Chapter 5: But His Name's Not Tenniel
April 11th, 1875
Whitechapel, London's East End, England
"Hey Alice! Tell us another story about Wonderland!"
"Yeah, tell us how you murdered all those poor, innocent Card Guards!"
Alice gave the children surrounding her a flat look. "Those 'poor, innocent Card Guards' attempted to stab me or blow me up multiple times," she replied, running the duster over the fireplace mantel.
"Yeah, because you were coming at them with a knife," Elsie pointed out.
"They started it. If they didn't want me coming at them with a knife, they shouldn't have attacked me as they did with their staves."
"Who tried to do what?"
Alice looked over to see Victor standing just inside the door, his sketchbook tucked under his arm and an inkwell and quill in his hands. "What are you talking about?" he continued with a puzzled frown.
"Didn't you know? Her own head tried to kill her," Ollie spoke up before she could say anything. "Loads of times."
"Yes, and I think this lot likes hearing about me nearly getting exploded or decapitated or shot," Alice said, folding her arms and regarding the children gathered around her coolly. They just smiled at her, all innocence. "But one must give their audience what they want. What brings you out here?"
"I thought I'd try to draw something," Victor said, holding up the quill. "I don't think I'll find many butterflies in London, so I was going to make do with objects about the Home first. . . ." He shrugged with his free shoulder. "I can leave if I'm bothering you."
"They're the ones bothering me," Alice said, waving a hand to encompass the crowd of children. "You can stay and draw whatever you like. Besides, I probably won't even notice you're here. If I don't tell them a story, they'll never let me be."
"Yes, because you're so intent on finishing the dusting," said Abigail, rolling her eyes.
"If it wasn't for me, you'd live in worse squalor than you already do," Alice retorted. She put down the duster and leaned against the fireplace. "So – you want to hear about me versus the Card Guards, hmm?"
"You versus anything," Reggie said. "Tell us about fighting the Army Ants – you never talk enough about them."
"All right. I hope you don't mind hearing about slaughter while you're trying to draw," she added as Victor sat down at the table at the other end of the room. She couldn't imagine he'd enjoy hearing about her cutting a bloody swath through Wonderland. Poor man would probably get sick.
"I can tune things out when I'm drawing," Victor replied, flipping open his sketchbook. "Don't let me interrupt you."
Well, she'd given him fair warning. If he got ill, it was his own fault. Alice turned her attention back to the children. "So – after gulping down the Drink Me potion the Mayor Elder had gifted me with and leaping through the tiny, mysteriously-convenient portal in the Skool's Observatory, I found myself in the Vale of Tears, no larger than your average beetle. It was a dull and dreary place indeed – all the world except the two feet directly in front of my nose was completely swallowed by grey mist. Have you ever seen anything like that?" The children shook their heads. "It's the most disconcerting thing in the world. You feel like nothing exists until you actually run into it – and even then you're not sure. If I hadn't been so determined to find Rabbit, I don't think I could have brought myself to move. As it was, I wandered about in the grey for a while, wondering just how lost I was getting and if I'd ever see any signs of life beyond the occasional droopy flower ever again, until I found myself at the base of a huge waterfall – well, huge by the standards of insects," she amended. "It was probably nothing but a tiny trickle down a minuscule crack to normal humans. But to me it was taller than the tallest buildings of Europe or America. And of course, I managed to catch sight of none other than that dratted White Rabbit mere seconds before he darted into a hole that's promptly blocked by a falling boulder. As usual, I'm forced to take the long way. . . ."
The children stood in front of her, rapt, as she told them of her long struggle up the face of the waterfall – dodging the boulders the Ants sent tumbling down at her at every turn, leaping from ledge to crumbly earthen ledge with nothing to save her from the deadliest of drops but her own meager arm strength should she miss, and avoiding the attentions of the curious Mechanical Ladybirds with their devastating payloads. "I think the tiny regiment of three were shocked to see me reach the top in one piece," she commented. "Not that it stopped them from trying to snip me in two with their mandibles once I got up there. I returned the favor to the first Ant with my Vorpal Blade, slashing through his thin neck and sending his head toppling over the side into the abyss. His brother-in-arms sought to avenge him by stabbing me with his bayonet – I blocked him with the Blade, then beat him senseless with my Croquet Mallet. Well, rather more than senseless – it took me a moment to realize the only reason he was still twitching was because of the constant stream of electric shocks my Mallet was assaulting him with. The third wisely stayed on his side of the river and relied on his marksmanship to fell me. Unfortunately, he was a very poor shot, and I pelted him with my Cards until he was the one lying in twain in a pool of his own green blood. Even if I hadn't had to go wading upstream to continue my journey, I probably would have done so anyway. After that fight, I was absolutely covered in guts and gore. And the green didn't go nearly as well with my dress as the red blood of the Card Guards did."
The children grinned and giggled, eating up the description of the pain and suffering of her enemies. Alice had learned early on that they enjoyed hearing every gruesome detail of her adventures – maybe because listening to the agonies of others distracted them from their own. At least it made them a receptive audience. She continued on, telling the children about the Pool of Tears and the shell-less Mock Turtle, and about the horrific leaf ride he'd led her on down the rushing streams. She vaguely noticed Victor looking up from his doodling to watch her about midway through the story, then turning to a new page in his sketchbook, but she didn't think anything of it. "And what do you think was waiting for me right after Mock floated on ahead? Another bloody drop! I just barely leapt to safety on dry earth. Well, I say safety – there were two Ants waiting there for me, muskets at the ready. Fortunately we had a rock between us I could dart behind and avoid their shots."
"What did their uniforms look like?"
"Blue shirts, with three gold stripes at the end of the sleeves and gold epaulets on the shoulders," Alice replied – then blinked. Wait, that hadn't been one of the children. She looked up to see Victor hunched over his sketchbook, quill waving as he scratched away. "Why do you want to know?" she added.
"Hmmm?" Victor continued scribbling for a moment, then blinked and raised his head as the question registered. "Oh! Um – w-well. . . ." He glanced at the sketchbook, then sat up and turned it so it was visible to the crowd. Curious, Alice went over to see what he'd drawn, the children trailing after her.
Her eyes went wide. Before her, laid out in sharp black ink, was the scene of a vicious battle. On the one side was an enraged Army Ant, wielding a bayonet with deadly efficiency. On the other – was herself, fending off his attacks with her Vorpal Blade, brow creased in lethal concentration. Just like at the top of the waterfall, she thought, the scene replaying itself in her mind. Granted, Victor hadn't gotten it quite right – the Alice on the page was attired in her London clothes, and the ant's uniform wasn't yet complete. But the movement, the weapons, the furious look in their eyes – it was almost like he'd been there. I'm not that good a storyteller, am I?
"Wow," Ollie whistled, impressed. "You're good."
"Lots of practice, I assure you," Victor said with a shy smile. Turning his gaze to Alice, he added, "I just couldn't help but get caught up in your story. And drawing Army Ants and Vorpal Blades seemed so much more interesting than half-empty bookshelves. . . ." The smile faded. "But if you don't like it, I can get rid of it. No trouble."
"No, don't," Alice said immediately, shocked he'd even consider destroying such a piece of art. "It's amazing. How did you draw the ant so well? I half-expect to leap off the page."
Victor chuckled. "Butterflies may be my favorite object of study, but I like all insects. I've made quite a few drawings of ants before." He turned the sketch back around. "Never clothed, though," he admitted, adding the epaulets to the Ant's shoulders. "You're sure you don't mind? I'd hate to think I was intruding on your world."
"They draw scenes from my Wonderland all the time," Alice said, jerking her head toward the children. "They're not half as good as you are." She ignored the dirty looks this prompted from Reggie and Abigail, intent on watching Victor.
"As I said, I've rather more experience with a pen." He finished the epaulets and glanced up at her. "Is that right?"
"Almost. There's a stripe on the collar about halfway up. . .yes, just there," she nodded as he added the final detail. "That's perfect."
"Are you gonna put it on your wall?" Abigail asked.
"If he'll let me," Alice said, giving Victor a hopeful smile.
"Oh – y-yes, if you like it that much. . . ." Victor added his signature to the bottom, then carefully tore the picture free. He presented it to her with a little flourish. "All yours."
"Thank you very much," Alice said, taking the sketch and looking it over again. It was astonishing how well he'd managed to translate her words into visual form. "If I ever decide to write a book, I want you to be my illustrator."
Victor blinked. "I'm – I won't say I don't have talent, but–" He looked down at his hands, then back up at her. "That's not something I've ever considered. At least, not for fictional books. I've always sort of wanted one of my scientific drawings published. . . ." He twisted his fingers together. "Do you really think I'm that good?"
"Better, honestly. I've seen some truly dreadful picture books. You should consider it, if you ever decide you want a job in something other than fish." Alice glanced back at the children. "I think that's enough story time for now."
"Aww, but you haven't told us how far you got down the river," Reggie complained.
"I'll tell you more after lunch, if you like. I want to hang this up – and I need to finish the dusting before Dr. Bumby complains."
The children grumbled, but dispersed, going to play with the toys scattered around the room. Victor stood up. "Er – can I get you the pins?" he offered.
"That would be nice – if you knew where they were," Alice pointed out, smirking playfully. "You can hold onto it while I get them and help me find a good place to hang it." She handed him back his sketch. "Go wait for me in my room. I expect you can find it, given that it's right next to yours. I do hope your head doesn't pop from entering it without a chaperone to watch over us," she added, bracing herself for the flustered fuss that was sure to follow. After all, if he'd been that embarrassed to find her in her nightgown once. . . .
To her surprise, Victor smirked back at her. "Oh, you needn't worry. I've already been in Victoria's room unchaperoned – and uninvited. Well sort of. . . ." he amended, fussing with his tie a little. "The point is, I know it's not the end of the world."
". . .You, of all people, invaded a lady's bedroom," Alice said, completely thrown. "When did you do that? The five seconds you had alone together before the rehearsal?"
"No – I was trying to get some help with Emily at the time," Victor explained. "I'd asked her to bring me back to the Land of the Living to meet my parents, hoping they could help me explain how I hadn't meant to marry her. I expected to find them at the Everglot mansion, but our carriage was missing, so I went to the front door to ask the Everglots. However, I overheard them talking about me on the other side, and they seemed rather – u-upset, so, out of desperation, I climbed up to Victoria's room to seek her aid. She did invite me in, but going behind her parents' backs probably negates her permission. . . ." He shook his head and sighed. "And it didn't make any difference in the end anyway. In trying to lead up to my situation gently, all I did was ensure Emily caught us together at the most inconvenient moment possible."
"What, did you go the extra mile and kiss Victoria?"
". . .Almost the most inconvenient moment possible," Victor corrected himself. "I spotted her climbing over the balcony just before my lips touched Victoria's. It's good that I did, too – she was upset enough with me after discovering Victoria without that."
"And for good reason – why didn't you ever tell her that you already had a fiancee?" Alice had to ask, rocking back on her heels.
"Because, as Lord Everglot liked to say, I can be a real ninny," Victor muttered, cheeks flushing as he looked at the floor. "I suppose I can blame being in shock at first – suddenly having a woman rise from the dead in front of you and drag you down to the Underworld would addle the best of people. But after hearing Bonejangles's song, about how she was betrayed by someone she loved. . .the obvious answer seemed far too cruel. How on earth do you politely tell someone, 'I'm terribly sorry, but I thought your hand was a twig?'" His hand founds its way to his tie again. "It's pathetic, really. . .in trying not to hurt her feelings, I think I caused her the most pain I've ever caused a person."
He looked exactly like a kicked puppy, Alice decided. Her heart went out to him despite herself. Perhaps the incidents he mentioned were all the products of a sick, deluded mind, like everyone else thought they were, but still. . . .
"An imaginary wound is still a wound," a smooth voice said, and she looked over Victor's shoulder to see a familiar blood-flecked smile grinning at her. "You should know that better than most."
"Oh, shove off," Alice snapped, waving her hand irritably at the grin.
Victor's head snapped back up, his eyes wide with shock. "B-beg pardon?"
"Not you," Alice assured him. "Just one of my imaginary 'friends' interjecting on the situation." She gave the smile a glare, and it faded away into nothingness. "Speaking of which, I can see how trying to tell someone you thought they were a harmless branch would be difficult. On the other hand, it would have saved you a lot of trouble."
"Yes," Victor agreed with a sigh. "But I can't go back and change the past. And considering the end she got, I'm not sure I'd want to. Everything we went through led to her finding her peace. Isn't that more important than what happens to me?"
"Not being an expert on theological matters, I couldn't say."
"Are you two just going to stand there forever, or are you actually gonna hang up that picture so we can have story time later?" Elsie called from across the room.
"For that, you can wait until I've polished the knick-knacks before hearing anything else," Alice shot back, eliciting a chorus of groans. "She has a point, though – let me go get those pins." She turned away and headed into the hall. Well, she thought, shaking her head. I would have never suspected him of sneaking into someone's bedroom, no matter the situation. He was so nervous and shy when he first arrived. . .how many more surprises does he have in store for me?
She located the pins and went to her room. Victor was standing just inside the doorway, looking at the collection of pictures on her wall. "Are all of these from the children?" he asked, his eyes traveling over images of murderous chessmen, demented hatters, and card guards being messily dismembered.
"A couple," Alice said, feeling a flicker of embarrassment. "The majority are ones I've drawn myself. My skills don't quite match up to yours." Though they used to – whatever happened to that talent I displayed at Rutledge?
"They're all very – bloody," Victor said, glancing at her.
"That's what Wonderland was like at the time," Alice replied, taking his sketch and looking for an appropriate section of wall to stick it on. "I told you it didn't take well to me going mad. I had to fight my way across it to try and earn my sanity back. Which included being forced to kill a few old friends. Didn't that story of mine give you a clue?"
"Er – I suppose," Victor whispered, grimacing at the pictures. "T-that must have been terrible."
"It certainly wasn't fun," Alice agreed, finding a spot above her bed. "But I persevered in the end." She stretched herself and laid the drawing flat. "Hold this in place, will you?"
Victor obligingly set a hand against it. As Alice pinned the corners, his gaze drifted to the photograph hanging nearby. "Is that your family?" he asked.
Alice nodded. "Mama, Papa, Elizabeth, and me," she said softly. "Some anonymous person sent it to me. I wish they'd put a return address – I'd like to thank them. I think every other memento I could have had of my family burned in the fire. Except for my favorite toy rabbit, but that's been missing a – a long time." And when I find out who stole it from my room at Rutledge. . . .
"I'm sorry to hear that," Victor said, voice low and sad. He leaned closer, examining the image of Lizzie. "You look rather like your sister."
"I suppose I do," Alice admitted. Unconsciously she hugged herself. "I'm older than she was when she died now. I always threatened her that one day I'd be the older sister. . . ." She looked away, feeling tears pricking the corners of her eyes.
As usual, Victor's tie was the victim of his feeling awkward. "Ah – i-is there anything I–" he started.
Alice shook her head, getting control over her emotions. "Unless you can raise them from the dead, no. I'm fine, I really am." Maybe if she said it enough, it would end up being true. "You know, technically you drew me all wrong," she added, wanting to distract him from her moment of weakness.
"Did I?" Victor looked back at the sketch he'd made. "I thought it was a pretty good likeness. I confess I've never been as good with people as I am with insects, though."
"Oh it's a fine likeness – of me here," Alice said. "But I look a bit different in Wonderland. Longer hair, nicer clothes – prettier overall."
"Oh, I see," Victor said with a half-smile. Then, with a little wince, he hastily added, "Er – not to imply you're not pretty here, of course."
"You didn't insult me," Alice assured him, smirking. There were the nerves she found so hilarious. "I know I don't have the best looks." She fingered her tangled hair. "Ten years in the looney bin will do that to you."
"Yes, but –"
Why did he constantly cut himself off? "Yes?" Alice prompted.
Victor hesitated, then looked her full in the face. "Do excuse me if this is too forward – but you've got the most gorgeous eyes I've ever seen."
She hadn't expected that. She'd expected more flustered half-sentences, a generic declaration of loveliness that she could easily dismiss. Not something that sounded so sincere and sweet. "Is that why you kept staring at me when we first met?" she asked as she tried to work out what one did with a genuine compliment.
Victor nodded, twisting his tie some more (he was going to rip it in two if he wasn't careful). "I'm sorry, it was quite rude of me, but – well, I've never seen eyes quite like yours before. Any color beyond deep blue or brown is a rarity in Burtonsville. The green you have is just so – vibrant." He shrugged, giving her a tiny smile. "I like it."
. . .She was blushing. She did not like feeling awkward like this. And yet, she couldn't really be angry with him. What sorcery was this? "T-thank you," she said, hating that little stutter. That was his thing, damn it. She forced herself back under control. "You've got rather unusual eyes yourself. I was wondering if you had anything but pupil."
Victor let out a weak laugh. "Family trait."
"Is it also a family trait to be skinny as a rail and so pale I doubt you've ever seen sunshine?" Alice asked, folding her arms. She knew she was leaning toward being nasty, but she wanted him to pay for that blush.
Victor, however, didn't seem to notice – he merely nodded. "I'm every inch a Van Dort in that respect," he said, smoothing out his tie. "Though even Father says I'm the most extreme example in a while. Except in height."
"I disagree – you've got a foot on me if you've got an inch," Alice said, looking him up and down. "How tall are you?"
"Six feet, three inches. But I promise you, that's just about average for my family – for Burtonsville in general, really. We're almost all very tall or very short. My great-grandfather Horace Van Dort was seven feet tall."
"Seven!" Jealousy welled up within Alice – she'd always wanted to be even a half-inch taller. Why was it some people got all the luck? "You're a family of bloody giants. Or, well, you would be if you had the muscle to go with your absurdly tall frames. I'd ride around on your shoulders so I could tower over everyone else if I wasn't afraid your spine would break under even my undernourished weight."
Victor laughed. "I'm sorry to disappoint. Though I suppose you could try if you liked. . . ."
Alice shook her head, amused again. "No – thinking about it, I'd bang my head on every doorframe." She glanced outside. "You should probably go get your sketchbook. I wouldn't be surprised if some enterprising child has decided to doodle in it by now."
Victor somehow managed to turn whiter than he already was. "Oh no!" He bolted out the door, nearly tripping in his haste.
Alice drew back a step, surprised by the look of terror on Victor's face. Was it really so horrible if one of the children added their own special touch to his sketchbook? Then again, she wouldn't exactly be happy either if someone drew all over her pictures, crude as they were these days. And the children did like to tease him about his reasons for being here. They'd probably draw something disgusting in it just to rile him up. She hoped he saved it before that could happen. Nobody deserved something like that memorialized in one of their prized possessions.
She turned back to the sketch now hanging on her wall. He really did have talent. She could practically hear her Vorpal Blade clanging against the Army Ant's bayonet, and feel the breeze ruffling her hair and skirts. She reached up and brushed her fingers over the ink Alice. Seeing her London self in battle. . .she liked it. It made her feel – powerful. Like she was just as capable of fighting, of surviving, as her Wonderland self was. That was a feeling she hadn't had since she first left Rutledge. It was good to have it back.
She saw Victor pass by out of the corner of her eye, clutching the book to his chest. "Did they get at it?" she asked.
Victor shook his head. "Thankfully no. I've got some important sketches in here."
"Good." She paused, then on impulse added, "You know, if you want to hear some more stories of Wonderland, all you've got to do is ask. I don't mind telling you. Especially if you favor me with some more drawings."
Victor smiled. "I'd be happy to draw more pictures for you. Wonderland sounds like an amazing place. Dangerous, but amazing."
"It is," Alice said, feeling a pang of longing. She missed her childhood dreamland a lot. Even if large parts of it had tried to kill her on her last visit. The Village of the Doomed, the Pale Realm, the Wonderland Woods. . .even at their absolute worst, they were more interesting than dull and dirty London. Maybe – maybe she should try to make another daydream trip there. . . ?
No. That would be counterproductive to convincing the world she was well and could stand on her own two feet. Better to keep it to stories – no matter how much it hurt to abandon her old friends. They were probably happier without her anyway, considering most of them had ended up dead for a while thanks to her. And besides, she thought, frowning at another grin that flickered briefly into existence, they know where to find me if they must have my company. "I'll have to tell you about the days when it was simply amazing."
Victor nodded. "I'd like that." He continued on into his room, apparently to store the sketchbook somewhere safe. Alice watched as he closed the door behind him, then turned one last time to his sketch. Earlier, she'd thought he would just be fun to have around, to tease every once in a while. Now, though. . .
Now she was wondering if she might actually get a friend out of all of this.