Chapter Eleven – The Morning After

The world was spinning erratically, wobbling, threatening to send everything upon it toppling in disarray. Or at least that's how it felt to Kimberly. She tried to open her eyes, but it only made the sensation worse; she moaned her displeasure, clinging to the solid body that supported her. She realized dimly that she was being carried like a child, strong arms and broad chest the only stability in a world that had gone completely off-kilter.

"Shh, it'll be okay," someone soothed. Kimberly recognized the voice and wanted to die a little. Tommy. "She will be okay, right?" he asked. Someone answered from somewhere behind her, but her mind seemed to have gotten stuck on one particular detail.

No, no, no. This could not be happening. Waking up in Tommy's arms should have been a dream come true. But Kimberly was hurting so much that it felt like a nightmare instead. How had her night gone from near perfect to... this?

Oh, right. The monster. She had been alone with Tommy, enjoying the masquerade ball, and then yet another monster had showed up. It had ripped her away from Tommy in spite of his best efforts to protect her, she remembered with a shudder. But she couldn't seem to recall much after that. She realized, feeling surprisingly numb, that the must have done something to her. But what? Did it even really matter, now that she was safe in Tommy's arms again?

And then she realized with abject horror that it might matter very much. What if it had made her ugly, turned her into a monster too?

Kimberly squirmed. Her attempted reprimand - "Put me down!" - came out as a wordless groan. And despite her urgent need for a mirror, Tommy did nothing of the sort. If anything he held her closer as she buried her face miserably against his shoulder.

He stopped walking for a moment, and the world seemed almost to right itself. Then there came the sound of a door being opened, almost painful to her ears, and then they were on their way again.

For a moment she tried to ignore the mass of people accompanying them and any ill-effects the monster's attack might have had, and instead held on to the pleasant idea of Tommy carrying her off to his bedchamber, like the hero in one of the cheap, silly story books Trini sometimes bought for her in town... but the fantasy didn't last long. Healers swarmed around as he stooped to deposit her on a bed; she knew she should have been upset at people seeing her so vulnerable, but she honestly cared more about the fact that she was now lying on a soft bed that did not seem inclined to move. Except, she realized sourly, it wasn't her bed or Tommy's, but Jason's. She was borrowing his quarters because a monster had punched a giant hole in the wall of her bedroom.

She frowned. It seemed like every time she tried to indulge herself with thoughts that maybe her life wouldn't be ruined in the near future, something had to go and remind her of Jason. Couldn't he leave her alone for one night?

But she realized almost immediately that her anger was misplaced. She might be in his chambers... her chambers... whatever these were now that she was the one using them, but he was nowhere in evidence. She wasn't sure why, but it seemed like that might be a bad thing. Later. It could be a bad thing later. Now she was just glad to have one less person crushing in around her.

She was shaking. She'd hardly noticed it until this moment. When she reached out after Tommy, someone took her hand and sat next to her, whispering soothingly. A cool hand smoothed her hair over her forehead. Somewhere along the line she had lost her elaborate mask.

"All right," an authoritative female voice rose above the rest, "everybody that isn't a healer: OUT!"

At first she thought it might have been Trini, but the voice was all wrong. And besides, she realized, opening her eyes a little, Trini was the one sitting next to her on the bed, holding her hand.

"Tommy," Kim murmured. She didn't want him to leave her, no matter what.

"He can stay," Trini promised.

She had to move out of the way then to make room for the healers to thoroughly examine Kimberly, but true to her word, Tommy was allowed to stay. And when the healers had finished poking and prodding her and pronounced her perfectly healthy and finally took their leave, Aisha and Trini looked the other way when he found a place beside her on the bed and held her until she slept.

-x-

Rita watched the night's proceedings through her scrying pool and scowled furiously. That monster should have been a success! And in a way it was, she thought, watching how the healers allowed her Green Knight to remain with the Princess while most of the others were ushered out... except that obnoxious handmaiden, Trini. That girl was almost as bad as Jason.

Keep an eye on that girl, she commanded.

Tommy looked startled at the sudden intrusion into his thoughts, but the healers were too occupied with their wounded Princess to notice.

She's trouble, Rita added.

"Which one?" Tommy asked finally.

Trini, you idiot! What do you mean, 'which one'?

Tommy gave her a ferocious scowl of his own, making her wonder if he knew she could see him. "Aisha's here, too, you know."

Keep an eye on her, too, she decided momentarily. She didn't think this Aisha was particularly dangerous, but she was too observant and intuitive for her own good and that could become a problem if Rita and Tommy weren't careful.

"I've got other things to worry about right now," Tommy said angrily, and that was the last she could get out of him.

Rita fumed. Where had her spell of control gone wrong? Tommy had been perfectly obedient the day she ensnared him, but she could feel that her control over him had steadily been slipping since then. His early fear of her had vanished, leaving quite an attitude problem in its place, and he never seemed to obey her where the Princess was concerned.

She ignored the fact that thus far his intuition regarding the Princess had always proved correct. It irked that he even thought of disobedience.

Rita went back to her spellbooks and pored back over the spell she had used. She had recited each word exactly as it was written. And Tommy had been the perfect candidate. Everything had been right! It could be that the spell weakened with distance, or there could be interference from somewhere.

She felt the beginning of a headache coming on, as if her sour temper needed any help.

If that stupid Princess was inadvertently doing something to undermine her glorious magic, Rita was going to make doubly sure she paid for the transgression. But first things first. She must make the magic crown hers, and all the power that came with it. Only then could she have her fun with the Princess.

She returned to her scrying pool to glower at Tommy. He was still with the Princess, sitting beside her on the bed, holding her while she slept as a lover might. You had better not fail me, my Green Knight...

-x-

Jason was not particularly surprised to find Kimberly's door unguarded. The castle guards had been doing a less than stellar job ever since the King and Queen were taken by the plague, and the situation had grown steadily worse with the recent outbreaks of strange activity, like monsters. The guards were not cowardly men; against human opponents they would have fared much better. But in a supernatural foe they saw only death. Not that Jason could really blame them.

These monsters were dangerous, extremely so. He and the other knights were lucky that they had been able to keep things under control thus far. But if they did not figure out the cause soon, they could be in big trouble. Not for the first time, Jason cursed Zordon's absence. The old sorcerer might have frustrated Kimberly with his insistence that she marry as soon as possible, but he would have known what to do.

But Zordon was gone, for whatever reason, and they would just have to muddle through on their own.

Jason sighed and knocked on the door.

"Who's there?" a voice asked from the other side.

He paused for a moment, surprised. He'd been expecting Trini to answer, but this sounded more like... "Aisha? It's Jason."

The lock clicked loudly and the door opened a crack.

"You look like hell," Aisha observed.

He didn't bother to respond to that. Of course he looked like hell: he'd lost a fight with a monster only a few hours ago. The healers had only discharged him, with orders to go directly to his chambers and rest, a few minutes ago. "How's Kimberly?" he asked, resisting the urge to rub at the sore skin around his eyes for the umpteenth time that night. It seemed like every time he even thought of it, it burned anew.

Aisha slipped out the door, letting it close behind her so she could lean against it. "The healers are gone. She's sleeping now. And I mean natural sleep, not that weird, half-conscious... whatever she was doing before."

"She'll be okay, then?"

"They say all we can do now is let her sleep it off, and then we'll see. But I think she will be okay."

"That's good." If Kim was doing well, that meant everyone could breathe a sigh of relief, and the annoying nobles who had already started planning for the contingency of her death - some of them, Jason knew, going so far as to start acting on those plans - would have to give it a rest. "How about Trini?"

Aisha shrugged. "She seemed fine when she was here."

"She's not here now?"

"Went down to the archives to talk to Billy an hour or so ago."

Jason didn't say anything for a moment. It seemed odd that Trini had bounced back from the monster's attack so quickly, while Kim was still suffering from it. And he got the impression that was exactly the point Aisha was trying to make. Maybe she was doing better because it had captured her much later than Kimberly... but he thought it would be a good idea to go check on her before heading back to his quarters for some much-needed - and healer-ordered - sleep.

"I'll go see how she's holding up," he decided aloud.

Aisha nodded approvingly. "You do that, and I'll keep an eye on the Princess."

"I owe you one."

She shooed him down the hall. "It's the least I can do. Go see how Trini's doing, and then take care of yourself. You're not going to win any fights if you feel as bad as you look!"

That last comment was shouted cheerfully after him and nearly made him twitch. But he was determined not to let it faze him. He made a quick stop at the castle kitchens - he knew Trini too well to think she had stopped to eat after what happened at the Masquerade - and then headed down to the archives. She must have gone there to talk to Billy; it would be like the two of them to try to find an explanation or precedent for the night's events.

It was quiet and darker than usual in the archives. Most of the apprentices were nowhere to be found. After the masquerade ball, most of them would have gone home for the night. But not Billy and Trini. And Katherine, Jason saw belatedly as he found his way to the archivists' customary meeting place. It had been a while since Jason had come to this place; he was pleased to find that he still remembered the way, and that he'd been right about Trini, too.

She was sound asleep at one of the worktables, her head resting on her folded arms, an open book underneath. She had put up a strong front, but the monster's attack must have taken a lot out of her, too.

Nearby, Billy and Kat were conversing about something in low tones. They looked up, startled, at hearing him enter. He managed a grin and held up the tray he'd been carrying, laden with leftover food from the night's party.

After they had all had something to eat, and had set some aside for Trini, Jason sat back and fixed both archivists with a stern look. He hadn't bothered to ask, but he had a very strong feeling that he knew what they - and Trini - were doing down here so late on the night of a royal ball. Considering how the ball had ended, it didn't take a genius to figure it out. "So. Any ideas yet?"

Billy glanced to Katherine, but she was staring down at the table before her. Not exactly what Jason would call an encouraging sign.

"There's nothing about anything like this in the archives," Katherine burst out, at the same moment as Billy more soberly said, "The relevant information has been removed from the archives."

"Wait, what? Why hasn't anyone been informed of this?" Jason sputtered, disbelieving. Someone had stolen from the archives? He couldn't imagine what anyone would want with a bunch of old books.

Billy's expression was deadly serious. "We do not know who is responsible, nor what the motive may have been, and decided it was wisest to keep things under wraps until more information comes to light."

"What, exactly, is missing?"

"Everything related to magic and supernatural creatures has been removed," Billy said simply. Jason found that hard to believe, but the look in the archivist's eyes said he was being truthful.

"So we have no idea what is going on or how to stop it."

Billy shook his head; Katherine looked more and more ready to wilt with each word he said. Clearly, they blamed themselves for this problem. Jason supposed outright telling them that whatever had happened wasn't their fault would do no good whatsoever; that would have been far too simple. So he looked at them expectantly and hoped that between the two of them they could think of something to say, or that Trini would wake up and solve all his problems like she usually did. But she was out cold, blissfully unaware of the world around her. He envied her that; he was beginning to feel the long day acutely.

"As soon as we find something, you'll know," Katherine said, the determination in her voice belying her earlier shyness. "But there's no evidence and no pattern. Everything that has anything to do with magic is just gone."

Jason wondered just how long this had been going on, and what all the implications might be, but he knew better than to ask. Tensions were running too high tonight. It would be better if they all got some sleep and tackled the problems in the morning. But how to convince them of that?

"Maybe," he began, just as Katherine said the same thing. He gestured for her to continue. She colored a little, embarrassed at having interrupted, but went on, "Maybe we'd be able to see things more clearly after a night's rest."

Jason hid a grin. "That's exactly what I was about to say." And he was glad she had said it, too. Her cooperation would make it that much easier to convince Billy.

The young archivist knew when he was beaten, but to his credit he still tried to put up a fight. "There won't be time in the morning. With the melee and -"

But Katherine had him beat there, too. "Maybe not for you. But I don't have any extra responsibilities in the morning... There is nothing stopping me from continuing from wherever we leave off tonight."

Billy managed a rather impressive glare – Jason could tell he'd been spending too much time around Trini lately – but eventually gave in to the logic his friends had presented. There was little he could do to argue with their points. And besides, there were very few people who could out-stubborn Jason.

"Fine," Billy acquiesced at last, realizing that they weren't going anywhere without him. "I will retire for the evening, but only if you give me your word that I will be informed the instant any important discovery is made, regardless of what else is happening at the time."

Katherine smiled. "Of course."

The two archivists let him usher them toward the exit, but he paused for a moment. When they realized he had stopped, they stopped walking, too.

He glanced at Trini, still asleep at the table. "Should we wake her?"

Billy shook his head. "Let her sleep. She's perfectly safe down here – it's knowledge that's been stolen, not people. And besides, if we wake her up, she'll just keep looking for an answer until she's asleep on her feet again."

Jason tried not to let his amusement show. Trini was always quick to inform her friends that she knew her limits, thank-you-very-much, but those who knew her best knew otherwise. She had a tendency to push herself entirely too hard, given the necessary provocation.

She would probably be angry in the morning, but at least she looked anything but stressed now. She had obviously needed the rest, if she could sleep – and so peacefully! - like that. But just leaving her there like that seemed somehow wrong.

Frowning, and without really stopping to think about it, Jason unclasped the heavy red velvet cloak from around his neck. It was one of the showier parts of the dress uniform he had worn to the masquerade, but it would serve. It was a matter of a few seconds to walk back to where she was sleeping and drape it over her like a blanket.

Better, he thought. And at least this way she would know to blame him for this instead of Billy or Katherine.

"Okay," he announced, resuming his role of usher to the archivists as if he'd never deviated from his mission for a moment. "Both of you, time to go get some sleep."

-x-

Katherine sat in her small chamber for a long time, just staring at the candle's flame. It was late, but she wasn't ready to sleep yet. If she had to admit it, she was afraid to blow that candle out, to douse that small light.

She had never been afraid of the dark before, even as a young child. Nighttime had always seemed soft and peaceful to her, the very opposite of threatening.

Not so, tonight.

Tonight the shadows seemed full of monsters.

She had always told herself that monsters belonged to the realm of fairy stories. Magic might exist, but surely foul creatures born of its power were nothing but myth. Magic protected the kingdom and its people. It didn't hurt people. It couldn't be perverted into something like this.

Except that now she knew it could. She had seen it with her own two eyes.

It frightened her.

And, worse, it had touched something inside of her. Something dark and unpleasant that wanted very, very badly to be let out.

She summoned all the courage she possessed, and blew out the candle. And for the rest of the night, she lay huddled on her small bed, afraid to sleep because every time she closed her eyes she saw the visage of a beautiful woman standing before her.

A beautiful woman... with a scorpion's tail, ready to strike.

-x-

Kimberly's morning began a whole lot better than her night had ended. And that was even counting the fact that she was up and awake with the dawn, an occurrence she ordinarily dreaded. But when she woke up beside her favorite knight, the man who made her heart beat fast and all negative thought flee from her head, nothing could seem bad.

She had thought at first she was dreaming, that this cocoon of safety and warmth was nothing more than the creation of her mind, but it was all too real. Tommy looked so innocent and sweet when he was sleeping, but the sound of her quiet giggle at the thought woke him up. He stared at her with concerned eyes that told her he was every bit as surprised as she was to wake up together.

"Kimberly?" he asked, his voice still rough with sleep.

She cuddled closer to him, suddenly utterly unselfconscious. It didn't even bother her that she was still wearing what was left of her rumpled and half destroyed gown from the ball the night before, that all that separated them was the blanket someone had covered her with during the night. She still couldn't quite believe this was really happening, but she definitely did not want it to end any time soon.

But it had to. And she knew that.

It still hurt when it came down to it.

"I had better go prepare for the melee," he said at last. It made everything seem suddenly awkward. And just that easily, he rose and purposefully strode toward the door, but he hesitated before going out.

"And I have to get back to looking pretty and brainless while everyone else picks out the right man for me to marry," she grumbled. It pained her to see him leaving – when he hadn't even kissed her good-morning! - and the idea of being denied his presence after having actually had it was making her grumpy.

He paused, turned to look at her again, left the door to the bedchamber shut. "Why don't they trust you to pick the right man on your own?"

It was a good question, and one for which she had no answer. "Because they don't trust me," she said at last. "They", the court folk, did not trust her to rule and never had. Her parents had not even trusted her with the secrets of her bloodline, and that was the reason the kingdom was in its current predicament in the first place.

If only they had just told her...

But instead the rulers of the noble families ran her kingdom, while she was forced to sit attendance on the tournament field and smile at knights she hated more and more each day.

Tommy was frowning. "Why not?"

"I don't know." She sounded horribly quiet and lost, even to her own ears. She hated seeming weak and sad in front of him, of all people, but it only seemed to make him more protective of her. And she had felt lost for so long that the comfort he provided was beyond welcome.

He trusted and valued her, even if no one else did.

"If they don't trust you, can't they just replace you?"

"Because I'm the Princess, the only child of the blood, so they can't or they'd have to overturn the way things have been done for a thousand years, and give up the magic that keeps us all safe. But they can make me marry the man of their choosing, who will then rule for me." Until the words were out, she hadn't realized just how bitter such constant mistrust made her feel. "I wish it could be you."

"It still can be, can't it?"

Her heart skipped a beat at the suggestion. "I don't know. Everyone else is so dead set on it being Jason..." And they haven't listened to me about anything else... well, Trini listens, at least. But even Trini disregarded her concerns about this.

"Then I'll just have to prove I'm the better option."

"Tommy..." First you'd have to beat Jason, and I'm not even sure that's possible anymore, Kimberly thought morosely, but she did not put voice to it. She didn't want to discourage him. If anything, she wanted to encourage him as much as she could without getting into trouble.

"I won't let you down. I'll do everything I can to win," he promised. "For you."

In spite of all the work undoubtedly ahead of her today, Kimberly's heart soared.

-x-

Trini groaned and swatted at the hand that was shaking her awake. It was far too early to be up and about, she was sure of it. And she'd been having such a nice dream, too...

"Trini, wake up," Billy insisted. "It's almost noon."

She knew from the sound of his voice that she couldn't delay any longer and blearily raised her head, realizing with some embarrassment that she had fallen asleep at her worktable and spent the night and most of the morning in the archives.

Something in her neck pulled unpleasantly. She groaned, and let her head fall back to where it had been pillowed on her arms. But Billy was nothing if not persistent; she knew he wouldn't go away until he got what he wanted. And since it was Billy, what he wanted was probably something important.

With more effort than she would have liked to admit, she forced herself to sit upright. The cloak that had been draped over her shoulders slithered to the ground in a rush of red velvet. Glancing to one side, she noticed that there was a candied apple, a leftover from last night's banquet, sitting on the table beside her. Her stomach, empty since the midday meal yesterday, ached at the sight. Those had always been her favorites, but she had not had a chance to swipe one yesterday before everything went wrong, and by that time her appetite had disappeared. "Jason was here?" she asked with a frown.

Billy nodded. "You were already asleep."

It figured. Neither of them had thought to wake her up and send her back to her room for the night, which meant that the ache in her neck was entirely their fault.

She rubbed ineffectually at protesting muscles, took a determined bite out of her apple, and asked, "Is the melee still on for today?"

"It would certainly seem like it," Billy told her. "Kimberly seems to have been fully restored."

"Thank goodness."

"Yes, that's all to the better," he agreed. "But if you're up to it, she still wants you on the tourney field today."

Trini groaned again and seriously considered collapsing back against the table and feigning illness. It was probably too late for that, so she worked on finishing her breakfast instead. "She's still on that?"

Billy nodded. "It is her belief that it will appear 'suspicious' if the Yellow Knight disappears before the tournament is officially over."

Leave it to Kimberly to finally come up with a logical explanation for her ridiculous demands. Still, Trini was reluctant. She ached all over, and she was not in the mood for fighting. Although on second thought, physical exertion might help take care of her bad mood. What was the worst that could happen?

She knew the answer even as she asked herself the question. Injury. Death. Serious injury or loss of life on the tourney field were rare, but not unheard of. Especially during the melee, which was easily the most dangerous part of the tournament, being a largely unsupervised - and unsupervisable - brawl. The very idea made her nervous.

But Kimberly was Princess. And what she wanted, she got.

Trini sighed. She finished her apple and got to her feet in a rush that made her feel unpleasantly weak. She pushed past the feeling, knowing that the magic from her ring would rejuvenate her.

"Let's go."

As she followed Billy out of the archives and toward the royal stable, where her horse and the stable boy she'd been bribing to care for the animal and keep her secret awaited, she sincerely hoped this would be her last appearance as the masked Yellow Knight.