"Hey," a teal voice whispered over her, though it felt like it was breathing by her ear. Sophie Foster  sucked in a breath as she tried to pull herself back to reality — but her dream and real worlds had fought each other so much that they could never separate themselves into their true forms again, much less enough to tell them apart.

"Are... are you real?" She whispered, feeling like someone who needed to be cared for. She should be the one taking care of others. If she couldn't get through this loss, how was she going to prepare herself for the future?

"Why wouldn't I be?" Fitz asked, apparently confused. If he could twirl a strand of his gorgeous dark hair and wrap it around his pinkie, now would be the perfect time do so. When he stood over her, patiently as ever, Sophie let go of a breath she didn't know she was holding in. 

As if no time had passed, she shrugged and felt, for the first time, how heavy her shoulders were. "It's a creepy thing to do, just so you know. And besides..."

"Grady knows," Fitz alerted her, and the last nervous nerve inside of Sophie reset. Good. If Grady was okay with it, then whatever Fitz was here for was important. 

Brushing aside her messy feelings that could be dealt with later, Sophie exhaled in Fitz's warm presence. There was something about what he radiated that reminded her of Keefe — maybe it was his loyalty. Even if Fitz were to betray her, she knew deep down that he would be hurting as much as she would. 

Betrayals couldn't exist without trust. But the same applied to having enough trust in each other to keep some of their secrets to themselves.

"I thought you might want a re-do," Fitz said gently, tucking a loose strand of hair that showed her ever-lasting defiance behind her ear. Disguised. For now. "You know, after... the plant didn't grow."

His tone had shifted from casually cautious to apologetic, and it looked like he was regretting it. For once, Sophie wished no words existed at all — it would be more fair for her millions of feelings that would never be able to expressed properly. 

This went so much further than It's going to be okay. The role Fitz was supposed to play in her life was always a variable, but it didn't just depend on her.

Sensing her confusion, he sighed. "We're going to plant Keefe's Wanderling again. This time... we'll make sure he gets what he deserves."

BAM! It was like a fairy had sprinkled magic dust over Fitz and turned her into a hybrid of Lord Cassius and Lady Gisela, hinting at a darker meaning behind her words. 

We'll make sure he gets what he deserves.

What he deserves.

"You know nothing about what Keefe deserves!" Sophie shouted and flew out of the bed, alarming not only herself as she took a defensive stance and swung an invisible bat over her shoulder.

Blink... Lady Gisela.... Blink.... Lord Cassius, sneering down at her as if she was his son.... BAM. Fitz.

"Are you okay?" The words barely had a chance to leave Fitz's concerned lips before Sophie steadied herself and pressed a hand on the nearest wall. Part of her was dissappointed when everything stopped it from going through — this wasn't a dream after all.

"Fitz, it doesn't work like that," she tried to explain, but it was like her throat was suddenly stuffed with peanut-flavored cotton balls. Even if her lips weren't dry from her bad habits, she sensed that this was something her best friend had to figure out on his own.

His grief-torn rage never flared up, but his patience did — which was probably just as bad. "Sophie, you're pale."

"Ino." She suddenly was zapped into Mr. Snuggles's body. Feeling just in the mood for acting like a sparkly red dragon, Sophie tried to shrug the feeling off as she lifted Fitz's chin with a third arm and spoke directly to him. 

"Fitz, you don't understand. It doesn't... it doesn't work like that."

This was the first time he had ever been at a loss for words like this. After a second, something unusual glinted in his face that would be revealed with his next sentence.

"You can... you can heal him? You can heal Keefe?" He said slowly, turning himself over like a Panakes blossom. 

Sophie swallowed, hating to respond — she tried telling herself that this was just another test of her bravery. Go on. It gets harder with every second. "No. I... I wish I could, really. Fitz. Fitz!"

There was an obvious slump in his shoulders as some part of Fitz Vacker fought to round them again. The guilt lumping up in Sophie's shoulders made it that much easier to compare herself to everything else going on — how could she ever doubt him and his loyalty to his best friend?

"I hoped so too," she whispered, trying to sound as honest as possible, "But he wouldn't have wanted it."

"Then WHAT would he have wanted, Sophie?" His voice wasn't a scream — not against the ever-fading background. "What would he have wanted?"

She could tell that Fitz wouldn't be content until she answered. Every second she waited, though, she was lowering his expectations — hopefully that would stop him from pressing any further. "His name is Keefe, Fitz. And I'm trying just as hard as you are to give him everything he wants!"

Fitz's face stayed the same and hardened while softening, if it was even possible. When it returned to a new kind of normal, he nodded and looked away painfully. "He wanted you to choose me, didn't he?"

"W—what?" It felt like a new revelation. WHAT, WHAT, WHAT bubbles were popping in Sophie's head like she was losing all her memories, each one promising to be harmless but eventually bringing on a migraine.

Okay. Now she had to sit.

"Keefe wanted you to choose me," Fitz said, winking at her, "And friends don't lie."

Anger and reproach mixed in Sophie's throat — with a tiny drop of hope that felt dry. A single drop won't matter in a vast sea. "How did you know?" She asked, still astounded.

Fitz moved his shoulder in a motion another person would mistaken for an attempt to shrug. "Sophie, did you think that I was the only one who was influenced by my parents?" He asked, his voice soft and barely louder than a whisper — with a note of honesty. "Keefe's family is far from perfect. You've seen his parents. You know how they turned out. And he... he never expected you to like him back, Sophie."

"That was a slap in the face," she said in a sarcastic voice, a metallic tone underlying her fakeness. "How? How can you talk about him like that, Fitz? This isn't you!" 

"He tried so hard," Fitz admitted, brushing a layer of soot off his face, "But he was so scared, Sophie. Did you really believe that you were the only one with complicated feelings?"

"No?" She could never look at Fitz the same way again. She was sure of it.

"He was scared of being his parents. He was scared of love as much as he wanted it, Sophie."

"Don't tell me he thought he didn't deserve me. Or is that just what you think?" Sophie practically growled.

Fitz shrunk a little and fidgeted with his hands before laying them off to the side. Playing with his food before he eats it. Playing games with his subjects before he breaks their feelings. "Sophie, we don't have to be our parents," he reminded her, "But love isn't for everybody."

"Clearly." Her voice was so hard, so stonelike, with a new center of balance. Regal. Royal.

This was the first time since his confession that emotion showed in Fitz's face, pouring back in like color. "He knew what he was in for, Sophie. He tried so hard. He tried so hard," he buried his face in his hands, making a crying noise. 

Didn't he, Perfect? Keefe — this was enough to make her break on her own. This spin of unexpected events.

"Don't you dare cry on me, Fitz Vacker," she warned, backing up against a wall that would end up getting her nowhere. "Don't you cry on me! Don't you cry on your grave!"

"I believe you're still somewhere in there, Sophie," tears gushed in pools of drops at the same time and dripped from his no longer teal eyes for a few moments before the remaining trickled to the ground. "Come back." 

Unconsciously, Sophie reached for an eyelash that didn't exist. 

"This isn't you, Fitz," she said, reaching for an arm that wasn't his. She had to remind herself that this wasn't him, that the real Fitz Vacker was still inside and trying to break out. "This is not who you are."

Mentioning Keefe any further would be a mistake, but not mentioning him would also be one. The question: which was a bigger mistake?

Red streaked Fitz's eyelids and looked so itchy that something urged Sophie to tear them out herself. They covered his fierce dark circles that she suddenly realized had been there before— before all of this had happened. 

"What happened between us, Fitz?" She begged, but not for an answer. "What happened?"

He merely shook his head so violently his eyes wobbled and nearly snapped. "Don't... know," he panted, like he was trying to fight the tide.

Sophie closed her eyes, noticing the gap between her two eyelids.

No one to stop her tears from flowing out freely except her eyelashes.


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