To the tune of Self Against City's 'The Mirror'. This came awfully close to being a songfic :0 the lyrics fit that well ;D the italicized stanza's actually from a song by the red hot chili peppers, 'tell me baby.' was not originally intended to have a pairing, but that seems to be the way it ended up, doesn't it? nothing is mine, apart from the kitchen (which i assume the palace must've had anyway.)

It must've been three in the morning. The ceiling wasn't changing, nor was it any more interesting than any other ceiling he'd ever laid eyes on…

Yet for the longest moment, nothing existed but the slate grey tiles above his head.

Feet dangling languidly off the edge of the bed, Cain lay on his back and tried not to think.

It was not a successful endeavor.

A realist through and through, he didn't bother wasting his time with what-ifs. Right? Cain hadn't managed to scrape his way as a Tin Man because of chance opportunities. He'd lost his naiveté long ago, when he'd been hanging by a thread and living by his wits. He'd never planned to become a law enforcer, had jumped on the job out of desperation…tried to understand how people could do the things they did. Even then, though, he'd been ignorant—always saw them as people driven to hopeless measures, victims of circumstance. Never did admit then that there was such a thing as evil. And he'd met Adora—the world had never been more wonderful--

The ceiling was still the same as it had been a moment ago. There was nothing worth looking at. Cain shut his eyes. Sprawled across the bed, motionless, and wishing for all the world that he could stop the slideshow of memories playing behind closed lids, Cain envied the zipperhead his ability to forget. As much as he denied it, Cain was stuck on rewind. If only he could just stop everything, and start it all over.

His mistakes had made him who he was, though.

Maybe he didn't like who he was.

…so maybe he should change that.

He was remembering more than he wanted to forget. This was leading nowhere. DG's words flashed through his mind; we're all looking for second chances.

Well, just because you looked for something didn't mean it was there to be found. Out of that iron suit, Cain had struggled so hard to reconcile this changed world with the one he'd been raised in…but there was just no merging the two.

Once more the weary man found his thoughts trailing in circles, all roads leading inevitably to the same conclusion. The kingdom out there was disintegrating even now, and would fall apart at the seams if the royal family and co. didn't pull one heck of a miraculous comeback. There was work to do, and plenty of it, time being of the essence and all that.

He should get himself ahead and take the chance to start working on the veritable mountains of papers needing to be shuffled. How he'd been reduced to such a lowly task Cain hadn't the slightest clue. Trade, economy, censuses, statistics and out-of-date maps plagued his nightmares. The prospect of another day in the suffocating depression everyone was trying so valiantly to stave off and deny…hell, no…in a very uncharacteristic gesture, Cain rolled over and went back to bed.

Az didn't get a single second of sleep.

Lain in bed, counted backwards, counted sheep;

Inhale, pause

Exhale, pause

Repeat.

The ticking of the clock on her nightstand was painful, all sane and logical. Tick tick.

Where did all the time go?

Az felt lost. She was out of touch, and the world was out of grasp. The beauty she'd seen in everything, the love and compassion she'd felt toward everyone, had been irreparably warped in more ways than one.

Along the way, she'd lost herself.

Being the conduit for the emotions only such a malicious freak as the Witch could experience had burned her out, burned her up. Reality no longer held any significance, when she'd resided in delusions of darkness for so long she could hardly tell up from down. Gravity had lost its grip somewhere along the line, and Az felt herself spinning wildly out of control.

Dizzy and nauseous and about to self implode.

The wonder and awe the world once held, when everything shone so bright, was gone. Az had left in her wake contamination, filth and decay; the thought of the carnage made her ill. Tainted. All she'd touched, she'd ravaged. Lying in bed writhing for atrocious sins that she couldn't comprehend, sick from the bile in her throat, she spiraled into the pain like a bird with a broken wing falls to the ocean.

Her own personal crucifixion, that morning, baring herself to the people she's struck down and deformed, throwing what little of herself she'd retained to the wolves.

They'd sunk their canines into her and tore, duly ripping and mincing what tattered shreds she had to offer. Stripped of any vestige of dignity, her self respect strewn about the floor in a million fragments, Az had never felt less human. She didn't deserve the luxury of being acknowledged as human; the things committed at her hand could never have even been conceived by a person. She had been the intermediary, had experienced the convoluted malignance and unadulterated hatred first hand. She had been the one watching her family tortured, expressly tormented—there was no worse horror.

The witch didn't pluck the concept of Iron Suits from thin air.

The Witch had enjoyed Az's hell and sought to recreate it. Nonetheless, the imitation was nowhere near as potent as the original, and Az wondered if anyone realized. Not that it changed anything…

With a sigh, Azkadellia wondered how much more of this sleepless night she could endure. At first the silence had been soothing, and she'd found the velvet darkness acting as a sedative, giving her overwhelmed mind some semblance of relaxation. Now the emptiness was maddening, the eerie sensation of being in a vacuum just as jarring as noise and violent brightness. It was wearing what was left of her sanity thin, and the compulsion to do something, anything, was becoming intolerable.

Several hours later Cain was roused from sleep by the shuffling of feet on marble floor. There had to be a good several hours before dawn arrived, and the timid footfalls were magnified by the otherwise absolute silence, the swish of silk on stone echoing throughout the halls. Despite having shirked a fair deal of work to retire early that night, Cain felt as haggard as ever. Continuing to lie in bed and delude himself into believing it was doing any good would accomplish nothing, and so Cain resignedly left the warmth of his sheets. He wondered idly who in the OZ would be up this early.

Bare feet encountered cold stone and the drastic difference in temperature banished any lingering grogginess as effectively as a splash of cold water. Slipping into shoes and pulling on his duster, Cain decided to see about some coffee.

The kitchen was empty, of course, but for some reason Az found it to be a comforting emptiness. She sat on a stool surveying the room, with its racks full of pots and pans, industrial size stove and mammoth oven, cupboards and cabinets of spices and herbs, shelves of plates and bowls, drawers of cutlery and the like. She remembered wreaking havoc in here with DG so many years ago, the two of them spilling flour all about the place in well intentioned attempts at baking.

DG. Az swung her legs absentmindedly, gazing at the empty hearth as she thought. Try as she might, it was impossible to reconcile the rambunctious little sister of her youth and the adult DG, essentially the same inside but so utterly different. They were like two separate entities to Az, two personalities she couldn't merge. It wasn't only the contradiction of her sister that Az was struggling with, however.

There were other illogicalities, gaps in her memory and smokescreens of confusion, as Azkadellia tried to discern the motives behind her actions, analyzing them in search of clues to who she was. It wasn't easy, but it was a start.

Her silhouette against the wall held a haunting beauty, he observed, knowing she was unaware of his presence and taking the luxury of watching without being seen.

She still had no reason to be up this early.

The eldest Princess had endured quite a trial by fire that morning, Cain knew, and the effect the public's unsavory reception would have on her fragile frame of mind was hardly going to be positive. Hunched on a stool and staring at nothing in particular, swinging her legs like a lonely, lost child, Cain wondered about the thoughts that must be flitting through her head, or if she even knew what she was thinking; whether, like him, she was searching for answers to unravel the conundrum of her own mind.

Not quite sure what he was doing, Cain strode over to the solitary figure, grey duster billowing out behind him. Startled out of her reverie, Az went rigid as he approached. It was a strange meeting convened by serendipity, in the most unlikely of hours. Yet in hindsight, it was nothing if not inevitable, given the circumstances.

"Someone's woken up early," the Tin Man stated, and said someone raised one incredulous eyebrow.

"Actually, there was nothing to wake up from, so there's my best excuse," Az interjected, fingering the folds of her nightgown absently as the meaning of her words sank in. Cain's eyes darted up to meet her steady gaze, face bereft of its usual concealing shadows cast by the brim of his fedora. He looked like a different man without that hat, Az noticed.

"I was looking for coffee."

"Were? What caused you to abandon your search?"

"You."

Cain shifted uncomfortably in a rare display of self consciousness, wondering what in the OZ has possessed him to give an answer like that.

"Lately it's become harder and harder to remember what we're here for, why anything matters, where we're going…" Azkadellia told him, surprising Cain with an unexpected voluntary candor. "The days seem to blur, and everyone speaks without inflection, going about their business because they know it must be done, though they've forgotten why."

Even as he began to deny her claim, Cain unwillingly recalled the pointless paperwork, the meetings which limped along for hours, and couldn't bring himself to repudiate anything Az had said. Nonetheless, an attitude like that wasn't going to assist in making matters any better.

"So we remind them," Cain said shortly. The annoyance coloring his tone was directed only at himself, but Az visibly shrank, misconstruing Cain's meaning as he continued.

"What we're trying to do is salvage the wrecked remains of people's lives, to one day restore the OZ to its former glory. Why? Everyone deserves the chance to be happy, regardless of whether they take it or not. We need to make sure it's always an option, because the opportunity to have a better life is one that nobody should miss out on. Life isn't fair, and nobody asks to be possessed, or locked in an Iron Suit, or any of it—but sometimes there's no way to prevent it. There's no compensation, no reimbursement for the damage, and anyone who spends the rest of the time they're given waiting for a settlement is a fool. We have to move on, and live the rest of whatever life we have left. It's the only thing you can do."

Azkadellia refrained from retorting let's compare scars and see whose is worse, biting back the razor-edged retaliations dancing on the tip of her tongue to actually think about Cain's words. There was an undeniable ring of truth to them, and she could she that he'd had this argument with himself many, many times.

"When I was young I was full of light, found joy in everything I saw. Darkness overwhelmed the light, twisted dementia becoming my only companion. Now the darkness is gone, but there's only emptiness in its stead, and pain is all that's left. Do you think I'm unaware of how many wonderful reasons I have be happy? Logic doesn't dull the pain. It needs no reasons to sustain it, and rationalizing has no effect. Depression just feeds itself, there's no justification for it."

The princess fell silent, and Cain made no effort to fill the tranquil quiet that blanketed the room. His silence was more eloquent than any words, anyway; all the difference in the world was in the things he didn't say. He didn't lie and tell her to hush, insisting things looked worse than they really were. He didn't comfort her with showers of empty promises, didn't smile in reassurance as he offered false hope. How hard must it be, Cain wondered, to be in her position?

"Can you sit for a while?" Azkadellia asked, eyes shining hopefully. "It's nice to have someone to talk to," she murmured, almost inaudibly, under her breath. Cain heard, though, and was sorely tempted to accept the proposition. He was also well practiced in the necessary art of denying temptation. Instead, he looked away from those scintillating, wounded eyes and called himself a coward. Az read the answer in his face and clasped her hands together, fiercely fighting the surge of despair crashing down around her ears with the roaring, raw vitality of a tsunami. Cain heard the slight intake of breath, and didn't need to see her face to imagine the unwavering steel strength there. Nobody was tough enough to face the world alone. Why, then, was he running—and where to?

Maybe later, he nearly lied, but bit his lip before the deplorably craven words rolled out. Cain raised his eyes and saw her clenched fists, reached out for her hands without a second thought. He encompassed her hand in his calloused ones, like a sepal sockets the furls of a young petal, and slowly pried her fingers apart, one by one, intertwining them with his own. It wasn't much, they both knew, but it was a start.

"Tomorrow morning, then?" Cain queried, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to rendezvous at the crack of dawn. Azkadellia's lips curved the slightest bit, a fleeting smirk ghosting across her features. He looked into her eyes and saw the answer looking back.

Tell me baby; what's your story,

Where'd you come from and where you wanna go this time

You're so lovely, are you lonely

Giving up on the innocence you left behind

Azkadellia watched him exit, slipping out of the kitchen as quietly as he'd entered. As the steady footfalls died off, it was almost as though Cain had never been there at all. Yet he had.

There was no forgetting the past, and Az accepted that. The past had brought her to where she was now, made her herself, whoever that happened to be. There was no rewinding, and that was alright. She had a future ahead of her, which was certainly something to keep in mind.

Success meant enjoying what you had, whatever it was. Whether it was a morning just like any other, devoid of unusual conditions or occurrences, if you enjoyed it then it was a morning that made all the difference. There was a long journey ahead, but that was how it would always be. It wasn't possible to reach a destination and simply stop; you had to keep going. It was this moment, right now, which meant the most.

Cain's words had left Azkadellia with a good deal to contemplate, but it would be a long time yet before the eldest princess was able to stop inhabiting that state of mind verging between insane and insecure. She deserved to suffer, Az decided, but that alone was nowhere near enough. Her suffering would do nothing to ease the pain of the masses she'd wounded, who were suffering now. Simple torture was too easy on her, completely freaking selfish if it was anything.

Az would restore the OZ, bring it to thrive and prosper. By some wayward miracle, the resistance fighters had to believe, to accept the wild truth so much stranger than fiction. Their support was absolutely necessary, for if they would only go out like missionaries to bring the people reassurance, comfort and hope in knowledge—that would make all the difference in turning the tide. They had to believe. It became her mantra, tattooed in her mind with absolute conviction and Az repeated it to herself every moment she was able. They had to believe.

The burden settled itself on her chest, a boa constrictor looping around her shoulders and suffocating her with its weight. Knees curled to her chest and eyes blank, glazed by suffering, Azkadellia watched the two suns emerge from below the horizon. Their light bled like spilled ink through the sky, staining the clouds red. With a sigh, Az rose, fighting to stand straight and tall with the crippling burden of responsibility like a chain around her neck.