Nessa's head wobbled weakly from the pillow and gasped at the sight that greeted her: her husband restrained by several guards as the king jerked her sister's head back, poised to strike. "What happened?"
"Nessa!" Elphaba yanked herself free from the shocked king's grip and rushed to her sister's side. "Are you alright? Can you breathe?"
Fiyero shook off his own guards with a spiteful glare and took the prone girl's hand. "You had us pretty worried."
"I see that," Nessa looked over his shoulder at the rest of their company. She shot a worried look to Elphaba. "I'm not decent."
Elphaba rolled her eyes. "You almost die, and that's what you're worried about?" But she reached for a dressing gown to drape over the girl.
Nessa looked again to the men all staring at her, and she blushed. Aruc took a step forward, "Your Grace, if I might be so bold, perhaps the princess could use her rest now that she has regained her senses."
The King nodded, and a guard took Elphaba by the forearm. "No," Fiyero bit out stubbornly. He latched an arm around her waist. "You're not taking her anywhere. Nessa wouldn't even be alive now if not for her."
"She violated her banishment. She must be punished, no matter how noble the cause."
"Please, Your Highness," Nessa spoke softly. "Just a moment with my sister."
The king took in her weak, pitiable expression, and he melted as easily as their father always had. Fiyero's hold did not loosen until his father had led out all the guards to wait beyond the door. With a final threat against any "ill-advised escape delusions," the king shut the door with a click.
"Thank Lurline you're alright," Aruc breathed as Elphaba tenderly brushed her younger sister's hair back.
"It is the Unnamed God we have to thank," Nessa rejoined, and Elphaba fought a groan. "And to Him I must surrender myself. This brush with death clarified His will for me."
"The Unnamed God challenges us through adversity, that by our trials we might be strengthened for His cause. I see now my trial, and I am resolved to fulfill it." Elphaba prepared herself for Nessa's self-righteous sanction of her awaited death, but the girl smiled. "Fabala, I forgive you."
"What?" She must have misheard.
"I forgive you in the light of the mercy I have myself been granted. I see it so clearly now." Nessa struggled to sit up. "This life, this marriage, is not the path He would send me on. Prince Fiyero, I hope you can accept this, and allow me to follow the stirring His spirit gives me."
Fiyero feigned a somber piety. "Of course, Miss Nessarose. Who am I to stand in the way of the Unnamed God?"
Aruc swallowed a smirk. "So you'll divorce him?"
"An annulment would be more in order," Fiyero offered, red tingeing his cheeks at Aruc's expression.
"Please, Prince Fiyero, fetch my father and the like that we might arrange this tonight."
He nodded, and Aruc went behind him out the door to find the others. Elphaba brushed the hair off her sister's forehead. "You're certain? After all this?"
Nessa smiled up at her and nodded. "All this torment is my own doing, I'm afraid. A lesson to guide me back. This is not the fulfillment my life requires."
"But you've always wanted to be married. Since you were a little girl."
"And so I shall be." Nessa wore a peaceful smile. "I shall marry my Lord and join the service of the Mauntery."
"No, Fabala. You mustn't blame yourself. Trust me, I feel only peace at this decision. My regret is that I had to face death before I could accept what I truly wanted in life."
Elphaba thought of Fiyero, and smiled. "I know what you mean."
By the time Aruc and Fiyero returned, parents in tow, Nessa had regained much of her color and was sitting up, dressed enough to appease her modesty. "Nessarose!" Her father rushed at her, pulling her into his arms. "Thank the Unnamed God!"
"Sh," Nessa soothed. "I'm well and as whole as ever. By the grace of our Lord and his reluctant servant, my dear sister."
"Elphaba?" Frexspar's forehead wrinkled, and then he glanced at her, surprised to see her there. "But you were banished."
"Are banished," the King reminded them. "Despite her supposed heroics."
"Your Highness, Three should be the one punished, not my sister. Elphaba only had the unfortunate fate to love the man she should have been promised to. I can't offer the prince any affection beyond friendship. I'm afraid I must trade my vows to him for those to a higher cause."
"I cannot marry him."
"But you already have."
"In name alone. My sister should take my place. She's the one meant for him." Frexspar started to argue, but Nessa shook her head. " My life is due to the Unnamed God, and I must follow His will."
"What does Three have to do with any of this?"
"She poisoned Nessa," Elphaba bit out. "Like I said."
"Yes," Nessa confirmed. "In my tea."
"Serious allegations, Miss Nessarose," the king warned. "You're certain?" She nodded, and the king called to the tall guard with the hooked nose. "Find Miss Three. Bring her to me."
The man scurried out, and Elphaba had to fight a smug expression as the king turned back to her.
"Still. A banishment is not a suggestion to be disregarded when it suits you. You violated your sentence, however dire the motivations, and you should receive punishment." The Queen took his arm, frowning, but he shook his head at her. "No, I will not pardon such constant disobedience. She is willful enough without believing she is above the rules."
"Father-" Fiyero started, but the King stopped him with a sharp look.
"And she has our son as defiant and obstinate as I've ever seen him." The king strode forward and caught Elphaba's chin in his hand. He tilted her face to stare intently at her, and she met his eyes without flinching. The corner of his mouth twitched, and he released her, frowning. "But I'll not have her made a martyr. A life sentence, then. But I'll not suffer any rebellions to this, no exceptions."
Elphaba let out a breath. It was more than she'd expected. A life meant hope. Perhaps with time, once Fiyero took the throne, she could be pardoned.
The taller guard arrived, hauling Three by the arm after him. He deposited her before the monarchs, and with a glance to the very conscious Nessa, Three crumpled to her knees. "Please, Your Highness. Have mercy. It was a mistake, I swear it. I never meant any harm."
"Liar!" Elphaba reached toward her, but Fiyero caught her against him. He whispered for her to stop before she landed herself back in judgment, but she broke free. "She has been nothing but a lying, manipulative witch since the day she arrived."
Three feigned an innocent look, and Fiyero hauled Elphaba back before she could slap the falseness out of Three's face. Aruc stepped forward, "She is right. There is no way the herbs could have been mixed by mistake. Jimuak is not an edible herb. She would have known."
Three started to argue, but the king's fierce expression stopped her. "I've heard enough. You dare to poison a member of the royal family? And under my own roof, no less. Your treason does not surprise me so much as your gall. Be glad I sentence you to banishment rather than death. And don't let Miss Elphaba fool you. If I see so much as hair of that guileful head of yours, I'll not hesitate to have you disposed of on sight, whatever lie you might spin to try to save yourself. Take her to the dungeon, and place her on the first wagon train to the Great Desert. Post her pictures in all outlying villages with orders to execute her at sight."
"No, Your Highness, please." Pale and teary-eyed, Three begged mercy all the way from the room, and when she was gone, the king turned back to Elphaba.
"It's time to carry out your sentence."
Elphaba nodded and turned to face Fiyero. She cupped his cheek in her hand. "Don't do something reckless, you idiot. I'll be fine."
"Me?" he choked out. "You're the reckless one, jumping out of carriages and rushing back into castles to save the princess." He pulled her into a fierce kiss, aching of lost opportunity. Then he pulled back and rested his forehead against hers. "I will come for you. I swear it. Somehow, I'll find a way, whatever it takes."
She kissed him gently. "Take care of my sister. And yourself."
"I love you," he promised, his face etched in despair, and she forced a sad smile.
"I love you, too, you stupid boy. Now let me go."
He did, reluctantly, and she trailed the king from the room, flanked on either side by a company of guards.
Elphaba fidgeted with the buttons on the clothes they'd left for her to wear. She'd been dressed for hours, the walls of the little room slowly closing in. Was Fiyero waiting, too? Had Aruc already reached him?
She paced, anxious with the future waiting a few moments away. A knock on the door, and Elphaba rushed as the knob turned.
Her father stood in the doorway, outlined by the brilliant light. "Elphaba."
He smiled and took her arm, "Ready?"
"As ready as I'll ever be."
He guided her through the narrow corridor into the crowded room. Past row after row of nobles and dignitaries, she marched to her fate. The number surprised her, though it shouldn't have. A life sentence always merited this attention, it seemed.
At the end of the aisle, Fiyero beamed at her, and she hurried her father toward him. Aruc grinned beside him and winked at her, and she spared a blush. Fiyero took her hand and led her to stand before the king. "A life sentence I promised, and a life sentence I bestow. Do you, Elphaba Thropp vow to take Prince Fiyero as your lawfully married husband, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, for good times and for bad, so long as you both shall live?"
"We've already done half those, so I suppose I can manage it."
"And do you, Prince Fiyero vow to-"
"Yes, yes, yes. That and more." He grinned at her, and before the king could authorize it, Fiyero hauled her to him for a long, fiery kiss.
The crowd erupted in applause, and the king chuckled his blessings, but Elphaba was lost to anything but Fiyero. With a final soft, tender touch, her new husband released her, and they faced the beaming faces of their friends.
The reception had an odd familiarity to it, the dinner, the dance, all of it, but with a bright giddiness. Like a weight had been lifted off them all. Aruc danced with her, and they stumbled about as atrociously as ever. Fiyero swept her off her feet, and even her father smiled at her whenever she caught him off-guard.
With the sun gone, and the stars twinkling, Aruc suggested they walk the east gardens for the last time. Fiyero took Nessa to fetch a shawl, and she strolled along beside her friend through the quiet moonlight.
"Well, congratulations. Fiyero is a lucky man."
She caught his hand. "I'm sorry, Aruc. You deserve your own happiness as well."
"Now, now, don't trouble yourself over me." He brushed a finger over her cheek. "I may never find as wonderful and spirited a bride as my dear friend has, but better Fiyero benefit from your favor than some cad. Perhaps I'll fall in love with the next girl."
He pressed a soft kiss to her forehead. "Hush. I'm happy for you both."
"Hey," Fiyero called, mirth belying his poorly formed scowl. "What are you trying with my wife there?"
Aruc held up his hand in mock surrender, "Nothing now, thanks to your terrible timing. I figured I deserved at least a pity kiss or two."
"I'll thank you to keep your lips off my wife."
Fiyero caught Elphaba in a soft kiss of his own, and Aruc abandoned them for Nessa. "My lady. When shall we leave tomorrow?"
Nessa nodded. "Aruc is escorting me to the mauntery."
"So soon?" Elphaba caught his arm. "Surely you could stay a few days."
"Time is precious, milady. But we shall cross paths again, I'm sure. She is still your sister, and I will always be your humble admirer."
"Humble? You?" Fiyero teased, and the boys mocked a chase around the girls as obstacles.
Nessa leaned her head on Elphaba's shoulder. "All things have a season, to grow and change, as the Unnamed God wills."
Fiyero wrapped her in his arm, and Aruc draped a hand around both girls' shoulders. Together they watched the brilliant colors of the desert sunset. She cherished the moment before it could pass, that joy wrapped in the bittersweet knowledge that time trickled on, making its own arrangements that none of them could ever predict.
AN: Thanks for reading. I've started on the M-rated Elpharic, but my computer is still broken so it might be awhile. Thanks for all the reviews and for taking the time to read my work.