Author's Notes/Thanks: Welcome to the Really Big Fic of Doom. Get comfy. It's gonna get a little bumpy in here. :)
First, HUGE squishing hugs to Alamo Girl for being the original sounding board and beta for this monstrosity. Even as she's dealing with her own life, loves ("Boomtown", anyone?) and WIP (the ever fabulous "Home"), she always makes time for Charlie the muse and his crazy plot bunnies. I owe you so much, kiddo. Thank you isn't sufficient, but after 40,000 plus words so far (and we're not even at the end!), it's all I've got.
Almond balls and Goren/Eames style love to Meredith Paris as well, who is responsible for much of the content in later chapters. Your encouragement and patience (as well as your ability to stay up with me well past midnight) means the world to me.
To Er Bear, as well as everyone who's read, reviewed, favorited and alerted my other stories—thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support and encouragement.
This story includes a character (Doc), as well as relationships (Doc/Jeb and hints of Cain/DG) that I first introduced in "Scrutiny". It might be worth your time to read that piece first, though I don't see it as a prerequisite. Also, as a note of content, the story does start off with Doc's point of view, but it shifts to our Big Damn Heroes in later chapters.
All medical and weapon information contained in this story is factual. For this chapter, stethoscopes were invented in the early 1800s, and blood pressure cuffs in the late 1800s. Both were in fairly widespread use before World War I, when the O.Z. and the O.S. allegedly split.
This story is rated a strong PG-13 (maybe R, depending on your sensitivities) for physical character assault and language. Disturbing content will be noted at the beginning of each chapter.
As always, the characters and situations you recognize do not belong to me. This story is meant solely for entertainment purposes. No infringement is intended.
And again, as always, this story is for Beebo, who will never read this, but who swears she loves it anyway.
Feedback is good for your health. Really. I found that on the JAMA site while researching for this piece.
Chapter One: Begin Again
If this was victory, she didn't want to know what defeat looked like.
They should have been dancing drunkenly around the clearing, carefree laughter sparkling alongside the flames of their bonfires. Mead and feast should have flowed freely until the suns replaced the moons in the sky.
They were a long way off from happily ever after.
The medic stood beside the trunk of her long held lookout spot, watching as her brethren dug innumerable graves. She heard strong, stoic men, some she'd known since she was small, as they wept for the friends and family they'd lost. She winced and finally turned away from the gathering when she heard the cries of soldiers, both for her side and against, as her fellow physicians tended to their wounds in her tent.
She sighed heavily and looked toward the horizon. It was still too dark to see either the Black Tower or Central City clearly, and she felt like she couldn't remember what either looked like. The smoke from the battle had obscured their view for most of the past day—or was it two?—and she was staring into black nothingness, a gaping hole where her past, present and future lay.
She heard the rustle of leaves behind her, but did not turn back to the clearing. Familiar footsteps strode behind her, and she felt the air shift beside her as Jeb stopped and wordlessly offered her a canteen. She shook her head, eyes still scanning among the long line of people spread to the edges of their camp. Resistance fighters were intermixed with Longcoat prisoners due for evaluation before being confined to their makeshift brig, and citizens from nearby villages and towns, many who had not had access to decent medical care, had straggled in to wait among the soldiers.
Now that the coast was clear, the woodwork was expunging and expelling all those who had been relegated to its confines. Mothers held sons to their chests, husbands supported faltering wives, sisters pressed bloody cloths to their siblings' injured heads.
Changing her mind, the medic reached for Jeb's canteen and took a long sip of what she knew wasn't water. He smiled and rubbed her back, dropping his hand when she wiped her mouth and handed the flask back to him.
She heaved a deep sigh and leaned against the tree, idly rubbing at her temples.
"That was a tough one to lose," he said after taking a swig from the canteen and dropping it to the forest floor.
"They're all tough," she replied automatically, pulling her hair from its unruly knot.
"Kids are the worst." His fingers found her hair, and he ran them soothingly through the waves before she stepped away, inexplicably chilled by the comfort he offered. She did not speak for a long moment, her head a confusing mass of conflicting, indefinable emotions, ones she could not articulate to herself, let alone to another person.
She centered herself against the tree trunk, tilting her head back as she tried to find solid ground. As she did when flustered, she looked to her surroundings to tell her their tales. She was always better at observation than she was at interpretation.
She noticed her fellow Resistance fighters lighting more lanterns and torches as they worked through the dark to bring their camp under control. It was as though they intuitively understood that it would take small victories, not big ones like their success at the Black Tower, to reclaim their homeland. After days of conquering, of battles, of losses, if their base was safe and secure, it would reaffirm their commitment to each other, and to themselves.
As her eyes scanned across the clearing, she saw Wyatt Cain standing guard outside one of their housing tents, though he looked to be more in need of a bedroll than any other man in the clearing. His hand was protectively on his hip, near his firearm, and the medic wondered if she'd get shot for just asking how his princess was doing, let alone disturbing her.
She turned back to Jeb, who had watched her as her gaze settled on his father, and had turned his own eyes to his toes, which were disturbing the dirt beneath his boots. "Have you tried to talk to him?" she asked, pulling her hair back.
He looked confused for a moment, and crossed his arms, as though closing his stance physically would get her to drop the line of questioning. When she merely raised her eyebrows in request for a response, he sighed and shook his head. "There's nothing to say."
"Seems to me there's a hell of a lot to say. Eight annuals' worth of something to say."
"What would you have me do, Doc? Waltz up to him and say, 'Hey, Dad, here's everything you missed out on. Mother was beaten to death by the man you let live, I had to watch countless friends see their loved ones hanging like carcasses in Central City Square, and oh, yeah, I had nightmares for annuals about the day you were locked in that suit. Now I'll have annuals more just knowing you were there all that time and I did nothing to help you'?"
"Is that what you want to say to him?" He glared at her. That's becoming more of a habit, she thought idly.
"I'm not your patient," he spat before stepping away from her. "Don't examine me."
"I'm sorry," she offered, ignoring the sting and reaching for his hand, the knots of tension in her stomach doubling as he moved further away from her. "You got something today that I would give almost anything for—a father, back from the dead."
"That man is not my father."
The comment surprised her almost as much as it seemed to surprise him. "What?"
He ran a hand through his hair and sighed heavily through his nose. "He's…changed."
"Eight annuals in an Iron Maiden will harden anybody."
Jeb shook his head. "That's not it at all, Doc. He's open now. You saw how he was with DG. He hugged her, for Ozma's sake. I don't remember him ever hugging me before yesterday. I knew he loved me, and my mother, but he never showed it that way. He was a Tin Man. Showing weakness could get him killed." He turned to face her completely, and for the first time, she saw the vulnerable, scared little boy who'd seen his father beaten and taken away from him. "You and the rescue party found me after four days. Four days and I felt like a completely different person. I can't imagine how he feels."
She looked back over at the elder Cain, at how rigidly he stood at attention, retreating into the protector role he seemed to wear like a second skin. She could tell by the way he stood, one hand on his hip, that he was trying to seem imposing, counteracting the nervousness his shifting eyes belied. He wasn't comfortable in the surrounding paradox, where his son was in charge, where he was relegated to no more than a watchdog for a princess he'd known less than a week.
The medic tilted her head and watched Cain more closely as the Tin Man looked over his shoulder and into the tent where DG was resting. Even in the feeble torchlight, she again saw how his icy eyes melted slightly as he looked at the brunette, as though seeing the fact that she slept peacefully gave him a second wind and solidified that his presence, and his presence alone, was the thing keeping the nightmares from plaguing her tonight.
"I think he's just as confused as you are," the blonde doctor said after watching Cain return to his post, shoulders squared in determination. "And I think he's waiting on you to make the first move."
Jeb watched her carefully, confusion etching his eyes just as admiration lined his father's. "He's never been scared of anything, least of all me."
"Like you said, he's different now. He realizes you've grown up without him. He has to mourn the child he lost, along with celebrate the son he's found."
The commander's eyes scanned between his medic and his father before settling on the woman beside him. "How do you know all this?"
She smiled. "I just pay attention."
A scream broke the early morning, and Jeb and the medic were down the hill before they'd realized their feet were even moving. Cain had already entered DG's tent, and when the Resistance fighters joined him, he was crouched next to her, and the brunette was sobbing into his chest.
DG was shaking uncontrollably, and was deathly pale.
"She's in trouble," the princess managed, her words mostly muffled by Cain's body. "I need to get to her."
Cain nodded, his cheek brushing against the side of DG's head with the movement. To his son, he said, "We need some horses."
"Of course," Jeb replied, moving quickly past the medic and out into the clearing. The blonde could hear him barking orders to his underlings, and she carefully approached the trembling brunette as Jeb's voice faded to the background.
Cain stiffened at her advance, and the doctor held out a hand in silent reassurance, softening her eyes to show him her approach was only to check on the princess. Her face remained passive, and she relaxed her body so as to remind him she was unthreatening. She watched as DG turned out of Cain's protective embrace to face her, but noted that the princess's hands remained on the Tin Man's knees as he squatted behind her.
"Do you need anything?" the medic asked softly, not surprised when the brunette shook her head.
"I just need to go," DG replied, standing with Cain's help, his hands at her elbows, gripping tightly to keep her upright.
The doctor was slightly pleased to note some color had returned to DG's cheeks, though the medic could see the jugular vein distending in her neck, bulging as a result of the princess's still labored breathing. She took a step closer while DG righted her shirt and jacket, and tried again. "Are you sure I can't do anything for you?"
"Quite sure," the princess replied, straightening her back as though preparing to go to battle. Out of the corner of her eye, the medic caught the proud hilt to Cain's face, even though it only flashed briefly among the concern etched in his features.
"All right," the doctor acquiesced, turning to lead them from the tent.
Jeb stood outside, holding the reins to two of their best thoroughbreds, while a scout and one of the sergeants sat astride other horses, ready to escort the travelers.
Cain nodded his thanks to his son before escorting DG to her saddle. The medic stepped back, giving them space and privacy, and did not hear what DG asked of her Tin Man, but saw him squeeze her hand gently and reassuringly before lifting her carefully into the saddle.
The blonde was able to keep her face neutral when Cain slid behind the brunette, enveloping her hands, along with the horse's reins, in his larger, protective grasp.
Jeb's surprise was more obvious, and he looked between his father and the medic, searching for some kind of explanation. He shifted slightly toward the center of the camp, and the doctor thought that perhaps he'd stride angrily away, confused and disheartened by the scene in front of them.
He surprised the medic when he instead stepped toward his father and took the reins of the horse intended for the elder Cain. To his sergeant, he said, "I'll go with them. You stay here and continue to process the prisoners."
"Yes, sir," the sergeant replied, dismounting and leading the horse back to the staging area.
The doctor stood aside as the scout led the party out of camp, and had to smile as DG winced uncomfortably as Cain brought the steed to a gallop. Jeb looked over his shoulder at the medic before he left, and she simply waved before turning back to her duties.
The scout returned less than two hours later, panting so hard he could barely speak.
The suns had risen and lightened the horizon, and it was in the morning sunlight that the true destruction of the surrounding lands could be witnessed.
If she thought the famine and droughts of her lifetime were bad, she hadn't seen anything yet.
The ground was singed and blackened, and looked as though Death itself had floated overhead and colored it with a cursed finger. Smoke still billowed from the main battleground, and the smoldering brush fires twisted into the sky, mixing together like forming storm clouds.
The medic was in her tent, stitching up a particularly nasty laceration, when the scout plowed through the doorway, so off-kilter in his rushing that he caught the upper part of his thigh on her desk.
She turned around and eyed the young man carefully, putting her hands on her hips and silently demanding to know what was so pressingly important that he'd interrupt her while she was with a patient.
After catching his breath and pressing a hand to his injured leg, the scout reported, "Captain Cain has requested your presence at the Black Tower."
The blonde looked at him confusedly. "Excuse me?"
"He says to bring your kit, and get there on the double."
Momentarily speechless, the medic turned back to her patient and finished stitching the injury above his eye. When he was declared fit for transport, she pumped water over her hands to rid herself of his blood, and then turned back to the anxious, waiting scout. "He asked for me specifically?"
Jeb knew they were shorthanded, both in personnel and in supplies. Requests had been sent to other outposts, but reinforcements were days away. She was needed here, at the camp; he'd told her as much on the day of the final battle.
But if he was asking for her specifically, something must be wrong.
She dried her hands on her protective coat and grabbed her saddle bag, lining it with as much as the canvas could hold. Then she followed the scout to his waiting horse, and mounted it swiftly, her pack bouncing against the edge of the saddle.
When she approached the Black Tower, she could see the rubble and still smell the dank, sour taste of gunpowder and lead. She had to turn her head and roll her tongue to try and rid herself of the heavy tang in her mouth.
She saw Jeb and Wyatt Cain standing among the ruins of the entrance to the tower, and dismounted as quickly as she could without losing her footing. After untying her pack, she approached the father and son, immediately noting how the elder Cain stood tightly, ramrod straight, and how his eyes continually went to a balcony high above where they stood.
"Sorry for the urgency, but DG needs your help," Jeb said after a moment, when he realized his father would not speak.
"It's all right," the medic replied, eyeing both men carefully. "Where is she?"
Cain turned wordlessly and effortlessly climbed over the rubble, leaving Jeb to extend the doctor a hand and assist her as they traversed the rocks.
By the time the Resistance fighters made their way to the entrance, Cain was already halfway up the long stairway, the fluttering of the end of his duster the only indication of his presence.
The medic was out of breath when they reached the top of the tower, and as they entered a darkly ornate room, she could see doors leading to the balcony Cain had been so interested in earlier. He strode determinedly to a set of double doors opposite the balcony exit, rested his head against them momentarily, and then knocked, pausing for an instant before pushing the frame open and stepping inside. His profile softened as he entered, and he was unable to hide the subtle movement from the medic as she watched closely.
Jeb cleared his throat and she was embarrassed to note that her scrutiny of the Tin Man denied her notice of the other parties in the room. A grey-haired woman sat tiredly on a leather couch, and an older blonde-haired man stood guard at her elbow, his hand on her shoulder. He tightened his grip to alert the woman to the medic's presence, and she looked up, straightening her back just as DG had done at the Resistance camp. The older woman's movements were eerily similar to the brunette's, and the doctor looked to Jeb for confirmation.
"Your Highness," Jeb said, placing a hand at the small of the medic's back and urging her forward, "this is the medic I told you about."
Highness. The long-forgotten word rattled around in the doctor's head for a moment, even as she stepped forward, shifting her pack to her left hand and curtseying automatically.
"Thank you for coming, Doctor," the grey-haired woman said, rising from her chair, her strong, regal air permeating the environment.
"Of course, Your Majesty," the doctor replied, waiting for the woman to approach her. When she did, it took much of the blonde's efforts not to order her back to her seat. It was obvious the older woman needed rest; the lines around her eyes were deep with exhaustion and regret.
"My daughter is ill," the Queen continued, her lavender eyes dropping to the marble floor as she lowered her voice. "The Viewer with her needs further assistance, and you came highly recommended."
"I'll do everything in my power to help her, Your Grace."
"Thank you." The Queen stepped aside and Jeb strode forward, hand instinctively finding the small of the medic's back to usher her to the room where Cain had entered earlier.
As the Resistance leader knocked and waited to be granted entrance, the medic opened her bag, berating herself for not insisting on examining DG back at the camp. She'd known the princess needed more rest before traveling, and the medic had let her walk right out of the tent with nothing but a cursory, half-assed assessment.
Cain appeared in the doorway and nodded at his son and the medic, stepping aside to allow them into the room. It took the doctor a moment to realize DG was sitting in a chair at the bedside, not in it as a patient should have been. She made to order the princess to lie down, before realizing the bed was already occupied by another dark-haired woman.
The doctor entered the bedchamber, handing her bag to Jeb and pulling out her stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, preparing to obtain her patient's vitals.
The blonde offered a small smile at DG, who returned it tiredly and with half an effort. Cain situated himself behind the princess, his hand finding its way to the back of her neck, rubbing circles so slowly and lightly that the doctor doubted either of them realized he was offering such comforting ministrations.
The medic pulled her eyes from the two and focused on her patient. She walked forward, inching up the bedside, taking in the woman's pallor and shallow breathing. A Viewer stood on the opposite side of the bed, barely able to stand without support from the Headcase standing next to him.
Quite a motley crew, the medic thought to herself, before looking more closely at the woman in the bed.
What she saw made her take a step backward and look at Jeb, her dark eyes widening. She dropped her stethoscope to the floor, the clattering of the metal shattering the tenuous quiet in the room.
"Doc…" Jeb started, reaching for her.
Damn it, why are my hands shaking? "What's going on?" Her voice was low and deadly.
DG was out of her chair so quickly that the medic wondered for a moment if she'd somehow flown across the room. "It's okay. That's my sister."
"Yes." Cain stepped to stand behind the brunette again, and placed a hand on her shoulder. His upright posture was meant to be imposing, silently warning the medic not to upset the princess.
The medic was too stunned to care. "The Sorceress is your sister." She turned to Jeb, tone and eyes scornfully accusing. "You told me the Witch was dead."
"She is," DG replied plaintively. "She possessed my sister, and we defeated her last night. But she's sick, and Raw," she motioned to the Viewer, "is too tired to continue. We need your help."
"You want me to help the woman who killed my father." The blonde's eyes remained on Jeb's face, pulse racing at the guilt she saw written there.
"Doc," he tried, "you have an oath to uphold."
She sucked in a deeply betrayed breath at that, and hurriedly faced DG, curtseying awkwardly. "Your Highness, I'm afraid I cannot help you. Good day."
She turned and fled the room, damning the pleas that followed her.
End Chapter One