"Why don't we show the world what you truly are?"
Langwidere stiffened at the Wizard's thinly veiled threat. There was nothing she could do to stop him from tearing the mask from her face. She stood mute and shaking, drowning beneath the probing gaze of countless eyes.
"She is nothing more than a child," the Wizard boasted and tossed her mask to the crowd for dramatic effect. "A little girl playing dress up. She poses no threat to the great and powerful Oz."
Some in the crowd jeered, while others booed. She stood frozen, unable to move or speak. In the wake of their hatred, she'd never felt more alone.
Her eyes lifted at the familiar sound of Jack's voice. He shoved his way through the Wizard's guards and stood before her, shielding her from the crowd.
"Are you all right?" he asked quietly. "I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner."
She blinked and timidly nodded her head. He took her by the shoulders, his grip strong and protective. Langwidere lowered her eyes, certain she wasn't ready for what truths she might see in his now that he'd seen her as she truly was.
Jack turned his attention to the Wizard, speaking to him in a voice laced with venom, "How dare you do this to her." She'd never heard him sound that way before. His hand tightened on her arm, almost painfully so, as he added, "You had no right."
"I had every right!" the Wizard retorted, his words dripping with self-righteousness. "She is an enemy of Oz."
"I'll be your enemy if you threaten her again," he promised. Then, lowering his voice he added, "Would you be so arrogant if I ripped that wig off your head? I wonder..."
"You wouldn't dare," the Wizard scoffed, though the sudden step he took backwards betrayed his doubts.
"I am taking Queen Ev with me back to Ev. I would not recommend showing your face there again."
The Wizard scowled and gestured to the crowd, "And what would you have me say to them? Your Queen has threatened to destroy Oz. That sort of treason cannot go unpunished."
"That's your problem."
Jack's hand found hers and he shielded her with his body as he slowly led her away from the crowd. He helped her inside their waiting carriage and shut the doors behind them.
The crowd shouted and beat angrily on the carriage's exterior as they made a slow retreat through the city of Oz. The Wizard's guards did not pursue them and Jack exhaled an audible sigh of relief. He sat close and put a protective arm around her still-trembling shoulders. She hid her face against his chest and focused on the sound of his soft reassurances as he told her that everything was going to be all right.
The quiet of her room seemed to echo all around them. She hadn't spoken a word since returning from Oz, or on the journey back. He'd done his best to reassure her, even promised to kill the Wizard himself if he ever came near her again, but none of it seemed to reach her.
She sat quietly at her dressing table, eyes downcast and fixated on the tabletop. He wanted to comfort her, help her somehow, but he came up empty-handed. How could he possibly fix what the Wizard had so thoroughly broken?
Determined to do something, Jack quietly retreated and ventured down into the bowels of the castle. He hadn't visited this place since he'd first left it, yet it struck him as odd how familiar it all still seemed. The operating table and the small trays filled with assorted tools, the haphazardly dressed tables and odd looking machines, were all exactly as he'd left them.
He approached the cupboard where Langwidere kept her masks and pulled open its doors. Inside he found 11 masks proudly on display, each unique in its design. Many he had seen before, but there were some he did not recognize. He studied the array for some time, struggling over which mask to pick. Which would she wish to wear? What mood did each represent?
The ones he knew all felt wrong somehow, and so his eyes lingered on the masks he'd yet to see her wear. Some were severe and intimidating, others soft and feminine. His hand took hold of a mask that fell somewhere in-between. It reminded him of a medieval knight's helmet, with its pointed, beak-like shape. Though there were elements of the feminine in its floral decals and delicately curved vines. It seemed to represent all the qualities Langwidere possessed – sharp intellect, strength and beauty. Taking a chance he took the mask in hand, closed the cupboard doors, and headed to the stairs for the long journey up.
He wasn't certain whether it calmed him or disturbed him to find Langwidere exactly as he'd left her.
"I brought something for you," he offered and stepped up behind her. "I'll put it on for you."
Afraid to startle her, he moved slowly, his hands taking the time to first show her the mask before turning it around and securing it to her face. When he was finished, he took a careful step backwards.
"What do you think? Did I choose well?"
Langwidere lifted her head slowly, her eyes settling on her reflection in the mirror. Her hands went to the mask, as though to confirm it was truly there and in place. The transformation that followed was almost instantaneous. Her back straightened, her shoulders lowered away from her ears, and her head tilted curiously to the side. A hint of a smile crossed her lips and her gaze fixed on his reflection in the mirror.
"Yes, Jack," she answered him softly. "You chose well."
Langwidere turned to face him with her hands folded neatly in her lap, "I appreciate everything you did for me today."
Jack briefly turned away and took a seat on the edge of her bed, "I'm sorry I wasn't able to stop him. I should have been there for you."
She rose from her cushioned bench and moved to join him on the bed. Offering a smile, she took his hand and held it between hers.
"When the world was against me, you alone were in my corner."
Her fingers tightened around his hand and he slowly lifted his eyes to her mask covered face. Her words made him feel guilty somehow, as though he didn't quite deserve them. His mind was still reeling over the fact that he hadn't been able to prevent her from being hurt. What sort of friend did that make him? One silly argument and he'd left her alone, vulnerable to the Wizard or anyone else who wished to harm her. He felt himself a poor excuse for a friend and her words of praise only seemed to drive that point home.
Jack shook his head, "I-"
However Langwidere didn't let him finish his thought.
"Many months ago you taught me what a friend is. I couldn't understand it then, but I do now. You were a true friend to me today, Jack."
Jack exhaled an inward sigh of defeat. Wearing a patient smile, he brought her hand to his lips and pressed a light kiss against her knuckles.
"Whatever comes, I will always be your friend," he assured her.
Langwidere tilted her head towards him and though he could not see her eyes he felt the intensity of her gaze on him. When she spoke again her voice was softer than before and filled with uncertainty, "I am still learning, and I am far from perfect, but someday I hope to prove myself a friend to you also."
"You will," Jack promised with an encouraging smile. "I'm certain of it."