Hey, everyone. It's been a while, eh? Heh heh. Sorry about that, I genuinely am. Thank you to everyone who voted for this story last year for the Greg Awards; this won Best Angst! I suppose it's only appropriate that I feel angst all this time later for keeping you waiting so long. :) I've missed you all terribly and I'm glad to finally be back again to share this with you.

RL has a way of sucking the life out of us, doesn't it? It would either take the fight out of my mind or my heart for a while, so that if I had the ideas in mind I didn't have the energy in me to commit to them, or if I truly felt the desire to write again the words would come out like a ten year old's because my brain wasn't all there. It was one or the other for months now, so that every time I would return to the keyboard to make this chapter happen I'd come out with paragraphs of hooey that I'd end up erasing and starting over. There was no way I'd return after so long with sentences that resembled, "The dog goes woof" when I wanted to express so, so much more.

Kudos and blame goes to HollyBush, who both encouraged me to write this and as well as another story I have in the works.

Elphaba was a room away from Fiyero and yet she could still feel him.

She could always feel him watching her: as she fell asleep in his arms, as she roused but a couple hours later, as she slowly dressed and as she turned away from him to gaze pensively from the window.

Staring always made her tense and her skin crawl. She loathed it. But this was different. Her skin still reacted, rippling into tiny bumps. Her muscles still involuntarily tightened. Her blood pulsed against the surface, threatening to break through. But no one else but him had ever made such shivers trace the lines of her bones so that even her fingers tingled or caused any kind of reaction within her that left her thirsting for something undrinkable and feverish to her core.

If there was one thing about herself that she would purport absolutely, undeniably: Elphaba Thropp was never warm. But everything about Fiyero exuded heat, from his body to his deep blue stare, and even halfway across the room from him the transference to herself was tangible.

She was also not someone who was generally self-conscious about her body; years as the Green Girl trained her against such vanity. It was just a casing – of what it held she had never been sure, for the idea of a soul was too great for her atheistic belief system to maintain – made of limbs and organs and a melanin-filled membrane. It was something that needed to be fed and protected, not to mention hidden, given her situation. Most of all it was something to be resented—for its weakness, its vulnerability, and for its verdigris.

But dammit if being naked in front of Fiyero wasn't a whole new experience. She regarded herself differently under his scrutiny, as if her id was desperate to see herself as he did, and because of that her naked body had felt even more bare, more detailed, more scrutable. She was thin but what physique she had was at least strong and lean, a result of years of running for miles without stopping and rapidly climbing through tree branches. And her skin – which still held no hint of green returning to its cells, to her relief – was littered with countless scars and impairments that no spell would erase; little ones from thorns and massive ones from the talons of Lions. She had spiraled in these thoughts as she dug through her old school trunk, finding forgotten leggings and a brassiere and finally a dark-blue frock.

She recalled an expression young Galinda often used, about the feeling as though men were undressing her with their eyes, and while she was never in a position back then to relate to such a situation it had made perfect sense, even as she pulled on the undergarments. Fiyero had been lounging back on the pillows, a thin sheet pulled lazily to his navel and his golden hair mussed from lovemaking, gazing at her as if could see beyond her damaged surface to her damaged insides. He remained quiet, which she appreciated, because she felt too much had already been said; she had promised him only a night but admitted to wanting so much more, yet the same tired argument about why she should leave was still valid. The stalemate remained between them, but then again so did that heat.

Before long he got up to get dressed himself, disappearing into the lavatory to wash and to give them both space. In a way, she felt like she could finally breathe; it was a familiar sort of oxygen that was laced with loneliness and emptiness, both sustaining yet unfulfilling. It was what surrounded her in her home at Colwen Grounds as she read her books as a child, ignored by her father and sister and the townspeople who all feared her. It followed her in her teens, coating her lungs as her father engaged in his short-lived mission in Quadling Country, when the ostracized and misunderstood Quadlings – who should have accepted her when others wouldn't – saw her as the alarming symbol she was presented as and worse. It existed at Shiz, where her peers mocked and rejected her. Lastly, it was all that sustained her sanity as Oz hunted her for years, for the lonesomeness that would have undone others was all but natural to Elphaba. Solitude meant safety, in so many ways.

The closer people got to gawk or taunt, the more that air she hated but needed was pulled from the world. But her blood flowed better. She yearned for contact, to establish the kind of relationship that made others feel alive. She was pulled to people, to reach out and touch them, invigorated by the rushing of her heart, until the limited air remaining in her body finally dissipated. That's when she'd allow others to chase her away until she could fill her lungs with that emotionally empty oxygen once more.

It didn't make sense, the way she felt when she was with Fiyero and Glinda and she didn't have to share them with the world. The atmosphere would suddenly fill with euphoria and each breath felt pure, pushing her heart even harder and sustaining it longer until eventually her anxiety would return, reminding her of the world outside of the small one she would enclose herself within in their presences. It was that outside world that Elphaba observed from the North Tower, with her glasses perched on her nose, sharpening the edges of every surface to her and revealing the hustle and bustle of a world still reeling from the week's excitement.

She was too. Despite assuring Fiyero that she wouldn't stay past the morning, she was weak from pain and exhaustion— physically, mentally and emotionally. A chair called to her and she fell upon its ornately embroidered surface, unexpectedly sinking into seemingly endless depths of plush. She had found a book in her trunk, long forgotten after she had abandoned it at Shiz, and had it in her hands as she sat, but her attention span was not what it used to be. Every other sentence had to be reread until finally she closed the cover, turning her head against the headrest and staring out of the still-open window, where the radiance from the bright, clear sky glowed brightest and from which the liveliness of the capital below hummed with energy. Absentmindedly, she fingered the paper book cover as she watched birds soar over green spires, wondering as she always did if they were animal or Animal.

She knew he had returned to the room. He didn't need to speak. She felt it in the air, within herself— her skin and her blood and the fluttering feeling in her gut that some associated with butterflies but the jaded woman knew was from a spike in adrenaline.

Not to mention his starched clothing and heavy boots seemed loud over the wavering breeze to her sensitive ears.

Elphaba could feel the brush of his fingertips reach out for the sensitive skin of her wrist, seeking reciprocity so gently she assumed he was afraid of spooking her. She took his hand and laced their fingers together. It wasn't the first time they held hands but for a second she forgot to respond to him as she marveled for the umpteenth time at the interesting mixture of discomfort and perfection of having their joints locked between each other's.

She turned her head to face him. He was at eye level, having knelt down at the side of the chair, and she could smell his fresh aftershave. His hair, a dark gold, was still slightly damp but was combed from his face; if Elphaba looked closely enough she could see the last of his fading contusion just past his hairline. He did not wear his military garb – was his career irrevocably damaged? – but instead donned a handsome dark suit, leaving the top two buttons of his pressed collared shirt informally undone.

He pulled the hand he held to his lips and kissed her knuckles, and she slipped that hand from his to trace his face affectionately. Regardless of everything, she still did not understand his devotion to her and she wondered if she ever would.

"I was afraid you'd be gone," he said, moving his eyes between hers. "I'm glad you're not." His fingers still lingered on her arm. Fiyero continued to inspect her, though she tried not to focus on that, preferring the soft hair around his ear. "You look like you used to. Aside from the skin, that is."

"I think that part is a given."

"You used to sit by the canal and read for what seemed like hours at times, folded up like a jackknife, and every time you'd turn the page or adjust your glasses I'd think that you'd catch me watching."

She swallowed her emotions, the cynical part of her wondering if he was lying but every other part knowing he wasn't. "I never did."

"Glad that my years in fancy clothing hadn't erased my impressive hunting skills," he boasted with an endearing emerging smile, his clever gaze flickering over her. "You know, that dress doesn't fit you like it used to."

Elphaba looked up in surprise at Fiyero's comment. "You remember it?" He nodded, and she peered down at herself. He was right—in her opinion, the fitted frock had seemed too small back at Shiz. "I think it used to be tighter around my chest."

He sniggered, almost boorishly: "Oh, much tighter."

She thought she had felt warm before, but now her face burned. She tried to recall the time in her life she would have worn this, and all of the memories that came to mind were of stolen glances at him with Galinda. "I never thought you noticed me…like that."

The grin he wore at this was lopsided, with just a hint of his beautiful teeth to entice her, and she would have called it boyish if his eyes weren't undressing her again, this time in the more amorous fashion. Shouldn't this offend her, as it did Galinda? Why was it invigorating?

"I noticed. And I fantasized. A lot."

Her heart fluttered then; she was little better than those giggly girls back at Shiz for being affected like this, but how many times did she yearn to be like them, against her better judgment? She had never let herself indulge in fantasies at Shiz, claiming they were forays in the Land of What Might Have Been. But, as imperfect as it has been, she was able to experience the real thing. Even if just for a moment.

A moment. It was all they would allow themselves to have. But every article of clothing Elphaba had found to wear from her trunk – a pair of worn, ankle-high leather boots, a hand-knit gray sweater, an old ivory hair clip that was once Nessarose's that held back the top half of her thick hair – acted as a countdown to reality.

In all of her years, in all of her regrettable decisions, she never doubted herself this much. The air was so clean and crisp outside as the last of the storm clouds faded away above the distant purple Kells and it should have been beckoning to her, but she couldn't muster the strength to rise from the chair.

"Tell me what to do, Fiyero," she murmured, hating how weak she was. A gust of air from outside hit her and removed her hand from him to wrap her arms around herself, holding shivers at bay; she blamed that wind as her eyes stung and she looked away from him so he couldn't see them glass up. She set him up, knowing what he'd say: he'd tell her to stay and he'd tell her everything a storybook prince should say, because he was amazing and cheesy like that. Except he didn't say those things.

"You start with something small," he told her, and took the sweater she had laid across her lap to wrap it around her shoulders like a cloak. "Like not freezing to death."

She laughed, mostly humorlessly, and slid into the sleeves like he wanted. His large hands ran over the unevenly woven material atop her arms, and she wrapped the sweater around herself more closely. In the years on the run, when her everyday life became wild and unpredictable, sometimes she dreamt of the mundane with incredible longing, of things like this drab garment that her mother knitted two decades or more ago. When she was young, she would drown herself in it and focus on every skipped stitch and mistake, remembering every characteristic about its creator – Elphaba remembered her as giddy, alcoholic, imaginative, uncertain, desperate, brave, stubborn and supportive – while wondering which of those traits she had inherited and which she wished she had. When she no longer had the sweater, when all she owned was one dress and a thin cloak, her daydreams were less metaphorical and more practical.

"That logic seems vaguely familiar," she quipped, already relaxing from warmth and his caresses.

"How are you going to survive without me to remind you to wear your sweater?" he asked, and though he was joking his soft smile fell at his own implication that she would soon be gone. The gentle stroking on her arms slowed and in that moment he forced eye contact too intense for her to stomach. "How am I going to survive without you?"

"However you did before."

"I didn't. That wasn't living. Not until I found you, and then—"

And then everything went to hell. He stopped himself, but whether he held back for her sake or his she didn't know. She had caused so much harm to him, to Glinda, to Nessa, to Oz—everything she loved. Do no more harm, she reminded herself. It was all she held herself to do anymore.

There was nothing more to say that hadn't already been said, and she was grateful he understood that enough to change the subject. "Glinda should be having breakfast now. She would want to see you, before…" He took a deep, unsteady breath. "Sorry. Let's just go."

She was relieved when helped her out of the yielding chair, for she knew she wouldn't have been able to manage it herself in her state; she told herself it was why she didn't escape before, regardless of its truth. Still, dependency was never her forte, and so she dropped his hand upon standing and smoothed down her skirt, watching as Fiyero nodded to the door.

"Brunch is in the gardens this morning. Glinda arranged it to appease her parents after you took off last night."

There was much appeasing to be done. She tried not to dwell on all the damage she had done but deterring obsessive thoughts was not a skill she acquired in her lonely life. Poor Glinda, with her heart of crystal, was left to clean up her messes these last few days and continued to perform for them all as if that fragile organ didn't fracture with every beat, like it hadn't been Elphaba who broke it to begin with. She had always broken everything she touched. Even Fiyero, whose nearly flawless face disguised a flawed man – the most prominent flaw being his devotion to her, the fool – hid the damage she had caused behind a button-up shirt and a careful grin.

"It's private, I promise. You'll be safe until you…"

She had never seen him like this, trailing off with every statement. She had never seen him so unconfident and disheartened. She tried not to feel guilty but asking herself not to feel was like asking Glinda not to flounce.

And though he offered her his hand once again, she refused it, a grip of regret holding her heart, and chose to limp beside him then later lag behind as they made their way down the intimidatingly steep, winding staircase. She let her fingers skim the smooth emerald paint, needing the solid security the stone offered as her body enfeebled with each downward footfall and her mind became foggy with memories and grave thoughts.

She wasn't ready to talk about it; she reckoned she never would be, but how badly missed her sister! The last moments with Nessarose were so turbulent and Elphaba would live with that regret for whatever was left of her existence. She knew what a bullet felt like and every time a wandering memory of the best of Nessarose crossed her mind it was as if she was hit again and again with a slug to the chest and another to the stomach. She remembered her grace most of all, for it was a quality that Elphaba lacked so distinctly and spent far too much time envying rather than emulating. The world could argue endlessly of her corruption, but the sweet, sweet, gentle smile that Nessarose always wore would be what Elphaba would keep in her mind, how she would bow her head in reverence and be still and silent in a way Elphaba never could.

It should have been Elphaba who died. She had meant for it. Yet she lived, lived in pain and shame and unable to make amends for all her misdoings. At first she wasn't sure if the aching of her injured leg as she limped slowly down the stairs could ever compare to what grew inside of her, the result of her perpetual neuroses, but before long it overshadowed it. She wouldn't let it show to Fiyero, even though she drifted closer and closer to the side with every step.

He was so merciful, quietly and carefully leading her down this impossible stairway with a palpable adoration. It was so obvious that she was everything to him, though she couldn't possibly comprehend how. He spent years carrying her in his imagination as an idol, some sort of fantastical, ideal version of her that she could never live up to, yet here he was, giving up the entire world for her, hoping she could do the same for him.

But she couldn't. She could hide away in his arms but even with the strength they had they could not keep reality at bay for long. Fiyero wanted her pretend like she hadn't been destroyed by a fraud who offered her familial love and support as she always imagined only to rip it away with vengeance the second things diverted from plan; to accept his love as some sort of filler for everything else she had lost. Yes, his kisses lightened her heart, but there was a weight there that he alone could never remove.

There were those in life who could define themselves by their relationships and find contentment in just them. Fiyero, perhaps, was one of those people. It was why he promised to follow her through Oz and beyond, with or without her blessing. She was all he cared about. But she wasn't like that; she wasn't that girl. He alone wasn't enough for her. She could not define herself by him, and what was worse was she had no definition anymore. She didn't even have a name to give to people, nor even some forbidding epithet to blanket her path like a shadow.

Her instincts had been telling her to cower for days, contradicting her very nature in a way that left her so confused. She may have spent her life in fear of the powers she had inside, with self-resentment and with misguided delusions of grandeur, but at least she braved the world and never gave up. But that was Elphaba Thropp, some past version of herself that did more harm than good. Maybe this timidity, this need for escape, was the proper response for once. It was the only one she hadn't yet tried.

The sudden lurch of her body as Elphaba's injured leg collapsed under her pulled her from her consuming thoughts and she only just grabbed the railing at her side. Fiyero called her name and suddenly all she felt was his smothering presence and the wall surrounding her; in a moment of discomposure she turned into the wall, allowing the stone to cool the heated skin of her face.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," she murmured, as much to herself as to Fiyero. "I don't need help."

Lying out loud only helped so much. The pretense was more salvation, for as long as she acted as though her spirit and very physicality weren't deteriorating as quickly as they were, she could survive. That's always how it had been. She acted as though the pangs of loneliness and starvation in the last few months never harmed her, even pretending as though she relished the isolation and disappointment in the world at large. But, she considered again, what good had these instincts done for her, save for keep her alive to feel such misery?

It was Fiyero who suggested that perhaps relying on someone else could make the difference. She didn't know how to do that. It seemed so silly to find such challenge in something so normal for others, but she had apparently been independent from birth, squirming fitfully in the arms of those who loathed to hold her and refusing the teat. When the time came that she had to choose to live detachedly from the world versus serving as a pawn to a conniving dictator, the choice had been easy. She had decided that the burgeoning attachments in her life were oppressive and swallowed that pill down with her head held high in defiance.

It was a hard life to be alone, but at least for the longest time no one was hurt by her. Nessarose said their father died of a broken heart but the man never loved her; that was just Nessa's way of guilting her as she was apt to do. She struggled without her sister to wait on her hand-and-crippled-foot and was bitter for it but she managed well without Elphaba, if too well. Glinda rose to second-in-command in Oz and Fiyero Captain of the Guard. They had all managed to live successfully on their own from her and could do so again once she left them. But if she stayed, she risked witnessing it all fall apart again.

Do no more harm.

She pushed away from the emerald stone, the mantra echoing in her head, and she took the next few stairs down with fresh determination.

They did not talk. Elphaba, even as someone who reveled in silence, could admit that the lack of words in the winding, echoing passage was unbearably tense and only grew more so the longer it existed. She tried not to focus on that; she tried making it down one more step without falling, she tried reminding herself why each step downward and away from the safety of this tower was for the best. He was best off this way, and so was Glinda. And as for her, in the long run she would be better too. She would liberate herself from the chains of her past as she had once before and bask in her freedom, wherever she could find it. She just didn't know how it could be here.

They could have their dreams together, wherever they were, providing she could sleep and wish. She didn't know if the magic bond between them was permanent, but if it was, she would never truly be alone as long as she would close her eyes at night and still yearn for him. But this was a selfish, half-hearted notion, for though it may satiate her longing for a while, before long seeing him only in dreams would be like a drink that could never the burn of thirst or an itch that could never be reached. It was an empty substitute for the real man, who would be trapped to love her in his slumber only, left with his apparent fierce longing gnawing at him in every waking hour.

She could deal with that agony. Those gnawing sorrows were practically her friends these last years. She wasn't sure how much Fiyero could withstand, though he swore he had lived these last few years just as wanting. Elphaba wouldn't look at him as she pondered this; he was more sensitive than he let on. She would know the answer to her unspoken question, that he would be torn apart by vacuum she'd leave, and she didn't need to see his face to be certain.

But it was for the best, wasn't it?

Every time her mind made an argument to leave Oz behind her heart came in and swept the argument away, like a strong wind picking up flurries of snow before they could stick. She had never been so at odds with herself before; when she had defied the Wizard, her heart was most prominent in its disobedience but her mind was not far behind. But now, she was left with the coldness and emptiness the flurries left in its wake, confused and irresolute in a way that the Wicked Witch of the West should never be. She did not require of herself a consensus of mentality and heart, but she knew not what to do with such discord inside of her.

She stumbled, expecting another step that did not come.

They had reached the bottom.

The landing was rich in green and white light streaming from the stained windows. The walls were green, the door was green, the tile underfoot was green. Even Fiyero was green in the glow, his features cast with shades of emerald, his blue eyes seagreen in the colored beams of sunlight that shattered the shadows.

He was so beautiful it broke her heart. She wondered vaguely if he was born green if the world would still worship him and she knew it to be wholeheartedly true. She couldn't envy him for it, only love him more.

There was so much to love. And it was because of that love that she felt wrung, ridden with self-hatred— for how could she love him and put him in peril?

She was a plague; she lay waste to everything she touched.

She caught the sob in her throat before it escaped, swallowing it down with her pain, and weakly fell against him, her head falling against his shoulder. He seemed shocked at first, but after a moment his strong arms found her and wrapped her strongly to him. Elphaba feared for his injuries, but he seemed to care not, for as she resisted, fearing for the scars and bruises hiding under the buttons of his ironed shirt, he just held her tighter. Stubborn man, she thought tenderly, accepting his undeserved love and clinging to him just as desperately.

"Why is it that every moment with you feels like it's the last one?" Fiyero asked, his tone warm yet still melancholy.

"Any moment likely is."

"I'm holding out for the time when it's not," he said, as though thoughtfully. "I want to know what forever feels like. The good kind of forever, not the 'We can never see each other again' kind of forever you wicked witches love to throw out and about." This time the sob slipped forth in place of the laugh he brought about, and without that ball of emotion caught in her chest she had nothing to cork the aching there. Perhaps she could have laughed had the mockery had not been pointing out such a truth – she could not protect him from herself, from the horrors of the world that came with her like some parasite – or had he not kept speaking such wonderful, impossible ideas. "I just want regular 'wake up next to you when I'm 80 and ugly' forever. And yes, ridiculous as it sounds, I will get ugly one day, long in the future, for men get just as saggy and wrinkly as women—"

And her voice, broken and inarticulate, resounded into his shoulder as she snorted and cried all at once, for she knew so deeply then that she wanted that kind of forever too; she wished so desperately to know Fiyero at his oldest and wisest, to be able to still hold him and think of him as hers. Yet that voice inside of her, that soberness laced in crazed desperation, reminded her of his bloodied body on that cross in that cornfield and of that spear in his stomach, that moment of blankness as life fled his pale and broken face. That youthful face, free of the age he joked about so lightly.

"This is goodbye, isn't it?" he said then, his hand coming up to cup her head, to stroke her hair caringly. "This can't be goodbye. You can't let the last thing I say to you be about droopy geezers."

And this time she did laugh and she did weep, for though he would be justified in being petty and bitter – she imagined other men in his position could spit out "Thanks for the sex" for a better reaction – he took this opportunity to buoy her, her heart swelling enough to keep her from drowning further into her despair.

"Elphaba?" Fiyero questioned, no doubt confused by her state, in which she hovered somewhere between truly happy and undeniably miserable. He dipped down his head as if to see her, and tried again, "Elphaba…"

Elphaba Thropp is dead, Glinda's voice resounded in her ear. She cried just a little bit harder not knowing why, and his hand moved soothingly at her back.

"Fae," he whispered then, and she turned her face into his neck, breathing him in, the heat of his neck burning against the tip of her nose. Fae was no one, she never really existed, except to those who never existed either. Until he came along. "You haven't said a word. I don't know what to do if you're not talking. Say something, please."

Unwillingly she untucked herself from the refuge of his collar, dragging a hand across her face to erase the moisture slipping down her cheeks, and found sanctuary again in those luminous aqua eyes.

And though she meant to apologize, to say goodbye, what she said instead was, "I love you, I love you so much," and sprung herself up onto him to crash her lips against his, kissing him with a need so deep that she couldn't locate from where it stemmed. The kiss became passionate, hot, like many they had before, but somehow it was different, for what fed the kiss wasn't a just a hunger to be sated. Every whimper stolen from her held the honesties she could not put words to, every moan swept up by his tongue was a farewell she wouldn't say, and every gasp of air they shared diffused into the caverns of the hollowness inside. It had nothing to do with sex, no—it was a passion of a different nature, a fire that had always coincided with their lovemaking but somehow still burned for him when she was wholly spent and defeated and alone, and she knew it was absolutely, tremendously true: she loved him.

Her broom wasn't going to fly for her, not if it meant away from him. She was convinced of this now. And the fear she felt at that fueled her urgency and she kissed him that much harder, letting that love overwhelm the cyclone of emotions if just for a moment before they broke apart, needing oxygen and needing comfort. Breathing hard, Elphaba dropped back against his chest once again and hugged him tightly, allowing Fiyero to support her as she teetered unbalanced – she wouldn't make it too far by the strength of her weary, damaged leg either – the hand not supporting her caressing her hair and arm and rubbing soothing circles over her spine.

And how long they remained clutching at each other, faces buried into neck and hair, she wasn't sure; but all the while she couldn't say goodbye because she didn't know if that's what it really was.

She didn't know.

Elphaba is just a clock-tick away now from returning to the wonder and verdigris of the Emerald City, where life is faster and dangers are nearer, and the pace of this story shall be in accordance. It was important for me to take this chapter to really relay how sapped and ill at ease Elphie is with herself and with the world because the splendor of the City will be tainted by how jaded she has become.

Ironic green pun intended.

Thank you everyone who is still hanging in with me! Please take a second to review, even just to say hi, and tell me what you think :)