AN: Hi everyone! It's been a while, hasn't it? Like, a LONG while. I thought I'd drop by with a chapter that's been sitting unfinished for a year at least, since so many of you have been kind enough to review and ask for an update. I can't promise that I'll ever finish this story, but I will promise to leave a new chapter whenever the mood strikes! Thanks again to all my faithful readers! I apologize for the shortness/lack of interesting occurences in this chapter. I'm posting a new chapter for "If Love Was Enough" shortly also, so hopefully that will make up for it. Enjoy!
"Ann, darling, you look lovely!" exclaims Felicity, exchanging a dainty embrace with our friend and dropping a fleeting kiss on her cheek. "How dreadfully long it's been!"
Ann smiles cheerfully, stepping away from the coach so the footman can close the door behind her, and exchanges a similar greeting with me.
"You can't possibly have missed me as much as I've missed you," she says, grinning conspiratorially up at Felicity's aunt's estate. "Good heavens, Fee, this place is simply palatial! It wouldn't happen to have any caves on its grounds, perchance?"
Felicity heaves an exaggerated sigh as we begin make our way up to her rooms. "Tragically, no. Although if we're crafty, we might manage to sneak off to the beach in the dead of night. Perform some run-of-the-mill satanic rituals and the like."
Ann starts to chuckle, but seems to think better of it and a sudden sadness pulls the sides of her mouth downwards. "Not me," she murmurs, her voice suddenly dull. "Lady Fenwick could never manage the baby on her own overnight, she would never allow me a vacation on such short notice. And sneaking away is pointless – as soon as the baby begins to cry, my absence will quickly be discovered."
"Don't you have friends on the staff?" I ask, trying to be helpful. "Can't someone cover for you, just for a few hours so we can have some time together?" I have been suddenly struck by the reality that just because we are near Ann, it does not mean she can be with us. I realize I had been depending on our reunification to set some sort of solution into motion, and it is now clear that things won't be nearly that simple.
"Gemma, the consequence is hardly worth such a risk. If I am caught, I will never work as a governess again; Lady Fenwick will make sure of it. I will be forced back into the employ of my cousins, who, judging by our last communication, will be positively gleeful at the opportunity to send me to debtor's prison."
"Oh, Ann," I murmur sadly, though I had anticipated her reply. I feel angry, at Ann or God or perhaps Fate, for turning all that gives me hope into dust.
"We will think of something," says Felicity, determined to play the optimist. "Come, let's not be so glum. We have the present, don't we? Ann doesn't have to report back until nine o'clock, so let's make use of the time we have."
Ann nods and we enter the rooms that have been alotted to Felicity and me for the duration of our stay. I am silent for a time, respecting Ann's turmoil. In many ways, her decision is more difficult than my own – to risk everything she has in the real world in order to devote herself to the interests of a mystical world where she will never have any real power, only that which is rationed out to her by me. Unlike Felicity, Ann does not operate on the premise that, once the fight is over, the magic will be rebound and she will receive power of her own. Ann aids me because it makes her part of something bigger, a place where she is somebody, a place where she is well-connected with its only wielder of power.
I should have seen that, now that we face a battle we have so little chance of winning, her attachment to our cause will waver. She will do what she can to help, but she will always make this choice. Protecting her life here will always matter more than protecting the Realms. Yet how can I blame her? Her destiny is not tied to Realms as mine is. I should set her free, not resent her because I was never given that choice.
I reenter the conversation as Felicity is saying, "Oh, but Ann, we need you, truly we do."
"No," I say softly, wondering if I'm doing the right thing. Wondering if unbinding Ann will cause my entire little force to unravel.
"No?" snaps Felicity, looking sharply at me.
"Ann, Felicity, I cannot ask either of you to put your lives in danger to destroy a creature we may not even have the power to destroy. I need both of you to know that you are free to walk away at any time without surrendering an inch of honor or courage. This is my battle, and I cannot expect - "
Ann rises to her feet and interrupts me. "It is not your battle, Gemma Doyle. We discovered the Realms together. We explored them together. Just because you're bloody Chosen One, does not mean you have to act noble and forge on alone. My current occupation may complicate things, but when the time comes to choose, I will choose the Realms, Gemma. Not the Fenwicks."
I am surprised by the ferocity of her words, but it does not make me any less relieved to hear her words.
"Yes, all right. All right. Thank you," I whisper, denying the tears in my eyes. "Thank you, Ann."
"No need to thank me," replies Ann, some of her good cheer returning. "I'd rather face a terrible beast in the Realms than surrender the remainder of my youth to that terrible beast the Fenwicks call a baby."
We chuckle at her joke. Personally, I would take the Fenwick baby over the Realms creature anyday. Perhaps Ann will change her mind once she has met the thing.
"Yes, shall we try to conduct some research on our fearsome foe?" asks Felicity lightly, attempting to whitewash her eagerness to get down to business.
"I thought we'd wait on Lady Courtenay. And I invited some...others," I reply, mimicking Felicity's frivolous tone.
Both of my friends' eyebrows raise a couple of notches. "Others?" Ann inquires.
"Well. Just Kartik, really."
"Of course," replies Felicity, making no attempt to hide her distaste. "Delightful."
"Felicity…" I warn. I will not tolerate her attitude.
"What?" she replies defensively. "I simply miss the days when our ranks were strictly female. I believe there was a reason the Order kept the Rakshana out of the Realms."
"Yes, Fee. It was the Order's greed that kept the Rakshana out. I will not commit the same injustices. I trust Kartik implicitly, and that should be enough for you." I sound angier than I actually am, but I am tired of being doubted. Felicity will either learn her place or lose it.
"Fine then. Join me in the library when the others arrive," says Felicity coolly. She rises and swiftly leaves the room, leaving Ann and I alone.
"We shouldn't be fighting," Ann says quietly once Felicity is gone.
I sigh softly. "No," I agree. "We shouldn't."