09.4.12

The Path Not Taken

She’d come to Central City to be a Tin Man, so she told him as they met up in the halls of the school. He hadn’t intended to stop until she came running after him, whistling as loud as a person could and shoving a dropped book atop his stack of them and from there, they had wound up walking back to the classrooms.

Her name was Wyatt Cain, which was a bit strange and when Ambrose voiced that aloud, he got a look that he was sure she’d given a thousand times before in her life.

“Right up until that last day, my parents thought I was a boy,” Cain explained (she just wanted to be called ‘Cain’, she said, because when people called her ‘Wyatt’, it always came with an expression of disbelief). She was sixteen and Ambrose was scantly eighteen, but she seemed to constantly act like she was the older of the two of them and as they walked down the halls, he watched her thick blonde hair fall over her shoulders and spilled forward on the leather vest that had come from home (“Father sent it. He wanted me to be warm.”)

They only got past ages and pleasantries before they arrived at the classroom and Ambrose had to part ways with her, shuffling the books in his grasp so they didn’t fall a second time.

He glanced back over his shoulder no less than three times, shaking his head and scoffing at the strange encounter with Miss Wyatt Cain, she of the blonde hair and the blue eyes and the clothes that fit like her parents were still buying clothes for a son they didn’t have.

He arrived at his lab sooner rather than later and left thoughts of Tin Men-To-Be at the door before greeting his inventions with a hearty ‘hello!’, shutting the door on the room (room, ha, more like a glorified closet) and went back to work.

*

They ran into each other again in the little dining area outside that overlooked the Central City Lake. She was sitting alone and Ambrose had never been too much of a social man and so he had wandered over and asked if he could sit there, rather than have to share with one of the businessmen or the performers. There were no other students around and a closer look at Cain showed that she was holding a pack of ice to her chin. She hadn’t given him a yes or a no yet as to his question.

“I doubt you got that during a lecture in strategy,” Ambrose appraised, shooting Cain a curious look. He barely knew her and he doubted that he’d get a straightforward answer, but it was worth the shot.

She was staring at the table in front of them, barely moving and her eyes looked glazed over, as if Cain was somewhere else all-together.

Ambrose leaned over and lightly tapped her shoulder. “Cain?”

She jumped and jolted, catching his eyes and stared at him for a long minute. “Ambrose, from the other day,” she placed him.

“Wyatt Cain. The girl with the boy’s name and a purple bruise on her cheek,” Ambrose returned in kind, reaching a gangly arm over to pry the ice off and take a better look at the bruise. “That’s a male fist, but likely no older than seventeen.” He winced around the same time that Cain winced when the ice went back onto it. “And it looks like he didn’t hold back.”

“I started it, if you think I’m just some damsel,” Cain warned, blonde hair falling into her eyes as she tipped her gaze back down to the table and she appeared perilously close to slipping back into that faraway land. “He made a comment about my fighting technique. He said it was sloppy.”

“Was it?”

“Yes. I still didn’t like him saying it.”

Ambrose couldn’t help the quirk of a tiny smile. “So you gave him a firsthand demonstration of your technique.”

For that, he was rewarded with something of an impish and proud grin on Cain’s face. She looked back at him and he brushed away the hair in her face, taking a better look at the bruise in the process, all the while she smiled warmly at him, like they’d just discovered their very first inside joke.

“Yeah, well,” Cain remarked, sounding a lot more relaxed than before. “He deserved it. I got sent out of class.”

Ambrose started to open the compartments of the box before him, drawing out pieces of his lunch and offering some of it to Cain. She quietly accepted and the ice went from her cheek to the table before they quietly talked about the classes that Cain had to take before she could officially take the exam to become a Tin Man. Eventually, the conversation came back around to him.

“I’ve been done for annuals, yet,” Ambrose admitted sheepishly, poking around at his sandwich. “I’m one of the more lowly advisors on staff, but the more I invent, the more I get taken into notice. I have a workshop, same as everyone else, but…well, closet is a nice way to describe it. Not like the Head Advisor,” he murmured, staring wistfully into space. “A whole floor to himself for whatever he wants to do with it.”

“You can get there, though,” Cain pointed out, tying her hair back. “You said so yourself. The more you invent, the more they notice you. You should invent something personally for the new Queen.”

Their new Queen had barely taken the throne and was still learning from her parents’ example. She was beautiful and Ambrose had always been fond of her. The problem was that she didn’t even know who he was.

“Make her something,” Cain insisted again. “Introduce yourself and give her your invention. She won’t be able to forget you after that. Especially if you actually have some kind of talent lying in there,” she added with something of a sly smile. “You could just be a talentless hack for all I know.”

“Hey!” Ambrose reacted with a defensive scowl. “I’m incredibly smart. The tests say that no one in the O.Z. parallels me, so far.” Cain seemed to take that as face value and the laughter stopped as she just studied him for a while, fingers lightly touching the wound on her cheek. “Do you need more ice?” Ambrose asked, fiddling now with the trash that remained of his lunch.

“No, it’ll be fine,” Cain promised. “I want him to have to look at it.”

Ambrose just watched her for a long moment and smiled.

“I think I like you, Wyatt Cain,” he determined. “You’ve got spunk.”

“I’ve got more than that,” Cain promised. “You just have to get to know me better to see it.”

*

The room that Ambrose had for inventions was small at best and miniscule in reality. There was enough room for tools, Ambrose, and only three machines. So when Cain poked her head in and then wiggled into the room, there became barely enough breathing room for either of them.

“People knock,” Ambrose mumbled, utterly focused on the necklace he had put into creation just the other night after he had taken Cain’s suggestion to heart and had begun to invent something specifically for the Queen to use. He had come up with a necklace that monitored the wearer’s temperature and automatically adjusted the air around them to make it comfortable. It used magic, the elements, and some sentient rocks, but if anyone could do it, it would be Ambrose.

Cain crouched over and peered through the abacus in the middle of the room and stared up at Ambrose from her lowered position. “I came to visit. I had a free class.”

“Did you get punched again?” Ambrose asked wryly, tweaking the set of the stone with a screwdriver.

“No, I just finished a paper and had nothing else to do,” Cain easily replied. “So, did you listen to me?”

Ambrose didn’t choose to answer in words and rather held up the chain of the necklace in her view, where it would be easily seen. The pendant was a dark color, like deep blue blood, and was nearly done. Cain seemed to find that very promising and smiled broadly.

“She doesn’t like it yet,” Ambrose warned. “So don’t go getting smug on me.”

“I won’t. Not yet, at least,” Cain answered, lingering by the doorway. She stayed for a moment and gave a nod, as if content that Ambrose had listened to her advice, and then without any other words, Cain was gone.

Ambrose returned his attention to the necklace and tried to forget about that little show of a visit.

*

Ambrose found himself taken with the enigma that he found Cain to be. Whereas he thought she ought to be straightforward in terms of personality, she would always come up with something to surprise him. For instance, she had steady hands to shoot a gun, but he’d discovered her carving little animals with a knife at some meals and admired the steadiness of her fingers.

While he expected her to not care about any of the books he read, she would always be bringing some new philosophical book or historical book to read when they got together. She liked to talk about more than just the program and they would often have hour-long discussions about the history of the O.Z. and its people, from the Viewers to the punishment practices to the munchkin culture.

Cain was definitely more than the other Tin Men were and seemed to want to learn about things. Whether or not she’d keep an open-mind about them later, well, that was up in the air.

He wanted to find out, though.

*

Ambrose had never seen Cain outside of the clothing she wore for school which was, without fail, always too baggy and too long and too large for her frame. At least, he had never seen her without those clothes until their night out. She had invited him along with a group of friends (who were all Tin-Men-In-Training) to a nearby club, which had happened the very moment that Ambrose had made a happy remark about loving dancing. He was dressed in a striped shirt with a pair of loose trousers and pulled open the door to let Cain in while he sought out his button-down to go overtop the clothes. He barely glanced at her as he waved her on in.

“I haven’t done this in…well, in a very, very long time,” Ambrose laughed anxiously, digging through his things and shoving platinums into his pockets as he pulled on the white button-down and turned to find Cain straddling the arm of a reading chair.

Ambrose had to honestly do a double-take and make sure he hadn’t just invited a stranger into his room.

“You’re staring,” Cain accused.

“Your clothes fit,” Ambrose said, eyeing her. “That’s got to be a miracle.” She was in a blue tank-top and a pair of jeans, but as Ambrose had mentioned, they weren’t too many sizes too big. Someone had obviously curled Cain’s hair into loose waves, but the heat of Central City had already wrecked that. He had to duck the book thrown at his head, but Ambrose just laughed as he tugged on his white shirt and ran a hand through his own unruly curls, yanking Cain’s hand and tugging her away. “Come on. I’ve been waiting for this all day, no dawdling now.”

Cain was chuckling quietly, but Ambrose was happy that she wasn’t giving him a hard time about anything as they joined the rest of the group in their finest and made for the club. Some of them smoked on route and the others chattered about the recent lessons and climate of the city. Cain had yet to let go of Ambrose’s hand, twisting it up and letting it swing between them as they spoke about the Queen and how much she had liked his latest invention, allowing her to watch memories of her life again and again. They had a small group of no more than eight, but the mood was pleasant and contagious and by the time they arrived, no one was in a low mood.

Cain and Ambrose were the last to enter the thick din of noise, smoke clouding the upper levels of the club, and Cain tugged Ambrose in the direction of the group before he could become lost staring at his surroundings. The truth of the matter was that Ambrose’s fellow advisors all had their own families to go home to and were usually annuals older than him and he had no one to accompany him to one of these places.

Cain brought him along and sat him down in one of the booths while ordering drinks. “Aren’t you going to dance?” Ambrose asked with panicky alarm, not wanting to simply sit in the back of the club for the entire night when he didn’t know when his next trip might be, if ever. He hadn’t been there in two annuals and he’d missed the thumping bass beat and the way it resonated through his body, sending chills down his spine.

Cain leaned down and nudged his knee with her heeled foot. “You go on,” she encouraged. “Jen wants a dance, anyhow,” she indicated, nodding to one of the redheaded women that they’d come with.

And so Ambrose allowed himself to be dragged out onto the dance floor and let himself be swallowed whole by the atmosphere. Sweat dripped down his neck and soaked the collar of his shirt and he could feel some of the old rhythm returning to him and his hands rumpled Jen’s clothes as they wrapped around her front and she pushed back against him and they twisted and writhed to the slow rhythm, her hands in the air and ruffling through her curled hair as they danced and Ambrose could feel his heart racing.

He had missed this more than it could be humanly possible, it felt like, in that moment.

The song ended and people began to change positions on the floor, substituting old partners for new. Jen didn’t go anywhere for several dances, turning until they were face-to-face and she giggled at everything he said, running her palms up his chest while whispering to him about the latest gossip amongst the student ranks. He felt drunk even though he’d yet to drink a single drop of alcohol, but the music was heady and he could smell the sweet fruit of Jen’s perfume as he bowed his head down and pressed his nose to her neck.

They danced like this, twined, for a full hour and only occasionally did he see anyone else from their party on the floor. Once, he’d caught Cain dancing with one of the other men – Thorne, was it? – but it was mostly the other boys trying to pick up girls in the age-old mating rituals.

Eventually, Jen hobbled away, sliding her shoes off and pulling herself into the booth they had claimed.

Ambrose thought that would be his cue to retire from the floor and take his own break to replenish on fluids and to join in the conversation rather than moving his body to the beat out there on the floor, but a firm palm on his chest told him otherwise, that he wasn’t going anywhere. He expected to find a strange girl, maybe one of the club girls who seemed to thrive in the environment, but when he glanced the few inches down, he found Wyatt Cain looking up at him. “We’re not giving you a breather,” she shouted above the music.

Ambrose should have known annuals later that everything changed that night.

Right then, he was too intoxicated by it all to care. He let Cain slide his hands over her hipbones and down the back of her jeans, tucking his long fingers into her pockets and angling him until he slid up against her and tightened his arms’ grasp. They were snug and took up little space on the floor as Cain pressed right in with him and draped her arms around his neck, sliding in with a slow roll of her hips. Ambrose untucked his fingers (all but his thumb) and held onto her hips to guide them into the slow sway. His breaths grew stilted and he stared down between them, trying to look through the fringes of sweaty hair to see into Cain’s eyes, to constantly make sure everything was alright.

They pushed up against each other and Cain’s hands gravitated further down until they rested perilously low, just above his behind and the heat of the club was making it hard to do anything but sweat and be breathless.

Cain didn’t know the intricacies of rhythm, but she was trying and giving about as good as Ambrose could give and he tightened his grasp on her, easing closer still as he felt his heart beat harder than before. He fathomed that Cain might be able to see it through his shirts and his lashes fluttered as he glanced down at the minimal space between them, Cain’s chest against him and his hand on her hip strayed just barely up to brush at the tank top and lift it, catching a bit of skin on the stroke down and Ambrose watched the reaction – a shiver and goosebumps on her arm – and they kept dancing until the last strains of the song died down and there was the announcement of a five-minute break before they returned.

Ambrose had to take a long moment to catch his breath as he disentwined himself from Cain, fingers twined with hers for a long moment and when she pulled to go back to the table, he tugged and caught her. “Not yet,” was all he had to say, staring at her.

Cain stared back with confusion, shaking her head. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Ambrose exhaled, confused as to exactly what was right anymore when he was seeing the world in a very new and different way. Perplexing was the best way to put it. “Thank you, for the dance,” he managed, summoning up words.

“My pleasure. You’re right about your rhythm,” Cain said with a warm smile, tugging him along if he wasn’t about to let go of her. “C’mon, there’s beer waiting at the table with your name on it.”

Ambrose didn’t know how to say it then, but beer was definitely not about to quench any kind of thirst he had.

He couldn’t say no, though, so he followed along and tried not to watch that droplet of sweat roll down Cain’s neck and bare back and desperately tried not to want to do something as stupid as lick it off the toned shoulderblades that presented themselves, all tanned and with just one dark mark between them, perfectly so.

He had to stop thinking about it by force when he returned to a rallied cheer and the group asking if they could have the next dance with him.

*

Two days after they had gone to the club, Ambrose couldn’t seem to stop having very personal dreams about Wyatt Cain and their dance. Except she wasn’t always wearing the tank top and sometimes was in just a pair of underwear. In one dream, she’d been wearing Ambrose’s shirt and nothing else. And then sometimes, they weren’t in the club at all, but in his room. The dreams didn’t stop and his waking hours sometimes devolved into milder daydreams.

He was in the middle of one of those daydreams when there came a firm knock at his door. Ambrose nearly jumped out of his skin, hand over his heart as he prayed fervently that it wasn’t Cain, come to check on him and see how he was faring, today.

“Who’s there?” he asked warily.

“It’s the Cains,” said a male voice. “Wyatt was supposed to tell you that we were coming.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Ambrose recalled that Cain had made mention that her parents were going to come and raid his laboratory to look for inventions that might be useful at the Tin Men headquarters. Both her parents were Tin Men and they had met during training, which happened to be a constant conversation topic because Cain seemed to believe that the same thing was bound to happen to her. She had insisted that she was going to send them along and here they were.

He nervously unlatched the door, trying to ignore that part of his mind that crowed that he was meeting the parents and none of her other friends were. He had to make a decent first impression before he could be too smug about it. “Sir, Ma’am,” he respectfully said as he nodded his head to them.

They didn’t seem to ask for permission before they inched their way in and began to study the five various inventions that littered the small lab. Well, at least Ambrose understood where Cain got that from.

They weren’t there very long and asked questions that were simple to answer (at least, for a genius like Ambrose) and then they all stood in the hallway outside the lab, exchanging pleasantries while laughing at anecdotes and stories about Cain when she was younger.

“How old are you, Ambrose?” Mr. Cain asked, curiously. “Those were a great deal of inventions in there and you seem to have earned the Queen’s attention, but you don’t look older than twenty-one annuals.”

“I’m nineteen,” Ambrose replied with something of a shy smile. “I started here when I was seventeen. They say I’m the smartest man in the O.Z.”

“Are you?” Mrs. Cain demanded, bluntly.

“I don’t know,” Ambrose nervously answered, gaze flickering between the two. “I haven’t met everyone in the O.Z. yet to tell whether I’m smarter than all of them.”

From the slow smile of a response that both the Cains gave him, Ambrose had the feeling that he’d just given them the exact right answer.

*

Things started to go downhill only scant months later when Cain turned up for their usual post-dinner talk and walk around the palace and she only came so she could cancel. She was dressed far nicer than usual in a midnight blue dress with a wrap around her shoulders and Ambrose wondered at first if it was for him before Cain began to make her apologies.

The words ‘sorry’ and ‘opportunity’ happened to come up too much for his liking.

There was someone else, of course, and it was Thorne and he had asked Cain out to dinner and a show. Cain stood staring up at Ambrose in the moonlight with the breeze wafting past them and pushing her hair around. “It’s just like how my parents met,” she explained to him with an edge of desperation to her voice. “And he’s the best in the class, well, second best after me,” she corrected. “I’ll be back tomorrow and I’ll tell you all about it.”

That was the problem. Ambrose didn’t want to hear anything about it, not whatsoever.

He was a good friend though. No, he was more than that. He was her best friend, so he pushed aside whatever burgeoning feelings of lust he had for Cain and wished her luck with a kiss to her cheek.

*

Cain had been dating Thorne for something like three months now and while they were adequately happy together, Cain wasn’t giddily in love the way young women of eighteen annuals were supposed to be. She was the same as always and Ambrose couldn’t help feeling like she was just going through the motions of it for the sake of doing that and he said exactly that during one of their dinners.

He was pelted with a napkin for his effort.

“Don’t say that,” Cain warned, lowly.

“You’re reacting this badly because you know I’m right,” Ambrose very patiently said. “And I don’t like watching you have anything but bliss,” he admitted, staring at her almost forlornly. “I feel like I should be honest and admit that ever since the night in the club, I’ve had something like feelings for you, but you can rest assured that my interest in you and my interest in your well-being are mutually exclusive and me thinking you’re unhappy with Thorne has nothing to do with wanting you for myself. Above all, you’re my friend, Wyatt. And you deserve bliss.”

Cain continued poking at her food with a tentative poke of her fork, glancing up at him warily.

“Just tell me if you can imagine the rest of your very long life with him and I’ll shut up,” Ambrose admitted, staring deep into his carton of food. He wasn’t brave enough to look up, thinking that twenty-annuals was too young to have his heart stomped on by the woman he thought he might be in love with.

“I can’t,” Cain quietly admitted. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t care for him. It’s just not…”

“…what you expected,” Ambrose finished her sentence for her. He finally summoned the strength to look up with sympathy. “It doesn’t mean anything except you were strong enough to try. There’ll be other men,” he promised. “Other Tin Men, even, just like your parents.”

Her parents, who now had Ambrose’s inventions littering the corners of their offices because they were so taken with his machinery. The same parents who came to visit Ambrose on a weekly basis to chat. It didn’t slip by him that he’d won the approval of her parents, just not her.

“You’re right,” Cain admitted after a long silence.

“I know. I’m a smart man, remember,” Ambrose quietly said, the humor that should have been in his voice misplaced somewhere. She had yet to make any comment about his admission and by the looks of it, she wasn’t planning on saying anything.

The important thing was, though, that he’d told her.

*

Ambrose was beginning to hate the notion of mixed-signals. As far as he could tell, Cain was still dating Thorne and had yet to break up with him. At the same time, instead of taking walks around the palace, Cain came up to Ambrose’s room and they’d simply sprawl out over his bed and he’d rest his head in her lap while she tapped Morse codes out on his bedposts and they discussed the day and the latest events in the O.Z. and Cain would usually talk without end about the Mystic Man and how it was her dream to work for him.

Those nights said he should do something.

The mornings when he saw Cain and Thorne hand in hand and exchanging long kisses said he shouldn’t even think about it.

He murmured one night when they had switched positions and she was lying with her head in his lap that he didn’t know what to make of it.

“Make of what?” she asked tiredly, eyes half-closed as she traced that same Morse code against his thigh and tapped it out. He understood it, of course, could tell she was tapping nothing more than ‘HELLO MY NAME IS’ over and over again, but there was a quiet intimacy to it that he didn’t want to drive away.

“You being with Thorne yet,” Ambrose mumbled, her exhaustion contagious.

She didn’t manage to answer, because she distracted him by smoothing her fingers out over his thigh and tapping out ‘I’M TIRED’ this time and he picked her up in his arms and let her have his bed, not saying a word when she grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled him down to share the king size bed for the night. When he woke up, his nose was buried in her hair and her arms were wrapped snugly around his waist and his sheets smelled of Cain.

His heart had honestly never ached as badly as it did that morning.

He stayed, as much as he wanted to run away. He wanted to be there when Cain opened her eyes and he wanted her to see that he’d be there for her, even if he was suffering a mild panic attack because of it.

It took her twenty minutes to wake up and she smiled dazedly at him as she removed her arms and lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“How do I break up with a man? What do they want to hear?” Cain asked, addressing the ceiling.

“Just be honest,” Ambrose advised. “It’s never led me astray.”

*

Ambrose, Cain suspected, was even smarter than even he realized. Cain doubted that Ambrose was even aware of the strategy he’d set into motion by casually hinting at feelings towards Cain and then acting completely ignorant of that admission. She had tested him to see how far those boundaries of nonchalance would go and found that he was being good.

She was getting tired of good.

She’d spent three months since Ambrose had admitted his feelings for her with Thorne and they both knew it was just a matter of time before they reached their end. Three months and Cain had become obsessed with the notion of Ambrose, with the image of him, with the imagined weight of his hands in her hair, his body aligned overtop Cain’s. All because of that little hint of emotion.

It was a flawless strategy and Cain doubted that Ambrose even knew he had been doing it.

Thorne took the break-up with a laugh, admitting that he was surprised they lasted as long as they did and they parted with a quick hug before Cain wandered off to be solitary for a good while. She spent two weeks on her own, sitting in the back of classes, skipping meals, and locking herself in her residence room at the end of the day. Cain still went by Ambrose’s room after dinner so he wouldn’t worry, but was a lot more withdrawn and barely said a word.

“Cain, what’s wrong?” Ambrose asked worriedly, hand rubbing her back in slow circles as they sat over a mass of books that described Ambrose’s latest invention – which had to do with creating a microcosm of a world inside the macrocosmic universe. She didn’t say a word as she stared at the pictures in the books and let herself sink back against his hand.

“Smartest man in the O.Z.,” was all Cain eventually said, turning to face him and finding that their faces were inches apart.

“I don’t know that yet,” he said anxiously, “I…”

“…still haven’t met everyone out there,” Cain finished the sentence along with him. They did that often, either overlapped one another or knew exactly what the other was about to say. It meant there was some kind of fit. She leaned in slightly and rested her forehead against his. “Thorne and I are done, but you knew that already,” Cain said evenly, staring down at the slightest of stubble on Ambrose’s cheeks. He’d spent the full day inventing and hadn’t allowed himself the personal time to shave and Cain couldn’t help smiling because she just knew that. “Do you still want me?”

“Cain,” Ambrose quietly remarked, lightly holding her by her shoulders and easing her back. “This was never about me just wanting you.”

“Then what…” Cain started sharply.

“It’s not just wanting you,” Ambrose continued, giving Cain a ‘don’t interrupt me’ look and she firmly shut her mouth to let him speak. “It’s about more than that. It’s about you.” He leaned in and pressed a kiss to her forehead, holding out both hands to her and pulled her to her feet. “You can have my bed for the night. I still have some work to do. The Queen wants an audience with me first thing.”

Cain couldn’t help the smug little smile on her lips.

“Yes, I know,” Ambrose sighed at the tacit boast. “Your suggestions worked, be happy, but now I have hours of work ahead of me.”

“I’ll come, keep you company,” Cain offered, still holding onto both of his hands.

Part of him hated the idea because of the distraction it would afford, but the more sane part loved it because he knew they could carry on a whole conversation and not have to say a word and if Ambrose was doing something wrong, Cain would definitely point it out. So he just gave a tug on her slack arms and they were off, Ambrose leading and holding onto a trailing Cain’s hand.

*

It was raining when it happened.

Ambrose was sprinting across the gardens to find shelter when he turned to find Cain just standing there at the bench that they sometimes sat at when they had a bit of free time in the afternoon. He had nearly made it when he caught sight of her in the corner of his eye and rushed over to grasp her with an arm around her waist, tugging her to the palace.

“I was waiting for you!” Cain insisted over the pouring rain. She tugged him back, as if determined to drag him back to the bench, even if it was pouring.

“Cain! It’s raining!”

“I can see that, genius,” she teased with a grin, grabbing hold of his soaked lapels and yanking him in for a very wet, very long, very good first kiss, their hair sticking to their skin and he grappled to hold onto her, hands clasping wet bunches of fabric as he kissed back, letting her sway against him and push her body flush up against his. He almost couldn’t believe they were doing this when he was so cold and so hot at once and when he pulled away and exhaled, he could see his breath in the air and Cain’s blue eyes were nearly illuminated as she stared up at him.

He started laughing, out of nerves and happiness and grabbed hold of her hand, tugging her along as he sprinted for the sanctity of dry rooms and dry clothes and dry blankets.

She went along with him to his room and Cain was the one who stood there and peeled all of her clothes off before doing the same for him and by the time they warmed up under the sheets, there was a look in Cain’s eyes that was not to be denied.

“It’s not just about want,” Ambrose felt compelled to remind Cain as she eased in against him.

“But the want is a part of it,” Cain corrected. “It is for me, don’t pretend it isn’t for you.”

And what use was there arguing with that?

*

Ambrose woke late in the morning, the silk sheets of his bed rumpled in pools and spread out everywhere and anywhere. He rubbed a hand over his face as he glanced to the thick curtains and the sun that landed on the floor while the draperies blocked it out. It couldn’t be later than noon, but it certainly wasn’t an early hour of the morning and part of him didn’t appreciate waking at all.

He stifled a yawn and stretched, pale skin looking unhealthy in the dim light of the room, but he simply crawled back under his sheets and sprawled out alongside Cain.

“Morning?” Cain mumbled tiredly as Ambrose splayed a palm over her bare back, resting atop the shoulderblades.

“Time yet,” Ambrose countered, pulling the sheets up to cover them both and drawing her into his arms. “Go back to sleep,” he murmured in exhausted reply, his eyes having shut a very long time ago in the duration of their conversation.

He was met with a tiny sound and Cain draping a bare leg over his waist and hitching him in closer. “Don’t wake me until it’s time for dinner,” Cain gave her instructions and they didn’t worry about waking up for a very long time.

*

Cain’s nineteenth birthday arrived in the spring just weeks before the graduation ceremony was about to occur and Ambrose had arranged with her closest friends to get her the biggest cake they could find and hold the party in the Central Gardens when everything in the highest bloom. Ambrose had the pleasure of tying one of his ties around her eyes as he held onto her waist with firm hands.

“Is this the part where you shove me down a flight of stairs?” Cain teased in a deadpan as he got them outside.

“And have you bedridden for me and only me? Cain, honestly. I could just sprain your ankle for the same effect,” he murmured in reply, leaning his lips in against her ear as they arrived at the scene of the party. “But I won’t.” He yanked off the tie and the group announced their birthday wishes in happy cries before tossing handfuls of confetti in Cain’s direction, getting the party favors in her hair.

Cain made the rounds and hugged each friend and talked animatedly about their upcoming graduation while Ambrose hovered by the cake, dipping his pinky into the frosting and sucking it off experimentally.

That was also how he got smacked on the arm. “Ow!” he protested lightly.

“That’s my cake,” Cain accused, as she yanked his frosting covered fingers over and began to slowly suck off each and every one until there wasn’t a trace of icing left and Ambrose didn’t have much willpower to go along with that, either. “And you’re just lucky no one arrested you for thievery,” Cain mumbled, when she was through cleaning him up.

“How long does the party last?” Ambrose asked, heart racing in his chest.

“I think I can make some excuses and go see what you got me for the day,” Cain negotiated, waggling her brows at him in a challenge to see that he would have something to contest with the party.

The robotic personal helper waiting in Cain’s room said that Ambrose most definitely could beat the party and more.

*

The graduation ceremony for the Tin Man was chaotic with the number of revelers and the atmosphere it created. Ahamo gave the speech in the Queen’s stead and Ambrose sat on the risers as one of the advisors to the Queen, handing diplomas to each of the graduating class. When it came time for Cain’s turn, he held the diploma out in one hand and the other was offered at the ready to shake her hand.

Head of the class, she was. Ambrose hadn’t expected anything less.

She took the diploma and slid her hand into his and they smiled for the cameras in public that day, accepting questions and letting people other than Cain’s friends know that they were a couple. He talked to her friends and was allowed to drape an arm over her shoulders and didn’t even have to hide the fact that he was staring at her from a distance.

In private, Cain couldn’t stop staring at her own diploma.

“First in my class,” she was announcing with the sound of giddy pride, lying on his bed and staring up at the paper in both hands. “With honors, first in my class, Ambrose!” she nearly cried with happiness, smacking him in the chest with a free hand. “Can you believe it?” Cain asked in disbelief, laughing even as Ambrose crawled over her and stared at her from his upside-down angle.

“You’re a star,” Ambrose agreed, plucking the diploma from her hands and setting it on the nearest table before he began to run slow kisses down her neck and start their own little private celebration.

*

The next time Ambrose was putting together a stone into a setting, he had a much bigger laboratory. Maybe it wasn’t a full floor to himself, but he had space to move around and drawers to put things in and the door even had a lock to it so that people couldn’t budge their way in. He had been to the mines in the Black Mountains to rifle through the wares himself and found a stone that was right for his project.

It didn’t take long to fuse into the setting and he tucked it away into one of the drawers in the laboratory before he made his way out to hold his meeting with a Viewer named Raw, apparently extremely talented and respected amongst his peers.

He was waiting for Ambrose in the lobby and they took a walk about the gardens as they discussed the monarchy and the Queen’s rule and when Raw shook Ambrose’s hand, he smiled, just so, and said, “Good things,” in a soft and warm tone. “Good man. Very good things ahead.”

“Are there happy endings?” Ambrose asked hopefully.

“Raw not see,” he offered apologetically. “Future is hazy.”

Hazy was better than dark and Ambrose was willing to take it. They spoke about politics and their next arranged appointment and when Ambrose waved Raw goodbye, Cain wandered up to join him, wrapping an arm around his waist and watching the Viewer leave. “Day over?” Ambrose asked, glancing to his side to see Wyatt in full uniform, yet. He was greeted with an affirmative nod. “C’mon, let’s go out for dinner. Maybe dancing?” he hinted at, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.

Lucky for him, it was nearly impossible to say no to that particular smile of Ambrose’s.

*

The stars from Central were impossible to see through the haze of the city and the lights and so if you wanted a good view of them, you had to go outside the city and travel the brick route a little, taking the fields of the Papay as a scenic detour (which, luckily, was always pleasant). Cain led Ambrose through the rich smell of the flowers by the hand, tugging him along as she talked about the property they were going to.

“It’s not much, but my father wanted me to have something on my graduation,” she was explaining. “It’s just a little piece of land and a small house. Nothing fancy.”

“I don’t think you’d accept it if it was,” Ambrose deduced, leaning over to brush several petals from Cain’s hair as they left the fields and began making their way down the last bit of hill. In the distance, he could see a small cabin perched by a beautiful pond.

“There it is,” Cain announced quietly, tugging on his hand and leading him the rest of the way.

They sat under the porch until the sun had set, at which point they lay on their backs on the dock by the pond, staring at constellations in the sky as the moons set them off. Cain’s hand remained twined in Ambrose’s and her head settled against his chest.

“Cain,” Ambrose mumbled quietly, while the crickets provided a steady soundtrack all around them.

“Hm?”

“I love you,” he told her, for the very first time, even if it had been burgeoning beneath the surface for a very long while.

“Good,” Cain said, in pleased reply. “Because I love you too.”

*

The Queen was a beautiful and graceful woman and was currently pregnant with her second child. Azkadellia was an intelligent girl of seven annuals and tended to hover around Ambrose to ask questions when she could. Today, she was riding Cain’s shoulders in a piggyback while Ambrose and the Queen convened about some of the forces to the South. Cain lingered behind because she had her own say in the matter.

Now that Cain was an official Tin Man (and at only nineteen annuals), she was already doing her part in Central to keep the peace. Azkadellia often asked questions about what the bad guys were like and what forms of disciplinary punishment Cain thought best.

Ambrose would just catch Cain’s eye and offer a wink that said to play along for the Princess.

The conversation shifted from reinforcements in the latest battle past the Black Mountains. It shifted past that to Ambrose’s personal life when Cain and Azkadellia drifted out of earshot.

“I heard rumors that you were speaking to the cook about his capabilities,” the Queen remarked, her tone musical and playful. “Is there something you’ve yet to tell us?”

“I haven’t done anything,” Ambrose said, pleading his innocence. “And you would be the very first to know if I did ask.” That said, he cast a glance back at Cain who smiled warmly in his direction and it made Ambrose’s whole face light up with joy. “But I think it’s only a matter of time,” he admitted, eyes still stuck on the way Azkadellia wore Cain’s hat and how Ambrose couldn’t dare to take his eyes off of her.

*

Cain had started on the fitness craze the moment she realized that to keep up with the older and more experienced Tin Men, she would need to be in shape. She went out for evening runs, pulled weights at the gym, and the worst of it all was the stretching she did in the morning to increase flexibility.

It was becoming habit now for Ambrose to wake up to a cold bed and find Cain in a pair of tight pants and a tank top on the carpet and stretching with her legs in impossible positions, leaning forward and presenting herself in contortions that made Ambrose very happy that the blankets were thick and tended to hide things, as a rule.

One morning, she caught him staring and Ambrose curled up and twisted so that he wasn’t spying and was instead just watching.

“I know this is for your job,” Ambrose informed Cain simply. “But it’s probably the single most arousing thing you’ve ever done for me.”

In response, Cain just slid her legs into center splits and leaned all the way down until her chest was on the floor, but her gaze peered up at Ambrose as she managed just three fingers loose and flipped him off with a gesture best known in the Northern villages of the O.Z. as a way of saying ‘screw off’.

He could only groan in frustration.

*

It wasn’t long at all before Ambrose sought counsel with the Queen, rather than giving her his own patient and metered advice. She had since moved him into a larger lab and had promoted him to Head Advisor as she trusted no one quite so much as she trusted her Ambrose.

Cain had brought him champagne to celebrate and Ambrose wasn’t likely to forget the mischievous grin she’d worn on her face that night as she undressed Ambrose and pushed him onto the bed to properly ‘congratulate’ him.

He shook his head to distract himself from those thoughts, glancing up at the Queen and her ever-growing stomach. Ahamo sat at her side, rubbing circles on her palm as the Queen smiled warmly at him.

“Has it come time for you to seek my advice?” she asked as Azkadellia scribbled something in her diary several chairs down from the Queen and her husband. Ambrose nodded and dug out the small velvet cloth that encased the object and he stepped forward to present it to her to inspect.

“I found the stone myself in the Mountain mines,” he explained, rubbing a hand over his hair. “And then I set it in some of the gold I used to make your necklace.” He swallowed anxiously. “Is it too much? Is it not enough? How do I even do this?”

The Queen returned the pouch to him and Ambrose tucked it away carefully, not daring to lose the precious object.

“All things will become clear in time,” she promised. “And the opportunity will present itself. You’re both young, Ambrose. She is only nineteen annuals, after all, and you only twenty-one. You have time.”

Ambrose smiled and bowed his head in gratitude as he departed the throne room, closing the doors behind him. They might have all the time in the world, but he didn’t want to spend them apart.

*

In the end, it wasn’t some elaborate plan he’d concocted (though the gods knew he had about ten of them, just in the space of thinking about it over breakfast one morning). They had been eating lunch in his room during one of Cain’s breaks from the job and she’d asked if he could pass over the juice.

Instead of saying ‘sure, here you go’ or ‘no problem’, he’d blurted out, “Will you marry me?”

Cain didn’t immediately respond. She leaned over the table to calmly take the orange juice for herself and pour a glass while considering Ambrose’s words, even as he slid the green velvet across the table and lifted it so that the ring was visible. She sipped at the juice and set it down before leaning over to pick up the ring and twirl it in the light of the room, glancing past it to look at Ambrose. “Are you sure about this? You’re putting all your bets and hopes on me,” Cain pointed out calmly.

“I don’t see any other future that works,” Ambrose put it plainly with a smile. “I mean it. You’re very obviously my best friend and you advise me in ways I should see, but am usually too blind to. I also happen to be stupidly in love with you, but I think that’s just a happy coincidence,” he said, wryly joking.

“Well, then,” Cain said, sliding the ring onto her own finger and giving Ambrose a nod. “Guess that’s a yes.”

Blissful was about the best way to describe how Ambrose felt right then.

*

The ceremony was incredibly small and incredibly pleasant. Cain had her parents and Ambrose had the Queen and Ahamo, Azkadellia walking down the aisle as the best-behaved flower girl that Ambrose had ever laid eyes on. Cain hadn’t really wanted to wear a dress and had wound up in a very plain beige skirt and a long-sleeved top and Ambrose couldn’t care less. He’d never had some ritualistic day in mind for this.

The truth was, he never really expected this to happen at all. He expected he’d be alone with his inventions for the rest of his life.

He thanked the gods for that day when he’d accidentally dropped a book.

They made it through the vows without incident and slid cool rings onto warm hands and caught secret smiles as the ceremony drew to a close and absconded away to his room, which had been her room for months if only unofficially. He drew the door closed before wrapping his arms around her waist. “Just tell me, are you happy?” Ambrose asked, sounding quietly like a little boy.

“Ambrose,” Cain said patiently. “You know I’m happy. So stop it and carry me to that damn bed already.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

*

Cain had never been to Finaqua before in her whole life and so when Ambrose had suggested it for the honeymoon (“I know it’s not the most perfect plan because I have to be there for the Queen, but now that she’s so close to giving birth, I…” “Ambrose, shut up. It’s perfect.”) Cain had been happy go along. They took horses to ride down and Cain prided herself in outgunning Ambrose on every stretch there was, arriving there two hours before her new husband.

That was something that would take getting used to. Every once in a while, the stone would glint in the light of the suns and take Cain by surprise. Even more shocking was that it was the good kind of surprise, the one where her stomach turned happily and she knew, just knew in her heart that she’d made the right choice.

It had been about what he’d said to her once.

He wanted her to have bliss.

Cain reasonably knew that no one could ever be permanently that happy and that realistically, no one’s life was even that great, but Cain also knew that being with Ambrose gave her some of the most comfortable and happy days of her life. It was enough. She dismounted in the reeds of Finaqua, staring out at the lake and the castle beyond it and took a seat in the swing under the gazebo, idly swaying from side to side as she waited for Ambrose to catch up to her.

He managed to make up some of the time, pulling up beside her, panting and heaving. He collapsed on the swing next to Cain and let her do all the work of pulling into his lap.

“You sound winded,” Cain remarked with mild mock-concern. “Guess that means plans are off for tonight.”

“Don’t even think it,” Ambrose retorted breathlessly, kissing her so hard that the swing dipped and the rope holding it up nearly snapped, to his delight and Cain’s horror.

*

Ambrose discovered one day that even if he thought he knew the ins and outs of Cain, he apparently didn’t know everything. He found her in one of the Central courtyards on a pleasant spring day, sipping coffee and watching a woman at another table. Ambrose leaned down to press a kiss to Cain’s lips, settling down beside her as he opened the paper.

“Suspicions?” he asked, when Cain couldn’t stop staring over to the other table and to the animated blonde woman with the dark blonde hair and hazel eyes, talking with her hands and laughing beautifully. Ambrose glanced over the current news and watched Cain tilt her head to one side. “Cain?”

“Hm?”

“You’re staring,” he very lightly said, trying not to smile at the obvious distraction.

“You don’t think she’s gorgeous?” Cain asked, staring at Ambrose, turning her attention back to the woman to miss the part where Ambrose’s jaw dropped and he let the newspaper fall to the table as he scrambled to sit beside him and watch the woman (Adora, he thought? One of the daughters of a well-established noble) stare in their direction, giving them a sunny smile. Ambrose’s mind was busy short-circuiting as he glanced at Cain, eyes widening by the second.

“Wyatt…” he gulped, mouth going dry.

“She’s just so incredibly attractive,” Cain admitted, as if surprised to even say the words aloud, her cheeks flushed with a pink coloring. “She’s definitely the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen.” This time, she didn’t miss the way Ambrose was gaping at her in his best impression of a fish. “Don’t worry, sweetheart, I took my vows and I stand by them. You’re just lucky I met you first.” Teasing or not, that image wasn’t likely to leave Ambrose’s mind for a very long time.

*

Cain had been irritable for too many days and all the sleep in the world wouldn’t drive away the constant headache she had. Ambrose did his best to tend to her, insisting that she ought to go and see a doctor at some point, just to check that she didn’t have the nasty bug going around Central. Cain promised it wasn’t that and bundled herself up in blankets while Ambrose stroked her hair back off her forehead and fed her fruit.

It felt like the flu she’d gotten when she was a small child and Cain didn’t want to spend their first anniversary bed-ridden and expressed that worry to Ambrose.

He took it well, smiling playfully. “Actually, I had hoped that…” but he couldn’t finish because Cain shoved him off the bed (even if she was grinning herself).

He climbed back onto the bed and curled up behind her, taking her temperature. Cain groaned and turned in his grasp, giving him something of a pathetic look. “Maybe call the doctor,” she admitted with a sigh. “With any luck, he’ll prescribe me some pills and we can go to Finaqua like we wanted.”

“I’ll call him soon,” Ambrose mumbled, lips pressed to her neck as he laid lazy kisses there. “Too comfortable.”

“I’ll get you sick,” Cain warned.

“I’ll manage.”

*

The doctor had come back with the results of the variety of tests he had performed on Cain, who had lain in bed looking pale and exhausted. Ambrose’s concern had begun to grow more by the day when Cain didn’t seem to improve and though he fed her juices and healthy leaf-salads, none of the color was returning to her cheeks.

Ambrose stepped outside and wrapped his arms around his thin torso – he’d managed to lose weight, himself, in the preoccupation for taking care of Cain – as he fidgeted and stared at the doctor.

“Pills?” he started the conversation. “Maybe something to get her energy back. She hasn’t worked in weeks and I know it’s starting to drive her mad.” He let out a weary and broken laugh, brow furrowed. “I don’t want things to go downhill so soon. We’ve only been married a year,” he explained, rambling on while the doctor looked at him like he’d gone mad. “She says one of her coworkers, some man named Zero, he’s trying to get her position and…”

“She’s fine,” the doctor insisted. “Mrs. Cain is healthy.” (In the ensuing marriage, Cain had retained her last name, insisting that since Ambrose rarely used his in a show of hating it, she wanted to keep a name she was proud of ). “Some women take to the early sickness of pregnancy worse than others.”

Ambrose gaped for a long while. “I-I…wa…wh…she…”

“Keep feeding her as much as you can. More red meats would help,” the doctor advised, clapping Ambrose on the shoulder. “I’ll drop by vitamins that should help, if only slightly.”

Ambrose gaped at the doctor’s retreating back for a long while before he yanked open the door and nearly pounced on Cain in bed, even to the sound of her protesting groans. “Ambrose, uneasy stomach, remember?” she sharply reprimanded.

“And for the best reason ever,” he promised, wrapping his arms around Cain loosely as he leaned down and kissed her. “You’re not sick. Well, you are sick, but you don’t have the flu.”

“Mm?”

“You,” Ambrose announced, relishing every last moment of this as he tapped her nose, “are pregnant.” Cain just gave another groan and turned into Ambrose’s arms, resting her cheek on his shoulder. “Go to sleep, you can be happy when the sickness wears off,” he promised, not thinking any less of her for not immediately sharing in his elated excitement.

“Guess I really am stuck with you now,” Cain mumbled teasingly under her breath while closing her eyes. Her breaths deepened and Ambrose just let her sleep rather than say anything back (even if he had about four good retorts lined up).

*

Jeb had immediately been ingratiated to the Royal Family at the Queen’s insistence that she see Ambrose’s boy. He took after Cain physically, by the looks of it, but there was something about his expressions that belonged solely to his father. Ambrose had him carefully in his arms, letting DG poke and prod at him with her annual-old fingers, squealing happily, even as Jeb let out displeased cries.

“He doesn’t cry often,” Ambrose explained, lightly rocking Jeb back and forth. “Obviously when hungry or in need of a change, but he’s very well-tempered otherwise. He takes after his mother in that regard.” They both had a fairly even keel when it came to emotions and didn’t go through the same ups and downs that Ambrose experienced. “He’s an angel,” he mumbled as the Queen leaned over to study him. “Looks it, too, what with the coloring. That’s all Cain’s, too. Sometimes, I wonder what of me is in him,” Ambrose expressed his worry and wonder in the same breath.

“There’s more than you would have yourself believe, I’m sure,” the Queen assured, leaning over and pressing a kiss to Jeb’s small forehead. “He will be with us and a close friend of the family, I’m sure. Just as you are.”

Ambrose just hoped that was true. He hefted Jeb up into his arms and gave him a long look. “How about you and I go see what Azka-D is up to, now?” he offered. “Probably toying around in my lab looking for something to learn about.”

He didn’t get much more than a sleepy yawn in response from Jeb, but it was better than a wail of a cry.

*

When Jeb was old enough to walk, he immediately took to running. Cain observed that it was from Ambrose’s influence as they walked behind him and made sure to scoop him up in the event that all his running ended up in him falling flat on his behind. Cain had crouched down to grasp Jeb tightly in her arms, listening to him babble about something or other in the incomprehensible language he had.

“I still want to try and translate what he’s saying,” Ambrose mumbled.

“Give him time and he’ll start speaking People, sweetheart,” Cain promised, leaning over to kiss Ambrose’s cheek.

“So, you were saying about Zero?” Ambrose asked, getting back to the original topic as Jeb settled in Cain’s arms and rested a cheek on Cain’s shoulder.

“I don’t trust him. We’ve got pictures of his wife and DeMilo playing hide the sausage, but no one really wants to hand them over. Zero’s bad enough on a good day, so no one’s keen on finding out what one of his bad moods looks like,” Cain spoke quietly as they took their slow walk around the park. “And he just does not like me.”

“He wants your job, you said,” Ambrose recalled.

“He’s trying to use the time I took off for Jeb as a reason. He knows I’m more skilled and have better contacts, so he’s getting underhanded,” Cain said, giving a grateful noise as Ambrose moved a hand to the small of her back and just held lightly. “It’s not going anywhere, but it’s starting to wear on me,” she admitted.

“Maybe you should ask for a transfer?” Ambrose suggested quietly. “Work for the Mystic Man. He has a spot open and you’d have the Queen’s reference. You wouldn’t have to worry about Zero, seeing as there’s only two Tin Men and one of those spots is open and the other is a very good man we all approve of.”

“You wouldn’t mind?” Cain asked, catching Ambrose’s eye.

“Zero is making you miserable. Why would I mind you getting away from that?” Ambrose asked gently, stroking Jeb’s hair. In his repose and sucking his thumb, the little boy looked calm as ever and not like the sprinting little devil he’d been only minutes ago. “I’ll arrange the meeting. You just dazzle him with your incredible skills.” Ambrose leaned in and pressed his forehead to Cain’s. “This is your dream job and you get to get away from a creep. There’s no way in the realm I’d let you miss this opportunity.”

*

Jeb had been enrolled in the very best school for young children that the O.Z. had to offer after Ambrose had made a big deal out of not wanting his son to receive anything but the best. They discovered that while Jeb might have resembled Cain in most ways, the intelligence was purely from Ambrose as teachers sent letters home indicating that Jeb was already too far ahead of the class for him to be in their rooms.

Cain went through about three of those letters when she arrived home for the day, filing a fourth into their ranks. Jeb was nearby, coloring a book, and they were both waiting for Ambrose. Jeb babbled on about his day as he kicked up his legs and talked about maths and grammar and the things that four annual-old boys shouldn’t know about. Cain barely glanced up from her paperwork until Ambrose came home for the day and kissed Cain in greeting, picking up Jeb and tickling him.

“He’s been kicked out of another class,” Cain said, evenly, holding up the newest letter in the pile and giving Ambrose a sharp look.

Ambrose, at least, had the good sense to look guilty. “What was it this time?”

“He knows too much in maths to be at a level with the other seven annual olds,” Cain recited off the letter patiently, giving her husband what was a very patient look considering she was about fed up on patience. “Didn’t I say something along the lines of not teaching him before he went to school?”

“You did.”

“And aren’t we paying for it now?”

“We’ll just bump him up another annual,” Ambrose said with a hapless shrug. “I did the same, I turned out fine.” Jeb held on tight in Ambrose’s arms, looking at Cain with bright and shining eyes. “Besides, we always knew Jeb was special,” he said fondly as he ruffled his hair. “It just means he’s even more amazing.”

Jeb beamed broadly and looked to Cain. “Just like Father,” he announced happily. “And Mother. I’m gonna be the best ever. Promise!”

*

Ambrose was home in the middle of the day and had Jeb protectively wrapped up in his arms. Cain watched as he ran around the room to yank the curtains closed and search for something that Cain couldn’t see or imagine and she stared at him, waiting for the explanation.

“Ambrose, what’s going on?” Cain demanded, even as Ambrose was still searching and Jeb stood there, staring up at Cain with confusion. At least they shared that. She made long strides across the room and shot him a sharp look, grasping hold of his upper arm. “What is going on?” Cain asked again.

“Azkadellia,” he tried to explain in a rush, staring at Cain in worry. “Azkadellia killed DG,” he whispered, trying not to let Jeb overhear that his best friend and best playmate had just died. “Her mother gave up most of her magic to bring her back and is bringing her to the Otherside with some nurture units. Wyatt,” he breathlessly explained, pain and confusion in his eyes. “Little Azka-D, she was my little princess, ours…I…” he trailed off, clearly not knowing what to say. “She killed her sister.”

“Why are you home so early?” Cain asked patiently, not letting the news faze her more than a quiet reaction of displeasure.

“We’re leaving Central,” Ambrose announced. “At least, for a little. We need to establish a second point of resistance in the event we need to run. You, me, and Jeb, we’re going for a month. I’ve already told the Mystic Man that you’ll be back later, we go this afternoon.”

They turned to stare at Jeb, who was staring right back, and Cain felt like the world had just been splintered apart. She knew all those cracks were likely to only grow deeper, but Ambrose had a good plan and they would follow it. “Right. Give me twenty to pack up some things. You get Jeb ready and then we’ll go.”

*

The storm came in to cover the O.Z. one day and no matter how hard anyone fought, no matter how hard they tried, it wouldn’t be pushed away. It seemed it was there to stay.

*

Wyatt Cain had been stuck in an Iron Suit by a man named Zero eight annuals ago. Living on the outskirts of Central with her son had taken up all her time until one day, Longcoats had come and started asking questions and when they didn’t get answers, they had started using fists. They dragged Jeb away and they pulled Cain to an Iron Suit. Bloodied and bruised, she was shoved into it and made to watch a TDESPHTL of the day’s events again and again.

Most days, the only way Cain retained her sanity was by closing her eyes and thinking of better times. Of Jeb when he was younger and meeting Ambrose and growing up to become the best of friends and eventually, into something stronger.

She never expected that one day, the Suit would be pried open.

Cain felt creaky and stared at the young girl who kept asking if she was okay. Her voice seemed to echo in Cain’s ears. She said her name was DG and that they were going to help her. They. Cain, in fact, was stuck on the ‘they’. She couldn’t seem to look past the person beside DG, the man that she knew so intimately. The zipper was known information as Cain had found out in the Resistance that they had done this to him, but couldn’t visit while they had Ambrose under lock and key, still trying to mine information. Ambrose had still been in the dungeons when Cain was locked away and this was their awkward reunion.

Her hair was grayed by the dust of the suit and had grown down to her waist, her skin pale and metallic-looking. She had no strength to her legs and when she stepped out and tripped to the ground, he stepped forward and caught her in capable arms.

“Whoa!” he announced cheerfully. “Careful you don’t trip on your feet. I do that, a lot. DG can vouch for me, even if we just met in one of the munchkins’ cages, or I think we just met. Maybe we met forever ago. The name’s Glitch, on account of…”

Cain closed her eyes and let his voice fade into nothing as she steadied herself and let him hold onto her.

It hadn’t taken very much to ice the last pieces of Cain’s already broken heart; just the lost memories of her husband. Cain stared up at both the girl and at this ‘Glitch’ and knew that whatever fantasy she had of being rescued, this was hardly it. She pulled away sharply, trying to retain some dignity as her eyes burned and she stormed to find something sharp like a knife so she could cut her hair back to where she had kept it all those years at the Academy.

“Wyatt Cain,” she offered her terse introduction and that was all she said for hours until they watched as Cain packed up all the last tangible items she had in her life and they moved on. A hat on her head, a carved toy horse inside her vest, a gun draped around her waist, and they were on their way to Central City to look for Zero, to find Jeb.

Even if Glitch couldn’t even remember his own son.

*

Cain watched the interaction between Glitch and Raw carefully after they had made the fall, having survived the run from the Papays. While she had never been a close and personal friend to Raw, Ambrose had always appreciated the Viewer’s input and they spoke on a weekly basis. She sat, nursing her Papay wounds by the fire and didn’t take her eyes off of Glitch and when Raw introduced himself, there was no flicker of recognition.

DG and Glitch exchanged a quiet conversation about Viewers and while they were distracted, Raw slowly sidled up beside Cain, offering his palm. “Heal?” he offered.

Cain just nodded, prying her hands off the wound to let Raw at it, wincing at the initial sting that came of the healing. The pain began to ebb away, slowly being replaced by something like relief and she gave a nod of gratitude to Raw, quickly checking to see that DG and Glitch were still talking.

“Pain,” Raw murmured. “Pain in your heart.”

“He doesn’t remember anything,” Cain said simply with a shrug. “I thought he was dead and now he’s alive, but…” she trailed off, eyes catching sight of him as he laughed and then stopped abruptly. “He’s not the same.”

“Neither are you, Tin Man.”

“What’s a Tin Man?” came DG’s curious question and before Cain could even dare open her mouth, Glitch was going rapidly and answering for the lot of them.

*

Milltown had been a quick stop on their way and the entire duration of the walk from the city to Central, Cain’s eye kept catching Glitch and she tried her very best to ignore the random babbling, especially when it came around to Cain’s mood. “I know what your problem is, Cain,” Glitch announced.

“I very much doubt you do, Zipperhead,” Cain muttered under her breath and picked up the pace without asking for so much as consensus.

Behind her, she could hear Glitch introducing himself to DG and Raw and then pausing before launching into another set of familiar question. “What do you think this ring’s for? Maybe it’s to remind me about something, but it’s not likely I’ll ever remember. Suppose it’s just another something I can’t explain…”

And then silence again.

*

It seemed as if the whole world was out to get to Cain. Not only was there no news on Jeb, but Zero was pursuing DG and Cain had sworn to herself that she would protect the girl. The whore in the brothel had taken a long look at Cain, offered her a quickie, and then directed her to where Zero had gone: straight to the Mystic Man.

Cain lowered her gun and thanked the woman before hurrying off to make sure she beat Zero to the scene, knowing that Glitch and Raw were in danger along with the Mystic Man and DG. She paused in an alleyway to bundle up strands of straw-like hair into a tight ponytail before heading around the back into the performing house.

Cain found that the O.Z. could be an even crueler place than usual when she stepped into the room and discovered that the Mystic Man couldn’t remember her, let alone remember himself.

“Vapors,” she exhaled, ignoring the way it felt like she’d just been punched in the stomach. She glanced to Glitch and caught his gaze for a long moment, nodding to the door. “Watch for Zero’s men,” she instructed curtly, kneeling down beside the Mystic Man. “Hey,” she greeted, sounding younger than Cain had in a very long time. “Mystic Man, it’s me. Cain, do you remember me?”

He looked over her, but then looked straight through her and Cain went to the door to lean behind Glitch, check on the situation.

The sound of a slap drew his attention back to the Mystic Man and DG and then it all fell into place so quickly. Cain immediately placed one hand on Glitch’s back – some habits died harder than others – and hurried back to DG and the Mystic Man’s side, where DG was copiously apologizing, to the reassurances that it was no matter to worry over.

“Cain,” the Mystic Man announced with that unshakeable pride, yanking on her coat and staring right into her eyes. Cain just nodded with a proud smile lurking around her lips. “You were one of mine,” he said quietly, protectively.

“We have to get you out of here, I need to go after Zero,” Cain insisted, gaze flickering over to Glitch before it returned to the Mystic Man. “I need to find Jeb.” Even if Jeb wasn’t alive anymore, Cain needed to know what happened.

“You have to protect the Princess,” the Mystic Man insisted, still clasping her coat firmly. “Swear it. I promise the other answers will come, but she needs protecting. Swear it, on your honor as a Tin Man, promise me.”

Cain glanced to the door, hearing the ruckus and knowing they wouldn’t have much time to slip away into the dark of the night, but she nodded reluctantly. “I swear,” she promised. “Now come on, we have to get out of here.”

“Not me. Go on without me.” The Mystic Man smiled warmly, cupping Cain’s cheek warmly. “Trust me, Wyatt Cain. You always did before.”

As they slipped into the alley and ran for a path that would take them to the Northern Island, Cain was the last one to follow, constantly looking back. She felt, sometimes, like her whole life was spent looking to the happier days of the past that they could never get back.

*

DeMilo’s wagon afforded a brief space of quiet refuge from things like conversation. Raw and Glitch stuck to the back of the wagon and DG rode shotgun with Cain while they drove up the too-often abandoned and sometimes-ghostly paths. DG’s attention was on the wedding ring on Cain’s finger and while she had gone a long time without saying anything, Cain could tell it was coming.

“I noticed,” she started quietly. “Just back when we were walking to Central City, that the gold ring isn’t just gold,” she described, reaching over to help switch gears when they got stuck. “There’s just the slightest piece of something imbedded under it and it changes colors every once in a while. I thought it was just some silly mood ring at first, but then I noticed it changes with the temperature,” she explained. She was speaking quietly, for which Cain was grateful, seeing as it was a private matter.

“Say it, kiddo,” Cain encouraged, eyes on the road.

“Glitch has a matching one. It’s the exact same and I noticed in Central when the temperature jumped down about ten degrees, they both changed colors. They’re a matching pair,” she said, having figured it out long ago and Cain had to give her credit for waiting this long to reason it aloud to him. “So, that means you’re…”

“Yeah,” Cain cut her off as he took a swerve of a right turn and they both heard the loud “OW!” from Glitch in the back portion of the truck. “Long time ago, when he was a different man.” She turned to offer DG a terse smile. “But that’s not important right now. Right now, it’s about getting you to the Northern Island and finding you some answers.”

Cain knew that these questions were unimportant in the long run.

*

Zero had been there.

Zero had shot at her.

Zero had watched her fall.

Cain knew that these things all happened, but piecing them together hurt to think about and actually, just being conscious was hurting more than anything. Cain kept having the hazy dreams as she watched Zero shoot her out that window and she fell with a piercing cry in the air. Then, there’d been the ice cold water and Cain winced as she shifted, trying to look around. She couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes, though. She’d fallen, she’d been shot, she’d nearly drowned. Shouldn’t Cain be dead by now?

The door to wherever she was opened and Cain’s grip on her gun tightened as she wearily aimed it at whoever it was. Familiar fingers brushed her hand aside though as Glitch climbed over her and Cain finally managed to open her eyes.

“You have a tattoo,” Glitch mumbled quietly. “And I thought I recognized it for a second.”

Cain didn’t mention that the A on the inside of her hip did in fact stand for Ambrose and also neglected to think too much on the fact that Glitch had managed to get her that undressed to know that. They exchanged quiet updates on DG and Raw and then silence took over and the only sound that surrounded them was the sound of wind whipping snow against the panes of the wagon.

“I may have saved you from hypothermia,” Glitch murmured quietly, “but this saved your life.” He held up the toy horse, turning it into his vision. “It’s crazy,” he admitted with an exhaled laugh. “I could swear I recognize this silly ol’ thing. Like I know it somehow. Like I know you somehow.”

Cain was just focusing on breathing right then and reached out to take the horse from Glitch and hold it tight as she could in her palm.

“Glitch,” Cain murmured, finally addressing him by that name for the first time in their travels. “I owe you one.”

“Somehow,” Glitch wistfully spoke, “I don’t think you do. Just a feeling I’m getting.”

*

Glitch had taken Cain by absolute surprise while they perched above the craggy dunes of the Tower and he just started in on dancing of all things. “You should have seen me. I just know that I’d walk into a club and completely command everyone’s attention. Sometimes. Well, sometimes I even dream it. I’m in this club and instead of all the girls looking over me like they used to, I’d have all of their attention including this one little blonde. I never see her face though, she just twirls, but they all loved me for my dancing and my rhythm.” He sighed and Cain didn’t dare draw her eyes off the guards. “I bet you’d like it too, if you just gave it a chance,” he snapped, bitterly.

“Can we put aside the dancing and think about how we’re going to rescue DG?” she snapped.

“You’re definitely a blonde of a much colder nature,” Glitch scoffed, glaring at Cain. “You’d be the kind to just let me fade into the wallpaper.”

Lightning struck the moment he said that and Cain yanked on one of Glitch’s hands, already leading him down the steep incline. “That’s a good idea,” she praised, actually offering her something of a smile.

“Hey Cain?”

“What?”

“Dance with me,” Glitch invited and it was so very much like Ambrose in that moment that Cain let herself drift into the past and she nodded.

“You follow my lead,” she instructed and didn’t even have to worry when they made their assault. Cain had known for annuals that Ambrose could hold his own in a battle and there was no one else she trusted more than him at her back.

*

There were moments, occasions on their journey, that made Cain think twice about whether or not her heart had frozen up completely. On the path to Finaqua and with that mobat diving for Glitch, that was one of them. Cain hadn’t trusted Tutor at all and now this happy little coincidence was too much to bear, but Cain would think about that later when her world wasn’t threatening to splinter before her very eyes.

The mobat was going for Glitch and in that moment, it felt as if time stood still. She got the gun out and aimed as best as she could, but her fingers shook and the first shot missed and it was closer and closer and if it got to him, that was it. There would be no chance of a memory, even a halted one.

“Cain!” Glitch called in panicky alarm and Cain aimed better this time and the shot didn’t miss, going straight through the mobat’s heart. The mobat crumpled to a nearby rock and Cain holstered her gun, sprinting over to Glitch’s side while Raw tended to DG and made sure she was out of the way.

Cain skidded to a stop in front of Glitch and shot him a dirty look.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, still a bit skittish. “For a second there…”

“Yeah,” Cain finished the thought for him, knowing exactly what he meant.

*

Cain insisted she knew that the Realm was there somewhere and Glitch believed her. They’d been on that journey for what felt like just forever and there was constantly something at the back of Glitch’s mind, tickling at him and trying to convince him that he was missing something right under his nose.

Shame he couldn’t place it, though.

He kinda figured it had something to do with Cain, though. If not for the attraction during the waking moments, there were all those dreams to think about with that blonde girl. She was definitely a girl and Cain (pretty as she was) looked far too old to be the same one. Still, it was curious. And Glitch might have lost half of his brain, but he didn’t miss the fact that Cain couldn’t take her eyes off him at all, case in point, when he tripped just then in the fields, she’d been there to haul him back to his feet and check on him with a look in her eyes that said ‘if you lie to me, I’ll know it’.

There was something that Glitch was missing and Cain was the key. He just wished he could understand what kind of an answer he was looking for.

*

They hadn’t been too far outside of the Realm of the Unwanted, chained to that log and the heat was beginning to grow oppressive. Cain’s hair tumbled out of the stern bun it had been in and wisps of blonde hair fell into her face as they carried it along. On the road, they had little time to do anything but think and when the suns glinted off of Cain’s rings and Glitch (not Ambrose) stood right in front of her, she had a lot to think about.

Raw seemed to be picking up on the waves of discontent, judging by the looks he kept shooting over to Cain, but she ignored them fully, barely even noticing the overturned wagon on the path in front of them.

She glowered at Zero while they nearly made quick work of the travelers, but before that was even a possibility, an ambush had begun. Cain’s heart began to race in double-time, knowing that ambush anywhere. This was Resistance run and immediately, she was setting her mind to getting the log they were attached to and turning it into a weapon.

By the time the smoke of the gunshots cleared and the Resistance was taking their prisoners, a silence sounded thickly in the air as a young hooded man wandered closer and pushed off the hood that darkened his features, staring at both her and at Glitch. “Mother,” he exhaled.

“Jeb,” Cain murmured in quiet relief as some of the fighters released his cuffs from the log with keys and watched as her son glanced to Glitch again, taking him in with an anguished expression on his face while Cain rested a hand on Jeb’s back.

“Father?” Jeb asked carefully, with great distress.

For the first time in their whole journey, Glitch glanced to the ring on his finger, to Cain, to Jeb, to the rings on Cain’s finger, and everything clicked. It was clear in Glitch’s eyes and Cain didn’t know whether to feel utterly relieved or completely frustrated that it had taken this long.

“I’m married to you!” Glitch announced with sudden certainty and Cain just nodded heavily, like the weight of the grief was bowing on the back of her neck.

“Come on, Jeb could use our help,” she muttered, brushing past Glitch on her way to help with some of the fallen Resistance soldiers and trying desperately not to look back, on the off chance when she looked, she’d catch some familiar expression of Ambrose; some ghost from the past.

*

They set up camp with the Resistance and after a very rewarding session in which Jeb pried information out of Zero (and when Cain got the faintest glimmer of hope to hear that Ambrose was still somewhere, even if it was suspended in some cruel machine), Cain set up at the base of a tree trunk, using a nearby pack as a pillow and draping her duster out to cover herself.

She felt a lot more uneasy ever since Jeb had put the puzzle pieces together for Glitch, and discovering that Jeb was a bit splintered himself had been the worst part of all. She wanted to sleep away the grief and the heaviness over her heart.

“Cain,” a quiet voice interrupted her meditation of thoughts and she glanced to the side to find Glitch crouching down beside her, eyes scanning the area around them. “Hi,” he added anxiously. “I uh, I was just wondering if we should talk. Because, I mean, you hear a lot about people talking when they get news like this and wow, that one was just a doozy,” he laughed nervously. “At least now the whole hypothermia cuddling thing isn’t as wrong, right?”

Cain didn’t say anything in return, just shifting with the coat.

“You know,” Glitch muttered irritably. “It’s not very nice of you to pin this all on me. It’s not like I asked to get my brain out or to forget you or Jeb and you’re treating me like I’m no better than some convict because of the zipper in my head. You could at least talk to me.”

Cain sat up and pried open one eye, but still didn’t dare to talk.

Glitch rolled his shoulders back and offered a flash of an anxious grin. “Hi,” he greeted with another little wave. “I uh, I came to talk…”

“You said that already,” Cain patiently replied and didn’t even realize until it had happened that Glitch was crawling under the duster and pressing up against Cain. It had long been engrained as habit and by the time it had happened, it was too late to protest. She sighed heavily, a tired and frustrated sound.

“How long have we been together?” Glitch finally asked when they settled in the awkwardness of the position with Cain’s head atop Glitch’s chest and his palm on her waist.

“Friends since I was sixteen, together since I was eighteen,” Cain patiently answered. And now that she was pushing forty-three (and Ambrose knew that, but Glitch probably didn’t). “So, together for twenty-four annuals, not that I was there for eight of them or you remember ten of them.” It was a little harsh to speak, but it was the truth of it.

Glitch didn’t say anything after that, staring glumly down at Cain. “I really didn’t remember,” he said quietly.

“I know,” Cain sighed, hating that she was letting him get this close to her. “Jeb’s changed,” she confided, her tone pained. “He’s harder, now, won’t let me in. This was supposed to be a happy day, but he can’t even accept a hug without thinking there’s some ulterior motive to it.” Lying together on the ground like that and just talking made it seem like they were back in Central and there was no moonlight refracting off a zipper and Cain didn’t move slower because of old battle wounds that were reluctant to disappear. “He really is your son,” Cain promised him. “Even if he doesn’t look it. He gets the intelligence and his sharp mind from you. His smile’s all yours,” Cain reminisced quietly, the warmth of another body sending her to sleep. “You should talk to him. After we deal with Zero,” she mumbled, words thick and heavy as she fell asleep.

*

In the morning before the Resistance left the tower, Jeb lingered behind, having already pledged his services to the Princess, which happened to also coincide with being where his parents were. Even if one of them barely grunted at him anymore and the other couldn’t recognize him on a good day. They were still his parents and they were both alive.

He was drinking from his canteen when he caught Glitch approaching out of the corner of his eye and dropped the water to smile tensely at the man.

“Cain told me that you really are my son,” Glitch admitted, shoving his hands in his pockets as he lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I wanted to say I’m sorry I don’t remember and that I really wish I could. It’s not fair to any of us that I don’t.”

“You taught me things before I went to school,” Jeb said with a nostalgic smile. “And it would make Mother so angry because I would always know too much for my class and they kept kicking me out. I graduated from elementary grades only two annuals longer than you did, which apparently is pretty good,” he relayed. He hovered for a moment before seeming to launch himself forward, wrapping his arms firmly around him as they hugged tightly. “I’ve only ever seen her cry twice,” Jeb quietly spoke. “The first time was the day you told her to run with me, that you were going to stay and protect the Sun Seeder. Then, when she found out what they did to you, it was the second and last time in my life I’ve ever seen her cry.”

Glitch’s stomach turned uneasily. It had been bad enough to just be a headcase, but to know he’d left behind a family when this was done to him was even worse.

“Did…was I a good father, at least?” Glitch asked warily.

“Yeah,” Jeb agreed, beaming away. “The best.”

*

Toto had led them straight to DG and Cain was the first to jump off the horse that brought them there and pull her into a tight hug, easing back to check on the Princess with all the maternal devotion in the world in her eyes, pulling her back in for a tight hug. “Don’t do that again,” she warned, mostly for her own sake.

Glitch and Raw were saddling the horses behind them and Jeb cantered back and forth and watched the scene.

DG just burrowed and hugged tighter, sniffling slightly as she gave a weak laugh. “Trust me, it’s not high on my to-do list.”

*

Jeb had fallen to the back with DG as they walked the old brick route and let Raw go forward with Glitch. They had to get to the tower and when Jeb had found his parents, he had let the other resistance members go on ahead without him for the chance to just be there and hope maybe his Mother might say something to him or this time, his Father might turn and when he saw him, might even do something as shocking as remember him.

DG hovered with him, seeing as it was tough to get conversation out of any of the others.

“Is this weird for you?” DG asked Jeb curiously. “I mean, your Mother hasn’t exactly even said one nice thing to you. Has Cain always been like this?”

“She got worse when the witch took over. I do remember that,” Jeb admitted quietly. “They used to be happy, really happy. I heard stories all the time about how they met and the time they spent in Central before they got married. Ever since the Witch, though, Mother’s always been this icy. And now Father doesn’t even remember me,” he complained quietly. “Mother and I left Central when Father took the fall so she wouldn’t get her hands on the plans for one of his inventions. I haven’t seen him in over ten annuals. Haven’t seen Mother in over eight.”

He took after Cain in looks, DG could tell. He had the pale brows and eyelashes and a complexion that was purely Cain and the hair was as curly as the portrait of Ambrose, but with sun-flecked blond. He himself admitted that the most he inherited from his father was his tactician’s mind and some of the eccentricity when it came to dealing with people.

DG rested a warm hand on his shoulder and leaned in to give him a half-hearted hug as they walked. “I’m sorry this sucks so badly,” she offered sympathetically. “If it helps any, the people I thought were my parents turned out to be robots.”

“Call me crazy,” Jeb replied with a strained laugh, “but it actually helps a little.”

*

Up on the balcony, it sounded like a storm was raging. Outside the tower, the explosions from the Resistance (at Jeb’s command) made it sound like there were fireworks in addition to that terrible storm. And inside the brain room, Cain was nursing a gunshot wound to her shoulder as she aimed her gun at the brain, staring between Glitch and what was Ambrose and unable to believe it had come to this.

“I’m so sorry,” Cain insisted. “You know this is as hard for me as it is for you,” she said and drew the safety off.

“Wait,” Raw pleaded. “Feel, Glitch. Feel.”

Think, Cain pleaded privately, staring at Glitch even if the gun was aimed at the brain. Think, please, think. If the witch had kept the brain intact and capable of running a machine, then magic could fix him. Cain wasn’t very optimistic anymore, but that glimmer of hope refused to be quashed deep down.

And then, shouted loud as ever and clear as a crystal, Glitch announced “1208!” and Cain felt like laughing as she slumped on the control and pulled it down, hearing the machine shut down for good.

She turned to give Glitch a relieved smile and found that Raw had reconnected the both of them and it was Ambrose staring at her again, but unlike before when he had been so preoccupied with getting the Sun Seeder to shut down, now he appeared preoccupied with her.

“Miss Wyatt Cain,” he greeted her with a knowing smile. “I should have known one day you’d save the whole O.Z.”

Cain limped slowly over, clasping at her bleeding arm while standing beside him in the dim light of the brain tank. “I didn’t do it alone,” she pointed out. “I had help from the smartest man in the whole O.Z. and I don’t care if you haven’t met everyone yet to find out. I know.” She hissed in pain and Ambrose looked to the wound, worry laden in his eyes. “I’ll get it fixed,” she promised. “Jeb’s okay. He’s outside and he’s okay.”

“I’ll find a way to come back,” Ambrose promised and Cain felt that glimmer of optimism grow into a spark and she knew that it wasn’t over just yet.

Raw disconnected them and Glitch returned in full force, beaming away before his gaze latched on Cain. “You’re shot!” he pointed out with horror.

“That I am, Glitch,” Cain agreed and nodded to the door. “C’mon, let’s go see if DG needs any help.”

*

It came down to surgery with the aid of magic, which was the decision of Cain, Jeb, and the Queen in a private meeting. Azkadellia and DG hovered nearby and the repentance seemed to ooze out in thick waves from Azkadellia and the determination to do well by the situation came from DG. Raw had healed up Cain’s wound and she’d changed back into the casual pants and too-big button-down that called back to her days at school.

“All I’m saying,” Cain had said to finish the argument, “is that Ambrose at least deserves a chance.”

And that had been that. Officially, Cain had the say anyway according to all the legalities of the matter and Glitch was just glad to have answers. He spent a lot of time with Jeb and they came up with half-cocked strategies that involved new bridges and new cultures and instating most communities with new nobles to make for equality. Sometimes, Glitch even came to visit Cain after a long day, finding her ready for bed and Cain would just keep the door open and beckon him in to join her.

Glitch himself kept insisting that he wanted the rest of his memories back, especially when DG promised that she would ensure the new memories he’d made over the annuals wouldn’t get lost.

“I’ll protect them,” she promised, giving him a half-hug as they sat in the brain room, watching Ambrose. “I won’t let you lose them, I swear.”

Then all there was left to do was to bring him in and perform the procedure.

*

They told Cain that it would take a great deal of time before the very heavy anesthesia wore off and Ambrose came around. She just nodded and thanked the doctors and the Princesses for the time before closing the door and drawing up a chair beside the bed. Cain settled there with a blanket wrapped tightly around her – she still got cold most days, as if the chill from the Northern Island never went away – and kept herself close as possible, always holding onto Ambrose’s hand.

That little spark of hope had slowly been poked and prodded at and had become a slow-burning, small fire.

She fell asleep in that chair and ate when Jeb came to bring her food and joined in the vigil. They spoke to him because the doctors said he might be able to hear. DG and Raw visited constantly and the Queen had to be coaxed into leaving, most days. Even Azkadellia came by, always starting the conversation with “I’m sorry” and ending it with the same words.

Cain was the only one who stayed the night and had been asleep when for the first time in days, the pressure of a hand was returned. Cain roused slowly, rubbing at her eyes and leaned over the bed to check Ambrose’s pulse, shaking him lightly and giving his cheek a light smack.

He started away, glancing up at Cain through drugged, groggy eyes. “Hi,” he greeted, looking a bit confused.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Cain greeted him and finally left the chair in favor of crawling into the bed with Ambrose, sighing deeply as she let out every ounce of stress in that one exhalation. Ambrose weakly nudged her closer and kept staring around the room.

“Cain, where are we?”

“New room. Jeb’s just next door. You’ll see him in the morning,” Cain promised. It felt like she’d grown too many annuals in too short a time and she groaned while Ambrose resettled her. “I’m sorry we couldn’t stop them from taking your brain.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t prevent you going into that Suit,” Ambrose apologized in turn and continued running his shaky fingers through Cain’s hair, tracing it back and tucking it behind her ear. “When I get better, what do you say we go back to Finaqua with Jeb? For old time’s sake?”

“When you get better,” Cain agreed and stopped fighting off the exhaustion that kept creeping in.

*

It was a kind reprieve that annuals later, they had returned to some semblance of normal life. Cain returned to being a Tin Man and Ambrose was reinstated as Head Advisor. They’d been together for thirty annuals at that point, not that Cain ever let Ambrose forget about just how old he was. The only difference was that their once angelic little boy had become something of a man at twenty-three annuals and happened to be dating the youngest Princess of the O.Z.

Ambrose stood in the kitchen with Cain, peering in on the kids who happened to be curled up in the living room and about inches away from making out, by the looks of it. Little Delia, their newest addition (all of three and taking after Ambrose in looks and personality both) had been put to bed hours back and Jeb and DG had promised to watch over her in case she woke.

“I should have known that her shoving her saliva into his cheeks all that time ago was just a mating ritual,” Ambrose sighed as he dried off his hands and Cain had to stifle her fit of laughter as she yanked Ambrose away.

“Come on, give them some privacy,” Cain protested, tugging Ambrose along by both hands. “You promised me some stargazing by the docks.”

“That, I did,” Ambrose agreed and with a ‘click’ of the front door, they gave the children their peace and quiet.

THE END

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06.10.12

The Future’s Not Always Bright

I treat you like a princess
But your life is just one big mess
When did your heart go missing?

**

It had been ten annuals since the reclaiming of the O.Z. and it had been nine annuals and a half since Wyatt Cain had last seen Central City and any of its surroundings. Though he felt a kinship and loyalty to the friends that had forced themselves upon him during the Witch’s War, he couldn’t bear to live there in peace and not be plagued by the memories of Adora and Jeb and the suffering they’d endured. So he moved as far as he could to still be in contact with the main cities, doing his part by keeping the peace while living in a small cabin just by the crack in the O.Z.

Jeb had come with him, though Wyatt hadn’t insisted on it. It’d been a nice surprise for him to have his son want to follow in his footsteps, even if he was no longer a boy playing Tin Man with his father’s clothes and big dreams to match. Together they had forged their way forward and built up a home from the ashes and the remnants of a life they had led before.

The economy of the O.Z. was one of the slower sectors to recover and neither of them was in heavy want of a job. They hunted their food and kept warm by their own means. Sometimes, Jeb would wander for months on end, but he would always return. Cain stayed close to home because he had been pried away from it once before and wouldn’t have that happen again.

He only strayed from home once and that was at the summoning of Azkadellia.

DG needs you. Please come.

Cain hadn’t seen the girls in over two annuals. They visited him from time to time in his little wood-built home, but they had royal business to attend to and Cain wasn’t rushing to accept a post as security anywhere near Central City. There were too many dark memories surrounding that once-shining city and no matter what he told himself to bolster his confidence, he couldn’t bring himself to go back.

Not until now.

For DG, Cain would move the O.Z. and then some in order to help that girl best as he could.

He made the long trek to Central with Jeb on his heels and insisting that he didn’t have to make this journey alone.

“You’re not alone anymore,” called a grown man’s voice. Jeb wasn’t a child anymore and couldn’t live forever in Cain’s memory as the boy who wore bright red scarves of his mother’s when he was a boy so that he could carry a part of her whenever they were apart. Jeb didn’t play with tiny Indians and Cowboys. Now he carried a gun and worked odd jobs and talked about settling down some day, just like his father.

It all made Cain feel old.

He shadowed Cain until he finally turned and acknowledged Jeb. Instead of letting him be an active shadow, he allowed his son to work with him on their way to Central. They camped out under the moons and told each other stories of all the things they had seen in the annuals before reuniting. Cain’s stories were depressing because they were all seen from the windows of a prison that everyone was too frightened to free him from.

Jeb’s stories were depressing because he spoke only of a realm that slowly succumbed to darkness until no light or hope shone at all.

Neither of them expected that arriving at Central would remind the both of them of those depressing days. It didn’t gleam as it was supposed to and it wasn’t the shining city on the hill that DG had promised to restore. It looked gray and drab. It looked like it had seen better days.

Cain fell to a stop at the gates and cast a look Jeb’s way.

“What happened to the rebuilding initiative?” Cain asked warily.

Jeb didn’t respond, slowly finding his way into a seeming ghost-town. Cain didn’t have any of the answers, but it wasn’t as if there were welcoming agents ready to explain exactly what had happened over the annuals. It felt all-too-similar to the steady and secret assault on a tower full of dark intentions and Cain pushed away thoughts of DeMilo, the Longcoats, and the witch possessing a dark part of Azkadellia’s core.

Jeb had already taken to heralding the way over unsteady stones, his footsteps sure and steady.

“C’mon, the palace is waiting,” Jeb encouraged when Cain fell to a stop outside one of the townhomes whose supporting stones were cascading from a lack of use or a twister’s worth of damage or some other catastrophe he couldn’t name. “Dad,” Jeb said sharply when Cain couldn’t force himself onwards, wondering how it had been let to get like this, wondering why this was the first time they had been summoned when Central clearly was in need of a spit-polish and a scrub from more than one pair of ready hands.

“Yeah,” Cain replied hoarsely, reminding himself that DG was the key. She was the key to everything back when the witch held all the power and she was the key to solving Central’s issue now. “Yeah, let’s go.”

Each house they passed seemed more dilapidated than the last and the further they made their way into the inner sanctum of the city, the more it seemed as though some sort of careless unrest had burrowed its way deep into the citizens hearts before taking its toll on the surrounding architecture.

The people looked well-dressed, but uncertain and unsteady and Cain drifted from his path to catch a noble-woman by the shoulder. “Ma’am,” Cain murmured politely, tipping his hat to her. “Ma’am, can you tell me when all this happened?”

“You’re him, aren’t you? Wyatt Cain.”

“Ma’am, what happened to Central City?”

“Nothing,” she scoffed, lifting her deep purple gowns and making her way up the steps to her stone-and-scavenged home. “Nothing ever happened to it.” She shook her head in disgust, spitting on the path leading the way to the Central Palace. “That’s the problem.”

Every moment grew more troubling to Cain and he finally found the sense of urgency that Jeb seemed so eager to whip into him. He doubled his efforts and corralled Jeb with no more than a light touch to his arm. “Come on,” he said quietly, avoiding the gazes of judging citizens who had begun to whisper their names with distaste and accusatory derision. “Let’s go see DG before we start a problem.”

“I don’t think there’s any problems left to start, Dad,” Jeb admitted warily, only happy to pick up the pace to get to the palace.

*

Cain removed his hat every time he entered the palace out of deference to a family of royals that had drawn him from the depths of what may as well have been death and gave him a second chance. Tucking his hat to his heart, he navigated the marble-polished floors and listened to the hollow echo of his footsteps and Jeb’s as they entered the long stretch of hallway.

“Hello?” Jeb called out.

“Anyone? Glitch?”

“I’m afraid Master Ambrose is in the South at this time,” one of the maids piped up from the very end of the hallway. Her voice was tinny and distant and she made no move to join them. She simply stood where she was, a shadow in a corridor of light, perfectly placed between the doorframes. “Princess DG was expecting you, however. She told me to bid you welcome to her room.”

Cain and Jeb exchanged a long look as they fell to a stop twenty yards from the young maid. She was one that Cain didn’t recognize – a new addition to a usually constant stable of help. She had probably been hired since the last time he had visited, but given the infrequency of his visits, it might have been at any time.

“Did she say what it was about?”

“Has Azkadellia sent additional word?” Jeb asked on the tail-end of Cain’s demands.

“Princess DG will see you now,” the maid said again, her tone somehow more mousy than before. She curtsied politely and scuttled off, her sensible heels tap-tap-tapping as she hurried away before any more questions could be asked of her. There was the sound of a door slamming shut in the distance and then the long hall was once again submerged in silence.

Jeb slowly rounded on Cain and arched his brow.

“Does this strike you as weird?” Jeb asked in a hiss.

“Kid, this has been weird since we set foot in Central,” Cain grumbled, glancing over his shoulder warily. “Come on, let’s see if we can’t figure out where everyone else is.” If Glitch wasn’t around to give them the information he was looking for, Raw could probably sense through every living soul in Central that something was wrong.

Something was missing from the once-vibrant city.

“It’s like they just let it rot,” Jeb complained, tugging on the lapels of his jacket to straighten it out as he took the lead and charged forward to round the same corner that the young maid had disappeared around earlier. “It’s not right. Not after everything we fought for, not after everything the soldiers in the Rebellion died for.”

“Son,” Cain said, heart heavy with the grief of the tragedies life befell. “Life’s not fair and this one is doubly unfair. You, me, and your mother can agree on that. Now c’mon, the Princess is waiting.”

Their walk was quiet as they continued onwards through great halls that were grand and vast and empty. Jeb fell behind and let Cain drift onwards. It was only when they both reached DG’s bedroom that Cain noticed that Jeb was almost a full arm’s length away, shaking his head and wordlessly giving Cain permission to go on by himself.

He knocked. Once, twice, and on the third time when he received no answer, he slid the door open and found a perfectly neat room and DG’s familiar form standing by the window, staring out forlornly.

“Gods, DG,” Cain exhaled. “After this trip, I thought you were…well, I thought something had happened,” he admitted, crossing the room in six brisk steps and surrounding her instantly in a tight hug, close as he could get her. It was almost as if he could convince himself that she was alive and still there if he could feel her heartbeat. He could, but she looked wan and lifeless. Like the steady thrum of blood was just a deceit.

DG barely acknowledged him. The smile on her lips was a faint shadow of how she used to smile, how she used to appear.

“You’re not going to call me Princess?” she asked sardonically.

“Do you want me to?” Cain asked, as gently teasing as he could get.

She stared up at him with a dull look on her eyes and a shrug. “Everyone else wants to. Wants to call me Princess, wants me to use my mother’s magic, wants me to fix everything. I can’t fix anything,” she scoffed. “But they want me to. Glitch tries to help and Raw tries to feel and Azkadellia tries to give me strength, but none of it is enough.”

Cain stared at her for a long moment. He had been put into an Iron Suit and tortured with the images of his past. DG had been put in a looming castle and tortured with the future that she couldn’t provide. His heart was gone, but now he was getting the feeling that DG had lost hers somewhere along the way.

Cain eased closer and pulled DG into his arms as close as he could. He knew that his embrace could be mistaken as a prison and seen as something trapping and condemning, but he only wanted to keep her as safe as he could.

He had gone away and now he felt as though he had abandoned her. To some degree, he felt as though he had abandoned all of the O.Z.

“DG, listen to me,” Cain said seriously, clasping her by the shoulders. “I don’t want you to think that I’m here for any reason other than you. I’m here for you.”

“And you want something, probably,” she said glumly.

“How about,” Cain said heavily and thoughtfully as he drew her closer and brushed hair from off her forehead affectionately, “we start with you and me sitting down and you telling me exactly what’s gone wrong. And we don’t need to do anything but that. Just that, kid. That’s all I want. You and me, here, together.”

The shadow smile, the glimmer of what Cain remembered slowly began to splinter and he could barely eke it out, but it looked as though a genuine smile was breaking through the cracks. He pressed his hand reassuringly to the small of her back and didn’t let her stray too far.

There was something in DG’s eye like the spark of a fire that could tear down full forests if given the right catalyst. “Why did you go?” she accused as they sat down on the bed (covered in pillows and beddings fit for a woman of DG’s stature). “You could have stayed with us. It was a new dawn in the O.Z. and you had a place. You could have stayed with us, but you left. Why?”

Cain wished that he had a better answer or any answer, but all he could do was offer DG a consternated and pained look on his face.

“You shouldn’t have gone,” she accused quietly.

Cain felt the heavy burden of the accusation on his back and was ready to bear it, even if he wasn’t sure that it was entirely his fault. Nothing was anyone’s true fault anymore. The blame was best distributed and left to fate to decide who had to bear punishment and who would walk away unscathed. Here, now, he bore the blame of DG’s anger because he had left her. It had nothing to do with the city and had nothing to do with the political state of affairs, he realized.

He had left her.

He braced himself for a further onslaught of accusation and fury and sadness, but all he received in turn was a mournful look on her face.

“I don’t want to do this alone,” she said simply.

Cain knew what had to happen. “Princess,” he said, his fingers gentle as they clasped her chin and turned her so that she was looking straight at him. “You say the word and you’ll always have me. I’ll never go away.”

“Cain,” DG pleaded quietly, her cheek crashing onto his shoulder as if it could fully support her. “Stay.”

It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t an order.

As far as Cain was concerned, it was an invitation. The city might have been in rambles along with DG’s hope for a future, but Cain had never been averse to a little hard work. “I won’t leave,” he swore, the guilt at having left to begin with still swarming at him near the edges, but he pushed it down and away. This was a brand new start in the form of a rope to pull them out of the rubble. He pressed a long kiss to her forehead, feeling the warmth from her skin and kept her close.

If there was one vow he was going to keep after being unable to protect his family when the storm came, this was the one promise he had to keep from breaking.

“I’ll be right here at your side,” he swore. “No matter what, DG.”

THE END

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06.3.12

Trifecta

The first time they met, he was having a quiet drink at one of Central’s most distinguished bars, where the leather on the booths was still new and smelled that distinct scent of nobility and the bar was finished with the finest of wood from the fields of the Papay. Ambrose had been enjoying a glass of mead, which lasted him hours and hours. The intention was for it to go along with the time he spent allowing his mind to unwind from equations and riddles and puzzles and the maps of a dozen half-dreamed inventions in his mind.

He had been three-quarters through the glass when she slid onto the stool next to him and ordered a green-twister – a clever concoction of local alcohols and apples from the south – and no sooner than she ordered that did the woman call for a top-up of his mead.

“You didn’t have to do that,” Ambrose pointed out after a long awkward moment came between them.

She was beautiful. Not cute or pretty, but beautiful in the sense that she was the sort of woman you took home to your parents rather than hide in the closet when they came to visit. And Ambrose slid just an inch or two closer, angling his knobby knees in her direction. She clearly wanted to talk, or else she wouldn’t have ordered the drink and the way she was leaning in was promising.

So she wasn’t exactly his type, but then, Ambrose had never been so closed-minded. He preferred a good strong man, but women of strong resolve had a way of tying him in knots – much, in fact, like Leona had done that one time during fall exams when he had decided he was bored with studying for the biology exam and she had persuaded him to continue, showing off her rather skillful attention to her knot-tying week of Practical Exploring 101. This woman had a very critical look to her eye – hazel that looked soft in the light, yet hard when she turned away from it. She had dark blonde hair that fell in ringlets and sat just lightly upon her neck and it framed a pleasant face. Her dress was white cotton and fastened with a blue belt.

What caught Ambrose’s eye, though, was the ring on her finger.

“I’m Ambrose,” he introduced himself, extending a hand. “Most women don’t usually buy me drinks. They tend to ignore the man with all the paper.”

“Most women don’t know that real strength lies in here,” she replied, pressing a soft finger to his temple. “I’m Adora,” she replied in turn and shook his hand with a firm grip. “You’re looking at my ring,” she observed.

Ambrose had, in fact, been staring. “I also don’t usually get flirted with by married women. Does your husband know you’re here?”

“Of course he does,” she replied. “He would have come himself, but you can’t trust a man’s taste. No offense intended, of course, but it’s true. If he were here, he might’ve picked that young Tin Man over there in the corner to talk to all night,” Adora said, pointing with her pinky at a short redheaded man sketching something. “Pretty. Lacking substance.” She turned her attention back to Ambrose. “You, however, don’t even realize just how attractive you are. He’d like you.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“He will like you,” Adora said, and suddenly, it didn’t sound like it was an option for this woman’s husband to dislike him. “But we’re not due back for hours. Enjoy your drink. Tell me about yourself. What do you do?”

That launched a long discussion of his work for the Royal Family and Ambrose found himself liking her more and more when she actually listened to him and then asked questions about it. So he told her about a little doohickey called the TDESPHTL and his ideas for a portable garden with soil that accelerated growth and he mentioned an elixir he was looking at to increase vitability and strength in the Ozian people.

“What do you mean?”

“It’d make it about three times harder to die? Sort of like a fountain of youth, but without the youth. More of a fountain of resilience,” he said cheerfully, now leaning in so close to her that if he accidentally leaned forward another two inches, he would have been kissing her.

“Something like that can be made?”

“You wouldn’t think so, huh,” Ambrose laughed softly and his eyes darted lower to stare at her lips – pink in the soft lighting of the bar – and he looked back up to her eyes. “Adora,” he exhaled, the name tasting like mead on his lips and he didn’t have to make any moves, it turned out, because she leaned forward and kissed him, wrapping a strong hand around his neck and pulling him close. He let out a quiet exhalation of a surprised cry at how good that felt and how the alcohol on their lips made the kiss somewhat sticky.

When he pulled back, her lipstick was on his lips and his eyelashes fluttered against his cheek.

“Would you like to meet my husband?” Adora offered and extended a hand to him. There were platinums on the bar and she had a high flush to her cheeks that made her look young and girlish and Ambrose revised that opinion of beautiful.

Adora was gorgeous and whoever she was married to was lucky. He could picture the husband already. She was probably married to a nobleman. Ambrose began to picture a man who was tall and lean and with a pretty face that was framed by curly dark hair and who bore feminine features. He was, no doubt, the envy of all around.

They walked through Central with coats on their backs – Ambrose’s embroidered coat making him a proud sight and Adora’s long grey coat looked to be too big for her, but oddly looked right on her frame.

She kept leading him until they reached an old heap of a car and she gave the top a hard smack. “In you go. She’s our old trusty standby. My husband wants us to get a horse and be done with it, but I keep telling him that it’s a good investment to have a car. And we aren’t sure we want animals around Jeb just yet.”

“Jeb?” The name was foreign and for a brief moment, Ambrose felt fear flicker through him. He didn’t enter the car, wondering now if he was about to be added to some perverse collection — some odd little parade of men for this woman and her husband.

“Our son,” Adora clarified. “He’s two annuals old and he’s staying with the neighbors tonight.”

Ambrose didn’t know if he felt relieved or panicked. He decided it was a combination of both and the hesitance to get into the car caught Adora’s attention. “We won’t bite. Unless you ask.”

“Do you do this often? Pick up men at bars and bring them home?”

“No. Not at all.” Adora leaned half-out of the car. “I never like the man enough to bring him home, let alone kiss him. And the women are never up to par. Get in, we’re wasting daylight and I want to put space between us and this city before the suns go down.”

Ambrose found himself gaping as he slid into the seat and the whole ride, he couldn’t have even mentioned how many lefts, rights, and straight-throughs they had taken because in Ambrose’s mind, Adora and Leona – who refused to leave his mind with her hair in that high ponytail and wearing his shirt and nothing else – were horizontal in one of the bar’s booths and kissing so hard that nothing else in the world dared to exist.

“…Ambrose?”

He was startled from his reverie, gaping out his window at Adora and beyond her, a quaint little house. “Hmm?”

“We’re here.”

“Oh! So we are,” he said with a nervous laugh, clearing his throat and adjusting his coat outwards a little to give him good cover as he exited the car swiftly and followed Adora, heart beating faster. What was the husband going to be like? Just like her? Or maybe he was going to just go along with a sigh and a groan, wanting his beautiful wife to himself. Adora took the lead and Ambrose found himself faltering behind and taking in the smell of the country air, watching the way the leaves on the saplings around them twisted and danced in the wind.

“Wyatt, I’m back,” Adora announced, shaking the keys lightly to signify her return. “I’ve brought company for once.”

There was a male voice that responded to her, but the tone was so low that it didn’t carry – which was a rather unique property of waves in physics and the academia kept Ambrose from panicking as he took long, graceful strides into the small house, standing in the foyer, waiting for this gorgeous husband to grace him with his presence.

What he didn’t expect was the large man coming from a kitchen with a towel draped over his forearm – his rather muscular forearm – and with blue eyes that could stop you in your tracks. This man wasn’t pretty or feminine in any way whatsoever, but he was tall, handsome, and most definitely the kind of man that Ambrose found himself falling for, all too easily.

“Ambrose?” Wyatt asked. “Adora tells me you work for the Queen. Pretty fancy.”

“Uh huh,” Ambrose concurred, his eyes darting from Wyatt to Adora and then back. Then he began to laugh, a panicked and high sound in the air as he looked at the two of them. “Where do you want me?”

“Dinner,” Adora said, gesturing to the table. “Wyatt’s made enough for all of us and we’d never be so crass as to just have a man over for physical gratification.” She was already preparing each space with a napkin, shaking them out and draping them over the plates. “Ambrose, Wyatt will sit you down and force food into your mouth. I’ve seen him do it,” she teased lightly, sharing an intimate smile with her husband that he gave back and told Ambrose that no matter how special Adora had made him feel at the bar, no matter how much he felt warm, these two were still promised to each other and he had no claim to that in the long run.

He was best to think of this as a temporary occurrence. Maybe that would make it easier to deal with.

“Dinner, then,” Ambrose concurred, sliding into a seat and folding the napkin in his lap as he was fresh corn on the cob with butter slathered upon it, bread that appeared homemade, and slices of meat that looked to be freshly killed.

He let himself be charmed with stories of hunting in the woods and of beds made with perfectly crisp corners that Wyatt came home to and by the time dinner was over, he hadn’t even noticed the lights had been doused and only candles lit the kitchen and highlighted a path straight to the small bedroom that housed a large bed.

For some reason, Ambrose couldn’t take his eyes off the green coverlet.

“Ambrose?” Wyatt’s voice broke into his thoughts and plucked him out of his reverie to deposit him back into the present. Adora had cleared the table of its coffee and Wyatt had taken the chair nearest to him while the sound of humming told Ambrose that Adora had wandered away to the kitchen under the pretense of cleaning. “Hope you enjoyed the meal. Seems we don’t have company around these parts, so having someone as interesting as you is a treat.” Cain reached a hand out and tucked a stray lock of Ambrose’s hair behind his ear. “Most definitely not as attractive either.”

In the light of the candles, Ambrose’s blush was peach-shaded, his smile soft, almost self-deprecating. “You don’t have to charm me, you know. I’m already in the palm of your hand.”

“I was told I needed to be a good man for someone like you,” Wyatt indicated before he leaned in and stopped the slightest of distances away. They were eye-to-eye, blue-to-brown, and Ambrose felt his heart racing and rabbitting, thumping in desperation to be heard. “How’m I doing so far?”

It was undignified and would probably earn him scorn later, but Ambrose pounced forward and wrapped both arms around Wyatt’s neck to kiss him desperately, knowing a good thing when he saw it. There was no malice within the walls of this household, no sinister ulterior motives and he tasted red wine on Wyatt’s lips that went perfectly with the fresh taste of apples that came with kissing Adora and he kissed Wyatt until the world spun off its axis and Ambrose’s heart calmed to the rhythm of Wyatt stroking a hand over his hair again and again.

“Come to bed with us,” Wyatt murmured, cheek pressed to Ambrose’s.

And really, Ambrose knew that if he had a single last wish to give to the world, it would be this: Please, let me just have tonight.

*

Ambrose never expected to hear from them again. Happy families like the Cains came with a price that he could never afford, even if he toiled for the Queen in her tower with her young daughters and had given so much to the O.Z. Still, the young Tin Man and his beautiful wife had invited him into their chambers once and that had to be enough for him. He had to suffice himself with that.

At least, he had until there was a knock on his door and a message on the ground.

Come by tomorrow night. I’ll cook.

-Adora

He didn’t understand. He fully and completely didn’t understand, but he was still a man of twenty-six annuals and his mind – while incredibly smart, the smartest in the whole Realm, in fact – was still governed by one thing and one thing alone. All he could think of was the way the sweat had trickled down Wyatt’s neck, that single droplet working its way down his back while Adora’s soft cries filled the room and her fingers brought him off to the feel of Wyatt’s mouth on his neck.

The mere thoughts made him go red in the cheeks and he fanned himself with the letter before he sat himself down to write a reply.

Dear Adora,

I wouldn’t miss it for the worlds.

*

It went like this for some time, until Ambrose couldn’t imagine a single night not spent outside the borders of Central City relaxing in a familiar little home. They managed to compartmentalize their lives nicely. Ambrose had met Jeb only once in passing and had performed a quick magic trick that he’d learned from Tutor, to which the boy had responded with great delight. Wyatt had been in Central for work and had to stop by the palace. When summoned by the Queen, he had bowed in reverence and all the while, Ambrose sat by her side and tried to hide the adoration in his eyes.

They were young and more than that, Ambrose was beginning to fall in love. After five months of visits to the Cain house, Ambrose fell asleep to the thoughts of Adora’s soft touch and to Wyatt’s familiar scent. And more than that, he had stopped asking the question that had plagued him.

He had continued to ask, month after month after month until one night stopped the pattern. It was one simple question, not difficult to understand:

Why me?

Ambrose had been assured that he was the first they had ever taken home and by talking to the bartender at the bar where he and Adora had first met, he knew that Adora mostly drank by herself. One night, while they were curled up in front of the fire, wrapped in a blanket, wearing barely anything at all, Adora pressed a kiss to Ambrose’s cheek and cupped a hand around his neck. “Ambrose. I never thought anyone would wind up at home with us. Look to like and nothing got taken past the door,” she promised, her eyes soft and worried in the firelight. “I don’t want you to think of me as some sort of habitual slut who takes anyone with a pretty face home.”

“Adora,” Ambrose whispered, leaning in to kiss her temple as he felt guilt strike him deep within his stomach at what appeared to be tears in her eyes.

He didn’t ask after that night. It was somewhat strange to believe, that he was so special that he merited being taken past the door. As Wyatt’s hands took to massaging Ambrose’s tense shoulders, he thanked the gods that he had found himself in this situation.

It was a parade of small events that surprised Ambrose in how quickly he had settled into this odd arrangement. It was the way that Wyatt had to chase the birds away with fishing net, how he was whistled at by a caught robin. It was the effortless way Adora hummed to herself while she folded laundry. It was the way they each knew precisely what to do when Ambrose was having a terrible day – Adora’s tight embraces or the gentle backrub Wyatt gave while he listened to Ambrose’s litany of complaints against his staff. He found himself gravitating there not only for company, but for the friendship they provided, to turn daydreams into reality when he sat down to dinner with Adora and Wyatt.

The Queen was beginning to notice.

“There’s been a change in you,” she observed, while Azkadellia and DG sat behind the throne and whispered about all the things that little girls enjoyed best.

“A change?”

“For the better. Your inventions are wondrous, Ambrose. Full of life and hope and love.” Even the words made Ambrose blush and brought a sparkle to his eyes just to think of the reason for his exuberance in the laboratory. He had brought sketches to the Cain household, beckoning them closer to look at measurements and specifics in the dull lamplight of the evening. Their sensible suggestions showed him both the positives and the downfalls of his machines, which led Ambrose to perfect some of the inventions – one of those being a new and improved version of the TDESPHTL that contained space for three recordings rather than just one.

“I’m glad,” Ambrose managed, nervously. “That you like the inventions.”

She smiled and gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze. “I’d like to meet her some time,” the Queen whispered. “Or him. You know I won’t judge your choices, but for people so important to you, I’d like to meet them.”

So Ambrose had whispered their names and though a meeting never did happen, Ambrose constantly brought information to the Queen about their doings in Central. She let him babble on with pride and never once teased him for it and he loved his Queen a little more for that.

The night everything took a turn for the more serious wilds, he was lying in the middle of the bed with his arms wrapped around Adora’s waist, Cain pressed against his back. Seven months they had been together now and Ambrose had met Jeb more than once. The Queen knew just how much Wyatt Cain and Adora Cain mattered to her Advisor and had made quiet comments about making life easier for all three of them were they willing to move closer to the Royal Grounds.

“I love you. Both of you,” Ambrose had whispered.

There had been a long silence.

Adora turned in his grasp to search Ambrose’s face and try to confirm those whispered words. She looked for a long time, her brow furrowed and her dark blonde hair catching the moonslight at certain angles. “Do you really mean that, Ambrose?”

“I can recite the periodic tables, I can invent you anything you want, and I do love you Adora and I do love you, Wyatt,” Ambrose said, craning his head around to whisper the words to his other-other half as well, leaning in to press a chaste kiss to Wyatt’s lips while the shock of the moment settled. When he turned back, he found that Adora had covered her mouth with one hand and seemed to be laughing, softly. “What?” Ambrose asked, slightly petulant.

“I was going to ask you tonight – we were going to ask – if you wanted to stay more nights. Stay more mornings,” Adora said past the girlish laughter and the hand covering her lips. “If you wanted to stay with us.”

She was good to him to allow for a little wiggle room when it came to the interpretation, but the offer was just as wonderful if it had all the space in the O.Z. Ambrose joined her in laughter and the sound of their combined cheer nearly drowned out Wyatt’s barely-audible words – the first he had spoken since Ambrose had let loose his confession.

“I want to have another child.”

There was no more laughter after that announcement.

By Adora’s shock, Ambrose began to wonder if her offer was about to be rescinded in light of new information.

“You what?” Ambrose asked. He was watching a whole future go up in smoke, every dream he had. Twenty-seven annuals old and everything he wanted was snatched away because of six little words that sounded so gentle coming from Wyatt and the worst part was he could not even begrudge them this desire, if Adora agreed. He could never deny them anything that could make them so happy.

“I still want you to stay,” Wyatt very patiently said. “But I’d like to try for a daughter. I want to have a little girl who I can show the world, I want to protect her from eager boys and wild animals and bad days and I want her to have curious, beautiful eyes,” he continued, one hand stroking Adora’s palm, the other on Ambrose’s hip, “whether blue, hazel, or brown.” He looked to Ambrose and gave him a nod. “Whatever happens, I’ll be happy.”

Ambrose felt as though he couldn’t breathe, that a burden of joy and possibilities had been laid thickly upon his chest.

“You want m-me to stay and to help r-r-raise a child?” Ambrose stammered the words out, an old nervous habit that flared when he was under a great deal of duress or he was unsure of the outcome or he was just plain taxed to the limit and right now, sandwiched between two people he loved with the offer of staying and the even more long-term offer of a future, he felt about as overtaxed as a man could get.

This time, it was Wyatt and Adora that began to laugh first, soft and gentle.

Wyatt pressed a kiss to his neck and Adora wrapped her arms tightly around Ambrose’s waist. “We love you,” Adora said simply. “Funny as that may sound to everyone who isn’t within these walls. We do. And I don’t think we’ve ever felt normal, so why start acting like it now?”

Ambrose still felt tightness in his chest; he could swear the room was spinning, that stars were lighting up in his vision.

“I suppose I should get to know Jeb better?” Ambrose suggested, the words coming out an octave higher than they usually did.

“In your own time, sweetheart,” Wyatt murmured, lips on his neck again. “In your own time. We’ve got all the time in the world.”

*

The O.Z. had been filled with many rumbles of discontent as of late to accompany a great and unknown future upon the horizon. Adora was connected to many of the tradesman in Central through their wives; Ambrose had his finger on the pulse of the Royal family and the army; Wyatt was integral to the Tin Men, knowing the ins and outs of every precinct in the O.Z. Any plans for happiness had been delayed, tucked into dark drawers to be pulled out when the O.Z. recovered from the terrible scorching that could not be explained. There were rumours of dissent from within the palace walls that never seemed to quiet. This was not a place a child should ever know. This was barely a place for anyone, but the people of the O.Z. had no choice.

“More and more in the Queen’s army are defecting to Azkadellia’s Longcoats,” Ambrose mumbled, voice slightly hoarse. The words echoed dully in the surroundings of the Cain kitchen. “Since Princess DG was sent to the Otherside, there’s been this … chaos. Azkadellia hassensed it. Now that she’s getting older, she’s grasping as much power from her mother as she can.” Ambrose had been given the Queen’s permission to tell the Cains of the plan involving DG and her inevitable return to the O.Z., but past that, the Queen refused to tell the details of the plan to Ambrose, even. Her only stipulation was that they visit so that her remaining magic could shield that knowledge in each of their minds.

‘I must protect my angel,’ she had whispered. ‘You understand’.

“And it doesn’t help that the Queen is weakened,” Adora summed up, tying her hair back with a cream-coloured ribbon. Wyatt leaned over to help her knot it, his eyes never lifting from the newest report that Ambrose had brought them.

“What about Lonot’s men?”

Ambrose muttered quietly to himself about latitudes, longitudes, and the annals of physics that only he could understand before realizing that the question was posed to him. “Scattered. They’re trying to put up as much of a front as possible, but Azkadellia is too clever. She executes men in front of their own legions as an incentive to obey,” Ambrose spoke quietly.

“What do we do?” Adora asked and it was the anger – and not helpless fear – that echoed in her voice. She had never been helpless, their Adora.

“We fight.”

Soon, there would be a choice to make between the old ways or Azkadellia’s new reign. Ambrose wondered, idly, if he would ever have been put in a position to even need to make this decision, had he not become the Queen’s Advisor. Perhaps if he’d been born a different man with different priorities, perhaps in a different time, he never would have had to worry about this. And yet, he knew that even those thoughts were idle fantasies. He’d never been the kind of man able to ignore the world around him and Azkadellia’s coup had appealed to not only the upper echelons of power, but the very lowest as she tried to become a woman of the people and win them to her sides. Her army was becoming vast, her power was growing stronger, and everyone in the O.Z. was a part of the new rule.

But he was the man he was, lived in the time he was in. The choice had already been made for him by his circumstances.

Wyatt sighed and nodded, picking up a pad of paper from the table. “Okay. We compile a list of people who we know are loyal and we trust to fight. We pick a place and a time and then we make our move.”

It wasn’t a very optimistic plan. In fact, it was rather pessimistic at best, because what Wyatt was suggesting sounded like a battle he wasn’t likely to walk away from. Ambrose tried his best to swallow his fear and agree that it was for the sake of the O.Z., but he so desperately wanted to be selfish at that moment and from one brief glance at Adora, he could see plainly that she wanted the same.

“Anything you need, I’ll provide,” Ambrose weakly offered, eyes cast to the table so that he didn’t have to look either Wyatt or Adora in the eyes, lest they see how much weakness was lurking there.

*

Wyatt Cain returned to his happy home covered in the grime and dirt of a battle lost. His coat was thickly coated in blood and his hat had endured the same. From a distance, the blood mingled and gave the appearance of coming from one man, though it was far too much to be from just one man. Wyatt’s fists were raw with cuts and Adora tugged him over after one good look at him.

“Wyatt, sit,” she instructed. “What happened?”

“They knew. They knew we were coming, Adora, they knew.”

“How?” she whispered.

Ambrose was in the kitchen, listening in on the conversation, but the Cains were keeping their voices hushed. It was something so ridiculous to think that after all this time, they couldn’t trust him, but they were acting as though he were one of the Longcoats and not the man they loved.

“…only you, Ambrose, and the commander…”

“Is Bryce okay?”

“Dead.”

There was a long silence after that, an impromptu mourning for a man that had been in their lives for longer than Ambrose had been. Ambrose had known the man in passing – he’d been part of the upper echelons when it came to commanding the Tin Men and Wyatt held him in the highest respect. A good man, through and through, with a large family to support.

Ambrose could hear the cogs going in his well-tuned brain. If Bryce didn’t give the information and Adora certainly didn’t as she had been home with Jeb while the plans went forward…

It was a quiet plan because it was a last chance and they couldn’t afford to lose it.

Only four people had known about the plans for the attack in Central City, one last stand acting as a surprise assault against the Longcoats. Wyatt’s Tin Men – and Resistance accolades — had hoped to catch Azkadellia’s forces off guard and take out some of the higher-ranking members of the new force.

“They were ready for us,” Wyatt groaned, shedding his shirt so that Adora could tend to newly revealed wounds. He let out a pained cry as she pushed a linen bandage that belonged to Ambrose up against the wound. “Gods…Adora, they’re going to come for us.”

“Well, let them come,” she insisted, but her voice shook at the stubborn words. “We’ll handle them. You and I will…”

She stopped talking when Ambrose shifted, stepping from his hiding place behind the wall to the doorway. Almost instantly, Ambrose wished he hadn’t. Adora was glaring daggers at him and it didn’t take longer than a single second for Wyatt to push himself up and lumber across the room – blood dripping in an awkward trail as he walked – and came to a stop mere inches from Ambrose. Ambrose swallowed thickly and when Wyatt was so close, he could see the way his eyes lost their warmth and turned to ice.

“You,” Wyatt spat. “How could you? To us?” His words were low and walked a tightrope between ice and rage and Ambrose couldn’t bear to look at his eyes any longer, choosing instead to watch the way Cain was flexing his fingers into a fist, though he never brought the hand up to strike.

“I didn’t,” Ambrose insisted, desperately. “Wyatt, please, I didn’t give that information to anyone. Not the Queen, not my mailman, andcertainly not Azkadellia! Trust me. Please.”

“Why believe you?” Wyatt demanded, voice barely audible. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t Adora, and Bryce is dead. You were the only other one who knew. We should have realized, with the way you’ve been acting…”

No, no, nononono. Not this. Please not this.

Ambrose could feel the panic seizing his chest as though a tangible fist. It wrapped around his heart and he stared up at Cain with fear in his eyes – fear that probably looked like guilt, no, gods, he had to change that, he had to look different – and he stammered out a quiet word of protest as Cain walked forward and backed Ambrose to the wall, effectively cutting off his path of escape.

He had been so distracted lately with his plans for the Sun Seeder. With the crops dying more by the day (and not by any natural means Ambrose had ever seen), all of his time was spent locked away either in his lab or in advising sessions with the Queen. The subjects ranged from magic to tactics and took up endless amounts of time. Even more time was spent laying the groundwork for DG’s return so many annuals away. It meant he came by the Cains’ home less and less and when he did, he was distracted, tired, and probably seemed distant.

He probably seemed guilty.

“Ambrose,” Adora’s voice was cold. She’d never been a woman to let Wyatt fight her battles for her. Ambrose knew that if it wasn’t for Wyatt’s arm restraining her, the fist clenched at her skirt would be at his cheek in an instant.

He felt as if he couldn’t breathe.

“I did not give away our information. I swear Wyatt…Adora, please, I swear I didn’t–”

“It wasn’t yours to give,” Wyatt said coolly. “It was ours. Far as I’m concerned, you’re just an enemy to the true O.Z.’s reign,” he said. Wyatt shook his head and gave a dismissive look to Ambrose. The worst of it was that he was refusing to look at Ambrose. He chose instead to look at the floor before him and Ambrose stared down to see the droplets of blood that stained the wooden planks. “Get out of our house. Get out. Now.”

“The Queen knows that none of this is true,” Ambrose begged. “Please.”

“We can’t know she isn’t influenced by Azkadellia,” Adora said. She was refusing to look at him, but her words were steady and unwavering. “The Queen’s magic is weak and Azkadellia’s stronger by the day. She might already be an instrument of this coup, without even meaning to be.”

“No. No, Wyatt, please. Adora, no!” Ambrose was now pleading hysterically, half-laughing and half-sobbing out the words, ready to fall to his knees. “This is a mistake. You are making a mistake! Do not send me back there. You don’t know what will happen to me.”

“Whatever it is, it’ll be what you deserve,” Wyatt replied flatly. “Out, Ambrose. We need people we can trust. And that doesn’t include you. Not any more.”

“This is a mistake,” he insisted, his hands shaking as he stared at Wyatt, at Adora. “You’re both making a mistake. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t.”

“Out,” Adora said, and her voice shook to say it.

One word. Just one and Ambrose knew he was out of options. Without a single word, Ambrose collected his things and left.

He wouldn’t stop protecting them. He’d never stop.

He simply had to do it from afar, now.

*

She wanted to take out his brain.

No, she had taken out his brain.

100, 99, 98, 97, 96…

It was all fuzz and mystery and things that wouldn’t go together, like he had five puzzles to solve and all the wrong pieces. He was fairly sure there was something to solve and something to fix, but he couldn’t even sit up on his own. He’d been made to watch as they installed the brain into a vat of preserving liquid and vaguely recalled some of the alchemists murmuring that he wouldn’t even remember the scene before him in a week.

Suggestions of letters and sounds floated through his brain, things that he didn’t quite understand and never made it to fullness. They were small blots, little ideas that couldn’t possibly be completed with only half a brain and he would sound them out to try and understand just why these words were in his mind.

They only ever amounted to associated images, feelings, sounds, smells. Nothing more.

He remembered lavender – either the color or the smell or both, he couldn’t be sure. The hands of lavender were soft, had lines. He wasn’t to know if they were abstract or actual, just that they were deeply rooted. There was love and warmth and kindness and something stronger; something iron-clad, something fair. And she was a Queen, this lavender-woman who waltzed through his mind in perfect time and with uncomplicated grace.

He remembered apples and hazel eyes and white cotton dresses fastened with brown belts. He remembered weathered hands that stroked hair of horse and human, both. Stroked his hair. He remembered dear, no more than that, simply an exhaled ‘dear’ that filled him with love to think of. He remembered patience and strength and a laugh that brightened the room. She had grace of a Queen, but she wasn’t. Was she?

He remembered gunpowder, clearing on a cloudy day, and blue. Blue and water and berries and kindness and a boy. And beside that blue was silver and tin, strength and courage building a wall so thick that nothing could break it. It hurt to think of and he abandoned thinking of the blue and the guns and the unexpected gentleness behind the tin.

And he remembered inventions and formulas and secrets and beautiful numbers and equations that still flickered through his mind, telling him such lovely things. He always meant to ask about the answer, but the equations would stop and he would only remember the dance and stumbling over his feet, tripping when it was most important to complete the step. He remembered lean angles and honey-flavored beverages and so many papers. And he remembered a man and his name was…it was…

He didn’t know. Why didn’t he know?

“Take him back,” someone ordered and he was left staring up at them and smiling broadly, seeing as they were helping him get back to that place with all the cushions and the food and he couldn’t really say no to that. “No more inventing for you. Now you’re just as bad as the glitches in one of your programs.”

“They’re there for a reason,” he insisted desperately, almost stubbornly. “They have to exist. Otherwise, how do you know something needs to be fixed? You need your glitches.”

“Nothing here needs to be fixed,” his captor said and threw him into the room to sit with only the company of his half-formed remembrances that refused to come to fullness.

He remembered cogs and mistakes, errors in the calculations and smoke from machines. He remembered a piece missing or a safety precaution thought up too late. He remembered all the things that went wrong with a machine, all the tics and the glitches that always prevented things from going perfectly.

He stood in front of the mirror and his fingers shakily hovering above the cold teeth of a zipper, brushing over beads of blood that were still fresh. He didn’t recognize the face in the mirror, but he knew that it was him.

And he was…

“No,” he said aloud, sadly. The name still hadn’t come to him. Maybe if he couldn’t remember his own name, he had to make something up in the interim. He straightened himself up and tugged on the lapels of his proud coat. “Hi, the name’s…Andrew. The name’s Coatsy. The name’s…” He sighed and stared at the reflection. “I am as bad as the glitches in my programs,” he said, reaching long fingers out to touch the pale man looking back at him in the mirror. “We’re as much a Glitch as anything, I suppose. Good enough for a name. But just until we remember our real one,” he assured his silent reflection and only companion.

He took the lack of response as a tacit agreement.

Now, if he could only remember just what was happening…

*

Ambrose had been in possession of his brain for two weeks.

His head was terribly sore and he’d been in surgery for the bleeding three times now, as they couldn’t seem to keep his scalp closed after the zipper had been removed. In the end, it had taken four Viewers simultaneously healing him to fix it properly. He was still on bed rest and had been committed to the healing ward until he was able to wander.

DG visited often and regaled him in stories.

Raw came by twice a day in order to check on Ambrose’s scalp and to offer healing.

Cain had yet to visit and Ambrose didn’t blame the man. It had been a crippling flood of emotions for Ambrose, when each of his memories had assaulted him in an avalanche. Meeting Adora had been one of the first memories to return. Remembering the look on the Cains’ faces when they thought he had betrayed them had made Ambrose let out a choked cry that had echoed through the lonely and cavernous halls of the tower. They had all come flooding back. Memories of his childhood and of his schooling and of those painfully wonderful annuals spent with the Cains before everything had gone south.

It took another week for Cain to visit.

Ambrose was working on a journal when he heard the soft knocking at the door and lifted his gaze to bid the Queen or DG or Raw permission to enter. And that was when he saw Wyatt Cain. For a moment, it was like seeing him for the first time again, with that silly kitchen towel draped over his arm. The differences were too vast, however, and Ambrose smiled shakily.

“Hi,” Ambrose exhaled the word. “I was hoping you’d visit.”

“Wasn’t sure you’d be ready to see me.”

Ambrose hadn’t been sure of that either. He didn’t want to overload his delicate brain with too many senses and this was taxing him already. Still, he found himself staring at Cain and more pointedly, he was staring at the ring on his finger. Without even wanting them to, Ambrose’s eyes began to cloud up, misty with the unshed tears of a man who had his life taken from him along with the people he loved and then hadn’t even been left the synapses to properly deal with it.

“All I can think,” Ambrose began to speak, running a hand over the pages again and again, to smooth them. “All I can think about is the night I met you both. And Adora and the way she ordered me a drink and the way the light caught her hair,” he described, each word painful. “And I think about how perfect you two were together and how much I longed to be a part of something like that and for a time, you let me in.” Ambrose let out a weak and weary laugh that sounded more like a cry. “I miss her. And I know I don’t have a right to miss her like you do, but I miss her.”

“Ambrose, look. I’m sorry we thought you had a hand in the ambush,” Cain admitted uneasily, still lingering in the doorway.

“I’m sorry I was distracted enough to give you cause to believe that,” Ambrose apologized in turn, staring at Cain. The space between them felt larger by the second. He rose to his feet and froze, not sure of what to do. For all the memories he’d regained, he hadn’t exactly been able to overcome the social awkwardness that came with being a brain in a jar for so many annuals.

Cain looked frozen on the spot, as well. “I miss her too,” he admitted quietly. “But at the same time, Ambrose, I’m … so … glad,” he began awkwardly, “that you weren’t there the day Zero turned up. I’m glad you weren’t on that loop.”

“Cain. Wyatt,” Ambrose corrected himself almost immediately. “What do we do now?”

It was a pertinent question and one that Ambrose had no answer to, no matter how much of a genius he was. He didn’t know how much they had worked previously because of Adora between them and while he loved Cain as much as he did Adora, he didn’t want to ruin the happy memories. So Ambrose stood at the desk and Cain remained at the door and neither of them moved a single inch.

“I guess we need to think about it,” Cain admitted, his tone troubled. Ambrose hadn’t expected they just jump headfirst into a relationship, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel a crushing blow of disappointment at the unspoken rejection. Ambrose bowed his head down and curls fell into his eyes as he gave another pained laugh. “You know, in that big brain of yours, in your heart, that we shouldn’t just pick up where we left off,” Cain chastised.

“I miss you too, you know,” Ambrose pointed out. “I didn’t just fall in love with Adora. I fell in love with you too, Tin Man. Pessimism, negativity, occasional bad cooking, teeth-scraping too hard against my neck. Everything.” His look was weary when he raised his gaze to Cain and he smiled tiredly. “But you are right. And I should sleep. The medicos say I need at least eight hours to recuperate on schedule.”

That seemed to break the frozen state and Cain eased forward to help Ambrose into bed, the both of them moving clinically and avoiding any hint of intimacy. When Ambrose was tucked under the blankets, he turned to look at Cain. “What?” Cain asked.

“Did you like Glitch?”

“He wasn’t you,” Cain answered, which wasn’t a proper answer at all.

“Did you like the man?”

“He grew on me. I still preferred you. I still resented Glitch for not being you and then I spent a while hating myself for pushing you into circumstances that let her snatch your brain from you. I still thought you were a convict,” Cain confessed, the repercussions of those beliefs no longer as evident without a zipper on Ambrose’s head. “Until recently, I really still thought you’d betrayed us.”

Cain had yet to move, as though inertia had slowly seeped into his bones and prevented him from going to the door. Ambrose didn’t have hope that anything was bound to happen, but even his presence was enough to fill him with a feeling that some day, some time, everything would turn out for the best.

“So you did find out who gave away your secrets?” Ambrose found himself asking, his mouth turning traitor to his intentions – which were to simply curl up and fall asleep in the hopes that the next morning would be calmer and would allow him to be optimistic that he could have a second chance with Cain.

Cain cleared his throat, his fist grasping beddings so firmly that his knuckles turned white. “Bryce. There’s paperwork around the time of the double-cross. He’d been promised a hefty sum, but apparently Azkadellia wanted him disposed of anyhow. So when the job was done…”

“He was taken out of the picture,” Ambrose finished the sentence for Cain.

“Yeah.”

The air between them grew thick and uncomfortable and all the annuals spent apart seemed to dance about Ambrose and filled him with a panicky dread as he thought of how many days and hours he had spent rife with guilt over something he had never done. Ambrose reached out and pried the sheets and the coverlets from Cain’s iron grip without so much as making contact with his hand the once.

His head hurt, as though the vice were back and refused to let him go, refused to let him breathe. He still expected something dark to come crashing down into the picture and to ruin everything they had slowly begun to build up again.

“Eight hours of sleep?” Cain clarified again.

“Uninterrupted,” Ambrose agreed, somehow moved to brevity in the presence of Cain’s lack of loquaciousness.

With hesitance and diminished speed, Cain lifted himself to his feet once more and gave a slow nod of his head, eyes tracing Ambrose’s body up and down. Ambrose wondered if he had done the same during the days he had spent unconscious, but rather than asking, he decided to imagine it true. It would do no harm, he reasoned, and Cain never needed to know.

“I’ll keep watch by the door,” Cain promised him. Each of his words seemed to carry a burden, as though he had been longing to say something else all-together, but could never quite find the script to go off of in order to deliver the unspoken words with any kind of conviction. Ambrose had his own copy of that script where things like I love you don’t leave me I’m still alive and so are youappeared all over the page. They weren’t said and Cain left before Ambrose could even look him in the eyes, again.

He might not be a traitor, but at times, he still felt like a coward.

*

It was another three weeks yet before Ambrose set foot outside.

There had been unanimous concern for his well-being and that meant that as far as overprotective friends went, he had the most devoted and overbearing friends in the realm. The day he stepped onto the brilliantly-green blades of grass outside the hospital (where he had been moved when he was stable enough to be moved away from the tower and from the machinery that had once contained his brain) he nearly wept for the way the suns felt on his too-pale skin and he might have let his knees buckle if it weren’t for Cain’s strong hand on his shoulder.

He hadn’t just come outside for the sole purpose of smelling flowers and gazing at creatures and places that he could finally put a name to, again.

There was a carriage waiting and Ambrose vaguely recalled climbing up the stairs and into the cushioned area. He remembered the feel of Cain’s hand on his back, but his mind was elsewhere. It was in the past and it was focused on the future of what the day meant.

It was Adora Cain’s birthday and it was the same day that Ambrose had announced that he was ready. He felt himself in his own private world, where words were muffled and the suns were all he cared about, leaning against the window to stare up at that brilliant blue sky, interrupted every now and again by silver clouds.

“…brose?”

He turned his attention to the door of the carriage to find Cain climbing inside and locking the door securely behind him. There was worry writ all over Cain’s face and deep in those blue eyes of his and with something that felt like a silly smile, Ambrose stared at Cain and could swear that he was looking at the sky in those eyes. It was like freedom. “I’m ready, Wyatt,” he promised and managed to contain the simultaneous relief and disappointment when Cain sat opposite him instead of beside him in the spacious interior of the carriage.

“It ought to take us most of the day to get there, so you should sleep,” Cain said, settling into the carriage by prying his holster off and splaying the coat around him like some mid-sectioned halo. “We’re taking main roads, so it won’t get that bumpy until we hit the patches in repair.”

“I don’t really feel like sleeping,” Ambrose said politely, yet brusquely enough to stave off any arguments. “This is my first time outside in what feels like ten annuals.” And really, was, as Glitch’s memories of the world were muted at best and a murky and lost version of an impressionistic watercolour at worst. “I’ll sleep tonight. I’ll sleep later.”

Before he was even through speaking, his attention shifted once more to the window and the wide world beyond. It seemed to pass in graceful lethargy and in a mad dash at once and he committed every passing scene to his memory and each time he did, Ambrose felt the sheer joy that he would remember this, later.

At one point in the journey, he turned his attentions inside and found Cain staring at him in a way that suggested that while Ambrose had been rediscovering the O.Z., Cain had been rediscovering Ambrose. He flushed pink and bowed his head forward before he resumed his study of the mountains and the valleys and of the little towns they passed.

At the same time, he couldn’t help the quiet joy that told him that Wyatt Cain still felt something under all that ice and tin.

He let his head rest against the window and let it support him the way Cain’s arms weren’t, all the way on the other side of the carriage and as the journey progressed, he let the familiarity of the movement and Cain’s presence lull him to sleep he hadn’t wanted to indulge in for hours and hours yet.

They were standing opposite each other in a grand hall and it was dark but for the candles that lit their way. Cain was dressed in a dark suit and Ambrose felt like he was missing something. Perhaps it was the lights. Perhaps it was the lack of music.

Or maybe the fact they walked palm-to-palm in the direction of a black coffin. Shadowy figures surrounded the object in the form of friends he might have known, but Ambrose couldn’t find words. It was as if he had been struck mute and a panicky look with Cain showed him that the man was gone and a grown Jeb Cain stood in his place.

“Don’t be late,” Jeb informed him simply and turned to the coffin.

“Don’t open it,” Ambrose pleaded desperately. “No! Jeb, don’t open it.”

“Don’t…”

He was shaken awake by a steady hand and gaped at Cain, the slightest trail of saliva falling from the corner of his open mouth. He blinked back to alertness and realized suddenly that the carriage was no longer moving. Looking out the window did him no good as a dense fog surrounded the vehicle and for a long moment, Ambrose wondered if he had actually woken up or if this was some continued dreamscape. Cain had yet to take his hand off Ambrose’s body though and it lingered at his shoulder, stroking down his arm and taking him by the hand, tugging him to the door.

“Was I talking in my sleep?” he asked as Cain helped him down the steps and wrapped one arm around his back to get him vertical before he let go and started forward through the grey world about them.

There was no answer, or maybe there was and it had been immediately swallowed by the craggy landscape. Dead trees swayed back and forth with a warm breeze and Ambrose could barely make out Cain’s figure in the distance – not as svelte, not as trim as it once was, but the annuals had changed them all.

There were pools of water to avoid and weeds that might have scarred a man’s clothes if they weren’t avoided. There was a perverse sense of hopelessness about them and Ambrose felt it dragging him down, pooling in pockets of his coat and trying todrown him until he couldn’t breathe.

He propelled himself forward through the dredges of emptiness until Cain pulled him to a stop. The fog seemed thicker here and Ambrose felt as if he couldn’t breathe for the way he’d been struggling to get to this mark.

“Take it easy,” Cain sharply said. “You’re still not supposed to be exerting yourself.”

“You’re not my doctor,” Ambrose mumbled, leaning heavily on the wooden beam beside him as he licked beads of sweat from off his upper lip. “Tell you what, Wyatt. I’ll go see another physician when you go see a therapist.”

He was met by a thick silence to match their thick surroundings.

“I thought as much,” Ambrose said quietly, but his attention was as far from the conversation as one could get. He was spans away as he stared at the dirt of the ground and evaluated how damp it was. He was currently wondering just how it was that a simple star could shine without an inch of the sun to cast light upon it. And yet, it did. It seemed a stark contrast to all the dirt around them and he took his steps forward, falling to one knee before the wooden plank, ready now to face what the past ten annuals had wrought.

“I’ll come back later,” Cain said softly and the sharpness had removed itself. Not dull, now, but soft. Soft in a way that Ambrose had almost given up on finding in the depths of Wyatt Cain after the annuals had taken to him like rocks’ effect on swords and knives.

Ambrose felt something burst up in his throat, a plea to not be left alone, but something stopped it from coming to fruition and it dwindled until he swallowed that cry back down and let himself spend this moment alone.

“It shouldn’t have to be alone,” he said aloud to the gravemarker, as if it were a mirror, some other object that couldn’t dare talk back, but still held someone that needed to hear certain things. “Happy birthday, Adora,” he started, words fraught with a sadness that Ambrose couldn’t dare shake, even if he tried. “What would it be, now? Forty-one annuals? I’m sure you would have shone against Wyatt. He’s going grey, you know,” he confided, fingers tracing the etchings of her name that had been done in Jeb’s steady hand. “Grey and cold, but I have time yet to change that. We have time.” His gaze turned forlorn as his thumb traced the ‘A’ of her name and he stared down at the Tin Man’s badge lying in the dirt. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to do this without you. I’m sure Wyatt thought the same when he found out your fate.”

The wind howled around him, trapped in the chimney of the abandoned house, and gave voice to an answer that Ambrose had known all along.

You go on because you can’t go back.

Whatever memories he had were long lost to a past muddled by annuals of brainlessness and heartbreak. The true happiness shone through the darkness in brief and brittle moments that seemed fleeting.

Cain left him be for nearly an hour and by the time he came back, Ambrose was sitting against the front of the small cabin. He was joined quickly and Cain stared out into the dense fog in much the same way as Ambrose did, neatly solving the problem of having to look at each other.

“Wyatt?”

“Hm?”

“What would Adora have wanted us to do?” he asked, trying to find the outline of the carriage in the distance, but nothing was clear in the fog. Ambrose nearly laughed at that inner thought. Nothing was clear in the fog. He sighed and the exhalation seemed to propel his head back to gently rest against rotting wood, gaze tilted up to try and find the sky.

Cain sighed and Ambrose felt the prickling tell-tale sign that indicated that someone was staring at him and he adjusted to stare right back at Cain, only slightly uncomfortable. “She’d probably say something about fate. Something about how since you and I crossed paths again saving the O.Z. as we did, that we owe it a chance.”

“Do you really think we can do this, just us two?”

“Won’t know until we try,” Cain admitted tiredly, prying his hat off of his head and holding it in his lap as if begging for platinums or perhaps mercy. “We owe it to Adora to try.”

Around them, the fog seemed to be dissipating and the ground had a chance of drying if the sun would just make it through.

“I think it’s time to go,” Ambrose said as the first ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and the day started to take on a new mood. “We shouldn’t be late.”

*

There were three small discs lying on the table in a laboratory collecting dust to accompany inventions and memories of a time long ago. Cain had been summoned by Ambrose and they both stood over the table, hands almost touching as they stared at the three discs as they refracted the bright lights above them. Their shoulders brushed and though they were making a second try of it all, it still came slowly and they had yet to do anything more than touch lightly, than exchange secret words and fears, than come close to perilously succumbing to their deepest worries that it would never be the same.

“Well?”

“Put it on.”

Ambrose nodded and loaded each disc into the TDESPHTL, turning it to the empty space in the laboratory and even delving into long-unfamiliar territory as his fingers crept over the planks of the table to brush over Cain’s, taking the hand in his as the machine whirred to life and spun through two-dimensions before it reached the third and they watched the ethereal vision before them as if it were more than just a ghost of a time that once was.

“Ambrose,” Cain said, before the sound joined the visual.

“Yes?”

“Neither of us ever stopped loving you.”

It had been a spring day full of sunlight and Adora stood before the recording machine with a basket to her hip, giving the videographer a dubious look as she wandered closer, reaching one hand over the machine to fix something. “You’re a mess,” she laughed warmly, shrieking when a pale hand moved to her stomach to grasp at her hip and she jumped back, giving a stern look. “What do you want me to say?”

“Just talk to the camera,” a mottled, murky voice advised.

And so she turned to look directly at the device, as if she were looking through it and into the eyes of whoever was watching and she smiled sweetly, leaning over and those warm hazel eyes stared right into the depths of something, somewhere.

“This is Adora Cain. It’s a sunny spring day and Wyatt is off trying to collect honey for dinner and Ambrose is being a true pain in trying to test out his inventions,” she said, laughing breathlessly as she swayed to avoid that offending hand once more. The smile turned more serious and her eyes caught the light in a way that showed off the small speckles of brown and green. “We love him to bits. We don’t know what we’d do without him.”

She laughed once more as she left the picture and the sounds turned murky once more until the picture faded to grey, the sound disappeared, and then it all went black.

“Play it again.”

THE END

01.24.12

The Road Less Travelled

The O.Z., safe and pristine from afar, can become uncannily unfamiliar when you tilt your head to the slightest of new angles. DG found herself perilously in that position upon her return. Safe things were dangerous and those dark places your parents (robot parents in her case) told you to stay out of could sometimes be a safehouse or the answer to your prayers. DG puzzled this more than other things and her thoughts were occupied with one subject in particular.

Azkadellia.

Once unlocked, her memories seemed to start flooding back to her in technicolour. Smells she couldn’t name, colours she didn’t know existed. Memories also spanned the scope of touch and it was her sister, who held her hand and hugged her close, whose long fingers stroked her hair, it was her sister that she remembered most. With the Witch gone, one would think the danger was through, that you could go out in the dark, say the Witch’s name three times and nothing would happen. Safe as houses. Just not for DG. Azkadellia only communed with a select number of people and she spent the most time with DG, which made seemingly safe ground start to churn and present its many dangers. It wasn’t so safe, not really.

She loved Azkadellia, more than some other sisters loved each other, because she had too many years to catch up on. She loved Az, but the problem was…

Well, the problem was that she loved the idea of her sister. Azkadellia herself, that beautiful and haunted woman, she was a different story. DG liked Azkadellia. The problem came into the picture when you considered the inklings of shivers DG got when she thought of Azkadellia as a woman and not just her sister. Goosebumps over her arms and thoughts that made her bite her lip and think she’d had too much sun to be thinking the way she was. Now that she thought of Azkadellia’s hand in her hair, the reaction was not that of fondness, but an itch, a fiery spark of something DG was too scared to name.

It was dangerous, she knew that much.

Don’t wander the streets of the Old Road after dark, Cain had warned her.

Don’t touch an unsuspecting and unprepared Viewer, said Raw.

Stay out of deep caves, her parents fearfully warned (as the O.Z. had two witches by myth, just as it always tended to have two princesses).

Never back yourself into a corner without a way out and an apple, was Glitch’s favourite saying.

No one said anything about how she had to beware the dangerous cloud of feelings one might have in the miasma that was Azkadellia. Somehow, that had slipped everyone’s minds and there DG was, trapped in the path of something that was potentially as dangerous as dark magic rooted deep in her.

The only thing Azkadellia ever warned DG of was, don’t let go, don’t run.

Azkadellia had her hooked, though.

DG couldn’t have run if she tried; not even if she wanted to and she so very badly enjoyed the snare of this trap.

*

Glitch wandered through the reckless mess of portraits and paintings as if he were basking amidst the glorious smell of roses. Every so often, DG would hear a delicate ‘oh’ of pleasure from him and whether it was for her art or for her subject, DG felt an unmistakable swell of pride and possession.

“I wish I could fill up a room with someone I love,” Glitch spoke hesitantly, fingers brushing the blushing cheeks of Azkadellia in a portrait that DG had drawn when the local scholars came to entertain them with pretty philosophy and prettier words. Glitch gave another sad ‘hmm’ as his hand went from the portrait to trace his zipper, tooth by tooth.

It was hard for DG to reply and only because she couldn’t place a finger on what Glitch needed reassurance about. The lack of love? The mangling of a once-great specimen of education in the O.Z.? Or was he somehow envious of DG’s increased attentions on Azkadellia?

“What do you mean?” DG asked, finally pulling her attention away from a half-finished sketch of Azkadellia. Sometimes, it was too easy to lose yourself in pictures of her, as though some haunted piece of her spirit went into each work of art. It made it feel like it was a very strange, very true ghost story.

“It’s hard being in love with someone who can’t show anything back,” Glitch said wistfully, having stopped in front of a watercolour of Azkadellia, sunning herself under a tree. “Can I have this? I think it’d brighten up my room. It desperately needs it.”

DG’s acquiescence was soft and distant, her mind occupied with Glitch’s words, trying to convince herself that he couldn’t possibly mean that he was in love with someone that was taken.

Couldn’t be, it couldn’t be. She insisted that over and over until, at last, she momentarily believed it and could turn her attentions elsewhere again, past the haunting and rhythmic insistence in her mind. All she had seen in her mind’s eye was a carousel of mocking reliefs; scenes of a secret courtship that her imagination had concocted. She struggled through it and nodded that he could have the painting, only faintly aware of her agreement to his question of whether she would paint another subject for him.

He was gone before the traitorous thoughts washed away and he had taken the painting with him, leaving DG with one less emblem of Azkadellia surrounding her, adding to the dense fog of her unspoken desires.

She would finish a replacement by next week, but until then the fog had developed something of a pin-price – a way in which to see out to the clear fields beyond, where everything was safe and there were no secrets.

*

DG brought up Glitch’s strange words during a walk through the Solace Gardens, at Azkadellia’s request. They were a supposedly mystical place where the natural acoustics quieted all footsteps. “Does this mean Glitch was with Mom. Is…? Oh my god, what if he still is?” A hundred unbidden and immoral images quickly flooded DG’s mind, despite her desperate efforts to stop them.

“I wouldn’t worry,” Azkadellia assured, her voice as soothing as her palm in DG’s hand – an old childhood habit they had reverted back to.

“It’s Mom. How do I not worry?”

“Here. Let me show you something.”

DG was hard-pressed to think past the safe warmth of Azkadellia’s palm, but let herself be led to a thicket of old trees whose trunks spanned at least seven feet across, at the smallest. Azkadellia walked forward with no fear, dress hanging to the ground and making it appear as though she were gliding. Eventually, they stopped and with her pinky, with a pink-painted fingernail, she pointed to a wide tree that was hollow inside, but not empty. “They come here,” Azkadellia explained. “And I wasn’t supposed to know, but I watched once and I can’t help watching ever since.”

DG could see Glitch well enough, but his companion was lost within shadows. All DG could see was the crush of green fabric in Glitch’s hands.

“Who is it?” DG whispered and was met by a fingertip to Azkadellia’s natural rosy lips, telling her to wait, to pause, to let it play out.

“One night,” Glitch was begging fervently between kisses and the acoustics of the garden made it seem like his words were amplified. “One night,” it sounded like he would keep repeating those words until he got his way. “Please,” Glitch exhaled, leaning open-mouthed into a kiss. “No one will think less of you for it. One dinner out, even just as friends,” he insisted and through a minute change in position, DG caught a sliver of blue, that ice of Cain’s eyes that she knew so well.

In an instant, DG felt flooded with empathy for Cain and wanted to burst out and tell him that she knew exactly how he felt. How were you supposed to even begin to process newfangled feelings you didn’t know could even exist? It was terrifying and worse to navigate alone when you felt as though all you were was wrong.

Glitch loved someone who couldn’t show anything back. DG had never stopped to think that he might have meant that literally.

Their actions were intimate in their believed secrecy and DG memorized the way Cain’s hand brushed Glitch’s hip as she immediately replaced the players in her mind – Glitch and Cain for Azkadellia and herself – and she wondered how Glitch could miss the fact that Cain did show something back. He just didn’t know how to do it normally. God, did she ever empathize. There were nights yet in which she lay awake, unsure how Azkadellia interpreted DG’s words and actions towards her, wondered if she would ever understand.

“It’s a shame,” Azkadellia murmured. “Glitch deserves more than a hidden affair.”

Something painful struck DG at that and she felt like she couldn’t breathe for all the hope that had been stolen from her in that too-short amount of time. How could she argue, either? To insist that Glitch couldn’t do better, that sometimes things just couldn’t be perfect and public (but that didn’t mean they weren’t loved any the less or wanted with anything but the relentless onslaught of desire), that would lift the topic into the spotlight of Azkadellia’s possible scorn. “He keeps going back,” DG pointed out, her own voice sounding strangled and strange. “They look happy. They do.”

“Still, something in secret seems like settling.”

DG mustered the most convincing smile she had and it felt weak, false. It felt horrible and worse than that, it felt somehow like she was lying to the person she loved the most. She just wished, later, that she had stopped to consider that DG wasn’t the only one lying that day.

*

Azkadellia had taken DG to the highest turrets of the Witch’s Tower. “It’s the only place around where you don’t have to look at it,” she murmured from the balcony, the high winds brushing her ethereally long hair back over the shoulders of her light chiffon lilac-coloured dress. The view of Central was hard to beat and their hands brushed, then touched, and then clasped for each other as the suns set into the once-sparkling spires of the city in the distance. Their hips touched and DG found her gaze craned to the side to study the swan-like elegance of Azkadellia’s neck. The lighter colours Azkadellia now wore made her seem almost mythological, her hair was loose and in endless waves down her back which leant to the appearance.

DG stared at Azkadellia until the last oranges and purples and pinks faded away into the deep blue of twilight, at which point she held firmly onto Azkadellia’s hand, knowing that if nothing else, that one thing would protect her.

“I never know my way out of here,” DG admitted, some echo of fear in her voice at the thought of wandering around inside the tower, lost without a single ounce of safety. There were too many ghosts haunting the halls and the idea of being stuck amidst them sent a chill down DG’s back.

At least, she attributed the chills going through her as fear and not a reaction to the way Azkadellia brushed her thumb over DG’s wrist (ignored the way it made DG’s breath catch in her throat).

Azkadellia led the way down dark halls and DG refused to let go, not knowing whether it was for her own peace of mind or whether Azkadellia needed the support and strength to get her through the shadows and back to the light. Their exit stopped, though, when echoed mutterings came to their ears and they stopped to locate the sound.

“Is that…”

“Glitch,” DG exhaled worriedly, tugging on Azkadellia’s hand. “Come on!”

“DG!” she nearly wailed in panicky complaint. “DG, no! No more trouble.” DG nearly stopped, nearly fell down on her knees, fell to her sister’s whims (her sister, her sister, not just a woman, she was her sister and why wouldn’t that settle in DG’s brain, banish out the thoughts that didn’t belong?) But then, before DG could stop and apologize and tell her that it was okay, they could leave, the next words out of Azkadellia’s mouth were a resigned, “Just don’t let go.”

“Never,” DG promised, knowing that it was more than a promise of protection. She never wanted to release the feel of Azkadellia’s hand on hers, not now that she knew what it was like.

It took them fifteen minutes to discover Glitch and he was pacing back and forth in a corner, one hand tugging at hair. Small tufts of it fell to the floor in a seemingly mad descent, spiraling like Glitch had once spiraled from respected Advisor into the picture of the perfect headcase.

“Glitch?” DG exhaled with genuine worry and her fingers slowly began to slide and slip from Azkadellia’s palm.

But they didn’t.

Azkadellia tightened her grip at the last moment, tugging DG back like the recoil of a whip and DG was left to stare at Glitch, a single ray of the moons (from somewhere, though no one knew where they shone in from) reflected on one side of her face. Glitch seemed so distraught, so at his wit’s end, and DG could feel herself wanting to make it all better.

Glitch swallowed with some difficulty and glanced up at them. In the thick shadows of the hall, it looked almost like his eyes were puffy and red, but that was impossible.

Wasn’t it?

“Oh, hey guys,” Glitch wearily greeted with a clumsy little wave of his hand. “How’d I…where am …oh!” He laughed anxiously, blurting out the laughter like it was a nervous reaction. “Huh. I got really turned around out here, huh. Guess that’s … um.” He smiled again, the whole thing looking insincere to DG.

Azkadellia wasn’t letting go and Glitch wasn’t taking a step forward. She was trapped in the in-betweens.

“I guess I’ll just go follow him.”

DG never did ask who he intended to follow, but he left in a rush, too quickly for DG to ask anymore questions and to demand if he’d been crying or whether it was just a trick of the light in a place full of dark magic and darker mischiefs.

*

Spring days in the O.Z. had become something of a dream to DG. She was sure that she was awake, that her heart beat in normal time as she wandered the lush fields and spent time amidst the cooing birds and the brilliant flowers, but it still felt like a waking dream. “DG?” Azkadellia’s voice interrupted her and brought her back to Earth (or, well, the O.Z., she supposed). Suddenly, the sounds around her seemed hushed in the face of Azkadellia’s voice and DG was pried from one world of beauty to another, gazing at her sister (her sister, why didn’t that label ever stick?) as she fidgeted with the thin strap of her pink tank-top, the layers of her pale purple skirt rustling with the breeze.

They were in the gardens of the palace and DG had a large sketchpad laid on her lap, a charcoal pencil in hand and beneath her lay a half-begun portrait of Azkadellia. She couldn’t do the older woman justice, but she tried and that had to be enough.

“DG,” Azkadellia spoke again and this time it caught DG’s attention.

“Hm?” DG snapped out of her reverie, bringing herself back to a reality that was genuinely still too dream-like. It fooled her once, twice, three times, and it was shame on her every time.

Azkadellia shifted where she was sitting, her skirts sounding in a soft rustle and her hair fell over her shoulder as she turned from her repose to stare straight at DG with those unforgiving, penetrating eyes. DG felt like Azkadellia could see through all sorts of worlds and galaxies with those eyes and sometimes they were hard and sometimes they were so vulnerable that they might break at any second.

“DG,” Azkadellia murmured one last time and DG genuinely felt a chill run down her back, like something deep somewhere inside of her had just been summoned. “What does it feel like to be kissed?”

The sound of the charcoal pencil falling to the sketch might as well have been deafening for what it sounded like in DG’s ears. She swallowed something thick in her throat and stared at Azkadellia like she had just announced that she wanted to pick up and become a stripper on Earth.

“You mean like, the Witch erased your memories of your first kiss?” DG clarified warily.

“How could she do that?” Azkadellia asked and she sounded so lovely and young and sweet that DG felt suddenly like she was going to tarnish that by explaining any of this realistically. “I’ve never had a kiss to be able to remember.”

DG thought that impossible.

Azkadellia was the most beautiful thing she had seen in the whole O.Z., more beautiful than pale pink blossoms on strange and exotic trees and more incredible than Central City glistening in the pale sunslight of dawn. Most of the time, she didn’t even seem to understand that. DG set the drawing aside and crawled to her feet to sit with Azkadellia and cup her cheek, fingers brushing the most sensitive and gentle of skin as she leaned in so very hesitantly.

“DG?” Azkadellia murmured, voice low and husky – and yet nothing like it had been when there was a Witch controlling her. “What are you doing?”

“I think it’s long past time you got that first kiss,” DG said with a playful little grin. Maybe it was just that she had a reason and an excuse. “Here, just, close your eyes,” she guided, the pads of her fingertips gently stroking Azkadellia’s cheek and brushing them over long lashes as she let Azkadellia relax into her touch.

Now or never.

Now…

DG had once sat with Wyatt Cain and they talked about courage and how it came from the most unlikely of places. You had to save the world or else you died. But DG didn’t have to push forward and act on her feelings, but she did. Somehow, that felt braver to her than she had while dangling off a tower and the whole world was in the balance.

Her lips brushed Azkadellia’s and what happened shocked her.

There was a burst of warmth, a sudden increase of shivers, and a tingling sprinted down DG’s back and it felt…well, it felt just like it did when DG took Azkadellia by the hand. She felt safe and she felt protected and when she opened her eyes just the slightest bit, she could see the faint wash of a pale glow about them.

They were protected and encased by their own magic.

DG cupped Azkadellia’s cheek a little harder and let her other hand fall to the tank top, fingers brushing the material and finding skin beneath it, letting out the tiniest of whimpers as she pushed for more and more and experienced as DG might have been in kissing, she felt completely at a loss for what to do next.

All the bravery she felt dried up and she found herself falling backwards without actually plummeting anywhere and stared at Azkadellia with widened eyes, her lips parted in confusion.

“Is it always like that?” was Azkadellia’s exhaled whisper.

She seemed to be looking at DG with something new in her gaze. Her own hand went to DG’s hip and wound its way through beltloops and tugged just the lightest bit to bring her closer and DG’s intentions were shared, it seemed.

Now or never.

“No,” she said in a small voice, and sounded like a girl when she said it. Too young to understand what she’d started. Too young to know what to do next. All the times Azkadellia held on too tight and looked at her with all the hope in the world came flooding back to her and she wondered if she just hadn’t been seeing it right. “Az…”

She was interrupted by another kiss and DG could swear that her head was spinning – dizzy and endless and disorienting – and she fell again, this time into the kiss and a little more in love with the beautiful spectre of her sister and the woman she had always and never known.

*

She ran.

She let Azkadellia kiss her and then she ran to the nearest bastion and that just happened to be Cain, who was just recently left alone – if the swollen and pink impression on his lips was any indication – and she begged him and told him how much she needed him and asked if he would just drink with her.

“Anything for you, Princess,” had been his quiet and grave answer and his broad hand brushed her cheek and she flushed, wondering if the imprint of Azkadellia’s fingertips was still there (even though they couldn’t be).

He kept her close and the drinks were constant and they sat there for hours until talk turned to looks and looks turned to a touch and then one turned to two, three, four, and then they lost track of it all. They had staggered to her room at some point and that was where DG started paying attention again.

They tumbled (high on liquors and spirits) into each other’s arms, Cain supporting her back as his fingers slid up to nudge past her bra. All DG felt was the draft of air against her bare back as she pushed up desperately on her toes, brushing his lips with hers and coaxing some feeling in her to equal the feeling she got when she’d kissed Azkadellia.

There were moments during their endless (and truly pleasant) kiss that she caught him moving to brush his thumb across the middle of her hair, as if parting the hemisphere before remembering there wasn’t the cold steel of a zipper waiting for him.

As for DG, she kept expecting Azkadellia’s softness and found herself cold for its absence, yearning for it and searching more desperately as she pushed her fingertips over Cain’s forearms, to his neck, to bury in the short strands of his hair and running slowly down his face like raindrops cascading to the ground.

They pressed on in their tight embrace with her chest pressed to his and strands of clothing littering the bedroom. DG was beginning to understand that desperation, in its most quiet state, could undo just about anyone. She exhaled his name against his lips, but it lacked something and when his hand cupped her breast in the fullest of his capacity to be gentle, it still wasn’t as soft as she wanted.

“Cain,” she murmured now. “Cain,” she exhaled, pulling away. His shirt was fully parted and hers removed. His back lay pressed against the wall and DG swallowed the bitter pill of their reality. “I know.”

Cain’s gaze seemed muddled, confused. The half-drawn picture of Cain that Glitch had asked for lay upon her table, smudges marking the very same jawline she was staring at.

“I know, about you and Glitch. But you don’t know about me and Az,” she pressed on, determined to finally share her darkest secret with someone who wasn’t the endless darkness of her lonely bedroom at night. “It’s not nearly the same, but I swear, Cain, I understand what you’re going through so much more than you can ever imagine.” She felt like that little girl again, the same one who let go of a hand, the same one who didn’t know what to do when Azkadellia kissed her. “We shouldn’t have to be ashamed of who we love,” she argued, words filled to the brim with desperate and passionate emotion. “You shouldn’t have to make him feel that way and I shouldn’t want to run. I want to run. Cain, I want…”

He kissed her again and quieted the litany of desperation and she grasped hold of the lapels of his shirt and nearly hauled herself up into his arms as he wrapped his arms around her and held her up and the desperation was palpable as she let out a high-pitched and frantic moan against his lips and kissed harder than before.

I’ll never let go again.

She was the one who pulled away and slid to her feet and he looked at her and she looked back and there was no magic in the air and the desperation was already burning off.

“Stop hurting him.”

“Stop running away.”

Undressed as they were, they stood and stared at each other, but it wasn’t so much that they were naked without their clothes as they were bare without their filters. He could see into her and understand it all and she knew all his secrets as they were laid bare. He was scared, she was terrified, but there was the hint of recuperation in the distance.

“It’s not the path most take,” Cain quietly admitted as he bent over and picked up her shirt, helping her to slide back into it. Their agreement to not go forward seemed to have happened in a split-second of a moment and they had both understood it with no more than a look. “He’s a zipperhead. She’s your sister. I love my wife. You’re expected to marry and continue the lineage.”

DG wearily stared up at him and brushed her thumb over the tiny mark of lipstick she had left on his lower lip.

It was Azkadellia’s shade, not even hers.

“I thought you and I both understood that sometimes, you take whatever road gets you home,” DG said quietly. “Even if the bricks are missing and it’s too familiar and off-limits.”

Cain exhaled heavily, but DG could see the wry hint of a smile beneath his lips and she couldn’t help poking at the corners of his mouth with a finger.

“I can see you smiling,” she noted in a deadpan.

“Sorry, Princess,” he offered his apologies. “I’m just wondering how long you spent justifying this with a flimsy little metaphor.”

Far, far too long.

“Are you buying it?”

“I’ve heard worse speeches.”

And there they were, dangling on the thinnest of threads of hope that they could make it work and as she buttoned up his shirt and looked up at him where blue met blue and when he smiled at her, she laughed in turn and she eased up on her tiptoes to give him one last kiss.

It felt like they were sealing their fate with that, to wander down that perilous road with bricks loose and the dangers not marked.

*

DG was there when Cain wrapped a steady arm around Glitch’s waist and pulled him closer, much to the surprise of both Glitch and herself. “Cain,” he hissed, eyes wide with alarm and landing on DG. “Ix-nay on the issing-kay, the rincess-pay is…”

“Ere-hay?” DG finished politely for him. “Glitch, don’t worry. He and I talked.”

“We’re going to help her out, sweetheart,” Cain murmured and leaned in to press a kiss to Glitch’s lips and to his credit, there was only the mildest of flinches and the barest flicker of hesitation in his eyes. DG let them be for a moment and ignored the whispered conversation they were having (even if she could hear each and every word of it and it mostly had to do with why they were kissing in front of DG and then there was a brief ‘…who are we talking about again?’), all the while DG was taking out a folder containing a single page of paper.

She returned to the both of them and presented it like a peace offering, even if Glitch was never going to know why she felt vaguely guilty (she and Cain had discussed that and decided that it wasn’t a burden Glitch and Azkadellia ought to bear).

He took it into his hands and mouthed ‘thank you’ to her, though she wasn’t sure whether it was Cain’s mild progress or for the drawing – begrudgingly done in pin-up style, learned from night classes at her local college.

“So what are we helping you with, sweetcheeks?” Glitch eagerly asked, bringing forth a burst of bemused laughter from DG.

Maybe the world was still too splintered for her to see the big picture, but she was having a good time looking at all the small panes to be found while they worked with gluesticks and plaster to get it right again.

*

They sat so stiffly together that it was difficult to tell whether they were about to have a conversation or whether this was merely a standstill in a war that was about to fall. Before they had arrived, DG took Azkadellia aside and clasped their hands together, staring up into those haunted and soft brown eyes. “It’s going to be okay,” DG assured, pushing every last note of sincerity that she possessed into those words. “I swear. I swear on my life, this is going to be okay.”

And there they were.

Azkadellia sat with perfectly stiff posture in one of the chairs and DG perched on the arm of it, trying not to take too much pleasure from the way Azkadellia would rest a possessive hand on the small of her back. Across from them, Glitch was pacing back and forth and fiddling with the zipper in his head and Cain was just leaning against the wall, hat hiding anything but the fact that he was awake.

“We need a plan,” DG broke the ice with the obvious pronouncement. “Azkadellia and I are on the cliff of something and I want to jump. I’m tired of counting to threes. But uh…you know.”

“Your mother,” Cain fielded his assumption with wry bemusement as though he didn’t have his own relationship that could too easily fall to public perception.

Azkadellia’s hand tightened and DG ignored the part of her mind that wanted to resume their explorations beneath silk covers and in half-lit rooms, candles burning down to the wick and the hot wax. She told herself that they could resume those discoveries when this was done and this was more important in the long run.

DG smiled wryly. “Gee, y’think?” she asked, scoffing lightly.

“So you need our help,” Glitch boiled it down to the basics with a gesture at himself and then one in Cain’s direction. He resumed his pacing and Cain simply lifting the toe of his boot to press against the wall, still standing there like a statue that refused to chip and crack away under pressure. “From us.” The three of them turned to Glitch and the decision seemed unanimous.

They had all thought of it themselves, they just hadn’t dared to speak it aloud.

“Who would you like to be with, kiddo?” Cain asked, of DG, sharing a look with her from across the room.

It almost made her laugh when she thought of what they were actually doing, spinning a wheel and putting on a show so the whole O.Z. didn’t think they had lost their minds (if you could call following your heart a way to lose your mind). It wasn’t as if the top choice for Advisor in Police matters could go out kissing a zipperhead and the Princesses weren’t meant to have eyes for only each other.

Maybe they were insane. Maybe that was the easiest way to explain it all.

And Cain somehow wanted DG to choose?

“Az?” DG offered quietly. Azkadellia was the one who had to make her choice and her eyes fell across the room and landed on Cain and nodded the once. “Well, then, Glitch, I’m yours,” she announced with a bright grin.

Later, Azkadellia would whisper into DG’s ear in the midst of kisses and touches that she felt safest around Cain because in the event someone still wanted her dead, he could stop them, whether he loved her or not.

Right there and then, they had their lies set out for them and a Queendom wouldn’t be anymore the wiser that their monarchy had their secrets hidden in shadows.

“Time to jump, huh,” Glitch said, crossing the room to press a caring kiss to DG’s forehead, taking her hands in his own and looking more like Ambrose than he had in a very long time. “Take care not to hurt yourself when you land,” he warned quietly. “And I’ll do the same.” He pressed a loving kiss to Azkadellia’s cheek before he crossed the room and lifted Cain’s hat from off his head.

DG didn’t speak, worried to disturb the equilibrium of a moment that seemed to take so much courage to build up to.

“Well, Tin Man?” Glitch announced, cheer and vim, hat in his hands and DG could swear there was the slightest of smiles on Cain’s lips. “You ready to lie your handsome ass off for me?”

“Not the way I would’ve liked it,” Cain admitted heavily.

“But?” Glitch prodded lightly.

Cain kissed him in reply and DG looked down at Azkadellia and offered the glimmer of a hopeful smile.

If this were insanity, then maybe it wasn’t so very bad.

*

The warnings changed as annuals passed.

“Don’t look back, Princess,” whispered Glitch as he escorted her down an aisle to her future, where robes and thrones and futures awaited, where Azkadellia sat sitting and waiting for her.

“Don’t blink,” warned Cain, who was decked in the finest of clothes as he assisted the Queen and Ahamo to their own seats and shared a graceful bow opposite of Azkadellia as her chosen accompaniment.

When she arrived to the front of the aisle and to stand opposite of Azkadellia, they clasped hands and for a moment, all the world was them and their magic and no one else. DG smiled warmly as she gazed up with love to her sister.

I love you was all Azkadellia had to say in their shared connection and DG took a seat to the new O.Z. around them as it sat in a new arrangement of what it once was and even though the lie still held strong, DG felt she could make it through unharmed.

She was safe so long as she had Azkadellia.

And she wasn’t ever going to let go.

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08.31.11

And Then Months Later, Ambrose Retaliated

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series unexpectedly

It had been a small favour to ask of two princesses who utterly adored him and owed him one for That Time (as they had all taken to calling it) and Ambrose had insisted that he would handle the situation as best as he could. Both DG and Azkadellia hadn’t been sure, exactly, if he’d been serious when he came to ask them, but a single nod insisted so.

“He’s been making comments,” Ambrose said evenly. “A few days is all. Just so he understands.” DG had expressed concern over Cain coming after them with a gun, to which Ambrose had replied, “…ah, no. I warned him I would do this. He just grunted and said I should try and then added a sweetheart as if that would smooth it over.” He turned his attention to Azkadellia. “Three days. Four. He knows it’s coming. Or at least, he thinks I’m going to chicken out and not ask this of you.”
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08.25.11

Pest Control Programs

PEST CONTROL PRINCIPLE #1: When protecting your establishment and/or home from pests, it is key to practice good sanitation. If they do not find any place to settle, they will not be back.

*

In the event that pests occur, good sanitation is a key deterrent. This was one of the basics that Cain was counting on as he lurked through his room and began to pick and prod at the things that might attract such crafty little creatures. He took away shiny objects. He removed journal pages. He made absolutely sure there wasn’t a book on physics in the nearby vicinity because they could sniff those out. And the biggest one of all, he made sure there were no handcuffs to be played with.

Advisors, after all, were a very persistent and resilient creature.
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08.25.11

The Grass Is Greener on the Otherside

It had been two and a half long annuals.

Ambrose stood staring at a farmhouse (but not DG’s former home, which had fallen into a wreck in the very same storm that had brought her to her true home). He’d been there with a satchel made of velvet for what felt like eternity, but couldn’t have been more than ten minutes. Every downstairs light in the house was on, but he could only make out one unmistakable silhouette – the likely reason for his hesitance.

It was four annuals since the double eclipse and two and a half since Cain volunteered (along with Jeb) to escort DG back to the Otherside and tidy up loose ends. There was the considerable work to ensure that Hank and Em’s presence was swept away and DG wanted to finish school and say a proper goodbye to all of her friends. Everyone in the O.Z. thought it might take an annual, maybe two. Soon enough, they would be pushing three.

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08.23.11

Cain Versus The Machines

He knows all about the movements of the planets
But he don’t know how to move me
He knows about the sonic spectrum damnit
But he don’t know if it’s groovy

*

What no one had expected when Glitch came back to the lab (when the eclipse was recently in the memory of those in the O.Z.) was for him to dive back into his work without the reattachment to the Ambrose side of his brain. Apparently, all it took was the presence of great and terrible machinery for him to come up with farfetched ideas and new inventions. The lack of the rest of his brain prevented him from actually doing much about it, but that didn’t mean Glitch wasn’t constantly snapping his fingers and announcing his idea to the room at large.

“Oh! I know. A combustible engine to run a flying machine!”

“You know, what we could really use around here is a doohickey that moves the food down the table…”

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08.23.11

And One Unexpected Morning, Glitch Woke Up A Woman

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series unexpectedly

When Cain awoke one fine spring morning, brisk and fresh as they were in the O.Z., he discovered that not everything was right with the realm. The funny thing was, well, he knew he’d gone to sleep alone the night before and shouldn’t have woken up to discover an arm slung around his waist; especially not a female’s arm. And yet, there was an arm draped over him as if it did this often.

Slowly, he plucked his gun off the nightstand and the audible click of him cocking the hammer back was what woke up the strange woman in the long green nightshift.

She barely roused, shifting just enough to stare at him with confusion and eventually, she slowly drew her hand off of Cain’s bare waist (as he’d taken to sleeping half-naked as the suns grew hotter and hotter). “How about you explain why you’re in bed with me and no one gets shot,” he patiently demanded, unwavering.

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08.23.11

Once Upon A Time

There is often a fallacy in stories, in that they end with ‘happily ever after’, though the truth of it is, most endings are just a precursor to the very next Once Upon A Time. When the evil Witch fell and order was restored to the O.Z., this was precisely what happened.

The tale never does end. It merely becomes permutated, the theme and the characters changing, but the setting never dissipating truly.

Once upon a time, there was a great kingdom known as the O.Z…

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08.23.11

Nurture

Things in the O.Z. were slow to come back to order, which meant that people were performing tasks outside their area of expertise, simply because all hands were needed to accomplish all tasks.

This was how Glitch wound up caring for an infant. The child was of great import, some noble’s son. The parents had gone missing, but the baby was too important to simply let go to an orphanage, especially with the O.Z. still in so much disarray.

He had help, oh, of course he had help because if he didn’t, he’d worry about glitching and forgetting the very existence of the baby. The Queen would sing lullabies to the child in the most beautiful and haunting of voices and Ahamo would feed it meals. Cain made sure the baby boy had adequate toys – that weren’t choking hazards – and DG came by to make sure he was burped and changed. When night rolled around, however, it was Glitch who put the boy to sleep in his crib and told him all the stories he could remember and all the ones he couldn’t and some of the ones that were half-remembered, too.

It was odd.

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08.23.11

Muscle Memory

Not all memory came from the brain.

No, no, not the soul either, though Glitch would be happy to explain to you how it all works, Glitch would be happy to explain to you how it all works, Glitch would be…that is to say, dancing might come from the soul and rhythm might stay there, but that wasn’t the only thing that wasn’t the brain’s domain in the membrane. You see, it was something he first discovered on those flat and sandy grounds in which Cain had watched the strange and unknown occur right before his eyes.

Muscle memory, things that lay in limbs and only came out when certain movements happened or a spark and a flash of a twitch set things into motion.

Motion. He was so good at motion when he had a full brain. Physics too, even though Glitch isn’t completely sure what physics means. Oh, but he could just see it now (even if he wasn’t entirely sure the way it worked), the way waves and particles danced all around him like little apples, circling his head. He sighed and thought more about them, the way they gleamed red and tasted just so darn delicious.

What was he talking about?

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08.23.11

Mistake

It happened with time as it tended to, that people grew different and he was no exception, watching the annuals go by. His hair grew lighter and he’d taken to keeping it good and short and his eyes shone light in the suns.

On occasion out in the garden, he’d be joined.

“Cain! Cain, wait!” Glitch would shout and hurry to join. He still moved as though sixteen annuals hadn’t passed since the fall of the Witch and it was possible that in Glitch’s mind, they just hadn’t. He bounded through azaleas and hydrangeas and nearly leapt into his arms, kissing him firmly on the corner of his lips, to which he pulled away from.

Glitch stared at him with worry. “Did I do something wrong?”

The sound of a throat clearing beside him caught his attention.

And there stood Wyatt Cain with a hat on his head, looking at his poor son with sympathy. “Wrong Cain, sweetheart,” he said with wry bemusement and pried Glitch off of Jeb. “Sorry about that, son.”

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08.23.11

Impermanence

“Cain.”

One. Two. Three. Four. Five and there was a flash of light so blinding that his eyes fell shut in that inexorable slow-motion that accompanied the echoing voice in his ears. He was counting for a reason, but he hadn’t been sure why, other than that counting had been better than spitting out a babble of desperate instructions.

The patient, yet desperate voice came again. “Cain.”

He had been counting to still his mind from wandering to the pain, to keep himself from acknowledging the ebbing and flowing of severe hurt within his stomach. Someone was calling his name, but the qualities that determined whether it was male or female weren’t visible to Cain’s weary mind and all he heard was his name echoing as the world spun around him. If he paid attention to what was happening, he would realize that he was outside the palace and his hand was pressed firmly to his stomach.

No. Wait.

His own fingers weren’t that thin or delicate.

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08.23.11

Twisted Tale Of Mystery

When he came home from work that day, the house was mysteriously silent and he couldn’t hear the familiar creak of floorboards or the sound of voices anywhere. He hung coat and hat up in the front hall and started a precarious walk down the halls of a home that had been in their possession since before they had ever given their oaths to be true to only each other.

Twenty-eight annuals, if you wanted to be precise about the dates.

That didn’t strike him so much right now with the darkness of Central City outside the window. All the Tin Men had gone home to their wives and husbands, all the Advisors were either in their labs working beyond the hour they were supposed to or curled up with a good book and their loves ones, and all the Princesses and Princes were yawning after a long day learning from their mother and aunt. He ascended the stairs slowly, old wounds flaring and the idea of being a young spring chicken made even him laugh wearily as he went, searching each room as he did.

“I’m home,” he called out simply, knowing there was no point in ever saying more than that. The bedroom was empty, as was the bath. There were no odours in the kitchen, which told him that no dinner had yet been made and it wasn’t until he arrived in the doorway to the study that he found his treasure, his reward for everything. “There you are,” he mumbled as he wandered into the room and sank down beside the chair, both knees popping and he smiled ruefully as they did.

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