DG didn't intend to start another adventure, exactly. Her first week in the OZ had been exciting enough to last anyone else a lifetime; she barely knew her real parents; Azkadellia was still recovering; there was rebuilding to be done.
Of course, her parents were enveloped in their own reunion; Azkadellia assured her that she was doing just fine, thank you (and DG's constant loitering probably wasn't helping); and rebuilding, she'd been told more than once, wasn't going to happen overnight.
So, okay, maybe she was a little bored.
"Enjoy your new home," her mother told her, the sixth or so time DG asked if there was anything she should be doing. "The OZ is yours now. Remember it."
"Enjoy yourself," Azkadellia told her, after DG had been lingering in her doorway for the better part of an hour. "I'm doing much better, I promise."
"Explore, DG," Ahamo told her, apropos of nothing. "It's a brave new world out there. It'll take some getting used to."
Be careful, nobody at all told her, and DG had never exactly been one to give herself good advice.
She started small, at least.
There were no flowers in the garden, not yet. The streets were confused, chaotic, and "too dangerous for a princess." (She'd looked around, at that, it sinking in too slowly that they meant her.) And the one time she tried knocking on the walls to ferret out the secret passageways - they had to exist, she knew it, she just couldn't remember them yet - a maid had sniffed loudly and given her a stern enough look that DG didn't dare try it again, sending her scurrying off down a hallway and into an empty room instead.
"This is impossible," she said, as the ornately carved door closed behind her. Heavy and wooden, it should have slammed shut, should have at least creaked, but instead it latched with barely a whisper. Impossible - or maybe she was the one who was impossible, maybe she was the one who was out of place.
"Nothing's impossible," said a voice to her right, and DG jumped, her back hitting the door. And then she recognised the voice, and let out a breath.
"I thought I was alone in here," she said, taking a step forward again. "Glitch, what are you doing?"
"Research," he said, coming out from behind one of the towering stacks. Of course - of all the rooms she could have chosen, she ended up in the library. Probably a hint from the universe, she supposed; think before doing, or some other nonsense. "I thought maybe if I could read, I could - but never mind."
Glitch's expression turned melancholy for an instant, and then brightened again, as if it had never changed. "Did you hear the news? They're trying to figure out a way to put my brain back. They're trying to figure out a way to put my brain back."
"I heard," she said. Trying - but not very successfully, as far as she knew. Which was probably why Glitch was here.
"I'm sure if I only had my brain, I could figure out a way to fix it," he said. "But that's the thing, I suppose."
Right. Just another one of the universe's cruel tricks - giving Cain hope for his wife just to snatch it away, letting Raw and the other Viewers have wonderful gifts only to force them to see darkness and despair. Sometimes, the OZ could be a real bitch.
"Anyway," he said, slipping back out of near-thoughtfulness. "What are you doing inside on a day like this? Shouldn't you be out exploring?"
Great. So now she was the pathetic one.
"Probably," she said, and then -
It was either a great idea, or a really terrible one. But she was sure it wouldn't be boring.
"Why don't you come with me?" she asked, and even saying the words aloud was enough to cheer her up. "Come on, we could explore together. You shouldn't be cooped up in here, either."
"Come with you," Glitch repeated, as if he were considering it. "But where would we go?"
DG shrugged. "Anywhere we wanted. It's a brave new world, right?"
Glitch frowned, clearly not getting the reference. "What about Cain?"
Now it was DG's turn to frown. "You think we should invite him?"
"No," he said, shaking his head. "I mean, won't he mind? He's been kind of -"
It sounded like the same thing to her. "Cain won't mind," she assured him. At least, he couldn't mind if she didn't tell him. Provided she could get away clean - but even Cain couldn't be everywhere, she was pretty sure, and he seemed to have a lot of things to deal with besides her. "So, are you in or not?"
Glitch seemed to be thinking for another long minute, and then he shrugged. "All right."
"Great," she said. So maybe this day wouldn't be a complete waste, after all. "I'm going to go tell someone we're heading out, but I'll meet you outside in half an hour, all right?"
"Half an hour," he said. DG had no idea if that meant anything, here - annuals instead of years, cycles instead of months or seasons or whatever - but he seemed to get the general idea.
"Soon," she said, just to make sure. "I'll meet you outside soon."
There. Now everybody could stop asking her why she was moping about indoors.
DG waited for Glitch for over an hour, as near as she could tell, wandering in circles and trying to make herself look entertained, before deciding to head off without him. At best, he'd found a solution to his brain problem; at worst, he'd forgotten he was supposed to meet her in the first place. Either way, if he wasn't there now, he probably wasn't coming.
She felt bad about leaving him behind, but there wasn't much more she could do; she'd been chased outside twice already while she was trying to find someone to give her message to, and honestly, the servants kind of scared her. They weren't something she was used to, not yet - not like growing up with robot parents, or travelling by storm to another world, or defeating an evil witch that was living inside her sister. Normal stuff like that.
Besides, the suns were already high in the sky, and if she didn't set off soon, she probably never would. She was already starting to get hungry; breakfast was little more than a distant memory, and if she delayed, she'd want to grab something for lunch, and ask Azkadellia if she wanted to come along, and maybe check whether she was really supposed to wander off on her own. (Probably not - that was part of the point.) And she'd given Glitch a chance, an invitation and plenty of time, so if he wasn't there already -
Well, it was his loss. And she wasn't at all worried about exploring on her own, so what was she waiting for?
(Question of her life. The answer, she suspected, was nothing at all.)
So. She was off to see the OZ.
Not that she had any idea which way she was headed, of course. After an indecisive moment, biting her lip as if the decision actually mattered to her one way or another, she closed her eyes and spun; wild, uncontrolled, and when she finally came to a stop, she was pointing -
East. Well, it was good enough for her.
Even as unfamiliar with the OZ as she was, DG was sure she recognised the land around her. One of the trees on her left, its trunk gnarled and twisted like it was hunched over; a pile of rocks so high she was sure they couldn't have been stacked that way by accident; a field of pale yellow flowers, improbable amidst the barren land surrounding them. She knew this place, she realised; she had walked this route, this stretch of the old road. She was on her way to Milltown.
Even with that thought quickening her steps, though, it wasn't long before a faint hunger deepened to something more insistent. Judging by the suns' position overhead, it was well past midday, and past her usual lunchtime; no wonder she was famished. And though she hadn't strayed far from the city - not so far she couldn't simply turn around and go back, if she wanted to, and probably nobody would have even noticed her absence - her earlier restlessness had given way to determination. She didn't want to go back, not yet; she was going to have fun today, even if it meant going hungry.
Which wasn't exactly at the top of her list, either. If she were the type to think ahead, she would have brought lunch with her, but of course she wasn't. What she needed, then, was a way to find food out here, on her own. Preferably without any effort required on her part.
Stopping for a moment, DG thought back. And remembered the time when she was a child, her and Azkadellia, hungry and longing for apples -
"Apples," she said aloud, like speaking would somehow make them appear. There were trees all around the path where she stood, and she strayed off it, wandering deeper into the forest, her eyes trained on the treeline in search of fruit.
And stopped a few minutes later when she heard a branch snap behind her.
"Hello?" she called, but no-one answered. Of course not, she thought. If someone were following her, they would have made themselves known by now, if they wanted to.
Besides, unless Glitch had followed her after all, she was probably just hearing things.
A few minutes later, all turned around but still - hopefully - not far from the old road, DG found what she'd been searching for. Not apples, but definitely fruit, sweet-smelling, green and yellow and covered in spikes. And probably edible. Either way, she was going to find out.
She could, she supposed, use magic to get the fruit down, or simply climb. But the way she knew was tried and true, and so, as loudly as she could, she called, "Hey, you."
At first, nothing happened, but then the tree swayed, faintly, as if in some unfelt breeze. Close enough.
"I don't suppose you want to give me one of those?" she asked, gesturing to the fruit.
The tree swayed again, side to side. No.
"Well," she murmured - as if to herself, but loud enough for the tree to hear. "I suppose it's just as well. The ones over there look much nicer."
This time, the tree swayed more violently.
"You don't think so?" Honestly, she missed the days when trees actually talked; she was starting to feel a little silly, out here alone shouting at nothing at all. "Well, I do. And the trees are much more pleasant, too."
No shaking this time, but a kind of ... quivering. Like the tree was thinking.
At least one of us ought to. "Their fruit looks much riper, and not nearly so pale. Not that yours isn't perfectly nice, I'm sure, but I think I saw a worm somewhere up there -"
DG cut off, abruptly, as one of the larger fruits hit her square in the stomach. It was even heavier than it looked, and she ducked to one side as another came flying at her, then another and another, right where her head had been. When she looked up, the tree was swaying again, seeming somehow smug.
One day, she thought, I'm going to figure out a way to do that without risking serious bodily harm. But right now, she had food for lunch - and for dinner and breakfast, too, with some left over - and that was good enough.
And the fruit, she discovered as she bit onto it, being careful to peel away the spikes on the outside first, was more than good enough. Sweet and juicy, like the best peaches in the middle of summer, with a tart aftertaste more like lime.
Delicious, and way too good to keep to herself.
"You can come out now," she said, lowering the fruit in between bites. She didn't know exactly where to look, so she stared down at her hands, and only looked up a minute later when the crunching of leaves under heavy boots told her that her instincts had been right.
"How long have you known?" Cain asked. His expression was as cool as ever, but DG liked to imagine that he looked at least a little bit impressed.
He grimaced a little at that - not enough that most people would have noticed, but she'd been learning to read him - and she let him think what he wanted. It hadn't been all that long, more a guess than really knowing, but if he believed she'd been onto him since they left the city, she wasn't going to bother to correct him.
"You shouldn't have snuck off," he said, moving close enough that he was standing over her, and DG snorted, sending fresh fruit juice straight up her nose.
"It wasn't exactly sneaking," she said. "Not when you were there the whole time."
"You should have told someone."
"I did tell someone," she said defensively. And then, at his look, "I left a note."
Cain almost smiled. Just for a second, but she caught it.
"There's a lot of people that care about you back there," he said. "They're probably worried sick right about now."
"Nah," she said, waving him off. "Not if they know you're with me."
He glanced away, not looking at her, but DG could have almost thought he looked embarrassed, for a second. When he finally spoke, it felt like changing the subject. "You waited around outside long enough I was starting to think I wouldn't have to follow you, after all."
"You were watching me for that long?" she asked, and then he did smile. Not much, a slight quirk of the lips, but it was enough to let her know she'd given herself away.
"Thought you knew I was there the whole time," he said, and this time, she was the one who nearly blushed.
And she was the one who changed the subject. "Did you want some of this fruit or not?"
She held it out to him, and for a second he looked tempted; and then, instead of reaching for the fruit, he reached for her instead, closing his hand firmly around her wrist and pulling her up until she was standing nearly toe to toe with him. She stepped back first, and Cain's expression shifted again; in an instant, the teasing edge was gone, and his jaw was set in its usual hard line. As he turned away, she felt like she had missed something, but she couldn't for the life of her say what.
"Come on," he said. "I should get you back to the city."
"You're kidding, right?" she asked, even though she knew the answer to that. Cain never joked - at least, not as far as she could tell.
"Like I said," he told her. "There'll be people back there worried about you."
"Nobody worries about me as much as you do," she said, and then it was back - fleeting, but definitely there, a look on his face that she couldn't quite place. "Besides, you know what road we're on."
"And you know where it leads." At that, a plaintive note snuck into her voice, and she tried to quash it. "Cain, I have to -"
"Milltown," he said, and it wasn't a question. "You want to go there."
"Please?" She wasn't going to tell him that she needed to go there; she wasn't going to beg. But she could ask. "Besides, don't tell me you never want to get out of there, either."
Cain hesitated, and it was enough to let DG know that she'd struck a nerve. "See?" she asked. "I knew you weren't completely made of tin."
"Could have fooled me," he said, but when she made her way back to the old road - and turned east, towards Milltown, not west back towards the city - he followed her without a word.
"Sure you don't want one of these?" DG asked a while later, holding one of the fruits out to Cain. "They're pretty good."
For a moment, he looked uncertain - like maybe it would be poisonous, just because she had picked it - but then he took the fruit, peeling back the spikes and biting into it just as she had done. And just as she had done, he made a quiet noise of appreciation in the back of his throat.
"Told you," she said, and he didn't bother to argue. Or rather, she chose the point when his mouth was fullest so that he couldn't. Old habits died hard, she supposed, and Wyatt Cain would probably go to his grave telling her that something she'd done had been reckless.
Of course, that might just be because she had done something reckless, and he'd got himself killed over it. So, maybe it was better not to pursue that line of thought.
"You sure about this trip?" he asked instead, once he'd finished eating. "Things didn't exactly go so well last time."
"That was different," she said. "They didn't know us then, and Azkadellia was - things were different then."
Cain said nothing, but she could read his expression easily enough.
"Trust me," she said, hoping the truism about never trusting a person who said that wasn't as popular in the OZ as it was on the Other Side. "Everything will be great."
Which was, predictably, when everything started to go wrong.
"DG!" Cain shouted, before she'd even registered what was happening. His arm went around her waist, and he was tugging her to the side as her mind raced, trying to catch up. There had been a loud noise, some kind of bang, but she couldn't see anything that might have caused it. Cain was on full alert, his gun drawn and his eyes trained on the horizon, and DG stepped out of his grasp to try to get a better look around them.
A second bang sounded, louder than the first, and Cain stepped forward again so that she was behind him. At first, DG, thought, it had sounded like shooting (which was, by the way, a sound she could have very happily gone the rest of her life without being able to identify), but now it sounded more like backfire, and she was about to say something to Cain when he jerked her to the side, an instant before something went flying past them.
"What was that?" she yelled. Her voice was mostly drowned out by the continuing drone of whatever it was that had attacked them, but Cain seemed to hear her anyway, lifting one shoulder in what might have been a shrug.
"We should go," he said, and DG shook her head firmly, even though he was facing away from her. She couldn't go, not now, not just because one little thing was attacking them. "DG, come on."
And then - just as there was a whirring, clinking noise somewhere in the distance that was almost unnerving enough to make her agree - a figure stepped forward, wild-haired and running, sunlight glinting off the top of its head.
"Glitch!" DG shouted, breaking free of Cain to dart forward and envelop Glitch in a hug. "What are you doing here? What is all this?"
"I came to meet you," he said. Simply, as though the chaos surrounding them was perfectly normal, or maybe as though he'd barely even noticed it. "Only I couldn't remember where you told me to meet you, or when, so I just started walking."
"And you ended up here?" she asked. "How did you even know which way I was coming?"
"I ..." he paused. "I don't know. But I was right!"
"I guess you followed the old road," she murmured, and took a step back as Cain approached. He had relaxed a little (at least, he had put his gun away), but his expression was still tight, his stance wary.
"Not that I'm not glad it's just you," he said to Glitch, "but do you mind telling us what the heck you think you were doing shooting things at us?"
"Shooting things?" Glitch asked. He seemed genuinely confused. "At you? No, no, no. I was just trying a little experiment."
"Experimenting with what?" DG asked.
Glitch opened his mouth to answer, and then looked blank.
"Never mind," she said, starting towards the town with Cain and Glitch flanking her. "I'm sure you'll remember."
"Better for all of us if he doesn't," Cain muttered, and DG elbowed him. Not that he didn't have a point, necessarily.
And then all three of them stopped short as yet another familiar figure came bounding out of one of the nearby buildings.
"Raw!" DG said, embracing him as he reached them. "Are you here with Glitch?"
"Here with Glitch," Raw confirmed. "Here to find DG."
So that was how Glitch had known which way to go.
"That's right," Glitch said, lighting up like he did whenever he remembered something. "Raw was helping me connect with myself. With my brain, that is. He saw me just after you did, and I thought, why not all go together?"
"Great," Cain said. "Now we can all head back together."
"What?" DG asked. "We can't go now, we just got the band back together."
Cain frowned at her, but ignored the Other Side reference. "Kid -"
"And I just started working on something," Glitch chimed in. "I can't remember exactly what it is right now, but when I do, I bet it's going to be great."
"I bet it is, too," DG said. "Come on, Cain. Have a heart."
"It's getting late," Cain said, but he was softening, she could tell. "There'll be people out looking for you soon, if there aren't already."
"I told you," she said. "They won't worry if they know you're with me. Besides, I want to see what Glitch was working on."
She could hear Cain protesting as she stepped into the building Raw had left, but it was halfhearted at best. Honestly, if he'd really been worried about her, he would have stopped her before she even left the city, and she knew that - but she wasn't needed there, and she wasn't in danger here, and he knew that, too.
It wasn't the same house she'd been inside before, back when she thought her entire world was ripping in half, but it was fairly similar. The roof was low, the floorboards worn smooth over time, and even though it was fairly dark, the window and open door let in enough natural light to see by. At least, they let in enough light that DG could make out the huge, hulking shape in the middle of the floor, but not what it was; Glitch's experiment, she guessed, but she had no idea what its purpose could possibly be.
Apparently, Glitch didn't have the same problem.
"Of course!" he said, and DG was sure she heard the sound of skin against skin, like he was slapping his forehead. "It's the BMLGMM. My bio-mechanoid luminescent geological modification module."
There was silence for a moment, and then -
"What?" DG asked.
"It makes shiny rocks," he translated, and pushed an impossibly complicated series of buttons on the machine, waiting until the top sprang open. And then he reached in - carefully, DG hoped; that thing looked like it could take his arm off if it closed suddenly - and pulled out a shimmering red rock unlike anything she had ever seen.
"Pretty," she said approvingly.
"What does it do?" Cain asked.
Glitch frowned, as if he didn't understand the question. "It's shiny."
"Very shiny," DG assured him, and shot a look at Cain. "Maybe Mister Practical over there doesn't care about looking at pretty things, but I think your invention is neat."
"I enjoy my share of pretty things," Cain said, and there was a rough edge to his voice that sent a shiver down DG's spine. "So why did it attack us?"
"Oh, that," Glitch said, looking a little embarrassed. "That was an accident. Sorry."
"Well." He paused. "Sometimes when the rocks are finished, they just kind of - well, there's this pressure, see, and they -"
"You were shooting us with shiny rocks?" Cain asked, and DG had to cover her mouth to keep from giggling.
Glitch shrugged apologetically. "It just needs some fine tuning."
"It needs a lot of fine tuning, from the looks of it," Cain said. And then, before Glitch could rush off, "Which we don't have time for right now."
"Exactly," DG said, hopefully forestalling yet another suggestion that they head back to the city. She wasn't done here, not yet, but - maybe that was for the best. Maybe it was time to let it go. "Because we have more adventuring to do."
"DG," Cain said warningly, but DG let him be drowned out by Glitch's more enthusiastic reaction.
"An adventure," he said, like she'd suggested getting ice cream to a seven year old. "Sounds wonderful. Where are we adventuring?"
"Well," she said, and tried to ignore Cain's disapproving frown in her peripheral vision. "I once heard that all of life's answers could be found along the old road."
"The fields of the Papay are up ahead," Cain said, the barest hint of tension in his voice. "Are you sure you want to keep going?"
"Positive," DG said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. It wasn't that she didn't think she'd be safe, but, well - the last time hadn't exactly been fun. "I mean, they're not going to attack us, right?"
She had - perhaps foolishly - expected some kind of reassurance from Cain, but instead, he just shrugged. "I guess we'll see."
Great. That was just great. Whose idea was this adventure, again?
Oh, right. Hers.
Still, she'd wanted to come through here for a reason, and not just wanting to prove to herself that she wasn't afraid of the runners. Slowing as they reached the edge of the fields, she made her way towards one of barren, wasted trees, arms outstretched, and laid her hands gently on the rough bark. And tried to remember.
I don't know how, she'd said, and done it anyway. All she needed to do was concentrate.
After a moment, she closed her eyes, and slowly began to feel the magic radiating out from her, pulsing with life and energy and renewal. She focused that magic on the tree, willing it to life -
And opened her eyes to see it already in full bloom.
"Wow," Glitch said behind her. "That's some gift."
"Yeah," she said quietly, and turned around to face her friends. She looked Cain square in the eye, knowing he wouldn't mistake her meaning, and said, "It is."
He nodded, almost imperceptibly, and DG grinned at him, already racing towards the next tree. She couldn't fix the entire field - she knew that; not in one visit, and probably not in twenty - but she could do something, at least. Help with the rebuilding.
"These look amazing," Glitch said as she ran, and she turned in time to see him reaching towards the fruit on one of the lower branches. "I wonder if they taste good, too."
Cain's voice cut him off. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Glitch looked confused, and DG paused. "Why not?" Glitch asked.
"The Papay might not be hunters any more," Cain said, and DG didn't miss the not-so-subtle emphasis on might. "But that doesn't mean they're tamed. And stealing their food probably isn't going to make you any friends."
Glitch's hand dropped hastily to his side. "I'm just hungry, is all."
"Me, too," Raw chimed in.
And then DG remembered. Of course - how could she have forgotten?
"Glitch," she said, and rummaged in her pocket for the fruit she'd stored earlier. "I have food for you, we picked them before." She held out one of the fruits to Glitch, and the last to Raw. "For both of you."
"You're an angel," Glitch said, before biting into the fruit, and DG winced in sympathy. The second time, he remembered to peel back the spikes first.
"Picked?" Cain asked. Somehow he'd moved closer while she wasn't looking, and his voice was low in her ear, a private joke for the two of them.
"Or was pelted with," she conceded. "Same difference."
"For you, maybe," he said, and DG was about to protest, ask him what that was supposed to mean, when he continued, his voice so low she almost didn't hear him. "You're doing a good thing here."
And there wasn't much she could say to that - at least, not much that was going to come out coherent - so she turned away from him instead, and started on the second tree.
And the third. And the fourth.
By the time exhaustion started catching up with her, she'd lost count of how many trees she'd healed, but she could see them all; blooming with flowers and richly coloured fruit, standing out in contrast to the stark emptiness of the rest of the fields. They weren't at the edge any more, though she didn't remember moving in deeper, and the fields surrounded them, now - dead trees on one side, living on the other, and the four of them standing in the jagged divide in between.
And, she realised belatedly, they weren't alone.
"Cain," she said. Softly; the last thing she wanted to do was startle the Papay standing in a ring around them.
"It's okay, princess," he said, but his tone was carefully even, too. "They're just watching. Have been for a while."
And she'd only just noticed. Great. She was really going to have to work on her situational awareness.
"So they're not going to attack?" Just making sure.
"Not by a long shot."
And then she noticed that, too; they were bowing, just as the runners had the first time she'd healed one of their trees. Like - well, like she was their princess, she supposed.
It was fitting, if a little disturbing.
"You almost done there?" Cain asked, and she shook her head, moving slowly towards the next tree.
"Just a few more," she assured him. She was tired, but she could do this. She needed to do this.
She reached out for the tree; felt the familiar rough bark, the wave of magic pulsing around her, ebbing and flowing as it found its target. And then she felt her head swim, her knees buckle underneath her, and it was all she could do to stay upright, still holding onto the tree for balance.
"DG," Cain said. He was at her side way faster than anybody human should have been able to move, his hands on her shoulders, steadying her. "You okay there, kid?"
"Fine," she said, moving to the side so she could stand up on her own. "I'm fine. I can keep going."
"Like hell you can," he growled, and she turned to face him, chin tilted upwards, mouth fixed in a way that she knew probably made her look more petulant than determined.
"I want to keep going," she said. She'd meant to demand it, but she was a little weak for that, still. "I can do this."
"Not today, you can't," he said. And then, in a tone that was only marginally softer, "We'll come back another time, I promise."
They would come back. Wyatt Cain wasn't a man to break his word.
She nodded, holding his gaze, and turned back towards the path heading east - and didn't get more than a few steps before something jerked her back. Cain let go of her wrist as soon as she stopped, and nodded towards the sky.
"It's getting late," he said. "We should head back."
DG managed to resist rolling her eyes. Barely. "You keep saying that."
"And it keeps being true," he countered.
If he wanted to get all pedantic about it, sure.
"The suns are almost down."
"Which means we might as well keep going," she said, holding up a hand before he could argue. "We're pretty far from the city, right?"
"Right," he said. Warily, like he wasn't sure where this was going, and he knew he probably wasn't going to like it.
"So we're probably not going to make it there by sunset."
"So we might as well keep going," she said, bringing the argument back around to the beginning. "We'll head back first thing tomorrow, I promise."
"DG," he said.
"Don't you ever get tired of following the rules all the time?" she asked him. "Come on, it's just one night. It's not like we haven't done it before."
And this time, there was no evil witch and her minions to chase them, so she really didn't understand what he was getting so worked up about.
"Come on, guys" she said, turning to Glitch and Raw. "Back me up here."
"I wouldn't mind spending a night under the stars," Glitch said, and she beamed at him. "Put all my troubles behind me. Put all my troubles behind me."
DG was sure she heard Cain mutter wish I could do the same, but she was too far away to be sure.
"Raw agree," Raw said. "Think we should stay. Have adventure."
"There you go," DG said, smiling up at Cain. "Three to one. You're outvoted."
"Who said it was a vote?" Cain asked, but he didn't stop her again when she started walking east, matching her pace step for step.
She shrugged and, smiling at the irony, said, "I don't know about you, but I like democracy."
The suns were dipping low on the horizon by the time DG saw them - a field of red, standing out among the green and brown of the forest, almost beckoning to her.
"Poppies," she said, and veered off the path towards them, breathing in their scent. Of all the things she'd seen in the OZ, these weren't the most beautiful, but they were familiar, reminding her of home, of the red flower she'd tucked behind her ear when they went to see the Mystic Man. "You guys, look."
Glitch followed her over first, and then Raw, sniffing hesitantly at the air. Glitch bent over to pick one and handed it to her, and DG smiled at him, twirling it between her fingers.
Cain followed more reluctantly, stopping at the edge of the field. "We really should be going on."
"Don't be silly," she said. "Why can't we stay here? It's pretty."
"It isn't dark yet," he said, like that was an answer. "We should find some shelter before it is."
"But it's so -" she broke off in a yawn; she hadn't realised how tired she was, but now, it was like she could barely stay on her feet "- pretty here."
"And I am kind of sleepy," Glitch chimed in. Raw, for his part, was already settling on the ground.
"We haven't even made camp," Cain said, ever practical, but then even he was seized by a yawn. And he might have kept on protesting, but DG didn't hear a thing; all she could think was that she was so very tired, and that this felt like such a nice place to rest.
At first, DG had no idea what woke her. She was still tired - exhausted, actually, like she could fall back asleep at any minute - but something was poking into her side, something hard and furry.
And Raw was looking at her, expectantly.
"Wake up, princess," Cain said. He sounded almost as tired as she felt, but like he was fighting it off. "We're not alone."
And then she saw them, even in the near-darkness that had somehow descended. (And how was that even possible? She felt as if she had just closed her eyes a minute ago, and it had been light enough then.) Not that it was difficult, exactly; the suns might have nearly been down, but those faces, painted bright shades of red and blue and yellow, were colourful enough to make out anywhere.
"Oh, great," she said. "It's you again."
"Invaders of our land," one of the red-painted men spoke up. "Defilers of the earth. You, who are too tall. What is your business here?"
DG tried to think. What was their business here?
"We were sleeping," she said. She was sure there was more to it, but her head was all foggy, like something was dulling her senses.
"Aha!" cried another one of the men. Or it could have been the same one, DG wasn't quite sure. "So you admit it."
"Admit what?" she asked, but before she could process what was happening, before she could even fully wake up, she was being hauled to her feet, prodded with spears, and forced to march.
"Where are you taking us?" she asked, once she could force herself to think straight again. Oddly, she didn't feel tired any more; maybe the nap they'd all taken had done the trick.
Or maybe the sudden sleepiness that had overtaken her in the field of poppies hadn't been a coincidence.
"To the headquarters of the Eastern Guild," one of the blue-faced men answered her. "There, you will face our judgement."
Great. That was just what she needed, to be locked up in one of those swinging cages again.
She didn't dare look at Cain. She was pretty sure she knew exactly what he was thinking. And, okay, maybe he was right, and maybe she had got them all into trouble, but it wasn't her fault; those damn flowers had got all of them, even him.
"I'm pretty sure this has all just been a misunderstanding," she said. Just like last time. And that time hadn't gone so well, either. "If we could just talk about this -"
"No talking," the blue-painted man said, and pulled up short. At first, DG wondered if she was going to be punished for speaking, and then she realised they were already there. Someone pushed her from behind, and she went sprawling forward, crashing into Glitch and Raw and Cain in the centre of a circle that had sprung up around them. A really big circle.
So, they probably weren't going to be able to fight their way out of this one.
"What are you?" one of the men asked. "Longcoats? Raiders? Why have you come here?"
Somehow, she didn't think explaining that they were out on an adventure was going to do the trick.
"Speak!" he demanded. "Or we'll see if the flayer can loosen your tongue."
Yeah, that really didn't sound any better the second time around.
"We aren't Longcoats," Cain said. "We were members of the Resistance, just like you."
"A likely story."
"He's telling the truth," Glitch said. "Just ask DG, she's the Princess."
DG looked at Glitch sharply, and then took a breath. Well, it probably should have been up to her, anyway.
"I'm Princess DG of the House of Gale, and the queen's youngest daughter," she said. "And I demand that you release us."
Okay, so that might have been a bit much. But, honestly, did they have to laugh?
"This one thinks she's a princess," one of the warriors said, which set them all off again. "All right, princess. Why don't you prove it?"
And there was the thing. She could use magic, of course, but that was as likely as not to convince the Eastern Guild that she was a witch and have them all killed. And anything else that could have marked her as a princess, anything they would believe, was safely back in Central City.
"I don't -" she said, and paused as she felt something press into her hand. She looked over to see Glitch, and closed her fist around the object her had handed her, polished and smooth. And breathed a sigh of relief.
"Here," she said, and held it out in front of her.
The warriors, as one, pressed in to get a better look. "What is it?" one of them asked.
"This," she said, and silently prayed to Ozma (or whoever else might have been listening - right now, she wasn't feeling particularly picky) that this would work, "is a shiny rock."
"A shiny rock?"
"A very shiny rock," she said. "A token of the Royal House of Gale. Only a princess could possibly have a rock this shiny."
There was a moment's silence, and then whispered conferences broke out in the circle surrounding them, low voices debating the merits of her claim. DG couldn't make out most of the conversations, but -
"It is a very shiny rock," the blue-painted warrior admitted.
"Very, very shiny," she agreed. "And -" she had to hope this would win them over "- it's a gift."
The man looked at her. "A gift?"
"To the Resistance fighters of the Eastern Guild, with thanks, from the Queen," DG said. "A token of her appreciation."
Another pause, and this one seemed interminable. And then -
"Long live Princess DG!"
The cry broke out among the warriors, until they all broke in, joining in the chant. As abruptly as she had been thrust down, DG was helped up, the warriors crowding in as they cheered and rattled their spears. And then there was silence once more, and she breathed in huge, shaking breaths, trying, finally, to relax.
"You honour us by your presence, Majesty," the red-painted man said. "In your name, we shall hold a feast."
"Feast!" came the cry, circling around them.
As it died down, DG looked at him, and frowned. "Hey," she said. "I know you. You're -"
"I am Red Katt, leader of the Eastern Guild," he said. "You and your friends will be our honoured guests at the feast."
"I don't think -" Cain started, but DG cut him off, anxious to avoid a reprise of the flayer threat.
"We'd be delighted," she said, and turned her gaze deliberately on Cain. "Wouldn't we?"
"Thrilled," he deadpanned, but he gave her a look that told her they'd be arguing about it later.
"Wonderful," Red Katt said. And then, to no-one in particular, "Bring out the meats!"
The food, DG had to admit, was actually pretty good. Nobody told her what was in the meat they kept bringing out, and she didn't ask; honestly, she wasn't sure she wanted to know. There were fruits, too, and long, bitter greens that were probably vegetables, and some kind of starch that tasted a little like sweet potatoes.
And then there were the drinks.
She wasn't sure what was in those, either, but she could hazard a pretty good guess; whatever it was, it tasted like spiced wine and had a kick like whiskey.
"Easy there," Cain said, leaning in from where he was sitting on her right. He was close enough that she could smell, on his breath, the same sweet liquor they'd all been drinking; he'd tried to refuse it, just as she had, but Red Katt had been insistent, and neither of them had wanted to cause a fuss. Right now, she couldn't imagine why she had wanted to refuse at all. "This stuff will knock you around if you let it."
And I'm still underage, she thought, and couldn't stop the giggles that rose up at the thought. Office Gulch would have happily written her up for underage drinking back in Kansas; being here now, in the OZ, it seemed ridiculous that something like that would have ever mattered. Old enough to save an entire world, but watch out if I ever want to buy beer.
Cain looked at her quizzically, but she shook her head. He wasn't likely to get it, even if she tried her best to explain. "Yeah," she said instead. "I'm getting that."
In fact, peering at Cain a little more closely, she didn't think she was the only one who was getting it.
Well, look at that. Even Tin Men could get drunk, it seemed.
Still, it wasn't bad advice, and when she was offered another drink, she refused it as politely as she could manage. She held her breath for a second, but by now, it hardly seemed to matter. Even their hosts were drunk, or in good enough moods that it amounted to mostly the same thing, and DG was pretty sure she could say or do just about anything right now without causing offense.
Not that she particularly wanted to test that theory.
Raw, she thought, was probably the only one of them not drinking, though even he didn't look quite sober. She put that down to him being a Viewer; surrounded by so many people, most of them in various states of intoxication, couldn't have made it easy for him to keep a clear mind. And Glitch, with his half a brain, seemed to be twice as drunk as anyone else, and having twice as much fun for it. (He was joining in now - loudly - with some traditional fight song the warriors were teaching him, and DG wasn't ready to rule out the possibility of dancing in his future.)
Cain, though - the only difference in Cain, as far as she could tell, was that his eyes were a little brighter, his skin a little flushed, and he was smiling a little more than usual. (In other words: almost.)
That, and after he'd leaned in to talk to her, he hadn't moved away.
"You okay there, kid?" he asked, and she wanted to explain that she was fine, that the temperature had just suddenly gone up a few degrees, except she was pretty sure that it was just her.
"I'm great," she said, and smiled. And why shouldn't she be? Her family was happy, she was surrounded by her friends, and she hadn't been flayed alive just yet - she was damn near perfect.
And maybe it was the drink, or the adventure, or the rush of their new surroundings, but when Cain's hand brushed over hers - accidentally or not, she couldn't tell - she didn't pull away; instead, she twisted her palm up so that her fingers tangled with his.
"Admit it," she said, emboldened when he didn't pull away, either. "This wasn't the worst idea ever."
Whether Cain was about to agree with her, she never found out; before he could answer, someone was pulling her to her feet, and she spun around, facing a wild-eyed and wilder-haired Glitch.
"DG," he said. He was almost yelling, but she still barely heard him above the steadily rising din. "Dance with me."
This time, DG definitely blamed the drink as she let Glitch take her arm. There was no music, at least as far as she would normally have identified it, but there was some semblance of an irregular beat as the warriors tapped their spears on the ground. And there was dancing - again, nothing she would have ever called dancing back home, but a group of the warriors had arranged themselves in a rough circle, spinning and clapping and darting back and forth.
"I don't know the steps," she yelled to Glitch as he led her into the circle.
He shook his head. "There aren't any."
Well, that made her feel better about that, at least.
At first she stood, letting the chaos build around her, and then Glitch moved forward, spinning her around, and DG moved with him. The beat slowed, and so did their steps, and then it quickened again, frenzied and rough and curling over her like the wind. She danced and clapped and twirled, moving until the earth seemed to move with her and her head began to swim.
And then, in the space between breaths, she was suddenly still. A pair of hands gripped her by the shoulders, catching her somewhere between spinning and falling, and she looked up to see Cain, still almost smiling, staring down at her.
"You okay?" he asked. He wasn't yelling, not like Glitch had been, but somehow she heard him perfectly.
"Just peachy," she said. And then, because they were on an adventure and because why the hell not, she said, "Come dance with me."
She expected him to protest, but he didn't say a word as she took his hand and led him further into the circle. She still wasn't any closer to piecing together the rhythm of the warriors' dance, but it didn't seem to matter, not when Cain took both her hands in his and spun her around, not when she could hear Glitch laughing and see Raw joining in the dance. Right now, nothing seemed to matter at all.
Breaking away from Cain, she darted in and around the dancing figures. She danced with Glitch, and with Raw, shuffled back to Cain and pulled him with her around the edges of the fray. And then she felt him squeeze her hand and saw him motion away from the dance, and she nodded, following him out to the edge of the circle.
Outside the circle the air was cooler, and DG leaned back against a nearby tree, catching her breath. Even here, the music was loud, and so she barely noticed the way Cain was standing a little close to her, or the way he leaned in even further to speak.
"Do you need to sit down?" he asked, and she shook her head.
She did, however, notice the way one of Cain's hands was resting on her hip, and the particular way his body was angled towards hers as he placed the other on the tree just above her head.
"No," she said. "I'm fine."
She could almost feel his breath on her lips, and she licked hers almost unconsciously. His eyes darted down; obviously, he noticed.
He still didn't back away.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea," he said, and she didn't have to ask him what he was talking about. She was already way ahead of him.
"No," she said. "This is definitely a bad idea."
And then she leaned forward, closing her eyes as Cain's lips met hers.
She barely had time to register the kiss - what she was sure would have been a very good kiss, if it had been allowed to continue - before it was interrupted. DG looked past Cain to see Glitch, mouth open as if he was about to speak (he probably had spoken; she'd just missed it), frozen in place.
"What do you want, zipperhead?" Cain growled. His eyes never left DG's.
"Um," Glitch said. "They're calling for DG. They're calling for DG. They're calling for -"
"All right," she interrupted him. "Glitch, you were glitching again."
"Oh," he said. "Sorry."
He was looking at Cain as he said it.
"It's okay," she told him. She took a breath as Cain moved back, giving her space, and wished he hadn't. "We're right behind you."
It's no big deal she told herself. They probably just want to honour you or something. Not flay you alive.
Probably. They had left Glitch alone for a while there.
"Do you still think this was a good idea?" Cain asked her as they walked.
DG paused, meeting his gaze almost defiantly. "Do you still think it was a bad one?"
And then the warriors were surrounding them, cutting off Cain's reply, and DG smiled and let herself sink back into the moment.
Whatever he was going to say, she didn't regret a second of any of it.
DG awoke to the dual suns searing into her eyelids, and she hastily covered her face with her hand. That drink had a kick like whiskey, all right, complete with dizziness and a faint wave of nausea.
And, unfortunately, minus the convenient amnesia.
Well, she thought, maybe it's not that bad. Maybe Cain doesn't even remember -
"Morning, princess," Cain said, sounding way too chipper from someone who couldn't have had any more sleep than she did. She turned to face him, hoping she didn't look too hideous in the harsh morning light, and took in the slight curve at the edge of his lips, the knowing look in his eyes.
Oh, yeah. He definitely remembered.
"Morning," she grumbled, wondering what could have possibly died in her mouth last night to make it taste as bad as it did. "Where are -"
"You're awake," Glitch said then, somewhere behind her.
"Finally," Raw added.
DG grimaced. The rest of them seemed to be feeling fine; maybe she'd been on the Other Side too long and it had played havoc with her metabolism. Or maybe they were just trying to make her feel bad.
"Hey," she said, turning around. Slowly. "I'll have you know, I'm usually a morning person." Growing up on a farm, there hadn't really been any other options.
Raw held out his hand as she scrambled to her feet. At first, she thought he was just helping her up, and then something washed over her, cold and bracing like a shower of ice.
And suddenly, she felt so much better.
"Wow," she said, smiling at him. "That's a useful talent."
"DG feel better," Raw said simply.
"Much better," she agreed.
Saying goodbye to the Eastern Guild didn't take long, after they found Red Katt. DG, it seemed, had been the last one up. She smiled at their cheers, managed to laugh at one last joke about the flayer, and promised to bring them back many more shiny rocks as she, Cain, Glitch, and Raw slowly disentangled themselves from the crowd.
"So," Cain said. He was still looking at her with that half-smile that almost looked like a promise, and if he wasn't standing as close to her as he had last night, he was still a lot closer than he usually would have been. "Ready to head back now, kid?"
"Back?" she asked, acting like the suggestion surprised her.
"DG," he warned.
"You know," she said, "I heard the south is really nice this time of year."
"And I'm sure we'll find that out, once we get you back to the city first."
She ignored him, linking her arm through his instead, and headed in a direction that was decidedly not west.
"Come on, Cain," she said, taking a step in altogether the wrong direction. "Where's your sense of adventure?"