It had been three months since they were last in the Emerald City and Boq could not say he had particularly missed it.

The Thropp family house in Lower Mennipin Street was in a much better state than Colwen Grounds. Nessarose ruled the roost here so there was a full compliment of staff and all was well maintained. Boq knew the division of the Thropp estates caused tension, mostly on Nessarose's part. Elphie had happily ceded control of Lower Mennipin Street as long as she could come and go as she pleased. He had a good deal of sympathy for Nessa's position, knowing what she could do with that lovely old pile of bricks back at Colwen Grounds. Nessa was free to come and go there as well but rarely did, it seemed to upset her. Instead she split her time between the Emerald City and Rush Margins.

The butler entered the drawing room and Elphaba shied away from him. For all her bossiness Boq knew her deep discomfort with hierarchies. She began discreetly edging off across to the other side of the room automatically assuming he carried some manner of vexation to her. The staff kept their distance from the Eminence, which suited both sides well. Boq could only imagine what was said about Elphaba and her team in their absence, ably stirred up by Nessa no doubt.

The butler spoke. "Lady Chuffrey sends her card." There it sat, perched on a silver platter in his hand.

Elphaba looked blank.

"She knows you are here," Boq translated. "She will be outside in her carriage waiting for your word."

Elphaba looked even more blank.

"Clearly you did not do a good enough job of putting her off," Boq added.

"Clearly you think this visit is more for your benefit."

"Actually," he broached the subject carefully, "I had other plans for this afternoon."

She knew immediately what he was about. "No! I forbid it! You can't in good conscience leave me here with that woman while you scamper off to see Miss Milla."

Part of that was a joke, but part of it wasn't. "You're becoming quite civilised Elphie, I'm almost proud of you. Don't tell me you cannot handle 'Miss Galinda of the Arduennas of the Uplands'." He did a passable impression of Elphie's previous mockery of Lady Chuffrey.

In return he received a terrifying scowl. "Fine," he said. "I shall chaperone you. But you shall see her."

"Is the Eminent Thropp at home?" The butler had no time for this.

"Yes," Boq said firmly. "Tell Lady Chuffrey the Eminent Thropp is at home."

Elphie looked ready to jump out a window and Boq readied himself to grab her ankles. Or maybe follow. It depended. What in Oz did Lady Chuffrey want?

Too soon the door opened and both Boq and Elphaba turned towards it with trepidation.

"Lady Chuffrey," the butler announced.

Lady Chuffrey entered.

"Thank you," Elphie actually directly addressed him. "We'll, um, have some tea, please. If you don't mind." He looked at her as though she were mad and left with a little bow.

"Lady Chuffrey!" Boq took the initiative and advancing on her. "How wonderful to see you again."

"Master Boq, it is a delight." She took his hand and curtsied.

Elphaba, having swung from one extreme of terror to the other of antagonism, gave Lady Chuffrey a quick nod and sat herself down in a chair. Boq motioned for Lady Chuffrey to do the same and she perched herself delicately on the ornate sofa.

Now what? Boq and Elphaba shot each other a look. Boq wished Nessarose were here and wondered why it was not thought necessary for boys to attend finishing schools, being as they were just as susceptible to embarrassment as anyone else.

They needn't have worried, he soon realised. Lady Chuffrey was, after all, a professional.

"What brings you to the Emerald City?" she enquired gently.

Thankfully Elphie now got involved. "Just a way station. We're going to see our friend Avaric. Although, I hesitate to use the word friend, but –"

Lady Chuffrey hesitated at interrupting but couldn't help herself. "The Margreave of Tenmeadows?"

"Yes. University isn't just for finding a husband, or even getting an education. Sometimes we make friends." Boq raised an eyebrow against her. She looked at him and shrugged a little. She didn't see the harm in riling these people.

"Well, Miss Elphaba. It seems we can enjoy each others company again there. I shall also be attending." The upper hand was gained by Lady Chuffrey.

That was just peachy. Elphie seemed to be thinking something similar. Maybe a touch ruder.

Boq jumped in. "That will be lovely, won't it, Elphie?" He didn't stop for a reply. "And how do you know the Margreave? He and I roomed together at university, for my sins."

"Oh, I have met him here and there. I am friends with Lady Balle and Mrs Suur who I believe you know as well. Pfannee and Shenshen?"

Boq saw Elphie rolling her eyes. He hoped Lady Chuffrey did not.

"I suppose they will be going as well?" Disinterest dripped from Elphie's words. "This is turning in to quite the alumni reunion."

"Indeed they are, with their husbands. They can't quite forgive Avaric for it not being them he is marrying." Lady Chuffrey smiled at that and Boq found himself smiling too. That was a little cheeky, a bit risqué. He was rather enjoying this.

Elphie snorted however. "Dodged a bullet and I say that with the utmost contempt for them. No-one deserves Avaric." Boq knew she had a soft spot for him. Otherwise he would simply be ignored.

"I shall feel quite left out amongst all you graduates." Lady Chuffrey sounded almost wistful, Boq thought.

"Did you attend university, Lady Chuffrey?" It seemed likely enough, nowadays most young people of class and wealth did attend, even girls. Even those without particular class and wealth, his own attendance reminded him.

"No, I never did."

Boq was caught between surprise and not. Elphaba did not look impressed.

Without any prompting Lady Chuffrey continued on her own. "I was here and married by twenty. I should have liked to though, I had thought of studying at Shiz. But Mother and Father would no sooner allow it than have me train as a milkmaid."

A new world of possibilities opened itself up in Boq's mind. He could envisage Lady Chuffrey, a few years younger, less refined, sat with them all in the pub. How strange, these little quirks of fate that caused things to be the way they were. He became aware of a warmth towards her, for the things that could have been.

"I sometimes fancy a milkmaid would have been more fun." Both Boq and Lady Chuffrey were startled by Elphie's words, not just her involvement in the conversation but something in the way she said them, almost sympathetic and gentle. "You didn't miss out on much."

Boq chatted a while longer, Elphie adding the occasional aside, Lady Chuffrey continuing to show this humorous, irreverent streak that was delightful on her. The tea arrived, which Lady Chuffrey drank daintily, along with cupcakes that Elphie poked at with distaste and would not eat, being that they were pink. Boq sometimes thought Nessarose contrived such things deliberately when she knew Elphie would be staying.

It was a full hour before Lady Chuffrey took her leave, clearly overstaying the normal quarter of an hour in the knowledge there was no queue of other callers waiting at the door. Boq was rather sad to see her go, he had thoroughly enjoyed himself. She left with pretty words about looking forward to seeing them at Tenmeadows.

As the door closed Elphie collapsed dramatically on a chaise longue as though just returned from running a marathon.

"There now," Boq consoled. "That wasn't so bad was it?"

Elphie could not find the words, luckily for him. He made his escape from the parlour and headed off to get ready to pay a sneaky visit to Milla.

Galinda arrived at Tenmeadows a week later, two nights before the festivities officially commenced. The schedule was carefully prescribed. More central characters had been there for a week already, family and such, then a hierarchy of visitors stretching out to those who would only attend for the day itself. Galinda's middling position did not rankle with her at all. It did mean that some of her friends and other acquaintances were already in attendance. Pfannee and Shenshen had arrived yesterday for an evening banquet. The Eminent Thropp and nice little Boq had also, along with other of the Margreave's university friends.

Having freshened up in her guest room and left her maid to arrange her clothes Galinda headed down to the ground floor. Tenmeadows was a huge house and it needed to be. Even it could not hold all the guests, many would have to be housed in the village. Downstairs there was a never ending buffet and people milling about. Evidently a party of the gentlemen had gone out shooting or some such as it was mostly ladies.

Making herself a little plate Galinda surveyed the room, trying to pick the most interesting or advantageous person to start her round with. A prospect walked straight in to her path whose advantage had yet to be proven but was certainly very interesting.

"Lady Chuffrey! It is so good to see you again."

"Master Boq, indeed." She curtsied and he bowed but the plate made things a little impractical. What was a little adaptation in the rules between friends, anyway. "You are not out enjoying the sport?"

He shuddered and his voice was firm, a strength of emotion she had not seen in him before. "No, indeed. The bloody deaths of animals are not sport to me." Then he seemed to remember himself – and her – and looked alarmed. "I mean, I do not think I could – I don't mean to – is your husband... out enjoying the sport?"

Oh, that. "No, unfortunately Chuffrey cannot be here, he had business in the City. I don't suppose her Eminence is enjoying the sport either?" Or maybe she was, out with the men in tweeds.

"Also not," he confirmed with a smile. "We are on the verandah, would you like to join us?"

"I would love to." She smiled back at him as he led the way outside.

"Elphie!" he called. "Look who I have found."

His manner did not upset Galinda, she found it amusing, his relationship with his employer.

There was Elphaba. She looked to be wearing the same dress Galinda had ever seen her in but much more relaxed than the previous times, outside in the fresh air on the otherwise unoccupied terrace. Until her eyes met Galinda's however. She sat up straighter and frowned a little before rising.

"Lady Chuffrey," she said, taking Galinda's free hand.

"Your Eminence. Elphaba." Galinda smiled a little in acknowledgement of this strange middle ground they were holding.

The other member of their party was a younger girl who bore a resemblance to Elphaba, albeit less green. Not at all green, in fact. Instead there was the distinct absence of arms. The sister.

Elphaba helped the girl to stand opposite Galinda. "Lady Chuffrey, may I present my sister, Miss Nessarose Thropp of Rush Margins, Munchkinland. Nessa this is Lady Chuffrey, Galinda of the Arduenna Clan of the Uplands from the Pertha Hills, Gillikin." She was showing off, showing Galinda she could do this as well as anyone.

They curtsied, Elphaba's hand on the girl's back, presumably in support of her balance but looking more like she would grab her by the scruff of the neck. To Galinda's mind everything Elphaba did had an undercurrent of mild danger, vague threat. It put her on edge.

"I am very glad to meet you, Lady Chuffrey."

"And you, Miss Thropp."

"I am simply Nessarose, please." Again this distaste for pomp and ceremony, albeit more politely put by the younger girl.

"Then I am simply Galinda."

Elphaba's eyebrows rose, impressed. That was not why Galinda had done it.

They settled themselves back down at the wrought iron table, Boq going back inside for the buffet he had forgotten to get for Nessa in the excitement of having seen herself.

When he returned Galinda watched Elphaba help Nessa eat, which more or less consisted of actually feeding her, in a particular practiced and dignified way. The three of them talked about their time at university, Nessa having overlapped with Elphaba for one year whilst Boq was doing postgraduate work. They and other classmates were planning a little sightseeing reunion trip tomorrow afternoon. Galinda had often regretted missing out on this aspect of her life but there was another element now, the loss of these sorts of relationships forged.

"What will you be doing tomorrow afternoon, Lady Chuffrey? It's like free association time, we get a few hours of liberty in all this fuss." Elphaba's tone was unguarded, almost teasing. Fresh air obviously agreed with her. "Will you be queueing for the visiting beauticians here? Choosing your gown?"

"I'd rather come with you. I know Shiz well enough but I've never been to the university. You don't mind?"

If Elphaba did mind or was surprised she did not show it.

So the next day after lunch Galinda bid goodbye to the highly confused Pfannee and Shenshen, who were not stooping to a tour of their alma mater and joined the two coaches heading the short distance to the town of Shiz itself.

Galinda sat in one coach with Elphaba and Nessarose. In the other was a young man named Crope who described himself as being 'in the arts', a Vinkun prince, Fiyero, who Galinda had met on a few occasions, and Boq. Avaric had not been able to come. At one point he had looked likely to sneak away to join them but his soon-to-be father-in-law was keeping a sharp eye on him. Which seemed a sensible idea, until vows were exchanged at least.

The party separated as they arrived, the gentlemen heading off towards their old colleges and Elphaba and Nessa towards theirs, with Galinda in tow.

They stood in front of the bluestone building of Crage Hall with varying looks on their faces. Galinda was impressed and a little awed. She looked across at Nessa who seemed fond and Elphaba who seemed at once contemptuous and cowed.

"You are quite sure she won't know we were here, Nessie?" Elphaba was asking.

"No, I told you Elphie, do stop fussing. There is a new head, that old witch is safely in the Emerald City."

"That's not entirely what I meant."

"Who?" Galinda enquired.

Elphaba turned to her, distracted. "Morrible. The head of my old university college. Though I suspect she may be a lot more than that."

Madame Morrible. Galinda knew that name, it caused a tremor of panic through her that thankfully went unnoticed.

Nessa offered a plan. "Elphie, if we do go to the library for a look do you promise not to disappear in to the stacks? I spent a year searching you out of there and I don't want to spend my whole afternoon doing it."

Elphaba made a disapproving noise at her which Nessa obviously took as agreement.

In the library the look in Elphaba's eyes changed to that fondness and delight Galinda had more been expecting. She was murmuring to herself, wandering off a little.

Nessa was keeping an eye on her. "Hours in here..."

"I thought students were supposed to spend all their time partying?" Galinda started up a quiet conversation.

"Mostly that is true," Nessa agreed. "Elphaba, as I am sure you can imagine, was not that type. Elphaba!" she called to her sister in a stage whisper. "Stay in sight please, I'm not losing you in here, much as you would like it."

Managing to extricate Elphaba they strolled the grounds and met the others by the canal where they reminisced about picnics and hijinks before heading off to one of their favourite pubs near the market. Galinda had never frequented this part of town. They were some way from the Exchange and the ballrooms.

Crope flirted shamelessly and harmlessly with Nessa whilst Boq watched on with Fiyero writing postcards to his family at home. Elphaba fetched Galinda a glass of wine from the bar and slumped next to her on the bench. The lot of them had regressed to students again, completely forgetting their positions, their responsibilities, becoming almost these whole other people, young and free. Galinda wished she had a previous self to fall back on but she was much as she had ever been.

"Goodness I hated it here."

Galinda was more than surprised by Elphaba instigating a conversation. And by the topic. "You did?"

Elphaba wasn't looking at her, which Galinda supposed made it easier. "Mm. I mean, I am grateful. I learnt a lot and I did become encumbered with these idiots..." That was supposed to be a compliment, or affection. "So much of it was just staggeringly awful."

That had never been a consideration of Galinda's. But then her university career would have been very different from Elphaba's. She thought of Pfannee's comments. "People were unkind?"

"That? I was more than accustomed to that by the time I got here. No, none of that. I couldn't care less."

Not sure whether to believe her or not Galinda left that thread there. "What then?"

"Bad luck, I suppose. A corrupt head, my mentor was killed, my great grandfather died. None of which was luck. More bad luck that I had to care about it, that I was designed in such a way that I couldn't keep my nose out."

Galinda perceived of an aching loneliness that shockingly made her want to put her arms around the strange girl. Which was not something she ever had done, or had ever wanted to do to anyone.

At the banquet that night Galinda found herself placed in a displeasing seat both too close to Elphaba to be unaware of her and not close enough to be able to talk to her. Her attention was continuously dragged in Elphaba's direction, making her unable to hold the threads of nearby chatter, for the wondering of what was being said further down the table.

She watched this new, relaxed – almost good humoured – Eminent Thropp with her old friends and sister, trying to find a way in to the discussion whenever she could, which turned out to be infrequently. It was an overall frustrating experience given the momentum that had developed in their conversation, and, she supposed, their acquaintance, during the afternoon.

Afterwards, when the ladies departed for cards and music in the drawing room, Galinda diverted herself on to the terrace for some fresh air. She realised it was silly to be surprised to find Elphaba there.

Elphaba looked at her. "As you can imagine, I am not one for post-dinner socialising."

"You don't mind me being here?"

Shaking her head Elphaba turned back to gazing at the dark blue sky.

Galinda leant back against the balustrade. Light poured out from the house and there was tinny laughter but it seemed another world. Intrigued, she launched an assault on the very heart of the riddle of Elphaba. "Everyone expects non-conformity from you and you're more than happy to give it to them. But isn't that just conforming?"

"If you're damned if you do and equally damned if you don't I suppose the Rule of Most Amusement applies."

That made Galinda smile. "I may not have been to a prestigious university but I'm quite certain you just invented that."

"Does that make it any less valid as a way of conducting myself?" Elphaba's tone was accusatory but Galinda wasn't being accused, she was being teased. Elphaba smirked, making Galinda smile again.

"In any case," Elphaba continued. "I think you do just as much work to appear something you are not. You make it look perfectly natural."

"You think this is all a pretence?"

"Clearly a good deal of your life is artifice. High society is theatre, everyone knows that. But I think more of yourself is than you admit."

Galinda was not quite sure what to make of this, other than that it went more to the core of her than anyone ever had. She kept it light, however. "Now that is simply me doing my job. Everyone has a role to play in society."

"But it is more than a role to you, it's an act of full time occupation."

"Call it the Tactic of Most Efficiency," she riffed on Elphaba's earlier words which produced a pleasing twitching smile from the girl.

Then the devastating question. "What happens when the curtain falls?"

"It doesn't," Galinda said quietly. "I don't know how to close it any more."

Elphaba's stomach rumbled all the way through the ceremony and to add insult to injury she then had to queue to greet the bride and groom whom she had greeted enough, she felt, in the days prior, and their parents, whom she did not want to greet at all. Finally they were sat down for the wedding breakfast. Just because these people were plighting their troth at great and very formal length did not allow them to starve their guests half to death.

Once the speeches were over the guests were allowed free reign of the garden and marquees, which, even Elphaba had to admit, looked rather nice. Also rather nice was the buffet laid on, though most people were congregated more around the ale tent.

So Elphaba sat by the buffet in an empty marquee with a heaped plate of tiny cucumber sandwiches, looking out over the grounds when a swishing sound announced the arrival of Lady Chuffrey. Elphaba's eyes first caught a glimpse of skirt. "Everywhere you go your skirt gets there just before you," she mused.

Lady Chuffrey swatted at her with a fan. "They seem happy." She was looking at the new couple on the far side of the garden, laughing with a crowd.

"He's only thinking that now he gets to drink her dowry."

"Ah but of course you affect this lack of sentimentality and romanticism."

"It is not an affectation. It is the absolute truth. I am here only for the food." Despite that priority she thought it only polite to offer up her plate, from which Lady Chuffrey selected a minuscule sandwich.

"There'll be cake later," she observed, ignoring Elphaba's attempt at scandal.

"I should hope so too. And another dinner."

"I shall have to do some serious dancing to mitigate all this eating."

That made Elphaba smile. "Dragging all those hoops and bustles around is not exercise enough?"

"This is a very demure outfit!" Lady Chuffrey defended herself. "Just because you possess apparently only one dress..."

"Many similar dresses," Elphaba corrected.

Lady Chuffrey looked her up and down. "I had wondered."

"Had you indeed?" That idea amused Elphaba greatly and she succeeded in making Lady Chuffrey flush.

All she said was, "Are you leaving tomorrow?"

Elphaba nodded, inserting an entire sandwich in to her mouth.

"I just wondered, depending on what your plans were... seeing as we are so close and have the advantage of the railway rather than that dreadful road... how would you like to come to the Pertha Hills? I am staying in Frottica with my parents for a few days. You would be quite welcome."

Taken aback, Elphaba was not entirely sure what to say. She would sooner undergo the most horrific water torture known to Oz than do anything of the sort. The Pertha Hills were near enough her idea of hell: the country houses of the obscenely rich bankers and aristocrats and nary a single person who was not pure blood Gillikinese.

She struggled to recall what one should say in such situations. Why did she not blurt out exactly what had run through her head? Because there was one curious, charming Gillikinese girl whose Frottican heart she did not want to sadden.

"No, I... there are things I have to get back for," is what she contrived.

In response Lady Chuffrey nodded. "I had thought so. No matter." She started to walk away.

"Lady Chuffrey..." Elphaba didn't know why she wanted her to turn round, nor did she know what would be said if she did. In any case she didn't so Elphaba had to watch her walk away with a gnawing in her stomach she thought people might call guilt.

Nessa arrived soon after with Nanny to harass Elphaba up to their suite to get ready for the evening dancing. She abandoned her half-plate of sandwiches, having suddenly lost her appetite.

After a traumatic wardrobe session with Nessa and the conclusion of yet another dinner Elphaba took herself off on a tour of the ball and general festivities. The ballroom itself was huge, twice the size of the one at Colwen Grounds, which was the largest in all Nest Hardings. Packed full of people: dancers in the centre and the army of wallflowers, non-dancers, chatters and elderly ladies on sofas all around the extremity. Which made Elphaba's progress clumsy.

She nodded to a few people but did not stop to talk. She drew more than a few strange glances that she did not stop to engage until she was shot a particularly vile look by Pfannee as she waltzed past on the arm of a man who may or may not have been her husband. In reply Elphaba cupped her hand to her ear with a questioning look, motioning Pfannee to come a little closer. Wisely Pfannee waltzed on. Elphaba chuckled to herself and continued on her way.

The dance changed to a loathsome quadrille, everyone bowing and scraping and just walking around in time to music, which hardly seemed a dance at all. She stopped for a moment to watch in derision, all these people paired off but barely allowed to speak or touch, attempting some sort of intimacy under the watchful eye of two hundred other people.

On a particular beat the dancers parted in front of her and Elphaba found herself staring directly over at Lady Chuffrey on the far side of the room. Who appeared to be staring directly back.

Elphaba may have mocked the clothing but she thought it looked rather well on the girl, more so on her than anyone else. Certainly she never admired the sartorial or physical features of other people in this way. Lady Chuffrey looked illuminated, delicately radiating something that Elphaba could not put her finger on.

It all caused a curious tunnelling effect in Elphaba's vision whereby everyone else faded to a blur and a strange refraction of light made Lady Chuffrey seem closer, so that it would only take a few steps for Elphaba to be stood in front of her. Though what she would do then she did not know.

Elphaba felt a strange urgency to do that very thing. Lady Chuffrey returned the look with a curious expression as if she were not averse to the idea. The cumulative effect made Elphaba frown even though it were not unpleasant. She tore her eyes away to look to her right, to gauge how far she would have to skirt the room to indeed be at Lady Chuffrey's side. By the time she had completed the route in her mind and her eyes returned, Lady Chuffrey had gone.

Strangely and disproportionately peeved by this Elphaba started to move around the room but was interrupted in her quest.

"Elphie!" Boq appeared, tugging at her sleeve.

"What?" she snapped, stopping but with her eyes still roaming the room.

"We need to slip out," he hinted. "Fiyero leaves early tomorrow and we haven't any more time."

She nodded at him but her thoughts were on someone else. "There is something else to that girl."

"Hm? Elphie, what?"

"Lady Chuffrey."

"What about her?" Boq sounded about as distracted as Elphaba felt. The conversation struggled to hold together.

"I don't know. She's not at all as I had thought."

"Do you think she could be... useful?"

"No," she said sharply. "No. She's not as naïve as she appears but I won't bring her in to this."

This. This was why she needed to see Fiyero and Avaric, half the reason she was even convinced to come to the damn wedding. This was her life's purpose, if she were wedded to anything it were to this. So why was she still here, searching the place for a girl in too much dress? She cursed herself and left the room.

Boq led her down the corridor in to a small anteroom off to the side. Already in attendance was Fiyero, sat in an armchair fiddling with his cufflinks, and Avaric, who looked slightly the worse for wear.

"Gentlemen," Elphaba addressed them. It may be Avaric's wedding day and Fiyero may be a prince, but Elphaba Thropp was queen here.