas nearly finished its descent, and the meadow around them is encased in a twilit hue. Apple happily sighs.
“I'm glad Daring and I are back on the same page now. It was so horrible and awkward right after the-you know, kiss.”
Darling is grateful that the sky is darkening. She can feel her cheeks burning up.
“I mean, we'd been told that we were destined to be together for as long as we could remember. Before we were teenagers, it made sense that we didn't feel anything towards each other other than friendship. I mean, our hormones hadn't kicked in yet. By the time we were in high school, though, I found it strange that there still wasn't any attraction. We never really talked about it because Daring can be a little-preoccupied.”
Darling lets out a rather unprincessly snort. Apple chuckles, gazing amusedly at her.
“I tried to be especially kind to him after the kiss, um, failed-”
Darling's blush returns with greater intensity.
“After I found out, I realized why he'd been seeming so depleted lately, so--lost. The least I could do was be there for him. Gods, I was such a wreck the first couple months after my story played out. Raven was always there for me, though.”

Apple smiles. Darling smiles back. Inside, she feels slightly ashamed that she hadn't been there much for Apple. She knew at the time that the girl had been experiencing immense guilt for letting the Evil Queen out of her mirror prison. She'd seen the way Apple had been acting around Raven, so overly sweet and helpful. She was getting the girl’s lunch for her while Raven sat at the lunch table, waiting. Darling had asked her about it one afternoon. Raven had just shrugged.
“Don't ask me. She just wants to, I guess.”
Darling had seen how clingy Apple had been with Raven (alarmingly more than she usually was). It seemed she could never go an hour without hugging her, no matter where they were at the time. Apple would always sit next to her in class, holding her hand. Raven hadn't seemed too usurped by the behavior. She just decided to go with it, Darling guessed.

Dexter had once quietly voiced his concerns to Darling when they were sitting, playing chess, in the student lounge. Apple and Raven we're on the couch watching TV. Raven was lying down, her head on Apple’s lap. Apple was giving her a back rub, as they both stared at the television screen.
“Don't they seem like--well, they're in a relationship?” Dexter had stuttered.
Darling had simply laughed, as she took his hands.
“They're not, Dexter,” she'd quietly assured him. “It’s just Apple. She's very affectionate.”
He nodded, but still looked fairly upset.
“I'm sure, if you asked, she'd give you a back rub, too,” she said, as she struggled to keep a straight face.
Dexter's eyes had gone wide. He’d playfully slapped her hand

Darling smiled at these memories from last year. Apple and she approached the school. Darling looked at the sprawling towers above them. Her eyes went wide as Apple suddenly took her hand.
“I'm glad you're the one who woke me up,” the girl said, her voice low. “I-I feel something when I'm with you or even when I'm just thinking about you that I never ever experienced with Daring-or anyone else.”
Darling can swear her heart stops. She pauses where she's standing, turning to face Apple. She can scarcely make out the features of Apple's face. She can feel her hand in hers, though, softer and warmer than her beloved quilt. She suddenly realizes how silent it is. She clears her throat.
“I'm g-glad I woke you up,” she says. “I-I think--no, I know I feel something for you that I haven't felt for anybody else, too. You're sweet and kind and generous and compassionate and-”
She swallows.
“I just really like you,” she breathes.

Darling can feel Apple's smile more than she sees it. The girl steps closer and takes her other hand. Darling's heart rate increases. Is what she thinks may be about to happen actually going to happen? She's promptly pulled into an embrace. Darling squeezes her eyes shut, letting out a breath that she wasn't even aware she's been holding. She hugs Apple back. Apple is warm and she smells like a combination of apples and cherry blossoms. She's letting go before Darling can even fully detect every smell. Darling breathes slowly as Apple squeezes her hands. The girl’s hair is flying around her own face like a yellow tornado.
“I like you too,” Apple murmurs.
Darling can only try to breathe as Apple gently pulls her along. As they walk through the school’s entrance. Apple lets go, dropping her hand to her side.

XXX

December 12, 2017

Darling reaches down, touching her toes. A chilly wind blows past. Her hair whips around her face. She pulls her hat further down over her ears. Small cracks of daylight are beginning to shine upon the treetops. The chirping of birds permeates the frigid stillness. Darling breathes deeply, inhaling the crisp, clean air. She suddenly detects footsteps treading softly upon damp fallen pine needles. She spins around, her heart pounding, and comes face to face with none other than Apple White.
“Hi,” she says cheerfully.
She's dressed in magenta running pants, a cherry red coat, and a pair of hot pink tennis shoes. Her blond, curly hair is pulled into a high ponytail. Darling stares, open-mouthed, at the sight. Her breath appears as a cloud of white fog in the bitter cold air before her. She stares into Apple's eyes, frosty blue against the grayish mist.

Apple smiles, and Darling shakes her head as she notices how uncomfortable this situation is becoming. She shakily laughs and attempts a smile.
“Hey, Apple. What's up?”
“I just wanted to go jogging with you,” the girl explains, as she glances around the meadow.
Darling’s heart skips around her chest. Apple got up this early to go jogging with her? She closes her eyes for a second, fuzzily wondering if this could just be a dream. Ice blue orbs snap open, though, and Apple is still there, gazing at her.
“Are you okay?” the blond asks, looking slightly concerned.
Darling shakes her head, trying to clear her thoughts.
“Yeah,” she stutters. Just, um--surprised, that's all.”
Apple's smile falls.
“Not in a bad way, though!” Darling exclaims. “Just-nobody’s ever joined me out here before. How did you find out?”
Apple grins.
“Well, I see you come into the shower room sometimes in the morning, and you're wearing running clothes. And I just assumed you'd run in the Enchanted Forest because where else would you, really?”
Darling shrugs. A smile tugs at her face.
“Well, good timing,” she says. “I’m doing my long run this morning. Let's stretch a little, and then we’ll be off.”
“And just how long is your long run?” asks Apple.
“Five miles,” Darling nonchalantly replies.

She sits down and proceeds to start the butterfly stretch. Apple settles down across from her and follows Darling through the stretching routine.
“Okay.” Darling checks her phone. “It's six. Let's get going.”
She stands, and instinctively reaches out to help Apple up. She blushes as she realizes how unnecessary it is, but Apple smiles,takes her hand, and hoists herself off the damp ground.
“Okay,” says Darling. “Let me know if you need to stop. Five miles can rough, especially if you don't train everyday.”
Darling starts to jog. Apple simply smirks and runs ahead of her.
“Try to keep up, Charming!” she calls.
Darling laughs and races to catch up.

They gradually fall into a steady momentum. Apple is mostly silent, which Darling appreciates. Her morning run is her time to relax and clear her mind. Though Apple lately has been causing Darling to feel more anxious than ever with her charm and allurance, somehow having the girl by her side gives her a strange sense of calm. Apple has a strong, steady presence that Darling, for some reason, desires to take refuge in.

Dawn slowly lapses into a bright, cold morning. Apple is running faster, her head swiveling around every which way as she tries to take everything in. Sunlight is streaming through the dark green leaves of pine and oak trees, bathing the dewy ground in a soft, golden glow. Small woodland creatures rise from their slumber and begin scurrying around the layers of damp pine needles.
Apple nearly trips on a rock, and Darling, with her laser fast instincts, catches her by the arm. Apple lets out a deep, slow breath.
“Sorry.” She nervously laughs. “Everything's just so beautiful!”
Darling laughs. She reluctantly lets go of Apple's arm.
“And thank you for catching me!” Apple adds.
“No problem,” replies Darling. “It's kind of my family's thing.”
Apple gently laughs. Darling smiles as she checks the running app on her phone.
“We have half a mile more to go.”
“Okay, let's do this!” Apple exclaims.
She starts running. Darling stares for a moment at Apple's ponytail whipping in the breeze before shaking her head and quickly running to join her.

XXX

December 13, 2017

Darling is walking through the halls Wednesday morning, heading to her Crownculus class. She lets out a surprised squeak as somebody grabs her shoulders from behind. She swivels and comes face to face with Apple. The girl laughs.
“Sorry,” she says. “Trying to scare you. Didn't get much of a reaction.”
Darling grins. Apple effortlessly links their arms and gently drags Darling along. She cheerfully greets people as they pass. Darling’s cheeks burn as she sees students curiously staring at them. Apple doesn't seem to notice, but Darling's heart certainly does. It pounds against her ribcage.

“Hey, Briar!” Apple calls, as they approach her.
“Hey, Apple,” says the brunette. “Hi, Darling.”
“Hi,” Darling squeaks.
She nervously clears her throat. Briar gives her a soft smile.
“So, Apple,” says Briar, as they continue down the hall, “are we still on for this afternoon?”
“Oh, right,” says Apple. “Hex, I totally forgot. I'll have to move our study session to later, Darling.”
“Oh, that's fine,” says Darling, trying to keep her voice even and light.
“Yeah. Briar and I planned to hang out today after school about a week ago. Sorry, I just forgot.”
“It's totally fine, Apple,” says Darling.
Briar is quiet, looking at her phone as they pass the rows of lockers.
“So, will after dinner work?” asks Apple.
“Sure,” Darling replies. “That works better for me, actually.”
“Great.”
As they enter the classroom, Apple unhooks their arms.

XXX

“Oh, this lavender looks fairest on you!” Holly exclaims.
Darling looks down, inspecting her nails.
“It is pretty,” she admits.
Darling isn't one to paint her toenails, but it's okay when Holly does it for her. The girls are sitting on a fuzzy pink rug in Holly's and Poppy's dorm. Taylor Quick music is blasting from Holly's phone. Darling twists her silver necklace around her fingers.
“Are you okay?” asks Holly.
She glances up from her painting.
“Oh, I’m fine!” Darling exclaims, shaking her head.
Holly gazes at her. Darling deflates slightly.
“Well, I'll admit I’m nervous.”
“About Apple?” Holly asks.
“Yeah. I mean, last time she told me she was glad I’m the one who woke her up with true love’s kiss.”
Holly's blue-green eyes light up. She squeals.
“Oh my gods, Darling!”
She sets the nail paintbrush down on a tissue. She claps her hands.
“That is so wonderriffic!”
Darling smiles.
“It was, but it was also hextremely nerve-wracking at the same time! I just couldn't believe it!”

She shakes her head. She still hasn’t even fully processed through it yet.
“Well, I can believe it!” Holly exclaims.
Darling smiles.
“Thanks.”
Holly grins.
“Of course!”
Darling lets out a slow exhale.
“And I thought she was going to kiss me, but-” Holly gasps. “It turned out to just be a hug.”
Holly deflates.
“Oh.”
She hugs Darling, squeezing her tight.
“Well, hugs are nice,” Darling grunts.

Holly pulls away after a moment and laughs.
“Well, let's hope you can take it to the next level tonight!” Holly exclaims.
She gives Darling’s nose a playful poke. Darling laughs.
“Well, that wouldn't be too bad, but--I mean, we haven't even gone on a real date yet.”
“Um, wasn't your thing yesterday a real date?” asks Holly, eyebrow raised.
“I don't think so. But even if it was, it's not proper to kiss before the third date!”
Holly shrugs.
“Everything seems to be becoming a little less traditional this day, which is definitely a good thing.”
Darling nods.
“It definitely is.”
Holly smiles.

A moment of silence ensues. Darling glances down at her partially painted nails.
“Well,” says Holly suddenly, “let's finish painting these cute little toesies!”
Darling squeaks as Holly wiggles her pinkie toe.
“Holly!”
She playfully slaps her friend’s arm.
“No 'This Little Piggy’ right now!”
Holly makes a pouty face.
“I would tickle your feet, but I don't want to mess up this beautiful nail job.”
Darling jokingly rolls her eyes.
“It wouldn't work. I'm not ticklish anyway.”
Holly smirks.
“I guess we'll see once the polish comes off.”
Holly bursts into laughter.

XXX

Darling has to read the hext twice.
“Can you meet me at the dragon stables for studying???”
It's 7:30 in the evening. The sun has set. It's 40° out. Apple wasn't at dinner. Darling had assumed that she was in her room doing something because Raven wasn't present either. She must've been in the stables, though, because that's where she seems to be now.

Darling takes her turquoise coat off the hook. She addresses Rosabella who is reading a book on the sofa by the window.
“I'm going out to study with Apple.”
Rosabella looks up.
“This late?” she questions.
Darling shrugs.
“Apparently. She wants me to meet her at the dragon stables.”
“Hmm,” says Rosabella. “That's interesting.”
Darling laughs.
“Definitely is.”
She puts on the coat and heaves her backpack up from the floor, slinging it over her shoulders
“Well, have fun!” Rosabella exclaims, as Darling puts on a hat and scarf.
“And stay warm!” she adds a second later.
“I will!”
Darling waves as she exits.

XXX

Darling cautiously opens the stable door and enters. Her stomach is a mess of scrambled dragonfly wings. A low, golden light fills the stables. The usual musty odor is riding the air. Darling spots Apple sitting in one of the corners atop a pile of hay. Her dragon, Braeburn, is lying next to her, her eyes closed. Apple is writing in a journal.
“Hey,” says Darling, slowly approaching the girl.
Apple's head shoots up. Her blond curls are partly covering her face. She pulls the strands away and tucks them behind her ears.
“Hey,” she says quietly.
She pats the hay spread out around her.

Darling shyly smiles as she settles next to her. She's aware of the space between them. Her heart races. Apple gently smiles as she places the journal in her backpack. She brandishes her crownculus textbook and sets it on her lap. Darling takes hers out and does the same. Apple places another lock of hair behind her hair.
“Well, I guess we should get started,” she says, her voice lacking its usual cheer and enthusiasm.
Darling us miffed at Apple's highly unusual behavior, but quickly decides not to press. She opens her textbook, turning to the assigned page. The girls begin working out the problems, scribbling the mathematical processes on the paper with mechanical pencils. They do this mostly in heavy silence. Darling occasionally asks a question just to dispel some of the tension. Apple doesn't have advice on the tip of her tongue, as she seemingly always does.
“Let's see,” she mutters.
She flips back a page and gazes down, eyes squinted, at an example. Darling studies the crease in the girl's forehead, the furrow of her eyebrows.

She gasps in shock as Apple suddenly bursts into tears. The girl looks down, her eyes squeezed shut, as more sobs rack her frame. Darling helplessly reaches her hands out. Her heart beats frantically, as her mind screams, Kingdoms, what should I do?! She quickly reins in her breathing and proceeds to crouch down in front of Apple. She delicately places a hand on her shoulder.
“What's wrong?” she asks, trying to make her voice soothing.
Apple chokes and gasps, struggling to get her breathing under control. She glances up and opens her eyes. Darling takes her hands in hers.
“I-I-” She hiccups. “J-Just don't f-feel good. My h-head hurts.”
Darling squeezes her hands.
“I’m sorry,” she murmurs.
She reaches out, brushing a tear from the girl’s cheek. Panic is still coursing through her veins, but she just tries to let instinct guide her.
“I might have some painkillers in my satchel,” she gently adds.
Apple shakes her head. Desperate sobs continue to rip through her. Darling lets go with one hand and strokes it through the girl's hair. Apple shakes and coughs with the force of her sobs.
“Do you just want a hug?” Darling asks quietly.

Apple just keeps crying, but she doesn't say no. Darling carefully takes the textbook off the girl’s lap and places it in her pink backpack. She then scoots in front of her and wraps her arms around her. Apple falls defeatedly into the embrace and presses her face against Darling's shirt.
“Shhhhh. It's okay.” Darling hushes her under her breath.
She rocks her back and forth a few times before thinking that it's a bit much for this situation and settles on simply stroking her hair. Apple only cries harder as the minutes stretch by. Darling deduces that this is definitely not just about a headache and worriedly wonders what it could possibly be about. She hugs Apple a little tighter as she trembles more violently.
“You're alright,” she murmurs. “Everything's okay.”
The sobs span over a few long minutes before they gradually begin to slow and Apple is reduced to just hiccups and sniffles.
“I-It’s not just a-about my headache,” she croaks a couple minutes later.
She hiccups.
“I-It’s the g-guilt again.”
A sob escapes her. Darling immediately knows what she means. She tightens the embrace, continuing to caress the girl’s hair, as she starts crying again. Darling doesn't know what to say, so she just holds her close. She shuts her eyes and tries to not revel in the fruity scent of the girl’s hair.

Apple eventually pulls away. She rests her head against the smooth wooden wall and wipes her eyes. Darling searches in her satchel and finds a packet of tissues. She opens it before handing it to Apple.
“Thank y-you,” the girl manages between shuddering breaths.
“You're welcome, Apple,” Darling gently replies.
Apple blows her nose before stuffing the tissues in her own purse. Darling finds a water bottle in her backpack and gives it to Apple.
“I’ve drank from it,” she says, a sheepish smile on her face. “But I'm not sick or anything.”
Apple weakly smiles.
“Thank you,” she says, sounding more grateful than Darling would deem possible in her current state.
Darling gives her a soft and (hopefully) understanding smile.
“Of course.”

Apple gulps the water down. She then places it on the hay beside her. Braeburn opens her eyes and nuzzles into Apple's side. Apple smiles.
“Hey, sweetie,” she murmurs, petting her dragon’s scaled head.
Darling checks her phone. It's nearly nine o’clock. Apple suddenly yawns and, before Darling can even process what she's doing, is lying down on the hay, her head propped against Braeburn’s side. She sniffs.
“I feel like crap.” Her voice is hoarse.
“I'm sorry,” Darling murmurs. “Is there anything I can do?”
“You could cuddle me,” Apple says, her voice low.
Darling's heart skips a beat. The air is briefly sucked from her lungs. Apple gazes at her with puffy, red eyes, and Darling struggles to breathe normally. Her heart is beating faster and harder than she previously thought possible.

Before she can let her better judgement dissuade her, she crawls over and lies down beside Apple, resting her head against Braeburn’s soft, warm hide. She scoots closer and reaches out, wrapping her arms around the sniffling girl. Apple snuggles up against her and tucks her face in her shoulder. Darling closes her eyes and breathes deeply, silently praying that Apple can't feel her heartbeat. She's still and quiet as the girl’s breathing grows heavy. Just when Darling figures she's fallen asleep, she speaks, her voice muffled by the platinum blonde’s shirt.
“Thank you.”
“Of course, Apple,” Darling whispers. “Of course.”
Both girls drift off to blissful warmth, from both Braeburn and each other's arms.
XXX

December 15, 2017

“Hey!” calls Apple.
She weaves her way through throngs of students with many “Excuse me's” and “Sorry’s.”
“Hi,” says Darling as Apple reaches her.
She steps out of the traffic, leaning against a locker. Apple follows suit.
“What's up?” asks Darling.
“I was just wondering if you wanted to come shopping with Briar and me after school today. We're going to get dresses for the Holiday Talent Show!”
Darling smiles as she mentally goes through today's schedule. She's 98% sure she has nothing planned this afternoon. The idea of going shopping with Apple sends a wave of excitement crashing through her middle. She already can't wait.
“Sure thing!” she exclaims. “I’d love to!”
She's honestly surprised at her own enthusiasm. Apple clearly loves it, as the brightest, most dazzling smile spreads over her pale face.
“Great!” Apple exclaims. “Can you meet us at the school entrance around four?”
Darling excitedly nods.
“Yep!”
Apple's smile hasn't faded in the slightest.
“Okay. See you at Crownculus later!” she exclaims.
Darling waves as she walks away.

XXX

Darling, Apple, and Briar sip their hocus lattes as they walk towards the mall. They easily make conversation. Though Darling and Briar haven’t hung out much in the past, the narcoleptic princess is incredibly laid-back and easy to talk to.
“But seriously Apple, I need help planning this after-party! It's gotta be wild! We all need to have some fun before we go home for the holidays!”
Apple smiles at her friend’s enthusiasm.
“I will definitely help you out, Briar. Now that our Crownculus test is over, I can actually do something other than study!”
“Yeah,” says Darling. “That test almost took it out of me!”
“Well, I'll plan another study party for our next big test,” Briar announces.
She smiles brightly.
“But no more tests until after winter break!”
She raises her arms in celebration.
“Whoo hoo!”
Apple and Darling laugh.
“I know,” says Darling. “I'm so relieved.”

They approach the mall. The parking lot is packed with hybrid carriages. Swarms of people are entering and exiting the large building. Some are lounging at tables outside of Starbucks. Darling holds the door open for Apple, Briar, and various others.
Multiple ”thank you’s” are uttered at short, uneven intervals.
“You're welcome,” says Darling.

XXX

“What do you guys think?” asks Briar, holding a hot pink crop top to herself.
Apple’s eyes grow comically wide.
“Y-You can’t wear that to the talent show!” Apple stutters. “All the faculty, not to mention Headmaster Grimm will be there!”
“Aww, but it’ll go so well with this black leather mini skirt,” Briar whines.
Apple looks as if she’s moments away from an aneurysm before Briar doubles over laughing. She comes forward, playfully slapping Apple on the shoulder.
“It’s for the after party, girl!” she exclaims between laughs. “Silly, silly Apple!”
Apple lets out a deep, relieved sigh.
“Briar!” she shrieks. “You had me there for a minute!”
She playfully shoves her friend. Darling laughs, thoroughly enjoying the girls’ antics.

She’s searching through a rack. A sleek light blue dress scattered with understated silver sparkles catches her eyes. She checks the tag and smiles when it’s her size. She rifles through the section and finds a couple more that appeal to her. A short dress, made with a thicker fabric, that has a spellbinding blend of various blues especially piques her interest. She’s able to find one in her size near the end of the rack. She feels silly feeling such a rush of excitement swell through her at merely the sight of a dress. Her girly side rarely takes over, and it can throw her through a loop when it does.

“Hey, guys!” she calls as she pulls the dress off the rack.
Both girls who are at different nearby racks look over intently. Darling blushes as she holds the dress up to herself. Apple squeals and claps her hands.
“Oh kingdoms! That dress is off the page, Darling!” she enthuses.
She’s bouncing with excitement. Darling smiles, finding the girl’s reaction adorable, to say the least.
“Wow, that’s gorgeous, girl!” Briar exclaims.
“I know,” says Darling happily. “I’ve never seen any dress quite like this one! I should probably look a little more, though, before deciding.”
“That does seem like the logical thing to do,” Apple remarks.
Briar laughs.
“Sometimes something just pops out at you, though, and you have to take the opportunity.”
Darling smiles at how thoughtful Briar’s response is.
“Wow,” she says. “Never knew shopping advice could be so deep.”
Briar chortles.
“This philosophy elective is rubbing off on me!”
“No. It’s amazing,” says Darling. “Your wisdom helped me come to the conclusion that yes, I want this dress.”
Briar and Apple laugh.
“Glad I could help out,” says Briar, as she walks over to another rack.

Darling continues to look just for fun, as Apple and Briar continue to scour the store for another half hour. She tries to include her input, as they hold up different dresses, but she has little to no knowledge about fashion. She knows what she likes, and that’s about it.
Eventually, Briar and Apple have accumulated an armful of dresses and all three girls are headed off to the changing rooms. Apple and Briar head into a stall together, and Darling walks off to find an empty one for herself.
“Hey,” says Briar, holding the door of her and Apple’s stall open. “How are we supposed to tell you how cute you look if you’re in a different stall?”
Heat instantly floods Darling’s cheeks. Her insides begin to flutter and writhe incessantly.
“U-um, well I-I-” She stutters.
“Come on, get your cute butt in here!” Briar playfully exclaims.
Darling can hear Apple giggling from inside of the stall.

Darling lets out a shaky sigh as she walks on legs of jelly over to the stall and tentatively walks in. Briar shuts and locks the door, while Darling situates herself in the corner of the stall. She crosses her arms over her chest, staring with bated breath at Apple’s reflection in the full-length mirror. The girl, apparently noticing Darling’s discomfort bounds over to her. She takes her hands.
“Hey,” she says encouragingly. “Don’t worry. We’re all girls here!”
Darling’s heart pounds in her ears. Girls?! her brain screams. How does that help?! You’re a girl, I’m a girl. Sure. The other night you told me that you’re glad I’m your true love and that you like me, and now we’re supposed to see each other without clothes in a completely platonic way?! She doesn’t say any of this and just gently lets go of Apple’s hands.
“I know,” she murmurs. “It’s totally fine.”
She tries for a convincing smile and Apple seems to accept it.

The girl walks over to the other side of the stall and starts undressing. Briar begins undressing as well. Darling quickly averts her gaze and turns around so that she’s facing the wall. Taking a deep breath, she strips down to merely her underwear and bra. She refuses the sinful urge to turn and glance at Apple. Utterly refuses. Apple and Briar talk casually amongst themselves, thankfully ignoring her. Her stomach squirming with nerves, she wiggles her way into the blue dress she desires to buy. Her breath quietly hitches as Apple walks over to her.
“Hey, want some help with the zipper?” she cheerfully asks.
“S-sure,” Darling manages.
A slight shudder rushes through her as Apple’s fingers skim across her upper back. The zipper pulls shut and Darling lets out a soft breath of relief.

Apple backs away, and Darling turns, walking over to look at herself in the mirror. The dress extends to just above her knees and flows gracefully downwards from her hips. The sleeves are ruffled at the shoulders and spread down her arms like multi-hued rivers. Every portion of the fabric is a serene, majestic blend of blues, all entwined in one sweeping, colorful body of water.
Darling can’t hold back the smile that builds up from the corners of her lips to her full cheeks to her eyes.
“That dress is just out of this kingdom, Darling,” Apple breathes. “You look absolutely incredible.”
Darling blushes deeply. She can feel the heat coming off of her cheeks in sweltering waves.
“Wow--just wow, Darling,” says Briar in awe. “You pull that dress off amazingly!”
Darling is smiling so widely that her cheeks begin to ache. Even all those years smiling training hasn’t prepared her facial muscles for enduring the compliments she’s now receiving.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, glancing down at the floor for a few seconds before slowly raising her head and facing her reflection once again.
She holds her breath as Apple reaches out, gently pulling Darling’s hair behind her shoulders. She runs her fingers through the curly tresses a few times, smoothing out the tiny snarls before stepping back and admiring the girl’s reflection again. Darling can still feel the ghost of Apple’s soft fingers against the back of her neck, gently brushing over the skin. She shivers.

XXX

December 17, 2017

“It’s going to be okay,” Darling murmurs as Holly fans her face in her attempts to not cry. She stands beside the girl, rubbing her back in slow, soothing motions. She leans in.
“You can do this,” she whispers against her ear. “I’ve heard you nail the recitation at least a dozen times. You’re going to nail this.”
She gives her shoulder a gentle squeeze. Holly nods, taking Darling’s hand. Darling holds on tightly.
“Just breathe,” se whispers. “In through your nose, out through your mouth. In, out, in, out.”
Holly closes her eyes and breathes deeply. Darling can gradually feel her shaking start to lessen.
“Holly O’Hair,” Headmaster Grimm brusquely announces. “With her recitation of her poem, Starlit Particles.”

Darling squeezes her hand, repeats a soft “you can do this,” and runs out of the stage wings and across the front of the auditorium to take her seat in the front row. Apple turns to her and smiles just as the lights dim. She takes Darling’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Darling’s face flushes in the dark as Holly stands on stage, her auburn hair cascading down her back in a plaited braid. Her legs tremble beneath her bright pink knee-length dress, but she holds the microphone with a steady hand. She closes her eyes for a count of three before opening them and letting her melodic voice flow forth.

“Little specks of stardust floating amongst the infinite realms of the universe. Do you deserve this? The numbing pain, the consuming grief that spreads throughout your veins. Mere starlit particles in the dark, swirling abyss called life are we. Our existence is cruel as can be. As reality presses in on us from all sides, we cannot run. We can only hide. The inequities of this world set us apart. Human beings we all are, but for some it’s as if they’re not. Shaking on the cracked ground as they lose all control. Crying, as they have not the slightest clue what’s down the road. Our sisters and brothers are suffering through this hell. Isolated they crawl, empty shells. While their equals regard them with condescending distaste. I say that each of us, as parts of the human race, need to find the sources of our strength. Wake up to the harsh realities outside our protective front doors. Look inside, learn to love, to care more and more. To accept each person no matter what. Open our hearts, let the light visibly glisten. Feel the pain, the despair, the hopelessness, and just listen.”

There is dead silence throughout the entire auditorium as Holly slowly lowers the microphone. A tear traces its way down Darling’s cheek. Apple is muffling quiet sobs against her hand next to her and Raven, who is sitting on the girl’s other side, puts her arm around her shoulders. Holly places the microphone in its stand, clumsily bows her head, and hurries off the stage. As if the sun has suddenly returned, risen to shine its radiant beams upon the earth, loud, crashing applause fills the room. People are cheering at the tops of their lungs. Darling screams right along with them, pounding the air with her fists. Gradually, rows of students and faculty begin to stand. In moments, the entire auditorium is upright, forcefully clapping and cheering. Raven still has her arm around Apple who is attempting to cheer between sobs.

Darling sees Meeshell step out from the wings slightly as she gently pushes Holly towards the stage. Holly slowly walks back out, her gaze cast to the floor. The cheers rapidly increase in intensity. People are hollering at the tops of their lungs, and Darling is right with them. Her throat is turning raw, but she doesn’t stop. In that moment, she wants to proclaim to the world how proud she is of her friend. Holly glances up after a moment, a shy smile on her face. She awkwardly waves and, if possible, the cheers grow louder.
“That’s my sister!” Darling hears Poppy yell from three seats away.
Darling laughs with delight and continues to clap even after her hands begin to burn, radiating heat from the incessant friction. Her heart swells with pride for Holly, her amazing BFFA, and as she takes Apple’s hand and gazes ahead at her smiling, blushing friend onstage, she feels more Christmasy than she ever has.

XXX

January 6, 2018
It’s not a date, Darling silently insists to herself. You and Apple are just going as friends. It’s just a fun way to hang out. As Apple grabs her hand, though, and Darling’s gaze is ripped from the pine trees along the trail, her vision is immediately infiltrated with Apple, with every beautiful feature the girl possesses from her blond curls tumbling over her shoulders to her bright blue eyes to her dainty nose to her thick, rosy pink lips. Her hand is soft and warm, and somehow her dazzling presence only accentuates the sheer beauty of the lanterns hanging from the trees. They approach the restaurant with its golden light streaming from its clear glass windows. Darling takes a deep breath as they walk up the stairs of the log cabin. Darling holds the door open for Apple.
“Thank you, Darling,” says Apple, as she enters.
Darling closes the door.
“You're welcome.”

The inside of the restaurant is delightfully warm. The large room is lit by both candlelight and an assortment of chandeliers hanging gracefully from the ceiling. Apple takes Darling's hand again as they walk further into the room, and Darling pretends that her face is merely burning up because of the sudden temperature change. They find Raven and Dexter sitting next to each other at a booth.
“Hey, guys!” Raven calls as they approach.
“Hey!” Apple exclaims.
“Hello,” says Darling, as her and Apple take their seats on the other side.
Darling sits across from Dexter, while Apple sits across from Raven.
“How are you guys doing?” asks Apple.
“Great,” replies Raven, smiling widely.

Darling notes how happy Raven looks. For the past few weeks the girl has looked stressed and fatigued. Dark circles have ringed her eyes and she's seemed uncharacteristically somber and anxious. Now, the sparkle is back in her violet orbs. A genuine smile is spread over her face, as she leans into Dexter, whose arm is around her.
“I'm doing good,” says Dexter, a smile plastered on his face as well. “How are you two?”
“I’m good,” replies Darling, smiling at her twin brother.
“I’m wonderful!” exclaims Apple, shining her characteristic cheerful smile.
Raven smiles at her.
“I haven't eaten here in forever,” says Apple, as she looks through the menu.
“Neither have I,” Darling replies.
“Raven and I went here on a date about a month ago,” says Dexter. “We loved it so much, we just had to go again.”
Raven smiles at her boyfriend. She leans in, planting a chaste kiss to his cheek. Darling smiles at her brother’s giddy expression.
“I'm glad you girls could join us this time,” he says, flipping through the menu.
“We’re glad, too,” says Apple.

A waitress named Lila soon comes to take their orders. Apple orders a Chinese chopped salad and a water. Raven orders a stir fry with asparagus, mushrooms, and roasted potatoes and a Sprite. Dexter orders a hamburger and fries and, being the kid at heart that he is, a chocolate milkshake. Darling orders a Greek salad and a lemonade.

As they wait for their food, the four teens make easy conversation. Dexter discusses his project that he's creating for the spring science fair. Raven smiles, insisting that he's going to win because he's a genius. Dexter blushes, shaking his head and rebuking the claim that he's a genius. Raven simply kisses his rosy cheek, which promptly turns red. Raven discusses how she spent her holiday break with her dad and how much fun they had playing in the snow. Her eyes gleam as she recounts the large hills that they sledded down, the giant snowman that they worked on over a course of three days, and the fun that they had on the ice skating rink.

Darling notices the warmth and joy in Raven's voice whenever she talks about her father. Darling smiles, feeling happy that her friend has such a good relationship with him. Darling is glad that the girl has a good, reliable parent that she can count on. The thought of Raven only having the Evil Queen as a parental figure makes her shudder. Dexter and Darling discuss how they spent Christmas Eve at their grandparents’ house and about the usual shenanigans that ensued. Darling laughs at her brother's intense retelling of the “quest” that they went on with their cousins to find their grandfather’s missing armor.

As Dexter continues speaking, though, Darling is suddenly flooded with memories of other events that transpired during holiday break. How her mother had been relentless in finding something wrong with Darling's every other word. How she had came into Darling's bedroom one night and harshly lectured her about what her priorities should be and how she most certainly cannot keep acting like a boy, strutting around as the White Knight. Darling remembers quietly crying herself to sleep that night, how her hot tears had dripped upon the white pillow beneath her head. How she'd wanted to run away, but she had nowhere to go. She had considered calling Apple and asking if she could stay at her home for the rest of break. Apple's mother, Snow White, had always been like a second mother to her. The fair queen had always seemed to genuinely like Darling as an individual, whereas her own mother thought of her merely as a sort of a pet she had to train perfectly. What would've Darling's mother done, though? How would've the rest of her family felt if she up and left? Plus, she'd highly doubted that Snow would've picked her up without her parents’ permission. So Darling had dried her tears and resigned herself to the fact that there was no escaping her mother and that she had to just put up with her insanity until her return to Ever After High.

Darling is shaken out of her thoughts as the food arrives. Their plates are placed before each of them by the waitress. Thank you’s are said, and Darling lifts her fork, trying to ignore how Apple is concernedly glancing at her.
They continue conversing, albeit less animatedly, as they eat their dinners. After they finish and their plates are taken away, all four teens fight over paying the check. Apple puts up a good fight, but she finally grudgingly allows Darling and Dexter to split it.

After paying, they leave the warm restaurant and return outside to the cold winter’s night. Darling pulls her coat tighter around herself. Apple grips her hand in hers. Dexter suggests they go for a walk in the Enchanted Forest, as it’s still only seven o’clock. They all agree and are soon walking across the thin layer of freshly fallen snow. The trees are all around them. Their fresh, piny scent hangs heavily in the crisp air. A nearly full moon shines a white, glowing light upon the snow and treetops.

The four of them walk together for a few minutes, talking casually amongst each other, but they soon decide to split up. Darling’s stomach feels like it's on a roller coaster, as Dexter jokingly says “some one on one couple time.” Apple just smiles and waves as Raven and Dexter walk ahead. Darling breathes deeply. Apple's hand in hers feels unbearably hot, but she can't seem to let go. Apple gently pulls Darling down a different trail. They walk in silence. Apple gazes up at the moon, around at the trees, and down at the creamy snow, her eyes wide with wonder. Darling tries to control her nausea, as her mother's words bombard her mind. She'd been trying to forget them, but Dexter recounting the memories of holiday break caused them to come swimming back to the surface. Apple is squeezing her hand, and Darling looks at her, trying to smile. Apple smiles back at her.

A couple minutes later, Darling is drawn from her stupor by Apple's soft voice.
“This is where we sat last spring when we had that talk about the kiss, umm--CPR thing, remember?”
Darling looks at where Apple is pointing. The mossy log comes into view. Darling's heart beats faster at the thought that Apple remembers that evening so clearly.
“Y-Yeah,” Darling manages. “I remember.”
Apple turns, gazing at her.
“Do you wanna sit?” she breathes, still holding her hand.
Darling swallows thickly.
“Sure,” she says, her voice slightly squeaky.

She lets Apple gently pull her forward, and they settle on the log, sitting side by side. Apple still clings tightly to her hand. Darling looks down at the snow beneath them. She gazes at the crystalline particles, trying to ignore her mother's angry, condescending voice blaring through her head.
A few moments later, she feels a tickling sensation on her cheek. She looks up, confused, and places her hand to her face. She's shocked to feel that it's wet. She dimly registers that it's a tear right before another one drips from her eye, hot against her cold cheek. She starts as Apple slides an arm around her shoulders.
“Oh, honey, what's wrong?” she croons, the distress audible in her voice.
Darling shrugs, as she reaches up to wipe the tears away.
“You've been acting off for a while now,” says Apple, her voice soft. “Do you want to tell me what's going on?”
She takes Darling's hand with her free one.
“I-It’s just my mom,” Darling finally murmurs. “She was m-mean to me over holiday break.”
She sniffles.
“Oh, Darling,” Apple whispers. “I'm sorry.”
She gives her a gentle squeeze.
“I-It’s stupid,” Darling says shakily. “I don't know w-why I'm so upset.”
Apple strokes her thumb across Darling's palm.
“Well, if you're upset, you're upset,” she says gently. “There's nothing wrong with that.”

Darling blows a puff of air from her lips. They sit in silence for a minute. Darling leans in closer to Apple, and the girl quickly reciprocates, wrapping her arm tighter around her shoulders.
“I just don't know where it went wrong,” Darling quietly admits.
“What went wrong?” Apple asks gently.
“My mom and I’s relationship,” she murmurs.
“Oh,” says Apple, her voice soft.
Darling sniffs.
“We used to have a pretty good relationship when I was younger,” she explains. “She would read to me a lot. That’s how I got my love of books.”
She chuckles softly. She looks up to the moonlit sky, a wistful smile spread across her face. Apple squeezes her hand. Darling sighs, glancing down at their entwined fingers. She gazes at Apple.
“Everything started going downhill when I was about eleven. She thought that my rebellious, tomboy personality was just a kid thing.”
She shakes her head.
“She was wrong, though. That's just who I am, and she apparently doesn't like that.”

Her breath hitches slightly. Apple is silent, tracing small patterns across the back of her hand.
“She really started getting on me about being more ladylike,” Darling continues. “For her, it's not just about me being kind and polite and respectful. I have to be demure and quiet. I should sew and knit and play piano and ride horses. I shouldn't play outside or learn self-defense with Dexter and Daring. My dad tried to teach me swordfighting and archery secretly, but as always, she found out and put a stop to it. She would even go so far as to force me to stay indoors during summer break. I just sat inside practically all summer and read. My books were my refuge in a sense. I could imagine myself as somebody else, a hero, a person who fought for people's honor with their own free will.”
She sighs. Apple squeezes her hand.

“You know, my mom used to be very affectionate with me.” She lets out a bitter chuckle. “Yup. We’d cuddle on the couch practically every day. She'd wake me up with a kiss on the forehead. She would hug me every day. When I was sad over something dumb, she would hold me until I felt better. But one day it all just stopped. I didn't notice it at first, but eventually, I realized that I hadn't been hugged in a while. I didn't ever say anything because I just felt awkward. My mom ignored me more and more. The only time she'd ever pay attention to me was if I needed help with my homework. I would try to talk to her while she helped me, but she was always just dismissive, like she didn't care. She just cared about my grades. Not me anymore.”

She reaches up to brush a tear from her face, but Apple beats her to it. Her thumb is smooth and warm against her cheek. Darling closes her eyes, reveling in the gentle touch. Apple then grabs her hand again, and Darling opens her eyes, letting out a gentle sigh.
“Ever since high school started, it's just gotten progressively worse. I see her less, which helps, but over summer, it's just torture. Nothing but hours of princess training. I get barely any break from the school year. And she's so critical and judgemental. Any little thing I say or do--it’s wrong. She finds any excuse to lecture me. And when she found out about me being the White Knight near the beginning of junior year-” She closes her eyes, as a small shudder racks her frame- “it's just been horrible since then. She’s always insisting, you're not a boy. It's disgusting that you're acting like one. I've failed as a parent if you don't start acting more ladylike.”
She shakily exhales. Apple lets out a quiet gasp, and she holds Darling’s hand a little tighter.

“She's always mocking me every chance she gets. And nobody says anything. Dad, Daring, or Dexter. They just feel like they can't, I guess. And it hurts. It hurts my feelings so much when she makes fun of my apparent “masculinity.” I guess she thinks that, if she continues to mock me, I'll stop wanting to be a knight.” She stiffens, suddenly growing angry. “But I will not. Nothing she can say will ever stop me from being who I am. You know what?”

She pulls away from Apple, but still holds onto her hand.
“l’ll be eighteen spelling years old in a month, and this summer, I'm not going home. I'll stay with a friend, any friend, until I can get a house near the college.”
She takes a deep, gulping breath of chilly, fresh air. All her weepiness has faded. She feels more refreshed than she has in a long time. Talking through her issues about her mom has helped her sort them out. She's made a hasty plan, and she's going to stick to it. Unless her mother undergoes a substantial attitude change, she's never going to stay another night in her childhood home again. She's going to be an adult in thirty six days now, and she's smart and resourceful enough to find her own way.

She is so lost in her self-gratifying thoughts that she lets out a surprised squeak when she's suddenly pulled into Apple's arms.
“I've got your back, Darling,” the girl says. “Whatever you need, I'm here. Of course you can stay at my place over the summer. No question about it. My mom absolutely adores you, as you know.”
Darling chuckles, as she rests her head on Apple's shoulder.
“And so do I,” Apple says quietly.
Darling’s heart begins to pound. Apple is so warm, and all she wants is to fall asleep in her arms, but it's getting late. They'll freeze if they stay out here all night. Darling gently pulls away after a moment and takes Apple's hands.
“Thank you so much,” she says, “for listening. I've never felt more clear-headed than I do now.”
Apple smiles, squeezing Darling’s hands.
“You're such a good friend,” Darling murmurs, unable to tear her gaze away from Apple’s blue eyes, visible amongst the glow of moonlight.
Apple reaches out and tucks a lock of hair behind Darling’s ear.
“You're such a good friend, too, Darling,” she says, her voice soft and silky as chocolate.
Darling’s entire body is radiating from heat, from her face to her stomach to places she blushes at the thought of.

As Apple and Darling walk hand in hand back towards the school, Darling thinks about how the other girl’s fingers wrapped with hers gives her the most content and right feeling that she's ever experienced.

XXX

January 17, 2018

Darling and Apple sit, cross-legged, side by side in the dragon stables. Outside, the sun is setting, bathing the trees of the Enchanted Forest in a bright, orangeish glow. Inside, the stables are dim and quiet. A musky odor fills the air. Apple strokes her fingers across the scaled head of her dragon, Braeburn. Braeburn’s eyes are closed, as she relishes the soothing sensation. Darling picks at the ground, rifling through the piles of hay. She stares at her fingers, biting her lip. She doesn’t want to cry. She wants to be brave. She wants to conquer her fear. She wants to tell her mother about her desire to take hero training classes instead of princess training ones. There’s a lump in her throat, though. A burning hot lump that she can’t swallow. She’s afraid that she’ll break down on the phone. That she’ll display her weakness to her mother, the person that she wants to prove wrong the most. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Will her mother simply hang up? Will she yell? Will she herself cry? The possibilities swarm like a colony of bees inside Darling’s head. She struggles to breathe past the panic expanding within her chest.

Apple looks at her, her face filled with concern.
“Are you okay?” she asks gently.
“I-I’m just scared,” Darling admits, her voice small and tight.
Her shoulders shake. This doesn’t go unnoticed by Apple, who promptly puts her left arm around her shoulders. She grabs Darling’s hand with her right one.
“Hey, don’t be,” murmurs Apple, her voice impossibly soft. “It’ll be okay.”
Darling sniffs, desperately trying to hold back a sob. Apple squeezes her hand. They sit in silence for a few minutes, as Darling struggles to collect herself. She breathes deeply, trying to reign in her racing thoughts. She focuses on Apple’s soft, warm hand in hers, her arm wrapped securely around her.

After a few minutes of quiet, Darling gently breaks away. She stands up, dusts herself off, and turns to Apple. Apple is gazing up at her, a slight smile on her face. Darling breathes deeply.
“I'm going to do it,” she shakily announces. “I need to do it.”
Apple stands. She comes forward, taking Darling's hands.
“I believe in you,” she murmurs. “Everything is going to be okay, no matter how she reacts. Just remember I'm here for you, okay?”
Darling nods, trying to ignore the feathery sensation in her chest before murmuring a quiet “thank you” and walking away.

XXX

“Darling!” her mother exclaims, as soon as she answers. “Are you okay? What's going on?”
Darling struggles to speak past the growing lump in her throat.
“Umm-everything’s fine, Mom,” she manages. “Just-wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh.” Her mother sounds surprised. “Alright, sweetheart. Is there anything in particular you'd like to discuss with me?”

Darling lightly sighs. A familiar heaviness presses on her chest. This is always how it goes. She can never just have a normal conversation with her mother. It always has to be so formal. It always feels so forced, like her mother doesn't actually care about Darling's life; she simply wants to make sure her daughter is doing everything perfectly, as usual. Her mother will gush over her grades, which are always A+'s. She’ll ask her who she's been hanging out with, as a princess must only associate with those who have her best interests at heart. Darling’s heart pounds, as she attempts to speak again.
“Ummm-Mom, I umm…”
“Sweetheart, umm rhymes with dumb,” her mother says, a tinge of impatience in her tone.
Darling feels as if several sharp needles are poking at her heart, as she usually feels when her mother belittles her. She takes a quiet deep breath.
“Okay, Mom,” she mutters. “I just wanted to talk to you about something.”
“And what is that, dear?” she asks, lousily feigning interest.
Darling can hear footsteps and voices in the background.
“Excuse me for a moment, Darling,” says her mother.

Darling blows a puff of air from her lips, struggling to not let the swell of frustration consume her.
“Linda!” her mother calls. “The green gloves, not the blue ones! This benefit dinner is for reforestation, after all.”
The queen lets out a sigh.
“Sorry about that, sweetie,” she says, her superficiality blatantly obvious, as always. “So, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
Darling gulps down the lump in her throat. She needs to blurt it out before the suspense eats a hole through her stomach. She squeezes her eyes shut.

“Mom, nobody but the students know, but Apple’s destiny recently took place-” Her mother gasps. “And some strange, um-circumstances took place that weren't particularly true to her story.”
“But, Daring-” her mother interjects.
“Daring didn't wake Apple up,” says Darling, her voice shaking. “He couldn't.”
“How? Wh-what?” the queen splutters. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
Darling gasps, perturbed by her mother's rare slip of her composure.
“But how could he not?” the queen stutters. “This is Daring's destiny. We knew from the moment he was born. This can't be true. It can't possibly be-”
“I did!” Darling yells, the words bursting forth, cracked and tearful. “I woke Apple up, Mom!”

Her mother’s sharp intake of breath jabs Darling's lungs. A dead silence ensues, and Darling numbly wonders, between the ringing in her ears, if her mother has hung up.
“Mom?” she shakily murmurs. “Are you-”
“Yes, Darling, I'm here,” says the queen, her voice sharp. “I have no idea what you're trying to pull here. If this is your idea of a prank, young lady, you can expect some significant consequences!”
“This isn't a prank!” Darling yells.
Her mother gasps, and Darling's stomach twists, contorting with fear and shock. She's never raised her voice with her mother before, and she feels the sudden urge to cry.

“You kissed her?!” her mother suddenly shrieks.
“No!” Darling exclaims. “I mean, not hexactly! She was in her enchanted sleep, and she started to choke, and-”
“And how exactly did she fall into her enchanted sleep?” Her mother cuts her off.
“It's a long story,” says Darling, struggling to keep the quivering in her voice at bay. “But Apple was choking. Nobody knew what to do. In my moment of panic, I just did what I'd been trained to do. I performed CPR on her. When I was doing mouth to mouth resuscitation, there was this sudden bright light and-” Her voice cracks. “I don't know, Mom. It all just happened so fast. She was suddenly awake, and I just-”

A tear rolls down her cheek. There's a long silence, in which Darling tries to remain standing, as her legs turn to jelly. The phone almost slips from her trembling hand, but she holds on tight, her fingers white from her forceful grip.
“Darling.” Her mother's voice is deadly quiet. “The only explanation I can possibly think of would be that you two are homosexuals.”
She spits the word out, as if it's venom on her tongue. Darling shakes harder. Her stomach clenches, churning with nausea.
“I don't know if I am,” Darling murmurs, her voice thick with tears.
“Well, if this isn't some sick joke,” her mother continues, her voice trembling” “then I must assume you both are! This is impossible! I mean---” Her voice cracks, as she struggles to find the words. “Nobody in the Snow White fairytale ever has been!”

“Well, I can't speak for Apple,” says Darling, her voice quiet, shaking with fear. “But I’m pretty sure that I am. I don't know how I became a character in the Snow White fairytale. I don't know. I can't control destiny, Mom.”
“This isn't destiny,” her mother hisses. “This is a sick, perverted twist in the fairytale that shall be dealt with so it can never possibly occur again!”
Darling goes cold. She suddenly can't feel or hear her heartbeat. She collapses to the ground, falling on her bottom on the damp grass. She stares numbly ahead at the line of trees, swaying against the orange sky near the entrance to the forest.

Darling hears herself speaking before she even has a chance to suck in a lungful of air.
“You can think it's sick.” Her voice is dull, devoid of her usual human emotion. “That's okay.”
It's not okay. Darling feels as if her heart is lying in pieces, thin shards of glass that are piercing her lungs, puncturing them so that they pop like a balloon that has drifted too high in the atmosphere.
“But I'm not a damsel,” she says in that same flat tone of voice. “I don't want to take princessology and damsel-in-distress classes. I want to be a knight, a hero. You know very well that I’m braver and stronger than Daring. You just never wanted to admit to yourself that your daughter was, as you say, sick.”

Her mother is silent, and Darling is shuddering, staring at the blurry horizon. Her entire body is tingling with numbness.
“Well,” her mother says finally, her voice cold and steely. “All I’m going to say right now is that you owe it to me, all your ancestors, and not just the characters from the Snow White fairytale but every character from every fairytale in the entire world to go through with your destiny. You are a girl, Darling. You’re a princess, not a knight who kisses other princesses!”
She breaks off, breathing deeply.
“And it’s horrible, just awful, that you’re dishonoring the hard work of millions of generations by strutting around like some filthy- transgender.”
She chokes the word out like it has been obstructing her airway. Darling’s blood is like liquid nitrogen, painfully coursing through her veins. She wants to yell, to cry and scream at her mother for talking about her this way, but something else is building in her chest, creeping up her throat, and her mother has hung up before she can even think of what it is.

The call ends, and she’s left with nothing but a loud beeping noise. Almost too late, she realizes what this sensation is. She runs over to a row of bushes just in time to vomit.

XXX

Darling slowly walks back to the stables. Her heart pounds within her chest, crashing against her ribcage. She feels faint. She’s sure she’s going to keel over at any minute. She doesn’t stop, though. She needs to see Apple. As she enters the dimly lit vicinity, Apple immediately gets up. She rushes over to her. She stands, staring at Darling for a few seconds before pulling her into a hug. Darling is rigid, her arms stiffly at her sides.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Apple whispers into her ear. “Everything’s alright.”
She gently rubs her back.

Darling stands, her spine like a metal rod. She clenches her teeth tightly together. I will not cry. She repeats this mantra in he head, over and over. She's Apple's knight, for kingdom’s sake! She can't cry all over her. Knowing Apple, she's going to go into full-on mother mode. She's going to call her sweet pet names and wrap her in her arms. That amount of tenderness will just make Darling lose it even more. Darling just squeezes her eyes tightly and refuses the urge to lie her head on Apple’s shoulder. Apple gently pulls away after a few moments.

She takes Darling’s hands and slowly leads her back over to Braeburn, where they settle on the mounds of hay. Darling stares blankly at the sleeping dragon. She can feel Apple gripping her hands. She closes her eyes again, focusing on the warmth of the girl’s soft fingers wrapped around hers. Not a word is said for several minutes, and when Darling finally opens her eyes, Apple is gazing at her, a delicate expression on her face. She lets go with one hand, reaches out to gently tuck a stray ringlet of blond hair behind Darling’s ear. She promptly takes both the girl’s hands in hers again and gently squeezes.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks in that same lilted, soothing voice.
Darling opens her mouth. She immediately freezes, clueless as of what to say. Her mind is a jumbled mess, three decks of cards that have been scrambled. She somehow needs to sort them all back into ordered piles, and she can’t. Not right now. It’s impossible. She tries to speak, but her voice cracks. Apple gives her hands an encouraging squeeze.

Darling hears herself talk before she even registers what she’s saying.
“She hates m-me!”
Kingdoms, she’s crying. She doesn’t even bother to cover her face, to muffle the sobs. She simply cries, vulnerable, raw, exposed, unable to stop. Her hands are freed, and Apple’s arms are around her before she can blink.
“No, she doesn’t, baby,” Apple coos. “No, she doesn’t.”
Darling lies her cheek on Apple’s shoulder. She’s choking on sobs.
“Shhshhh. Hush, love, hush.”

Within minutes, Darling is empty. She has no tears left to shed. No more can fall from her red, puffy eyes. She's hiccuping, and Apple’s soft coos haven't ceased. She’s smoothing a hand over Darling's hair. Darling struggles to stop the shudders racking her frame. She takes deep breaths, but each one is cut off by another hiccup. Frustration swells in her chest. She inadvertently lets out a pained whimper.
“It's okay,” Apple coos. “Just keep breathing. You'll calm down. Everything will be just fine.”
She gently rubs her back. Darling closes her eyes, trying to mimic Apple's deep, exaggerated breaths.

Just when Darling thinks she can't possibly feel fainter, soft lips brush against the top of her head. She shudders at the feathery sensation. The realization that Apple has just kissed her head turns her stomach into a pit of lava. Butterflies fly against the heat, not melted by the molten rock. Darling clings to Apple tighter, squeezing her eyes shut against her racing heart. She focuses on the warmth of the embrace, the gentle caresses. Darling wishes she could stay wrapped in the tight hug forever, eyes closed, the scent of cherry blossoms clinging to her nostrils. She has to face reality, though. She knows this, but that doesn't make it any easier.

As she slowly pulls away, Apple's arms gradually loosen until she finally lets the other girl go. Darling watches through blurry eyes, as Apple hands her a handkerchief.
“Thank you,” she croaks.
“Of course, Darling,” Apple murmurs.
Darling dabs at her eyes and cheeks, drying her tears. She blows her nose. As she places the cloth beside her on the hay, she looks up to see Apple gazing at her, pure sympathy written over every delicate feature. Darling supposes Apple deserves to hear what happened after all that. She can't just completely break down in her arms, then refuse to tell her the story. She takes a deep, shaky breath.

“I told her about-”she gulps “about the kiss and about wanting to be a knight. She told me that I owe it to her, the entire fairytale world, and our ancestors to go through with my story. She said how awful it is that I'm acting like some filthy…” her breathing hitches, “transgender.”
The nausea hits her with full force. She breathes deeply. Apple gasps. She takes Darling's hands.
“No,” she says, aghast.
She shakes her head, her eyes wide. There are a few moments of silence, in which Darling struggles to calm the churning in her stomach.
“Kingdoms!” Apple curses, a minute later. “H-how could she say that to you? Her own daughter?!”
Apple looks ready to cry herself. Darling is tempted to hug her, but something holds her back.

Apple then speaks quietly, her voice quivering with anger.
“She had no right to say that. You are lovely, Darling. No matter which role you choose to play, you're still you. Kind, brave, intelligent you.”
Darling smiles, her eyes brimming with tears. Her middle is warm and fuzzy, butterflies gently swimming around her stomach. Her cheeks burn.
“Th-thank you, Apple,” she murmurs. “I-I can't tell you how much that means to me.”
Her voice breaks. Tears spill from her eyes. Apple leans forward, giving her a gentle hug. She strokes her back for a minute before slowly pulling away.

She wipes the tears from Darling's cheeks and then takes her hands.
“It's true, Darling,” she says, her voice filled with conviction. “You're amazing just the way you are.”
Apple gives her hands a firm squeeze.
“And I can't tell you how insulting that is,” she continues, suddenly angry again, “to both you and transgender people. Everybody deserves to feel comfortable and happy in their own skin.”

Darling smiles, nodding. In that moment, she feels nothing but love, hot, spicy love, that simmers in her chest for this ephemeral being.
“And I know that you're not transgender,” says Apple. “Wanting to be a knight instead of a damsel doesn't make you a man instead of a woman. Women can be just as brave and heroic, if not more, than any man.”
She says this with such unwavering power that Darling's heart suddenly beats faster. She's staring in awe at this girl, clinging to every word that leaves her dainty mouth.
“You're wonderful, Darling,” says Apple, her voice suddenly soft. “I love you for who you are, whether you're a knight, a damsel, or anything else. And I know you have many friends and family who love you just as much, too.”
She squeezes Darling's hands. Darling squeezes back.

She doesn't think she's ever felt this warm, this soft, this loved. Apple smiles at her, and Darling smiles back. Darling gets lost in the girl's eyes, the cerulean orbs that glisten in the dim light. It takes her a moment to realize that Apple is gazing back. Darling's eyes widen as she realizes how close their faces are. Did Apple move closer, or was it her? Apple's breath is hot against her cheeks. Darling's stomach flips and squirms. Her hands, entwined with Apple’s, suddenly feel unbearably hot. Desire is pounding within Darling's chest, seeping throughout her entire body. She wants Apple. She wants to kiss those thick, pink lips, taste the cherry lip gloss spread over the soft skin. She wants to tangle her fingers in that blond mass of curls, lovingly stroke every single lock. Apple's lips are parted. Darling can smell her warm, minty breath.

She pulls away. She lets go of Apple’s hands and scoots back. Apple quickly looks down, straightening the bottom of her dress, before glancing back up. Her face is blank. She scratches the side of her neck. Darling tries to breathe. Her heart is pounding. Her head throbs. She needs to say something, though. There can't be another moment of silence. Not tonight.
“It's getting late,” Darling manages, her voice dry and cracked. She swallows. “We don't want to miss curfew.”
“Yeah,” says Apple, her voice unusually dull. “Definitely not.”

Darling pockets the handkerchief and gets up. Apple slides her purse over her shoulder and stands. They silently walk out of the stables and along the dirt road leading to the school. Night has fallen. Stars twinkle in the dark sky. A chilly wind blows, rustling through the tree branches. Darling shivers. Thick, green grass surrounds them on either side. She can scarcely make out the colorful wildflowers dotting the meadow.

A few minutes later, as the tall castle of Ever After High looms closer, Apple suddenly takes Darling's hand. Darling quietly gasps in surprise. She glances over. Apple doesn't look at her, just stares at the path ahead. Darling gazes into the distance, as they continue to walk.
They hurry up the winding marble staircase. Their hands are now at each of their sides. Instead of walking Apple to her door, Darling stops at her floor. She turns to Apple. Apple is smiling softly. Darling notices her slightly somber expression. She feels that she knows why.
“Thank you,” says Darling, her voice still slightly hoarse. “For being there for me.”
Apple's smile widens.
“You're welcome, Darling,” she says, her voice soft. “Of course. I'll always be here.”
She steps forward, wrapping Darling in a hug. She gives her a gentle squeeze before pulling away. She turns and waves.
“Goodnight, Darling,” she says before walking away.
“Goodnight,” Darling echoes.
She strides down the hall towards her dorm.

XXX

Darling can't see through the heavy blankets of mist before her, but she knows that she's in the forest. The humid air smells strongly of pine...and something else that she can't quite put her finger on. She continues to walk down the invisible path before a sudden realization makes her stop her in her tracks. It's the scent of cherry blossoms. An image of a girl, blond hair cascading over her shoulders and down her back, blue eyes big and bright, is immediately conjured in her mind. Before she knows it, she's running. Branches are scraping her arms her as she dashes by them, but she feels no pain.

The fog rapidly clears, and she squeezes her eyes shut at the blinding sunlight. As she slowly opens them and her vision returns, her heart climbs into her throat. The girl, who she suddenly recognizes as Apple is there. She's sitting on a mossy log. There's something special about this log, but Darling's mind is cloudy. Her eyes widen as she realizes that Apple is naked. Her instinct is to look away, but her head is held in place by some mysterious force. She's forced to stare at her pale breasts, at the rosy nipples protruding from the ends. Her legs are crossed, but she suddenly stands, and the area between her legs is revealed. Her womanhood is shaved, and her thighs are slim yet curvy. The space between Darling's thighs is filled with unbearable heat as she stares, her eyes glued, to Apple's...everything.

Slowly, Apple begins walking towards her, a sultry grin spreading from the corners of her lips to her plump cheeks. Darling is only able to emit strangled squeaks as Apple approaches her and lifts Darling's shirt up slightly and slides her hand under it. Her fingers are surprisingly cold against Darling's bare skin. She shivers as the girl begins to stroke her fingers up her stomach. They slowly ascend, and Darling squeezes her eyes shut, as they ghost over her left breast. Small shapes are slowly traced against the skin, as she skims her fingers around the entire area. Darling lets out a sharp gasp as her fingers, warmer now than they were, grip her nipple.
“Shhhhh,” Apple whispers, leaning in.
Her breath is hot against Darling's lips. She presses her mouth to Darling’s. Darling licks Apple's thick lips and tastes strawberry. She gently gnaws, and Apple moans. Apple slides her tongue across Darling's lips, and the knight opens her mouth slightly, allowing it entrance. Their tongues intertwine and sweep against each other as the kiss deepens. Apple sucks on Darling’s lip, and the girl can't help the moan that escapes her throat.

Darling squeaks in surprise as her shirt is lifted upwards. She pulls back slightly and looks Apple in the eyes. Apple leans in and nibbles the corner of her lips.
“Just let this happen,” she whispers.
Darling closes her eyes, nodding. She silently lets Apple pull her shirt over her head. She shivers as the girl's fingers unclasp her bra. Both shirt and bra fall to the ground, and before Darling knows it, they're on the ground. Darling is pinned under her as she leans down and plunges her tongue into the platinum blond’s mouth again. Darling moans, chewing harder on the girl's glossy lips. Apple's fingers cup her breasts, and she strokes her fingers across her nipples. Darling moans louder as she plays with them, grasping them tightly before letting go slightly and running her fingers over them and across her breasts.

Darling squeaks as a loud, deep voice yells.
“Wake up!” the voice insists. “Wake up, Darling!”
She's suddenly being jerked around. She opens her eyes and sees Apple's face fading, becoming translucent. Darling gasps and reaches up to touch her cheeks, but the face suddenly changes. She yells as Apple completely disappears. She bolts upright and yells again as hands grip her arms.

“Woah, hey,” says a gentle voice. “It's just me, Darling.”
Darling's vision gradually comes into focus. She grows dizzy as she realizes she's in bed in her room. Rosabella is sitting in front of her, still grasping her wrists. Darling takes a deep, shaky breath.
“I-I’m sorry,” she manages to choke out before she’s overcome by a coughing fit.
She turns away from Rosabella and covers her mouth with the crook of her arm, as her body heaves. Rosabella gently rubs her back. A couple moments later, the coughing slows to a stop and Darling moves her arm away from her mouth and turns back to Rosabella.
“E-Excuse me,” she croaks.
“I'll get you some water,” says Rosabella, her voice soft.
Darling puts her head in her hands as Rosabella gets out of the bed. She struggles to erase the images from her mind. She shudders as she remembers every detail of her dream.

The bed sinks as Rosabella sits back down beside her. She strokes her back again.
“So it was a nightmare, I assume?” she gently asks.
Darling pulls her hands away from her face, looking up.
“No,” she says. “It was just-really w-weird.”
Rosabella hands her the glass, and Darling gulps the water down.
“Well, do you want to talk about it?” she asks.
Darling shakes her head as she continues to drink. She sets the glass on her bedside table when it's empty.
“No,” she says. “I barely remember it now anyway “
Rosabella nods.
“Alright. Are you good to go back to bed?”
Darling nods, glancing over at her alarm clock. It's 2:07 in the morning.
“Alright,” says Rosabella softly. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.”
Darling crawls under the covers and closes her eyes. She breathes deeply and thinks of rainbows and sunshine and puppies. She's determined to not have another dream like the one she'd just had.

XXX

February 11, 2018

“You need to ask her tonight!” Holly exclaims as she gently pulls the brush through Darling's hair.
“Maybe.”
Darling shrugs. Holly and Rosabella have been insisting that she ask Apple to the True Hearts Day Dance for the last couple weeks. Darling has hyped herself up for it several times now, but chickened out as soon as she looked into Apple's eyes.
Now, staring at her reflection in the mirror, wearing the same dress that she'd worn at the Holiday Talent Show, she feels just as nervous. She's quiet as Holly braids two small portions of her hair. Then, leaving the rest of her hair down, she gently pulls the two braids to the back and ties them together.
“What do you think?” Holly asks eagerly.
Darling smiles.
“I love it! Thank you so much!”

She bounces out of the chair and wraps her arms around Holly. Holly hugs her back tightly. Darling pulls away after a moment and bounds back over to the mirror. She feels like a little kid again, which is ironic, considering she becomes a legal adult today.
“Oh my gods!” Holly squeals, standing by Darling at the mirror. “I can't believe you're eighteen!”
Darling turns to her and laughs. A rush of excitement courses through her stomach.
“I know! Neither can I!”

XXX

Darling walks into Briar’s and Ashlynn’s dorm room, which Farrah has enchanted into a large, fully decorated ballroom. A disco light hangs from the ceiling and casts bright, glowing lights on the wide dance floor. Pop music blasts through the room. A long table is filled with dozens of food dishes.
“Happy birthday, Darling!” Apple exclaims, rushing over to her.
She pulls Darling into a hug. She squeezes her tight before pulling away. She grins brightly. Darling smiles back at her. Her heart thumps as she takes in Apple's appearance. She's dressed in a sleeveless light pink dress that stops right above her knees. Her curly hair is down, and her lips glisten with pink lipstick. Dangling silver earrings hang from her ears.
“Thank you,” says Darling.
Apple smiles and moves to give Holly a hug, too.

“Where's Dexter?” asks Darling, scanning the room.
“O-Oh,” Apple stutters. “He's, um--a bit busy.”
She points towards the food tables. Darling follows her gaze and laughs when she spots him. He and Raven are tangled in each other's arms, making out. Darling glances over to Apple, whose cheeks are rosy pink with embarrassment.
“Oh my,” says Holly, her eyes wide.
Darling doubles over laughing, and Apple and Holly soon join in.

All of Darling's friends wish her a happy birthday as she makes her way over to the food tables. She exchanges quick hugs with Ginger, Briar, Ashlynn, Cerise, Cedar, Farrah, Blondie, and Cupid.
“Hey, Dexter!” she calls as she approaches him and Raven who are still making out against the wall.
They pull away. Dexter nervously clears his throat and waves. Raven laughs and wipes some lipstick from the corner of her mouth.
“Hey, sis!” he exclaims, coming over to hug her.
She hugs him back. They pull away after a quick moment and laugh with glee. They're eighteen!
“Happy birthday, baby brother!” Darling says, playfully poking him on the nose.
Dexter laughs.
“Happy birthday, big sis!”
They burst into laughter and hug again.
“Aww, you guys are the cutest!” Raven exclaims, as they pull apart. “Here, I need to get a picture of you two!”
She pulls her phone out of her pocket.
“Squish together!” she playfully orders.
Darling and Dexter wrap their arms around each other and smile big and bright.
“Say we’re eighteen!” Raven calls.
“We’re eighteen!” the siblings yell, as Raven takes several pictures.

They pull apart when she's done, and Raven comes over and gives Darling a hug.
“Happy birthday,” she says, squeezing her tight.
“Thank you!” Darling happily replies as they pull away.
Raven smiles, squeezing her shoulder before turning and kissing Dexter again.

Darling spots Apple talking to Briar and Blondie across the room, and Darling heads over.
“Hey, birthday girl!” Briar exclaims, giving her a tight hug.
She pulls away after a moment.
“Welcome to the eighteen club!”
Darling laughs.
“I'm honored to be here,” she jokes.
All four girls laugh. Darling turns to the drinks table, suddenly feeling thirsty.
“How’s the fruit punch?” she asks.
“It's great!” Apple exclaims.
“Ooh,” says Briar. “Ummm--”
Darling looks at her, raising an eyebrow.
“What is it?”
“Well, umm-” Blondie stutters. “Sparrow kind of--spiked it.”
“He what?!” Darling nearly shouts.
Blondie nods sheepishly.
“Yeah. We weren't able to warn people in time,” Briar awkwardly continues. “And some people are a little bit--um--”
Darling narrows her eyes.
“Drunk,” she finishes.
“Oh kingdoms!” Apple curses, a panicked expression on her face. “I didn't know! I drank some! Oh, my gods!”

She looks about ready to burst into tears when Briar comes forward and puts her hands on her shoulders.
“Hey, calm down,” she soothes. “It was after you drank it!”
Apple rapidly deflates.
“Oh, thank the gods!” she exclaims.
Blondie and Darling laugh. Darling looks around and notices how crazily some people are dancing beneath the disco. Her heart plummets to her stomach when she sees Sparrow sitting in a chair on the dance floor, giving a girl a lap dance.
“Oh gods!” she shrieks.
Apple pales.
“Oh…” Her voice is weak.
“Is that Farrah?!” Blondie shrieks.

Not a moment later, Ashlynn is marching out onto the dance floor.
“Oooh, shit,” says Briar.
The girls move closer and watch amusedly as she pulls Farrah off of him and proceeds to slap him in the face. She then takes Farrah by the hand and drags her over to a table. Darling guffaws as Sparrow, head bowed, walks past Duchess, who is doing an incredibly difficult-looking ballet routine, pulling the chair behind him.
“He ain't giving no underage girls lap dances now!” Briar snorts.
Blondie and Darling laugh, while Apple still just stands there, looking utterly scandalized.

Cupid suddenly runs up to them and grabs Blondie by the waist. Blondie squeals with surprise.
“Hey, guys!” the pink-haired goddess exclaims, her voice slightly slurred.
“Hey,” the girls reply.
“Come on, Blondie!” she yells, letting go of her waist and grabbing her hand. “I need you to do the Electric Slide with me!”
Blondie's eyes are wide as she's pulled off by Cupid. The girls descend again into hysterical laughter.

Darling waves as Raven and Dexter come stumbling over. She shakes her head in amusement, realizing that they're both drunk.
“Hey, Apple!” Raven slurs.
She rushes forward and crushes said girl in a hug.
“Raven!” Apple shrieks, lightly pushing the girl away to look at her. “Did you drink?!”
“You mean the punch?” Raven slurs. “Hell yeah! Best punch I've ever had!”
Raven bounds back over to Dexter and kisses his cheek.
“Kingdoms, Darling!” he slurs. “You need to have some! It's pure magic!”
Darling laughs, shaking her head.
“No thanks. I think I'll pass.”
“Come on!” he insists. “Pleeeeeease!”
Darling bursts out laughing.
“Your little kid side is sure showing now!” she exclaims.
She steps forward and ruffles his hair.
“Does liking this little kid make me a pervert?” Raven slurs, leaning in and locking her lips with Dexter’s.
Briar and Darling guffaw.
“Raven!” Apple screeches. “That is disgusting!”
Raven breaks away from Dexter and shrugs.
“How is it?”
Apple puts her head in her hands.

Maddie suddenly bounces over to them.
“Hello, Darling, Apple, Briar, Dexter, and Raven!” she exclaims. “How are you guys doing?!”
“Maddie!” Raven slurs.
She jumps forward, wrapping the girl in a hug.
“It's nice to see you, too!” Maddie exclaims, mussing the girl’s hair before she pulls away.
“Maddie, Raven’s drunk, and so is Dexter,” Apple says miserably.
“Oh, it's fine, silly!” says Maddie. “Practically everybody is at this point!”
Apple groans.
“Well, I hope Ashlynn isn't,” says Briar nervously, “given her--um, condition.”
“Oh, Ashlynn isn't!” Maddie replies. “Farrah sure is, though, so she's keeping an eye on her.”
Briar and Apple breathe sighs of relief.
“Oh, silly me, I almost forgot!” Maddie exclaims. “Happy birthday, Darling!”
She pulls her into a hug. Darling gives the shorter girl a squeeze and gently pulls back a quick moment later.
“Thank you,” says Darling.

Raven suddenly surges forward and hugs Apple. She pulls her close, and Apple's eyes are wide as she slowly puts her arms around the girl.
“Are you okay, Raven?” she asks worriedly.
“Oh, Apple, I've never been better!” Raven exclaims.
She pulls back and cups Apple's cheeks with her hands.
“I just need to tell you how wonderful you are! You're so sweet and loving and caring and generous! You're always there for me! I don't even know where I'd be today without you! Thank you for being such a good friend!”
She hugs her tightly again. Darling, Briar, and Maddie watch the exchange with soft expressions, while Dexter goes off to the snack table. Apple wraps her arms around Raven.
“Oh, sweetie, thank you so much! That means a lot to me.”

Raven suddenly bursts into tears. Apple's eyes go wide.
“Aww, what's wrong, baby?” she asks gently, trying to pull away slightly to look at her.
Raven holds on tight.
“Y-You’re just so a-amazing!” she sobs.
Darling laughs.
“Emotional drunk,” Briar explains to a nonplussed Apple. “Here, I'll help you bring her over to a couch.”

As the girls help Raven, Darling looks around the room for Holly, fearing that she's drunk. She finds her on the dance floor, doing a dance off with Blondie and Cupid, and yep...she's drunk. Holly is sixteen, and she's drunk! Darling groans. Maddie walks up to her and pats her back.
“It's fine, Darling!” she cheerfully assures her. “She's having fun! I sense that she's a fun drunk! Raven is an emotional drunk, obviously. And Dexter is a fun drunk. So is Farrah and Cupid. And Kitty and Lizzie are both super affectionate drunks!”
She gestures over to a couch across the room where Lizzie and Kitty sit, making out.
“I'm not looking forward to sleeping in the same room as them tonight,” she mutters.
Darling’s eyes widen.
“Oh, not because of that!” Maddie laughs, seeing her expression. “They are definitely going to crash before it goes that far! They are going to get sick, though. I'll have to remember to put a couple trash cans by the bed!”
“Oh,” Darling breathes, relieved.
“Well, anyway, I’m going to check on Raven! See ya!”

She bounces off, and Darling decides to go check on Daring who is at the drinks table, chugging...the spiked punch. She sighs and walks over.
“Hey, Daring,” she says.
He slams his cup down on the table and opens his arms wide.
“Hello, little sister!” he exclaims, hugging her tightly.
Darling struggles to breathe in the suffocating embrace. Finally, she manages to pull away.
“Kingdoms!” Daring shrieks. “You need to try this punch! It is life-changing!”
Darling rolls her eyes.
“So I've been seeing,” she mutters.
“Come on, sis! Try some!” he exclaims. “Please try some!”
Darling scans the room, sees her friends tearing up the dance floor, and sighs, finally giving up the fight.
“Just a little,” she says.
Daring claps as she scoops one ladleful of punch into a red plastic cup.

She cautiously takes a sip and is surprised at how good it tastes. It's like regular fruit punch, but with a slightly bitter tang. She likes it. She glugs down the cup before setting it down on the table. She licks her lips.
“It's good,” she admits.
Daring gives her a childish grin.
“See?!”
She smiles, playfully smacking his shoulder.
“Do you wanna dance?!” he eagerly asks.
Darling is about to say yes when she sees Apple walking over to her.
“Umm--no. You go have fun. I'm going to go talk to someone.”
Daring shrugs and runs off.

Darling walks to meet Apple.
“Hey,” Apple says tiredly. “You wanna get some fresh air?”
An unexpected thrill rushes through Darling.
“That sounds lovely,” she breathes.
She takes Apple's hand. Apple's eyes widen, as she's usually the first to initiate the physical contact, but she quickly smiles and squeezes her hand.

They walk hand in hand down the grand staircase and quietly make their way out of the school through a secret exit that Darling had found a few months ago. It's located in the kitchen in one of the larger cabinets. They crawl in, open a small metal door, and slide on out.
They walk through the Enchanted Forest, excitedly conversing about the party.
“I can't believe so many people got drunk!” Apple exclaims, shaking her head. “Kingdoms, I hope Headmaster Grimm never finds out!”
“Yeah,” Darling agrees, laughing lightly.
There's a slight buzzing in her head now from the alcohol she just recently consumed. She feels unexpectedly confident, and knows suddenly, without a doubt, that she's going to ask Apple right now.

As they settle on their mossy log and gaze upward at the starry night sky, Darling's heart pounds in her ears. She's trembling like a leaf, and she closes her eyes, praying to the gods that Apple doesn't notice.
“I have something for you that I wanted to give to you in private,” Apple says suddenly, her voice soft.
Darling holds her breath. Her chest swells with excitement. Her stomach flutters with nerves, more intense than she's ever felt. Apple takes a wrapped present out of her purse. The wrapping paper is light blue with turquoise flower patterns etched on it. It's tied with a dark blue ribbon.
Apple hands it to her with a shy smile, and Darling gingerly takes it. She slips the ribbon off with trembling fingers, and with bated breath, rips the paper off. There's a small cardboard box inside.

She slowly takes the lid off and gently rifles through the light blue tissue paper. Her fingers grasp something slightly cold and metallic, and she pulls it out. It's a shiny silver locket, and she gasps as she takes in its details. Etched into the metal are two images: a silver apple and a silver sword. They lie side by side on the front of the locket, glistening in the starlight before Darling's wide orbs. Tears fill her eyes, and she turns to Apple, hugging her tightly. She's unable to hold back the sob building in her throat.
“Th-thank you so much!” she exclaims, her voice shaking. “Thank you!”
Apple hugs her back.
“You're welcome, sweetie.”
She smooths a hand over Darling's hair a few times before murmuring, “Open it up.”

Darling pulls away and, fingers still shaking, opens the locket. Inside is a photo of them that was taken after the Holiday Talent Show. Their arms are around each other, and the smiles on their faces are so large and bright, they rival the beauty of the glowing Christmas tree behind them.
A tear rolls down Darling's cheek, and before she or Apple can say or do anything else, she blurts out what's been weighing heavily on her for the last two weeks.
“Will you go to the True Hearts Day Dance with me, as like---my g-girlfriend?”
Her voice cracks as Apple's eyes widen.

Apple looks terrified, and Darling's stomach crumples, feeling like it's being crushed into a small, wrinkled ball of paper. Apple stutters incoherently for a moment before placing a gentle hand on Darling's knee. Apple's touch jabs her like a needle, and she flinches away, turning around so Apple can't see the tears running down her face.
“I-It’s fine,” Darling croaks. “I was j-just wondering.”
“Oh, Darling.” Apple's voice is choked by tears.
She tries to touch her shoulder, but Darling shrugs her away again.
“I-I’m sorry,” Apple whispers. “I just--c-can’t. I know I said that I l-liked you like th-that a while ago, but I-I really just think of you as a fr-friend. A really good friend.”
Darling feels like Apple has stabbed a knife into her heart and is twisting it in further and further with every word. She's holding her breath, trying to not let any sobs out.
“I'm so s-sorry,” Apple shakily murmurs.
She gently squeezes her shoulder, and Darling can hear her footsteps quickly retreat.

As soon as she can no longer hear Apple, she clamps a hand over her mouth and allows the sobs to consume her. She keels forward, falling from the log onto her bottom. She draws her knees to her chest, buries her face in them, and lets the sobs pierce her throat like dull blades.

XXX

“Darling!” Rosabella calls, as she enters their dorm room.
“I'm here!” Darling replies weakly.
She's sitting on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. The floor in front of her is littered with tissues, which is kind of a dead giveaway that something's wrong.

Rosabella approaches her, and seeing the tissues and Darling's red eyes, promptly takes a seat next to her friend.
“Hey, what happened?” she asks gently, placing a hand back on Darling's back.
Darling almost flinches away, but quickly decides she doesn't want to push her friend away, knowing how much that can hurt. There's no use anyway. Rosabella isn't the type to just leave her alone and allow her to mourn her heartbreak in private.

The tears are pushing against her eyelids like hot irons pressing into fabric, and Darling just doesn't want to hold it back.
“She doesn't l-like me,” she whispers, her voice hoarse. “L-like th-that.”
She leans forward, putting her hands over her face as the sobs rack her frame.
“Oh, Darling,” Rosabella murmurs.
Darling is promptly pulled close. Rosabella wraps her arms tightly around her and rests her cheek atop her head. A rather undignified sob bursts from Darling's throat, and she helplessly takes her hands away from her face and grips Rosabella’s arm tightly.
“I'm proud of you,” Rosabella murmurs, giving her a gentle squeeze.
Darling just shakes her head and leans further into the embrace.
“I am,” Rosabella gently repeats, pressing a soft kiss to the side of her head.

Rosabella gently shifts them so that they're leaning back against the couch and Darling's head is resting on her chest. Darling just squeezes her eyes shut and allows herself to fall apart in her friend's arms.

XXX

February 13, 2018

“Coming!” yells Rosabella. “Just a minute!”
“Darling, it's Holly,” says Rosabella quietly.
Darling, dressed in her blue flannel pajamas, looks up from her hextbook. Curtains of platinum blond hair shroud her pale face.
“Oh, I really don't want any company right now,” she mutters.
Rosabella sighs.
“Darling,” she says gently. “Holly is your friend. Why don't you try letting her in?”
Darling lets out a long, trembling breath.
“Okay,” she murmurs. “Let her in.”
Rosabella gives her friend a soft smile. She pulls the door open.
“Hey, Holly!” she cheerfully exclaims.
“Hi,” says Holly. “How are you doing?”
“Great, thanks,” replies Rosabella. “And you?”
“I'm doing okay.”

Holly's P.O.V.
Rosabella opens the door wider. Holly cautiously steps in. She gazes across the room at Darling.
“I was just going to the library,” says Rosabella. “It was really nice seeing you, Holly!”
“Nice seeing you, too, Rosabella,” calls Holly, as the girl exits the room.
Holly walks over to the bed and sits down next to her. Darling looks down, running her finger along the blue flannel sheet. Holly gently sighs, leans forward and takes Darling's hands in hers. She gently squeezes.
“Hey,” she murmurs. “You’ve been avoiding me since yesterday. Something's wrong. Please talk to me.”
Darling is silent, gazing down at the blankets.

Holly sharply inhales as she sees the tears welling in her eyes. She strokes a hand through the girl's curly hair.
“I’m sorry,” she says, not knowing what else to say.
Darling's hands fly up to cover her face.
“Please leave. I really need to be alone right now!”
She scoots back, leaning her head against the bed’s backboard.

Holly moves closer. She reaches out, placing a tentative hand on Darling's left knee.
“Please!” Darling insists, her voice choked by tears. “Please leave me alone!”
“No. I'm not going to leave you alone,” says Holly, her voice gentle but firm.
Darling sniffles. A quiet whimper escapes her. Holly situates herself next to her, putting an arm around her trembling shoulders. Darling emits a strangled gasp. Holly leans over, gently resting her cheek on the top of Darling's head.

Suddenly, Darling shifts, scooting closer to her. Holly reacts quickly, wrapping her other arm around the girl's petite frame. Holly pulls her close, guiding her head to rest upon her chest. That's when Darling fully breaks down. Her body heaves, overcome by sobs. Her breathing turns rapid. Holly gently squeezes her. She rests one hand against the girl's cheek, cradling it against her chest. The other travels to her hair, where she begins to stroke, brushing her fingers through the thick, vanilla-scented curls.

She doesn't say anything, knowing intuitively that Darling needs to experience this breakdown. As much as she wants to hush the girl, to assure her that everything will be alright, she doesn’t. She settles for a simple, soft “I’m here” before tightening the embrace. Hot tears stream down Darling's cheeks, falling upon Holly's fingers, dripping down her hand. Holly, her head growing tired, gently rests her cheek atop Darling's head. She closes her eyes, focusing on the sensation of Darling's supple locks threaded between her fingers, rolling in and out of her grasp with each slow, deliberate caress.

She really tries not to focus on Darling's soft but dejected sobs. How each shuddering intake of air the girl does stabs deeper into her heart. Holly thinks about how she'd encouraged Darling to confess her feelings, how she'd been the one to finally convince the girl to. She'd assured her that it would go perfectly, that she knew Apple liked her back. It twists Holly's stomach into a knot to think that she's the cause of Darling's misery. She blinks back tears. She has to be strong for Darling right now. Darling has been protective, supportive, caring, everything you could ask for in a friend. Holly has tried to be, but she knows that she's not even close to as good as Darling, at anything, really. Holly has never seen her friend fall even a centimeter short of perfection. Her appearance is always immaculate, she's incredibly polite and thoughtful, she’s at the top of all her classes, she's loyal and always there for everybody. Holly could think for hours of all the amazing characteristics Darling possesses that add up to her flawlessness. That's part of the reason why seeing her friend reduced to this state is so extremely painful for Holly.

She feels regret, thinking that, since that day in the stables, when their friendship had begun, she has been looking up to Darling like a goddess. She's thought of her as this eternally powerful being, as bulletproof as a shard of titanium. Holly thinks that she's failed to recognize that Darling is human, too. She has negative emotions that she can't always handle. She grows tired and has breakdowns.

It makes Holly feel gutted, thinking that she's been inconsiderate enough to not realize this. Darling is displaying the fractures in her shell right now, the weathering of the smooth, shiny surface, and Holly needs to help her show her vulnerability without being uncomfortable, without feeling ashamed. Like Darling did for her in the dragon stables, she needs to be the one Darling can rely on to support her through the tears, to not judge her for experiencing these emotions.

Darling's sobs turn desperate, becoming high-pitched and squeaky as they grow more uncontrollable. Holly finds it difficult to evaluate how the girl’s crying can be absolutely heart-wrenching but undeniably adorable at the same time. She feels like simultaneously cooing, “Awww” and bursting into tears. She bites her lip, restraining herself from doing either. She blows a puff of air from her parted lips. One hand still placed against Darling's cheek, her other moves from her hair to her back. She trails her fingers along the material of her shirt. She feels the soft skin underneath, as she traces circular shapes up, down, and across the area of her spinal column.

As Holly’s ministrations turn into a rhythm, her fingers becoming aware of the pattern of their strokes, Darling’s sobs gradually begin to cease. She's letting out little hiccups and shaky breaths. Moments of relative calm pass, during which Holly continues her gentle caresses. Suddenly, a dry, choked sob bursts from her friend.
“Hey,” Holly instinctively coos. “Shhhh. It's okay. Everything's okay. Shhhh.”
Her sisterly instincts kicking in, she presses a soft kiss to the crown of Darling's head. A surge of heat instantly rushes through her. Her stomach flips, proceeding to do a series of contortions that leave her breathless. She struggles to control her breathing, not wanting to disturb her friend. To soothe her frayed nerves, she slowly starts rocking side to side. The idea that it may further console Darling comes as an afterthought. Darling, now having apparently lost her momentary sense of calm, continues to piteously sob. Holly keeps stroking her back.

Darling's crying tapers off within a couple minutes. Holly’s gentle swaying doesn't cease until Darling pulls away. The girl takes a deep, shaky breath. She reaches up, roughly swiping the heel of her hand against her eyes. She sniffles. Holly moves closer to her, placing a hand on her back. Darling tilts her head down, concealing her tearstained face. Holly becomes nervous, wondering if she should say anything, if she should get her friend tissues, if she should offer to make her tea, when Darling quietly speaks.
“I'm sorry,” she says, her hoarse voice scarcely above a whisper.
A surge of panic rushes through Holly's chest.

She lets out a quiet gasp. She takes Darling's hands in hers.
“No, Darling,” she says, squeezing her hands as she speaks. “No. Don't be sorry. It's okay. It's perfectly alright. You're allowed to be sad just like everybody else. There is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Darling sniffles.
“But I'm a knight,” she mutters. “How am I supposed to prove that I'm as strong as any man if I completely break down this easily?” Her voice breaks.
Tears prick at Holly's eyes. She scoots in front of Darling.
“Darling, sweetie, look at me,” she says.

Her heart skips a beat when she realizes that she just called her “sweetie.” It's not uncommon for Holly to call her sister and close friends sweet pet names. With Darling, though, it feels different. More intimate, somehow. Like it has a deeper meaning, something that Holly has buried within herself, but is pervading her mind now that she's so close to Darling. Now that the scent of Darling’s vanilla shampoo is wafting up her nostrils. She takes a deep breath. She leans forward, trying to see beneath the shroud of hair hiding Darling's face.
“Hey,” she murmurs. “Please look at me, Darling.”
Darling doesn't oblige. With a soft sigh, Holly slides her hand under her friend’s chin, gently tilting it up. Reluctantly, Darling's red, puffy eyes meet hers. Holly strokes her thumbs across her cheeks, wiping the tears away.

“Darling,” she says, her voice soft. “You are a knight. You're strong and courageous. You’re respectful and chivalrous. But do you know what I love most about you, as a knight and as a person? You go out of your way to help people, to defend them, to take care of them. And do you know what that amount of compassion takes, Darling? It takes emotion. Loads of emotion. You use that emotion to have empathy for others. You have a big heart that genuinely aches for those around you. And part of having a big heart is, that when something happens to you, you feel it. It hurts. When you hurt, the most healthy thing to do is cry. You, being the amazingly wonderful person you are, don't take that pain and disappointment out on others. You're not vindictive. You're not jealous. You're not bitter. No, you represent that pain in the purest way imaginable. You cry. Your emotions cause you to cry. And your emotion also fuels the hero in you. They are what makes you the brave, caring knight that you are. Your heart, your emotions, are what makes you you, Darling. So, there's nothing wrong with crying. Pain is just one small aspect of your emotions. And it's absolutely beautiful, just like every part of you.”

Holly, having lost herself in the flow of her words, barely registers that her passionate speech has ended. She blinks, shaking her head. Focusing on Darling, she notices the fresh tears streaming down her face. The girl lets out a pained whimper. Holly’s heart squeezes, compressed by the pain she feels for her heartbroken friend.
“Oh, sweetie,” she coos.
She pulls the girl into her arms.
“Come here,” she murmurs, as Darling presses her face against her shoulder.
Darling chokes out muffled sobs.
“Shhhhh. It's okay. I'm right here, okay? Shhhhh.”
Holly caresses her back.
“Shhhh, baby, it’s okay,” she whispers. “It’s okay. Shhhhh.”

Holly starts as Darling suddenly breaks away. She lets out a trembling sigh. Holly gently wipes her tears with the pads of her thumbs. She gives the girl a soft smile.
“Thank you, Holly,” Darling croaks. “For those beautiful words. You're such a good friend.”
She chokes up again. Holly touches her shoulder, stroking her thumb across the blue flannel, beneath which lies the girl’s skin.
“Of course, Darling,” she says, her voice soft. “You're such a good friend, too “
Her voice trails off. Darling sniffles. Holly reaches out, grabbing the tissue box and handing it to her friend.
“Thank y-you.” Her voice hitches.
“Of course, sweetie.”

Holly looks away as Darling blows her nose, giving her the same courtesy that she’d given Holly. As soon as Darling deposits the used tissues in the trash, she turns to Holly, a wan smile on her face. Before Holly can register a thing, Darling’s arms are wrapped around her. Holly lets out a quiet squeak of surprise. Darling hugs her tightly. Holly gradually relaxes into the embrace. She slowly rubs her friend’s back. The scent of vanilla is intoxicating now. It fills Holly with warmth, a boiling hot sensation in her stomach that she thinks may be desire. The thought terrifies her. She squeezes Darling a little tighter.

Holly feels suddenly cold, as the girl pulls away a few moments later. Darling takes a deep breath, a low whistling sound blown from her parted lips. Holly stares at the girl, at the platinum blond curls, a tangled mess falling past her shoulders. Her ice blue eyes are swollen and bloodshot. Dark purple bags lie beneath them. Holly reaches out, gently tucking a stray ringlet behind Darling’s ear. Darling smiles, the beautiful smile that lights up her entire face, heats Holly’s stomach with its brightness. Holly doesn’t realize she’s staring until Darling awkwardly averts her gaze. Holly shakes her head.
“Sorry. I zoned out there.” She clears her throat. “How about I make you some tea? Does that sound good?”
Darling shrugs.
“Sure,” she says, her voice soft. “That sounds lovely. Thank you.”
“Sure thing.”

XXX

Holly and Darling sit across from each other in bed, each nursing a steaming cup of peppermint tea. Darling gently blows. She lifts the mug to her mouth, taking a cautious sip.
“Not too hot,” she says.
She takes another sip. Holly follows suit.
“Mmm. It’s just right,” says Holly.
Darling smiles, letting out a tiny giggle. Holly laughs. Spending time with her friend forever after, Blondie, has definitely rubbed off on her. There’s a moment of comfortable silence. Both girls sip their tea.

Holly stares at the large window across the room. Nothing but dark sky lies before the glass. She hears the whistle of wind, strong breezes blowing through the trees. She closes her eyes, picturing the limbs swaying against a palette of navy blue.

She's gently pulled out of her trance by Darling's soft voice.
“I think I want to tell you what happened,” she murmurs.
Holly turns to glance at her friend. Darling gazes into the mug of tea. Holly lets out a slow breath. She quietly waits for the girl to continue. Darling glances up after a few moments. She closes her eyes, taking a deep breath, before slowly opening them and gazing at Holly. She clears her throat.
“So, as you know, Apple and I have been spending a lot of time together the past couple months. Some people probably already assumed we were together because of all the hand-holding.” She laughs, a dry, cracked laugh that makes Holly's heart skip a beat.

“Well, I decided to take a leap of faith,” she says, her voice slightly hoarse. "Apple wanted to get some fresh air during the party. We went into the Enchanted Forest, and she gave me this present-" Holly, her interest piqued, wants to ask what the present is, but she contains herself. Darling lets out a shaky exhale. “Well,” she continues, her voice slightly tight, “I confessed my feelings.”
She doesn't mention how Holly was the one who convinced her to. She reaches over, setting her mug on the bedside table. She settles on the bed, twisting her fingers together in her lap.

She squeezes her eyes shut, shaking her head. "I thought she liked me. She said she did. She said she was glad that I'm her true love." A tear rolls down her cheek. "But apparently she's not." She takes a deep, trembling breath. "I'm just disappointed because I---" She sniffles. " I just-I love her.” Her voice cracks.

Holly reaches out, placing a hand on her knee. Darling sniffles. She brushes a tear from her cheek.
“It's not just because she's supposed to be my true love now,” she says. “I feel that it's real. I love her. And I was really sure that...she loved me, too.”
A soft sob forces its way from her throat. She covers her face with her hands. Her shoulders quake. Holly feels like crying herself, but she knows that she has to be the strong one right now.

She takes a deep, steadying breath before scooting forward. Gently, she prizes Darling's hands away from her face. The girl holds on tightly at first, but gradually loosens her grip as Holly persists. Holly takes the girl's warm hands in hers and squeezes. Tears are trailing down Darling’s cheeks. Holly lets go with one hand, raising it to wipe the warm droplets from her face. More quiet sobs begin racking the girl’s frame. Wordlessly, Holly pulls her into her arms. Darling wraps her arms tightly around Holly. She buries her face in her shoulder. Holly can feel the girl trembling. Her sobs are silent, though. Holly begins to hum under her breath, just to fill the quiet.

After a few minutes, Darling’s shaking gradually begins to slow. Holly closes her eyes, squeezing the girl a little tighter as she regains her composure. After a few minutes of silence, save the occasional hiccup or sniffle, Darling speaks, her raw voice muffled by Holly's shirt.
“Can you please read to me?”
Holly is slightly taken aback. This is an odd request, given the girl’s current state, along with the fact that she's never asked this before. Holly blinks, pulled out of her brief stupor, as Darling suddenly pulls away.
“It just calms me down,” she explains, swiping her hand across her eyes. “When I was little, my mom used to read to me when I was upset.” She sniffs. “I know you like to read, so I was just wondering…” Her voice trails off.

Holly smiles. Darling is so adorable, she’s having trouble containing herself. Although the girls have spent almost the entire hour hugging, Holly wants nothing more in the world than to hold her friend in her arms and squeeze her tight. She slowly exhales.
“Sure,” she says, her voice soft. “That sounds great.”
Darling’s face breaks into a gentle smile. Holly’s stomach feels fuzzy. Just as an excuse to look away, she leans over, pulling a few tissues from the box. She hands them to Darling.
“Thank you,” Darling murmurs.
“Any idea of what you want to read?” asks Holly, as Darling wipes her eyes and nose.
“I’ve been reading this book called Practical Magic,” says Darling. “It’s really good. Maybe you could read me a couple chapters?”
“Okay,” Holly agrees.
Darling pulls the book out from a shelf on her nightstand. She hands the blue paperback tome to Holly.
“Ooooh. Alice Hoffman!” Holly exclaims. “I love her! I’ve never read this one, though.”
Darling smiles.
“Yeah, she’s one of my favorite authors.”

Holly scoots over, settling with her back against the headboard. She opens the book to the dog-eared page. She glances up. Darling sits in the middle of the bed, hunched over, picking at the blue sheet with her finger.
“Hey,” says Holly gently. “Come here.”
She pats her lap. Darling gives her a soft smile. She crawls over, lying down with her head resting on Holly’s lap. Holly reaches down, trailing her fingers through Darling’s tresses. Darling closes her eyes. After a few strokes, Holly turns her attention to the book. She clears her throat.
“If a woman is in trouble,” she begins, “she should always wear blue for protection. Blue shoes or a blue dress. A sweater the color of a robin’s egg or a scarf the shade of heaven.”

Chapter Text

December 3, 2020

As Apple parks the car, she doesn't immediately turn off the ignition. She sits, staring out the window that ice is quickly beginning to coat. Warm air blasts from the vent, making the car almost too pleasantly toasty to leave. As she closes her eyes, breathing in deeply through her nose, the tears she’s been holding off all day rise to the surface and slip through her tightly shut eyelids. A sob pushes its way up her throat and she allows it to exit. She covers her face with her hands, rests her elbows on her knees, and lets the tears stream out.

She cries for Darling, her insanely wonderful girlfriend, her perfect-in-every-way knight who doesn't deserve this. She doesn't deserve to see her twin brother go through this, to feel the pain of realizing the memories he's lost, the precious moments they spent together that have been flat out erased from his mind. He remembers her, at least, but that doesn't mean the whole situation still isn't absolutely heartwrenching. And Raven-her poor little Raven. The memory of the girl hunched over the toilet, brokenly sobbing between each harrowing heave, is enough to make Apple lose it even more.

After a few minutes, she's able to pull herself together. She has to be there for Darling right now. She has to put her girlfriend's needs before her own. So she blows her nose, wipes away the tears and runny makeup, and breathes deeply as she gets out of the car and walks to the hospital entrance.

She's never liked hospitals. As a little girl, she and her mother would often go to them to visit with patients. She had loved reading to the children, some of whom were even younger than her. She would always cry afterwards. Not immediate, but sometime that day, she would break down. Just the thought of those little kids who had been smiling and laughing, their eyes wide with wonder as she read the Wind In The Willows to them, dying soon reduced her to tears. She remembers that she would think for hours about it, about how special each and every one of them were, about how much they meant to their families, and her heart would feel like it was cracking into pieces every time.
She remembers one time in the car after one of their visits, she'd been crying in her mother's arms. Snow had held her close, kissed her head, and told her what a big heart she had.

Apple checks in at the receptionist’s desk, cleans her hands with sanitizer, and walks down the hallway toward Dexter's room. She takes a deep breath, steadying herself before stepping into the room. She starts as she takes in the fact that it's empty except for Darling who's sitting on a white couch by a window. Darling glances up as she walks in further. Her eyes are puffy, and tear tracks are lining her face.
“Hey,” Apple breathes as she crosses the room.

She settles on the couch right next to Darling and immediately wraps her arms around her. She pulls her close, and Darling leans into the embrace, lying her head on her chest.
“He's still in testing,” says Darling, her voice slightly muffled by Apple's shirt.
She sniffles and snuggles closer. Apple tightens the embrace. She brushes strands of hair away from Darling's face and gently tucks them behind her ears. Her fingers stroke across the girl's cheeks, wiping the tears away, and more instantly fall from Darling’s eyes to replace them.
“Oh, baby,” Apple whispers as Darling's shoulders begin to shake with repressed sobs. “It's alright. Just let it out. It’s just me. I'm right here.”
She presses a soft kiss to the girl's sweaty forehead and holds her close as soft sobs overcome her. She runs her fingers through her hair and lets her cry.

Darling doesn't cry long. Within a couple minutes, she's only trembling slightly. Little hiccups and sniffles, along with the low drone of the heater, are the only sounds in the room.
“Do you want me to read to you?” Apple asks, her voice soft as she trails her fingers along the girl's arm. “I brought the novel you're working on right now.”
Darling nods, her head slowly bobbing up and down against Apple's chest.
“Okay,” Apple whispers.

She gently kisses her cheek before pulling away slightly to be reach her purse. She brandishes the paperback novel, along with an opened packet of tissues. She presses a wad of Kleenex into Darling's hand, and while the girl blows her nose, she finds the dog-eared page in the book where Darling had marked her place.

As soon as Darling settles back down on the couch after throwing her used tissues away, Apple puts her arms around her again.
“Just relax,” she murmurs as Darling lies back, resting her head against her chest.
As Apple reads, she focuses on keeping her voice low and soothing. Darling closes her eyes and leans heavier against her as the minutes stretch by. Apple absently strokes the girl's hair while she reads.

She lets out a sudden gasp when a man speaks.
“Hello, girls. How are you two doing?”
Apple smiles as he walks further in, and she realizes it's Lance, Darling’s, Dexter’s, and Daring’s father. Darling opens her eyes and sits up slightly.
“Hello, Mr. Charming,” says Apple, summoning up as much cheer as she can.
“Hello, Apple.”
“Hi Dad,” Darling murmurs, her voice slightly hoarse.
“Hi, sweetheart.”
He leans down, giving them both hugs and kisses on the cheeks.

He sits down on the couch beside Darling.
“So I suppose Mom isn't here for her severely injured son because she doesn't want to risk seeing her filthy transgender daughter?” Darling's voice is cracked and venomous, a combination so unlike Darling that a chill spreads down Apple's spine.
Lance sucks in a sharp breath.
“Darling…”
Darling bursts into tears. Apple flinches away in shock.
“I'm sorry,” Darling chokes out. “It's just t-too much.”

 

Apple reaches out to hug her but backs away as Lance promptly wraps his arms around his daughter. Darling looks stiff as she's obviously unaccustomed to her father holding her, but as he gently pulls her close, she slowly lowers her head to his chest. Apple watches, her eyes filled with tears as he rubs Darling’s back and kisses the top of her head.
“I'm really sc-scared, daddy,” Darling sobs.
A tear rolls down Apple's cheek.
“Shhhh. I know, Darling. I know.”
Apple knows she can't continue to sit here and witness her girlfriend cry hopelessly without being able to comfort her.
“I'll be right back,” she mutters, though she doubts either of them are taking any notice of her right now.

She stands and walks briskly out of the room. She wipes tears from her face as she strides down the hallways. She finds a small waiting area with a vending machine. She's able to find some change in her purse, and she buys herself, Darling, and Lance a Snicker bar. Sitting in one of the yellow arm chairs, she begins to eat it. As she chews the nutty chocolate, she decides to call Briar and check up on how Raven is doing.

“Hey Briar,” she says quietly as the girl answers.
“Hey,” Briar replies, sounding weary.
“How’s everything going?” asks Apple.
“Pretty good. Raven has been asleep for about an hour now. Ashlynn came over, and we're watching a movie.”
“Oh, sounds fun,” says Apple.
She immediately winces, though, as she remembers how absolutely not fun this nightmare they’re stuck in is. Briar laughs halfheartedly.
“Yeah. Is everything okay over there?”
“Yeah,” Apple replies, her voice cracking slightly. “Dexter is still in testing, and Lance is here.”

She sniffles, trying not to cry.
“Hey,” Briar soothes. “Everything is going to be okay, alright? You're doing an amazing job.”
Apple wipes her eyes.
“And I can come down there if you need me.”
“No,” Apple says. “You stay there with Raven. I'm fine.”
“Okay. Well, just call me if you change your mind, alright?”
“Alright.”
“Okay,” Briar says soothingly. “Just remember to breathe, and get some dinner soon.”
“Okay.” Apple laughs softly. “Darling and I will probably be back in a couple hours at the most “
“Alright. I'll be here. See you soon.”
“Ok. Bye, Briar.”
“Bye, Apple.”

Apple breathes deeply as she hangs up. Talking with her BFFA always gives her the confidence she needs to tackle the problems that life throws at her. She makes her way back to Dexter's room. She smiles as she walks in and sees him lying in bed. Darling, Daring, and Lance are sitting on the couch, watching TV in the living television mounted on the wall across from Dexter's bed.

Dexter is asleep, and as Apple walks further into the room, she observes how much better he looks now than he did this morning. His face is still unnaturally pale, but it's not the ghoulish gray-green color it previously was. Scrapes and bruises are still scattered around his face, but they're a lot less swollen now.

She glances at the machines showing his vitals and breathes a sigh of relief when she sees that his oxygen is 96 and his pulse is 72. It certainly appears that he's going to survive, and that beautiful revelation makes her want to cry with joy.
“Hey,” she says, her voice significantly more cheerful as she approaches the couch.
“Hi sweetie,” says Darling.
She stands and walks quickly over to Apple. Apple gently squeaks with surprise when Darling wraps her arms around her neck and pulls her forward. Their lips crash together, and Apple closes her eyes as a rush of contentment swells over her. The sensation of those cherished lips brushing against hers makes her heart feel as if it's soaring in her chest.

As soon as the kiss starts, it's over, though. Darling, obviously remembering that they have an audience, gently pulls away. Lance is staring at the TV, and Daring is smiling at them. Apple awkwardly clears her throat.
“Hey, Daring,” she says, walking over to the couch and bending over to hug him.
He hugs her back tightly, and she gently rubs his back. After a moment, he pulls away, and Apple sits down beside him. Darling sits on Apple's other side.

“So, we got some results,” says Daring, his voice low.
Apple stiffens.
“It's pretty complicated,” he continues. “Dr. Pine says he almost never sees memory loss that is this complex in nature.”
He takes a deep, shaky breath. Apple gently takes his hand. It's trembling.
“So, Dexter has lost information from the last eight years roughly.”
Apple gasps. Her stomach clenches. Her middle suddenly feels like it's on fire.
“He hasn't forgotten everything, though. Dr. Pine says that most academic knowledge will have been retained. It's mostly certain events and people that he's forgotten. Like Raven, apparently.” His breath hitches slightly. “He met her when he was fourteen. He's twenty, almost twenty-one now.”

His breathing turns rapid, and Apple squeezes his hand tighter. She breathes deeply, trying to control her nausea. She glances over at Darling. She's staring at her lap. Her shoulders are quaking. Apple reaches out with her other hand and places it on her arm. She gently clears her throat and reluctantly dares to ask the question that's weighing down her chest like a boulder.
“Will it ever come b-back?”
“They don't know,” Daring whispers. “It's definitely probable, but they can't promise us anything, Dr. Pine said.”

He shudders. Apple lets go of his hand and wraps an arm around his shoulders. She wants to soothe the three of them, to reassure them that it's highly likely he will get his memory back, that they need to have faith. She knows that it's not that easy, though. Just by looking at their slumped shoulders, their faces taut with fear and anguish, she's certain that nothing she can say will be even close to good enough. So she just puts her arms around Daring and lets him sob into her shoulder.

XXX

Apple and Darling eat their burritos in silence. The refried beans are like cement in Apple's mouth. The restaurant is mostly empty. Only a few teenagers sit at a table across the room. Darling twirls her fork, looking down at the Mexican rice piled on her plate. Her eyes are glazed, and whenever Apple says anything stupid to try to lighten the mood, she merely nods.

A surge of panic rushes through Apple as a chunk of tortilla suddenly feels like it's lodged in her throat. She desperately attempts to swallow. Breathe, her mind screams. You're not choking. Just swallow. The piece of tortilla slides down her throat, and she can still feel it gradually floating down her esophagus as she picks up her icy glass of water and takes a shaky sip.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” Darling asks gently.
She reaches out and takes Apple's hand. Apple closes her eyes at the contact, the tight knot of anxiety loosening just slightly. Darling's hand is both soft and calloused (the perfect combination, in Apple's opinion).

Apple glances up after a moment. Darling is staring at her, ice blue eyes filled with concern, and Apple feels as if her heart is melting with love and adoration for her girlfriend. Darling just found out an hour ago that her twin brother has severe memory loss, and here she is, worrying about Apple. Apple momentarily feels the intense urge to break down and have Darling comfort her, the way she does so well. She quickly and sternly reminds herself, though, that this is a public place, and she's the one who's here to console Darling when she breaks down, not the other way around.

So she gulps, takes a deep breath, and puts on her best queenly smile.
“I'm fine, sweetie.”
Her heart is racing. She breathes deeply to cool the searing heat flushing her face and neck. She can't get over the shock of what just transpired. Her anxiety hasn't acted up this badly in more than a year.

During her first year of college, she developed an irrational fear of choking on food. It had become so intense that she was too paranoid to even eat solid foods. She'd been living on protein shakes, smoothies, and broth, while Darling and all her friends had been insistently urging her to see a therapist. Darling had scheduled her an appointment with a renowned psychologist, but Apple had refused to go with the stubbornness only a princess whose star sign happens to be a Taurus could possess.

Finally, after Apple had lost more than five pounds and was having almost daily panic attacks, Darling and Raven had contacted her mother, Queen Snow White. Within an hour, the queen had shown up at Apple's door with her squad of dwarves, who had formed a circle around Apple while dragging her into the car. Snow had taken her to see the renowned psychologist, Dr. Fischer, who had assigned her daily therapy sessions. She had attended these with her mother, Darling, or Raven at different times and gradually was able to incorporate solid foods into her diet once again.

Apple now has many coping mechanisms at her disposal, so as she sits in the booth, she simply breathes deeply and silently runs through some affirmations. Darling holds her hands from across the table. Out of the corner of her eye, Apple sees three teenagers, two girls and one boy, approach their table, shy smiles on their faces and each one holding a small notebook.

She internally groans. Not now. She loves her fans, but she's not in the proper mental state to socialize with anybody right now. All the same, she plasters on a bright smile and waves as they reach the table.
“Hello,” she says happily. “How are you guys doing?”
“We're good, thank you,” says one boy. “And how are you, Your Majesty?”
His blue eyes are filled with uncertainty. His fingers are fidgeting nervously at his sides.
“I'm well, thank you,” she replies. “And please, call me Apple.”
The girl smiles widely.
“Okay, Apple.”
She turns to Darling.
“And hello, Ms. Charming. How are you?”
Darling gives the girl a meager smile.
“Darling’s fine, and I'm doing okay, thank you,” she says.
She sounds absolutely weary.

Apple, more than anything, wants to hug her distraught girlfriend close right now, but as usual, duty calls. She takes a deep, steadying breath before turning to the three and attempting to smile.
“And what are your names?”
“Oh-oh,” the girl stutters. She clears her throat. “I'm Anna. And,” she points to the boy who had addressed her earlier, “this is Martin, and,” she points to a dark-haired boy, “this is Raj.”
“Hi,” both boys say shyly.
“Hello,” Apple says cheerfully.
“We were just wondering if you two amazing princesses would give us the honor of a few autographs,” says Raj, smiling nervously.

Apple smiles.
“That's very sweet, Raj, and of course.”
“Thank you so much,” says Martin as he sets his notebook in front of Apple with a pen.
Darling and Apple both sign each of the teenager’s notebooks and take individual photos with each of them. Apple then stands and gives each of them quick hugs. Raj’s brown cheeks are blazing red, and Apple can't help but giggle slightly.

The teenagers thank them, and they exchange cheerful farewells before the three of them leave the restaurant.
Apple’s smile falls as she sits back down. She takes a deep, shaky breath. Darling is gazing downwards. Apple watches as tears slowly collect in her eyes.
“Hey,” Apple whispers.
She reaches out to take her hand, which is still lying on the table. Darling quickly moves it away. The girl's shoulders tremble. She sharply inhales.
“Darling…”
“I need to use the restroom. Excuse me.”
Apple sucks in a shaky breath as Darling slides out of the booth and hurries toward the restrooms.

Exhaustion sweeps over her like a wave. She rests her elbow on the table and lies the side of her face on her hand. Her vision swims in and out of focus as she desperately struggles to keep her eyes open. When she feels that she's starting to lose the battle, she forces herself to sit up straight. She checks her phone and blearily registers that it's been ten minutes since Darling left.

With a deep, heaving sigh, Apple stands up on shaky legs and makes her way to the restrooms. Not knowing whether it's a one-person restroom, she knocks.
“Darling,” she says, raising her voice slightly so the other girl will hear her.
There's no reply. She sighs and twists the handle, attempting to open the door. It doesn't budge. It is a one-person restroom.
“Shit,” she mutters.

She sighs deeply again, leaning her forehead against the door. She can't hear anything but the gentle running of the heater. She closes her eyes for a moment before knocking again.
“Darling, please…” Her voice breaks. “Let me in. I-I want to be with you. Please.”
A tear slides down her cheek. She shakily gasps as the door clicks and slowly opens a crack. Fingers trembling, Apple grasps the handle and opens the door slightly, just enough to slip in.

She closes the door behind her, and as soon as she turns, her heart plummets to the pit of her stomach. Darling is on the white tile floor, curled in a fetal position. Her knees are drawn to her chest, her arms are wrapped around her legs, and her face is buried within them. Tangles of platinum blonde hair fall over her shoulders. Her entire frame is nearly convulsing with the force of her sobs. They're quiet, muffled by her arms, but each one is more heartwrenching than the last.

Apple struggles not to cry, seeing her girlfriend reduced to this state. Darling has never broken down to this extent. The one time Apple saw her this close to it was when Daring went MIA during a quest a couple years ago. Darling scarcely ever cries, even, but this is something entirely different, something that stabs Apple’s heart and punches her lungs.

Apple takes several deep breaths and spends a moment visualizing her happy place before dropping to her knees beside her girlfriend. She leans down, wrapping her arms tightly around her. She just holds her for a moment, feeling the movement of the sobs racking through Darling's body.
“Hey.” She kisses the top of her head. “It's just me. I'm here. I'm right here, and I'm not going to leave you ever. Do you want to lie in my lap?”

Apple doesn't even know if Darling is comprehending anything about her surroundings right now, but she honestly feels that she should help her girlfriend into a more comfortable position. She moves away and gently, with her arms still slightly around Darling, attempts to pull the girl onto her lap. Darling, at least, is very light, and Apple is able, with a few grunts, able to heft her off the floor. She gently places the girl's head and upper body on her lap. Darling tucks in her knees, putting her feet under Apple's behind, and Apple pulls her even closer.

Darling's face is turned towards her, and it's red, streaked with trails upon trails of tears. Her eyes are squeezed shut, and her sobs are fairly soft but desperate and hoarse. Apple reaches down and pets her face, strokes her fingers across her wet cheeks and her sweaty forehead.

After a few minutes, her hand travels to the girl's hair, where she gently runs her fingers through the snarled tresses. She absently begins to hum under her breath. She doesn't even realize she's doing it until Darling's sobs begin to grow panicky, and she opens her mouth to try to soothe her. The low melody slows to a stop.
“Hey, shhhhshhh,” she whispers “I’m right here, baby. You're okay. You're not alone. I've got you. Shhhshhh.”
She leans down, pressing a kiss to Darling's burning hot temple. Her lips linger as she peppers her scalp with soft kisses before she pulls away and resumes stroking her hair. Darling reaches out with shaking hands and grips folds of Apple's shirt in her hands.

Apple, knowing that Darling needs to feel grounded, gently pries her hands from her shirt before taking them firmly in hers. She gently squeezes them.
“I’m here,” she murmurs. “I'm right here.”
She places their entwined hands in her lap. Darling holds Apple’s with an iron grip. Apple grits her teeth against the pain and begins to distract herself by humming softly again.

The quiet music penetrates the room’s foreboding stillness slightly. Apple’s heart rate slows as she continues to console her girlfriend the best she can. Darling weeps brokenly for several more minutes, and finally when Apple's voice is tired of humming and her hands feel like they're beginning to bruise, the girl lets go and rolls over so she's lying on her back. She opens her swollen eyes slightly and sniffles.

“A-Apple?” she croaks.
“Shhhshh, baby, I'm here. Apple's right here.”
She reaches down with a nearly numb hand and caresses the girl's tearstained cheeks. Darling takes deep, gulping breaths as she attempts to calm herself. Apple smooths a hand over her hair.
“I'm here. I’m here. You're alright, baby. You're okay. We're together.”
She bites her lip, not knowing how else she can reassure her girlfriend. She's here for her, and they're together. That's all she can say without it sounding hollow and forced. She’ll always be here to care for and protect Darling, that’s one thing she knows for sure. She can fully believe that when she says it.

No amount of being there will bring back Dexter's memory, though, and Apple knows that that's all Darling desires right now. Gently sighing, Apple continues to pet the girl's hair.
A couple minutes later when Darling is barely hiccuping anymore, Apple gently rubs her cheek.
“Hey, sweetie,” she whispers.

Darling's eyes flutter open as much as they can, considering that they're nearly swollen shut. She yawns widely and rubs her eyes. Apple strokes tears from her face with the pads of her thumbs.
“Do you think you can sit up?” she asks softly, brushing tangled locks away from her sweaty forehead.
Darling sniffles and slowly nods.
“Alright.”
Apple takes Darling's hands and gently helps her off of her lap.
Darling sits on the tile floor, arms crossed over her chest, looking like she wants to shrink in on herself, to become the size of a pea and hide underground, away from the dimension where her brother has memory loss.

Apple sighs, silently telling her mind to shut up. That's definitely not what Darling wants to do. Darling wants to hold her head high and weather this storm, just like she has with many others. But gazing at the girl, with her slumped shoulders, her sunken eyes, with the shudders racking her frame, Apple worriedly wonders if all the fight has simply drained out of her girlfriend.

She can't afford to think like that! She's the one who needs to build Darling up, to be hercheerleader as she faces these horrid circumstances. If she doesn't believe in Darling, how in all the kingdoms is Darling going to be able to believe in herself?! She growls, slapping herself on the cheek. Darling gasps.
“A-Apple,” she croaks. “W-why did y-you do that?!”

Apple shrugs, definitely knowing she can't tell her the real reason why. Darling takes her hand with her trembling one, and Apple genuinely smiles, touched that her girlfriend is concerned for her when she herself literally just experienced a major breakdown. Darling gazes at her with puffy, red eyes, and Apple smiles at her. She reaches out with her other hand, cupping the girl's cheek.
“Just thinking too much, baby, that's all. I'm fine, and you are going to be, too.”

She leans forward, pressing a soft kiss to the girl's cheek. She lets out a surprised squeak when lips crash against hers. She opens her eyes to find Darling passionately kissing her. Apple, relaxed by the familiar and comforting sensation, closes her eyes and kisses her girlfriend back.
Darling pulls back after a quick moment, her eyes wide.
“I-I’m sorry! Gods, I w-wasn’t thinking! I'm a-all snotty! Gods, I’m s-sorry, Apple!”

Apple laughs. It's true that some of Darling's snot is in her mouth, but the kiss was cathartic. She’ll take her Darling’s lips anytime. She reaches out, tucking a curl behind Darling's ear.
“I love you,” she murmurs.
A tired smile slowly spreads over Darling's face.
“I l-love you too.”
Apple smiles. She leans in, giving the girl's cheek a soft peck.
“We should do something about the snot, though,” says Apple.

She stands and walks toward the toilet where she grabs a roll of toilet paper and brings it over to Darling. She sits back down and helps her girlfriend blow her nose. She then goes to the sink where she wets a paper towel. Crouching in front of Darling, she gently wipes it across her face. Darling closes her eyes, and as Apple pulls it away, she places a kiss on the girl's forehead.
“There,” she says soothingly as she backs away. “Does that feel a little better?”
Darling nods.
“Thank you.”
“Of course, baby.”
“And I'm s-sorry.”

Apple swivels her head around to look at her.
“What? Why are you sorry?”
“I'm sorry for breaking down like this. Twice, in one day. It's ridiculous. I mean, you're exhausted, too, more than I am for sure. You’re having to take care of me and I-”
Apple leans in, silencing her silly girlfriend with a kiss on the lips. She pulls away slightly after a quick moment and gently presses her forehead to Darling's.

“You never have to be sorry for breaking down, Darling. Never. And you should never ever feel bad for me taking care of you. It's my honor to take care of you. You're my girlfriend, for kingdoms sake! I love you more than life itself!”
Apple's eyes well with tears, just thinking about the love she has for this woman whose eyes she's gazing into. She takes a shaky breath.

“Sure, I'm tired, but you've been through a lot more psychologically than I have the past couple days, and it’s perfectly understandable and okay for you to rely on me more than usual. That's what I'm always here for. We're together because we care about each other. We've been through thick and thin together, Darling. We've conquered every hurdle life has sent our way. Together.”
She breathes deeply through her nose.
“We can do this, Darling. Together, as we always do. Okay?”

She gently pulls away to look at her girlfriend. Fresh tears have replaced the ones that she just cleaned off. Apple reaches out and wipes them away. She leans in, kissing both cheeks where the tears had lay.
“Let’s go home now, baby,” Apple murmurs.
Darling nods. Her eyes flutter, fighting to stay open.
“Yeah,” she croaks.
Grasping both of Darling’s hands in hers, Apple helps her up, and together, they walk out of the restroom.

XXX

After Darling gets her pajamas on and brushes her teeth, she climbs into bed across from Raven’s sleeping form. She lies down, and Apple slides into bed and lies next to her. Darling shifts so she’s lying on her side, and Apple reaches out, loosely wrapping an arm around her. Darling’s eyes slip closed. Apple leans in, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead.
“There, baby,” she whispers. “Just relax. I’m right here.”

Darling breathes in through her nose and snuggles closer. Apple closes her own eyes. Her head sinks into the soft pillow, and she breathes deeply, trying to loosen the knot of anxiety and despair in her gut.

In a few short minutes, Darling’s breathing evens out, and Apple can sense she’s asleep. Slowly, Apple rolls out of bed. She quietly pads across the floor and out of the room. She cracks the door as she leaves.

Briar and Ashlynn are sprawled on the sofa, bowls of popcorn in their laps. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is playing on the TV. The volume is turned down low, and Briar and Ashlynn are whispering to each other. They turn as Apple approaches.
“Hey,” says Briar, her voice soft. “Do you wanna come sit down?”

Apple doesn’t know what comes over her then. It could be that the flannel pajamas she’s wearing are so soft and fluffy. It could be that her best friends are gazing at her, their eyes filled with concern. It could be that there are orange tendrils of flame in the fireplace, snaking around the logs, emanating warmth into the living room. All she knows is that she’s suddenly crying. Her shoulders are shaking, and her throat burns.
“Oh, honey.”

Within seconds, Ashlynn’s arms are around her, and she’s slowly guiding her over to the couch.
“There, baby, it’s okay. You’re okay.”
She strokes her hand over Apple’s hair as they make their way across the living room. Through her blurry vision, Apple sees Briar reaching her arms out, and as soon as she sits down, the brunette wraps her in a hug. She leans back, slowly bringing Apple with her.

Apple relaxes into Briar’s side as they lie down against a propped up pillow. She rests her head on Briar’s chest, and the sleepy princess holds her close. Apple shuts her eyes, focusing through her shudders on the soothing sensation of Briar’s fingers brushing through her hair. Gradually, the ministrations lull her into a fuzzy state of semi-consciousness. A drifting feeling drapes over her like a feather quilt, and before she knows it, she’s asleep.

Chapter Text

The mirror breaks, shatters under the impact of the apple, thrown by the girl in a fit of self-righteous rage. Pieces of glass split from the ovular frame. They fly outwards into the dark room, sailing through the musty air at haphazard angles. Apple stands, frozen, her cerulean eyes wide, as a shard hits her, embedding itself within her chest. She immediately collapses to the floor, her vision washed red. White hot pain bursts through her chest, radiating downwards into her gut, her waist, her thighs. Numbness seeps into her legs. She lies on her back, staring blearily up into the gloom. Her ears ring.

The darkness presses in on her, fuzzy, black, like a television with bad connection. The only sound she can hear is her own heavy breath gasping in her ears. Her fuzzy vision gradually sharpens, and she slowly realizes a figure is looming in front of her, a dark outline against the gradually receding darkness. Her body is racked with spasms as the darkness finishes its transition to dimness.

The convulsions end rapidly as her eyes adjust. Raven stands before her, her back stooped, her shoulders hunched. Her thick hair is plastered to her tear-streaked face. Wide, puffy eyes glisten with moisture. Redness contrasts the deep purple irises, a vivid sunrise that shines before Apple. Slowly, Raven walks toward her. Her face fades in and out of focus, as shadows curl and uncurl around her delicate features.

Suddenly, she’s kneeling down directly in front of Apple. She leans in until they’re face to face, their hot breaths mingling. Apple can see the red veins in her wide eyes, expanding by the second, as if they’re about to pop. Her face has always been pale, but it’s nearly translucent now. It shines, a white, eerie glow in the darkness.
“Apple.” Raven’s voice cracks.
Tears spill down her fair cheeks. Apple reaches out to touch her face, to wipe the tears, but Raven looks away, her hands covering her ghostly face.

When she turns back to her, she’s changed. Her eyes are pure black, a stark contrast against her pallid expression. They’re like a black hole, cosmos swirling around its dark edges. When she speaks, her voice sounds like jagged shards of glass. They rip through Apple’s chest, piercing her heart.
“How could you do this to me?” she rasps.
Apple gasps. Oxygen is sucked from her like a fire has been lit inside her lungs.
“I thought you were my friend,” Raven sobs. “But you had to make me face the person I fear most. You
to me.”
She shakes her head. Her eyes are like wells of oil bubbling under the surface of the earth.
“You’re no friend of mine.”

The words are uttered so quietly, but each syllable is like an individual knife stabbing into Apple’s heart. She moves her mouth uselessly, but no sound is emitted. No air reaches her lungs. She shudders as cold air whistles past her, whirling around her head like a tornado. She squeezes her eyes shut.
“Apple! Wake up!” a deep voice yells.
Apple keeps her eyelids tightly closed, refusing to face the wind.
“Wake up!” the voice yells again. “Apple, please wake up!”
Her body is being jostled by the wind now. Her limbs feel as if they’re being torn apart.
“No!” she screams. Her throat burns.“No! Leave me alone!”
She breathes erratically, her heart crashing like a cymbal against her skull. Finally, when the pain becomes too excruciating to handle, her eyes snap open and---
“Apple!”

A face comes into view. Wide violet eyes gaze down at her. A pale face glows, reflecting the milky moonlight pooling through the windows. Purple hair flows over their shoulders. Some loose locks dangle down, tickling Apple’s face. Their plum-colored lips are parted.
“Apple, are you awake?” they ask gently.
Apple lets out a shuddering gasp when she realizes it’s Raven. No black hole eyes. No angry accusations. No unbearable pain. Just Raven. Soft, kind, spicy, passionate Raven. Relief floods in her chest.
“Raven?” she croaks.
She reaches up a trembling hand, placing it on Raven’s soft cheek. Raven takes her hand, squeezing it.
“I’m here, Apple,” she soothes. “I’m right here.”
She reaches down, pulling Apple’s curly locks away from her sweaty face, tucking them lovingly behind her ears. The touch is so gentle, so delicate.

Tears well in Apple’s eyes and sprinkle down her cheeks before she can try to stop them. A sob bubbles in her throat. Holding it back is no use. It bursts out, a sharp wail breaking the peaceful aura that had just surrounded the girls.
“Apple,” Raven breathes.
Raven lies down next to her, quickly gathering her in her arms. She pulls her close, and Apple snuggles into the offered warmth. She hides her face in her friend’s purple nightgown and chokes out muffled sobs into the fabric. Raven strokes her tangled blonde tresses.
“Hey. Shhh,” she soothes. “It was just a bad dream, Apple. Nothing is going to hurt you. You’re safe, I promise. Shhshhh.”

Apple squeezes her eyes shut and buries her face deeper, breathing in the clean scent of Raven’s nightgown. Raven holds Apple close, running her fingers through her hair, until her sobs reduce to sniffles and hiccups. Raven then pulls away slightly to look Apple in the eyes. She reaches forward, gently wiping Apple’s tears away with the pads of her thumbs.
“What was it about?” she asks hesitantly.
Apple swallows. No way can she actually tell Raven what it was really about. She quickly thinks up a story.
“I-I dreamt that I-I f-fell off a cliff,” she says, her voice small.
She lets out a deep, shuddering breath. Raven strokes her hair between her fingers.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs. “You’re safe, Apple. I'm right here with you.”
Apple nods, unable to hold back a smile. Raven is truly the best friend forever that she could ask for.
“Would you mind sleeping in my bed with me tonight?” Her cheeks burn. “I-I mean, you don’t have to, but-”
Raven cuts her off.
“Of course I will, Apple,” she says gently. “I would never leave you alone after a nightmare.”

Apple smiles slightly before settling down next to Raven. Raven puts her arms around Apple, bringing her into a gentle embrace. Apple closes her eyes, resting her cheek on Raven's shoulder. She smiles as the scent of cinnamon shampoo wafts to her nose. Raven holds her, stroking her hair as she drifts into a dreamless sleep.

XXX

Nobody but Raven knows that Apple let the Evil Queen out. But Apple knows it. The hollow sensation of guilt sits heavily at the pit of her stomach day in and day out. Throughout pretty much her entire life, she has thought quite highly of herself. The servants who worked in her castle had obsessed over her for as long as she could remember. They waited on her cheerfully and faithfully. Every day they told her what an honor it is to serve her. Having no other point of reference, she had always thought that was nothing out of the ordinary. As she grew older, she’d started to notice her other fans, the people outside her house that loved and admired her.

By the time she had started spellementary school, she realized that people stopping her in the mall or at a restaurant, exclaiming their love for her and asking for pictures and autographs, was out of the ordinary. As her perceptiveness developed, it had became clear that other people weren't obsessed over the way she was. She never had a problem with it, though, and had basked in the admiration. Her ego was perpetually coddled, and as a result, became inflated to the size of a hot air balloon.

Now Apple knows what a mistake it was to ever get the idea in her head that she's amazing. Raven was right. She is selfish. Terribly selfish. She doesn't listen. She just plows forward, uncaring of what her friends think or feel about what she's doing (or what she's telling them to do). She has always thought of herself as a caring person, and the idea that she's not makes her feel as if a pit is widening in her stomach.

The guilt of what she did, what her senseless and crooked actions wrought, has made her continuosly ill. Her stomach is constantly churning and her face is always hot. She wants to cry, to wallow in the realization of who she really is-a two-faced brat, more concerned with her destiny and the resulting happiness than the wellbeing and even the lives of others. Innocent people could've died under the Evil Queen’s wrath. It would have been all Apple’s fault. A tear leaks from her eye, drips down her cheek, and lands on the yellowed page of the book she’s reading.

More follow, streaming in salty trails down her cheeks, and she doesn’t even bother to wipe them away. She deserves to feel the stinging in her eyes, the hot tears that cascade down her face. She grips the quill tighter in her hand, desperately hoping for something, anything, to ground her, to make her feel like she isn't dangling over the edge of a cliff. Her fingers are bleeding from the rocks stabbing into them, and she's gradually slipping further and further down the bumpy ledge.

XXX

She’s sitting in Princessology class when she suddenly begins to feel hot. Her heart starts beating faster and faster until it feels like it’ll burst out of her chest. Her breath shortens and her throat tightens. She can’t breathe. She tries to swallow, but to no avail. The saliva won’t slide down. She frantically glances around the room. She needs to get out of here now. She jumps up from her desk and bolts out of the room. Mrs Her Majesty The White Queen yells after her, but she can’t talk. She can’t breathe. She races down the hallway, past the rows of lockers. She skids into the bathroom, almost slipping on a puddle of water. She dashes into a stall, slamming the door closed. She stands, frozen in the middle of the stall. The world spins around her.

“I can't do this anymore,” she chokes out.
She attempts to inhale, but the oxygen simply refuses to fill her. Her chest aches, a dull stabbing sensation in her heart that moves to her lungs, which rapidly feel as if they're being deflated.
“I can't do it,” she wheezes.
Her mind fuzzily registers that nobody can hear her. She knows that she deserves to be alone in this, in this oppressing, guilt-ridden hell that she's created for herself. She doesn't deserve comfort, the tender touches, the gentle caresses that she desires. She craves the feel of Raven's arms around her, the girl’s soft, deft fingers running through her hair. She wants Raven to hold her, like she had the night after she'd had the nightmare.

Raven is too good for her, though. Too kind, too selfless, too brave, too beautiful. Slowly, Apple lowers herself to the floor. She draws her knees to her chest, wraps her arms tightly around her legs, and buries her face. She closes her eyes, relishing the fuzzy darkness she's immersed in. She tries to picture that a black blanket, flecked with silvery stardust, is wrapped around her, protecting her from the frigid, debris-filled cavity that is outer space. She rocks from side to side, trying to soothe herself. All that she has is herself. She takes ragged breaths, desperately struggling to breathe in spite of her burning lungs and her pounding heart. All she can do is cry as she strays further and further from reality. She feels as if she’s drifting out of her body, hovering, an unseen demon, above her quaking, curled form

She scarcely registers the arms being wrapped around her, but a small part of her consciousness recognizes the more minuscule details of her surroundings. The scent of rose lotion, the gentle hands rubbing up and down her back, the soothing whispers that breathe hot against her ear. She instinctively draws closer to this entity that she slowly realizes is Briar. Briar’s arms tighten around her in response. Slowly, the ringing in Apple’s ears subside, and the low, calming voice becomes less garbled.
“Shhh, it’s okay, Apple, it’s okay. Shhshh. Just listen to my heartbeat. Breathe. Breathe, honey.”

Apple faintly recognizes that her head is gently being held against Briar’s chest. The low thumping of Briar’s heartbeat gradually infiltrates her consciousness, and she immediately takes comfort in the steady, ceaseless rhythm.
“Just breathe with me, Apple. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Blue skies in, gray skies out. Blue in, gray out.”
Apple does what she’s told, listening to the familiar mantra that Apple and Briar have always said to each other when one of them was experiencing anxiety. At first, her breathing is shaky and unarticulated. It seems to rip at her chest, causing more pain and discomfort than she thinks she can manage.
“I-I c-can’t d-do i-it, Br-briar,” she sobs, her throat burning.
“Don’t say that, Apple,” says Briar, her voice stern but soft. “Yes, you can. It’ll get easier. Just keep breathing. The pain will go away, I promise.”

Apple zeroes in her focus on the soothing sensation of Briar’s warm hands, tracing smooth, round patterns across her back and shoulders. Gripping fistfuls of Briar’s shirt, she takes deep breaths, again and again. She focuses on Briar’s exaggerated breathing, the steady rise and fall of her chest. Within minutes, a pleasant floating sensation has draped over her, and she almost feels like she could fall asleep. Briar gently brushes her fingers through Apple’s hair and makes quiet shushing sounds under her breath.

Suddenly, after several more blissful minutes, memories start flooding back into Apple’s mind, and she gasps, pulling herself out of Briar’s arms. She opens her eyes for the first time in kingdoms-know-how-long and is painfully assaulted by the bright fluorescent lights. She squeezes her eyes shut and raises a fist, roughly rubbing them.
“C-class!” she exclaims. “I-I literally j-just ran out of cl-class! I-I’m going to be in s-so m-much tr-trouble!”
She can barely talk as shudders still insistently rack her frame. Warm hands lie on her shoulders, gently squeezing.
“Apple, breathe,” says Briar, her tone serious. “You’re going to give yourself another panic attack. Calm down.”

Panic attack. Those two words hits Apple in the chest like a freight train. She’d thought she was over them. She’d thought she was strong enough, smart enough. But no. She really isn’t the person she’s always thought she was. She is weak, naive, selfish, apathetic even. She doesn’t deserve anything she has. She’s nothing but a demon in disguise who deserves to rot in the Underworld, while Raven-gorgeous, fair, kind, strong Raven-rules over the kingdom.
Apple bursts into tears.
“Oh, Apple,” Briar whispers.

She scoots beside Apple and wraps an arm around her shoulders.
“Can you please tell me what’s wrong?”
Apple is stiff, forcing herself not to give in, to not lean into the embrace and bask in her best friend’s comfort. She just cries harder, turning away from Briar and bowing her head as she, again, loses control of herself.
“Shhh, it’s okay,” Briar whispers. “I’m here. I’m here. Shhh. Whatever’s wrong, I’m here for you, okay?”

XXX
2 hours later
“Are you feeling any better?” asks Briar, her voice soft as she hands her a glass of water.
Apple takes the glass with a slightly trembling hand.
“Thank you,” she whispers, her voice hoarse.
“You’re welcome, Apple,” murmurs Briar.
Apple gulps the water down, relishing the sensation of the clean liquid quenching her thirst. She sets the glass down on her nightstand after a moment and faces Briar.
“I am feeling quite a bit better. Thank you.”

Briar is sitting cross-legged on the bed, looking down as she runs her finger along the sheets. Her brow is furrowed, and her lips are tightly pressed together. She glances up and gives Apple a smile, a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes, that just curls her mouth slightly. Something is wrong. Apple can tell that everything isn’t alright with her BFFA. She doesn’t know what to say, though, so she stays silent, glancing around her dorm room. Sunlight is spilling through the window, dappling the tile in buttery yellow. The overhead fan is on, sending cool rushes of air through the slightly stuffy room.

This portion of Ever After is going through an especially intense heat wave in mid-April, no less. Apple gazes over to her nightstand where the framed picture of her and Raven is placed. Their arms are around each other, their faces glowing with happiness as they pose for the photo. It was taken at the Halloween Celebration, just days after they’d returned from their quest in Wonderland earlier this school year. Apple’s eyes tear up slightly, thinking how strong their friendship had been and wondering if it could ever be that way.

Apple betrayed Raven. She was willing to hurt her and others to get what she wanted. Her stomach feels like it’s coiling with disgust. Raven may forgive her, but Apple knows that she can never forget. Both of them can’t. Apple knows that she can never feel at ease in their relationship, knowing what she did, how low she’d been willing to stoop. Raven deserves somebody honest, somebody selfless and caring, just like herself, and Apple is certain that she’s not that person.

Ever since meeting Raven at the beginning of freshman year, Apple has wanted Raven to be her friend. From the start, she was drawn to the girl, to the Evil Queen’s daughter who smiled and shook her hand when they’d met for the first time at orientation.
“Hi, Raven! I’m Apple White, the girl you’re going to poison!” Apple had exclaimed, bouncing up and down. “I know you already know that, but it’s just so hexciting to be saying it to you!”
“Hi, Apple,” Raven had said, sounding polite but shy. “It's nice to meet you.”
“It's nice to meet you, too!” Apple had immediately exclaimed.
Raven had glanced at the ground for a moment before looking back up and smiling, trying to make eye contact with Apple but then blushing and lowering her gaze.
“You’re so pretty!” Apple had said. “Your hair is just gorgeous! You’re going to make a spelltacular villian for our fairytale!”

Apple thought she’d seen Raven wince but had brushed it off at the time, not necessarily caring what the problem was, if there was one.
“Thank you,” Raven had said, sounding more nervous than ever. “You’re very pretty, too.”
She’d cleared her throat.
“Your eyes are beautiful...very blue and uh, clear.”
She’d been blushing like a tomato at this point, creating such a stark contrast with her nearly translucent skin. Apple remembers having the most strange feeling in her chest, a sensation so different from what she’d ever felt when Daring had complimented her.
“Thank you, Raven,” she had said, maintaining her queenly composure. “That’s very...sweet.”

The word had felt foreign on her tongue, so out of context. She was talking to the Evil Queen’s daughter who was apparently sweet and shy? The gears in her brain had been turning at the speed of light, desperately trying to figure out how this could be possible.
If only Apple had been smart enough to know from the beginning that Raven is nothing like her mother. If only she had accepted Raven’s uniqueness and supported her rather than endlessly harassing her. Apple sighs, thinking about quiet, reserved fourteen year-old Raven and how much she has grown. Her stomach writhes with shame, thinking that she’d been one of the people holding her back.

She’s pulled back into the present by Briar’s hand on her shoulder. She blinks, shaking her head before focusing her gaze on her concerned-looking BFFA and attempting to smile.
“Are you okay, Apple?” Briar murmurs.
Apple gently sighs, feeling the weight of Briar’s gaze on her.
“I’m okay,” she says finally, gently taking Briar’s hand off her shoulder and holding it in hers.
She gives her friend’s hand a gentle squeeze.
“I’m just...overtired,” she says, smiling encouragingly at Briar.

Apple can tell that something is wrong with Briar, and she doesn’t want to burden the girl with her problems when she, obviously, has enough of her own. Apple sighs, hoping she’s doing the right thing before gently saying to Briar, “Are you okay?”
Briar’s brown eyes widen for a second before she clears her throat and presses her lips into a firm line.
“I’m fine,” she says,” trying and failing to sound casual.
Apple squeezes the girl’s hand, which she’s still holding.
“It’s okay if you’re not,” she murmurs. “I guess we just-” she takes a deep breath, “haven’t been hanging out enough lately and aren’t as in tune with each other as we usually are.”

She gives Briar a small smile, and Briar tries to smile back, but Apple can tell it’s forced. Apple softly sighs. She looks down at their entwined fingers, at the hot pink nail polish on Briar’s fingernails. Briar lets out a shaky sigh, and Apple’s head darts up. She gasps as she sees tears shimmering in Briar’s eyes. Briar never cries. What in the kingdoms has happened?!
“Briar,” says Apple gently, her voice trembling slightly, “what happened?”
She takes Briar’s other hand in hers, wrapping their fingers tightly together. Briar sighs again. She bites her lip, staring, unblinking, at the wall opposite them.
“Oh, Briar,” Apple whispers. “What is it, sweetheart? You can tell me. I’m here for you.”

She scoots next to the girl and reaches out, slowly putting her arms around her shoulders. Briar stays stiff, not reciprocating the embrace, which is so unlike her, Apple starts to feel nauseous.
“You don’t have to tell me right now if you don’t want to,” murmurs Apple, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice. “I’m still here for you in any way you need me to be. We can just hug or listen to music or sleep or cry-anything you want.”
She tightens the embrace, leaning her head against Briar’s. Briar breathes deeply and doesn’t say a word. Minutes creep by, and Apple stays silent, slowly trailing her hand up and down Briar’s arm.
“It’s just still hard for me to believe it,” Briar says suddenly, her voice low, “let alone explain it.”

Apple really feels sick to her stomach now.
“Oh kingdoms,” she murmurs, “what happened? Just say it, sweetie. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Briar lets out a long, trembling sigh before breathing in and speaking.
“My dog died.”
Her voice is tight. Apple can feel her begin to shake and immediately wraps her arms around her tighter. It’s her turn to be the caretaker now, which is one role she usually has no problem fulfilling. Her heart squeezes painfully in her chest. She feels like a cold iron fist is gripping her stomach.

“Felix…” Apple’s voice dies.
Briar is trembling with silent sobs. She bows her head, chestnut brown tresses falling over her face like a curtain. Apple sighs, gently brushing her hair back and tucking the locks behind her ears.
“Come here,” Apple murmurs. “Just lay your head on me. You’re okay, sweetheart.”
Briar unstiffens, allowing Apple to pull her closer and guide her head to rest on her shoulder.
“There we go,” Apple coos. “It’s going to be okay. Shhshh.”

She wraps her arms around Briar’s shoulders as tight as she can without hurting her, knowing that Briar needs to feel grounded when she’s emotionally unsteady. Gently, she rests her cheek atop her head and slowly runs her hand over her back. Briar’s sobs grow harsher as minutes stretch by. She buries her face against Apple’s collarbone, gripping fistfuls of her shirt. Apple tries her best not to cry, knowing that Briar needs her to be the strong one now.

Briar is always cheerful and confident, encouraging all her friends and happily doing whatever life requires of her. Now, she’s reduced to tears, leaning against Apple like she’s the only thing keeping her intact. Apple knows that all she can do is hold her close, so she does. She cradles her against her chest, pressing gentle kisses to her head and stroking her back.
Apple doesn’t know how much time passes before Briar’s sobs quiet. Apple gently caresses her hair as she continues to hiccup and sniffle long after the cries have ebbed.
“I-I l-loved h-him s-so m-much,” Briar says, her hoarse voice muffled against Apple’s chest.
Tears well in Apple’s eyes. The raw pain in her friend’s voice is devastates her much more than her own self-pity ever could. Her mouth moves uselessly as she struggles to form a coherent sentence.
“I know,” she finally settles on whispering. “I know, sweetie.”

Briar stifles a sob, her body quaking.
“Just let it out, baby,” Apple murmurs, kissing the top of her head. “Let it all out. I’m here.”
Briar breaks down again, pressing her face harder against Apple’s chest. Apple instinctively makes soothing sounds under her breath as her friend continues to brokenly weep. She closes her eyes, breathing deeply as she slowly rubs the girl’s back.
“I love you, baby,” she whispers, gently kissing her head. “I’m here. I’m always going to be right here.”

XXX

An hour later, the girls are sprawled on the couch, looking at photos of Felix that are in Briar’s FableBook album of him. Apple’s arm is wrapped around Briar’s shoulders, her fingers absently running up and down her sides, as the girl scrolls through her phone.
“He was always so friendly,” says Apple, her voice slightly cracked.
Briar sniffs.
“I know,” she croaks. “He was such a good boy.”
Both girls let out a wet chuckle at a photo of them crouched next to the golden retriever, who was holding a ball in his mouth. Each has an arm around him and a wide, toothy grin as they posed for the picture.
“How old were we?” Briar laughs. “Like eleven?”
“Yeah, I think about that old,” Apple replies, noting Briar’s hot pink braces in the photo.
“He loved to play fetch,” says Briar, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
Apple leans her head against Briar’s.
“Yes, he did.” She laughs. “He would go crazy whenever we threw that ball.”

Briar smiles, the first genuine one that Apple had seen from her that day.
“Crazy, sweet little boy,” she murmurs, gazing adoringly at the photo.
She reaches forward, grabbing her mug of tea and taking a long sip.
“Is it a good temperature now?” asks Apple.
“Yeah, it’s perfect,” Briar replies after she swallows.
“Good.” Apple smiles.

The girls look at pictures, smiling and laughing and shedding the occasional tear, for another ten minutes before Briar suggests watching a movie. Apple smiles, feeling happier than she has in weeks, as Briar animatedly explains that she’s been wanting to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding for over a month now. Apple laughs, quickly agreeing. Both girls change into pajamas. (Briar borrows one of Apple’s pairs).

One call to room service later, they have a big bowl of buttery popcorn. They settle on the couch. Apple props her MirrorPad on the coffee table, goes to Hexflix, and starts the movie. She sets the bowl of popcorn on her lap and snuggles close to Briar, gently wrapping an arm around her. Briar lies her head on her shoulder, letting out a soft, appreciative sigh. Apple smiles, a fuzzy sense of blissfulness warming her middle as she rests her cheek atop her BFFA’s head and watches as the movie begins.

 

XXX

“Good morning, Raven!” Apple says cheerfully as Raven slowly sits up in bed, rubbing her eyes and yawning.
“Hey,” says Raven, her voice thick with sleepiness.
She blinks, clearly adjusting to the bright light streaming through the windows. Apple walks over and sits down at the edge of Raven’s bed.
“Here, I made you some coffee,” she says, handing Raven the steaming mug. “Black, no sugar, no cream, just the way you like it.”
Raven smiles.
“Thank you, Apple.”
“You're welcome,” Apple replies, smiling brightly.

A silence stretches between the girls as Raven sips her coffee. Apple twists her fingers together in her lap, staring down at them as she tries to breathe. Her heart is pounding, and her stomach is churning with nausea, as usual. She knows that she deserves to feel miserable. She never complains, knowing that this is her punishment, that this is something that she has to go through on her own. Just as Raven had to face her mother on her own, lie to her, pretend to go along and be a part of her evil plans. She had to wait, desperately hope that her friends would come to her aid.

They eventually did, just in the nick of time, but Apple can't help but think what would've happened if they hadn't flown to her rescue when they did. Raven would've been forced to leave, to travel to another world with the Evil Queen, all to save Ever After, the world where everything she held dear existed. Raven possibly would've never seen any of her friends again, may have possibly been stuck in another world for the rest of her life, alone and miserable. And it would’ve been all Apple's fault.

Apple hears herself take a deep, shaky breath. She blinks back into focus, turning to look at Raven who has finished her cup of coffee and is gazing at her with concern.
“Are you okay, Apple?” she asks.
Apple shakes her head, plastering on the biggest smile she can muster.
“I'm spelltacular, Raven!” she exclaims.
She smiles, gazing around the room.
“It's a beautiful sunny morning. The birds are singing! There are no tests today! I couldn't be better!”

She turns back to Raven who has set the mug on her nightstand and is gazing at Apple, an unreadable expression on her face. Apple laughs nervously.
“We should get ready for school!” Apple exclaims. “It's still early. If we hurry, we can get to the showers before they fill up too much.”
A smile finally stretches over Raven's face.
“I'll definitely hurry,” she says. “I badly need a shower this morning. I'm just so tired.”
She stifles a yawn.
“Did you sleep okay?” Apple asks concernedly as she stands, picks up Raven's mug, and walks over to the sink, which she places the mug in.
“Thanks for taking care of that,” says Raven as she heads over to her dresser. “And yeah, I slept pretty well. I think I had a bad dream, but I don't remember what it was about.”

She sighs, pulling a dress out of the closet.
“Hmm,” Apple murmurs, walking over to her wardrobe. “Well, you can always wake me up if you have a bad dream, or if you ever need anything at all, Raven. Remember that.”
Raven turns, smiling at her from across the room.
“Of course, Apple,” she says. “You can always wake me up, too. Except you usually don't have to. You tend to scream when you're having a nightmare.”

She chuckles, taking her shower bag out of her closet. Apple blushes, tilting her head down to hide it.
“Oh,” she mutters.
“Hey, it's okay,” says Raven. “I didn't mean it in a bad way. I mean, you can't help it, and I always want to help you if you're upset.”
Apple lifts her head up, smiling brightly at Raven, despite the feeling that her insides are wilting away. It’s not because of what Raven said. It's more of the well-deserved guilt that lies heavy on her chest day in and day out.
“Yeah, I know,” Apple assures Raven, crossing the short distance across from her and taking her hands in hers.

Raven’s mouth opens slightly. Her head darts down as she glances down at their hands, before it shoots back up. Apple frowns, noting that Raven looks nervous. Her violet eyes are slightly wide. She's biting don on her bottom lip. Apple gazes down at their intertwined hands. She had forgotten she was holding them.
“Sorry,” she says, letting go and looking away, her hand unconsciously moving to scratch her neck, a harmless nervous habit of hers.
“It's okay, Apple,” says Raven. “You can touch me. I just wasn't hexpecting it, that's all.”

Apple looks up. Raven is smiling encouragingly at her. Apple slowly exhales, trying to rein in her furiously pounding heart. Raven bites her lip, her eyebrows furrowing with concern for a few seconds before she apparently decides to not dwell on Apple's odd behavior. Apple mentally chastises herself. She can't be so obvious about the way she’s feeling! No way can she drag Raven into this, of all people! She's already put Raven through enough.
“Come on, let's go shower,” says Raven, reaching out and taking Apple's hand.

Apple, for the first time in days, can't stop herself from smiling. It spreads over her face like it always used to, like it's second nature, like she doesn't feel that there's a black hole inside of her, swirling at the speed of sound, sucking in everything that it can feel with its vicious magnetic pull. She gently squeezes Raven's hand as they walk out of their dorm.

XXX
“Here, Raven, you can just sit down,” says Apple as they enter the castleteria. “I’ll get your breakfast for you.”
“Oh-okay,” Raven replies, sounding confused. “It’s no problem. I can get it, but-” she must notice Apple’s puppy eyes- “Yeah, you can get it for me. Thank you.”
Apple smiles, pivots and walks toward the line that is forming.
“Hey!” she says cheerfully as she gets into line behind Ashlynn.
Ashlynn turns around and smiles.
“Hi, Apple,” she says brightly. “How are you doing this morning?”
“I’m doing amazing!” Apple exclaims, aiming to sound like her usual happy self but wincing as she notes that it’s a bit overkill.
She clears her throat.
“Um-how are you doing, Ashlynn?”
“Good, thank you,” Ashlynn replies.

The girls casually chat as they wait in line. Apple fills Raven's plate with fresh melon and yogurt from the breakfast bar. Though Apple is nauseous, she reluctantly fills her own plate with a few cubes of melon and a small portion of granola. She can't worry her friends. She’ll just have to eat slowly and pray that she won't throw it all up.
She graciously accepts the bowls of porridge that the cook hands to her. She breathes deeply, trying her best to listen attentively to Ashlynn as she talks animatedly about the 5k profiting the organization, The Gentle Barn, that she and Hunter are going to be running in this weekend.

They reach the table where Raven, Maddie, and Cerise are sitting on one side, and Briar and Blondie are sitting on the other. The girls cheerfully greet each other. Apple sits beside Raven, placing the tray of food in front of her that she'd prepared for her.
“Thank you so much,” says Raven, smiling.
Ashlynn sits next to Briar across from them. Raven reaches over, giving Apple's hand an appreciative squeeze. Apple's stomach clenches, her mind screaming that she doesn't deserve Raven's affection.

Apple gulps, feeling more and more miserable as she gazes at her food, dreading the fact that she now has to put it all in her aching stomach.
She takes quiet deep breaths as she eats, taking small bites and trying her hardest to stay focused on the conversation. She contributes enough so that her friends don't get too suspicious, but every time she opens her mouth to talk, she feels like the food she's just consumed is going to creep up her esophagus at any moment.

Relief flows through her body as the bell signaling the start of morning classes begins. She’s a little grateful that she doesn't have any classes with Raven until fourth period. She fears that, if she spends any more time with the girl this morning, the guilt will literally eat a hole through her chest.
She has made it her mission to help Raven out and to be there for her as much as she possibly can. She knows that nothing will make up for what she did, but the least that she can do is work extra hard to be the fairy best friend to Raven now, even though she was quite the opposite before.

“Have a good time in class, Raven,” says Apple, unable to resist giving the girl a quick hug before they stand up and begin walking to their classes.
“Thanks. You too, Apple.”
Halfway through first period, which is Kingdom Management, Apple knows that her stomach isn't going to make it until passing period. She raises her hand, breathing deeply to try to quell the onslaught of nausea.
“Yes, Ms. White?” the teacher says.
“May I please use the restroom?” Apple asks, struggling not to groan as a particularly strong wave of nausea invades her body.
“Yes, you may,” the teacher says. “Just make it quick!”
“Yes, ma'am,” Apple manages between deep breaths.
She stands up from her desk and walks quickly from the room. As soon as the door closes behind her, she runs down the hall.

XXX
The day doesn't get much better from there. She goes to get hocus lattes with Briar and Ashlynn after school, but her stomach is still unsettled. She’d briefly felt better after she'd thrown up, but the nausea has returned, though thankfully not quite as intense, by third period.

Apple feels horrible the whole time she, Ashlynn, and Briar sit, talking, at the table on the patio of the hocus latte shop. She takes small sips of her latte, hoping that the warm liquid might soothe her upset stomach. Her forehead beads with sweat. Her heart is thumping unevenly against her ribcage.
“So, my hours next week at the Glass Slipper are crazy,” says Ashlynn. “At least I'll have a fun weekend with Hunter beforehand. And I do get to buy some new shoes for the Mother's Day Tea in two weeks. I was thinking some carnation pink heels would go good with the dress I'm going to wear.”
“Ooh, I don't think you’ve shown it to me yet!” Briar exclaims.
“I haven't?” says Ashlynn. “Well, lucky for you, I have a lot of pictures on my phone.”
She smiles, looking down and scrolling through her phone.

“What about you, Apple?” she casually asks, still looking at her phone. “I know you always do things in advance. What kind of dress are you wearing?”
Apple opens her mouth to answer but squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head as she feels oddly disconnected for a second. She feels like she did a week ago when she’d had the panic attack, like her consciousness is floating out of her body, upward into the sky where she hovers above her body, seeing but not comprehending.
“Apple.”
She feels like she's slammed back into the present, her consciousness crashing back into her body.
“Sweetie, are you okay?”

Ashlynn's sweet voice pulls her fully back into the now. She rapidly blinks as her eyes adjust to the sunlight. Ashlynn and Briar are gazing at her, equal concern spread over both their faces. Apple clears her throat and shakes her head.
“I'm okay!” she exclaims, wincing when it comes out louder than she intended.
She clears her throat again.
“I'm fine,” she says more calmly. “I'm just thinking about...that Kingdom Management hexam that we're taking in three days.”

Ashlynn nods, clearly placated by her answer. Briar continues to gaze at her, though, her eyebrows furrowed, her lips pursed, as if she's scrutinizing her. Apple’s cheeks burn, desperately wishing that she had the ability to act in a ways that wouldn’t make her the center of attention.
Ashlynn begins to talk about the fashion line that she and Lizzie are working on, though, and Briar eventually stops looking at Apple, focusing instead on Ashlynn.
Apple smiles when necessary and contributes to the conversation when it seems important, but her mind keeps going back to Raven, the guilt being briefly replaced by wondering if she's doing okay, if there's anything that she needs help with.

XXX

“Hey, Raven!” Apple exclaims as she enters their dorm.
“Hey,” Raven replies, her voice weak.
She’s sitting at her desk. Several textbooks and a mess of papers are laid out in front of her. She turns around, giving Apple a wan smile. As Apple draws closer, she notices the dark circles under her eyes.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“I'm fine,” says Raven, sounding weary. “Just tired. I'm so stressed about this Queenometry test I have on Thursday. When it comes to math, I'm fine at Crownculus, but give me some Queenometry problems-I just have no clue.”

She sighs, setting her elbow on the desk and placing her cheek in her hand. Apple walks forward, coming up behind where Raven is seated and leans in, gently wrapping her arms around her neck. Raven groans, leaning back and resting her head against Apple's chest.
“I'm sorry,” Apple murmurs.
Raven sighs.
“I can help you,” says Apple, her voice soft. “Is it the test on Thursday that you're stressing about?”
“Yeah,” Raven mutters. “I just know I'm going to fail it!” She suddenly begins to panic. “I try so hard! Really, I do!”

She breaks away from Apple's arms and gets out of the chair. She begins to pace around the room.
“I know you do, Raven,” Apple says soothingly.
Raven breathes raggedly, her shoulders heaving with the effort.
“I don't slack off! I take notes! I-I listen in class! It's just something about Queenometry that I just can't-” She growls with frustration. “What am I saying? I'm just dumb! I just can't do it!”

She stops in the middle of the room,letting out a trembling sigh. Her shoulders drop in defeat.
“Raven.” Apple sighs.
She walks over and takes the girl's hands in hers.
“You are not dumb, Raven,” she says, her voice firm but gentle. “Just get that silly idea out of your head right now.”
She sighs, giving the girl's hands a gentle squeeze.

“Hey, Raven, look at me,” she murmurs.
Raven continues to look down. Apple sighs.
“Please look at me, sweetie.”
When Raven still doesn't oblige, she lets go with one hand and reaches out, gently tilting her chin up.

Apple quietly gasps when she sees tears shimmering in the girl's eyes.
“Oh, Raven,” she murmurs, her heart clenching in her chest.
She steps forward, wrapping her arms around her shoulders.
“It's okay,” she whispers. “It's going to be okay, baby.”
She gently rubs her hand up and down the girl’s back. Raven is silent, her frame slightly trembling as she hugs Apple back.

About a minute later, Raven slowly pulls away. Her eyes are dry.
“Thank you,” she murmurs. “I guess I needed that.”
Apple's chest is fuzzy, simmering with warmth.
“Of course, Raven,” she says. “I’m always here for you.”
She reaches out, gently taking the girl’s hand. Raven smiles brightly, squeezing Apple's hand.
“Thank you. I'm always here for you, too, Apple.”

Apple smiles, shaking her head and clearing her throat before silence can linger too long.
“Here, why don't we go sit on your bed? I can give you a back rub.”
In seconds, Raven's pale cheeks have turned scarlet.
“O-oh,” she stutters.
She shifts from foot to foot, her head moving up and down as she struggles to make eye contact.
“Y-You don't have to do that. I'm okay.”

Apple stifles a laugh, trying not to squeal with delight at Raven's adorableness.
“But you're stressed out,” says Apple, her voice soft. “I'm your friend.”
Her voice catches slightly at the word “friend.” Would a friend betray their friend like she did? No, they wouldn't. The answer is clear and simple. But Apple needs Raven, more than she'd like to admit. She needs her fresh and interesting outlook, her thoughtfulness, her encouragement, her genuinity, her wit, her independent and generous spirit.

Apple knows that she needs Raven more than Raven needs her. But Apple still wants to sit on the soft mattress and feel the weight of Raven's head in her lap. She wants to rub her hands across the girl's smooth back, slowly massage the tense muscles until they relax slightly, and Apple can finally breathe.

 

XXX

“You ready for that Kingdom Management test tomorrow?” Briar asks cheerfully as she meets Apple in the hallway, effortlessly linking their arms as they continue to walk through the throngs of students.
The icy hot anxiety that has coiled itself like a snake around her stomach tightens as the reason for her intense amounts of stress is spoken aloud. She tries to swallow, but her throat is thick, and it aches as the saliva slides down. She clears her throat, but when she speaks, her voice is still cracked.
“Y-yeah, totally ready!” she exclaims, wincing at how hoarse her voice sounds.
“Are you okay?” Briar asks, her voice laced with concern as they ascend the winding staircase that leads to the dorms.
“Yeah,” says Apple, her voice clearer now. “Of course.”

XXX

Apple’s eyes snap open, and the first thing she registers is the discomfort. She blinks as the darkness subsides slightly, and the outlines of the furniture around the room gradually become visible. As the grogginess begins to fade slightly, she realizes that the pain is in her stomach, a nauseous sensation gnawing at her left abdomen. She slowly rolls over onto her back, staring up at the flowery canopy above her. She breathes heavily. Her body burns with heat that presses in on her like a giant oven. As her stomach turns, she groans,staggering out of bed. She stumbles through the dark room, almost tripping several times.

When she finally makes it to the door, her stomach is twisting and churning. She wrenches the door open and runs out into the dimly lit hall. Her bare feet pound against the tile as she dashes in the direction of the restroom. She presses her hand over her mouth, sprinting as fast as she can. Tears well in her eyes. Gods, she needs to make it! She's got to make it! Fluorescent lights flicker slightly as she enters the bathroom, casting gentle shadows along the tile floor and walls. Locking the stall behind her, she sits on her knees, her head over the toilet bowl, waiting for the vomit to come.

Raven wakes with a jolt. She quickly sits up, placing her hand over her rapidly beating heart. The door slams. She hears running footsteps. Squinting her eyes, she scans the room. Apple’s bed is empty. Staggering out of bed, she makes her way across the room. The door creaks as she opens it, echoing through the still air. She walks through the dim hallway, lit only by torches hanging along the walls. She enters the bathroom and immediately hears vomiting noises. She approaches the only closed stall and knocks.
“Apple, can I come in?”

The girl continues to retch. Raven uses magic to unlock the door. With a purple glow, the door clicks open. She walks in to see Apple, hunched over the toilet. She quickly crouches behind the girl. She pulls her hair back, putting it up with a ponytail holder from around her wrist. She begins to rub her back.
“It’s okay,” she murmurs. “It’ll be over soon.”
Apple’s vomiting gradually slows to a stop. Raven gives Apple a wad of toilet paper, then reaches forward and flushes the toilet. Apple sits back on her knees and wipes her mouth.
“I’ll be right back,” Raven says soothingly.

She walks over to the sinks. She picks up a small plastic cup from the basket on the counter, fills it with water, and wets a paper towel under the tap. She crouches back down beside Apple who is sitting on her knees, staring blankly at the wall in front of her. Raven rubs her shoulder.
“Here.” She hands Apple the cup. “Why don’t you rinse your mouth?”
Apple reaches a trembling hand out, taking the cup. She takes a sip, swishes, and spits into the toilet. Raven takes the cup from Apple, discarding it in the trashcan by the toilet.
“Here. Let me wash your face,” Raven says softly.
Apple slowly nods.

Raven gently wipes her face with the wet paper towel. The water feels pleasantly cool against her burning skin. She sighs. Raven reaches out, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. Her hand rests on her back, slowly rubbing circles.
“How are you feeling?” she asks, her voice soft. “Does your stomach still hurt?”
Apple shakes her head.
“No,” she mutters, her voice hoarse. “My stomach feels fine now.”
Raven nods.
“That’s good. How about I run by our room and grab you your toothbrush and a cup of water? Does that sound good?”
“Yeah,” Apple replies quietly.
“Okay. Just wait here. I’ll be right back.”

XXX

The next morning, Raven tries to convince Apple to not go to classes.
“You’re sick, Apple,” she insists. “Stay here and rest. I’ll go to your classes and get you all your assignments after school.”
“Thank you, Raven,” says Apple, “but I must attend my classes today. I have a very important Kingdom Management hexam.”
“But Apple-”
“Raven, your care and concern does really mean a lot to me. But this hexam is the last one that prepares the students for finals. I really must go.”
“Okay,” Raven says uncertainly. “Will you at least come get some rest when you’re done?”
“I’ll think about it.” Apple smiles. “And Raven, thank you so much for helping me out last night.”
Raven smiles.
“Oh, it was no problem, Apple. Everybody deserves some help when they’re sick.”
I don't, Apple thinks miserably. She forces her facial muscles to remain turned up, though, in her usual dazzling smile.

XXX

Apple gulps down her porridge at breakfast. Briar, Blondie, and Ashlynn are talking animatedly about something. She pretends to listen, but her mind spins with anxiety. She’s going to fail this hexam. Her mom is going to know what a failure she is, that she’s not the person she’s been pretending to be her whole life. She knows who she really is, but what happens when everybody else finds out? A wave of nausea suddenly overcomes her.
“Excuse me,” she mutters. “I have to use the restroom.”

Her friends nod as she jumps to her feet, bustling past tables of students. She runs through the hall, nearly colliding with several people. She has to make it. She grits her teeth. Flinging the bathroom door open, she rushes in and bursts into a stall. The bile is already rising in her throat, and she embarrassingly doesn’t even have enough time to lock the stall door before dropping to her knees beside the toilet and heaving her breakfast into the water below.

She starts as the stall door shuts, and soft, cool hands rest at the back of her neck, gently pulling her hair out of her face. A hand is set on the middle of her back and gently begins to rub circles. Apple closes her eyes as the vomiting continues. It’s probably Briar, Blondie, or Ashlynn. She grips the sides of the toilet, her knuckles white. As her heaves slow, a wad of toilet paper is handed to her.
“Thanks,” she croaks.

She wipes her mouth. The person gently gathers her hair into a ponytail. Their fingers thread through her tresses with such gentleness and skill, a combination that she doesn't think she's ever felt before.
She throws the wad of tissue into the toilet and reaches out with a shaky arm, pressing down on the handle. The toilet flushes, her vomit disappearing down the drain.

She turns. Her heart misses a beat as she comes face to face with Darling Charming. Darling is crouched down beside her, her platinum blonde hair flowing around her shoulders. Her ice blue eyes are slightly wide with concern.
“Darling,” she chokes out.
“Hey,” Darling says, her voice soft. “I saw you leave the castleteria in a rush, so I decided to follow you. Looks like you’re not feeling well. Are you alright?”

She hesitantly places her hand on Apple’s shoulder. Apple’s heart hammers in her chest as she stares into Darling’s clear blue eyes. Her platinum blond hair falls over her shoulders, a wild but tidy mane. She’s never really looked closely at Darling before, and she has to admit, the girl is beautiful. Fairer than her, even. Her thick, light pink lips are slightly parted as she gazes at Apple. Apple clears her throat.
“I’m okay,” she replies. “I think I’m just nervous about that Kingdom Management hexam.”
Darling nods, the faintest of smiles pulling at the corners of her lips.
“I’m nervous, too.”
Apple giggles nervously.
“Not so nervous that you’re throwing up. At least you’ve got it together more than I have.”

Darling shrugs.
“I think you’ve got it pretty together, Apple.”
Apple’s face heats as a blush brushes its way across her features. She laughs again.
“By the way, thanks for helping me out,” she says.
Darling nods again.
“No problem, Apple.”

She holds her hand out, helping the girl stand. She then unlocks the stall door, holding it open as Apple walks out. Apple makes her way over to the sinks, where she rinses her mouth. She wets a paper towel and wipes her sweaty face. Darling stands awkwardly beside her, her legs crossed. The bell suddenly rings, and both girls exit the bathroom in a rush. They hurry up the staircase, side by side.
“Good luck on the test today, Apple,” Darling says.
Apple smiles.
“Good luck to you, too, Darling.”

XXX

Apple feels as if a pit is widening in her stomach, the rocky ledges spreading farther and farther away from each other as the ground rumbles and the dust swirls. She'd logged into Infinite Campus to see if her test grade was up yet, and now she wishes, more than anything, that she hadn't. 58. The Mirrorphone shakes in her hand, her fingers white where they’re gripping the case. 58. Two digits that she'd zoomed in on on the bright white screen glare at her, morphing before her eyes into ink black humanoid figures that screech in her face, their hot, sulfurous breath slamming against her cheeks.

Her heart pounds, thumping against her skull, blocking out any semblance of sound. The numbers blur, the ink bleeding out as it expands into one large, faded blob.
She feels as if a switch has been flicked, causing a throbbingly loud snapping sound to slice through her eardrums as the blob disappears and is replaced by nothing but a black screen. Her own fuzzy reflection swims into view. She's staring into her phone screen, the smooth glass smudged by her pressing fingers.

She gasps as a sensation flickers into her consciousness. She shudders, dimly recognizing the familiarity of physical touch. She's standing here, in this hallway beside her locker. The phone is heavy in her hand. Her fingers ache from her vice grip. She loosens her hold, slowly lowering the phone to her side. Soft fingertips are gently gripping her shoulders. She sighs, slowly turning around. As soon as she sees Ashlynn Ella, sees the girl's soft emerald eyes wide with concern, she breaks.

A fist suddenly grabs her stomach, curling its fingers around the lining with an iron grip. The telltale prickling of tears burns behind her eyelids, her breathing shortens against her will, and before she knows it, she's stifling a sob against her hand.
“Oh, honey,” Ashlynn murmurs.
She wraps one arm around Apple's shoulders and slides the other around her waist, holding her steady as she slowly begins to guide her across the hall.
“It's okay, sweetie,” she murmurs, her fingers stroking across her shoulders as the two girls slowly, painfully climb the staircase. “Everything’s going to be alright.”
“I-I f-failed, A-Ash,” Apple whispers, her vision completely blurred by the tears that invade her eyes. “I-I f-failed.”
“Shhh, it's okay,” Ashlynn whispers. “You’re okay.”
Apple squeezes her eyes shut, biting down hard on her lip to restrain the sobs that pummel her chest.

A door clicks shut, and the scents of mint and roses register faintly in Apple's streaming nose. She opens her eyes, seeing Ashlynn’s and Briar’s dorm through the hot veil of tears.
“Here, let's just sit down on my bed,” Ashlynn murmurs.
Never removing her arms from Apple, Ashlynn slowly lowers them onto a soft mattress. Apple’s stomach writhes. The jumble of emotions within her, twisting and cutting and pressing, is too much for her to process. Her chest is throbbing, smothered by blanketing heat. It is simply too much.

She failed. She’s never failed before, at anything. She feels as if everything inside of her-in her brain, her heart, her soul-that made her herself, Apple White, the future queen of Ever After, is withering away. She's forming into something gruesome, something vile, something akin to a serpent, and she just knows that she is never going to shed a skin that will reveal her old self, the Apple White that she was before she made the mistake that could've been all of Ever After’s undoing.

“I-I j-just c-can’t d-do th-this a-anymore,” she sobs, her throat throbbing as she chokes out the words. “I-I c-can’t, A-Ash!”
She collapses into Ashlynn's arms, pressing her face against the girl's chest, releasing sobs that sound so monstrous, she wishes there was a way to not hear them. Ashlynn wraps her arms tight around Apple's trembling body, holding her close as she falls apart.

XXX

“You are not a failure, Apple,” Ashlynn murmurs.
She gently dabs at Apple's face with a tissue, wiping the trails of tears and mascara away. Apple sniffs, unable to stop shuddering as she struggles to speak coherently.
“I-I g-got a-a f-fifty e-eight. Th-that’s a-an F.”
“I know, sweetie,” Ashlynn murmurs as she takes another tissue from the box and helps Apple blow her nose. “You failed a test.”
Apple stifles a sob, pressing a trembling hand over her mouth.

Ashlynn gently sighs, wrapping soft fingers around Apple's and prying the girl's hand off. She takes the blonde’s shaking hands in hers, gently squeezing them.
“That doesn't make you a failure, Apple,” she says, her voice soft but stern. “Your grades don't define who you are.”
She sighs again, reaching out and gently cupping Apple's cheek. Apple's eyes flutter shut as she leans into the warmth of the girl's hand.
“You are so much more than the results on a test, Apple,” Ashlynn murmurs, leaning in and resting her forehead against Apple's.
She strokes her fingers across Apple's damp cheeks.

Apple closes her eyes, letting out a soft pleasured sigh at the soothing sensations.
“You're Apple White-kind, caring, loving, intelligent, hard-working, loyal Apple White, and nothing can take that away from you.”
Apple's eyes burn as she realizes just how highly Ashlynn thinks of her, just how much she respects and loves her.

It only causes her stomach to plunge deeper. Ashlynn doesn't know who Apple really is, the pure evil that she's capable of.
She lets Ashlynn hug her again, though. She selfishly melts into the warm embrace, relishing the sensation of Ashlynn's fingers running through her hair, the sweet sound of her voice as she reassures her, again and again.

XXX

“I got a B on the Queenometry test,” Raven says, her voice a whisper.
Apple watches as the girl's mouth slowly curves into a radiating smile. Her pearly white teeth are exposed, and they shine as she lets out an excited laugh. Her violet eyes are bright with a life that Apple hasn't seen in her friend's eyes for a couple months.
“Oh, Raven!” Apple exclaims.

She jumps up from her desk chair and runs to Raven who is standing by her bed. She throws her arms around her shoulders, only squeezing her tighter as Raven lets out an involuntary “oomph.”
“I'm so proud of you!” she exclaims, hugging with all her might.
Raven slowly puts her own arms around Apple, resting her chin on the girl's head.
“I couldn't have done it without you,” says Raven. “Thank you so much.”
“Oh, Raven,” Apple murmurs.

She pulls away just enough to look Raven in the eyes. She gently cups the girl's soft cheeks.
“It was all you,” she murmurs. “It has nothing to do with me. You're strong and determined, and you succeeded because of that, not because of something I did.”
Raven chuckles.

Apple removes her hands from Raven's face, feeling unusually self-conscious under the girl’s intense gaze. She glances down at the spotless floor, her insides fuzzy. Specks of light dance across the tile. A gentle, cool breeze blows through the open window.
When Apple forces herself to look up, Raven is smiling at her with that big, beautiful, toothy smile. Apple can't help the mushy sensation that takes over her middle as she feels nothing but pure adoration for her friend.
“Though that may partly be true,” says Raven, “you helped me, and because of that, I understood more, and my confidence was increased. Thank you.”

Apple’s cheeks only burn more as she realizes that she’s blushing. She can barely get out “You’re welcome" before she's stepping forward and pulling the girl into her arms. In that moment, Raven is all the sustenance that she needs.

XXX

Apple awakes to a bloodcurdling scream. She springs up, breathing heavily as she quickly scans the room, looking for danger. Her eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, and she faintly sees Raven sitting up in bed. Apple gasps as she sees that the girl has her head in her hands and is rocking back and forth.
“Raven!” Apple exclaims, her heart pounding.

She nearly falls out of bed as she scrambles to get up. She runs across the room and flings herself onto Raven's bed.
“Raven,” Apple whispers.
The girl is shaking profusely. Strangled whimpers are muffled by her hands. Not wanting to spook the girl, Apple cautiously draws nearer.
“Raven,” she says, louder this time. “It's Apple. I'm here.”
Raven moves her hands from her face and slowly turns to Apple. Shaky sobs rack the girl's frame as she crosses her arms over her chest, shrinking in on herself.

Apple scoots closer, reaching out and placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Shhhh, Raven,” she soothes, speaking in the lowest, softest voice she can. “It was just a bad dream.”
“Just?!” Raven chokes out.
She bursts into even louder sobs, wrapping her arms tighter around herself. Apple gently sighs. She carefully pulls Raven’s hair away from her sweaty face. Tenderly, she strokes her hand through the tangled tresses.

“Come here,” she murmurs, leaning over and wrapping her arms around the girl.
Slowly, she lowers the two of them down. Raven’s sobs blare against her ear as she helps the girl lie down. Lying on her back, she draws Raven close, situating her so that she's curled snugly against her side, her head and upper body lying across her chest. Raven trembles like an earthquake in Apple's arms, shaky gasps and hiccups afflicting her worse and worse as the moments pass.
Apple holds the girl close against her chest, hugging her tightly and smoothing a hand over her hair.
“It's okay,” she coos. “You're okay. I'm right here. Shhshh.”

Raven gasps and sniffles, struggling to speak between her heaving sobs, but all that she can manage is strangled chokes and whimpers.
“Shhh, sweetheart,” Apple whispers against her ear. “It's okay. Everything's alright. You're safe.”
She places a soft kiss to her sweaty temple. Raven continues to weep uncontrollably, gripping fistfuls of Apple's shirt. Apple strokes the girl's hair, gently rocking back and forth.

Eventually, after listening to Raven sob herself dry, being unable to do much less than just hold her close and continue to whisper reassurances, Raven finally begins to calm. Slowly, her trembling becomes less intense. Gulping, breathless sobs reduce to soft, hoarse cries. Apple strokes a hand through the girl's hair, gently caressing her arm with the other.
“Sshh, it’s okay,” she whispers every couple moments.
Gradually, Raven’s breathing evens out. Apple slowly runs her fingers through her hair as the girl drifts off to sleep.

Apple lies awake, staring at the ceiling, long after Raven falls asleep. She’s as still and quiet as she can be, not wanting to wake the sleeping girl in her arms. She breathes slowly, trying not to focus on the hollow sensation in her gut. She thinks that she might know what Raven’s nightmare was about, and the thought makes her want to sob herself.

Chapter Text

I recognize that I haven't been specific enough about the timeline throughout this story so far. So here is some info about the timeline I envision for this story…

Events in show
Legacy Day--September 2015 (beginning of sophomore year)
True Hearts Day--February 2016 (middle of sophomore year)
Thronecoming--May 2016 (end of sophomore year) Spring Fairest--March 2016
Way Too Wonderland--October 2016 (beginning of junior year)
Dragon Games--April 2017 (spring of junior year)
Epic Winter--June 2017 (summer of junior year)

Some events in story
November 4, 2017 (Darling’s senior year and Holly’s junior year)--Holly’s and Darling’s friendship begins
December 2017 (their senior year)--Apple and Darling start hanging out and getting closer
January 17, 2018--Raven finds out her father has cancer
February 18, 2019 (freshman year of college)--Raven’s father dies of cancer
December 2, 2020 (junior year of college)--the day of Dexter's accident

Okay, here are the characters’ birthdays. I included these so you can know their exact ages at any given time because this story changes time periods a lot…
The characters’ birthdays are on Ever After High Wiki. I made up the years they were born, in slight consideration to the years the Netflix series aired.

Apple--May 13, 2000
Raven--November 25, 1999
Darling & Dexter--February 11, 2000
Daring--April 2, 1999 (he is a grade above most of the main characters)
Rosabella--September 4, 1999
Briar--August 9, 1999
Ashlynn--October 15, 1999
Holly & Poppy--June 19, 2001 (they are a grade below most of the main characters)
Duchess--April 30, 2000
Faybelle--November 16, 1999
Farrah--September 27, 2000
Cupid--November 24, 1999
Blondie--September 9, 1999
Hunter--March 13, 2000
Kitty--May 24, 2000
Lizzie--January 18, 2000
Maddie--June 8, 2000

If you guys have any questions, just ask in the comments section, and I will get back to you! :)

Chapter Text

Raven groans, struggling to open her aching eyes. As the puffy lids slide open, she immediately regrets it. Bright sunlight shines through the polished glass windows, bathing the room in a blinding yellow glow. Squeezing her eyes shut, she slowly sits up. She coughs, wincing at her scratchy throat. Taking a deep, shaky breath, she slowly opens her eyes again. The light is softer now, though her eyes still burn slightly. She squints, looking around the room. Apple is nowhere in sight. Only a few of her doves perch on her bedposts.

An unexpected swell of anger rolls through Raven's stomach as she thinks about her friend, about her high-pitched, off-key singing as she nuzzles her face against the dove’s soft head. About her unapologetic vanity as she asks her “Magic Mirror” (which is really just a device made by Snow White’s dwarves) if she's the fairest at the school, her bright blue eyes shining as she eagerly awaits the obvious answer. (She actually hasn't done this in weeks, surprisingly). About breaking Raven’s mother’s mirror, setting the Evil Queen free just because the woman had made her an empty promise, a effortless guarantee that she'd grant her what she wanted-her destiny, which is all she cares about. She didn't consider the turmoil that the Evil Queen would cause, the chaos and danger she'd spread across the land, the lives that she possibly could've taken.

Apple is selfish enough to put countless others at risks, to break laws, to not act like the pure-hearted, perfect princess that she pretends to be, all to obtain her destiny, her own happiness. To hell with other people’s lives and happiness-as long as Apple is satisfied, everything else will just somehow all work itself out, right? Apple can act as caring as she wants to. She can hold Raven close all night, gently coo at her and stroke her hair as she cries about the nightmare she'd experienced. The nightmare that Apple herself had caused by allowing the Evil Queen escape. That doesn't make Apple the flawless person that she thinks she is.

Raven trembles, remembering the wall of flames, the ashes swirling in the air, the bodies of her friends, scattered across the barren field. Her mother's maniacal cackle, her eyes hungrily gleaming as she relishes the death, the murders that she’d just unashamedly committed. Raven kneels before the bodies of Maddie and Dexter, lying side by side. She gazes, uncomprehending, at the blank eyes, the unresponsive pupils, of her loved ones. She shuts her eyes tight against the acrid air and screams herself hoarse. An ice cold hand grips her shoulder tightly, sharp nails digging into her skin.

She wrenches her stinging eyes open, her sight blurry as a bony hand slides under her chin, tilting her head up. She stares numbly into her mother's narrow violet eyes, glinting with a savagness that turns her blood to ice. The woman’s lips quirk upward in a vicious snarl as she grazes her nails across Raven’s face. Raven coughs, her lungs burning from the black smoke. Her blood trickles down her cheeks, slipping into her open mouth. As the metallic taste pervades her tongue, a sight before her slowly begins to dawn on her. Apple, motionless on the bare ground, wrapped from head to toe in masses of thorny vines. Every visible part of her body is covered in blood. She is wheezing, choking on her own blood as she lay, helpless, unable to move a muscle.

Raven feels herself scream more than she hears it. An intense ripping sensation tears at her throat as she blindly surges forward, collapsing to her knees and elbows at Apple's side.
“Apple!” she screams. “I'm going to save you! Just hold on!”
“Kill her, Raven!”
Her mother's cruel voice echoes, resounding throughout Raven's brain like a gong. Raven gazes at Apple, at the blood smeared on her face, listening to her violent gagging as she struggles in vain for air. Raven's heart pounds in her head, too loud to think, to even consider what her mother is ordering her to do.
“She is the reason all your friends are dead, Raven!” her mother snarls.

Raven can feel her mother standing behind her. She is stiff, unable to move, as she stares at her dying friend.
“No,” Raven’s voice is hollow. “You're the one who killed them. You're the reason.”
“No,” her mother whispers, harsh and raspy like a snake.
Raven shakes, her hands trembling as she reaches out, grabbing one of the vines. Pain roars through her hands as the thorns sink into her flesh. Blood spills forth, and she snarls as she rips her hands free. Apple is weeping, body heaving with guttural gasps as she still fights for adequate oxygen.
“Set her free, Mom!” Raven yells, tears burning her cheeks. “Please! I'll do anything!”
“Raven, your little friend here is the reason that I'm free in the first place. None of this would've happened if she hadn’t been selfish enough to let me out just for her-”
“Enough, Mom!” Raven screeches. “Save her, or I will kill you! I mean it!”
Her mother evilly cackles.
“Zip it, birdy,” she simpers. “Mommy isn't done talking.”
Raven bites down on her lip, trying to breathe past her tears and the hacking coughs that are ripping at her chest.
“Now, I will make you a deal,” her mother says calmly. “Kill Apple, and I promise that I will bring Maddie, Dexter, and--hmm, let's see--a person of your choice that isn't Apple from the dead.”

Raven is numb, her heartbeat suddenly dead silent as blood simmers in her head, covering her mind with shadows. Uncomprehending, she reaches out a hand toward Dexter's face. Her fingertips brush over his grimy cheeks, paving trails through the layers of soot. Apple's screams ring in her ears. Her vision sharpens, dull colors returning to her consciousness. Apple is choking, gasping and wheezing past the blood coating her restricted airway. Raven gazes down at Dexter's pale face, his faded blue irises staring into nothingness. Apple shrieks, her voice like a razor blade, slicing through Raven's hazy mind.

Raven's muscles coil, suddenly ready to spring. She can see her mother behind her without turning her head. Her aura is a putrid, cloying smog, numbingly cold and heavy. Raven doesn't know how the knife appears. A gleaming silver blade is suddenly in her hands, burning her palms, begging to be used. Raven takes a deep, shuddering breath and, with a vicious growl, obeys her muscles. She lunges at her mother. She crashes into her, butting her head hard against her chest, which promptly knocks the woman down.

Grunting, Raven pushes one knee against her mother's middle, pinning her hands underneath. She grabs the Evil Queen’s head, holding it down with one hand. With her other, she wields the knife, pressing the blade against her pale neck. Her mother struggles under her hold, twisting side to side as she tries to free her hands. Raven only jabs her knee harder against them, and the woman sucks in a sharp breath. Raven gazes into her mother's wide glowing eyes, filled with fear. Fear that ignites a sense of pleasure within Raven's chest, that prompts her to press the blade harder against her mother's neck. Blood spills out, running down her collarbone.
“You. will. save. Apple,” Raven demands, her voice lower and more ferocious than it’s ever been.
Her mother gasps, coughing and wheezing, but Raven only presses harder.
“You. will. release. Apple,” Raven growls.

Her vision is washed red as she grips the hilt of the sword, knuckles white. Raven doesn't know why she isn’t taking her mother's offer, why she isn't willing to kill Apple in exchange for her boyfriend’s and best friend’s lives. She just feels, deep inside her like a flame, that there's no way she's going to let Apple die, much less kill her. Raven feels her magic swirling within her, coursing through her veins. She will plunge that knife as deep as she can, explode her dying mother with a flick of her hand. She breathes sharply, her shoulders heaving with the effort of holding the woman down.
“She's al-”
The Evil Queen coughs. The knife is covered in blood.
“already d-dead-” She wheezes, nearly convulsing. “She’s dead, b-birdy.”
Raven can’t even begin to comprehend.
“What do you mean?” she growls.
Her hand tightens around the hilt. Her wrist aches.
“Your princess i-is-” Her mother grunts- “dead.”

The sheen of ruby red swept across Raven's vision becomes blurry. Her heart seems to drop, swiftly falling like a broken elevator to the pit of her stomach as her mother's words gradually begin to dawn on her. Agonizingly slow, she turns around, the red gradually fading from her vision. As her eyes adjust to the gray, ashy light, her gaze settles on the tangled heap of briars. As Raven listens, no yells or wheezes reach her ears. Horror settles over her middle like a heavy curtain. The scream rises in her throat like a wildfire.
“Noooo!”

Panting heavily, she pushes the knife deep within her mother's throat. Blood spurts out. Her eyes are glassy and wide as she gargles on blood. Raven jumps up and runs, collapsing on her knees at Apple's side. She's as still and silent as a stone, her eyes open and unblinking. Shaky gasps tear at Raven's throat. Her chest feels like it’s being sliced by a sharp, hot knife. The blade sinks in, collapsing her lungs. The oxygen is sucked from her. All she can breathe in is smoke. A stabbing pain radiates throughout her chest as she struggles for air. Hoarse, quiet screams erupt from her swollen throat as she stares at Apple's pale blue face, glinting eerily in the dusty light.
“Apple!” she screams.
Her body heaves with the effort of breathing. Her vision becomes fuzzy. Her limbs lose feeling. The last thing she registers is hitting the ground, unable to move as the earth swallows her.

Raven gasps, a rush of adrenaline surging through her, as a hand touches her shoulder.
“Shhh, Raven, it's just me.”
Raven’s head shoots up. She comes face to face with Apple who is sitting on the bed beside her, hand gently resting on her shoulder.
“Apple,” she breathes, shuddering as the image of the girl, wrapped in heaps of briars, is conjured in her mind.
“I’m here, Raven,” Apple murmurs, gently rubbing her shoulder. “I'm here.”
Adrenaline still courses through Raven's veins. Agitation pricks her muscles like tiny needles. She doesn't want Apple touching her. Apple's hands are suffocating, tight and restraining.

Breathing heavily, she jerks out of the girl's grasp, quickly scooting away.
“I just don't want to be touched right now,” she says, an edge to her voice.
There's a storm of frustration whirling within her. She's tingling with anxious energy from the tips of her fingers to her toes. Breathing deeply, she glances at Apple who looks like a puppy that has just been kicked. Raven sighs.
“Apple, you just-” She groans in frustration as Apple gazes at her with her big blue eyes- “you just are
touching me too much, and sometimes I need a break, okay?!”

Apple's eyes widen with shock at Raven's harsh tone. On one hand, Raven feels bad, but another swell of boiling anger replaces the tinge of regret she'd felt.
“Sometimes, you’re not doing the right thing, Apple! You always think you're helping people, but sometimes it feels like you're just doing it to stroke your own ego!”
Apple is silent, tears welling in her eyes. Raven glares at her, the anger simmering in her chest hotter and hotter.
“Oh, so you're going to cry now, huh?!”
Apple looks down, twisting her fingers together in her lap.
“Well, go ahead! Play the innocent card like you always do! Go ahead and think that you’re perfect and sweet and amazing! Well, you know what?! An innocent and sweet person wouldn't have let a raving lunatic out of prison because they promised them their happily ever after!"

Apple's shoulders are shaking with repressed sobs. Somehow, this only makes Raven angrier. She jumps to her feet. It feels like lava is bubbling inside of her. It needs release. She's going to explode if she doesn't let it out.
“How selfish, not to mention stupid do you have to be to actually take a villian up on that offer?!”
She breathes heavily. Her face is burning. Her throat is thick.
“I used to think that you actually did care about people other than yourself, Apple. I really did! But you endangered countless others when you let that evil nutjob out! You didn't care about the havoc that she'd cause! You just thought about your own happiness! Well, you're not the only one who matters, Apple!”

Apple is gazing at Raven, tears streaming down her face. She bites down on her lip. The only sound that comes out of her is the occasional sniffle. Raven is momentarily surprised that the girl isn't full-on blubbering, but the thought is swept away by more unbridled fury.
“I just can't believe you would do something like that!”
Raven’s voice is suddenly choked by tears. She draws in a shuddering breath, her eyes burning. Apple's face is contorted like she's in excruciating pain. Her entire body trembles.
“I-I kn-know s-sor-sorry w-won’t e-ev-ever c-cover i-it,” Apple sobs, her shoulders heaving, her breathing ragged.
“You’re damn right it won't!” Raven roars.

Her fists ache as they clench tighter and tighter at her side. Her vision is washed red as she stares at the droplets of blood on Apple's lower lip, the tears streaming freely down her face. The hot, fuzzy sensation of her magic begins to prickle at her fingertips, and Raven knows that she needs to get out of here. She's going to hurt Apple if she remains in this room, and then Raven will be just as bad as her. Raven has one thing-her dignity, and she's not going to sacrifice it for the sake of yelling at some two-faced brat who isn't going to change anyway no matter what she says.
“I'm leaving!” Raven shouts, her voice trembling with fury. “Find yourself another roommate and friend who’s dumb enough to put up with your bullshit because I sure as fuck am not going to anymore!”
Turning her back on the now completely blubbering princess, she storms out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

As soon as she's at the end of the hallway, she bursts into tears. Her heart is beating furiously. She feels hotter than she ever has, like she's literally being consumed by flames. Her eyes ache as warm tears slide down her face, running into her nose and mouth. She rushes through the hallways, her vision blurry. She’s not the slightest bit aware of where she's going until she ends up at Maddie's dorm room door minutes later. Breathing sporadically through her heaving sobs and shudders, she knocks loudly on the wooden door.
The door is open in seconds, and Raven finds herself collapsing into her best friend’s arms before the mad girl can even greet her. Maddie's arms wrap tightly around her. Maddie gently pulls Raven's head to her shoulder, holding her close and petting her hair as she falls apart.
“Hey, shhshh,” she coos. “It's going to be okay, Raven. Everything's going to be alright.Shhh.”

Raven squeezes her arms tighter around Maddie's shoulders, coughing and sniffling against her chest. Maddie only strengthens the embrace in response. She runs her fingers through Raven's hair, whispering words that the witch can't decipher but are, all the less, a slight comfort.
Raven can't seem to calm herself down as the torturous moments drag by. She attempts taking deep inhales, but her breath is always cut off by another slicing sob.
“Just breathe, Raven,” Maddie murmurs. “You can do it. I'm right here.”
She gently squeezes Raven, softly massaging her scalp as her fingers trail through her hair. Raven focuses on the warmth emanating from Maddie and the soothing caresses, and gradually, she’s able to get her breathing under control.

After a couple minutes of relative quiet, the only sound being the occasional sniffle or hiccup, Raven forces herself to pull away from her best friend. She shudders slightly at the sudden loss of warmth. She starts as soft fingers touch her cheeks.
“Let's just get these tears off,” Maddie murmurs, gently stroking the tears away from Raven’s face with the pads of her thumbs.
Raven closes her eyes, gently smiling. Maddie always knows how to help her feel better.
“There,” Maddie cheerfully announces, drawing her hand away.
Raven opens her eyes. She gives Maddie a weak smile.
“Here, let's go sit down,” says Maddie.

Standing beside Raven, she gently places a hand on the girl's back as she guides her across the room. Raven climbs after Maddie into the girl's bed. Maddie situates herself against some propped up pillows. She puts one on her lap and pats it.
“Here, Raven,” she says, her voice soft. “Come lay down.”
Raven scoots over and slowly lowers herself down, lying on her side facing Maddie. She places her head on the soft pillow and closes her eyes as Maddie begins to stroke her hair.
“There,” Maddie murmurs. “Just relax. Whatever’s the hatter, I know it will all work out. Just breathe.”

Raven breathes deeply. A pleasant floating sensation drapes over her like a feather quilt as she listens to Maddie's softly uttered reassurances.
“I had an argument with Apple,” she croaks, minutes later.
“Hmm.”
Maddie continues to thread her fingers through Raven's silky tresses.
“I just exploded at her.”
Raven sucks in a sharp breath. She shakes her head.
“I called her stupid.” She sighs. “No matter what, that's not okay to call somebody that. I mean…”
She stutters, looking at the ceiling as she struggles to convey what is swirling in her mind.
“I just lost it.”
She sighs heavily, slapping her hand over her face. She groans. Maddie is silent, slowly running her fingers through Raven's hair.

“I'm still so pissed at her, though!” Raven suddenly exclaims, moving her hand from her face and glaring at the ceiling. “She really is a brat! I mean-” She sighs sharply- “she's just so entitled! She thinks she's literally the center of the universe!”
Maddie gently sighs. She gazes down at Raven.
“She was raised a princess,” she ventures.
Raven groans.
“If you know Snow White,” Maddie continues, “you know that she has full control over Apple.”
“That's no excuse, though!” Raven exclaims, her cheeks burning.
Maddie puts her hands up.
“I know it's not,” she says quietly. “At the end of the day, Apple is human, and she has the basic right to make her own decisions. Though she may be misguided, that doesn't take away the fact that she's selfish and vain, not to mention painfully naive.”
Raven sighs deeply. She nods.
“That's an astute analyzation, Maddie,” she says, a slight smile blooming on her face.
Maddie chuckles.
“Apple is not difficult to read,” she admits. “She wears her heart on her sleeve.”
“That she does,” Raven agrees, nodding.
“And though she may try to be manipulative, she is terrible at it,” Maddie says.
Raven bursts out laughing.
“Oh kingdoms, yes!” she exclaims. “Raven-” she makes her voice considerably more high-pitched- “are you feeling any eviller?”

Maddie belts out her infectious laugh. And, within moments, Raven is rolling back and forth on the bed, hysterically laughing. Maddie rolls around beside her, kicking her feet and waving her arms.
As the girls’ hysteria gradually peters out, Raven begins to consider what was even
funny in the first place. She sits up and stretches her arms over her head. She blinks sleepily.
She feels as if she hadn't slept a wink last night. After her horrible nightmare transpired, she had been restless, flitting in and out of sleep. Every time she floated back to the fluffy cloud of reality, she'd registered Apple's arms wrapped around her, holding her close, and she'd stumbled back into her dreamless slumber.
“Well.” Raven sighs. “Forget Apple. Dexter and I are going out to dinner tonight.”

A fluttery sensation instantly coats her stomach. She blushes as Maddie smiles broadly at her.
“Well, Raven Queen,” says Maddie, giggling, “that is just teariffic! Looks like things are going well between you and the dear klutzy Charming prince!”
Raven laughs.
“Maddie!” she exclaims. “He's not that klutzy! Well, okay-maybe he is, but he's actually been a lot less awkward the past month or so!”
“Well, that's wonderlandiful to hear!”
Raven grins widely.
“He's just so sweet,” she says, clasping her hands to her chest. “He's kind and considerate and thoughtful and so, so intelligent and charming in his own way. I just-”
She breathes out, her eyes wide and her chest fluttering.
“I think I love him.”

A mess of blue and purple curls come flying at her, and the wind is nearly knocked out of her as Maddie slams against her, throwing her arms around her shoulders.
“Oh, Raven!” she squeals, squeezing her tight.
Raven girlishly giggles, hugging Maddie back. Maddie pulls away a moment later and cups Raven’s cheeks, gazing into her eyes.
“Maddie, what are you doing?” Raven laughs.
“Just looking at the true love,” Maddie says, a dreamy expression on her face. “I can see it in your eyes! They're sparkling like diamonds!”
Raven laughs as Maddie lets go of her cheeks.
“Well, you are quite the poet, Maddie,” says Raven, playfully slapping the girl's arm, “but I don't know if it's true love.”
Raven gently sighs, setting her elbow on her knee and placing her cheek in her hand as she gazes out the window. The sky is a vivid blue, dotted with fluffy white clouds. The sun shines brightly. The trees are in bloom, filling the air with a fresh, sweet scent.

Tomorrow is the first day of May. Only a month and a half more of school, and then freedom. She can spend the whole summer with her dad, the Good King. They'll get to spend lazy days together, reading and playing cards and playing guitar and piano. They'll get to go camping, spend cozy nights around the campfire, roasting marshmallows, playing their guitars and singing. They'll get to sail on her dad’s boat to the island where Cedar and Pinocchio live and spend a lovely week with them. Raven will also get to spend time with Cook, the castle cook who is basically a part of their small family and her sons, Pie and Butternut who are like little brothers to Raven.

“Earth to Raven!”
Raven shakes her head as she’s pulled from her reverie. Maddie giggles.
“Well, the boy has sure got you caught up in daydreams,” says Maddie, smiling cheekily.
Raven performs an award-winning eye roll, which is substantially softened by the glowing smile on her face. She laughs.
“I was
thinking about how excited I am for summer break.”
Maddie giggles, lightly clapping her hands.
“Oh, Raven, that is a teariffic reminder! This will be the first summer back in Wonderland, thanks to you!”

Raven lets out an involuntary “oomph” as Maddie collides with her, throwing her arms around her shoulders and hugging her tightly. Raven recovers quickly, though, and joyfully laughs. She gently rubs Maddie’s back and smiles broadly as she remembers their trip to Wonderland back in October and how she’d been able to lift the curse from that had ravaged the land for nearly four years. Raven always feels incredibly fulfilled when she thinks about how she’d been able to restore the land and improve the lives of so many people.
“I’m so extremely glad that I could help, Maddie,” says Raven, her voice trembling slightly as she hugs her friend tighter. “I’m so happy for you.”

XXX

“It’s so beautiful,” Raven breathes as she and Dexter walk, hand in hand, through the Enchanted Forest.
Fireflies dance before them, casting a golden glow against the trees all around them. The night sky is speckled with bright, twinkling stars. A full moon shines down on the treetops, white and clear. Raven closes her eyes, breathing in the crisp, pine-scented air. She smiles, feeling Dexter’s warm, soft hand in hers, their fingers wrapped snugly together.

“It is amazing,” Dexter says softly, gazing around with wide eyes at the glowing fireflies.
Raven gently squeezes his hand.
“Do you want to sit down?” she asks, motioning to a log a few yards behind them. “And we can just relax and watch the light show.”
Dexter turns to her, a fond, delicate expression on his face.
“That sounds lovely,” he says, squeezing her hand back.
His dark blue eyes shine gently in the flickering light. Raven breathes, aware of her pounding heart and the heat that is gradually increasing between her legs.

In a daze, she walks with him, and they lower themselves onto the log. He wraps his arm around her shoulders. He presses a gentle kiss to her forehead. She closes her eyes, a delightfully warm sensation dripping like wax from her chest to her middle. He pulls away after a quick moment and gazes out at the bright firefly display. Raven can see the outline of his strong, chiseled jaw. Her gaze travels up slightly and rests on his pale pink lips.

 

It’s as if a wave of energy rushes through her, hot and flashing, and she comes to the conclusion that she is going to kiss Dexter. She takes one more look at the twinkling fireflies before inhaling and leaning forward, quickly pressing her lips to Dexter’s. For a flicker of a moment, she relishes the foreign sensation of his lips on hers, warm and velvety soft. She’s scarcely lifted her hand to cup his cheek when she realizes, with a sense of sinking dread, that he’s not reciprocating. He’s still as a rock, not moving a muscle.

As if slapped in the face, she jerks back. Her stomach feels as if it’s dropping off a cliff as she looks at Dexter’s stiff body, his eyes wide as he stares incredulously at her. Is that fear in his eyes? Is it disgust? Or is it both? All she knows, with an ice cold certainty, in that moment is that Dexter didn’t kiss her back. He didn’t want to kiss her. Her insides writhe within her. Pressure builds behind her eyelids. She looks down at the brown earth beneath them and wipes the tears as they start to fall. She breathes deeply, desperately trying to avoid the sobs that are beginning to rack her body.

“Raven-”
Raven squeezes her eyes shut as hot tears roll down her cheeks, running into her mouth. She clutches her stomach, suddenly feeling incredibly nauseous.
“Oh, Raven,” Dexter whispers.
“I-It’s f-fine,” she chokes out, waving her hand with the half-hearted intention to reassure him.
She takes a deep, shuddering breath.
“I-I’m f-fine.”
She still doesn’t look up, knowing that she’ll completely lose it if she sees him.
“I-I’m sorry.” He sounds close to tears as well.
Raven presses her hand over her mouth, stifling the sobs that stubbornly push their way up her throat.
“I-I just,” he shakily sighs, “h-have to go. I’m so, so s-sorry.”

Raven feels the chilly air surround her as Dexter’s warm body moves away from her. She hears his soft retreating footsteps. Only when the sound disappears does she allow herself to fully break down. She chokes on sobs, sniffling and shuddering as the cool breeze blows around her.
Not more than a minute later, she stands on shaky legs and slowly makes her way back to Ever After High.

XXX

Raven needs Apple. She hates to admit it, but she really does. Raven has always felt okay about being vulnerable in Apple’s presence. Though Apple is bratty and selfish and spoiled, one of her redeeming qualities is that she genuinely cares about her friends and always wants to help them in any way that she can. Apple knows better than anybody how to comfort Raven. The warmth of her embraces, the soft, hushed tone she speaks in, the affectionate pet names that she lovingly calls Raven, her sweet scent-all of these soothe Raven more than anything else can.
Raven had remained relatively calm as she'd walked through the school to her dorm room. She’d held her head high and hoped that nobody noticed or, even worse, commented on her red, puffy eyes. Nobody had, thankfully.

As soon as she enters her dorm, though, and sees Apple sitting in bed, reading a book, an unexpected sob escapes her. She sniffles, trying to compose herself. The steadfast flow of tears gets the best of her, though, and she chokes out another sob. Through her blurry eyesight, she sees Apple quickly set the book down and jumps out of bed.
“Raven!” she exclaims worriedly. “Oh my gosh, are you okay?!”
She runs toward her.
“Y-Yeah,” Raven manages. “I-I’m,” she sniffles, “f-fine.”

She swipes a hand over her eyes, roughly wiping the tears. It's no use, though. More immediately spill from her eyes and roll down her cheeks. Apple stops a few feet away from her. She stands still, her eyebrows creased with concern.
“I know you're mad,” she murmurs.
Her eyes widen.
“A-And you have every reason to be!”
She gently sighs.
“So, do you want to be alone? Is me being here going to upset you more?”
Her eyes shine with tears. Raven quickly shakes her head.
“N-No,” she chokes out. “C-Can y-you please st-stay?”
She hiccups.
“Of course, sweetie,” Apple cooes. “Of course I'll stay.”
She walks forward, stepping in front of Raven.
“Do you want me to hug you?” she asks, her voice soft.
Raven nods.
“Y-Yes, pl-please.”
“Okay,” she murmurs. “Come here.”

Apple reaches her arms out. Raven leans forward and lets Apple pull her into a hug. It’s awkward at first, but as Raven buries her face in Apple’s shoulder and sniffles, Apple draws her in closer.
“It’s okay, Raven,” Apple whispers, smoothing her hair down. “Everything is okay.”
Raven’s breathing softens as Apple starts gently swaying from side to side. A pleasant fuzzy sensation blankets her. She snuggles closer, pressing herself tighter against Apple’s warm body. She’s so relaxed that she feels as if she’s floating when Apple softly speaks.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” she asks gently.
Raven hiccups. She doesn’t want to leave the comforting embrace, but her legs are stiff and tired. The promising notion of lying in bed prompts her to pull back.

Apple waits patiently as she wipes her eyes and takes some deep breaths, gathering her composure. Raven involuntarily winces as her gaze meets Apple's. Shame sits heavily on her chest like a hot lump of coal.
“I'm sorry, Apple,” she chokes out, her head bowed. “I'm sorry that I called you stupid and said all those horrible things about you!”
She shakily inhales. She looks up, gazing at Apple through blurry, aching eyes.
“You’re so smart, Apple!” She sniffles. “And kind! You're not stupid. You don't just do nice things for people to feel good about yourself! I know you do genuinely care!”
She hiccups. She roughly swipes her wrist over her eyes.
“I was being a bully, Apple! I know I was! And I'm so, so, so sorry!”
She squeezes her eyes shut, biting down on her lip.
“You're sorry?” Apple's voice trembles.

Raven's eyes snap open. She looks at Apple who's standing rigidly, her fists curled at her sides, her eyes welling with tears.
“Yes,” Raven stutters, her eyebrows furrowing. “Of course I am.”
Raven gasps as Apple suddenly falls to the ground, dropping to her knees and pressing her palms against the tile floor. Her back is stooped, her curly hair covering her face like a curtain.
“Apple?” Raven nervously questions.
Her mind spins. She literally has no idea what's going on.
“Are you okay?”

She crouches down next to the girl.
“You're sorry, Raven?” Apple’s voice is like cracked glass, seconds away from fully shattering.
Raven's eyes are wide with confusion. Her hand hovers inches away from Apple's back. She's too stunned to move.
“Why are you sorry?” Apple chokes out.
She lifts her head and turns her tearstained face toward Raven.
“I did this to you!” she shouts.
She shudders.
“I'm a terrible person! Can't you see?! I'm the bully, Raven! I’ve bullied you for years! I've harassed you!” She gasps and hiccups between each word. “I've manipulated you! And last month I did something unforgivable! Absolutely treacherous! I let a raving lunatic out of prison just because I thought they would help me get ahead!”
She sits up on her knees, wringing her hands together as she stumbles through her sentences.
“I am an egotistical, selfish, manipulative, power-hungry,
bitch!” she shouts.

Raven can't do much of anything other than stare dumbly at the hysterical princess in front of her. She has never witnessed Apple break down like this before. She hasn't ever witnessed this level of hysteria from anybody, really. She's terrified, her heart pounding as she watches her friend.
Apple breathes erratically, her face red. She pulls at her hair. Her whole body shakes.
“I hate myself!” she yells. “I absolutely despise myself! I have no right-no right to be queen or to have any semblance of a happily ever after!" She raggedly gasps, her body nearly convulsing with sobs.
“I've hurt you so badly, Raven! So terribly!”
She faces Raven, tears streaming down her flushed face.
“I've caused you so much pain! I don't deserve your friendship! I don't deserve love at all!”
Her body heaves as she gags.

Raven knows that she has to do something. She has to say something to Apple, hug her, anything to get her to stop. She’s frozen, though, her mouth open with shock as Apple loses more and more self-control.
“I'm sorry, Raven!” Apple yells, sobs tearing through her body. “I deserve to rot in Hell! I know I do! I wish something bad would happen to me! I wouldn't mind if I died!”

Raven barely comprehends what she's doing, but suddenly she's on her knees next to Apple and pulling her into her arms. Apple sobs loudly, writhing as she struggles to wrench herself from Raven’s grasp.
“I don't deserve it!” she screams. “Please don't show me sympathy!”
“I'm not letting you go, Apple,” Raven says sternly. “I'm going to hold you, and you're going to take some deep breaths and calm down.”
Apple continues to struggle, coughing harshly as her sobs intensify. She is strong, but Raven is slightly stronger and eventually is able to pin Apple against her chest, her arms wrapped tightly around the shuddering girl. Apple buries her face in Raven's chest, brokenly weeping. Her hands grasp folds of Raven’s shirt.

Raven’s eyes fill with tears. Seeing Apple this way is breaking her heart. The pain of Dexter rejecting her doesn't even begin to compare to the severity of this.
Ever since Raven met Apple when they were fourteen, the girl has been a constant light in her life. An annoying light sometimes, sure. The glare of sunshine that won’t get out of her eyes. But at times the blissfully warm rays of the sun that shine light into Raven’s life and consistently remind her of what hope is. Apple has always, to Raven, been an overwhelmingly optimistic, but at the same time, soothing presence in her life.

Now, seeing Apple reduced to this state, screaming about how much she hates herself, how she wouldn't mind dying, Raven's eyes continue to burn with tears.
“Shhh, shhhh.”
She rests her cheek on Apple's head.
“You're okay.” Her voice is tight, choked with tears. “It's going to be alright. I promise.”
Apple’s muscles have completely given out. She's slumped completely against Raven, the girl’s toned arms the only things that are holding her up. Raven takes a deep breath.
“I don't hate you, Apple,” she says, her voice wobbling.
She doesn't know if Apple can hear her in her hysterical state, but nonetheless, she continues.
“I love you, Apple. I really do.”

As Apple's breaths grow even more unarticulated, Raven realizes that the girl is having a panic attack. She gets them herself, and by the irregularity of Apple's breathing, she can tell that the girl is in the midst of one.
“Shhshh. Breathe, Apple.”
Raven strokes Apple's hair, gently tucking the sweaty locks behind her ear.
“I’m here,” she murmurs into Apple's ear. “I'm right here. You're safe. Everything is okay.”
Apple gasps and splutters against Raven's chest.
“You need to breathe, sweetie,” Raven says softly.

Raven doesn't usually call people sweet pet names, but Apple always uses affectionate terms for her when she's upset and this does, at times, bring Raven comfort, so she quickly decides to return the gesture. She gently rubs Apple's back.
“Deep breaths, baby,” she murmurs against the girl’s ear. “Nice deep breaths. Follow me--in through your nose,” Raven inhales through her nose, “and out through through your mouth.”
Raven exaggeratedly exhales through her mouth.
“In through your nose,” Raven demonstrates again, “and out through your mouth. In...out...in...out.”

Raven continues to do the deep breathing herself as she feels Apple starting to attempt it. The girl sharply inhales.
“There you go,” Raven cooes. “And nice long breath out.”
Apple lets out a slow, shaky exhale.
“There you go,” Raven murmurs. “Good girl.”
She gently squeezes Apple.
“Now let's go again. In...out...good...in...out...good job.”

Within a couple minutes, Apple’s breathing significantly evens out. Raven can feel the girl deflate slightly in her arms. Raven continues to do the deep breathing exercises and gently smiles with relief as Apple dutifully follows along.
“There you go,” Raven murmurs a few minutes later. “You did it.”
Apple slowly nods, sniffling against Raven's chest. Raven’s shirt is soaked with tears, but she doesn't mind in the slightest. She's just so relieved that Apple has finally calmed down. She breathes deeply, gently squeezing Apple.
“You're okay,” she murmurs, gently stroking her back. “Everything's okay.”

She flinches as Apple bursts into sobs. Her heart pounds as Apple snuggles closer.
“Shhh, don't cry,” Raven murmurs. “Just keep breathing.”
“I love you, Raven,” Apple sobs.
Raven's chest flutters nervously.
“I love you too, Apple,” she murmurs.
She holds the girl closer, gently running her fingers through her hair.
“I'm sorry,” Apple squeaks out, her face pressed tightly against Raven's chest.
“I know, Apple,” Raven murmurs. “I know you are.”
Tears roll down Raven's face.

“I know that she's ruthless,” she whispers hoarsely. “I know that she lured you and baited you. I know you're naive, and you didn't know what evil really meant. I know that there is no malice in your heart. I know that you love me.”
Raven sniffles.
“And I love you,” she murmurs. “I really do. You're one of my best friends. You are an amazing person, Apple. I know that you are.”
She gently exhales.
“You need to work on forgiving yourself. I have forgiven you. I love you. Now you need to explore how you're going to love yourself. How you're going to get past this self-hatred and see your self-worth again.”
Apple softly sobs, but Raven knows that she's hearing every word.
“And I'm going to be here with you every step of the way,” says Raven. “You are not alone."
.”

 

XXX
Apple walks through the halls, blinking as she struggles to keep her eyes open. She puts her hand over her mouth, stifling a yawn. She still makes an effort to smile at people as she passes by. Being exhausted is still no excuse to be rude. Last night, after calming down, she and Raven had immediately gone to bed. They hadn't even bothered to go to the bathroom and brush their teeth. They had just gotten their pajamas on and gotten into bed together. They'd slept in Apple's bed side by side. Apple had snuggled into Raven as the girl kept a warm arm wrapped snugly around her. She had fallen asleep to the soothing sensation of Raven stroking her hair.

The morning had been slightly awkward. Apple hadn't been sure whether she should apologize to Raven for the way she'd melted down the previous night or if she should just move on and not mention it. After getting dressed, she had decided that the least she owed Raven was a thank you. She'd slowly walked over to the full-length mirror where Raven had been doing her hair. She'd stood, motionless, for a second, her mouth slightly agape as she'd watched Raven pull the brush through her her jet black and violet tresses.

Raven had turned to her a moment later and smiled nervously. Apple's throat had been swelling slightly. Her stomach had suddenly been a mess of butterflies.
“Hey, Apple,” Raven had said quietly. “What's up?”
Apple had stuttered for a moment before clearing her throat and taking a deep breath.
“Hey, Raven,” she’d said, her voice hoarse. “I just wanted to thank you for being there for me last night.” She'd sighed. “Even after all I've put you through, you still care about me, and that,” she gulps, “means a lot to me.”

She'd stared at the ground for a moment, trying to rein in the tears pricking at her eyes.
“Oh, Apple.”
Raven's voice had been angelically soft. Apple had glanced up at her, her eyes moist.
“Come here,” Raven had said, reaching her arms out.
Apple had shyly stepped forward and hugged Raven. She'd released an involuntary contented sigh as Raven had begun to rub her back. Her cheeks had flushed with embarrassment.
“It’s no problem, Apple,” Raven had murmured. “You're always there for me, and I'll always be there for you.”
Apple had breathed softly, her chest warm and fluttery as she gently squeezed Raven.
“Thank you,” she'd murmured, her voice hoarse.

Now as Apple walks down the halls, heading to Kingdom Management, her heart still thumps as she thinks about what a kind person Raven is and how lucky she is to have her as a friend.
Her thoughts switch, though, when she spots Daring Charming out of the corner of her eye. He's walking on the other side of the hall, his shoulders slumped, his eyes trained on the floor. Apple’s heart tugs with concern as she notes the boy’s apparent sadness. Her stomach flutters as she thinks about how their destiny has now taken place. He’d woken her up with True Love’s Kiss, breaking the enchanted sleep she’d been put under with the poisoned apple. It just feels so surreal to her.

She has spent her entire life preparing for her destiny. She's been completely dedicated to it for as long as she can remember. Now that it's happened, though, she doesn't feel anything. She’s awake now, so obviously his kiss saved her, but something about the whole thing just doesn't feel right to her. It's a slight twinge in her gut, a mere feeling, but she can't shake it. She remembers waking up, her eyes popping open and her breath rattling in her chest as her lungs filled with air. She’d quickly sat up and had begun to violently cough. Instantly, the piece of poisoned apple that had been wedged in her throat had flew out through her mouth and landed in the grass. She'd dimly registered a hand stroking through her hair and a flash of light blue. As her vision had returned, she'd blearily taken in the fact that Darling was standing beside her, and Daring had been standing across from her, at least five feet away.

At the time, her mind had been too fuzzy to take notice of this, and later, she'd just reasoned that he'd stepped back as she’d started coughing like crazy. He wasn't the most chivalrous prince, so he hadn’t stayed by her side like Darling had. Surprisingly enough, Apple hasn't thought about this momentous event much since then, though. Everything had just gone so fast afterward. They’d quickly flew to Raven’s rescue on their dragons. She and Raven had captured the Evil Queen, sending her back to her mirror prison. And for the past three weeks Apple has thought about nothing but her own suffocating guilt. She's been sick from her shame and unbelievably exhausted.

She and Daring haven't even talked once. It was all too fast and too soon. Their destiny wasn't supposed to take place until Apple was twenty-one and he was twenty-two, since he's a year older than her. It had now transpired more than four years too early. Apple didn't even know how to process this, so it's as if her brain had automatically switched off. Her brain didn't want to think about it. Maybe it wasn't even able to. But this morning, though she's still incredibly tired, she feels a sense of awareness that she hasn't felt since before the whole debacle with the Evil Queen had begun. And now that she sees Daring looking so dejected, an urgency is rising in her chest. She needs to talk to him.

She quickly walks across the hall, saying “excuse me’s” and “sorry’s” as she cuts in front of people. Her heart pounds as she comes to stand beside him.
“Hey, Daring,” she says, an undercurrent of concern in her voice.
He slowly turns to look at her as they continue to walk down the hall.
“H-Hey, Apple,” he says before quickly looking away again.
Apple observes the dark circles under his eyes and feels even more worried.
“Are you okay?” she asks gently. “You seem,” her voice falters for a moment, “
.”
She grows even more puzzled as she notes that Daring’s handheld mirror is nowhere to be seen. Daring nervously clears his throat.
“Why y-yes, I’m splendid, Apple,” he says, turning slightly to give her a weak smile, nothing like his usual blindingly white grins.
“H-How are you doing, Apple?” he asks, his tone far too somber for Apple’s liking.
“I’m fine,” Apple replies softly.

They walk in silence for a moment. Daring looks down at the floor for a second, but as Apple concernedly glances at him, his head quickly darts up and he attempts to play it off with another anxious smile. As they approach the classroom, Apple takes a deep breath and clears her throat.
“Daring,” she sighs softly, “with everything that’s happened recently, I haven’t really had time to properly process all of it and-”
She sees him stiffen and he quickly looks from side to side as if searching for an escape, his eyes wide. She narrows her eyes, the gears in her brain turning as she struggles to fathom what could be possibly be so wrong with him. They’ve known each other their entire lives, and she has never seen him act like this. She shakes her head, clearing her throat again.
“And I think it would be good if we discussed our feelings on the whole, um, situation,” she continues.
She looks at him, noting that he’s chewing on his lip and his eyebrows are furrowed.
“Daring,” she says gently.

They come to a stop by the door of the classroom and step to the side to let the other students past. She puts her hand on his arm and he flinches, jerking away from her like she’s slapped him.
“Daring, what’s the matter?!” she exclaims, feeling alarmed.
He slowly turns to look at her. His face is as white as a sheet of paper. His hands are trembling by his side. Apple’s heart pounds. Daring is seriously starting to freak her out. He takes a deep, shaky breath.
“I-I’m fine, Apple,” he says, not meeting her eyes. “I’m just--tired. Please excuse my behavior.”
“No, Daring,” Apple protests, “it’s okay. I’m not upset. I just want to know-”
She is cut off by the shrill ringing of the bell.
“Kingdoms,” she mutters.
They dash into the classroom just before the ringing comes to a stop.

XXX

Apple is sitting in a grassy meadow. A violet sunset glows brilliantly in the sky. Colorful wildflowers are dotting the field around her. It takes her a second to realize that she has a few in her hand, two Black-eyed Susans and one New England aster, and her hand is reached out to pick another. She breathes in the delicious scent sailing through the air and gently smiles as she feels the cool, sweet breeze on her face.

She blinks as she suddenly notices that a figure is approaching her. Fear churns in her stomach for a quick moment before she realizes that it’s a person, a girl who has long, curly platinum blonde hair and is wearing blue leggings. She walks casually, her arms swinging by her sides. Apple narrows her eyes as the person comes nearer, and a bolt of surprise races through her body as she realizes the girl is Darling Charming.

Apple sits, frozen, staring wide-eyed at Darling as she walks up to Apple and crouches down beside her, holding a bouquet of flowers. Darling’s ice blue eyes gaze softly at her, and she smiles sweetly as she reaches her arm out and places the bouquet in Apple’s hands. Apple stares down at the colorful assortment of wildflowers before gazing forward at Darling’s beautiful face. Her eyes twinkle as she gently laughs. Her thick, pink lips part and reveal her pearly white teeth. As her smile widens, Apple notices that she has a dimple on each cheek.
“Some flowers for my favorite flower,” Darling says, her voice soft and content as she gazes into Apple’s eyes.

She sits down on her knees and reaches out, gingerly placing her hand on Apple’s cheek. Apple closes her eyes, letting out a pleasured sigh as the girl gently tucks Apple’s hair behind her ears, softly running her fingers through the tresses.
“Gods, I love you,” Darling murmurs.
Apple’s eyes snap open as she feels Darling’s sweet breath on her cheeks. Darling’s face is right in front of hers, more angelic than anything Apple has ever laid her eyes on. Apple’s face fills with heat as Darling parts her glossy lips and before she can even take a breath, Darling’s lips are against hers, warm and soft. The girl cups her cheeks and deepens the kiss. Apple slowly closes her eyes and leans farther in, pressing her lips more firmly against Darling’s. The girl tastes like vanilla, and Apple desires more of the sweet flavor.

“Apple,” a voice booms. “Wake up.”
Apple breaks away from Darling’s arms as a voice crashes down through the twilit sky above, reverberating through her skull.
“Wake up!”
Apple gasps as the world around her fades and she’s thrust into a reality of light and sound and commotion.
“Apple!”

Her head shoots up. She blinks as the fluorescent light shines through her eyelids. She rubs her eyes and quietly groans before she dares to open them again. Hands gently pull her hair from her face and tuck the locks behind her ears.
“Briar,” she mumbles as the girl suddenly comes into view.

All at once, her vision comes back into focus, and the classroom materializes around her. Students are standing up from their desks and gathering their things. Some people are staring at her curiously, while others completely ignore the scene and follow the groups of students out of the room. Apple is grateful for these people. She turns to look at Briar who is looking down at her, her eyebrows creased with concern.
“What happened?” Apple asks, her voice still thick with sleepiness. “Did I,” she gasps, “did I fall asleep?”
Her heart drops to her stomach as she realizes what had happened. She jumps out of her chair.
“How did I--what?!” Apple exclaims.
She runs her hands through her hair.
“I never do this! I’ve never fallen asleep in class before!”
She breathes rapidly as panic sets in. Briar places her hand on her shoulder.
“Hey,” she says gently. “It’s no big deal. It happens to everybody.”
Apple turns to face her.
“I mean,” Briar giggles, “I would know.”

Apple tries to smile, but her mind is swirling with confusion and distress. This has never, not once in her more than thirteen years of schooling, happened to her! How is this even possible?! She had been listening to Ms. Smith’s lecture. She’d taken some notes. As the minutes dragged by, she’d rested her elbow her on the desk and placed her cheek on her hand, staring blearily at the whiteboard, which Ms. Smith was drawing a timeline on with blue marker. She’d only closed her eyes for a second, and then...she can’t think of anything that happened after that. She shakes her head and forces out a laugh.

“Well, I guess there's a first time for everything,” she says.
She grabs her backpack and slings it over her shoulders.
“That's the spirit!” Briar exclaims. “Come on. To Princessology we go!”
Briar links arms with Apple and they both giggle as they walk out of the classroom.
“Hey, do you have any idea what is wrong with Daring?” Apple asks quietly.
“Daring?” Briar laughs nervously. “Why do you think anything is wrong with him?”
Apple narrows her eyes. Why is Briar acting strange now? Has Apple really been so blind the past few weeks that she hasn't noticed these weird behavioral changes in her friends, or has it just started?

“Well,” Apple says, “He looked really sad, which is unusual for him. I tried talking to him, and he wouldn’t look at me, and he was just acting really skittish and just...weird. And I touched his arm, and he flinched away from me. It's just so unlike him.”
“Well, how about that?” Briar laughs anxiously again.
Apple looks at Briar, raising her eyebrows.
“He probably just had to cancel a, um, teeth-whitening appointment,” Briar says, a slightly frantic edge to her voice. “I’m sure it's not something serious.”

“Well,” Apple begins, but she stops as Duchess is suddenly standing right in front of her, her arms crossed.
“Oh,” Apple says, startled. “Hi, Duchess! How are you doing?”
She steps away from Briar slightly and forces herself to look Duchess in the eyes.
“I'm doing just fine,” Duchess says, a slight honk permeating her voice as usual. “Feeling very rested.”
Briar sighs.
“Duchess, what do you want?” she groans. “Apple and I need to get to class.”
“I was just concerned about Apple, Briar,” Duchess simpers, cloyingly false sympathy in her voice. “It must take a serious lack of sleep for Miss Pretty Perfect Princess," she sneers as she says this, “to fall asleep in class!”

Duchess has walked far too much into Apple's personal space bubble now. Apple backs away slightly, but Duchess only steps closer.
“Come on, Apple,” Briar says, linking arms with her again. “Let's go.”
She starts to walk, but Duchess steps in front of them.
“Hey!” she honks. “I’m not done talking to you!”

By now, this conversation has inevitably became a confrontation, and a couple dozen students have surrounded them, watching curiously.
“Please, Duchess,” Apple says, trying to keep her voice level, “let's just go to class. The bell is going to ring any minute now!”
“So, what--you can go to sleep again?” Duchess smirks.

Apple's face feels flushed. She takes a deep breath. She continues to face Duchess, never taking her eyes off of hers for a second. This, like everything, is a test. A situation that will determine how well she can conduct herself and act in a queenly matter.
“Duchess,” she says calmly, “I really don't feel like arguing. I'm just going to go to class now.”
She walks forward with Briar at her side, maintaining her perfect posture and smiling at people as she passes by them.
“What?!” Duchess yells from across the hall. “You think you're too good for me, Queen White?!”

Apple closes her eyes, breathing out sharply before she turns on her heel and faces Duchess again.
“What is your problem, Duchess?” Apple demands, annoyed but not angry. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Right,” Duchess scoffs. “'Cause we all want your help so badly, Miss Perfect! You know, just because you're some ego-inflated lesbo now doesn't make you better than any of us!”
Apple's face is hot as Duchess’s words slice through her ears. Everybody around her gasps.
“What did she just say?!” a girl exclaims.
“Jeez, she has got some nerve!” a boy says angrily.

Apple clenches her fists tightly at her sides.
, she tells herself.
She breathes deeply, stubbornly refusing the urge to cry and addresses Duchess coolly.
“Duchess, I don't know what is wrong with you right now. I'm sorry if you're upset, but please don't take it out on me or anybody else.”
She glances at Briar whose face is as red as a rose and is trembling with fury as she glares at Duchess. Apple takes a deep breath before continuing.
“For the record, I don't think I'm better than anybody else. We are all very special in our own ways, and
is superior or inferior. We are all equal.”

Students begin to applaud and Apple smiles tearfully as she holds her head high and walks away. Briar is at her heels, and as soon as they turn the corner, the girl takes Apple's hand and leads her to the bathroom. The bell rings as they walk in. Her vision is blinded by tears, and as soon as Briar guides her into a stall, Apple starts crying. Briar pulls her into a hug. Apple rests her cheek on the girl's shoulder and quietly sobs.
“It's okay, baby,” Briar murmurs. “It's okay.”
She comfortingly runs her fingers through Apple's hair.

Apple closes her eyes, focusing on the soothing sensation. Hot tears stream down her cheeks and soak Briar’s shirt, but Apple knows that her friend doesn’t mind.
“Duchess is a psychotic bitch,” Briar gently says with only a small trace of agitation in her voice. “She just does shit like that to hurt people. Don’t let her do that, Apple. Don’t give her the power to upset you.”
Apple sniffles and hiccups, hugging Briar back as the girl holds her close.

She listens to her words of wisdom, and as her mind processes it, she reasons that her friend is right. It doesn’t matter what Duchess says. She just wants to hurt other people to make herself feel powerful. She’s a bully, and Apple doesn’t have the time to worry about somebody like that.
“I’m proud of you, though,” Briar murmurs. “You handled yourself super well out there. I know I couldn't be as poised as you were. You truly set a great example to the other students on how to handle conflict.”
“Really?” she asks, her breath still hitching slightly as she struggles to calm down.
“Yeah,” Briar replies, her voice soft. “You’re amazing, Apple. I could not be more impressed.”
“Well, th-thank you,” Apple says, hiccuping between the small sobs that still won’t cease.
Briar softly chuckles.
“You are very welcome, Apple.”

Apple giggles and sniffs, trying to not laugh out snot all over Briar’s shirt. Briar laughs along with her. Apple doesn’t know quite why they’re laughing, but it feels good, and that’s really what she needs right now.
Apple pulls away a moment later and graciously accepts the toilet paper that Briar gives her. As she wipes her eyes and nose, a thought suddenly occurs to her.
“Um, Briar,” she starts.
“Yes?” Briar asks, looking at Apple.
“What was that that Duchess called me?” she asks quietly. “Lesbo? Is that like, um, lesbian?”

Briar’s eyes widen slightly.
“Uhh-” she looks around the stall frantically as if searching for a distraction.
“What?” Apple asks curiously. “I’m just wondering.”
Briar looks at Apple again, a nervous expression on her face.
“Yes, Apple,” Briar says, trying and failing to sound casual. “I believe lesbo is short for lesbian.”
“Hmm.” Apple’s eyebrows are furrowed in confusion. “Um, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but um, why would she call me that?”
“Oh, no reason!” Briar waves her hand dismissively. “No reason at all!”

Briar’s voice is about an octave higher than usual. Apple doesn’t think she’s ever been more confused in her life. This day is like a labyrinth. Everybody is acting so unpredictably, and she doesn’t have the slightest clue as to why. And that dream--she’s never had one like it. She’s never even dreamed about Darling before. And now she dreamed that they’re kissing in a meadow full of wildflowers?! What is happening?!
“Just Duchess being silly like always, right?” Briar exclaims, laughing far too enthusiastically. “Making stuff up for attention!”

Apple shakes her head for what feels like the dozenth time that day.
“But something is just--not right,” she says, gesturing wildly with her hands. “I mean, too many strange things have occured in the last hour for everything to just be a coincidence! And now you’re acting like there’s some big secret, just like Daring was!”
Briar’s eyes grow even wider.
“There’s no secret!” she exclaims, shaking her head. “Why would there be a secret?! I don’t think there’s any secrets in the air right now!”

She hums under her breath, her eyes flitting around the room, looking anywhere but at Apple. Apple is speechless. Now Briar, one of the most genuine people she knows, is acting out of character! Anxiety is strewing inside her like a boiling pit of sulfur. There is a secret that nobody, not even her BFFA, wants her to know. She has honestly never been in this situation before, and she can’t even begin to form a decision in the chasm of swirling thoughts that is her brain.

“We should go to class now,” Briar says, letting out yet another nervous laugh as she takes Apple’s hand and guides her out of the stall. “You can’t even tell you’ve been crying now. Your eyes are as blue and shiny as ever! There is another very fun lecture to attend, and to be fair, Mrs. Her Majesty The White Queen is a bit more fun than Ms. Smith to listen to!”
Apple lets Briar pull her along and thinks about how the tables have turned. She’s usually the one pulling Raven along like this. She has to admit, it’s a little nice being the follower for once.

 

XXX

Apple sighs, tiredly rubbing her eyes as she walks down the hall toward her dorm. The school day has finally come to an end. Apple had managed to rein in her panic and keep her head held high throughout the rest of the day. It had been far easier with Briar by her side. Apple had had gym last period, and now that she’s showered, she's eager to head back to her dorm and crash. She rarely ever takes naps, but she thinks she's going to have to make an exception today. She can barely see straight as she slowly makes her way across the hall. She thinks that this is literally the most exhausted she's ever been in her life.

As she approaches her dorm, she blearily registers that the door is open a crack. That's a little strange. Raven must've come in in a rush and not noticed, she thinks fuzzily.
She continues forward and is about to walk in when she hears Briar’s voice saying her name, her tone laced with urgency. She freezes.
“I don't know what to do about Apple,” Briar says. “I mean,” she sighs, “why does she have so many questions now all of a sudden? She was nearly catatonic for three weeks, which isn’t good, but still, I mean--and now she’s noticing that people are acting weird, and then everybody’s wonderful friend, Duchess, had to strut in and make a huge scene and call Apple a lesbo!"

Raven gasps.
“She called her that?!”
“Yeah!” Briar exclaims. “I mean, seriously, how offensive can you get?!”
“I know! Man, that pisses me off!”
“I don’t know what to do,” Briar says tiredly. “We can’t keep this from her forever.”

Apple’s stomach flops with anxiety. They are keeping something from her, something big! Two of her best friends are talking about it behind her back right now, but she tries to not let it hurt her feelings. They’re probably just trying to protect her. But at the same time, she has a right to know, and she wants to know right now. Taking a deep breath, she places her shaking hand on the doorknob. Just when she begins to turn it, the door opens, and she’s face to face with Briar. Briar gasps, her eyes widening as she takes in the fact that Apple is standing directly in front of her.

“A-Apple,” she chokes out.
Briar quickly glances over to Raven whose eyes are also wide as she stares at Apple.
“What is going on?!” Apple demands, crossing her arms. “What are you guys keeping from me?!”
Briar’s mouth moves uselessly as she looks back and forth between Raven and Apple. Apple's heart pounds as she continues to stare Briar down. She hates this. She's hated everything that's happened in the last month and a half. And absolutely nothing seems to he getting better. Now her best friends are keeping a big secret from her, and she literally wants to scream.

“Raven,” Briar says nervously, her voice far more high-pitched than usual. “You've got her, right? I trust that you know what to do.”
“But Briar,” Raven pleads, “I don't know what to do--”
Briar cuts her off.
“Raven, please. Ashlynn needs my help with something. She got into some huge argument with Hunter, and you know,” she groans, “I can never deny that angel in disguise when she needs help.”
Raven snorts, rolling her eyes fondly.
“Um, guys,” Apple says, sighing with exasperation, “I'm still here, you know.”
“We know,” Raven says weakly.
“I'm just going to head out now,” Briar says awkwardly.

As she walks toward the door, she stops by Apple and places her hand on her shoulder. Apple stiffens at the touch, her annoyance causing her to dislike the affection, which is very unusual for her.
“Everything will be okay,” Briar murmurs, rubbing her shoulder before breezing past her and exiting the room.
She closes the door behind her. Apple's stomach crawls with a sudden onslaught of anxiety. What is so wrong that prompted Briar to act with such somberness just then?

“Raven, what's happened?” Apple asks, her voice shaking.
Raven closes her eyes, taking a long, deep breath before she calmly regards Apple.
“I guess I really can't keep this from you anymore,” she says quietly.
Apple's hands clench into fists at her sides. Raven sighs.
“It just feels wrong,” Raven murmurs, her eyes filled with sadness as she gazes at Apple.
Panic rips at Apple's chest. She draws in a trembling breath.
“Oh God, is somebody sick?!” she exclaims, hysteria creeping in. “Is somebody dying?!”
“Woah,” Raven says as she rushes over to Apple and puts her hands on her shoulders.
Apple breathes heavily, wincing as her stomach churns with nausea.
“It's nothing as bad as that,” Raven says gently. “Calm down. Nobody is sick or dying.”

Apple sags with relief. Her shoulders relax as she lets out a long, shaky exhale.
“Just come sit down with me,” says Raven.
She takes Apple's hand and slowly guides her over to her bed. Apple climbs into the bed, settling criss-cross applesauce beside Raven.
“Tell me now,” Apple says, pulling up a blanket to hide her shaking legs.
Raven takes what is quite possibly the deepest breath Apple has ever heard before turning to her, an annoying but all the less genuine sympathetic expression on her face.
“Apple,” she says quietly, “you're not going to like this.”

Apple's heart thumps harder again as she waits in desperation for Raven to confess what the secret is.
“Apple,” Raven sighs, “Daring didn't wake you up from your enchanted sleep.”
She gazes at Apple, wincing. Apple shakes her head, unable to comprehend what Raven is telling her.
“What?” she says quietly. “What do you mean?”
“Apple.” Raven places her hand on her shoulder. “Daring was not able to wake you up with True Love's Kiss. He tried several times, but you just continued to sleep.”

Apple rapidly blinks. Her head feels like it's going to explode. This isn't possible.
“But Daring…” her voice trails off. “He has been confirmed to be my Prince Charming.”
She looks at Raven, feeling oddly numb as she talks.
“They run tests when we’re little kids, and the results were that he is positively the Prince Charming of our fairytale.”
She nods, trying to be convinced of what she's saying. Raven continues to wince.
“Apple,” she says, gently patting her shoulder, “you don't have a Prince Charming. You-” she deeply exhales, “you have a Princess Charming.”

Apple can literally see and feel her mind spinning. She has never experienced a sensation like this before and is so discombobulated that she can't help but lean into Raven. Raven gingerly wraps her arms around her.
“Apple,” she murmurs, gently rubbing her back, “Darling woke you up.”
Apple’s head falls heavily on Raven's shoulder. She's never felt what she's feeling now. She's burning up, heat rising within her, but at the same time, she's ice cold. Her heart is freezing within her chest, beating more and more irregularly as the frost coats the tender muscle.

She squeezes her eyes against the dizziness as the dim memory of sensations spring to life in her mind. A flash of light blue as her eyes snap open. The softest touch of a hand in her hair, gentle fingers running through the tangled tresses. The faintest taste of vanilla on her lips and in her mouth. Turning to see Darling standing beside her, gazing at her with a soft, fond expression. How had Apple not seen it?! Of course it was Darling who woke her up! How in the kingdoms would she be the only one standing next to Apple if she hadn't? But she had absolutely no reason for that idea to even cross her mind! It was so out of context!

Apple had never even slightly doubted that Daring is her Prince Charming. They've known each other since birth. They have been trained together since they were about four years old on how to properly act as each other's true loves. There's absolutely no way that he isn't her true love! There must be some mistake! Maybe the apple was poisoned incorrectly! This cannot have failed after how hard both her and Daring (but mostly her) have worked for their destiny! This entire ordeal is unfathomable, but deep within her gut, Apple is starting to feel that this is real, that their destiny really has become this messed up, that her true love isn't the boy she's been constantly told it is since she was a toddler but, of all things, his sister!

She has completely forgotten where she is, but she's thrown back into reality as Raven speaks to her.
“Apple, you're squeezing me too hard,” she grunts, gently trying to pry her away slightly.
Apple, still scarcely registering what she is doing or how she is doing it, lets go of Raven and suddenly feeling the tears burning her eyes and the sobs building in her chest, flings herself across the bed. She drops herself facefirst on the mattress and tightly clutches the pillow as she buries her face in it. This can't be happening! God, she needs to wake up from this nightmare! Deep down, she is certain that this is the cold, hard reality that she is experiencing, though.

She dissolves into tears, clenching her jaw against the sobs that tear at her throat. Her muscles feel like they're on fire. Desperately needing to move, she kicks her legs. She screams against the pillow, feeling entirely unhinged as her sobs turn into wails. She is certain that she has gone insane. She’s never felt this disconnected from reality before. What even is reality? She can't even begin to comprehend this in the midst of her meltdown.

She can only faintly feel arms wrapping around her.
“Shhh, calm down,” she distantly hears a voice utter.
She can only cling tighter to the pillow, though, and continue to gulp out harsh, breathless sobs. She loses her ability to even think then and can only cry out in the blackness that she's immersed in.

She gasps as her vision slowly returns and feeling begins to return to her limbs. Soft hands are gently stroking her face, wiping the tears from her eyes. She can faintly see a curtain of purple hair swaying before her face.
“R-Raven,” Apple croaks, hiccuping and sniffling between every breath.
“I’m here, Apple,” Raven murmurs. “I’m right here.”
Apple closes her sore eyes, taking deep, trembling breaths. Raven’s fingers brush through her hair, gently untangling the snarls hidden in her silky tresses.
“H-How long h-has it b-been?” Apple manages to ask between hiccups.
Raven lightly massages her scalp.
“Not too long,” she says gently. “Maybe twenty minutes.”

Apple rubs her fists over her swollen eyes, blinking rapidly as her eyes adjust to the dim light. She feels the mattress sink slightly as Raven lies down beside her. Apple shifts, nuzzling her face against Raven’s neck as the girl wraps her arm around her waist. As Apple snuggles closer, Raven tightens the embrace, gently pulling her to her chest.
“It’s okay, baby,” Raven whispers, her breath hot against her ear.
Apple whimpers, burying her face against Raven’s collarbone as she struggles to not break down again. Raven gently runs her hand through her hair, softly shushing her.

“I don’t know what to do, Raven,” Apple shakily whispers, lifting her face slightly to look into Raven’s worried eyes. “Everything has fallen apart.”
Her lower lip trembles. Her eyes well with tears. She sniffs, ducking her head slightly as Raven tenderly strokes her thumb across Apple’s cheek.
“You’re not alone, Apple,” Raven says, her voice soft. “I’m here. I’ve got you.”
Apple gives her friend a watery smile. She wipes her sleeve over her nose, sniffling.
“Thank you,” she chokes out, tears dripping from her eyes.
Raven softly wipes the tears away.
“Of course, sweetheart,” Raven murmurs, gently pressing her lips to Apple’s hot, sweaty forehead.

Apple shivers at the contact, instinctively drawing closer to Raven as the sensation of her lips on her skin remains even moments after she has pulled away. Raven holds her close again, and Apple gently sighs, pressing her face against her friend’s shirt, breathing in the clean scent. Raven continues to caress her hair, and Apple grows more and more relaxed by the soothing sensation. She doesn’t know how long they lie there in each other’s arms before Apple feels herself drifting off.

“So, Darling really is my true love,” she mumbles sleepily.
“Mmhmm,” Raven murmurs back. “She is.”
Apple’s eyes snap open as she realizes what she just said. She often mumbles incoherently as she falls asleep, but that had come out as clear as day, and now she’s wide awake. She leans on her elbow, holding onto Raven’s shoulder for support. Raven opens her eyes then and gazes at Apple with a soft expression.
“It’s okay, Apple,” she says gently, brushing Apple's hair back from her face. “Darling is an amazing person. I know you might not see it right now because it’s all so new, but she will be a wonderful true love for you. A better true love than Daring even.”

Apple slowly sits up, groaning as her muscles ache. She stares ahead at the wall and barely registers that Raven is beside her, holding her hands, until she gently speaks.
“I love you exactly the way you are,” she murmurs, gently squeezing her hands.
Apple bites her lip as tears, again, fill her eyes. How could she not see it before? She never loved Daring. Hell, she never even found him the least bit attractive. But girls--with their curves, their long, silky hair, their breasts (she colors at the thought), their sensitive natures. She’s thought about all this before, about how girls really are the most beautiful creatures on the planet, how she’d rather kiss any girl instead of Daring.

Oh, God. She buries her burning face in her hands.
“Raven,” she squeaks out, “I like girls.”
Raven rubs her back.
“I know,” she murmurs. “It’s perfectly alright.”
Apple sniffles as she suddenly feels like she’s going to cry again. Her destiny is over. It’s as simple as that. There will be no second chances. Daring isn’t her True Love. He never has been, and he never will be. What is going to happen when her mother finds out?! She’s going to be furious! All those years spent preparing, training, grooming Apple for her destiny--it was all for nothing! Apple can’t be the next Snow White if she’s gay! That’s impossible! What is she going to do?!

She bursts into tears.
“What am I going to do, Raven?” she sobs, clasping her hand over her mouth as violent sobs rack her frame.
“Apple,” Raven says softly, sounding choked up herself.
Apple can, through her tears, indistinctly see Raven reaching out to grab something.
“Here,” Raven murmurs.
She gently wipes Apple’s tears with a tissue.
“Here, just blow your nose,” she says, getting another tissue for her.
She helps Apple blow her nose. Apple shakily sighs, relieved that she can actually breathe properly again.
T-Thank y-you,” she chokes out.
“Of course, Apple,” Raven murmurs as she throws the tissues into the wastebasket by the bed. “Of course.”

Apple doesn’t know what comes over her then, but she suddenly starts crying again. Her shoulders shake with the force of her sobs. Her throat throbs with pain. She gasps as she’s pulled into a warm hug.
“Shhh. It’s okay,” Raven whispers, stroking her hand over her back. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to figure this out together.”
Apple wraps her arms tightly around Raven’s waist and sobs harshly against her shoulder. Raven slowly rocks back and forth.
“I’m here,” she murmurs. “I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere.”
Raven can only hold her close and offer words of comfort as Apple mourns the loss of her destiny.

 

XXX

Apple’s stomach is a mosh pit as she’s sitting behind Darling in Princessology in class the next morning. Darling’s curly platinum blonde hair, streaked with light blue highlights, cascades over her shoulders. She sits with perfect posture, as a princess should always have, and doesn’t make a sound other than the quiet scraping of her quill against the paper as she takes notes. What even is Darling to Apple? She’s a friend. Not a best friend like Briar, Raven, and Ashlynn are. Apple and Darling have known each other since birth, though. Apple’s parents, Queen Snow White and King Eugene and Darling’s, Daring’s, and Dexter’s parents, Queen Marie and King Lance are lifelong friends and have had, for as long as Apple can remember, had frequent get-togethers at each other’s palaces where Daring, Dexter, Darling, and Apple would play.

Apple and Darling were playmates all throughout spellementary school. Apple considered her to be one of her best friends, along with Briar, Ashlynn, and Blondie. They had remained close through middle school. Apple, Darling, Briar, Ashlynn, Blondie (and sometimes even more people and sometimes only a couple of them) would take turns throwing sleepovers at each other's castles. Darling would often sit on the couch and read, though, while Apple and the other girls laughed and had pillow fights and played Truth or Dare. Sometimes Darling would join in, but a lot of times, she seemed to be more comfortable with her nose in a book. Apple didn't blame her. Those sleepovers could be pretty overwhelming with all the noise and commotion. Apple had gotten a book of her own and read on the couch next to Darling sometimes. Sometimes they would read a book together, while the other girls threw popcorn at each other and gushed over male celebrities and did each other's makeup.

Since starting high school at Ever After High, Apple and Darling had hung out significantly less. When they did hang out, it was usually in a group. Apple had felt proud of Darling when she'd come out as the White Knight. She'd always known that Darling had the mind and the heart to care for others and make a difference. Apple had never even talked to her about it, though, and now she feels ashamed. Darling had probably felt vulnerable afterward. She doesn’t show her emotions very openly, but Apple knows that she is an exceptionally sensitive person.

Apple sighs. But Darling being her True Love? How is that even possible? Apple has never even considered if she finds anybody else attractive. She'd always been so focused on cultivating a connection with Daring that she hasn't even evaluated why those thoughts about girls crossed her mind in the first place. Why, during the swim unit, in Grimmnastics, her heart had pounded and her cheeks had been flushed when all the girls had been wearing bikinis. Some wore one-pieces, but Apple hadn't been able to take her eyes off of one girl, Penelope, the daughter of Jill from “Jack and Jill.” When she'd stepped out of the pool, the sun had reflected the drops of moisture glistening on her tan legs. Apple remembers staring, completely transfixed.

Random memories like this are flooding into her mind now and are suddenly making sense. When she was six and Briar had wanted two of their Barbie dolls, one male and one female, to get married, and Apple had insisted on a wedding ceremony for two of her female Barbie dolls instead.
“Can that even happen?” Ashlynn had asked quietly.
“Why not?” Apple had replied. “The girl is prettier anyway.”

Apple is dizzy with this sudden clarity. She grips the edge of her desk, closing her eyes and breathing deeply as she waits for the vertigo to recede. When she opens her eyes a moment later, feeling much better, she almost gasps when she sees Darling turned around in her seat, looking at her. She controls herself, though, and manages what she hopes is a smile. Darling’s fair blonde eyebrows are creased with concern. Apple desperately tries to push the image of Darling from the dream, passionately kissing her, out of her mind. It was just a dream. A strange dream, unlike any she's ever had before, but still a very fake figment of her imagination.

“You okay?” Darling whispers.
Apple dumbly nods, forcing the corners of her mouth to stay turned up in what is probably (or maybe not) a smile. Darling gazes at Apple a couple seconds more before turning around and facing the front of the classroom again.
Apple places her hand on her chest, her eyes widening when she feels how fast her heartbeat is. She quietly exhales. She needs to tell Darling that she knows what happened. She can’t be childish and ask one of her friends to do it for her. She needs to do it herself. But first, she should tell Daring.

XXX
“Hey, Daring,” she says as he walks up to her. “Thanks for coming.”
She is sitting on a stone bench at the entrance to the maze of hedges, which is Baba Yaga’s pride and joy. The area is surrounded by grass. The bookball field is not too far from here. Nobody is around here in the late afternoon, though, so that's why Apple decided they should meet here. Daring is, without a doubt, going to cry. She's already packed her purse with tissues.

“Hey, Apple,” Daring says quietly.
He stands stiffly in front of her, his hands twitching by his sides. She smiles brightly at him, trying to see if she can make him even a tiny bit happy, but his face remains glazed with sorrow. She frowns.
“Here, come sit down,” she says softly, patting the bench beside her.
“Alright,” he says, his tone somber.
He sighs, slowly trudging over and sitting on the bench a considerable distance from her.

Apple breathes deeply, trying to reel in the butterflies swarming in her stomach. She's so incredibly nervous for his reaction. She almost threw up after class today, but she drank some ginger ale and was able to ward off the nausea.
She takes the deepest breath she can muster before turning to Daring.
“Look, Daring,” she says, trying her best to sound confident, “the reason I wanted to meet you here is to discuss what happened last month when I fell into my enchanted sleep.”

His eyes widen, and he starts chewing on his fingernails, which is a very noticeable nervous habit of his.
“What is there to talk about?” His voice trembles. “Our destiny's over now. Finally got that one checked off our list.”
He laughs loudly, clearly trying to cover up the anxiety and fear inside him. Apple feels a sudden, sharp pang of empathy for Daring. He, of course, feels like a failure, even more so than she does. Her eyes turn moist as she takes in his disheveled appearance, the dark bags under his eyes. He's in just as bad of a condition as she is, and she doubts he has many people he feels comfortable being vulnerable.

He has been taught that he always has to be strong and mighty and brave and never to show emotion. He is such a sensitive person, though, despite the “be a man” training he has had to undergo.
“Oh, Daring,” she murmurs.
He looks at her, his eyes wide.
“It's okay,” she says, her voice soft.
She reaches out, taking his hands in hers. He flinches, but she doesn't let go. He glances down at their entwined hands, his face taut with fear.
“It's not your fault,” she says, her tone intense as she tries to meet his eyes.

She needs him to believe it. She herself still feels that it's her fault no matter how many times Raven, Briar, and Ashlynn have told her it isn't. She can't stand to see Daring in this much pain, though. His lower lip trembles and his eyes become glassy with tears as he begins to comprehend what she's saying.
“You know?” he asks, his voice wobbling.
She takes a deep breath, willing herself to not cry. She's already done enough crying lately for a lifetime. Her throat is still scratchy from sobbing herself dry yesterday. She simply can't take any more tears.

“Yes, Daring,” she says quietly, gently squeezing his hands. “I know.”
“No,” he whispers, his voice hoarse. “It wasn't supposed to happen this way!”
He pulls his hands away from her and balls them into fists. He punches his thighs.
“Oh, God,” he chokes out. “Why has this happened to me?! To us?!”
He looks at her, tears streaming down his face.
“I don't know, Daring,” Apple says gently. “But it's neither of our faults.”
“I-I just--” He chokes out a sob. “I wanted this so b-bad! Our d-destiny! I-It’s,” he sniffs, wiping his sleeve roughly over his nose, “a-all I h-had going for m-me!”
He lets out another hoarse sob.
“I-I’m n-not,” he gasps between each sob, “sm-smart l-like y-you, A-Apple! All I-I’ve g-got are m-my f-fighting a-abilities and my ch-charm! I-I’m l-literally n-n-nothing!”

He bursts into sobs then, bending over and burying his face in his hands. His entire body shudders.
“Oh, Daring,” Apple cooes.
She sighs. This is going to be really awkward. She and Daring have never been the kind of friends that share physical contact. He's in pain right now, though, and her heart is aching for him. She doesn't want him to feel alone, which is inevitably how he's feeling right now.
She scoots over to him and quickly wraps her arm over his shoulders. She rests her cheek on the top of his head.
“Just let it out,” she murmurs. “You don't have to be strong around me.”

She can hear him choking his sobs back, taking deep, gasping breaths to try to ward them off. Her own body shakes with the force of his sobs. She holds him close, though, and gently rubs his back.
“Just let it go,” she says gently. “It's okay to cry. I'm here.”
She winces slightly as his sobs turn to wails, and he leans into the embrace, clinging to her tightly. Comforting a boy is new to her. Most of her friends are girls, and she never has a problem with being physically affectionate with them when they cry. It's all very weird to her, but she does want to be there for Daring.
Softly sighing, she gently pulls his head to rest on her shoulder and tightens the embrace.
“It's okay,” she cooes as he cries piteously into her shoulder. “I've got you.”

XXX

“Oh God, I'm nervous,” Apple says, wringing her hands together.
She breathes deeply, closing her eyes against the nausea.
“It's going to be okay,” Ashlynn says gently as she comes over.
She sits on the bed next to Apple and puts her arm around her shoulders.
“You’re going to do great,” Ashlynn says, rubbing her shoulder. “Just start casual, then ease into the topic. She's going to be polite and kind like she always is, and she's too brave and courteous to make up some excuse and leave.”
“You're right,” Apple replies, deeply exhaling. “She's a great person.”
“Yeah, she is,” Ashlynn agrees, giving Apple a hug.
Apple basks in the warm embrace for a moment, breathing in the scent of mint and tea tree oil shampoo that Ashlynn uses. Ashlynn is never one to end a hug first, though, so Apple knows she has to be the one to pull away.

Briar enters the room then and, seeing Apple and Ashlynn sitting on the bed, smiles and walks over in long, lazy strides.
“Hey, babe,” she says, sitting down on Apple's other side and immediately pulling Apple into a hug. Apple giggles.
“Hey,” she replies, hugging Briar back. “What's up?”
Briar gently squeezes her before pulling away.
“I was just on the phone,” she says, “talking to Loyalty.”
She sighs, running her hand over her face.
“He's still really broken up about Felix dying.”
Apple and Ashlynn look at their friend sadly.
“I mean, I am too, but he is still crying literally everyday. He's inconsolable. Nothing my parents are doing is helping him.”
Briar bites her lip anxiously and sighs again.

“Oh, Briar,” Ashlynn murmurs, wrapping an arm around her.
Briar sniffs, leaning into her friend. Apple quickly puts her arm around Briar too, joining in on the side-hug. She rests her cheek against the side of Briar’s head.
“We've got you, baby,” Apple murmurs.
Briar clears her throat.
“Thank you, guys,” she says, her voice slightly hoarse.
“Of course,” Ashlynn replies, her voice soft. “We're always here for you.”
“Yeah,” Apple agrees. “Always.”
Briar chuckles, gently squeezing her hand before slowly pulling away from the embrace.
“I don't want to hold you up any more, girl,” Briar says, glancing at the alarm clock. “It's quarter to seven now. You need to meet Darling.”

Apple's heart beats faster. Her stomach tingles with nerves.
“Oh, kingdoms,” she whispers, unconsciously grinding her teeth and clenching her jaw.
Briar hugs her again.
“Don't psych yourself out, babe,” she says gently. “It's just a casual chat with your one True Love. Nothing to get too excited about.”
Apple can't stop herself from laughing.
“That doesn't exactly reassure me,” she says, smiling broadly.

Briar always knows how to cheer her up and get her to not take things so seriously. Briar laughs before gently releasing Apple from the embrace.
“Go get her, girl,” she says, winking at her.
Apple fondly rolls her eyes.
“Alright,” she says. “Away I go.”
She stands on shaky legs and walks over to the door.
“Good luck, Apple,” Ashlynn calls out. “Remember that we’re here. You can call or text us at any time, and we'll help you.”
Apple smiles brightly as she looks back at Ashlynn.
“I will definitely remember that,” she says cheerfully. “Thank you.”
“Of course, Apple,” Ashlynn replies. “Anytime!”
Apple smiles and waves to her friends before leaving the room.

XXX
Evening has come. The sky blazes in shades of fiery orange. Streaks of blue and purple float over the bright expanse. Apple sits on a large, mossy log, listening to the sounds of woodland creatures as they prepare for bed. Tall pine trees surround her, casting long, gray shadows on the forest floor. The last rays of sunlight break through the leaves, shining on Apple’s pale face. She smiles, leaning her head back as a gentle gust of wind blows past. This is the most happy she’s been in weeks. The cool air hangs around her like a soft blanket. The wind rustles through the tree branches. She tilts her head up, gazing into the thick, green canopy above her.

The sound of a twig snapping echoes through the still air. She yelps, jumping to her feet. She raises her hand to her chest, feeling her rapidly beating heart, as Darling comes toward her. Her platinum blond hair flows behind her, as the breeze continues to blow.
“You scared me!” exclaims Apple.
Darling shifts her weight from foot to foot.
“I’m sorry,” she says quietly.
“It's okay,” says Apple, smiling brightly.
An awkward moment of silence passes. Darling looks at the floor, kicking dirt up with her heel. Apple shakes her head.
“Come sit down, Darling.” She motions to the log.

Both girls sit down on the log, careful of the space between them. Darling twists her fingers together in her lap.
“Well, thank you for meeting me here.” Apple's voice cracks nervously.
Darling turns her head toward her. She smiles, that same dainty grin slowly spreading across her face.
“No problem,” she says softly.
Another awkward moment of silence passes, where Darling looks up at the sky and smiles. Apple watches the girl, the way her lip curls, the way her nose crinkles slightly, as she stares into the expanse of blazing pink. The wind blows through her mane of hair. It sails around her shoulders, shining strawberry pink in the evening light. Her ice blue eyes slip closed as she breathes in deeply, the cool wind rushing past her face.

Apple is so transfixed, watching this girl, soaking in her calm, steady presence, when a soft voice jolts her out of her daze.
“I have something to tell you,” Darling says, her tone serious.
Darling reaches forward, taking Apple’s hands. A current races through Apple’s hand, up her arm, and into her chest. Her breath catches in her throat. She stares at Darling, her mouth agape.
Darling takes a deep breath.
“This might be difficult to hear, but I’m the one-”
“Oh! I know!” Apple cuts the girl off.
Darling slowly blinks. Apple gently pulls her hands away, her heart racing.
“I know you woke me up, Darling!”
The words tumble out before she can stop them. Darling’s mouth is open. She shakes her head slowly from side to side.
“Oh. Who told you?” she stutters.

Her hands move around, as if she doesn't know where to place them. Apple grabs them, gently taking them in her own. Darling looks down at their entwined hands, her eyes wide. She quickly snaps her head back up. A rosy hue creeps across her cheeks.
“Raven,” Apple quietly replies.
“And you’re...okay with it?”
Apple’s heart pounds. Is she okay with it? She moves her mouth uselessly, clueless as what to say. The pained expression on Darling’s face, though, prompts her to speak.
“It came as a bit of a shock,” she mutters, “but, yes, of course I’m okay with it. I mean-” She pauses, breathing deeply. “You saved my life! For that, I am forever in your debt, Darling. Thank you-”

She stumbles to a stop, unsure of what else to say. Her heart crashes, clanging in her head. A strange warmth seeps through her chest, unlike any she’s ever felt as a smile, wider than any Apple has seen on the girl so far, graces Darling’s face. A pink sheen brushes across her cheeks. She looks down, picking at a clump of moss.
“You're welcome,” she says quietly.
She glances up at Apple and lets out a soft sigh.
“You know, I just didn't know what else to do. You stopped breathing. This panic just surged through me. I guess instinct just kind of took over, and I performed mouth to mouth resuscitation.” She trails off.

Apple’s stomach flutters, butterfly wings flapping furiously in her gut. He cheeks burn with heat. She glances at Darling’s lips before quickly looking away. The image of them is conjured in her mind. Thick, light pink lips softly brushing against her own, Darling’s warm, sweet breath rushing down her throat, entering her lungs, giving her breath, giving her life. She closes her eyes, the picture burning bright against the backs of her eyelids. Darling’s soft voice brings her back to the present.
“I’ve always wanted to be a hero.”

The words are uttered so quietly, Apple wonders if she merely imagined them. Darling turns to her, though, a sliver of a smile on her face, and Apple knows she's heard correctly.
She stares intently at Darling as the girl clears her throat and continues speaking.
“When I was little, I never wanted to wear dresses. I wanted to wear pants and play dragon slaying with Daring and Dexter.”
A soft giggle bubbles in Apple's throat as she thinks about a little Darling chasing her brothers around, loudly insisting that she be the hero. Darling smiles at her before continuing.
“I just-the whole idea of a damsel in distress never fit me. That's why, when the White Knight died, I took his place. Helping people, fighting for them, for their rights, it just feels good, you know?”
She gazes at Apple, her hands neatly folded in her lap. Apple nods.
“I definitely understand where you're coming from,” she says.

Darling smiles, and for the first time, Apple notices that she has dimples. The girls sit in comfortable silence for a few moments, listening to the chirping crickets and the light wind rustling through the leaves. Apple only breaks it when a sudden thought enters her mind.
“Why don’t you take hero training classes?”
She feels bad for asking, as a shadow of grief immediately passes over Darling's features. Darling sighs sadly. Apple looks at her concernedly. She cracks her knuckles, a nervous habit of hers.
“I'm sorry for asking,” she says quietly.

She reaches out, hesitantly placing a hand on Darling's shoulder.
“No, it’s okay,” Darling murmurs. “It’s just-I” She softly exhales.
Apple worries her lower lip between her teeth. Darling turns to her, her face strained.
“My mother found out about me being the White Knight. She got really mad and told me I can never be a hero.”
Her voice remains steady, but Apple can see the moisture in the girl’s eyes. Darling looks down at her lap, scratching the material of her dress. Silence stretches between them.
“I'm sorry,” Apple says quietly.

She doesn't know what else to say. Words build in her throat, but she knows they'll just sound hollow, so she stays quiet. The sky turns dark as the minutes slip by. Apple looks up at the indigo night sky. A full, white moon shines brightly. An owl hoots in a nearby tree. Apple turns back to Darling who is still sitting, her face tilted downward. Apple sets her hand delicately on her shoulder. Darling looks up at her. Tears glisten like frost on her blonde eyelashes. Apple’s heart beats, an unsteady rhythm against her ribcage. She licks her dry lips.

“You know, Darling,” she starts, “we deactivated the Storybook of Legends.”
She stops, searching for the right words to say. She looks off into the distance, hoping the pine trees swaying in the breeze will somehow give her inspiration.
“I mean, Darling, you can be who you want to be,” she says slowly.
She smiles, reaching forward to take the girl’s hands.
“Your destiny is no longer predetermined,” she continues.
Darling looks at her, eyes wide.
“It’s in your hands now.” She squeezes Darling’s hands to emphasize her point. “And if you want to be a hero, go be a hero.” She pauses. “I mean, your mom can control what classes you take, but you know, you’re going to be eighteen soon. Then it’s your choice what you want to study. If you’re going to college, I mean.”

Darling smiles widely. She lightly chuckles as she reaches up to wipe away a tear. Apple smiles encouragingly. She sets a hand on Darling's shoulder as the girl collects herself.
“Thank you, Apple,” Darling says, gently squeezing Apple's hand. “I don't think I’ll ever escape my mother, though.”
“You two will work it out,” Apple doesn't hesitate to reply. “She probably just doesn't see why you want to be a hero, but maybe if you can show it to her, she’ll understand.”
Darling gazes at her, eyes wide, for a moment before shrugging.
Maybe,” she murmurs.

She lets out a shaky laugh.
“Thank you for listening, Apple.”
She reaches out, gently patting her on the shoulder.
You’re a good listener.”
Heat rises in Apple’s cheeks.
“Aww, thank you,” she replies. “And, you know, you can talk to me anytime about anything, okay?”

Apple is shocked by the stream of words rushing out of her. She feels a connection, though, with Darling, one she's strangely never felt for the girl in all the years she's known her. She wants her to be open with her, to tell her everything that is going on in her mind. She doesn't know why, but she just does.
“Thanks, Apple. And you can talk to me anytime, too.”
“Thanks.”
Apple thinks that if she were smiling any bigger, her cheeks would simply fall off. And when Darling gathers her in her arms, the scent of vanilla is so sweet in Apple’s nostrils, she never wants to smell any other scent ever again. She closes her eyes, breathing in the aroma.

When Darling pulls away, all Apple can hear is her own heartbeat thumping against her skull. Darling smiles at her. Apple thinks she smiles back. She's not sure. All she’s sure about is that the waves of moonlight shining upon Darling’s hair is the most beautiful thing she's ever seen. All she can do is stare as Darling tilts her head forward slightly, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her own ear. She softly laughs as she gazes up at Apple, her wide, blue eyes twinkling with amusement.

“What are you looking at?” she asks quietly.
Apple’s heart races. Her breath goes still in her throat.
“The moon is beautiful tonight,” she lamely replies.
Darling raises a thin, arched eyebrow.
“I mean, your hair,” Apple stutters. “The moonlight reflects it beautifully.”
Darling lets out another gentle laugh. She smiles up at Apple, her eyes like sheets of ice in the moonlight.
“Well, thank you,” Darling says, her voice tinted with humor. “Although, I’d say that’s more of a compliment to the moon, really.”

Apple is shocked at the loud laugh that she emits. She clamps her hand over her mouth as more giggles escape. Darling joins in, her laughter more pure and joyful than anything Apple has ever heard.
As Apple’s laughing ebbs, silence falls over the girls. They just gaze at each other with shining eyes, their lips curved up in bright smiles. Apple studies Darling’s face-her full cheeks, her rosebud nose, her gleaming white teeth. Bright but not blinding, like her brother’s. Her immaculately curled hair tumbles over her shoulders, flows down her back like a platinum blonde stream. Her eyes are like glaciers, her irises blue waves cutting through the ice.

Apple starts when Darling speaks.
“We should probably head back up to the school. It’s getting late.”
Apple quickly breaks eye contact. She nods.
“Yeah,” she agrees. “Let’s go.”
She shoots to her feet. Before she can take a step, though, Darling is in front of her, taking her hands. Her breath slows as Darling looks into her eyes.
“Thank you,” she says gently. “Thank you for being so cool with it.”
Apple bows her head slightly, a light pink dusting across her face.
“It’s no problem,” she replies. “Like I said, you saved my life, Darling. I should be the one thanking you.”
Darling gently lets her hands go.
“Well, it means a lot to me.” She shrugs.
“Well, I’m glad.” Apple gives the girl her best dazzling smile.
Darling stares intently at her for a moment. Just when Apple isn’t sure her heart will stay within her chest, Darling breaks the gaze and smiles.
“Let’s go.”
She turns and slowly begins walking. Apple quickly follows. Side by side, the girls trek toward the distant castle that is Ever After High.

Chapter Text

December 4, 2020

 

“Briar, what happened?!” Ashlynn exclaims as Briar nearly falls over. “Are you okay?!”
“Yeah, I'm fine,” Briar slurs. “Just wasted.”
She involuntarily lets out out a loud, rather unprincessly belch. She claps her hand over her mouth, embarrassedly chuckling.
“Hexcuse me.”
Ashlynn gently sighs before taking Briar’s hands and leading her into the house. She closes the door behind them. Briar sways on her feet. Her head is pleasantly fuzzy. Her entire body is blissfully warm. For the first time in weeks, she is happy. With the alcohol coursing through her veins, she feels the blanketing sensation of contentment in her gut.

She's pulled from her drunken reverie by Ashlynn's hands gently gripping hers again.
“Here, let's go over to the couch.”
Briar lets Ashlynn guide her across the room. She barely registers that she's sat down until she feels the soft material of the couch beneath her. She shakes her head, taking in her surroundings. Ashlynn’s neat living room is bathed in a low, yellow light from the crystal lamp set on the coffee table. Her furniture-her tall mahogany bookcase, the long wooden table on which the large tank of various tropical fish are placed, the row of framed photos that run down the rest of the table, the potted plants hanging from the ceiling. Ashlynn sighs as she walks into the room, holding a glass. Briar hadn't even realized she’d left.

Ashlynn hands her the glass of water. She gently wraps her fingers around Briar’s fingers, making sure her hand is steady as she takes the glass. The glass is cold against Briar’s sweaty palms. She takes a shaky sip. Immediately, her senses sharpen as the ice cold water flows down her throat. Previously unconsidered thoughts flood her mind, and she suddenly remembers something very important.
“Is Willow here?” she asks, a tinge of urgency in her tone.
“No,” says Ashlynn, her voice soft. “She's with Hunter tonight.”
Briar sighs in relief. She wouldn't want to impose. Willow just turned two in September, so taking care of her can still be a large hassle, especially at nighttime. Briar would never want to burden Ashlynn with taking care of her, too, if Willow was around. When Ashlynn is alone, though, Briar has no problem receiving Ashlynn's TLC (tender, loving care).

For as long as Briar can remember, Ashlynn has been the designated mother hen amongst all their friends. She's always the first to notice when something is amiss with a person. She's the most reliable person to count on for a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or warm arms to cuddle in. Ashlynn has always been there for Briar, and Briar hopes that Ashlynn feels she's done the same for her as well. When Ashlynn was first pregnant with Willow, Briar was the first to know and the most willing to be a pillar of strength for her. Briar is protective and extremely sensitive by nature, so she had immediately taken on the role of Ashlynn's caretaker throughout the whole ordeal.

Over the years, Ashlynn and Briar have only grown closer and have been diligent about sustaining a reciprocal relationship. They are each other's go-to people for anything they need, whether it's company, advice, comfort, support, and everything one could ever need. Briar had been thinking about this as she'd sat in the back of the taxi on her way to Ashlynn's house. This is why Briar doesn't think twice before showing up drunk at Ashlynn's house at midnight. Ashlynn is Briar's person, and Ashlynn is hers. They've seen each other at their best and at their worst. They don't ever feel the need to put on a facade. They just accept each other in any condition that they're in and roll with it. They respect each other, they help each other, and they love each other. That's all they need.

Briar sighs with relief as the cool water quenches her thirst. She closes her eyes, happily sighing again as she feels Ashlynn's fingers gently playing with her hair. As she downs the glass of water, she's suddenly rejuvenated. Her body thrums with a pulsing energy. Turning to Ashlynn who is sitting beside her, her legs crossed, she reaches over, pulling the girl into a tight embrace. Ashlynn lets out an involuntary “oomph” at the sudden impact.
“You are the best, Ash,” Briar slurs, squeezing the girl tight. “I just need you to know how amazing you are and how much I love you!”
Ashlynn giggles, hugging Briar back, though not as tightly.
“You're the best, too,” she says, running her fingers through Briar's wavy hair again.

Briar reeks of alcohol, which is not a scent that Ashlynn enjoys, but all the less, this is her best friend, and she's not going to reject her affection. Briar is a fun and cuddly drunk (and person in general, really) and Ashlynn honestly can't say that she isn't a little pleased that Briar came here.
“And I love you too,” Ashlynn murmurs.
Briar pulls back slightly and looks Ashlynn in the eyes. Her mauve eyes gaze into hers as she gently cups Ashlynn's cheeks.
“Do you know how beautiful you are, Ash?” Briar asks.
Her warm, stale breath blows slightly against Ashlynn's face, and the girl struggles to not recoil at the smell. A slight blush dusts her cheeks.
“Um, I guess…” Her voice trails off.
Briar giggles, leaning back and pulling strands of hair from her own face.
“Well, you don't have to guess,” she says. “Cause you are. You're gorgeous and sweet and caring and loyal and smart and literally everything anybody could ask for in a person!”

Ashlynn's stomach somersaults at Briar’s stream of words. A fluttery sensation drapes over her middle. She glances down, squinting as she gazes at the miniscule fibers of thread on the carpet. A sudden thump as Briar jumps off the couch startles Ashlynn back into the present. She looks up and immediately bursts into laughter as she watches Briar hopping around the room, waving her arms and shaking her torso. Her long, wavy brown locks fly around her head as she skips and bounces. Briar never was the best dancer. After doing a full circle around the living room, Briar bounds back over to her. She's breathing heavily, her face flushed. Her eyes are sparkling, though, as she reaches her arms out toward Ashlynn.
“Come on, Ash!” she exclaims, bouncing on her heels. “Dance with me, girl!”

Ashlynn glances around the room, unable to fight the grin spreading across her face. She giggles at Briar’s wide, expectant eyes, her bright, charming smile that never fails to draw Ashlynn in.
“Well,” she starts, standing and taking Briar’s hands, “with some music, I'm sure I can whip some of my moves out!”
She laughs as she watches Briar’s smile expand even more. A small red streak of lipstick is smeared across one of her front teeth. Ashlynn can almost see her dimples shine as she smiles. Ashlynn laughs as she picks in her Mirrorphone from the coffee table and selects one of her Pandora playlists. She smiles widely as “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons begins to play.
“Yeah!” Briar exclaims. “This is a great dance song!”

She starts doing her signature dance move again, which happens to be jumping up and down, often embellished with some arm flapping. Briar reaches her arms out.
“Come on, Ash!” she yells excitedly.
Ashlynn can't help the excitement that courses through her as she bounds over to Briar. She laughs as Briar grabs her hands. Briar jumps around, pulling Ashlynn with her. Ashlynn laughs harder, bouncing along with Briar. They spin in circles, gripping each other's hands tightly. Briar lets go with one hand and swings Ashlynn under her arm. Ashlynn giggles. They switch hands, and Ashlynn does the same to Briar. Briar laughs boisterously as they dance back to back, shaking their booties. Ashlynn shrieks as Briar lifts her up. She immediately bursts into laughter, though, as Briar spins in a circle, swinging Ashlynn through the air.
“Whoo!” Ashlynn cheers.

She laughs as Briar sets her down. Briar's arms are around her, and she begins swaying side to side. Ashlynn sighs contentedly, resting her cheek on Briar's shoulder.
“I guess we're slow dancing now,” Briar laughs.
Ashlynn laughs as Briar pulls her closer. She can faintly smell rose perfume along with the sweat on Briar's neck. Ashlynn registers that the song “Centuries” by Fallout Boy is playing now.
“Not a very good slow dance song,” Briar says, laughing softly.
“Yeah, not really,” Ashlynn agrees.
She closes her eyes as Briar continues to rock side to side. Ashlynn can feel the girl's heart beating. Strands of her hair tickle Ashlynn's face. Ashlynn doesn't mind, though. All these sensations add to the contentment that she feels, warm and fuzzy in her gut. Briar's arms hold her close, imbuing both strength and gentleness, a combination so perfectly Briar.

Ashlynn smiles against the fabric of Briar's shirt, more at peace than she has been in weeks. The thought of Dexter, eight years of his life washed away, has been a constant ache in her heart over the past two days, but now in Briar's arms, it has almost slipped her mind. Almost. But as she can feel Briar slumping slightly, leaning more heavily against her, reality flashes back into focus. Briar is drunk. Ashlynn needs to get her to bed. She sighs.

“Briar,” she says softly.
She gently kisses the girl's neck before slowly pulling away. She grasps Briar's arms. Briar looks at her, blinking sleepily.
“Let's get ready for bed,” Ashlynn says gently.
Briar nods.
“Yeah,” she mumbles. “Tired.”
She yawns widely.
“I know,” Ashlynn murmurs, gently stroking the girl's cheek.
She draws her hand away.
“Come on,” she says, her voice soft.
She wraps her arm around Briar's shoulders and slowly leads her toward the bedroom. Briar stumbles, leaning heavily against Ashlynn.

She flops down on the bed when they enter, groaning.
“Don't go to sleep,” Ashlynn says. “You still need to get your jammies on.”
“But I don't have my jammies with me,” Briar whines.
Ashlynn stifles a laugh against her hand. Briar is too much sometimes.
“Well, it's definitely not the first time you've borrowed some of mine,” says Ashlynn.
She retrieves two pairs of flannel pajamas from her dresser.
“Come on, Briar,” she says, walking over to the bed and grabbing the girl's hands. “Get up.”
Briar groans dramatically as Ashlynn pulls her up. Ashlynn hands her the pajamas.

They both change. Briar immediately lies back down afterward. She slips under the blankets and rests her head on a pillow. Ashlynn picks Briar's clothes up from the bed and deposits them in the laundry hamper, along with hers. She goes into the adjoining bathroom and begins her nightly routine, brushing and flossing her teeth, washing her face, and brushing her hair.

She turns the lights off before climbing into bed beside Briar. Briar mumbles sleepily. Ashlynn gently smiles as she slips under the covers and lies down. She closes her eyes, taking slow, deep breaths. Briar murmurs indistinguishable words again before scooting closer to Ashlynn.
“Ash,” she mumbles as she wraps her arms around her from behind.

Ashlynn sighs contentedly as Briar nuzzles her face against her neck. Ashlynn really does need to be the little spoon right now. Somehow, Briar always seems to give Ashlynn what she needs without even knowing it. Ashlynn smiles as the heat emanating from Briar's body settles over her. The security of being in Briar's arms, along with the girl's breath, warm against the back of her neck, and her soft snoring, quickly lull Ashlynn to sleep.

 

Ashlynn wakes up to a rather unpleasant sound. She has always been a light sleeper (unlike Briar) and ever since having Willow and adjusting to caretaking of a needy infant, she's become even more aware of the sounds around her as she sleeps. She cringes as the sound of retching from the bathroom reaches her ears. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she slips out of bed and makes her way over to the bathroom.
“Oh, baby,” she instinctively cooes as she sees Briar, attempting to hold her own hair back as she throws up into the toilet.
She crouches down next to Briar.
“Here,” she murmurs. “Let me help you.”
She gently pulls Briar's hair back and quickly arranges the tangled tresses into a bun at the nape of her neck.
“There we go,” she cooes. “It's okay. Just let it all out. You're going to feel better in just a minute.”

She dutifully rubs Briar's back as she continues to purge the alcohol from her system. Briar groans between each heave. It's going on forever. Her stomach is growing increasingly sore from its constant contorting.
“It's okay,” Ashlynn murmurs as she lets out an especially loud groan. “You’re almost finished.”
Briar squeezes her eyes shut, trying to narrow her focus onto Ashlynn's cool hand caressing her back, her voice, warm and soothing as always. Finally, her stomach decides to cease its constant heaving and settles. She groans, wincing as her gut aches, overworked from the contortion of its muscles.
“You good?” Ashlynn gently asks, still stroking her back.
Briar slowly nods. Her ears ring as she watches Ashlynn pull toilet paper from the roll.
“Here,” the girl murmurs. “Let's wipe your mouth.”

She flushes the toilet before gently wiping Briar's mouth and helping her blow her nose.
“Okay,” Ashlynn says, her voice still soft as ever. “I'm going to go get you a cup of water and a cool washcloth.”
Briar nods, her throat too sore to speak. Ashlynn leaves the room. Briar groans, wincing at the sharp bursts of pain in her head. God, she hates being hungover. She sighs, pulling a few stray locks of hair out of her face and tucking them behind her ear. She smiles slightly as she looks at the box of toys next to the bath, filled with various colored rubber duckies, little measuring cups, colorful plastic letters that stick to the wall, little rubber sea creatures, and two plastic mermaid dolls. Stickers of various sea creatures, such as dolphins, whales, starfish, and sharks are pasted to the wall. Ashlynn sure knows how to make bath time a fun experience for Willow.

Briar rubs her thumb in circles across her temple, trying not to groan again. Her heartbeat pounds against her skull. The pain is so intense, she can barely keep her eyes open. She lets out a shaky breath as Ashlynn enters the bathroom with a cup of water. Ashlynn gently smiles at her as she hands her the cup.
“Thank you,” Briar croaks.
“You're welcome, sweetie,” Ashlynn says softly as she goes over to the sink and gets a washcloth.
Briar takes a sip, rinses her mouth, and spits into the toilet. She repeats this until the disgusting taste in her mouth recedes. Ashlynn crouches beside her.
“There we go,” she murmurs as she gently wipes Briar's face with a cool, wet washcloth.
Briar breathes a sigh of relief.
“Does that feel better, love?” Ashlynn gently asks as she draws the washcloth away and places it on the counter.
“Yes,” Briar breathes. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” Ashlynn replies, smiling.

Briar suddenly groans as a particularly strong wave of stabbing pain bursts through her head. She puts her hand on her forehead, wincing.
“Oh, baby,” Ashlynn murmurs.
Her brows crease with concern.
“Migraine?” she asks, even though she already knows the answer.
“Yeah,” Briar grunts before another burst of pain causes her to groan again.
“Oh, my poor sweet baby girl,” Ashlynn cooes.
Briar almost smiles at Ashlynn's affectionate pet name. Almost. Her head is throbbing too painfully for her to do much more than grimace, though.
“Here, let's get you to bed, and then I'll get you some Tylonel,” Ashlynn says softly. “You have to eat something first to take Motrin, but I don't think you can hold anything other than water down right now.”
“Yeah,” Briar whispers.
“Okay,” Ashlynn murmurs. “Let's get you up.”

Briar is able to stand up with Ashlynn's help and leans into her as they slowly make their way toward the bed. Briar climbs in, settling against propped up pillows.
“Okay, baby, I'll be right back,” Ashlynn says gently.
As soon as Ashlynn leaves the room, Briar buries her face in her hands. Her head hurts like a bitch. She takes deep breaths, forbidding the tears from entering her eyes. Crying will only make the pain worse. Plus, it would be stupid to cry over a headache. Briar can be extra emotional, though, when she's hungover. She slowly lifts her head as she hears Ashlynn enter the room. She squints, her vision blurry. Ashlynn hands her a glass of water, along with three pills.
“Thank you,” Briar says, trying to not sound too weak.
“Of course, love,” Ashlynn says, settling next to her.

Briar closes her eyes as she slowly sips the water and swallows the pills one by one. She then sets the glass on the nightstand. She softly cries out as a wave of stabbing pain, more intense than any of the others, radiates throughout her head.
“Shit,” she says, screwing her eyes shut. “Fuck.”
“Oh, baby,” Ashlynn murmurs. “I'm so sorry.”
Briar's muscles relax slightly as Ashlynn begins to gently rub her back. She opens her eyes a bit and discreetly wipes away a tear that managed to escape.
“It's okay, love,” Ashlynn says, her voice angelically clear and soft.
Briar gently sighs as Ashlynn presses a soft kiss to her forehead.
“Here,” Ashlynn murmurs. “Why don't you lie your head in my lap?”
Briar doesn't hesitate, relief immediately washing over her at the suggestion.

She slowly lowers herself down on her side and rests her head in Ashlynn's lap. Ashlynn drapes a blanket over her and eases a pillow under the girl's head. Briar pleasurably sighs.
“The pain is mostly in your forehead, right?” Ashlynn asks quietly.
“Mmm hmm.”
The pain is a dull throbbing now, still painful but more manageable. She doesn't feel the urge to cry anymore now at least.
“I can gently massage the area,” Ashlynn says. “Does that sound good, or is it too painful to be touched?”
“That sounds divine,” Briar breathes.
Ashlynn lightly chuckles.
“Alright then.”

She carefully rests her warm hands on Briar's forehead and gently starts to rub her fingers across her temples. Briar fuzzily thinks that Ashlynn must be psychic because she is massaging right where it hurts the most. She lets out yet another pleasured sigh as Ashlynn's soft fingers massage her forehead. Within a couple minutes, the pain has significantly dimmed. The soft, fluttering sensation of sleep is slowly draping over her, and she willingly gives into the pull. Her last thought before she drifts off is how grateful she is to have a BFFA like Ashlynn.