Charlie couldn’t decide whether her childhood had been ruined, or made.
On one hand, seeing the Cowardly Lion acting more lion-like than cowardly was… disturbing, especially when it roared as it looked up from the remains of a flying monkey. But then again, actually being in Oz (even if she spent most of her time running from said flying monkeys) was just plain cool.
And, of course, there was Dorothy. It was a definite struggle not to have fun alongside her.
Finding the resistance had been easy. Joining up with them, much easier, especially when some of them recognized Dorothy. The not-so Cowardly Lion was the only one still living who’d travelled with her, but plenty of others had seen her.
She’d introduced ‘my genius friend, Charlie’, before easily sliding back into routine, learning what had changed, what she’d missed. Though the Wicked Witch had been gone, her armies still tormented Oz, and the steward she’d left behind ruled over them.
That steward had long since become the resistance’s primary, and indeed only, target. With the morale boost of Dorothy’s return, the resistance pulled together for one last strike. The Emerald City, where the steward had made his fortress.
They were the only things they knew about the steward; that he was a he, and that he lead the armies of the Witch from the Capital of Oz. They couldn’t say whether he was a monkey, a tree, a Munchkin, A Winkie… Without knowing what to expect, or what his weaknesses were, they had to be prepared.
“So,” Dorothy said, her leather jacket a marked contrast to the rags and old uniforms of the people around her. “We need to get here,” she tapped the centre of the City on the blackboard behind her. “Monkeys and crows on patrol, Winkies guarding the ground, wolves aprowl in the city. Get past all of that, and the top room of the tower is where our guy should be. Get him, they’ll lose control of the flying monkeys who should come to our side, and they’ll lose their leader. Tide turned, shouldn’t take long before they surrender.”
“Cut off the head, and the body flounders,” Charlie said, mumbling to herself more than anything. Dorothy glanced across at her; she looked down. “Something I read somewhere. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Dorothy said. For a moment, she met Charlie’s eyes, making sure the newcomer to Oz was happy, before she straightened, and returned to briefing the rest of the resistance.
She took suggestions: and assortment of creatures gathered around a table raised their hands, and spoke or barked or cawed various possibilities. Charlie sat back, mute, just watching and listening to all the possibilities.
“Ok,” Dorothy said after a while. It really was amazing, Charlie reflected, how softly she ended up back in control. “That’s sorted. Ground troops will act as a distraction, while a small team goes in by air. Most of their air forces should be distracted, which means that small team, led by me of course, should be able to get in mostly unseen.”
A moment’s pause. Her eyes scanned the room:
“Two more people,” she said. “Aquili, you’ll be our eyes. And Charlie?”
An eagle about half the height of a human preened its feathers. Charlie jumped.
“I- uh, me- um,” she said, stumbling, utterly taken aback. As much as she wanted to be a part of the Oz resistance, she didn’t think she could manage all that much.
“You’re good with computers, right?” Dorothy said. “Some of the Wizard’s stuff might still be in the tower. You could give us the edge we need.”
And when Dorothy looked at her like that, Charlie found she just couldn’t say no.
Charlie allowed herself a brief moment to fangirl like crazy when she saw the means by which they’d be getting to the top of the steward’s tower.
“Glad to see you kept it,” Dorothy said, smiling at the assorted birds and humanoids as she strode forward. A spark of light: and slowly it began to inflate.
A basket that could probably hold two or three people; ropes reaching up, to attach it to an expanse of patchy, now-grey material. A balloon and, given that they were in Oz, Charlie was fairly sure she knew just what balloon that was.
Some minutes later, they were in flight. The three of them, and an iron bar; it was the first thing they’d found, and had enchanted by a witch-in-training. Items infused with Oz magic had proven useful against the Wicked Witch, they might do so again. The eagle Aquili perched on the edge of the basket, keen avian eyes surveying their surroundings. No sight of any trouble, yet.
It was night. The balloon blended in surprisingly well, drifting slowly, and silently, towards the Emerald City. Whatever was happening on the ground, however large the resistance’s army was and wherever it was clashing with the Witch’s army, it didn’t seem to matter up here.
In the sky, it was silent. Charlie sat on the floor of the basket, legs stretched across and back against one of the four sides: Dorothy sat on a makeshift chair, giving herself more access to the burner. She was the only one who could really control it.
“Is this-” Charlie hesitated. Her voice was barely above a whisper, partly from disbelief, partly from an instinctive desire to keep quiet, “Is this, you know, that balloon?”
“It’s a balloon,” Dorothy said, smiling down. “Which balloon are you talking about?”
“You know,” Charlie said, shifting. “The one from the story.”
“Oh, right,” Dorothy said. Aquili’s head turned, watching the sky around them; apparently ignoring their conversation. “Sort of. Most of the stories didn’t really happened, I hoped you’d gathered that much. This one’s how I first made it to Oz. Tried to fly it back out, but it didn’t work.”
“No house?” Charlie said, almost disappointed. Surprisingly, Dorothy laughed.
“Definitely no house,” she said. “That one was definitely my father’s invention. Balloon landed on one of the witches: from the height it fell, anything would have been deadly.”
“Is this the first time you’ve used it?” Charlie said. “Since then, I mean. Civilization Revolution strategy: get flight before anyone else, and you’ll own them.”
“Civi-” Dorothy frowned. “No, we’ve used it before. Last time I was here, we dropped poppies from it, over a town the Witch had taken. Put everyone to sleep, and killed her troops before anyone woke up. Don’t use it too much though: if they get to expect the balloon every time we strike, they’ll be more prepared.”
“You V’d them,” Charlie said, smiling happily as she leaned back. Dorothy sighed.
“Ok, I give up,” Dorothy said at last, half-exasperated as she glanced down at Charlie. “Language can’t have changed that much in seventy years. What’s V-ing all that other stuff you talk about?”
“Oh!” Charlie said, “Oh, oh right. You wouldn’t know; it’s, um, pop culture. V- it’s a sci-fi series. Two series, actually: old and new. 80s version involved dropping stuff from hot air balloons. And civilization revolution, it’s, um, a game. Kind of.”
“Sounds like I’ve missed a lot,” Dorothy said, eyes drifting for a moment, out over the rim of the basket.
Below, the fighting had begun, Flashes of fire and light, both magical and mundane, occasionally illuminated the battlefield. Lions and elephants charged forward, while wolves and Winkies fought back.
The resistance had better forces: they ruled the air and the ground, with all manner of birds allied with the grandest beasts of land. The armies of the Wicked Witch, now presided over by the steward, however, outnumbered them so very much.
“You have,” Charlie said, enthused. “Computers alone, so much better. Whizzy-wig. Um, WYSIWYG, what you see is what you get. Then books, and TV’s in colour and HD, and oh wow. There’s been Star Wars, and all the Treks, and ooh! Buffy. High school age girl slaying demons and vampires. And Willow,” Charlie grinned to herself, geekily lost, “She was my first crush.”
Dorothy blinked, glancing down at Charlie with a bit more surprise than the redhead had expected. For a few seconds, Charlie mentally replayed what she’d said, trying to work out what could have shocked a 30s era woman.
Then she winced. Pop culture, fine. Casually mentioning crushing on another woman to someone who came from a time that was considered an illness, not so much.
“Uh,” Charlie said, a little more slowly to try and think on her words this time. “Can you forget I said anything?” she tilted her head, vainly hopeful.
“It’s no problem,” Dorothy said, after a moment more. “Don’t worry, caught me by surprise is all. Things have changed, huh?”
“Yeah, I-” Charlie said, and hesitated. “You don’t mind?”
“Not my place,” she said, and shrugged. “Besides, I’m not that much of a hypocrite.”
Charlie met Dorothy’s eyes, uncertain. What did that mean? Noticing Charlie’s gaze, Dorothy shook her head.
“Not like that,” she said. “It was when I came to Oz before, I was still in a daze. Nothing quite felt real. Then there was the kiss of the Good Witch of the North, it was more than just a peck on the forehead. Apparently that wouldn’t have lasted,” Dorothy shrugged. “Nothing more. Never put much thought into it. When I came back, we were… close, though. Might have been more, I don’t know. Oz never quite felt real back then, I let myself get away with more.”
Charlie fell silent. There didn’t seem to be much she could say to that.
“No point in me judging you, when I’m not even sure about myself,” Dorothy said, and surprisingly smiled. “Wicked Witch turned her to ice. Melted her, slowly. She would’ve done the same to me, but there was still a bit of magic in the water that remained. If you’ve read the books, you know what I did. It didn’t kill her, but did help me escape.”
“I’m sorry,” Charlie said.
She lifted a hand, intending to rest it on Dorothy, to try and comfort her; then she caught herself. That might not be accepted, or might be misconstrued. She had to be more careful.
Still, while her hand was aimlessly floating in the air, Dorothy took it. She smiled, firm.
“And that’s why we’re not going to fail here,” she said, firm. Charlie nodded, glad to know Dorothy’s mood hadn’t been too affected.
The hot air balloon drifted on, dark against the night sky. The crows and winged monkeys that normally might guard the city were far below, the forces of the resistance keeping them occupied.
Charlie could, straining her ears, just make out the sounds. The shouts, the screams, the cries: metal striking metal, falling stone, thuds and voices. The battle far below, the last stand of the resistance. And it all came down to them.
They would free Oz.
It might have been a scene from almost any fantasy novel. Charlie could think of so many.
It was almost disappointing to be up here, away from the action. She’d enjoyed taking part in those fights, when she’d been Queen of Moondor. Then again, she had no doubt reality would be very, very different.
Being on a quest was something she liked. She had something to strive for; something achievable. And she could learn fast.
“Ok,” Dorothy was the one to break the silence, as soon as the balloon crossed the border to the central area of the Emerald City. “We’re almost there. Aquili, you’re our eyes: scout ahead quickly, come back, let us know what route’s clear. I’ll take out what we can’t avoid. Charlie, some of my father’s tech could still be around. Think you can work it?”
“Your father’s?” Charlie echoed, finding her voice after a few seconds.
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy said, sarcastic. “Name he took, anyway, when he came here. Giant floating head, that kind of thing. I doubt the Wicked Witch would’ve had any reason to get rid of it.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Charlie said. Dorothy smiled at her; relieved, Charlie returned it.
A few seconds more, and Dorothy seemed to catch herself, and looked away. Her eyes found the distant tower; a grey spike in a grey city. Even if there’d been more light, there’d have been no green. The emeralds had long since been harvested.
“Sorry,” Dorothy said, eyes still on the same, approaching point. “Everything feels different in Oz. You think you can do anything, get away with anything. I’ll control myself.”
There didn’t seem to be much of a way to respond to that. Charlie looked up at Dorothy, silent; almost wishing she wouldn’t.
And then Aquili cawed, and she was swiftly reminded of just what it meant to be in this Oz.
“We’re seen!” Aquili spoke; a low, feminine voice. It seemed almost to rotate, claws wrapped around the brim of the basket as it simply turned forwards: and then it released, and fell, diving with wings soon outstretched.
Both Charlie and Dorothy sprang to their feet, peering down over the Emerald City. A small group of flying monkeys were ascending to them, the only amount that could be spared from the battle below. Aquili plummeted down to meet them, succeeding in knocking away two. Six more rose.
“Can you use this?” Dorothy said, passing the iron bar to Charlie, from where it rested in the side of the basket. Dorothy had one hand on the burner, carefully guiding the balloon as they neared the tower.
“Um, LARPing and- a little?” Charlie said, tilting her head. Dorothy chuckled, and gestured for Charlie to take the bar.
Holding it before her as though it were a live snake, Charlie turned back to peer over the brim of the basket. The monkeys came closer.
They were far worse in person, than in story. Greasy, patchy fur decorating a maw that seemed locked in a snarl. They hissed, and spat as bat-like wings protruded unnaturally from their backs. Where fur gave way to leathery skin, it looked like the wings had burst from beneath the flesh of their backs. Their wings beat, each almost the size of the rest of the monkey, translucent, veined.
Charlie swung the bar, and winced as it struck the nearest monkey. As the next rose up, she swung at that too.
They fell back down; they recovered after a few seconds, but seemed wearier, hovering at more of a distance, now.
Charlie jabbed the bar at the next to approach; it twisted out of the way, but she struck its wing and with a snarl, it fell back; and fell down, no longer able to support itself with an injured wing.
“One down,” Charlie murmured to herself, beginning to smile. It might not be a game, but this she could do. “Come on bitches.”
Two soared at once. Dorothy snatched a weighted bag from the side of the balloon, and threw it expertly, knocking one monkey sharply on the head. Charlie struck the next, aiming for the ugly, mottled patch between its wings. Both flailed and fell, one unconscious, one unable to keep itself aloft.
Three remained, circling the balloon as it also ascended, getting closer to the top of the tower.
Dorothy focused on guiding it, trusting Charlie to fend off the flying monkeys. Even if they knew her tricks, she’d keep them safe. Dorothy caught sight of a balcony, and focused on that, manipulating the burner to let the balloon drop, just slightly. Closer, closer…
The three monkeys moved as one. Charlie waved the bar, almost aimlessly; she could hardly miss them, given their size. Sickly, luminescent yellow eyes flared, and they swerved around her, wary of the bar. Stumbling, Charlie moved to the other side of the basket, watching them.
Aquili soared up, having dealt with the two monkeys below. Almost immediately, the monkeys caught it: one grabbed a wing when Aquili lunged and, as it struggled to free itself, another gripped the remaining, flailing wing. Almost immediately, the third came closer with talons outstretched.
Charlie didn’t want to look, but couldn’t bring herself to turn away. Aquili was ripped to shreds, and left to fall by the hissing, snarling beasts.
This wasn’t the Oz she’d wanted.
Maybe the best reaction to that would be fear, would be to look for the nearest way out. There had to be one, somewhere. Instead, Charlie thought only: well, she’d have to change it.
The flying monkeys neared, each blood-soaked, dripping. Charlie gripped the base of the bar more tightly, wielding it like a bat. She wouldn’t let them get away with any more.
They neared. Charlie struck the first on the head, hard, and watched it fall away, unconscious. The other two swerved around, cutting through the weights on the side of the balloon.
Those too fell: and almost instantly, the hot air balloon began to climb up, further. Even as they neared the tower, the balloon travelled upwards.
“Damn it,” Dorothy muttered, fiddling with the burner for a few seconds, before simply shrugging. “Charlie, pop the balloon.”
“Huh?” the redhead did a double-take, distracted from her brief, triumphant daze at fighting off flying monkeys.
“We’re going up, we need to go down, and fast. Pop the balloon.”
Charlie looked at Dorothy for a long second; then, deciding to trust the hunter, jabbed the iron bar up. It pierced the side of the balloon; the bar was almost wrenched from her grip by the sudden currents of air. She yanked it down, quickly, and just as quickly grabbed hold of the side of the basket, the whole hot air balloon shuddering.
“Now what?” Charlie said, half-shouting to be heard over the whoosh.
“Jump!” Dorothy said, shouting in turn as she glanced over the side. They were nearing the balcony, even if about to fall past it.
“What?!” Charlie said, eyes wide and beginning to wonder why she’d been so keen on having a quest.
“You heard,” Dorothy said, just as loud. She flashed a smiled, and turned, swiftly climbing to the brim of the basket, and leapt.
Oh, she was relishing this.
“Hermione could do it,” Charlie murmured for a moment, echoing Dorothy’s movement; up onto the seat then up to the brim, careful- a glance down made her hesitate. Then, realizing that down would be where she was heading either way, she screamed and jumped.
Dorothy caught her by the wrists, and pulled her up onto the balcony. Charlie landed atop her, completely breathless. A few moments later, and she started laughing, chest heaving from a mixture of fear and excitement.
“Having fun yet, Red?” Dorothy tilted her head, looking up, barely noticing Charlie’s weight on her.
“Somehow,” Charlie admitted. Dorothy chuckled.
Then, she moved quickly; rolled Charlie off her, snatching the bar from Charlie’s loose grip, and kicked herself up onto her feet before knocking an approaching monkey hard. There was an audible crack as it fell down the side of the tower.
She turned her gaze to the vicious yellow eyes of the last of the flying monkeys near them. Chest heaving, knuckles white, two hands wielding a bar like a sword. Recognizing danger when it saw it the monkey turned and dived back down to the battle below.
A now-standing Charlie whooped, and Dorothy turned, and smiled in response.
“Promised you adventure,” Dorothy said. “Come on. We need to get to the steward.”
“Gotcha,” Charlie said and, eagerly, followed.
She could get into this adventuring business, really. Bit like LARPing, just less playful spell packets and more hissy bitey dangerous monkeys.
Thankfully, there weren’t many guards this far up the tower: evidently the steward hadn’t expected anyone to fly in. Indeed, even birds would normally struggle to get past the flying monkeys and crows that stood guard as part of the witch’s army. A few unconscious Winkies, and the route was clear.
Their first guess turned out to be a correct. Dorothy lead the way to the chamber in which the Wizard had once resided. They made it fairly quickly, Charlie always keeping close behind. As soon as they opened the grand doors to the room, they found him.
The steward of the Wicked Witch, ruling over her armies and lands in her absence. He was an elderly man; yet his eyes were a distinctive, glowing green, permanently so, indicating a more extreme kind of possession. A kind of possession that lingered, even while the witch was in another world it seemed; or, indeed, dead.
Dark haired combed back neatly. Thin spectacles to outline those unnerving, emerald eyes; and a moustache, black and, if not bushy, far from small. His face would have been kindly, if not for the menace promised in his eyes. Above all though, he was definitely, and familiarly human.
“She thought you would return,” the steward spoke, in a familiar, deep, rough tone. “Pathetically loyal to a lost cause.”
Dorothy seemed, just for a moment, to be stunned.
“Father?” she spoke. Her voice wasn’t soft, or weakened, or anything at all like that. Surprised, certainly. As resolute as ever, though.
“Once,” the green-eyed steward spoke. “His soul, yes. A sliver of the witch remained in this world, to rule in her absence. When he died, and his soul left your world, we claimed it. We’ve seen the bonds between parent and child. As I said, she knew you would return.”
“One,” Dorothy said, firm, “I couldn’t stand him. Two, I’m a hunter, you get used to those kinds of mind games, or die more times than most people can come back from. You’re not as clever as you think you are.”
With that, she approached, thrusting the iron bar. There was a flash of black and green smoky light, and the improvised weapon was knocked aside.
Definitely a different kind of possession there. A sliver of the Wicked Witch herself, apparently: enough to let the possessed cast magic.
Then again, this was Oz. This bar came from Oz: teemed with Oz magic. Add into that how the remnant would be weaker than the whole of the Witch, and she stood a chance; more than a chance. She wouldn’t let herself fail.
Dorothy struck again, engaging in an odd duel. Each of her strikes parried by magic, while each of the steward’s bolts was either avoided, or knocked aside with practised speed.
Charlie watched, awed, for a short time. Then, as a bolt narrowly missed her, she quickly came back to reality. This wasn’t a game.
She could see what Dorothy meant, though. Oz felt dream-like, never quite real. To go from Earth to this world, with talking Animals and multi-coloured people and magic and… Well, as much as she’d seen of the supernatural, at least before it was on familiar ground. Now, she was in a whole new realm.
It took a conscious effort to remember that this was real. Once that effort was made, though, she set to work.
She was the IT girl. She’d been brought along to do what she could with the Wizard’s old stuff; and indeed, much of it lied around the room. No doubt the Wicked Witch had found a use for it; it was far in advance of much of the technology she’d seen in Oz so far.
Still, even while she worked on getting whatever she could working, she kept one eye on Dorothy. Even if nothing seemed likely to happen between them, that didn’t meant she didn’t care. Far from it. She’d admired her when she’d been fictional: now Dorothy was real, nothing had changed. She had more reason to care.
Still, it was a slight distraction. Charlie’s mind kept replaying their conversation on the balloon, and their proximity when she’d fallen atop Dorothy. Shaking it off, she tried to focus, stealing just the occasional glimpse, hoping Dorothy was holding her own.
And the woman was, for the most part. Mind games had long since stopped bothering her; she saw the image of her father, but the green eyes gave the deception away. Besides, it probably helped that her father was never on her list of favourite people.
She lunged, and struck a wall of smoke. The remnant of the Wicked Witch struck back, green light from the palm of the stolen body. Dorothy sidestepped, evading, and hit again. It was repetitive, but no less urgent. Strike, parry, blow, duck, bolt.
Neither of them let themselves tire. All it took would be one lapse, and they’d lose.
Dorothy lunged again: instead of blocking, her father’s possessed body evaded, and brought its arm down, knocking the bar to the floor. Dorothy quickly moved to pick it up, and the steward kicked; she fell back.
A split second passed. Dorothy lay on her back, iron bar just out of her reach: the remnant of the Wicked Witch stood over her. A crackle of green light in her father’s fingertips.
“Hey there, bitches,” another voice spoke. The steward looked up, catching sight of Charlie Bradbury: the redhead stood there, a confident smile, and something indistinct in one hand. A weapon?
The steward didn’t risk it. Its hand lifted, bolt leaping forward, not at the fallen Dorothy, but across the chamber: straight for Charlie.
It struck. A mix of preternatural green and a black as deep as void, twisting and arcing, crackling: it struck Charlie, and she dropped whatever it was she held in her hand, and was flung back. She hit the wall, silent: and then she fell, neck at an unnatural angle, as though the magical attack hadn’t been enough.
But that was all it took; that one second. Dorothy reached sideways, and with a shout of inexpressible anger, lifted the bar and thrust once more.
The steward staggered back, impaled. Dorothy stood, watched; her father’s body, fingertips twitching uselessly. One second, two. He stumbled, and fell; the back of the bar clanged as it hit the floor, and he fell onto his side. Green eyes flickered; then dimmed, leaving only the normal, human shade behind.
L Frank Baum had just one glimpse of his daughter before, along with the last of the Wicked Witch, his soul left Oz.
There was so much Dorothy could say. A witty one-liner, or some snide remark. An insult, perhaps. She remembered Charlie talking about ‘Ding Dong the bitch is dead,’ or something, when they’d first walked the yellow brick road. She could shout ‘For Oz!’ or ‘For the Emerald City!’ ‘For freedom,’ or some such ideal. She could cry out in revenge for the Good Witch of the North, who the Wicked Witch had so painfully killed.
All that came to mind, though, was Charlie. Dorothy turned, looked away-
And saw Charlie wave, slightly self-consciously, from behind the Wizard’s old hologram machine.
Unthinking, Dorothy ran across the chamber, and closed the gap between them; she wrapped her arms around Charlie, thankful. Just as unthinking, just as instinctively, she pulled her head back, and leant forward to press her lips to Charlie’s.
The redhead’s eyes widened, for a moment. As relieved as she was, and as much as she had to admit enjoying herself, she had to pull back, unsure. She knew Dorothy: had seen Dorothy was less than certain about… this.
“I- uh, are you-” Still, Charlie reflected, she couldn’t exactly put her thoughts into words.
Dorothy, however, just smiled.
“I don’t give a damn,” Dorothy said, guessing the question. “You get taught one thing by everyone in your life, but I’m not exactly one for those attitudes, in a lot of ways. That, I don’t care about. But you I saw die.”
“Sorry,” Charlie said, expression changing to something that was probably meant to be apologetic, but just made Dorothy chuckle.
“Don’t apologize,” Dorothy said. “Sometimes people just need a shock. Got the hologram working, then?”
“Yep,” a grin, “I’m awesome.”
Dorothy leant forward again. It was the first time Charlie had seen her as anything other than utterly certain, confident. That time, Charlie returned the kiss, relieved.
Some time later, they stood on the balcony of the tower, looking down over the Emerald City. Word had spread: the steward was dead. Bells rang below, in celebration.
“Ding-dong,” Charlie said, laughing to herself. She stood beside Dorothy, hand-in-hand.
“Glad you came?” Dorothy said. Charlie nodded.
“Oh, definitely,” a smile. “So many reasons.”
“I’d hope so. You know it’s not over yet, right?”
“Never is,” Charlie said, turning to face Dorothy, more fully. Eager. “What’s next then?”
“Well, there are still pockets of Wicked Witch loyalists,” Dorothy said, “Still a few areas headed by people under her control. There’s some rebuilding, and possibly a few more remnants of her. Plus we still need to find my damn dog.”
Dorothy smiled: and Charlie couldn’t help but do the same.