Beta: 1983Sarah
A/N For everyone out there with an imaginary friend.

Castle Made of Mud

I.

They called him Mud and not much else, except 'prisoner' and 'filthy dirt boy.' His eyes were charcoal and his hair was perpetually long. That hadn't changed in all his time down here. The unkempt mess of dark brown hair hung across his weathered and tanned face like a worn mop. Patches of dirt perpetually covered him. It was no wonder they had named him so; he looked like he had been born from a swamp.

Like many of the others locked away to rot deep in the cellars of the castle, he was almost entirely forgotten. He blended all too well into the earthen walls. When he spoke, if he spoke, his words were well chosen- well guarded in a deep rumbling tone like an avalanche.

The guards prowled just outside his door. Seeing snatches of their fur made him reminisce for those days when it had been his job to place the filthy flea bags in here. He wasn't supposed to be here. Not here of all places. He was- had been - one the Queen's best agents. And now, here he was, a criminal for no crime at all.

The wolves were the true criminals. They had stolen everything, destroyed the castle, and taken charge in the most violent and bloody way possible.

This wasn't the usual story at all. It wasn't how it was supposed to be imagined.

II.

She got into bed as quietly as possible and rolled closer to him. He barely stirred as she reached one arm around him. "How was your day?" she whispered into his ear.

He didn't speak for a moment. "The same way I've spent all my days in this place."

"The usual.," she nodded in agreement. "I had to take a hard test in class today. I would have much rather been here."

No response was offered. She rolled away a little and looked up at the ceiling. Even in the dark light she could make out the patterns she had traced so many times with her eyes. "I wonder if that's all there is to it." She sighed. "I'm so tired of just working to keep up at school. What happened to when we were younger?"

He stirred, slightly, trying to be closer to her. He took the warmth she offered and tried to return some small comfort. "Trust me," he said in a very small voice, "I've been with you for a long time and those times never leave you. Changes have already started around us."

"If you insist," she yawned and settled into the covers. "Have I ever told you much I ate all this moving and changing?"

"Many times," he said softly to her sleeping form. "But you get used to it. Changes have been creeping up on us for a long time."

III.

The day the Queen had been crowned had long since passed. Mud had been young then. As young as Mercedes. Their ages matched, as did their temperament and loyalty. It was no wonder they worked together. The ceremony had started with a parade. It was glorious chaos for the new Agents. First day on the job in a sea of celebratory fools. The kingdom was at peace with the Queen. Mud had been happy, always happy, with Mercedes fighting at his side. There are very people left who remember that parade. Even less that remembered the days under the Queen.

The wolves kept at bay, sulking at night. Parents told their children that they'd be snatched up by them for the most ridiculous offenses. The children, of course, gobbled it up. And now this child's tale had become frighteningly real.

Mud fought, of course, when the first attack began. That's what Agents of the Queen are supposed to do. But so many fell, so many disappeared. It's hard to keep track of those losses. He remembers one of the early days. When the first stirrings of unrest were occurring, and the wolves were growing too bold. Mercedes was taller than he remembered that day. It made him wondered if he was growing too. She was beaten down, bloody, but the weapon she held never faltered. That was the day he realized he had never been loyal to the queen. When he watched Mercedes fight, he saw her for who she really was. All those stories they'd shared together. He knew that he was loyal to her, and he would fight any cause for her. Now Mud fights just to stay alive in his prison cell. He doesn't know where she is. One day he woke up, older, and she was just…gone.

Above his cell, he just knows there are wolves tramping their dirty paws across the white marble. There are wolves shedding their disgusting fur on the velveteen tapestries. Worst of all, he knows what sits in the throne room on the Queen's grand chair. The largest and deadliest wolf, the White King, with red eyes that rules the now-torn kingdom with an iron paw.

Mud sits back against the wall, disappearing a little more each day. He wants to make it, though. He has to make it, absolutely must fight. That's just how he was born. There were so many more adventures to have in a lifetime than just this.

IV.

"Do you know what happened to him?" She asks another night, reaching over his head to shut off the lamp. Dropping her book, and setting aside her glasses, she is almost ready to surrender to sleep.

"Who?" He says already tucked under the covers of the small bed.

"You know." Her eyes go misty. "I haven't been there in….In…"

He laughs. "You don't remember?"

"It's been a while!" She says half heartedly trying to defend herself. "You know what I've been through."

He turns a little on his side to face her. "Does this mean you'll forget me too, one day?"

"No." She shakes her head. "Never! I promise, really."

Satisfied, he relaxes into her arms considering her earlier question. They both stop to stew on it. "I don't know," he finally admits. He taps the side of her head gently. "You have the answer though."

Yawning, he whispers goodnight and shuts his eyes. She murmurs the same sentiment but no sleep comes.

It had been so long. She had stopped fighting once upon time when she had realized the real world was waiting. As she pulled the covers up a little higher her eyes wandered over to the textbooks on her desk. Finally exhausted, with nothing left, she let herself begin to dream.

V.

Dreams came to him of a world outside the castle, outside the far away land. Where he didn't work for a Queen. He hated it. He didn't understand this nonsense he saw. The warrior he used to fight with would tell him really wild stories. He had dreams on those days when he missed her the most. Dreams, that he knew, only she could explain. That was her style; wild imagination, and wild stories.

The last story she told him he never forgot:

"Once upon a time, two people he loved each other very much raised a beautiful girl with a vivid imagination. She had all sorts of grand adventures in her world. Her best friend (and here she had winked at him) was made of mud and could do all sorts of amazing things. (He loved her hand gestures when she told stories.) They were agents and spies and mischief makers. But then one day the girl's parents didn't love each other as much and they separated. The girl knew she had to grow up. And that is why," she concluded with tear filled green eyes, "we can't play anymore."

Mud remembers that story the most because that was the day the kingdom fell apart.

It was not too long after that that he first started dreaming. In his first dream he saw everything he loved packed away in boxes, all his memories of his youth being stored away. It hurt, and it made him feel older. He didn't like. When he woke up, he wished she was there.

In the dirty cell the dreams hurt more than anything else. One time he dreamed that people were celebrating, but it was bittersweet. It meant he was moving again, but he didn't know were. But he knew he was going to have to throw away some of his old things, and most of them he didn't even know why he'd kept. The dream ended on wings.

That dream had shaken him to the core and left a bitter taste in his mouth. He wondered exactly what it was he had forgotten. He wondered where he was moving to with such eagerness.

Tonight he dreamed of an old worn out bear.

"She misses you."

And that was the worst dream of all because he was just starting to forget who 'she' was.

VI.

"You miss him?"

"Yes," she said unflinchingly. She had shut off her lamp hours ago. The sweat tangled sheets around her provided no comfort.

"Then you should see him while you still can." The old bear looked at her with beaded eyes. Half of his right ear was gone, and his right paw was wearing down. "There's not much time left."

She sat bolt upright. "What do you mean? I won't ever lose him!"

"No," the bear shook his head, "but he's losing you."

She trembled, shaking her head. He placed a paw on her wrist. "He can't fight without you. And you can't just bury yourself here." He looked over at the textbooks. "You don't have to grow up so fast."

She pulled him up into her arms and hugged him tightly. "I don't know what scares me more though. Going forward, or going back."

"Just remember, you can't stay still forever." He placed one hand over her chest. "Now dream."

VII.

Mud woke up to screaming. The guards were howling, enraged, and running up the stairs. Someone must be attacking the castle. Good for them. He wondered why people bothered fighting anymore. Mud pulled his knees closer to his chest and wished above all else he could melt into the earthen walls.

"Mud!" She hissed using her ax to break the lock. "They're distracted! Let's go!"

He knew that voice. He knew it…but that was so long ago… it wasn't possible. When he looked up he saw her. Older, taller- she was a woman now. Her green eyes were older. "Mercedes," he said in a quiet voice.

"Mud, please." She gestured for him to get up. "Let's catch up later. I need to get you out!"

He felt new energy flood his veins. He jumped up and wrapped his arms around her. "I missed you. I missed your stories. They're much nicer than your dreams."

She leaned into him. "I'm sorry I left you in such a nightmare. I thought growing up meant leaving this kingdom of dreams behind."

"It doesn't have to be." Mud smiled, "You didn't have to leave."

She offered him the second ax she had brought, "Would you like to help me win it back?" He hefted the ax with a mischievous grin. "Mercedes," he repeated to himself, "she is back."

Mercedes looked up at a noise from overhead. "Looks like they've taken care of the distraction. Let's go start another one."

"Yes. Yes we should," Mud said as he took the lead, charging up the stairs. "Oh, and Mercedes?" He paused and turned around. "Welcome home."

VIII.

When she woke up she felt like it was the first time in years she'd actually had a good night's sleep. In the morning the teddy bear she'd had since she was little was still. Unmoving, but she could still see his smile. "Thank you," she said. She propped him up on her dorm room pillows. "I thought I'd lost that place."

The old bear felt at peace even as he knew that one day she'd grow up and leave him in a box like all the other dolls. Still, the kingdom would always be there for her, no matter what. Growing up wouldn't be so bad as long as she remembered how to keep her imagination alive.

end