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The Great Responsibilities of Oz

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With only a few days to go before Halloween, Dorothy really ought to have known better than to open her locker so casually. But her morning classes had dragged on for so long, and from the smells in the farmhouse that morning the lunch Uncle Henry had packed her was bound to be so delicious, that she turned the combination and threw back the door without a second thought.

A horrible face glowed at her out of the shadows, flame-yellow eyes and gaping mouth flaring in the dark.

Dorothy jumped back with a cry of shock. But her fear was gone in an instant — it didn't even last long enough to make her reach for her waist — and while the students around her craned their necks to peer at whatever was inside her locker, she turned to scan the crowd and yelled, "Tip!"

The boy appeared at the other end of the row of lockers, looking delighted with himself. "Who, me?"

"Yes, you." Dorothy pulled out the plastic pumpkin, its light-up insides much less dramatic in the full glare of the school fluorescents, and held it up with one hand while putting the other crossly on her hip. "A jack-o-lantern? Couldn't you at least come up with something more original?"

"Aw, it's a classic!" protested Tip. "Did you catch how I rigged it to light up as soon as you open the door? Pretty keen, right?"

It was a routine they'd been developing since they were both about six years old. The younger Tip had put on a lion mask and chased one of their classmates on the playground until she cried, which was when Dorothy marched right up to him, smacked his rubber face, and gave him a scolding that would've done Aunt Em proud. Once Tip had gotten over the shock, he settled into a quest to discover something that would intimidate Dorothy...which over time had morphed into a quest to impress her with the most technically-intricate pranks possible.

Not everyone at their school would've appreciated it. Betsy, for instance, would've grown genuinely frightened and withdrawn. Trot would've taken it as a challenge, and fought back as nastily as possible.

Dorothy, for her part, found it equal parts annoying and endearing. In this moment she might honestly have admitted to being impressed...until one of the gems on her belt hummed a warning, too low to hear, only felt as a vibration through the fabric of her dress.

"You could at least make it yourself next time," she said, handing the toy jack-o-lantern to the nearest interested-looking person (all right, "interested" was a stretch with Button-Bright, but he would still take anything you gave him). She shoved her books from the morning into the locker and shut the door.

Tip looked at her now-empty hands, puzzled. "Aren't you going to lunch?"

No sense claiming she'd buy it at the cafeteria. Dorothy's family might not have much, but she always brought farm-fresh food. "In a minute."

"What are you doing first?"

Over her shoulder as she walked away, Dorothy called, "Girl stuff!" That ought to hush him up.

 

* * *

 

Minutes later, the caped silhouette of the Silver Whirlwind streaked across the sky.

 

* * *

 

Dorothy was the kind of ordinary, sensible Kansas girl who never planned to be a superhero.

As far as she was concerned, superheroics was for adults who could afford to make it a full-time career. Like the glamorous and powerful Ruby Witch, who could change her shape and cast all manner of spells, or the highly-trained athlete General Revolt, who could fight with any weapon and would take on any tyrant, or the mysterious Shaggy Love, who...well, he didn't seem to have any powers, but any supervillain who saw him would flatly refuse to let him get hurt, which had derailed more than a few evil plans.

No, for Dorothy it was the superheroics that had found her, in the form of a mysterious package on her doorstep.

As the label was addressed to her, Dorothy carried it to her room, where her dog Toto was asleep at the foot of the bed. He perked up his head when she set the box down next to him.

"I s'pose this must be a late-arriving birthday present," said Dorothy, fishing through a drawer for some scissors. "Odd that there's no return address, but maybe it's from a friend of Uncle Henry or Aunt Em, and was given to them to bring here directly? Or p'raps they took it out of the proper packaging, then saw my name and realized they shouldn't open it any further."

The little black terrier sniffed every corner of the package, walked in a circle around it, then sat down and relaxed, satisfied it posed no danger.

Dorothy found the scissors, and considered the box again. "Or perhaps it's from Tip."

Toto's ears pricked up again. He'd heard that name often enough to be concerned.

"He doesn't mean any harm with his pranks, you know," said Dorothy. "Most of them are really rather clever. But I'd better go at this carefully, just in case."

In the end she put it on the ground, laid a plastic raincoat underneath it for protection, and snipped the tape open cautiously, one side at a time...all to open the box and find it contained an ordinary jewel-studded belt, wrapped in ordinary tissue paper. No card, or any other indication where it had come from.

"It's a bit flashy for everyday wear, but it's pretty, isn't it?" Dorothy picked it up and inspected it: silver in color, set with large blue and purple gems. It was so lightweight that they must've been plastic, but their color was so deep and rich, their cuts so sharp and clear, you never would've known from looking.

She started touching and tapping at each one, just in case there was some kind of hidden catch....

When she tapped the third gem in a row, it started to glow.

Toto jumped up and barked, and honestly Dorothy felt like doing the same, as a beam of light shot forth from the jewel and projected the holographic image of an enormous head. Bald, bodiless, hawk-nosed and terrible-eyed, it spoke, in a voice that was not loud but nevertheless seemed to echo:

"Dorothy Gale, you have been Chosen."

"I — what? How? By who? What is—"

"This is a pre-recorded message," continued the Head. "But since you have activated it, that proves you have access to the Belt's power, and once you use it to contact me in person, I'll explain everything."

 

* * *

 

This was, surprisingly, much simpler than it sounded. Dorothy had worried she might need to press any number of specific sequences of gems before finding the right one, but the Belt seemed to respond intuitively to her touch, and soon enough she was talking to a holographic head that could respond.

He identified himself only as the Wizard. He'd been using his powers to craft enchanted objects and sending them out into the world, identifying worthy young people who could use them to fight the forces of evil.

"I call this one the Magic Belt," he said proudly.

"I s'pose you would," said Dorothy, who found she was getting used to this odd conversation. The Wizard wasn't as intimidating once you got talking to him. Even accounting for the reverb. "And what does it do, precisely?"

"Oh, all kinds of things! Even I don't know the true limits of its power. It'll respond to your wishes, that's the important thing. Say, for example, that you wished to have some new clothes...."

Dorothy looked down at her blue-and-white-dress, affronted. It wasn't the trendiest outfit, or the newest, but it was clean and neat and looked quite good on her, if she did say so herself. "What's wrong with my clothes?"

"I didn't mean — nothing's wrong with them, precisely," stammered the Wizard. "Only if you're going to be a superhero, you'll want something a bit more...costume-y."

"Am I going to be a superhero?" asked Dorothy, greatly surprised.

"Why wouldn't you? You have great powers, and surely you've heard what those come with! The Belt can heal injuries, make you impervious to all earthly threats, alert you when there's danger, let you fly, keep people from noticing your identity, turn your enemies into eggs, anything you like!"

"Why would I want to turn them into eggs? I live on a farm — we get enough of those the natural way."

"Perhaps one day you'll meet a supervillain whose only weakness is eggs?" said the Wizard. His face didn't seem to change expression, but he was beginning to sound cross. "It was only an example."

"And if you have all these great magical powers, why don't you go out and confront these villains yourself?" protested Dorothy. "I've never even gotten in a fight before — not on purpose, anyway."

"Unfortunately, my powers come with weaknesses that make it impossible," said the holographic head with a sigh. "The best thing I can do is use them to empower others to be heroes. I used my magic to seek out the best owner of the Belt, and you are the one it found. If nothing else, I'm sure it was safe to send to you, because you won't use it for evil. And I hope you'll use it for good."

"I'm not sure I'll be able to," said Dorothy truthfully. "I started up the message by accident, and as for calling you, I think I just got lucky. I don't know how to do any of those other things."

"There is no doubt you'll be able to figure it out," the Wizard assured her. "Try wishing for something simple, and see if it happens. Here's a test: you can share the Belt's enchantment with animals — make them stronger, faster, even smarter — they could turn into some of your best allies. Try making your dog talk."

Dorothy looked up at Toto, who was still sitting on the bed and glaring at the hologram. He whuffed in disapproval, and she quite agreed. "Toto doesn't need to talk. I understand him perfectly well as it is. And he's already smart, and the best ally I could ask for."

"Okay. Sure. That's wonderful," said the Wizard. "But it might help other people, people who don't understand him so well, if he could talk to them. And he could, if you asked."

Dorothy decided she might as well humor the man. (If he was a man.) "Well, Toto? Can you?"

The little terrier gave her a look that said, plain as day, Really?

"Really. Just one word, go on."

"The man's a humbug, if you ask me," said a gruff male voice — and no one looked more startled than Toto that it had come out of his mouth.

 

* * *

 

The gas leak was patched before anything exploded; all the people in the area were pronounced healthy. The Silver Whirlwind wished herself back into the school bathroom, transfigured her costume back into her normal clothes, and made the Belt prudently insubstantial to anyone other than herself.

Then, since it was such a nice day, Dorothy walked outside to join the group eating lunch under the schoolyard trees.

She sat in the grass with Betsy and Trot, started into the ham sandwich from her lunch-box, and wished an image of her superhero identity flying through the sky behind her. Just close enough for the costume to be recognized.

After all, it wouldn't do to have people saying "isn't it curious how we've never seen the Silver Whirlwind and our Dorothy in the same place at the same time? And you know heroes design their outfits based on their childhood nightmares, to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, and wasn't her home in the path of that cyclone ten years ago...?"

Instead, the sight spurred a round of speculative chatter about what all of them would wear if they were superheroes. Dorothy admitted that she might use the cyclone theme if it weren't already taken. Betsy talked about how she'd been in a shipwreck when she was younger, which was suitably terrifying, but hard to translate into a costume. Trot declared that she wasn't afraid of anything — she'd be like the Ruby Witch, wearing something that highlighted how cool and glamorous she was instead.

At some point Dorothy tuned it out a bit. Tip was sitting alone against a nearby tree, enjoying a hard-boiled egg; presently he finished it off, shrugged out of his cardigan, and laid back in the grass.

His shirtsleeves were short enough to reveal a large bruise, or perhaps a series of bruises that had blended together, running up one arm.

The wishes Dorothy could make on the Belt were almost infinitely flexible, but would lose their strength and power if she used them too much with no recovery time. She couldn't simply walk into the nearest oncology ward and wish all the cancer into remission. (She had tried, once. It helped two people before the effect dwindled — and then, the next day, someone had bled out at a traffic accident while she didn't even have the power to wish them a bandage.)

Over time she had developed a balance with her healing powers. Regular low-level wishes to stave off Uncle Henry's arthritis and keep Aunt Em's eyesight from failing; first-responder wishes at accident scenes, making the survivors comfortable and stable enough for a trip to the hospital, where the doctors could handle the rest; occasional dramatic healings of random people, one at a time, carefully paced. She would throw the whole thing off, for very little benefit, if she tried to heal every skinned knee or barked shin in town.

Still....

While Trot complained at length about how a certain octopus-themed villain wasn't even scary, just horrid, Dorothy touched her invisible Belt and wished for the bruises to heal quickly.

 

* * *

 

Toto responded to the whole story with an unimpressed look, which said clear as day that he wasn't worried, and didn't see why Dorothy should be either.

"Of course he also lives on a farm," admitted Dorothy, pacing her small room. "I know that's rough work, even when all precautions are taken. And he looks healthy enough in other ways. He's not tired, or slow to respond to things. He's not thin, not in the unhealthy way you get from being underfed. If anything, he's...well, rugged, if you can call it that for a boy our age."

The little terrier raised an eyebrow.

"Don't look at me like that," said Dorothy crossly.

Her dog turned to look at her bureau — on top of which sat a little hand-carved wooden horse, crude but cleverly done, so that two knots in the woodgrain were perfectly-placed to make eyes. It even had a pretty harness, made with string and emerald-green plastic rhinestones. It was one of the few things Tip had given her that didn't turn out to have a prank or a scare built in.

Once Dorothy's eyes were on it too, Toto looked meaningfully back at her.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," said Dorothy, folding her arms. "You'll just have to use words, Toto, if you want me to follow."

And since Toto preferred not to, he turned around on the bed and flopped down in a circle with his head facing the wall, indicating that it wasn't important enough to bother.

 

* * *

 

The next week or so was unusually busy. Multiple bank robberies...a giant glitching Smith & Tinker android that got loose, and smashed up a lot of buildings before a team of heroes brought it down...an unidentified villain turning a handful of innocent people into marble statues.

The Silver Whirlwind didn't help much with that last one. She wished to know the villain's identity, but some stronger magic blocked her from getting the answer. And the Ruby Witch, whose powers outmatched the Belt rather spectacularly, singlehandedly took care of transfiguring the victims back into their normal bodies.

Between all this excitement, Dorothy had rather lost track of how long it had been, but one afternoon she passed by the school's athletic fields during track practice...and caught sight of Tip's bare arm.

Her wish should definitely have healed those bruises by now. Had it gone wrong somehow? Or was that a new one?

For a moment she squinted after him as he circled the track — then checked herself. If people noticed her staring at Tip, they, like Toto, might get entirely the wrong idea.

(Of course Tip was pretty, and of course she had noticed. What about it? Lots of people in Dorothy's world were pretty. Like Betsy, with her perfect titian bob and long slender legs that she occasionally got up the nerve to show off. Or Ojo, with his soft dark curls and sharp dark features that got captivatingly intense when he was arguing for something. Or Polly, whose cute button nose and round-cheeked smile belied the fact that she was a prizewinning dancer, and had the muscle tone to go with. Noticing these things only proved that Dorothy had eyes.)

Instead Dorothy walked casually on to the nearest sheltered corner, ducked out of sight, wished herself home for the afternoon...then wished for a little more information.

"Toto!" she exclaimed a moment later, startling the dog up from his nap on the windowsill. "Tip has more bruises than I realized — mostly in places where no one would see it, 'cept in a locker room! And I can't figure out why!"

Toto cocked an ear.

"No, I am wishing for it. That's the trouble! And the Belt isn't run down on that sort of wish, either. There must be something magical about this."

After a couple of meaningful head-tilts that Dorothy genuinely couldn't interpret, Toto gave in and said, "Do you think he's also a superhero?"

Dorothy shook her head. "I shouldn't think so — on account of how I haven't heard any talk about a local caped crimefighting prankster."

"Supervillain, then?"

It was Dorothy's turn to give him a wordless Look.

"All right, I didn't really mean it," huffed Toto, resting his head on his paws. "What does that leave?"

"Innocent bystander. Victim of a magical accident — or attack. Unless he wasn't just a bystander, but the target? I can't think why that would be...." She paused to wish for an answer. Again, nothing. "...and if the Belt can't tell me why, then I think I'd better go investigate in person. Do you want to come along?"

Toto's ears pricked up. "Do I get a disguise?"

 

* * *

 

The handsome silver collar matched the Silver Whirlwind's costume, and carried the same charm that would keep an onlooker from clearly remembering the wearer's identity. At first Dorothy set it with a row of emeralds, not consciously thinking of how it reflected the collar on Tip's hand-whittled horse. Toto gave it a critical look in the bedroom mirror, asked whether it really matched, and got it changed to a set of colorless diamonds instead.

Thus costumed, once night had fallen, Dorothy wished them both to a hidden lookout-place near Tip's home.

From behind a decorative hedge she could see through one of the farmhouse's windows, where Tip was sitting and copying what looked like notes out of what she recognized as their civics textbook. Every once in a while he pulled some walnuts out of his pocket and cracked the shells, leaving them in a pile on the corner of the table.

"Are we supposed to sit here and watch until he runs off to fight crime?" whispered Toto.

Dorothy shushed him, though privately she was wondering along much the same lines. Perhaps she should create a distraction, and see how Tip reacted? Or maybe....

There was a muffled door-slamming from the far side of the house. Tip sat bolt-upright, then started frantically scooping the walnut shells into his hands, before fairly throwing them into the nearest trash can.

He was doing another pass at the tabletop, brushing up the last fragments and flakes, when a woman stormed into the room.

She was old — at least as old as Aunt Em, though she looked to be more stooped and less frail — and she carried a gnarled cane, but wasn't actually leaning on it to walk. If there was a family resemblance to Tip, Dorothy couldn't see it. Nor could she hear their words through the farmhouse walls — only the expressions told her the woman was speaking harshly, and Tip was standing at attention, hands folded behind his back, talking fast. The old woman's voice rose. She shook her cane, first pointing at something in the next room, then at Tip.

The Silver Whirlwind wished for super-hearing.

"— ought to turn you into a marble statue!" shouted the woman, and swung her cane.

The first blow, Tip was able to dodge. The second one caught him in the side; he didn't make a sound, but his face twisted with pain.

The third one never landed — because both the cane and the window-glass had been wished out of existence.

"Leave him alone!" ordered the Silver Whirlwind, her costume fairly glowing, framed by the darkness of the cornfield at night. "You're not fit to take care of — of an ant farm, let alone be someone's guardian!"

For a moment the old woman looked blindsided by shock — then she hissed something under her breath and made a sharp motion with her hand.

The Silver Whirlwind flew backward, as if she'd been punched by a giant fist.

Distantly, she could hear Tip yelling: "Mombi, stop it! Leave them alone, please!"

She wished to get her breath back — then wished for Child Protective Services to be alerted, as she ought to have done from the start — then wished for Mombi (which was apparently the witch's name, and also, she was apparently a witch) to have her hands tied.

The first wish worked. The second, she couldn't be sure. The third did nothing at all. "You summoned this person?" demanded Mombi, making another arcane gesture, and suddenly the Silver Whirlwind was bound in place with what felt like invisible vines. When she tried to move, her clothes and skin were scratched by unseen thorns. "What did you tell them?"

"Nothing! I didn't say anything, I promise!"

"I should've made you a statue and put you in the garden years ago," snapped Mombi. "At least then you'd be of some use!"

The Silver Whirlwind wished the glass back into the window. For a second both voices were muffled again. Then Mombi stepped through the entire wall as if it were made of fog — and did the same with an entirely new wall that was wished into place in between them.

Toto, still free, leapt between his little mistress and the witch, and barked a furious warning. Another quick gesture, and he too was pinned, unable to move without whimpering in pain.

"I ought to turn you into ants, and step on you right now," snarled Mombi. "But if you tell me everything you know, I'll come up with some kinder way to dispose of you. Who sent you?"

"No one," gasped the Silver Whirlwind. Wishing for their invisible bonds to disperse. Wishing for help to arrive.

"Don't be absurd. You're no one I recognize, so you must be someone's pawn. Who are you, by the way...?"

A wish to keep her identity secret — and this one seemed to work, because instead of triumphantly declaring her name, the witch hissed in frustration. "Your flimsy little enchantments won't hold against me forever," she warned, and the thorns dug more painfully into the Silver Whirlwind's skin....

She couldn't go home. Not if there was any chance Mombi would follow, and trace her right back to her family. Instead she closed her eyes and wished with all her might for herself and Toto to be somewhere else, somewhere no place like home.

 

* * *

 

They reappeared on a balcony. Some rich person's balcony, judging by the size, and the view. It was in the middle of the city, crowded with buildings and historical landmarks and carefully-plotted green spaces with neat fenced borders. It was also raining, a light but unpleasantly-cold drizzle; people scurried by on the street below as quickly as possible, hidden under raincoats and umbrellas, not looking up.

The restraint of unseen bonds was gone. Toto leaped into Dorothy's arms, she hugged him tightly, and they both waited in frightened silence for Mombi to snap the defenses and appear beside them.

Nothing happened.

"Either she was bluffing," panted Toto, "or she's trying to get a head start running away from...whoever she thinks sent us."

"If we knew who that was, we could ask them for help," said Dorothy hopefully — but a wish on the Belt came up with nothing. Another, successful this time, told her that they had landed next to an unoccupied apartment. The owners of the rooms were spending the month on a cruise around Australia.

She wished them both inside, away from the rain and from the curious eyes of anyone who might be in the next apartment, then used the Belt to signal the Wizard.

Sometimes he wasn't there to answer, so it was to her great relief that the connection went through, and the familiar strange bald head was projected from the gem. "Dorothy! What can I do for you this evening?"

Dorothy wasted no time. "You've got to make me something more powerful."

The Wizard's projected image looked as unflappable as usual, but something about his voice sounded distinctly flapped. "I — what?"

"There's a boy in my class. He's being hurt by his guardian. Only she's not an ordinary guardian — she's a witch — and not the good kind of witch, either, but the kind that's good enough to shut down all my powers. The Belt can't touch her. I barely got away, and I couldn't rescue Tip at all! I need something stronger."

"I see," said the Wizard, after a long pause. "Um...look, Dorothy, there's no shortage of crime, evil, and disaster in this part of the country. Maybe you ought to focus on the ones that you can handle, with your current power level? Keep doing good, and let this boy go."

"I can't let him go!" snapped Dorothy, louder than she meant to.

After a long pause, the Wizard said, "Ah...it's like that, is it."

Dorothy swallowed around the lump in her throat. "He's special. And wonderful, really wonderful. And he's my friend. I can't leave him like this. You have to help me."

"Well," said the Wizard. "Uh. Dorothy...I'm afraid I have something to tell you."

The familiar stern face shimmered with static...and a moment later was replaced by the head of a small, tufty-haired, wrinkly old man with furtive eyes and a suit that had seen better days.

"Is this...your real face?" asked Dorothy. "You were changing your looks with magic?"

"I was changing my looks with technology," said the man miserably. He still had the Wizard's voice, but without all the reverb. "It was 3D modeling. I don't know the first thing about magic, I'm just a good-enough programmer to fake it. So I can't make you a better Magic Belt, my dear, do you see? I never made the first one."

"Then...where, how...?"

"I, ah...stole it."

Dorothy's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "You steal magical objects and then send children off to fight with them?"

"It's worked out so far!" protested the Wizard. "You've all done very well! And I certainly never expected any of you to take your powers and go challenge a Bad Witch with them!"

"So that's what she is? A Bad Witch?"

"It certainly sounds that way. What she's doing undercover and raising a child I have no idea, but it is entirely outside my power to stand against her. I truly can't help you. I'm sorry."

"Then who—"

The connection switched off before she finished the sentence.

With a cry of frustration, Dorothy flung the Belt to the ground and burst into sobs.

 

* * *

 

Even frightened and heartbroken, Dorothy remembered to be practical. She retrieved the belt, cast a simple enchantment around herself and Toto, and took as long as she needed to have a good cry.

No time at all passed in the outside world. With any luck, Mombi hadn't thought to do the same, so this wasn't giving her the chance to hurt Tip any further.

Toto let himself be hugged, let Dorothy sob into his fur. He was feeling awfully glum himself at this turn of events, much as he would've hated to let it show.

At last his mistress got her breath back, rubbed her eyes, and said, "I was so sure the Wizard could help us."

The terrier huffed in disapproving solidarity.

"Who else is there? Who'd be willing to help me, and strong enough to make a difference?"

"How about the Ruby Witch?" suggested Toto.

Slowly, Dorothy nodded. Mombi had been genuinely afraid of someone, and going by power levels alone, the Ruby Witch was a good candidate. "You think she'll agree to see us?"

"I think it can't hurt to try."

 

* * *

 

She had expected there to be wards, protective charms, any kind of power to block her instant transportation. Or at least to redirect it to somewhere outside of a security gate.

But no, when Dorothy wished herself and Toto to a meeting with the Ruby Witch, they appeared right in the lobby of her famous office/penthouse. The iconic red decorations everywhere just couldn't have been anywhere else.

There was a greeting desk at the end of the lobby, where a beautiful woman in a dark suit with red accents smiled at them. Dorothy had just a moment to feel self-conscious that she hadn't thought to reassume her costume, or at least charm away the drippiness that still clung to her dress and hair, before the woman said, "Silver Whirlwind, right? The Ruby Witch said you'd have an appointment."

 

* * *

 

It turned out, when the Ruby Witch wasn't actively superheroing, she wore a lot of white. Still had the iconic red ringlets flowing over her shoulders, though, and a few tasteful red pieces of jewelry. She moved her hand in a gesture that made Dorothy wince, but from her it wasn't an attack, only some kind of freshening-up charm that instantly made Dorothy's face feel washed and her hair combed.

"I know you've been caught up in something strange," she told Dorothy, gesturing for them all to sit on comfortable red couches. "But magical forces, probably several different kinds, have kept me from seeing the details. Tell me everything."

So Dorothy told the Witch all her story: how she had become a superhero, how the Wizard had turned out to be a humbug, how she had suspected something dreadful was happening to Tip, and the terrible confrontation she had fled to end up here.

"Your Wizard sounds like a bad magic-worker, but perhaps not a bad man," said the Witch at last. "If my suspicions are right, his thefts are behind the de-powering of several unscrupulous figures. And he wasn't wrong to say that Belt is better off in your hands than those of its former owner. Keep it, and use it as you wish, with no guilt."

Holding Toto in her lap, Dorothy nodded.

"As for this Mombi: she is certainly one of my Order. A member that I've been trying to find for a long time. Not a full Witch, she does not have nearly the skill that I do, but at least a Sorceress, who has power enough to keep hidden." The Witch stood, and in a twinkling her casual outfit was replaced with the familiar robes of elegant crimson. "Unless, of course, someone leads me directly to her trail. Take me to where you fought."

Dorothy rose as well, switching back herself and Toto back into the Silver Whirlwind outfits, though they felt embarrassingly campy and childish next to the Ruby Witch. "Is it all right if I wish us all there?" she asked, and, when the Witch nodded, she whisked them all to the farmhouse.

There was still a light on inside, but no sound, and no motion. The textbook and a few other items were scattered across the table; one cupboard hung eerily open. It certainly looked as if everyone inside had left in a hurry.

Reflexively, the Silver Whirlwind wished to know where Mombi and Tip had gone. She wasn't surprised when nothing happened. The Ruby Witch, however, scanned the area with softly-glowing eyes — then smiled in triumph. "She left too hastily to mask her path. Would you like to follow me this time?"

"What about Tip? Is he with her? Is he okay?" The words did she kill him? hung in the air, unsaid.

"That, I cannot tell," admitted the Witch, offering her hand. "Although I don't know him as you do — I can't even imagine why she would have a strange boy in her care — and therefore I may be searching for the wrong signs. If you don't sense him here, in any form, then he is most likely with her. You should be the one to rescue him, and wish for him to be safe and healthy, while I confront and defeat the Sorceress."

"He might already be a marble statue," said the Silver Whirlwind miserably. "I couldn't undo any of her other spells...."

"Ah, but that isn't her spell at all. It's a potion borrowed from a much lower-stakes troublemaker who lives downtown. Quite within your power to reverse."

"Are you sure?"

"Quite sure," answered the Ruby Witch, smiling.

And so the Silver Whirlwind took her hand.

 

* * *

 

The confrontation, when it happened was a stunning clash of magic and competing transfigurations. It proved that Mombi was as skilled in the art of transformation as any opponent she might face, but the Ruby Witch had equal cunning and far more experience, and was able to triumph in the end.

It was therefore something of a shame that the only witness was Toto. For the entire thing took place on a deserted country road, down which Mombi had been driving a battered old truck before the Ruby Witch brought it to a stop. And though the Silver Whirlwind was present, she had retrieved a statue from the pile of garbage in the back, which kept her full attention while Toto stood guard.

The statue was crude, barely more sophisticated than the wooden horse Tip had carved. But it was unmistakably Tip-shaped and Tip-sized. The Silver Whirlwind landed on the grassy field near the road, gathered the lump of marble in her arms, and wished — with all her might — for it to go back to its real form.

After a few tense moments of nothing, the marble warmed under her fingers.

Once the change had begun, it only accelerated. Blooms of color spread outward, hard stone softening into brilliant waves of fabric. The cold white face flushed to a healthy brown, with delicate lips and sparkling eyes. Dark hair fanned out around it, growing outward, and down, and down some more....

That was too far down. Perhaps Mombi had forced Tip to cut his hair, and so his "true form" was to wear it longer? And his features had always been delicate. But not quite this delicate. And this clothing was definitely a dress — not that Tip shouldn't be allowed to wear a dress if he wanted to, of course, but —

"You're not Tip!" blurted the Silver Whirlwind.

The figure in her arms gave her an affronted look. "Of course I am!"

"No, you're a girl!"

"I am not," said the girl — and with her cadence and inflections she sounded for all the world like a version of Tip with the pitch adjusted. "I've never been—"

She looked down at herself — at the dress, at the cascade of hair flowing down to her bustline, which Tip had certainly not had, because Dorothy definitely would have noticed — and stopped short.

She took a deep breath. She moved one leg — cautiously — and froze again.

"P'raps I've done this wrong," said the Silver Whirlwind, face going red. "But you're not a statue anymore, and that's the important thing! I brought the Ruby Witch, and she's much more powerful than I am, so she's sure to fix it if...." But, hang on, her wish had been awfully precise. "Are you sure you've never been a girl?"

"Well, I didn't think I was," admitted possibly-Tip. "I don't know. This is weird! Who are you, anyway? What's going on? Do I ever get to change back, or am I just like this now?" Their face fell. "Oh, no, what if Dorothy isn't into girls?"

The Silver Whirlwind nearly dropped them on the ground.

A moment later, the Ruby Witch descended from the air, floating a defeated-and-bound Mombi in her wake — and when her eyes lit on probably-Tip, she did drop her burden with an ungainly thump. "This explains so much."

Tip-as-a-girl glared at nobody in particular. "I wish someone would explain it to me."

 

* * *

 

Mombi was safely imprisoned in the Ruby Witch's quarters, awaiting a trial when the rest of the Order could be assembled, and the rest of the group returned to the red-draped meeting room. The Silver Whirlwind related a few details of her first battle that night, enough to refresh Tip's memory about those last traumatic moments before the statuefication.

Then she dropped her and Toto's costumes, revealing their true identities. All things considered, Tip took it pretty well.

At this point the Ruby Witch took over. "You're not a human, child. You're part fairy, the youngest of our Order, and likely destined to be the most powerful. Which is why, when you were too young to remember, you were kidnapped and hidden — in the form of a human boy, apparently. Your real name is Ozma, just as mine is Glinda."

"Your birth name, anyway," said Dorothy, who knew a bit more about the modern parlance of these things. "I can keep calling you 'he' and 'Tip' if you like."

Tip looked thoughtful. "I might try out 'she' for a while. Just to see how it seems, you know."

"I don't expect you'll want to go back to that house," continued Glinda. "There are guest rooms here which you are welcome to, and it might be safest for you to live here for some time, so that I can counsel you on how to use your powers. That said, there is a significant amount of human-world money and property in your name. If and when you choose to live somewhere else, you have options."

At this point Dorothy yawned. She hadn't meant to, but it slipped out before she thought to wish her tiredness away.

"Wow," said Tip. "Um, speaking of home, maybe Dorothy should go to hers? She can come back in the morning, right?"

The Witch smiled. "Of course."

"I do want to stay," admitted Dorothy. "There's an awful lot I still want to know...but I've never been away this long at night. It's possible Aunt Em and Uncle Henry have noticed that I'm missing, and if they have, they're sure to be dreadfully worried."

"I will escort you home, to reassure them in person," said Glinda. "Shall Toto and I wait in the lobby while you say your goodbyes?"

 

* * *

 

Once they were alone, Dorothy threw herself at Tip and pressed their lips together.

Tip jumped at first, then opened her mouth and deepened the kiss with gusto. The rush of I'm so glad we're alive and I can't believe it was you all along and wow but you're beautiful right now kept it going for a full minute, clinging to each other, hands fisted in clothes and tangled in hair, curves pressed hotly against curves.

"So," panted Tip, when they finally broke apart. Her new eyes sparkled like emeralds. "This is a pretty good argument for me staying a girl, huh."

Dorothy nuzzled her gauze-draped neck. "I will like you just as much no matter what gender and body you decide to end up with."

"You promise?"

"I do. Congratulations, by the way."

"...what, for being a magic princess? I didn't do it on purpose."

"No — didn't you notice? You finally scared me. For real."

"Oh." Tip sobered a little. "Well, I didn't do that on purpose either. So it doesn't count."

 

* * *

 

The little return party reached the farmhouse just in time. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em were going through rooms, turning on lights, calling their niece's name. Both of them looked thoroughly starstruck when the Ruby Witch ushered her in.

Dorothy wished herself alert for a bit longer, and told them everything. (Everything she had a right to tell, at least. Most of Tip's story was left out.) She even switched into the costume. Toto reluctantly demonstrated his ability to talk, with the words "All right, done."

At last, Uncle Henry turned to his wife and said, "We can't let her keep doing this."

Aunt Em hesitated. "Well...."

"It's dangerous, Em! She should be in school!"

"She is in school! Her grades haven't dropped, either, and she's still getting all her chores done. Probably faster, with the magic." (To the last part, Dorothy nodded.)

"I don't object to her using it around the house," admitted Uncle Henry. "It's this business of going out and picking fights I don't approve of."

"She seems to be handling herself all right," pointed out Aunt Em. "Clearly she's made powerful friends, too, who will protect her and keep her from too much danger."

Uncle Henry sighed. "I suppose she has, at that."

"There's worse trouble a girl could get into, you know."

"There is," allowed Uncle Henry. "She could be sneaking off in the middle of the night to meet some boy."

Glinda must have been using magic to keep a straight face at this, for it made Dorothy laugh until she cried.