Where the Harm Is
Spoilers. Set during and post movie, director's cut.
It is easier now that she has given in; it is easier to let them touch her. Darkness's minions have a thousand faces. There are goblins. There are witchfolk. There are trolls and ghosts and ghasts and hobtailed brutes, and all of them whisper at the edges of her chambers, peering in through cracks in the walls and doors to catch a glimpse of their chosen queen.
She allows them to brush out her hair. She allows them to undress her. Leathery fingers stroke her cheeks as she is bathed; leathery giggles pepper the air around her, cooing and fawning over her beauty. Each of them is already currying favor, though she has not yet been crowned. They tell her, again and again, how fine she looks in her bridal gown while they mold it back upon her body.
In the distance, the unicorn screams.
Through it all, Lili reminds herself, this is just a game. This is a lie. She will free the unicorn, and then fate will do what it must.
She does not miss the irony: using deceit as her weapon against Darkness.
Back home -- and if that wasn't a thing she never expected to see again, not after a world wrought from ice and frozen time and unicorns screaming, screaming -- Lili surprises them all, all save herself. She insists on betrothal to Jack. She is a princess; it is her prerogative to claim a suitor, though her father is horrified.
The common people are torn between pleasure and mortification when the news comes out. The nobility is rife with gossip. Jack smiles when he is told, shyly, but he makes a small jerk away from her hand when she reaches out eagerly towards his face.
"Jack?" she asks, contrite. "Do you not love me?"
"More than anything," he answers, catching her fingers and giving her palm a fierce kiss. "But, Lili, just saying it doesn't make me a prince. Can you be so sure -- "
"I would rather a mate of my choosing than one forced upon me," she interrupts tartly, and regrets it when she sees the flicker of memory disturbing his eyes. In apology, she untangles her hand from his, and traces a whispering touch down his shoulder. "Would you deny me, Jack?"
"Lili," he says, a little helpless, and she smiles.
Before the unicorns, she would have said that she and Jack were of the same element. Both of them were young and innocent and sweet. They should have been twins at heart -- but Jack was clothed in the armor of fairy, elevated as their chosen champion of light. She, in turn, wore gowns of shadow. As much as she hates Darkness and what he would have done to the world with her at fault, Lili still remembers how perfectly the ebony fabrics sculpted themselves to her flesh. She remembers the sweet release of laughter, of surrender, of dancing in wild spirals in front of a stone hearth inferno.
A dream, it had seemed, when she first awoke. But the dream refused to vanish. Curiosity led her to ask questions of Jack; one question led to another, and then another, until he could not refuse her pleas. She has no reason to doubt his tale of how he vanquished Darkness. Not when she can still feel a taloned hand upon her face.
The knowledge nests inside her. It refuses to be exorcised. Now that it has invaded her awareness, she cannot forget how easily she had fitted into Darkness's realm -- but she might always have been this way. After all, she was the one who ignored Jack's warnings to touch the unicorn. She has lied; she has played tricks on Nell, made haughty demands of her father. She has been proud and vain. She ignored Jack's begging to leave the unicorns alone because she had wanted, and since she had wanted, she had deserved.
All was done out of innocence. And Lili had always thought that no harm could come of being innocent, no blame -- that she could not, would not be punished for acts performed with a carefree heart.
And she loves Jack, she does, she does. She does.
With enough pleading on her part, Jack leaves the forest. She thought she could be disciplined enough to let Jack dwell in peace in the woods, but as Lili grows older, she finds she has less and less time for her afternoon visits. The answer, clearly, is to bring Jack to her.
He gathers the few possessions he would call his own: a favorite stick, his shoes, the spent chrysalis of a butterfly. He takes them in his arms and carries them to her castle, shy and skittish and wild. Desire is a powerful thing; Lili knows that Jack belongs with the trees, has said it herself, but she cannot suppress the craving to see him.
The forest, however, does not leave Jack.
The elf named Gump is the boldest of Jack's fairy allies; he is the only one who scales the walls of the castle gardens, where Jack spends most of his time. There, the two speak in hurried tones. Jack is not hard to find. He sleeps stretched out among the roses. The concept of beds is one that Lili is continuing to wage an uphill battle on with him. She is lucky that he responds well to baths.
Gump, she wonders about. Jack told her that the elf was his companion in the fight against Darkness, and she has met Brown Tom herself. She knows now that fairies are real. They may have blamed her at first, but during the attempt to save the unicorn mare, Brown Tom had at least been kind.
But whatever forgiveness the elves might have shown her after the unicorn's revival is spent now, frittered away on sins that she didn't even know she committed. Gump does not show himself to her except by accident whenever he is meeting with Jack. For his part, Jack does not volunteer information about what the two of them discuss. Lili only catches snippets, cobbling them into spiderwebs of conversation. She overhears what Jack says to Gump on one of the elf's visitations, picking his way distastefully over mason-hewed stone. Darkness, he says, claimed that he could not be extinguished. Darkness was part of them all.
She hears Gump speak words that she cannot string together, lacking context as they come to her like pebbles in a stream. She hears him speak of danger. She hears him speak of entrapment. She hears him mention corruption, and cannot tell if they speak of her.
Doubt drives her mad. It turns her petty and waspish. She snaps at the minstrels of the court, at her father. She does not want to be suspicious; she does not want to think anyone would have reason to be suspicious of her. But at night as she lies sleepless in her feathersoft bed, with her suitor sleeping freely under the stars, Lili finds herself tossing and turning. The single candle she leaves flickering on the nightstand provides no solace. Every night, fear creeps in, and she wonders if Darkness was right: that under the skin they were already one.
She tries not to remember how easy it was to laugh like broken glass, and smile back when Darkness took her hand. How sweet the dark wine had been. How warm the gown had been on her skin.
How comfortable Darkness's chair had been when she finally sat upon it.
At night as the single candle burns, Lili remembers running madly through horror after horror, until all her resistance crumbled and she began to see with different eyes. There, in Darkness's realm, she had discovered the sheen of crystal, and the shine of gold nestled in the gloom. Jewels had glistened amidst the soot. Their beauty was made only that much brighter for the disease of their surroundings. Beauty had waited there, past the terror; once she had abandoned her own inhibitions, Lili had discovered intoxication.
Some nights, Lili wakes and thinks she is still underground, trapped beneath the Great Tree in halls of twisting stone. She clutches her hands to her chest, feeling her blood pound like a hammer, and wonders crazily if Darkness is festering inside her like a disease. Darkness might come bursting out of her heart, tearing her open, ripping her apart -- only to gather the shreds of her tenderly, in all her disgrace and ruin. She might usher Darkness back into the world, might become Darkness, might have corruption spread through her veins until she bleeds rot and sighs poison.
She does not want to be the next threat Jack will fight, but Lili wonders what would happen if she is.
Finally, unable to bear it, she confronts Jack.
By the time she is done with her questions, spilling over with an insistence that swings between tears and anger, there is something in his eyes that she has never seen before. He looks weary, weary and sad, as if he has been running for a very long time with no rest. Before he answers her, he touches the nearest rosebush; he does not touch her.
"Gump says that we need to be watchful, that not all the dark creatures of the earth are gone. Some may never be vanquished." He glances down, shaggy hair falling into his eyes, and Lili is struck by how young he still seems. "There is a basilisk in the forest. It dwells in a place that the elves cannot go, and where pixies would be overwhelmed. I must help them in this, Lili."
She gapes at him, horrified. "Haven't you done enough already, Jack?"
"They need me to go." He hesitates, then leans towards her face, planting a kiss on the side of her cheek. She stares blankly at him, denying his decision wildly, mute. "I must help protect what is good and pure."
He comes back smelling of sulphur and blood. She orders tubs of hot water to be brought in to scrub them; he receives them all in the garden, until the soil turns to mud beneath his feet, soaking up the runoff. The servants curse as they slip along the path, lugging the heavy pots.
Lili watches the entire spectacle from the safety of a stone path. She hates the fairies suddenly for putting them all in such a situation; she stops short of hating Jack. Jack does not do well in her world -- a place of books and shoes and no scrambling over the tables. Before the announcement of her betrothal, Lili's family had not minded her occasional visits to the country, though they doubtless would have had more to say if they'd realized she'd found love there. Now that she insists on being wed, they have discovered all kinds of faults with her chosen prince.
But Jack loves her, so he stays. He loves her, so he tries, and Lili tries not to see the way he looks outside the windows and sleeps on fresh soil, how he fumbles with fork and spoon and flushes uncomfortably under the scrutiny of her father's court.
This is a thing that he cannot conquer with a sword, or bow, or clever wit. She cannot be overcome. She is killing Jack as surely as if he wore an alicorn upon his brow, and she was laying her hands all over his body, marking him with her mortal palms.
She is killing him.
She does not want to let go.
It is Gump, ultimately, who breaks the stalemate.
He comes to her in the rain. Lili does not think to expect visitors in her bedroom; when she discovers the opened window that is drizzling all over her fine carpets, she blames herself for distraction. She latches it firmly shut, touching the sodden drapes with rue.
When she turns around, the elf is there.
Gump's chest is boyishly thin; she can see the outline of each rib when he breathes. His ears flare like heron feathers. Without preamble, he parts his lips and addresses her in his strange, gritty voice, each word a thoughtful rasp, like a cat given human tongue -- but not a human heart.
"You must release him, princess."
Her throat feels tight with fear. "I told him he was meant to stay in the forest."
Gump touches the window; it pops open and swings loose as if she had never locked it at all. The storm spills in. "And a fine order indeed, to be reversed so easily. Might as well be born of spring, to die 'fore the next cold winter."
"He loves me!" she cries, proud, aghast. "What are you to that? I won't let you have him. I love him. I want him!"
Gump stares at her, lifting his chin just enough that his gaze travels like an arrow down his rounded nose, and Lili remembers suddenly that -- despite his outwards appearance -- he is no child. Gump is ancient with all the trickery of fairykind; he has an animal's mercilessness. "You wanted something else too upon a time, if I recall."
As she shrinks back, he advances, one finger jutting directly for her eyes. "You almost destroyed something once, princess. Don't think you can make that mistake a second time, and come away unscathed."
The relief in Jack's eyes when she tells him scores her heart as surely as a knife. She voices her decision with her hands shoved into her lap to hide how they tremble.
"It was -- it was a mistake on my part to have you come, Jack." Her fingers twist in her skirts. "I told you that you belonged in the wood. I was right. You should return there. For -- for your own happiness."
He apologizes. He says things she barely hears. He asks if she is certain. Through the crescendo of despair in her ears, Lili says again and again that he must go; she is deaf with it.
Eventually, Jack slips away, saying again his promise one last time against her cheek. I will always be there for you.
She closes herself in her quarters for the rest of the day, for the entire week. She pulls shut the drapes. Gloom marches in and makes itself a home. She cannot wed Jack; they are too different now. She learned too much about herself. She learned too much about the things he cannot become.
Jack is simple. It was Darkness who had been complex. Darkness had been dangerous, and even as she had cringed before him, she had played the game of lies with him and won. If it had been Darkness there, she would have fenced with him for hours. He would have refused to leave. She would have scorned him. He would have taunted her; she would have laughed, and they both would have been impeccably cruel to one another in equal measure.
The sheets of her bed tangle around her legs as she fights her way into sleep. She dreams even when she is awake now, it feels like, suspended between dreams and waking in the half-light of her quarters. She dreams of Darkness revealing himself as the source of all her turmoil, stepping out of her flesh as smoothly as he once had stirred the surface of a mirror, or simply bursting out of her stomach like maggots from a sun-bloated corpse that'd been kicked --
She regains control of herself with an effort. She doesn't know why she was thinking of such things. With renewed determination, she rises from her bed and goes to wash her face. She must accept the facts.
Jack is gone. Jack is still gone.
Lili is older now. She is no longer a princess; she is a queen. She has had one child dead of the swelling fever that traders brought in from the west. She has had one husband pay the price of allowing those traders free passage. Vengeance did not come at her hands, of course -- she is too innocent of such things -- but she listened at night to certain necessary offers, certain voices that came visiting as she stood shuddering at the window and looked out upon the moonlit world.
Lili is a queen. She wears white, red, all colors save the unity of them, always skipping black. The creatures that crawl in supplication around her feet tell her how beautiful she would be while dressed in ebony and pitch, but she ignores their fawning; she is beautiful already.
Her windows are sheathed in iron. The fairies do not bother her anymore.
Out in the vastness of her wood, there exists a hero: a creature pure and filled with light. It takes a certain kind of bait to attract that type. Such perfection does not come readily to mortal hands; Lili knows this fact well. No matter. She has a daughter, sweet and fair. Her daughter sounds like magic when she sings. Lili has made certain to teach her perfectly.
Lili knows the rules of such beings; she will have what she desires.