Stories end happily ever after because they stop before the real work begins.
DG had a family again, the witch pulled out of her sister's body, the suns would rise to shine again another day. She should have known that everything had gone down far too easily for comfort. Azkadellia was very good at pretending, after all. She had done it for years, hiding behind the witch. DG had felt her hand tremble as the witch was destroyed, had seen the conflicted relief and guilt and pain in her eyes. She couldn't even begin to understand how Azkadellia must have felt through all of that, then to simply hug a long lost sister, father and formerly captive mother. DG had wanted to believe it was true, that happily ever after endings could really happen.
Glitch had recorded the final moments of the witch, and it was clearly visible for the entire populace what had happened. There were whispers in the days that followed, evil, nasty whispers that didn't quite make it to DG's ears fully formed. Glitch didn't understand that he wasn't supposed to repeat them if she asked, so DG's eyes grew large and round in shock as she heard what the commoners thought of her sister. It was a trick, some kind of underhanded ploy to deceive her innocent slipper sister and loving parents into accepting her back into the family. Azkadellia was too powerful a witch in her own right, it had to be an illusion spell of some kind. The Queen had been deceived by her before, many times over, and was far too soft on her than should be warranted. The Queen would never give her the punishment she deserved, and Azkadellia would never suffer for her crimes.
DG thanked Glitch, who didn't realize what he had said. The other half of his brain was still in a jar; no one could say if it was possible to safely put it back in his head, and he himself wasn't willing to take the gamble. "Ambrose sounds like a nice enough guy," Glitch told DG with a fond smile. "But I think I like who I am now better."
He still couldn't look Azkadellia in the eye, even if she was a broken shell of a woman compared to the Sorceress. DG wanted to cry when she thought of her sister's bitter tears in her tower bedroom. "It's too quiet!" Azkadellia raged at DG, nails gouging furrows into the smooth expanse of her chest. "My children are gone and it's too quiet in here!" DG couldn't do much more than hold onto her during those episodes, holding her arms tightly and murmuring in her ear that she wasn't going anywhere, she was going to be a good sister now, everything was going to be better. Sometimes she had to sing songs she remembered from the radio in Kansas, told stories she had read or watched on TV, gossiped about people that Azkadellia had never met. DG would be too frightened to move even after the struggling stopped, until Azkadellia's tears slowed into hiccups and she flopped uselessly down to the floor. "Why wasn't I ever good enough, Deeg?" she asked finally, looking up with tears in her blue eyes, her dark hair falling over her face. "Why couldn't she ever see me?"
DG never knew how to answer that, so she never did.
She wandered through the halls of the palace listlessly. Her parents were packing, planning to retire to Finaqua. Really, Mom? she wanted to spit at her mother. The entire Zone is falling apart and you are running away again? Take some fucking responsibility for a change and do something! But she couldn't quite force herself to say the words, even if they were sorely needed. Ahamo seemed to recognize DG's growing ire, and calmly took her aside. "Deeg," he told her with a soft expression. "Everyone needs time to heal. We need to be a family again. Surely you see that."
It was true that they were all strangers now. If she wanted to be honest with herself, she knew it was her fault. She had been a child, but she had freed the witch that had possessed her sister. She had run away first, and she had been the one to bring down ruin upon the Zone. But her mother had been there as well, and had been more focused on shushing her and getting her to stop crying than figuring out why DG had been so upset about Azkadellia. DG hadn't understood, and "She fell" or "Something's wrong with her!" was the only way she had known to relate the tale. Her mother hadn't given it any credence, and had simply sent her away after bringing her back to life. Why hadn't she tried to figure out why Azkadellia would have wanted to kill her in the first place? Why would she simply assume that two girls that had been that close would suddenly fall apart?
DG hated the palace, the dresses her mother had her wear, the myriad empty chairs at court that her mother wanted to resume. The nobles were all dead; the war between the Sorceress and the Queen had forced the nobility to choose sides. When the Sorceress won the war annuals ago, the nobility that had chosen her side had gleefully decimated the Queen's supporters. Sure that they would receive the dead nobles' lands as spoils, they had attended a celebratory dinner at Azkadellia's tower. None were heard from again. The entire nobility had been wiped out with no survivors, all of their properties and riches being assumed by the crown. There was no one to impress anymore, but her mother wanted to pick up the pieces where she left off, as if grand parties in Capitol City could make anyone forget annuals of war and pain.
"Careful, that sour face might stick," came a familiar voice from somewhere off to her right. DG brightened at the sight of Wyatt Cain in his Tin Man uniform, everything polished and shiny. She ran at him and gave him a fierce hug, startling him. "Hey, Princess."
"Oh, don't you dare do that. It's still me. I'm still DG."
"And here I thought the Queen's fancy diction and comportment classes would change you into someone new," he teased, eyes crinkling slightly in the corners.
"Did you hear about those, then?" DG asked, pulling back to look up at his face. She wrinkled her nose at his indulgently amused expression. She thought she preferred his exasperated one. Or that pleased look he got on his face when he had accomplished something. Sometimes he almost had that expression on his face when he thought she wasn't looking at him, but she couldn't be sure. She wasn't quite fluent in Tin Man Expressions yet, but she was getting there.
Wyatt Cain just laughed a little again. "It's become legend, practically. That comportment instructor declared you incorrigibly corrupted by the Other Zone and says he refuses to try again. Most of the people don't bother listening to his complaints."
"And they shouldn't! I told everyone that would listen that no asshole old enough to be my grandfather would be allowed to pinch my ass and get away with it. He's just a dirty old man wanting to cop a feel!"
Cain offered his arm for her to take after she stepped away from him. She accepted the gallant gesture and let him lead her around. "I've accepted a position as head of the castle guard. It's good that I found you, so it's not an unpleasant surprise."
DG gave him a sidelong glance. "It's not an unpleasant surprise. Why would you think so?"
"I'd question your motives a lot more now, for one."
Snorting, she shook her head. "Well, you of all people know that I have good reasons for things that I do."
"Don't think I won't stop you if it means you stay safe."
Her feet stopped short without her conscious intention to. He was so solemn, lips pressed into a taut line as he said those words. Cain stopped in front her, watching her reaction very closely. "What aren't you telling me?" DG demanded finally.
"I know you are aware of what's going on outside of the palace, even if you haven't left in the past few weeks. You're not the type to bury your head and ignore what's going on."
Not like the Queen was very capable of doing.
"Keep going," DG prompted.
"Your mother is going to give you the throne," Cain told her, displeasure in his tone. "There's a ceremony tonight, and she will formally abdicate in your favor. This is to ensure that Azkadellia can never gain the right to the throne."
Temper flaring, DG clenched her hands into fists. "No, this is her running away again. She's only been Queen again for three months! This is her ignoring the problem again. This only means that everyone will think Azkadellia is going to kill me for the crown I don't even want."
"You may not want it, but the people don't want your sister on the throne. Do you understand that? Your mother can't—" He cut himself off abruptly. "She chooses to give you the throne because there's no one else to give it to. No one else can take it but you."
"Younger sisters aren't supposed to get the throne. Younger sisters are supposed to be quiet and let their mothers choose their futures. How the hell do I get to be the one to decide everyone else's fate?"
Cain's lips quirked into a smile. "Better you than some, Deeg."
She smiled at him and loosened her hands to clasp him. "Promise you'll always be with me?"
Something flickered in his expression, something she couldn't name but hoped meant he liked the idea behind that question. Before she could ask him about it, he nodded briskly. "I promise," he told her solemnly.
His words seemed to carry the weight of a formal vow.
"What the hell did they think would happen?" DG snarled to Cain afterward, yanking off her gloves. "That everyone would agree that we don't talk about it? The entire Zone is in ruins, and they want to go hide and leave me to do everything!"
"Because you can get it done," he reminded her, tone gentler than she had heard from him in a very long time.
"I didn't want this!" she shouted at him, stomping her foot on the floor and throwing her gloves to the floor. "I wanted to be with my family. I didn't want to wear this frilly stupid dress and smile at people I can't stand and pretend to agree with stupid parents that can't even be parents! Everything is a mess and they can't even pretend to function long enough to fix it! How did I ever think they could do anything? How did I even believe that they could? We were the ones that saved this Zone. We saved Az, not them." She yanked on the skirt of her dress, tearing the fabric. "I can't stand this. Where are my clothes? My real clothes, not this frilly frou-frou nonsense? This isn't me. None of this is me!" She ripped a swath of the skirt from the dress and threw it to the floor, looking up at Cain with her eyes shining with unshed tears. "I can't do this alone, Wyatt," she whispered. "I don't know how. I'm not from here."
Now that her anger had burned itself out, Cain approached her. After a hesitation so brief it could barely be seen, he wrapped his arms around her slender frame. He had warred with himself about touching her so intimately; his role was captain of the guard, head of the castle security, but this action was that of a friend. That was who she needed, not a guard to remind her of the possibility of listening ears or threats. "Deeg," he murmured softly, stroking her hair as she choked back sobs. "Deeg, I'm here to help."
"It feels like you're the only one that is. That I have to do everything by myself. I can't fix Az, and I can't keep watching over her all the time if I'm expected to run the country."
"If I found someone trustworthy to watch over her," Cain began slowly, "that would help ease your mind a lot."
DG nodded against his chest. "Yeah. She hurts so much, and if I don't stop her, she hurts herself. She scratches at her skin like she wants to dig inside her chest. I can't see her like that, Wyatt. She's my sister, and it's all my fault she's like that. She took the witch inside of her, not me, and I'm the one that should have been attacked. This is my fault."
"One step at a time, Deeg," he murmured, falling into a comforting rhythm with her. "Don't think about that, all right? We can't change what's happened in the past. All we can do is move forward from here."
"Stop making sense," she muttered, trying not to smile. "I was having a perfectly good pity party just now..."
"Never did enjoy those. It always seemed better to just get up and fix it."
"You would have gotten along great with the parents that raised me," DG murmured. She tightened her arms around him when he seemed unwilling to continue holding her. "No, wait, stay," she murmured. "You give good hugs," she continued when he stood there almost awkwardly. "I'm glad you're here, Wyatt."
He sighed softly, then threaded his fingers through her hair. "Me, too," he admitted. If either of them got a thrill from the way he touched her cheeks occasionally, they didn't say a word. To name such a fragile thing just then would mean they had to acknowledge it, and DG had far too much on her mind. Cain's emotions were roiling as well, but he had far more time to process things than she had. His attentions might be seen as unwanted, and at the moment that was the last thing he wanted to be.
"Az, Wyatt's bringing someone to watch over you. To keep you safe. They left us here, did you know that? Mom and Dad left this morning. Did they say goodbye?"
"No," Azkadellia said, voice flat and empty. "Why would they? It's easier that way. I told them I killed you, and I did kill you, all those annuals ago. I did horrible things, said terrible things." She lifted her hand, but only to rake her ragged, broken nails across the hollow of her throat before DG could stop her. "They don't want me. I never had a parent's love. I didn't lie when I told you that before. They never loved me. It was always you, only you. Everyone loved you and everyone still loves you. It's all about you."
Throat closed up in guilt, DG shook her head but couldn't speak. All she could do was pull Azkadellia's hand away from her throat, but then her other hand was still free to do the job. DG let out a soft choking sound, almost like a sob, and Azkadellia turned her head to look at her younger sister. "Don't act like it matters. She showed me everything, how useless I was, how much I wasn't wanted. Everything revolved around you, and they only pretended that I mattered to them. It wasn't real, not like how they were for you." Azkadellia frowned, then gouged at her cheek with her free hand. "The only one that ever loved me was you, and she made me kill you when we were children. And I was useless even at that. I had to be punished."
"Stop," DG begged, pulling both of her sister's hands away from her face. "Please, just stop."
She looked up at the sound of footfalls approaching, and all she could think of when she saw Cain was Thank God. His stoic expression froze in place when he saw her distress, but she couldn't think of why that would matter just yet. "Help her, please," she begged Cain, knowing that he would have someone stand guard.
Jeb Cain was beside his father, and he frowned at the sight of the two sisters. DG had opted for jeans, sneakers and a loose shirt. She was far more comfortable in that kind of clothing than the formal dresses princesses were supposed to wear. Azkadellia's formal princess attire was tattered, stained and in disarray; with no one but DG to care about her appearance, Azkadellia simply hadn't bothered. In contrast, the two Cain men were dutifully dressed to the nines in formal castle guard attire. Jeb had unconsciously put his hand over his weapon as he had come into the suite of rooms, and Azkadellia saw that immediately. The relief in her eyes made Jeb feel conflicted and guilty; he had wanted to believe that Azkadellia was tricking DG and that the possession story circulating through the Zone was false. The Sorceress had been very vain, however, so the physical harm and poor self care would not be an act she would be willing to make.
"You go to those meetings you needed to get to," Jeb told DG with a firm nod. He moved his hand from his weapon and watched Azkadellia's eyes take on a disappointed cast. "I'll take care of things in here." Jeb looked at DG's stricken expression. "Your sister is safe with me."
Reluctantly, DG stood, promising Azkadellia she would return as soon as she could, there were meetings she had to go to for the good of the Zone. Jeb had already heard the litany of infrastructure changes and social programs that had fallen into disrepair during the Sorceress' rule, so he was well aware already of what the princess had to do. He didn't envy her at all.
He stared at the fallen princess with a stoic gaze as DG and his father left. Azkadellia curled her hands against her sides, as if warding off blows to her torso. "I noticed how careful you are with your words," she rasped. Her voice was raw, as if she had spent hours screaming. "So you'd have an out to hurt me if you think I'm not who I say I am."
Jeb squatted down in front of her, watching as she looked him squarely in the eyes. She was different from the Sorceress. The lines of her jaw weren't as harsh, the way she carried herself was more like a wounded child. He could see why DG was so worried about her. "You want me to hurt you," he guessed.
"Isn't that what they say I should get? That I deserve it? Let the bitch suffer like they did?"
He remembered the video that was displayed across the OZ, how the witch had called Azkadellia a useless bitch and threw her away until she realized that the princess held the emerald. How long had Azkadellia heard the witch calling her names, unable to escape? He had watched Longcoats lock up his father, and had been on the run for years, but Jeb had always felt as though he had a choice. It was looking as though Azkadellia hadn't had one at all.
"What do you think you should get?" he temporized.
She moved quickly, yanking one of his pistols out of the holster and then shoving the end under her jaw. "Here. Now. Just tell my sister you tried, you did your duty, you couldn't stop me. The whispering made me do it. The quiet made me do it." Her eyes were wild, crazed, and she fought Jeb when he tried to wrestle his gun away from her. But Azkadellia had never actually used a pistol before and seemed to be too afraid to use her magic now. Jeb was able to get his gun from her and toss it aside, then pressed his weight into her, trapping her against the floor. The fight seemed to bleed out of her, and Azkadellia began to sob. "Why won't you do it? You hate me, I know you do. Can't you let me die?"
Something tightened in Jeb's chest, and it felt awfully close to pity. He had never thought he could feel it for the princess, believing her to be a sheltered, pampered creature biding her time until she could be the Sorceress again. This wasn't acting, however. He would bet his life on that, and often in the Resistance it had come to just that.
"Tell me about the whispers and the quiet. Why would she believe it?" Jeb asked. He lessened his weight, but Azkadellia didn't move beneath him.
"It's too quiet," she whispered, tears welling up beneath her shut eyelids. "I don't hear her anymore, she's gone. I hated her, but I can't be happy that she's gone. I'm alone now." One hand managed to snake up and scratch at her chest, opening one of the scabs. Jeb caught her hand in his fist tightly, which made her open her eyes to stare at him. "She talked all the time, about how useless I was, how I couldn't cast anything right, that Tutor was an awful teacher and didn't know anything. I was a horrible little girl, a worse daughter and sister, I deserved everything I got. I know it's true, you don't have to tell me that. But now I'm alone. She's gone, and I'm alone now, and it's too quiet."
"Then listen to me," Jeb told her, his hand tightening over hers even more when she tried to pull away. "No, Princess," he said, steel beneath his voice. For good measure, he pressed his weight into her, and she stilled, looking up at him with almost frightened eyes. "You don't get to run away from this. You don't get to hide or hurt yourself. You listen to me now. If you need to listen to someone, you listen to me."
Azkadellia's lips trembled. "What would you have me do?" she asked, her voice breaking.
Jeb could hear the simultaneous fear and relief in her voice. She was afraid of what he would ask of her, but at the same time she was more afraid of being alone. She would do whatever he asked without question, believing she deserved no better. He wondered what the witch had punished her with as a child to instill such unswerving obedience.
Backing off and feeling slightly ill, he gestured toward the bathroom of her suite. "Cleanse yourself, Princess. You look a fright, and this is unacceptable. Haven't you been told that you must always look presentable?" She nodded, eyes wide and trusting. "Then you know what to do. And don't harm yourself in any way," he added, letting go of her hand to touch the tender scabs on her chest. "I'll know it if you do."
That was just the thing to say, because she nodded hastily and hurried to do his bidding. Jeb sat heavily down on the edge of her ruined bed, not even sure where to begin. She was damaged, so terribly damaged, and it was more than what even DG or his father knew about. Azkadellia had no sense of self separate from the witch after her ruined childhood, so she was reacting as a frightened child would. But she was very much not a child, and no one outside of the royal family had ever been aware of what was going on. The general populace had thought Azkadellia had made a power play for the throne, scheming over the course of annuals until the time was right to spring her trap.
The truth was so much more heartbreaking.
"Okay. This means we're starting over from scratch," DG said with a sigh. She was tired of repeating herself at these weekly meetings and getting nowhere. No one knew what she meant or expected, and this was getting more and more frustrating for her. The people were still going hungry, an illness was spreading in the north and there were no healers able to get into the region because the roads were in such disrepair they weren't safe to navigate. Finally, she just started talking, expecting the court stenographer to take everything down for others to process later. She didn't know how things worked, after all, she just knew what it should have looked like to an observer.
Cain looked at her unhappy expression and during a lull in the dictation suggested that they adjourn for another day. DG gleefully gave him a hug. "I knew you'd be better at this than you thought!" she chortled, not realizing that everyone else in the conference room stopped and stared at her. A Queen hugging the head of her guard? It was downright scandalous.
DG noticed his stiff posture, then pulled back to look at him inquisitively. She caught the shock in others' faces as they stared at them, and her temper flared white hot. For good measure, she decided to give Cain a kiss on the cheek. "When any of you give me good ideas or protect me from danger, you'd earn a hug, too," she snapped, deliberately mistaking their motivations as jealousy. She refused to follow through with outdated comportment rules, especially when they didn't suit her and led to nothing but trouble in the past.
He remained at her side after the others filed out of the room. "You shouldn't have tried to antagonize the advisors that way," he began slowly.
Letting out a huff of air, DG collapsed into a chair. "Well, screw that. I want people around me that are going to help. That I like," she added, reaching out and clasping his hand tightly, looking up at him without quite meeting his eyes. "I need people that will help me learn more about my magic, or what I'm supposed to do here." After a moment, she bit her lip and met Cain's startled gaze. "I need you, Wyatt," she murmured, her voice low. "I don't care what they think because they don't matter to me. You do."
Stunned, all Cain could do was look at her. It made her nervous, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Please say something," she asked him, blinking back tears. This was completely overwhelming, and the parents she needed had left her behind again. All she had was him, and it wasn't until this moment that she realized exactly how much she needed him.
"You'll regret it, Deeg," he murmured softly. He frowned when she wouldn't let him extricate his hand from hers. "I'm old and grouchy. I'm a tin man at heart, even if I'm the head of your guards now. I'm not royalty or even nobility. I'm common, and they will never forgive you for that."
"Fuck them," she said, surging forward so that her face was mere inches from his. "They stood by and let this entire zone fall to ruin. They're not doing anything to fix it. You're worth hundreds of them, and I can give you a title if you want it. I can make you nobility if that's what you really care about. I don't, Wyatt. I care about you, and I need you. Not some stuffy title, not your guarding skills, though they're pretty awesome. Just you, Wyatt. I know if I had you with me, really with me, we could do anything. We could rebuild this Zone together, make it everything I remember as a child."
Cain touched the curve of her cheek with his free hand. "I'm older than you."
"Supposedly wiser, too," she snarked, not hearing an outright no. That had to be a good sign.
"Well, a wise man would run from this. He'd leave all the royals behind, not deal with your problems or your sister or the damage that had been done over the past twelve annuals." He let his thumb follow her cheek and then rest at the corner of her mouth. "But that's a coward's way out," he murmured, thinking it through slowly. "I've never been a coward, and Adora never thought I was terribly wise."
DG couldn't help but grin at him. "So you'll stay with me?"
"You'll be the death of me, DG," he replied, tracing her lips with his thumb. He laughed when she nipped at it with her teeth. "I'll stay. I'll be Consort to your Queen."
DG let go of his hand long enough to wrap them around him and give him a filthy kiss. "This Zone won't know what hit it."
Honestly, Cain wasn't sure he was ready either, but he was willing to give it a try.
Azkadellia recoiled from DG's insistent tone, crashing bodily into Jeb. She steadied as soon as his hands came to rest on her bare arms, as if the sheer contact alone stabilized her. She was in a gold gown that had been made just before the Sorceress had started her machinations to take over the Zone. Every other item in the wardrobe had long since been shredded with magic or knives. Jeb had seen the disaster that was her closet and immediately had servants remove Azkadellia's belongings and place her in an entirely different suite. New dresses were ordered, and her former suite was finally about to be demolished. Just hearing him take charge in that way had settled her nerves, and now DG set them clanging again.
"This isn't a good idea," Jeb said darkly. "You have no idea what you're asking."
"There's no one else," DG told them earnestly. "Tutor has nothing to teach me, and he can't get me to use whatever skills I should have. He said there is no one else capable of getting me to unlock my magic but you."
"He's not lying," Azkadellia told DG, voice ragged at the edges. "But..."
"I know it's been a few months since your coronation," Jeb began. His touch on Azkadellia's arms remained firm; he had learned the hard way that when she was jittery and unsettled, he had to use more forceful touch to help her remain grounded. "You haven't been able to get caught up in the history of the Zone since you were sent away as a child. The Sorceress had rounded up all the magic users in the Zone, anyone that could possibly be a threat to her power. They were either bent to her will or executed."
Azkadellia trembled and squeezed her eyes shut, a low desperate sound in her throat. "I couldn't stop her from doing it. The old masters wouldn't bend to her will, and the young ones mistakenly thought they could stop her..."
Jeb's grip on her arm tightened painfully over her gowned arm. It would likely leave another bruise, but the shock of it forced Azkadellia to open her eyes and look at her sister again rather than retreat into painful memories.
"We'll go slow," DG said, a pleading edge to her tone. "Jeb won't ever leave your side, and if you tell me to stop, I will. Or hell, give me homework and shit, whatever will get me to improve. I'm useless at controlling my magic, and I nearly made a column explode in a burst of light this morning. That convinced me I can't ignore it while we fix the Zone."
"We?" Azkadellia asked faintly, reaching behind her to curl her hands into Jeb's uniform.
"Wyatt and I. We're kind of... together." DG blushed a little as she met Jeb's gaze. "Not like that, but, well, he accepted being my Consort. He's insisting on courting me."
There was relief in Azkadellia's stance, though she didn't release Jeb's uniform coat. "Oh. Don't ask me how to help, please," she whispered. "I only know how to break things. All I have is dark magic now."
DG snorted. "That's a lie, Az. You've got to remember the old lessons and how the old magic works. This light and dark business is crap. It's how you use the magic that makes a difference. Light can be just as destructive as dark if I'm doing it wrong."
Azkadellia blinked in surprise at DG's tone. "But..."
"And thanks," DG said to Jeb. "I didn't even think about changing rooms and getting all new stuff. There's been so much to think about." She turned back to Azkadellia with a smile. "Did you want to blow up your old rooms together?"
Flashing her sister a bright smile, she nodded. "I hate that place. The witch liked being in there, but I always hated it."
"Great! You can show me other ways to make things blow up," DG told her enthusiastically, grinning in response. "Wanna go shoot things, Jeb?" she asked, bouncing on her toes. "I'm sure Wyatt would say it's a terrible thing to do, but we'll just say it was all my idea."
"Well, it is your idea," he told her dryly.
"See? Not even an excuse."
DG hadn't been kidding about being able to use bursts of light energy to make items shatter, which Azkadella observed. She critiqued her stance and form, as well as the concentration she was putting into the burst. "A lot of magic is imagery and intent," she said, voice stronger than earlier. She flung an energy ball at the shredded curtains, setting them on fire. "You're changing reality with magic, putting your willpower into every spell. Think of the end result, Deeg," she advised. "The words and the form are to help with concentration, to clear your mind of all distractions. Try it again."
As far as magic lessons went, destroying ravaged furniture was far more fun than levitating a coin above her palm. The two sisters wound up discussing the finer points of magic, Jeb watching Azkadellia closely. He wasn't terribly surprised to find his father standing in the doorway after a while, watching the tableau. "So should I start calling you Your Highness?" he asked his father, a wry note to his voice.
Cain sighed. "How are they doing?" he asked instead of answering.
Jeb let his eyes sweep over Azkadellia, the slight flush of her cheeks as she chased DG and threw puffs of air at her or larger sweeps of wind to throw furniture against the wall. "Better," he said finally. He wouldn't discuss Azkadellia's need to follow orders now, the way she bent her head and clutched at him in fright if he ever talked about visiting the Zone. She woke his protective instincts, and sometimes the only way she could calm was if he held her tightly against him as he whispered that he would never leave her. "Azkadellia needs me," he murmured, sure that she wouldn't hear him.
"And DG needs me," Cain replied after a long moment. He rested his hand on his son's shoulder in a gesture of support. "Seems our lives are bound up with these princesses."
"We've been in worse places," Jeb commented. He couldn't help but smile when Azkadellia looked in his direction, eyes dancing and a wide smile on her face as she made fragments of her old bed dance. He gave her a mocking salute, making her laugh and turn to coach DG further on her spellcraft.
"Yes, we have," Cain said. His eyes swept over DG, running around in jeans and a loose shirt as if she was back in Kansas. Destroying a suite of rooms might not have been princessly behavior, but it worked for these two. DG didn't seem so worried about Azkadellia or the fate of the Zone, and her control over spells had already improved. "This fits us," he added after a moment, eyes never leaving DG.
Jeb nodded. "Did you want to break something, too?" he asked out of curiosity.
"Nope. Just wanted to see what we were building."
"Oh? What's that?"
Cain nearly laughed as DG attempted a handstand and used her magic to keep balance. "Something new. The OZ needed her more than we ever realized."
"You love her, don't you?"
He thought of Adora, of the life he had built before Zero took it all away. "Yes," he said simply.
"Good," Jeb said with a sharp nod. "If anyone's to be Consort, I'm glad it's you. Things will settle around here, lives can rebuild." His eyes flicked over Azkadellia, sitting on the floor with her legs splayed as wide as her skirt would allow, sparks flickering at the ends of her fingers. She was showing DG how to control the magnitude of the flames, confidence flowing through her. As much as she had been afraid of her magic or how corrupted she might be, Azkadellia was still the girl that loved her sister and wanted the best for her. Jeb pushed his hands into his trouser pockets and turned to face his father with a half smile. "It'll be a challenge, but it's going to be all right, I think."
"Why do you say that?"
"We've earned that storybook happily ever after. The people want DG to succeed, so they won't get in her way. Azkadellia will stay in the shadows, helping like this. And then there's us, making sure they don't fall apart."
DG cheered when she got the fire spell right, flames dancing along her fingers and palm. When she looked up and caught Cain staring at her, she blew him a kiss and let the fire continue to burn. Azkadellia followed her gaze and saw Jeb staring at her with similar intensity, which made her smile shyly at him and look away.
Cain gave his son a pleased smile. "I like that idea, getting that happily ever after. It's certainly time for that in the OZ."
And just maybe, this time it would stick.