"What in the name of Ozma are you doing?"
DG blinked stupidly at the sudden light flooding her hideout. Wyatt Cain, cranky-looking and dressed in a set of striped pajamas, was glaring at her from the doorway. It was a pretty impressive glare, made all the crankier by the fact that it was going on three am.
"What does it look like I'm doing?" She shot him an incredulous look and waved a hand at the dark room. "It's not like there's much of a question."
The confused look he gave her made her feel a bit bad. She'd learned a lot of facts about Wyatt Cain in the last six months; they ranged from food choices to general grunt translations but also included sleeping and waking habits. Cain was aces woken out of a dead sleep by anything remotely considered a threat. He'd be up and alert, ready to beat up or kill just about anything (including fairy-moths, and hadn't that been a weird night?), but when woken early and by something only minorly worrisome? He was crankier than a bear in February and just as slow.
"Oh." He shuffled his feet a bit, shooting a few looks around the dusty sitting room she'd ducked into a few hours ago. It was pretty miserable all told. Just a few dried-out tables, some dusty carpet, and a lot of old, weird paintings. It was probably where the Queen used to stuff aides who processed paperwork in the wrong order or something. Punishment by depressing portraiture. For his part, Cain just raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. "Yeah, I got nothin' outta this but you sittin' on the floor and starin' at the wall."
"That's pretty much it, Wyatt."
DG mentally shrugged. At least finding her a.) not in her room at o-dark-thirty and b.) curled on the floor of a dark room in the abandoned wing of her stately childhood palace ranked below fairy-moth. Maybe Cain's - well earned - PTSD was finally amping down. Might be nice to go a week without having to reassure a random guard that, no, Wyatt Cain didn't have the authority to order them into manual labor if they kept breathing at him wrong. Her to-do list could do with a few less repeat ticky marks.
And she really didn't want to think about her to-do list. Or ticky marks. Distraction time.
"Why are you wearing plaid? Where did you even find plaid?"
He grunted and shot her glare number three - translation: You're annoying, but I like you enough to tolerate your questions, please use short words for the next three minutes by which time I will be awake.
"Speak sense, kid. These are bed clothes and you know it."
"But the pattern. It's just.. wrong. I wear plaid. You wear solids."
"You are avoiding my question."
DG sighed and dropped her head back against the wall. He wasn't wrong. Damn person who'd spent just as much time learning her tics as she'd done learning his. Also, he must have been looking for her for a while if he was awake enough to notice. She shot him a weak smile and patted the floor next to her, politely ignoring disgruntled face he made at the idea of sitting on the floor. Whatever, the man regularly tackled her to hard, uncomfortable ground-materials, he could cope with a dusty carpet.
Plus, the squeaky noises he made while sliding down the wall were twelve kinds of adorable and she should probably feel worse about making him do things the way she wanted. She didn't mostly because the other thing she'd learned about Wyatt Cain was that he honestly didn't do anything unless, deep down, he really wanted to. When his mind was set, even Big Crying Eyes didn't work. And those always worked. Even with Officer Gulch, back in Kansas.
The finger on her chin was warm and rough and she had to blink a lot before she could make eye contact. His mighty frown let her know that, yep, stealth skills were still hovering at zero. Not that Cain let her get away with anything, ever, in the first place. It was, occasionally, frustratingly hot.
Which was a whole other thing entirely and very much not important right now.
"Kid? Seriously, what's going on."
She sniffed, blaming it entirely on the dust cloud he'd poofed up when he'd sat down. Horray, self-delusion. "Nothing more than usual. Insomnia. Inexplicable hatred of large rooms."
"That's the answer you're going with?" The famous Cain eyebrow popped up, forcing an honest laugh. "Because I'm thinking that's not the problem. So, I'll ask again. What the hell are you doing?"
Wasn't that the $64,000 question. It was the same one she'd asking herself since she'd woken up in the Western Forest, surrounded by what was left of her childhood- adolescent home.
And didn't that little slip just explain basically everything.
DG sighed for what felt like the millionth time and took a long hard look at the weirdly hypnotic landscape mounted on the wall across from her. She could actually see it given that Cain had left the door open behind him. There hadn't been any guards visible when he'd thrown the door open, but they were probably out there too. Ducklings had nothing on the Royal guards and while the image of Mama Wyatt was entirely hilarious, she'd had enough of everything, including her own bullshit.
Because she was just done.
Done with the culture shock, the random bursts of gun fire, the weird food, and basically everyone forgetting that her giant case of death-induced amnesia meant that no, she really didn't know what the hell they were talking about, and for the fiftieth time, yes she had a major problem with the concept of inherited monarchy. DG might have been raised on a remote farm in Kansas, but that didn't mean she'd missed the multiple required classes on state and federal government structures for the Republic of the United States. Add on two semesters of Western Civ classes at the local community college, both of which made a huge point of highlighting the inherent weaknesses of monarchy as applied to Western European growth and development. At this point, the brainwashing was deeply ingrained, and did she mention the death-induced amnesia?
Basically, she was sitting on the floor of a random, dusty room, avoiding everyone and everything because if she didn't, there'd be screaming. Or punching.
Really, she was doing everyone a favor.
"I'm hiding." Because, yeah. Honesty.
"Do I want to know why?"
"Maybe." She leaned into his arm. It was right there, and while she'd prefer a hug and a shoulder to sob into, neither of them were really those people. It was a testament to how much she'd started breaking him of his touch starvation that he only tensed a little before letting her settle into his side. Not that she had teeny, tiny ulterior motives. Nope.
Anyway, ten plus years in an iron suit had done a lot of damage to Cain's ability to take a hug. Still, she had a smidge of experience in this area. One of her best friends in junior high'd moved to town from Iowa and it was an odd comparison to make but iron torture suits and German Lutheran parents had a surprising amount in common. At least when it came to lack of cuddling anyway.
She took a deep breath, filling her lungs until they ached, held it, then slowly let it go.
In high school, she'd been in band. Mostly because in sixth grade, the music teacher had herded all the kids into a corner filled with crappy musical instruments of all types and assigned each of them one depending on whatever capricious standards the school board had been pushing that week. Fast forward three years and DG'd been stuck as last chair clarinet – which she hadn't even know was a thing - secretly hating the kids on the football and swim teams because they got to eat lunch and have a study period and not be stuck in band. It had all come to a head during third quarter when she'd ended up waving around her clarinet and shouting about fascism and the lack of chocolate chip cookies in the cafeteria.
What she was currently feeling was suspiciously similar to the disassociative state she went into right before she'd climbed on her chair and started yelling. This time, it was likely a product of exhaustion and sheer desperation. There were a lot of people whose feelings needed to be considered these days but Cain seemed to be the exception there. Definitely having to do with his habit of randomly yelling at her for her own stupidity and being generally fine when she yelled back.
Cain was here, her friend, and seemingly willing to listen.
Emotional blurting it was.
"I didn't know I'd miss my home so much."
And wow, that sounded a lot more sad than she'd meant it to. Cain was apparently surprised as well. A warm flannel-ish-fabric-clad arm wrapped around her and drew her into a side-hug. If she wasn't so wrapped up in her own head, she'd have cheered. Maybe done a little dance. Instead, she sank into his side, pitifully grateful that he'd managed to track her down.
God, all of this was so stupid. Except for the part where it really, really wasn't.
"I take it you're not talking about the OZ?" Cain's voice in the dark was comforting. He wasn't always a big talker – stereotypes about strong, silent dudes apparently transcended dimensional travel – but he was good at asking questions. Not surprising given his former and present lines of work. And if satellite television had taught her nothing else, she knew it was definitely time to talk some of the stuff in her head out.
She was hiding in a sitting room in the dark. Not. Healthy.
Right, mouth open, thoughts in the atmosphere.
"I... I spent most of my life in a rural place." Her first words were muffled against his bicep. "You know that. I told you that. I think I even told you about how I was planning on leaving before those Longcoats showed up with the travel storm."
She felt him nod against the crown of her head. "You did."
"I just had no idea what it would feel like to know that I couldn't go back."
And yeah, that was a hard freaking sentence to say outloud. Not just because she was suddenly talking around a lump the size of Glitch's brain tank. Best just to forgive the way her voice had cracked at the end there.
DG took a few deep breaths, grateful that Cain just waited. "I don't know if I can explain it. I felt safe to leave Kansas because I knew Mom and Popcicle would be there to go back to. Which, I know, I know is stupid. You can never go home again."
"I'm pretty sure-"
"Otherside saying." She dismissed automatically. "It means that nostalgia isn't real. Things change. People and locations are different when you go away and come back."
"And you miss that you don't even have the option." She froze, stunned. Dizzily, she nodded and pulled her knees up to her chest. Cain was definitely awake because that scary-perceptive brain was firing on all cylinders.
Because, really? He'd just hit the problem directly on the head. In under five minutes. Freaking deductive skills of awesomeness.
Her words were watery when she found them, forehead tight at the impending tears. "Yeah. Stupid, right?" She laughed, a sharp bark that didn't sound like her at all. Shook her head, hair tugging against the fabric of his shirt. "I have this whole new world to explore and learn. Everything I could have ever wanted when I was painting in my room back home. Hell, it's everything I painted back home."
"It's not wrong to grieve DG. Hey, look at me." She felt a light tug at the ends of her hair and resisted for all of two seconds before finally meeting his eyes. She blinked twice, clearing the mistiness in her vision caused by tears and almost had to duck down and sob into his collar. He shook his head and ran a thumb under her eye. "I think we all forget that you're just as lost as the rest of us. That you've lost your world, too. You don't remember everyone in the way that your parents and everyone else remember you. You're allowed to hurt from that. And I'm sorry that we didn't notice."
Yeah, she wasn't gonna stop crying any time soon. That was for damn sure. Stupid man being stupidly right.
As happy as she was to be where she was born, it didn't change the fact that there was a whole boat load of culture shock. From what she remembered, she'd spent her entire life living on a small farm, just outside a small town in freaking nowheresville Kansas; a state that didn't have written history with a bicentennial. Hell, the only time she'd even been to Kansas City was on a field trip to the history museum in tenth grade. Prior to that, the most cultured place she'd ever been was Dodge City. A place made great by the fact that it had a Walmart AND a community college.
And maybe she had been born a princess with the fundamental training needed for that specific role, but she didn't remember that.
"It's easier." The smile she gave him was tremulous but genuine. "With you and Glitch and Raw, I mean."
He huffed out a quiet laugh and gave her a quick squeeze. "Not surprising. We met you as DG. Crazy slipper on a quest. Ain't the regret or pain that your family's haulin' around for you."
And wasn't that the truth. Some days, it hurt to be in the same room as Ahamo and Lavender. She'd never thought hopeful expressions were depressing, and they weren't inherently. Just when those hopes were dashed horribly; either by DG asking an awkward question at an inopportune time – life long skill, that one – or by her giving them a puzzled face about using magic lamps. Magic lamps.
And then there was Az. Yeesh. There was a bag of fragile broken sister wrapped in responsibility.
"And I just feel so... bad." She waggled her toes, scrunching them in the carpet. Die Hard was a pretty reasonable thing to miss, even if toe scrunches hadn't ever worked. "It sucks not being who everyone wants me to be. What I'm supposed to be. Who I was supposed to be."
DG didn't know how, but Cain suddenly and loudly projected dead silence. The arm tucked around her tensed to the degree that she had to look up. When she did the look on his face made her flinch. She hadn't seen him that intensely pissed off since Jeb had led what should have equated to a suicide run and come back in traction. That had not been a good day.
"No, DG. Ain't nothin' wrong with who you are." His voice was hard. Very deliberately, he swung himself away from the wall so that when he settled again, they were face to face. He placed his hands firmly around her upper arms and held her still. The shadows cast by the light from the hall made his expression all the more implacable. Every physical tell the man had was screaming that what he was about to say was stone cold serious. "There were a lot of people and decisions that led up to your death. Your death, DG. You were a baby. You didn't have much in the way of choices, and you're doing a great job with the giant mess that got handed to you."
She sobbed, relief and attraction beating it out in her stomach. The damn man had said every thing she'd needed to hear, all while sleep-mussed and dressed in plaid pajamas. A lot of things regularly kept her from tackling him to the floor and kissing him stupid – duty, fear, mental health issues, grief, and insecurity to name five - but that list was a lot foggier after that speech.
"I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me." She sniffled and gave him her best smile. Well, an approximation.
He shook his head once, firmly, and sat back. Serious moment tentatively finished. He didn't move next to her again, but folded his legs and kept her gaze. "Ain't wrong."
"Just truth tellin' over here."
"Maybe. Doesn't mean I can't thank you."
"You're my friend, DG. One of the few I've got. I don't like it when you're down like this. Especially when there's no solid reason for it."
"Please." She gave another laugh, this one slightly less wet and teary. Progress, she thought, blessing him for the tentative out. She wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt. "Self-doubt and insecurity is almost a requirement for a woman in her mid-20's on the Otherside."
"That sounds like a party." He caught her shift in mood and gave her a wry smile.
"You have no idea." DG bit her lip and dropped her gaze. She trusted him. She did. And she needed to say this next bit out loud. If just so that it would be out there in the universes, real. "I'm hiding in this room because I'm scared. I don't have anything familiar that's mine. Momster and Popcicle are here, but."
And yeah. Totally harder than she'd expected. Cain, as always, offered a rescue, finishing the thought.
"They hurt you. They lied about some pretty important stuff."
She shrugged. Nodded. Then rubbed away the new tears with her more-than-damp sleeve. "Baggage."
"Accurate. Just. Everyone else has something familiar. They knew, or know the rules."
"I'm sorry. I wish I could fix it for you."
"Me too." She started a bit but smiled as he reached out and took both her forearms in his hands. "Thank you," she whispered.
He shook his head, gave her a devastating smile and said. "Don't need gratitude for being a friend. Just need the friendship."
"Wyatt Cain, you are. You just." This man. He had absolutely no idea.
"What?" In the end, it was the completely puzzled look that decided her. It disarmed her in a way that she couldn't understand, let alone explain.
“I think I could love you.”
She smirked half-heartedly at the startled look Cain gave her. To be fair, emotional honesty did seem pretty thin on the ground in the OZ. War-torn societies were funny like that. Luckily, they were pretty good for a lack of artifice and teaching a person to give others time to process.
So, instead of freaking out – there'd been enough of that tonight - and going the route of nervous chatter, she dropped her head back against the wall and waited. Taking the same time to calm down and finish wiping off her face from the earlier crying. She watched as Cain’s normally stoic face went from panic to confusion and curiosity before heading straight back to stoicism.
“I don’t rightly know what to say to that, DG.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Wyatt." She sighed, feeling a bit bad for springing this on him. Still, when it rained it poured, and if nothing else, tonight was a night of emotional honesty on her part. Better out than in. Still, damage control was needed. "It’s not the right time. I know that. It might never be the right time. Hell, you probably don’t and won’t feel the same way, and that’s perfectly okay. I just.” DG shook her head and reached across to pluck at his sleeve, needing contact to reassure him that it was still her. “Everything’s a big old mess in my brain right now. I won't do this now, but you need to know that I really, really could fall in love you."
Three terrifying, horrible seconds later, all of the angry bears in her stomach died a quick and decisive death. There was no stern lecture on emotional transference (she really needed to check with Raw or one of Az's healers about whether that was a thing in the OZ, or not) or quick pats on the head. Just Wyatt Cain, eyes soft and lip twitching up slightly.
"Not sure that's smart, darlin'." The fingers on her arm flexed once, twice, and dear god, who knew hand spasms caused tunnel vision? "But that ain't one-sided."
Relief, sweet and stunning, washed the angry bear corpses away. "Really?"
He shook his head, tilting it slightly to take her in better. "You're right about this not being the time. You have things that need done, and..." He sighed and looked away before meeting her eyes again. "I do, too. I ain't fit for anyone or anything currently."
She nodded. "We both need time. Then maybe?"
His teeth flashed white in the dim light of the room. Behind him, she could see a slight glow that indicated morning and reality were just about on them. Talk about metaphors.
She opened her mouth to comment but stopped. Wyatt's face, his handsome, dear face was right there, and holy god, the kissing.
His lips were firm against hers, his jaw scratchy under her hand, but all of that was background noise to the slow, hot, liquid feeling that started in her chest and just crawled down her body. Her fingers tightened on the back of his head, nails scratching lightly. It felt freaking amazing, and she absolutely never wanted this to stop.
She pulled back first, not even a little embarrassed by how hard she was breathing. Panting just as hard as she was, eyes wide and pupil's blown, Cain looked like she'd hit him with a brick. She had a feeling she looked much the same. DG smiled then. Felt the grin break over her face like an egg thrown at a barn door and then she was leaning into him. The hollow of his neck was really very nice. She ran a thumb over the v made by his ridiculous pajamas before tucking herself deeper into his chest. It took a second, but eventually his arms tightened around her, keeping her close but very much back in friend territory. That was fine though. Kissing and breathlessness could come later, if at all. Because as much as she wanted that, this was pretty great too.
"Maybe later." He whispered, chest rumbling pleasantly with the words. DG closed her eyes and hummed. He honestly gave the best hugs.
"Later." She agreed and just relaxed.
Nothing was fixed, or decided really. The OZ was just as big and scary as it'd been when she'd bailed on her room earlier, but that was fine. All of that could take care of itself for a while.
"Next time there's sharing, can we do this in a room with lights and a couch?"