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Wrap me in patchwork
Colours on grey
Material mother
Waterless whale

Born into conflict
Something our species dictates

Stay with me in the dark hours
Cloak my frightened head
Side by side, standing tall
You and me
My beautiful friend

Heavily footed
Powerful grace
Paper thin eyelids
Trauma replayed

Stately procession
Fate to be toppled or saved

Stay with me in the dark hours
Cloak my frightened head
Side by side, standing tall
You and me
My beautiful friend

Mildred doesn’t know what love feels like, not really. She’s got vague ideas, theories that bounce around in her head, gut instincts. She has the details of fairy tales bored into her memories like the barely-discernible letters of the Grimm stories she would read when the moon was anything brighter than a crescent.

But if there are no princesses, no dragons, no evil witches or fairy godmothers, how does one prove their love?

She knows what vengeance feels like. She knows the satisfied feeling at securing safety. She knows the wet, cracking sounds that mean one less danger is abroad. Mildred can testify to the hollow feeling that comes when one knows a job has been completed.

But vengeance is not love, and fairytales do not exist, or she would be a princess and she would have a brave knight to rescue her from her dragons and make her a queen.

She ponders this as she sits by the window and stares into the night. It’s cold, these days, and yet she’d been too warm to stay in bed, her legs buzzing with the need to move. So she’d eased herself out from beneath the sheets, grateful that Gwendolyn had rolled away, and stolen her slippers to pad downstairs.

She can see her reflection in the glass panes— the deep black outside, stars barely glimmering beyond the distant street lights, is broken up by the pale cream nightdress she’s wearing. The silk does little to ward off the chill, so she tucks herself up close, knees to her chest, slippers left on the floor.

The house smells faintly of caramel, and Mildred swallows the ache in her chest.

Mildred thinks she can smell rain— perhaps her own tears, really— and spot clouds rolling in. She can’t quench the itch in her legs; it runs deeper than her bones, all the way into her very essence. Fear lives in her soul.

Fear has been her friend since she can remember, since before joy entered her vocabulary, before even betrayal became evident to her. And her old instinct to run is a hard one to break. Even if, now, she has a hand to ground her or tug along behind her.

Gwendolyn appears in the window, over her shoulder, rubbing at her eyes. Her feet are bare and Mildred thinks they must be cold. Her gray pajamas look so soft against her skin, and Mildred would like to reach out and touch, compare fabric to skin and see which is warmer, softer, more alive.

She doesn’t spot the blanket in Gwendolyn’s hands until it’s wrapped around her. “It’s freezing down here,” Gwendolyn murmurs, tucking it in around Mildred’s shoulders.

The blanket is soft, colorful, warm. When Mildred grasps at it the fabric slides between her fingers and rustles softly. It seems to breathe with her, and her legs stop itching to move. The wind stops echoing in her head.

“You’re up awfully early,” Gwendolyn murmurs, hand sliding from Mildred’s shoulder as she moves to sit in the armchair opposite Mildred’s. “Did something wake you?”

Mildred watches her sit, facing away from the window and towards her, and her eyes well up. She blinks against the sting, shakes her head, stares back out the window.

It’s going to rain, she thinks, and she can see her eyes now as the wetness in them reflects off the window.

“Mildred,” Gwendolyn breathes, and Mildred can see her sit up. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”

She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out. She swallows the emptiness down, feels it push against her ribcage, tangle her legs together until they feel twisted and broken.

But the blanket is warm, and Gwendolyn is patient, even if her face belies how terrified she is.

They sit in silence until the emptiness eases into Mildred’s bones. “Too many thoughts,” she says eventually. “My mind is— is out to War, and it’s left my body behind.”

Gwendolyn inhales sharply, but she doesn’t move, not at first. When Mildred can finally look over at her, Gwendolyn’s got a hand resting against her lips, fingers curved as if a fist is waiting to form.

But there’s no one to fight; Mildred is not a princess, and Gwendolyn is not her knight; there is no kingdom awaiting them but the morning dew and the smell of coffee and the warmth of flannel blankets on a cool morning. There are no dragons to face, none that remain, only the scars and ashes of their attacks.

“You don’t have to be alone,” Gwendolyn says eventually, still watching Mildred, hand coming back down to rest on the arm of her chair. “When you… go somewhere. You don’t have to be alone.”

Mildred blinks, and her cheeks cool rapidly with the wetness that spills forward. “But I don’t— I don’t know where I go,” she protests.

Gwendolyn smiles softly, raises herself from her chair and then kneels before Mildred. Mildred’s hand twitches, wants to reach out and touch her cheek or her shoulder or her jaw, but it’s trapped beneath the blanket and the warmth is too much to move. It’s all too much, the look in Gwendolyn’s eyes as she stares up at Mildred, the warmth of the blanket, the darkness outside, there’s rain coming.

“Then when you get lost,” Gwendolyn says. Her fingers rest on the arm of Mildred’s chair, and despite the sleep that hasn’t quite left her face, Mildred believes she’s being quite serious. “When you get lost, you don’t have to be alone.”

“I’ve always been alone,” Mildred protests weakly.

“I know,” Gwendolyn says, and her blue eyes are watery now, though Mildred can barely see the color over the overwhelming darkness that surrounds them. “But you’re not now. I’m here with you. You don’t have to be alone now.”

Mildred’s body curls in on itself before she knows what’s happening, and low wails vibrate her throat until her mouth is shaken open. She’s drowning.

And Gwendolyn is there, rises to meet her before the tide crashes over her head, pulls her head to rest against a calm, steady chest. Her fingers wrap around Mildred’s crown, arms draped over her shoulders to keep her close, lips pressed to the top of her head. Mildred shakes and trembles and rocks, and Gwendolyn cannot be moved, simply rocks with the to-and-fro of the ocean Mildred has become.

Mildred’s arms somehow escape her blanket and she’s clutching at Gwendolyn’s back, fisting and wrinkling the flannel as her tears soak through the front. Her forehead pushes against the spot where Gwendolyn’s ribs meet, burying her face in Gwendolyn’s stomach, and she shakes and wails, and Gwendolyn does not let go.

“I’m here with you. You’re here with me. You don’t have to be alone,” she whispers against Mildred’s hair, holds her close as the storm hits her.

Gwendolyn has no sword, no shield, no magic spells to defeat the dragons. She has no crown to bestow on Mildred’s head.

She has her hands, and her love, and her gentle words and gentler lips.

And Mildred is learning.