One of the things that she brought with her to this life is a delicate bracelet, which has a deep magenta crystal dangling from it and several blue and purple crystals dotted around the bracelet itself. She must have been wearing it that night; now that she thinks about it, the first time she remembers seeing it was when she'd dumped her purse out at Homecoming, looking for her lipstick. It's beautiful, and it shines delicately, as if the magenta crystal is alive. Its purpose and origins she doesn't remember at first, not until she falls asleep touching it and wakes in the dream realm, thousands of gray doors laid out before her.
It startles her enough that she wakes violently, thrashing in the sheets and tumbling out of bed. Rose hits the floor with a dull thud and a grunt. Still aching from the fight with the Dark Dragon two nights before, she doesn't push herself up from the ground right away. The sheet she was tangled in is warm, and she's slept on harder floors. In her other life, anyway. She reaches up to the bed and drags a pillow down to the floor with her, curling around it and breathing deeply until she goes back to sleep.
It's just the dream world. She's been there before. Deep breaths.
Slipping back into sleep, Rose returns to the gray doors. She remembers this from her old life, from the long nights at the Academy spent exploring the dream realm and avoiding the penetrating stares from all the girls who had looked up to her. She'd failed in the field, they said. Choked. Thousands of doors surround her, and the names blur together as she walks past them. Eventually, she finds her own, but it's not like the others. There are two doors with her name, one that says "Huntsgirl" below her name and the other blank, and she's torn over which to enter first.
Rose chooses herself-she's not ready to be Huntsgirl again.
Things are largely as she remembers, her inner life about what she expected, except for the Huntsclan members hiding in dark corners-what are they doing here?-and the dragons glaring at her from behind trees and buildings. It's strange, the way little odd things have come in here to disrupt the normalcy, but somehow it feels more normal than the rest of her life right now, so maybe it's not so bad.
She whirls around. "Jake? Are you real?"
He isn't. This Jake is her imagination, a Jake who isn't also a red lizard, a Jake she's only seen around school and thought was cute, in passing, a Jake she wouldn't be dreaming about except that she knows him now and remembers all the times she's seen him before. As it turns out, he's seen her around before too, and since she's not moving to Hong Kong after all, maybe she'd like to hang out sometime.
This, in direct parallel with everything she knows about the real Jake and about herself, is too much, and she wakes again. Rose throws her dream bracelet across the room and doesn't go back to sleep.
"I hate to keep you up," she says, twirling her finger in her hair.
Jake stifles a yawn. "I don't mind. We never do anything in Rotwood's class anyway."
"Rotwood? He isn't still teaching at Fillmore?"
"Nah, he got a job teaching biology. He doesn't know anything about biology." There's something between laughter and derision in his voice. "I swear he's paying off somebody in administration or the board or something."
She chuckles. Much of what she remembers of Rotwood from this life is a man who wears ugly suits and speaks with a German accent. Her other life tells her he's regularly hassling Jake, though for now any negative influence he's had on her life seems to have been tucked away, in the vortex somewhere, maybe. Or maybe he didn't bother her that much at all.
She's not ready to open Huntsgirl's dream door yet, or to remember all of the little things about her past.
"Sounds like things are pretty average there, then." Rose tries to keep the jealousy tamped down.
"Well, Fu has three new girlfriends, so that's been fun."
They meet in Jake's dream for the first time a few months after he returns home, a much gentler place than her own. He's constructed something romantic and perfectly benign, a picnic on top of a mountain. She's never seen the place before in either life, which probably impresses her more than anything else. Rose considers complimenting him on a date that absolutely doesn't make her think of something horrible or confusing from any and all of her pasts, but if she remembers correctly, their dates have always been susceptible to mood killing comments. They usually don't recover.
So, she lets it be, and she smiles at him when he makes jokes and leans her head on his shoulder when he very unsubtly slips his arm around her. Birds chirp around them, flitting about branches burnished red and gold like they would be in the middle of fall, even as butterflies and honeybees float between cherry blossoms and light pink roses.
"I like the view," she muses, reaching a hand toward one of the cutest squirrels she's ever seen.
"I could add snow if you want." She looks up at him and sees an easy smile and a sparkle in his dark eyes.
Rose allows a light chuckle to break free. "No, that would be too much."
Jake leans down abruptly and pecks her forehead. "See, that's what I thought."
Surprisingly, they don't talk much after that (and they hadn't much before). At the end of the night, she's not sure whether this turned out to be a good thing or a bad thing; on the one hand she'd had plenty of time to sit quietly with someone who loved her, but on the other hand she'd had entirely too much time to think. Funny though, if she were more of an overachiever, this would be the perfect way to study for an exam and sleep at the same time.
He does make chocolate cupcakes materialize from nothing, which are even better than the crepes she remembers from one of their last happy dream dates. "Way better than the cupcakes I made for the school carnival," he comments.
"Why were you making cupcakes for a carnival?" She raises her eyebrows and pulls away enough to be able to look at his face.
Jake rolls his eyes. "Long story short, stupid extra credit. I turned all the clowns into Krylock monsters. You don't really want to hear about that though."
He's probably right. "Tell me anyway."
"Nothing major. I got Krylock venom for making a portal to you, after you appeared in my dream a couple months after you left New York. The first time," he adds. "I was maybe a little obsessed with finding you. But anyways I was failing home ec-"
"How do you fail home ec?"
"I ruined three sets of braces."
"Not my fault! How was I supposed to know peanut butter could be that sticky?"
"I guess technically they should have realized it was peanut butter and not eaten it. I had braces; they warn you not to eat sticky stuff."
"You had braces? For what? Your teeth have always been straight."
Rose shrugs. "Slight bite adjustment. Two rounds. Go on."
"Okay so I was failing home ec. Ms. Park said if I made cupcakes for the school carnival, she wouldn't fail me, so I ended up having Trixie and Spud make the cupcakes while me and Fu set up the potion-"
Rose struggles to suppress a laugh. "So…you cheated on your extra credit, Trixie and Spud turned everyone into monsters, and let me guess, you ended up using the portal spell to save the day."
Jake narrows his eyes at her. "Have you been spying on my memories?"
"No! But everything seems to work out for you."
Jake huffs. "Didn't feel like it at the time."
She's done suppressing the laughter, and the giggles pour out of her. She does her best to hide the occasional sob that pokes through. Is her entire life just one more thing that's working out for him? That's not his fault, though, so does she have any right to fight it, to punish him for his good luck?
They're 17 when she's able to come back to New York for the first time. Her plane lands just as a drizzle is starting to bear down on the city, so he picks her up from the airport in a janky old Trans Am that he doesn't turn off because he isn't sure she'll start up again, and it would really suck to have to be towed from the airport.
She leaps into his arms, leaving her suitcase on the curb, when he steps around the car and grins at her. "Missed you, babe," he whispers into her hair."
"You just saw me yesterday," she teases.
"Not the same." He squeezes her tightly before stepping aside and opening the car door for her. "I'll get your bag."
"Such a gentleman."
"I know, right?"
"So," she says, flipping her hair over her shoulder and settling into the seat.
"So," he says as he pulls his door shut.
"Why do you have a car?"
He grins and clicks his tongue. "Baby, why wouldn't I have a car? I bought one last time I was old enough."
He's told her about the time he maxed out his credit cards and bought a car, but she hadn't really believed him-what kind of credit card company would issue cards to a man without a Social Security Number that matched his age? "You live in New York City."
"Yeah, traffic sucks."
"You have wings."
"Rose, please. Let the Jake-man enjoy his new ride."
So she rolls her eyes with a smile and lets it pass.
The fourth night she's there, he takes her out to an old reservoir outside the city, where there's old gravel that crunches under the tires and grass has grown through most of the pavement. Jake fiddles with the radio for a while until he finds something neither of them have ever heard, and she leans over the stubby console to rest her head on his shoulder. Moonlight streams in through the windshield and highlights the angles of his face. He's as handsome as he's ever been, and there's a flicker of something deep inside her that might be love, might be lust, might be both.
Either way, her jeans are suddenly very uncomfortable when he pushes her back a little and softly kisses her lips, one hand in her hair and the other drawing patterns on her back.
He pulls back from her, just a little, and whispers, "I love you."
"I love you too." She pulls him back and trails her finger along his jaw, just a little stubbly from where he's been halfheartedly trying to grow a beard. He feels different than he does in the dreams; he's never stubbly there, and it seems he's built up some muscle and hasn't realized it yet. He also smells a bit like sandalwood, which is new. It's nice.
In the end, they go quite a bit farther than they should have, and the steam is thick on the windows. Tangled in the back seat, cramped and uncomfortable, she leans against the side window and lets the chilled glass cool her forehead. Jake leans closer and pecks her cheek before peeling their legs apart. "That was fun." He flashes a grin at her, sweat glistening on his forehead.
She giggles. "Yeah."
"Yeah? That's all you got?"
Rose is about to retort when there's a thud on her window. "Aaah!"
The passenger side door is flung open, and suddenly Spud's head is entirely too close for comfort. "Jake! Me and Trixie saw your car! Are you being attacked by a mermaid?"
Jake scrambles for his clothes, jerking his pants up and throwing his T-shirt over Rose. "Spud, what are you doing?!"
"Trixie! He's trapped with a mermaid!"
Trixie's voice is smaller, like it's coming from several feet away. "Spud, I'm not going over there. Why would a mermaid trap Jake in his own car? He's busy! Can we go now?"
"Hang on, I need to ask if she can turn me into a merman."
"Spud!" Rose shrieks. "Get out of the car!"
"Rose! Hi! Sorry! You're not a mermaid. This is embarrassing." Spud launches himself out of the car and slams the door. "Trix! It was Rose, not a mermaid."
Trixie audibly begins to strangle him.
As it turns out, Trixie and Spud had been out looking for him because he wasn't responding to Fu's calls about a magical emergency (Gramps ripped him a new one the moment Jake stepped foot in the shop). Trixie begs Rose to forgive Spud-he's an idiot. They weren't trying to be weird.
Rose forgives Spud. She's pretty sure he didn't see anything.
She throws herself into the last school year with more intensity than she has in either of her lives. Spending hours in the library after school is a strain on her eyes (and her mind), and her parents have begun leaving blankets in the living room when they go to bed at night.
"Don't stay up too late," her mother says, and one part of her feels the annoyance of being 17 years old and still being bothered about not staying up too late, but the part that wins is the little girl who grew up without a mother. Rose has taken to giving hugs instead of put-upon sighs, and her mother receives them with much love and mild bemusement.
Their relationship has never been better, nor stranger.
Remy has taken to looking at her with suspicion. The Rose who was once an ally in sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night has suddenly become a homebody (and worse, a total geek). She sleeps more than she used to, studies twice as much, and has been broody.
"What's wrong with you lately," she asks, trying to be gentle.
Rose looks at her sister with a strangely conflicted face. One half looks like she has a million things to say, and the other half is a passive mask. The Rose that Remy knows would tell her, rambling on and on about her boyfriend and how much she misses him, but the Rose that's under that mask, the one she's been living with since that night the dragons came for her, that Rose is frightening, and deathly silent.
"Nothing," she says, and that's the end of many conversations.
"Don't come; it'll cost too much to fly," she argues, one finger twirling her hair, the other hand tapping her leg. She's flopped across her bed, staring at the ceiling.
"Babes, I have wings." She can hear the amusement in his voice.
"You won't be tired?"
"Rose, please. The Am Drag has flown way farther in less time. No worries. I'll be there by Friday night."
Rolling over on her bed, she reaches for her phone and turns off speaker. "My dad will let you sleep on the couch until Sunday."
"The couch?!" Laughter behind the indignance. "Guess we shouldn't tell him what we'll be up to in our dreams, huh?"
She nearly shrieks. "Jake!"
For a moment, Rose lets herself forget she's not a normal girl in a normal relationship and basks in the warm, fuzzy glow of a girl who's madly in love with the guy who's coming halfway around the world to see her graduate. They've made their plans. She'll move back to New York for college, NYU probably, or Columbia if she changes her mind (with his grades, he'll start in community college). Remy will start her art degree in California, which isn't ideal, but at least they'll be in the same country. They aren't as close as they used to be, which is almost entirely her own fault, but she's happy about it anyway.
"Sooooo, what are you wearing?"
She rolls her eyes. "Don't be weird."
"Oh come on. I'll tell you what I'm wearing."
"Red jacket, T-shirt, jeans?" Rose hopes desperately that her tone conveys exactly what she thinks of this challenge, and to her delight, there's a beat of silence on the other end.
"I wore a blue jacket yesterday."
"I bet you did. Pics or it didn't happen."
They'll get married in a year or two, after they've lived close enough to see each other in person more than twice a year. There's something about dream dates that are better than Facetime or Skype, but it's still not the same as the real thing. Touch is dulled somehow, and there's something surreal about being together while knowing that they'll be thousands of miles apart when they wake up. Finishing their degrees will be simple enough compared to all of their other responsibilities over the years, and then they'll buy a little house that's not quite in the city and not quite in the suburbs and start a family.
Jake chuckles at her ambition and swears up and down he's happy to have her be a working mom-she doesn't tell him she hopes to be so busy that the creeping guilt that never leaves her will be squashed, killed, boxed away where she won't have the time or the headspace to think about it.
"So listen, I'm thinking when you move, we should try to find you a place a little out of the way. I don't want you to get caught in dragon business, if you don't want to be."
"What do you mean by 'out of the way'?"
"Nothing major, but I found a co-op off campus that seems chill. They have chickens; it's a little out of the city."
"Thanks, Jake, but chickens smell awful." Just the same, an involuntary smile works its way across her face. "Maybe I'll check it out though."
"You should. It's a big group of girls. So like a sorority, with fewer first-world problems, you know?"
She does. "That would be nice." And it will be. A group of girls her own age who aren't zeroed in on killing dragons, on its own, will be wonderful. A group of girls her own age to constantly chatter and keep the quiet out of her head will be even better. Besides, she knows what he's doing. The magical creatures in the city will recognize her-they've seen her on Jake's arm downtown too many times.
Rose will be grateful not to end up on any more of the trash magazines Fu brings home from Magus Bazaar, if nothing else. A few weeks after graduation, Jake helps her move in, and she becomes instant friends with the housecats. Not the chickens so much, but she'll admit the eggs are really nice.
"So, what do you guys think?"
"Yo Jake, Rose doesn't really drink beer."
Jake shoots her an agonized look. "It's not about the beer, Trix. Fu got the beer for me. I was asking about the plan."
"Well, your ring is nice." Trixie leans back into the couch (deciding not to read too much into the mechanics of a talking dog getting alcohol for someone underage) and glances at Spud. "Spud?"
"Yeah man, it's super shiny. Aaah! Help! I'm stuck!" Spud fiddles with a Chinese finger trap, looking intensely alarmed when his fingers are, in fact, trapped.
"Guys!" Jake slams the ring box shut and pushes himself up off his knee. "A little help, here!"
"Look dude, just ask her. You know she's gonna say yes." Trixie scoots farther away from Spud, one corner of her lip curling up. "Spudinski, just pull your finger out."
"I'm tryinggg," he grumbles. "Yeah man, Rose is totally going to marry you. You probably don't even need to ask."
Jake hangs his head. "You guys are really freaking unhelpful."
"Love is like this finger trap," Spud intones. "It looks fun at first, but then you get stuck and-ugh! Agh! Help! It's eating my whole hand!" He collapses to the floor and writhes around on the carpet, struggling with his fingers.
"That's not what love is like, Spud."
"He's dating Stacey," Trixie reminds him. "Boy don't know a thing about love, he just knows about being jerked around like a fish on a little kid's hook."
Jake sighs heavily. "Trixie, Spud, I just want to propose to the girl of my dreams. Can you guys please get over yourselves and help me out here?"
"Crabby," Spud mutters.
"Bro, just take the girl out in your car and ask. Don't overthink this thing." Trixie swats at his shoulder.
"You don't think she'd want me to do it at the restaurant."
Sighing heavily, Trixie glares at him. "Jakey, Rose isn't into public stuff, you know that. Besides, homegirl might need some time to think about it. Don't put her on the spot like that."
"We've talked about it."
"I know, I know. She'll say yes. I was kidding." There's a shadow in her eyes that says she isn't, but Jake is not in a frame of mind to notice.
He goes ahead with her advice, but he's nervous when they pull the car into the gravel and the grass outside the city. The tint he'd put on the windows makes everything too dark (first time he's regretted doing that), so he doesn't turn the car off right away, keeping the green glow of the dashboard lights.
"We haven't been here in a while," Rose says, a smile in her voice.
"Not since you visited that time."
She shifts her body to face him, unbuckling her seatbelt and pulling one knee to her chest so she can lean against the window. "Why didn't we ever come back?" This time he can hear the laugh she's hiding.
"Trixie and Spud are idiots, that's why. I thought you'd be scarred for life."
She bursts into laughter. "I think Spud is an idiot. Trixie was along for the ride."
"Only Spud would think steam on my windows means I'm trapped inside with a mermaid."
"In his defense, he'd tried every other way of becoming a merman." She's laughing too hard to breathe now.
Jake groans. "Getting trapped with me and begging the mermaid to take him with her has happened before. It didn't work."
"Pffft. I don't want to know."
"No, you really don't."
They settle into a comfortable silence, or comfortable as far as Rose is concerned, as long as she focuses on something. Today, that something happens to be Jake, and she studies the way he shifts-surprisingly awkward, for someone who's been in a relationship with her for almost five years. He keeps reaching for his pocket, which is weird, but she intentionally does not overthink it. Actually, Rose would like to think she's gotten better at deliberately not thinking about things. Leaning across the console, she rests her head on his shoulder, and he reaches over to put a hand on her thigh.
It's easy, and peaceful, and for the first time in five years, she can close her eyes without a baby's cry and a vortex fizzling in her head.
"I love you," she whispers.
"I love you too," he says, with that wide, genuine smile, and he presses a kiss to the top of her head.
He shifts oddly again, but the moment doesn't fail. "Whatcha doing?"
"So, uh, you know how we were going to get married in a year or two?"
Rose will not let herself panic about the possible directions this conversation could go. She will not. "Yes?"
"Well I thought, yo Jake, Amdrag, King of the NYC, why haven't you made it official yet? So yeah. I bought a ring, and I thought maybe you'd want to be officially engaged or something."
She blinks. Not entirely unexpected.
He takes the blink entirely the wrong way. "Look, I know maybe it's a little earlier than we planned, and oh geez I'm screwing this up aren't I? You know what, let's come back to this in a year and I'll ask you better because I sound like an idiot-"
Grabbing his face, Rose kisses him. Hard. Mostly to get him to be quiet but also there's a little girl inside her that feels like Cinderella getting her prince, and it's a little euphoric. "Jake. I'd love to be officially engaged."
"I totally could have done that better though."
She sticks her left hand out, waiting for him to slide the ring on. "It probably would have been better if you'd just asked if I would marry you."
"My bad." But he's smiling as brightly as she's ever seen, and the ring is a pretty diamond set in white gold that doesn't have a hint of magical creature in it, so she kisses him again and relishes the moment. She even steals some of his beer (despite immediately choking on it and giving it back. She volunteers to drive them back.).
A/N: Let me know what y'all think of this chapter-constructive criticism always welcomed. I have an idea for where I'm going with this, but I've kind of given up on conventional story structure because it was slowing me down, so this is an experiment. I had a couple other scenes planned for this chapter as well but I think I'll use them somewhere else because I like the way this panned out. Thanks for sticking with it!