"All right, everyone is here and accounted for," Apple sighed in relief, checking the last of Book End's civilians off her list. "Ginger, how is getting everyone fed coming along?"
"Looking good," Ginger managed a smile, passing off another hefty cauldron of stew to one of the many people who'd volunteered to help distribute. "700 meals made, and counting. We should be able to start distributing desserts, soon."
"You're spelltacular, Ginger," Apple smiled back. Then, as she turned her eyes towards the entryway, "Hunter! Cerise! You're both back!"
"Hunter?" Ashlynn visibly brightened at that mention. She hurried up to him. "Thank goodness everyone's all right! I was so worried when King Charming brought back all the villagers, and you weren't there..."
"I'm all right, though I definitely got more of a workout than I was expecting today," Hunter rubbed a sore muscle. He winced when his hand came away with mud stuck to it, "And I definitely need a bath."
"We split up from Daring and Darling to take care of the suburbs around Book End before the problem spread," Cerise explained. "They should be back soon... Daring tapped in and said they were canvassing the town again to make sure nobody was left behind."
"They wouldn't let each other get hurt," Apple answered, unsure of who she was reassuring. "I'm... I'm sure they're all right."
"Can I get a few words from you guys?" Blondie popped in, carrying her microphone. Humphrey Dumpty, to the surprise of all, seemed to have substituted Dexter as her cameraman temporarily.
Cerise and Hunter looked at each other for a moment.
"I don't mind it, as long as Hunter doesn't care about going on screen with mud in his hair," Cerise snickered.
"I make it look ruggedly handsome," Hunter grinned, his girlfriend offering her enthusiastic agreement. "Besides... I'm not the one with soot all over my cloak."
"All right Blondie, we're on," Cerise nodded.
"All right, Humphrey, hit record," Blondie sprung enthusiastically into her reporter mode. "Blondie Lockes here from Ever After High, where the citizens of Book End are taking refuge in these difficult times. With me now are Cerise Hood and Hunter Huntsman, two of the heroes who helped evacuate the town. Cerise, what do you have to say to our viewers?"
"Book End and its neighboring villages are hextremely unstable right now. If you're not in an emergency shelter yet, get to one now," Cerise answered. "We're only lucky that we managed to get everyone in Book End out safely."
"How about you, Hunter?" Blondie turned the microphone to him.
"Wherever you are, I think it's important to spend time with your loved ones as much as you can," he squeezed Ashlynn's hand and met her eyes for a moment. "Other than that, just stay safe. Don't forget that your animal friends instinctively know when there's danger afoot; it may be wise to follow their leads."
"You've heard the situation as we have it," Blondie nodded, and the returning heroes departed to (predictably) get clean. "Princess Regent Apple White... do you have anything to say on this matter?"
"This is a very, very unfortunate situation, and I'm deeply worried about all my subjects," Apple wore a grave expression. "The students and faculty of Ever After High are attempting to find a solution, and it is my understanding that Headmaster Grimm is in MirrorChat meetings with a number of other academics. We are all working with one goal in mind: to save our world from crumbling as it does outside, and to ensure your safety. Many emergency shelters have magical wards to delay this universal decay, and I can't stress it enough... hasten to an emergency shelter as soon as you can. Without question, the doors of my own castle will be open to you, though I myself must remain at school."
"Thank you for your statement, Princess Regent Apple," Blondie explained as segway. She pulled from her skirt an enormous list of locations and prepared to report them all. "Snow White's Castle and Ever After High are only two of many designated emergency shelters..."
Apple smiled slightly in her direction, and began to return to work.
She was in the midst of passing out blankets and pillows to all of the Book End villagers gathered in the main hallway when Daring and Darling at last made their appearances. Pebbles and twigs were knotted in Daring's fur, clattering in a pile of debris at the door as he slowly, slowly began to will himself back into his more Charming form. His sister's dragon-riding armor was irreparably scuffed, and the ends of her long hair were muddy, but none of that mattered as Apple passed her remaining blankets to another volunteer and rushed to embrace her.
Darling flushed, but readily hugged back, "Apple!"
"You're late," Apple explained, and hoped that Darling understood the I was worried she'd meant to say.
"We, um," Darling cringed a little. "We ran into dad in Book End. He had a couple of things to say."
Apple's eyes ran over the two siblings, Daring still quite desperately trying to will his paws back into fingers. She winced, "Is he still...?"
"Dad's the same as he ever was," Darling sighed.
"Maybe I shouldn't have told him where Dexter was," Apple bit the corner of her lip. "Actually, I think your mom is somewhere around here, too."
"Mom's here?" Daring yelped, his claws abruptly morphing into hands. "Maybe I misheard you, but I thought you said that mom and dad are here. At school. Both of them, at the same time."
"That's right," Apple nodded, looking perplexed. "They're both here. I think they went to find Dexter?"
"Oh no," Darling groaned, reluctantly releasing Apple from their hug. "I hate to show and run, but we have to rescue Dexter before it's too late."
"Rescue?" Apple loosed her hold, still completely confused.
Daring shivered. "You don't want to know. Where are they?"
"The last time I saw him, he was going to the Tech Club room," Apple replied.
Daring lumbered away immediately with a shout of, "Hang on, little bro! I'm coming!"
"Thank you," Darling smiled faintly in Apple's direction, but when she turned away and made a run for it, her expression was grim.
Apple pursed her lips for a moment, and sighed to herself, "I'm sure it'll go well... it's not like it's parent-teacher conference day."
The two siblings hurried down the hall into the Tech Club room, visibly flinching as they could hear the low murmur of a scolding from outside the door. Though their parents were not given to yelling, preferring more genteel disapproval, but to corner Dexter like this by himself, they were certain their brother was getting the scolding of his life.
Darling nudged Daring with a pointed glare, one that clearly said you're the family favorite, you go in first. Daring quailed, but where he may have before replied with something like our parents criticize damsels more politely, he instead sighed and pushed open the door.
"I cannot believe you would let your sister out into the horrid, horrid fray of Book End," Queen Charming seemed to sway, as if set to faint. "Did we not tell you to protect her?"
Dexter flinched, but didn't say anything. He stared resolutely at a point on the floor.
"At least I saw Daring out there-- however unfortunate his beastly condition might be," King Charming tutted. "It is least Charming of you to hide behind stone walls and let a maiden fight in your place! You are beginning to make me think I raised a coward."
"Mom, dad," Daring announced as loudly as he could. "Darling and I were just looking for you!"
"Oh, there you are, Daring-- I admit, when your father said you had turned into a beast, I feared for the worst," Queen Charming, most relieved, nearly wilted into a chair. "Please, do talk some sense into your brother!"
"Mother, you must believe me... Dexter is far from craven," Daring insisted. "It is true, he has never quite managed to be so dashing, quickfooted, or muscular as I... but in all the time I've known my brother, and in all the time we've been in school, he has never even once backed down from a challenge!"
"Daring," Dexter looked up at him, seeming more confident already. "That's really what you think about me??"
"It takes a brave man to try and keep pace with my own ability," Daring replied with a wink. "And I'm sure dad agrees that mission control is one of the most challenging jobs in heroics."
Dexter smiled back slightly, and cleverly added, "Who was mission control for your taskforce today, dad? Uncle Lance? Cousin Gallant? Grandfather?"
"... your Uncle Lance," King Charming scowled, nonplussed at having his argument challenged. "Be that as it may, you still permitted your sister to leave school grounds and enter an emergency situation unguarded."
"I don't need to be coddled, dad," Darling huffed, nudging past the doorway. "And you know what? I'm just as well-trained for heroics as Daring and Dexter are!"
"Darling!" their mother shrieked, going ghastly pale and nearly fainting. "What... what in the name of Ever After are you wearing?"
"Armor," Darling answered bluntly. More courteously, "My humble apologies if my appearance offends your senses, milady, but I haven't had the time to buff and polish it since I came back from Book End."
"Oh, Darling... this is absolutely dreadful," Queen Charming removed her hand-fan and began to fan herself. "My daughter... wearing dented armor... oh, my. Daring, be a dear and shut the door."
Daring shrugged and shut the door. "Mother... as much as it pains me to look less than perfect-- and as much as it pains Darling, I'm sure-- it was an emergency situation."
"No emergency situation calls for compromising yourself with claws and fangs," King Charming leveled a look at his son. "I am abhorred that you would be so weak as to relinquish control to the curse within you!"
"I did not relinquish control to the curse," Daring straightened his back. "I called on the power of my beast form on purpose, dad. And, as you can see, I am back to my regular, handsome, good-looking self now."
"And what if you had been unable to change back? What if the beast had taken over the prince you truly are?" King Charming exploded. He seemed to visibly deflate at that, "What if I lost my son to the feral nature of the beast? What if my daughter had died?"
Queen Charming took a deep sniff, determined not to let her make-up run with tears. "Your father and I had a long, long talk about it, Darling, and we agreed it would be all right if you were determined to undertake the finer points of a hero's destiny to suit your story... poetry from beneath balconies, perhaps, or dragon games, or gentlemen's fencing for sport. But your life was in danger out there-- and every dent and scratch on that armor of yours just reminds me of another way we could have lost you."
Darling softened, "You were worried about us."
"Of course we were," King Charming threw his hands up in the air. "We're your parents! And though we may not agree with how severely your destinies differ from what we'd hoped, your eventual success has ever been utmost in our minds. We can only hope your reputations are relatively untarnished after the fiasco of the last year."
"Still... there was no reason for you to take it out on Dexter," Darling straightened her back. "I'm the one who all but made him send me."
"I should have known better than to listen," Dexter looked down at his lap, "But Daring was asking for reinforcements, and Darling's the best student in the entire Heroics 102 class, maybe even better than most of the heroes in my year! You should have seen the way she tore through the start-of-year obstacle course last week... I guess I was thinking more about strengths and weaknesses and logistics than my sister's safety. I'm sorry."
"Well," King Charming hesitated. "Strengths, weaknesses, logistics... making the most out of the people you've got on hand... that is the mark of a good mission control. I still don't approve of your sister having gone-- especially considering the scarcity of her heroic experience-- but your choice was not completely foolish."
Dexter's entire expression lit up at that most elusive compliment, however slight it may have been. "Thank you, sir!"
"Well," Queen Charming daubed at her eyes carefully, "Now that the matter is clear, you boys had better hurry on to dinner. Darling, you must simply change out of that dreadful outfit before anyone can see you in such undignified disarray! And my, is that mud in your hair?"
"Why, yes, I think that's mud... though maybe some of it is soot," Darling remarked conversationally, as if she'd been asked about a new hat.
"Well, that simply won't do," Queen Charming huffed, and stood from her perch. "You will hasten to a bath right this very minute, young lady, before your fairytale princess stumbles upon you less than utterly, completely Charming! It may be apropos for a gentleman coming from battle, but it is hardly a damsel's suited wear."
"I am a hero coming from battle," Darling sighed. "And I'm very sure that Princess Regent Apple has no complaints about my garb, or else she would have mentioned them when we met at the school entrance."
That was as sure a sign as any that they were about to engage in yet another one of their infamous mother-daughter arguments on what was or was not appropriate for a princess to wear. King Charming shook his head and set his foot down sternly: "You and Daring will both bathe before eating, and I shall have a bath as well. Heroics is not clean work. As for your garb, as long as it is clean and in better repair than what you are currently wearing, I am sure your mother will have no complaint."
"You have plenty of dinner-appropriate evening gowns," Queen Charming recommended. "And, I suppose, if you must... you likely have some sort of undented armor as well."
Darling had that look where she was suppressing an eyeroll. Dexter quirked an eyebrow at her. She raised one back, and then he understood that it was perhaps her intention to wear both-- evening gown and armor in one outfit. He sighed and shook his head; that was certainly getting to be Darling's favored style.
"I'll, um, just finish up here," Dexter lifted his welding tool and the board he'd been working on before his parents interrupted. "I told Raven I could have it done before midnight."
"Yes... speaking of your relationship to Raven Queen," King Charming narrowed his eyes.
"Well, dad, we'd better hurry to the bathrooms," Daring hurriedly intervened, smiling his you-owe-me smile in Dexter's direction. "I am certain the other heroes are done using them by now, and there will be time later to discuss Dexter's work in preventing catastrophe from befalling us all at a later time."
"Yes, well, don't be too late for dinner," King Charming harrumphed, and finally, finally, Dexter was left to his peace.
Thank goodness for siblings, he thought, and welded a line of thin wire between two nodes upon his board. He added another, much more delicate one made of the magical element doserium, and rubbed slightly at the edge of a sleepy eye. Before midnight, he assured himself, but could not deny that his all-nighter was catching up to him.
A quick rap upon the door, and Dexter, thinking his father had returned, merely shouted, "Come in!"
"Hey," Raven's head poked through the door. "Bad time?"
"Oh! R-Raven," he turned around, beginning to stand. "Sorry, I thought you were..."
"Yeah... I ran into your parents on the way down here," Raven smiled sheepishly. "They're, um, interesting."
"Well, they're my parents," Dexter chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. "If it's about the semifractal prism collector..."
"No, it's not that. I mean... I know you've never made one before, but you're the only one besides Humphrey Dumpty who knows tech well enough to do it," Raven stumbled. "And if the instructions on the MirrorNet are too hard..."
"No! No, they're definitely not," Dexter insisted. "I mean, I've made similar things before. I guess I'm just working slower than usual..."
"The all-nighter's catching up to me, too," Raven yawned a little. She smiled tiredly, though, and held up a couple of steaming coffee-cups. "Extra mocha. I asked for triple-shot espresso... I hope you don't mind."
"Where did you get that?" Dexter accepted one of the cups with reverence. "I mean, thank you-- that's exactly what I needed. But Hocus Latte's kind of..."
Raven winced, not particularly eager to think about the destruction of Book End. "Maddie's dad is here in EAH... he somehow managed to bring like half his shop with him. I think he recruited some of the Hocus Latte baristas into helping."
Dexter looked faintly apologetic. He took a deep draught of the beverage, "It's good."
Raven drank in her own mouthful, "It definitely is. It's just what I needed to keep me awake for another few hours... I still have to figure out the rest of the binding spell that I'm meant to be casting, and I can't find the pronunciation of some of these runes anywhere. Not even Madam Baba Yaga knows..."
Dexter fiddled a bit with his miniature welding tool. "That sounds tough... Madam Baba Yaga is one of the most powerful and experienced magic-users alive. I think, maybe, the only one who's more powerful than her... well. You know."
"My mom," agreed Raven gravely.
"You could ask her for help?" Dexter ventured.
"And give her another chance to break out of Mirror Prison? I don't think so," Raven frowned.
"Haha... I guess it was a pretty dumb suggestion," Dexter laughed nervously, feeling a little foolish.
"It wasn't a bad idea, it's just..." Raven hesitated. "Well, she's the self-professed most-evil Evil Queen. The second she sees the spell, she'll realize how important it is. She'll want to leverage her freedom for the information. And I can't give it to her in pieces and say it's homework, or I could get the wrong pronunciations for in-context usage..."
"I mean. Yeah, she probably would," Dexter took another thoughtful sip. "But... you know, you live in this world, and you're still her daughter. She can't want to let the world end while you're still in it... can she?"
"You're too good-hearted, Dex... I don't think you understand the way evil thinks," Raven sighed. "It's not about what she wants to do. It's about what she can get other people to give her while she's doing what she wants anyways. As long as she can maintain a certain level of mystery about whether her information is right or not... anyways, it's a complicated game, and I'm terrible at it."
"That just shows that you're good-hearted, too," Dexter assured her. "Maybe you'll find it in the library, instead."
"I hope I do," Raven yawned and finished off her coffee. "I'll get started on that again... good luck with the semifractal prism collector?"
"Yeah. Good luck in the library," Dexter smiled tiredly back.
He cracked his knuckles and set about welding once more-- and this time, his mantra was not before midnight, but for Raven. It was about to be a very, very long five hours ahead of him, he knew, but he was determined above all to see it through.