Characters, Pairing: Cain, DG
Summary: Sometimes, after a bad day, you just need someone to listen and understand. But what happens if there is no one?
Word Count: 4,647
Notes:I just have to thank erinm_4600 and rchelsea2005 for their amazingly wonderful beta skills and encouragement. They are both absolutely faboo and deserve chocolate sundaes with whipped cream. Any mistakes left are totally my fault and probably because I missed their corrections. Feedback is adored, concrit is happily learned from. Hope you enjoy!
The late afternoon suns are beating down mercilessly and a slow trickle of sweat curls slowly down the back of his neck. The swipe of his arm against his forehead pushes his hat back and smears a film of grit and sweat against his reddened skin, but he doesn’t notice. His eyes never waver from the faded, dingy sign towering once proudly from the side of the road.
The last place he has thought to look. He is a Tin Man and he knows much about runaways, kidnappees, the searching out of clues, the finding of lost items. Much like any search, he made a logical list and started at the top. Milltown was a last minute addition, one he’d thought of only after finding Finaqua an empty oasis of beauty; the Northern Castle as remotely and as opulently barren as when they’d discovered it so many weeks ago. Milltown is a last ditch hope and an obvious solution, all rolled up into one.
The horse shifts impatiently underneath him, bit jingling musically. And yet still, Cain holds back, letting the stallion dance anxiously while he eyes the dusty, overgrown path.
All of life’s answers are found along the old road.
It was so many months ago that DG’s bewildered memories first surfaced by this same road; her face lit with confused wonder. And he could do nothing but follow as she’d dashed down the hill and headlong into the nightmare that was her true life. He has never thought to wonder about that sentence she’d murmured by the Central City marker. But now, he does. She has found so many answers, but they all have led to more questions.
And now, DG has disappeared.
Is she searching for answers? He still hasn’t found the answers he seeks; perhaps DG has returned to Milltown to start her journey all over again – from the beginning.
Irritation scratches at him, pesky and burrowing. DG’s disappearance has rocked a world just barely beginning to heal. And while he’s not exactly privy to the ongoings of the royal family, he was a father – is a father - and he knows deeply the hot fear of a missing child. He hadn’t waited for a request that may or may not have been coming. He’s a Tin Man in Central City, and he hears things. The rumor of the princess disappearing is mostly ignored, but he remembers spontaneous little DG, following her heart before all else, and Glitch and Raw confirm what he already knows. He’s sure the palace guards have their own plans for tracking down the girl, but he knows her, even if it’s been months since they’ve actually met face to face, and he’s off that same day, leaving behind a hastily scrawled note for Jeb.
Jeb. Distant Jeb, too much like his own father. They barely speak; their time together is tense and full of awkward silences. In every moment, the weight of expectations and broken hopes weigh on them both, and the shared moments become less and less frequent.
But that’s as much as he wants to think about Jeb, and he shuts off the line of thought, back stiffening with the effort. Instead, he tucks his heels into the horse’s sides, sending it leaping instinctively into action. It swerves effortlessly around the NHA sign still posted at the town limits. He is ready for the same swarm of mutated robots, equipped with makeshift weapons and odd metallic limbs. He is not prepared for what he finds.
The streets are bare and empty, cleaned of the weeds and dirt he remembers. Several of the house fronts are in obvious repair; old boards removed and cracked paint sanded neatly away. One or two even have scaffolding up, and fresh colorful paint dries in the hot sunshine. He is oddly keyed up, the muscles in his back humming in tense warning, so he is not surprised when a subtle whirring indicates a robotic presence behind him. His Colt is in his hand almost immediately, cocked and pointing at the presence before he can even turn to face it.
It is the same robot as before, humanoid head and shoulders above a body made entirely of metal. It hovers; then floats closer. He doesn’t lower the gun, but waits patiently for the robot to speak.
“You have returned,” it says, sing-song and off kilter. It pauses as if to think, even though he knows it is really running some kind of robot program, checking for its next steps. “Welcome to Milltown.”
He warily eases up on the trigger, but doesn’t lower the barrel. “What happened to no humans allowed?” His voice sounds rusty in his ears, slightly hoarse. He hasn’t been talking much, not without DG and her never-ending questions. The robot is unfazed. It gestures around itself with a sharp, arm-like digit.
“Much has changed now,” it says. “Azkadellia is no longer a threat to us. Humans are not yet welcome in Milltown but, one day, they may be again.” It draws closer, mechanical arms clicking in tandem. “We owe you much, friend of DG.”
Decision made, he uncocks the gun and tucks it into its thigh holster. “Name’s Cain.” He takes another long, slow look around the empty streets and tugs his hat down lower over his eyes. “DG’s who I’m looking for.”
The robot bobs in midair, its humming machinery a loud buzz in the silence of the afternoon. “DG. The princess. Keeper of the light. She is here.” It turns and floats off a few feet, raising puffs of dust that sparkle in the golden light.
Figures she’s in the last place he thinks to look. He can feel his irritation softening with a healthy dose of relief, releasing in a low, drawn out sigh. Dismounting takes just a moment, and he ties the horse to a nearby post that might once have been a porch railing. He follows the robot, fingers drumming on the Colt handle. He can hardly wait to see DG again, but he’s not sure what he’s going to do. She deserves a long lecture after running off with nothing but a scribbled note for an explanation. He’s already calculating exactly how long it will take to bundle her up, tie her to the horse and ride her little stubborn butt back to Central City – where she belongs.
The house he enters is old. The floor boards creak under his feet and they feel soft, weathered by age and experience. There’s no electricity, but there also aren’t any curtains and the bright sunlight penetrates through even the thick layer of dirt encrusted on the windows. So he can see DG easily, cross legged on the floor, head in her hands. And just as clear are the people – the robots - in front of her. They haven’t changed, round cheeks and gentle eyes and all. Except, they’re not smiling now. Their faces are creased with emotion; the woman looks near tears.
Their leader disappears, he knows this simply because he can hear the fading whirr, but Cain doesn’t turn to watch the robot leave. Instead, he watches DG, still and silent on the ancient, dusty floor. She looks tinier than he remembered and her dark hair floats loosely around her shoulders, hiding her face.
“Now, see, miss, I surely am sorry for the misunderstanding,” the man finally says, and he looks both puzzled and uncomfortable. “I can’t imagine how you must feel, thinking you’ve found your parents and all. If my daughter were to be in that situation, well, I surely wish that someone would help her out. So, if there’s anything we can do …” His voice trails off as if he belatedly realizes that no offer of help will be enough.
DG doesn’t look up and her voice is soft, choked with tears she’s obviously fighting back. “You are my parents,” she says. “You just don’t remember.”
Cain remembers the sheer joy and delight on her face at their last reunion, the way she’d flung herself into both of their arms. And now, they look at her with the quiet concern of strangers. His gut curls in on itself, a hard fist, but still, he can’t move. There’s nothing he can say here, nothing he can do.
“You’re not that much younger than my daughter,” the woman says softly. “Maybe you know her? Maybe that’s why we seem so familiar? Her name is –”
“Azkadellia,” DG interrupts bitterly, and the woman nods in startled reaction. “She’s not your daughter,” DG says. “It’s just programming, Mom. I’m your daughter.”
She lifts her head, and to Cain it looks like she is staring at the robot she believed to be her father for so many years. And he is right. “Popsicle, don’t you remember? Please, just, try. Try to remember.” Her voice no longer sounds heavy with tears, instead it is passionate, tense with urgency. And she spins stories for them, beautiful warm stories of a farmhouse and broken windmills, of a speeding motorbike and a wraparound porch, of childhood fears soothed with kisses and teenaged fights made up over ice cream and hot chocolate sauce.
The woman seems worried, sends a pleading look to her husband. When he speaks, it is so regretful - he is so anxious to not cause any more hurt - that somehow Cain knows it just makes it all worse. “I’m sorry,” he says gently. “I’m so sorry, miss.”
DG rocks back on her heels, and he can see her nod. He can imagine those bright blue eyes, swimming with tears; he sees her wrap her arms around herself and hold on tight. He should feel like an interloper, watching such a private moment, but instead he moves forward and drops down to his knees next to her.
Hours pass and only one sun remains in the sky. DG sits next to him, their backs propped against the outside of the ramshackle house, legs stretched out on the porch. His hat sits next to him, DG’s hands are crossed neatly in her lap. She hasn’t said anything since she turned her head to see him next to her, and he’s been waiting for her to start. But the sunlight is dwindling and they can’t stay on this porch forever.
He’s searching for the right words when he remembers another time, another hot rush of relief from finding her alive and unharmed. That moment colors this one, the same warm brush of bright, vibrant life; of possibility. He lets his shoulder brush hers, and time passes in a brief, suspenseful beat. Then she casts her eyes sideways toward him, and he forces a smile that feels like wood. “Hey there, princess.”
Another moment passes, another beat of time, and then a smile, equally wooden, briefly touches her face. “Cain,” she whispers, an echo of the past and yet warmed with the slightest touch of the same light he remembers so well. And she leans her shoulder against his own.
They make camp a few miles away, in a secluded grove of trees near the river. It’s a warm night, but he builds a fire anyway and DG sits close to it despite the occasional spark. She’s learned much of the OZ in the last months, and gathers fruits and berries to supplant the less palatable food he carries in his saddlebags. They eat in silence and he fancies he can hear the musical hoots of mating Papay from their fields miles away. The fire is hypnotizing and he’s not surprised when she falls asleep. Instead he spreads his coat a safe distance from the fire and rolls her up in it. She yields a sleepy protest but no more, burrowing instinctively deep into the leather folds.
He’s also not surprised when his own slumber proves elusive. Instead, he spends the night hours staring into the dwindling flames. Thinking. Remembering. Faces swim in the flames, his own memories bubbling to the surface, pounding against the iron wall he’s kept them locked behind for so many months, for so many years. Adora’s face, beautiful and beloved, her secret smile soft, and only for him; Jeb as a child, inquisitive and carefree, so unlike the taciturn and bitter young man he has become; the three of them, together. Living the good and the bad, the fights he could sometimes charm his way out of with flowers and words of love, Jeb’s innocent eyes welling with tears when he’d fallen out of a Munchkin tree house, scraping palms and little chubby knees; the silence after a good meal, surrounded by the warmth of family; stretching his legs out on the porch and watching the fields blow in the wind; the sharp clang of the dinner bell; the subtle glimmer of his Tin Man’s star; so many memories impossible to subdue. The final slam of the door to his iron prison. The starkness of Adora’s gravestone. The resentment in Jeb’s eyes. The thoughts of days and months and years of nothing but this, the empty beating of his heart in his iron cage of a chest.
Memories blend and he can no longer remember subtle details, the tiny things that make memories instead of dreams and then Zero’s mocking smile slides in front of him, so real he can touch it. His fingers curl into fists and Jeb tugs against his pants, all youthful exuberance and joy and DG’s shoulders are shaking but her eyes stand strong against a field of Papay, bending to her in devotion and Adora stands on the side, smiling her secret smile, soft and only for him.
And he sleeps on, dying flames warming his damp cheeks.
He wakes to a cool morning breeze and a fragrant mug of coffee by his elbow. DG is nowhere to be seen and he’s almost glad of it, needing the solitary moment to put himself right. When she reappears, he’s himself again, sipping the brutally strong coffee almost idly, watching her move from underneath his hat. She glances at him, once, twice, but detours to the river instead. The water splashes, and her horrified half-scream travels fast, and he realizes it’s early spring and the river is mostly snowmelt now. He builds up the fire, figuring she’ll need it after her frigid bath. He’s startled to find himself smiling. He’s forgotten how she makes him smile.
She runs into the clearing moments later, shivering and covered in goose bumps, barefoot and dressed only in her slacks and blouse. Her sodden hair is dripping down her back and her skin is so cold it’s nearly translucent in the early morning light. She crowds next to the fire, holding her hands close, and the drips from her hair sizzle in the flames. She’s shivering too hard to talk but not hard enough to prevent her from sending a fierce look in his direction. He chuckles. Her look sharpens into a glare and he tries to cover the laugh with a cough. She’s not fooled.
“This is the thanks I get for making you coffee,” she mutters finally as her color begins to return, but if he opens his mouth he’ll laugh again. And he knows better, so he doesn’t. Instead, he walks down to the river and gathers up her abandoned belongings: sporty little shoes, knit sweater with tiny glimmering buttons and two crumpled up socks. When he returns, she’s no longer shivering and she’s finished his coffee. Her eyes track his progress, and he drops her belongings at her feet.
“Thanks,” she murmurs, and looks up at him. He nods, and moves to turn away, but her hand against his knee stops him. “Mr. Cain,” she says, and there are those wide eyes again, open and full of emotion. “Thank you.”
He gets it this time and he drops down to crouch next to her. “Wanna talk about it?”
She lifts those slender shoulders in a tiny half shrug. “It sounds so silly when I say it out loud.”
He shifts into a sitting position and drags over the saddlebags to rifle through them for something that might pass for breakfast. “I don’t think it’s silly, princess,” he says over the rustling leather. “Disappearing like that might not be the –”
“I know, I know,” she interrupts, but with a real smile, like his concern is a comfort instead of an annoyance. “I didn’t mean to disappear. I went for a walk, but then … I just kept on walking.”
He unwraps some biscuits and offers them to her first. She makes a face, but picks one out, and starts shredding it mindlessly. “What can I say?” She asks ruefully. “I had a bad day.”
He thinks on that for a second, chewing his own slightly stale biscuit. And before he can choose the words, she starts talking again. “It started off like that, anyway. Just a bad day. I had this dream, and I woke up and thought I was home and then I wasn’t. Or, I was, but it wasn’t really home. It was here.”
She breaths in, and looks at him – really looks – for the first time in what seems like forever. Suddenly the words start pouring out. “It sounds silly, because it just started with me being homesick. But then, I accidentally offended one of the que—one of Mother’s friends and she doesn’t have very many left and she was upset. And then I slipped on the stairs because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going, and one of the maids got sacked for not drying the floors properly. I sat in on trade negotiations and upset one of the Munchkins – I’m still not sure how. I tried to make breakfast and I thought I’d practice magic at the same time, but letting ‘my light flow through me’ started a fire in the kitchens, and one of the cooks got burned trying to put it out.”
Her sigh is deep, gusty and heartfelt. “And I just felt awful.”
He’s beginning to understand. DG feels too much, and she holds herself responsible when the slightest thing goes wrong. Maybe she wasn’t like this on the Other Side, but her life in the OZ has become one of blame and guilt, and he can see the strain weighing on her. He can see it in her eyes, in the subtle slump of her shoulders.
“I wanted to talk to someone, but Mother was so upset and Father was working with Az.”
“What about Raw? Or Glitch?” he asks.
She stands up and starts pacing the clearing. “It was too silly to bother people with,” she exclaims. “You know what Central City is like these days! I mean, I don’t know what it was like before, but now? We’re working to create a government from chaos, and sometimes it really is simply organized bedlam. How can I take someone’s time away from something so important? They’re working to build peace, to make the OZ whole again, to punish Longcoats and help the innocent people build their lives back up again, and how is that less important than me being lonely?”
And then he realizes: she’s not talking about Raw. Or Glitch. She’s talking about him.
She pauses in her pacing, kicks an invisible stone. “But I started to anyway,” she says. “I was halfway across the City when I changed my mind. And I just started walking. I scribbled a note, I don’t even remember what it said. I wasn’t planning to go to Milltown. I just kept going. I suppose I thought that if I walked long enough, I might end up back home. On the Other Side. And then I was on the Old Road, and I saw the sign for Milltown and I thought –”
She nods, and those eyes are glimmering again. She smears a hand across her face, blinks once, again, and then her eyes are dry. Dry, but sad. He can’t help it, he doesn’t plan it, but he moves to her, smoothes her hair and spreads his palm over the top of her head. She ducks into it, the closest he can come to a caress, and she leans in and accepts it. It takes another moment before he can speak.
“DG, there’s nothing silly about being lonely, or scared. Your entire life changed, with no warning. But there are people here who care about you.”
Her lean deepens, his hand slides down to her shoulder, holding her in. “I know.” It’s a whisper, and if he wasn’t standing so close he would have missed it. “It’s just different, you know? I know they’re not really my parents, I know that. But I don’t feel it. And sometimes, I just need my mom and my dad. Not Mother and Father. Mum. Popsicle. And they didn’t even know me, Cain. She took that from me and I hate her for it and I can’t even hate her because it’s not her fault.” She turns into him and he lets her, tightening his grip on her. And he talks into her hair, because maybe she’ll hear him, even if simple words aren’t enough,
“When you lose someone you love, you hate the one who stole them from you. Hate them with ever fiber of your being until that hate changes you. It makes you hard, and it makes you bitter.” Images swirl in his mind again, his own recreation after years of hatred, Jeb’s slow growth into the hard world of resentment. “And yet, without having someone to blame, it all seems even emptier.” He knows. Zero is out of his reach forever, buried deep in a Central City prison, and still, sometimes in the middle of the emptiest nights, he wonders if he made a mistake. If he just should have killed the bastard and damn the consequences, damn the meaning of it all. Take refuge in the simplicity of revenge.
But moments like this remind him of why he didn’t kill Zero; of why he still wears his Tin Man badge, why he still fights against injustice. And maybe talking isn’t his strong suit, but he tries to fill his few words with all his thoughts and all his feelings. “She didn’t take everything from you, DG,” he adds. “You have your memories. I was there, I heard all your memories, and they are so bright within you. They’re part of what makes you so special, DG. Just don’t let those go and then you’ll never truly lose them.”
She’s crying now, harsh jerking sobs he hasn’t seen the likes of since her full memory returned to her, deep in a cave in Finaqua. These aren’t easy tears; they’re painful and terrible, and her body shakes against him. He’s always been slightly unnerved by too much emotion, but with DG, it doesn’t feel odd or scary. It’s too easy to draw her even closer, to comfort, to try and ease all her terrible loneliness and fears. And so he does, hushing her gently, humming nonsense words the same way he used to when Jeb cried. It’s the same yet all so different. And when she’s done, she dries her cheeks against his shirt, but stays; huddled closely to him.
It takes hours before they hit the road again. When they do, it’s in an easy, companionable silence. Nothing has been said that changes anything, and yet everything is different. DG has lost that shaken look; his DG is back. And he feels stronger, more whole, in some weird, undefined way. By unspoken agreement, they turn left by the crossroads and cut through the Papay fields. He’s avoided them out of habit, so he’s not prepared for the sight.
They are beautiful.
Trees flower lushly, others are opulent with fruits, fragrant in the midafternoon breeze. It’s a bower of pink flowers and petals drift lazily all around them, landing oh so lightly on sparkling green grasses. DG is on other side of the horse from him, and so he can’t see her reaction, but he stops dead in his tracks, undone by the simple, gracious beauty of the spring day. He hasn’t seen the fields this vibrant in years, and he touches the flowers gently, afraid they’ll disappear. And as clear as day, the memory of his wedding swirls over him, Adora glowing joyfully, a vision in white, blond curls threaded through with gorgeous Papay blossoms. Smiling that old secret smile.
He can’t move. The fields are a kick in his gut, painful and yet releasing the pure, simple joy of his memories. They are untainted. They are beautiful. And he feels a soft healing touch against his fractured, cold heart.
DG’s fingers are cool against his wrist. “Cain? Are you okay?” Those same fingers wave in front of his face. “Are you still with me?”
He turns slowly to face her, and the sunlight glows from behind her, haloing her in bright light, an apparition of pure good. “Have you seen this before?” he asks, and his voice is unfamiliar to him, too harsh in all this beauty, almost breaking under the splendor of it all.
She nods slowly, silently. When he doesn’t speak again; she does. “I come here a lot,” she says carefully. “There’s not much good I can do in the OZ. But I can do this. I can heal this. It’s important to someone, even if it’s the Papay instead of the people.”
Words boil up in his throat and clog. He steps free, presses a hand against the rough bark of a papay tree. It is warm from the sun, and oh so welcoming. His own smile comes slowly, but with each movement a ton of metal drops from him and he can finally drop his head back, stare up into the sky and let himself fill with warmth. “DG,” he says, and the name is light upon his lips. “DG, you do so much good. This.” He gestures around him, unable to describe the miracle of rebirth. “This is so much good.”
She smiles hesitantly and he snatches her hands up, presses them to him. Her fingers spread on his chest, warm and vibrant. “You brought life to the dead,” he says, awestruck and maybe, just now, finally beginning to understand. “You, DG.” Words fail him; he can’t tear his eyes off her. She stares back at him, eyes dark with confusion.
The formality is sudden and not unexpected. It is DG’s way of reminding herself to keep a distance between them, that he is broken, closed off; that he neither wants nor desires any intimacy. That even their friendship was reluctant on his part. Except that’s no longer right. It no longer suits him.
“I don’t know if I understand it either,” he says, and frees a hand to grip her chin. “But I feel—”
Not enough has changed, and he can’t say what he feels, can’t put words to the healing warmth unfurling deep inside. But he doesn’t have to. DG is drawing closer, then tentatively even closer, and her arm is sliding up to his shoulder. He doesn’t think, doesn’t question, simply closes himself around her and lowers his lips to hers.
It’s a breath of fresh air; a balm of forgiveness. He realizes that he’s missed her. That maybe he needs her, like the OZ needs her. And perhaps, she needs him.
She curls against him, snaking arms around his neck, and he stops thinking. He can only feel; feel her lithe body pressing against him, the softness of her hair brushing his fingers until he buries a hand in it and tilts her head back, deepening their kiss. She strains back against him, and all of a sudden, it’s not just a simple gentle moment. It is so, so much more.