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"Euphie we've been over this and over this," Alina's voice is very... strained, "I can't do pigtails. They're not... you know, Queenly enough. I'm already shorter than the entire rest of my court, I don't need silly hairstyles making it even harder for people to take me seriously."

Eupheria pouts from behind the Princess-Promised as she sets her clever fingers to work on the elaborate braids Alina actually requested. For her part, Alina glares at her great grandmother's reflection while she watches her work. Not a word passes between them until:

"...It's not a vanity thing, ok? I just want my people to be able to look at me and see a Queen they can actually trust to keep them safe and happy! I don't think that's a lot to ask for, after everything I've put them through."

She turns her head to try and catch Eupheria's eye and find that little nod or flash of approval, but the Wicked Queen is nothing but pouts this afternoon. She swats Alina's neck and forces her head back around so that she can continue working. She's already woven three fishtail braids from left to center, and she's working on the fourth. There's still another layer of untouched hair flowing freely underneath, but it only adds to the impression that she's carrying her own lavender waterfall behind her back. Alina's breath catches, and her fresh glare melts into a heavy sigh.

"Fine, ok? Fine! You can try the pigtails for tomorrow's banquet. But just trying. Trying, I said! If I don't like it, we're... oh, forget it."

She smiles what may very well be her final princessly smile at the giddy squeak that erupts behind her. The rain taps gently on the glass while patches of sunshine spot through the room just as they must be outside. This really could not be a more perfect day: there's just enough rain to feel it kissing you, but not so much that it might make the guests uncomfortable as they take their seats. At this rate they wouldn't even need to use any magic to get a rainbow overhead. She reaches up to brush a finger over top her braids while Eupheria starts fitting her neck for the body-length scarf that ties the rest of her coronation dress together. Her elbow bumps the dressing table in front of her, and all she can manage is a startled squeak as the hand mirror balanced precariously on the corner topples over and shatters with a loud crash.

"Your Majesty I heard a noise what happened is everything ok let me fix it I'll get you a... oh no, your favorite mirror! Do you need me to fix it I'll just fix it real quick let me fix it everything is going to be perfect today I promise!"

"It's fine Free, I can handle it. Don't you need to be changing into your robes to conduct the ceremony? Just hand me my lights and I'll take care of it."

"Lina no! We have to keep them sealed in the royal box until the presentation of your crown!" Freesia purses her lips as she nervously adjusts her sashes and worries at the severe bun she's tied her hair up into, "It's tradition not to wield the Queenslight until after the coronation!"

"Don't worry," Alina laughs, "I'm not going to use Diamond. Besides, I still need the practice. Nobody is going to respect a queen who can't even use her own magic properly!"

Freesia stands there pursing and unpursing her lips, looking for all the world like she's trying to think of some obscure rule or tradition that would forbid Alina from doing any actual work today, but she comes up short. With a huffy sigh, she takes the brightly painted sandalwood box down from the shelf and gingerly unhitches the latch. Before she can even finish opening the lid, a sparkling turquoise light shoots out and hovers with obvious glee over Alina's left shoulder. Before she can get the box closed again, Coral sneaks out and bounces giddily on Alina's right. Freesia huffs and slams the box shut before the star of the show can zip out and ruin things any further while Alina giggles herself half to death with a most un-Royal manner.

Turquoise sparkles proudly as she reaches out and gingerly rolls her fingers through the air just over the fragments of the mirror. Piece by piece they're wrapped up in the glow, and then piece by piece they start to wobble. They roll over each other with soft chimes as the frame flips itself over and hovers suspended in the air. Shards of glass slide into place one after the other and the cracks seal as the puzzle fits itself back together again, unbreaking in a perfect reversal of the pattern it shattered in the first place. The mirror floats in place for a moment before Alina delicately snatches it out of the air and holds it up to her face, smiling her most dazzling smile at her flawless reflection.

CRACK!

A jagged line splits her smiling face in half. Another smaller one grows at an angle up from there. A small sliver of the mirror dangles from the board again for a single agonizing second before crashing back down to the ground and exploding into dust. Alina slumps into her chair. Her smile collapses into an enormous pout.

"I'm... I'm getting better, though! R-right?"
"Y-you know what... I think?"

Alina lets go of Rita for the first time since they rescued Ourania. Immediately, she stumbles face first into the pile of cold stars. Her entire body is trembling, but is it with cold? Or with fear? She waves off the hands that reach out to help her, and drags herself a little bit further forward. She's so close, now. She's finally almost...

"It'd be... wrong, to focus on Castle Thessia so much... while Illumina is still hurting. So we'll, or well... I mean I'll talk to Mom and Jess about... delaying repairs. So there's more to help with the kingdom. And we'll do... the wedding in Aurora's Garden. It'll be easy to set up a big pavilion there! And, and you can see the castle, and..."

She laughs when she sees Diana glowering at her. No, that's right. She's not finally almost anything. After this comes the next thing, and after that comes something even bigger and harder than that. It's her fault. Her fault Diana suffered so much, her fault Illumina suffered so much. And Feloria and Jedad and... this would take her the rest of her life. But for an end of her adventures, this was a pretty decent first step. Alina reaches up with a trembling hand and grasps the World Seed between her fingers.

"We'll have... m-mi-mirror cake and, nnngh! Ah, AAAH, it's s-so!"

It's the coldest thing she's ever touched. So cold it makes her fingers blister just touching it. She can feel the echoes of the ice that sat in her heart pulsing through her veins. It's like touching him. How could something so beautiful be filled with so much hate? With a final surge of strength, she plucks it free from the trunk of Argossa before her arm goes too numb to be of any use. Is she still going to be able to use this arm after all this? She reaches for her crown and sets the horrible diamond into the empty facets adorning the top. It's so large that it eats up three slots, but even so it fits remarkably well.

"Oh! L-let's get Eupheria to plan the reception! With... with supervision, obviously. But it would be good for her to have a, a project. And maybe then she won't feel so much like she's still the wicked queen. Maybe people won't think of her that way."

All around Alina, the winds are howling. Bursts of horrible magical energy are still pouring through the cracks of the great tree. The floor is cracking and crumbling beneath everyone's feet. Strangely, the only person in the whole room that's reaching for her is Azora Howl. The look on her face is completely unreadable. Certainly it's not sympathy. Is she trying to steal the Seed and all its power? Even now? Alina shuts her eyes and winces as a lance of boiling magic almost takes her hand off. Should've known. Even after everything that happened in the Labyrinth, this is still the same person who tried to steal Rita's magic from her. Who stole Adila's skin. She's cast more corrupting spells across Hyperborea than the entire Hecatia Academy has even had to undo before. Evil is...

"Let's invite the former Riders too, right Rita? I mean, they're as much a part of this as anybody. If it wasn't for... all this, maybe I wouldn't have figured out how to tell you how I feel. And... come to think of it, this is really all Azora's fault, isn't it? Just imagine if she hadn't seeded the Slaugh in Summerveil? We'd have never had our first kiss, that's for sure. Yeah, haha, you're right. There's really no other choice, is there? Hey, Azora! Would you please be my maid of honor?"

Alina giggles carelessly while the winds almost imperceptibly begin to die down around her. Does it feel warmer in here to anybody else? Sitting atop her crown, a single crack forms along the surface of the great gem.

JOURNAL ENTRY NUMBER ̴̟͈̂͌̈́͊̏͋̅̾̄̕9̸̢̱͖̅̃͒͊̚͝8̶̨̳̻̬͎̭̪͎̾͐̓7̵͓̘́̾̂

The math was... wrong? That doesn't make any sense; math is never wrong. I must have done the math wrong. Except that doesn't make any sense either. I'm me! Unless I'm secretly Me-Alternative and I just lack the critical memory components to realize that at present. Regardless! Project: Gwaihir has been a complete and utter waste of time. Re-recording the project notes below for posterity:

# Rinley is a [praise redacted]! It's so simple! For generation of data pertaining to the sun, there's no better starting point than eagles! Obvious. Obvious, I say! The only problem is... 'acquisition'.
# Acquisition completed. Turns out the local supermarket is still selling six-packs, even though eagles are definitively out of season. Perfect!
# Wait. How do I actually get the data from them? They are birds. Would take literal years to learn their dialect. Somehow moths?
# Nevermind, got it. Will be installing the USB ports later this evening
# Preliminary surgeries 5/6 complete. Birds are taking well to the new kill switches.
# Note for posterity: it is always easier to lead with installing an on/off switch in subjects when performing acts of nightmare surgery. save on anesthesia that way. also makes it easier to get all the wires in there without zapping yourself.
# Have begun considering designating a Primary Eagle for higher altitude observations by grafting wings/engines from a C-5 Galaxy to it. A Lockheed-Eagle. An Eagleed, if you will.
# The Eagleed has done a nose-dive directly into my washing machine. Devastation is beyond repair AN INTRIGUING CHALLENGE. What hath science wrought????
# IT IS COLD NOW AJFJFJSKAKJJSLLSODHFHGHAHSKNKJBPIIQHOHOBDF
# WASTE OF MY TIME I SWEAR TO
# NEVER
# AND I MEAN NEVER
# TAKE ADVICE FROM A RINLEY
# ever

****

Dulcinea grumpily trudges her way toward the door and unthinkingly grabs an umbrella as she passes through the door. A chorus of frightened squawks and screeches falls silent as she slams her thumb onto a button that looks like a garage door opener. Somewhere on the other side of Town, a garage door opens. Still elsewhere, the stars spin stories of such incredible beauty and softness that if you had the ears to understand them you would weep forever until you died from dehydration. Also, somewhere? Ms. Anderson's dog is barking.

She stomps down the stairs, not caring what her neighbors think, and kicks the door open with one angry boot. Her wool sweater, apart from being so black it looks like it's been charred rather than sourced from a local black sheep, is pleasantly and perfectly warm and cozy. Her miniskirt and fishnets are decidedly less so. The umbrella opens even as she's crossing the threshold and instantly her world is filled with the fierce sound of rain. She kicks a puddle, gingerly sticks the umbrella in the clip on her Whoops Wait One Minute Pole, and kicks the door back open to stomp her way back up the steps.

Forgot her bag. She checks to make sure it's got what she needs. Wand? Check. Calipers? Also check. Dust-Containing-Glass-Test-Tubes? Check, check, and check again. Unreasonably Tiny Vacuum? That's a big check. Spare notebook? You know it, baby. Last known printing of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicles? Don't... actually know what that is, but check? Ok, that's everything. Fist pump!

STOMP. STOMP. STOMP! KICK!!

Dulcinea daintily plucks her umbrella up again and starts dejectedly making her way down the street. Other setbacks notwithstanding, this is too good an opportunity to gather fresh data points for plotting. Unfortunately... everybody knows that rigor demands you start by gathering information about the worst-hit parts of a disaster first, and then you start checking into the one place that's mysteriously more ok than everywhere else to see if it has a property or circumstance you can replicate for widescale protection. Without a clear concept of why things are being targeted and what's actually happening to victims and victim-sites, even a notebook is scarce protection against the dangers of drawing biased conclusions.

So she's not going to the Archives today. Or to eat lunch at that posh new gastropub. Or anything else that might be fun or relaxing (but not too relaxing). No, she's going to see...

(shudder)

Shoukyo.

Unless maybe a convenient dinosaur shrine maiden would like to go rampaging about Town right now? She looks about hopefully.
Jessamine Cascade has never been the type of princess to hesitate when she's figured out where she's needed. Sometimes, there's things that only you can do, and when the time comes for them you can't waste a second on silly things like arguments or volunteering. She hit him as hard as she knew how. It'd be ok to leave the rest to Lina and her friends. A princess is not a glory hound.

She's off and running like a bolt of lightning. She doesn't have her sister's swift and effortless gait, but there's a raw power to her form that's special in it's own right. No one ever beat her in a sprint. Her feet pound across the cracked tile, right up to the edge and the drop down Argossa. The naginata still burns brightly in her hands. She waves it above her as she runs, then tosses it high into the air.

"Taking your horse, ok?!" she calls out over her shoulder.

She doesn't even waste the time to mount up. That's the kind of a thing a real princess would take care of on the way down. She jumps and twists in the air, bringing up two fingers to her mouth to blow a sharp whistle that cuts across the battlefield. After that, there's just enough time to grin.

"I believe in you three! So don't screw this up, got that?"

And then she's gone.

***

This was, quite possibly, the most beautiful night in the history of ever. The stars were brighter than usual, and the air was refreshingly crisp and cool after so many weeks of that stuffy Jedadi heat. Plus, best of all? The way the horse bounced beneath her filled her head with thoughts of Helyaaaaaaaaa~

Oh! She couldn't wait to tell this story! Maybe Hellie would finally, finally, finally be so impressed she'd slip up and admit she couldn't have done this one on her own! Ooh, a breeze! And was that a comet just now? What a lucky night! What a perfect night! She tossed a gleeful smile at every hill and each bend in the road, at the river she could hear but not yet see, at the caravan laden with hard won prizes following along behind her. And, of course, to Eliza and Elisa Riparian, her most loyalest of loyal knights! Her most cleverest of clever bandits! Her trusty bodyguards and singing companions! In faaaaaact:

"And where the winding river runs
through every twist and bend~
I'll let it lead me safely home
back to the rainbows end!"

She turned and looked expectantly to Elisa (or was it Eliza? They might have been loyal, but that never stopped them from being identical), looking for the next verse of the song. But her knight only looked ahead with a curious expression on her face. Like she couldn't see her precious Princess at all!

"Your Highness, do you see that?" Oh, it was Eliza after all, "Have you ever seen a man look so sad before?"

In truth, she hadn't. The way he sat there like he'd been knocked straight into that hillside and become part of it. The way he barely seemed to move. The way his head hung low and his clothes were in such shoddy condition. All of it made her heart hurt. What could have happened to this poor old man? And who would do something so horrible to somebody who already seemed so helpless? She rode up to him in silence, all thought of singing forgotten. Then she hopped down to the ground with a handstand and a flourish, with a smile that told him to be at ease and a pose that told him to laugh. He did neither. She frowned.

"Hi there, friend! Are you alright?"

"..."

Alina tried smiling at him, but he only turned his head and clenched his fist. She was an awkward sort of pretty, the kind with legs that had outpaced the rest of her so that she was more than a little gangly despite her tiny stature, but even so everyone always told her they could see exactly what sort of beauty she was destined to become and she was not at all used to having no effect on people. Especially sad people. Even the King spent a surprising amount of time inventing excuses to check out Elsaria's butt while they ran the rooftops together!

It vexed her, truly. And if she'd known what the uneasy stirring inside her heart really was, maybe she would have hopped back on her horse then and there, and listened to the chiding of her knights the whole way home while being safe and free and happy. But a princess was always beautiful, and generous, and helpful, so instead of that she stretched her arms up to the sky (which stretched her shirt above her bellybutton) and yawned.

"You know what I think, girls?"

"Yes, Your Highness?" they said, already nodding and unpacking supplies.

"I think... yes, I think this fine gentleman has the right of it. This is a perfect place to set up camp for the night! I know you were both looking forward to seeing home before the dawn, but what do you say? Will you indulge me? Just this oooonnnne time?" and you could tell she'd been hanging out around Rita a lot recently, because her smile was so falsely innocent it would have made a kitten blush.

"This one time." said Eliza.
"And every time thereafter, Your Highness." said Elisa.

"Excellent!" Alina clapped her hands and sat down cross-legged right where she'd been standing, "I am sorry for intruding, friend, it's just that the cool air has such an effect on my constitution. If you mind our presence, you need only say so."

He made a sound like a grunt. She lit up like summer fireworks (which incidentally, she'd be missing soon if she didn't get back home!).

"Thank you for your generosity, kind sir. In exchange, please, let us share our bounty with you tonight. I'm afraid it's only travel fare, hardly fitting such a night, but it's warm and filling and sure to remind you of home. Unless you are Jedadi, sir, in which case maybe for your own sake I suggest you go without?"

Alina and her knights burst into fits of giggles as camp unpacked around them. The princess was, of course, quite useless, so she contented herself with telling jokes and singing silly songs about the lakes she swam in back home, and watching her honored guest for any signs that his heart was healing. Of course there were none, but she didn't let it trouble her. This old man was a tougher case than she thought, but she'd never met a person yet who didn't open up after a warm dinner on a beautiful night like this! Just look how bright the moon was!

And sure enough before she knew it, her knights were laying out lovely trays of baked fish still sitting in the fragrant leaves they'd been cooked in by the fire. Alina's mouth was watering, oh rivers, please excuse her! But as tempting as it was to dig in right then and there, a princess did not forget her manners. So she set down her fork and she pulled from her lights the most beautiful crystal decanter she owned, her favorite out of all the twenty-four she had for such occasions, and she swirled it about in the moonlight.

"Oh, of course! Guests first! Blessings be upon you, friend!" she tilted the decanter over his head, making sure to splash a little extra over his hair to account for how foul his mood seemed to be.

"Goodness, is this polite young woman really our princess?"
"Yes, you'd hardly suspect that she was really Elsaria the Dread!"

Once again the sound of girlish giggles filled the camp. This time, however, they were short lived. Alina and both of her knights startled to see the old man rise. Oh rivers, he was much taller than he seemed!

"Do..." he growled.

"Beg pardon, sir?"

"Not," Oberon Greymane swept his cloak aside and reached for his sword. It keened as it tasted the night air, "Mock me!"

She was so startled, she hadn't even considered what shape to twist her lights into. Red was halfway to a spear, and yellow one quarter of a shield when the saber came down and struck her! And... a-and, hahaha, w-wasn't it just the funniest thing? It felt like... it was almost as if, but that couldn't be true. She didn't understand. It was almost as if... it had actually pierced her?

Alina smiled as she looked down at herself, expecting maybe to see some new sort of funny joke. In fact she was halfway to laughing when it turned into a scream. Then her scream exploded, her scream, her scream! It exploded! It exploded and shattered just like the rest of her, because the only thing left in the world was pain!

The stars grew dim. The moon slipped behind blackened clouds. The air, her pleasantly cool kiss, got colder. And colder and colder and colder, passing winter. How it seared her! How it burned her! How it filled her! Her heart beat stupidly inside her chest, and with every beat her body felt deeper and deeper chills, so cold she stopped having words to describe it.

That's when things became truly horrible. No, then she had to watch Eliza and Elisa spring up to defend her, and she tried to scream out 'Don't!' but all the sound she had left in her was a whine and a hideous squeak that was not beautiful at all, but dark and selfish and fearful as anything. She watched them crumple as a pair to the ground on either side of her through tears that froze to burning frost on her cheeks. New agonies ripped through her insides, and how could this be, how could this be, how could this be allowed?

He sneered and snatched her half formed lights from her, and he... and he... a-a-a-a-a-and. He broke her. He broke her and shattered her and twisted her forever, because she was the rainbow and he said to her that she wasn't after all and that the rainbow was his now and he could think of a dozen better uses for these already, as he squeezed them in his palm and wore them to pin his cloak.

"P-please! I yield, pl-p-please!" she croaked, every syllable costing her her entire life, "T-take my treasures, they are yours! I-I'm the... the p-princess of Illumina! My Mo... Mommy will pay anything you want! Anything! Only please, please, don't hurt me anymore!"

Oberon wrenched the blade free of her chest and somehow its absence was worse than its presence. She curled inward on herself and was not pretty or brave or a beauty in the making in the least when she did nothing to stop him from wiping her own blood clean on her silks.

"You will go," he said with a voice a thousand times more terrible than his sword, "To your mother. You will tell her I am coming. Tell her the true King has come and you have dared disgrace him. Tell her you're a naughty little girl who's just cost her mother her pathetic little kingdom! Tell her!"

She had no idea how she did it, but Alina stood up. And she ran faster than she ever had in her life. She ran, and left her horses and her treasures and her precious knightly friends behind, because the only thing worse than the pain she felt inside her body was the wriggling, impossible terror that filled her up whenever she tried to look at his face.

She ran home to Mommy and she said everything she was told, and she did not fight to protect her home when she should have, but she ran again and was alone, was alone, was alone, she was a broken rainbow and alone...


***

She was supposed to be all done with the cold. The Caduceus had thawed her heart, hadn't it? Ourania had thawed her heart, hadn't she? She was healed and good and better now! But it was happening again, whiskers, rivers, no, it was happening again! She felt her heart freezing all over and she was a failure with no rainbow at all, and she was alone, alone, al--

"...na? Lina! LINA!"

Rita's screaming in her ear. Grasping her, licking her cheek, bonking her forehead against every part of her that she can reach, and squeezing her so tight. Alina gasps and blinks, and looks at disaster through her tears.

"I'm here, ok? I'm here. I'm here! Lina, it's me! I'm here!"

"Ri...ta?"

"Yes, yes, yes, Lina, oh Lina, come on, we have to do something or Ourania's gonna die!"

"Can't do... can't... save... c-can't..."

"Yes you can! Alina Cascade, don't you run from this!"

"But I... I let him win! I'm weak and I..."

"That's right, you let him win. Once upon a time, my love, you let this giant dirtbag win. Don't you think you've paid enough for it? You don't have to let him win again! It's different this time, don't you see? You're strong. You're brave and strong, my darling, and you've got me."

Alina turns her head. Her eyes are wide with wonder, and the biggest wonder of all is the way that her body feels warmer and warmer with every fresh detail of her perfect Rita that she takes in. But the time for kissing has come and gone, which is a shame because she could really use it again. She takes Rita's hand, instead. And with every ounce of energy, every tiny speck of courage she'd forgotten about inside of her, she nods.

There's no time to figure out a plan. She's wasted so much already. She's let him win so, so many times. She let him hurt her knights, and then her mother, then her people, and in Feloria she let him hurt Diana. But she didn't let him spread the Slaugh in Askaia. She didn't let him have the other Queens. She didn't let him have the Caduceus. She, she, she. Always, because she chose to be in his way, with her friends... they always made him lose.

There is no time, but she spares it anyway to turn and smile a quivering, unpretty little smile at Kazelia and Adila. She squeezes Rita's hand tighter than ever.

"D-don't worry about Ourania, yeah? I've got this. Just... make sure you handle the rest."

She swallows. This is it. This is it, this is it, this is it, this is... oh, she's already running. This is simpler than she'd thought. Her prancing water-deer stride carries her across the room with less than the pitter patter of raindrops on a windowsill, even quieter than Rita's soft padding beside her. Don't let him win, don't let him win, you don't have to let him win!

Her crown is empty, but it has tricks enough for this. There's a flash of golden light, and she curls her fingers around her elegant purple ribbon and the baton it's attached to. She lets go of Rita with a nod. From both sides, yes. There's another flash, and her frosted glass armor shines atop her bridesmaid's dress. This is the moment it's been saving itself for, all these years, and now...

Rita makes it first, and knees him in the stomach. Before he can retaliate she blurs into a haze and where his fist passes through the image of her face it finds nothing but the air and the laughter-like meows of a cat too far beneath it to care. He stomps, and though the floor shatters beneath him she's a girl again and above him, and Alina's there with her ribbon swirling beautifully and together with her heart she kicks him in the chest.

Even touching him is cold. She feels it running through her body, but she ignores it, lets her heart beat bravely on so that she can throw her entire weight into this one last thing. Her armor groans just to feel his touch, and when he lashes out and knocks her away it's like he's stolen all the air from inside of her. For a single second, she's suspended in time again. Maybe Adila can appreciate this moment for what it truly is.

Her armor cracks. And then it shatters. Alina Cascade goes careening off the edge of Argossa anyway, falling after the body of High Queen Ourania. There is time enough to scream, if somebody would like. Alina has no voice for it.

But Rita is standing defiantly at the edge. And wrapped around her wrist several times and clenched again in her shaking hand is a taut length of purple ribbon. And Rita? She's got lungs and breath and heart enough to scream for everybody there. She cries out, one third with fear, one third with effort, and a final third with love, and she pulls on that ribbon with everything she has. Did you know that cats were so very strong, after all? It takes agonizing seconds, but she pulls and...

There's an arm! A delicate, slender arm clinging desperately to the end of a baton! And after that a head of fluffy lavender hair, and after that the terrified green eyes of Alina Cascade! Up and up, further and further, her other arm straining like mad to stay clenched around Ourania's wrist. Rita pulls even as she scrambles closer, and then pulls some more when she can reach Alina's dress. It's impossible. But then again, perhaps it isn't.

Sobbing and shaking, Alina hugs the infected form of Ourania close against her. As if she were her own mother.

"It's ok, Your Majesty," she manages, even though it sounds like every word might be the last one she'll ever speak, "Don't worry. Don't worry. We're here."

[Rolling Finish with Grace (and Hope, thanks to her bonds and her friends being there for her): 3, 4, 5 = 11. Damage that stat, gosh darn it. She pays her armor as the price for attacking him again]
The world is moving in slow motion. Oberon tosses Jessamine like a ragdoll, and there's nobody there to catch her. Alina scrambles to her feet, feeling like the air is freezing around her as she goes. It's a solid thing with weight that she has to push through to make anything happen. Jessamine is flying so quickly, and she is so helpless. She screams, and she leaps. Her arms wrap around her youngest sister several feet above the ground and suddenly both of them are careening toward the ground together. She squeezes her eyes shut and tenses for impact.

But she's caught, too. Jessamine, Alina, and Rita collapse into a pile that still manages to skid across the ground for what feels like forever. And then... a horrible stillness settles over the trio. Alina's eyes are locked on Jessamine as she holds her, so afraid she can't even tremble. Jess' bright and beautiful eyes have gone all glassy, her normal fiery expression has fallen slack. And there's that stillness. Nothing moving when it's more important than ever that everything be.

Then she coughs, and time starts up again. All at once everybody bursts into tears. Jessamine sobs while she chokes for breath. Rita's soft sniffling mixes in with a deep and grateful purr as she squeezes herself between the pair of them. Alina pulls them both tight against her and watches Kazelia fight. Blazing as bright as Ourania normally does. Kazelia... even after everything, after the... she saved Jessamine's life.

It's a struggle to tear herself away from her family. But Alina's got a job to do; she can't waste the opening Kazelia is trusting her with. Trusting her! Her heart pounds with fresh determination, which is how she makes it all of a single step before an arm clamps itself across her ankle. She startles and turns, and finds Jessamine's miserable face staring straight at her.

"Where... do you think... you're going?"

"Let go, Jess! Let go! I have to get in there, I have to stop him! Kazelia's counting on me and I--!"

"Rrrraaagh!"

Suddenly she's on her back, with Jessamine pounced on top of her, arms tenser than steel holding her up off the floor by the straps of her dress. Jess' hot tears splash down on her face as she pulls one hand back to punch her big sister in the chest hard enough to drag a surprised 'oof' from her. She pounds her hand again and again, but each time it's shaking harder, landing softer.

"You dummy! Lina you stupid, selfish... you... I... I!"

"Look at her fighting, Jess! Look at Kazelia! She needs help, please! I'm the only one who can do it, so please let me go! I can't let her die! I can't let him kill her, so please!"

"STOP IT! Stop it, Lina, just... stop it! Do you think I'm stupid? Think I'm blind? Where'd your lights go, Lina? What did you do?!"

"I..!"

"You're always doing this! Why does it always have to be you, huh? Why don't you trust me? Why, why, why?"

"I do trust you Jesss, but I need--"

"You don't! You don't you don't you DON'T! You always leave me behind! Stop protecting me Lina, don't you get it? I have to fix this! I've gotta... if I don't help then I..."

"...Jess?"

"It's my fault, don't you understand? It's all my fault! I let him turn me into the Black Princess! I'm the reason Jedad almost collapsed! We got caught in Feloria because I was so weak! He hurt you so badly and I just... I just let it happen! I keep trying and trying and I can't do anything! I couldn't save Mom, or Free, or you, or... or... I have, I have to... if I can't! Why did I even come? Why am I so useless, Lina? How come I have to sit here and watch you die?"

It's too much for her to keep going. Jessamine cries like a child into her big sister's shoulders. But Alina doesn't have any of her usual soothing words or strokes of Jessamine's hair. She's too busy looking at her sister, maybe really looking for the first time. They're so similar and yet... how did she miss the shape of this beautiful girl? Look how sharp and hard her muscles are, not like Alina's utter softness at all. Look at how strong her shoulders are, look at those legs. Like iron. Or glass! She's worked so hard. Alina had been an idiot not to rely on her. Big sister, little sister... what did that part matter? Wasn't this what families were made for?

Her legs feel like jelly, but she stands up anyway. She pushes Jessamine away from her with all the strength she can find left in her exhausted body. And in the space that opens between them, she draws a naginata out of brilliant golden light. It pulses in the air between them, half again the size of Jessamine's normal favorite but so feather-light that even a child could swing it easily. Arcs of molten gold stream off of the edges of the blade, as if the magic of Gold was too potent to be contained in such a simple form. Alina grabs it by the pole and thrusts it into Jessamine's hands. She reaches up and brushes the tears off of her sister's cheeks with her thumbs.

"How about together, then?"

It's a moment that's been years in the making. Oberon, whose heart is cold and whose world is ice, has never stopped to notice all the fires he was stoking. Well they're all burning together now, and it's too late for him to do anything about it. Kazelia harries him from every side with her courageous spear dance. Jessamine turns her head one final time to see Alina smiling her while she leans on Rita. Her glass-sharp body tenses like a snake's.

And she leaps. Her form is flawless. After years of playing catch up, in this moment she surpasses her idol. Her beloved big sister could never land a blow like this. Her weapon curves as she swings it down, and a feral little grin spreads across her face when she sees that Oberon is too slow to block her. Her eyes are so much like her sister's, only they're made from fire.

It's the kind of hit that sends a person bouncing across the ground. The kind that leaves cracks in the floor from the sheer weight of impact. The arc of her swing carries her around in a great circle through the air as she spirals as gracefully as a dancer could ever hope to be. A Princess must always be beautiful. She lands as softly as a cat, hardly bobbling at all except to hop an extra three times to stop her momentum.

She turns and nods her head stiffly to Kazelia. 'Thank you', she says without the breath to say it out loud. 'Thank you for all of us.'

[Alina is adding a new Bond with Kazelia: "She was there for me when I needed her most. She's as much a part of my family as any of my sisters." Grace Finish: 2d6+2 = 10. Damage one of his Overlord stats, while Alina damages her Grace as the price for acting against a Threat.]
"What? No, I... what? What?? That's so st-- where do you even... what? Rinley, this is serious!"

This is all coming out as high-pitched yelling. Sorry about that. She doesn't mean it! She's not gonna say that, but it's true! This is just... kind of one of the worst days of her life, at least in recent memory. She really wanted to wear this turtleneck and feel cute today! She spit in the face of probability and had the audacity to hope for once!

And look where that got her! She's sweaty and sticky, Rinley! Her eye shadow is running so badly it looks like she's starting to cry tar! Her hair is... ugh. Ugh! It's so bad right now! She's going to need a shower! Do you have any idea how dangerous that sort of thing can be? What if she drowns? Oh jeez, she's probably going to drown and die and that's just going to ruin her entire weekend! And she just had a bunch of people staring at her! Which is awful, ok? A cafe owner just asked her if she was alright! A cafe owner, Rinley!!

"Listen, just... first of all, ok? The glass dragon story is obviously a metaphor for nuclear war. It's a reference to dragons being really hot, like atomic... no, the other way around, whatever. Like bombs, ok? And the classic slang term 'glassing' for dropping them. And nobody here has any nuclear armaments. I know because I've checked several times. So put that out of your... and I mean, even if there was a glass dragon, it would not be controlled by a glass remote. You'd need a scepter or a tiara, or... or... anyway! It's an inherently fragile design to begin with, so that's the kind of problem that solves itself. Cool? Cool, moving on.

Second of all! The sun is not going to 'stop being a sun'. And even if it did, there's... that's already taken care of, alright? There are, you know, contingencies for that sort of thing."

She brushes her fingers across her chest where her heart used to be without really meaning to. Her whole look goes super wistful for a second. Then she sneezes, which sounds like if a kitten got into a helium supply, and the whole thing passes.

"Third of all, you need to stop cutting to the front of the line on your conclusions. Haven't I told you a dozen times? Premature theses are dangerous! Possibly the most dangerous thing in the universe! All we know for sure right now is that today, uh... um... Th-Thursday? Is it Thursday? I'm sorry I was trying to get my calendar to work inside my phone and my calculator together. You know, like an app! But I used too much wolf and now it's kind of gone fer... you know what, you don't need the details. The point is, days of the week are hard right now.

Regardless! We know that on this day, the sun began exhibiting Overly Sun-Like Qualities, such as being too darn hot, and getting hotter after getting cooler for a period of 22.7 repeating minutes. There's simply not enough data to make such a strong concluding statement, all right? And that is why... we're going to take measurements! For GRAPHS!"

And the way her face lights up, she sincerely believes this is the most exciting thing that's going to happen to anybody today.
Euna catches the keys in a motion born entirely of skillwires. She stands there, holding them awkwardly and grinning from ear to ear as she watches Sara fiddle with the train on her dress. Luckily it was designed with fast assembly/disassembly in mind in case of... well not quite this, but yeah. This. Which, by the way, is still the happiest day of her life so far, don't make any mistake.

There's another round of gunfire from the Shogun's signature Three Line Formation, and Euna suddenly snaps to attention as if somebody had popped the bubble on her dream.

"Hey! HEY!" she shouts over the gunfire, hopping up and down and waving one fluttering sleeve like a flag, "The reception is not cancelled! Do you hear me! It's at 18:00 sharp at the Boulevard on the Pier! Do you hear me? I don't care how many fires there are to put out, you promised me a dance!"

She's in danger of ruining her own wedding if she carries on like this. With a deep breath, she turns and looks at Sara again. Her breath catches; her throat is suddenly dry. Oh wow. Oh holy... wow. She takes Sara's hands in each of hers, catching a set of keys to a Modular Assault Vehicle in between them. She tries to laugh, but it comes out a sniffle.

"I... had a set of vows written up for this, but maybe we should do the short version?"

She pauses for laughter. Get it under control, Euna. Three... two... one... there's a single melodious giggle from the audience. Euna turns her head briefly and nods. Ourania!!

"I just wanna, nnnf, fuck. Sorry, sorry for the... guh. Fuck. Fuck! I shouldn't be crying. You're not supposed to cry at your own wedding, right? Fuck! Listen, Sara, I... ggggh, aaaahhh, come on! Ok, I just, just... hoooo. Ok. I'm sorry. I really wanted this to be special. I wanted to be clever and funny and memorable, so when you thought of... ne-never mind. There's so many nights I, snnnnff! I still lie there in bed wondering what the hell I did to deserve you. All the second chances and the take backs and the time to figure things out. For someone like me, it's... I don't really, you know, have a lot to offer in exchange. I can't give you all the things that you deserve. B-but I... gggghhhaaaa, come on!

I, I promise, ok? I'm always gonna be there, watching over you. If you can't walk, I'll be the one who carries you. If you're falling, I'll catch you. If you're... if you're drifting out there, alone, I wanna be the one standing there, reaching out for your hand. A, always. I love you. I love you so much. So if you'll... if I'm still good enough, then be mine. And make me yours. And... wow, god, I want to kiss you so badly right now."

The tears stream down her cheeks, carrying no makeup with them. She thought of this, too. Euna's lips are quivering in a smile, and she watches Sara, her beautiful wife, and waits for her reply. All around here there's lasers and flintlocks and fighting, and Euna Kim, Little Miss Mission First, has no eyes or ears for any of it. Her heart doesn't dare beat right now, in case it makes her miss anything important.
Glk! Hurp! Ooooorrrgff! Eh? Eep!

The following has been a small but representative sample of the responses of Dulcinea d'Avingon to being the center of attention. In the event of a real emergency, you would have heard a high pitched shriek, followed by an explanation and detailed directions to the nearest emergency shelter, hospital tent, or Anti-Giant-Snake Zone. Thank you for your continued patience and cooperation!

So yeah, this is bad. Not, like, Jetpack Dinosaur bad, but still pretty aggressively not good. It turns out that metaphorical spotlights don't do self styled heroines who prefer to work from the shadows any more favors than do literal ones. It's why anybody with half a brain works out a system of what the acceptable ordering options are before they even go there if there is even the slightest chance they might wind up there again, because you never want to be the person the staff recognize on sight. You don't want to be the one they tell stories about because you took ages figuring this out in person, and you absolutely do not want to be that girl who only ever orders the one thing because you will walk in one day and a pretty waitress will smile at you and say, "The usual?" as she hands you a platter of chicken strips, and just... eeeuuuueh. Shiver. Gah. No. NO.

"What? Sure. Yes. No? Don't make this weird." says Dulcinea seconds before draining her entire iced melted ice cream in an awkwardly long shot.

And that's when everything goes really south, because there's a Rinley staring right at her. She winces. Audibly.

See, Rinley is... not a friend. We don't get to have friends, right Dulcey? So no, that is not what Rinley is. Rinley is a... Valued Research Assistant. Which is to say she occasionally provides very illuminating data when she walks right into an experiment and breaks all of the fragile and expensive equipment. She is a curse that you can summon by saying, "Gosh, this is delicate work!" or any number or more Normal People phrases that imply it. She is the kind of girl that will invite herself along to your late night bar crawl, tell you she isn't hungry, and then eat all of your fries while you're going over your notes. She cheats at Go. Probably? I mean, she has to be. She definitely cheats at Mario Kart. Who intentionally drops to 7th place just to pick up a gold mushroom? Who even does that???

Also not that anybody asked, but Rinley is unfairly, dangerously, lethally cute. That's how she gets away with all the other stuff, and why she has to be kept on a very tight leash a safe distance away whenever possible. Otherwise, weird little daydreams start creeping into field research where suddenly she's parked her silly foxy head on your lap and looking straight up with begging eyes and a fully blepped tongue and it's just like? Rinley??? Stop that. That's not what people's imaginations are for, Rinley.

"Right. Well. I see my ride, so I'm just gonna... yup! As you were, people. Toodles!"

And then she's off and it doesn't matter if she's going Too Fast or not because frankly regional properties are a dubious science at best and also because it means she's leaving her Most Important Problem right now before it can hurt her. Always dance with the devil you know, right? That's how she's wound up with her arm around Rinley's shoulders all conspiratorial-like (the sleeve is very damp, she's so sorry), spinning her right back around and leading her away from the cafe, deeper into the streets, and down an alley.

"Just the person I was looking for! Tell me, my dear, uh..." she snaps and (badly) pretends to fumble for the name, "...girl! When would you say you noticed that the sun was broken? And what are you prepared to do to fix it?"
Do you see?

Alina is crying again. Darn it all, she's crying again. And she's laughing too, through her gag and everything. What else is she supposed to do, when her heart is overflowing like this? She twists on the spot, all sniffley chokey sobby happy relieved, just enough to be facing Rita as she hurls through the air toward her. The yowls of a cat become her name. Her tiny kitten body shines with light that's never needed to sit on a crown as she grows larger and larger and gets closer and closer. You need arms for proper hugging, after all. All the power of cat and girl collides with Alina Cascade and bowls her clean over, jerking the leash out of Cassian Fleet's surprised hand as the pair of them go tumbling end over end across the floor.

Do you see?

The Gold of Queen Halcyon is riding a storm of magic. Everywhere it flits it whispers, "You are safe. I am here beside you, you are safe." With a crack like fresh thunder it raises up a glittering wall in the shape of a seven petaled flower that saves Dandy from a horrible black spear with wicked barbs that must surely steal the beauty from whatever they pierce forever. It scatters in a golden wave of freesia blossoms and sweeps up the sword that splits the skies to bury it harmlessly point down into the ground. It wraps around Jessamine just in time to melt the blade of the wonder knife that is called Yearning before it can carve her heart empty once again. She immediately follows up with a flip kick to Oberon's jaw that carries her somersaulting away from his retaliatory grasp.

Do you see?

Clever kitty claws have pulled Alina's gag free and cut the ropes and ribbons that bound her arms. The bouquet of ice flowers shatters into a hundred pieces beneath them. Where the light catches them, they glitter with a radiance unseen even in the likes of Hyperborea. There is such beauty in these fragments. Even wrapped in all this cold cruelty, there is so much beauty in everything that made it here across the endless Void and over the back of Ouroboros. Why should it not have a home here, if only it can learn to share of the endless bounty of this wonderful world instead of taking and taking and leaving none for those who came before. Every daughter has a home here. Every son, if they but learn to ask. Every weary traveler from across the starry skies may stay, and rest, and feast, and love here for all their days. Though perhaps...

Do you see?

Gold is making mockery of the treasury of Oberon Greymane, the supposed High King of Hyperborea. Everywhere it blazes it turns aside another stolen treasure from a lost and mournful world. And now when it does so, Gold twists itself into the shape of that whip, that bow, that sword, that staff, a perfect golden copy of the thing it crushes to the earth. Do not think yourself special, O King! You have no treasure so unique I cannot match it! And you, who prize the taking of things above all, will never wield any of your precious baubles with the kind of power that could match ME! How could you hope to? You have not put in the barest amount of practice or shown the meanest amount of love to any of your wonders compared with the effort my precious and beloved Alina has shared with hers. See where your path has led you? Even a silly tickle-fighter like her has the power to stand against you!

Do you see?

Alina has her arms wrapped tight around Rita. She is squeezing too hard for her girlfriend to be able to finish unchaining her ankles. Is now the time for this? With Garthim swarming all around her, she pulls her Rita tight against her until their chests kiss and their hearts beat against each other's. She rakes her hands across Rita's back, scratches up her neck, and runs them through her sweet smelling hair. She pulls her precious treasure's forehead close against her own and squeezes her eyes shut in mimicry of Rita's happy squint to block off her tears and let herself be filled in body and soul with the beautiful sound of purring.

Do you see?

Though doom draws closer all around them, their eyes are shut to all the world outside of this tight embrace. Alina's lips part and brush against Rita's with a kiss softer than the dawning sun. They linger there a moment longer, then press together once again. Alina steals a breath from Rita, and parts with a delirious giggle. Rita sobs and steals it right back. They kiss again. And again. With hands exploring ears or necks or the contours of a perfect, lovely jaw. They kiss in that way that anyone should be embarrassed to do in front of others, made heedless by their love. The space where lips separate is filled with silly, teasing licks, and then they dive deep again and drown inside each other.

Do you see?

They pull apart at last, and it's hard to say who is crying harder than the other. Alina's hands are shaking as she sets her empty crown atop her head. She needs it there. She can't free her treasures without it. Her fingers are trembling so much she can barely tie the promise band around Rita's wrist. She almost drops the ring. Twice. Where did all her grace get to when she needed it the most? She can't even get it on Rita's finger; she has to hand it to her and press her palm closed around it instead.

"MARRY ME!" her two words sing out through the whole of Argossa. No one here can miss them.

"I... Lina?"

"Marry me!" she says again, "I never want to be apart from you! I want to do the Summer and Winter! Or the, the Winter and Summer! Spring and... oh, who cares! I'll live in a closet for the rest of my life if it means I can be with you!"

Do you see? Are you watching, do you see?

Rita gasps. She mews where there ought to be words, and then she laughs where there should be tears, and... oh! Oh! She's nodding! That means yes! She's nodding her head and saying yes! And none of this is how either of them dreamed that it would be. Nor is this the right time for any of it. But none of that matters. Perfect or imperfect, right time or wrong one, this is the only way it could ever have happened. It has to be now, because there might never be a later. There are princesses to thwart him and a shining light sending him into an impossible rage, but Oberon is mighty and his Garthim are unstoppable, and all around. And even should he lose that might still be the end of everything, if the tree is too far gone, if the heart of Hyperborea goes quiet, if, if, if...

That's why, do you see? Now is the time for lovers to love. Now is the time to say the words that need to be said and not hold back at all. Because now is the only time there is.

"I love you!"
"I love you!"

"I'm yours!"
"I'm yours!"
She wants to frown. It's written all over her face; she's trying so hard to hang onto that righteous anger, or at least some kind of standoffish bereavement. This is, after all, supposed to be her moment. She planned this! She planned this and she planned this, and then after she was done planning she set down those plans and used them as a model so that she could plan. Her seating arrangements were specific. There were contingencies on top of contingencies on top of contingencies, damn it!

And now after all the planning! And the fighting! And getting the lights just where she wanted them! Sara! Is giving! Her stage! To (ppfffffft) Pasey! So yeah! She's mad! Or she's! Snnrrrk! Hahaha no stop that! She's really! Ahahahaha! Mad at! Heheheheeeee! Noooooooo!

She was not supposed to break into fits of full-on gigglesnorts before her vows. But no plan survives first contact with Sara Jiminez (Kim!). She doubles over in fits of hysterical laughter that bring her closer, and closer, and closer to Sara's face. Her cheeks are flush with laughter and then a moment later with girlish glee as their noses brush against each other. Euna stares dreamily right into Sara's dark and sexy eyes. Her fingers trace the contours of Sara's neck. Her lips gently part, and...

"Thanks for volunteering to help me back into my dress before the vows, honey. Oh, and for letting me pick dinner tomorrow! You know, they just opened up a soba bar by the Spire and I heard..."

Oh, Euna.
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