YAY I'm posting something new! That always makes me so giddy.
Note: This is a sequel. If you have not read The House on Thornrose Lane: A Grimm Tale, I recommend you do so before proceeding. Otherwise I take no responsibility for your confusion.
Many thanks to everyone who has given me ideas and inspiration, motivation and support, while crafting this story.
And huge thanks to KaitlynFall for editing and beta-reading.
Please see my big news at the end of this chapter!
Return to Aysel: Another Grimm Tale
Chapter 1: Growing Up
There he encountered the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.
Reclining upon a bed was a princess . . . whose radiant beauty had an almost unearthly luster.
from Perrault's Sleeping Beauty
Serena had once been called a Guardian, but that seemed like a very long time ago. She had been called Princess once, too, although it had only been for such a brief time that the term had since been relegated to distant memory. She never really wanted to be royalty. She did not care much for being a Guardian either; it brought bad dreams when she thought of it. No, Serena was content—even, sometimes, happy—to be just a girl. Recently graduated from high school. Mere weeks away from attending college. Dreaming of a life filled with dreams and goals and friends and normalcy.
Serena's mother, on the other hand, had never quite become normal. Since Serena had learned the truth—that her mother was, in actuality, a fairy-tale queen, long separated from her beloved husband—she had never quite looked at her the same way. They had both known that someday Queen Serenity of Obelia would have to return to her rightful world, her throne, her life. And Serena would not be returning with her.
That day arrived at the end of a particularly scorching August.
The heat seemed to trivialize the day's import as Serena sat beside her mother on Jacob Grimm's creaky bed. Her hair was clinging to the back of her neck and her palms were clammy, making the act of holding her mother's hand an uncomfortable one, yet neither of them dared break the contact.
Serena sighed, trying her best to ignore the way her legs were melting into the mattress. She knew Jacob Grimm had been around since the 18th century, but couldn't he at least have accepted the one minor technological convenience of air conditioning?
And it didn't help knowing that, as uncomfortable as she was in her shorts and tank top, her mom must have been a hundred times worse. She had dressed the part for her return to Aysel, and Obelia beyond, by wearing an ankle-length, purple satin dress with lace sleeves. She had even done her hair up in two signature buns, the same style that she had taught Serena to wear when she was a kid. The style made her look . . . well, more like a sister than a mother. Serena could only hope that her mother's graceful aging ran in their fairy-tale genes.
Serena, on the other hand, had not dared to dress up at all, due to a deep, almost subconscious fear that she would see the portal to Aysel open up before her and would not be able to resist the desire to walk through it. Whether it was mere curiosity—what had everyone been up to these past two years?—or the magnetic pull of fate, Serena thought it best to avoid the temptation as much as possible. And, as she would be embarrassed to show up so casually dressed beside Her Majesty, she hoped that this shame would compel her to remain firmly in the land of Real Life.
"Are you sure you're going to be all right?" her mother asked, breaking a silence that had stretched on too long as they both resisted the final words. The final farewell.
"Of course, I'm going to be fine," she said, raising here eyes to her mother's teary gaze. "I've been preparing for this for a long time, Mom. It's not like I didn't know it was coming."
"But darling . . . you're still so young. I worry about you. I could stay for a while longer, you know. Wait until you've gone off to college, or . . . or perhaps until you're married?"
With a dramatic groan, Serena shook her head and started analyzing their intertwined fingers. Her mother had such beauiful hands—like porcelain. "College starts up in three weeks. I'm sure I'll have no problem passing the time."
"But it's just that. It's only three weeks away. I could stay here until then, to see my baby girl off to college . . ."
"Mom." Serena invoked her sternest tone and was met with the sight of her mother's disapproving glare because of it. "If I recall correctly, we'd first decided that you would go back as soon as I graduated, and that was over two months ago. You've wasted this whole summer when you could have been with your husband—"
"Going horseback riding and attending royal balls and . . . and all those other things that queens do."
"They do still rule sometimes, on occasion."
"Which is precisely why you should stop wasting the best years of your life and go home!" She'd said it in a joking manner, hoping to illicit a laugh, or at least a smile, but instead she saw only the wrinkle in the center of her mother's otherwise wrinkle-free face that announced oncoming tears. "Oh, Mom . . ."
Her mother inhaled sharply. "I'm sorry. I knew this was going to be hard, it's just . . . I'm going to miss you so much, Serena."
"I'm going to miss you too. But . . . I mean . . . you can still come visit me. It's not like the gate will be closed forever."
There was a squeeze of her hand. "Or you could come visit me."
"Or that." The words were airy, indifferent, and Serena knew it.
"Serena, you know . . . I know you don't like to talk about this, but I feel compelled to say that you could come with me. You belong in Obelia as much as I do."
Serena shook her head—forcefully. "No, I couldn't. I don't. Besides, I would miss . . . everybody."
"And Melvin too."
"And I'm happy here."
"Are you, dear?" Her voice was filled with that motherly concern that, for some reason, always seemed to fill Serena with guilt. Like she knew that Serena was lying, even when she, herself, had no idea.
"Of course I am. In three weeks I'm going to be in college, rooming with my two best friends, and studying literature, just like I always wanted to. I feel like my life is . . . is . . . Well. I feel like I'm right where I'm supposed to be, right now."
"I'm glad. You know I only want you to be happy."
"And I only want you to be happy. And that means reuniting with your husband, with your prince, and living happily ever after. Finally."
Serena pulled her mother into a hug and finally let some of her tears leak out onto her satin-covered shoulder.
"I love you so much, Serena. And I'm so, so proud of you."
"I love you too, Mom."
"And," her mother continued, pulling away and cupping Serena's face in both hands, "when you do receive that marriage proposal—"
"I'm just saying, when you do receive that marriage proposal, I expect an invitation. In fact . . . I've always imagined a fairy-tale wedding for you, up in Obelia."
"Mom, please. At this rate I'm going to die an old maid and we both know it."
"Oh, I wouldn't be so sure about that. I see how that boy looks at you."
Serena rolled her eyes. It was a conversation they had had a hundred times, "that boy" never being outright named. He didn't need to be. Serena had sensed it too, in the friendship that had grown so close over the last two years, in their innocent teasing, their amiable flirting, the attraction that she could not claim was one-sided. Had never been one-sided (unless one was, of course, thinking of her side).
But Darien, regardless of how he may have sometimes looked at her, or touched her, or teased her, never did anything else. Rarely did they go anywhere together without Melvin tagging along (Serena could not quite remember when he had become a third wheel, or when she'd started feeling like a bad friend for thinking of him that way), and certainly, certainly they had never kissed. In fact, she could not remember Darien even alluding to the desire to kiss her.
Which possibly could have been insulting, if Serena hadn't been grateful for it. Because, despite the attraction, the friendship, the comfort of his presence, the joy that his smiles brought her . . . she could not have said for sure what her reaction to a kiss would have been.
"Let's not talk about it, Mom."
"I just want to be sure."
"I promise that if . . . if anything should happen, I will come to Obelia myself to give you the news."
"I guess I can be satisfied with that."
Serena nodded, then glanced out the dingy window that looked out over the front lawn, overgrown with weeds. Jacob was sitting in the room's only chair, a creaky old rocker, reading and pretending that he couldn't hear their conversation.
"It's getting late," Serena said.
Her mom disengaged one hand and used it to tuck a strand of hair behind Serena's ear. "I don't think the gate operates on a schedule."
"I just feel like the longer we drag this on . . ."
"I know. I know. It just breaks my heart. My baby girl . . ."
"We don't have to say goodbye." Serena smiled, trying to make it as natural as she could. "Actually, I have something for you. You may recognize it." Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a small locket on a golden chain.
"What? Serena, no, I can't take this."
"I want you to take it."
It was the truth. Though her mother had given her this locket for her seventeenth birthday, Serena wasn't sad to be giving it away. The knowledge that her mom would have something to remember her by was much stronger than any regret at losing it. "Look, it has my picture, and Darien and Melvin." She opened it. On the right side of the little locket was Serena's senior year picture. On the left was a tiny image of her squeezed in between her two best friends. Arms around each other. Smiling—laughing. Well, Melvin looked uncomfortable, but he always looked that way in front of a camera, so it was the best that could be hoped for. And it was precisely how Serena wanted her mom to think of them, and of her, in the years to come.
Before her mom could argue anymore, Serena reached up and clasped the necklace around her neck. "Besides, it looks great with that dress."
Her mother reached up and ran her fingers along the chain, smiling, but sadly.
Serena clapped her hands together and stood up from the bed, which creaked its complains at the movement. "Well, I think that's that, then. Since we're not saying goodbye." The statement was punctuated with a loud sniffling and she swiped her sleeve across her nose.
Jacob glanced toward Serena when she stood. Then, seeing that they were about to hug each other again, he turned away once more and flipped a page in his book.
"Tell everyone hello for me," Serena said as she and her mother embraced. "Tell Aysel hello for me. And Dad. And Briar Rose and Alex and Queen Luna and—"
Serena tried to dislodge the lump in her throat with a few hard gulps, to no avail, and finally released her mom. "You better go before it gets worse."
There was a moment in which it seemed her mom would protest, start up a new conversation, bring up more worries, but she didn't. Instead, she simply grasped Serena by the shoulders and kissed her forehead. "I love you."
"I love you too."
"All right," she said, louder, and with a deep breath. "I guess I'm ready."
Jacob snapped to attention, as if he'd been completely ignorant of their presence until that moment. "All right, Your Majesty."
"I'm sorry—Serenity. You remember how this works? Keep your eyes closed tight until the door shuts behind you."
"Yes, I remember."
"Well then . . . welcome home. Obelia will be so glad to have you back."
She smiled at him and allowed the storyteller to hold the door open for her.
Serena grasped the headboard to steady herself as she watched her mother walk out onto the small porch that led down to Thornrose Lane—knowing that when the door closed, her mother would not be on Thornrose Lane at all. The glaring sunshine caught in her silver-gray hair and surrounded her with a golden halo, and Serena committed the image to memory, wondering if it would be the last time she ever laid eyes on her loving, giving, devoted mother.
Jacob closed the door and there was a heavy silence that Serena was quick to break. She sniffled and said, shakily, "I guess . . . I'd better get going, then."
"I have something I want to give you." He wrung his hands and paced the room a couple of times, as if he wasn't sure where the mystery gift had gotten to, before looking up at an old mirror that hung on the wall. It was rectangular, with a beaten wooden frame, unpainted, unstained, and the glass was foggy and speckled with black, as old mirrors tended to be. But it was a disguise, Serena knew, and her heart lurched every time she saw this, the fifth and only remaining magic mirror. Although to every other eye it was junk—a worthless antique—when she looked at it she saw its true beauty. She saw the expertly carved golden frame, depicting merfolk and creatures of myth, and the shimmering, almost liquid glass that was created with dwarven magic.
He took it off the wall, his wrinkled hands gripping the frame for fear that it might slip from his unsure fingers, and brought it to her.
"No, I couldn't."
"Don't be silly, child. I want you to have it. You are the last Guardian of Aysel."
"It is only right that you should have the means of guarding. Besides, this way you'll be able to see your mother's beautiful face, when you want to."
She pursed her lips and looked at it—the frame, not the glass—and slowly nodded. It was a temptation her aching heart could not resist. "All right," she said, and gingerly took it from him, setting it down in her lap.
"I'll give you a blanket to carry it home in. I know you'll be careful with it."
She stroked her fingers idly along the edge, feeling the roughness of the wood. She had a subconscious fear of what might be seen in the glass depths and dared not risk a glance, until Jacob had procured a small blanket and took the mirror from her to package it safely for the trip home. She and her mother had walked—it had seemed like a pleasant way to spend the last few hours of each other's company—but now she was wishing that she would not have to meander through all those streets carrying such a precious treasure with her. It wasn't a fear of having it stolen that worried her—after all, who would want the thing?—but her own clumsiness.
She vowed to be extra careful as Jacob returned it to her.
"Let me get the door for you," Jacob said, grinning, as if holding the door for royalty was his lifelong preoccupation, and Serena peeled herself off the bed, bundle secured against her chest with both arms. "Will you be here on Sunday?"
"The normal time," she said, trying to smile, though she could sense the wet trails that lingered on her cheeks.
He opened the door and she looked out at Jacob Grimm's fenced-in yard, unimproved after these two long years—the grass was still dying and overgrown with weeds, the fence's latch did not work, and apples from the single tree littered the pitiful yard. But the sun was shining.
"Remember," Jacob said behind her. "Keep your eyes open."
She imagined closing them anyway, but the thought was fleeting.
Serena's childhood home had become the residential equivalent of a ghost town. Nearly all of the furniture, with the exception of a few necessary pieces—Serena's bed and dresser, the sofa, the television, and the computer desk—had been moved into storage, where it would wait patiently for Serena's college graduation and arrival into adulthood, when things like an entertainment console and a dining room table would become necessary. The few belongings that Serena would be moving into her new apartment, only two blocks from the college campus, had been put into boxes which now lived in the desolate living room. But now, with her mother gone, the house did not only feel hollow and barren, it felt lifeless. Almost uninhabitable. It was no longer a home, but merely a shell, a lifeless shelter built of wooden beams and plaster. A place to reside for three tedious weeks before she would travel to the college town, just twenty miles away, and move into the cozy, three-bedroom apartment that she would be sharing with her two best friends.
In her mind, she had already moved out of this house.
Serena climbed the stairs, tired and emotionally overwhelmed, the mirror still safe in her clutches. Her bedroom was just down the hallway and, upon entering, she immediately spotted two unexpected things.
The first, which was, admittedly, not that unexpected, was Puss in Boots. The small gray cat was curled up in his sleeping position at the foot of Serena's bed, but when Serena entered, he deigned to lift his head and greet her with a sleepy yawn.
The second unexpected thing was a necklace—also on Serena's bed.
She froze when she saw it. Diamonds. A collection of stars strung together with bands of twisting, curling gold. The necklace appeared organic, crafted by the most skilled of artisans. The diamonds mined from the richest mountains and inspected with the keenest of eyes, each one selected and cut to maximize its potential and placement in the necklace. In short, it could only have come from a fairy tale.
Serena remembered the necklace. She had only laid eyes on it once, when she was a little girl and had caught her mother trying it on at her vanity, but it was not the sort of necklace one forgets. There was no card or letter with it, but there didn't need to be. She quite clearly remembered her mother's words from that day, so very long ago. "Someday this will be yours, my little princess."
She approached it slowly, as if more worried about disturbing the jewels than the cat who had no interest in them. She set the mirror down on the floor and propped it up against the footboard, still wrapped in the tattered blanket, before lifting the necklace from the bedspread. Its impressive weight had left an indentation in her feather comforter. She held it aloft with both hands, turning it this way and that and drinking in all of the tiny sparkles that caught in the light and reflected on the walls around her. Taking a seat at her vanity, she draped the necklace over her collarbone and, after struggling with the clasp for a moment, secured it around her neck.
It looked ridiculous with her summer tank top, a linen, floral thing that was garish beside the necklace, but Serena didn't mind. The metal was refreshingly cool, even if the weight of it felt oppressive. But what was more important than that was how she was forced to admit that her reflection reminded her not of herself, but of her beautiful, elegant mother.
Startled, her eyes skipped across the mirror's reflection to see Darien lingering in the doorway to her bedroom. It was a bad habit of his, forgetting to knock, and always sneaking up on her, but one that she found almost as charming as she found it infuriating.
Their eyes met in the glass. There was something unusual in the look he was giving her. Something serious, something overwhelming, something . . . unexpected. She stared, unable to speak with his penetrating sapphire eyes locked on her like that. Looking at her both as if he knew every inch of her, body and soul, and yet, also, as if he'd never seen her before in his life.
"You look like a princess," he said.
Her heart skipped. The words that escaped her then were not what she would have planned on saying if she'd had a choice. Yet they could not have been more truthful.
"And you look like a prince."
The spell broke and he smiled at her, and she smiled back.
Darien came into the room and settled down on her bed. "I was just at Melvin's. I wasn't sure if you were back from the airport yet, but I thought I'd check. How'd it go?"
"All right," she said, turning to face him.
He nodded and she could see his concern in every shadow on his face, the way his hands were clasped together in his lap, the way he leaned forward and inspected her for signs of emotional instability.
"Her plane was on time."
"It must have been really hard."
"It was. But . . . you know, it's not like . . . she's gone to a different planet or anything." A small part of Serena found that comment to be quite witty and she couldn't help wishing that Darien got the joke.
"You know, winter break is just four months away, so I thought maybe we could go visit her. I mean, the three of us."
"I'm sure she would like that."
"I've never been to Norway."
"No, I haven't either."
"You'd fit right in there, of course. It's so obvious that's where you're from. I'm sure you look just like all your relatives."
She looked down at her hands.
"And you'll be able to call her all the time, of course. And write letters."
"Anyway . . . you know I'm here, if you want to talk about it."
"I know. Thank you."
There was a short silence, but Darien was quick to shake it off. "Melvin and I were thinking you could use some good old-fashioned distraction tonight, so . . . pizza and video games?"
Her smile became a little less sad, a little less forced. "That sounds great. Is Melvin waiting for us?"
Darien made no move to stand, and so neither did Serena. She listened to the sounds of her house—Puss had started to purr at some phantom stroking, the refrigerator hummed on the first floor. All so familiar, and yet so different now. It seemed that things were changing far too quickly. It terrified her, when she allowed herself to dwell on it. Her mother gone and her childhood disappearing before her eyes.
She started and looked down to see Darien's hands wrapped around hers. He had beautiful hands, too. Although they were larger and rougher than her mothers, his fingers were also long and his skin virtually flawless.
"Serena, there's something I . . . I've been meaning to say."
She raised her eyes and found that he was watching her, his gaze piercing, yet fearful. Desperate, even. Her heart lurched and she couldn't help sitting up straighter in the small vanity chair.
"What is it?"
He inhaled sharply, and looked pale, but his gaze softened a little. "Can you . . . do you think maybe you could take the necklace off first?"
"Why?" she asked, ripping one of her hands from his grip to run it over the jewels.
"You're too pretty in it. I can't think straight."
Heat crept over Serena's cheeks and she tried to scold him with a good-natured glare—he prided himself on his ability to make her blush—and yet, while he quirked a childish grin at her, he did not seem any less serious about the request.
"All right," she said, shifting to the bed with her back to Darien, folding her legs beneath her. "Can you get the clasp?"
There was only the briefest of hesitations before she sensed his fingertips at the nape of her neck. She thought that perhaps they lingered there longer than they needed to before he worked clumsily at the latch. The diamonds fell from her neck and she caught them in both hands, once again mesmerized by their brilliance. Their perfection. The fact that they had once belonged to her mother.
Her mother, the queen.
She felt Darien's fingers uncertainly tracing the peaks of her shoulders, brushing her long blonde hair away from her back, and meandering like a summer's breeze along her bare arms until they settled at the dip of her elbows. Serena noticed that Darien's breathing had sped up, almost as soon as she noticed that hers had as well.
"What I wanted to tell you . . ."
She had to struggle to hear his voice, even though he was so close that she could feel the warmth of him on her back. A chill stole up her spine, sending goose bumps along her arms, and Darien's grip tightened almost imperceptibly.
"And I realize this is either going to be the absolute best time to say this . . . or, possibly, the absolute worst time to say it, but . . . but I can't . . . Sere, I just wanted. . . . A-are you crying?"
A sob shook her and she sniffed, loudly. "No," she lied, her fingers wrapping around the necklace strands, clutching it against her stomach until her knuckles were white. The sudden torrent of tears was inescapable, unconquerable, and she buried her face in her forearms, unwilling to release the jewels.
Darien's arms wrapped around her and she allowed herself to fall back against him. She cried for her mother, who had sacrificed eighteen years of her marriage in order to protect her only child. And she cried for herself, no longer a child at all, and yet, somehow, feeling in need of protection and guidance more now than she had all her life.
Darien's arms cradled her, holding her head against his chest. His heartbeat was solid against her back, beating in time with her own, and the realization ceased the crying almost at once until only the occasional sob broke the peaceful cocoon that Darien's presence wove around her. She closed her eyes and allowed herself, this once, to simply enjoy the feel of him. His strength. His heat. His cheek against her temple. His breathing. His scent that had become so familiar to her over the past two years that she hardly noticed it anymore unless he was very, very close to her. And these stolen moments of intimacy were so few that the scent overwhelmed her now and felt like something to be treasured and harbored and remembered.
Finally Serena felt her breathing return to normal and she tossed the necklace onto the blankets, feeling her muscles relax at its release and settle more fully into Darien's embrace. Gulping, she sought out her voice. "I'm sorry," she said. "What was it you wanted to tell me?"
There was a pause in which he was so motionless she began to wonder whether he had heard her, but then she felt the shaking of his head. "Never mind. We can talk about it later."
"Are you sure?"
He didn't respond, once again a statue made of only warmth and a steady, pounding heartbeat. She sighed and imagined, briefly, what it would feel like if he were to kiss her on the temple, the cheek, the neck—his lips were already so close that it not only seemed possible in that moment, but even likely. She tried to sense it—the feathered caress, the gentle pressure, the intake of breath that would follow as it occurred to each of them what he had just done . . .
But, despite the closeness, despite the perfect, ideal opportunity, Darien didn't kiss her.
Just like all the times he had never kissed her before.
BIG NEWS! I'm going to be published! My debut novel, CINDER, is scheduled for release in Spring 2012 under my real name, Marissa Meyer. Please see my profile for more details!