Disclaimer: I do not own, nor am I in any way associated with, Princess Protection Program. I gain no monetary benefit from this story.
Laughter was echoing from the kitchen, a sound Joe Mason had seriously thought might never enter his house while Rosie was in it. He climbed the porch carefully, skipping over the squeaky step entirely and sidling up next to the door so he wouldn't be seen while he listened in.
"You know, I am surprised," Rosie was saying.
"Why?" Carter asked.
"I did not think you would be told of your father's work."
Joe snuck a peek into the room and saw that the girls were gathering snacks, presumably to watch a movie.
"Well," Carter said around a mouthful of popcorn, "I don't think most of the other agents' kids know."
"Then why do you? Shouldn't this be considered a grave breach in protocol?"
"I think Dad gets some extra leeway where the IPPP is concerned. Grandpa was the old Director."
"Really?" Rosie sounded genuinely astonished.
"Oh, yeah. When Dad was my age, Grandpa was the one in charge of all the Princesses and the agents."
"Hmm," Rosie said primly.
"What?" Carter asked.
Their voices were moving to the other side of the room and Mason carefully switched to the other side of the doorway so they couldn't see him out the window.
"I am just wondering why your father wasn't made the new Director after your grandfather --"
She cut off abruptly and Mason could hear the smile in Carter's voice when she said, "Retired? When my grandfather retired? As opposed to having been killed in the line of duty?"
"Yes," Rosie said, relieved that she hadn't touched on something painful.
Carter laughed. "I don't know. I never really thought about it until I got older. I asked him once, a couple summers ago, but he got this look on his face…"
"What sort of look?"
"The one he gets when he thinks about Mom."
"I think maybe the Director job would have taken too much of his time, kept him away from us or something."
There was a moment of silence so uncomfortable that it made Mason squirm before Rosie asked, "Did he ever bring princesses home -- your grandfather I mean?"
"No, or he never talked about it if he did." She giggled quietly, "Though he tells this one story …"
Mason fought the urge to bang his head against the wall as Carter began the story of the princess who raised bees. No, his father never would mention bringing a princess home, because he never had, not to the house anyway.
It was the fall of 1984 and Joe was eager to get back to his classes. The only problem was, before classes, there was moving back into dorms.
"Okay," Steve said, leaning on the couch, "maybe if we lift and twist --"
"It's not going to fit around that corner," Joe said, "just accept that. We can take it back to the freshman dorm and trade it for one of theirs that'll actually be able to make the corner."
"You think the freshmen have sofas as nice as this one? Did we have sofas like this when we were freshmen?"
Joe rolled his eyes. "I told you, you should have measured it before you bought it."
Steve opened his mouth to argue but a voice behind Joe cut him off.
Joe whirled. "Dad. What are you --"
Isaac Mason was an imposing man, even when standing three steps lower than someone. His civvies couldn't completely erase his soldier's attitude, giving him a dangerous appearance, like a wolf in sheep's clothing. His features were harder than Joe's and he gave the impression that he knew everything you were thinking. Joe hadn't had a single friend who wasn't creeped out by the man, but he understood why his father was so strict, even with strangers. It took a certain kind of person to be the Director of the IPPP, the kind of person Joe wanted to be one day.
"I'm sorry I couldn't have been home for more of the summer," Isaac said, "some things came up."
"Venelia," Joe said, dropping his voice, "it was all over the news."
Isaac nodded. "There are some things I need to discuss with you."
Joe glanced up at Steve. "Well, after we finish moving the couch --"
"Now," Isaac said. "It's important," he added when Joe shot him a questioning glance.
"Why don't we move this back down?" Joe asked Steve. "We can try again later."
Steve seemed disgruntled by the idea but didn't argue. He'd met Isaac a few months earlier and wasn't eager to be in his presence any longer than necessary. They managed to move the couch onto the small lawn outside and Steve immediately fell down on it, lacing his fingers behind his head and closing his eyes.
"Wake me when you're done," he muttered.
Joe shook his head and fell into step beside his father. They were silent as they moved through the student housing and even when they reached the main campus Isaac didn't speak until they had entered the almost deserted library. Summer classes had ended the week before and fall semester didn't start until Monday, leaving the library to the especially nerdy, the single librarian on duty, and a family that seemed to be touring the school before leaving their daughter behind.
"We have an issue," Isaac said, taking a seat in a secluded reading area.
Joe took the seat across from him. "Define issue."
"Venelia is never going to be a monarchy again."
"Okay," Joe said, confused.
"Their princess has been in our care for several years, ever since the uprisings started. Things seemed to be stabilizing in the country and we had hoped to send her home within the next few months, but now …"
"Permanent relocation," Joe offered. No one in the IPPP liked it when situations deteriorated this far, but it was a fact of the job.
"Yes. She's taking it with considerable aplomb, but she still needs protection. She's still a target for political assassination."
Joe nodded. "You want me to do it? Take off from school and protect this girl? I thought you wanted me to finish --"
"I do, and you won't be leaving school." He lifted his arm and waved.
The family Joe had seen perusing the books immediately began making their way over. He realized that while all three of them had the same coloring, the parents shared no other distinguishing characteristics with their daughter.
"This is Princess Isabella," Isaac said quietly.
Joe inclined his head slightly as she took a seat. Her "parents" remained standing on either side of her like imposing sentinels. Isabella wore her dark hair in a braid down her back. Her simple t-shirt and jeans were painfully ordinary but Joe couldn't help but think she still looked like a princess.
"Izzy," she said quickly. "I'm just Izzy now."
"She'll be going to school here. I want you to protect her."
Joe's gaze immediately swung to his father.
"You're the best choice," Isaac said. "You'll be able to go anywhere on campus without suspicion. Any of our other agents would seem out of place here."
"I'm not even an agent yet," Joe said.
"You grew up in this life, you're just as capable as any of the others. I know you can do this. I've made arrangements for you and your roommate to live off campus with Izzy." The Director stood.
"And how exactly am I supposed to explain this to Steve?" Joe asked, standing to look his father in the eye.
"Tell him your father wanted to surprise you."
"He knows we're not rich. What kind of middle class Dad surprises his son with a house?"
Isaac shrugged. "Part of being an agent is coming up with your own cover story." He walked away, the two agents trailing behind him.
Joe moaned and fell back into his seat.
Carter barreled down the stairs and ran across the living room. Joe looked up from his magazine to see her bent nearly in half, searching the bottom shelf of the bookcase.
"Looking for something in particular, pal?"
"The old photo albums," she said, straightening and turning to look at him.
He set aside his magazine and stood, making his way around the couch. "Why?"
"I want to show Mom to Rosie."
"Ah." Mason bent down to unlock the steamer trunk behind the couch. Carter helped him pull it forward so it could open fully. "Here," he said, grabbing the first photo album he saw.
"Aww, these are the wedding pictures." She carefully opened the first page. "Why didn't you wear your uniform?"
"Because it's a secret organization," he said, kissing the top of her head.
She stuck her tongue out at him and reached into the trunk. "What about this?"
"That's my old college yearbook," he said.
She flipped through it and it fell open to a page on campus life. "There you are!" she said, pointing to a photo off to the side. "But you're fighting."
He smiled down at the picture of the two of them glaring at one another. "We had a rocky start," he said. "Do you think that's enough for you to show Rosie?"
Carter grabbed one more album before kissing him on the cheek. "Yeah, thanks, Dad!" And she ran back up the stairs, leaving Joe shaking his head.
Steve took the news well. It wouldn't be until years later, at a reunion party, that he would finally confide in Joe that he'd "always known." It would take quite some time before Joe got out of Steve exactly what he knew: that Joe's family was in organized crime. Joe decided that was as good a cover story as any and filed it away for future use.
The house was a small two-story with three bedrooms and three baths. Joe immediately gave Izzy the room at the end of the upstairs hall, along with the private bathroom within it. He took the bedroom beside hers and gave Steve the room closest to the stairs.
The three spent the rest of the week unpacking and settling into their new home, while Joe avoided Steve at every turn, hoping a lack of information early on would keep him from asking about Izzy later. When classes started Joe was pleased to find that Izzy had been given classes in all the same buildings as his so that he would never be too far from her in case of an emergency. When he was done with Contemporary World Government, he waited outside her History class and the two walked to the science building. Once Chemistry and Biology were finished the two would go to lunch before their English classes in the afternoon.
"Stop," Izzy said, pausing in the middle of a pathway.
Joe had to dodge to avoid slamming into her back and almost hit a student walking the other way. He was mildly surprised, both because until this point she hadn't spoken to him unless it was absolutely necessary and because it was taco day in the cafeteria, the most coveted of days on campus. If they were late, there wouldn't be any salsa left.
"What?" he asked. "Is something wrong?" He glanced around the quad, scanning each face.
"Yes!" she snapped. "You!"
"You can't follow me everywhere like some mother hen," she hissed. "Firstly because it draws undue attention and secondly because I refuse to live the rest of my life like this."
"Your life is in danger, you need protection."
Her dark eyes flashed. "I am perfectly capable of protecting myself."
"And what will you do if someone recognizes you?"
"Take a poll, the only people here who even know my country's name are Political Science majors and their professors. All of the official pictures of me are from years ago, so there is little chance of me being recognized."
"What about someone from your country? Wouldn't they be able to see your resemblance to the royal family?"
"Do you know how many people from my country are living in your country? Three! A frail old woman in San Francisco, a little boy who was born while his parents were vacationing there, and me! So I don't think I'm in much danger. Now will you please just treat me like a normal girl -- or pretend to?"
"It is my job to protect you. Whether you like it or not, you're a princess and you need --"
"No," she interrupted, "I'm not. Part of being a princess is being there for your people, and I can never do that. I can never protect them or lead them, I can't even see them! If I go home, I will be killed in the name of freedom. So I'm not a princess, I'm just a girl going to college and trying to figure out what to do with her life, like almost everyone else here. So I would appreciate it if you treated me like you do them."
She turned on her heel and walked away, leaving Joe staring after her.
The bus pulled out of the drive and with it the laughter faded. He had to hand it to Carter and Rosie, they'd outdone themselves with their little pre-dance party. He still couldn't quite believe that had been his Carter. She looked so grown up in that dress, so far removed from the little girl who used to prance around the house in fairy wings made of bent wire hangers and old pillow cases. She looked just like her mother, like a princess in her own right next to Rosie, but he couldn't bring himself to tell her that and instead sent her off to the dance with his love.
He wished she was spoiled. He wished she was a brat who wore pink everywhere and had an unhealthy love of taffeta. But she wasn't, she was just a normal girl with abnormal problems. And she was actually handling them well, dang her.
He was laying on his bed, tossing a football up in the air and trying to ignore the fact that Izzy was on the other side of that wall and he needed to apologize. She had been right and, though she hadn't said it, it was painfully obvious that he was trying too hard on his first mission. He sat up and set the football down on his pillow.
"Just get it over with, Mason," he muttered and forced himself up. When he reached her door he stared at it for several seconds before getting up the nerve to knock. When he finally did, it was tentative and barely made a sound. The door hadn't been closed all the way and fell open under the weak pressure.
The reading light beside her bed was on and he saw her sitting, her legs crossed beneath her, hair loose around her face. It didn't take a genius to see that her shoulders were shaking from tears and for a minute he was frozen, unsure of what to do. He was an agent -- sort of -- his job was to protect her, not comfort her. And not fight with her either, a small part of him pointed out. He sighed and stepped into the room, careful to leave the door open behind him.
"Hey," he said.
She sniffled and said nothing more.
He saw a book open on her bed. "What are you reading?" he asked.
"History," she said and he winced at her pained tone.
He came closer and glanced at the page. It was a section on small European powers and the picture was a portrait of a Venelian king. For a moment he wasn't sure what to do, then he remembered her speech and decided to do as she'd asked. He reached down and wrapped his arms around her.
"I'm sorry," he whispered and he held her as she cried.
The front door opened and Carter looked up sharply.
"I'm almost done," she said, "I promise."
Joe Mason stood in the open doorway for a moment, staring at her. She was still wearing her dress, though she'd wisely put on an apron before cleaning up the remains of the pre-dance makeover session that afternoon. She hadn't taken her hair down either, but it was slowly coming free of its pins, leaving wayward locks falling around her face. Joe dropped his keys on the counter and closed the door behind him before crossing the room in two great steps and wrapping her up in his arms.
"Dad," she started.
"Do you have any idea how scared I was?" he whispered. "When I saw General Kane coming -- and your dress --"
"I'm sorry," she said, clutching his shoulders.
He gave her one last squeeze before holding her at arms length. "Why did you do it? Why didn't you just come to me?"
"If I came to you, Rosie wouldn't trust me and I needed her to for my plan to work."
He smiled at her. "There could have been other plans."
She shrugged uncomfortably and pulled her into another hug.
There were a million things he wanted to say to her, secrets he needed to tell her, but in the end he only said, "I'm bringing Rosie back here in the morning."
"What?" This time she was the one who pulled back.
"It's not safe in Costa Luna yet. It'll be a few weeks before Kane's forces get moved out and she can go home without fear of a coup."
Carter nodded. "Good. It would be a shame if the homecoming queen disappeared right after getting her crown."
"It would cause quite a stir, that's for certain." He looked around the room messy. "You go on up to bed, this can wait until morning."
"Thanks," she sighed, pulling off the apron and hurrying up the stairs.
Joe dropped into the nearest chair and closed his eyes. Tonight had been a wake-up call and it had been just bad luck that the Director was there to see it. When he'd seen Kane holding Carter he'd been angry and terrified and proud and heartbroken all at the same time, but mostly angry. If he'd been on his own, he would have shot the General where he stood and damned the consequences. The fear that had knotted his gut had been all too familiar and he prayed he would never have to feel it again.
"I can't believe he's late," Joe sighed, glancing at the clock.
"He's probably saving someone's life," Izzy admonished, setting out a red casserole dish. He reached for it, eager for some green beans, and she slapped his hand. "We'll wait another half hour," she said and tossed her braid over her shoulder.
When the summer holidays rolled around it only made sense that he take her home with him. She had no family to speak of, not that she could contact them anyway if she had, and he could think of no safer place to spend vacation than the IPPP Director's home.
Lights flashed through the kitchen windows and Joe smiled. "Maybe we won't have to wait at all," he said, standing and heading for the door. He winced in the face of the headlights and tried to look past them for his father's signature blue truck. Just as his eyes started adjusting he saw an arm come out the driver's side, along with a gun.
He dove back into the house just as the first bullet flew. Izzy was already running for the stairs and he followed close behind, keeping one hand on her back to keep her down. They hurried into his father's bedroom and heard the front door burst open.
"Princess Isabella!" a voice bellowed.
Joe met Izzy's eyes and saw recognition there. "You know him," he said.
She nodded. "He was one of the rebel leaders. As far as I know, he is the only one without a place in the new government. He claims he wants to 'root out' any remaining threats to the people's freedom."
Joe rolled his eyes as sounds of destruction echoed up the stairs. "He's looking for us."
Something in Izzy's eyes hardened and she stood.
"Oh no!" he hissed, grabbing her wrist and pulling her back down. "You are not going down there."
"It's me he wants. And I can do my people no good anymore."
"So you should just die?" he demanded, pulling her close to emphasize his words. "You are more than just a princess, you're a person. You have the chance for a new life. Most people will never have that."
"And is that part of my new life?" she asked, gesturing to the door. The man was yelling again, cursing in a language Joe didn't understand. "To be forever hunted?"
Joe shook his head. "You can be normal. Like everyone else, remember? You can get a job and get married and have beautiful children, if you're willing to fight for it."
She swallowed and there was an emotion in her eyes that he'd never seen before. He didn't give her time to disagree. He crab-walked to the window and looked out. This room faced the back of the house and he could just see the path to the pier and the boat shifting on the water.
"Come on," he said and pushed the window up.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Getting us out of here." He stepped out onto the roof and held out a hand for her.
She sighed and he gave her a look that said he wasn't in the mood for one of her "I can take care of myself" rants. They slipped and slid down the roof and she jumped easily to the ground below, with him right behind her. The second their feet hit the ground they ran to the pier, heedless of the voices behind them. Joe heard gunfire and felt the pier shudder slightly. Izzy untied the boat and jumped in while he worked on the engine.
"Lay down," he ordered over the noise.
Once the engine started he steered them away from the house, to a part of the marshes only natives knew.
Twenty minutes later he killed the engine and laid down beside her.
"So," she said.
"So," he echoed. "That was fun."
She let out a small laugh.
"Thank you," he said, "for letting me save you."
She turned her head to look at him questioningly. "That has to be the strangest thank you I've ever gotten."
"I really didn't want my first assignment to die."
She pushed his shoulder and turned away in a huff. Several moments later she asked, "Do you really think I'll have a job and a marriage and beautiful children?"
"Only if you want to," he said quietly.
She turned her head to him and smiled. "I really do."
Joe stepped into the Director's office. Behind her desk was a wall of screens, each showing news in a different part of the world. The desk itself was covered with papers: newspapers, computer printouts, files on various princesses.
"They're safe?" she asked, looking over something on her computer screen.
"Yes, ma'am. Princess Rosalinda will be coming home with me within the hour."
Now the Director did look up at him. "What about Carter?"
"She's at home," Joe said tightly.
"Do you think that's wise? She just put her own life in extreme jeopardy, exposing herself to a very dangerous international dictator."
"I am not so sure. Perhaps it's time we put her somewhere more--"
"No!" Joe snapped. The Director nearly jumped and he paled slightly, he hadn't talked back to the IPPP Director since his father had held the position, and even then it had been a rare occurrence.
"What do you think Isabella would say?" the Director asked. "She understood the necessity of this kind of sacrifice."
"Not for our daughter. I can count on one hand the number of people who know who Carter's mother really was."
"That's not good enough and you know it. In this day and age all it would take is one scrap of Carter's DNA to link her with the Venelian royal family. If that happens --"
"Then she will be relocated, but not before!" Joe said, his expression grim.
The Director sighed. "Perhaps we should have publicized Isabella's death more, even given them her body …"
Joe's eyes flashed angrily but instead of arguing he only said, "They would have known she had a child."
The Director nodded. "They would, wouldn't they?" After a moment she glanced up at him, as if suddenly remembering he was there. "Dismissed."
Joe saluted quickly and turned on his heel without waiting for her to return the gesture. When he reached the door he paused. "It's been over twenty years since the royal family was ousted, I doubt she's in any real danger."
"She looks like her mother. She will always be in danger."
Joe clenched his fists as he walked down the hallways. Yes, Isabella had known what it took to be safe, but she also knew what it took to be normal. Her greatest wish had always been that their daughter never face those lessons and he would do anything to grant her that.
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