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Tin Horses and Paper Planes

Chapter Text

The ball was already well underway when Wyatt Cain arrived. He made no attempt to dismount at first, content to sit and let his policeman's eye absorb the scene around him. Here, close to the mountains, the air was cool and crisp, and it stirred the grass restlessly as Wyatt surveyed his surroundings, shining waves rippling up the hillside towards the trees. An East wind's an ill wind, he thought absently, then dismissed the thought for the superstitious farm-boy nonsense that it was. The Cain ranch, domain of his martinet father, was far behind him now and the time he'd spent in the prickly bosom of his family had only served to show him that he didn't belong back there any more than he did in a palace.

After the Sorceress had fallen he'd stuck around for a few months, helping where he could. Queen Iskra had regained her throne, but there had been a span of time when the mechanisms of the old State had continued to turn aimlessly, a beast without its head - staggering but still on its feet. Deprived of their leader, the Longcoat forces began to lose cohesion, many men returning to their old army posts willingly while others held on, knots of resistance, like stubborn patches of ice that refused to melt.

There was no ice here, now. Wyatt slipped his feet from his stirrups and swung himself easily out of the saddle, gently pushing Captain's nose away as the big horse began to investigate his pockets hopefully. The Northern Island had revealed itself to be a broad, wedge-shaped spit of land, the palace proper standing on the edge of a low outcrop, giving way to less imposing buildings and informal, tree-lined paths that followed the gentler slope down to the lakeside. It was with some degree of grim amusement that he recalled the icy plunge he'd taken in the frozen lake. Of all the windows he could have fallen through, he'd somehow managed to find one that overlooked water, not land. Guess someone was looking out for me, that day.

His smile faded. Someone had been looking out for him in the days to follow, too. His memories of the time he'd spent recovering in DeMilo's wagon were hazy and unformed, a freezing fog punctuated by passing moments of clarity. Warmth, seeping into his chilled and unresponsive flesh. The soft snap and hiss of the fire, which had quickly devoured the armloads of wood it was fed. But there had been warmth before that...

Was that where it had begun? Confusion and cold, and the dim awareness of a shivering, slender form nestled unselfconsciously against him beneath the blankets, one leg hooked over his, a hand laid over his heart. It didn't mean anything. He was just trying to warm me up. No, he couldn't pin the blame on Glitch. It went back much further. Those thoughts, those wicked thoughts... they had been a part of him for as long as he could remember, buried as deep as he could send them. He'd thought they were banished for good - he'd built a life for himself, and his love for Adora had been genuine. Those other feelings, the ones that Daniel Cain would have called sick, perverted - he'd conquered them, hadn't he?

Glitch. Wyatt closed his eyes, a hand resting on Captain's neck to anchor him to this time and place as his mind pulled him forcibly back to the shuddering cold. Snow, whirling out of a blind, white sky, pelting the wagon and shaking its flimsy sides. Glitch, afraid that another foray into the storm might send him wandering in the wrong direction, systematically dismantling the wagon's little store-cupboards and foot-lockers to feed the fire. "We'll tell Mr DeMilo we had to requisition them to help save the OZ. He's sure to understand, if it's for a worthy cause," the zipperhead had reasoned cheerfully and Wyatt, barely conscious, had fixed on the voice as Glitch continued to babble to himself. A beacon. A point of light and warmth that he could use to steer himself away from the abyss.

Captain fidgeted and sidestepped, nudging him with his shoulder, and Wyatt swatted the horse gently and led him along the broad causeway, the sharp breeze carrying the dim hubbub of the ball to him: music, snatches of laughter and conversation.

Those are the sounds of people living. After interminable years alone, locked in his nightmare, it would have been naive to imagine that getting out of the tin suit would be the end of it. Finally he was free to move about the world, but the anguish Zero had inflicted upon him had also escaped the confines of the holograph's endless loop and he'd built a new barrier around himself to block it out. The zipperhead had a way of getting through those defences by alternately calling him out on his heartless attitude and ignoring it entirely. At first he'd been able to shrug off the other man's remarks as meaningless headcase chatter, even those altogether too accurate for comfort. Then Glitch had carried him? dragged him? somehow conveyed him up the hillside through a mile of deep snow, to the comparative safety of the wagon, and brought him back from the edge.

I was freezing to death, and he... made me warm again. And try as he might, Wyatt was unable to deny that his thawing had been more than physical. But those feelings those twisted feelings hadn't fully resurfaced until the witch was defeated, and there was suddenly time to think. Too much time to think.

The idea of returning to his father's ranch had been circling his mind for a while. He needed to get his thoughts in order, to grieve properly for Adora, to find out if he and his son could rediscover the bond they'd once shared. He couldn't do that at the palace. Too many... distractions. So he'd made a tactical withdrawal, which sounded so much better than running away.

The ranch had hardly changed. Wyatt had thrown himself into his work, falling back into the routines of his boyhood with almost distressing ease. Daniel Cain raised horses; the work was hard and physical, often leaving Wyatt too tired for nightmares, and there was some comfort to be had in old, familiar surroundings. Of his three surviving brothers, only Billy, the youngest, still lived at home but both Javin, the next youngest and Nathan, eldest of them all, lived on Cain land, and Wyatt had spent time with each of them, trying to reconnect to a world that he'd cut himself off from long before the tin suit. Jeb had stayed too, for a few months, his serious, capable manner quickly winning the approval of his grandfather. Wyatt was glad; his decision to break loose and go to the city had always been a sore point between himself and his father. Reconciliation by proxy was better than no reconciliation at all and, while Daniel Cain hadn't mellowed one bit in the years since Wyatt had left home, he found he was able to tolerate the old man's unyielding, parochial attitude.

For a while, anyway.

The months went by and Wyatt found that he had finally achieved a kind of equilibrium within himself. For a time, he had worried that his grief had eased too quickly, that he owed Adora - and Jeb - a more substantial show of mourning. Each day that he woke up and wasn't crippled by her loss added to the dark little mass of guilt that had taken root in him, and fed the lurking fear that the marriage, his love for Adora, had somehow been nothing more than a masquerade to conceal his true unnatural desires. Then, about five months after he'd arrived at the ranch, he had awoken from his first bad dream in weeks with an incongruous feeling of relief. He'd watched the terrible, familiar scenes play out in front of the grimy faceplate of the tin suit yet again, first himself being beaten into insensibility and then his weeping, struggling son being made to watch while...

...yes, relief seemed like the last thing he should be feeling. But partway through the nightmare had come the revelation that mixed with the fury, frustration and horror had been an aching sense of loss. Somewhere along the line, he had convinced himself that his wife and son must be dead, that there was no way that Zero would have allowed them to survive and, in that first flicker of returning consciousness, he had realised the truth - he'd been grieving for the past eight years. Perhaps, after all that time, it was okay to start to feel a little better?

Still, that didn't solve the problem of Glitch. He would catch himself thinking of the zipperhead for no reason, wondering idly what he was doing, and if he was happy. Wyatt had departed without ceremony one day, having quietly announced his decision to leave at breakfast the day before, and the idea that he'd never actually said 'goodbye' preyed on his mind. Had Glitch actually understood that he was going? The thought that he might have forgotten Wyatt entirely by now was no comfort at all.

The invitation to the celebration, in honour of the Queen's birthday, had come at just the right time. A year had gone by since the eclipse, and the ranch had ceased to be a refuge and had started to remind Wyatt why he'd left in the first place. It wasn't that he didn't get on with Nathan or Javin, and Billy was a gentle, harmless soul that not even the most curmudgeonly sibling could dislike. But there was something - a sense of anticlimax. After everything, after Adora and Jeb, the Mystic Man, the tin suit and the Sorceress, after all of this, he was right back where he'd started. And it wasn't home; home had turned out to be a time, as well as a place, and he couldn't go back.

The invitation clinched it. He'd go to the palace and find out if seeing Glitch brought back those wrong, those disgusting, those damn it, Dad - shut UP same emotions. If it turned out that there was nothing there, or if Glitch didn't reciprocate - and be realistic, Wyatt, how likely is it? - perhaps there was still a friendship to be rekindled. And maybe that would be for the best. How would he ever explain his feelings to Jeb? In discovering himself, he might lose his son all over again.

He'd packed his few belongings into Captain's saddlebags and there had been room to spare, but the little tin horse went into his inside pocket, next to his heart.

The stable block was a long, low building tucked into a slight hollow in the slope of the island, the coach house running perpendicular to it to form an 'L'. Wyatt gave the stabled horses an approving glance - they were quality; whoever ran the Queen's stables knew what they were doing - but he wouldn't have swapped the finest of them for the Captain, a well-proportioned Vanner with an unflappable demeanour and just a hint of equine cynicism that suited the ex-Tin Man perfectly. He considered warning the stablehand about Captain's unfortunate pastime of waiting for an opportune moment, then sidling over and pinning unwary victims against the stable wall, then he decided the man would find out soon enough. Shouldering the saddlebags, he headed towards the sounds of the ball.

He was met on the tree-lined path to the palace doors by a young man with polished manners and a uniform that reminded Wyatt inevitably of Glitch. There wasn't so much brocade on this one, which made sense - they weren't going to stick a high-level flunky on doorman duties, were they? The slight note of scorn in the thought surprised him, and he forced himself to examine it. I've been spending too much time around my father. The man could profess his unfailing loyalty to the Queen and then deride the upper classes of Central City for never having done a day's hard graft in the same breath, and not see anything inconsistent in his attitude. Pushing that persistent, critical voice out of his mind, Wyatt touched a finger to the brim of his hat as the footman approached.

"I'm here for the shindig. Guest of D- ah... Princess Dorothea." The footman answered with a slightly frigid smile that defrosted noticeably when he examined the folded invitation Wyatt produced.

"Mr Cain, of course. Her Highness has set aside a suite off the Long Gallery for you." There was an awkward pause while Wyatt worked out that the footman was waiting to relieve him of his bags, then he surrendered them reluctantly, hiding a grin as the footman's nose wrinkled at the smell of horse, leather and sweat.

DG had anticipated his needs perfectly. By the time he had been led to his rooms, via a circuitous route around the side of the palace that elicited another flicker of cynical amusement - Tin Men are requested to use the tradesman's entrance - there were two things waiting for him: a hot bath and a cold beer. As soon as the footman had left him alone with the assurance that he would inform the princess of his arrival, Wyatt locked the door and stripped off his travel-stained clothes, deliberately dumping them in an unceremonious heap in the middle of the floor. It was a petty act of rebellion, he knew, but there was something about the pristine elegance of the room that made him feel faintly claustrophobic and distinctly out of place. A long draught of the beer improved his mood considerably. Enjoying the sensation of the air sliding over his skin, he padded into the bathroom, humming to himself.

He sank into the enveloping steam with a sigh and leaned back, the open bottle propped on the edge of the bath, his other hand pillowing his head. The last leg of the ride had taken him over narrow hill paths; his hips and the small of his back were a single sullen mass of tension, but the warmth of the bath began to soothe his discomfort and he closed his eyes, drifting contentedly. He might have fallen asleep, if the bottle hadn't tipped in his relaxing grip as he began to drowse, dousing his stomach in a stream of icy beer.

The sedate atmosphere of the Long Gallery was shattered by a brief, strangled scream.

Almost as soon as he walked into the hall, Wyatt knew he wouldn't be staying long. It wasn't the bustle and noise of strangers - even after the solitude of the suit, his Tin Man training hadn't deserted him; if proof were needed, hadn't he been unfazed by the Realm of the Unwanted? But this wasn't citizens of the OZ going about their - admittedly shady - business. This was socialising, and he hadn't the first idea what to expect. Adrift amidst a sea of finery, he scanned the crowd for a familiar face.

In fact, it was Azkadelia he recognised first, sitting beside the Queen on an ornate couch at the far side of the room. It was hard, even now, to see the older princess and not think of the Sorceress, and he guessed that she might be having some difficulty herself - a year down the line, swathed in a gown of delicate frost blue that was a universe away from the severe black and gold he remembered, it seemed the witch still haunted her. Her smile was fragile, and Wyatt, who sometimes suspected that he noticed too much, noticed that her glances towards her mother were frequent and tentative, and that the Queen's gentle grasp upon her hand would occasionally tighten. A reassuring squeeze or the act of a mother afraid that her older daughter might at any moment vanish? His deliberations were interrupted by someone nudging his elbow and he turned sharply, his scowl melting into a smile as he found himself facing DG.

"Prin-" She held up a hand, rolling her eyes comically.

"Don't, or I'll have to be formal and call you 'Mister Cain' all evening. How are you? You look... great." It was true. A year of wrangling stubborn horses and hauling feed bags had put a healthy glow in his skin and toned muscles weakened by years in the tin suit.

"I feel better than I have in a long time," he admitted quietly, then glanced down at himself, selfconscious. "Better, and a little ridiculous in this get-up." He'd dragged Javin along with him to the outfitters in Damfino Creek, fairly sure he wouldn't be allowed past the palace doors in his usual clothes. They'd settled on a simple grey frock-coat and a dark red waistcoat with a subtle pattern - it was the smartest thing he could afford, but from the looks he was attracting from other guests, it was probably a couple of decades out of style. Inwardly, he shrugged. He hadn't come here to be a fashion-plate.

And the fact that red was Glitch's favourite colour was a complete coincidence.

"You look fine." DG's ongoing diplomatic schooling was evident as she tried to hide a smile at his doubtful expression. "And at least you don't have to wear this." She grasped her skirts and flounced them at him, the layers of sea-green tulle rustling primly. "I thought my old diner uniform was bad..."

A year of royal duties didn't seem to have changed the princess at all and Wyatt found himself relaxing. "No offence, kiddo, but if I thought I'd have to wear that, I wouldn't have come. Ballgowns just don't suit me." He wasn't convinced that fancy suits were his thing either, and he fought down a momentary wave of gloom as the dancers whirled past them. This was the world Glitch knew, and it was completely alien to him. Maybe the Queen didn't have people executed, but you probably got a six-month posting to the Black Mountains for using the wrong spoon at dinner. It occurred to him that DG must have gone through the same anxieties and he smiled at her, glad for her sake that her expression spoke more of good-natured resignation than awkwardness.

"So... have you seen Raw lately?" He glanced around, half-expecting to see the fur-clad visionary mingling with the guests. DG shook her head.

"He's gone back to his - his tribe, or his clan, or whatever you're s'posed to call it. We got a - heh - a sort of letter from him a couple of months back." Wyatt listened, secretly charmed by DG's description of the small package that had been left in the summer-house at the edge of Finaqua, a torn scrap of paper marked 'DG' slipped under the string. Inside had been a seemingly random collection of objects: a polished pebble veined with bands of robin's-egg blue, a ragged-edged feather that went from faded brown to dazzling iridescence when it caught the sunslight, and a gnarled chunk of lightning-scorched wood that radiated a gentle, inexplicable heat, as if it still held a spark at its centre, all neatly tied up with a length of cleverly plaited grass strands.

"I'd hate to be on his Solstice card list." DG grinned impishly at this.

"They're clues Mister Policeman. It's Raw's way of saying he's thinking about us - you and me, and Glitch." Then, her wide blue eyes meeting his, she grew serious. "Sometimes, if I just sit somewhere quiet and hold them, I get flashes of... it's hard to describe. A good feeling - reassuring..."

Wyatt had caught up. "You're the blue stone, and Glitch is the feath... wait a minute - I'm the lump of wood?" She gave him a solemn nod, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

"It's a really nice lump of wood," she assured him earnestly, then put a hand over her mouth to stifle a most unregal snicker.

"Does it count as treason to dunk a princess in the punchbowl?"

DG's grin broadened. "Try it, Wyatt - hey, you rhyme..."

"I'm beginning to wish we'd stuck to 'Mister Cain'." Wyatt sighed with feigned exasperation, and she grabbed his arm and towed him out of the way of an oncoming procession of dancers.

"C'mon - let's get off the floor before they try to make us join in."

It was impossible to entirely escape the attention of the court. There seemed to be a pair of curious eyes in every secluded spot and, although none of the court followers or guests would be so vulgar as to eavesdrop, there was a lively interest in this quaintly-dressed stranger with whom the princess seemed so comfortable. Wyatt finally secured them a quiet seat beside an arrangement of tall, speckle-throated lilies by glowering meaningfully at a cluster of chattering courtiers until they realised they had other places to be. He sat down beside DG, grateful for the comparative privacy although he could see a guard out of the corner of his eye, being inconspicuously conspicuous beside a column. That was okay - the princess was being guarded, and that was right and proper. He just didn't want the whole court listening in on his business. A little voice at the back of his mind pointed out that he hadn't been so set on privacy when he was asking after Raw, and he stepped on the thought deliberately and kicked it out of sight. He was just being careful, that was all.

"I don't see Glitch - I thought he'd be in his element down here, the fuss he made about dancing," he remarked lightly, surveying the hall with studied nonchalance. DG frowned, following his gaze.

"I haven't seen him all evening. I just figured I'd missed him in all the excitement. He knows the ball was tonight - I even knocked on his door to remind him." She laced her fingers together in her lap, trying not to fidget with the skirt. "He said he'd be down in a little while - he was wrapping something up for Mom. But that was hours ago."

"No change there, then. He's probably wrapped himself up and can't get out of the room." DG giggled at this, then bit her lip, searching the gathering.

"He should be here - he's been working so hard on redesigning the Sunseeder. A few months back, when he was working on the plasma storage coils -" she grinned at Wyatt's raised eyebrows, "- don't be impressed - if you hear a song enough times, you get to know the words, even if it's in a strange language. Anyhow, we had a team of Viewers. Six of them, working in shifts to keep him connected. Me and Az had to just about drag him outside to get some sun." Wyatt tried to picture Glitch as a workaholic, but his mind rejected the image. Ambrose, maybe, but not Glitch. DG twirled a strand of hair around her finger. "And then, when it was all finished, I half expected him to follow the engineers around to make sure they were following his plans. Mom thought a break would be good for him."

Wyatt could see the wisdom in that, although he wondered how Glitch had felt about taking leave of his hard-earned marbles. "Want me to go and find him?" he asked casually, seeing an opportunity to escape the throng and seek out Glitch in peace and quiet.

DG snapped her fingers. "Search and rescue - good idea. And then I'd better take you over to see Mom. I think she's still hoping you'll change your mind and take that security job she was talking about."

"My uniform days are over, Princess. But I reckon I can track down a missing zipperhead for you. I'll start with his room - where is it?"

"Next to yours." She smiled. "You've been away so long - I thought you might like to have a familiar face nearby."

As he neared the top of the second curving flight of stairs, Wyatt stopped to catch his breath and was struck by a momentary pang of paranoia. Could DG have guessed? Was that why she'd put the two of them together? Don't be an idiot. You aren't even sure yourself. How could she have guessed anything? It was just the unfamiliar surroundings making him feel exposed and edgy, that was all.

This is no place for a farm-boy. Wyatt eyed a tall, ornately-painted vase stonily. He had the distinct feeling it was smirking at him. Only one flight to go. And then he would go and knock on Glitch's door and try to keep a straight face at the zipperhead's surprise. Hey, genius - did you miss me? And Glitch would give him one of those sunny, everything's-okay-now grins, and immediately launch into an excited babble about everything that had happened since he'd gone away, in a rapid-fire, out-of-sequence series of tangents, laced with unrelated observations about interesting spiders he'd seen that morning. He caught himself smiling and took the first step of the next flight, his weariness forgotten, when a soft noise from the other end of the hall made him pause.

It's nothing. Did you think you were alone in the palace? Put the Tin Man away for five minutes, will you? It was a guest, or a maid, or one of those obsequious footmen and there was no reason at all for him to turn around and head down the hallway, but he did.

Dusk was approaching, and the lamps along the length of the hall had been lit, overlapping pools of light making the carved wooden arches that decorated the walls glow richly. A broken bulb two-thirds of the way down the hall had created an island of shadow and Wyatt stopped in his tracks, staring into it, trying to decide if he could make out a deeper darkness within.

Probably some fancy statue he decided, but he didn't look away and, after a moment, the shadow moved, heading away from him and into the light, which glinted briefly off a familiar zipper.

Glitch? Wyatt was about to call out a greeting, then he hesitated, frowning. Glitch took a few more steps down the hall, then came to a halt, turning in a slow, aimless circle. There was a spindle-legged table nearby, and he picked up an ornament from it, holding it up to the light and gazing at it blankly. Something's not right.

"Hey, Glitch!" No answer, and Wyatt, in spite of his disquiet, rolled his eyes. My name isn't Glitch. It's- "Ambrose?" Glitch turned the ornament - a large, intricately carved shell - over in his hands, peering at it intently, apparently unaware that he was being addressed. Maybe he didn't hear me. Wyatt followed as Glitch set the shell back down and took a few more steps down the hall, touching the elegant chairs and cabinets as if reassuring himself of their solidity.

"Hey, Glitch," he tried again, this time tapping the zipperhead gently on the arm. Glitch turned to look at him, and Wyatt felt his heart drop into his boots. There was no hint of recognition in the other man's face, only troubled confusion. He's forgotten me.

"I-I don't know where I am."

Wyatt regarded him sympathetically. Trust you to get lost within a crow's-call of your own bedroom, he thought, then relented; the long hallways were confusing, and one fancy, too-small table looked very much like another to the untrained eye, even if that eye wasn't a few inches from a zipper. He laid a hand on Glitch's shoulder, turning him back towards the stairs. Glitch would probably recall his old travelling companion on the way down to the party. Do I know you? Yes, it was just one of his little lapses.

"One place you're not is down at the ball, and DG's getting fretful," he admonished, wondering if he should point out that Glitch seemed to have forgotten the present he'd been wrapping for the queen.

Glitch gazed at him, bewildered. "I don't know where I am," he repeated, more softly this time, and Wyatt looked at him with growing unease. You're not just talking about this hallway, are you? His eyes seemed black in the muted lamplight and dark, weary shadows surrounded them. Taking him by the arm, Wyatt steered him over to a chair and hunkered down beside him, studying him more closely.

"You don't look so good. DG said you'd been working too hard." The name didn't seem to spark any sign of familiarity; Glitch simply sat where he had been put, looking forlorn. "Do you remember how you got down here?"

"I don't know. There was music, and colours everywhere - and then I was here..." The Tin Man resurfaced, and this time Wyatt didn't fight him. He gave Glitch's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, speaking slowly, patiently.

"Okay. That's all right - we'll work it out. How about your name - d'you remember that?" Do you know who I am? he nearly added. No. Bad interviewing technique, officer. One question at a time - he's already disoriented and upset. Don't make it worse.

Glitch put a hand over his eyes. "Please don't ask me any more. I don't want to know how much I don't know."

The evasion was answer enough. Forgetting he'd been called Ambrose was one thing; 'Ambrose' had been lost to him for years. But since when had he been unable to introduce himself as Glitch? Wyatt was gentle but insistent. "I'm sorry. This doesn't seem like a regular glitch. So... you can't remember your name. Okay. Are you in any pain?" A slow, tentative headshake was his only answer and the Tin Man dismissed it, seeing how gingerly Glitch was moving his head. You don't fool me, Sunshine. That was a 'yes'. There was no question of him going down to the ball in this state. Perhaps more familiar faces might jog his memory, but what if the noise and the crowd confused him even more? Wyatt wasn't about to take the risk. "Okay. Let's get you back to your room." A decent night's sleep might make all the difference. But if you still don't know your name tomorrow, I'm asking DG to send for a doctor.

He waited for a protest, hoped for a protest - C'mon, Glitch - you're missing the dancing. At least complain a little. - but the zipperhead was as tractable as a drowsy child, and didn't resist when Wyatt took his arm and led him upstairs. His room was easy enough to find - a suite of rooms, in fact, at the very end of the gallery. Another day, Wyatt might have stopped to study the portraits ranged along the wall; hand-carved seats in cosy alcoves were dotted along the opposite wall for that very purpose. Faces interested him. They gave away secrets; the flicker of an eyelid, a minuscule tightening of the jaw, could tell a trained observer all he needed to know when the lips remained stubbornly closed, and even a painted face had a story to tell. Tonight, however, he barely noticed the succession of kings and queens. The door to Glitch's room was ajar, every lamp alight, and the floor was half-hidden beneath a drift of brightly-coloured paper, some half-dozen misshapen and disintegrating parcels lying amidst the sheets and shreds, and orphaned lengths of ribbon. He said he was wrapping something up for Mom. But that was hours ago... colours everywhere...

What had he been wrapping? As they slowly negotiated the mess, Wyatt nudged a couple of the more erratically-wrapped packages open with his foot. A cushion, the identical twin of one he could see on a nearby chair. A single slipper with a pair of scissors tucked inside it. Probably got a lot harder to wrap stuff after he lost those, he thought, but there was something in the mental image of Glitch sitting alone in his room, studiously wrapping anything that happened to be in reach, that made his heart hurt. He pointed to the chair. "Sit down and rest a minute while I get this cleared up - if you get up in the night and trip over this stuff I'm gonna have an angry princess on my case." Glitch settled obediently in the chair, pulling the cushion into his lap and fiddling distractedly with the tassels. His stomach gave a querulous growl, and Wyatt looked up from where he was kneeling. "Have you eaten anything to-" he caught himself; asking Glitch anything in the past tense wasn't likely to elicit an answer. He changed tack. "Are you hungry?" A cautious nod. "Okay. Stay there."

It took less than a minute to make the journey to his own room and back, but Wyatt couldn't suppress a flicker of apprehension as he re-entered the former advisor's overly-bright room. To his relief, Glitch was still where he'd left him, and even offered him a tentative smile as he evidently recognised him from the preceding minutes, if not from any time before. "Here you go. It's a little bruised, but -"

"- but it's still good," Glitch finished for him, taking the apple Wyatt had salvaged from his saddlebag with a silent apology to the Captain. "And the bread won't keep..." Not sure what to make of that, Wyatt simply patted him gently on the shoulder and set to work gathering up the discarded wrapping paper and parcels. It was pretty unlikely that the cushion, slipper or scissors had been meant for the Queen. Likewise the empty spectacles case or the elegant mug, with its drying residue of sugary coffee. One package he set aside; Glitch had bound it up in layer upon layer of ribbon until the paper was hardly visible, but it was more neatly wrapped than the others and it seemed the most likely candidate for legitimate gift.

Glitch watched him silently over the slowly diminishing apple, and raised no objection as Wyatt dismantled the other parcels. Last of all was the cushion, which he brought over to the chair and tucked in behind Glitch.

"That's better. I can see the floor, now." Glitch made a small sound of acknowledgement, then yawned widely, raising his hand to his mouth, then reaching up to rub gently at the back of his head, where the zipper's puller dangled. "Head still hurting?"

"It's okay. Sometimes it aches." Glitch responded, but there was something absent and automatic about the way he spoke that made Wyatt wonder how often he'd been asked that question, and if he was even aware that he'd replied. Frowning, he offered Glitch his arm.

"Maybe you'll feel better out of the light. Come on."

The bedroom was off to one side, the two rooms connected by a wide wooden archway carved with clinging vines. Rather than fumble for a lightswitch, Wyatt found his way to the bed by the light streaming in from the sitting room and from Hyperion, the smallest and palest of the OZ's three moons. Not seeing any pyjamas, he helped Glitch divest himself of his shoes, socks and waistcoat, and persuaded him to lie down.

"Try and get some sleep. You look like you're ready to drop." For a moment, Glitch lay where he was, staring blankly up at the ceiling. Then he sighed and curled up on his side, closing his eyes. "That's it. You'll feel better in the morning," Wyatt murmured, hoping that it was true.

He stood in the darkness, staring into the shadows until Glitch's breathing settled into the regular, even pattern of sleep. Then he withdrew, turning off the lights in the outer room and pulling the door closed softly as he left. A good night's sleep - somehow he didn't think he'd be getting one himself. He lingered outside the door for a minute longer, listening, but there was nothing to hear and eventually he sighed and made his way down the hallway, listening to the music floating up from the festivities below and wondering what he was going to tell DG.

Chapter Text

"It wasn't a regular glitch." Wyatt exhaled, frustrated, and tried to remember that this man was a guest of the Queen and that thumping him in the ear wasn't the kind of behaviour they encouraged at the palace. "I've seen enough of 'em to know. Sure, he's forgetful, and he couldn't find his way out of a room with one door. And there's the pally... whatever you called it-"

"Palilalia," the doctor interjected smoothly, although the ex-Tin Man's manner was beginning to disrupt his carefully-manufactured display of unruffled calm. "The involuntary repetition of a word or sent-"

"Glitches." Wyatt cut him off firmly. "That's what he calls them, so let's stick with that. The point is, I've seen it happen a hundred times, and maybe he doesn't always laugh it off, but he doesn't get rattled the way he was last night." You didn't see him. He was lost "Just take a look at him, will you? Maybe he'll be fine this morning, but if his head's still hurting him you could at least give him something to help. That's what you're here for, isn't it?"

"Actually, I was invited as a representative of the Medical branch of the Centr-" Wyatt ignored him, striding ahead towards Glitch's door, where he knocked gently. As far as he was concerned, a doctor was a doctor, and they didn't get to dictate when people needed them. When there was no answer, he pushed the door open and peered inside.

"Glitch... you still asleep?" Which was a silly question, now he came to think about it, but he wanted to give the zipperhead a chance to gather his scattered wits before the doctor caught up. Receiving neither a 'no' or - and with Glitch, it seemed equally likely - a 'yes', Wyatt entered cautiously and pulled the curtains back; the comfortable little parlour was just as he'd left it and there was no sound from the room beyond. Still sleeping, he told himself, but without conviction. He'd learned to trust his intuition and right now it was telling him things were not as they should be. With a growing sense of misgiving, he went through the carved wooden arch.

He hadn't closed the bedroom curtains the night before, and now early morning light was gleaming on the windowpanes, hazing the still-cool air outside, and presenting him with an unrivalled view of an empty bed. There were signs Glitch had moved around in the night; the bedclothes had been stirred up and now occupied the centre of the bed in a tangled nest of pillows and counterpane, a single half-eaten apple core lurking like a hidden treasure amidst the swirl of linen and silk.

"Seems as if he's up and about, then." Wyatt didn't jump, but he turned sharply, scowling at the doctor's tone of unconcern. His foot brushed against something and he looked down, then crouched, searching the floor beneath the bed.

"With just one shoe?" He held up the footwear, bereft of its sibling. "The Gl- the Ambrose that I know might be addled, but he knows how to dress himself. Come on, we need to find him."

The doctor drew himself up, disgruntled. "Now just hold on a minute. I came to see this headcase of yours as a favour to the queen. I'm not heading off on some wild goose cha-" He faltered as Wyatt took a step closer.

"We need to find him. You're gonna help me." He held the doctor's gaze, suppressing a desire to shake him. "You can go complain to the queen later if you want." And see where that gets you, you jumped-up little sawbones.

The search was over sooner than Wyatt had expected. Large though the palace was, a zipperhead wandering around in a single shoe was unlikely to escape notice for long, and it was only five minutes after he and the doctor had parted company - Wyatt to follow the servants' stairs down the kitchens in case Glitch had gone searching for breakfast, and the doctor to investigate the more opulent surroundings of the palace proper - that a guard hurried up to him.

"You're looking for the h- for the queen's advisor, aren't you?" Wyatt nodded. "He's outside, just down by the drop-off from the East wall. By the water, you know?"

"Show me."

He followed the guard down a flight of stairs, which were neither grand nor ornate, but well-lit and warm, and out through a side door. Here, a short path ran the length of a walled herb garden and out onto a walkway overlooking the lake. A little further ahead, he could see a lawn edged with white stones, the edge dropping away several feet to the water. It was hard to believe that this had all been hidden beneath a thick carpet of snow only a year before; the manicured areas of grass, artfully mixed with careless patches of wildflowers, looked unreal in the bright sunslight, like a stage waiting for the actors to arrive. And there, a few feet from the pale stones, was Glitch.

He was barefoot, a shoe clutched in his hand as if it was a letter he was going to deliver. Slowly, he criss-crossed the same small patch of grass over and over again, his gaze fixed on the ground.

Wyatt edged a little closer, ready to dart forward should Glitch look as if he was veering too close to the edge. "Hello," he mumured, then suppressed a sharp gasp of dismay as Glitch looked round at him blankly, pain written clearly in the huge, dark circles that bruised the skin under his eyes, darker still against his ghastly pallor. He pointed at the ground beside him.

“This was where I found it. I-I know it was.”

Found what? But it didn't take a Tin Man to see the significance of the spot. Wyatt glanced up at the palace windows, wondering exactly which one he'd crashed through a year ago. There were no signs of the damage now, of course. A window was easily fixed - it was people that were the problem. A flicker of colour and self-importance in the periphery of his vision heralded the arrival of the doctor. He gestured at the man to stay back, taking another cautious step towards Glitch.

"What have you lost? Can you remember?" Glitch frowned, then sank to one knee, brushing his hand carefully over the ground, as if he might find whatever he'd lost amidst the lush grass.

"Something. Something important. It was here and -" He shook his head, then moaned softly, digging his fingers into his hair to massage his scalp. "I have to find it. I have to." Rising, still holding his head, he looked imploringly at Wyatt. "Can you help me?"

"It's okay, Ambrose." The name still felt cumbersome and unfamiliar on his lips, but somehow it was easier than calling him Glitch. The man he remembered had always been fractured, but never this broken, and it hurt Wyatt in ways he didn't completely understand. I stayed away too long. He took the last few steps to Glitch's side, smiling reassuringly. "I can help you."

Glitch regarded him with an expression of faint hope, the shoe dangling, forgotten, from his hand. "You can? I-I-I don't know how I got here. I think I'm lost." He glanced down at the grass, apparently hoping that the missing valuable would miraculously reappear. "It's so dark."

The tight knot of concern that had set up home in Wyatt's chest blossomed suddenly, spreading in a dark, chilly stain that made his stomach clench. The doctor was still hovering nearby, and Wyatt shot him a meaningful look, inclining his head towards a short flight of steps set into the gentle slope of the lawn. "Come on. Let's go and sit over there, where it's nice and quiet, and we'll have a talk with the d-" He cut himself off, mid-word. "With a friend of mine," he amended smoothly. "You can tell me about this thing you've lost, and we'll come back and take another look when it's lighter." He took Glitch's elbow, meaning to walk him to the steps, and the zipperhead looked around indecisively, the slight movement enough to elicit a faint whimper. Glitch was trembling, the vibrations running through his body so fast and fine as to be unnoticeable except to the touch, not so much a tremor as a resonance.

"I'm - I'm sorry. Where are my manners? My name..." He staggered, then righted himself, steadied by the other man's light grip. "...my name..."

"Glitch," Wyatt answered without thinking, then shook his head. So much for not wanting to confuse him. "It's Ambrose. Your name is Ambrose, but your closest friends call you Glitch. We're old friends, you and I." There had to be something he could do - something Glitch could catch hold of, the way Wyatt had clung to the comforting sound of his voice in the shivering darkness. Inspiration sent him delving inside his coat, and he pulled out the battered tin horse, its flank flattened and distorted where a bullet had embedded itself into the metal. "Is this what you were looking for?"

Slowly, wonderingly, Glitch reached out for the little horse, touching its dented surface with shaking fingers. "So familiar..." His face lit up, a momentary look of joy replacing the haggard expression. "Tin Man..." he whispered, then his eyes rolled back into his head, and he dropped as though his legs had been cut from under him.

"Glitch!"

Wyatt lunged forward and threw his arms around Glitch, catching him in an awkward hug as he collapsed. The tin horse fell from his hand, forgotten. Glitch arched, briefly rigid in his arms, and cried out - a hoarse, meaningless bark of air forced from his lungs - then he began to thresh like a stranded fish, his muscles jerking and jittering wildly, breathing in ragged, choking, random gasps.

"Set him down - take off your jacket and put it under his head." The doctor was at his side suddenly, or perhaps he had been there all along; Wyatt doubted he'd have noticed the man's approach if he'd had cymbals strapped to his knees. As gently as he could, he lowered Glitch to the grass, fighting the urge to reach out and try to still his flailing limbs. While he quickly shrugged out of his coat so that he could bundle it into a loose roll to slip beneath Glitch's head, he shot the doctor an incredulous look.

"Aren't you gonna help him?"

The doctor recoiled slightly under the force of Wyatt's glare, but didn't retreat. "He's having a seizure. If you hold him, you'll hurt him," he snapped, "When it stops, I'll take a look at him." Between them, Glitch's convulsions continued, a bluish tinge creeping over his lips as the breath hitched weakly in and out of his chest.

Wyatt was vaguely aware of a dull pain in his knee, but it hardly registered. He clenched his fists against his thighs, his heart hurling itself angrily against his ribs. "There's got to be something you can do," he insisted, watching helplessly. "Something to bring him out of it." The doctor shook his head, tight-lipped, and leaned over so that he could look more closely at Glitch.

"If it doesn't stop, I have drugs that may help." He winced as Glitch kicked him in the ankle. "Stay with him - I'm going to send for my bag. Don't try to restrain him. Don't try to rouse him. If he starts to choke, turn him onto his side and cushion his head."

His matter-of-fact tone was at once reassuring and irritating. At least sound concerned, damn it. The doctor, however, seemed unflappable, and set off towards the palace at a brisk walk that was all too slow for Wyatt. Another breathless minute passed, then, mercifully, the spasms grew weaker, then stopped altogether. Glitch lay still, sprawled like a rag doll, the hint of blue slowly easing from his skin. Mindful of the doctor's warning, Wyatt kept his hands in his lap, but he couldn't just sit in silent inactivity. "It's okay. It's okay, now. Just lie still - help's on its way."

At first it seemed that Glitch must be unconscious. Then he sighed drowsily, and mumbled something, barely more than a series of slurred syllables. "'nt l'em tay br'n..." And then his breathing grew slower, softer, and he seemed to sleep.

Don't let them take... It took Wyatt a moment to translate the words, then - warning or no warning - he couldn't prevent himself from reaching forward to set his hand lightly on Glitch's shoulder. "I promise. I won't let anyone hurt you any more."

Chapter Text

For a crowded half-hour, Glitch's room became a concentrated hub of activity. The task of moving the unconscious zipperhead had been allocated to a couple of palace guards, who had used a folded blanket to form a makeshift stretcher. Wyatt had stayed with them all the way up the stairs, following close at their heels like a sheepdog driving an errant flock. He had offered to carry Glitch himself, to use the servants' staircase and save Glitch the indignity of being paraded up the grand stairs, but the doctor had waved away his concerns and they'd ascended the staircase accompanied by a susurrus of curiosity. Now the guards filed out, leaving Wyatt with the doctor - Edgar Krantz, he'd established on the way up - and Glitch, who continued to sleep, hemmed in by a barricade of pillows and bolsters supplied by whispering, wide-eyed maidservants. The apple core had been extracted from the bed and disposed of, affording Wyatt a brief, bittersweet smile, and the small nightstand and lamp nearby had been removed. The nearest hard surface now was the chair Wyatt had pulled over to the bedside, and he seated himself heavily, watching the doctor stoop over the bed to check Glitch's pulse.

He held his tongue while the doctor muttered irritably, eyes fixed on a small, silver watch. He hadn't paid much attention to the room the night before, and now his gaze, hungry for something to look at other than the fragile form in the bed, drifted around the bedroom. Now that he could see it in the daylight, it didn't seem quite so cosy as he'd first imagined. The whole suite of rooms had an unsettling quality that he had trouble pinning down until he thought about his own accommodation next door. It wasn't that the rooms were the same; each had been tastefully furnished, each chair, lamp or exquisitely upholstered couch had clearly been individually picked out for the room it occupied. But still, they shared the same, subtle echo of a place for visitors. They didn't look lived-in. They didn't look like someone's home.

The only evidence of Glitch's presence amidst the elegant furniture and mostly-empty bookshelves lay on a table beneath the window: several open books, stacked haphazardly as if their owner had been trying to read them all at once and, beside them, an odd-looking instrument - a shallow, curve-sided box with a complicated arrangement of strings and frets. A couple of the strings were snapped and curling. Had Glitch been trying to repair it?

Krantz cleared his throat, derailing Wyatt from his contemplation.

"I'm done here, for the time being. He may sleep through the rest of the day, but if you notice anything... untoward, there'll be a guard outside - he'll know how to find me." The doctor, having completed his examination, seemed in a hurry to depart. Wyatt followed him through into the outer room.

"Is he going to be okay?"

Krantz made a clucking noise with his tongue. "The convulsion itself was quite brief, and he doesn't appear to have bitten his tongue. Still, there's no telling until I'm certain of the underlying cause. Has anything like this happened before?"

"I can't say for sure." Wyatt stared despondently at the empty chair with its red and gold cushions. "I haven't been around lately. You'd be better off asking the princess." DG wouldn't be far away, he was certain. When he'd returned to the ball Glitchless and told her what had happened she'd been all set to go up to the former advisor's rooms there and then, but Wyatt had intervened. He's sleeping. Best to let him get some rest tonight and see if that helps. Would it have made a difference if a doctor had been found last night? Wyatt thrust the thought away. Maybe it would, but grabbing a big handful of blame ain't gonna help right now. Save the self-recrimination for later. He shook his head. "Thinking about it, if he'd been sick like this before I'm pretty sure she'd have mentioned it to me, or sent for a doctor herself. They're pretty close." He let that sink in for a moment before going on. "So what do we do now?"

Krantz shot another look towards the door, his bag bumping impatiently against his leg. It was obvious that the ex-Tin Man had no intention of letting him leave without telling him something. "Right now? Nothing. This might be the first and last seizure he ever has - the confusion and the sight disturbance aren't necessarily indicative of anything particularly sinister. Anyone can have a seizure, given the right circumstances." A slight gleam entered his eyes, and Wyatt felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle at something in the doctor's voice as he went on. "Of course, I haven't worked with a headcase before - this might be a sign of incipient degeneration. We'll be able to get a better idea once he's had a few more of these - if there's a pattern, it'll show itself."

Eagerness. Like a kid in a hurry to play with a new toy. Wyatt felt his hands close into fists. "A few more? You're just going to let him suffer so that you can study him? What if he has one of these that he doesn't recover from?"

"We'll carry out other tests in the meantime, of course. If we can find any obvious physical causes, we may be able to help. The brain is a complex organ, Mr Cain. That he was functioning so well with only half of one for so long is astonishing in itself. His eyesight, his motor skills... in most cases the side controlled by the absent hemisphere should be significantly impaired. You should take comfort in the fact that he's had such a good run..." Krantz hesitated as Wyatt's eyes narrowed.

"You better hope I'm not hearing you right. You're basically telling me that he's dying, and I just have to accept it? That I have to be thankful he lasted this long? This is my friend you're talking about. Not some kind of - of experiment."

Krantz gave him a look of manufactured sympathy that Wyatt itched to hit. "You're upset. It's understandable. But I'll thank you not to put words in my mouth. I have not said that he's dying. It may be that medication will help him. It may be that it does not. I'm simply giving you the facts, unpleasant though they may be - he has, from what you say, experienced remarkable good health until this point. I can't predict how long that good fortune can hold out, or if it has deserted him now. All I can do is observe and attempt to learn more. Dispassionately."

Wyatt forced himself to relax. It was either that or throw Krantz through the window, and the sound of breaking glass might wake Glitch. "I'm not good at standing around doing nothing." Not by choice, anyhow. "There must be something I can do while I'm here?"

"You can stay with him. Assuming he has any recollection of the time leading up to the episode, it would be useful to assemble any information that you can on prior symptoms. If he doesn't recover from the disorientation, he also needs someone to make sure he doesn't wander off - if there had been no one with him this time, he might have been more seriously injured."

What about just being there so there's a friendly face around when he wakes up? Did you oversleep the day they covered bedside manner, you cold-hearted son of a bitch? He nodded anyway - he'd had no intention of leaving Glitch alone, no matter what the doctor had said. "I can do that. Will you be talking to the Queen about this?"

The doctor gave a curt nod, but Wyatt suspected he was in no hurry to request that particular audience. "She will receive my report, of course."

She will receive my report. So clinical and detached. Wyatt wanted to take him by the shoulders and shake him until the bland smile fell off his face, and tell him about the man he was treating like a laboratory specimen. About the way that Glitch had followed him into the trees after they'd found Adora's grave, stealing gradually into the circle of his grief, uncharacteristically quiet and still. How he'd seen the tears and said nothing, but placed himself firmly in Wyatt's way, blocking his line of sight to an empty metal suit, then, later, had helped him to topple the hateful thing and brought him a stone from the fireplace of the ruined shack to smash the faceplate. This is Glitch, doc. He likes dancing, and apples, and interesting butterflies, and science so advanced it'd make your head spin. He could kick you so hard both your ears would end up on the same side, and he's spent longer than it took you to earn that shiny stethoscope starving and sleeping in ditches, but he doesn't like fighting and he wouldn't go Longcoat hunting with me and Jeb without one of those big embroidered palace pillows. He's a complicated, amazing human being, and if it came down to the world doing without either him or you, I'd shoot you in a heartbeat.

Taking advantage of his distraction, Krantz had made his way to the door, casting one last proprietorial glance back at the bedroom. "If there's nothing else, Mr Cain, I have work to be getting on with. I'll return this evening, unless anything happens in the meantime, in which case I'm sure you'll let me know." Then he was gone, the door closing quietly behind him.

Wyatt stared at the door for a while, wishing he could lock it. A chair jammed under the handle would do at a pinch. Anything to ensure that Krantz couldn't get back in. Don't be so damn paranoid. He's a doctor. That didn't help. Raynz had been some sort of doctor, hadn't he? And now you're being ridiculous. So you don't like the guy - that doesn't make him a sadistic nut like Raynz. He turned his back deliberately on the door, trying to rein in his antipathy, and went back through the arch to settle in the chair beside Glitch's bed.

He sat and watched the sleeping man for some time, taking advantage of the solitude to study him properly. It had been too dark last night and too fraught this morning to take in anything beyond how tired and confused Glitch had looked. Now, Wyatt leaned forward, his eyes tracing the familiar features, surprised at how clearly they had etched themselves into his memory. A long, narrow face, the nose rather aquiline. An expressive curve of a mouth, quick to smile and bracketed by dimples, now set in a faint frown. Dark lashes closed over eyes that were crinkled at the corners, little creases born of enduring optimism and years of bright sunslight. I remember you, even if you don't remember me. Every last detail, from the moment the zipperhead's anxious face had peered in through the algae-rimmed window of his metal prison, to the fleeting look of dawning recognition he had worn just before the seizure had erased everything. Wyatt found that he was carrying the memory of that expression close to his heart alongside the tin horse, which he'd discovered when he'd risen from the grass, his knee complaining where the battered metal figure had bruised it. If Glitch didn't recover...

Not wanting to follow that thought through to its conclusion, he got up and crossed to the window, where he set about tidying the books into an orderly pile. Might as well see that you have a neat place to wake up to... At the base of the stack he placed a thick and serious-looking volume bearing the weighty title of 'Plasma Theory and High Energy Density Physics', made thicker still by a sheaf of makeshift bookmarks. On top of that, absurd beside the scientific text, a child's colouring book. Wyatt flicked through the coarse paper before setting the book down, biting his lip at the sight of the large, simple mandalas within, which had been inexpertly filled with bright hues that spilled excitedly across the black borders. He thought about a feather, shining brilliance and dusty earthbound brown all at the same time, and wondered why, with his apparent fascination with vivid colours, Glitch hadn't used blue anywhere. Maybe he just didn't have a blue crayon.

A hot-air balloon drifted across the cover of another book, a top-hatted man peering from the basket. The suns had washed most of the colour from the illustration, and the well-thumbed pages were all but falling out of their bindings; he put it down with care, as if the well-being of the fragile book was somehow inextricably linked to the well-being of its fragile owner. There was a more sturdy volume beside it, and Wyatt picked it up to admire the flower-like swirls tooled into the leather cover. After a certain amount of internal debate, he opened it, expecting to see diagrams and mind-twisting formulae and was greeted instead by a photograph - a dark-haired man with glasses and a petite woman whose headscarf was struggling valiantly to hold back a tide of long, curly hair and, between them, a small boy beaming exuberantly from beneath the shade of his father's too-large hat. Beneath the photograph, in the careful, well-spaced hand of someone concentrating intently on one letter at a time was a caption:

Dad's neW caMera

It was undoubtedly Glitch; the hat came down over his eyes, but there was no mistaking that grin. On his right, or the left as Wyatt looked at it, the woman - who was mere inches taller than her son - had thrown an affectionate arm around his shoulder. His father hadn't been quite as demonstrative, but he looked contented enough, in a serious sort of way. Wyatt traced a finger over the corner of the photograph. There had been a brief, wistful pang at the image - a happy family - but his sorrow came more gently these days and he caught himself smiling at the boy in the oversized hat.

He turned the page, ignoring a quiet internal voice that said this was none of his business. This time it took him a moment to make sense of the photograph, but once he'd stopped looking for a face amidst the lines and planes of black and white, the image resolved itself into the brightly-lit doorway of a wooden building. Beyond the worn boards, cool shadows held the suggestion of machinery - wheels and rivets, metal struts arching proudly like the neck of a thoroughbred horse. Beneath, in the small, laboriously neat handwriting, was the cryptic 'Uncle Oscar built it!' and Wyatt wondered if the same hand that had propelled the pen with slow determination around the letters could be responsible for the pencilled mechanisms that filled the margins, delicate and complex as cobwebs, confidently exploring every inch of unoccupied paper.

That's enough. This isn't some investigation you're on... He nodded, agreeing with the voice, then turned to the next page anyway. There was a sudden flash of white and a discordant, metallic jangle - startled, he put the album back on the table and looked around guiltily, but Glitch slept on, oblivious. A thick wedge of paper had slipped from between the pages, landing on the unfamiliar instrument. Wyatt waited for the voice to say 'I told you so', but there was only the diminishing thrum of the vibrating strings. He pressed them into silence, recalling the way Glitch's arm had trembled beneath his hand, and then -

"I'm not thinking about that right now," he whispered, and picked up the paper - a single sheet, folded with careful, precise creases and covered with slanting, untidy scrawl he couldn't decipher. Released from the album, it had opened a little way, revealing itself to be a strangely-constructed aeroplane. Wyatt smiled, imagining a bored young Ambrose folding the paper while he waited for his classmates to catch up with him. Guess you had a lot of free time, Genius.

Here and there, printed words appeared and vanished beneath overlapping layers.

ESENTING SYMPT

INICAL DIAGN

Might be a while since I sat in a schoolroom, but I don't remember this kind of paperwork lying around. He turned the paper plane over in his hands, then held it up, as if to throw it. The wings seemed too small to support the fuselage, and the weight was distributed towards the nose, but why would Glitch have saved it if it was no good? Strange little thing. I wonder how you fly? The sunslight through the thick paper revealed a watermark.

ENTRAL CITY MEDICAL EXA

Enough. This time the voice was adamant, and Wyatt folded the plane carefully along its axis and replaced it in the album, shaken. No more. They're Glitch's memories, and nobody has the right to rifle through them without his say-so. He returned to the chair, carefully moving it closer to the bed.

"For what it's worth, Glitch, I'm sorry."

The suns moved on, oblivious to the Tin Man, careless of the paper memories or the intangible web of emotions they could spin out of nothing, content to follow the physics-simple path before them, fading ink and warming the wood of the table. The shadows turned a little, marking out the passing time.

Eventually, there was movement from the bed, and a sigh.

Chapter Text

...rose?

A sound, drifting up into nothing.

Ambrose?

It was a good word, he decided. Ambrose. Amb'r Oess. Song of the Second Moon Rising. Now where had that come from?

...ou awake?

Waking always required a certain amount of reconstruction. First, self-awareness, which always came in a small, surprised moment of 'Oh - I am!' Then other things would settle into place, some easily, others with a degree of effort: The events of a previous day. The knowledge that rain fell downwards. The word for spoons. He'd become quite adept at putting everything together I'm good at puzzles but it was at times like this that he envied other people, normal people, who could get out of bed and set their feet down on a world that was complete and intact, with all the useful little mental instructions about the operation of bathtaps and door handles already in place. Instead, each day was like emptying out a vast jigsaw onto the ground and hoping that some of the pieces would land already connected. Or at least face up.

One day, maybe I'll hear a 'click' and everything will fit together.

"Ambrose, can you hear me?"

He considered the shape and the weight of the voice, the texture of suns-warmed wood and leather; a sound foundation to rebuild the universe around. And he needed something, because today most of the puzzle pieces that were face up were blank. There was something about that voice... Good morning, Sweetheart. It was only in his mind, but it was the same warm, rough timbre, and it drew him down out of the nothing and into his waiting, aching body.

I hear you. He found his vocal cords unwilling to cooperate; all that came out was a dry, creaky rasp. Swallowing uncomfortably he tried again, not yet making the attempt to open his eyes and establish whether there was more to the world than the pain that rolled gently inside his skull, heavy as lead. "Did I... thought I got outta bed this morning..." he managed, hoarsely.

"You did." There was a quiet rustle of movement, off to his r... to his le... There was a quiet rustle of movement, off to one side. "You've had a seizure, Ambrose. We brought you back to bed, me and the doctor. How are you feeling now?"

Seizure. It was a nasty, sharp word; a fizzing, invasive sound that made him want to retreat back into the dull-edged darkness and hide. "Ambrose... 's that me? I don't..." He didn't recognise it, but he liked the way the two syllables made an hourglass-shape, with the comforting hum of the 'mmm' in the middle. I'll be Ambrose, then. He tried to open his eyes and closed them quickly, making a tremulous, frightened sound in his throat as the brightness translated into glassy pain. "Do I live here?"

"You do, for now." The presence at his side shifted, grew briefly distant. "It's too bright for you. Let me close the curtains..." The painful glare faded with a rustle of cloth. "Is that better?"

Slowly, hesitantly, Ambrose risked another try at opening his eyes. "Better," he agreed, gratefully. It didn't remove that dense, sinking ache that filled his head but, for all he knew, that was how he always felt. Darkness was definitely better. "Can I have some water? Please?" Now that the world was comfortably dim, he was able to watch his solicitous companion cross to a table at the side of the room and half-fill a glass with water. He moved quietly for a big guy and his hands, square-knuckled and powerful, held the elegant, blown-glass jug with surprising delicacy. It was an interesting contrast, and Ambrose stored it away with the pitifully sparse collection of knowledge he'd been able to find, combining it with the voice

suns-warmed wood and

the woods opened out onto a meadow above the city

and at the top of the meadow was this old tree. An oak, maybe? Always full of

SQuIRRELS

The Society of the
Queens
Inventors
Researchers
Refiners
Engineers and
Learned
Sages.

Hilly laughed like a loon, and Leo said she was going to get a squirrel tattoo on her

but if you waited until the suns were just about to vanish and the sky was just right

left a smooth place where
all the bark was worn away
and you could lean against it.
Warm wood against your back where
the suns

the
suns
a binary star and the peculiarities of the atmosphere

and the sky was just right, there'd be
a flash of brilliant green that set the clouds alight,
and tinted the pale spires of the City

the city

emerald city

"Ambrose?"

Something cold was being pressed lightly against his wrist and he blinked. The quiet room was suddenly filled with ambient sound. "S-sorry. What did you say?"

The tall man was at his side again, offering him the water. "Can you hold the glass, or do you need me to?"

"I can do it..." He wasn't that much of an invalid, was he? Sheesh... It was only when he tried to move his arm and a burning sensation tore through the muscles from wrist to shoulder that he changed his mind. "Can't," he amended, embarrassed. "Did I fall down some stairs, or something? Hurts to move."

The other man nodded patiently. "You had a seizure. It's okay. You're safe, in your own room and I'm gonna be here if you need anything." And he held the glass and tilted it so that Ambrose could drink.

Obediently, Ambrose sipped a little of the cool water, his eyes complaining as they tried to focus on the hand of the quiet-voiced stranger. "Are you a doctor? Your hands-" he paused to take a drink, "don't look like-" another sip; why was his mouth so dry, anyhow? "I don't think I do live here," he hazarded, not wanting to contradict his visitor, but - "none of this is ringing the chimes..."

"Well, you work for the Queen. I guess you live where she wants you to live and right now, that's here at the winter palace. I don't think you've been here very long." Ambrose looked up from the glass. There was so much to be remembered, and he tried to gather it all into a manageable bundle as the man continued. "I'm not a doctor. I'm just - I'm a friend, and I'll be here as long as you need me."

A friend - Ambrose latched onto the words like a drowning man clutching at a piece of wood - that was something, wasn't it? Whoever he was, whether or not this room was tricking him with its unfamiliar lines and angles, he had a friend. This queen whoever she is, and the palace if it really exists, could wait until he was feeling a little more lively. He leaned forward for a final sip of water, then fell back against the pillows, grimacing weakly at the answering discomfort. "Umm...what's your name?" He felt a flush of embarrassment warm his cheeks. There was a subtle expression on the other man's face that he didn't know how to interpret.

"Wyatt Cain. We've known each other a little over an annual, but I've been away for a while. Do you remember anything at all?"

Ambrose tried to bring something - anything into focus. Some shred of memory. Some hint that there'd been a 'before' to stop the 'now' from slipping back into the dark. He stared up into the shadows, fighting to keep his eyes open. Music. Music and colours - even the one he couldn't- "I... I heard music. Maybe I imagined it." A sweeping, whirling kind of music that made him want to get up and move but I'm busy with my colours "And someone gave me an apple." Nothing else flashed a fin, and he made an apologetic face. "And then I was h
e
r
e

"...t's okay, Glitch. C'mon - snap out of it." Cain was tapping his wrist lightly, and Ambrose blinked muzzily, wondering what he'd done. Glitch That meant something. "I gave you the apple last night. And this morning, you went outside and had yourself a little adventure. I should probably tell the doctor you're awake now..."

No. I don't need a doctor. I don't like doctors. Ambrose made a noise of protest that turned into a yawn. "Tell him I still got the apple..." They keep doctors away, he added, but drowsiness waylaid the words on the way to his mouth. I'll just shut my eyes for a m

Wyatt waited to see if there would be any more to the sentence, but Glitch appeared to have dozed off again. He may sleep through the rest of the day. The zipperhead looked frail and bloodless, only the dark disarray of his hair marking the border between the whiteness of his pillow and that of his face. Damn it, Glitch. Why didn't you tell anyone you were ill? Why didn't anyone notice? He let out a ragged sigh, soft as a whisper, and leaned forward to rest his head in his hands.

It's a sign. The thought sounded like his father again, filled with a deep satisfaction that made Wyatt scowl resentfully. Pull yourself together and get back home where you belong, where you can get these sick ideas out of your head.

They're not sick. They're just... different. Protest as he might, it still felt as if he was carrying something shameful with him - a dirty secret he didn't dare let anyone find out, and a suffocating sense of discouragement began to steal over him. I never meant for this to happen. And how could he have predicted it? What was it he'd said to Glitch? We've known each other a little over an annual, but I've been away for a while. A while: a little under an annual. That kind of maths, you didn't need to be a genius to do. I've only really known him a few months...

The whole thing was absurd, wasn't it? What would he have done if Glitch hadn't been ill? Yeah, I can see it now. "Hey Glitch... listen, this is probably going to sound crazy, but I kept on thinking about you, when I was away..." How did you tell another guy that you missed the way they laughed, or the far-away look they got sometimes when they were thinking? And even if he'd managed to get away with that, how in the seven Realms could he have told Glitch that he'd dreamed about holding him, about hearing Glitch whisper his name, dark eyes wide with wonder? Those were the thoughts that stirred the toxic well of guilt, releasing the condemning voice of his father like a noxious vapour.

An impatient thought broke through. What did it matter how long he'd known him? In a week, the whole world had changed. Glitch had started as an annoyance, a liability with the subtlety of a shotgun, but he'd proven himself time and again to be more than the sum of his maddening, ultimately endearing half-brained peculiarities and he'd found a way past all of Wyatt's well-constructed defences and become his friend, whether he wanted one or not. An annual back at the Cain ranch hadn't changed that, and he might as well accept it - it hadn't diminished his attraction to the zipperhead.

It comes to this. I came back to see if he still made me feel the same way, and, wrong or not, he does. But it doesn't matter a nickel-plated damn one way or another unless he recovers.

A noise nudged him from his train of thought, and he looked up to see if Glitch had woken. Then the sound came again, and he realised it was his own stomach, reminding him that his last meal had come in a bottle the previous night. Should he risk going down to the kitchens for ten minutes? Reason told him that Glitch was unlikely to do anything other than drowse the day away, but still he hesitated to leave. Finally, he compromised, calling the guard in from outside and leaving him with strict instructions to stay by the bed.

"And you don't leave, okay? Not unless you have to call the doctor. Otherwise, I don't care if you get word your own mother is on fire. You stay here until I come back."

The kitchens were busy, preparations for the evening meal already in progress, but Wyatt managed to cadge a bacon sandwich and a cup of strong coffee - a skill all seasoned Tin Men learned during their careers - and found a quiet corner to lurk in while he ate. He was just finishing the last of the sandwich, which had been thick and hot, and almost indecently tasty, when he heard someone approach and glanced up to see DG, a bundled napkin clutched in both hands. She smiled hopefully and nodded towards the broad bench.

"Is this seat taken?"

"Hey, Princess." He gestured for her to sit, brushing a few stray crumbs from the bench before she settled there, resting the napkin in her lap. "How are you this morning?" She'd looked pale when he'd left her down at the ball, struggling to maintain a lighthearted demeanour for her mother's guests. This morning she'd done some clever trick with her makeup - which Wyatt suspected was taught to women in dark and secretive coming-of-age rituals - to disguise any puffiness beneath her eyes that might have told him how she'd slept. There was a redness marring the startling blue of her eyes, though. Can't cover that up with any amount of powder and paint.

"My mother's always complaining that I have engine-grease under my fingernails." She held up her hands, palms towards her - they looked perfectly clean and respectable to Wyatt. "Last week she threatened to ban me from the coach-house altogether, but she won't have to worry about that for a while. I think I've bitten my nails right down to the knuckles." She switched her eyes briefly towards the upper levels of the palace. "How's Glitch? Mister Rawlins said the doctor had been in with him, that he'd fainted, but then Lucas - he's one of the palace guards - he said it had been some kind of fit out by the lake..."

I guess news travels fast around here Wyatt regarded her seriously. "He had a seizure. We got him back to bed and got him comfortable. He came round for a couple of minutes, but he's been out like a light since then." He briefly recounted the morning's events, leaving out - for now - his unfavourable impression of Edgar Krantz. Neither did he mention the photo album or the ominously inscribed paper plane. If it's medical, maybe the doctor ought to see, he thought, grudgingly, but he shied away from the idea of Krantz prying into the intricate layers, destroying that small artefact of Glitch's past. Let's see what he finds out from his tests, first.

DG fiddled with the napkin, pulling out a handful of hazelnuts and popping one into her mouth, munching with a fretful expression. "I was hoping it'd turn out to be palace gossip. This place runs on the stuff."

"I only wish it was." Wyatt stared down into the dregs of his coffee. "Whatever's going on with him, I got the feeling it's gonna take more than a few night's sleep and an apple to fix it. Listen, is it okay if I stick around?"

DG nodded eagerly. "I was hoping you would. The room's yours, as long as you want it." She fiddled with the bag of hazelnuts again, then seemed to change her mind and found an unbitten fingernail instead, worrying at it with her teeth. " Mom said she'd go and see him, and she's sent for Doctor Spicer - he's her personal physician. Maybe me and Az could..." She waved the hand not getting a rough manicure.

The gesture was vague, but the meaning was clear enough. Magic. It was tempting - if it could bring the dead back to life, couldn't it cure an ailing zipperhead? Wyatt considered it, then shook his head reluctantly. "I know you want to help, but there's got to be other things we can try first. I'm not saying you and your sister aren't capable, but your mom had years of experience using magic before she brought you back. If something went wrong, you'd have to live with that." I'd have to live with it. "I can't say I'm fond of this doctor, but I'll give him a chance." Just one chance. He downed the last of his coffee, grimacing at the bitterness, and rubbed his eyes.

"Have you slept at all since you got here?" DG gazed at him, and he felt his throat tighten at the warm concern in her eyes. "You said he was likely to sleep most of the day. Why don't you get a few hours yourself? I can go sit with Glitch, in case he wakes up." He hesitated, and she wagged an admonitory finger. "C'mon. Princess's orders. Lie down before you fall down." She hiked her finger towards the stairs and Wyatt got to his feet, smiling a little at her stern expression. On his way out of the kitchen, he glanced over his shoulder.

"Hey, Your Royal Highness? When you send the guard away from Glitch's rooms, tell him his mother isn't on fire."

Chapter Text

Wyatt awoke from a fitful dream - in which he wandered down an endless succession of identical, sumptuously-decorated passageways - to the sound of breaking glass and raised voices. While his mind snapped through the usual short checklist, beginning with I'm not in the suit and terminating with do I need a shave?, travelling via is anyone currently pointing a gun at me? and making a brief detour through how far am I, right now, from a mug of strong coffee?, his body was already in action, propelling him out of his bed and over to the chair where he'd left his clothes.

The door to Glitch's rooms was closed, but it wasn't enough to completely muffle the haranguing voice; Wyatt strode in, ready for almost anything but the overpowering smell of peppermint that hit him, strong enough to make him catch his breath. What the hell?

The eyewatering scent was a new and unsettling addition to the changes that had overtaken Glitch's little rooms in the six days since Wyatt had arrived. The sitting room itself looked as if it had been hit by a small tornado with a medical fetish - Krantz had spent several hours in telex contact with Central City at the start of the week and the following day a van had arrived, bearing a bewildering collection of machines and drugs and a squat, gimlet-eyed man Krantz had introduced as 'Felix, my assistant'.

Conveniently, a rather pretty, blonde girl who had apparently accompanied Krantz to the ball had turned out to be his 'head nurse'. Wyatt had smirked privately over that. Somehow, I don't think it's your head she's interested in.

He took in the room at a glance as he crossed to the bedroom arch. The desk had been cleared and stacked with glass-fronted cases of instruments and wooden crates stamped with the stylised tree of the Central City Royal Hospital, and Glitch's neat little armchair with its red-and-gold cushions had been been moved aside to accommodate an olive-green wing-chair that looked entirely out of place.

Now it looks likes someone lives here. Trouble is, it isn't Glitch.

"...that again and I'll have Felix tie your hands down. That what you want, is it?"

"...don't..."

"Then sit still and do as you're told. You've already wasted en-"

"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" Wyatt spoke quietly, partly for Glitch's benefit, but also as a means to keep his seething dislike of Krantz from boiling over. He paused inside the archway, wincing as another penetrating wave of peppermint rolled over him, scouring his nose and throat and making him want to sneeze. Glitch was huddled on the wooden chair by the bed, watching warily as the doctor screwed a bulbous glass jar into the side of an ominous-looking device that consisted of a featureless mask equipped with a pair of thick leather straps and buckles. Krantz glanced round sharply, his scowl rearranging itself into a tight, artificial smile with smooth rapidity.

"Mr Cain. Again. You're never far away, are you?" He appeared less than ecstatic at Wyatt's arrival. "I trust we didn't wake you. I'm afraid a recalcitrant zipperhead doesn't make the best of neighbours." He nodded towards Felix, who was kneeling near the window, collecting up curved shards of glass with a put-upon expression, then looked impatiently at Glitch. "I'm trying to carry out some investigative tests, but we've decided to be difficult, haven't we?" The nurse - Krantz hadn't bothered to introduce her by name - pursed her lips, trying to hide a smile.

Shoot him. It was a tempting idea, but it would be noisy, and Glitch didn't look as if he could stand it. Shoot him quietly, then. Wyatt moved to sit on the edge of the bed, and his heart lifted a little as Glitch focused on him and smiled.

"Hey, Sunshine. How're you feeling?"

The zipperhead turned in his chair, relaxing visibly as soon as the doctor was no longer in his field of vision. "Cain... You came back..."

"'Course I came back. I came back yesterday, didn't I? And the day before?" Wyatt asked casually, but he knew the question was meaningless. For Glitch, the days had run together, awake - asleep - confused - unconscious; the edges blurred. "I'll keep on coming back as long as you need me."

Glitch reached out and touched his hand tentatively, as if needing to make absolutely certain that he was really there. The touch made the Tin Man shiver, and it wasn't only because of the sensation of Glitch's fingers skating over the back of his hand.

"You're freezing." He looked up at Krantz accusingly. "He's cold - why isn't he in bed?" He stood and stripped the blanket from the bed, wrapping it around Glitch. "Can't you do these tests while he's lying down?"

"The sooner he co-operates, the sooner he can go back to bed. I have tried to explain this to him." Krantz gave the glass bulb a smart twist, and there was a faint snick as something connected. Glitch flinched, pulling the blanket more closely around him. "Perhaps you can get through to him. You seem to have a... rapport."

Wyatt knelt in front of the chair, placing himself squarely in Glitch's line of sight. "Ambrose? I need you to listen to me. The doctor wants to do a test, to try and help you." It was hard to sound convincing when he was barely convinced himself, but he'd promised himself that he'd give the doctor his chance. The resolution was wearing thin, though. Over the past five days, Krantz had prodded and poked Glitch, dosed him with medicines that had made him violently sick, drowsy and anxious, and altogether failed to provide anything resembling a reason behind the seizure. "I'm gonna be right here with you, but we have to let the doc do his stuff, okay?"

Glitch put his hands over his face, nodding slowly. "Just tell him not to shout any more. He's so loud," he murmured through his fingers. Wyatt straightened up, a hand on Glitch's shoulder, and nodded to Krantz.

"You heard him. Keep your voice down."

Krantz curled his lip in what might have been a smile, and stepped forward, holding the mask in both hands.

"Now, perhaps we'll get somewhere. Hands down by your sides." When Glitch didn't respond immediately, the doctor scowled and muttered an instruction to his assistant.

The stocky man abandoned the last few fragments of glass and joined the doctor beside the chair, taking hold of Glitch's wrists and forcing his hands away from his face.

Wyatt looked on uneasily, telling himself over and over that this was for the best.

Glitch eyed the mask mistrustfully. "What's it for? I-I don't have to put that on, do I?" He turned his face away as Krantz leaned closer, and Wyatt, wrestling with his conscience, squeezed his shoulder gently.

"It'll be okay. Look at Doctor Krantz and do as he says. He's trying to help you." Glitch searched his face and seemed to find the reassurance he was looking for, because he turned back to Krantz, his gaze fixed apprehensively on the mask. Wyatt squeezed his shoulder again as the doctor set the mask in place, buckling the straps.

The nurse waited until Krantz had finished, then settled a pair of bulky headphones over Glitch's ears, connecting a wire between them and a tall, free-standing cabinet topped by dials and brass switches. Another wire ran from the cabinet to the headphones. Does everything medical have to look like some kind of torture device?

Wyatt watched Felix's knuckles whiten as he resisted Glitch's attempt to pull his hands away. "Can he breathe okay in there?"

"Relax, Mr Cain. They do make passing mention in our medical training of the importance of breathing to the continued survival of a patient. The mask cuts out extraneous stimuli, and allows me to isolate potential environmental cues. For example, strong odours..." Krantz reached forward and twisted a valve on the neck of the glass bulb, and there was a muffled yelp from behind the mask.

Wyatt could still smell the peppermint oil, heavy in the still air, and tried to imagine how potent it would become when confined to the inside of the mask. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. I'm not in the suit. It helped to remind himself of that, but, as Glitch suddenly tensed in his chair, he felt his own limbs stiffen in sympathy.

The doctor darted forward, eyes agleam, but his anticipation turned quickly to disappointment as whatever he'd been expecting failed to happen. He unscrewed the small glass flask from the side of the mask, dropping it into his pocket. The vacant port that remained resembled a small, dark mouth from which a whistling gasp emerged. Krantz snapped his fingers at the nurse. "Nothing on olfactory . We'll come back to it later. Camphor, perhaps, or Citral."

Hang in there, Glitch. Wyatt was gripped by another wave of claustrophobia that threatened to paralyse him. I know you're scared, but it'll be over soon.

"Let's try the strobe, next. Start at five hertz, and move up to thirty." Krantz gave the nurse an offhand nod, and she turned a dial on the console and flicked several switches. Light flared and stuttered from beneath the mask and Glitch jerked in his chair, trying to turn his face away from the brightness and throwing Felix off-balance as he tried once again to pull the mask off.

No. That's enough. For the first few days after the seizure, Glitch had been unable to tolerate more than the feeblest of lights and Wyatt had come to the room more than once to find that Krantz had left the curtains flung wide-open, and Glitch had buried himself under his blankets. He'd been improving, slowly, but anything brighter than mild daylight still made him flinch and the light spilling from the edges of the mask looked fierce. Wyatt grabbed the doctor's arm.

"Turn it off."

"Hold him, Felix. Up to thirty, I said." Krantz ignored Wyatt, his attention switching between Glitch and the nurse as she adjusted something on the panel in front of her. The bursts of light grew more rapid, and Glitch whimpered, the sound muffled by the mask. Wyatt felt his teeth clench until dull pain erupted in his jaw.

"You're scaring him. You're hurting him. This isn't helping - it's making things worse!"

Krantz raised an eyebrow, his expression supercilious. "I'm fascinated, Mr Cain. Precisely where did you obtain your medical qualification?"

"I could ask you the same question," Wyatt growled, and pointed at the nurse. "You. Turn that thing off. Now."

"If you persist in interfering, I'll have to ask you to leave." The doctor turned his back quite deliberately on Wyatt, catching the eye of the nurse. "That's negative. We'll move onto a sound pulse, and then we'll look at..."

"No you won't." Wyatt shoved Felix aside and snatched the wires from their sockets, letting them fall to the floor. "Out. All of you." Felix had scrambled to his feet, and Wyatt caught sight of him on the edge of his vision, moving purposefully towards him.

"Leave him." That was Krantz. "It's clear Mr Cain is determined to interfere. I, for one, refuse to work in such disruptive conditions." The doctor's voice was heavy with affronted dignity, but it cut no ice with Wyatt.

That was your chance. You blew it. He paid little attention to the departure of the doctor and his entourage; his only concern was Glitch, who, no longer restrained by Felix, was scrabbling unsuccessfully at the buckles at the back of the mask.

"Let me help..." Wyatt removed the headphones, dropping them and feeling a stab of satisfaction when he heard something break. He gently nudged Glitch's hands aside and worked the buckles loose; Krantz had managed to entangle them in the zipperhead's curls and it took a minute to tease them free.

As soon as he eased the mask away, Glitch curled up, wrapping his arms around his head as if determined to shut out the world. Wyatt sank to one knee beside the chair, slipping an arm around his shoulders "Hey, hey... it's okay. They've gone, now. It's over." He stayed there, not speaking save for the occasional comforting murmur, until Glitch unfolded enough to wipe his streaming eyes with his sleeve. Digging in a pocket, Wyatt found a handkerchief and pressed it into his hand.

"That man has terrible manners," Glitch snuffled indistictly, and Wyatt gave a vehement nod.

That's got to be the understatement of the annual.

"Can you see okay? That stuff smelled wicked - I'm sorry Gl-Ambrose. If I'd known what they were doing, I'd never have -" he paused while Glitch let out a series of startled sneezes, burying his face in the handkerchief, "I'd never have let them put that thing on you," he finished, and frowned. Glitch was shivering. He's just cold. Please, by the Fates, he's just cold. Don't let him have another seizure. "How's your head?"

"It's okay... sometimes it aches." Glitch crumpled the handkerchief in his lap. "It's okay... sometimes it aches. It's o-"

Wyatt shook his arm lightly. There's that line again. Word for word. He waited until the repetitions wound down like spent clockwork, and tugged the rumpled blankets into a rough approximation of tidiness. "Come on. Let's get you back into bed." He guided Glitch across the short gap between the chair and the bed, worried by the way the other man continued to shiver, even after he'd been bundled up in blankets and the pillows had been piled up around him. Then he caught the way Glitch was staring fretfully towards the archway, and the room Krantz seemed to have set up as the staging area for his unpleasant experiments. That smartass doctor threw a hell of a scare into him. Of course he's shaking.

"He's gone," he said quietly. "There aren't gonna be any more tests today. I promise." Not that Glitch had any cause to believe him, he reflected bitterly. I told him Krantz was trying to help, but I'll be damned if I can see how half-blinding him with peppermint and flashbulbs was meant to do anything but upset him. "Maybe you should try and get some sleep. Or -" he looked around the room for any signs of a tray, "- has anyone brought you anything to eat, yet? It's got to be almost noon."

"There was a-a-a girl. She brought me an apple, and toast, and cried a little, and then she went away." Glitch appeared to think that this was perfectly normal behaviour. "She was kinda sweet." He smiled fondly and, for just a moment, he looked the way that Wyatt remembered. Then the smile dropped from his face, like a mask torn abruptly away, and he shot a haunted look at the arch. "She went away, and then he came back. I don't think I need a doctor any more," he added hopefully.

Wyatt watched Glitch tangle the blanket restlessly between his fingers. That's wishful thinking and we both know it. "Glad to hear it," he said kindly, "But you don't need to worry about it right now. Forget about - I mean, try not to think about it. Tell you what, I'll go down to the kitchens and see if they can rustle up some soup or someth-"

"No!" Glitch clutched at his arm, a note of alarm in his voice. "He'll come back. I can't stand any more tests today. my head feels like it's gonna split in two."

Surprised, Wyatt glanced down at the cool fingers encircling his wrist. "Okay, calm down. I won't go anywhere," he soothed, gently disengaging himself and folding the blanket back round Glitch's hand. "Just stay wrapped up - last thing you need is to get a chill on top of everything else." An awful thought occurred to him - did Glitch even know that he was a zipperhead? I'm not even touching that while he's this agitated. Something to distract him - that was what he needed.

The books he'd examined on that first morning had been moved, piled haphazardly on one of the empty shelves. The stack had slipped sideways and the floor beneath was littered with bookmarks, which, on closer examination, turned out to be folded paper shapes - angular little birds and flowers that reminded Wyatt of something he couldn't quite place. Just left on the ground like so much trash. He gathered them up and set them on the shelf, trying to keep the simmering anger from showing on his face.

"You've got quite a little library here." he commented, picking up a book at random. It was the colouring book - he put it back, frowning, and pulled out the photograph album instead. I draw the line at watching a man with a mind that can move stars playing with crayons. "Perhaps we can find something in this to jog your memory..." He settled by the bed, laying the album down on the blanket between them and opening it several pages in, careful to avoid the paper plane.`There would be time to revisit that later, when Glitch was calmer.

A little gasp made him look up. Glitch was staring down at the album, which had fallen open at a grainy image of a dark-haired man Wyatt recognised from the other photograph. This was an older picture; Glitch's father - Ambrose's father, he corrected himself conscientiously - looked younger, less careworn, and he was smiling broadly, a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles pushed up on his forehead so that his hair stood up in an untidy shock.

"You recognise him?" Wyatt asked carefully. It would be a breakthrough, if he did. Apart from Wyatt himself, whom he could trace back to his first moments of consciousness following the seizure, and Krantz, who had branded a place in his memory through sheer unpleasantness, Glitch had so far been unable to identify any of his visitors, DG included. Glitch squinted intently at the picture, then shook his head.

"Who is he?" He yawned, and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands.

Wyatt's heart sank. Guess I was getting ahead of myself. "I'm only guessing, but I think he might be your father."

"Ohh." Glitch didn't sound convinced. He gazed at the photograph for a moment longer, then opened the album at a different page, where a folded sheet of cheap-looking paper had been pasted in at an angle.

Doesn't look medical. We're probably safe enough. Wyatt unfolded the page and blinked at the sight of four familiar faces.

WANTED

DEAD OR ALIVE

Glitch tapped the poster, looking vaguely pleased with himself. "That's you. All scowly and serious. I don't know the others, though. Are they your friends?" He was shivering again, and Wyatt took him by the wrist and settled his hand firmly back inside the blankets.

"Hey, now didn't I tell you you'd get cold?" He pointed to the poster. "That's DG - she's a princess, the Queen's youngest daughter. And that's Raw. He's a Viewer, and they're both friends of ours. And that is you."

"Me?" Glitch peered at the photograph, then lay back against the pillows, regarding Wyatt with dismay. "My hair looks like something woolly crawled on my head and died. Why didn't anyone tell me?"

He hadn't meant to laugh, but Wyatt couldn't help himself. "I'm sure it was very stylish at the time. And it doesn't look like that, now..." The muddy, matted corkscrews of a year ago were long gone, replaced by a tousled mop of curls that spilled away from the stark line of the zipper, a world away from the advisor's former, oddly prim coiffure.

He realised he was staring, and he tensed as Glitch rolled his eyes towards the gleaming metal that bisected his scalp.

"Sure.. now I have this fancy centre-parting. Aw, it's okay," Glitch reassured him as he tried to form a tactful reply. "I know what I am - it's kinda hard to miss. And even if it had slipped my mind, the doctor made good and sure I didn't forget for long."

Wyatt felt his heart clench around a hot little ember of hate. Oh, you bastard, Krantz. "I don't know what he said to you, but you listen to me. You and me, and Raw and the princess, we changed the world, the four of us. Don't you let that guy put you down."

"Four's a good number," Glitch announced absently, and yawned again. "I like four..."

"Okay. I think you need to get some rest." Wyatt closed the album and moved it off the bed so that he could straighten the blankets. "Maybe we can look at a few more pictures later - I think you were really getting somewhere, there."

Glitch didn't open his eyes, but Wyatt's encouragement brought a little smile to his lips.

"Thanks. Even if you are just being nice."

"I mean it." The Tin Man inside Wyatt's head was giving him a stern look, and in the interests of absolute honesty, he added "You certainly looked like you recognised that picture of your father."

Glitch didn't answer at first, but Wyatt wasn't surprised. Over the week he'd grown used to the way the zipperhead would fade out of conversations, sometimes halfway through a sentence. It's a wonder he stayed awake this long.

"He did look familiar... but I don't know..." Glitch gave a distracted sigh, then mumbled something else. His voice was blurred and sleepy, and it was a moment before the words sank in. Then Wyatt felt a slow smile steal across his face.

There was a quiet knock at the outer door. Sure as hell isn't Krantz. He doesn't seem the knocking type. Wyatt left the bedside reluctantly, opening the door to a tall, unsmiling man whose air of dignified self-assurance would have marked him out as a senior member of the palace staff even without the heavily-brocaded uniform.

"Mr Cain?"

Wyatt nodded.

"Her Majesty wishes to see you." The servant took a step away from the door, apparently expecting Wyatt to follow him immediately.

Hold your horses, Sunshine. First I want to check Glitch hasn't worked himself into a panic thinking the doctor's back. "Give me a minute, then you can take me to her." Wyatt returned to the bedroom, ducking his head inside and relaxing as he heard a faint snore.

"Mr Cain?" There was an insistent edge to the voice, and Wyatt rolled his eyes.

"Fine, okay, just keep it down, will you?" He left Glitch sleeping, and followed the servant down the hall, gnawing speculatively at the inside of his cheek. A platinum says Krantz is behind this. Even that thought couldn't quite extinguish the flicker of hope that Glitch's drowsy words had ignited.

"...he looked more like my Uncle Oscar..."

Chapter Text

The more that he saw of the palace, the more Wyatt found himself wondering if magic had gone into its construction. There seemed to be more halls and vaulted ceilings than could be accounted for from the outside, and every new turn of the passage brought a new curiosity into view. Here was a small, circular courtyard containing a shallow reflecting pool in which tiny, copper-coloured fish darted and shoaled, appearing and disappearing as they passed over the bright mosaic beneath. Here was a garden laid out as a rising spiral, a verdant flight of tower stairs that vanished into a glass dome high above.

He hadn't explored this part of the palace before, but DG had told him about the tower garden. At the apex of the lush helix, a single Liaph-C'nul - rare and distant cousin to the Borganavie of the Papay's well-tended orchards - spread branches filled with pale-green, soft-skinned fruit. Wyatt had never tried the fruit himself, but recalled the Mystic Man receiving a small basket of them - a gift from the Queen - during his time on the wise man's protection detail. His friend, Reg Knowles, known to the other Tin Men as 'Copper' for his unmistakeable ginger hair, had been in charge of checking the Mystic Man's food, and had reported the taste to be somewhere between peaches and strawberries, and the Liaph fruits themselves to be almost too pretty to cut up.

"Something on the skins," he'd told Wyatt, looking slightly embarrassed. "A kind of radiance, almost. Like they were covered with powdered mica."

Wyatt hadn't ribbed Copper too badly about his aesthetic sensitivities, and now he thought he could appreciate what the other man had meant. The suns were high in the sky, and the light that descended from the top of the tower garden was laden with soft, gauzy veils of shimmering dust. If sights like this had once been commonplace in the ancient OZ, it wasn't hard to see why OZians of the time had believed themselves to inhabit some kind of Fairyland.

He was careful to keep his expression neutral, lest he seem like a rubbernecking hick on his first visit to Central City. The Tin Man was useful for that; in a tight spot, you didn't want to show any emotion that could give away your next move, and the slow, measured way of speaking that marked Wyatt out as a country boy had cooled off plenty of tense situations in the past. Talk slow, but think fast. He'd always stuck to that, unlike Zero, who had been born in a small town a few hours' ride from the Cain ranch, but who had taken to the City like a pike to water, quickly adopting the local fashions and modes of speech. Selling out was your style from the start. I can't think why I was suprised when you turned traitor.

They had arrived at the end of a hall and the servant turned. "I will see if Her Majesty is ready to receive you."

Five minutes ago you were champing at the bit to get me here. Now you want me to wait for her? As the servant vanished into the room ahead, Wyatt looked around, ready to take in a new wonder. Once again, the palace provided: the double doors in front of him were dark, polished wood, elaborately carved with a flowing design - birds, animals and people, which streamed out in complicated scrolls and loops from the handles, which were... What were they? Wyatt narrowed his eyes. Dragons, maybe, although they might have been birds or winged people. It was hard to tell; the two figures were intertwined in a manner that was bordering on erotic, and it was only when he looked closely that he could see how the puzzle of wings and limbs interlocked.

"A fine work, no? That door - four hundred annuals or more, and still it has not lost it's glow." Wyatt straightened up and turned to find himself belt-buckle to face with a tiny, dapper man whose hair appeared to have been stealthily making its way down his head for some time. The dome of his skull was entirely bald, and shone pinkly in the lamplight, but his eyebrows were bushy, and his beard was curly and jutted forward as though to offer observers his chin. The little man regarded Wyatt with keen interest.

Wyatt had encountered Munchkins before; while the majority of them kept to their settlements in the depths of the vast forests between Central City and the Black Mountains to the East, there were some who had gravitated to the city itself, and a thriving little community had sprung up near the river's edge, referred to as 'Munchkinland', or, by some - who resented their odd, secretive neighbours - rather disdainfully as 'the Lollipop Guild', because of their bright, ornately-decorated houses. The city's Munchkins seldom needed the attentions of a Tin Man; they were as lively and territorial as blackbirds, but seemed to be able to police their insular society quite adequately without having to call on the help of the law. Nevertheless, there had been occasions when Wyatt had had cause to patrol along the streets on the edge of the shallow gorge, and he had ceased to notice their exotic attire and inexplicable customs and viewed them just like any other inhabitant of the city.

There was something piercing in the Munchkin's gaze, a sharp intelligence that left Wyatt momentarily at a loss for words. I hope you're not expecting me to answer in rhyme. I don't do poetry. He cleared his throat. "They look like they're dancing," he ventured, nodding towards the elaborate design. "It's quite a piece of work."

"Dancing? Yes! The dance of bird and beast and Man has never ceased since time began, and each Idea that springs to life and spreads its wings becomes a part - distinct and clear, yet intertwined - of one great Mind, or Universal Heart."

Listening to the little man's lilting speech, Wyatt was reminded of the Mystic Man. Not that he used to spout poetry, but it's the same old cosmic bullshit I used to get from him.

I'll take your word for it," he said diplomatically, wondering if it was possible for the Munchkin to open his mouth without sounding like the riddle in a Solstice cake. I can't keep thinking of him as 'the Munchkin'. He put his hand out, hoping that the gesture wasn't perceived as hostile amongst Munchkins. "I'm Wyatt Cain. Are you waiting to see the Queen, too?"

He was subjected to another shrewd stare, then Wyatt's hand was briskly shaken. "Iskra waits for me, not I for Her, but She has need of my advice - a matter grave indeed and Doctor Spicer is my name. Yes, I recall you Wyatt Cain - you're nearly all the mjesanc cares to talk about. Our purpose here, I have no doubt: to give Her some idea of how he fares."

He was stretching it a bit with 'name' and 'Cain', Wyatt thought, but the observation was rapidly pushed aside to make room for other, more pressing things. This was the personal physician DG had mentioned. And he calls her 'Iskra'. Not 'Her Majesty'. That's pretty personal. And there'd been a word he hadn't been able to make out - mess-ang, or something close to that - and it was obvious he was talking about Glitch. What did Spicer mean? Was that the Munchkin word for 'zipperhead'?

"I only -" The double doors swung silently inward, and they were beckoned inside before Wyatt could finish. It was probably for the best; he'd been about to preface his question with 'I only know a little Munchkin' and, on reflection, that might not have gone down so well.

The doors had promised something grand, and the chamber beyond didn't disappoint. Dominated by a horseshoe-shaped table, which appeared to be one seamless piece of wood - but surely there was no tree large enough in the whole of the OZ to supply such a thing - the room was encircled by several tiers of carved wooden seating and lit on every side by high windows that were quartered into coloured panes - red, blue, yellow and purple, a small diamond of green marking the intersection. It was obviously a room for weighty meetings and audiences, but Wyatt couldn't help but compare it to the city's Crown Court and it was clear enough, as he approached the head of the table, who was on trial. Queen Iskra sat waiting, a small frown creasing her elegant brow. Krantz was standing off to one side, and there was an air of triumph in his posture.

"Doctor Spicer, please sit down. Mr Cain, Doctor Krantz has been telling Us the most alarming things. He says you refuse to let him treat Ambrose, and have been deliberately obstructing his work. Is this true?" The Queen fixed him with a level lavender stare, and Wyatt returned the gaze calmly, ignoring the smirk oiling its way across Krantz's face. Don't think you're gonna unnerve me, Ma'am. I've been hauled over the coals by the Chief Constable himself, and this doesn't even come close.

"Did Doctor Krantz tell you that his 'work' consists of putting Ambrose through all kinds of hell and talking to him like he's a moron? I guess he was a little selective with the details." That ought to knock the smug look off your face. "Your Majesty," he added, as an afterthought. The lines on the Queen's forehead deepened, and she turned to Krantz.

"Doctor? We trust you have an explanation?" Wyatt could almost see the cogs turning in Krantz's head as he formulated a response. It was only a fraction of a second before the self-assured expression reasserted itself, then the doctor bowed his head in gracious affirmation.

"Your Majesty, Mr Cain is not a medical man. He is not even an educated man. How can he be expected to understand anything of the delicate and complicated investigations I'm undertaking?" He spread his hands in a pantomime of helplessness. "To a layman, perhaps, the tests might seem harsh, perhaps even a little frightening. But they are entirely necessary if I'm to identify the reasons behind... Ambrose's sickness." Again, the pause was infinitesimal, but Wyatt had questioned enough suspects to pick up on even the briefest hesitation.

That's right, you son of a bitch. He's got a name. He eyed the doctor coldly. "It doesn't take a fancy education to know when someone's being patronised. You could see he was worried about that mask thing, but did you take the time to explain what you were doing? N-"

"As a matter of fact, I explained everything to him," Krantz interrupted smoothly. "You must have realised by now, Mr Cain, that a zipperhead's memory is seldom reliable at the best of times, and Ambrose can hardly retain a fact from one minute to the next. I won't deny the test might have been uncomfortable, but one learns, in the medical profession, to set aside sentimentality and do what must be done. If that means insisting a child takes his medicine, no matter how much he cries that it tastes bad, so be it."

Wyatt felt his teeth grind together. I pity any kid unlucky enough to have you for a doctor. "That stuff in the mask wasn't medicine - I could smell it all the way out into the hall. And those lights - he tells you his head's hurting and you flash a damn great light in his eyes." He saw the Queen's expression stiffen with disapproval, and affected not to notice. "He was t-" No. Glitch might have been terrified, but there was no way Wyatt was going to say that in front of Krantz. "He was distressed and confused, and all you did was make it worse."

Spicer, who had remained silent since entering the hall, cleared his throat. "I must confess, I'd like to know what all these tests are meant to show. And if the doctor can report some measure of success."

Krantz stared at the little man. You don't have the first clue how to deal with a Munchkin, do you? 'specially one who's smart as you are. Wyatt thought, but he held his tongue, waiting to see if Spicer would get a straight answer. The doctor pinched the bridge of his nose, a heartfelt sigh escaping him.

"Doctor Spicer, I would be delighted to be able to tell you that I have a firm diagnosis. But while my work is subject to interference and interruption, however well-intentioned, my hope of success is minuscule." He glanced meaningfully towards Wyatt, who bristled silently.

The problem is a guy called Krantz. He went and blew his only chance, and if I can't knock out his teeth, I'd like to kick him in the pants. And that's why I don't do poetry.

"The lights and scent described by Mr Cain - am I correct in saying your intent was that these potent stimuli should cause a state of seizure? Could it be that you suspect the falling bane or cognate malaise of the brain?" Doctor Spicer tilted his head, a small, bird-like motion. Wyatt found himself warming to the man, if only because it was clear to him that Krantz would rather he wasn't there, but he wasn't so sure he liked what he was hearing.

"Wait... all this was to try and make him have another seizure? Are you crazy? What the hell did you think you were playing at? You ought to be-"

"Mr Cain," the Queen spoke sharply, but Wyatt ignored her, striding over and slamming his hands down on the long table, as close to Krantz as he could get without vaulting the obstruction. There was a sudden commotion from the uppermost row of seats on his left; a pair of uniformed guards, whom Wyatt could have sworn weren't there when he arrived, were making their way hastily down the steps towards the Queen. She raised a hand, and they came to a reluctant halt, guard dogs stopped short by an unexpected leash.

Apparently unaware of the byplay, Krantz had also stepped forward, his hands clasped behind him. "I'll try to use small words, and we'll see if they penetrate that thick skull of yours. I can't help your friend if I'm not sure what's wrong with him. If flashing lights, or loud noise, or the peppermint oil had triggered a seizure, I'd be closer to finding the nature of the problem. Any of this sinking in, is it?" he enquired, in a voice dripping with disdain.

Doctor Spicer jumped down from his chair, the net effect being to make him a couple of inches shorter than he'd been when seated. "Gentlemen, I must protest! I heartily object to your aggressive tones. Remember that you're not alone; Her Majesty demands respect! We're here at Her requ-"

"Now it all makes sense." Wyatt hadn't taken his eyes off Krantz. "I guess I wasn't paying attention when he collapsed. Lucky you were here to see the fireworks and all the people tossing around flasks of stinking oil." Krantz raised a brow, a small, contemptuous smile playing about his lips.

"Perhaps he's affected by the smell of barnyard anim-"

"Gentlemen!" The Queen's voice was frosty. "This childish bickering is beneath you both. Ambrose's welfare is our common concern; can we not put aside these quarrels?"

Immediately, Krantz bowed, manufacturing a look of contrition that Wyatt longed to bury his knuckles in. "Your Majesty is right, of course. I apologise, Mr Cain. I spend so much of my time amongst learned men; it's easy to forget that our actions and decisions can seem obscure to others. But I promise you, Ambrose's condition is my sole concern. I am not a doctor so jaded by the suffering and pain around me that I have lost all traces of compassion. I do truly understand the value of his life."

The whole little speech was delivered with a slick sincerity that Wyatt siezed upon immediately, hunting for the edges of the lie. Is anybody else falling for this crap? By the looks of it, they were - the Queen and Spicer were both looking at him expectantly. "All I care about is Ambrose," he said quietly. "Maybe all the tests are necessary, I don't know. But I do know what Ambrose has been through, and he deserves to be treated with kindness and respect. I won't stand by and do nothing while Doctor Compassion here bullies him..." he knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as the words left his lips, but the Queen's stern look was somehow more infuriating than Krantz's piousness "...even if you will."

The Queen's voice was as brittle and chilly as an icicle. "Doctor Krantz, you may go - I'm sure you have a great deal to do. Spicer min hera lijest. Ako mal, ga til-a Amb'r oess. Sjes med, l' enjevaad." Spicer made a perfunctory bow and made his way out across the mosaic-patterned floor, darting a furtive glance towards Wyatt. Krantz's bow was more florid, and his expression deferential - at least until the Queen could no longer see his face.

"Do you really care, farm boy? Or is it just that all that straw in his head reminds you of home?" he muttered under his breath as he passed Wyatt, who stared straight ahead, teeth clenched.

I'm onto you, Sunshine. I throw a punch and get myself sent away, and you carry on busily doing nothing. He waited for the gloating doctor to close the door behind him, counting slowly and silently, waiting for the Queen to make the next move.

At last, she did. "Leave us." It was a moment before Wyatt realised that she was talking to the guards, and they were clearly as surprised as he was, because they didn't move immediately, and the Queen gestured impatiently at them. "Go! We are in no danger from Mr Cain."

Lady, right now, I wouldn't be sure of anything. Wyatt watched her stolidly as she rose from her seat, moving gracefully around the table to stand in front of him.

"We sent them away, Mr Cain, because We did not wish them to hear what We have to say to you, and in that, We think, We show you more courtesy than you have shown Us. You are a guest in this place, and yet you speak to Us with a temerity that is quite frankly astonishing. Do you account Us responsible for Ambrose's present condition?" She stared up at him coolly, and Wyatt gazed back, looking for the flicker.

Just one guilty little tell-tale... And there it was; her eyes flitted away from his for an instant. Let's see if there's still a palace underneath Ice Mountain. "You mean the seizures, or the zipper?" Iskra drew in a sharp breath and Wyatt relented, pulling the punch at the last minute, adding "I don't think you're to blame for either, Your Majesty. But I don't think you're doing right by him now. He needs the best there is, and Krantz-"

"Doctor Krantz has come to Us from the Central City School of Science, from the Royal Hospital itself. They send only their most qualified and respected members to represent them at Our birthday celebration. It is Tradition." Wyatt's eyebrows shot up.

"You mean you haven't checked up on him? You don't even know if he's the best they've got?" You married an Othersider. When did you get so precious about tradition?

The Queen looked affronted. "Your years spent amongst the criminal element have left you with a suspicion that is not warranted here. You are not a Tin Man now, Mr Cain."

"I spent eight years locked in an iron suit, and that left me with a suspicion that's warranted everywhere." Guess I can forget that job offer, DG - I don't think I'm suited to high society. "And all that time, Glitch was living hand to mouth in the wilderness bec-"

"Don't call him that!" There was a fracture in the wall of ice, and Wyatt caught a glimpse of dismay and, beneath that, revulsion.

"Seems to me you're more worried about the formalities than you are about making sure he's being looked after properly. How many times have you been to see him since he got sick?" For that matter, how many times have you been to see him since the eclipse? He'd hit a nerve, that much was clear. The Queen was white with shock and anger, but Wyatt was furious. "I saw his memory, the day they took him away to be headcased. He gave up everything he was for the OZ. For you. And now he needs you to look out for him, you act as if he's caught some kind of contagious disease..."

"You go too far! I care a great deal about Ambrose - you have no right to suggest otherwise. Whatever he needs, I-"

"What he needs is a new doctor, because the one he's got right now is no damn use."

The Queen glared at him. "It is the Royal Prerogative to decide who attends to the health of Our staff, Mr Cain. It is not your concern."

Wyatt felt heat rising in his face. "Your staff? He was your friend." He looked at the Queen in disgust. "I guess memory loss is contagious. You can stick your Royal Prerogative where it won't cast a shadow. Your Majesty." And he turned on his heel and left the Queen staring, open-mouthed, after him.

Chapter Text

"...been spoken to in such a way."

"You've never been to the Realm of the Unwanted, have you, love?"

DG paused in the doorway, listening. The family often took afternoon tea together on a private terrace - a custom, her mother had once informed her fondly, that had been in practice since DG had been a baby - and it was an opportunity to put aside their royal faces for a while and spend time together, uninterrupted by affairs of the palace.

"I'm not a prude Ahamo, but that man was simply vulgar."

DG didn't want to interrupt her parents' conversation, but curiosity got the better of her.

"Which man, Mother?" She gave her hands a cursory glance, but they seemed okay - no signs of paint or engine grease to earn her the look of gentle reproof the Queen was so good at. Using magic to get your hands clean is probably against some ancient law, but you have to admit, it works... Satisfied, she went out onto the broad terrace to join her parents, wondering if there had been news about Glitch. Iskra looked up and her expression softened, but DG was aware of the annoyance that surrounded her in a crackling cloud.

"Your mother's had a difference of opinion with Mr Cain." Ahamo was trying not to smile, and DG relaxed a little. It couldn't be anything too awful, if her father found it amusing. Don't be too sure, kiddo. He's got a weird sense of humour.

Iskra sniffed irritably. "'A difference of opinion' is hardly the way I'd describe it." Once DG had taken her place, the Queen recounted the interview, to her growing disbelief. "I know that you're fond of him, DG, but he has no respect. If it were not for the service he has rendered to the OZ, I would have him sent away that very minute."

DG stared at her mother, wide-eyed. "Mr C- Wyatt actually told you to-"

"Right up the old Brick Route," Ahamo chimed in cheerfully, and grinned as Iskra gave him a scolding look. "Sorry, beloved, but you have to admit, the man knows no fear. He wouldn't be such a bad choice to head up the Royal Army. You like people to speak their minds. Didn't old Lonot once call you 'a silly little girl with a head full of fancies'? And you took his sword off him and offered to make him wear his own entrails as a hat, and see who looked silly, then?"

"No, that's what you wanted me to do." The memory brought a brief smile to the Queen's face. "In fact, I sent him off to spend a week helping the nursemaid tend to Azkadelia, so he'd have some basis for comparison."

"Ah, diplomacy," Ahamo murmured fondly, and put his arm around her. DG regarded her mother, who was gazing into the distance, her expression troubled. You're not angry because he was rude, are you, Mother? You're angry because he was right.

"Why don't we go down and see Ambrose this evening? Together," she suggested tentatively. She'd long since stopped using 'Glitch' in her mother's presence. In the first few months after the eclipse, she'd called him 'Ambrose' when he was connected to his brain, 'Glitch' when he wasn't, but that had been too much like dealing with two separate people, and it hadn't taken DG long to realise that he was already struggling with a raging identity crisis, and she wasn't helping.

"Ambrose. My name is Ambrose. But... but you, and Raw, and Cain..." And then a pause as he caught up with himself and remembered that Wyatt Cain had gone home; DG recognised the little flicker of dismay in his dark eyes. "You can call me 'Glitch'. Reminds me of the good old days..."

She'd asked him again, in the Brain Room, trying to keep her voice low and simultaneously understanding that it was ridiculous to do so, when everything she said must pass through the attendant Viewer in order to reach that remote, floating mind in the tank.

"Those were the good old days. Until you found me in that cage, I'd spent most of my time scared, or lonely, or falling off, or over things." He'd smiled, but the expression hadn't reached his eyes. "And then there was you, and Raw... and Cain, and it was time that - that stayed. Not the circular, same-again days I'd had before; time with definition to it. And I wasn't lonely, then." Then his smile had grown warmer, though it hadn't been enough to keep DG from lying awake that night, wondering if he was lonely now. "Of course, being scared and falling off things persisted for some time afterwards. Call me 'Glitch', if you wish, Highness. I must learn to be both, or I'm doomed to be neither."

DG recalled that she'd been about to correct him. I don't want to be 'Your Highness'. I'm just DG. But maybe she should listen to her mother's advisor. Learn to be both, or you're doomed to be neither.

Iskra favoured her with a wan smile. "Perhaps you should take your sister. I'm sure Ambrose would-"

"I went to see him this morning. I took some breakfast to him." Azkadelia had been sitting so quietly beside the balcony that DG hadn't realised that she was there. "DG's right, Mother. I'm sure he'd like to see you."

Iskra looked between her daughters, trapped. "He won't remember me. I'll only confuse him."

"He's already confused. I think -" Azkadelia glanced at DG for support, and DG nodded, relieved that she had decided to speak up. Someone needs to say it, and Mr Cain's way doesn't seem to be working. "We think, Azkadelia continued, "you might be avoiding him."

"My dear, that's preposterous," Iskra countered uncomfortably. "I've spoken with Ambrose many times since he came back to us. We've discussed the Sunseeder at length, and the changes he's made to the design. It's all very interesting, although I don't pretend to understand half of what he's saying." She tried to smile, but there was a hint of desperation in her attempt at lightness.

"But that's just it, Mother - you only speak to him while he's in the - while he has a Viewer with him so that he can work." Azkadelia's tone was gentle, but her gaze was direct. "I don't believe I've ever seen you talking to him outside of there, and when he remembers to come to Court dinners you always put him right down the table, away from you."

We're all trying really hard not to talk about his brain, aren't we? DG thought. 'While he's in the Brain Room'. We don't talk about what's floating in that tank, or mention the zipper, or call him Glitch. She moved to perch on the arm of the padded settle where her parents sat, so that she could take her mother's hand.

"He's still Ambrose. Sooner or later, Mother, you're going to have to talk to him without a Viewer there to try and make out nothing's changed." She felt her eyes well with tears, and blinked them away vigorously. "And if it was me, I'd want to do it sooner, because..." She shook her head. "Wyatt's right. The doctor doesn't have any answers, and he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to find any. Can't we find someone else, even if it's just for a second opinion? Aren't there experts over here? Neurologists and things?"

"I, ah... I know a brain surgeon," Ahamo volunteered quietly. There was a silence, while all three women stared at him. "I do," he insisted. "Well - he was, years ago. Quite a reputation in the City, he told me once, but he upped and left when they started looking for..." he faltered, glancing at Azkadelia. "When they -"

"When the Sorceress started recruiting medics to headcase the people she couldn't bully or bribe. It's all right, Father. You don't have to keep on treating me as if I'll fall apart at the first mention of that creature," Azkadelia protested, but she dropped her gaze after a moment, and DG felt a sudden rush of sympathy for her. You still feel responsible for what happened to him, don't you? Even though it was all the Witch's doing.

"I'm sorry, Az. I'll put the kid gloves away. Anyhow, when things started getting hot in the City, the refugees started showing up. Some of them just wanted out of the regime, but there were those she'd marked out as useful, and the Realm of the Unwanted was the one place you stood a chance of getting lost in. Doc Oxley showed up about five years after I got there, and the Realm swallowed him up just the same as everyone else." Ahamo shrugged. "Of course, he might not even be there any more. It's not exactly the kind of place where folks retire and grow daffodils."

'Push up daisies' is more like it. DG was sceptical. "Could we trust him? The whole place was full of con-artists and mercenaries."

Ahamo nodded. "I know - I was one of them." Azkadelia rolled her eyes and he grinned. "I'm not telling her anything she didn't already know," he protested easily. "Anyway - doesn't that qualify me to say if we could trust him? You have to be good at working people out if you want to stay alive down there. Doc Oxley's all right."

"Shouldn't we just call the Royal Hospital and send for a doctor from there?" DG asked, unconvinced. "Someone with recent experience? You can send a fa- a Telex to the City, can't you Mother?"

Iskra didn't answer, and DG looked up, about to ask the question again. The queen was looking fixedly ahead, and her eyes were brimming, her lips pressed together to keep them from quivering. "Mother?"

"I failed him. I failed all of you." Iskra whispered. DG and Azkadelia both broke in at once.

"No, Mother, you can't blame -"

"You didn't fail any- "

"My darlings, be still. I did what I thought was best, but I could have done so much more. And Ambrose, poor, faithful Ambrose - I have stayed away. DG, you were so young, you must barely remember him as he was. To see him now, so - so diminished and muddled... it breaks my heart to see him that way, and so I save myself the pain and avoid his company."

Ahamo had said nothing throughout this exchange, but now he put his arm around Iskra and pulled her to him, kissing her hair tenderly.

"The war was bound to leave casualties, love. He knew the danger, and he faced it. And he's still alive - that's more than be said for many who stood up for the OZ. You've nothing to reproach yourself for."

And that was half true. It's not your fault the witch hurt him, Mother. If we're all stepping up to take some blame, I ought to be first in the queue; I let her out. But if you don't go and see him now, because it makes you feel guilty to look at the zipper... I can't make excuses for you. DG said none of this, but her wide blue eyes were badly suited to subterfuge. Iskra studied her sorrowfully for a minute, then nodded.

"No more excuses. This evening, if he isn't too tired, I'll visit him." The tears that had been building finally spilled over, but Iskra waved away the handkerchief DG offered, producing one of her own from a neatly concealed pocket in her skirts and drying her eyes briskly. "And I'll talk to Spicer. He had that look he always wears when something is preying on his mind."

"We'll both go."

"We'll all go," DG spoke a second after Azkadelia, and they swapped conspiratorial glances before turning to look at Ahamo, who shook his head.

"I think I'll sit this one out. Four's company, but five's getting dangerously close to a mob. Besides, it's you girls he'll want to see. I'll set up camp in the Rose Room - send a few Telexes. There's a bunch of City officials who all came down with a convenient case of food poisoning just in time for your mother's birthday, and I bet they're all just as conveniently recovered now."

"I'm sure they had some reason for their absence," Iskra tucked the handkerchief away. "Though I doubt it was poor digestion. I've yet to find a Councilman who was unable to stomach even the most challenging of banquets."

Ahamo smirked. "I doubt they'll admit to it, but what they're all suffering from isn't a shade of green around the gills, but a big streak of yellow running down their backs. They're afraid of being attacked if they leave Central City."

"The Longcoats wouldn't dare come anywhere near the Old Road, would they?" DG asked, perplexed. "I thought -"

"No, not by renegade Longcoats. By your everyday, average folk in the country. Farmers. Ranchers. Maybe the odd rogue Papay Runner. Now people are getting back to normal, they're starting to ask questions. Like 'how come even when the rest of us were scraping to survive, Central City had enough food, liquor and money to go around?' I can't see them chasing after the City council with pitchforks and horse-whips, but they might change their minds if they'd heard the council stonewalling - hah - when we said we were planning to have the gatehouse taken down." He rolled his eyes. "Can't have undesirables just wandering into the City, can we?"

DG thought about Antoine Demilo's rolling sleaze emporium. Yeah, they must really be worried about their standards slipping. "I suppose we're lucky that Doctor Krantz was here already. Sounds like we're way down people's To Visit list." The Queen cleared her throat gently.

"I will ask Doctor Krantz to suggest a fellow physician to lend his expertise. The two of them, working together, may provide the answers we seek." A hint of sharpness crept into her voice. "I will not be accused of denying Ambrose the help that he requires."

"In that case, I'll send word to the Realm and see if I can't scare up Doc Oxley, as well," Ahamo asserted. "He might be some help, even if he isn't a hot shot city doctor."

Iskra rested her head against his shoulder, looking a little happier now that the conversation had moved on to more practical matters. "If you think that he would be of help, then by all means send for him, my dear. I will, as in all things, be led by you."

Ahamo smiled, his eyes meeting DG's, and he winked. Why do I get the feeling he's heard that before? she wondered, amused in spite of herself.

"Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses..."

DG jumped, then tried to pretend that she hadn't. "Mister Rawlins, have you ever thought about wearing a bell? Maybe something in brass? Little coronets embossed on it to go with the buttons?" The tall man, whom Wyatt would have instantly recognised as his impatient guide, inclined his head in a way that would have made the deepest of bows seem cursory, and approached the Queen, sinking smoothly to one knee. He held out a flat, wooden box, lifting the lid so that Iskra could take out a folded page from within.

A nod from Mister Rawlins. That's practically a belly-laugh, coming from him. DG considered pressing her advantage and seeing if she could raise an actual smile on the man, then she caught sight of her mother's expression and all thoughts of teasing the austere manservant fled.

"Mother?"

Iskra looked up from the note, dismayed. "It's from Spicer. He says that Ambrose has had another seizure. He's called for Doctor Krantz."

DG gazed at her, anxiety rising slick and bitter in the back of her throat. Suddenly, the thought of summoning a renegade brain surgeon from the Realm of the Unwanted didn't seem quite so impulsive.

Chapter Text

Wyatt knew there was something wrong well before he reached the stables. DG was waiting for him and even in the decaying evening light her stricken expression was enough to warn him of bad news to come. Either Her Majesty's decided to give me my marching orders, or... He urged Captain into a brisk trot and swung himself out of the saddle a few feet from the entrance to the yard, jogging to a standstill and bunching the reins in one hand so that he could wipe the sweat from his face with his sleeve.

"DG - what's going on?"

"It's Glitch..." she looked up at him, and her watery, anxious gaze stilled his heart for a single, awful moment. "It's happened again. Another seizure, I mean." One sort of dread was quickly replaced by another.

"Who's with him?"

DG waved urgently at one of the stablehands, who hurried forward to take Captain's reins and lead him away. "Doctor Spicer's been there all afternoon. I think Doctor Krantz is on the Telex to Central City; I guess he's consulting with people at the hospital there." She broke into a half-run to keep up with Wyatt's lengthening strides.

"Spicer was with him when it happened?" DG nodded.

"The doctor said he was asleep when he got there. but about half an hour ago he woke up very disoriented and tried to get out of bed." She glanced at Wyatt. "He said he had to keep the fire going. Doctor Spicer isn't sure if he fell because of the seizure, or if the fall was what set it off."

"Was it cold in there? He'd got enough blankets, hadn't he?" Okay, that officially counts as fussing. Quit it. Wyatt made for the servants' stairs without thinking, and it took him a moment to realise why their progress upwards to Glitch's rooms was the catalyst for sudden flurries of industriousness all around them. Look busy - the boss is coming.

"He had so many blankets, I'm surprised he could get out from underneath them all. Doctor Spicer says he was muttering about being cold before he woke up, but there was a fire lit in his study." DG skipped out of the way of a maid bearing down on them with an armload of sheets, and Wyatt caught a glimpse of the girl's expression of startled horror as she realised how close she'd come to knocking the princess down the stairs.

"How is he, now? Is he awake?" She shook her head.

"He hasn't woken up at all, yet. Krantz didn't stay long, Doctor Spicer said, but he did check him over and Glitch slept through it all." And Wyatt could tell that he wasn't the only one who thought this was a good thing.

"How did he seem this morning?" DG's blank expression made him pause, and he turned to her, leaning back against the panelled wall to look at her. "This morning," he repeated gently. "You took him some breakfast. Didn't you?" A sweet girl who had brought Glitch an apple, and cried... He'd automatically assumed it was DG, but she shook her head.

"Azkadelia."

"That was your sister?" Wyatt raised a brow. "I figured you were the only one who was taking the trouble to visit him, besides me." He made no effort to disguise the note of bitterness in his voice. DG winced.

"That's not fair. Az has been trying, but there's just so much..." she made a face. "It's a mess. She's a mess. The witch has gone, but everything she did got left behind, and Az has to deal with it."

She looked pale and nervous, Wyatt remembered. Like a forest animal unable to decide between freezing and fleeing. "Has she had any trouble from people?" DG waited until they'd passed another convoy of maids, leaving them bobbing in her wake like ducks on a fast-flowing river, before answering.

"Nothing more than wary looks and people being really careful about what they say. But it's not out there she has the problem." She touched her fingertip to her temple. "She's working hard enough torturing herself without anybody else needing to help out. She's got a guilt complex big enough to stretch from here to Finaqua, and she won't let it go."

Wyatt cast his mind back a year, to DG weeping at the entrance to the witch's subterranean prison. Yeah. Runs in the family. On the whole, though, DG seemed to have adjusted pretty well. But then, she didn't have to watch herself turning the world into wasteland day by day.

They'd reached the wood-lined alcoves of the Long Gallery and walked in troubled silence past the parade of austere portraits, which watched them, unmoved. A bored-looking guard was sitting outside Glitch's door, but jumped quickly to his feet as Wyatt and DG approached. The princess responded to his hurried salute with a vague nod of acknowledgement, pushing open the door before Wyatt could open it for her. I bet your mom is still trying to train you out of that.

The lamps were dimmed in Glitch's bedroom and the low light gleamed softly here and there, picking out Doctor Spicer's spectacles and the smooth dome of his head. At first, Wyatt thought that he had fallen asleep; hunched forward at the bedside with his head bowed, the Munchkin seemed quite oblivious to the world around him. Then the faintest murmur of sound reached Wyatt's ears, and he understood that Spicer was not only awake, but speaking in his quiet, sing-song manner, the words meant only for the unconscious man in the bed. Perhaps it was a song, perhaps some sort of prayer but, whatever it was, the doctor did not look up until he had completed his sotto voce recitation. Only then did he rise to his feet and bow to DG.

"Kira-fensec, sa tres mi undem?" The princess took a moment to reply, and Wyatt could see her lips move briefly, trying something out before she spoke.

"Spicer-lijest...um...proso...ekstat inam." She hesitated, and the doctor gave her an encouraging smile.

"Ekstasha 'nam, Highness - the imperative, you see? You must command your subjects - even me, you understand?" Spicer's smile dwindled until it was consumed by his beard, and he inclined his head towards the bed. "Gewen brings him sleep and Umaii stands close by. As my Princess commands, I pass the vigil on for other eyes to keep until Hyperion has spread her wings." He bowed again and withdrew, leaving Wyatt and DG to stare after him in silence. Catching Wyatt's look of bemusement, DG smiled briefly.

"Yeah. That's pretty much how I used to be after talking to him. That's why I'm trying to learn Menschke, or however you say it. You don't have to find rhymes for everything."

"He really talks like that all the time?" Wyatt felt his mouth twist, incredulous. "Doesn't that seem kind of frivolous, for a doctor?" DG shook her head.

"You get used to it." Now that the little doctor had gone, she took his seat beside Glitch's bed, speaking quietly. Wyatt found another chair and manoeuvred it next to her. "First time I ran into a Munchkin - well, a bunch of them - a bunch of Munchkins with feathers," she let out an odd, disquieting giggle and Wyatt saw that she was suddenly close to tears, "they all spoke in this weird rhyme. It was just surreal - I thought I was dreaming. That's when I met Glitch, and everything just got weirder..."

Wyatt touched her shoulder and she turned to him, blinking furiously. "You were telling me about Azkadelia," he prompted carefully. "She and Glitch - they're okay with each other, now?"

"It took me two months to persuade her to come riding with us." Her smile returned, and Wyatt could almost read the memory in the way the worried lines smoothed from her face. "We took a picnic up onto the heath, and sat in the sun. And it was awkward for a little while. Then... well, you know how he babbles when he gets nervous?" Wyatt nodded. "He started on some old story about the Munchkins, and how they thought the sunlight - the sunslight - was a cure for sorrow, and partway through, he got lost..."

He could imagine it; muted swathes of buff-coloured scrub, fringed with tall, fluttering grasses and punctuated by the pale purple heather that thrived on the open land overlooking the Sunseeder. Glitch, sitting cross-legged on a blanket, his convoluted anecdote faltering as his train of thought crashed over an unexpected precipice. Synapse Junction - end of the line...

"Then Az took over, and finished the story for him, and I remembered. It's hazy - I was only tiny - but sometimes we'd go up to the Vantage at Finaqua, where his little workshop was, and bug him until he'd tell us a story. And I'd fall asleep and dream about talking birds and flying people, and songs the suns sang..." The glow of reverie faded and DG looked up at Wyatt, her smile tinged with sadness. "I think it helped both of them, that day. Az needed to know Glitch wasn't scared of her, that he didn't blame her for what the Witch did to him. And he needed to remind himself she wasn't the Witch. I hope h-"

"...the thing with feathers..." They both looked sharply at the bed. Glitch, who hadn't moved since their arrival, turned onto his side and gazed at them vacantly.

"He's awake. Hey, how are you feeling?" DG moved closer to the bed. "Glitch?"

"I don't think he can hear you," Wyatt said gently, and leaned over to touch Glitch's arm."You with us, Sunshine?" Glitch's eyes were sleepy and half-lidded, and Wyatt once again found himself chilled by the bruised-looking skin around them and the shadows that haunted the zipperhead's face. Glitch shivered, then mumbled something too indistinct for Wyatt to fully decipher. Something about a storm? Feathers and a storm. Must be thinking about when he met DG. Perhaps he can hear us. "He's still cold - can you grab that blanket?"

Between the two of them, they spread the soft woollen blanket across the bed, and DG glanced at the window, where a sliver of crepuscular gloom was visible between the curtains. "Doctor Spicer's coming back at moonrise, but that's a couple of hours away. D'you think we ought to get Doctor Kr-" She saw Wyatt's face darken and faltered. "You really don't like him, do you? After you went out, Mother told us what happened."

"Mm. I kinda blew my stack, and I guess I should thank your mom for not having me summarily hauled away by the ears. It just felt as though I was the only one fighting Glitch's battles for him." He tucked the blanket carefully around Glitch's shoulders, looking for anything, the smallest indication that Glitch was awake and aware of him. There was nothing. The zipperhead's eyes were all but closed, no more than a dark gleam behind the long lashes. "I know that sounds harsh, but she didn't see the way Krantz was with him. Doctor Spicer might be a little quirky, but at least he doesn't talk about him as if he's..." A headcase. He shied away from the thought. I didn't know him, then. "...inferior."

"We talked about it this afternoon." DG picked at a thread at the edge of the blanket. "They're sending for another doctor from the City, maybe a surgeon, too. Mother does care about Glitch," she added loyally. "She's as worried as we are. I think she was hoping Doctor Krantz would have the answers."

Wyatt's eyes flickered across to the prone figure once more. "Another doctor - that would be a start. Krantz has a way of asking all his questions with a bullhorn, and all that's doing is driving Glitch further into himself. He remembers my name - has done every time I've been in here - but I can see him struggling to remember what was said to him two minutes ago." He rubbed his cheek, abruptly weary. "He's still there; sometimes I can see it so clearly, but he's fading in and out like a wireless broadcast."

"There might be other tests. Other things the new doctor can think of." DG was trying to sound positive, but Wyatt got the feeling that she was grasping at straws. "If this was the Otherside..." her mouth tightened, and Wyatt spoke before she could continue.

"If this was the Otherside, maybe you'd have doctors with some fancy tricks we don't have over here. It's a nice idea. But even if we could get him through a travel storm without killing him, how many guys are walking around with zippers in their heads over there? Krantz is bad enough, but they'd treat him like some kind of freakshow."

DG nodded glumly. "The zipper. I'm so used to seeing it, sometimes I forget. You're right - if we're going to find a way to help him, it has to be here."

Wyatt was watching Glitch again, and he spoke without looking around. "When. Not if. Don't you give up on him, Princess," he said, more fiercely than he'd intended. "Don't you dare. Everyone else has..."

She grabbed his wrist. "I'm not! I'm not giving up on him. I'm right here." She swallowed, and Wyatt realised with dismay that he hadn't distracted her from her tears, only postponed them, and now - smooth move, knucklehead. Why don't you give her a kick while you're at it? "I'm right here," DG repeated, the words emerging as a thick whisper. "Cain, I'm so suh-sorry..."

She crumpled and Wyatt reached for her with a sigh, not really able to give much comfort but offering it anyhow, needing it himself even if he wasn't about to admit it. What could he say? That it would be okay? He had no way of knowing that it would. And you snapped at her for giving up, you hypocrite.

DG let him go and scrubbed at her face with her sleeve - not at all majestic, just a country girl with a heavy heart. Pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes, she let out a tremulous breath. "I'm okay. I am. I just... I love him, and I feel like I've let him down."

"You haven't let him down," Wyatt said automatically, and he meant it - although he wasn't about to extend that assurance to Queen Iskra, who was going to have to produce some fairly impressive medical expertise to put herself back into his good books. "Believe me, I did some soul searching this week too, wondering if I could have made a difference if I'd been here sooner."

DG gazed at him, her face blotchy and entirely unregal. "That's because you love him too."

Wyatt felt the colour rise in his face and there was nothing he could do about it. He straightened in his chair, trying to muster the right balance of disapproval and surprise.

"Hey - now hold on a minute..." The words were no sooner out of his mouth than he realised she was accusing him of nothing at all. Guilty conscience, his father's voice taunted smugly. Got you on the defensive, didn't she?

DG looked nonplussed. "I only meant -"

Wyatt regarded her seriously, while his heart played a nervy rhythm against his ribs. Maybe there was still a way to salvage this. "Never mind what you only meant. You need to be careful with that kind of talk, Princess." Now he felt guilty.

"Okay, I got you. I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to imply anything." She rose, and Wyatt stood quickly, dismayed.

"No - no, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to jump down your throat. But it's like you said before - places like this run on gossip. You can get people in a lot of trouble with a remark like that, even if you didn't mean it that way."

DG nodded, and made a move towards the door. Nice going, Wyatt. Remind me again how you got to be a Tin Man? It was your natural gift for diplomacy, right? He put out his hand to stop her. "DG, you don't have to -"

"It's okay. I'll be back in a minute." She gestured at him to go back to his seat, and he did, silently berating himself. Of all the times to lose your cool, that was probably the worst you could have picked. All she said was that you loved him... like a friend. And all you had to do was agree with her. Now what's she gonna think?

It was several minutes before DG returned - long enough for Wyatt to have replayed the conversation in his head a dozen times and kick himself a dozen more. Perhaps it showed in his face, because DG's first act as he stood to greet her was to give him a brief, tight hug and ask "Are we okay, now?"

"We're okay. Of course we are." He stepped back, holding her at arms length and studying her eyes, which - while still reddened by tears - had lost their despairing shine. "I should have explained instead of giving you a lecture. I can't seem to shake the old Tin Man mindset, and..." he paused, picking his words carefully "...what I thought you were saying - well, that sort of thing was a crime that could get you put away not so long ago." That Sort of Thing. A phrase to be used with a grimace of distaste.

"A crime?"

Wyatt nodded. "Right up until... well, it'd be just before you were born. Some City headshrinker brought a load of research to the Qu - to your mom, making out that it was some kind of mental illness, and people like that shouldn't be criminalised for something that wasn't their fault." People Like That. That's right up there with That Sort of Thing in the Lexicon of Stuff We Don't Talk About in Decent Company. "There was a lot of resistance to the law being changed, but," he shrugged, "she's the Queen." He dropped his hands from DG's shoulders and went to check on Glitch, who was, as far as he could tell, asleep.

When he turned back, DG was watching him and chewing her lip indecisively.

"You look like you've got something on your mind." She blinked, and Wyatt repeated his observation.

"I was just thinking that I've still got a lot to learn about the OZ." She seemed set to say something else, then smiled and shook her head. "I brought you something." Gesturing to the chairs, she moved to join him and, once they were seated, took a folded handkerchief from her pocket. "Hold out your hands." He did as he was told, curious, and DG dropped a small, awkwardly-shaped bundle into them. Braided grass, narrow stalks of faded green and pale brown, bound the thing together, and Wyatt recognised it immediately.

"Raw's gift." The pebble DG had described on the night of the ball was split into rough thirds by two fine bands of milky blue, and it was nestled comfortably against a small, rather tattered feather and a charred piece of wood that felt as if DG had brought it straight to him from some sunny place in the grass.

"I don't know if it's my imagination, but it makes me feel better. I thought it might do the same for you." She gently folded his hands closed over the strange collection. "I think you need it more than I do."

Wyatt turned the Viewer's gift around in his hands, and the dim lamp-light caught the feather for an instant, awakening a soft flare of purple-blue-green that was just as quickly extinguished. Fading in and out... "What do I do with it?"

"Nothing. I mean, just hold it and try to relax." DG seemed perfectly serious. "Try not to think of anything - it's like meditation, sort of."

Wyatt tried to clear his mind, feeling increasingly silly. Either DG's magic makes her more sensitive to all this hocus-pocus, or it's nothing but a bunch of gewgaws Raw's found, and a lot of wishful thinking. He sat back in his chair, cradling the little bundle in his lap and closing his eyes. 'Sometimes...I get flashes of... it's hard to describe. A good feeling - reassuring...' Well I'm holding it, kiddo, and I don't feel reassured. Just exhausted, and worried, and...

...and cold. He shivered, and flicked away a snowflake as it settled on the back of his hand. It was a clumsy effort; his fingers were stiff and numb.

"Shut the damn door, Glitch." The zipperhead had been surprisingly careful, up until now, warning him each time he went for firewood, so that he could pull the blankets over his head. Then the storm had begun in earnest and their only concern had been keeping the little stove supplied with fuel. "Glitch," he tried again. "Stay inside. It's too cold." There was no answer, and Wyatt opened his eyes and discovered that Demilo's wagon was empty, and the door was dangling from one hinge. If the Longcoats came back while I was asleep... was his first thought, and it was enough to make him scramble to his feet, reaching for a gun that wasn't there. But on the heels of that came the realisation that Demilo's wagon and the snowstorm were long past, and the Longcoats had not come back for them, and that the ache in his chest was nothing but a memory.

I'm dreaming. I must have been more tired than I thought. That, or DG knocked me over the head as soon as I closed my eyes. In his experience, becoming aware that he was dreaming was a sign that he was starting to wake up; however, the wagon remained sound, apart from that ominously gaping doorway, and when he ran his fingers over the wood it felt solid, the varnish slick and waxy with age. A few more snowflakes drifted aimlessly in but they were orphans, the white sky broken by glimpses of pale blue.

"Glitch?" If he was dreaming about the Northern Island, shouldn't Glitch be there too? No - if it's a dream, it doesn't have to make sense. And if it wasn't, then this was a piece of Raw's infernal do-goodery. Either way, he could toss logic out of the window.

He looked around again for his gun, turning back the blankets and rooting beneath the assorted pillows and mismatched cushions without any real hope. If the Viewer's hairy hand was behind this dream, he apparently hadn't foreseen any need for Wyatt to be armed. That's all very well for you, fuzzball, but I'm taking no chances. He widened his search, remembering the axe DG had commandeered from Demilo's eclectic selection of tools, jumbled ironmongery and assorted utensils. The battered tin trunk stashed behind the driver's cab yielded pliers, handle-less bread knives and rust-flakes in assorted sizes and, finally, a hooked pry-bar - short, but better than nothing.

Wyatt immediately felt a little better with the solid weight in his hand and the cool metal against his palm made him aware of something else. I'm not cold any more. When did I get dressed? He looked down at himself, examining the clothes that he'd salvaged from the old house a year ago. Glitch had dried them at the woodstove, and had at some point re-dressed him in them, but Wyatt was pretty sure he hadn't been sleeping in his boots, trenchcoat and hat.

Outside, the air was brisk rather than freezing; Wyatt stooped and scooped up a handful of snow and found it to be powdery and cool, more like ash than ice. It was also entirely free from tracks, if there had ever been tracks. Squinting as the suns made a brief reappearance through the fragmenting clouds, he turned, searching for any hint of life. I ought to go and look for him. And that was crazy, wasn't it? He told himself once again that this was a dream, nothing more, and if Glitch was even supposed to be in it, it didn't really matter whether Wyatt found him or not. Sooner or later he'd wake up, and when he did...

...and when I do, Glitch will still be lost. I should look for him. It can't hurt anything and... I don't know. Raw's a healer. Maybe this is supposed to help. Which way, then? The road was invisible, apparent only as a widening of the gaps between the trees. If I were Glitch, which way would I go? He tucked the pry-bar into his belt, the hooked end looped over the top, and shoved his hands in his pockets, gazing at the silent woodland indecisively. Downhill, somewhere, was the Brick Route and Central City. Uphill was the crest that overlooked the Northern Island. The Winter Palace is closer. I could walk up to the ridge and see if there's anything to see. It seemed as good an idea as any, and he set off, trudging through the snow with his eyes set on the place where the hill ended and the sky began.

By the time the view ahead was more sky than hill, the white stuff underfoot had lost any resemblance to snow, the thin powder drifting easily out of his way like clouds of downy feathers.

...the thing with feathers...

His sense of surreality grew as he reached the top of the rise and looked down to what should have been the Northern Island, set like a frozen gem in the whiteness of the river valley or - if his thoughts had wandered to more recent times - a compact sprawl of green, the pale, elegant arches and spires of the Winter Palace rising serenely from its northmost end. He saw neither.

Raw, your grip on geography is seriously flaky. That's the city. That's Central City. A heavy sigh of wind swept past him, scattering the feather-snow in lazy swirls and exposing bare earth studded with patches of broken yellow stone. Subtle. So I'm supposed to follow the old Brick Route? As if in answer, the wind intensified, driving flurries of white into the air, where they melted away to nothing. The way ahead was clear, the ground dry, and, when Wyatt glanced back, there was nothing to see but parched fields and thin, sickly-looking birches.

Keep walking. Maybe you'll find somewhere selling maps around the inside of your head.

Further on, the trees began to crowd closer, until the distant towers of the city were hidden behind an interlacement of branches. Wyatt found that his hand had stolen unconsciously to the place where his gun should be and smiled a little. Force of habit's gonna get you dead one of these days. He found the head of the iron bar and held onto that, instead. The patches of worn yellow brick, sporadic at first, began to appear more frequently, and Wyatt was in the midst of contemplating what the Old Road must have looked like in its heyday when a dark figure in the road ahead brought him up short.

In the shadows of the trees it was hard to make out anything more than a vague shape, arms outstretched to bar the way. It moved busily, its edges wavering and billowing; Wyatt watched it for a minute, unsettled. When the figure made no move towards him, he pulled the pry-bar from his belt and advanced cautiously, then snorted at his own wariness as he realised he was squaring up to a scarecrow. The remains of a scarecrow, really; the stuffing had long since rotted away and all that was left was a disintegrating coat draped over a T-shaped wooden post.

Crows were clustered around the foot of the pole, fighting over scraps of straw and wisps of decaying hay, and some of them took flight as Wyatt approached. Lucky Glitch isn't here. This'd creep him out for sure. He spotted something fluttering near the collar of the coat and moved closer, kicking a scatter of road dust at the crows, which shuffled resentfully aside to let him by. One crow, bolder than the rest, had perched on the crosspiece of the post, where it was tugging determinedly at a scrap of dirty, fraying cord. It turned its head, fixing him with a beady glare, but it didn't drop the cord. Wyatt gave it an unfriendly grin.

"Knock yourself out, fella. But you peck me, and you'll find out why they call this a crowbar." A scrap of paper had been pinned to the collar of the coat; he smoothed it out and read six letters printed across it in a stark message:

GO HOME

"When I'm having so much fun?" The crow opened its beak, the cord falling to dangle limply down the front of the coat, and made a harsh, scraping sound. "Nobody asked you," Wyatt growled, but his attention was on the cord. Where it had unravelled, the twisted fibres - almost black with dirt on the outside - were faded gold. He took a step back and looked at the coat again. This belongs to Glitch. How did I not see? Almost every memory he had of the zipperhead was of him wearing his shabby old uniform coat. The braid was almost all gone, the fabric - once faded to an unlovely khaki - was shredded and rotting.

"...go home..." The harsh, croaking voice seemed to come out of thin air. Wyatt's first instinct was to raise the pry-bar defensively, his second to stare at the crow, which was watching him intently. It spread its wings and thrust its beak towards him. "Go home," it grated again. He turned the iron bar and pushed the bird aside with the curved end - dream-crow or not, he wasn't naturally an unkind man.

"Back off, Feathers. I've trusted smartass animals before and it gets you into nothing but trouble." He was answered by a mutinous hiss, but the crow sidled down to the end of the crosspiece and watched him mistrustfully from there. Wyatt unpinned the scrap of paper and read it again.

GO BACK

"There's nothing to go back for. Adora's gone. Jeb's got his own life, now. I don't have a h-" He paused. The message had changed. Was Raw trying to tell him something? "Hey - you're the one picking the scenery," he protested, addressing the air around him. "If you really wanted me to go back, why am I heading for Central City? Save the scenic route for some other time, huh?"

You went there before. True, but he'd been going after Zero. Wyatt tangled the last sad remnant of braid between his fingers, thinking. You went there before you headed for the Northern Island. And before that, you crossed the Papay fields. And before that, you were in the

"In the suit." He finished the thought aloud, and stared at the braid. Was it his imagination, or did it seem a little brighter? A confirmation? He decided to test his theory. "You want me to go back to the start. Fine. But for the record, I'm not happy about it." 'Not happy' was an understatement; however, the grime on the twist of cord was receding more with every passing second, and the damp, corrupted cloth it was attached to had begun to lighten. That's a yes, then. He moved back a few steps, pointing at the solitary crow with the end of the pry-bar.

"I'm not going anywhere just yet, so if you're thinking of making off with that bit of gold stuff, think again. That belongs to Glitch." The crow cocked its head, regarding him first with one eye, then the other, then it cackled in a voice that would have been at home in any bar in the Sin District, and flapped its wings. An answering movement in the trees made Wyatt look around. The solitary crow was solitary no longer; the branches were black with birds, each one with a beakful of faded golden straw. As he watched, the last patch of black mould dwindled to nothing, the last unfamiliar rent in the fabric of Glitch's tatterdemalion coat knitted itself closed and left it - far from perfect, but at least no more badly damaged than it had been on the day of the eclipse. All it wanted for now was the cat's-cradle of snagged and trailing braid. Finally Wyatt understood. He pointed at the crow again, not with the iron bar but with his empty hand. "Put it back. Please," he added, deciding that a more conciliatory tone couldn't hurt.

Everything fell still for one breathless, coiled moment. Abruptly, the air exploded with the beating of black wings and the crows descended, hiding the coat from view. Wyatt suppressed the impulse to dart forward and drive them off, and simply watched, enveloped by the seamless, deafening tumult. At last birds began to break away, their beaks empty, and the feathery vortex disintegrated to reveal Glitch's coat, restored to ragged, travel-stained familiarity. Wyatt studied it with a sense of accomplishment. Now what - leave it here and keep going?

"Damned if I will." The long nails holding the crosspiece of the wooden 'T' in place were no match for the pry-bar, and Wyatt was soon on his knees, pulling the rough length of wood free. Engrossed in his task, he didn't notice the crow until it lunged for the length of iron, snatching it up as if it were no heavier than a twig. He made a grab for it, and the crow bounced backwards, wings spread for balance, beak gaping around the bar. "I'm not in the mood for games. Are you gonna hand it over or not?" Wyatt glared at the bird. As he glanced around for something to throw, it launched itself into the air and was gone, leaving nothing but a few dusty black feathers, which drifted down lazily. One settled on the back of his hand, and it was freezing, growing translucent... He shook it off, scowling.

No... not snow, you're going back, remember? Start concentrating, or you're gonna end up back in that wagon.

Demilo's wagon didn't really seem like such a bad destination compared with the iron suit, but Wyatt looked down at the ragged coat and pictured the decay returning, the cloth coming apart in his hands and the eager, pitiless eyes of the waiting crows. No - cold feet were not an option. He folded the coat into a neat bundle and got moving.

Behind him, the feathers lost their crystalline sheen and silently faded away.

Over the snow-blanketed hillside, the clouds had parted to give way to stretches of late-summer blue, and this had persisted as Wyatt's dream landscape rearranged itself to offer him the Brick Route. Now, as the woodland thinned, the sky grew dull, overcast with pale, unbroken greyness, and the world beneath was painted from an equally sombre palette. Thin, parched soil covered the road that wound between the blight-bleached vegetation; the last oases of yellow stone had petered out some way back. Wyatt emerged into a field of leafless bourganavie trees and paused, trying to get his bearings. Of Central City, there was no sign.

Looks like Papay country. Never thought I'd consider that a good thing, but it means I'm getting closer. Closer, and about to cross Papay territory without even an iron bar to defend himself. The knowledge that none of this was real was no great comfort. Seems pretty damned real to me. I don't aim to be savaged by a slavering Papay runner to find out if it feels authentic. He surveyed the barren orchard thoughtfully. There was no sense dwelling on the loss of the pry-bar. He'd given it up - albeit unwillingly - for Glitch's coat, and that felt right, somehow. There was nothing for it but to keep going. If the Papay did make an appearance, he'd just have to hope he could outrun them, or wake himself up.

He made his way between the dead trees, restlessly scanning his surroundings for any movement, but the sharp snap of dead branches and the ungainly, cantering approach of hungry Papay remained mercifully absent. Another sound was reaching his ears, though, and Wyatt had an idea what this might be. He changed course, veering towards a slight incline dotted with thorny bushes. His pace slowed as he started up the slope, partly to avoid the needle-like thorns, partly because the distant sound - a low, rumbling, rushing - was getting louder with every step.

The bushes came to an end without warning. So did the ground. Below, the river surged along the chasm; a slate-blue ribbon crested with white. This looks familiar. He took a couple of steps closer to the edge, then pulled back hastily as a few loose stones skittered away into space.

The fall might kill us!

Glitch's voice was so clear that, just for an instant, Wyatt was convinced that the zipperhead was at his side. If he closed his eyes, he imagined he could feel a ghostly pressure, anxious hands clutching at his sleeve, and the mere sensation instilled him with a new sense of urgency. There were no Papay at his back, but there might as well have been. Left to its own devices, the scenery was threatening to change. The air took on an icy edge, the faint tang of woodsmoke drifting to him from somewhere that, if he turned around, might no longer be an orchard, but a frozen hill. Back where the dream had begun. He was waking up.

I'm not ready. I don't think I've done what I came here to do, yet. That was nothing more than intuition, but Wyatt had never discounted a gut-feeling before, and he wasn't about to start now. He approached the precipice again, eyes fixed on the torrent far below. Raw went ahead of us, last time. He showed us the way.

"Sometimes, you've just got to shut your eyes and jump," he muttered, and, clasping Glitch's coat to his chest, he launched himself into the abyss.

Chapter Text

There was time to think 'this was a really bad idea', then Wyatt felt a shockwave hit him, the impact travelling up through the soles of his feet and jarring him as if someone had reached in through his flesh and attacked his bones with a sledgehammer. His knees buckled and he crumpled onto solid ground, feeling grit and twigs press into his cheek with exquisite clarity. Opening his eyes was beyond him for the present, so he lay still, taking stock of his condition. He was aching, and winded... but he wasn't wet.

It's a sheer drop. All that water below, and I missed? No - if he'd hit hard ground at that height, he'd be wearing his shins as earmuffs. C'mon, Wyatt. No lying down on the job. He forced his eyes open and focused blearily on uninformative dirt punctuated by clumps of dry grass; finding nothing to help him there, he rolled onto his back and groaned.

"Next time, my dream is coming with stairs," he told the sky sourly, and pushed himself creakily to his feet.

If anything, the realisation that he was standing in the yard of his own house hit him harder than the ground had done. The house, suns-faded and achingly empty, evoked an echoing stab of hollowness inside him. He stared at it, running his eye over the sway-backed roof with the loose shingle he'd been meaning to fix, and settled on the doorpost, cut with notches that, in a kinder world, would have continued up past the place where they stopped, chest height on Wyatt himself.

Time's a physical thing, made up of all the ways we touch the world. He let his fingertips explore that tenth notch, noticing the way the curtains Adora had put up in the windows had lost their colour - blue in the shadow of the windowsill, bone-yellow where they had faced the suns. They blurred, broke apart in his vision, little white flowers drifting and dancing as he blinked away tears.

"Raw... Raw, you son of a bitch. I didn't need to see this again." He didn't like the choked sound of his voice, and he tore himself away from the house, unable to bear the way each familiar sight pierced him. No tin horse in the world would stop them. The anvil, his anvil, was still in the yard. Wyatt sat down heavily upon it, his back to the house, and now he was looking at the iron suit, unchanging monument to misery, and he welcomed the anger that the thing ignited inside him, fed it and built it up until the heat of it was enough to scourge the grief festering in old, long-unvisited places in his heart.

There was an old wagon-coupling, half-buried in the ground where it had been waiting for him to attach a new hasp; now, after all these years, he was able to turn his attention to it. He dug his fingers into the dirt, pulling the thing free with a crumbling sigh of earth. Rust, coarse against his skin, stank of earth and iron; dark, intimate scent that made him think of blood. Good. Let it bleed rust and corrosion and old earth. He raised the coupling, two-handed, and swung it against the implacable face of the suit.

The glass splintered but did not shatter. He swung again. Again. The air rang with the sounds - iron on glass, iron on iron, a harsh, irregular heartbeat that faltered and failed with Wyatt's own stamina. He dropped the coupling, panting, stumbling backwards with his hands hanging at his sides, palms reverberating with remembered blows. Small, tight starbursts of white pocked the faceplate, but they weren't enough to blot out the reflection of Longcoats gathered in the yard behind him. He whirled around and almost fell, his feet tangling in something on the ground.

Oh, the coat... Glitch's coat. He rescued it from the dust and clutched it against him, needing something familiar that was not tainted by the perpetual vision of Zero snatching at Adora's hair, pulling her back, smiling, laughing. Anyone who thinks Hell is reserved for the dead is wrong.

The beating had gone on long enough that he had been too tired to hurt as badly as they wanted, but Zero had caught hold of Adora, and another Longcoat had grabbed Jeb, and soon Wyatt had found a new pain to cut keenly through his jaded senses. And now, time became more tangible still; it was an iron wheel that rolled over him, crushing him in endless repetition, and it would go on forever.

Raw had been steering him back to the start of what he'd come to think of as his second life, and he'd gone along with it, wary of what he might see and feel, but knowing that it was only a dream, unable to touch him deeply. Now that he'd reached the beginning, when DG had run headlong into his nightmare and the wheel had ground to a halt, and the anxious, curious face of the zipperhead had filled his vision, it was too late to discover that he was wrong.

"Please..." He buried his face in the coat, whispering into the worn, soft material. "That's enough."

Tick.

It was a quiet, crisp sound.

Tick. Tick-tick.

He looked back and saw fine lines zig-zagging across the suit's faceplate, crossing and diverging until it grew opaque with spreading fractures.

Tick.

The glass shuddered. Stilled. Imploded, milky chunks and shards sucked inside the faceplate with a whistle of displaced air, and the front of the suit swung slowly open, revealing darkness too deep to be natural.

And... stairs. Stairs, leading down into unfathomable shadows. Could he take the final step, back into his metal prison?

Can you? Wyatt curled his fingers into the tangled braid of Glitch's coat, and found that he could. He stepped forward into the suit and began to descend.

A few steps down darkness gave way to torchlight - faint at first, then flaring up with furnace brightness so that he had to shield his eyes. When it subsided, the torches had become ornate iron lamps, and Wyatt found himself standing between two tiered rows of wooden benches that formed a tapering gauntlet. At the end, an imposing dais supported a single throne-like chair between two carved lecterns inlaid with complicated marquetry designs Wyatt could have described with his eyes shut. Every Tin Man knew the Crown Court, even if they'd never stood on the dais, all stiff attention and unchanging countenance while the old rituals of Law and Land were aired, nerves or boredom dutifully suppressed in the face of Justice.

Shadows flitted over the benches, gathering in the seats, pooling and thickening. Whispering. Wyatt watched them boil upwards and solidify into familiar shapes and faces. DG, her hair tied in bunches far too young for her, Toto sitting cosily in a basket on her lap. Beside her, Queen Iskra coalesced out of the smoky darkness, serene and faintly disapproving. His brother, Javin, lounging with easy, loose-limbed grace. Jeb - oh, Jeb - so many missed notches taller than was right or fair, on his left. He tried to catch Jeb's eye, but his son, like the others, only gazed placidly ahead. Waiting. Waiting for what?

His answer was a roaring crescendo of noise and sulphurous light; a plume of greenish fog exploded out of the chair on the dais, condensing into a spectral head that billowed and contracted with a sickly light.

"All bear witness! All take heed! The Court is in session. Let the doors be sealed and none depart until the Truth is found!" Wyatt stared at the head of the Mystic Man as it floated over the judge's chair, then spun around as the echoes of that booming voice were pushed aside by a sound that had haunted his nightmares. A low, tortured sound of shifting metal. A dreadful, final clang. The sound of the suit being swung shut.

He was trapped.

Stop that. It's a dream. You're sitting beside DG, and Glitch is just...there. He put his hands out, the coat still draped across them. The back of the courtroom was furnished with a pair of solid-looking doors - if there was a way back out of the suit, he guessed it must be through them. A grating voice interrupted his musings.

"That's evidence. Prosecution moves it be taken into the custody of the court."

Startled, Wyatt snapped his hands shut, just too late to prevent the coat being whipped away by a gliding shadow. He lunged after it but his feet seemed rooted to the ground. Wait. Prosecution? There was a patch of ill-defined darkness suspended behind the prosecutor's lectern on the right of the judge's chair - it was from this that the voice had originated.

"Does someone want to tell me what the hell is going on h-"

"The defendant will not speak until directed to do so." The apparition of the Mystic Man drifted forward a little, its commanding tone dropping to a more intimate level. "I'm sorry, Cain. You'll get your chance to state your case - unless you've got someone here who'll speak in your defence?"

"I can defend myself," Wyatt growled. "I've been doing it long enough, haven't I?"

"I'll defend him." DG moved the basket off her lap and onto the bench. Another shadow - a purposeful patch of roughly humanoid darkness - slid along the front of the bench and beckoned her away to the lectern to the left of the judge's chair. Wyatt stared after her, then his attention was drawn to the other lectern, and the hovering shadow that had taken up station there. Faceless though it was, there was something familiar about its stance, the shoulders sloping, head thrust forward interrogatively. Looks like that crow in the forest. Sounds like it, too.

"Hey, Feathers. I guess this is what happens when you take the bar, huh?" The shadow, without the aid of eyes, managed to give him a withering look. "Put a face on, will you? I'm not gonna be accused of anything by a soot stain with an attitude problem."

The Mystic Man's face shimmered sternly. "I won't tell you again, Cain. The next time you speak out of turn, I'll have to find you in contempt of court."

"Contempt's all he deserves," the shadow interjected harshly. Wyatt opened his mouth to snarl back, then thought better of it. The Mystic Man's head, floating like a ghoulish balloon, was already turning to direct a quelling look at the prosecutor. Besides, the prosecutor had obligingly met Wyatt's demand and was taking on a form, and this was enough to make him hold his tongue.

Dad? Daniel Cain's suns-weathered face, coloured by self-righteous anger, was the first thing to emerge from the shadows. The rest of him followed quickly, darkness pouring off his faded work-clothes in inky rivulets. When did this turn into a family reunion? In the waking world, such an event would have been mildly uncomfortable; while Wyatt's decision to run away to leave home and join the Tin Men had never sat well with his father, his temporary return home with Jeb had rebuilt at least some of the bridges he'd burned. Here, the older man's demeanour wasn't merely distant or prickly; it was downright hostile. I don't know where this is going, but I sure as hell don't like it.

"Let the prosecution state the charges laid against Wyatt Cain."

Daniel Cain stooped forward, bracing himself against the lectern like a preacher about to deliver an impassioned sermon. "I'll tell you what the charge is, friend. The charge is that this man -"

"Your son."

"He ain't my son any more. I'm 'shamed to say he carries my name. This man is nothing more than a filthy goddamn faggot."

There were gasps and murmurs from the gallery. The benches on the upper tiers were populated with shapeless smears of darkness; Wyatt guessed that gazing at them long enough might prompt them to take on more recognisable forms, but he had no desire to experiment. That's what this is all about? Raw, your sense of timing's right up there with your hold on geography. He avoided his father's scornful stare and sought out a friendlier face - Javin had sat forward in his seat, but he was smiling, unsurprised. That figured - Javin was the only one to whom Wyatt had dared to entrust his secret and only then under the influence of a fair quantity of beer. But Javin's... different. I knew he'd get it. No, not even that. He'd known he could talk to his brother and wouldn't be turned away, whether Javin approved of what he was hearing or not.

Of Jeb, there was no sign. Figures. He can't even bear to look at me. Wyatt felt his heart begin to close, like a poppy at dusk, and suddenly he wanted out - out of the courtroom, out of the dream. I don't have to listen to this. I can wake up, and this whole damned bit of nonsense will never have been.

Go on, then. You're good at running away, aren't you, boy? The voice was his father's, but no-one else in the courtroom seemed to be hearing it. Ran away from home. Ran away from the City when things got too hot for ya there -

I was keeping my family s-

Ran away from the palace when Her Majesty - fates-preserve-her - could have set you up as Chief of Security -

What, braid on my uniform and a soft bed? You'd never have let me live it down. That was a point, though - he blocked out his father's nagging voice with difficulty, and looked towards the Queen, who gazed past him, aloof and indifferent. You changed the law, Ma'am, so what are you doing here? By the time he'd become a Tin Man, it was no longer an imprisonable offence for two men to be...even now, the thought troubled him ...intimate. That didn't mean it had become respectable, though. Discovery meant public shaming at the least, ruination for many if word really got around. No employer would consider them, no landlord would look at them, no matter how glowing their references. Banks wouldn't lend them money and stores wouldn't take it. And then... the midnight brick through the window. The filth scrawled across a heavily-bolted door. The heart-stopping moment in a dark alleyway when footsteps came too close and laughter took on a vicious note. Wyatt had attended scenes, watched stretchers being carried away - some of them covered - and those whose protestations grew too vehement were apt to find themselves in the City Asylum. No, perhaps it wasn't a crime any more, but there was no shortage of punishment.

"Wyatt Cain, you stand accused of depravity and of harbouring indecent inclinations towards a another man." Which was like no charge Wyatt had ever heard. You can't arrest someone just for thinking. Even Azkadelia waited until you at least said or did something incriminating.

It was one thing for Daniel Cain to lash out with an accusation, entirely another for it to be couched in the language of the Court. Now some of the murmurs became jeers. Wyatt scowled at the sneering phantom with his father's face. You never could have understood, could you? Under his defiance, he felt the first stirrings of shame, and he switched his gaze straight ahead, his face burning.

"Do you wish to make a plea at this time?" How was he meant to answer that?

Guilty - you have to say guilty... and if you show contrition, perhaps he'll forgive you. That was an insidious voice that Wyatt didn't recognise as his own. He shrugged it off. Not gonna give you the satisfaction. He shook his head. "No. Let's see what you've got." The Mystic Man smiled.

"Let the prosecution present its evidence."

Daniel Cain's smile was far less pleasant. "I've only got two witnesses, Your Worship, and then this'll all be over." He reached out across the lectern, extending his finger like the barrel of a pistol. "I call Wyatt Cain."

Wyatt caught movement on the edges of his vision and looked around to find himself flanked by shadows, which herded him forward to stand at the foot of the dais.

"I won't bother to ask you to state your name. I know who you are - least, I used to. So let's get down to it." Cain Senior folded his arms on the lectern, transformed suddenly from preacher to horse-trader. Wyatt had seen his father stand just that way a thousand times, leaning on the corral fence while he talked hard figures with a potential buyer. "I'm gonna make a prediction. I say your defence will be all about how you were married, and you got a kid, and how it proves you just can't be queer." Wyatt's father rolled his eyes theatrically. "So why don't we take a look at that? Let's talk about your wife. Let's talk about Adora."

Wyatt felt his hackles go up, and he clenched his fists at his sides, You liked Adora. 'First thing you done right since you went City on me', you said. He took a moment to compose himself, and wondered how much of this was Raw's work, and how much was down to his own troubled mind. "My wife is dead. Say what you want about me, but you insult her memory and we're gonna have a problem."

The Mystic Man shot him a forbidding look, but Daniel Cain made a gesture that might have been mistaken for vaguely placatory by anyone who didn't know him well. "I'll let that pass. How old were you when you got married?"

"Nineteen." I'm not running away from you now, Dad. I'm not running away from anything.

"Pretty young to settle down and set up housekeeping with someone. Why'd you do it?"

Wyatt considered several answers before finally settling with the only one that was entirely honest. "It was the right thing to do."

"The right thing to do," Daniel Cain repeated significantly, looking around the courtroom as he spoke. "That's a nice, polite way of saying you didn't want the kid you got on her to be a bastard, isn't it?"

Don't let him goad you. That's how he is - he'll dig and dig until you lose your temper, and then he'll cut your legs from under you. "She was pregnant, if that's what you're asking. Jeb wasn't planned, but he was - is - loved. Isn't that what ma-"

"The defendant will answer the questions put to him," the Mystic Man cut him off sharply. "If you wanted to be the one asking them, Cain, you're standing in the wrong place." Wyatt's father grinned wolfishly and continued as though Wyatt had never spoken.

"So you got the girl into trouble, and you married her. Ain't that romantic. You ever... walk out with any girls before Adora, or was she your only shot at being normal?" Another low blow. Is that how you judge how much of a man someone is? Not by the things he done, but by how many women he's bedded?

'How many women did you sleep with before you met Mom? If I'd known this was going to be a contest, I'd have kept score." This raised scattered laughter from the gallery, and Wyatt shot his father a tight, humourless smile that wiped the grin off the older man's face.

"Answer the question - were there other girls or not?"

"Two." And I'll be damned if I tell you anything more than that.

"And then you met Adora and settled down. Third time's the charm, right?" Wyatt's retaliation had taken some of the wind out of his father's sails, but now he seemed to rally. "So the two of you set up a cosy little nest in the City, didya?" Wyatt shook his head wearily.

"Not right away, no. Adora was working at the hospital and I was training to join the Tin Men, and we stayed in the accommodation they provided for us."

"So you knocked her up, married her out of guilt, and then went to share digs with a bunch of other guys? Bet that suited you just fine... did they help take your mind off your troubles?"

Wyatt glared at his father. I should have wrung your neck when you were still a crow. "You can twist it any way you like. We were young, and we were scared, and we both needed to work to support ourselves. You want to read something else into it? That's your problem."

The air around the judge's chair seemed to darken, and the disembodied head, already larger than life, grew alarmingly - an angry green Jack o'Lantern - and boomed "That's enough. This line of questioning appears to have been exhausted. Move on."

Cain Senior scowled, but didn't argue. "Then I call my second and final witness."

Quit showboating and get on with it. Wyatt watched his father with growing impatience; the older man scanned the room slowly, then produced Glitch's coat from behind his lectern and, with a dramatic flourish, flung it out into the centre of the courtroom. It billowed as it fell, a slow, underwater unfurling that left it hanging in place, as if filled by an unseen body.

"That's your witness? What are you gonna do? Read the holes?"

"I guess we'll be needing an interpreter." Daniel Cain snapped his fingers and a shadow slid out of the greater mass of darkness occupying the upper benches to stand in front of the dais. "Lucky we know someone with a knack for rooting out hidden memories, ain't it?" The shadows melted away to reveal a Viewer's shaggy head, and Raw turned sorrowful eyes on Wyatt.

"Raw sorry, Cain. Must tell what is true. What is seen, and not-seen."

It's the 'not-seen' I'm worried about. Wyatt's eyes flitted to the coat. He offered Raw a small shrug and a smile to show he understood, then wondered why he'd done so. Tin Man courtesy - now extends to figments of your imagination, he thought, and let out a jagged little laugh.

"Something funny?" Daniel Cain didn't seem pleased that his one-man sideshow had been interrupted.

"This whole thing is funny. I'm being tried for something that hasn't been a crime for decades, the judge is a dead man - no disrespect intended, sir -" he nodded to the Mystic Man, who inclined his head with surprising forbearance, "- prosecuted by my own father, defended by a princess, and your big witness is a coat." For some reason, that last observation didn't seem nearly as amusing. A coat you felt you just had to rescue.

"We'll see if you're laughing five minutes from now. Do your stuff, Viewer."

With a last, apologetic look at Wyatt, Raw approached the coat and stood before it, gazing into the space above the collar and resting his gloved hands on the empty sleeves.

The courtroom darkened - even the Mystic Man's greenish light dimmed - as a haze of mist formed in the air above the coat. Its pale glow faded, grew transparent, and left behind it a window into a different darkness.

The shadows weren't impenetrable; a weak, colourless radiance - reflected moonlight on snow - lent the interior of the wagon the suggestion of structure. Here was the edge of a squat iron stove - unlit - and, beside it, a tumbled confusion of blankets and cushions. Beside that, a tumbled confusion of zipperhead, kneeling, his hands chafing restlessly at Wyatt's bloodless face. Glitch leaned down, prying one blue-tinged eyelid open to peer into the Tin Man's left eye.

"Cain? Hello? Cain, don't you go dying on me. We have to find DG." When this didn't elicit a response, Glitch sat back on his heels with a frustrated little cry and shook Wyatt by the shoulder. "Cain! Oh, you big dumb leadfoot, I need you." He shot a venomous glare at the stove. "I can't find any matches, and you're too cold. D'you have any idea how high the specific heat capacity of a human body is? It-it-it's... pretty darn high is what it is." The unconscious man, unsurprisingly, made no comment, but the wind rattled the shutter and Glitch shivered violently.

"You hear that? A storm's coming. More snow. More cold. Levaba. And we don't have enough heat to feed her," he muttered, staring vaguely down at Wyatt. Silence prevailed for more than a minute, the zipperhead frozen in place as if his clockwork had run down. Then he shivered again as another blast of bitter wind rocked the wagon on its inadequate suspension, and dug his hands under the heap of bedding. "Thermodynamics gives me the hiccups. You don't have enough heat to feed all those wet clothes, either." This time the silence was busy, and broken by Glitch's muttered observations on Tin Men and their excessive use of buttons.

Wyatt watched, fascinated, as Glitch struggled with his other self, wrestling him out of his sodden shirt. Every now and then he would seem to lose track, his hands stilled or fluttering aimlessly at the wet cloth, his soft scolding deteriorating into a limping, cyclical babble. With nothing to interrupt the glitches, they ran on, unchecked until they wound down by themselves. And you got me all the way back to the wagon without me freezing to death? Unbelievable, Wyatt thought, but it was with admiration rather than pity.

The shirt had finally succumbed to Glitch's endeavours, and was discarded in a dripping tangle on top of Wyatt's coat and leather vest. Glitch exclaimed over the blue-black welt the bullet had left - one that would spread as flesh warmed and blood began to circulate. "Sunsfeathers, Cain... either you got a heart of stone, or you must lead a charmed life." He glanced towards the shirt speculatively, but the tin horse would remain undiscovered for a little while longer, because Glitch was now busying himself with Wyatt's belt buckle. "There's probably a law against undressing a Tin Man without his consent, but since there's only you and me here..." He fumbled with buttons, a zipper, then divested Wyatt of his remaining clothing in a series of laborious tugs and jerks and sat back again, panting with the exertion. "There! No more wet clothes," he announced triumphantly as he gazed down at Wyatt. There was an awkward pause.

"Ohh... you must be freezing..."

Wyatt cleared his throat uncomfortably and gestured at Raw. "Get to the point, furball. This isn't evidence." The scene flickered as the Viewer glanced over his shoulder, his grin unmistakeable even in the gloom of the courtroom.

To Wyatt's relief, the vision had moved on. Glitch had resumed his station by the insensible Tin Man's head, and was busily tucking a blanket around him like a bonnet, until only his face was visible.

"There. Snug as a nestling in its downy bed. Mister Demilo might be stingy with the matches, but he's not short of blankets." Glitch glanced pensively towards the front of the wagon. "Can't see the moons any more - it's snowing too hard. Soon as the window's covered, it's gonna be black as the inside of a mobat in here." He fussed with the blankets, then shoved his hands beneath his armpits for all the meagre warmth there was to be found there. "It's a pity we don't have anything yellow. That's the Munchkin way - yellow to call to the gods, and songs to keep 'em here." He leaned down to study Wyatt in the near-darkness, all shivering angles and hoarse sighs of ghostly vapour. "I know it's all just superstition. Still... it's a pity we don't have anything yellow." He touched Wyatt's cheek hesitantly.

In the courtroom, Wyatt put a hand to his face, feeling cold fingertips brush his skin.

"I don't remember any songs, either." Glitch flinched as the wind threw a sharp scatter of snow against the window. "You know some, I bet. A dyed-in-the-wool boy scout like you, you ought to know a few camp-fire..." There was a thoughtful pause. "Ohh. You started a fire, when we jumped in the river. I thought I felt something hard in your pocket." He dived on the pile of wet clothing and rummaged through it, straightening up with a triumphant shout.

Wyatt squinted at the dim scene playing out in front of him, the courtroom forgotten, and cheered inwardly as he watched Glitch brandish the tin that held his flint and steel. That's it, Genius. Let's see some sparks.

After figuring out the seal on the watertight tin and a few false attempts, Glitch managed to kindle a small but respectable fire in the stove. When he returned to the injured Tin Man, it was with an expectant expression that fell upon seeing that his charge remained as still and pallid as before. "I made a fire," he told the heap of blankets, plaintively. "Isn't it helping? You should be getting warmer, but you're just lying there like a big lump of ice." He dug under the blankets again and, finding Wyatt's hand, hugged it to himself like a teddy bear, folding his coat around it. "I guess I'll have to do it myself. But hey -" he brightened, glancing at the little fire, "-now we have something yellow... if only I could think of a song."

"Seen enough?" Wyatt tried to ignore the gentle, warm pressure enfolding his hand. Perhaps if he didn't look at the images Raw was revealing, the sensations would fade, too. It hadn't been too distracting so far, but the vision wasn't over yet.

His father's sneering tone cut across the courtroom. "Why? Gettin' worried, are you?"

"...the thing with feathers." The wagon shook, the tarpaulin shutter harried by another gust of wintry air. "C'mon, Cain. You're missing the good bit." Glitch was back at the stove. Now the fire was well-established, he had set about feeding it carefully from the small supply of wood - a couple of split logs and a mass of bark and splinters. Once the flames took hold and the new offerings began to char and blacken, he resumed his vigil by the bed. "'Hope is the thing with feathers'," he began again, recapturing Wyatt's hand and clasping it against his chest, still warm from the fire. "...the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.' This is your gun hand, isn't it? You're gonna need that when we go after DG... 'and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all... and never stops at all...'"

Hope. Wyatt curled his fingers around the phantom hand, listening to the zipperhead's disjointed murmuring.

"'...and sweetest in the gale is heard, and sore must be the storm...' It's really bad out there, now. I hope Raw's okay - even with all that fuzz, he's gotta be cold." Glitch flinched as a gust of wind blew across the top of the chimney, drawing the fire up in a tall, thin spire and making the wood crackle angrily. "'...and sore must be the storm, that could abash the little bird that kept so many warm.' Umaii ül' enjevaad, üla kassevaad. Gewen sül inime rian a-lohk thallis." Whatever this meant, it seemed to trigger another train of thought, because he glanced down at Wyatt's hand as though he'd never seen it before and chirruped excitedly. "Your hand's warmer! That's your shooting-hand taken care of. Now I just have to warm the rest of you up." He looked speculatively towards the stove. "What you need is a hot water bottle. Or a cattle-barn - those are the best places when it's cold."

Gazing at the vision, Wyatt wondered what Glitch could remember so fondly about bedding down in a cowshed. Can't be a whole lot to get nostalgic about, unless starving and sleeping rough is your idea of a good time. It occurred to him a man so isolated from his memories would welcome any reunion with them, no matter how brief or grim it might be, and he laced his fingers together, wishing he really could take Glitch's hand and reassure him. It'll be okay, Sweetheart. You're doing fine.

A sharp movement attracted his attention; Daniel Cain's head snapped up as if he'd heard an alarm ring out. Was it Wyatt's imagination, or did his hunched, predatory stoop seem more pronounced? Wyatt stared into the gloom, trying to decide, then his attention was broken because Glitch was undressing, adding his discarded clothes to the waterlogged heap. The firelight was timid and unsteady, making a shadow-play of the scene, but somehow that made it all the harder to look away. He studied the zipperhead, trying to tell where shadows became bruises and the recent scratches of the Mobat attack blended with older scars that he hesitated to decipher. It took his mind off other things, like the unguarded landscape of Glitch's torso, his hip, bare skin prickled quickly into gooseflesh by the cold as he pulled his stripy undershirt over his head.

"I know this is kinda forward, but all that -" Glitch nodded towards the clothes, "- too much insulation. I can warm you up better this way." He knelt at the side of the bed, shivering, then climbed under the covers, wriggling clumsily closer to Wyatt. "Ohh... so cold. I hope this works - can't rescue the princess with a Cainsicle."

Wyatt gritted his teeth. A slight, yielding weight had settled along his right side and against his chest, warm against his skin, as if his clothes had melted entirely away. His eyes flickered towards the prosecutor's lectern. He's watching you. Doesn't matter what it feels like; don't give him a sign. He tried to imagine that he was standing up there on the dais, part of the machinery of the law instead of something trapped inside it, green-clad icon of neutrality, but it had been a long time since he'd been promoted from uniform to plain-clothes and it was hard to look impassive as an invisible leg draped itself over his, a bare foot brushing his calf. Where was the Tin Man when he actually needed him?

The vision began to cloud. Glitch's eyes were closed, and his monologue had been reduced to random pronouncements that looped and diminished like water swirling down a drain.

"...mutual thermal equilibrium... Cold. Hot and cold - it's a problem. How do you keep it moving? I tried ions and mesons and bosons and hadrons and elevated columns of curious quarks but it never did work that way. And in the morning, there'd be flowers. I like flowers. I like daffodils. I like tulips..." He tried to go on, but he was shuddering so violently that all that emerged was a string of fragmented sound, punctuated by the chattering of his teeth.

"Do I need to say anything?" Daniel Cain made a sweeping, two-handed gesture towards the image as though he could drive it away with the sheer force of his disgust. "See 'em all cosied up together? That ain't natural, I don't care how cold it was."

Wyatt tried to think of a scathing retort, but his mind was blank, his mouth dry. The warm, light pressure was still moulded attentively against him and even though it wasn't Adora, that spare, curveless frame he sensed at his side, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Again, his father looked suddenly towards him, and curled his lip in a sneer of distaste. Oh, come on. Isn't there any part of my head that's private?

"Does the prosecution have anything further to add?" The images above the coat flickered and faded. The Mystic Man's light grew more intense, and the court lamps with it.

Daniel Cain shook his head, "I've got nothing more to say. Only a blamed fool could look at that display and figure it was innocent."

The Mystic Man nodded to DG. "You're up, Your Highness."

DG cleared her throat and squared up to the lectern self-consciously. Wyatt's heart sank. It won't bite you. He'd stood in at more than his fair share of court proceedings, and while he still believed in the value of solid evidence and the power the court had to command truths from reluctant lips

...and shall not bear false testimony; this I swear...

a trial could be won or lost on the performance of the prosecutor or defence. The lectern was a prop, a weapon in the armoury of a barrister, to be gripped and leaned on during a passionate tirade, slammed with the flat of a hand to emphasise a point. Not hidden behind, which seemed to be DG's strategy. The princess cleared her throat again and glanced sideways at the Mystic Man, a mute entreaty in her eyes.

"Would you like to present your defence, Your Highness?" His voice was kind, now, the sternness sheathed in gentler tones.

"Uh... yes?" She transferred her gaze to Wyatt, and he offered her a grin that felt stiff and false.

"Sure you don't want to interview the coat, kiddo? It is a material witness." It seemed to break the tension; DG smiled and shook her head. Wyatt relaxed a little. Maybe this wouldn't go as badly as he'd thought, even if the figure behind the prosecuter's lectern was looking less like his father and more like some brooding scavenger overlooking an injured animal, waiting for it to grow too weak to fight.

The apprehension had eased from DG's face. When Daniel Cain turned to glare at her impatiently, she favoured him with an infuriatingly sweet smile, then turned away. Wyatt's spirits lifted. That's better. Now we'll get somewhere.

"This whole thing..." DG raised her hands, indicating her surroundings, then let them fall to her sides in exasperation. "It's ridiculous."

Right. Wyatt nodded in silent agreement.

"I mean - forget that you're more concerned about Mr C - uh, Wyatt's personal life than the fact that he was shot and almost froze to death..."

Damn right.

"The idea he could have those kind of feelings for Glitch is... well, it's crazy."

Righ... what?

"Even if he hadn't told me himself that he's not... like that - and he wouldn't lie to me - it's obvious that all you're seeing in that memory is Glitch trying to keep Wyatt alive. If you're trying to make it more than that, it's you that's twisted." DG gestured accusingly towards Daniel Cain. "Did Wyatt ask Glitch to climb in bed with him? Did he ask him to take off his clothes? Did it look like he even knew what was going on?" She shook her head pityingly. "And that's your entire case... that and his marriage got off to a rocky start. The whole thing holds about as much water as a sugar bucket."

Wyatt missed what she said next, caught up in his own thoughts. The case might be flimsy as tissue-paper, but the defence is no better. Either I have to be ashamed of the way I feel, or try to believe it doesn't exist. What kind of a choice is that? He looked up at the dais, caught between guilt and denial. A hot, cramped feeling began to tighten his chest.

"Wait..." There was something - perhaps the tone of Wyatt's voice - that stopped DG midsentence. Dan Cain, seeming to sense that he was close to victory, leaned over his lectern.

"You got something to say, kid?" Wyatt gave a guilty start. His father hadn't addressed him that way since he was sixteen years old, and his air of magnanimity seemed to promise a way out

I know what you did, but if you own up now, we won't say anything more about it

but there was a sly look in his eyes - no, not sly, Wyatt decided - satisfied.

I've got you cornered, boy. I'm the only deal in town, so you might as well give in and confess. All your dirty little secrets.

He imagined his heart growing inside his ribcage, swelling like a squash near to harvest, crowding out his lungs till they could barely function.

...shall not bear false testimony...

"Wyatt?" That was DG. Sorry, Princess. Maybe I didn't tell you an outright lie, but I sent you on a ten-league detour around the truth.

...I swear...

It was only a dream-court. Still, it was a court, and he had been a Tin Man, and the truth could only be contained for so long.

Tell the truth.

"I love him."

Immediately, the pressure subsided, but there was no chance for relief - Wyatt's quiet admission had sent the court into uproar.

'Damned out of his own mouth", cawed Daniel Cain, jabbing a talon-like finger towards him. "No better than any other of those back-alley pansies. Filth, the lot of 'em -"

"You're wrong! He doesn't mean it - he's just confused because Glitch saved his -"

"-shoulda taken that job at the Palace after all. You could take your pick of pampered pretty-boys with soft hands and no ba-"

"- will come to order! Order! Right now!"

Wyatt grimaced. His moment of respite was over; his throat hurt as though he'd been holding his breath for too long, and when he gulped a lungful of air, it seemed that metal bands had been clamped around his chest and cinched tight. The courtroom had grown darker, stifling, and the raised voices merged into a deafening cacophony that made him want to clap his hands over his ears.

Then, unexpectedly: silence.

From the side of the courtroom, barely a flicker of movement in the periphery of his vision, a shadow detached itself from the darkness, changing as it flowed towards the dais. Fine threads of light coruscated over its surface, chasing themselves in waves and ripples and leaving tracks of brightness behind them. With an effort, Wyatt turned his head and saw the blackness give way to the figure of a woman, a book held out before her in both hands. It was Adora, her hair bound up in a ribbon the way it always was when she was working, her dress simple and pale. She carried the silence with her, and the air moved in her wake, cool and clear, like the breeze beneath shady trees. Wyatt braced himself for grief, but there was only a soft, sweet ache that brought tears to his eyes.

"Adora..." His voice sounded loud in the sudden lull. I never stopped loving you, not for one minute. He watched her approach, feeling his stomach knot with emotion. I'm in love with Glitch. But you and me, we were never a lie. On the dais, the argument was still raging on, and it had spread to the benches that lined the court. The shadows were in turmoil; Queen Iskra and Javin - both on their feet - were exchanging their opinions in soundless vehemence. Adora halted in front of Wyatt, and he opened his mouth, wanting to give her assurances, to erase his father's poisonous suggestions, but she just put a finger to his lips with an enigmatic smile, and offered him the book. Now, close up, he recognised the decorative leather cover.

What am I meant to do with this? He took the album and let it fall open in his hands, and a dozen origami bookmarks spilled out, a dozen more still lying between the pages. Little paper birds. There had been a bird like these beside Adora's grave when he'd been to visit it, and the weather-worn remains of several more. You went to see her, too. Wyatt traced his fingertip over the birds, touched by the gesture, revealing a larger sheet of folded paper beneath.

INICAL DIAGN marched in stark capitals across the wing of the paper plane.

"I can't read this - it's private. It's Glitch's." He was talking to no-one; Adora had vanished, leaving only the warm imprint of a kiss against his cheek, and the angry bickering returned with the force of a physical blow. There were no answers to be found there. Wyatt picked up the aeroplane, setting the book down gently at his feet, and stared at it for the best part of a minute before deciding that it wouldn't have turned up in the dream unless he was meant to see it. Slowly, trying his hardest to remember the sequence of folds, he opened out the page. Glitch's laborious scrawl greeted him.

yOu'rE stAndiNg iN thE wRonG pLacE

...the wrong place. Wyatt stared down at the unfolded page, creases slicing the uneven words into a subtle geometry of light and shade, then up at the waiting figures on the dais: the Mystic Man looming above the judge's chair, DG - flushed with embarrassed defiance - on one side, his father - glowering balefully out of lidless, black eyes - on the other. All of them seemed oddly flat, as though painted onto the air. The paper twitched in his hands, then began to refold itself into its former shape.

"I'm not on trial, here. This isn't a crime, and I don't have to protest my innocence or wallow in guilt." He raised the plane to his shoulder, aimed, and threw it towards the dais. "Case dismissed."

All around him, the paper birds erupted into the air, wings beating jerkily as they came together in a rustling swarm that followed the lazily gliding plane. As the little squadron reached the dais, it seemed to hesitate for a single, drawn-out second before plunging into the image of the Mystic Man, dispersing it as easily as a puff of cigar smoke. Fading ripples of green mist spread out on the air, reaching Daniel Cain and DG at almost the same time. The prosecutor's transformation from man to bird accelerated suddenly; hands - raised to fend off the origami birds - twisted into claws, hunched shoulders sprouted wings, and within seconds there was nothing left but a large crow, which launched itself from the lectern and flapped angrily back into the shadows. DG, meanwhile, had grown insubstantial - a worried mirage still mouthing protestations that were inaudible over a crackle of static. Then she, too, vanished with a tiny, defeated fizzle.

Wyatt climbed onto the dais, relishing the sudden peace. Now that he looked down at the court from this position, he could see that the benches were empty - their polished veneer worn down by years of use. But only because that's how I remember it. "Smoke and mirrors, that's all it is," he told the empty room firmly. "Raw stirred up my memories and steered me through them till I got the message."

"Nope. Ain't nothing here but what you brought with you.." The benches weren't empty after all; there was one person left, but he had been sitting so still and quiet that Wyatt had never noticed him. Besides, he was used to seeing Tin Men in the courtroom. After a while they just blended into the background. Even, apparently, if they were wearing the same face as you. The Tin Man nodded towards the coat, which still floated, unoccupied, between them. "And him, of course, but he can't hear us. Not now, anyhow. He's starting to -"

"- wake up..."

What?

"Wyatt?" DG was leaning over him, Raw's totem clutched in one hand. Her worried frown melted into relief as he stirred, shifting uncomfortably. "Welcome back."

Wyatt eyed her blankly, and she smiled and squeezed his arm. "You zoned out there for a minute. Glitch was getting restless and I couldn't rouse you. Are you okay?"

For a minute? "Yeah... I'm - I'm fine. Just needed to get my head sorted out." He attempted to stand, but his knees immediately vetoed the idea, dropping him firmly back in his chair. "I'm okay. Leg's gone to sleep," he said quickly as DG reached for him, and he moved her gently aside so he could see the bed. "Tell me what happened with Glitch."

DG ignored this, searching his face uncertainly. "You must be tired. Maybe you should get some sleep? I can wait for Doctor Spicer to come back."

"Don't change the subject, Princess." He was rewarded with a slight scowl, but his matter-of-fact tone seemed to convince her that he wasn't about to keel over. "What did I miss?" DG glanced back at the bed.

"False alarm, I hope. He was getting agitated - at first I thought it was a nightmare, but I wasn't sure - it could have been another seizure starting." She sighed, massaging her temple with her fingertips as if trying to fend off a headache. "Then he muttered something about feathers, and he seemed to calm down after that. That's when y-"

"Cain?" Glitch had opened his eyes, blinking owlishly in the gentle light.

DG leaned closer, uncertain. "Is he awake this time?"

"I'm awake..." He gazed at her sleepily then focused with difficulty on Wyatt. "Cain?"

"Right here, Sunshine. Are you still cold?"

"Is it time?" Glitch peered apprehensively into the shadows past Wyatt's shoulder. "Are they here to take me away?" There was no sound in the room, other than breathing and the muffled crackle of the fire in the room beyond but, for the briefest instant, Wyatt thought he could hear the ruffle of feathers and the soft thunderclap of a flock of birds taking flight. He shook his head, smiling.

"No. Not today. Not so long as I'm here. It's okay. You just go back to sleep."

This seemed to satisfy Glitch, who closed his eyes and was snoring demurely within half a minute. DG's expression of perplexity deepened as she looked between the two men.

"Did I miss something?"

I had the strangest dream. And you were in it... and Glitch... "He was having a nightmare, like you said. That's all. He just needed a bit of reassurance." And someone to scare the crows away for him. "I think he'll sleep soundly, now." Wyatt got to his feet slowly, testing his legs.

"Where are you going?"

"To see Krantz. Just to talk," he added, as dismay clouded DG's face. "He's had plenty of time to consult the City doctors, now. I want to know what he's gonna do next."

"All right, but..." she gave him a cautionary look, "try and keep it civil, okay? Until the new doctor arrives, Krantz is all we've got." Wyatt patted her shoulder lightly as he passed her.

"I promise I won't shoot him. Even if he's really obnoxious." That earned him a tentative smile.

"Good. Because Mother would have you locked up, and Glitch needs you here."

"I know." He darted a look towards the bed. A little bird told me.

Chapter Text

Wyatt hadn't been inside Krantz's room before. Nor, did it appear, was he going to have the opportunity now. Though he'd been tempted to simply barge in unannounced, as the doctor had on several occasions while Wyatt had been sitting with Glitch, Wyatt had decided that he would be the better man and had knocked briskly on the door. He was unsurprised when, a minute later, he was still standing outside, ignored. Krantz didn't strike him as the sort of man who hurried to greet people. Still, he'd expected something and, after the third knock hadn't elicited a brusque 'enter' or the even more peremptory and impersonal 'come', he decided Krantz was elsewhere. Probably busy with that blonde bit of stuff he calls a nurse, trying to impress her with how comfortable he is in a grand place like this. Wyatt curled his lip in an unconscious imitation of his father. She was no nurse. Adora was a nurse. He turned to leave, but before he could step away from the door, a tiny sound made him hesitate.

clack

An oddly potent image filled his head; a bird, perched on Krantz's windowsill, giving the glass a sharp rap with its beak. The same thing had happened a few days before - the sound had brought Wyatt to his window, convinced that someone was standing below, throwing pieces of gravel up at the glass. Instead, there had been a thrush, large and speckled - deep brown on an almost olive-green - pecking petulantly at its own reflection. Trick of the light, he'd thought, fascinated - the same sunslight fooling the thrush into seeing its rival in the glass was effectively hiding him from view so that he was able to get within a foot of the bird and admire its markings. Glass on this side, mirror on that. It could be a hell of a useful thing to the Tin Men... When Glitch was better, he would suggest it to him.

Now, however, the bird that winged its way into his imagination wasn't a thrush, but a crow, trying to get in and finish what its fellows had started. That's why he says it's so dark; the crows are blotting out the sun. He smiled sheepishly at his own superstition. You can take the boy out of the farm... Still, the idea had an eerie persuasiveness to it. And if the crows were conspiring with anyone in the palace, Krantz was enough of a creep to stand out as the perfect ally. Or - how about this? - he was one of the crows himself, kin to that dream-rendition of Wyatt's father, and he'd locked himself out of his room and was tapping to be let back in.

Okay - thoughts like that are a sign you need to get some sleep. Krantz was a creep, but he was still a doctor. The fact that he'd telexed colleagues in the City was proof that he was trying to help Glitch. Or that he's out of his depth, Wyatt thought uncharitably, then frowned. He'd thought of Adora, and there had been no accompanying twinge of sadness, and no guilt when he remembered his declaration in the courtroom.

"I love him," he mouthed to the empty corridor, and waited for something - an echo of reproach - to come back. Nothing stirred the quiet air. Was it a sign that those accounts were finally settled? Of course, Adora hadn't really appeared to him to give him her blessing. That would be one miracle too far. If Raw truly wasn't responsible for what he had seen, then his own mind had made her appear... but that was okay too; it was his own conscience - his own heart - that had been waiting for past and present to be reconciled. I guess the help I needed really was only a crow's-call away.

After a furtive glance along the corridor confirmed that he was alone, he put his ear to the door. There it was again; just on the cusp of hearing, something inside the room let out a short sequence of staccato raps. Then, something new - a soft, shrill note, half-way between a buzz and a whine. Wyatt listened, not even breathing, then smiled as he finally made sense of the sounds.

Personal telex... well, aren't we fancy? He could see the need for visitors to the palace - a doctor especially - to stay in touch with the City, but the palace had its own telex, didn't it? He'd seen the mast, high up on a domed roof, had mistaken it for a flagpole at first, in fact. I guess you can't have confidential medical stuff lying around on a public telex. Which was a shame, because the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to see what was being said. It was a foregone conclusion that Krantz would share only the bare bones of any information he had, and that with great reluctance. Eventually things would filter down from the queen through DG, but Wyatt wasn't sure he wanted to wait that long. He checked once more that the corridor was clear and turned the handle.

Locked. He snorted. Why had he expected it to open? Glitch's room was never locked, but that was because the lock had been removed. He'd questioned DG about it, and she'd given him one of those melancholy smiles she'd been carrying around with her for the last week.

First day here, he managed to lock himself in his room and lose his key. Mister Rawlins has the master keys, and we - Az and I - could always use magic, but it was bound to happen again, and he just looked so helpless and embarrassed. Mother had the lock removed and a blank plate put in to cover the hole.

Wyatt could understand the reasoning behind it, but he'd felt just a flicker of indignation on Glitch's behalf. Just another example of everyone but Glitch deciding what's best for him. Like dragging him half-way across the OZ, leaving part of himself at the Sunseeder, because Her Majesty wanted him to be around at her birthday festivities. Did anyone ask Glitch what he wanted? He quelled the irritation before it could flare up into anything more. It wasn't a good time to let anger do his thinking for him. Instead, he assessed the door, dropping to one knee to peer at the keyhole. For all its decorative embellishments, the lock itself looked fairly plain and straightforward.

You aren't seriously considering what I think you are, are you?

"No harm in standing outside someone's room, is there?" No, there wasn't. And there wasn't any harm in investigating the ornate lamp on a semi-circular table near the door, either, although Wyatt imagined the queen might have something to say about him removing one of the long crystals depending from the stand so that he could prise out the wire ring holding it in place. You said it yourself, Your Majesty. I'm not a Tin Man any more. Maybe my sense of justice has outlived my ties to the letter of the law. With a little work, he unfolded part of the wire until he had a sturdy length of metal with a stubby hook at one end and a misshapen loop at the other. A cursory search of his pockets produced a small pocket-knife with a bone handle. Improvised lock picks? Why not? It's all part of the Boy Scout code, folks.

No time to waste. He didn't fancy explaining to some sceptical maid what he was doing kneeling outside another guest's bedroom. With the makeshift pick in his right hand, he explored the inside of the lock, cautiously testing the resistance of the pins inside. If the wire bent now, he was sunk. Fate - or perhaps Glitch's Munchkin gods - were smiling on him. The wire held, and the pins yielded easily. Now Wyatt slipped the thin knife blade into the lock, feeling his way along the bottom of the keyhole, and twisted it gently as he coaxed the pins upwards with the end of his pick.

A minute passed and Wyatt, feeling clumsy and frustrated, was just about to pull the pick free and admit defeat when the lock made a faint metallic 'snick', and the knife twisted a fraction. Almost... He held the blade steady, resisting the impulse to wrench at it, seeking blindly with the pick to find that last, elusive pin. All at once, it slid into alignment and the mechanism rocked smoothly over, the latch springing back with a solid clunk that made Wyatt wince. In the silence of the corridor, the noise had seemed loud enough to bring the whole palace running. He considered taking a moment to reattach the crystal to the lamp, but decided against it. There might be other locks to get through.

Now you're thinking like a crook instead of a Tin Man.

Wyatt grinned, pushing the door open. That had sounded like DG. Princess, every Tin Man worth his salt knows how to think like a crook.

He paid only the barest attention to Krantz's room. There was no time for sightseeing - the doctor might return at any moment, and being found in his room was a sure way to get himself thrown out of the palace, or worse. Wyatt closed the door behind him and listened. The sound of the telex was louder, now, but still muffled, and he turned slowly, trying to get a bearing on it. A second later, the machine fell silent. Don't play coy with me now.

The desk, which had seemed the most obvious location for the telex, was empty aside from a few medical journals with the school of science crest embossed into their covers. Not surprising - the majority of Krantz's medical equipment was cluttering up Glitch's little parlour. The device wasn't able to hide for long, though; Wyatt searched along the walls until he found a socket, brass-framed and decorative, and traced the wires that led from it to...

"A closet?"

He tried to picture Krantz as the sort of considerate guy that would shut a noisy piece of equipment away so as not to disturb his neighbours, but the image just wouldn't sit right in his head. But he might stash it out of sight so that some curious maid couldn't glance at the print-off as it scrolled its way into the output bin. Wyatt opened the door with his other hand outstretched, ready to steady the device if it had shifted as it chattered away to itself in the dark of the closet. Now he cares about confidentiality? Glitch's privacy and dignity haven't exactly been high on his agenda up until now. He jumped back as whiteness spilled out of the partially-open door, then stooped to gather up the loosely folded paper, scanning the blocky text for telling medical jargon.

It was hard to make much out at first. The messages were choppy little assemblies of truncated words, jammed together between lines of telex code and abbreviated so that they read like a man trying to speak without moving his lips. Skip to the end. That's where the important stuff should be. He pulled the print-off through his fingers, rolling it as he went, and found the most recent message.


******MESSAGE INCOMING CC180307+SS+T11******

+++WRU +++FIN+000+T06

******CONNECTION ESTABLISHED 20:44 19.08.07******

+++KTZ: LST OFR 500. YR MOVE. WON'T B PUSHD HIGHR. SLK

******END******


What?

He read it again. 'LST'... Lost? Last? Last. Last offer five-hundred. Five-hundred crowns? The next message was equally cryptic:


******MESSAGE INCOMING CC180307+SS+T11******

+++WRU +++FIN+000+T06

******CONNECTION ESTABLISHED 20:38 19.08.07******

+++KTZ: WILL GO 450. HAD BEST B WORTH OUTLAY. WSL

******END******


SLK and WSL. Neither of whom sounded particularly cordial, and both of whom were offering Krantz a substantial amount of money for something. He read on with growing unease.


******MESSAGE OUTPUT FIN+000+T06******

+++WRU +++CC180307+SS+T11

******CONNECTION ESTABLISHED 12:04 19.08.07******

GNLMN: NEWS - NO RESP 2 CIEL-BAR TEST. MSTRY DEEPNS. BEST BIDS PLS. CLOCK TICKING. KTZ.

******END******


12:04.

Krantz had sent the message shortly after storming out of Glitch's room. Wyatt read it again. A chill crept up his spine, and the back of his throat filled with cold bile. Best bids, please. In spite of his supposed outrage, Krantz had been sufficiently composed to come down to his room and send a telex. What are they bidding on? He began to unroll the sheet, skimming the messages.

SLK and WSL had both made several offers in the past few days. Wyatt barely read them - his eyes kept jumping to the messages headed OUTPUT FIN+000+T06.


WSL: STL CAPBL OF COHERNT SPCH. ANYNGLY SO. MAY SDATE IF DSNT PIPE DWN. KTZ.


SLK: RGRT DISSCTN WLD B AT DSCRTN OF HRH. KTZ.


After a few entries, the abbreviations no longer registered. Slick and Weasel, as Wyatt had started to think of them, peppered their rising offers with questions - had this test been done? Had that? There had been a fourth voice in the dialogue - CHG - but he had fallen by the wayside at 'three hundred', even after Krantz's brisk exhortation: Be adventurous - this could be your crowning work, your ticket to Seniority. Before that, the communications had come thick and fast, all three respondents virtually stepping on one another's heels to send back their offers, if the time-stamps were anything to go by.

The paper slid through his fingers, stopped.

Doesn't matter. If you keep it alive, you're a miracle-worker. If not, you look sad and write up the case for your Application for Seniority.

Slid onwards. Stopped.

Gentlemen: I have an interesting proposal. Exclusive access to a unique case. For the right price.

He stared down at the paper, momentarily paralysed by a rising tide of cold fury. Is now a good time to let anger do my thinking for me? Dropping the telex as if it was diseased, he slammed out of the room and collided almost immediately with a footman who recoiled at his murderous expression.

"Krantz - where is he?" When the man didn't reply at once, Wyatt grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "Doctor Krantz. Tall guy. Red hair. No chin. Limited life expectancy. This is his room."

"Doctor Krantz, sir? I-I think he's in the library. But he isn't expecting to be..."

Found out. Wyatt released his grip and strode towards the staircase.

"...disturbed," the footman finished weakly, to the tune of Wyatt's departing footsteps.

Voices echoed dimly through the archway. Wyatt couldn't make out any words, but he recognised Krantz's educated tones immediately and set off in that direction. This was the first time he'd been into the library, any library, come to think of it, save for the small, musty room back at the old Tin Man headquarters, where the slab-like books of police procedure and the Outer Zone's convoluted system of law were kept. Those books had been, appropriately, uniform - green buckram bindings and silver block-letter titles, like a row of Tin Men on parade. The contents of the palace library were a world apart, reminding Wyatt more of the denizens of the Realm of the Unwanted, the fabulous nestling cheek-by-jowl with the grotesque. Rather than a single echoing hall, the library was housed in a network of interconnecting chambers, shelf-lined walls looking in on marble-topped tables with elaborately entwined wooden stems. Wyatt glanced at them as he passed - a faded block of crumbling paper announcing itself as 'Byinge an Gaderinge of thee Roial Bokes of the Roialme of Oz', a single child-sized shoe made of interlocking silver scales, a dented hand-axe nestled on a bed of straw. Well, one man's trash, I suppose...

He paused. Listened. Edged a few steps closer. The voices were much clearer here, the maze-like library bouncing the sound from room to room until it was absorbed by shelves of insulating paper. There was a glassy clink and then the sound of flowing liquid.

"...make any difference. The Queen's warned him off, and if he makes any more trouble he'll be out on his ear. Just relax, Felix. Everything's under control."

"But you said he was a Tin Man. One of the old ones - you know what they were like. You can't bribe 'em and they don't give up - just keep chipping away until th-"

"I said relax. And he was a Tin Man; that's what the Queen said. Not any more. In a day, two at the outside, I'll have my esteemed colleague on his way to the palace, and then it's not our problem any more. We'll just fade away into the background. What can he say? He didn't like the way I talked to it?"

Wyatt's teeth gritted painfully together.

"He does seem pretty protective of the guy. I heard they knew each other during the war."

"Sentimentality, you see? They're not people, not afterwards. They're just lobotomised, half-bright animals that still remember a few tricks."

How about I teach you to play dead? Wyatt, temples throbbing in time with his pulse, crossed an expanse of blue carpet, shoes sinking silently into the thick pile, and halted in the shadow of a bookcase. From his place of concealment, he could see Krantz - or part of the man, at least. Several large, comfortably-padded armchairs were arranged around a low table, and the doctor was lounging in one of these, a glass in his hand, the wing of the chair hiding his face. Another chair was oozing a thin trickle of smoke - Krantz's stocky assistant wasn't visible, but Wyatt recognised his voice.

"You really think they're gonna shell out hundreds of platinums for a referral? I know they're good for the money, but if they wanted to study a headcase they could go to the gaol, or the asylum - there's got to be scores of them in there. What's so different about this one?"

Krantz sighed, his voice laden with long-suffering patience. "You see, this is why you're going to spend your life as a pharmacist's gofer and I'm going to be rich. Sellick and Wesley are both one journeyman case away from becoming Senior Scientists. They don't want some drooling con. Do you know what they do to make a zipperhead in the first place?"

"Did," Felix corrected him. "The Queen's put a stop to all that." Krantz waved his interruption away, a few inches of honey-coloured liquid sloshing up the side of his glass.

"What they did, then, was go in with a nice hot probe and just," he held up his hand and pinched his thumb and forefinger together, "snuff out the bits they didn't want. Cut them out piecemeal with a scalpel and throw them away. Leave 'em half-blind, half-crippled. Burn out a few extra neurons here and there and they're completely harmless. What good is that to anyone? That's not even a footnote in the Bulletin of Medical Sciences. State-sanctioned headcases are old news. But this is one of hers..."

Wyatt couldn't listen to any more. Krantz and Felix were sitting a good twenty feet from the bookcase, but Wyatt crossed it in what felt to him like three great strides. The doctor only had enough time to get out "Oh, it's y-", then Wyatt's fist broke his nose with a dull crunch, tipping Krantz and the chair backwards.

A heavy hand dropped onto his shoulder and he wheeled around in time to duck as Felix took a swing at him. He planted his hand square in the middle of the shorter man's barrel chest and pushed and, as Felix staggered backwards, toppling the table behind him with a crash of tumbled decanters, Wyatt snatched his revolver from its holster and took aim.

"Now, I get the feeling Krantz is the ideas-man of your setup, so I'm gonna help you out with a little suggestion. Sit your ass back down there and don't open your mouth unless you want a case of lead poisoning no doctor in the OZ will be able to fix."

Felix gave him a despising look, but did as he was told. Now Wyatt rounded on Krantz, who was struggling to his feet, both hands clamped over his enthusiastically gushing nose.

"You're gonna want to put some ice on that," Wyatt told him pleasantly, though the rage was still bubbling beneath his skin, looking for a way out. Very deliberately, he moved his finger outside the trigger-guard. It would be all too easy, right now, to squeeze a little too hard. And you promised DG you wouldn't shoot him.

Of course, that had been half an hour ago and the world had changed since then.

"This is assault," Krantz mumbled thickly through his cupped hands. "I'll see you're locked up for this - you're insane." He sounded like he was suffering from a bad head cold, and blood flew from his lips in a fine spray as he spoke.

"I must be. I haven't blown your brains out," Wyatt agreed, "...yet. You sick bastard - you were trying to sell Glitch to your friends in the City. Are any of them even doctors?" Krantz glared at him, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and wadding it up under his nose. "Well, are they?" Wyatt raised the gun by way of a prompt, lining it up neatly with Krantz's forehead.

"Yes, they're doctors," Krantz answered, asperity warring with fear. "You should be thanking me. Anyone could just be assigned to deal with the zipperhead. I'm finding doctors who'll pay to work with i-" The gun twitched. "...him," he corrected himself hastily. "I can't help him, but they might. Isn't that what you want?"

"Oh?" Wyatt curled his lip. "'Regret dissection would be at the discretion of Her Royal Highness'? Sounds like they're really set on helping Ambrose. You said you understood the value of his life. You weren't lying about that, were you? Five hundred platinums sound about right, does it?"

The doctor hesitated, then leaned closer, his voice dropping. "I'll split it with you. Think about it - there'll be another doctor here in a few days, whether you expose me or not. Let me go, and you're not only rid of me, you're better off two hundred and fifty platinums. What do you say?"

"Here's what I say," Wyatt snarled, and moved his finger back inside the trigger-guard. "This is a Spade and Marlowe three-five-seven Magnum. It has an effective range of about eighty yards, give or take a couple of yards. A young guy like you, I'll bet you could run that far in about ten seconds." There was a soft, metallic ratcheting sound as he pulled the hammer back with his thumb. "One... two... thr-"

He didn't turn around when he heard Felix's chair turn over. He's just the sidekick. All I need is Krantz, and the telex.

Which was still in Krantz's room.

Which was unlocked.

Ah, crap.

Krantz saw the realisation on his face, and grinned grotesquely through the blood smeared over his lips and chin. "Forgotten something, have we? Never mind. I'm sure Felix will tidy away all the loose ends. You should have taken the m-"

The gunshot filled the library from wall to book-lined wall with flat, catastrophic noise and the stink of cordite.

Chapter Text

A fine filigree of moonlight crept across the wall, threading its way over the figured plasterwork. Glitch watched it for a while, breathing carefully so as not to awaken the monster behind his eyes. So long as he was still and quiet, the pain drowsed, a sullen grumbling ache - unpleasant, but bearable - and he could think clearly. Moonlight... that meant something. Sometimes there was a different sort of light, and Glitch had decided that there was almost certainly a pattern to the variations. It was something to think about, if the monster would only stay quiet for long enough to let him think.

"...have a visitor." The voice was soft and pleasant, and, in spite of the nervy flutter of discomfort it evoked, Glitch hoped he might hear it again. It wasn't the low, unhurried carefulness of Cain, who spoke like a man laying out the foundations of the universe, but it had a significance he couldn't place and he turned over gingerly, looking for the speaker - a dark-haired young woman, who greeted him with a patient smile. He smiled back, unable to account for the fear curling gently in the pit of his stomach.

"Do I know you?" The words were barely there, a strengthless sketch of speech, and he thought about bones, the skeletons of birds without feathers to catch the breeze and lift them into flight. He'd been thinking about flight often in the most recent episodes of now he'd been experiencing and, tentatively, edging out onto an untested bridge of reason, he'd tried to assemble the various nows that floated within his grasp in the hope that some of them might decently be described as then. And from now and then, you could extrapolate other things. Things that had no existence beyond the theoretical. Things like before and ago and once.

"You do. You did. Dear Ambrose, forgive me."

Ambrose. Hourglass. Footsteps on a marble floor. Laughter, not unkind, but not friendly, either. A chiming clock and the distant sound of music. Lonely Ambrose in his tower. A small hand

closed over his, and he blinked, fixing dazedly on the young woman at his bedside, following her gaze to a slender figure silhouetted in the archway.

My head's cold.

"Come in, Mother. He's awake." The newcomer's face was in darkness; Glitch could make out no expression, but when she finally spoke, the tension in her voice was unmistakeable.

"I don't know if I can..." She paused, trailing a hand over the carved wood; Glitch imagined the fine grain sliding beneath his own fingers; slippery-rough and beeswax-scented.

The world slipped sideways.

"It's just Ambrose, Mother. He won't bite." Amused impatience, now - not quite contempt, but close. Glitch bristled at the tone, then wondered why. Show some respect, He shuddered at the ripples it made in his mind. Afternoon sunslight, the sound of bees and rising entropy.

"I don't want to see. Azkadelia... Please, this is cruel."

"But you must." Much colder, now, and the light was harsher, clinical. The warm stillness had held a suggestion of peppermint, but now a stronger tang of disinfectant hung in air.

The shape in the doorway moved with a soft swish of skirts and perfect, gliding poise. It doesn't hurt at all. Just a weird trickly-tickly feeling on my neck. Glitch tried to brush it away - a stray curl, perhaps, but his arms didn't want to move. And it couldn't be his hair, could it? They'd shaved that off during the tangled, featureless anywhen he'd woken up to. He gazed dully at Azkadelia.

Ambrose? I don't think he can hear me, Az, darling, are you sure he's awake?

"Princess, it's late. You shouldn't be out here alone." The boat rocked gently as he disembarked, sending out dark ripples that cut into the reflected amber light of Azkadelia's lantern. Tigers in the water, he observed vaguely, and shivered.

"I'm not alone. You're here. Besides, it's early, not late." She linked her arm through his and fell into step with him as he set off up the path. "You're cold. Why did you take a boat out on the lake in the middle of the night?" Come to think of it, the light did have that rosy morning quality. How long had he drifted in the little boat, disconnected from the world and seeing only the silent, stately dance of the stars as they turned overhead?

I really must start wearing a watch, he thought.

Something that doesn't need winding, he thought.

In theory, adding a modulated electrical charge and rotation to a simple Schwarzschild black hole would transform the nature of the singularity, opening the gateway to other universes, and making the journey possible at speeds less than that of light, he thought.

Yes, definitely a watch. "I was thinking. It's peaceful out here and sometimes the fish bring me ideas."

Azkadelia giggled. "Funny Ambrose. You missed the Midsummer Ball, you know. DG was looking forward to seeing you dance."

Ambrose essayed a few graceful steps, humming a snatch of a half-remembered refrain. "DG should be in bed. She's too young for the ball." Only five, but inquisitive as a magpie in a jeweller's store. He'd started storing his more intricate inventions on higher shelves, theoretically out of DG's reach, but it was only a matter of time before she learned to climb. She was already driving her attendants to distraction with her exploring. There goes a child doomed to lead an interesting life, one of them had remarked, unaware that Ambrose was nearby, and he'd wondered what was so bad about that.

"Of course she's in bed - it's almost dawn. Come and have some breakfast - you missed dinner last night, too."

"I had an -"

"An apple doesn't count as dinner. Come on, Ambrose - before everyone wakes up." She tugged at his arm and he

I think he's trying to say something. Ambrose, old friend, can you hear me? Do you need us to call the doctor?

almost stumbled, determined to keep his head high and show that he wasn't afraid. The Longcoat on his left tightened his grip, gloved fingers digging into Ambrose's upper arm.

"You can let go of me. I'm not about to run anywhere," he snapped with as much dignity as he could muster, and was rewarded with cuff to the back of his head from another of the black-clad men.

"When we want you to talk, you'll know about it. Until then, keep your trap shut or I'll break it for you."

Ambrose opened his mouth to reply, then closed it hurriedly; even without the threat, the Longcoat's attitude didn't encourage debate. In any case, he had something new to worry about. They'd finally crossed the threshold of the grim black building that had been looming up ahead for the last quarter-hour. The squat fortress was half shrouded in a dirty yellow dust cloud in which blurred figures drifted - sinister dancers that moved to the sound of clanking, grinding machinery. What are they building? Suns above, is this what the OZ will become?

"It doesn't look much now, but once you give us the plans you burned, work can begin in earnest." Ambrose staggered again as the Longcoats stopped abruptly; a lean, sallow man had stepped into the hall, smiling like a shark.

"Raynz..."

"The Sorceress prefers 'Alchemist'. I transform things, you see? Things... and people." The scientist moved closer, and Ambrose shrank back from the malevolent sneer on his waxy features as he leaned closer, but it was the Longcoat to his right that Raynz addressed. "I was watching you, Kinley. That head holds something of great value to the Sorceress. If I catch you striking him again in that manner, I'll have you posted to the moritanium mines before you can blink." Ambrose fought down a childish urge to stick his tongue out at the Longcoat, then tensed as Raynz laid a proprietorial hand upon his shoulder.

"Ambrose. Didn't I say you'd be seeing me again? We're going to have such an interesting time working together."

They have Viewers here... Ambrose had seen one of the poor creatures as he was being hustled from the Longcoat van - a scraggy, half-starved young male, whose hair was matted and clotted with mud and something that might have been blood. Azkadelia had terrorized the Eastern Khuadelin tribes, rounding up the males, and it was rumoured that she was using them to interrogate prisoners. I won't tell. My machine is safe, locked away in my head and there's not a Viewer alive who could make sense of the calculations.

Comforted by the thought, he glared obstinately at Raynz.

"You're wasting your time. The plans are gone, and I'm not going to help you."

His defiance didn't seem to phase Raynz in the slightest. Ambrose recoiled as the smirking scientist reached out and tapped him lightly on the forehead. "So stubborn. What other secrets are you

...cold. Wrap that blanket around him, Az - he's shivering.

hiding in there?"

Ambrose closed the box with a hurried snap and looked up at the princess with a hastily assembled expression of innocence. Clearly it needed some work, because DG grinned and scrambled up onto the bench beside Ambrose, trying to see inside.

"What are you working on? Is it another engine? Can I help?"

"Highness, I would love you to help. You're picking things up wonderfully well." DG's face lit up at the praise. "However, your mother has spoken to me... at length, and has raised some concerns about you," he gave her wrist an admonitory tap as she fiddled with the clasp of the box, "leave that alone, please - attending dinner with engine grease, and I quote directly, 'permanently tattooed' beneath your skin." He stood and stowed the box away on a shelf.

"Mother won't know - she's down at the dance. Az is down there too. She's allowed to stay until ten o'clock." She pouted at the injustice of it all, and her small, busy hands sought something else to occupy themselves, bouncing a folded paper crow across the workbench in a series of jaunty hops.

"Azkadelia is fifteen. You, Highness, are five." The pout vanished.

"Almost six. It's my birthday soon, you know?"

"It is?" Ambrose regarded the young princess solemnly. "Are you sure? I feel certain someone would have mentioned it to me by now..."

"Ambrose. I told you about it yesterday." It was impossible to maintain a grave expression in the face of DG's exasperation, and Ambrose laughed and nodded.

"And the day before, and the day before that. I'm not likely to forget, Highness." In fact, he'd been working on her birthday gift - a singing clockwork bird - for a month, and tonight she'd very nearly caught him adding the final touches to the outer body, bright cabochons of polished amber for the eyes, elegant brass wings feathered with glossy green enamel. He smiled to himself, imagining her anticipation as she unfolded the wrappings. The princess noticed his expression and bounced excitedly in her chair.

"You have a secret! Tell me

...upsetting you, Mother. You don't have to stay if...

everything you know." Time had ceased to mean anything, the world reduced to a binary system: pain and the cessation of pain. Ambrose counted in his head, watching the numbers flare and fade as they settled into their designated places, the jagged silhouette of the primes lining the distant horizon. The pain had stopped for now, but uneasy echoes still flickered across the sky, ready to return at a moment's notice. He raised his head with difficulty, blinking stinging sweat out of his eyes, and stared at Raynz.

"Everything?" Raynz nodded, eyes agleam, and Ambrose grinned dismally. "You don't have that much time." He tensed, anticipating another bolt of spasming agony, but Raynz only smiled and signalled to the Longcoat standing in the doorway.

"And yet - in spite of your superior mind - here you are kneeling there in shackles, while I shall soon be Queen Azkadelia's head scientist. How is that possible, Ambrose? Can you explain it?"

Ambrose watched the Longcoat disappear outside, footsteps ringing on the marble floor. "Easily. I'm not a coward." This time, the pain came right on cue. When it stopped he lay still, feeling his cramped muscles let go one by one, wondering how long he could hold out. He'd made a space inside his head, a small, snug place wound about with a storm of emerging ideas - treacherous ground for anyone who tried to follow. If it seemed that they would break him, he'd go there and pull his thoughts down around him. Perhaps he'd never return to the world, but he wouldn't betray Iskra, either.

"Get him on his feet." All at once he was being pulled upwards, strong hands clamped around his arms, and he stared resolutely at the floor, not ready to meet Raynz' eyes. He heard his own breathing, rasping, ugly gasps he hardly recognised as his own; Raynz was a few feet away, and his excited inhalations played a descant, balancing out the Longcoat's catarrhal rumble. Then there was a fourth: a sluggish, drowsy sound. There's something in here with us...

A cold hand pressed beneath his chin, forcing his head up. "You're not the only one with plans. Look." If he'd been expecting anything, it had been a Viewer, but the trembling heap of rags huddled abjectly in the doorway was human. Except...

"What is that thing?" he whispered, not entirely sure whether he meant the grotesque, silver-lined scar in the man's shaven head or the unfortunate prisoner himself. Raynz looked gratified.

"Isn't he marvellous? The anatomy of the human brain is such a fascinating study." He stooped over the man and laid a hand on the back of his neck, ignoring the whimper this elicited. Ambrose stared, appalled, as Raynz forced his victim's head forward and delicately took hold of a square metal tag at the end of the scar.

"That research was banned. The Queen would never allow -" Ambrose babbled, trying desperately to blank out the soft, metallic tick as the zipper's teeth parted.

"Your queen might not, but mine has shown great interest in my experiments." Ambrose could say nothing - only watch in horror as the man's head opened like

said that he was waiting to hear back from his colleagues at the Royal Hospital, but I

a flower. He smiled to himself and picked it up, burying his nose in the vivid petals.

"Now, Highness, were you going to creep off without saying hello?" he asked, without looking up. DG emerged from her hiding place, looking tremendously pleased with herself, and he placed the flower carefully in his empty coffee mug, trying not to sprinkle pollen on his drawings.

"The red ones are your favourite, aren't they?"

"Without a doubt, Highness, this is the most magnificent bloom in all of Finaqua. Don't lean out of the window, please. It's a very long way down."

"You were asleep," DG giggled and sprawled herself across the edge of his workbench in demonstration, head lolling on her forearm, mouth hanging open. "And you were snoring," she added gleefully, and attempted to simulate the sound. Ambrose listened patiently, wondering why the few people who had ever shared his bed had neglected to tell him he snored like someone shovelling gravel into a tin bucket.

"A charming impersonation. Did you only come here to make that extraordinary sound at me, Highness, or-"

"And bring you your flower," she interjected quickly, and Ambrose smiled.

"And bring me my flower, of course. But was there something else? Don't you have to prepare for your journey to the Winter Palace?" The princess shook her head and held up her arms; he lifted her obediently and set her on his lap.

"It's all been done. Mister Rawlins has been watching them put the trunks in the cars." She pulled on a strand of hair, then chewed the end pensively. "Are you sure you can't come with us? It's a big car - there's lots of room."

"I fear not, Highness. I have work to complete here. Besides, you'll have your sister to keep you company." And then an odd thing happened: DG tensed as if something - a stinging insect, perhaps - had alighted upon her. "Ohh... have I said something wrong?" Perhaps they'd had a falling-out? Even the princesses, whose relationship was generally tranquil, squabbled occasionally.

"Az is acting funny. I don't think she likes me any more." There was something in the way she said it - not a petulant complaint by a sibling out of favour, but the reluctant admission of a gnawing worry. Ambrose frowned.

"Highness, I'm sure that's

said that it could be a tumour. But Doctor Spicer

not possible," he murmured, knowing already that he was wrong. Raynz was a genius in his own, cruel, cramped way - the kind of man who would dismantle a glorious puzzle and set each part on a shelf, categorised and labelled, the delight of creation forgotten in his obsession to master the enigma. A man who would capture the world like a butterfly, to be fixed in a killing jar, and pinned, and reduced to its component parts, meaningless without the context of the whole. That's why the best dreams are forgotten; our minds protect us from taking them apart and breaking them. He wished he was dreaming now.

"Oh, I'll admit, the first few attempts were disasters." Raynz looked down at the zipper-headed captive who was drooling, chin slick with spittle. There was something perversely paternal in his expression. "You can't imagine the mess they left. But the brain is merely a complicated machine, and if you know which buttons to press it can be used and controlled, just like any other tool."

Ambrose had tried not to look, had been desperate not to look, but his eyes had betrayed him, and now it was impossible to look away from the terrible cavity in which something lurked, pink and grey and glistening.

"You're controlling his mind?"

"This?" Raynz snorted. "This is just... leftovers. All the important parts are in my laboratory, which is not to say that I won't come back for the other half if I don't get what I want this time." He looked meaningfully at Ambrose, who fought down a surge of nausea, still gazing at the zipper-head with revolted pity.

"And what happens to him?"

"If I learn what I need from him, we'll let him go." Raynz made a shooing gesture. "Tamed and harmless. Sometimes we let them go in the Papay fields; the Longcoats take bets on how long they'll last. Give me the plans and this won't happen to you. Give me the plans, and I'll let you keep

cry, darling. None of this was your

your mind." He looked up blankly.

"Sorry?"

Tutor - always 'Tutor', for he said that true names were a risky business, especially for one of his profession - smiled indulgently.

"I said 'you look like you've got something on your mind'. Ambrose shuffled over to make room for the shapeshifter, who lowered his broad behind heavily onto the stone seat, sighing with satisfaction at the accomplishment of this small manoeuvre.

"I'm worried about Princess... Azkadelia." It struck him with a sharp, fresh pang of dismay that there was no need to specify which princess; there was only one still alive. He fell silent, waiting until he could trust himself to speak.

Tutor clapped him on the shoulder. "Come on, son. Let's go for a walk," he said kindly, and heaved himself to his feet.

October was breathing its last, waving arthritic branches in defeat as November rolled in to lay claim to the land. Ambrose usually liked autumn best of all the seasons, when the earth gave up its riches and the trees vied with one another to see whose robes of gold and red were the grandest. He liked the frosts that chilled his breath into fine, swirling clouds, and nipped insolently at his nose and fingertips. For him, autumn in the OZ brought with it a feeling of completion, the closing of the circle that began with the torpidity of winter. The land spoke to him in colours and scents of ripe berries, and the sweetness of apples hidden by fading leaves, saying 'we have done all that was asked of us, and done it well. Now it is time to put away our work and sleep'.

This year autumn had seeped in, damp and sour, leaving a stain on everything it touched. Drab leaves rotted on the ground, unstirred by the sharp wind that bullied its way through even the warmest layers of clothing, burrowing beneath skin and cooling bones from the marrow outwards. A grim procession of misfortunes had visited the OZ, the death of Princess Dorothea at its head. The Munchkins, taking the Royal tragedy as a bad omen, had begun to bicker amongst themselves. Some tribes, advocating total withdrawal from the affairs of the OZ, were setting up outposts within the eastern forests and turning away travellers and traders alike. Nowhere seemed to have escaped the unhappy spell; crops withered and languished in the fields, and livestock were sickly and hollow eyed. There were rumours of animal attacks along the stretch of the Brick Route that passed through Papay country. In the city, profiteering rackets sprang up like mushrooms in a rotting log as the realms faced a fast-approaching winter without the usual comfortable insulation of a good harvest.

Deep in thought, Ambrose trailed after Tutor, pausing only once to examine a particularly fine example of an orb-weaver's web that had survived the squally rains of the morning. The maker herself was nowhere to be seen, the web home only to fat raindrops that trembled in the wind.

Tutor was talking and Ambrose made an effort to look interested. In spite of the fact that he was perfectly capable of listening to more than one conversation at a time and participating in both, he'd discovered that unless he was visibly paying attention, people tended to assume he was ignoring them.

"...is grieving for her sister, just like the rest of us. It's only natural that she should be quiet and withdrawn for a while. Her Majesty is keeping a close eye on her, you can be sure of that. So what's eating you?"

"I don't know..." It was hard, in the presence of Tutor, to put a name to his nebulous misgivings. The amiable scholar lived in a world of magic that was entirely impenetrable to Ambrose, a world that operated on intuition and will instead of solid physical principles, and somehow he'd expected that to make it easier to talk about things that were more to do with feeling than knowing. But what could he say? That Azkadelia's smile was... wrong? Suns above, I should be glad that there's any smiling left in her, not wringing my hands because when she does smile, it looks painted-on. Like she's wearing a mask. "Does she seem different to you?"

Tutor paused, his hand on the latch of a tall iron gate that barred the way into a walled-off section of the garden. "No. And she doesn't seem different to you, either," he added meaningfully, and, while Ambrose was pondering the significance of the remark, pushed open the gate and went through.

When Ambrose finally followed, Tutor was stooping a little way down the gravel path, gazing at his reflection in a copper bowl propped on its side on top of a stone plinth. "I'm not really supposed to come in h-"

"Her Majesty won't mind, if you're with me," the shapeshifter cut in easily. "The Repository's out of bounds to folks without magic for their own protection, but you'll be fine so long as you don't start meddling with anything." Ambrose pursed his lips, stung by the implied caution, but his mild chagrin was quickly replaced by fascination as he got a closer look at the bowl, which was not - as it had first appeared - solid, but was made up of several hundred concentric rings, some fine as wire, others narrow ribbons several times as thick.

"I've seen this before - there's a drawing of it in the Royal Book of the Realms..." He peered at the bowl and his upside-down face gazed quizzically back at him.

"A gift to King Pastoria during the Second Age." Tutor nodded and flicked the metal lightly with his thumbnail. "Funny kind of thing to give a king. It's meant to be an Oracle, but I've looked into it time and again, and all I can see are a few scratches on the metal. No words, no pictures." He shrugged. "Guess I'm better at teaching magic than I am at using it. Or maybe it's not the original bowl - the book says it's made of glass."

Ambrose gnawed his lip thoughtfully. Or maybe there aren't any words to see. The bowl chimed dully when Tutor struck it, and the note took almost a minute to die away, hazing the air with a soft veil of blueness. He didn't ask the shapeshifter if he could see it too - he was accustomed, by now, to being alone in the way that he experienced the world. "Not made of glass... hhlas - it's Old Ozian for 'voice'."

"Magic," Tutor reminded him patiently. "Not dead languages. I leave that kind of thing to clever folks like you."

"It's not a dead language." Ambrose picked up the bowl and cradled it defensively. "There's a Khuadelin tribe in the south that still speak it." I still speak it, although admittedly only because he'd learned it the previous winter while laid up in bed with a nasty dose of Awgwan Flu. "I think this is a singing bowl. Listen..." He peeled off one leather glove with his teeth and selected an ornamental pebble from the side of the path. Wrapped in the glove, it raised a most satisfactory peal of sound from the bowl.

Tutor smiled. "Well, that's very pretty, but it doesn't sound much like a voice to me..." he trailed off; the low chime diminished and tapered to a thin, clear tone that swelled and faded in waves.

Ambrose ran the pebble around the edge of the bowl, gliding it over the metal, hypnotised by the colours woven into the pulsing sound. And then - a click, an unwinding of hidden springs - the concentric bands were moving, sliding over one another. Fine scratches aligned - revealing themselves to be minute apertures in the sides of the bowl - and vanished. The single note split like light through a prism and Ambrose breathed in sharply, finally realising what he was listening to.

"It's like no voice I ever heard." Tutor scratched his head, leaning over the bowl like a dog anticipating the arrival of a bone. The copper bands turned more quickly now, spinning complexity into the resonance.

Ambrose nodded, enjoying Tutor's fascination. "Now, this is a dead language. The Munchkins call it the Sen Dain-e; the Old Song. They say there was one universal language that all things knew, and it was sung by the water and the mountains, by stars and stone and sea and all the living things." Sound spilled from the bowl, a cascade of vibrant indigo tones that surged and ebbed rhythmically. "It still survives in a few ancient ceremonies, but no-one speaks... sings it any more. No-one can." He smiled sadly. "In time, even the Munchkins may forget it, and then it will be extinct." He lifted the stone from the edge of the bowl and let the otherworldly harmonies die away.

Tutor took the bowl so that Ambrose could put his glove back on, and held it up to the listless sunslight, squinting at the metal. "I have to tell the princess about this. When the the household came back up from Finaqua I couldn't keep her out of here. She must have spent a week doing nothing but study this darn thing." He hesitated, then added "After little DG... well, afterwards, she pretty much lost interest." Ambrose, who had sought refuge from grief by throwing himself into his work - with an intensity bordering on unhealthy - nodded, trying to look as if he understood. A silence fell between them, each man lost in his own thoughts, until a sudden cold breeze knifed through the garden. They both shivered and Tutor laughed uneasily.

"I guess I'll have to try and persuade Doctor Spicer to share a few Munchkin secrets with me." He tapped the bowl speculatively. "Unless... I don't suppose you can translate Sen Dain-e into Ozian, can you?" His face fell as Ambrose shook his head.

"Not as such... the Old Song doesn't really have words to translate." Ambrose smiled and tossed him the pebble. "But if you make it sing again, I can try and tell you

trying to tell us something. Ambrose, we're here. What are

what it means? Simply this: I've won. There is no-one left to help you. No Father to tell me I've gone too far, no DG to paw at my conscience..."

no-one left

I've gone too far

He was nowhere, just a collection of tangled thoughts in a dark place, with voices to keep him company.

"...no army to lay down their lives for you. And no devoted advisor to whisper in your ear."

I bring grave news

"You promised me you wouldn't kill him. You gave me your word." A frail voice, worn beyond endurance and sick at heart. He wanted to reach out to it, to stand between it and the source of its distress, but he couldn't stand. He couldn't move at all.

The fourth brigade has fallen

"And I kept it. Come and see for yourself." The voice came closer, and with its approach, awareness. Cold air burned his skin; something else - a pungent doctor-smell - burned his nostrils. He could hear machinery somewhere behind him and odd little fizzing noises, like lit matches being dropped into water.

"What are they doing to him? Raynz, how could you be a part of this?"

Sometimes we let them go in the Papay fields

"Now, Mother, don't distract Raynz when he's working. You wouldn't want him to slip while he's... what are you doing, Raynz?"

I transform things...and people He opened his eyes and found the smiling visage of a bald man a few inches away. It was a relief to see a friendly face; the voices had been unsettling. He smiled back, wondering at the dull ache in his temples.

"My head's cold," he confided, then frowned at the sound of his own voice because it seemed slurred and drowsy. Maybe I was sleeping? He was lying down, at any rate.

"The removal was a success, Sorceress. And, as you can see, we have a backup should anything go wrong." The bald man, who looked oddly familiar, moved out of his line of sight and there was the slightest sting of a needle, and a creeping numbness that spread across his scalp until the last of the ache subsided. "I'm just tidying up a few loose ends. We wouldn't want your pet genius getting big ideas."

"That depends upon whether or not I can use them. Come along, Mother. Ambrose will think you don't care."

"I can't -"

"It's just Ambrose, Mother. He won't bite." Cajoling turned to amused impatience, now - not quite contempt, but close. He bristled at the tone. Show some respect, he thought angrily, then shuddered at the ripples it made in his mind. Afternoon sunslight, the sound of bees and rising entropy; tigers in the

"I don't want to see. Azkadelia... Please, this is cruel."

"But you must. It's the kindest thing, Mother. No more lonely Ambrose in his tower, working on your little schemes. Now he won't have to worry about all those things. I've simplified him." Laughter, not unkind, but not friendly, either. "I've taken him out of himself."

"You're a monster."

He lost interest in the conversation. Now that the smiling Raynz had withdrawn to the dark periphery of his vision, he could see a blurry reflection of himself in the underside of some metal device above him. At least, I think that's me... He gazed up at a pale oval, seeing dark smudges where his eyes should be, and the thin, downturned line of his mouth. Except it wasn't really an oval - it was marred by an awful absence, raw and red and broken. That's why my head's cold - there's a hole letting a draught in. He started to giggle - he couldn't help himself, even though tears were streaming down his face. Deep down his thoughts had set up a terrified clamour, but with each little hiss and sizzle it became harder to understand what was happening. His hands are inside my head. His hands... I think I'm losing my mind, and that sent him into another fit of helpless giggles.

"Interesting. Did you want a court jester, Sorceress?"

"Don't be frivolous, Raynz." A woman leaned over him, strands of dark hair tickling his cheek. "Do you know me? We were good friends, once. You and I, and little DG. You'd tell us such stories. Such a pity..."

His laughter dried up, and he hiccupped softly. Stories. Such stories. "I know a story. I know... I know. Such stories. This is the place where the world cracked open. This is a singing map of the universe. And they took what remained of her down to the catacombs, and sealed her away in the dark until she was nothing..." A cool finger pressed against his lips, forcing him into silence.

"A different story, I think. What shall we do with him, Mother? Perhaps he could keep you company; 'Storyteller to the Exiled Queen' has a certain ring to it, wouldn't you say?"

I know a story about a queen.

"By the queen that has no king, Ancient line of Dorothy. Feathers of Galinda's wing, Rare and lovely they shall be. One to darkness shall be drawn, One to darkness shall be thrown. One in light shall be reborn, One to light may yet be shown..."

"Raynz, what is this?"

"I don't know, Sorceress. Just some old memory. A glitch, nothing more."

He hiccupped again, tears drying on his cheeks and the scent of blood and chemicals mixing with the dark-haired woman's perfume. Just a glitch.

"I want it gone. Burn it out of him."

"It's not that simple. It isn't like removing a book from a shelf. Perhaps magic -" The voice was cut off suddenly. Something fell to the floor with a metallic clatter.

"The next time you question my instructions, it will be the last time."

He shied away from the malevolent voice into the refuge of his memories, where the blue light of the singing bowl still wove itself into tantalising shapes, and found that he was not alone there.

How does it end, Ambrose? Do you remember? He opened his mouth to reply, but the simple act of shaping words seemed to have slipped beyond his grasp and he made a frustrated, inarticulate sound. Hush, old friend. Don't try to speak. You know how it ends, don't you?"

He did.

When the hourglass has run down, When the gods their faces hide, Heart and Spirit, Mind and Crown to the Bitter Tower, ride. Light will fail in the still Between if only one and one alone should claim themselves as rightful Queen and hold the Emerald and take the throne...

Thank you, my faithful Ambrose. Rest now, if you can. He felt a somnolence stealing through his body, the last of the panic dwindling away, and he forgot about the disturbing little snaps and sizzles behind him, and watched out of the periphery of his vision as a large tank was wheeled past, something indistinct suspended in the murky liquid.

"G'bye, fishie," he mumbled, and closed his eyes.

"Ambrose?"

"Raynz, you've broken him."

"Ambrose? Doctor Spicer, thank goodness. he"

"You're welcome, Sorceress."

"Ambrose?" Sometimes, I'm Ambrose. Sometimes I'm just a glitch. The thought circled, becoming more meaningless with every repetition - he reached out blindly, looking for something to stop himself slipping entirely away.


"Your name is Ambrose. But your friends call you Glitch."

Cain. Even if it was only for a moment, it was stable ground in the eroding landscape of his mind. Cain is real. Amidst all of his confusion, that was something he could be sure of. Cain was real, and he would come back again and again, ticking like a metronome, clean-scrubbed and scowling but gentle... underneath he's gentle giving Glitch a solid base beat for his syncopated thoughts.

A slender hand squeezed his, and he smiled. That was nice. His head was filling up with a low buzzing, but the hand holding his and the thought of Wyatt Cain remained, keeping him in the here and now. Everything would be okay, so long as Cain stayed with

The air split open and his thoughts scattered like frightened birds. A gunshot, and that could only mean one thing. He grasped the dark-haired woman's hand urgently. "He's fallen. The Tin Man's fallen."

"Mother, wait here with -"

"No. No, darling, I will go." As she passed, Glitch caught her wrist.

"Please... find him. Make sure he's okay. Everything depends on him."

Chapter Text

Running after bad guys is a young man's job. That was the thought that Wyatt hung onto as he pounded along the hall, because it was almost enough to drown out the other thought bouncing around the inside of his skull: They were going to sell Glitch. They were going to sell him. Being a Tin Man meant having a long fuse - certainly if you wanted to stay a Tin Man for more than a week - but sooner or later even the longest fuse burned down. Then you had to decide what - and who - was left. Don't think about it now. Get Felix and the telex printoff and worry about it later.

Krantz's door was shut. Wyatt threw his weight against it, not caring if it was locked or not. He was slightly disappointed when it yielded easily; he was in the kind of mood where breaking down doors qualified as therapy. It swung back on its hinges and crashed into something on the other side, and Wyatt hoped that the something belonged to Krantz, and that it was something expensive.

Felix was crouching by the fireplace; his expression a finely balanced mixture of fear and defiance, but Wyatt barely looked at him as he headed for the fire. There was paper charring in the grate, curls of ash floating upwards like contrary snowflakes, and he plunged his hand into the dying flame without hesitation, grasping for the damning words.

"Give it up, Cain. What are you going to do, shoot me as well?" Oh, don't tempt me. The world would be better off without people like you. But that was dangerous thinking, wasn't it? First Krantz for what he had done, and what he'd planned to do. Now Felix for helping him. How about the nurse, who'd turned the dials and flicked the switches that filled the mask with savage light? Once you started, where did you stop? If the ends justified the means once, why not every time? That road leads somewhere I don't want to go, and it sure as hell ain't paved with yellow brick.He stared down at the crumbling handful of ash he'd rescued from the fire; for a moment, two words stood out:

CLOCK TICKING

then they, too, were gone.

"You're gonna tell her." He grabbed Felix by the collar and pulled him close, trying not to breathe too deeply. What are you using for tobacco? Dried goat crap?"I'm taking you to the Queen, and you'll tell her what the two of you were plotting. And if y-"

"You there! Stand away from him and put your hands where I can see them." There was a guard in the doorway, his rifle trained on Wyatt. "It's all right sir," he added, his eyes flicking towards Felix for an instant. "He hasn't hurt you, has he?" Wyatt eyed the guard stonily. Look at you, in your nice clean uniform and shiny buttons. How old are you? Eighteen? Nineteen? Jeb was leading a Resistance cell at your age.

"You're aiming at the wrong guy, kid. There's a crime going on, sure enough, but I'm not the one you -"

"Shut up!"

Wyatt marshalled his patience. It wasn't the guard's fault, after all. He held out his hands and rose slowly. Have they found Krantz yet?"I'm not about to make any trouble. But I have to talk to the Queen as soon as possible." There was a snort of outrage to his right.

"Don't let him fool you, guard. The man's insane, and a murderer - he's shot Doctor Krantz, and he'd have shot me too if you hadn't arrived." Felix scrambled to his feet and bolted past the guard, but the doorway was filled by a rather more substantial uniform, worn by a solid slab of humanity with eyes the gods had thoughtfully provided pre-narrowed to save their owner the trouble later in life. "Let me past! I'm not going to stay in here with a crazy man. He's burned all of the doctor's work - he said -"

"Now, sir. Calm down and we'll get to the bottom of this." Wyatt was pleased to see that the new guard was making no attempt to get out of the way in spite of Felix's agitated hovering. Then his view was blocked by the younger guard - only a skinny lad with a rash of acne glowing on his forehead, but the rifle he had pointed Wyatt's face was enough to command complete attention.

"Your gun - put it on the floor and stand over there by the wall," he quavered, and his Adam's apple bobbed energetically as he swallowed.

You forgot 'don't make any sudden moves'. Wyatt reached slowly for his revolver and set it down, holding it with the grip away from him so that there could be no mistaking his intentions. The guard stepped forward and kicked it back to his larger counterpart, who collected it and swung the cylinder out, shucking the bullets into his palm with a professional air.

Felix, meanwhile, was still trying unsuccessfully to edge past the bulk of the guard in the doorway. When this didn't work, he tried a more direct approach. "Let me past, will you? I won't be cooped up in here with a killer." To his obvious dismay, and Wyatt's immense satisfaction, the guard remained unmoved in every sense of the word.

"Now sir, that's a very serious allegation you're making. Why don't you make yourself comfortable over there until we've found out exactly what's going on?" The guard gestured towards a small couch at the side of the room. "You too, sir," he prompted Wyatt and, as there didn't seem to be any other options on offer, Wyatt skirted carefully around the rifle and sat down. After a minute, Felix joined him reluctantly, sitting as far from Wyatt as he could get without actually perching on the armrest. Wyatt ignored him, and gave the young guard an amicable nod.

"What's your name, kid?"

The young guard stared suspiciously at Wyatt then glanced at his colleague, who seemed somewhat more at ease with the situation. It was the older guard who spoke.

"This is Private Sweetly and I'm Captain Mellor."

Wyatt gave a nod of acknowledgement to the captain, not taking his eyes off the rifle's small, black mouth. "Well, Private Sweetly, seeing as you've taken my gun, and the most fearsome weapon I've got to hand now is," he looked around "this fine embroidered cushion, why are you looking so worried?" He was careful to keep the challenge out of his voice; Sweetly was inexperienced and edgy - a potentially lethal combination.

Captain Mellor sighed, forbearance exuding from every pore.

"He's teasing you, Private. But only very gently, so we won't shoot him just now." Sweetly relaxed, shouldering the rifle, and Wyatt studied the other guard shrewdly.

"If someone was to cut you in half, Captain, I'm willing to bet they'd find 'Central City Constabulary' written all the way through you."

Mellor met his gaze.

"If they tried, Mr Cain, they'd be too busy picking their teeth out of the gutter to think about reading," he said pleasantly. "But yes, I was a Tin Man once. How did you know?"

Takes one to know one. Wyatt shot a sidelong glance at Felix, who was looking increasingly nervous. Fine by me. You go ahead and sweat. "You unloaded my weapon. There's no way you didn't see that one round's been fired recently," he said. "But you're still here asking questions instead of hustling me off to the dungeons - this place doeshave dungeons, doesn't it?"

The captain smiled enigmatically, but said nothing.

Felix stared between them, incredulous. "This is crazy! This guy assaulted me, and very likely murdered Doctor Kr - are you even listening to me? Aren't you going to arrest him? Lock him up?"

"Bless you, no, sir." Mellor beamed. "He's surrendered his gun quite peaceably to me, and he's not causing any trouble. Now, if he was to pick up that paperweight there and try to attack me, I'd arrest him post-haste, you may be certain, if Private Sweetly didn't shoot him first..."

The private stared straight ahead, but his cheeks flushed a healthy shade of pink and Wyatt awarded the captain a virtual medal. You look like a suspicious bastard, and I guess that's something you can't help, but you play the plodding guard role to the hilt.

"I've two men at the library," the captain continued, "and once they've reported back to me I'll do any arresting that needs to be done. In the meantime, sir, why don't you give me your version of events? Get the ball rolling, so to speak."

Felix leaned forward, all too keen to tell his side of the story.

"This maniac has had it in for Edgar - Doctor Krantz - from the start. He threw us out of the zipperhead's room this morning in the middle of a medical procedure, and he's been trying to bad-mouth us to the Queen." The doctor's assistant glowered at Wyatt, who pretended not to notice. "I guess when that didn't work, he had to find some other way to sabotage us. He came storming into the library ranting that he'd get rid of the doctor one way or another."

Wyatt listened with half an ear as Felix painted a lurid scene. GUN-WIELDING EX-COP ATTACKS CITY MEDICO AT PALACE. That'd sell a few copies of the City Post if it ever got out.When the tale was done, he whistled, impressed.

"That was quite a performance. If the doctoring doesn't work out, you could always take up acting."

Mellor turned to him. "You're saying there's no truth in this gentleman's allegations, Sir? As you yourself observed, your gun has been fired, and you are in Doctor Krantz's rooms."

"That I won't deny, but the rest of it is horseshit of the highest quality."

Mellor blew out his cheeks in apparent perplexity and gave his pockets a theatrical pat. "Well, there's a thing." Eventually, he drew out a slim, dull-grey tin - which looked as if it had been dropped, scuffed, sat on, scorched and quite possibly gnawed during its lifetime - and opened it to reveal a regiment of expertly-rolled cigarettes.

"If you don't mind, gentlemen?" he enquired and, when met with no objection, he selected a cigarette and tucked it into the corner of his mouth. "Can I offer either of you..."

Felix pulled out a battered packet of smokes and pulled one out with his teeth. "Got my own," he mumbled.

The pocket-patting began again. "I don't suppose I could trouble you..."

Felix, clearly keen to ingratiate himself himself with the guard, produced his lighter and held it steady while Mellor lit his cigarette.

"Much obliged, sir. I know smoking on duty isn't generally the done thing, but the role of Captain does have its perks." He and Felix exchanged a conspiratorial glance - We're just two men of the world, it said. We're both initiated into the ritual of the opportunistic smoke when the world pauses for breath for a moment.

Wyatt sighed. "I hate to interrupt this moment of harmony, Captain, but I'll save you the trouble of asking - no, I don't have any matches, or anything else I could use to set fire to Krantz' documents. Feel free to search me if you don't believe me."

Mellor grinned and flicked his cigarette into the fireplace and Felix, sensing that his situation had taken a downward turn, stared at him and then at Wyatt.

"You're the one with ashes all over your hands," he snapped.

"And yours are clean. Because you were the one holding the papers before they got burned. I only touched them when I tried to pull them out of the grate." He felt light-headed, almost elated. Felix's dawning expression of dismay seemed like a prize. Mellor caught it, too, and his avuncular manner changed.

"Anything you feel you'd like to change about your story, sir?"

"You - he's lying! You haven't even searched him." Felix glanced between Wyatt and the captain, and Wyatt glared back.

"Go ahead and search me, you conniving asshole. If you can find so much as a match on me, I'll fu-"

"Am I interrupting something?"

Wyatt got to his feet; he didn't need to look around to guess who was at the door. Everything about Mellor's stiffening posture screamed 'top brass', and Ahamo's slight accent had survived, even after years in the Realm of the Unwanted. Felix, who was slower on the uptake, twisted around and gawped at the newcomer for a moment before jumping up as though galvanised. The Royal Consort was flanked by guards. The doorway being relatively narrow this meant that, in practice, one was beside him while the other peered worriedly over his shoulder.

"Your Highness. These gentlemen have had an altercation."

"You don't say," Ahamo drawled. He beckoned Mellor over and there was a brief conference. Wyatt caught the words 'blood' and 'library', and fought to remain impassive as Mellor glanced sharply towards him. The two men conversed gravely for a moment longer, then the captain left the room and there was a flurry of activity outside. The remaining guards stationed themselves either side of the entrance, while Ahamo sauntered over to lean against the open door of the cupboard where the telex machine - now denuded of its incriminating messages - sat, looking forlorn.

"Well, Mister Cain," he observed cheerfully, "You're in a lot of trouble. I've just come from the library, where - according to Doctor Krantz - you broke his nose and then proceeded to try and shoot him."

Punching the widening smirk from Felix's face was probably the wrong response to that statement, Wyatt guessed. Besides, if Ahamo stepped in, he was in the textbook definition of a no-win situation. He shook his head. "No, sir. Um, Your Highness."

"No?" Ahamo blinked. "Doctor Krantz was very emphatic."

"No, sir. I broke his nose, and then I shot the chair behind him." It was, Wyatt felt, an important distinction. "Felix made a run for it, but if I'd just left Krantz and gone after him I -" Felix made an indignant noise, and was silenced by a mild look from the Consort, who nodded at Wyatt to continue. "If I'd left Krantz, he might have vanished. So I put a round in the chair behind him, because I knew the guards would come running and - whatever Krantz told them - they'd want to keep him around until things got straightened out. I wasn't expecting him to faint."

"He fainted."

Wyatt nodded. I guess he's not used to people shooting... near him."Maybe if I hadn't stopped to check he was okay, I'd have got here in time to stop his sidekick torching the pr-"

"It's his word against mine!" Felix broke in, and this time Ahamo turned to face him.

"I don't remember asking you anything," he said softly, "But go ahead and correct me if that's not so." Felix stared at him, mouth agape. Then he sat down.

Ahamo nodded. "That's what I thought. Do you have any evidence, Cain?"

"The printoff was all I had," Wyatt admitted reluctantly. "But put me in a courtroom, Your Highness, and I'll give my oath as a Tin Man. They were-"

"As I believe I've reminded you, Mr Cain, you are no longer a Tin Man." Wyatt felt his hackles rise at the Queen's cool tone. Once again, an entourage of guards were visible through the open door.

Tough luck, Krantz - all these important visitors and you're not here to bask in the attention. He bowed - there was probably some protocol to follow when the Queen entered the room, but he figured he'd pretty much tossed the book of etiquette out of the window as soon as he'd told her what to do with her Royal Prerogative, so a bow was the best she was going to get. Iskra sat down gracefully on the chair Ahamo brought for her and looked expectantly up at Wyatt and Felix (who had hurried to present himself properly, sensing that he had some ground to make up).

"With respect, Your Majesty, I may have given up the tin," he met her gaze and held it, inviting her to pry inside his thoughts if she were able. "But I held onto my morals. You can bring in a Viewer, if you don't believe me."

"That won't be necessary. There is a way-station between here and Central City that records all messages travelling to and from the palace. We do take our security quiteseriously here, gentlemen." Wyatt felt a weight roll off his heart. By the pained look on Felix's face, it appeared to have landed on his foot. "A copy of this alleged communication will reveal the truth. Until then, you will both remain in your rooms."

-o0o-

Wyatt spent the night alternately listening for the slightest sound from Glitch's room and committing treason inside the confines of his head. Perhaps Queen Iskra hadn't meant to give his imprisonment an extra twist of cruelty, but it was something akin to torture being so close to the ailing zipperhead and unable to see him. At first, he paced, patrolling the room with brisk, angry strides. Then he'd heard a muffled cry through the separating wall, and that had been the end of his pacing. The guard outside his door was sympathetic, but not so sympathetic that he was going to let Wyatt leave. There was nothing for it but to wait it out.

Some time in the early hours of the morning, he awoke from a fitful drowse, slumped in the chair he'd set by his wall. There had been no sound from next door since the brief commotion earlier and now, in the silence, he found his thoughts turning inward.

Well, you got what you wanted. When they see the telex records for themselves, Krantz will be out on his ear. So now what?

"Now we get a real doctor to find out what's wrong with Glitch and fix it." He spoke with all the conviction he could muster, but his worries weren't so easily silenced.

Fine. Assuming that a doctor can fix whatever it is, then what? You planning on handing him a bunch of roses, announcing "hey, Glitch - ever thought about sleeping with another guy?' and sweeping him off his feet?

"No. He'd probably poke himself in the eye with a thorn. A bunch of poppies, maybe." He said it lightly, but his heart sank; he knew where this was going.

You can't tell him. You can't tell Glitch how you feel about him. Forget whether it's right or wrong, you can't tell him because -

"Because he's Glitch." It sounded worse when he said it aloud, but he forced himself to go on. "There's no safety catch on his mouth. Tell him, and you might as well announce it on the wireless." He rocked his chair back on its elegant carved legs, crossing his ankles on the corner of a marble-topped table, and rested his head against the wall, listening, frowning. "And he's impressionable. You could put an idea in his mind that should never have been there, and Glitch has a way of taking a new idea with both hands and running with it until he trips over his own feet."

There. Two genuine, sensible reasons to say nothing. If he stuck to those, he didn't have to think about the third, which was this: What if I tell him, and he's horrified. Disgusted. What if he looks at me the way my father would look at me if he knew what I was?

Wyatt scowled. "Okay, okay. I'm convinced. So what the hell am I supposed to do?" No answer was forthcoming, and he wasn't all that surprised. After all, what couldhe do, except wait and hope, and - improbable though it was - let Glitch make the first move?

"I'll wait." He whispered it into the darkness, wishing that it didn't sound so much like surrender. "I'm good at waiting." He leaned back against the wall again and listened to the silence coming from Glitch's room, until the sky grew pale and he drifted into an uneasy sleep, serenaded by the birds bickering softly outside.

Chapter Text

He was falling again. In the timeless moment between realising this and jerking fully awake, Wyatt wondered what vision would greet him this time. The bleak snowfield above the Winter Palace? The greyness of the Papay fields?

"Wyatt?"

It was neither. DG took a step back as the front legs of Wyatt's chair hit the floor. "Hey, take it easy. I brought you coffee." She set the cup down and regarded him critically. "You look awful. Maybe you should try sleeping in that thing over there with the pillows. We call them 'beds'. They're all the rage, up here."

Despite his worry, Wyatt found he could still smile. He followed DG's glance towards the bed and shook his head. "What, and have people say I've gone soft? I'm already being waited on by a princess..."

DG pursed her lips, feigning annoyance. "Watch it, Wyatt. If Mother finds out about this, she won't be impressed. You're not her favourite person at the moment, even if you had a good reason for taking pot-shots at the furniture."

"Did she tell you why? I'd say I had a damn good reason." Wyatt could feel himself getting worked up all over again. "Or does she still think I'm -"

"It's okay." DG made a soothing gesture. "The doctor's assistant, Felix, told us everything. He's given us Krantz, his friends back in the City - I think he'd still have been talking this morning, if we'd let him. Mother is furious." Well, no-one likes to be proved wrong, Wyatt thought, but he kept the observation to himself.

"I guess they won't have to worry about getting a copy of the telex, then?"

She shook her head. "No. It's a good thing, too. Glitch set the way-station up back at the start of the war. He's the only one who knows where it is."

Wyatt paused in the process of reaching for his coffee and stared at her. "She was bluffing?" Iskra suddenly went up a little in his estimation.

DG shot him a brief, brilliant grin. "It's a family talent. Something to think about if we ever play cards. C'mon. Drink up and go get a shave or something. You can't visit Glitch looking like you slept in a hedge, and you just got made his official guardian until he's better." She caught a lock of her hair between her fingers and twirled it, slightly embarrassed. "I think it's Mother's way of saying you were right."

Wyatt smiled grimly while, inside, his stomach performed an odd little flip at the news. "In that case, I'll stick to shouting 'I told you so' in the shower."

"Probably for the best," DG agreed. "I'm afraid Captain Mellor's keeping hold of your gun for now, too. Mother says you can have it back when you leave."

It's a big palace. There must be a lot of chairs she's very fond of. "Looks like he'll be holding onto it for a while, then."

DG stared at him for a moment, then hugged him tightly. "I was hoping you'd say that."

-o0o-

The disturbance Wyatt had heard in the night had been another seizure. and others followed on its tail like aftershocks. By the time the suns had vanished from the sky once again, Glitch had experienced three more and the mood in the little room was one of quiet despair. Wyatt was at his side constantly, soothing the zipperhead through his confusion, bringing him water, holding him while maids fussed around him with fresh linens. In the quiet moments while Glitch slept - a faded rag-doll amidst the voluminous billows of bedding - he and Doctor Spicer conversed quietly. It hadn't taken him long to get used to the Munchkin's sing-song way of speaking, which seemed more of a habit than an affectation, and Wyatt discovered that he liked the little doctor immensely. Spicer seemed to view Glitch with the same faintly bemused affection that he elicited in most of the palace's residents. He was also refreshingly willing to admit that he didn't know the cause of Glitch's sickness, and had no qualms about the arrival of a replacement doctor.

"My knowledge is too general to tamper with the brain," he confided, pouring them both a tiny cup of the ferociously strong, syrupy coffee that he favoured. "The physicking of royal aches and pains is my domain. I've no desire to overstep the bounds of my position; a specialist physician is required. I trust he makes more progress than the last one -" He gave Wyatt a sly look, "Whom you fired."

That's all very well, Wyatt thought, his eyes locked on the slight rise and fall of Glitch's chest, but how many specialists know anything about zipperheads? He drank the coffee, and decided the purpose of serving it at something close to boiling point was to sear the tastebuds as a protection against the cloying sweetness of the brew.

Dinner appeared, spirited in by one of the silent, nervous maids: cold chicken and crusty, herb-laden bread for Wyatt, and some sort of watery oatmeal, which - fortunately - smelled better than it looked, for Glitch. Wyatt helped him to eat, holding the bowl and murmuring encouragement but, in spite of his efforts, most of it went back untouched.

"It's okay. We'll try again tomorrow." Wyatt forced himself to sound cheerful. "Maybe they can make you some applesauce, or something." Glitch mumbled a response, already three-quarters asleep, and Wyatt gently drew up the counterpane around him, wondering if another cup of Spicer's sump-oil coffee would be enough to keep him awake for another night's vigil.

The outer door to Glitch's apartment opened with the smallest of creaks. Wyatt sighed wearily and emerged from the bedroom, expecting DG or one of the interchangeable maids. Instead, a man who made Captain Mellor look like an undernourished Munchkin was feeding himself carefully into the room, presumably trying not to scrape paint off the doorframe with his shoulders.

"'Ello. This the right room for Doctor Oxley, is it?"

Wyatt looked up at him. And then a bit further up, because the first 'up' had only got him as far as the big man's chin. He tried to reconcile this minor land-mass in a suit with the title of 'doctor' and felt his brain attempt to mutiny and climb out of his ear.

"You're the doctor?" he croaked, and then, because it had been a long time since he'd slept, and his mouth was running several seconds ahead of his brain, "What do you do? Scarethe diseases away?"

"No, Mr Cain, I'mthe doctor." A second voice, radiating good-natured exasperation, arose from behind the newcomer. "Vincent, be a good fellow and let me in, would you? You have many sterling qualities, but transparency isn't one of them."

Vincent stepped aside, unabashed. "Just checkin' it was safe, Doc," he rumbled patiently.

The doctor, now revealed, approached Wyatt and put out his hand. "I'm Ralph Oxley, and my overprotective colleague is Vincent Macey, known to his contemporaries as 'Smasher' for reasons best left unexplored."

As he shook Oxley's hand, Wyatt studied the doctor with interest and a tentative feeling of hope. He was sprightly and amiable, hawk-nosed and balding, and there were a pair of golden pheasants embroidered on the waistcoat covering his modest paunch that put Wyatt in mind of the intertwined bird-gods of which Doctor Spicer had been so proud. He decided to take it as a good omen. Oxley smiled at his frank appraisal and clapped Vincent on the back.

"It's all right, Vincent. I have it on excellent authority that Mr Cain gives everyone onechance before he shoots them."

Wyatt pursed his lips. "I'm not going to be allowed to forget that, am I?"

"Probably not," the doctor agreed, affably, looking around the room at Krantz's stockpile of medical equipment. "But there's nothing wrong with a reputation, providing you're the one deciding what it is. Vincent - would you make these boxes vanish? It's rather like being in a warehouse, and I'm sure you can find a better place for it all."

Vincent grinned and tucked a crate under each arm as if they weighed next to nothing. "Not a problem, Doc. The Free Hospital's always lookin' for donations. We'll write 'em out a nice receipt an' everyfing."

"The Free Hospital?" Central City boasted one large civic hospital and, for those less fortunate, a number of public spirited medics ran 'paupers clinics'. If a charity hospital had sprung up, it had been in the years since Wyatt had quit the city. "Won't you get in trouble making donations without checking with your superiors?" There was a strange, gravelly gurgle, like a wolf being strangled at the bottom of a well. Vincent was laughing.

"The doc don't have no superiors, Mister Cain. He's what you might call 'freelance'."

"You're not from the Royal Hospital?"

Doctor Oxley shook his head. "Not unless Royal patronage automatically confers that honour. The Prince Consort did visit occasionally, in... a former life."

Then it clicked. "You're from the Realm of the Unwanted?" Wyatt tried to keep the consternation from his face, but something must have given him away because the doctor chuckled.

"Don't look so alarmed. Criminals and vagabonds need doctors, too, as do the forgotten and the lost." Oxley had a large leather bag under his arm, and now he set it down on Glitch's desk in a space previously occupied by one of Krantz's devices. "If it's any comfort, I'm sure the Royal Hospital will be sending a representative - His Highness said as much in his communique. Until he arrives, I fear you must make do with me."

Wyatt held up his hands, mortified by his initial reaction. "Don't get me wrong, Doctor. I'm not ungrateful and, frankly, I'll take a doctor from Phloxtown on the Great Gulf if they can find out what's wrong with Ambrose. It was just a surprise. You made damn good time if you came all the way from the Realm."

The doctor glanced up from his bag. "When one's summoned by royal command, one tends to make haste. Put the rest down to fair weather and fast horses. Now..." He nodded past Wyatt, towards the archway, "...is my patient awake?"

"No. He had a rough night." Wyatt went to the arch and peered in. Glitch was sleeping, peaceful for the moment. "And the day's been worse. Unless you've an urgent need to examine him, I'd suggest we let him sleep while he can."

"I see no reason to wake him up if he's resting. I'd like to take a look at him, though, if you've no objection." Oxley had joined him at the arch, a stethoscope draped around his neck. "I can make some preliminary observations without disturbing him."

Wyatt nodded, and beckoned him through the arch, keeping his voice low. "I should warn you, though, he - he's not fond of doctors. If you wake him, he may panic. The last doctor was..." He struggled for a suitable description, ultimately settling for "...unpleasant."

Oxley nodded gravely. "I understand. Any other aversions I should know about?"

"Ah... heights." Wyatt followed him into the room, watching him closely - the new doctor seemed decent enough, but after Krantz, he wasn't taking any chances. "Although I don't think that's gonna be a problem for a while," he added ruefully. "And right now he can't stand bright light or loud noises. One of the maids dropped a glass this afternoon and he damn near broke my hand." And I'd be obliged if you didn't think to ask why I was holding his hand at the time. "I'd rather not turn the lamps up if it's all the same to you."

"One grows accustomed to unfavourable lighting conditions in the Realm. Don't worry, Mr Cain." The doctor made his way over to Glitch's bed, speaking just loud enough for his voice to reach Wyatt. "We'll have a little talk about that in a moment. Tell me about today."

"Today..." Wyatt let out a small sigh and considered his words. This was an improvement - a doctor who was actually asking questions, rather than assuming that he already had all the answers. "He was asleep when I came to see him - he'd had one seizure at about two in the morning, but I didn't see that one - then he woke up at about ten and he was in pain. He didn't sayit in so many words - if you ask him, he'll just say 'sometimes it aches' - but it was obvious, just looking at him."

"I see. And he had another seizure today?"

"Three. The first just before midday, another between four and five, and another one almost straight after that." He frowned, remembering. "Mostly he's slept for hours after each one, but he came round about half an hour after the last one and he couldn't get back to sleep for a long time. I think he was afraid it was going to happen again, and he was very disoriented."

While Wyatt was talking, Doctor Oxley gently took Glitch's wrist, peering at a large, gold watch he'd drawn from his waistcoat. Next, he returned the watch to its pocket and unslung his stethoscope, warming it against his wrist before moving the blankets down to listen to his patient's chest. Wyatt watched him, hoping to glean some news from the doctor's expression, but he remained infuriatingly blank throughout the brief examination. Satisfied at last, Oxley straightened up and crossed to the arch, indicating that Wyatt should follow. "Let's sit down out here, shall we, and let Ambrose have some time to himself." He settled on one of the elegant chairs at the windowside, smiling apologetically. "I've asked for my predecessor's records to be moved to my room, and I'll study those tonight, but I'm sure I'll have to ask you any number of questions that you've already answered. His Highness assured me that you know Ambrose better than anyone, so I must rely on your patience for a little while longer."

Me? I've been gone a year - why not DG or Azkadelia? It crossed his mind that Ahamo had read more into his dedication to Glitch than he was meant to, but Wyatt dismissed the thought as paranoid. Can't keep on jumping at every shadow."Well, I don't know about that, but I'll tell you what I can." He sighed. "I've been away for a while, so I can't give you much indication how this all started, but since I got back he seems to have deteriorated quickly."

"His Highness said you travelled together during the war - I'm sure you can make some valuable contributions." Oxley gave him an encouraging smile. "Now, you said that he's wary of doctors. Do you think I'm going to be able to talk to him? Obviously at some stage I need to examine him more closely, and I'll want him to be as relaxed as possible for that. It certainly won't help if he works himself up into another seizure because he's panicking."

"He's usually okay if I'm there as well." Wyatt glanced towards the archway. "Well, maybe not okay. He'll fret, and he won't want to talk to you, but I should be able to keep him calm. I wouldn't try to see him alone, though. Oh, and it will help if you don't wear a white coat. I did try to tell Krantz, but he wasn't much interested in my opinion."

"More fool, he," Oxley murmured. "You needn't worry - I tend not to wear my whites unless I'm expecting to get something on them. And if you'll do your best to reassure him, I'd like to talk to Ambrose in the morning. Perhaps you'll explain to him beforehand that I'm here to try and help? It sounds as though it's been quite an ordeal."

"Doctor, you don't know the half of it. Have you ever been around anyone like Ambrose before?" Sometimes, sitting with Glitch, it was hard to imagine that there was anyone in the world like him, but Wyatt had seen them for himself - slumped, lost creatures babbling to themselves in the City gaol; refugees from the Moritanium mines, starveling, foot-dragging scarecrows with hollow eyes and puzzled smiles. Not you, Glitch. Never you.

"Two others - one in the Realm of the Unwanted, one in the Black Mountains. One required emergency surgery for problems directly and indirectly related to her zipper, and the other was a post-mortem examination requested by villagefolk who'd found the body near their local well. I'm not prepared to go into specific details, however. Confidentiality still applies, as I'm sure you appreciate."

"Sure. I wasn't asking for specifics." Wyatt nodded. It was more than he could have hoped for. "And you perform surgery. So you're not a house doctor..."

"I've been practising medicine for more than forty years, Mr Cain, and I've worked in a variety of settings, from the Royal Hospital to a blacksmith's yard in the Pasmitt valley, to the back-room of a bar in the Realm of the Unwanted. I've set broken bones, reattached severed fingers, dug out more buckshot and delivered more babies than I care to remember." Oxley's smile suggested that they weren't allbad memories. "But my formal training was in neurosurgery."

Well, damn, Ahamo. Why didn't you dig this guy up a week ago? "That all sounds... well, it sounds too good to be true. Can I ask what you were doing down in the Realm?" There was a wedding band on Oxley's finger. It was hard enough to imagine this avuncular, urbane doctor living in the grim underworld without adding the incongruity of a cosy homestead somewhere behind the neon and the bar-fights.

The doctor laced his fingers together on the table, watching the light glint and gleam over the golden curve of the ring. "If I'd wanted money or accolades, I could have stayed at the City Hospital and made my fortune in the operating theatre, carving people up for the Sorceress. But I swore an oath that I would do no harm and, to the best of my belief, I've upheld that oath ever since I first took up the scalpel." He looked up at Wyatt, fixing him with a level gaze. "I shall need you to trust me, because if you don't, how can I expect Ambrose to?"

"I'll be honest with you, Doctor. If I hadn't spent a week watching Edgar Krantz put Ambrose through hell, I'd be pushing you in there to get started without a moment's hesitation. Now I figure that kind of faith has to be earned."

The doctor tilted his head in acknowledgement. "Of course it does. But it's possible to reserve your judgement without immediately filling the well with suspicion. I haven't met Ambrose yet, but the young woman I met in his condition was quite impressionable - would you say the same of him?"

"Yeah..." Wyatt nodded. "Things don't always sink in immediately, but once he has an idea in his head, it's about as easy to displace as your friend Vincent. Don't worry, I'm not gonna make things more difficult for you."

"I'm sure you won't mean to," Oxley's tone was placating, but his expression was serious. "However, if he gets the slightest inkling that you don't have confidence in me, he won't co-operate, and I'll need him to work with me if we're going to get to the bottom of this thing."

Another point in the doctor's favour. "I can't promise you my trust just like that, Doctor. But if it makes you feel any better, you're already way ahead of the last guy." There's got to be a catch, somewhere. Spicer's bird gods be damned, there's no such thing as miracles. Wyatt shut his eyes for a moment, listening. You know, you really should do something about that bitter cynicism of yours, Cain!

I'm trying, Glitch. I really am.

Chapter Text

Unfold.

Fold.

...

Unfold.

Fold.

...

Wyatt gazed down at the paper plane in his lap, toying with the wings and presiding over an internal debate that seemed unwilling to reach a resolution.

Just open it. He folded back the wings, squinting at the tight, slanted scrawls of faded ink, hoping for something - a word, a sign. Stop playing with the damn thing and open it. It could be important.

That seemed the easy answer, and yet when he came to dismantle the little plane, his stomach twisted into a tight knot and refused to relax. It belongs to Glitch. It's personal.

"It's for his own good," he retorted, and was dismayed at how harsh his voice sounded in the quiet room. It's for his own good. What an innocent, easy, treacherous little phrase. We're taking the lock off your door, Glitch. It's for your own good. We're gonna hand you over to some money-grubbing sawbones. It's for your own good. In his mind's ear, he heard crows squabbling as they plucked at decaying scraps of straw. Bit by bit, piece by piece, we're stripping away your dignity, your independence. But that's okay, because it's for your own good.

"No," he murmured, watching Glitch's eyes moving restlessly beneath pale lids. "You've as much right to your privacy as any man." Ah, Glitch. I wish you could tell me what's wrong.

"Funny, that, 'cos the word is you broke into the last doctor's room to get a look at his telex messages."

Wyatt's head snapped up so fast he felt the tendons in his neck creak in protest. Vincent, Oxley's assistant, had somehow managed to manoeuvre himself into the room without making a sound.

"People talk too damn much around here, don't they?" He scowled. "And knock, next time. That silent act is creepy as hell." He felt the paper crumple between his hands, and forced himself to relax. "Sorry. I shouldn't have snapped. You just startled me."

Vincent gave him an understanding smile, which took a while on account of the amount of face there was to move. "That's all right. The Doc's always saying I should've had a career in housebreaking." Not unless they start making houses with much bigger windows, Wyatt thought, but he kept it to himself. "Fing is, Mister Cain, back in the Realm, keeping quiet's a skill you want to learn. If you're big and you're quiet, people fink you're slow in the head. Then they talk about stuff they shouldn't, an' I remember it all, me."

And sometimes, they probably mistake you for things. Big pieces of furniture. Walls. Wyatt glanced over to see if their voices had disturbed Glitch, but he slept more deeply these days, and when he woke, Wyatt was never entirely sure when he thought he was, never mind where.

"And one of those things they were talking about was me going into Krantz's room?" Vincent nodded. "Well, I won't deny it. And if the queen wanted to sling me out because of it, I wouldn't have a leg to stand on. But I'm not about to apologise for it, either. Doctor Oxley not with you?"

"Coming along Mister Cain, coming right along. He had to stop by Doctor Krantz's room to have a look at his records." The big man gave Wyatt a grin. "Don't worry - they let him in the regular way. He just sent me on ahead to see if Mister Goldstraw was awake yet." He peered over at the bed, and his grin faded. "Great gods and silver slippers, there's nothing to him, is there?"

"He isn't eating," Wyatt looked at him bleakly. "It's a fight to get a couple of spoonfuls of food into him. You'd better let Doctor Oxley know I haven't had a chance to tell G- to tell Ambrose about him. And..." he looked down at the paper plane, and back to Glitch, and sighed "...you'd better give him this. I don't know if it'll help, but I think it's something medical." Vincent took it from him, holding it delicately between thick fingers.

"I'll take it to him now. You sit tight, Mister Cain. He won't be long." Vincent took one last look at Glitch, then departed as silently as he had arrived. Wyatt watched him go; it was like witnessing hugely-accelerated glacial drift.

The door clicked shut. Wyatt sat for a minute, staring at nothing and waiting for his moral compass to stop spinning. It's in the doctor's hands, now, he thought, and the memory of the golden birds poised proudly on the front of Oxley's waistcoat somehow made him feel a little better. Yellow to call the gods. That's right, isn't it, Glitch? Yellow to call them, and songs to keep them here. The words were still clear in his mind, and the feeling of a shivering body pressing close to him, warming him when he was too cold even to shiver any more. The rest of the dream (and it had been a dream, only a dream, piecing together scraps of fear and guilt, and words half-heard through a numbing torpor) was beginning to fade. Glitch had called it superstition, but he'd sung to Wyatt anyway - sung and recited, and babbled snatches of verse interspersed with wandering Glitch-isms. And here we are again, and I don't have a song for you. Except...

Hope is the thing with feathers

"...'that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all'," Wyatt finished and shivered, though it wasn't cold. "I think we have to trust this guy, Glitch and let hope do the singing for us."

"Is he gone?"

Wyatt didn't answer. Glitch's thoughts, as he brushed up against the waking world, swam in easily muddied-waters and wading into them without preamble was the best way to confuse him. Instead, he sat forward in his chair and waited for the zipperhead to speak again.

"He'll be back, of course. And not alone - her Longcoats travel in packs. It'll have to be tonight." There was an expectant silence; while Glitch was perfectly capable of supplying all the parts of a conversation by himself, Wyatt had the impression that, this time, a response was needed. He cleared his throat.

"Are you sure?" That was probably safe enough.

Glitch turned towards him, his eyes almost closed, so that the merest suggestion of a gleam was visible beneath his lashes. "You saw it... a decree, as though she had any right. Bound in the seal of the New Order. The State." He sighed. "It must be tonight, or never."

The State. Wyatt felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Glitch somehow managed to sound indignant and bewildered, and Wyatt had a sudden vision of him, neat and slender in his palace livery, his hair dishevelled from where he'd run an anxious hand through it. "What are you going to do?" he asked, even though he already knew the answer. He'd had a number of these conversations, odd little islands of lucidity anchored in a past that belonged to Ambrose, a man that Wyatt hardly knew. But I'm learning.

"Burn it all. We can't leave anything for her to find." His hands twitched on the counterpane, fingers spreading helplessly. "Even if we try to build it, sooner or later she'd just sweep in and claim it for herself. What else can I do? It's a four-apple dilemma..." For a moment, Glitch opened his eyes, meeting Wyatt's gaze with quiet regret. "I probably won't see you again. But we had fun, didn't we?" And the question, incongruous though it seemed, sounded so earnest that all that Wyatt could do was catch Glitch's hand in his own and squeeze it gently.

"We did. We had -"

"Mr Cain? I did knock..." Oxley was standing at the archway, a sheaf of papers tucked under his arm in a natty green binder with the Royal Hospital insignia. "If this is a bad time, I can wait in the ante-room?" He left the suggestion hanging and Wyatt turned back to Glitch, looking for the best way to introduce the doctor without actually using the word 'doctor'. Glitch, however, had drifted back into sleep, and Wyatt let go of his hand, curling his fingers around the warmth they had briefly created between them.

"You might as well come in - he's asleep, or something like it."

The doctor left his papers on the table beneath the window and joined Wyatt at the bedside. "I had a bit of a chat with your man, Krantz -"

Wyatt cut him off. "He isn't my man. I'm not sure that he's a man at all. I've seen things like him hanging around battlefields, waiting for the feast," he added, darkly.

"My mistake," Oxley soothed. "In any case, the man's a dolt, and if the Queen - Fates-preserve-her - doesn't have him kicked out of the School so hard that he bounces when he lands, I'll eat my stethoscope. But, to continue, I talked with him this morning and, in spite of a certain amount of posturing and manoeuvring on his part, I did manage to gather some basic information and gain access to the test results he's collated thus far."

"Let me guess. He's been treading water for two weeks, and you're gonna have to do everything all over again." Wyatt pinched the bridge of his nose, fighting off a headache. Oxley shook his head.

"Not at all. Clumsy though his investigation has been, it has given me somewhere to start. Don't lose heart, Mr Cain...or may I call you Wyatt?"

Wyatt nodded, unexpectedly comforted by Oxley's demeanour. "You can call me Daphne if you can help Ambrose." The doctor snorted softly.

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. There are some observations on Krantz's notes that I'd like to verify with you. Would you say that Ambrose's vision has been affected since he became unwell?"

Unwell. It seemed such a mild word, when used to describe the dwindling figure in the bed. You hear that, Glitch? You're not ill, you're just 'unwell'. That's an improvement, isn't it? "I...yeah - the first time he had-" he paused, correcting himself with a policeman's conscientiousness "-the first time I saw him have a seizure, he said that it was dark. But it was broad daylight. And later, when he woke up, the light hurt his eyes. We keep it dim in here all the time, now."

Oxley watched him attentively, fingers interlaced across his chest. "So his eyes are always oversensitive, now? Or has the pattern repeated itself - a change in his vision before an episode, then an increase in sensitivity afterwards?"

"There's a pattern." He'd said as much to Krantz, for all the good that it had done. "Sometimes we can tell when he's about to have another one, because everything starts going dark on him. Scares him silly." Me, too. "Now I think about it, the first night I got here, I found him wandering around, very confused, and when I got him back to his room, he'd got every lamp turned up as bright as it'd go, the ones in here and out in his little parlour, too."

"That's very helpful." Oxley made no move to write anything down, however. Instead, he continued to regard Wyatt with frank interest. "What about his speech - his use of language? Krantz mentions odd speech patterns, that Ambrose sometimes repeats himself, but doesn't seem aware of this."

"Yeah. I told him about that when we first met, though. Pally-something."

"Palilalia." The doctor nodded. "And this started happening with the seizures?"

"No, that's just Glitch. Ambrose." Wyatt smiled at Oxley's nonplussed expression. "Glitch is his nickname, because of the way his brain works." And it was curious, but he didn't feel the same defensive pang telling this to Oxley as he had when explaining it to Krantz. "His speech is fine, except if he wakes up just after a seizure, and then it's slurred. But his memory is bad - real bad. He forgot a lot of things after he was headcased, but since he's been...unwell, he's forgotten a lot more. He remembers my name, but I don't think he really knows who I am, and the same goes for everyone else here."

With a small sigh of effort, Oxley got out of his chair and crossed to the window to collect his papers. "Memory is a tricky thing. Krantz seems to have dismissed it as part of Ambrose's zipperhead condition, but if the nature of his forgetfulness has altered, I'd say otherwise. I can only speculate at this stage as to whether it's organic - a result of injury, or simply his brain's way of protecting itself. Perhaps..." his eyes flitted towards the bed. "Ah...perhaps you'll introduce me..."

Wyatt followed the doctor's gaze. "Oh, hey...you're awake." He edged his chair closer to Glitch's bedside. "How are you feeling?"

Glitch blinked, watching Wyatt with a look of bleary relief. "Thought I heard voices. Nodded off again, didn't I?" He tried to sit up, then grimaced and lay still, turning his face towards the pillow for a moment so that his expression was hidden. "Tell me things, okay? Draw me a picture. We-we're at a palace. The palace. And...and...Cain. Wyatt Cain..." he was struggling, trying to pin down something familiar. "Talk to me, Cain..."

"Yeah..." Wyatt put a hand on his arm, offering him something to focus on. "Yeah, you've been pretty sleepy today, on and off. We're at the palace, it's almost lunchtime, and this is Ralph Oxley. He's an old friend of Ahamo's..."

"Ohh...visitors. I'm not really dressed for social calls..." Glitch managed, this time, to shuffle into a half-sitting position, the pillows rucked up behind him in a crumpled mass. "Hi...the name's...I'm..." He blinked, mouth ajar, with nothing but empty air where a name should be. "I'm... pleased to meet you," he finished, after an awkward pause. "You know Ahamo? That's great!" Another pause, then he shot a fretful look at Wyatt that spoke volumes. "Who's Ahamo?"

Oxley smiled warmly. "Very pleased to meet you, Mr Goldstraw. I hope you're not too tired to have visitors at the moment?"

Glitch shook his head tentatively, then looked at Wyatt again for reassurance.

"You're doing well, all things considered." Wyatt smiled at him, every ounce of discipline bent on hiding his worry. He settled back into the chair, outwardly relaxed. "Ralph's just gonna sit quietly with us for a while, if that's okay with you? ...but you never told me how you're feeling. How's your head?"

"Mm... it's okay." He shut his eyes for a moment, and a tear slid stealthily down his cheek. "It...i-it..." He faltered, took a deep breath, then another, and continued carefully, "Sometimes it aches... did you say it was lunchtime? I slept late... you shoulda got me up!"

"I thought you needed your sleep." Wyatt noted the tear and glanced briefly across at the doctor to see if he was close enough to spot it. "You had a rough night. And it doesn't matter if you slept late." I could be wrong, but I don't think he remembers this morning at all.

Glitch laughed, the sound a little wild. "I wasn't meant to be anywhere, right? Is it sunny outside, Cain? What's it like out there? Are we somewhere with trees?"

"You've got nowhere to be today, but right here. And all that's on the agenda is rest. It's quite cloudy outside, a little chilly. We're at the winter palace, near the lake. Remember the frozen lake?" It was hard to remain cheerful, but Wyatt was becoming an old hand at this, now. "It's not frozen right now, and there are trees down by the waterside..."

He watched Glitch process this information, imagined him in an endless hall filled with filing cabinets that stretched from floor to ceiling. A single drawer was open, sparsely filled with files marked in his childlike printing:

- tHIs яoOm -

- cAiи -

- mY HeaD huRtƧ -

The third file was by far the thickest. And all the other drawers are locked. Wyatt sent a prayer to any benevolent deities that might be listening. Locked, please the Fates, only locked. Not empty.

Glitch looked towards the shaded window as if trying to picture the clouded sky, the tree-lined lake. "I don't remember. I don't remember." He hung his head, defeated, then moaned quietly and sat up straight - the pain had crescendoed for a moment, Wyatt saw it in every line of his ashen face. "Nnh... not again..?" If it was a plea, it wasn't addressed to anyone but himself.

Oxley glanced towards Wyatt sharply, questioning.

As far as Wyatt was concerned, there was nobody else in the room at that moment. "What's happening, Glitch? Talk to me..."

"I'm okay... I-I-I-I'm..." Glitch licked his lips and put his hand out to Wyatt, trying to reassure him, his other hand clamped to the back of his head as though he'd just been struck. "It'll stop in a minute, I-I'm sure. Just wait a minute. Just. Just wait.. just wait a minute... just wait..." his expression flickered to blankness, then back to pained.

Wyatt was already on his feet, moving pillows and helping Glitch to lie on his side. "Batten down the hatches, doc. This is how it happens. Okay, Glitch. It's okay. Just try and lie quiet and maybe it'll pass. It's okay..." He was aware of Oxley moving around the bed, pulling the sheets out from under the mattress, and tucking bolsters beneath them.

"They're less likely to get knocked off this way," he said, noticing Wyatt's questioning glance. "Padded bed rails would be better, but this should keep him from falling, at least."

Wyatt nodded curtly, but his attention was elsewhere. Glitch's apprehensive expression had been swept away by the seizure. Instead he stared, eyes wide and glazed, his mouth working, grimacing, while he struggled against his own rebelling muscles. It didn't matter that Wyatt had seen this all before. This time, as every time before, his heart clenched; his skin grew clammy. What if it doesn't stop this time? What if he bites his tongue? That had happened, a few days before, and the sudden spill of bloody froth had added a new layer to Wyatt's mounting anxiety.

"All right. You're doing fine, Wyatt. Try not to let him roll onto his back, and keep an eye on his breathing. I'll be right here, but I need to get my bag from the next room." Oxley put a hand on his shoulder, then he was gone.

A minute passed. Another. Or perhaps it was the same minute, recycled; time collapsed in on itself during the seizures so that there was only an awful, unchanging now, and only once it was over was it possible to look back and see that it hadn't been long at all. Wyatt sat on the edge of the bed, his hand against Glitch's back.

"Come on, Glitch. It's okay. Come on, sweetheart. Just breathe." Oxley was behind him, and Wyatt didn't care. All that mattered was this: his hand, damp with his own sweat and with Glitch's, feeling muscles bunch and shudder beneath his palm. A febrile heat bleeding through the thin cotton of Glitch's nightshirt. The all-too-infrequent gasps that snatched at the air. It was a cruel kind of intimacy and it made Wyatt wonder how Glitch had felt, pressed against his own insensate body in Demilo's wagon.

"All right - I think it's almost over. Wyatt?" The doctor had opened his bag and was taking out an instrument Wyatt recognised vaguely as some sort of pressure gauge. "Wyatt," Oxley repeated, gently, "I need to carry out some observations now, before Ambrose recovers any further. Do you know which side of his brain was removed?"

The question, gruesome as it was, gave Wyatt something practical to focus on. As Oxley had noted, Glitch's tremors were subsiding, diminishing to sporadic twitches - the last, sullen bursts of thunder in a storm that was nearly spent.

"The left." He answered without hesitation; he'd seen the thing himself, after all. He watched the doctor fiddle with the gauge. I guess it's a good thing Glitch is always drowsy after the seizures. Last thing he needs to see is another doctor hovering over him with more gadgets.

"That's good - we'll keep him on his right side, then. His blood pressure is rather high, though, and that really ought to be coming back down to his normal range, now. Tell me, has Ambrose suffered any head injuries?" Wyatt stared at him, and his incredulous look must have registered, because Oxley smiled apologetically. "Other than the obvious, that is. Do you know if he might have struck his head on something, or received a blow recently?"

"Can't help you there, doc. I only got here just when things started going bad. Before that, I hadn't seen him for a year." He saw Oxley delve in his pocket for his watch, seeking Glitch's pulse with his other hand, and held his tongue until the doctor looked up, lips pressed together thoughtfully. "Is it okay?"

"Also high. He's working very hard, for an unconscious man." Oxley snapped his watch shut. "I'm going to give him five minutes to allow things to calm down, and we'll see if there's any change. Meanwhile, perhaps you can tell me why Vincent presented me with a paper aeroplane as I was on my way here?"

The plane - he'd almost forgotten! Wyatt finished heaping pillows behind Glitch so that he couldn't turn over, and sat down on the edge of the bed, ready to respond if the zipperhead showed any sign of waking. "It was in Ambrose's photograph album. I haven't looked at it, but there's something medical written on it, and I thought it could be important. But not so important that you wanted to share it with Krantz something piped up smugly inside his head. Shut up, he told it, and looked expectantly at Oxley, who was unfolding the page.

"Let's see..." The doctor was silent for a minute, his eyes flitting swiftly down the paper. Wyatt looked on impatiently, willing him to finish, but his hopes were soon dashed; Oxley looked up and shook his head. "Alas, while a fascinating insight into his past, I don't think it has a bearing on Ambrose's current condition - it's dated more than thirty years ago. Still, I've never encountered a patient with documented synesthesia before - has he ever mentioned this to you?"

"I'll be honest with you, doc - back when I knew him, before this all started, I didn't pay a lot of attention to what he said." Wyatt found himself smiling in spite of his worry. "It took me a while to realise there was some sense in all the babble. Even if he'd told me about this other thing, I might have missed it. What did you call it?"

"Synesthesia - a curious facility of certain minds to associate particular senses or perceptions with unconnected stimuli. Or, in simpler terms, Ambrose may hear a sound and describe it as a colour or assign personalities to numbers, and so on. No-one knows exactly how it works or why some people are synesthetic and some aren't; I'm sure it seems entirely natural to... Wyatt? Is something wrong?"

All the colours... "You just reminded me of something. You asked about head injuries - would it have to be recent?" Wyatt stared into the past. They'd been heading for the place where they'd switched their clothes for Longcoat uniforms, the Sunseeder's warning klaxons fading to a distant, unimportant grumble of sound. Glitch had been burbling vaguely about colours, and Wyatt had made him sit down for a few minutes, because... "Because he got a hell of a whack on the head with a wrench, about fourteen months ago."

Oxley was trying to fold the paper back into its former shape. Now he laid it aside so that the paper could follow its own stealthy, ticking mechanics and looked at Wyatt, a bloodhound catching the first scent of its prey, nosing at the trace. Soon, perhaps, there would be the chase, the baying pursuit, but for now the doctor was still. Then he put a hand to the back of his head, turning it a little so that Cain could see where he was pointing.

"Back here? Below the place where the zipper begins?"

Wyatt nodded.

"Did he lose consciousness? Was there bleeding?"

"No blood. It's okay... sometimes it aches..." He'd offered to take a look, and Glitch had nodded, carefully, bowing his head like a supplicant so that Wyatt could part his matted curls and examine the bruise that was spreading to form a shadowy skull-cap.

"He had a bruise there, and he was glitchier than usual for a couple of minutes. He said he could see colours, or butterflies, or something - he wasn't making a lot of sense." Wyatt felt a dull rush of blood darken his cheeks. How could I have forgotten? "Then... he seemed to snap out of it, and after that he was back to normal. Normal for him, I mean." And then we were so busy trying to save the world that I didn't think to see if he was okay. As excuses went, it was a damn good one, right up there with I was distracted, on account of being on fire at the time and I didn't think you'd want it after the Papay Runner ate it, but he still felt guilty. Perhaps Oxley saw something in his expression, because he leaned over and patted Wyatt companionably on the forearm.

"There's nothing visible there now, so I'm not surprised that you didn't bring this up before. Head injuries and problems with the brain itself can creep up silently. And it may be unrelated -"

"But you don't think so," Wyatt cut in. Oxley had a gleam in his eyes quite at odds with his placid manner. "You think there's something there."

"I won't commit to anything until I've investigated further, Wyatt. The human brain is far too complex to withstand uninformed pontification and wild shots in the dark." The doctor took out his watch and flipped it open. "But I do have a theory. Let me check his vitals again, and then I want to try something that might help, at least in the short term, and may confirm my suspicions."

Wyatt clasped his hands together, fighting the urge to drum his fingers on the headboard. Oxley's eyes were fixed on the dial of his watch and his face might as well have been one of the portraits in the Long Gallery for all that it was giving away. The watch disappeared back into a pocket at last, only to be replaced by a neat little torch with an eyepiece at one end.

"I hope you aren't thinking of using that on Ambrose." There was a warning tone in Wyatt's voice, and, much as he was growing to like the doctor, he made no effort to suppress it.

"He's unconscious. I have to look at the very back of his eye, and this is the only way that I can do it," Oxley said, reasonably, and lowered himself creakily onto one knee, leaning forward to prise Glitch's left eye open. "It will take just a moment, and he won't feel a thing, I promise you." In fact, he'd barely finished speaking before he straightened, using the edge of the bed to push himself to his feet. "All right. I need you to do something for me, Wyatt, and it may turn out to be somewhat unpleasant."

Another of those un-words. Not 'terrible', just not 'pleasant'.

You know your trouble, Cain? You're always fighting the tide - always making things 'good' or 'bad', 'yes' or 'no'...

Okay, so maybe now's a bad time for absolutes. "Just tell me what I have to do."

Oxley was already producing more things from his bag: a sheaf of folded cloths in waxed paper wrappings, a box of stubby glass tubes with steel collars, a package of thin rubber gloves; he handed a pair of the gloves to Wyatt and pulled a pair on himself, and Wyatt noticed the ridge of his wedding ring where it distorted the rubber. Strange, the things you notice when you're under pressure.

Aloud he said "You don't have your white coat on - aren't you worried about getting your waistcoat messed up?"

"The waistcoat will wash. The gloves are to reduce the chances of infection." The doctor nodded towards the bed. "In a moment, I'm going to ask you to open Ambrose's zipper a fraction. I don't know what to expect, but I don't wish to compound his problems with a secondary infection."

Wyatt looked down at Glitch, who hadn't moved since the seizure. "Whatever you say, Doc. We're in your hands, now." Just don't wake up, Glitch. Not now. Not yet.

Oxley uncapped one of the glass tubes and, taking a cloth in his free hand, nodded to Wyatt. "Whenever you're ready, Wyatt. Very carefully, and only a little. And if I tell you to get out of the way, you move as if the hounds of Hades are after you."

His jaw set firm, Wyatt took hold of the metal tag of the zipper and began to ease it along its track. Within seconds, his gloved hands were soaked, and a the sheet beneath Glitch's head began to darken with a spreading stain.

"Doc?"

"I see it. Cerebrospinal fluid. That's normal, but..." Oxley raised his head and sniffed. Wyatt did the same, then made a face. The spilled fluid had a sour, ripe smell, like a harvest pumpkin spoiling gently in the Autumn sun. "That smell is not." He gestured briskly. "I'll take over, there."

"You don't want me to close it?" Wyatt was already moving aside as he asked, mindful of Oxley's warning.

"No. Not yet, at least. Ambrose has an unusually high blood pressure, his pulse is too fast, and there's clear signs of swelling at the base of his optic disc. That, coupled with that," the doctor inclined his head towards the leaking fluid, which he was directing into the open vial, "tells me that my immediate priority is to let some of this stagnant fluid out. And yours is to go and find Vincent."

"I thought you'd want to test that stuff you've collected." Wyatt gazed at the contents of the small glass tube, caught halfway between fascination and repulsion. It looked just like water, streaked here and there with pink.

Now Oxley capped the vial, holding the pad of cloth against the back of Glitch's head. All at once, the avuncular manner was gone, and Wyatt could hear the bloodhound howl.

"Change of plan. Find Vincent - if he's not in the gallery, he'll be in Krantz's room salvaging equipment. Tell him I want to be ready to operate within the hour."

Operate? "It's that urgent?" Already making his way to the door, Wyatt glanced back. His instinct was to trust Oxley, but he had to be sure - he had to see certainty in the doctor's eyes. Glitch deserved nothing less.

"Wyatt, the only reason I say 'within the hour' is that our magic-wielding hosts can't make it possible to operate yesterday."

That was enough. Wyatt left at a run.

Chapter Text

Glitch was still unconscious when Vincent carried him down the stairs. The quilt-swathed zipperhead looked absurdly small and frail in his arms, but there was no-one to see; Doctor Oxley had demanded that the way to the kitchens be cleared. Or perhaps 'demanded' was too strong a word - Oxley had simply spoken briefly to the guard outside Glitch's rooms and explained that he would shortly be moving Ambrose for surgery, and bystanders on the stairs and in the halls would be an infection risk.

"I don't imagine that Her Majesty would be too happy if she found out someone had jeopardised Mr Goldstraw's chances of recovery," he'd said pleasantly, and when the guard didn't move at once, had fixed him with a meaningful look. "And she will find out, Private...Sweetly, is it?"

("The doc don't much care for uniforms," Vincent confided to Wyatt afterwards, as they made their way down the deserted stairway.)

Then, in an exchange that was rapidly becoming legend amongst the palace staff, Mr Rawlins had barred their way into the kitchens, his normally-phlegmatic countenance nearly crimson with outrage.

"I demand an explanation. Why have my staff been summarily evicted from their posts? In less than two hours, Her Majesty and her assembled family and guests will be expecting to take their afternoon refreshments, and I find myself without a kitchen, and the staff loitering in the Low Courtyard, gossiping, engaging in horseplay, with some nonsensical story about the kitchens being commandeered for medical purposes." And then, rather bravely given that he was addressing the seven-foot human monolith that was Vincent 'Smasher' Macey, added "and you're not bringing that...person into my kitchens."

'That person' remained mercifully oblivious in Vincent's arms, and it was this fact, and this alone, that prevented Wyatt from letting his temper slip its leash and pummelling Rawlins' face into a new and interesting shape. Then the door opened behind Rawlins, and Oxley, clad in a salmagundi of cook's whites and an apron that had been boiled until it crackled, appeared in the doorway.

"He's not bringing Mr Goldstraw into your kitchen, sir. Vincent is bringing him into my operating theatre. As I suspect that hauteur alone won't protect you against being lamentably trampled by my colleague as he enters, I advise you to stand aside and let him pass unobstructed." Vincent was already moving, and Rawlins was forced to perform a hasty sidestep to get out of his way. Immediately he followed the big man through the open doorway, bristling like an angry cat and grabbed at his sleeve, which was roughly as effective as trying to restrain an avalanche with tissue paper. Wyatt dropped a hand heavily on Rawlins' shoulder, as only a policeman could, and turned the man to face him.

"I don't think you understand," he said through a haze of tightly-controlled anger, "exactly what's going on, here."

Rawlins shook him off, brushing at his shoulder as though Wyatt had left a stain there.

"I understand that the smooth and efficient running of this household is being disrupted for the benefit of one sickly headcase for whom it might be kinder to let nature take its course." He flinched as Wyatt clenched a fist, then Oxley was there, regarding them both with thinly-veiled irritation.

"Enough. Wyatt, go and make sure that Ambrose is comfortable. And as for you," he eyed Rawlins, "if you are truly concerned that the Queen and her guests - which, if I may remind you, includes these gentlemen and myself - will starve if they aren't fed between now and dinner, I suggest you go to the pantry and take as much bread and butter as you can carry, and go and teach them how to use a toasting fork."

Rawlins glared. "You're very sure of yourself when it comes to ordering my staff about, Doctor. I doubt you'd talk that way if Her Majesty was here in person."

"Indeed I would. I'd also tell her to scrub up if she plans on staying. Doctor Spicer has kindly agreed to assist me, but I can always use an extra pair of hands. Unless you want to help me?" When Rawlins' only response was a look of revolted dismay, Oxley gave him a humourless smile and pointed towards the door. "Thought not. Go away and don't come back unless I send for you."

A broad, battle-scarred table ran down the length of the room, and it was at one end of this that Vincent had set up the makeshift surgery. Several clean bedsheets had been spread over the table, raised up at one end to form a gentle incline. Vincent laid Glitch down with such tenderness that Wyatt felt his eyes prickle briefly, and he turned his head away, blinking hard. He noticed Oxley watching him sympathetically, and forced himself to smile.

"You'd better watch out, Doc. Start upsetting the staff and you're liable to find someone's spat in your porridge tomorrow morning."

The doctor murmured a quiet instruction to Vincent, who nodded and retreated to the end of the kitchen, where two large copper pans were simmering quietly on a vast iron range. "My dear Wyatt, if I find myself eating porridge, the worst has already happened. Help me with this, will you?" He took another sheet from a pile further down the table and began to unfold it carefully over Glitch. "Fresh from the palace lines," he said approvingly. "No chance they've been mouldering away in the back of a cupboard somewhere."

Wyatt pulled his edge of the sheet straight, taking the opportunity to get a closer look at Glitch. Whatever Oxley had done, it had eased the panicky butterfly pulse in his throat. Now, he looked peaceful - weak and faded, but peaceful - and Wyatt waited until the doctor turned away to brush Glitch's fingers with his own before covering them. Right here, Glitch. As long as you need me.

"Will he wake up?" he asked, as Oxley turned back, and his heart clenched as he saw the leather straps in the doctor's arms. Leather belts, on closer inspection, buckled together and tangled like a nest of snakes. "You're gonna strap him down?"

"I don't have any choice." Oxley began to lay the straps out on the table, taking care not to let the buckles clatter on the uncovered wood. "I can't risk him making the slightest movement while I'm working. If it were possible to immobilise his head in another way, I would, but it all takes specialised equipment that I don't have and don't have time to acquire." His tone was amiable, but there was an undercurrent of tension strong enough to grasp with both hands. "I had Vincent round these up from the off-duty guards. One can only hope we aren't suddenly besieged."

He couldn't really argue with that. Still, if Wyatt closed his eyes, he could see the eerie third-person flashes and flickers of a Viewer's recall and Glitch, restrained, murmuring soft entreaties that would avail him nothing. "Just... make sure he's under, first? Please? This is nightmare territory for him, and he's already suffered too much."

"I understand. Doctor Spicer will be here very soon, and then we'll get to work." And that was that. It was a sign of how his faith was growing that Wyatt didn't feel the need to explain, or demand further assurance. 'I understand' was enough. "In answer to your first question, yes, Ambrose may wake. If he does so before we're ready to start, I may need your help keeping him calm and distracted while I anaesthetise him. Otherwise, I'll simply keep him unconscious and have Doctor Spicer monitor him to ensure he doesn't feel a thing. Just put those over there," Oxley nodded towards a marble-topped bench behind Glitch as Vincent approached with a cloth-covered tray.

"All boiled and ready for use, doc." Vincent set the tray, still steaming gently, onto the bench with almost reverent care. "I done the best I can, anyway - can't believe a big gaff like this don't have a pressure cooker."

"We will make the best of what we have, Vincent. Wyatt, if you have any other questions now is the time to ask them. Once we're ready, I shall have to ask you to leave."

Wyatt concealed his dismay. "I thought you'd want an extra pair of hands. Isn't that what you told the butler guy?" If anybody's helping out in here, it's me.

"Can't let you do that, I'm afraid. I don't allow family in while I'm operating. In any event," Oxley added, before Wyatt could correct him, "I only said that to get rid of the man. I shall do very well with Doctor Spicer and Vincent."

"But I'm not f-" Wyatt paused. "Vincent? No offence, doc, or to you, friend," his eyes scaled the heights of Mount Vincent and found a benevolent smile at the summit, "but maybe you need someone with hands that are -" smaller than my head"- used to doing fiddly stuff. I've been a tinsmith, as well as a Tin Man." By the way that Vincent and the doctor exchanged glances, it was apparent that this wasn't the first time such a suggestion had been made. Vincent patted Wyatt on the back, causing his ribs to rattle in his chest.

"Don't fret, Mister Cain. I bin helping the doc for years." He nodded at Oxley, who smiled approvingly.

"Vincent produces some of the finest blackwork I've ever seen. Not, I hasten to add, on patients; I simply mention it to illustrate his splendid dexterity. However, today Vincent will be assisting me with the instruments. The 'fiddly stuff' I'll carry out myself." The doctor brought his hands together at the centre of his chest in an attitude that suggested prayer. "I understand you wanting to help, but this is the time when I need you to step back and let me do my job. The surgery will require my utmost concentration, and concerned family members - no matter how disciplined and well-intentioned - are a distraction Ambrose simply can't afford."

There it was again. Wyatt frowned. "I tried to tell you, doc - I'm not family. Glitch is my friend." This didn't seem to concern the doctor at all; on the contrary, he seemed faintly amused at Wyatt's insistence.

"Perhaps so, but he's named you as his next of kin on Doctor Krantz's paperwork."

"Me?"

"Perhaps yours was the only name he could remember. Even so, the name is there, and you are, therefore, family. Otherwise, I couldn't discuss his condition with you."

You still haven't, Wyatt thought, "Since you mention it, what ishis condition? How does a whack on the head from a year ago only start affecting him now?"

He stiffened as the kitchen door opened, then let out a sigh upon seeing Doctor Spicer, tiny and austere and magnificent in robes that shifted and shimmered like a field of goldenrod. They looked ceremonial, more the garb of a priest than a doctor. Perhaps, Wyatt thought as he watched the Munchkin make his way over to the bed, ramrod straight and with eyes only for the unconscious Glitch, at times like this perhaps the two things weren't so very different.

Spicer paused, turning to offer a slight bow to Doctor Oxley and, by extension, to Wyatt. Then he turned the sheet back carefully to reveal Glitch's left hand and, with ritual solemnity, coaxed it open so that he could place a small origami bird there. "Umaii ül' enjevaad, üla kassevaad," he intoned gravely, then circled the bed to place a second paper bird in Glitch's other hand. "Gewen sül inime rian a-lohk thallis." This accomplished, he replaced the sheet and looked up at Wyatt.

"I know that there are those who'd say - in modern days - to see a man of science pray is risible! Irrational! Indeed, a practice bordering on dangerous obsession. But for one of Menschkin breed, you see, the medical profession cannot ever be at odds with my devotion to the Gods." The diminutive doctor beamed; it was like watching the suns appear over the stylised thundercloud of his tightly-curled beard. "The two are indivisible."

Oxley, who had been lining up a motley assortment of glass bottles (the label of each crammed with words containing more syllables than Wyatt thought could possibly be decent), nodded thoughtfully. "Well said, Doctor Spicer. Vincent will help you scrub up, and then I'd like you to monitor Ambrose's pulse and blood pressure for five minutes while I make a few final preparations." He had one of Krantz's boxes open - Wyatt recognised the hospital crest - and produced from within a roll of soft leather divided into narrow pockets. Each one was home to a glass syringe, ranging from some no thicker than a child's finger to one that looked as if it had been designed for use on horses. The doctor slid one of the middle-sized syringes free and fitted a long needle to the end.

"I can't explain the delay," he said, choosing a bottle from the hyaline identity parade and wiping the top with a swatch of cloth soaked in something pungent and aggressively orange. "I'm positive the injury has caused his problems, but I can only speculate as to why his deterioration has been so recent and so rapid. As for what's happening now... do you want the technical answer, or the layman's version?"

Wyatt shoved his hands into his pockets, and encountered the familiar outline of his tin horse, the crumpled bullet still firmly embedded in its shoulder. "Give me the simple one. I'm no scientist, Doctor - that's Ambrose."

The doctor nodded, peering intently at his syringe as he drew down a measure of clear liquid from the bottle. "It's all a matter of pressure. I suspect that the injury Ambrose sustained last year caused some sort of subarachnoid blockage, which is to say -"

"Whoa, there. Layman's terms, remember?"

Oxley looked slightly chagrined. "Sorry. I'll give you an analogy." He regarded Wyatt levelly over a second bottle as he guided the syringe through its cap. "And you'd be amazed, or perhaps you wouldn't, by how many people think an analogy is some sort of painful medical procedure." The syringe made a tak!sound as he laid it on the tray. "Have you ever kept fish, Wyatt?" When Wyatt shook his head, a little nonplussed, he smiled brightly. "Oh, I recommend it. Terribly relaxing. I used to have a tank in my little place in the Realm. Gardening's good, too, although that's rather harder to do underground, unless your chief interest is fungi.

"Imagine that the human brain is a fish - one large, very hungry fish - and the skull is its tank. It's so hungry, in fact, that you have a system pumping in food and oxygen continuously, and it monitors how much food and air your fish needs and adjusts the flow accordingly. Now, you also have a second system that constantly refreshes the water in the tank, and carries the old water and waste away down a drain. What happens if the drain becomes blocked? You must imagine that the tank is sealed, and cannot overflow or leak."

Wyatt felt like a student, put suddenly on the spot. "It would fill up?" he hazarded.

Oxley gestured, just-so. "It would indeed. The new water would accumulate and find itself with nowhere to go." He began to tick points off on his fingers. "You have increasing levels of waste within the tank - stagnant water that hangs around contaminating the fresh. You have a buildup of pressure because there's only so much room for the water and it keeps on coming. Because of the pressure, it's harder for food and oxygen to get into the tank, so the fish begins to starve. On top of this, when the monitor senses that the fish is starving, it begins to work harder and harder trying to force in the vital nutrients and oxygen against the increasing pressure and..." Oxley glanced towards Doctor Spicer, who had seated himself at Glitch's side and was listening to his chest with a stethoscope "...eventually the pump itself may burn out."

"You're saying his heart could give out." Just another addition to the growing catalogue of worries. "Give me some good news, doc. Can you help?"

"I make no promises. The agitation of the seizures appears to reduce the pressure for a while, which is hopeful, and Ambrose responded well to me venting some of the excess cerebrospinal fluid. If I can find the cause of the obstruction, and if I can remedy it, I hope to see a dramatic improvement. I can give Ambrose medication against infection, but restoring normal function to his brain is of equal, if not greater importance, if he's to avoid further damage."

Wyatt tried not to think about 'further'. 'Further', he told the universe firmly, was not an option. "I guess I'd better get out of your hair, then."

Oxley, whose hair had fled his scalp and now hung on in a narrow littoral zone at the back of his head, smiled. "We'll do all we can," he said, kindly. "I'm going to give him an anaesthetic now, so he won't wake, and I'll make sure you're called as soon as he's out of surgery."

Wyatt nodded, stealing a last look at Glitch, hating to leave. I promised I'd be here. His fingers brushed the tin horse.

"Can I leave something with him? It's...kind of a good luck charm." He directed the question to Spicer. "It won't screw up your bird thing, will it?"

"By all means, leave your token." The Munchkin turned back the sheet, where one of the yellow paper birds lay in Glitch's loosely curled fingers. "Place it here. There can be no harm in such a charm, and it cannot interfere with words already spoken."

I know it's only a bit of superstition. I don't care. Wyatt rubbed his thumb over the horse, making sure there was nothing sharp that might cut Glitch, then laid it next to the bird.

Just stop one more bullet for me, okay? For him.

Wyatt Cain, unsung hero of the Restoration, decorated ex-cop and former protector of the fabled Mystic Man, and Dorothea Ezoria Euphares Garlanda Gale, widely tipped as future queen of the OZ, sat together on a pair of packing cases outside the door of the palace kitchens, and held hands like a pair of fairytale children in a haunted forest.

DG, who had somehow managed to elude her retinue of lurking maids, had arrived in the hall five minutes after Wyatt had posted himself outside the doors, ready to fight off a thousand imperious butlers if they threatened to interfere. Mr Rawlins, wisely, did not reappear. In fact, the hallway remained eerily quiet, which had made DG's fidgeting all the more noticeable. After ten minutes of her pacing and fretting, Wyatt could stand it no longer, and he'd picked her up bodily and set her down on a nearby crate.

"Settle down, okay? You're making me nervous." When she began to bite at her thumbnail, he caught her hand and sat down next to her. "Come on. we'll wait it out together." And so they'd sat side by side, and an hour had crawled by, dragging its feet every step of the way, followed by a second that seemed in no greater hurry than its predecessor. The silence lay around them, a lake of apparent tranquillity, stirred only by the faint sounds of palace life. Wyatt listened, half-wanting to hear something from within the kitchen, half-dreading what he might hear if he listened too hard.

I love the man they're trying to save in there. And if... He closed his eyes, swallowing hard. If something happens, no-one will ever know. He'll never know. In the darkness behind his eyelids, he picked up the thought, examining it from every angle. What could you do with a thought like that?

Without even realising that he'd made a decision, he drew back and skimmed it out over the silence.

"DG?" Skip. He could see it, see the ripples spread out across bright water. "You were right."

Skip.

"I was?" DG looked round, perhaps hearing something strange in his voice. "What about?" He could still stop now, if he wanted. Let the ripples die away, and the thought would sink out of sight, safely hidden.

"I do love him." Skip.

This time it was his heart that bounded giddily, and the ripples it made ran through him like a chill. Wyatt gripped his thighs until his knuckles whitened. There; his hands were barely trembling at all.

DG had a way of stating the obvious. Usually he found it endearing, one of those DG-ish quirks, a way of letting some new piece of information settle into place. Today, however, he decided that if she gazed at him with those wide, guileless eyes and echoed 'you love him?', he was going to commit a minor act of treason.

Instead DG smiled. "I know. Me too." When Wyatt didn't smile back or look away she blinked, searching his face. Her eyebrows, which had apparently caught on before the rest of her, made a break for her hairline. "Oh. Oh... Really?"

"Really." Wyatt could feel the colour rising in his cheeks, but he couldn't back down now.

DG's mouth opened, and eventually she managed "So...but...really? Like...love?"

"Yes!" he snapped, exasperation winning out over anxiety for a second. "Exactly like 'love'. Real, honest-to-gods love, with sunssets, and cornfields, and..." he gestured helplessly. "And everything."

"But...you were married."

"Yeah, DG, I do remember," he growled, then wished that he hadn't. DG looked honestly bewildered, and Wyatt couldn't blame her. In a gentler tone, he went on, "I was married, and I thought that meant I was...fixed. I don't regret it, and I make no apologies to anyone, except maybe Adora for never being the man I tried to be." And Jeb, don't forget about Jeb, the familiar hobgoblin voice of guilt chimed in, and Wyatt clamped a pair of mental hands around its throat and began to squeeze, even as he added "And my boy, who I guess won't be in any hurry to reacquaint himself with me if this ever gets out."

"But there's no law against it..." DG spoke slowly. Wyatt waited with all the patience he could muster. The princess had that very particular tone of voice that said 'wait - still working this one out'. You and me both, he thought ruefully. "Back on the Otherside - it's not a crime where I came from, either. I'm not saying it's a bed of roses over there if you're - if you're gay -"

Gay? Wyatt didn't interrupt, but silently added the term to his mental lexicon. If 'frivolous' had been in there, he might have appended it to this word, but it wasn't, and neither was 'appended' so he contented himself with first thinking that it sounded like a nicer word than 'queer', and then reflecting that it probably carried just as cruel a history on the Otherside.

"- but it's getting better. At college, before all of this," she gestured around her, encompassing the palace and the OZ beyond, "There were a few guys who'd come out -"

This time, Wyatt couldn't keep quiet. "Come out?" I've not heard that before."

"Come out of the closet - it means they told people that they were gay..."

The memory was instant, powerful. There had been an unexpected commotion, an interruption in the awful cycle. A girl, a sudden flurry of movement crashing into the scene that had worn away at him like water dripping onto stone. Then a face, filling his vision. It had been so long since anyone's gaze had met his own that it became a physical thing - Glitch might as well have reached through the iron shell and laid a hand on his chest.

The world shook, all noise and jarring sensation. Then the door had swung open and Wyatt had tumbled into freedom, weak as a newborn foal and feeling a dozen times more vulnerable.

"It's a good way to describe it," he said, finally. "Sounds like you've got things figured out a little better over there."

"I'm probably making it sound better than it is," DG gave him a hesitant half-smile, "but you're right. The OZ has a lot of catching up to do."

Silence returned. For a few minutes, the two of them sat together, neither one looking at the other. Wyatt found a knot in the panelled wall in front of him and stared at it fiercely, his mind racing. DG hadn't recoiled from him. She was surprised, that was plain to see, but the disgust he'd anticipated simply wasn't there. And I would have seen it. Maybe the queen had a streak of guile, but DG's wide eyes were as easy to read as a cloudless summer sky. Even so, now he'd told her, Wyatt felt doubt gnawing at him. You can't put a secret like that back in the box once it's out. Or the closet.

He knew he wouldn't need to ask DG to keep his confidence, as surely as he knew that, beside him, she was brooding a clutch of questions and forcing herself not to ask any of them.

"If...later on, we'll talk about this. If you want to," he said, eventually, still focused on the wooden panel, which might have begun to smoulder, had DG not slipped her hand into his, squeezing briefly.

"Okay," was all she said, and Wyatt risked a look at her. She was solemn, but there was warmth in her voice, and the word enfolded him and steadied him and, for a moment, he could see in the young woman's face the queen that she might one day become.

"Okay," he echoed, and they sat amidst the silence, hand in hand, until the doctor emerged from the kitchens and beckoned Wyatt in.

Chapter Text

1/10

Some good news, at last! Dr. O operated yesterday, and he thinks he has FOUND THE PROBLEM! God, I hope so. Going to visit G this morning - W has been with him all night, of course. And W - no, I can't even write it down.

...besides, you never know who might read this.

 

DG put her pen down, blotted the page, and closed the cover of her journal. As soon as she pushed it away, twisting vines, thick with thorns, swarmed over the cover. She was getting pretty good at any sort of magic that involved living things, especially if they were green. Inanimate objects still posed more of a challenge unless she was well and truly psyched up, but that was okay - it gave her an excuse to get her hands dirty.

She grinned. That was the rationale she'd tried on her mother and it had been met with exactly as much enthusiasm as she'd expected, but not an outright ban on her spending time at the stables, which was lucky because the stables were the home of her new and secret love. Although it's not that big a secret, when I can't walk three steps in any direction without falling over a maid.

As the workings of the royal household began to grind slowly back into action, DG had found herself with more maids than she knew what to do with. One maid would have been more than she knew what to do with. She had struggled to convince them that no, thank you, she'd been putting on her own clothes and brushing her own hair for quite a few years, now, and she'd pretty much got the hang of it. Still, they kept on materialising like over-solicitous ghosts, determined to tweak, brush or powder something. DG had found it was best just to never stay in the same place for too long, on the principle that a roving princess gathered no maids.

The strategy had been working pretty well so far, if you didn't count Enid. Enid was DG's nemesis. DG had a sneaking suspicion that the brisk, pin-mouthed woman had stitched tracking devices into all of her clothes, because no matter where she went, sooner or later, Enid would materialise like a low-budget vampire and ask her sweetly "Doesn't her Royal Highness think it might be better to change into something a little less...practical?" It was the jeans. Enid hated the jeans, and while DG didn't mind putting on a pretty dress to attend to what her mother called 'social duties', she was still herself, and slouching around in a pair of tired old jeans was much more comfortable than trying to look elegant wearing long skirts that tangled in your legs and got stepped on as you were trying to climb the stairs.

The OZ had their own equivalent of denim - a stiff serge traditionally dyed an unhealthy khaki shade, but DG had refused to give up the blue jeans that had come with her from the Otherside for anything, and Ahamo had sided with her, so Iskra had smilingly given way and ordered a dozen more pairs to be created on the condition that DG didn't make a habit of wearing them to occasions of state. Apparently no-one had told Enid this and DG's insistence seemed to fall on deaf ears because every morning, in DG's dressing room, there would be a selection of demure, long-skirted dresses in the most conservative of Ozian fashions. Unless there's something big happening, and then she digs up something that looks like a hooker's favourite lampshade.

Enid would definitely disapprove of today's outfit, which included the controversial jeans, but Enid was unlikely to visit the rooms at the end of the Long Gallery and it was there that DG headed now, her hands in her pockets and her heart in her mouth.

She was still absorbing Wyatt's revelation. She wasn't...shocked, exactly. She considered herself fairly open-minded, and even if she'd had reservations back home, once you'd been whisked away to another world by a tornado, discovered that you were a magic-performing princess, and met psychic animal-men and shapeshifters and people with zips where their partings should be, two men falling in love seemed mundane by comparison.

The only thing that made it seem strange now was that it was Wyatt, who wouldn't have seemed out of place in a Western, or maybe one of those Noir movies. If it had been Glitch...well, with Glitch, who knew? DG couldn't remember him ever mentioning a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend. Maybe he'd said more to Wyatt? He must have done something to give Wyatt hope that his feelings might be returned. The alternative seemed too sad to consider.

For once, she let the guard outside Glitch's rooms open the door for her, taking the extra moment to compose her thoughts. Inside, the cosy sitting room was lit by a single lamp and the air was laced with furniture polish and disinfectant. Someone had cleared away the last of Doctor Krantz's belongings and now all that remained was...DG stared for a moment - that was Wyatt's hat, and the saddle bag it sat on had to be his, too. He wouldn't leave now, would he? Not now.

There was movement in the room beyond the arch. "Is that you, doc?" Wyatt sounded subdued, and DG felt her heart squeezed by a clammy hand.

"It's DG - can I come through?" She wasn't exactly sure why she needed to ask permission - it wasn't Wyatt's room - but she felt like an interloper. Don't be silly, she told herself sternly, and went in anyway.

The curtains were drawn and the lamplight infused the room with a soft, sleepy glow. It should have seemed comforting, but DG thought about the Realm of the Unwanted: sunless, cut off from the elements, and longed for the open air.

Glitch was a small island of pallor, untouched by the warmth of the lamps, adrift in a sea of counterpane and billows of pillows. His head was bandaged, a few limp curls escaping here and there, and his eyes were masked by fading bruises. DG put a hand over her mouth. Then she saw Wyatt beside the bed, looking tired but smiling, and her anxiety loosened its grip.

"It's gonna be okay." Wyatt got part-way through these four words and found himself clamped in the slightly damp embrace of a tearful, very relieved princess.

"What did the doctor say? What was it?" DG sank into the chair beside Wyatt, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket, checking it for engine grease before drying her eyes.

"The fancy name he gave it was 'acute extra-dural occipital oedema'. Isn't that a mouthful?" He spread his hands and DG imagined the words strung between them like a chain of malevolent paper dolls. "To normal folks like you and me, it means there was brain juice building up back here," he tapped the back of his head, "with nowhere to go, and it was pr- hey, are you okay?"

DG prised both hands away from her mouth, the sudden urge to laugh subsiding in the face of Wyatt's earnest concern. "I'm okay. It's just...brain juice? It's a pity you became a Tin Man; you're such a loss to the medical profession." For a second, she thought she'd gone too far; Wyatt's face was a blank. Then he laughed softly and covered her hand with his.

"I don't think Doctor Oxley agrees with you. He managed pretty well with Doctor Spicer, and Vincent." He looked down at the bed, and DG tried hard not to study his expression - once again, she had the feeling of intruding on something very private. We never did have that talk...

"Wyatt?" How did you start this kind of conversation, anyway? Wyatt was a private sort of man at the best of times, and DG could see a hundred ways to plant her foot squarely in her mouth and make him clam up for good. Fortunately, Wyatt seemed to be one step ahead of her.

"I guess you've got some questions...now's probably as good a time as any. Once he wakes up, I won't be talking about this any more."

That pretty much answered her first question, but DG pressed on anyway. "Does Glitch know how you feel?"

"No. I didn't know how I felt till I came back here." He stopped, but DG forced herself to keep quiet, sensing that there was more to come. "Okay, that's not right. I did know. I just didn't want to accept it. Folk like me ain't exactly top of your mom's invite list, no disrespect intended."

"Hey, that's not fair!" Privately, DG thought he was probably right, but she felt she ought to say something in her mother's defence. "Mother got the law changed, didn't she? You said..." She trailed off. Wyatt was doing his patient look, which usually meant that she'd said something painfully naiive.

"There's a difference between saying something's not a crime and saying it's acceptable in polite society." He gave her a smile that was somehow worse than sharp words. "I know you want to stick up for her, kiddo, but if she knew that I was... well, you can bet I'd be handed my hat and shown the door."

"Don't call me kiddo," she said automatically, wondering if Wyatt could really be right about her mother. She can't be that close-minded, can she?

"Sorry. What I'm trying to say is that it's taken me a while to get my head around this. I don't even know if he's - if I'd be wasting my time."

DG watched him, a little saddened by the way that he hesitated. "You can say it, you know. You don't use 'gay' around here, do you? What do you say?"

She turned in her chair as Wyatt stood, and watched him circle the room distractedly. "Gay's what you call a bunch of flowers. Here, we say queer." He paused, picking up a red paper flower from the bookshelf, his gaze fixed on his hands as he turned it over and over. "Except we don't say it. It's a dirty word for a dirty secret, and we're meant to be ashamed of ourselves." All at once, his hands closed over the flower and he sighed, a defeated little sound that chipped a corner off DG's already aching heart. "It doesn't matter. The more I think about it, the crazier it seems to think Glitch could ever be...gay. He'd never be able to keep a thing like that secret, and a zipperhead roaming around the Zone is liable to meet with an accident at the best of times. If he made a move on another guy, he'd be in a shallow grave somewhere by now."

"Don't say that." DG shuddered. "No more talk of dying, Wyatt - I don't even want to think about it. Can we change the subject? We can figure this out later, when Glitch wakes up."

Wyatt had moved to the window, and now he laid the paper flower on the small table there, straightening out the edge of a petal that had crumpled in his hands. "No. When he wakes up, that's it. I appreciate you trying to help, and I'm grateful you've taken all of this so well, but...it's never gonna happen. So I'm done talking about it. There's no sense wishing for a miracle."

Not for the first time, DG wished that her magic - which so often seemed to respond to desire rather than will - could be trusted to interpret a vague, all-encompassing request to 'make everything better'. "Is that why you're leaving?" She hadn't meant to blurt it out so abruptly, and the question certainly seemed to surprise Wyatt. He turned away from the window and stared at her.

"Leaving?"

"Your bag...and your hat. You're all packed up..." Wyatt shook his head and DG told herself firmly that while flinging her arms around him and hugging him once during a visit was probably okay, doing it a second time might count as un-princessly conduct. Then she decided decorum could go and take a running jump and did it anyway.

Wyatt disentangled himself, steering her back to her chair before sitting down himself. "I'm not going anywhere. The doc wanted to be close by, but we figured Glitch might panic if he thought we'd moved another doctor into his room. So he's staying next door..."

"...and you're sleeping in here." She nodded. It made sense. More sense than thinking Wyatt would just disappear when Glitch has only just made it through his operation. This is one of those times Az would be pulling me up for opening my mouth before I've thought things through.

"Sleeping?" From Wyatt's expression, DG figured she might as well have been speaking Munchkin. "No, I'm keeping watch."

Well, that explained why he looked as if he'd keel over in a strong breeze. "You can't stay awake all the time," she insisted. "You don't need to. You know Krantz isn't coming back, don't you? Mother's sent him back to the City hospital, along with his greasy sidekick."

"That's it?" It wasn't a shout - even in his anger Wyatt was careful to keep his voice low, but it was edged with outrage. "After all they've done, they're getting away with it?" She put a soothing hand on his arm.

"No - trust me, Mother wants to make an example of them. They've both been thrown out of the School of Science, and she gave them a choice between jail and working three years penance in the hospital laundry." It had been an interesting experience, watching the queen deliberate on the fate of the two scheming medics. Mild though she seemed, DG had a feeling that it was a mistake to get into her bad graces. "They chose the laundry - they seemed to think they were getting off lightly, but Mother asked Doctor Oxley what he thought was the hardest, dirtiest job in the hospital, and he said that the laundry was a back-breaking, thankless job, and they'd be up to their elbows in every unpleasant substance imaginable."

"I guess that'll have to do," Wyatt conceded. Then he smiled, darkly. "Far be it from me to put your mother to the test, but now I'm kinda hoping they do try and run."

"Oh, I think she was...very convincing. I don't remember her exact words, but 'you can't run from magic, and you don't want to try my patience' was pretty much the gist of it." And I have a feeling Ahamo might have had a word, in case they were thinking of making a break for the Realm of the Unwanted. She looked hopefully at Wyatt, waiting to see if this was enough to satisfy him.

"They might risk trying her patience. But what really ought to worry them is the Treachery Bounty that'll be put on them if they try and flee from a Royal Judgement. Then they're fair game for anyone." And there was something in the way that Wyatt said 'anyone' that suggested that he'd be leading the chase.

DG squeezed his arm. "Let the law worry about them, now. The only thing that matters is that Glitch got through his operation, and now he needs us to help him recover. He needs you." And it was the right thing to say, clearly, because Wyatt's expression softened instantly, and his eyes, which were fixed on Glitch, grew bright in the lamplight. She smiled.

"Everything will t-" And then she forgot what she was going to say, because she saw what had changed Wyatt's mood so abruptly.

"Good morning, Sweetheart."

***

13/10

Stable block still safe from Enid so far. Just needs a secret tunnel from the palace, but Az says it would flood, and I should just stand up to E. Which is big-sister speak for 'sucks to be you'.

 

DG looked at the Gump. The Gump looked at DG. The coach house was filled with a palpable tension, and a faint smell of burning.

"O-kay," said DG, carefully. "I take it back. You're not a heap of useless junk, I wouldn't be better off with a lawnmower, and your wheels aren't stupid. Now will you please turn over?" She flicked the ignition switch, then pressed the starter button with her thumb so that she didn't have to uncross her fingers.

Spectacular things failed to happen.

"Fine." She flipped the switch back to 'off' and dismounted. "But it won't do you any good to sulk. I've got an adjustable wrench and I'm not afraid to use it." So saying, she flopped down on the blanket she'd spread out in the straw and set to work removing the ageing trike's engine housing. DG had a sneaking suspicion that her mother had only allowed her near the machine because there seemed little chance of ever getting it going. When she'd found it, penned in between rusting exhausts and mysteriously-shaped lengths of iron, it had been little more than a battered frame, with a set of handlebars projecting antler-like above the jumble and a pair of bulbous headlamps in tarnished brass brackets. DG, missing her old bike, had hauled it into the open, and was instantly smitten. A moulded metal plate on the frame bore the stylised letters 'GMP' - DG didn't know what it stood for, but in her mind the trike became 'The Gump', with a character all of its own.

She worked on it whenever she had the chance, even bringing it to the Winter palace when the household had moved for the Queen's Ball, and now it was all but complete, if complete was a word that could be applied to something that looked like an unplanned mating between a mechanical plough and an elderly armchair. Green leather adorned the seat, which was wide enough for DG to sit on cross-legged should she so choose. Rivets sprouted like warts from the patched frame. The tyres, which had been salvaged from a defunct Longcoat truck, were fat and shabby, and the twin headlights peered over the front mudguard with goggle-eyed aplomb.

A shadow fell across her, and she squinted up to see Azkadelia standing in the doorway, a small leather-bound book clasped to her chest. "I thought I'd find you here," she said, with mock-severity. "Mother will be delighted that you skipped another lesson to come and wrestle the Lump."

"It's a Gump, Az." DG knew that she was being baited, but she couldn't quite help herself. "Anyway, we're not meant to be meeting Tutor until two, and it's only -"

"Five minutes after three. Which you'd know if you listened for the bell."

Oh, that was what the bell had been. DG had heard it, distantly, but she'd been fiddling with an awkwardly-placed stretch of wiring, and had done no more than glance up, her mind still submerged in her task. She stood, picking up the grease-spotted blanket and shaking it out over the recalcitrant Gump. "Mother doesn't have to know I was late, does she?" She grinned at Azkadelia's sceptical expression.

"Mm. When has not telling Mother something worked out well for us in the past?"

DG didn't reply until they had left the stable block behind them and were safely on the path back to the palace. Then she nudged Azkadelia. "Aw, lighten up. I missed my own funeral, once. One lesson with Tutor won't make a lot of difference, will it?"

This sort of conversation was not uncommon between the sisters, though they were careful not to let their mother hear. It had started with Azkadelia - on one of their long rides (guards discreetly in tow, of course) on the heathland overlooking the Sunseeder. She had made some reference to her now-defunct title of 'Sorceress', and DG had gazed at her, lost for words, until she saw the look of desperation in Azkadelia's eyes. She's never talked about it. And we've never pushed, because there are some old wounds you don't re-open in case you bleed to death. Instead of ignoring the comment, some instinct had made DG reply, lightly, that if she had to put up with steel underwear to qualify for the position, she'd give it a miss, and Azkadelia, who never cried, had groped for her hand and wept. Some things were so awful, so corrosive, that they couldn't be talked about directly. But perhaps you could take a small piece of the horror between you, share it out in the daylight and - once it had faded - take a little more until the burden grew bearable.

She looked at the book Azkadelia was carrying. The spine was hidden, but she recognised the binding.

"...can't sleep. Please, Ambrose? Just one story?"

"One story, Highness, and then you must promise to go back to bed."

"I promise."

"Well then. What shall it be?"

Azkadelia caught her look and there was a hint of conspiracy in her smile as she offered the book.

"We almost made it to the end of the story, but Tutor came to see if you were there, and I could see Ambrose was getting sleepy, so I said we'd finish tomorrow instead."

DG took the book from her sister, finding the braided ribbon Az had been using as a bookmark. "Which one are you reading to him? I think he liked The Clockwork Man - it's hard to be sure..."

"...when he doesn't speak. We have to be patient, DG - the doctor said things will come back slowly. You always liked The Clockwork Man when you were little, you know."

"...read that to you last time, didn't I, Highness? In any case, isn't it your sister's turn to choose tonight?"

"I don't mind, Ambrose. DG can have the same story again, if she likes."

"Mm, no, I changed my mind. Can we have The Little Grey Girl? Az likes that one best."

"Now, Highness, you know that one gives you nightmares..."

DG turned the page, keeping the bookmark in place with her thumb.

...and they came to the place of which the Wise Man had foretold, where a great, wide sea lapped at the Southern shore, with the Witch howling at their heels like the Western Wind.

"Now, my pretty," she said to the Little Grey Girl, "you can go no further and must surrender. Tell me the secret that lets you slip between the worlds, and I may be merciful. Otherwise I'll order my pets to tear your friends apart, and I shall have your skin and wear it as a pair of silver shoes."

DG shuddered. "I never used to think Ambrose was telling the truth when he said these were all old Munchkin stories. Then I ran into a real Munchkin tribe - now I'm wondering if he toned these translations down." She flicked forward a few pages, leafing hurriedly past an illustration of something dark and ragged entitled 'Levaba Manifests'.

...they took what remained of her down to the catacombs, and sealed her away in the dark until she was nothing but a memory, drifting and wailing in the place where the goblins go...

She shivered again. Then Azkadelia's arm was about her shoulders, and everything was all right again. No, not everything.

"Az...does - did Ambrose ever have anyone? A girlfriend, I mean," she added, trying to sound casual. Azkadelia frowned, twitching her skirt out of the way of a sprawling flower arrangement at the foot of the main staircase. DG, be-jeaned in calculated defiance of Enid's gown selection for the day, had no such problem.

"Not that I remember. He was always so tied up with his work, I don't think he had time. He sometimes went to the City for Mother, so I suppose he might have." They continued up the stairs and DG waited expectantly until Azkadelia looked round at her. "DG, it was a long time ago. And Ambrose was...well, he was staff. We didn't ask him about his private life. Why do you want to know?"

Well, Az, it's like this. Wyatt's in love with him, and if it turns out there's a Mrs Goldstraw, or even a lovely lass named Leona, it's likely to cramp his style. "I just wondered if there was someone...we should tell about him being ill," she murmured through a polite little smile, as they passed a pair of grandly-dressed councilmen who were clearly trying not to stare at her less-than-regal clothing.

Azkadelia echoed the smile, inclining her head graciously at the men and sweeping onwards. Once they'd reached the sanctuary of the quiet side-corridor where the shapeshifter lived, she gave DG a worried look.

"I know you're fond of him, DG. We all are. But...that's all it is, isn't it?"

"Ye-es?" DG told herself not to panic. "What do you mean?" Had she given something away? No - it wasn't possible. She and Wyatt had spent time together since Glitch's awakening, mostly at his bedside, but the subject of Wyatt's feelings was now taboo. Wyatt had made that very clear.

She was all geared up to defend her friends, so when Azkadelia took hold of her, turning her gently so that they were face to face and asked solemnly "You haven't fallen for Ambrose, have you?" she had to clamp her lips together to stop a flood of justifications and pleas for secrecy. Then the question sank in, and she let out a peal of laughter.

"Oh - oh, sorry. I'm sorry. It's not funny. It's just...me and Ambrose? Where did you get that?" They both looked relieved. Not, DG guessed, for the same reason.

"It's not such a strange thing to think, is it? You always adored him when you were little, and he was very brave, in the war." There was a slight catch in Azkadelia's voice, just the tiniest quaver, but DG didn't miss it. Okay, no more nostalgia today.

"Ambrose and I are just good friends. I promise. I'm in a monogamous relationship with the Gump, anyway. Or I would be, if I could just find out what turns him on." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, and Azkadelia gave an unladylike snort.

"Don't you let Enid hear you talking like that or she'll wash your mouth out with soap."

Satisfied that danger had been averted, DG grinned. "Have you tasted her tea?"

***

27/10

Tutor says magic has three parts: natural talent, the skill that comes from practice, and the good judgement to know when magic is needed. He left out the fourth part, which is: cleaning up the mess.

 

All that you needed was a spark. One tiny point of heat. You had to look at - no, feel the world in a certain way. Heat was everywhere. The air was full of it. It rose from your skin, tinged your breath like heady wine. The trick was moving it to where you wanted it. And once you'd learned that trick, the next was learning how to move just enough.

This time, only three of the candles melted.

"Better. Much better. See what you can do when you turn up for class?"

DG glowed a little at the praise, even though Tutor seemed determined not to let her forget - One time - one time I miss a lesson and he's still bugging me about it. She blew out the candles arranged along the edge of the desk, then eyed the shapeshifter through the bars of rising smoke.

"It's been two weeks. Gotta let it go some time, Toto, or people will start to talk." She smiled winningly, enjoying the way his brow furrowed, as it always did when he was exasperated. Good to know I'm still a pain in the butt, even if I've grown out of the world's most tragic bangs.

"I'll make a deal with you, DG. If you don't call me 'Toto', I'll stop -"

"Hounding me?" Tutor gave her a longsuffering look, and DG fought to keep the phrase 'puppy-dog eyes' from capering merrily towards her lips. "Okay, I'll be good. Do you want me to try again?"

"No, I think you've got it, now. But practise, practise, and maybe next week I won't be cleaning wax off my desk. No, don't help," he added, as DG began digging blobs of melted candle out of the pitted wood. "You'll only go and get a splinter or break a nail, and Mister Rawlins will come down on me like a ton of angry butler."

It was hard to imagine the supremely self-possessed valet ever losing his temper, but DG sat back obediently, her mind already turning to her plans for the afternoon. First a visit to Glitch, perhaps to read to him, perhaps to regale him with her latest engineering exploits. He would hang on her every word, and once in a while her heart would leap as he interrupted with a question. Soft, hesitating, his speech a little stilted, but a question rooted in the here and now. Three weeks into his recovery, he had yet to recognise anyone other than Wyatt, but he was almost-Glitch, and every day he was gradually coming into focus.

Once Wyatt appeared to displace her (and he could seldom bear to stay away for more than an hour or two), she'd make her way down to the stables and carry on hunting for the elusive spark of life the Gump still lacked.

Content with the idea, she was about to ask Tutor if she could go, when she saw the rock.

Unlike Glitch, who had remained at the Sunseeder since the eclipse, and who'd come to the Winter Palace with nothing more than a small trunk of clothes and a crate of books, Tutor had settled in months before, and the state of his quarters reflected that. It was clean; there were few places in the royal residence that the flicking of maidly dusters did not reach. But there was a certain...lived-in look to everything. The sofa cushions, encased in green silk, were sunken, and a touch frayed. The books crammed onto the cluttered shelves were - if such a phrase could be used - slightly dog-eared. There was, not to put too fine a point on it, a half-chewed slipper under the desk.

DG quite liked the mess. It was, for want of a better word, homely, and a break from the formality and grandeur of the rest of the palace. She hadn't noticed the rock before, though, and put that down to usually sitting on the sofa (and she'd done really well, so far, at not checking herself for dog hair whenever she got up from it, although she was bound to forget, one of these days) rather than on the upright chair close to Tutor's desk.

In all ways but one, it was an unremarkable thing. It was long, and grey, and streamlined, a little like a whale, but mostly like a rock. The one thing that caught DG's eye was the thick vein of blue bisecting the greyness. Robin's egg blue, running through smooth grey stone.

"Where did you get that from?" she asked, going over to the shelf. Tutor followed her gaze, then motioned her to take it down.

"Pretty, isn't it?" He ran a thick finger along the length of the vivid layer. "Comes from Finaqua, though you'll find it in a few places in the OZ. Always near water, or where water used to be." He looked up at DG. "You really want to know? I didn't have you down as someone with an itch for geology."

DG gave him her most innocent, wide-eyed look. "You know me - always ready to learn something new."

If ever there was a face made to express lugubrious scepticism, it was Tutor's. Nevertheless, he took the stone out of her hands and sank down onto the sofa. After a moment, DG sat down beside him. "It's nothing mysterious, really. You see...magic has a-a sort of a colour. Not that you'd be able to see it, ordinarily. Human eyes just aren't fixed to see it. Not even the eyes of a fine witch as you're shaping up to be."

DG winced. "I'd rather we didn't use the 'w' word, if it's all the same to you."

"Whatever you say, DG. Now your Munchkin folk, they can see it - see it so well they think the colour itself is magical. Got a whole language of colours, the Munchkins, and you can bet Doctor Spicer could tell you all about it."

And if I'm lucky, I might even understand half of it. DG took the rock onto her lap and tentatively traced the blue layer. "So magic's blue? Should I be able to feel something when I touch this stuff?" The blue-banded stone in Raw's totem had given off no special aura when she held it - only a sense of serenity, of rightness, and DG, without knowing why, knew that if she removed even one element, that feeling would vanish like a dream.

"Well, this isn't exactly magic. Leastways," Tutor made a noncommittal gesture, "not raw magic, like the stuff that made those candles light up. That sort of magic is just about everywhere, just floating around in the air, and in the ground, and in you and me. 'Specially you and me. We live and breathe it, and it soaks into us like..."

"Water in a sponge?"

Tutor nodded approvingly. "Like water in a sponge, that's good. And water is the key to what you're seeing here." He nodded at the rock. "Magic likes water - dissolves right into it as easy as sugar in a hot cup of coffee. Most water's got some magic in it."

"But Finaqua - that means magical water. What's so special about Finaqua?"

Once again, DG could tell her question had pleased her teacher. He clasped his hands together on his knees, eyes closed in contemplation. Finally, he sat back with a sigh. "All right. When something powerful and magical, whether that's a thing or a person, is destroyed suddenly and violently, all that power is released into the world." He pressed his fingertips together and drove his hands apart, miming an explosion. "A cloud of raw energy. And if there's water close by, that's where it'll go."

In her mind's eye, DG watched the Sorceress, dwindling and melting before her eyes, something like oil that oozed away into the stone of the tower. She's gone where the goblins go... "And something like that happened at Finaqua?

"A very long time ago, I think. There's nothing left nowadays but folk tales and songs, but once upon a time something of great power was ended in Finaqua."

"And...that makes the rock go blue?"

Tutor made a rocking motion with the flat of his hand. "We-ell, broadly speaking. Sometimes the earth doesn't sit easy and when that happens, a crack can open up deep down in the stones. If there's water above, it'll flow right in there and dry up. And with time, and pressure, veins of blue crystal form in those cracks, just like this."

And maybe it found other places to go, DG thought. Dripping down through layers of rock, creeping through faults and fissures and into the hidden places, below, below, below...

"DG?"

She dragged herself back out of the darkness. Up into the light of the suns, where the old summerhouse stood, to where Raw had come, unannounced and unnoticed. How far had he walked, just to leave his message, bound up in cords of woven grass? And why?

Just to say he was thinking of us? No. Raw was always a man...a Viewer...of few words. He'd make them count.

A feather for Glitch, and the warm, scarred wood for Wyatt. That made sense. And a blue-banded stone for herself, because blue was the colour of magic...

"DG?" Tutor touched her wrist and DG looked up, excitement running through her like a soft breeze through tall grass.

"What about Viewers?" She held up the stone to him, turning the line of milky blue towards him. "What does this mean to them? Do they see magic the way Munchkins do?"

The shapeshifter blinked, slightly taken aback at her sudden intensity. "Munchkins tend to take things literally. Viewers are a little more philosophical. To them, the blue rock means a time of great change. Or the start of something new."

DG looked down at the stone for a moment, then pushed it gently into Tutor's hands.

"You've been very helpful. Same time next week, okay?" She didn't wait for Tutor to answer, but jumped to her feet and hurried out into the corridor. I'll get the totem. I've been reading it wrong all this time. Maybe if I show it to Wyatt again, he'll see that he shouldn't give up. Raw must have known - he must have sensed something when we were all together.

She was almost at the door of her suite before her initial excitement began to fade. Wyatt had taken the totem from her willingly enough last time, but he'd dozed off in his chair before he'd been able to tell her if he'd sensed anything odd about it. What would be different this time? Maybe you have to be into magic, somehow, to feel it. In any case, what was she doing? Say you're right. Say Raw did his mystic thing and he could tell that Wyatt was gay, or bi, or whatever he is, and he and Glitch could have a future together. Say all of that's true. D'you think Wyatt would risk saying a word to Glitch about it unless Glitch made some kind of move? This is not a good world to be gay in.

"Is that what you want, Raw? You want me to change the world?"

Beyond the main entrance DG's rooms were light and colourful, with walls of that particular shade of rose gold that came with winter sunrises. Engraved glass doors divided the bright rooms, and DG stared through them to the wooden form currently modelling today's studiously-ignored outfit, then at her own reflection.

Well, if you can't change the world, princess, who can?

"Your Highness!"

Everything about DG, except for her voice, said uh-oh. Enid, who had either been hiding behind a potted palm or - and DG thought this was far more likely - hanging from the ceiling on a wire, appeared beside her with a dusky pink robe draped over her arm.

"Enid...hi. I was just on my way to-"

"Your fitting, Highness! Did you forget?" She brushed at the fabric; there was nothing to be brushed away - it was more of a warning shot against any dust that might be unwise enough to consider settling there in the future. "In only a few weeks the Winter Court will begin, and you must look your best! Everyone will be here for the ball."

Another ball. DG sighed. There was something in the way that Enid said 'everyone' that hinted that people not invited to the ceremony were of no consequence and could therefore be discounted. When I was little, I was so jealous of Az for getting to stay up late and dance. Now that there were, for want of a better phrase, balls everywhere she turned, they didn't seem nearly as important.

Memory flashed a fin: the distant whirl of music and laughter, drifting up the stone stairs of the Vantage. Ambrose, informal in rolled-up shirt-sleeves, wire-rimmed spectacles all but consumed by untamed curls, putting aside his work to dance her around the room until she was giggling and helpless, her discontent forgotten.

"It'll have to wait. I need to go and see Ambrose." Usually, this was enough to escape from Enid's busy, fussy clutches. Today she wasn't so lucky. Enid gathered up the robe, pursing her lips.

"I'll just come along with you, Your Highness. Have you thought about how you'd like your hair..?"

I could probably outrun her, DG thought, as they descended the stairs. Maybe slide down the bannisters and then double back. No, that was no good - she had already told Enid where she was going. As they made their way long the Long Gallery, she indulged in a brief but satisfying fantasy in which the guard on Glitch's door mistook Enid for an intruder and marched her away, still clucking about petticoats, to some quiet part of the castle where she couldn't disturb anyone, especially DG. Reality, however, was not so obliging, and the guard simply saluted and swept the door open grandly, allowing both DG and her interfering shadow inside.

Sunslight filled the little sitting room, and the warm air was rich with the scent of beeswax and fresh coffee. In the centre of the room, bathed in a shaft of golden light, Glitch and Wyatt sat facing one another over a small ornamental table. A stack of playing cards lay, face-down, between them. Wyatt, looking relaxed and more contented than DG had seen him since he'd arrived, was leaning back in his chair, a hand of cards propped nonchalantly against the table. Glitch, skinny wrists emerging from the sleeves of a voluminous fuzzy bathrobe, had his cards fanned out in both hands and was peering over them as if they were a barricade. Wyatt looked up and winked.

"Hey, princess. Want to join us for a game?" He ran a fingertip along the top of the neatly arrayed cards. "Mm. On second thoughts, I remember what you said about bluffing. Okay, Glitch, got any...emeralds?"

The zipperhead leaned slowly back from his cards and his eyes flicked minutely downwards, then back up to Wyatt. "Go dig." He nodded approvingly, as Wyatt grinned and picked a card off the pile. "Have you got...have you got...have you..."

DG looked on, worried, but Wyatt didn't seem alarmed. He simply leaned across the table and squeezed Glitch's arm. Glitch blinked, then narrowed his eyes.

"No peeking! Have..." He paused, then looked up from the table, seeming to notice DG and Enid for the first time. "Oh. Have we met before? You look kinda familiar."

"It's me, Glitch. DG?" She shoved her hands in her pockets so that he couldn't see her cross her fingers. Remember the cage? The Munchkins? Please, Glitch? Behind her, she heard Enid take a breath, ready to remind her that ladies of status never put their hands in their pockets like resting farm labourers.

"Not you, DG, her." Glitch gave Enid a look of candid interest, and the maid took a small step backwards. "I know! You're the one who used to cut DG's hair when she was just a little proto-princess." He beamed at DG. "It looked terrible. Like someone dropped a basin on your head."

She burst out laughing. For one thing, it was true; she'd seen the pictures of her younger self, and someone had taken great pains to make sure that her eyebrows were never in danger of being upstaged by her hair. For another, it was Glitch - pure, untarnished Glitch, cheerful, tactless, innocent and he remembered her name.

What's more, his recognition of Enid had been enough to make the lady's maid turn tail and flee. And for that, thought DG, she could have forgiven him anything.

Chapter Text

The tuning of a zither sounds like this:

"La."

Twoing.

"Lalaathat'snotrightlaa."

                         Twoinnnnggg

                                                     Twingg?

                                                                         Twingtwingtwingg

"La-"

TWONG.

"-oh."

And then a short interval for restringing.

Glitch watched himself work, in a state of mild, amazed joy. So long as he didn't try to think about the process, it seemed his hands were happy to go about the work unsupervised, so he sat back in his chair with the instrument on his lap, trying first one string, then another, and turning the pegs that flanked the angled pegbox as he did so. The mellow, plangent sounds evoked a brief ripple on the surface of his memories, and he let his gaze fall idly on them, catching a glimpse of a garden, of crimson flowers and the sounds of childish voices nearby. He let them fade once more, knowing that chasing his thoughts was likely to sent them out of sight like forest lizards darting off the path.

Every now and then his hand would steal up to touch the line of his zipper. Gingerly, almost fearfully, each time expecting a flare of pain. But there was no pain.

"No pain," he whispered, confiding in the zither, and it hummed back reassuringly, as if to say this is the way of things.

There had been a frost that morning, but it hadn't stood up for long under the gaze of the suns. Now the day was clear and still, a snapshot of September that had somehow found its way between November's pages. It would only be a few short weeks until the suns did no more than coast along the mountain tops before sinking the valley into wintry gloom. For now, though, there were suns, and Glitch slipped his thumb back into the pick and stroked a chord of pure yellow from the strings. There. That was nice. He strummed it again.

"Ohh...the suns are done eclipsin'...the Witch has...cashed her chips in." He grinned and moved his hands over the zither, fetching back a harmony in red and chestnut-brown. "The worlds can start again." Move. Strum. Move. Strum. "Things have worked out for DG..." Rising notes of amber. "...now they'd be completely peachy, if I only had a-"

"I can come back later if you're busy?"

Glitch turned in his chair, his palm hushing the strings. "Cain!" He started to rise, then thought better of it, the room executing a dignified pirouette around him. "Ohh, the things are moving."

The Tin Man crossed the room quickly, and Glitch wondered how he could be so silent on those big flat feet. "Stay there. You're meant to be resting, remember?" He laced his fingers demurely in his lap, feeling strong hands settle on his shoulders. I guess I'm staying here, then. He tilted his head back, squinting upwards.

"Mm - d'you want a drink? There's... I'm not sure. Something in a jug - I haven't looked."

"I'm fine. And it's apple juice. Want me to pour you a glass?" Glitch shook his head, shut his eyes, waited for pain, then sighed blissfully. The warmth on his shoulders departed, and the unoccupied chair creaked a welcome. "Were you singing?"

He opened one eye, cautiously."Yes...unless you thought it was terrible, in which case it was...ducks." There were ducks down on the lake, or possibly they were swans. Or chickens. He'd always been fascinated by the mechanics of birds' wings, the porous bones, the clever little hooks and barbs of their feathers. The fact that they all wore different clothes was an added detail he hadn't really had time for, yet.

"I'm gonna go out on a limb and say it wasn't ducks. Anyway, it didn't sound terrible." Cain nodded towards the zither. "And you really know how to play that thing. Colour me impressed."

Glitch couldn't see 'impressed'. He suspected it was one of those colours. 'Approval' was a long, tapering shape, something like a blunted arrowhead, but it didn't have much of a colour. 'Surprised' was more a thing of light, pale and grey-silver. So 'surprised approval', in an informal context (as opposed to 'approbation', which was more of a lavender colour), was

"Glitch?"

He blinked. "Hello?" Cain was leaning towards him, and Glitch riffled back through their conversation, looking for clues. Concentrate, knucklehead. "Ohh...I was glitching?"

"Don't worry about it. You're doing well, that's the important thing." And, simply by saying so, the Tin Man made it fact, unassailable and impervious to doubt.

I'm doing well. Some of that was down to Dossley - he frowned. That wasn't quite right, but it was the closest his mind would allow. The medico, anyway. He ambled in once a day, always when Cain was there to keep the past where it was supposed to be, and chatted about this and that while Glitch distracted himself by counting buttons, or guessing at the purpose of the bifurcated rubber tube that dangled around his neck. But it was Cain who stayed, listening patiently to the interesting things about Feigenbaum fractals, and the moth cocoon he'd found in his uniform pocket, and every day walked him down the Long Gallery and back, every day a little further.

Yesterday had been the best so far. They'd made it all the way to the portrait of Prince Lupercus, with his mismatched eyes, and Cain had surprised him by offering an analysis of the man - just based on his expression - so dry and quietly witty that Glitch had had to beg him to stop before he giggled his way into a headache. Cain was funny. Who would have thought? So when he realised his visitor was dressed to go outside, it was hard to keep disappointment from his face.

"Are you going for a ride? I don't blame you," he added quickly. Cain had been so generous with his time - the last thing he wanted was to sound ungrateful. "I-it's a beautiful day. Just the kind of weather for -"

Once upon a time, Cain would have cut off his babbling with a sharp word, or a sharper jab of his elbow, leaving Glitch feeling small and useless. Just getting in the way, as usual. Of course, that was just how Tin Men were: mean and suspicious, dark thunderclouds, all ready to lash you with stinging hail, or drench you in chilly rain, or - if you were really unlucky - singe your heels with a lightning bolt. Cain's scorn was icy, and Glitch had already decided that the best that he could hope for was avoid anything harsher than a cuff to the head for letting his mouth run on ahead of his thoughts.

Then, in the half-light of Demilo's truck:

"Hey, Glitch?"

"What?"

"I owe you one."

And, just for a moment, the suns came out.

And the sunslight was so good, after the cold, and it sank into the very marrow of your bones, and it healed all those little hurts like soothing magic. And you started to look for ways to summon back the suns yellow to call 'em, and songs to keep 'em here, because in those warm moments, you felt as if you mattered.

A part of him hated himself for this sudden need, perhaps because that same part of him knew it wasn't sudden at all. If you starved a man for long enough, what would he do to earn a few scraps of food? Pride was all very well, but you couldn't eat it. For that matter, you could eat grass, and acorns and horse-feed if you were starving, but there wasn't an orchard in the whole OZ where the boughs hung heavy with kind words and respect. Those few words from Cain were as sweet as any apple Glitch had tasted, made all the sweeter by what he'd been through to win them.

"Slow down a minute, will you?" Cain looked amused. "I'm not going for a ride. I came to see if you're up to heading out of doors for a little while."

Outside! Glitch glanced towards the window, eagerly. "That'd be wonderful. I don't remember the last time I went out...seems like forever." His fingers brushed the zither absently, tugging a soft chord from the strings, and he looked down, momentarily surprised to see it there. "Sorry. I was just getting to know some of my old stuff again. Azkadelia found this when they were putting the palace back in order, and she says it was mine." He glanced away from his hands to lull them into a false sense of security, then played a brief ripple of notes before they could plead forgetfulness. "I guess she was right," he concluded, happily.

"Well, if you want to stay here and practise for a while, we can always walk down the gallery and back later on, to keep the doc happy." Cain hesitated, as if he'd said something he shouldn't have, but Glitch didn't give him long to brood over it.

"Outside, please! I can practise later. The suns won't wait for us..." he set the instrument aside and rose carefully, using the back of the chair for balance "...and right now I'm getting overtaken by passing herds of tortoises. There's a stick somewhere..." Had he left it by the bed?

"There's no rush." The Tin Man pushed his own chair back and started searching for the elusive walking stick. "I don't think the suns are gonna go anywhere just yet."

Glitch grinned. "I'm so used to leaning on a Cain it's gonna be hard to do without." There it was - it had slithered down near the end of the bed. He made his way cautiously from the chair to the bed and retrieved the stick and, as he straightened up, Cain reached out to him. He slipped his hand through the crook of the other man's arm, feeling the curve of muscle beneath his palm, warm through the fabric of his shirt, feeling here and now and safe. Like resting your hand on a stone wall, suns-warmed and weathered, a feeling of reassurance, stability.

Now just you stop that. You've still got a couple of marbles to click together - don't you remember how it was before?

It wasn't just that he liked to touch things. He navigated his haphazard way through life with every sense continually bombarded, every sensation a note in a complex chord. It was hard to imagine how other people coped with colourless music, shapeless words, where numbers were no more than concepts instead of warm and living things with their own places in the universe. Touching was important, and Glitch could no more hold back from touching the world around him than he could go about with his eyes shut. The problem had begun when he'd started touching Cain.

People didn't touch zipperheads unless they had to. When you said goodbye to your brain, you soon forgot the feeling of a hug or a handshake and, if you were lucky, the white-coats scooped out your libido along with your marbles. Glitch had drifted along, blown from farmstead to hedgerow, haystack to hollow tree, and he carried a keepsake with him everywhere he went: the memory of a warm, slender hand on his forearm, the last gentle touch he could remember. Nothing had ever caused it to dim, no kick or blow had ever weakened its hold on him. Then he'd found himself standing on the edge of a cliff, a swarm of Papay snarling close behind and Raw's fuzzy form disappearing into the turbulent river-spray below. And Cain had grabbed him, and they'd leaped into the abyss together. It wasn't gentle. It wasn't loving. But something went 'click' inside Glitch, and while his memory continued to slip and stutter, he never lost the recollection of Cain's hand, hot against his shoulder and the understanding that, for once, he wasn't going to be thrown away.

And you should have been satisfied with that, shouldn't you? But whatever relay had flicked over in the depths of his tattered grey matter when they jumped had burned out set to Cain = comfort, and he found himself trying to stay close to the Tin Man, even as he was infuriated by his attitude. Close. Closer. Closest. Just to touch his sleeve when everyone was distracted. Most folks would make do with a lucky rabbit's foot. Trust you to need a whole Tin Man to cosy up to. It had taken a freezing night in Demilo's wagon, his mind focused on keeping Cain alive, to get it out of his system. So don't you start following that road again, dummy, because he's a good guy, and he doesn't deserve you and your weird, obsessive little tics.

Cain steered them out of the Long Gallery and towards the back staircase. "I asked the kitchens to put up some lunch for us. We'll get it on the way down."

The suggestion of food was enough to momentarily derail Glitch's introspection. By the time we make it down there, we could pick up tomorrow's breakfast, too. He peered into the stairwell and drew back, suppressing a shudder. "Just three flights. No problem."

"Hmm." Cain looked doubtful. "Okay. Listen to me, Glitch, and don't try to pretend there's nothing wrong. You've been through a lot these past few weeks, and you've good reason to be tired. It's okay. We can go back, now."

Glitch stared at him, crestfallen. "But I want to go outside. It's sunny, Cain, and there'll be frost dragonflies out on the lake, and mercuries, and skimmers." Anything to be away from his room for a while. He was so close to the sunslight he could almost taste it, and now it was slipping away. "I can hold onto the banister and go slow...please?"

The thought of fresh air and the glittering lake carried him all the way down the first flight of stairs. The thought of having to tell Cain that he'd run out of energy and couldn't go on took him nearly half-way down the second. Then he had to stop, clinging to the banister with his eyes tightly shut. Cain's arm encircled his waist just as his knees turned to marshmallow, and together they sank down onto a step.

"It was too far. I shouldn't have suggested it." The Tin Man sounded chagrined, and Glitch put his hands over his face.

"Nonono, please don't! I - I just need a minute. Only a minute, and then I'll be okay." He was starting to sound a little desperate, even to to his own ears, and he forced himself to take a breath and calm down. "I'll be fine. My legs are just catching up with the rest of me." They weren't catching up very fast, though. "Give me a minute and I'll slide down the banisters, if it'll show you I'm fit to go out."

Cain snorted. "Try it, and if the doc doesn't have my hide for it, DG will." He patted Glitch on the shoulder and stood up, moving down a few steps so that they were eye-to-eye. Glitch leaned closer. If he looked deep enough into Cain's eyes, perhaps he'd see clockwork - tiny, delicate, miraculous mechanisms that whirred and ticked behind glass the colour of a summer sky. The colour of falling. The colour I lost. Tick-tock, Tin Man. I see you. "I could try and carry you, but they're steep steps and if I miss my footing, we're both gonna end up in bandages." Glitch opened his mouth, marshalling his arguments, but Cain hadn't finished. "So how about this? You sit on the banister and lean against the wall, with an arm across my shoulders, and I'll walk us down slowly. That way I can hang onto the handrail too, you can't get your feet tangled, and you don't have to try and stand."

That sounded...very, very silly. But fun. Admit it - you want to give it a try. Glitch twisted awkwardly to look back up the staircase, still mercifully quiet. "I won't tell DG if you don't. Just don't let me fall - I've got limbs I'm kinda fond of." He craned his neck as Cain came back, and stifled a squeak as he was hoisted bodily into the air and set down on the broad wooden rail. Everything looked a long way down. He grabbed Cain's shoulders to steady himself. "Hey Cain! I can see the top of your head!" It wasn't, perhaps, a tremendously important discovery, but it took his mind off his sudden elevation. Today wasn't a day for worrying. Today the suns were gently embracing the land, and the light would be jumping from the water in golden darts, and he wasn't going to miss a moment of it.

"Make the most of it, Munchkin." Glitch couldn't see his face, but there was a grin in Cain's voice. "...and if you spot any thinning patches up there, I don't wanna know, okay?" Step by step, they began to descend. "This isn't so bad, is it?"

"It's the only way to travel...I'm gonna recommend you to all my friends." Keeping one hand firmly clamped on Cain's shoulder, Glitch reached out and ran his fingers through the cropped blonde hair, enjoying the texture of it, the way it sprang back as he displaced it. "You don't have to worry; no blight in your crop-o’-corn..." Then something sank in. "Did you just call me a Munchkin?"

Cain didn't answer right away - he seemed distracted, probably concentrating on a tricky step. Then his shoulder lifted in a shrug. "Well, you're shorter than me." There was that grin again, Glitch observed. Did it show itself more often when it thought it couldn't be seen? Sneaky.

"Cain, everyone's shorter than you." He continued to fiddle with the other man's hair for a moment longer, then pulled his hand back quickly. There you go again. He's gonna notice if you keep petting him like a stray coconut. "Anyway...I'm only a little bit Munchkin on my mother's side." He nodded decisively.

"Really?" They came to a halt, so that two maidservants could scurry past them like blackbirds darting through damp grass. There was soft giggling as they disappeared up the stairs. "I guess the feathers were optional, were they?"

Glitch resisted a sudden urge to swat him, and shut his eyes, trying to push aside the distracting recollection of angry Munchkins and the sickening swing of a wooden cage as it was hauled up into the trees. "That's a tribal thing. My Great-grandma Nehmy wore so many, a strong breeze would have carried her away. She'd've been..." he leaned down and tapped Cain lightly on the hip. "That high on you. Compared to her, I'm tall."

There were more voices as they came down the final flight of stairs, and more curious eyes to greet them. It was interesting, though - wherever Cain turned, people all seemed to become engrossed in what they were doing. It was, Glitch decided, a special power, because it didn't seem to work at all when he looked. Perhaps it was something in the eyes. Plain old brown-cow eyes like his just didn't give off that strange influence. And, possibly, waving regally at the onlookers wasn't helping.

He sighed as the stairs came to an end and Cain lifted him, with no apparent effort, and settled him down on a bench to wait while the promised lunch was brought out in a covered basket.

"I can walk the rest of the way." He waved a hand towards the doorway at the end of the hall. "That goes through the kitchen garden and out to the lake." Beaming at the sheer delight of recollection, he made to stand, and found himself being pressed gently back into his seat. Cain was doing his best 'I'm in charge' face.

"Oh no. You look ready to keel over as it is. No, we're doing this my way, sunshine." He put the basket down beside Glitch, then got down on one knee.

"If I'd known you were gonna propose, I'd have dressed up." Glitch batted his eyelashes, earning a strange look from the Tin Man. Oh, someone's still got masculinity issues. "C'mon, then. What does the knight in charming iron want me to do?"

Cain patted his own shoulder. "Get on and hush up - think you can manage that?" He was smiling, though, so Glitch decided he'd got away with it. He put a hand on Cain's shoulder and rose with some care, waiting to see if his legs would support him. So far, so good.

"Okay... you have to tell me if I hang on too tight, though." He curled his arms around Cain's neck, right hand against his collarbone, left arm crossing so he could grip his forearm, creating a careful yoke. He had a good view of the back of Cain's left ear, so he leaned forward and murmured "Hello..." into it, because that was what ears were for. Oddly, instead of responding, Cain seemed to freeze up. Glitch pondered this for a moment, then bounced gently, kicking his heels. "Gee-up, horsey..."

This was enough to stir Cain from his reverie. He looped the basket handle over his arm and hooked his hands behind Glitch's knees with sudden purpose. "Oh you are asking for a dip in the lake." And then they were moving - almost racing - towards the door, and there was laughter, and Glitch had only a moment to wonder if it was his or Cain's before they emerged into

...the sky was...

The sky was a copper bowl, full of impossible brightness. It was a hole, and the universe poured away into it with little snaps and fizzles, and the stars sang plaintively into the nothing, childish rhymes and paeans to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The sky was the uncolour, the puzzle piece you left alone, because what was beneath it was a wound.

I want it gone. Burn it out of him.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Green. The sky is green. Cain's eyes are green. The lake is green. It's all just a special shade of green.

"Glitch? C'mon Glitch - you've got to hold on or I'm gonna lose you."

He opened his eyes, then shut them tightly against the borderless everywhere that stretched away around and ahead of them. "Isn't everything here green?," he mumbled and buried his face in the warm linen of the Tin Man's shirt, counting silently, stacking prime cubes into inverted pyramids until he could filter out some of the brightness. Little by little, it grew easier to open his eyes and, by the time they were within shouting distance of the lake, he was able to look around without discomfort. "I'm okay. I am, really. Everything's brighter out here. And more..." He twitched his fingers in a vague gesture. "...I don't know. Just more."

They'd stopped on the edge of a path that led down to the waterside. Here, for their convenience, was a small stand of trees or, more accurately, one tree and a number of shrubs with ideas above their station. Cain stooped so that he could let the basket drop. "Trust me, I know the feeling. When I came out of the suit, I thought my head would explode. Do you think you can stand, if I let go of your legs?"

"Won't know till I try," Glitch gave the ground a speculative look. "'least it's a softer landing here, if I can't..." Imagine... Shut away from the suns for years, not just days, and he was dressed, shaved, and on the road in barely more than an hour. You can't even look at the sky without falling apart. You oughtta thank your lucky stars he's so patient. Cain let him go. After a minute, Glitch cleared his throat gently. "You might have to hunker down a little. My feet aren't touching the ground..." He sighed as the world rose up slowly to place itself under the soles of his feet, and he unwound his arms from Cain's neck, testing his balance. "That's better. 'Cause you'd have been wearing me as a cape, otherwise."

"I've had heavier raincoats." No sooner had he let go, Cain was at his side, offering his arm. "You've been living on sleep and applesauce for weeks. Give me some string and a strong breeze and I could fly you back to the palace like a kite." He tilted his head at the basket. "The sooner we sit down and get some of that inside you, the better."

Glitch took the proffered arm, pleased at the way they fitted so neatly together. He remembered, or thought he remembered, a puzzle in the School of Science - a heap of wooden blocks in odd, curving formations. It had taken him hours to study each individual piece long enough that he could keep them firmly in his mind's eye while he linked them together, turning them this way and that in his head, and then he'd sat on the floor and reached for one piece after another, and made...made what? The memory winked out like a spent match, and he contented himself with the thought that it had been something beautiful, and right. Smiling, he laid his other hand on Cain's forearm.

You're touching him again. Didn't we agree that was a bad idea?

Shut up. This doesn't count, okay?

The Tin Man navigated them over to the tree, steering Glitch around anything that might pose an obstacle: roots, rocks and malevolent blades of grass. Grinning at the over-solicitous treatment, Glitch settled back against the trunk and sank down in an angular heap onto a soft mat of pine needles. "One of these days, you're gonna let me lead..."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure you can take the lead when it suits you." Cain's approach to a sitting position was significantly more controlled. "As I recall, you once put four Longcoats down without any help from me."

Ohhh that... Glitch stirred the pine needles with his fingertips, modestly. "I get carried away sometimes. It's lucky you weren't standing closer, or you might have got a foot in your face..." Privately, he thought Cain would have been fine. When you were out on the floor, you always got a sense of other dancers moving around you. You listened to the rhythm - a swish of displaced air filling the path of a swinging fist; the scrape of a boot on stone; a grunt of effort; a grunt of pain. When the beat said 'sway', you swayed. When it said 'spin', you spun. And when it said 'introduce the heel of your shoe to the angry man's ear', introductions were made.

"I knew there was a reason I didn't step in. You're pretty dangerous."

Glitch had been called a lot of things in his life. 'Dangerous' wasn't one of them. He regarded Cain, amused. "Sure. Left alone for five minutes, I could fall over no end of fragile things." A shimmer out on the lake - the green lake - distracted him. Though the breeze was nothing more than an occasional sigh of warm air, the water had begun to stir and boil some twenty yards from the shore. In the light of the suns, spray and bright silver flashes created a cloud of interweaving rainbows. He pointed, exuberant, his weariness momentarily forgotten. "Look at that!"

Cain grinned. "Those are your mercuries?"

"Yes!" He reached sideways, grabbing Cain's hand as though physical contact could somehow communicate his excitement. "They're hunting..."

Out on the lake, the shoal leaped as though maddened, small arcs of metallic brightness hurling themselves from the water over and over. Some snatched the insects that bobbed erratically above the lake out of the air mid-flight. Others fell back, darting down to jacknife back and surge up again, bringing their prey down in the fine mist created by their joint efforts. Glitch was engrossed, lost in the moment, and in his brain, tiny arcs of electricity leaped in sympathy.

Everything touches everything. Here's the water, clinging to the earth like a lover, green-gloved in the sky. Here are mercuries that will never fly higher than they do today, kissed by the suns-light as they tumble, in their element, into their element. Distance means nothing. Difference means nothing. These are the atoms of a hand that once were the atoms of a tree, a bird, a star, a woman, touching the atoms of a hand that were once smoke, a river, a field of wheat. And this is the way of things.

"Hey. You okay?" Concern knitted Cain's brow, and Glitch blinked at him. He wasn't surprised to feel tears running down his face.

"Don't mind me. They fix one leak, and I go and spring another one." He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand and laughed. "Hard to believe I used to be somebody, isn't it?"

"Now that's not -"

Glitch didn't let him finish. "Don't worry, I'm not trying to make this a pity-picnic. I remember a time when I used to come here to think about official advisorly things, just before suns-up, when the night birds were losing their voices and the mist was slinking over the water. I always had my best ideas first thing in the morning." He gnawed on his lip, considering. "Or... last thing at night. One or the other. Out on the lake it was quiet, and still, and..." Another pause, as he rummaged through the incomplete library of his memories. "I think I probably got distracted a lot."

Cain smiled. "Some things don't change."

The thick layer of needles beneath the tree was springy and comfortable, and the tree mercifully free from sharp little knots and broken prongs of old branches to prod and annoy. Glitch leaned his head back carefully against the bark, and sighed. "And some things do. I ought to talk to the Queen about my replacement." He felt Cain's eyes on him, heard him take a breath to speak, and smiled. "It's okay. I've thought about this...I think I was gonna talk to Her before I got sick. The Sunseeder's finished. She doesn't need me any more."

He'd expected the admission to be a painful one, but instead he felt lighter. That's because it's the right thing. It's no good wishing for things to go back to the way they were. If they could only put my brain back together I'd be useful again, but there's no sense wishing for miracles.

"But you'd stay with the Royal family, wouldn't you?" The Tin Man had started to unpack the basket, setting out parcels of sandwiches and covered dishes, but now he sat back on his heels and Glitch found himself subjected to one of those direct looks that probably had criminals spilling everything from their worst crimes to their shoe size.

It's a special power he thought again, and he wondered what Cain was learning from his candid study. Probably looking to see if he can see daylight coming in through my ears. He tracked a small black beetle's laborious progress as the sunslight painted its back with green and purple uncertainties. The orphaned phrase 'phase shift' drifted by, bobbing along in the wake of his thoughts, and he picked it up and examined it, wondering if it was good for anything.

"I'll stay if they want me," he said, quietly. The beetle was making slowly for his leg. Glitch watched the small creature a moment longer, then scooped it up on a handful of needles and set it down a little way from the tree. "I can't be an advisor like this. We'd be at war with everyone before the week was out. But maybe I can have a room somewhere, where I can just stay out from under everyone's feet." The thought worried him. After the eclipse - and before he'd begun his Viewer-assisted marathon reshaping the Sunseeder - there had been several uncomfortable months during which he had...

I got in the way. And everyone was really nice about it.

"When I was a kid, we used to have a clock in the sunsroom." He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to picture it. "It belonged to my pop, and his pop, and his grand-daddy before him, and there was a dial for the moons, and another for the days, and I used to watch them turn for an age, sometimes, trying to feel the universe moving around me." And had he? He couldn't remember, now. "Well, one day it broke - just gave up the ghost, and no amount of fooling around with the workings would get it going again. Pop couldn't fix it, but he couldn't throw it away, either, because..."

"Because your grandad left it to him?"

He nodded.

"I'm surprised he didn't ask you to take a look at it for him."

"I can't have been more than four years old. I just remember him putting it away in a cupboard one day, and me asking him why he didn't want to look at it any more. And he said 'I don't like to see broken things' and that was the last I saw of it."

Cain peered under the cloth covering a bowl, then pushed it towards him. "Chopped up carrots and some kind of weird gunk. That one's for you. I guess your pop never heard the saying 'a broken clock is still right twice a day'."

Glitch helped himself to a carrot stick, watching Cain lay out three chicken drumsticks, and take a bite out of a fourth. Four legs? I bet they're tricky to catch. "True," he conceded. "But I wouldn't set my watch by it."

Cain subjected him to another of those too-long read-your-thoughts stares. "A rainbow isn't useful, but people like looking at them."

"But a rainbow was never supposed to be useful. It just is." Glitch jabbed the air with the carrot to emphasise his point. "If it was meant to clear the air after a storm, and somehow it stopped working, I guess you wouldn't want to see it shining up there while you sweltered away in the fug. It'd be like a slap in the face seeing it hanging around being useless." He rolled his eyes towards the zipper. "I think the Sorceress understood that. Change the subject, before I turn the food sour moping. What are you gonna do now DG doesn't need us chasing around half the realms?"

Sleep had played a big part in his recovery. Blissfully free from pain, Glitch had coasted from hour to hour on the very surface of sleep, and bubbles of conversation had drifted up around him. Sometimes they passed him by. On other occasions, they burst nearby, leaving a tantalising scatter of words.

"...can get you some more clothes. You've been living out of that bag for weeks."

"I expected to buy what I needed in Central City. I only planned to stay for..."

Whether it had been for a week, or a night, there was no doubt in Glitch's mind that the Tin Man's presence was only supposed to have been fleeting. Instead, he'd remained, indefatigable and uncomplaining, for more than a month. Sooner or later, he'd move on. The thought of Cain disappearing back into the wilderness struck Glitch with a pang of peculiar emotion, like the remembrance of grief.

"I haven't exactly figured that out, yet. DG was angling for me to go for a palace security job, but I think I've pretty much talked myself out of that one. The queen and I have had what you might call a difference of opinion." Cain bit into the chicken leg with a vehemence that made Glitch wince and wonder who had come off worst. "In any case, I wasn't relying on finding work here. I just wanted to see you-" he paused to clear his throat, "-all. I just wanted to see you all, and then I guess I'd be going on to the city."

Glitch had found a flask of juice, and poured some out for Cain, who accepted it gratefully, his cheeks slightly flushed. Must've got something caught. That's chickens for you. Dangerous. "You're going back to the Tin Men?"

Cain shook his head. "It's a young man's game, walking the streets in all weather. And I've got a hankering to do something where I'm in charge of my own time. I've lost too many years to the war to spend another minute dancing to someone else's tune."

You've been dancing attendance on me for weeks. And I can't remember if I even said 'thank you'. Glitch darted a guilty look towards the palace path. "You couldn't farm horses there. Everywhere's paved over - you'd never be able to dig the little holes for the seeds." He stifled a yawn, basking in the warmth of the sun.

"I had an idea of going into business for myself. The city has plenty of Tin Men, but they can't always give enough time to a case. The bad guys aren't too considerate about waiting for one crime to be solved before going out and committing another one." Cain shrugged. "Sometimes it's not even clear if there's a crime in the first place. I thought I might set up as a detective for hire."

A private detective? "Is that allowed? Wouldn't you be stepping on some tiny tin toes?" There was a bag of apples amongst the bounty, and now Glitch held a particularly fine specimen up to the light, regarding it with blissful anticipation. It was a moment before he realised Cain hadn't answered. Then the Tin Man, who wasn't a Tin Man any more, seemed to shake himself, and cleared his throat again.

"It's not against the law, so long as I can get the City Constabulary to approve my license. And there's more than enough crime to go around."

And probably plenty of old Tin Men who owe you a favour, Glitch thought, with what was probably a disproportionate amount of glee. He'd never had a very high opinion of the police, his patchwork memory holding together well enough to supply him with numerous instances of his own vagrant dealings with them. Cain was one of the good ones, and Glitch had no doubt that he'd got less competent colleagues out of hot water enough times to rack up a whole tin pail full of gratitude. He bit into the apple with deep satisfaction.

The formation of great things is reliant on the position of tiny things. Here is an apple seed, born of the chance meeting of bee and blossom, shaken loose to catch in the throat of a man who was once a boy, sitting in the branches of an apple tree, still able to look up into the cloudless sky and understand the concept of blue...

"Oh-hh, hey! Glitch?"

There were arms around him, and he was coughing. Or, he was coughing, and there were arms around him. Cause and effect. At last he caught his breath, and slumped slightly, letting Cain support him while he rearranged the world around him so that gravity meant down, and the mountains got bored of their carousel ride and got back to looking remote and majestic once more.

"Nrgh." He cautiously opened one eye, then the other, a portion of Cain's shirt sleeve taking up most of his view. "You can tell the doctor I got my exercise for the day." Apparently choking was catching today. "I blame the chickens. It's a conspiracy. Don't let the squirrels eat my apple..."

"Uh-huh. I think you're getting tired. Just stay quiet for a moment."

Cain shifted slightly and Glitch relaxed, resting his head against warm linen. The other man's heart spoke into his ear, a solid, rapid booming, too fast. Ohh... scared you. I'm sorry.

"I can hear..." He was tired, but that was all right. It didn't seem to have stopped his mouth from working. "Like an engine. Cain engine...you need fuel, Cain. Eat your chicken. Gonna stay here a while."

"That's okay. I'm not going anywhere." And then, indistinctly, a sigh that Glitch felt rise and fall beneath his cheek like a slow wave. It sent a chill through him that tugged him back towards reality.

"Don’t wanna spoil your Plan," he mumbled fretfully.

"You’re not spoiling anything. As long as you need me, I’m not leaving." Cain's answer was immediate and absolute, and Glitch felt the reassuring voice turn him round and usher him back towards sleep. Still, he felt compelled to try one more time.

"...but...but...what if I always need you?”

If Cain replied, it was too far down in the waking world to be heard. But the atoms of a pair of lips rested for a moment against the atoms of a drowsing cheek.

And that was the way of things.

Chapter Text

The commencement of Winter Court was the grandest - and the most hotly anticipated - of the year's round of formal ceremonies, dinners and assemblies, more so even than the Queen's own birthday celebrations. There would be no sheepish excuses and apologies from Councilmen reluctant to brave the roads. No place-holder nonentities sent to represent the great and the good of Central City. This, as Enid had solemnly informed DG at least six times in the last half hour, was The Ball to be Seen At. Dignitaries from every corner of the Realms were already trickling in, a good nine hours before the orchestra would strike up their first tune of the evening, and several large marquees had been erected on the lawns for early arrivals to gather, take light refreshments, and make the sort of polite conversation that requires score cards.

In spite of the best, slightly despairing, efforts of a small team of political tutors, DG still didn't consider herself much of an expert in the mechanics of princesshood. But one thing she did recognise was the sound of an engine going into high gear, and the palace was all but thrumming with the preparations. Listening to the dim hubbub of diplomacy in progress, she wondered if anyone else would be going dressed as a cake.

"Nice and straight, Your Highness, nice and straight. If we slouch, the lacing will be crooked, and we wouldn't want that, would we?"

DG rolled her eyes, glad that Enid was standing behind her, unable to see her face. "No, we wouldn't. Crooked laces...that'd be just about the worst thing ever. You know, if you want to have a turn wearing this, I'd be totally okay with that. In fact, you could go to this thing instead of me - it's a big occasion, and nobody wants to see a slouchy princess."

"Oh, you will have your little jokes, Your Highness. Now, which shoes are you going to wear? I was thinking the pink silk pumps with th-"

A soft knock signalled a momentary reprieve in the sartorial ordeal, and it took considerable restraint for DG not to bolt for the door. Enid gave the laces a final judicious tweak, and went to answer it.

"Oh, it's you."

DG grinned: she was about to be saved. "Come in, Glitch - we're done playing dress-up for now, aren't we, Enid?"

The maid gave her a helpless look, then sighed. "Just as you say, Your Highness. But I'll have to come back and help you out of your gown. Your clothes for the day are laid out on the bed."

It would probably be mean to say that Glitch could unlace her, DG decided, even though the reaction would almost be worth it. She smiled. "I'll manage. Come back in about an hour, and if I'm still trapped in this thing, you can let me out."

Glitch waited just inside the room, leaning heavily on his stick, until Enid had muttered her way out of earshot. "Hey, Your Royal DG-ness. Are they holding the ball early, or did I oversleep?"

"Test run. Enid's helping me get ready for this evening." She gestured at the full skirt. "I never had clothes I had to rehearse before I came to the OZ. Anyway, how are you feeling? Come and sit down!" She turned a chair invitingly and tried not to look anxious at his slow progress across the room.

"I should be pulling up chairs for you!" Glitch protested, but he settled obediently into the seat and regarded her dress owlishly. "Although maybe you already have a chair under there..."

Laughing, DG leaned down and hugged him. Oh! You're too thin, Glitch. "I could just about get a bike under here," she said, hoping that good-natured grousing would cover her concern. "Or a pair of roller skates, at least. Enid says a princess should glide across the floor..."

"I don't think the Court's ready for a motorised princess, yet." His hands were busy, busy; they caught at the hem of his shirt, folding the cloth first one way and then another, then smoothing, then crumpling it into a fitful mess of creases.

DG pulled another chair over and sat so that they were knee-to-knee, as much as the dress would allow. It was easy to see that something was bothering her friend. He never even asked what roller skates were. But talking to Glitch about his worries was a tricky business. He'd fuss over sore feet or a splinter, but brush away serious concerns with vague dismissals. Gently does it, then. "Do you think you'll come, tonight? I already made sure there was a quiet place for you to sit, and you get the first dance, if you want it." She looked at him hopefully.

"Aw, you don't have to do that. I probably won't stay long, anyway; I'm under strict instructions to have my head on the pillow before the clock strikes ten." He flashed her a brief, guileless grin. "If I don't, I have it on good authority it'll turn into a pumpkin."

"Doctor Oxley said that?" DG giggled.

"Oh, no. I got it from a Higher Authority." Glitch nodded solemnly. "Tin Man's orders." He rolled his eyes comically. "He's worse than my mom... 'Glitch, you don't eat. Glitch, you need to rest. Glitch, why d'you have sugar cubes in your hair?'. There was a legitimate reason for that, and I don't wanna discuss it," he added, before DG could open her mouth to frame a question. "I don't think he's been gone for more than a couple of hours together since the doc patched up my noggin."

I don't think he's been gone for more than two hours together since you got sick. She didn't say it aloud, though. The hem of Glitch's shirt was starting to look like a piece of failed origami. "Do you mind him being around so much? You know he's just trying to help, don't you?" Glitch's hands stilled, finally. There's definitely something worrying him.

He didn't answer, and DG, intercepting his gaze, felt it pass straight through her and settle on some distant point. She shivered. She'd never admit it, but she'd rather Glitch repeated himself fifty times than slip into one of those thousand-yard stares. She leaned forward and laid her own hands over his. "Glitch? It's okay, isn't it?" His fingers flexed slightly beneath hers, and DG believed she actually felt the moment that he dropped out of whatever internal world he was currently occupying, and back into the here and now.

He blinked. "I forgot what I was saying. Help a stranded zipperhead out here...?"

"You were talking about Wyatt, and how he's been looking after you. And," DG dismissed a small twinge of guilt, "you were about to tell me what's on your mind." Technically true. She was going to ask him, wasn't she?

Glitch nibbled on his lower lip for a moment, then huffed out a little sigh. "It's Cain. All this time he's spending hanging around with me - it's not right."

Oh, Wyatt. That's not what you wanted to hear. DG felt her face freeze in a look of sympathetic enquiry. "Not right, how? Do you need more time to yourself? You know we're all just concerned about you, don't you?" Maybe there had been rumours. In spite of Glitch's once-exalted position on the palace staff, it was as if the zipper was a badge that read OF NO IMPORTANCE - and a careless maid might not bother to guard her tongue in his presence. Even if Glitch wasn't upset by the idea that his friend might be gay, he would want to put a stop to any sly tales that were oiling their way around below stairs.

But Glitch was already shaking his head. "Believe me, I had enough time to myself before I met you and the Munchkin Paranoia Patrol. But Cain...oh, Deeg, you know Cain. He's the original Good Guy. A great big overgrown boy-scout. If he thinks something's right, he'll do it no matter how much it costs him. And I'm ruining his Plan."

"His plans?" No, that wasn't what he'd said. This wasn't a plan with a small 'p'. This was a Plan, with a big 'P', in an expensive leather binder with the word 'Plan' printed in gold on the cover. "Glitch, I don't think Wyatt had anything planned except to come here and...see how things went."

"He did," Glitch insisted. "He was gonna go to Central City and set up a Defective Agency."

DG counted to five, then replayed the sentence through her 'listening to Glitch' filter. "A detective agency. And that's what Wyatt said he wanted to do?"

"That's what he said. And he'd be good at it, too. Cain knows all about the laws, and he's tough and resourceful and kind and honest and brave and -" he fixed DG with an unhappy look "- and instead he's here, taking a headcase for walks."

She was still holding his hands, and now she squeezed them, dismayed. "Don't talk like that. Wyatt's here because he wants to be. That's his choice - he wouldn't have told you that he'd stay if he didn't mean it." If you only knew...

"I know he meant it. He did, and I believe him." Glitch wouldn't look at her; DG had to crane forward to hear him. "But maybe he promised when he thought I wouldn't be around much longer."

"Glitch!"

A silence fell between them. DG searched for something to say that wouldn't sound like a platitude. What she wanted to say was: 'He's staying because he loves you, and he's hoping there's a glimmer of a chance you could love him back', but that was out of bounds, of course. "Listen, you've got th-"

"I don't want him to go!" Glitch hesitated, then his shoulders slumped. "I don't want him ever to go," he repeated, wretchedly. "But he's got things to do, and I'm holding him back."

Genius though he was, when it came to reading expressions Glitch was barely literate. Not for the first time, DG was thankful for this; she was sure she hadn't managed to keep the hope from her face. It's not nearly enough to give Wyatt a reason to speak up. But it's something. "You're not holding him back, silly. He wants to make sure you're okay. Why don't you want him to go?"

His brow furrowed. "I don't know why. Things will be all wrong if he's gone. But that's not a good enough reason to keep him here, and it'd be selfish to think it was."

Things will be all wrong. Which was interesting - even if the Tin Man went off to Central City, it wasn't exactly half a world away. The Old Road was almost new again, and DG was sure she could wrangle a car to take Glitch to the city to visit Wyatt whenever he wanted. But still...Things will be all wrong. "It's not selfish at all. I'd miss him, too." Raw - what do I do? Am I supposed to interfere? Will I just make things worse? This would be a really good time for some kind of mystic sign, okay?

But it seemed the Viewer was all out of portents. Glitch had straightened up in his chair, and was reaching for his walking stick. "I oughtta go. If I'm still hanging around when your tetchy friend comes back, she's gonna feed me to the mobats for cutting in on her clucking-time."

It was possible, DG supposed, that Glitch - with his scattershot memory and wandering fix on the here-and-now - had lost his train of thought. Possible, but not likely. He might as well have been holding up a sign: I AM CHANGING THE SUBJECT. "Don't take any notice of Enid. You'd think tonight was the biggest event in the history of the OZ, the way she talks about it. Come down and have a dance with me? Just one?"

She watched Glitch get to his feet, clasping her hands against the urge to help. He was better, much better, and it only took him a moment to get his balance. Then he smiled, and the illusion of health was complete, so long as you didn't look too hard at the shadows under his eyes or the gaunt frame beneath his clothes. "Just one dance is about my limit, right now. But it's yours if you want it."

"I'll hold you to that. I have a dance card thing somewhere where people can line up for me to stand on their feet. You're going right at the top." DG thought about this for a moment, then grinned. "But I'll try extra-hard not to tread on your toes. And if you get tired, just say...'apples', and we'll go and sit down, okay?"

Glitch shook his head wonderingly. "Cripes, what with you and Cain on my case, I can't help but get better." His smile faltered, and DG wondered if the mention of the Tin Man had reminded him of his dilemma. She reached out and squeezed his arm.

"Glitch. Wyatt...cares a lot about you. He wouldn't want you to be unhappy. Why don't you go and talk to him? I bet you could sort this whole thing out by telling him how you feel... Glitch?"

He was looking down at his arm where she had touched him, puzzled, as if he wasn't sure if the limb belonged to him.

"Is there nothing you can do...Majesty?" He wasn't talking to her; another chill wound its way up her perfectly-laced back. As time went on DG thought she might take the glitches in her stride again, but he had been so ill. It would be a while before she would be able to pass off any of his quirks and lapses as 'just a glitch'.

"Glitch? Do you want me to walk you back to your room?" She would have to call Enid to get her out of the dress. She'd just about mastered the art of hitching the stupid hem high enough not to step on it or the several layers of tulle belling out the skirt, but coping with stairs and steering Glitch would be a mission best carried out in plain clothes. Now I know why they call them 'the trappings of state'.

The zipperhead gazed down at his forearm, mouth ajar. And, DG realised, he had started to tremble. What did I do? She decided that, whatever it was, a hug couldn't make anything worse and she put her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder.

"Come back to me, Glitch? Wherever you are, whatever you're thinking, it's going to be all right."

"It's now. It's now, and she's okay, and you're okay in your big dress and everything is..." Glitch gave DG a one-armed hug. "Heyy...are you okay?"

"Yes, Glitch, I'm fine." She didn't feel fine. She felt like a plucked harp string, no longer audible but still vibrating. It was probably nothing, but DG couldn't shake the sense that something had slipped by her, something important. "You just looked as if you needed a hug." Stealthily, she dried her eyes on the shoulder of his waistcoat before stepping back so she could smile at him to show him how not worried she was.

"I guess the walk down here took more out of me than I thought." Glitch regarded her for a long moment, his head on one side. "It was all worth it, in the end," he said, and DG was about to make some flip comment about her outfit when it dawned on her that he wasn't talking about his visit today.

"You've done so much for me. For all of us. You deserve to be happy, Glitch. You and Wyatt both deserve to be happy. Why don't you go and talk to him?"

He nodded slowly. "I think that's what I need to do. Thanks, Deeg. I was kinda mixed up, there, but you've set me back on the straight and narrow."

Not too straight, I hope. For an instant DG thought she'd said it aloud. I'm trusting you, Raw - sometimes you know better how we feel than we do ourselves. Please be right about this.

She went - arm-in-arm with Glitch - to the door, feeling as if there was more to be said; afraid of saying too much. She was saved further temptation by Enid, who was lurking in the small reception room outside with her hand on the doorhandle, clearly poised to charge in to rescue DG - or possibly the dress - at a moment's notice. She looked faintly flustered. DG wondered if she'd been listening at the keyhole, but she was too unsettled to tease her about it. Once Glitch had departed, with the promise that he would be her first dance partner of the evening, she surrendered to Enid's primping and fussing, figuring that she would be fine, so long as the maid wasn't allowed near a pair of scissors.

Around her, the palace engine turned smoothly on the ancient grease of tradition and the polished steel bearings of diplomacy, gliding towards the ball like a swan.

Or possibly a princess on roller-skates.

***

There was a game that Wyatt used to play, before he'd been locked in the tin suit and passing the time had become a matter of endurance rather than ingenuity. It was the sort of game he supposed was peculiar to Tin Men, and anyone else who had to find ways to make routine tasks palatable or perish from sheer, mindnumbing tedium. It was a memory game, and the basic premise was this: you picked an event, perhaps something recent, perhaps something long-past if you wanted the challenge, and you tried to recall it in as much detail as possible. Every little element earned a point - the colour of the flowers in the vase by the hearth; the length and direction of the shadows; the number of buttons on a suspect's coat - anything would count, no matter how trivial. Attention to detail was a vital skill for a good Tin Man, along with more prosaic qualities, like a cast-iron bladder and the ability not to flinch at loud noises.

Over the years, Wyatt had got very good at this game. It was probably fortunate that he wasn't much of a writer or every arrest he'd ever made would have been accompanied by a small novel's-worth of detail, and there were times when having excellent recall was a disadvantage. Some of the grim sights you saw on the streets (and in the bars, and brothels, and bedrooms) of Central City were best dealt with quickly, then put away with a sign that said 'nothing to see here, move along'. Mostly, though, Wyatt found his talent for perception to be useful, and if some of the memories he saw were bittersweet, at least they weren't only bitter.

Lately, he would have willingly handed over his gun, his horse and one of his legs for his memory to be comfortingly vague.

He had been thinking about his afternoon at the lake with Glitch. He'd thought of little else. I kissed him. Just on the cheek, admittedly, but a kiss was a kiss. He'd known as soon as he'd done it that Glitch was already drifting, his reserves of energy burned up in his efforts to walk down the stairs. Wyatt wasn't sure whether to be relieved that his impulsive act had gone unnoticed, or disappointed that he'd screwed up his nerve to no avail. Relief had held the upper hand at first. He hadn't had to watch Glitch pull away, or look confused, or

Hey, Wyatt.

or ask him what in the name of Pastoria he thought he was doing? But, at the same time, he

Heyyy, Wyatt.

hadn't been given the chance to see

Did you ever happen to notice how long his eyelashes are? I guess they'd tickle, if the two of you were cosied up together.

another reaction, the kind of reaction he

And his hair - it must be the stuff he washes it in. Like grass that's just been cut. How would it be just to bury your face in that tangle and breathe in cool green-ness?

dreamed of.

And since we're on the subject, there are two little gold flecks in his left eye, just near to the pupil. Or you could call them amber, if you wanted to be picky...

Wyatt stared out of the window, and scowled. Make that his gun, his horse, and both of his legs. He'd been trying to think things through - get a little perspective on the situation. But it was hard to get a handle on what to do when his thoughts kept on sidling up to him like badly-disguised informants, nudging him and asking him in exaggerated whispers if he'd noticed that Glitch had dimples.

Outside, a sleek grey charabanc was lumbering into the courtyard, where uniformed attendants were waiting to unload the occupants: a cohort of well-filled suits that Wyatt guessed must be the Central City councillors, or possibly the Chamber of Commerce. Councillors, he decided. Business was still recovering; these men looked far too prosperous. They'd probably been ferried up early to get a head start on the buffet.

The light was fading, the mare's tail clouds tinged with pink. Not long until evening, now. And then he would have to put on that damn monkeysuit that had cost as much as three week's feed for the Captain and rub elbows with a bunch of status-hungry courtiers who wouldn't know real class if it walked up and poked them in the eye. Wyatt's sour expression deepened. Then he caught a glimpse of his reflection and snorted. Well, hey Dad. Didn't think I'd see you in a place like this.

He forced himself to relax. All right, so maybe the fancy clothes were a pain in the ass. On the other hand, he and Captain were getting bed and board and weren't paying a single silver farthing for it, so maybe the suit had paid for itself. And this time Glitch would be there, too, dressed in whatever finery the queen had condescended to provide for him. Perhaps he'd dance, though Wyatt doubted that Glitch would have enough stamina to lightly trim a rug, never mind cut one, so the evening would be devoted to more peaceful pursuits. We'll watch people, and make up stupid histories for them, and I'll make him laugh...

...and people will be watching you right back, so you better think about how close you sit, and how long you look at him, and didya notice how he bites his lip when he's thinking about something? Kinda makes you want to -

Wyatt gave his reflection a stern look. "Whose side are you on?" Perhaps he ought to go and see Glitch now, before the ball. It was a mental itch that was getting hard to ignore; better to scratch it now and defuse the tension. They hadn't had their walk today; Glitch had been with Doc Oxley for his checkup, and then with DG. A slow amble to the library and back would do the trick. Or, and Wyatt wondered why he hadn't thought about it before, they could take a look through Glitch's photo album. Surely there'd be some clue in there about the women - or lack of them - in his life. If I'm gonna be a detective, I should get some practice in.

He didn't have far to walk. Doctor Oxley had relinquished the corner room to him now that Glitch was on the mend, stating cheerfully that the last thing a healthy man needed was a constant reminder that he'd been sick, "...and having a doctor for a neighbour is apt to jog the memory."

Glitch was sitting at the table in his little study, bent over a spherical wood-and-brass contraption with a screwdriver in one hand and a stick of celery in the other. It took him a moment to finish what he was doing, largely because he was trying to tighten a screw with the celery and nibble on the end of the screwdriver. Once he'd realised his mistake and finished whatever adjustment he was making, he set everything aside and got to his feet, greeting Wyatt with a subdued smile. Wyatt, tactfully, said nothing about the celery.

"I figured you might feel up to a stroll," he began. "Get you warmed up for this bunfight tonight." There was something different about Glitch today - what was it? "What happened to your stick?" That was one thing; he couldn't see the walking stick anywhere, and it was usually propped close by. But there was something else...

"It's somewhere around here. I'm managing pretty well without, now." Glitch spread his hands as evidence of their cane-free state, and Wyatt eyed him skeptically, watching for any hint of unsteadiness. But if Glitch was struggling with his balance, he was hiding it. He clasped his hands behind his back, and now Wyatt was able to put his finger on the subtle wrongness he'd sensed.

Glitch's hair was neat. All right, not neat; even the best pruned bramble hedge was still a hedge, when it came down to it. But he'd made an effort to brush it back so that it didn't straggle into his eyes. His waistcoat was buttoned, and his shirt freshly ironed, and -

He's going to the ball tonight. He's making an effort. Don't be so damn paranoid.

But Wyatt had watched people for long enough for that explanation to ring hollow. There was a stillness about Glitch. Something in the way he stood - almost at attention.

It's the painting. That look he has in the portrait of him and the queen. Distant. A little sad. This isn't a Glitch look. It's Ambrose.

"So..." he tried again, pretending he hadn't noticed. "Down to the library and back? I'll carry your books if you tell me what the long words mean."

Glitch smiled, but this only served to make him look slightly more melancholy. "Ohh, that's nice of you. But.. you know, I ought to stay up here. I promised DG I'd dance with her tonight, and I can't remember half the steps."

"Okay..." Wyatt shrugged, deliberately nonchalant. "If you want some company, I could always hang around while you brush up on your moves. You never did show me your photo album..." Okay, it wasn't subtle, but he was too worried to sneak up on the subject. Glitch's manner was one more flat note in a whole discordant chorus of unease.

"That's okay. If I'm on my own, I only have one set of feet to trip over." Glitch hadn't moved; he still stood with his hands - his slender, eloquent hands - folded behind him. "And I guess you have things to be getting on with, too, if you're going to get your detective agency thing going."

"Well, it's not set in stone..." He searched Glitch's face, but it was like trying to read a mask. C'mon, Glitch. If you're worried about something, tell me. If you're mad, let me know. Did I miss a conversation? Did I do something wrong? "I haven't even given it much more than a passing thought, really..." He smiled, hoping for something - some flicker of Glitch beneath the Ambrose-mask. "Anyhow, I told you: as long as you need me, I'm not going anywhere."

Now, Glitch's faint, sad smile faded, and he met Wyatt's gaze directly. Wyatt took a small step back. He didn't have Raw's premonitory skills, but he could suddenly see a short way into the future, and it sank icy fingers into his chest. "I remember. You said it before, and it was kind of you. But I'm getting better. Much better. So...I don't need you any more."

The world turned. Slowed. Stopped.

He wasn't asleep. I kissed him, and he wasn't asleep after all. And Glitch hadn't recoiled or pushed him away at the time because... Oh, pick a reason. He was exhausted. He was probably confused as hell. He didn't want to upset me. But now he'd had time to think, and being Glitch, instead of showing disgust or running to DG or the queen, he was pushing Wyatt away in the kindest way he could. Of course, being Glitch, he hadn't quite mastered tact, in the same way that ducks hadn't mastered tapdancing.

"Well, that's..." he swallowed, which was hard, because the words he wanted to say were catching in his throat like storm-snapped branches damming up a stream "I'm glad you're feeling better. That's all that really matters."

He ought to be grateful that Glitch hadn't run a mile. He ought to apologise for kissing him. He ought to do a lot of things, but at that moment the only thing Wyatt wanted to do was to get out, away from Glitch and his sad, gentle eyes. He stepped back, reaching behind him for the doorhandle.

"Seems like you'll have a lot to practise. I'll...see you around, maybe."

Ah, come on. Did you really think it was gonna end up any other way than this? Daniel Cain was back, and Wyatt didn't try to shut him up. He may be a retard, but at least he ain't a pansy, I guess.

If his father had been there, if the hateful words had been anything but the old man's ingrained bitterness bubbling up at the shock of loss, Wyatt would have put him on the ground without a moment's hesitation. Instead, he offered Glitch a tight, polite smile, and got out of the room as quickly as he could.

Looks like you made a mistake, don't it?

It did.

Looks like you'll have to get used to being on your own, won't you?

He would.

Good at running away, aren't you, boy?

He was.

He ran.

Chapter Text

They were the words DG had been dreading to hear. She'd prepared herself all afternoon, knowing that it was only a matter of time before someone delivered the grim news. Still, it was hard to keep the dismay from her face when her mother leaned towards her and murmured, through a gracious smile, "It's no use, DG. You're going to have to dance with somebody."

She made a show of looking at her dance card. "I will. But I promised that my first dance would be with Glitch." And then, because she'd caught the reproving look in the queen's eyes, added "He doesn't mind me calling him that, Mother. He likes it."

"His name is Ambrose." Iskra's lips drew into a brief moue of distaste "'Glitch' sounds like something you'd call a pet."

It wasn't the first time her mother had made the comment, and this time DG was ready. "And 'DG' sounds like something you use to clean windows, but I don't care. It's my name. My nickname," she amended, in case the queen decided to start calling her 'Dorothea', just to make a point. "And that's his, and if he doesn't have a problem with it, neither do I. It's only Wyatt and m- Wyatt and I," she corrected herself, before her mother had the opportunity, "who use it, anyway."

Speaking of which, where was Wyatt? Glitch had probably been distracted by the sunsset, which was shaping up to be spectacular, but where was the Tin Man? Unless he was...

A slow, thoughtful smile spread across her face. Wyatt was with Glitch. Of course he was. Where else would he be? And if Glitch had talked to him, as she had suggested, perhaps they -

"DG, darling? I love you very much, but if you don't go and dance with someone, anyone, right now, I shall be forced to sell you to the Munchkins." Iskra's tone was light, but brooked no argument.

DG sighed and looked at the dance card again. There was no point asking if Az was going to dance. Her sister was excused diplomatic dancing on account of having been possessed by a murderous tyrant, hell-bent on OZ-wide domination. It hadn't affected her dancing abilities, but it did mean that her partners sweated profusely, stammered inanities, and tended to move around the floor like cats picking their way across a crowded shelf.

Underneath Glitch's name was a list that had been growing steadily longer over the course of the afternoon. The next man on the card was a Major Thomas Bullivant, who had arrived with the city's Councilmen, and had been introduced to her as an officer of the city League of Decency, while he smirked and pretended not to look down her bodice. DG had smiled winningly and noted his name, while pretending not to picture herself kicking him vigorously in the credentials. After him, there was some professor from the School of Science, whom DG had already mentally shunted to the bottom of the list. Perhaps it was petty; he'd probably had nothing to do with Krantz being dispatched as a representative of the school, but she was still fuming over the way Glitch had been treated, and Professor Marvall was just going to have to take one for the team.

"DG?"

"Just looking at my card, Mother." Not Councilman Fisk, who had breath that could tarnish steel, and definitely not Councilman Mott, whose voice could etch it. Maybe I can get a few medicinal drinks down me before I have to tackle those two. Medicinal - that was a thought. DG surveyed the room, and spotted Vincent Macey, the OZ's first moving landmark, wearing an unexpectedly natty suit that must have been tailored especially for him (or, at least, assembled around him by a small team of engineers). Close by, examining a vol-au-vent with an expression of scientific enquiry, was Doctor Oxley, sporting yet another of his colourful waistcoats.

"The Munchkins are a very hospitable people, darling. Would you like me to have your things sent on, or -"

DG suppressed a grin. "I'll dance with Doctor Oxley. He looks far too comfortable over there by the food."

Her mother raised a brow. "A doctor from the Realm of the Unwanted, ahead of all those important Councilmen and heads of industry? What sort of a message do you think that will give to our guests, DG?" Her expression was bland, but there was a gleam in her eyes. Immediately, DG resolved to dance with Doctor Spicer next, and then Vincent.

"Doctor Oxley saved the life of your closest advisor, and one of my best friends, Mother. Loyalty and service should be rewarded, don't you think? Anyway, he's scaring off Mister Macey's admirers." DG was gratified to see her mother's serene facade falter for an instant, replaced by genuine amusement.

"Such compelling reasons cannot be contested. Captain Mellor?" The guard strode briskly over and saluted. "Please go and tell Doctor Oxley that Princess Dorothea has decided to dance with him. And make sure he washes his hands, first. Those pastries look decidedly sticky."

"Mother!" A few guests looked round at DG's snort of laughter, then, on seeing its source, looked hurriedly back at whatever they had been doing. Unorthodox though she was, a princess was still a princess and it didn't do to stare, even if they weren't likely to devour your soul as a means of chastisement.

It took several minutes for Captain Mellor to wend his way back through the throng with Doctor Oxley in tow, and DG spent the time scanning the edges of the room for Wyatt's familiar crew-cut, or Glitch's zipper-parted mop, but saw neither. She felt a momentary unease; what if Glitch had been taken ill again? The doctor seemed confident that he'd dealt with the problem, but Glitch was still quite frail. If something had happened, Wyatt would have sent for Doctor Oxley. They're probably just watching the sky change colours and talking about...whatever it is they talk about when they're together.

She felt a little better for the self-administered talking-to, but when the captain returned she decided there was no harm in making sure. The small orchestra stationed at the foot of the great staircase were making tentative plinks and twangs that suggested they were about to launch into their next piece, and DG turned away from Oxley to catch the guard's eye before he returned to his place near the Royal seats.

"Captain Mellor? You haven't seen Mister Cain around this evening, have you?"

Mellor's answer was lost to her, as the orchestra started into an enthusiastic polka, but his look of puzzlement was enough to make her pull away from the doctor before they could take more than a few steps, and ask the captain to repeat himself.

"I said 'he's gone', Your Highness. He came by the guardroom just about a half-hour ago and asked for his gun back." He frowned. "Is there something wrong, Highness?"

Things. Things will be all wrong if he goes. Wyatt had set off without a goodbye, and Glitch was nowhere to be seen. This wasn't something she could ask a palace guard to investigate. She put on a winning smile and shook her head.

"Just a misunderstanding. It's all right, Captain. Thank you." Turning back to Doctor Oxley, she took his arm and let him lead her to the dance, where a space immediately opened up around them. Her choice of dance partner might be attracting a certain amount of veiled disapproval, but nobody would dream of jostling her in order to get a closer look.

Oxley was also regarding her with interest. "Is something wrong?" He'd been to the same school of subterfuge as her mother; his words were delivered through a disarming smile, his lips barely moving.

I guess if we don't watch what we say, someone else will. DG tried to emulate the doctor, feeling like the world's worst ventriloquist.

"I don't know. I need to go and find out, but..."

"...leaving the party early presents a problem?"

She nodded. Huge as it was, crowded as it was, there was no way she could get out of the room without someone spotting her go. And then her mother would be told, and DG would make it as far as the garden doors before Captain Mellor, or one of the other palace guards, caught up with her.

You could always tell them to let you go. You're a princess, aren't you? True. But a polite request from the queen probably ranked higher than a princessly demand and, anyway, it wasn't fair to put the guards, or any other palace staff, in the situation where they'd have to choose a side.

Doctor Oxley squeezed her hand gently, and she looked up as he murmured "Would this be something to do with our mutual friend upstairs?"

DG would have stopped in her tracks if the doctor, smiling, hadn't kept her moving, steering them neatly between two cantering couples. She said nothing, hoping that silence wasn't quite as damning as actual confirmation, but the doctor chuckled. "The Realm attracts all manner of people, Highness. One gets to know the signs. Don't worry - discretion is my watchword."

That was all very well, DG thought, but Wyatt would be pretty rattled to know that there were any signs. Could she get out the way she'd come in? The mirrored doors at the corner of the great room led to a set of private stairs meant exclusively for the Royal Family. No: not only were they securely closed, Ahamo was standing close to them, with a glass of something pink, an orbiting collection of society dames (with beehives in various shades of cultivated grey), and a long-suffering expression. She glanced towards the garden doors - they were open, but the guests milling around at the edge of the dance floor made it impossible to escape unobserved.

"I think we're surrounded," she muttered. "And Wyatt's got a head start. If he makes it to the crossroads, I've lost him. And before you ask, I don't know any sort of magic that will make me disappear."

She plastered a 'what fun I'm having' smile on her face as they passed near to where her mother and Azkadelia were sitting in the company of several ladies who all appeared to be competing in an unofficial Tallest-Hair-in-Defiance-of-the-Accepted-Laws-of-Physics contest. The lead contender, clearly emboldened by her proximity to royalty, gave DG a little wave. The doctor looked amused.

"I'm no wizard, but Vincent and I are old hands at 'Find the Lady'. It's all a matter of misdirection." He winked, and aimed them towards the long, flower-draped tables, where the absence of chairs was the only thing that distinguished the buffet from a banquet. "Shall we get you out of here?"

Vincent, to DG's surprise, was deep in conversation with several grandly-attired men, Councilman Mott amongst them. She couldn't see Mott for Vincent's bulk, but she could hear his high, querulous voice as they grew closer.

"...just another concession to the Munchkin horde. Really, it would be better if we could just-"

"Vincent, old fellow," Oxley broke in, twirling DG round so that her skirt flared magnificently, endangering several neighbouring couples. "You look a trifle pale. Take a half-spoon of blackstrap molasses before bed." And with that, he danced them onwards, not waiting for an answer from the big man.

They were running out of time. Several of the less energetic dancers had already retired from the floor, and the music sounded as if it was winding up for its final chorus. And then I'll be etiquetted into another dance, or expected to sit with Mother and look princessly. Whatever you're going to do, Doctor Oxley, do it soon. DG gave Oxley a hopeful glance, but he seemed preoccupied, intent on guiding them back towards the garden doors. He was also counting under his breath.

Then, over the music, the unmistakeable tones of Vincent sailed towards her: "Is it just me, or 'as it got warm in 'ere? I fink -" And then, sweeter music still, a gargantuan crash from the buffet. Every head turned.

"And that, Highness, is why they call him 'Smasher'. Now hurry up before people lose interest." Oxley shoved her towards the garden doors, then trotted into the middle of the dance floor, calling "Clear the way, please! I'm a doctor."

Vowing silently to endow a hospital in the man's name, should she ever have the authority, DG slipped through the doors and into the night.

***

Glitch opened his eyes. Everything was dark, stifling, the sounds of the palace muted. For a moment, panic took him in a suffocating grip, a horrible idea swarming over his mind. They'd done it while he was asleep - stolen all that remained of his brain, and now he was trapped in a dark tank somewhere, nothing but thoughts and dim illusions of sensations transmitted to his disembodied neurons through coils of wire. It was only when he put a hand to his head that he realised that he still had both hands and head, and the latter was buried beneath a heap of pillows.

Extricating himself from the pile, he twisted round so he could sit up, leaning back against the headboard. His face felt hot, his eyes sore and swollen from crying, and his hair was a matted tangle. He'd tried to make it neat, to tame the corkscrew curls into some semblance of the more formal style he'd had as the Queen's advisor - when was that? That had been this afternoon, when he'd been getting ready to
not yet I don't want to think about that yet don't want to
He muttered feverishly under his breath, throwing the first thing he could find in the path of the upsetting train of thought: a garbled string of prime numbers; an incomplete formula for calculating the surface tension coefficient of a polar liquid, but nothing could stop the image that bullied its way to the fore. A column of energy lancing upwards from the Sunseeder, pinning the moon and suns like butterflies, and the emerald shrieking under the unimaginable, astronomical stresses.

He'd washed and dressed, and tried to make his hair neat, tried to look like an Ambrose rather than a Glitch, so that Cain would believe him when he said he didn't need him. He could taste the words, like a mouthful of copper coins - I don't need you - and now Cain was locked away behind them. Eclipse, he thought miserably. No more sunshine. Not ever.

"It's for his own good," he told himself, trying to sound firm, but his voice was hoarse and watery, and not in the least comforting. He tried again, one hand worrying at the edge of his zipper, the other twisting and tangling the bedsheet obsessively. "It's for his own good. He's got a Plan, and he'll never do it if he stays here because he thinks he owes you." That sounded only slightly more determined than the first time, and he made an inarticulate sound, and thumped the pillow beside him. Stop being so selfish! It's done with now. There's nothing to make him stay, so he can go and be a Tin Man, or a defective, or whatever he wants to be.

He nodded sharply. He deserved the scolding. "And I can..." What? What could he do now? He was sure of one thing - he couldn't stay at the palace, in these rooms that should have been familiar, but only reminded him how out of place he was. I should feel at home. But home wasn't here, not now. Occasionally, he would see something that prompted a recollection. It would blossom, brief and colourful, and he would turn to Cain to tell him about it.

No, home wasn't here.

His gaze became vague, resting lightly on the scudding clouds, and he barely noticed the way the moonlight painted them, first below, then above. When he finally came back to himself, he realised he was speaking.

"...southwest. That's the way we went." Glitch nodded again, accepting the instruction without question. He would go southwest. When Cain had been well enough to travel, that was the way that they'd headed. That was the way to the fortress - to the Sunseeder, which would now be skeletal with scaffolding, a hive of technicians and engineers, all working to the plans he'd burned himself to a frazzle redesigning. That was the way to the other half of his brain.

If they could put it back, would I still be me?

And if he wasn't, would that be so bad? He could lose himself in thought, all the knots and snarls in his head unravelling into clean, untangled pathways, and be solemn and driven and distant. You'd get lost on the way. You'd start out right, and then you'd forget the way, and just wander round in a big circle. You'd end up how you were when DG found you.

Again, the thought no longer scared him. If he couldn't go back to being how he was, he could live the rest of his life in a blur, wandering aimlessly across the Realm, talking to the flowers and forgetting...

...everything.

***

There was little chance that Wyatt was still anywhere on the palace grounds, but DG checked every stall in the stable nevertheless, hoping against hope that she might find Captain standing patiently in one. No, that'd be worse. If he went off with his gun and left his horse behind, what would that mean?

It was academic, anyway. The Captain was gone - there was no chance of mistaking the sturdy palomino for one of the royal mounts. Wyatt was gone, and chasing him on foot would be hopeless. Should she take a horse? DG looked into the nearest stall and into the incurious eyes of the placid animal inside. She wasn't a natural rider - not falling off was about the extent of her equestrian abilities. And that's when they're standing still. She was going to get enough of a lecture if she found Wyatt and brought him back without trouble. If she fell off and broke her legs, she'd probably be confined to the palace, under armed guard, until she was thirty.

It was dark, too. Even with the moon coasting across the sky, the wooded hillside was shadowy. She had no idea if horses could see well in the dark, and she couldn't exactly go and ask someone.

What about the Gump?

"Great idea, except it doesn't work. I've played around with the engine for months, and it doesn't want to run." The horse inside the stall whickered at her. "What do you know? You're a horse." But still...

What about it? It's that or you're going to have to steal one of the guests' carriages, and you don't know how to drive one of those, either.

Her feet, anticipating her, were already carrying her towards the coach-house, where the Gump stood dormant beneath a tarpaulin. The glow of the moon through the high windows bathed it in a silver-blue spotlight and, when DG pulled away the tarp, she felt slightly let down that there hadn't been some reaction - a cosmic 'ta-da!' or something. Mind you, the Gump - homely enough in the daylight - really warranted something more sinister, like a rumble of thunder.

The dress was going to be a problem. If I get on like this, I won't even be able to see the handlebars, never mind steer. She didn't have anything to cut the lacing to get the bodice off, though. And, while she was wearing jeans under the skirt - something Enid was not going to find out about - her top half was rather less well covered. Bearing down on Wyatt, naked to the waist, was probably not the way to go about persuading him to come back.

She compromised by hitching up the skirt and removing the layers of petticoats, hanging them carefully on a hook on the back wall, and hoping that they weren't found before she returned. If Doctor Oxley and Vincent's involvement in her disappearance was discovered it would be bad enough. If items of her underwear were subsequently found in the coach-house, things might get very serious very quickly.

Now, with the deflated skirt pulled up and bundled between her knees, DG flipped up the ignition switch and pressed the starter.

In the silence, the music from the hall seemed particularly loud.

Check everything. Getting frustrated won't help. Check everything and try again. Okay. Good advice. She leaned down and felt for the fuel valve to make sure it was on. It was. The trike was in neutral. The tank had fuel in it - she kept it half-full, more an act of optimism than an intention to travel far. She'd checked the wiring dozens of times, replaced the battery, the ignition coil - there was nothing she hadn't poked, tweaked, scrubbed or tested.

"Oh, you stupid thing, work will you?" She banged the gas tank and tried the starter again. Clearly, violence wasn't the answer, because the Gump continued to ignore her. And all the while, Wyatt Cain was riding away, leaving them all. Leaving Glitch.

Please. Oh, please. It can't end like this. It's not fair. She leaned forward, one hand planted on the tank, reaching for the ignition switch with the other.

The Gump...coughed.

DG stared down at her hand, splay-fingered on the metal dome.

All that you needed was a spark...

That was candles. This is gasoline. Are you sure you want to try this?

"Aw, hell with it," said Dorothea Gale, and she put both hands down on the Gump's gas tank and concentrated.

***
There was a scarecrow at the crossroads. Of course there was. The road from the Winter Palace split at the centre of four huge hayfields, the yellow stones of the Brick Route cutting brazenly across the more utilitarian, rust-hued slabs of the lesser road. In the fields, bales of autumn hay cast blue shadows through the stubble, dotted here and there like sleeping beasts. Wyatt had seen the scarecrow on his ride towards the palace, lashed to a tall pole that projected from the stone way-marker, but hadn't paid much attention to it. But you remembered it well enough to weave it into that dream, didn't you?

"Score one for my amazing memory," he murmured. It would have helped to snarl the words, to flick them out like a bitter lash at the stuffed man smiling down at him. Anger would have been better than this weak, dazed feeling.

Unlike the other scarecrow, this one bore no sign bidding him to go home, or go back, or anything else. Instead, the squat stone obelisk beneath its dangling feet was painted on each side, and Wyatt could make out the words on the side that faced him.

CENTRAL CITY

lay straight ahead, a slow ride along the Brick Route. The scarecrow's left hand pointed west, to the village of Delves, its right to the eastern hill path that joined with other, less public routes back to Damfino. If he rode on and didn't stop for more than a few hours at a stretch, he could be in the city in a couple of days. He could -

What's the hurry, though? You got nothing to run to. True, and Captain wasn't exactly delighted to have been saddled up and dragged off into what was shaping up to be a blustery night. Maybe you should've just swallowed your pride and left after breakfast. Wyatt regarded the scarecrow from under the brim of his hat. It gazed back, crooked arms spread wide, and the scarf around its neck flapped in the wind. Had it been red, when he'd passed it by before? He couldn't tell; the light of the first moon stole the colour from everything it touched and, anyway, farmers regularly changed the look of their scarecrows so that the birds wouldn't get too used to them.

Captain shifted his weight and snorted softly. It took a lot to spook the big horse, but the clouds streaming overhead played tricks with the light and shadow, hinting at movement where there was none, and the scarecrow's mismatched button eyes gleamed like those of a living thing.

"You got something to say, strawman?" Wyatt raised his voice above the snap and flutter of his coat, speaking to reassure himself as much as the Captain. "Think I'm making a mistake rushing off to the big city?" Nothing came back to answer him except the wind, which swept through the fields, combing the short grass with teasing fingers and making his eyes water. "Which way do I go?" He rubbed his face with the heel of his hand. It came away wet, which was fine because they weren't tears and he wasn't crying.

Delves was closest. There would be a hay barn, somewhere, and he could wait out the night and clear his head. It wouldn't matter if he decided to go to Central City, or Damfino, or the Realm of the Unwanted if Captain stepped into a pothole in the dark and went lame. He leaned down and rubbed the horse's neck.

"I'm sorry, old fella. I know you'd rather be back in that swanky stable right now, but I couldn't - I couldn't stay. Not so close to him."

I don't need you any more

He'd hear that again. In the quiet minutes before he slept, and in the hour before dawn when the air seemed coldest, and the ground was too hard to lie on. No harsh words, no angry rebuff. Only Glitch's soft, hoarse, kindly voice explaining that Wyatt was surplus to requirements, and that he should go and get on with his life. Yet it was hard as a bullet, shocking as a fall, cold as a plunge into icy water and, when the numbness came over him, he would welcome it.

He touched the brim of his hat to the scarecrow, tapped Captain gently with his heels, and turned them west onto the road to Delves.

The old red bricks were worn and crumbling in places, and Captain's hoofbeats were muted, all clop and no clip, half-submerged beneath the hiss of wind through the dry grass. Wyatt turned his collar up, peering into the black-and-silver night for signs of shelter. Now and then he'd catch a sound: a dog barking in the yard of a distant farmstead; the kee-wit of an owl. Captain was listening too, ears swivelling, scanning the fields for every noise.

They couldn't be far from a farm. Wyatt could hear the dull drone of bees from a nearby hive, and he closed his eyes briefly, thinking of the Cain ranch, of Billy carefully checking the honey frames, untroubled by the bees that crawled and crowded over his arms and settled in his hair and hardly ever stung him. He'll be getting the hives ready for winter, now. Piling up hay for the windbreaks, fitting guards to keep out the mice...sweeping up the drones... His smile faded. Sweeping up the drones, evicted from the warmth and safety of the hive because they were no longer needed.

The hum cut into his thoughts, and it was louder, less of a hum and more of a muffled rumble. Captain fidgeted, and his right ear flicked to the side, homing in. Wyatt turned them around, taking a moment to flip open the buttons of his coat and loosen his gun in its holster. There were no Papay up here, but something was making that sound and it wasn't bees.

A yellowish glow broke over a rise in the path: twin lights, a sunsrise in miniature, and the accompanying noise resolved into the grumbling of an engine. Wyatt could tell that it was an engine, because he'd been looking around very carefully for a barn, and would have noticed if he'd passed a small tin shed containing an angry moose. He tightened his grip on the reins as Captain sidestepped - not willing to give ground, wary of the snarling newcomer. The headlights were too close together to be anything other than those of a motorcycle of some kind, but Wyatt still nudged Captain over to the side of the road. Steady though the big horse was, he wouldn't take kindly to a bike tearing past him in the dark. The lights, however, grew no nearer.

Wyatt raised his hand. "Hey! Come past if you're coming." Maybe the rider was worried about scaring the Captain. Maybe he had some other, more nefarious purpose, in which case he would shortly get a nasty surprise.

"Wyatt!"

There was no way it could be anyone but DG; the wind carried her voice to him, even over the racket of the engine. DG. On a motorcycle. Wyatt squinted past the headlights, shielding his eyes.

"DG? What in the - what is that thing?"

"Doesn't matter. Wyatt, you've got to come back." The bike revved, as if in agreement.

Captain tossed his head and jounced sideways, catching Wyatt unawares. He winced. "Shut the engine off and quit hollering, will you? I can't hear myself think."

A clear patch of sky allowed a spill of moonlight to pick out the shape of the vehicle: about the ugliest thing Wyatt had ever seen on wheels. DG was standing on the footplate, gripping the splayed handlebars. "I can't!" she yelled, and the engine roared again. This time Wyatt was prepared, and Captain's disapproving dance didn't catch him anywhere.

"What do you mean, you can't?"

"I don't even know how I got it going. If I turn it off now, I might never start it again."

He stared into the sky, searching for patience in the clouds. "DG, turn it off."

Finally, reluctantly, the engine coughed its way into silence and the glaring lamps darkened, and Captain was persuaded to approach the...thing. Wyatt might have laughed if he hadn't felt so raw. DG, in her beloved bluejeans and half a ballgown, was perched in the driving seat with most of her skirt ruffled up around her knees. Her hair which had been piled up in an elegant heap on her head, had come unpinned, and coils and curls dangled around her face. It was the look on her face that drove away the flicker of amusement.

"What's hap -"

"Wyatt, you've got -"

They both paused, and Wyatt gestured for DG to go on. If something had happened, she'd tell him faster without his interruption. But, now that she had the floor, she hesitated.

"Spit it out, kiddo. You've come out all this way for something."

It was unlike DG to let that go by, but she sighed instead and pushed the hair out of her eyes, dislodging a scatter of hairpins. "It's lucky your horse isn't darker. I could just make you out from the crossroads. You were going to vanish without saying goodbye, weren't you?"

Wyatt searched her face. She hadn't risked life and limb on that three-wheeled rattletrap to give him a hard time for ducking out on everyone. Had she? No. She'd come for Glitch. He looked away.

"Ah, DG, don't make it any harder than it already is. I can't stay. Don't ask me."

She shook her head, and it seemed that the sharp wind had got to her eyes, too. "Whatever's happened, it doesn't matter. You don't need to leave." She shuddered, her hair whipping around her face, and Wyatt berated himself and dismounted, shrugging off his coat.

"Put this on before you take a chill. Your mom would have a whole litter of royal kittens if she knew you were riding around in the dark with nothing but a party dress to keep you warm." He wrapped the coat around her, gritting his teeth as another chill blast of wind licked the heat from his skin. "Okay, I should have waited until morning and taken my leave of you properly, I know. But I have to go. Tonight, tomorrow - it makes no difference."

"But Glitch n-"

Wyatt didn't let her finish. "None of that, DG. He doesn't need me." He passed a hand across his face, and looked away, ready to cite the wind as an excuse. "He's healing, and he's gonna be just fine without me."

Her eyes seemed huge, pleading, in the gloom. "But...you love him."

And he did. If only that was enough. He put a hand on her shoulder, meeting her gaze and willing her to understand and let the matter drop.

"DG, love doesn't always mean you get to be with someone. The world isn't neat and tidy like that. There isn't one special person out there who's destined for you, or me, or anybody else. We're all just a bunch of loose ends, and if you end up tied to a good one, that's down to luck, or judgement, but it sure ain't destiny." He smiled as best he could, trying to temper the note of cynicism in his voice. "I'm sorry to kill the romance, kiddo, but someone's got to be the voice of reality, and I guess it's down to me."

He watched DG take this in and, for a moment, he thought he'd got through to her. Then her lips thinned, and she shook her head. "That's not it, is it? What happened, Wyatt? Something's got to have made you decide to go tonight."

The question was reasonable enough. It was the answer that was giving Wyatt some difficulty. He was glad, suddenly, of the colour-stealing moon; perhaps it would hide the sudden rush of red to his cheeks.

"He knows. I...kissed him, a few days ago, and this afternoon he made it pretty clear that I was on the wrong track." And doesn't that make me sound like a clumsy kid getting the brush-off? "He let me down as gently as he could, but -"

"Wait." DG waved him into silence. "You kissed him? What happened to 'I can't let him know how I feel in case it puts ideas in his head'?"

"I thought he was asleep." Wyatt grimaced, aware of how that sounded. "It was a peck on the cheek - nothing more. But I shouldn't have done it, and now he knows what I am and he doesn't want me around." DG looked as if she was about to burst into tears. "It was a long-shot, and there's no sense getting upset that it didn't pay off. It's better for all of us if I'm not around making Glitch feel awkward. Even he sees that. DG?"

She had a hand over her eyes. At first, Wyatt figured that the tears had arrived, and she was doing her best to hide them. Then an odd little smile quirked her lips, and she murmured something that he didn't catch, though he thought he heard the words 'grass' and 'raw'. Raw?

"What exactly did he say to you? Can you remember?"

Wyatt didn't have to think about it. "It's not easy to forget. He said that I had plans I should be getting on with, and that he was much better now, and he didn't need me any more." And if he said it quickly, it almost didn't hurt at all. He watched DG, trying to make sense of the expressions chasing one another across her face. "Have I missed something?"

"He told me about your Plan." She put a heavy emphasis on that last word, and Wyatt could imagine Glitch talking about it in just the same way. He smiled, in spite of himself. "He was worrying himself into tatters because he got it into his head that you were all set to go to Central City, and that you were only staying because you promised him you would."

DG pulled the coat more closely around herself as the wind, feeling left out of the conversation, raised its voice again. Wyatt barely noticed the cold. His mind was racing.

"You think he did this for my sake? That he doesn't know about me being..." Even out here, slightly east of the ass-end of nowhere, he struggled to say it.

The strangled noise that came from DG made Captain's ears twitch back. Wyatt could sympathise; his would have done the same if they'd been able.

"Gay! Queer! Whatever you want to call it. I don't know if Glitch knows or not. All I know is what he told me - that things would be wrong without you, and that he didn't want you to leave. Ever."

"That's not how it looked to me," Wyatt insisted mulishly, but in the back of his mind, the game was starting again. A few days ago you had to carry him down the stairs, but he'd given up his walking stick? Does that make sense? No, it didn't. But Glitch had stood up to greet him, and he'd managed it just fine without anything to lean on. How about using some of those keen detective skills, Wyatt? Did he look fine to you? Really?

Glitch had been so still, so solemn. His hands had been clasped behind his back. The lamp-light had been bright on his zipper. And on the tiny beads of perspiration on his brow. That was the stance of a man concentrating as hard as he could. But that was how Ambrose looked. Cold. Distant. Or maybe that's how he looks when he's trying to stay focused? Glitch told you himself he used to get distracted before he was headcased. Why are you so determined to think he wants you gone?

"I don't know." It was half to himself, but DG was listening, and it seemed that even the wind dropped, as though waiting. "Even if Glitch doesn't know about me, it doesn't change anything. Sooner or later he's gonna find out, and -"

"And I don't think he cares." DG spread her hands, swamped by the sleeves of Wyatt's coat. "Right now he's probably sitting up in his room, thinking you're half-way to Central City thanking your lucky stars that he released you from a tiresome duty. Is that the way you want to leave it?"

No. That wasn't the way he wanted to leave it. He swallowed, ignoring the voice in his head telling him that this was foolishness, because it sounded too much like his father to let it rule him.

"I'll come back," he said at last, sure that - if nothing else - Captain would be glad of another night in a warm stable. "I'll stay tonight, and I'll talk to Glitch. If he really wants me to stick around, I will. I can't promise anything more than that."

"Will you tell him you love him?" DG looked hopeful and Wyatt shook his head quickly before she could get too far down that road.

"I can't. I crossed the line when I kissed him. I can't risk confusing him again. Not unless he says something to show he wants more than my friendship."

DG, crestfallen, nodded nevertheless. "Well, okay. But let me talk to him first? And listen, really listen. If you're going to be a detective, maybe you can read between the lines." She stuck out her hand expectantly and Wyatt regarded it, thinking. Then he took it and shook it firmly.

"Deal. On one condition: you ride back with me and leave that junkheap here till someone can come and haul it back in a truck. Or give it a decent burial."

***
The ball was still going strong when they arrived. Wyatt stopped by the stable and got Captain settled back in his stall while DG retrieved her petticoats and did her best to make her hair look like something that hadn't been found in a hedge, while the strains of something up-tempo and surprisingly catchy filtered in through the open doors. Just as Wyatt was hanging up his saddle, she stuck her head around the wooden partition.

"I'm going to go up and see if Glitch is still in his room. Give me five minutes before you follow, and if the door isn't open, go back to your room and wait there till I come get you, okay?" He nodded, and DG glanced towards the palace. "The music's still going, but that doesn't mean they aren't looking for me."

"Don't worry, princess. I'll keep a low profile."

She stuck her tongue out at him and slipped away, and Wyatt managed to keep a smile on his face until she was out of sight. Then he let out a long, heartfelt sigh and rubbed his face with both hands. The idea of facing Glitch again was making Wyatt more nervous than he cared to let on. Maybe DG was right, and it had all been a ploy to free him from any sense of obligation, but that didn't alter the fact that he was hiding his feelings from Glitch, and eventually he'd have to own up, and maybe go through all of this again.

Look at it this way: You could keep on running. Let Glitch think he sent you on your way, and find yourself some sleazy little office in the city, with brown paper taped over the window glass to keep out the glare of the street lamps, somewhere you have to time your phone calls between the quarter-hour trolley-bus as it rattles over the tracks outside. Get a stack of cheap business cards printed and hit the bars and the after-hours dens, and cruise the Sin District looking for people at the end of their rope. And some time between three or four in the morning, while you listen to the rain chiming off the gutter, you can wonder how things would have turned out if you'd had the courage to face up to Glitch and tell him what you are.

When he put it like that...

"I'd rather go back in the iron suit," he told the listening night, and strode off towards the palace.

The servants' stairs were busy, with staff hurrying up and down, laughing, calling to one another and passing trays overhead where the steps were crowded. No-one spared Wyatt a second glance, and that was fine by him. He didn't want Captain Mellor to find out that he was back in the palace, still in possession of his gun. I can always hand it back to him tomorrow. Well, that was getting a little ahead of himself. There was no guarantee that he'd be staying long enough for it to be a problem. He turned out onto the Long Gallery with a gutful of butterflies and a head full of doubts.

DG was standing outside Glitch's rooms with her hands pressed against the door. She looked round at Wyatt as he approached and shrugged, biting her lip.

"What's going on?" He kept his voice low.

"He can't be locked in. He doesn't have a lock. But I can't open the door, and he isn't answering." DG knocked lightly, her eyes on Wyatt as she put her cheek against the carved wood. "Glitch? Hello?" She knocked again, harder.

"Go away!" There was a scraping sound, like something wooden being dragged across the floor. Wyatt moved towards the door, but DG motioned him back, listening. He put his back against the wall, folding his arms so that he couldn't be tempted to try the door himself. Think of it like a stake-out. Just be patient.

DG knocked a third time, then tried the handle. "Glitch, it's DG. Can we talk?"

She was answered by another low scrape, then silence – a long, drawn out pause, almost ominous in its length and depth – and Wyatt was about to push the princess aside and see how well royal hinges held up to a well-placed boot, when Glitch answered, his voice muffled and unsteady. "No! I-I-I-I'm busy. Come back later. Or come back tomorrow. Or next year or something..."

"It's urgent. I need to talk to you now. This won't wait..." she hesitated, then added "...it's about Wyatt."

Thirty seconds crawled past, then there was another scrape and the doorhandle turned, first one way, then the other, and the door clunked open. Wyatt flattened himself against the wall. Unless Glitch stepped into the gallery, he would see only DG. There was no window directly opposite the doorway, just an alcove adorned with a glass-fronted panel of embroidery, and Wyatt could make out hints of Glitch's room reflected over DG's shoulder - the small study in darkness, the bedroom beyond lit brightly. He held his breath.

You can't go barging in. Wait. Just...wait. There was nothing to be gleaned from the reflection - it was a too-small window into a scene that needed close scrutiny. As DG disappeared through the doorway, Wyatt caught a glint of light on metal, then darkness as the bedroom light was obscured.

"...sorry I shouted."

"It's okay, Glitch. It's okay." DG's voice had a quaver in it that made Wyatt's jaw clench. "Let's go and sit down, and you can tell me what this is all about." Two sets of footsteps, then: DG's - tapping, delicate heels, and Glitch's - slow and shuffling, and marked out by the soft thud of his stick.

He does need it, then. You had me fooled, sunsshine. Wyatt narrowed his eyes, reading the reflection, and sent DG a wordless 'thank you' as he saw them retreat into the brightness of the bedroom. I don't care how much Munchkin there is in him - he still can't see into a dark room from behind all that light.

He counted to a slow and deliberate ten, then risked a brief look around the doorframe: the swift, sidelong glance you used when you were expecting a bullet to greet you. DG and Glitch were out of sight; the bedroom arch framed only a sliver of bed and the small table beside it. DG was speaking - soft and tentative, a cat's paw batting curiously at a tangle of yarn. Wyatt stepped into the darkness.

He stopped short of the archway, far enough back to avoid being touched by the light, close enough to look inside. Glitch was standing at the end of his bed, leaning heavily on his cane, and behind him the room was in chaos. Drawers had been pulled out, the closet hung open, and a small tornado had swept its way through books and papers, leaving them scattered over desk and floor like a sharp-edged snowdrift. Glitch himself looked no better. His eyes were red, his hair tangled and mussed, and it looked as though he'd dressed in the dark. And then forgotten, and done it all over again.

He'd pulled on a second shirt over the one he'd been wearing when Wyatt had seen him earlier. Two buttons were fastened, neither one in the right place. Over that he'd added a waistcoat, and another, the longer one underneath. And it was easy enough to count his socks by spotting the different colours showing through various holes. At least three on one foot, and certainly two on the other. Wyatt felt his mouth sag open. This is weird, even for you.

DG moved aside a pile of debris and patted the end of the bed. "Come on, sit down and let's talk. What's going on? Did you lose something?"

Glitch shook his head. Paused. Nodded. "I'm leaving." He sat down, hands curled together in his lap and DG settled next to him in a crumple of petticoats. "I was gonna take some things, but I didn't have a bag, so I figured...if I wear some of it, that's less to carry..."

"Oh, Glitch. You can't leave..." DG threaded her arm around his and covered his hand with her own. "Why would you go? Where would you go? What would you live on?"

Give him a chance to answer, will you? It was hard to keep quiet. Fond as he was of DG, Wyatt didn't set much store by her questioning skills. He edged sideways, trying to see past the princess, and his hip bumped something. Heart in his mouth, he reached down to steady whatever he'd struck, and his fingers encountered something small and cool. He'd held the tin horse enough times in the past year to know every inch of its dented surface. It lay on a square of material, nestled amongst a few other less-identifiable objects. Still listening, Wyatt finger-walked his way through the jumble, trying to work out what he'd found.

"I can't stay here." Glitch made a small, helpless gesture. "I can't. I'm sorry, Deeg. Your family's been so good to me, but I have to go. I'm gonna go to the Sunseeder and see if they'll let me have my marbles back. I-I think I remember the way. Southwest. That's what he said."

The horse. Two little sheaves of paper, all points and creases. Wyatt traced one with a fingertip and decided that they were paper birds - perhaps the same birds Doctor Spicer had placed in Glitch's hands before his operation. Maybe that was what this was all about. Glitch wanted to have his brain back - he'd talked about little else when they'd been on the road. And he sent me away because he doesn't want me to feel obligated to stay with him until he recovers.

It made sense, in a Glitch logic sort of way. But it didn't feel right. In all these weeks, he hasn't talked about trying to restore his brain. Not one word. That wasn't to say he hadn't thought about it, but still... And admit it, you aren't sure you want it to happen, either. You fell in love with Glitch. You don't know Ambrose. That was a selfish thought, and Wyatt felt his cheeks burn in the shadows. If Glitch wanted to have his brain back, nothing and no one should stop him.

DG had shuffled as close as she could get to Glitch, and her arm was around his shoulders.

"Listen to what you're saying. You want to travel all that way on your own - you only had surgery a few weeks ago, and you're still recovering. Why not wait till you're better, and then we'll take a trip there?"

Maybe he's tired of being the clock that doesn't work any more. Wyatt felt around, and discovered a small leather box with a stud fastening - that was more difficult, until he remembered seeing it next to a shaving brush on Glitch's bathroom shelf. What else? A coin - no, two. A crown and what might be a silver farthing. Good luck charms, a razor and a few coins. He's travelling light. The thought of Glitch wandering across the OZ with nothing but a pocketful of trinkets and a vague notion of his destination made Wyatt take a step towards the bed, and he only managed to get his feet under control because Glitch spoke.

"I can't stay here," he said again, as though it explained everything. "I...I don't remember this place. And when I do remember things, he isn't gonna be there to tell."

Now Wyatt couldn't have moved if he'd wanted to.

"You mean Wyatt?" DG looked up into the darkness where Wyatt stood. He wondered if she was expecting him to appear, but he couldn't. Not yet.

Glitch nodded, and covered his eyes with his hand. "I told him. I told him. I told - told him. I-I-" His other hand jerked under DG's. "I told him I didn't need him. I had to." He took a deep breath.

"But you didn't want him to go," DG prompted and he shook his head, and tears escaped from beneath his hand, tracking golden lamp light down his face. Wyatt stared. He didn't dare to hope. "Glitch, why are you so upset that Wyatt left?"

Glitch took a couple more ragged breaths, drying his eyes with the back of his hand. "Because it hurts." He stood - staggering as he stepped on a discarded shoe - and grabbed the back of a chair. "Maybe they can put my brain back together. Maybe they can't - I don't know. But what good am I with only half a heart?"

The moonlight stealing through the study window had turned to amber, Wyatt observed, some detached part of his mind relaying details while the rest of his body remained in stasis. The second moon was rising, and the gale had subsided, and damn it Wyatt, if you don't go in there right now... Shaking off his momentary stupor, he stepped through the archway.

"...Cain..." Glitch's hands fluttered strengthlessly against the chairback. "Cain..." over and over again until Wyatt was holding him, arms around his waist.

"I gotcha. It's okay."

Glitch shivered. "You're so cold."

Not, Wyatt's reeling mind recovered enough to point out, 'what are you doing? Get your hands off me!' Just 'you're so cold'. "I lent somebody my coat." He glanced over to DG, who was watching, her hand over her mouth. "I guess maybe she wants to go and look for it, right, DG?"

Comprehension switched the lights on in the princess' eyes.

"I'll be downstairs. Looking for your coat. Um. Downstairs." She pointed downwards, in case they needed confirmation that the location of 'downstairs' hadn't changed, and fled.

"Am I making you cold? C'mon. Let's go sit down." He stepped back, ready to catch Glitch if he looked unsteady, but the zipperhead put a hand on his chest, curling slender, artistic fingers into his shirt.

"I can warm you up. Remember when you fell in the lake, and I got you warm? That was all me." Glitch hesitated, then - conscientiously - added, "And Mister Demilo. His firewood. His cupboards that we turned into firewood. Not Mister Demilo. He wasn't there. I may have been naked. Why are you smiling?"

Two gold flecks in his left eye. Or amber, if you wanted to be picky. Long, long eyelashes, a rather aquiline nose, and a mouth bracketed by dimples. All perfect. Or perfectly imperfect. It didn't matter. That was why Wyatt was smiling.

"Hello, Sweetheart."

Glitch looked up at him, open-mouthed. "I tried to send you away."

Wyatt nodded.

"You didn't go."

He shook his head.

"I think I'm in love with you."

Wyatt couldn't speak. Not because he had no words, but because the words would have to get past the lump that had formed in his throat, and barking a pent-up sob at Glitch might scare him. So he nodded again, blinking tears away.

"I'm wearing five socks."

Instead of a sob, laughter broke the lock on Wyatt's voice. "What?"

Glitch beamed. "I was just making sure you were listening. Communication is very important in a lasting relationship, Cain."

"You know," Wyatt pulled him closer, "you could probably call me Wyatt. If we're gonna have a lasting relationship, we probably ought to be on first-name terms." He sobered for a moment. "And this is okay - us both being guys - that doesn't bother you?"

"Why would it - ohhhh." Glitch nodded sagely. "Compatibility issues. That's okay, I'm pretty good at solving technical th- "

"I mean...well, morally. Some people won't like it that we're different. Some people think it's wrong..." He trailed off. Glitch had found a particularly interesting button his shirt and was toying with it very distractingly.

"Some people don't like zipperheads. Or Tin Men." If he had any other observations to make on the matter, they were forgotten in the delight of a fresh realisation. "Y'know, in Munchkin 'uayat' is a word for a tiiiny pancake. Did you e-"

Wyatt kissed him. It was almost a disaster - he could put a round through a rolling copper penny at ten yards, but he nearly planted his first proper kiss on Glitch's nose. But at that moment Glitch looked up, and their lips brushed, and caught, and parted, and then there was heat - soft, melting heat and the delicious, rough caress of tongues, and time and gravity departed without a backward glance.

When the laws of physics finally tapped them on the shoulders, Glitch sighed and opened his eyes. "That was...is that gonna happen every time I say 'pancake'?"

It was probably going to happen every time Glitch looked up at him that way. They'd have to be very careful. Or maybe the world will have to change. For now, just for tonight, it didn't matter. Wyatt grinned. "I don't know. You're the genius. You'll just have to work it out."

"What happens if I say...'apple'?"

Wyatt told him.

Glitch looked thoughtful. "I'd give my last synapse for a juicy a-"

***

Epilogue

Raw makes his way along the narrow dirt path, stepping over tussocks of thread-grass that rise like islands out of the grey dust. He knows the path well, but he is careful, because he holds something precious in his hands.

All the tribes of the OZ have their ways of touching the world around them. The Menchkin think that they are the children of birds, so they paint the world in music and all things sing to them. The Willekin, who wish and strive and must, by their nature, change what they touch, cut stone and dig the earth, and build great towers and roads. But the Khuadelin, who are humble and careful, because they feel the universe as it shifts around them - from the slightest ripple to the greatest tides - merely observe.

Occasionally, they move a few small things to help the current flow the way that it should.

There is a green arch, not of stone, but of gorse trees that - through generations of gentle persuasion - have grown together so that their branches interlock. Invisible to even the most curious mobat's eye, the archway is equally well hidden from the unwary wanderer, a tangle of meaningless vegetation. Raw pauses at the mouth of the arch, letting the fact of his arrival and the thoughts that have accompanied him on his walk die away into the background.

This place is a foothill of the Black Mountains, where the Khuadelin have lived in peace (though to Raw's people, the words 'live' and 'peace' are virtually interchangeable) since time out of mind. The arch sits in the base of a scrubby hollow in the hillside, and in the summer it will be a mass of yellow flowers, alive with birdsong and the hum of bees. For now, everything is green and still, contemplating rather than brooding, and Raw stoops - the small bundle held close to his chest - and goes inside.

A few feet into the gorse the path begins to descend, and the dense, prickly green is replaced by earth walls, then rock. The cold bothers Raw no more than the gorse thorns; he is built for this terrain, and his warm pelt and leathery paws reduce the chill to a pleasant coolness. He is sure-footed, even though the floor is damp with the endless drip of water seeping down from the mountains above. Khuadelin eyes see more than light, and the water that has washed through moritanium deposits has a radiance that makes the pathway bright as a moonlit night.

The same aura fills the cavern ahead. Raw holds out his totem as he enters, letting the glow bathe it. Charred wood and shimmering feather, bound together with thread-grass and a piece of the stone from this very cavern. He waits again, until the disturbance of his arrival fades, and he senses that his totem has been...there is no word for it amongst his tribe. DG might describe it as 'welcomed home', Wyatt as 'accepted'. Glitch, who can no longer make sense of the colour that magic leaves behind, would still understand the feeling of a puzzle piece clicking into place - solution and resolution.

Now, finally, Raw can place the totem. The walls of the cavern are traced over with a network of rich blue crystal, and other, older totems can be seen tucked into niches beside the veins. Some are petrified with age; some, like Raw's, are freshly-made. Since the destruction of the Sorceress, there have been many new additions.

Raw finds a good space, where two lines of crystal merge, and - having set the little bundle down - he steps back and does not move for a long time, turning his thoughts outward to feel the ripples he has made. For a moment, he is afraid - instead of diminishing they grow more intense, spreading far further than he expects. But, eventually, they do subside, and what they leave behind them feels...better.

And that is the way of things.