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Apple felt terrible as she stepped down from the podium, having wept her way through yet another taxing public address. She was grateful that Blondie had scheduled it for today instead of, perhaps, last night, but still-- though she had been obligated to deliver the tragic news of her mother's passing to the public, it had not made giving her speech any easier. More difficult still, the news that heroes had evacuated the hospital her mother had been taken to, but had not the time to spare for those who had already passed on. The very thought that a terrifying, gaping canyon would be her mother's final resting place... bile rose in her throat, and Apple struggled to swallow it.

The citizens of Book End sobbed openly, perhaps in part moved by Apple's own teary delivery, but more apt than not because Queen Snow White LXI, the 144th Queen of all Realms, had been truly been a beloved ruler. Apple had no idea if she would ever live up to her mother's legacy... or, indeed, if she would live long enough to see it fulfilled.

As she quietly stepped into the crowd, offering hugs and handkerchiefs to all that remained, the people of Book End began slowly filtering out of the auditorium, returning her condolences. 'Long live Queen Apple' was the blessing cast upon her, but Apple White felt far, far from a queen in that moment. Uncertainty plagued her every move, and she felt unprepared to be a queen, perhaps even not wholly prepared to be a princess, and she was a high school junior, barely past her sixteenth birthday, whose preparations up until that point still had not yet prepared her for this volatile situation. Apple tried, desperately tried, to think of what her mother would do in a situation like this.

She swallowed, hard, and answered with the traditional reply: "Legends keep Queen Snow White."

And so, when the last of them left the auditorium, Apple curled up in the eaves where she normally sat as a student in this auditorium. It seemed that mere days ago she had been here for Freshman Orientation Day, and now here she was-- Queen of all the Realms, looking back upon it. It did not feel as she'd thought it would, even a mere two years ago, back when she had thought everything was as simple as following her destiny and achieving a happily ever after for as many of her subjects as she could help-- not now, when the very integrity of their world had been compromised. Not now, when nothing's existence could even be secured anymore.

She tried desperately to compose herself well enough to return to the halls of the school-building. Her people needed her, and Apple could not abandon them for her own melancholy.

"Um," a quiet, soft voice appeared just off to her right.

Apple's head jolted up, panic striking her for a moment before she realized just who had found her. "Oh, Darling..."

"Hi," Darling slid into the seat beside her, garbed in her typical mishmash of armor and skirts.

Apple tried to smile back, if but shakily, "Hi... long time no see."

"I missed you yesterday evening at dinner," Darling replied, unfolding a small picnic basket. "I thought you might be hungry by now... did you want to eat breakfast with me?"

"Apple crumb cake?" The slightest of smiles played over her blood-red lips, her appetite at last tempted by her favorite sweet.

"I made it myself... or at least, I tried to," Darling pressed a plate into her hands. "I'm afraid I never really managed to learn how to bake, and Ginger was busy helping the castleteria ladies make breakfast for our guests. My mom helped a little, though, so it should be at least edible."

A soft smile, then, as Apple lifted her fork to her lips. She bit into a pocket of flour that had been trapped by a lump. Still, she replied, "It's perfect."

"That's very high praise," Darling chuckled. "You know, I won't be offended if you don't like it."

"No, it's perfect," Apple insisted, shaking her head and smiling. She sniffled a little, "It's... exactly what I needed."

"Apple..." Darling's fingers extended hesitantly, as if unsure if she wanted to touch her shoulder or hold her hand. Her palm, eventually, decided to cup Apple's cheek.

Apple's eyelashes seemed to flutter down to nearly her cheeks as she glanced up, dewy tears clinging to the darkness of her mascara-- waterproof, as if she had foreseen this. Her lips, red, softened gently as she leaned in.

A dainty hand found the crease where Darling's spaulders met the silk of her gown, shifting metal against soft embroidery. The armor pressed against Apple's skin, unyielding even as the gap between them closed, and they shared their second kiss in the eaves of that emptied auditorium, sweet and rent with the taste of crumb cake and caramel lipgloss.

They drew away slowly, then, chaste. Darling's breath lingered, warm, upon her skin.

"It's even better when I'm awake," Apple whispered, cracking the slightest of smiles, her lipstick faintly discolored from the contact.

Darling grinned, her lipgloss smeared and tinged red. "Definitely better."

"Oh! Sorry... you have a little..." Apple flushed, and rummaged through her purse for a handkerchief, withdrawing a clean, embroidered square.

"I guess I do," Darling reddened to match her new lip. "Actually, I ought to apologize... I might have, er..."

"It's okay," Apple hurriedly assured her. "A good royal is always prepared... I mean, I always carry an extra tube of lipstick, not that I was expecting..."

"Right," Darling nodded, accepting the handkerchief and gently daubing away her lipgloss. "I'll get this washed and return it to you later?"

"Thank you," Apple blushed, politely turning back to her cake-- which, if she was to be honest, probably would have discolored her lipstick, anyways. She had only ever mastered eating apples without slightly, just slightly, leaving faint lines of red on her eating utensils. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to join you for dinner last night..."

"If I must be honest... that's probably for the best," Darling sighed and picked faintly at her own slice of coffee cake. "Mom and dad are kind of crazy to deal with even one at a time... and both of them, together, in one place can be a little overwhelming. Do you know that they asked for the traditional thirty-piece place-setting? When we were only eating stew like everyone else who fled to Ever After High?"

Apple concealed a chuckle behind her sleeve, "That doesn't sound all that strange if you know King and Queen Charming."

"It was royally embarrassing," Darling confided. Then, hesitating a moment, "You... did remember to eat last night, right? Ginger said she hadn't seen you; she was worried that you forgot."

"In between all the emergency arrangements and speech-writing, I didn't really notice what time it was until almost midnight," Apple admitted. "But Maddie's dad... he was still up and baking, like he knew people were going to be researching into the night. He was kind enough to offer me something to eat."

Darling nodded sagely, "I don't think he ever sleeps... part of me wonders if it's the caffeine."

The corners of Apple's eyes creased in smiling. "That would explain a lot about that family... but even if we know nothing else for certain, Maddie and her dad have been willing to share what they have with others since forever after-- and that's one of the most wonderful things about Book End."

"You really love your citizens, don't you?" Darling's heart grew warm at the expression on her face.

"All of them," Apple professed. "And that's why, if there's no other choice to save them... I hope you understand, Darling. I hope you don't hate me for it."

"It won't come down to that," Darling's jaw set sternly. "We have so much headway complete with the new Storybook... and Dexter finished building that semifractal collector thing to gather up the magic of those stories. Even now, we've already sent students to begin acting out the stories theywrote. Don't talk like your destiny's been set in stone already... there's always hope."

Apple sighed, seeming almost as if she curled in on herself just a little. "It's just... just in case. I just don't want you to hate me for it, if that's what I have to choose..."

"I'd... want to hate it," and then, Darling's expression softened. "But I don't think I could bring myself to really hate you, no matter what choice you made. Just... please. Not until it's the only thing you can possibly do, the last idea that anyone can have."

"Okay," Apple's voice cracked, and the corners of her lips turned up weakly. "Not until the very last."

-----

Holly O'Hair clutched one of many, many notebooks to her chest, grinning down at the scene that played out before her.

"They don't know what they're missing," Sparrow Hood scowled, crossing his arms and (exaggeratedly) sitting down at the edge of a stage. "If they want to kick me out of my own band, then that's ALL RIGHT WITH SPARROW HOOD!"

He closed that line with an exceptionally strong guitar chord and an exaggerated sniffle.

Holly squinted up at the eaves and whispered, hushed, in Farrah's direction, "A little brighter, please!"

Farrah nodded in understanding and dialed back her sunset-glamour a couple hours. "How's this?"

Holly gave her a thumbs up in reply, and gestured to where Melody Piper had been waiting just off to the side where the rest of the drama played out.

"So," she said easily, sliding in. "I hear the Merry Men kicked out their lead singer."

Sparrow crossed his arms, "That's lead singer and guitarist to you."

Melody lifted an eyebrow. "With that attitude, I'm not surprised."

"I don't need them," he scoffed. "I'm the best musician out of all of them-- and they know it!"

"Best musician, maybe, but that doesn't matter," Melody shook her head. "Not when you're the worst friend. Don't forget why you started playing music to begin with."

"Uh, to show everyone that I'm awesome and get lots of chicks?" Sparrow gestured to his guitar.

Melody glanced at him dubiously, "The real reason."

"I don't know what you want me to say," he scowled. "I'm in it for the fans... nothing else."

"That's right, you're in it to make people move with your music," Melody asserted. "That's why the Merry Men followed you to begin with. That's why you even had fans, once upon a time. But you've lost your way, and instead of making people happy, you've become an attention-hogging diva. I'm no hexpert, but I know music-- and that's a major sour note."

"Whatever. I don't need the rest of the band, anyways," Sparrow threw his arms up. He played a riff, "MELODY RHYMES WITH SMELL-ODY!"

"Fine, then, if that's how you want to play it," Melody spun open her turntables. "Until you sing your true self's song, your voice-- and music-- will be gone!"

Holly gestured to Farrah, and with a note of finality, she drew in the illusion of striking thunder.

"I hope you learn your lesson," Melody turned on our heel, "For both of our sakes."

And then, she swept away.

"All right!" Dexter announced, lifting his semifractal prism collector, a tiny dial lighting up as it began to fill. "It works!"

"Talk about a huge relief," Farrah sighed, dismissing her illusions. Mid-morning light flickered through the window once more.

"Melody, Sparrow... and, of course the Merry Men," Holly beamed at them. "I'll see you guys back here for chapter two after lunch!"

Sparrow opened his mouth, but only a squeak emerged. He scowled and scribbled something on a notebook page: This fairytale SUCKS!

"You kind of owe it to us to be the first to go," Hunter elbowed him none-too gently, scowling. "Especially after you bailed on us for patrol duty yesterday."

Sparrow huffed and strummed his guitar furiously, but the strings, too, refused to make any noise.

"How many more chapters do you think we'll need?" Holly asked, leafing through the stories she'd successfully submitted.

"Um," Dexter squinted at the reading of light displayed. "Fifteen, maybe? Twenty? We just need enough storybook power for Raven to trigger the new spell, but I don't really have exact numbers on how much that is..."

"All right," Holly agreed, determined. "I can only hope Professor Grimm and Humphrey finish translating the rest of the chapters... Farrah, how are you holding up? Do you need a break?"

"I'm just getting warmed up," Farrah assured her. She wiggled and flexed her fingers, working out any possible cramps. "I'll need maybe a nap around noon, but I can do it."

That was the discussion that Raven Queen discovered when she appeared-- an hour late from the appointed time, as she'd texted in advance.

"Did everything turn out okay?" she questioned cautiously, peeking in. "I know the prism collector thing was from this super old book, but..."

"Oh! Um, hi, Raven," Dexter jolted, surprised. He held up the prism collector for a moment, before realizing and just holding it out to her, "It worked, just like the textbook said it would! The crystallized Lucinium should be able to hold the charge for weeks."

"That's great, Dex," Raven furrowed her brow for a moment as she accepted the handheld device, no larger than a MirrorPhone. She felt for the magical energy to confirm her suspicion."But... I was kind of, sort of expecting that a story would be able to generate just a little more than..."

"It's only been one chapter," Holly defended, seeming upset at the criticism.

"It doesn't have anything to do with the device or the story, or anything," Raven insisted. "It just... it's less than the amount we projected for an entire hour of story. And it won't be enough-- I can feel it."

"How many chapters do we need, then?" Farrah seemed alarmed. "Blondie had only approved twenty of them the last time we spoke..."

"I don't know," Raven admitted. "More than the amount we have, at least. Thirty, ish? Definitely not more than forty."

"But forty's twice the amount we even have!" Holly cried. "That's almost as many chapters as I've ever written!"

"Arguing about it won't fix anything," Dexter resolved. "I'll hext Maddie and Cupid about getting the writing and editing team together?"

"And I'll hext Blondie about seeing if there's anything in her not-quite-just-right pile that we can at least take one or two chapters out of," Raven agreed, tapping furiously. "Who's on next?"

"We're here!" declared Rosabella Beauty, ducking into the classroom with Duchess Swan in tow. "Sorry we're a little late..."

"I'm not acting out a story where I'm the antagonist, especially not with the girl whose destiny is to save beasts," Duchess scoffed. "I demand to change the story!"

"No, no, don't worry, you're not really an antagonist, even though it kind of looks that way in chapter one," Holly rushed to assure her. "In fact, by the time you get to chapter three, Rosabella frees you from the Curse of the Black Swan, and you get your own happily ever after! Lakeside castle and all."

"It's a little hard to have a lakeside castle when Mirror Lake is completely missing," Duchess sneered. She sighed, "Whatever. If it's a villain's song and dance you want, I'm not one to turn down audience requests."

"That's the spirit!" Rosabella gently patted her shoulder and bent down to lace up her newly-obtained ballet slippers.

"And lucky for you," Melody added, twirling another vinyl, "I happened to bring my classic-music mixes. Let DJ Piper keep things rolling for you... two hour ballet in three acts, coming right up."

The first act began with a truly tremulous performance, and Raven quietly sighed, relieved that Duchess had at last agreed to the matter. Finally, for the first time that morning, she let herself take a moment's repose.

"Is anyone sitting here?" she nudged Dexter slightly, gesturing to the chair beside him.

"No, it's, um, it's free," he smiled shakily. "You were... researching this morning?"

Raven shifted uncomfortably. She whispered back, "Sort of. I've got a final copy of the spell... and a final version of the back-up."

Quietly, so as not to disturb the ballet below, she slid the two scrolls in Dexter's direction. He did his best not to rumple the paper as he opened the pages, his eyebrows immediately rising upwards as he took in the newly adjusted runes on the left column, and their alphabetic pronunciation at right. It seemed, to his eye, something more like two weeks of mystery-rune research than one morning's worth, particularly since Raven seemed to have written entirely new spell-stanzas from scratch using the same runes.

He made brief, questioning eye-contact with her. She bit her lip and glanced down at her lap, and that was all the answer he needed.

"You took my suggestion from yesterday..." Dexter ventured. He hesitated a moment, then: "Do you... maybe want to talk about it?"

"There's nothing to say," Raven sighed. "Maybe I was... overthinking it. I wasn't... wrong to be suspicious of her, was I?"

"Definitely not!" Dexter hurried to assure, only quieted as a withering glance from Duchess silenced him. Much more quietly, "I mean... 'forgive and forget' is a lesson in a lot of fairytales, but it's kind of already been proven that it isn't the wisest thing to do all the time, you know?"

"Yeah," Raven wrapped her arms about herself. "If we learned anything from the Dragon Games... but I wasn't expecting her to give me all that information basically for free."

"It's not that strange for a parent to want to keep the world safe for their kids," Dexter thought briefly on his own parents' scolding the night prior. How their complaints had sprung only from a worry for their children.

"It isn't," Raven shuddered. "But I expected her to be evil in spite of that. It's kind of... scary."

"I don't really get it," Dexter admitted. "But if there's anything I can do to help...?"

"It's all right," Raven shook her head-- of course Dex didn't get it, having been raised with all the naivete the side of goodness had afforded him. Being naturally wary of evil while simultaneously capable of offering second-chances to everyone who wanted one... well, he'd been one of the first to believe Raven herself when she'd professed to wanting to be good.

How could she possibly explain her own reasoning for jumping directly into manipulations before even attempting something more honest? How could she explain that fear of becoming paranoid, especially to someone who had been raised to exalt innocence and trustworthiness instead? Raven knew as well as any that the Evil Queen of Snow White's story had merely been unkind until she grew defensive of being 'the fairest,' and paranoid that Snow White would steal that title from her-- a distinction that her mother had made very, very clear in her childhood homeschooling. There was a progression between 'vindictive' and 'inherently evil,' and how thoroughly 'distrustful' toed that line!

She resolved to herself not to get Dexter involved-- at least not yet, not until she had something more substantial than her own vague suspicions as basis. It was a foolish thing to worry about, anyways, and Raven was far from forgetting the slow doom that crept upon their realm even now.

Still, despite her best efforts to hide away that worry, Dexter offered her the tiniest of smiles, and semi-subtly set his hand atop the desk-space between them in an unspoken offer, just in case she needed it. Raven could not help but attempt a shaky smile back.

She softly set her hand atop his, keeping a careful eye on the prism collector and the ballet. Work, please work, she willed it, for within her heart, the stakes had just been raised.

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