Chapter 2: Relapses And Reporters
"You know, even if we hadn't needed the extra help around here, I probably would have kept you on as a cook after that meal alone."
June grinned as she dropped the last of the plates next to the sink. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. Mother had me toddling around with measuring spoons and flour almost from the time I could walk. I think I made my first real meal when I was only six years old. Granted, I burned the meat and undercooked the potatoes, but. . . ."
"Well, you've certainly come a long way since then," Alice chuckled.
"It was delicious," Victor agreed, elbow-deep in the lukewarm water they'd managed to coax out of the tap. He extracted a fork and rubbed it clean with a rag before setting it aside to dry. "I don't think I've enjoyed a meal more. At least. . . ." His cheer faded. "I-I don't remember."
"You certainly haven't enjoyed one so much at Houndsditch," Alice informed him. "Not that I blame you – even when I've cooked the darn thing, I'm often reluctant to eat it. You should have been looking for work in a restaurant, June, not an orphanage."
"I had to take what I could get! Finding work is hard, especially when you're – you're still in mourning," June replied, shoulders slumping.
"Oh yes, your mother. . . ." Alice looked away as Victor redirected his attention to the latest pile of plates. "I'm sorry, June. I – I hope it wasn't–" "Get out, Alice!" "Save yourself, Alice!" "–painful for her."
"She was ill for a good long while," June admitted. "The doctor kept saying it was just a stomach upset and that she'd surely be better soon. . .shows you how much they know," she added with uncharacteristic sourness. Then the smile came back. "But she made me promise not to be gloomy over it. She'd had a good life, and she was very much hoping to see my older brother again. My sisters told me she was never quite the same after Jeremy died."
The flames licked at the back of her mind, carrying with them a scent that wasn't quite that of a roasting lamb chop. . .Alice dumped a bucket of water over them and pushed her focus back outward. "Losing family is always hard," she murmured. "At least you've got some left. . .how many sisters do you have? I only had the one, and she was expected to be an only child before I surprised my mother ten years afterward."
"A round ten," June reported, twisting a curl around her finger. "You're looking at the youngest of eleven – well, twelve, but they found poor Jeremy on the road with his legs broken not more than a month after I was born. . . ." She sighed, then spread her fingers. "But yes, besides me there's Claire, Nora, April, Hester, Nettie, Hannah, Gladys, May, Virginia, and Ethel. All married off, as I said – two living in Spain and one in France, no less."
Alice's jaw nearly hit the floor. "I – where do you even put so many children?" she blurted. "Back in Oxford, the biggest family was the Wrights with five, and I often heard some of Mama's snottier acquaintances whisper that the parents needed to learn how to keep their hands off each other! I can only imagine what they'd make of a round dozen!"
"Well, I think there was a reason Jeremy became a traveling musician before I came into the world," June giggled. "The house was always rather cramped, yes, but – oh, I can't picture it any other way. Maybe we tended to be a little short on food or clothes, but we had each other, and that made up for a lot." She shrugged. "Besides, my oldest sisters were in the marriage market from the time I was small. It wasn't long before they started disappearing and making homes of their own."
Alice winced. "I've never liked that term – 'marriage market.' Women should not be referred to as if they're heads of cattle at auction. Lizzie made it very clear to Mama and Papa she wouldn't tolerate them arranging her marriage."
"Mother mostly just encouraged," June said, bouncing on her heels. "You know, invite boys of the right age over, contrive excuses to get us out of the room if anyone started making eyes at each other. . .she wanted us to marry well, of course, but she–" Her eyes raked over her dark arm. "Well, she knew what it meant to give up a lot for love, I think."
Alice spotted an elephant standing in the far corner, looking at her expectantly. "It sounds like your sisters lived up to expectations," she said, ignoring it as best she could.
"No lords, but they're comfortable enough," June nodded, grinning. "Nora even graduated from maid to wife after her Julien started talking to her. Mother was hoping to find someone for me too, but – I just never met the right one." She glanced toward the stairs. "I think she would have liked me taking a job here. She'd have spoiled the children as if they were my own."
"Too bad she can't come back and take over things herself," Alice said, imagining a deep blue (or light blue? It seemed so rude to ask) older version of June sitting in the front foyer, reading a story to the fascinated children. "Alas, we shall have to wait for medical help."
"Mmmm. . .what about you, Vic – oh, I'm sorry," June cut herself off, flushing deep pink. "I didn't mean–"
"No, go ahead and ask," Alice encouraged her, turning to her friend still hunched over the sink. "We're trying to get the memories back, aren't we? So what about it, Victor? Do you remember anything from your childhood?"
No response. Alice frowned at his back. "Victor?"
Nothing. Victor just kept at his task – extract plate, wipe it down, set it aside, repeat. Extract knife, wipe it down, set it aside, repeat. Over and over and over again, like he was a wind-up –
"Victor?" June said, unaware of the growing horror on Alice's face. She poked him in the shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Victor swayed slightly, but continued his work, otherwise unaware of the interruption. Alice's breath quickened as she succumbed just the teensiest bit to panic. Oh God oh God what if he doesn't wake up this time – "VICTOR!"
Victor seized the sides of the dented metal basin as the remains of the plate sank back under the soapy water. "Oh – I'm – I'm sorry!" he cried, looking from June to Alice with wide, haunted eyes. "I just – i-it was automatic, I didn't e-even think about–"
"It's all right – no, it's not all right, but it's also not your fault," Alice corrected herself, hurrying to his side. "I shouldn't have shouted like that. . .you're not hurt, are you?"
Victor turned his hands over, watching the suds drip off. "No, I – no." He closed his eyes and dropped his head. "Though I'm s-sick to my stomach. . .why do I keep – keep t-turning back?"
"Let's be fair, Victor – I only snapped you out of it a few hours ago," Alice reminded him. "I think you're doing incredibly well staying yourself."
June stared at them from a few steps away, face pale and spooked. "I got a look at his eyes right before you yelled," she told Alice breathlessly. "They were – I've had dolls that were more expressive!"
Alice flinched at the hated word. "Trust me, I know."
"And then the way he jumped – oh, Victor." June's motherly instincts took over, and she reached out to wrap him in a hug from behind. "Come here."
"Yes – no!"
June gasped as Victor's elbow shot out and nailed her in the stomach. "Oof! All right, all right, no hugs!"
"Sorry!" Victor repeated, gritting his teeth. "I didn't mean – j-just warn me, please! Mas-Bumby l-liked to c-come up on me from behind a l-lot. . . ."
"Yes, I always did admire that arse–"
The Vorpal Blade snicker-snacked through the shadow of the Dollmaker, reducing him to a pile of broken bits on the floor. Alice kicked them away as stealthily as she was able. "I don't think June will be trying again anytime soon," she assured her friend, patting the poor girl on the back. "And I'll do my best not to surprise you that way." She spotted a trickle of Ruin slithering down the wall into the sink and shook her head. "As for now, I'm officially excusing you from chores." She held up a hand as Victor started to protest. "Can you trust yourself not to have another episode? I know you want to be useful, but – bloody hell, Victor, that scares me."
"It s-scares me too," Victor admitted, bent low over the basin. "I don't want to be a – a toy, I really don't. . .but he's so loud in my head. . . ."
Alice wondered if she would ever stop kicking herself for leaving him alone in Bumby's clutches. Maybe after another fifty years or so. "We'll get him out," she promised him. "Drag him kicking and screaming if necessary, but we'll do it." She patted his shoulder. "Why don't you go upstairs and have a sit? Re – if you want to, read a book or something." Sudden inspiration struck. "Or maybe have a look at the piano?" If anything should be able to get him back to himself. . . .
Victor's face contorted. "I – I don't think – I can't," he finally got out, voice choked.
"What? Whyever not?"
Eyes filled with glittering wet pain met hers. "He – I – I know I l-loved the piano, Alice. I just barely remember how h-happy it made me. But–" He swallowed. "I don't remember how to play."
. . .Death wasn't good enough for the gammy trasseno, never would be, she should have taken the opportunity to crack his bloody skull open before throwing him on the tracks – Alice leaned heavily on her anger, squashing it down. Now was not the time. Surely there were a few monsters left in Wonderland, waiting. "Just – just rest, then, if you like," she said. "You look like you need it. We can handle the rest of this."
Victor nodded. "All right." He started for the stairs, head bowed and steps heavy. "I'm sorry," he repeated one last time.
"Don't be – you've nothing to be sorry for."
Victor didn't look like he believed her, but headed up anyway. June watched as he disappeared. "You know," she said, finally straightening back up, "even if Dr. Bumby had left the children alone and simply – hurt – Victor, I'd still consider him the most dreadful man alive."
"No argument from me," Alice growled, anger boiling up again. "How could any one man cause such agony in other human beings? I wish – I wish – I wish I'd realized what he was sooner," she sighed, the fight going out of her. "How many tears could I have prevented? How much pain erased? How many lives could I have saved?"
"Don't blame yourself, Alice," June said, extending her arms – then remembered herself and instead picked up Victor's discarded rag. "Nobody else had any idea what he was doing, did they?"
"Yes, well, nobody else was living in the same bloody house as him," Alice retorted. "Nobody else saw him at his trade of wiping minds. Nobody else bought the food and cleaned the floors and fetched the medicines he needed to do it all!"
"What about Victor? He was here, the same as you. Seems like he didn't notice anything wrong."
"Oh yes he did – he was suspicious from the moment one of them was adopted and he never saw who by. The only reason he dropped the subject was because I told him Dr. Bumby had the children's best interests at heart!" Alice squeezed her arm, struggling to contain rage and shame so tightly commingled she couldn't tell where one ended and the other began. "I steered the one person who could have done anything away from the truth. I'm as much to blame as that accursed doctor."
The rag cracked like a whip, spraying dishwater all over her shoes. "No you are not!" June snapped, waving it around for emphasis. "I won't let you go on and on like this when you've been nothing but kindness itself to me! Dr. Bumby's sins are on his head, and his alone! The good Lord surely told him so when he arrived at the pearly gates! The only thing you're guilty of is suffering just as much as anyone else under his 'care!'"
Alice blinked, taken aback by the passion in June's voice. Goodness – I could have sworn she was composed of pure marshmallow! Of course, I thought the same of Victor once, and then he proceeded to punch both Bumby and Jack Splatter in the face. Ugh, I hope that bastard doesn't show himself anywhere around here anytime soon. The last thing I need is him trying to take revenge on Victor yet again! ". . .if this doesn't prove you're new to London, nothing will."
"I don't care," June huffed, turning and plunging her hands into the sink. The drip of Ruin swirled around them as she scrubbed a plate. "You could have just thrown me onto the street when you discovered I'd been hired as your replacement. God knows you have enough to deal with. Instead you go ahead and give me the job anyway, with food and board besides."
"That was part of the job, June. You'd have gotten the same from Dr. Bumby."
"And what else?"
The Ruin twisted itself into an oozing smile, promising corruption and degradation. "I don't want to think about it," Alice admitted, trying to ignore it. "But you must know I didn't make the offer out of pure altruism – I told you straight out that I can't run this place on my own. My mind may be better put together, but I'm still gluing some of the pieces back into place, so to speak."
"Again, I don't give a toss," June replied, picking out a knife and rubbing it until it shone. "I've had people who probably needed the help just as much throw me out on my ear just because I'm–"
And there was the elephant again, quite peeved that it was being ignored. Alice reached behind her and petted its trunk. "You'll find that less of a problem here, at least," she said. "Though I can't promise the children won't ask an awkward question or two."
"Awkward questions I can handle," June said, picking out the pieces of the shattered plate. "It's – it's the look some of my potential employers gave me that gets under my skin. As if they thought I shouldn't exist." She sighed. "Claire, Nora, Nettie, Hannah, and Gladys were lucky – they could pass. The rest of us look very much like our father – or so I'm told. He was gone before I was born." She pulled her braid in front of her eyes. "I haven't the slightest how I ended up with Mother's hair, though."
"Don't ask me – I'm afraid my lineage is lily-white all the way through," Alice told her, playing with the elephant's nose. "In my case, the looks come from people who think I'm about to rip their hearts out with a spoon or suchlike. There's plenty who believe that once you go into bedlam, you should only come out again in a casket." She rubbed her wrists. "I nearly did."
"I'm so sorry," June said, casting her a sympathetic look over her shoulder. "It's awful, being held apart for something you can't help."
"You'd know better than I – one of the few advantages I have is being the 'right' color. Oxford was supposed to be an enlightened area, but our neighbors still chattered on like magpies the day we had some Chinese people over for tea."
"Mother told me it's even worse in the States – she and my father came over here under the threat of lynching," June reported. "I guess I'm lucky that the worst I've had is doors slammed in my face."
"Perhaps, but that doesn't make it right."
"And that is why I'll defend your good name to anyone who asks," June replied, pointing a chunk of cheap porcelain at her. "It's nice to be accepted for once. You've suffered enough for one lifetime, Alice. Throughout that entire dreadful recitation of Bumby's – activities – you looked guiltier than Cain after he slew Abel."
Alice choked back a laugh. If only June knew how right she was! "And why shouldn't I? Dozens of lives were destroyed by that walking worm. Part of my duties was to look after the children. Letting someone wipe their memories clean and then–" another pulse of sticky black against the wall "–put them up for auction means I wasn't looking very hard."
June twisted her rag around her hands. "But you were a patient too. I've read the articles about you in the Illustrated, begging your pardon – the last one said you were under Bumby's care because you were still seeing things. Isn't that a good enough excuse?"
"I'm seeing things now and–" And I could kill my tongue, Alice thought with a groan. Why had she said that out loud? There went the only person beyond Victor who had a good opinion of her in this place.
June, however, didn't seem ready to run just yet – though she did stare. "You're – but – you don't sound mad," she said, shaking the rag out.
"I've mastered the art of coherence," Alice replied, rubbing her face. "And I've been blessed – if you can call it that – with the ability to tell fact from fiction for the most part. Usually I'm aware that my hallucinations are just that, no matter how real they seem. I did have a very bad turn recently, but. . . ." She sighed and looked around. "It helps that it's just the scenery that's different now. Trees growing through buildings, giant dominoes leaned up against market stalls, flowers winding through the cobbles. Things like that."
The slightest smile quirked June's lips. "If that's being mad, I wouldn't mind joining you."
Alice snorted. "It's not all fun and games! Really, June, you sound like – Victor."
Silence descended over them. June picked out a few forks and cleaned them off. "You really care for him, don't you?" she said at last.
"He's my best friend," Alice murmured. "And. . . ." "Well – if you'd r-really like to learn piano, Alice, I. . .I could give you a few lessons. No trouble at all." "No one should talk to women the way Jack Splatter does! Particularly not to you!" "They're still gorgeous. You're still gorgeous." ". . .and if I'd paid better attention to him too, maybe more."
"Oh, please don't start again. Look, perhaps you weren't as – as perceptive as you could have been before, but – well, that's 'before.'" June rubbed down another plate, expression serious. "Mother taught me that you should never wallow in the past. Bad things happen, but you learn and improve yourself going forward. And you seem to have made an excellent start in a few scant hours."
"I would hope so," Alice said, rocking on her heels. "I rather desperately need improvement."
"So improve. Nobody here hates you – not the children, not Victor, not me. So don't hate yourself. Just make yourself better than you were." June offered up a bright smile. "And I'll be there too, to help you however you need."
The more cynical part of Alice pointed out that June was probably being so tolerant as much from a lack of anywhere to go if she left Houndsditch as from genuine good feelings, but she was touched all the same. "Thank you, June."
June nodded and turned back to the sink. "I've got these – you run upstairs and check on your young man."
"He's not–" Alice started out of habit, then caught herself. "He's not yet my young man." She glanced down at her hand, recalling the feeling of long pale fingers tangled with hers, and smiled sadly. "But hopefully he will be soon."
She'd only just reached the dining room when she heard the knock, sharp and insistent. "Oh, who now?" Alice muttered, hurrying toward the sound. "I swear, they're just crawling out of the woodwork today. . . ."
Abigail and Elsie were peeping through the left window as she entered the front foyer. "It's a man," Elsie reported, glancing over her shoulder. "And he's got a notebook."
"Officer Hightopp?" Maybe he'd thought it a better idea to come to her than wait around for her return?
Abigail shook her head. "Don't got a bobby's uniform. Just an ugly hat."
That was rather more concerning. Still, this was unlikely to be her worst fear – Bumby's associates probably didn't use the front door in broad daylight. She hoped, anyway. She put a finger to her lips. "Stay there and don't move."
The girls nodded, wrapping themselves up in the curtain for protection. Alice skimmed the shelves until she found an appropriately heavy encyclopedia. She tucked it under her arm, took a deep breath, then opened the door.
A raised fist greeted her. Alice automatically grabbed for her weapon – then it dropped, and she realized she'd simply interrupted their visitor mid-knock. He beamed at her under his beat-up bowler, unaware of how close he'd come to having his nose broken. "Alice Liddell! It is a pleasure to meet you in the flesh!" The hand shot out toward her, palm flat this time. "Jonathan Tailor, of The Illustrated London News. I was hoping for a moment of your time?"
Oh no, already? Alice toyed with the idea of throwing the book at him and locking the door. "Mr. Tailor, we're very busy."
"I know!" Mr. Tailor replied, still beaming. Goodness, she hadn't been smiled at this much since the night before her family died. "Dr. Bumby dead, and a case of vile corruption blown wide open! With you right in the middle of it all! Oh, Alice, we at the Illustrated knew you'd go on to great things!"
"I – I hardly think this is great," Alice managed, clutching the book to her chest like a shield. "How do you know so much about this already? It only happened a couple of hours ago."
"A good reporter always goes where the story is, Miss Liddell," Mr. Tailor replied, knocking back his bowler with a finger. "Though I thought I was chasing down the tale of The Train That Just Avoided Becoming A Runaway! But almost the moment I get to the station, I'm swarmed by bobbies, and after a bit of careful questioning, I discover someone's been splattered all over the front of the engine! So then it was going to be Railway Claims Mystery Victim, but then Officer Tarrant declares he recognizes the deceased's glasses and watch, and what's left of his nose, and I revise to Railway Claims Dr. Bumby, Philanthropist And Social Engineer! Of course I can't leave it at that without getting a proper police statement, so I head on over to Bow Street to see if Officer Tarrant will honor me with a quote, and I happen to catch him having a very interesting chat with his friend Officer Hightopp–"
"And didn't stop hounding them until they let slip about Bumby's journal, no doubt," Alice cut in, deadpan.
"The Illustrated leaves no stone unturned," Mr. Tailor said with a smart nod. "Naturally I knew I needed an interview with you – and is Master Van Dort around?" He craned his head to scan the room behind her. "I know he won't be good for much, but a nice quote as a byline–"
"Don't you dare go near him!" Alice shouted, eyes blazing as she raised the book high. "He's suffering, and he doesn't need you jackals feeding on him!"
"Jackals? Feeding? Miss Liddell, we are a respectable paper!" Mr. Tailor snapped back, straightening. "And we intend to let all of London know just what horrors occurred here! It is our journalistic duty!"
"He may not know the definition of 'respectable' as well as he ought, but I doubt you want to incur the wrath of the tabloids," Cheshire whispered in Alice's ear. "The problem with people who will do anything for a story is that they will do anything for a story. That could be to your advantage, or your detriment. Choose wisely."
Alice sighed, lowering her weapon. Cheshire had a point – the Illustrated had been surprisingly kind to her so far, even if they had exploited her story for all it was worth. And she needed all the friends she could get. "I can't argue with spreading the story of Bumby's filth far and wide," she allowed. "But do you really need to bother Victor? He's – he's not well."
"So I've gathered." The notebook flipped open, and a pen appeared in the hand. "A stint as Bumby's 'personal assistant?' That's how the police phrased it."
Alice nodded, trying not to think of blank dead eyes staring at her. "With emphasis on 'personal,'" she mumbled. "And did they tell you he's got amnesia?"
"It came up – he really can't remember anything?" Mr. Tailor inquired, head tilted like a dog watching a cat up a tree.
"Almost nothing," Alice confirmed. "You come at him like this and you'll just frighten the life out of him. You won't even get your quote." She ran her fingers through her hair. "As for my own interview, I'm not sure what I could tell you that Hightopp and Tarrant haven't. I'm the one who delivered the journal."
"So I hear – how did you feel upon discovering it?"
Alice stared at him. "How do you think I felt?"
"For the quote, Miss Liddell! Something sensational, please," he added, scritching away. "We want the whole city picking up this edition."
All right – he wanted sensational, she'd give it to him. Ruining Bumby's reputation was one of the perks of this whole mess. "Like I'd had my very heart ripped out of my chest," she said, reaching into her apron pocket. "Especially since I'd just realized he was the one who'd burnt my family's house to the ground."
The pen froze mid-scratch. "He what?"
Alice pulled out the key and showed it to him. "My sister's room key. Bastard took it as a trophy after he killed her and set the fire to cover up his crime. He was an undergraduate at Oxford under my father, you see, and got it into his head my sister was madly in love with him but just didn't want to say. When he was finally disabused of the notion. . . ."
"My God!" Horrified delight was not an expression most people could pull off, but Mr. Tailor did so marvelously. "Why didn't you tell our boys in blue? And it's the anniversary no less!" He stuck the end of his pen into his mouth. "Can I make the evening edition? I'll have to run. . . ."
"It's been twelve years, and this is my only proof – I didn't think they'd believe me," Alice admitted, putting the key away. "Besides, I thought it much more important to get justice for the children."
"Our selfless heroine holds back her own vengeance to save others," Mr. Tailor muttered, scribbling like the madwoman she'd been in Rutledge. "Beautiful, beautiful. . .oh!" He jerked his head up again. "The postman never did tell us – you did get the photograph, right?"
Alice frowned. "Photograph?"
"We sent it to you direct," Mr. Tailor told her, for the first time sounding anything but enthusiastic. "Larry Larkin – one of our younger reporters at the time – was mistaken by a relative by the police and received it from the wreckage. We had it in storage for years, wondering what to do with it. Sending it to Rutledge wasn't an option, of course – but once you had a proper address. . . ."
"I already put it all–"
"No, for you!"
Alice blinked. Mail for her? But how could that be? There wasn't anyone left to send her letters except Nanny, and Alice doubted she'd received news of the change of address yet. Curious, she headed to the foyer, where Bumby was examining a strange oval-shaped package. "Doctor?"
Bumby frowned at the brown paper, then proffered the mystery item. "The postman came back, saying it was a late arrival. . .there's no return, but it's addressed to 'Miss Liddell' instead of myself," he said. "You don't know what it could be, do you?"
"Haven't the slightest," Alice said, accepting the package with a touch of trepidation. A letter was baffling enough, but a gift? From no one? The Tweedle twins haven't sent me a loo seat as a going-away present, have they? she wondered, feeling the edges. I'll regift it to Nurse Witless if that's the case. . . . Eager to solve the mystery, she tore off the paper –
and found her family's faces staring back at her.
Alice gaped at the suddenly shy reporter. Of all the possible candidates she'd considered over the past year. . . . "Why – why didn't you include your address?" she asked once she got her voice back.
"We weren't sure if you would accept it if you knew it was from us," Mr. Tailor admitted, scratching his head with the back of his pen. "Writing about your days in bedlam and all. . .but how could we not send a token of our appreciation to our favorite little miss?"
This day was nothing but surprises. At least the pleasant ones were starting to outnumber the other kind. Alice stepped out of the doorway, slipping her book back under her arm. "Come in," she said, as Mr. Tailor grinned. "You're still not getting near Victor – but I'll tell you everything you want to know."
"Thank you so much, Miss Liddell! That was quite the tale! You've given my hand a cramp, but it'll be worth it! This'll have all of London talking and no mistake! From the highest to the low!"
"How nice," Alice said, steering Mr. Tailor toward the door. She glanced at the sunlight streaming in through the window Abigail and Elsie had vacated. It definitely looks dimmer. . .but of course I can't be sure if that's even sunlight anyone else can see. Damn it, why don't we have a clock in here? I need to know if it's coming up four!
"You really do have an incredible life," Mr. Tailor babbled on, heedless of her twitchiness. "Escaping a terrible house fire, surviving ten years of 'modern medicine' in Rutledge, and now helping to bring a loathsome stain on humanity to justice! Well, Heaven's justice, at any rate. I wonder what you'll do next!"
"At this point, I'd like to just settle down quietly somewhere in the country and never have cause to make the headlines again." "I d-don't want to – even if he isn't there anymore, I-I'll try–" "Aren't you on deadline?" she added, rocking impatiently on her heels.
"Oh yes!" Mr. Tailor yanked out his watch. Alice caught a glimpse of the face – oh damn, the hour and minute hand were at a rather wide angle. . . . "Might be too late to break this today – but I promise you that by breakfast-time tomorrow, we'll have papered the city with this news!"
Alice wondered just how many breakfasts would stay in their stomachs after their owners read said paper. "Good, good. You'd best get going, though."
"Right, yes – I'll see you later, Miss Liddell! And do let me know when Master Van Dort will be available for his take!"
"That's likely a 'never,' but fine. Good day, Mr. Tailor!"
And with a tip of his hat, the reporter finally headed down the steps and out the gate. Alice slammed the door behind him and rushed to Victor's room. Don't be too late don't be too late –
Nope – no sign of him. The only occupant of the space was a Slithering Ruin, which squealed when it saw her and tried to squirm under the bed. Alice stomped on it to relieve her feelings. Damn it. . .well, maybe June caught him in the kitchen, she thought, heading back down the hall. It should have been me, though. I promised him I'd –
"Ugnhhh. . . ."
Alice's head jerked to the left. There was Victor, seated on her bed, head practically between his knees. Her heart went out to him – why must he suffer so? But on the other hand, anything was better than those doll-dead eyes from before. . . . "Glad to see you not over the stove," she said, hoping it might make him feel a little better.
Victor raised his eyes. "H-he's yelling at me," he whispered. "B-bad boy, Thirteen, you k-know where you're supposed to be. . .must obey must forget must–" He started to stand, but stopped himself and pressed down on his neck. "I don't want to, I d-don't. . . ."
"And you're not," Alice said, sitting next to him. The pictures on the wall turned to watch the scene. "You're fighting him off, Victor. You're winning."
"Still counts." Alice reached out a hand, then remembered the elbow that had winded June. "Is it all right if I touch you?"
A moment's hesitation, then a nod. Alice lightly rested her hand on his back. "I'm sorry I wasn't here earlier," she murmured. "I had to fend off a reporter from the Illustrated. Has June been by?"
"Just to fetch a broom. . .s-she's cleaning the kitchen," Victor told her.
"Well, it does need a scrub." And that's a clever way to make sure she was there if you showed up; good job June. "Why are you here in my room?" she added, yielding to curiosity. "Did you forget which one was yours?" She hoped that didn't sound sarcastic – how depressing to have to ask that question legitimately!
Victor shook his head. "I s-stayed in the same one while Ma–Bumby was in charge," he mumbled. "I wasn't a-allowed in yours. He had the door closed at all times. Said I'd be p-punished if I looked inside."
"Hmmm." Alice looked around the little cell. It was dusty, but appeared untouched from when she'd seen it last. How curious. "One wonders why he didn't just throw all my things away and strip the room clean, especially if he'd already found a replacement. . .then again, he already obsessed over one of the Liddell girls," she muttered, remembering her sister complaining of unwanted looks and clammy hands. "And with me looking so much like Lizzie. . . ."
The word hit her like a homing Heart right in the stomach. Victor caught the look on her face and pulled away, screwing up his eyes. "Sorry, I'm sorry–"
Alice grabbed his shoulder. "Get back here."
He stiffened, eyes just on the edge of blankness – then he scooted back to her side and the moment was over. "Sorry," Alice muttered, fighting to control the swirl of shame, anger, and worry within her. "It's not – but – you don't remember anything about me either, do you?" she continued, biting her lip.
Victor avoided her gaze. "I – a c-couple of things," he said at last. "But not – I r-really want to–"
"Don't I have anything like Victoria and Emily?" Alice demanded, jealousy spiking through her. She'd thought he loved her! Could she really rank below people he'd known only a couple of days? Rabbit twitched his watch anxiously, Hatter fussed with the brim of his hat, and the Mock Turtle wiped his eyes. Even the Card Guards on the wall (those not missing their heads) looked sympathetic to her plight. "We lived together for months, Victor! Surely there's something!"
His hand covered hers. "This, mostly," he told her. "I know y-your name, obviously, and there's s-something about an ant in the army, and a – a Boojum?" He wrinkled his nose in confusion, then shook his head. "But what's clearest is your arms around me, holding me tight. . .and f-feeling – safe."
When Mr. Tailor came back, she'd have to tell him that one of Victor's best qualities was an ability to be romantic even under the worst of conditions. The sick green feeling faded, replaced by a warm pink glow. She wrapped her arm around him, getting just a hint of a smile in return. "I'm glad I can make you feel that way."
"Me too." He leaned his head against hers, eyes traveling over her collection of artwork before falling on the photograph. "That's your family, right?"
"Mama, Papa, Lizzie, and me," Alice confirmed, pointing out each one in turn. "And Mr. Bunny."
Victor let out a soft chuckle, before his expression turned serious once more. "I – t-they didn't leave you here w-willingly, did they. . . ."
"They couldn't have left me anywhere – they're dead," Alice said, shoulders slumping as the flames licked through her memories once again. A nearby Rook mimed patting her on the shoulder. "A house fire when I was eight. Set by the same man who corrupted and destroyed your mind." She swallowed. "He found my sister – appealing, and when she didn't think the same of him, she became a–"
Alice blinked. Victor was staring off into the middle distance now, as if the secret to recovering his memory lay hidden in the wallpaper. "He – he called me that when he – t-took me," he whispered. "And – I wouldn't swear to it, but – I think – I think he mentioned an 'Elizabeth.'"
"That would be my sister," Alice told him, tapping a foot against the ground. "Though she never liked being called by her full name. He was the only one who did – at least, beyond my parents when they grounded her. How that rat bastard could say he loved her when he wouldn't even bow to her wishes that much. . . ." She snarled at a picture of a Jabberspawn, who ran for cover behind its rock. "He stole everything from her – her innocence, her dignity, her very life. And then took the lives of my parents and the rest of my childhood in covering up his crime. And that's just me. How many other Alices has he ruined – feasting on the corpses of their golden years like a bloated maggot? How many Victors has he reduced to empty-minded slavery?" She leaned heavily against her friend. "He didn't even write down their names in the ledger. Just numbers, going round and round. And I have no idea how long Houndsditch has actually been in business. . .we'll never track them all down."
Victor's arm slid around her waist. "I wish I remembered," he mumbled. "I wish I could help. I feel so – so bloody useless."
"You're not useless," Alice assured him. "You're just – a little ill."
"A little? I have to fight practically every moment to stay me – and I can't even say who that is yet," Victor said, voice strained with frustration. "It's like – it's like I'm lost in a deep, d-d-dark wood, with only a candle to guide me. . .except all its really doing is showing me more d-darkness."
"I'll hold your lamp," Alice said, rubbing his side. "Or get it to fly alongside us – Hatter seems to have taken the stories of Mr. Edison's experiments with electric light to heart, and invented a kind of bulbfly. Or if you prefer origami, there's a paper version in the Mysterious East."
". . .is that something I would have laughed at before?"
Alice winced. "Yes. Sorry, I – it's going to take me some time to get used to this as well. Though I don't intend to take too much," she added, determination welling up inside her. "I'll help you recover your mind by Christmas, or go mad all over again trying."
"I don't think I'd like spending the holiday in a madhouse," Victor said, with a weak attempt at a smile.
"Neither would I, so I'll just have to succeed, won't I?" She glanced up at him, turning serious. "Is Christmas an acceptable deadline to you, though?"
There was a brief silence – then a true smile spread across Victor's face. "I may as well save you the trouble of buying me a present."
The surge of hope felt just like a blast of steam under her skirt – Alice was mildly surprised she didn't start levitating. "I'm going to shower you with gifts and you're not to say a word," she informed him, poking him in the chest.
"Well then – I'll do the same to you."
Alice nuzzled his chin. "If you must, you must. . .but believe me, you being all you again will be the best gift of all."