Title: To Light She Be Shown
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Summary: Most of the people had stopped calling for Azkadellia's blood, much to Zero's amazement. Had none of them seen what he had? 2900 words
Disclaimer: Property of L. Frank Baum, Sci-Fi Channel & etc., not me. Alas.
Spoilers: "Tin Man" miniseries (all parts)
Notes: For the Sticks & Strings ficathon at Insanejournal. My prompt was the song Tattooed by Damhnait Doyle.
She looked magnificent, despite the paler-than-usual shade of her skin and the layers upon layers of ice blue fabric her mother's dressmakers had drowned her in. Zero watched the elder of the O.Z.'s princesses approach his cell with an electric sense of anticipation, feeling more awake, more real, in her presence than he had since the nightmarish day Cain had sealed him into an iron suit without even a TDESPHTL to keep him company.
In the weeks he'd spent trapped upright in that temporary coffin, flooded with magical chemicals that stopped the body but not the mind, he'd hallucinated more than one vision of release or escape. Every single one of those dreams had seemed real, until the moment he'd blinked and found a smudged circle of glass back in front of his face. Though none of them had lasted as long as this little sojourn behind bars, somewhere in the back of his mind he'd still half-expected to come to his senses again, dizzy from yet another trip through the twisty passageways of his own mind.
No matter how crazy the suit had made him, though, there was no way he could ever have made up a meeting like this. Azkadellia defiantly conquered, he could have imagined; Azkadellia gloatingly triumphant, as familiar as his own face in the mirror; but Azkadellia caged, subdued, snared by kindness and guilt? He hadn't believed the Royalists' stories, and still didn't, despite the evidence before him.
She paused before the bars for a long moment, statuelike in her stillness, the only movement the nervous rasp of one palely gloved finger against another. Zero missed the golden pauldrons that used to frame the column of her neck, the daring necklines that had exposed the tattooed curves of her breasts: the cross of fashion and functionality that drew the eye and proclaimed that this was a woman of power. Even without them, though, there was something about her; maybe even especially without them, because now there was nothing to distract the eye from her penetrating gaze.
"Why are you here?" the princess asked, unpainted lips barely moving to form the question.
For all that she was nearly whispering, there was no tremor in her voice, no doubt in the dark eyes that watched him from the other side of the bars. Zero grinned crookedly at her in reply, not bothering to rise for the presence of royalty; he wasn't sure he could, and he didn't think she'd care, no matter which version of her was in charge that morning.
"I'm sure that's not nearly as interesting a story as why you're here, Sorceress," he replied, grin widening as she barely restrained a wince at the mention of her old title. Oh, yeah; there was still some spark left in the girl, no matter what her family said about her.
"I'll thank you not to call me that," she replied tartly, straightening her back still further in that ridiculous froth of a gown. Then her voice quietened again, and the corners of her mouth drew into an unhappy line. "Mother has informed me that your trial is to be tomorrow."
"I still don't see why that should draw you out now," Zero drawled, "since you've avoided the trials of all the other Longcoats captured by the Resistance. What makes my case any different?"
He watched with interest as her eyes drifted to the side at his mention of the trials and her former forces-- only to turn back immediately, brow furrowing, at his reference to the underground loyalist movement she'd penalized so heavily while she'd held the crown.
"Sorry, I meant to say arrested by the lawful authorities," he added, heavy on the sarcasm. "You'll have to forgive me; I was indisposed when power changed hands, and I still don't think I've heard the full story from the guards. For some reason, they're usually not interested in talking when they come through here. Not even to gloat, which surprised me; punishing the mind is just as important as punishing the body, if you really want to teach someone a lesson. I thought your family knew that. Or were you as... progressive... in that area as in everything else?"
A flush crept up her cheeks at his suggestive tone, but she managed to keep her voice calm when she replied. "You were the last General of the Longcoats," she said. "Mother feels that making an example of you will quiet the remaining unrest in the outlying areas of the Zone."
Something fluttered unpleasantly in Zero's stomach at the word example, but he quickly pushed it to the back of his mind, determined not to spoil his plan by showing weakness in front of her. Not now, not yet. She'd walk out that door again, telling herself she'd done the right thing, and fade back into the gilded prison of her family's embrace. The moment that happened, he'd lose everything. He'd burned all his other bridges long ago; this was the only route left for him to take, the only one left worth taking, no matter how many of its bricks had gone missing.
Determinedly, he grinned a little wider, willing the troubled woman in front of him to shake off her lethargy and dress him down the way she used to. "Never mind that I was only your General for about a week, and that every so-called crime they want to accuse me of was done at your command. How, exactly, is she punishing you, again?"
"That wasn't me," Azkadellia said, flinching as though she'd been slapped, her eyes dropping to take in his unarmored shoulders, his empty hands, the red-stained cloth wrapped around his right thigh. "It was the Witch who kept me a prisoner of my own mind for fifteen annuals. You were her General, and it was her orders you followed. I had nothing to do with it."
The words had the air of something oft-repeated, a catechism meant to convince herself as much as the person she was speaking to. Zero shook his head as he heard it. She was trying to distance herself from everything she'd done as the Witch-- but she'd come to him for confirmation and reassurance, thank Ozma, not her wide-eyed, innocent Other Sider of a sister or the cloyingly sweet, ineffective parents who'd abandoned her in her first hour of need. He'd be damned if he was going to give her that support, though; that was the last thing she needed. The last thing he wanted to see her accept.
"Sure you did," he said lightly, dark amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes as he met her gaze. "Tell that to someone who hasn't been in your service for more than ten annuals, they might actually believe it."
Her expression grew more pinched, but she continued, clinging to her excuses. "From the moment I entered the cave with D.G. when I was thirteen annuals old, until the moment she drove the Witch out of my body during the Eclipse, I was not in control of anything I said or did."
Zero had seen the recording of the Liberation, as it was being called; the younger princess had been bright enough to capture the entire event on a viewing disc for distribution all around the O.Z. It had worked, to an extent; Azkadellia would never have enough popular support to take the crown herself ever again, but most of the people had stopped calling for her blood, much to Zero's amazement. Had none of them seen what he had? Had none of them noticed that Azkadellia had, in fact, been able to act against the Witch's intentions when she'd wanted to? Maybe none of them had ever overheard her "in conference" the way her Longcoats and alchemists had on a regular basis, or observed her in the quiet moments when she wasn't stalking around enforcing the rules of her reign, but surely someone had realized what it meant that the Sorceress had reached out for Princess D.G.'s hand?
"I think the lady doth protest too much," he replied, letting his eyes drop to her lace-covered bosom and the curves of her hips.
Surely she didn't think he believed that it had been solely the Witch's idea to allow him his "nine lives" rather than stripping his soul as she had with every other man who'd disappointed her? Now that he knew what had been behind her initial rise to power, he could guess that the possessing spirit had allowed the princess her dalliances as one of many factors in keeping her host content enough not to fight her control, but until he'd seen that recording Zero had never believed Azkadellia to be the lesser party in whatever magical timeshare was going on in her body.
Zero had heard the legends at his mother's knee, the same way most children who grew up outside Central City did; he knew that the O.Z. had been a much wilder place before the First Slipper came, five hundred annuals before, and married the lost heir to the throne. The first Great Sorceress had lived then, and had spent her entire lifetime taming the lost corners of the realm, making it safer for the mortals who lived there. Safer, but much less magical; so many of those lost corners were paved over now, their fantastical populations lost to the ages. He'd thought, as many had, that the new, fledgling Sorceress had come across some remnant of that time, a powerful spirit being willing to instruct her in exchange for bringing that wild enchantment back to the Zone.
He had supported that endeavor, with all his heart. And every other part of him. What a disappointment it had been to find out the true purpose of the great machine in the tower. Only the fact that she'd seemed equally ambivalent about it when out of public view had kept him from slipping the secret to the rebels far sooner, whatever the risk. He suspected that purpose was the true reason she'd allowed her sister to cast the Witch out, as well; he simply couldn't believe the woman he'd known all that time had been a complete façade presented by an ancient, ugly, bodiless creature.
Azkadellia flushed again under his caressing gaze, life springing to her cheeks and flashing in her eyes. "If you think that that will earn you any leniency from the Queen..." she began, not even bothering to deny his insinuations.
Zero snorted. "You want me to tell you it'll all be okay," he said. "That you didn't actually do anything, and that the people who still hate you are all misguided. Well, I won't, because it's not true. Maybe you didn't consent to being possessed, and maybe that made life a little harder for you than the rest of us, but you weren't powerless, Princess. Far from it."
Her lower lip trembled a little at his words, and she stared at him a long moment. Then her reserve finally broke. "Do you think I don't know that?" she said, voice low and harsh. One hand curled up between her breasts, where the Emerald had hung during the double eclipse, then fell back, open and empty at her side. "I will spend the rest of my life making reparations, and it will never be enough. I will never be given political power again, not even to guide my own sister; and should I ever dare to have a child, it will be taken away to be raised in obscurity so I will not have a chance to contaminate it with my darkness."
Zero had heard the nursery rhyme, same as the rest of the realm; he'd even heard it repeated in the Sorceress' seductive tones more than once. He didn't pretend to know whether it really was a prophecy, or not; but once again, he thought the rest of the Zone must not have been paying attention to the actual events on that balcony.
"'One to darkness, she be drawn,'" he quoted, lazily. "And 'one to light, she be shown.' Princess, you were the one shown to light just a few weeks ago. They should be more worried about your sister than about you, especially now."
Her eyes widened at that, briefly; then narrowed again, and she stepped forward, gripping the bars with both hands as she glared through at him. "First you say I was not powerless, and now you say I am not dark. Am I innocent or guilty, Zero? Or should I be asking-- which do you wish for me to be?" She paused for emphasis, then continued, her tone harsh and intent. "Why are you here?"
Cain had once accused Zero of never fighting his own battles. That wasn't quite true. He knew when it would be more efficient to let his minions help him, or to bow the neck to a force he could not hope to resist; but he also knew when it was important to stand on his own two feet. This was one of those times.
He gritted his teeth and moved, bracing himself as he pulled his legs back under him. Pain spiked through his right leg as he put weight on it, radiating outward, sharp and electric, from the small wound where the Tin Man bullet had pierced it through. Fortunately, the bars were within reach; he grunted and heaved himself upward, until he was finally able to stare face-to-face with the princess again.
"You weren't all wrong," he said softly, admiring the tense line of her jaw and the whiteness of her knuckles as she clutched the bars. "Not even mostly. Your mother wants to turn the Zone back into the perfect parkland her mother and her mother's mother passed down to her, but you know how much more it can be; you talked about it all the time. So maybe following the plans of an ancient Witch wasn't quite the way to go about restoring the old magic, but it's still a goal worth working toward."
Zero could see the words sinking in; the calculating furrow had reappeared between her brows as he spoke. But when she replied, it wasn't to any of his carefully constructed logic.
"So you were thinking of the O.Z. the entire time you were in my service?" Azkadellia asked, smiling viciously at him. "Every time you looked at me the way you are now, every time you carried out an order, every time you touched me-- you were thinking of the good of the realm? How... noble of you."
Chills shivered through him at her tone of voice, like tiny aftershocks of pleasure. "There you are," he said impulsively, and unwound his left hand from the bars to reach through and caress her face. "I've missed you, you know."
She froze, incredulous, under his touch, and for a long moment he feared he'd moved too soon. His heart thundered in his chest as he swept the rough pad of his thumb over her cheek, prolonging the moment to carry with him through whatever happened next.
Then she thawed again, reaching up to cover his hand with her own. "How can you do this to me?" she demanded, thickly, as a sheen of water welled up in her eyes. "How is it that you can bring out the part of myself I try the hardest to hide?"
"Because that's the part of you that makes you real," he said. "The part of you that isn't the Witch, or the lost little girl, or whatever it is that everyone else sees when they look at you. It's the part of you that makes me feel like someone worth being."
"But I was cruel to you. I am cruel to you," she replied, bewildered.
"But that's not all you are," Zero answered. "And I volunteered for your service, remember?" Competition for places in her personal Longcoat escort had been fierce in the early days. "I knew what I was getting myself into, and I wanted it."
"You let yourself be brought here because of me," Azkadellia said then, answering her own question.
"There's nothing for me out there," he confirmed. "The Longcoats found the suit before the Tin Men came back for me, and the first thing they did was try to talk me into leading them again. But then I saw the recording of what happened to you, and you looked so shattered. I couldn't just leave you. But I didn't know if you still needed me."
She didn't reply, but a tear slipped free to trace its way down her cheek. Then she raised her free hand imperiously, and the door of his cell wrenched suddenly off its hinges.
An unfamiliar surge of joy blazed in Zero's chest, and he was tempted to check and make sure he hadn't suddenly been tattooed with her sigil, like the Witch's mark he'd once seen burned into her back. It would be fitting if he had.
"Your servant, my lady," he said, grinning triumphantly as he sketched a shaky approximation of a bow. "I am yours to command."
"Then I command you to come out and join me," Azkadellia said, tremulously. "There is much to be done."
"As my lady wishes," Zero replied, "but first things first." Then he leaned forward and captured her lips in a fierce kiss.