DG – more properly Dorothea Glinda of the House of Gale now, not that she ever planned to use her full name for daily wear – wrinkled her nose at the broadsheet one of Jeb's agents had delivered to the royal family's Central City residence that morning. She held it gingerly between two fingers, hoping that maybe if she turned it, it would look a little less like ... well, what it looked like; but somehow, she didn't think she was going to be that lucky.
The illustration wasn't as detailed as the wanted posters or the ads she'd seen before, journeying through the OZ on the Quest for the Emerald of the Eclipse; no portraits or photographs shrunk or blown up for the printer, or ornately typed letters advertising goods and services. All it showed was a sketch, drawn in heavy black ink, of a womanly figure – chiefly recognizable by the trousers DG had yet to see on any other woman – offering her 'goods and services' to a man chiefly recognizable by the shape of his hat. In the background, a stunted, spindly tree put out a few exaggeratedly sized blooms.
Just the way she probably should have expected to start out life as princess; that is, if she'd ever expected to be a princess. With her luck, the artist's last name would probably turn out to be Gulch.
"Don't they have anything better to do with their time?" she sighed, shaking her head as she looked up at her sister. Azkadellia's study, off the great hall currently in use as a makeshift throne and audience chamber, was covered in piles of other papers, most of them much fancier and more important; she waved the broadsheet in the general direction of one of those piles as she continued. "It's been weeks since the Eclipse; you'd think they'd have found more important things to draw cartoons about by now."
"Weeks since the youngest princess, miraculously returned to life after a span of fifteen annuals, made the, shall we say, acquaintance of an infamous former lawman, himself miraculously rescued from an iron suit?" her sister replied in dry, amused tones. "Daddy Dearest is such a romantic; I would have thought such tales would be popular even on the Other Side."
DG's face flamed, and she tossed the sheet of heavy paper toward her sister's desk. Sure, it sounded romantic if she put it that way. With that kind of backstory, it wouldn't have mattered if Wyatt Cain had been a sour-faced jerk like the Sorceress' favorite general, but it just so happened that he was also solid, sensible, kind, and hot like burning. She'd have to have been blind not to notice, so it wasn't that she objected to the rumors on that score. But they'd barely had any time to breathe, much less get up to any frisky business during the Quest, even if one or both of them hadn't been angry or grieving or running for their lives most of the time they'd been together.
"Not the point, Az. When the hell do they imagine we even had time for that, anyway? Either he was in prison, or I was in prison, or we were running from the Longcoats most of the time. Not to mention the part where he was married, and then he was widowed, and my parents weren't my parents, and my sister was the enemy, and then she helped me fight the real enemy, which obviously you remember since that was you, but they should too considering all the other broadsheets we've been distributing since the Eclipse. This is ridiculous! I don't know much about being a princess, but isn't this kind of publicity, you know, bad for the family image? Why aren't you more upset?"
Azkadellia carefully took the page up between her own gloved fingers, giving it a more serious examination than DG thought it really deserved. "Because from a certain perspective, it might actually be a positive thing," she said, pensively.
"A positive thing?" That was the last thing DG had been expecting to hear. "What do you mean?"
"That in the short term, if this is the most important rumor the residents of Central City have found to gossip about – with rogue Longcoats still refusing to be a part of the reformed Royal Army, half the theater district still in withdrawal from the Vapors, and most of the surviving nobility still calling me Sorceress and refusing to attend my official coronation–" her sister paused to gesture to the piles of correspondence again, "–then maybe things aren't quite as bad as Mother fears."
Well, if she put it that way. Still. "And in the long term...?" DG prompted, dryly.
She might not have grown up in the Outer Zone, but she hadn't fallen off a turnip truck yesterday, either. Momsy and Popsicle had taught her more about OZ culture and pragmatic leadership than she'd realized as a kid, couched in cheesy old rhymes and homespun homilies like some Ozian version of Aesop. And even in BFE Kansas, she'd picked up a lot more than she'd ever needed to know about the lives of the British royal family from tabloids only a little better illustrated, so she knew how quickly these kinds of stories could turn ugly.
Azkadellia lifted an eyebrow in return. "Are you sure you want to know?"
Great, what now? DG might have wanted nothing better than to escape that little farmhouse just a month ago, but she really should have paid more attention to her fairy tales. And not just because she'd fallen into one: because she'd forgotten to be careful what she wished for.
"No, but it kind of goes with the gig, doesn't it?" she said, jerking a thumb pointedly at the tiara resting atop her wavy dark hair. She might have held onto her trousers, but her mother had won the battle on most everything else in the name of public image while the Zone was still in turmoil – and somehow, she was getting the impression whatever her sister had in mind now fell under that heading.
The young Queen's face went almost as inscrutable as it had been in her role as the Sorceress, and DG's stomach sank. That bad, huh.
"I don't think Mother really planned for what would happen after both of her daughters were returned to her. I couldn't give her back the throne even if I wanted to – not since she lost her Light. That was one of the reasons people supported the Sorceress in the first place; a Queen without magic drains the land, rather than supporting it. But asking former Longcoats and rebels to suddenly get along because their former ruler reappeared from nowhere with a far-fetched story about an ancient evil spirit ... a story they can believe in makes for an excellent distraction from their current woes."
"So ... propaganda?" DG eyed the drawing again, brow wrinkled skeptically. "Forget all the things I did on the Quest, or what really happened up on that balcony during the Eclipse. The fact that I rescued Cain and ran around healing trees in the Fields of the Papay is what makes them think better of the royal family?" She thought about that a little more, then sighed. "What exactly do you mean by long term, anyway? I can hardly even look Cain in the eye right now as it is, and he's hardly around anymore now that Mother's tasked him to reform the Tin Men."
Which, now that she thought about it ... might have been on purpose? To keep new rumors from forming, and at the same time keep one of the new Heroes of the Realm in the public eye?
She squinted suspiciously at her sister as Az hesitated to answer. "Well....?"
"Deegee ... the rumors may be popular right now, but romantic or not, they will fade sooner or later if we don't give them anything new to support them, or take a darker turn. And who knows what might replace them, especially once Mother and Father retire to the Northern Island. Your relief work with the Viewers in the City will probably help tide things over a little longer, and Ambrose will as well once he recovers from his surgery, but the fact remains that we need as much good press as we can get to keep things together without the Witch's magic helping to compel obedience. A wedding would be best; an heir would be even better. But I can't afford to make myself that ... vulnerable right now." She paused there, looking slightly haunted, then shook it off before continuing. "Perhaps if these stories had never made the rounds in the first place, we might have other options...."
She didn't need to finish painting that picture. DG had thought worries about lost reputations were the province of lurid Harlequin novels and stuffy Regency romances, but she was a princess now, as weird as that still felt to say, not a Kansas farmgirl, and the Zone wasn't that big. Any other potential suitor would see these, too – and probably believe them, no matter what she said about it.
But her parents had been keeping her and Cain apart. Reviving his status. Fancying up her wardrobe. So if they'd been doing that ... and Az was talking weddings....
"You want me to marry him," she blurted, stunned. The closest she'd come to a boyfriend back in Kansas was sneaking off to a closet with Steve from her Calculus class a few weekday afternoons in a row! Even that had ended the first time he'd come over to the farmhouse. Because if her robo-parents had been hard on her about leaving, they'd been even worse about the possibility of her 'making a mistake' with 'a boy who doesn't deserve you.' For what were obvious reasons, now; but how was she supposed to go from that to 'til death do us part'?
She thought back to those moments in that tight-walled little room, pressed up against the lean, still-rangy body of a teenage boy; then pictured Cain the first day she'd met him, rinsing off the grime of eight annuals in the iron suit. Okay, maybe that part she could appreciate, and maybe he did have the whole support and encouragement part down pat, and his shoulder was just the right height to rest her cheek against, but she had seen the movie Speed. You couldn't base an entire relationship on the traumatic experiences of one very intense week!
"A very public courtship, at least," Az conceded, setting the broadsheet back down on her desk. "Deeg ... I would never force you to do anything you truly don't want. But I wouldn't have proposed the idea if I didn't think you would be open to the possibility. You do like him, don't you?"
"Az..." she protested, sputtering. "I think the more important question is how he feels. I'm maybe three annuals older than his son, and he just found out his wife was dead."
Because now that her imagination had kicked in, she was picturing her family being all For the Greater Good at him about this and him actually going along with it out of duty, and that would actually be worse than facing the Witch down as far as she was concerned.
"A long public courtship, then," Az replied, a conciliatory smile curving the corners of her mouth. "We could make the announcement at the coronation ball in two weeks? We should have most of the surviving court reassembled by then."
"Az," DG objected again, covering her face with one hand. "At least let me be the one to talk to him about it, okay? I can just picture Mom getting all Majesty at him about it, and if he tries to start treating me like an actual princess, I'll never even make it to the ball. I'll die right on the spot. I'm serious! I don't feel anywhere near ready for any of this."
Az's smile grew more bittersweet. She reached out a hand, which DG took without hesitation, and they both basked a moment in the comforting glow of the magic that sprang up between them. "I'll tell you a secret, Deeg; none of us are. Our father was a spy for fifteen annuals; our mother was imprisoned in a terrarium for the last eight; I still wake up crying from the silence in my mind some days; and the Outer Zone's general and chief advisor are currently a boy of seventeen annuals and a man with half a brain. We're all making it up as we go along."
"Well, that's comforting," DG replied, with a wry chuckle.
Though really, it kind of was. What was she really scared of, anyway? That Cain would say no? They'd already rescued each other from much worse than a little awkwardness. And he was good at strategy besides. If he didn't want to do it, he could come up with something better. She pictured the expression on his face at being asked that question, and caught herself smiling at the thought.
Well, all right, then. Operation Arranged Courtship was a go.
Wyatt took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, feeling more than a little unbalanced with neither hat, nor coat, nor badge to hide behind. He shifted, folding his hands behind him, and glanced around the small audience room he'd been led to, looking for something to distract himself from the wait.
It wasn't that he was feeling intimidated by his surroundings; he'd been on the Mystic Man's detail for several annuals, and compared to the summer residence at Finaqua, the Northern Island, and the Sorceress' Tower, the Queen's Central City residence seemed pretty mundane by comparison. But he'd seen the broadsheets; everyone and their brother, from his son to Antoine Demilo to the old friends he'd dug out of hiding to help him put the Tin Men back together, had made sure of it. And it hadn't escaped him that all his contact with the royal family had gone through either Jeb or Ahamo practically since the moment they'd all left the Tower, the day after the Eclipse.
The first few had seemed fairly harmless, obviously drawn or dictated by people they'd run into during the Quest, in response to the proclamations Queen Margolotte had put out regarding her daughters, the Witch, and the return of Consort Ahamo. The ones of DG facing off against the Katt brothers, for instance, or traipsing down the old Brick Route with he, Glitch, and Raw in tow. But those had quickly disappeared in favor of the others. Wyatt could have dealt with the ones of him dancing with a DG in Demilo's dress; at least they'd been dressed. But they'd only got more risqué from there.
He adjusted his collar, clearing his throat, and found himself staring at the old portrait of Queen and Consort above the fireplace at the back of the room. DG may have inherited her father's wavy hair and her mother's coloring and smile, but somehow it was hard to think of her in context with the people in that portrait. Harder still to think of her as the girl in the sketches, paired with a guy who was supposed to be him. Long before he'd realized who she had to be, he'd known DG was something special, but he hadn't registered her physical beauty as more than an incidental part of the package until people had started ribbing him to his face about what a striking couple they made.
There just hadn't been room for that thought in between everything else going on, at the time. She'd gone from Wyatt's rescuer to an obstacle to his charge all in the space of a day, and trailing in her wake had brought him not only the closure and revenge he'd needed, but reunited him with his son and with his purpose, as well. Boiling of all that down to just base lust – especially after going from believing Adora dead, to having hope she was still alive, to finding her grave all within the span of one very busy week – rankled, and he couldn't even imagine how her parents felt about it after only just getting her back.
But the summons might not even be about the sketches; maybe DG had just wanted to see how he was doing, and tried official channels since they kept missing each other? Still, there was no way she hadn't seen them. Looking her in the eye without picturing them was going to be ... incredibly awkward.
Still, they'd faced worse than a little awkwardness, hadn't they?
He heard a footstep on the marble floor behind him, and turned just in time to see DG, a familiar expression of wide-eyed uncertainty on her face, step into the room. Someone had supplied her with a bright, ornately embroidered jewel-toned shirt that brought out her eyes and the gem adorning her new tiara, but she was still wearing her Other Side trousers; the sight of them relaxed the tension in his shoulders a little. At least not everything had changed.
"Hey, princess," he said, dipping his head in a respectful nod.
"Hey, Cain," she echoed him, breaking into an answering grin. "Thank God – or Ozma, I suppose – that you didn't bow; that would have put me way over the threshold of survivable embarrassment for one day. Please tell me it gets easier from here?"
"Sorry, Deegee; I can't tell you a lie," he replied lightly, bemused by the comfortably familiar tone. That hadn't changed either, it seemed, even after spending the last couple of weeks in this place. Perhaps it was a good thing Azkadellia was still magically recognized as ruler of the Zone even after shedding the Witch's influence; he doubted the DG he knew would ever be comfortable with the distance the throne necessarily put between the Queen and her subjects.
"Like, won't can't? Or literally can't?" she joked, reaching up to touch the silvery circlet set atop her dark hair. "Because if this is yet another magic thing, I'm going to have to have a talk with my sister about other unexpected side effects of putting on a tiara."
"Like all the sudden public attention, and the loss of most of your free time?" he joked back. Though the latter wasn't so much the rank, as the responsibilities that came with it; he knew that intimately from the days when the Tin Men had formed the foundation of the rebellion. "But no, it's personal. It's not my job to tell you what you want to hear."
DG's smile went lopsided at that remark, wry and strangely warmer somehow. "No, it isn't, is it?" she said, thoughtfully. "Then tell me, Mr. Cain: how would you feel about maybe pretending to be my consort-in-waiting for a while?"
"Pretending what?" Wyatt blinked at her, caught entirely off guard.
So this meeting had been about the broadsheets, after all. But ... to go straight from there, to offering him the position of consort? He knew from past conversations with her that the Other Side didn't have royalty like the OZ, so she couldn't have been the one to come up with the idea, and something about that thought suddenly sat very uneasily in his gut. "Deegee, if your sister's put you up to this, there's other ways to deal with the rumors...."
She took a deep breath, then took a step closer and held out a hand; he only noticed it had been shaking slightly when he reached automatically to take it, clasping her unexpectedly work-roughened fingers in his own callused grip. "Shush. I'm trying really hard to hear that as I'm worried about you instead of ew, but my Wyatt Cain to English translator's gone a little rusty the last couple of weeks."
He winced a little at the ew, squeezing her fingers slightly. "Your translation sounds pretty accurate to me, actually. But, kid...."
"I'm not a kid," DG shook her head, studying him intently. Her eyes were very blue against the backdrop of the sunlit room, with its leaf-colored walls, cloud-pale molding, and gilded accents; he didn't think he could have looked away from her if he'd tried. "Not very good at this royalty thing either, yet, obviously. I thought I was getting pretty good at the friend thing on the Quest, though. So let me try this again. With no editorial opinions until I'm done, okay?"
Wyatt snorted, amused despite himself. Considering that it had basically been editorial opinions that had snarled everything up to begin with – but, okay. "I'm all ears, princess."
"So," she announced, drawing herself up as though she had a rod up her back and adopting her most imperious tones. "My sister the Queen tells me she happens to need some positive publicity. She also tells me we happen to be a potential source of positive publicity." She gestured between her chest and his in illustration of her point. "Coincidentally, I happen to be missing the presence of my friend, one of the few people I know in the whole Outer Zone, one Wyatt Cain. So would said Wyatt Cain maybe be willing to try helping me solve both problems at once?"
He didn't know what expression was on his face at that; between the way the gesture had drawn attention to the drape of the shirt over her breasts – he was recently widowed, not blind – and the impossible nature of her unexpected proposal, he was a little lost for words. But it was apparently enough to make her falter a little, cheeks flushing becomingly as she finished. "...And maybe seeing if we might be able to enjoy it, too? No pressure."
Wyatt's eyes dropped to her mouth as she faltered to a stop; he might not have been thinking about it before, but he sure was now. Some awkward try at obligation, he might have been able to ignore, but he'd practically felt that blush with his whole body.
He was at least a decade older than her, even without counting the annuals he'd spent suspended in the iron suit; weathered by life and encumbered by all too many scars and obligations; and already in her debt for as long as he lived. But he'd been missing her too. And maybe it didn't actually have to be more complicated than that.
"No pressure, huh?" he replied wryly, tugging on her hand to pull her a little closer.
Jeb was never going to let him hear the end of it, even if it was only temporary. But ... considering how worried he'd been coming here, and how much more relieved he felt at the moment, he didn't really have it in him to care. Adora certainly wouldn't have expected him to hold back on her account, especially considering the way DG had already made his life infinitely better just by dropping into it. If maybe he hadn't quite expected this dimension to things, well, what could it hurt to try?
He smiled and tipped her chin up with a finger, meeting that intense gaze with his own. "You really want to give this a try, Deegee?"
She swallowed thickly, then gave him a tremulous smile. "Yeah, I really think I do."
"All right, then." He leaned down the last few inches and experimentally fit his mouth against hers.
There wasn't much passion there, yet; too much nervousness clouding matters, and whatever experience she might have had on the Other Side had left her more clumsily eager than sure in what she was doing. But he could abruptly feel the tingle of her magic resonating through him in the kiss ... almost like she was renewing him the way she had the trees in the Fields of the Papay.
She tasted of hope and possibility; of second chances, unexpected joys, and the sunshine that came after the rain.
Well, all right, then. Prince Consort in Waiting it would be.