Chapter 3: A Return To Dreams -- And Nightmares
Her pillow was entirely too lumpy.
Alice squirmed and turned over, trying to find a comfortable place for her head. "I thought I'd enjoy sleeping in a bed again," she muttered as what felt like a stone dug into her ear. "Perhaps I should have given up my room to June after all."
Not that it mattered anymore – they'd managed to get her new coworker well-settled in the Girls' Room. Some digging in the trunks and suitcases behind the stairs had yielded some usable blankets, plus a couple of pillows. Folded on the floor, they made an acceptable little nest until they could get her a real cot. June had happily climbed in when it was time to retire, wishing Alice sweet dreams before burying herself under the layers of wool. She really is a nice person. Poor girl deserves a better position than this. . .but we can only work with what we're given, Alice decided, squirming against a bump in her mattress. And I'm certainly not sending her back out into the world after that dinner. I'd forgotten chicken could taste that good. Anyone who wants to employ her elsewhere will have to fight me first.
A loud creak made her head jerk upward. Had that been her window? Or a floorboard outside? No, probably just my own bed, she decided after half a minute's silence. As if it being stuffed with rocks wasn't bad enough. . .you're fine, Alice. You have the butcher knife under your pillow, and you stacked some old toys in front of both the front and back doors. Nobody is getting in without your knowing – and without you being prepared to deal with them. And Victor's just next door, a mere few steps away. Nobody's getting at him either. Stop worrying for five seconds and sleep.
But that was impossible, especially when it came to Victor. She hadn't liked leaving him alone, even for such a simple activity as sleep. (Or, well, supposedly simple. . .she rolled over again, springs whining against her weight.) He'd had another little moment during dinner, drifting into blankness at the end of the meal and starting to collect plates with that awful mechanical precision before she'd grabbed his arm and shocked him awake. They'd lost another dish to that – and, when they'd had to explain to the children that Victor wasn't feeling well and that they had to be careful when asking him to do things because he might just do it without thinking, Dennis had promptly cried, "Piss yourself!" Which fortunately had only proved that Bumby's control hadn't extended to bodily functions before earning Dennis an extra-early bedtime without a good-night biscuit. The other children, at least, were more sympathetic – Charlie had even offered the services of a voodoo man he'd known before coming to the Home to help "keep Victor's soul in his body." Alice had been rather charmed by that, but the idea of some strange man coming in and poking at his soul had driven Victor to pull his tie a little too tight. She'd managed to keep him from choking, and successfully distracted him with A Short Course of History after the meal was over. Making fun of the book's dry prose had entertained them until bedtime, and her beloved had gone to his rest in fairly good spirits. Which should satisfy me, but I know all too well how the monsters of your mind can creep up on you when you least expect them. I hope he's having a decent sleep. He deserves it.
And so do I, frankly. There must be some position that won't make me feel like I'm sleeping in the middle of a quarry. Alice flipped the pillow over and fluffed it, then twisted and dug her body into the mattress. A few of the lumps shifted, leaving her in a relatively smooth indentation. "Ooof – I guess that'll do," she muttered. She pulled the pillow a little farther under her head, fixed the covers, then closed her eyes and tried not to think of anything.
And when she opened them again, swirling rainbow fog greeted her, along with a bookshelf tumbling end over end, spilling untold volumes of forgotten lore across the void.
As this was exactly what she'd hoped would happen when she'd first laid herself down to sleep, Alice's response was a smile, rather than a string of curses. Finally! Much better than being dragged all over London in a helpless daze, she thought, turning herself right-side up as she soared past a cuckoo clock tweeting the hour. And the rabbit hole looks its most cheerful yet. Everything back where it should be.
Indeed, there was more random junk than ever – maps of Australia and New Zealand fluttered past like papery magic carpets, while spoons, forks, and knives clattered their way down the tunnel. A nearby cupboard tipped open as she passed, sending jars of marmalade and jam and honey toppling end over end around her. Alice reached out and snagged one of the latter, unscrewing the lid as a huge black piano clonged toward the bottom. "Good thing that didn't fall on me – and half full!" Alice cheerfully dug out a quick snack with her finger. "Mmmm. . .I'll have to check the market with June to see if we can get any for our kitchen. I'd forgotten how good this tasted too."
Daylight streamed up from below, signaling the end of her plunge. Alice let the jar go and looked left and right. Not a single corroded pipe or doll face to be seen. Thus reassured, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes once more.
This time she opened them to a smile, and a cat attached to it. Alice smiled back as she drifted past the tree branch he'd claimed as his own, clad comfortably again in her customary blue. "Curious to see you here already, and waiting for me," she commented as her feet touched the ground. "Decided to just cut to the chase for once?"
Cheshire grinned, tail flicking back and forth. "If I'd done that, you'd have complained all the way across Wonderland," he drawled. "I'm in no mood for all that running, especially with the sun as warm and bright as it is." He rolled onto his side and gazed out across the restored beauty of the Vale. "Besides, you seem to have a lot on your mind – as always."
"Now what's that supposed to mean?"
Cheshire chuckled. "Never tire of asking questions, do you?"
"Only because so few of them ever get answered," Alice retorted, folding her arms. "But I came down here with a specific one – what on earth have you lot done to London?"
"Why would you think I know anything about that?"
"Don't even start! You know because I know, and because I've half-decided you really were that blasted white cat that kept leading me about," Alice snapped, waving a hand as if trying to fend off the Gnat and his lame puns. "There's trees smack dab in the middle of pubs, and meta-essence glowing on top of the lampposts, and dominoes paving the Whitechapel Market. And yet it's all still recognizably London, not here. So why have my inner world and my outer merged like this? Haven't I won – beat the Dollmaker fair and square? Shouldn't my mind be free of madness?"
"Alice, Alice, Alice – didn't I tell you when you first arrived you had to be mad to come here?" Cheshire replied, eyes gleaming. He braced himself against the tree trunk and stretched, digging vicious claws into the bark. "Only a very few find the way, and most of them don't recognize it when they do. Delusions, too, die hard."
"But – I saved Wonderland! I saved myself!"
"'Saved' and 'sane' are two very different words." The Cat sheathed his claws and curled his tail around himself. "Only the savage regard the endurance of pain as the measure of worth."
"We're all pretty savage around here," Alice retorted, hands on her hips. "So my reward for cleaning Wonderland top to bottom is eternal madness."
"Yes – and no. Madness leashed and bound to your will now. The kind you had when you first graced us with your presence." He leaned over her. "Rather than the sort you had when you were trussed up like a canvas sausage."
"Being unable to tell fantasy from reality is what landed me in Rutledge in the first place! Do you know how close I came to being thrown back into that 'funhouse' today? One word from Hightopp would have found me in a cell. And if June hadn't been so forgiving of my slip. . .the last thing I want to do is prove any of Bumby's predictions true. Especially. . . ." She sighed heavily. "Especially with Victor the way he is."
A cloud passed in front of the sun, throwing the Vale into shadow. Cheshire's smile faded. "Yes. . .your king-in-waiting does require his queen by his side," he agreed, one ear twitching. "Forgetting pain is convenient – remembering it, agonizing. But recovering the truth is worth the suffering." His grin brightened once more. "As you well know. Our Wonderland, though damaged, is safe in memory – for now."
"If it was safe in memory, it wouldn't be trying to overwrite London," Alice snapped, rolling her eyes.
". . .huh?"
"You're contradicting yourself, Alice," Cheshire said, his tail curling like a question mark over his head. "In one breath, you say London darkens Wonderland's glow; in the next, you claim our home has swallowed your city whole. Which is the truth?"
"So far, the first – but do you really expect me to believe Wonderland won't try to take over entirely again?" Alice asked, eyeing him.
"Do you want it to?"
"Not particularly, no."
His tail flopped down. "Then it won't."
"Since when has my mind ever done what I wanted it to do?"
"Since you won that right back by killing the Dollmaker," Cheshire said, tone a little more serious. "Dragging you here time and time again was no walk in the park – except when it was – but if we hadn't taken matters into our own appendages. . .you know where you would have ended up."
An image of herself in the rags the prostitutes outside Splatter's favorite pub wore forcibly took over her eyes. Alice shook the picture away. "Yes, and I'll gladly admit I owe you all – even the Queen of Hearts. But – should I really settle for Londerland after ten years in Rutledge and one in Houndsditch?"
"You settled when it meant getting out the asylum gates."
"That was different!"
"I thought I was going to someone who was going to help me accept reality once and for all!" Alice kicked the gnarled roots beneath her. "I didn't want you gone, of course, but – I also didn't want people to stare at me in the streets. I didn't want to be afraid that whoever I was talking to wasn't really there. I didn't want – I still dreaded the prospect of a life totally alone."
Cheshire smirked. "And yet it surprises you when we – whom you so often claimed as friends – appear before you?"
Well, he had her there. Alice sighed, brushing her hair out of her face. "I'm not really complaining about the scenery. It's just – it would be convenient to be able to see the world for what it really is sometimes. To turn the Wonderland bits off for a time, like I tried to do outside Radcliffe's."
"Then try again. Without the looming threat of nothingness upon us, we shall protest less about being pushed back into your skull." He chuckled, tail swishing. "No guarantees, of course – you're still in turmoil, and you know how you get."
"Intimately," Alice responded, unable to help a little smile. The sun peeped through the clouds. "And it'll be a long time before I trust a doctor again. Perhaps having to convince myself that yes, I can walk through the mushrooms is better than pills just for the moment. I've got bigger problems." The light vanished as the clouds swelled, growing dark with threatening rain. "Such as the man I love barely remembering who I am."
"A riddle even I wouldn't wish on anyone," Cheshire agreed, ears bent back. "Do you think you can come up with the answer?"
"No, all I can do is guess." Alice raked her fingers through her hair. "I mean – how do I even start fixing him?"
"You don't – he does," Cheshire replied. "Your job is to clear the path."
"That's not as simple as just smacking down a wall with the Hobby Horse anymore," Alice pointed out.
"No, but I'm sure you'll manage." Cheshire's earring swayed as his ears rose back skyward. "And he will too, if you give him a chance. I know it's tempting to think this your fight, but when a mind needs to be saved, it's the person attached who must do the saving."
"Perhaps, but – there's not much of a person there at the moment," Alice argued, pacing back and forth before the tree. "He's – he's a patchwork right now, just barely sewn together with a few scraps. He can walk and talk and feed himself, yes, but – everything that made him him. . . ." She bit her lip. "Not to mention he keeps – regressing." The tick of clockwork filled the air as those dull eyes appeared before her again, accompanied by a dead "Yes, Mis–" "How do you save yourself when you're not yourself?"
"By finding yourself, of course," Cheshire said, extending a paw. "That's what you did."
"Weren't we just discussing how narrow a victory mine was?"
"Were you keeping score? Hatter would love to work those figures, I'm sure."
Hatter. . .Alice turned her head in the direction of the Crockery. "Is he all right? And – and March and Dormy too?"
"They're alive, which is some improvement over their previous situation," Cheshire said. "You'll have to see for yourself whether or not they're 'all right.' Or all left, as the case may be."
"Point," Alice nodded. "I'll have to visit all the domains – especially the ones that need rebuilding. I left everything a mess on my search for the truth." She rocked on her heels anxiously. "I'm glad Wonderland still exists, but I don't want the Vale of Tears to be the only nice place left within it."
"I think I can safely speak for all past, present, and future residents when I say 'I agree,'" Cheshire purred. "You're just a visitor, to quote the Mock Turtle. We have to live here."
"And as I said to him, I'm not on holiday," Alice replied, hands back on her hips. "I will do the job in front of me, and do it well. Both for Wonderland and for Victor."
Cheshire's grin warmed. "You wear confidence much better than doubt."
"I don't know – there's quite a lot of doubt making up my undergarments," Alice confessed, letting her arms drop. "It took me the better part of a decade to claw my way back to anything near sane – and only one-tenth of that time to fall apart again. Do you really think a madwoman who struggled so much to clear her own mind of decay can lead someone else down that path?"
"But of course – doesn't every employer look for hands-on experience?" Cheshire replied. He rolled onto his back and looked at her upside-down. "Besides, you have an advantage no one else could even come close to."
"And that is?"
"Being the woman whose love he remembered even before his own name."
Sunlight pierced through the clouds in jagged, uncertain rays. "It's a nice thought. . .but how much can he love me if he can't remember how he started in the first place?"
"Can you pinpoint the exact moment you fell in love with him?"
Alice colored. ". . .I have the excuse of being completely oblivious to my feelings."
"And his is our dearly departed doctor attempting to obliterate his very self." Cheshire flipped himself back over, letting his paw dangle. "For someone who dreads the prospect of a life alone, you seem a tad reluctant to spend it with someone of flesh and blood."
"It's his mind I'm interested in," Alice responded. "It would give me no greater delight to become Mrs. Van Dort as soon as possible, but. . .I want him to be whole before we move forward. I want him to remember me as more than just a pair of warm arms."
"He does," Cheshire assured her, tone surprisingly gentle. "You simply need to find where the memories are lurking."
"A task much easier said than done, as I know from experience." She massaged her temples. "If only I could just bring him here. . .or somehow get inside his head. Fight the pollution directly."
"Spoken like a true warrior – shame you lack the means to act on the words," Cheshire said, tail tip twitching. "Another method must be found. You need to put your brain to work now, not your blade."
Alice sighed, rocking on her heels again. "Well, I suppose the easiest way would be to just tell him everything I know about his life – all those childhood stories and bits of family trivia he shared. And all the happy moments we had together. . . ." She dug her toes into the dirt. "But – somehow, I feel like that's cheating."
"An astute observation," Cheshire said, extending his claws. "You want Victor back, not just your conception of him. You are the teacher of this particular skool, Alice, and he your pupil. Hint and prod all you like – you learned from the best, after all," he added, smile turning smug. "But he has to do the work. Otherwise, he may never truly regain that mind you so admire. Just pour in what you think you know, and he'll simply parrot it back on command. Blank slates are dangerous in that they'll pick up any mark. As 'Thirteen' so aptly proved."
Alice's eyes went dark. "Don't call him that," she growled, curling her fingers around the Vorpal Blade suddenly in her grip.
"Temper! I was just making a point, girl." The Cat licked his shoulder. "Remember what Caterpillar told you long ago. Lose your head, and he'll most certainly lose his."
Alice huffed and sent the weapon back to the nether. "Can you ever speak plainly?"
"Of course," Cheshire said, flicking an ear. "But it would be so antithetical to my nature that the moment I did, you'd accuse me of being an impostor."
He had a point, but Alice wasn't feeling charitable enough to confess to it. "Frustrating, mangy–"
"I'd save your breath," Cheshire interrupted. His tail slowly faded away, followed by his back legs. "You'll be needing it for another reason soon."
"Oh? And what's that?" Alice demanded.
"Use your ears, girl," Cheshire said, his own vanishing. The rest of his head soon followed, leaving naught but eyes and grin. "Stone and flesh both weep here, but the stone is missing – so what else can it be?"
With that, he was gone. Alice blinked, then huffed. "Of course he'd leave me on a riddle. . . ." She returned to rocking as she turned it over in her mind. Stone and flesh both weep here. . .well, obviously, I can hear one of those self-indulgent statues sobbing away –
Wait. We're not near any water. And it – it doesn't quite sound right. . . . She closed her eyes and listened hard. There was the rustling of the breeze in the leaves of the trees. . .the alternate mooing and chirping of the Mock Sparrows as they made their nests. . .the whisper-quiet flutter of the nutterflies' wings. . .and – just on the edge of hearing – a voice, filled with utter sorrow, begging someone to "stop, please stop. . . ."
Her eyes flew open. "Victor!"
She sprang from her bed, ignoring the grass carpeting what should have been a hardwood floor, and dashed next door. "Don't you–"
To her surprise and relief, Victor was alone in his room – and in fact still asleep, lying deceptively still in his bed. His chest was heaving though, sucking in air as desperately as when he'd burst from Bumby's office – God, was that really half a year ago? Right now it felt like just yesterday – and tears were streaming out from beneath his tightly-closed lids. "No, no. . .STOP IT!" he screamed abruptly, making her jump. "GET THEM OUT! PLEASE, I'LL DO ANYTHING, JUST – j-just stop. . . ."
Alice leapt onto the bed and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Victor! Wake up! It's just a nightmare!" she shouted, giving him a couple of good shakes. Or a memory. . .no, don't think about that just yet. . . . "Wake up!"
Victor's eyes snapped wide, hazy and unfocused. "What – no, no, I'm sorry!" he cried, cringing away from her grip. "D-don't punish me, Master, I'll be a good boy, I promise!"
She was going to be able to fuel enough Rageboxes to carpet the Land of Fire and Brimstone at this rate. She took his chin and pushed his eyes up to meet hers. "No, Victor, it's me! Alice!"
Their gazes locked. For a moment, the terror remained – then he blinked, and managed to focus on her. "A-Alice?"
Alice nodded. "I'm here."
He stared for a few seconds, silent – then the tears started flowing again. "Alice. . .I was. . .he was. . .he f-forced them in. . .hurt s-so much. . .so dark, so d-dark. . .c-couldn't say no. . . ."
"Shhh," she whispered, pulling him into her arms and rocking them both as he wept into her shoulder. "It's all right. It was just a dream." The Dollmaker's hands skittered across her consciousness, tearing at Victor's clothes and trailing his nails across his skin. . .Alice flung a Jackbomb at them and watched them writhe in the heat of the cleansing flame. "Just a dream," she repeated, trying to convince herself as much as him.
Racing footsteps on the stairs heralded the arrival of June, tailed by a handful of curious and worried children. "I heard screaming," she panted, grabbing the doorframe, hair flying every which way like a loose dandelion puff. "Is everything all right? Do I need to hide the children?"
"No, no," Alice quickly assured her as Abigail and Elsie grabbed June's nightgown for protection. "The only enemy currently assaulting us is Victor's own mind. He had a nightmare."
"About tea?" Abigail asked sympathetically.
Victor shook his head, sniffling. "T-t-training," he said, in a tone of voice that put the word at the top of Alice's "Most Hated" list, along with "Bumby," "prostitution," and "leeches." "W-why isn't there a way for me to get those m-memories out of my head. . . ."
Alice rubbed her cheek against his hair. "I agree, it's exceedingly unfair. But you're safe now. I'm right here."
"As are we," June said, venturing a few steps into the room. "Oh, Victor – is there anything I can get you? A cup of tea? Or I found cocoa earlier – we could have hot chocolate?"
Victor shook his head again. "T-thank you, but – m-my stomach's in no mood for food."
"I'll take some if he don't want it," Reggie's voice piped up.
"You get them calmed down," Alice told June, nodding at the children. "We can't keep everyone up half the night. I can take care of Victor."
"I admit, I could use a hot drink myself right now," June said, trying in vain to pat down her hair. "But holler if you need me, all right? For any reason." She turned back to her hangers-on. "Come on, let's see what's in the cupboard. I think I saw another tin of biscuits hidden on a high shelf. . . ."
Victor watched as the group headed down the hall, arms still wrapped tightly around Alice. "I don't even remember if I've had hot chocolate before," he mumbled. "I'm surprised I know what it is."
"You've always had a sweet tooth, if it helps," Alice offered up. "Once a week, like clockwork, you'd venture out, only to come back with a box of comfits or a candy bar."
Victor smiled weakly. "I'm g-guessing I was mobbed by the children a lot."
"See, you're picking up things again already," Alice joked. "But yes, you were their go-to man for sweets – I almost never had any on hand. Didn't care for them much."
Victor frowned up at her quizzically. "You don't like candy?"
"I–" Alice stopped, recalling Cheshire's warning. "Just pour in what you think you know, and he'll simply parrot it back on command." If I just tell him, it's not really remembering, is it? All journeys start with a single step – we may as well take our first tonight. She took Victor's head in her hands, lifting his chin so they were eye-to-eye. "No – you tell me why. You already know, after all."
"Not at the moment, I don't," Victor muttered, looking down.
"Oh yes you do," Alice encouraged. "It's just – hidden from you. I don't think Bumby could actually erase memories, for all his blustering – when I was traveling through Wonderland, I found them scattered all over the various landscapes. I'll, ah, explain later," she added in response to his baffled look. "But the point is, they weren't gone, so I don't think yours are either. The bastard just stuck them in a place you can't get to." She brushed his hair back from his forehead. "Back in Moorgate, you mentioned something about a wall?"
Victor nodded. "Yes, he – he had me think of one in my head. . .the biggest, t-tallest, strongest wall in the world. . .I cannot pass it, I cannot break it, I must forget and obey and let Victor Van Dort rot back there–"
"No you mustn't!" Alice snapped, then sighed as Victor blinked and flinched. "I'm sorry. . .it's just every time that happens, I get the urge to find whatever remains of his worthless corpse and grind it to a fine powder." She tried to smile, stroking his cheek. "But you haven't let yourself rot, have you? Your memories are still back there. You've managed to coax out a few already."
"Without any idea how," Victor grumbled, eyebrows low. "They just – p-popped into my head, and I was able to grab them before they were dragged away. . .and you can barely call them memories. Victoria – I know she was important to me, but s-she's little more than a friendly smile and a sprig of flowers in a tiny vase – and I don't even know what the flowers are!"
"It's still something," Alice told him. "How about Emily?"
"Butterflies against the moon. . .and a dark bridge?" Victor furrowed his brow. "Something like that. . . ." He put his hand over hers. "And of course you're this, which i-is nice, but. . . ." His eyes turned to her again, pleading. "Please, you seem to know so much about me. . . ."
"Not everything," Alice said regretfully. "We talked quite a lot about our pasts, true, but I've still known you less than a year. And what if I've remembered something wrong? Brains are tricky like that." "Help us, Alice! Save us, Alice! Don't leave us alone, Alice! Don't abandon us, Alice! Stay with us!" – she would have fallen for that one if a glimpse of the asylum's darkness hadn't revealed it as a guilt-born lie. And it still felt as real as any of her proper memories. "I don't want to replace something true with something false."
"If brains are tricky, some of my memories might be wrong too," Victor pointed out, frowning.
"Yes, but then it would be your personal wrong, instead of mine." She touched their foreheads. "Come on, at least try. It might make you feel better after that dream."
Victor shuddered, as if he could still feel those wretched clammy fingers on his skin. "All right. . .but give me a hint, at least," he begged.
"Fine, I'll start you off – I'm not candy's greatest fan because. . . ."
Victor's nose wrinkled, and he gritted his teeth. "Because. . .b-because. . . ."
"Look – try looking into my eyes," Alice corrected herself quickly. We're trying to keep him from being Thirteen, not encourage it. "That seems to help you. Certainly did in Moorgate."
Victor obeyed. "Because – cake?" he said, his voice taking on a hopeful note. "You like cake better?"
Alice nodded, grinning. "Right! Now see if you can follow that path through the wall. There's sure to be a crack or chink somewhere you can squeeze through."
"Right," Victor agreed, setting his mouth in a determined frown. "Cake – chocolate cake – a birthday? Did I – did I get you some? And – there's 'Boojum' again! What on earth is a – ow!"
He jerked free of her grip, pressing the heel of his hand against his eyes. "Sorry," he muttered as she stared, concerned. "I t-tried hitting the wall, and – t-the wall just hit back."
Alice huffed. "Of course it can't be easy. . .but you got something, right?" she added, refusing to fall to despair.
"A scrap or two. . . ."
"Still progress. We'll keep at it." Alice patted his shoulder. "No matter how many times that wall resists you. We're stronger – you're stronger. It has to fall sooner or later."
Victor smiled. "Thank you."
Alice returned it, then sighed. "For now, though, I should get back to my room," she said, standing. "I can't keep you up all night chasing phantoms."
The smile disappeared as fast as it had come. Long, surprisingly strong fingers fastened around her wrist. "Don't go," he begged, voice cracking. "Please d-don't go. I don't – I don't like b-being alone. . . ."
God, how could anybody ever resist those puppy-brown eyes? Certainly not her. I guess I've become a dog person, she thought as she sat back down, putting her hand over his. Serve Cheshire right if I changed his species. "All right. I'll stay until you fall asleep."
The smile made a faint, nervous return. "Thank you." Victor leaned his head against her shoulder, letting his breath out in a whoosh. "I wish I knew what I did to deserve you."
Alice tilted her head. "Do you mean that in the romantic sense or the literal?"
"Both," Victor replied, playing with his hands. "I – I know I love you. That's never been in question. The rest of my head is in pieces, but that – w-whenever we're together, it feels – right. But I don't–" He reached out, trying to grasp the shattered remnants of his mind. "Whatever came before, whatever brought us together, is gone. And I want it back."
"I feel the same," Alice said, reaching up to run her fingers through his hair. "As does June, and the children – even if the latter has a rather poor way of showing it sometimes," she added, scowling as she thought of Dennis. "We're all on your side, Victor."
"I'm glad. I don't think I've had anyone on my side for q-quite a while." He hummed softly, nuzzling against her hand. "That feels nice. . . ."
"Really?" Alice squirmed around, pulling his head against her chest so she could pet him easier. "Does it stir anything up?"
"Um – not really. It just feels–" his lips turned up in a rather silly-looking grin "–good."
"Very articulate, Victor," Alice teased, scratching his scalp. He made a happy sound deep in his throat. "You are just like a dog. . .I love you too, you know," she added in a quieter voice.
"I know," he replied, eyelids fluttering. "That's what keeps me going."
"Good." Alice resumed stroking his hair, absently glancing at the nearby wall. Wonderland was there, of course, sending little vines creeping up the wallpaper – but something else was conspicuous by its absence. "What the – what happened to your pictures?" she blurted, sitting up straighter with a jolt.
Ugh, yes, right. . . . "You had pictures before, hanging up all around," she explained. "Ones you'd drawn yourself. Can you remember what they were?"
". . .Bu-Butterflies?"
Alice grinned. "Right in one! You used to be able to recite their names practically in your sleep. Any still lingering?"
Victor screwed up his face for a few seconds, then shook his head. "No. . .but I do remember taking them down at M-Bumby's command," he mumbled. "He said I d-didn't need such 'silly things.'"
The vines withered, turning crackly and dry. "What nonsense," she growled. "And he probably trashed the lot too. . .I'll search the office, see if there's any I can salvage. It would be a tragedy to lose them all. You had real talent as an artist. More than I have, certainly."
"I gave you your fun back," Leader said, tapping her foot at the end of the bed.
Yes, but he's had rather more time to practice, dear. Incidentally, it's good to see you alive and well again.
Leader grinned – not that she could do much else. "Somebody's gotta remind you how to play. You don't want to be a dull girl, do you?"
Had my fill of that being catatonic in Rutledge, yes.
"But you have some nice pictures in your room–" Victor blinked. "All right, how many are mine?"
"We'll play a guessing game tomorrow – though I don't think you'll find it too hard," Alice chuckled. Sobering, she added, "I – don't suppose you remember anything about drawing."
He stared at the floor. "No," he admitted quietly. "It's just like with the piano. I remember it making me happy, but – I can't–" He bit his lip. "I'm sorry, Mis–"
Victor choked off the word, but the one escaped syllable hung in the air, heavy and foreboding. Alice's hand paused atop his head. ". . .I never did ask you why you called me that in the station," she managed after a small eternity. "I'm not surprised in the least Bumby claimed 'Master' for himself, but–" Cold crept through her veins as she thought of all the times she'd accidentally commanded him. "I – I don't want to give you orders, I swear I don't."
"P-part of me expects you to," Victor mumbled, refusing to meet her gaze. "In – in the station, I – f-for some reason, I knew your eyes. They felt so familiar I couldn't – B-Bumby's commands suddenly didn't mean anything. I had to know w-who you were. . .and the f-first thought that c-came to mind was. . . ." He swallowed. "'M-Maybe she owns me too. . . .'" He turned away, green. "But I d-don't want – you're n-not him, I don't want to t-think of you like that–"
"Victor. . . ." God damn it, why torture them like this? Perhaps it was deserved in her case, all these red-hot needles in her soul with every broken word that passed his lips, but – all he'd done was chase her all over London trying to keep her safe, and be a bit too slow to avoid Bumby when he'd found the journal. It wasn't fair. Saviors need someone to save, huh? Fuck being a savior, then. "It's not your fault," she said, gathering him tight against her. "Please stop sounding so guilty. You couldn't help it."
"But I want to help it!" Victor shook his head hard. "I shouldn't – why does part of me need to feel like he's yours?"
"Because he is!" Leader put in, leaning on the mattress. "He don't want to go back to the Dollmaker, does he? Wouldn't even be good for spare parts now."
Alice nearly shushed her – then paused, actually considering the words. "That's a point," she murmured.
Alice turned back to Victor, hoping she didn't sound completely mental. "Calling me – Mistress–" oh God, that was going to be awkward forever "–might – might be a good thing."
". . .How?"
"Well – I feel a bit awful saying this, but – better mine than Bumby's, right?"
Victor's expression went from incredulous to surprised to thoughtful. "Look, I more than anyone want you to think of me as just 'Alice,'" she pressed on. "But this isn't going to be solved in a day, and I'd rather your – other self, let's say – have as little reason to follow his old commands as possible. If that means that sometimes, you have to call me – 'Mistress,' then – it's all right with me."
She could practically see the weight fall off Victor's shoulders. "I'll try not to, but – thanks," he whispered, cuddling up underneath her chin.
Oh yes, set yourself up as his new 'Master,' that'll work out well, a stray rat of a thought squeaked – Alice directed Cheshire to its location and went back to petting Victor's head. He melted into the touch, a content smile sliding onto his face. She hummed softly in time with the strokes, watching as his eyelids fluttered, drooped, then finally closed. God, he hadn't looked this peaceful all day. . .too bad it probably wouldn't last more than a couple of hours. Still, she'd managed to give him this much. Small victories. "Goodnight," she whispered, ruffling his hair, then prepared to take her leave.
Only to discover Victor was apparently a hundred pounds heavier when he was unconscious, and stickier than tree sap. "What the. . . ." She attempted to disentangle herself from his arms, but he refused to let her go, clinging to her like a snail on a tree (or perhaps the other way around). "Victor – Victor, I need to go to bed!"
Victor's only response was to whimper and squeeze her tighter. Alice huffed and plopped back down against the pillows. All right, now what? she wondered, arms folded. I need my sleep too, but I can't spend the night here! Can you imagine what would happen if people started thinking I was "loose" on top of everything else? Ugh. . . .
She glanced at Victor. His head had slid down during the struggle, pressing now into her belly, but that unabashed smile was still glowing on his face. Watching him breathe, snuggled up against her stomach, her irritation drained away. What was a little sleeplessness if it meant the man she loved could spend a few hours free from nightmares? He would have done the same for her had their positions been switched. Besides, it's not like I can't keep myself entertained, she thought, putting her arm around him. I have to see if Cheshire's right about Londerland. Let's see. . . . She glared at the grass still carpeting the floorboards, willing it to vanish.
It took a good minute of hard frowning, but eventually, she felt something shift in her head. The grass vanished into the ether, replaced with familiar gray wood. Alice grinned, pleased. Not precisely like pulling a lever, but so long as I can do it. . .how about the other way around?
No sooner had the thought appeared then the green blades returned, along with a fresh crop of vines to slither up the walls. Well – no secret which view my brain prefers, Alice thought as bright yellow flowers bloomed across the torn paper, attracting a kaleidoscope of nutterflies. Not that I blame it. One shimmering blue nut fluttered around her head, then landed on Victor's nose. Alice quickly muffled her giggles with her free hand. You know, I think I could get used to this.
She amused herself playing with the insects for a while, coaxing them onto her fingers and spinning them around before letting them go. Finally, though, she found herself yawning. She sent the last of the nutterflies away in a burst of azure dust and looked down at Victor again. Nope – he didn't seem any more inclined to let her go now than he had before. Alice patted his back, then squirmed into a more comfortable position against the pillows. At least his bed isn't anywhere near as lumpy as mine. Quite comfortable, really. She leaned back, letting her head tip against the frame. If only I could have a proper lie down. . .guess there's no harm in just. . .resting my eyes. . .for a. . .bit. . . .
"Now, I know that it would be asking too much to have you all just start eating and drinking and being merry right away. But I'm hoping that you will at least consent to speak to each other again."
Hatter, Hare, and Dormy eyed each other across the long tea table. To her surprise, their chosen domain had been almost entirely reassembled by the time she arrived, including the occupants. It seemed that, even with large chunks of the floating factories plunging into the Deluded Depths or smashing into each other in the Vale of Doom, and the added complication of the Infernal Train coating everything in Ruin, a few loyal Madcaps and automatons had survived. The gremlins and mechanical beasties had banded together to restore their home and their masters, and done a shockingly good job of it. Quite literally in the case of Hatter, Hare, and Dormy – she'd walked in to see them being zapped back to life by a quartet of eye-mechs. After all that hard work on the part of the staff, she now considered it her duty to make sure the bosses didn't muck things up all over again.
Not that the trio was making it easy for her. Wrangling them to the table – a task that should have been the simplest thing in the world – had already required a little "convincing" via a few light taps on the rump with the Hobby Horse. Now they seemed determined to stare each other down until someone blinked or time ended, whichever came first. "I've got a lot of other places to be, so whenever you're ready. . . ."
"I ain't sayin' two words ta the like o'him! He tore us up for his bloody experiments!" Hare finally snapped, slamming his literal clock hand on the table and making all the pastries jump.
"You tore me up so that the Dollmaker could infect my factories!" Hatter shot back, yellow eyes gleaming from under his hat brim.
"He promised us tea!" Dormy said, yawning as the key in his back wound down. Hare reached over and gave it a few cranks, making him jerk back upright. "Ah! And a chance to forget the past!"
"Very hard to remember things when you're dead, I'll give him that much!"
"Ya're the one who threw that teapot at our grand design!" Hare yelled, snatching up a cup and launching it at Hatter's head.
"You're the one who was about to kill our only chance for salvation!" Hatter roared back, the top of his hat opening up and returning fire.
"Enough, all of you!"
Alice stood up, hitting each combatant with her best "naughty children" glare. "None of us at this table are innocent," she informed them. "We've all done horrible, horrible things and thought them right. But we're not going to get anywhere by shouting and throwing things at each other!"
"You do!" Dormy pointed out.
The Grinder appeared in her hands, eyes burning with rage. "Are you suggesting I treat you all like a bunch of Bolterflies and pepper you up?"
The trio rapidly deflated. "No, no," Dormy said, trying and failing to subtly move out of the Grinder's range.
"Hares ain't any good with pepper," Hare added, shrinking down into his seat. "It's a fact; look it up."
"Having my skull blown to smithereens once was enough for one lifetime, thank you." Hatter picked up one of his discarded teacups and took a sip. "Come, Alice, have some tea! You're always so abominably rude about taking your fair share of the food."
"I've yet to develop a taste for belladonna and arsenic," Alice replied blandly. She glanced down at her plate. "Or candied snails, for that matter. Especially the ones that are still moving."
Hatter shrugged, then slid a cup across the table to the Hare. "Tea, March! You're much too thin."
"Because ya never gave us tea in your laboratory," Hare grumbled, though he wrapped his gloved paw around the dishware.
Hatter tilted his head. "Didn't I? My gears were slipping in the Queen's service – much of it's a blur."
"You were most cruel," Dormy grumbled, tail flicking with a soft clank. "We never even saw you unless it was six. It's only manners to torture someone in person."
"Which is why you dumped me down the garbage chute?"
"Don't start," Alice said, covering her face with a hand. "Look, why don't we begin with something simple. One of you, say you're sorry to the others."
"I have!" Hatter cried petulantly, hat wobbling on his head. "Over and over and over again! Like a clock with a stuck spring! Ding ding ding!"
"Then it won't kill you to say it again. You did dissect your two best friends."
"No, I vivisected them – which was wrong!" he added hastily as her eyes narrowed. "And I am sorry for it." His gaze shifted right, across the table. "I am sorry," he repeated.
Silence. "The jumpin' springs in the legs are nice," Hare finally muttered.
"Aren't they? You know, I bet we could easily double your height if we–"
Alice held up a hand, biting her cheek to keep from smiling. "Good. Hare, Dormy, your turn."
"Ya want us ta apologize? For wantin' ta forget havin' my guts laid open and my bones torn out for sticks o'metal?" Hare demanded. "For wantin' my fair chance at runnin' the place? For wantin' a decent scone with butter and jam?"
"For listening to the Dollmaker and nearly drowning Wonderland in a sea of Ruin?" Dormy said, tail stiff with indignation.
"Yes, actually, I do. Since I'm sorry I let the bastard in in the first place."
For the first time in a great while, the gears in their heads appeared to actually turn a few times. "We thought it was for the greater good, ya know," Hare explained, ears drooping. "A chance for a new era, new – happiness."
"Yes, we know – that was my excuse too," Alice nodded. "But it doesn't change things. I'm sorry. Are you?"
Another silence, then – "We are," Hare mumbled. "I'm – I'm sorry."
"So am I," Dormy nodded, flopping against the table. He yawned again. "Now may I please have my tea?"
A cup sailed through the air, landing with surprising neatness right at the rodent's nose. "You know," Hatter said conversationally, leaning on one geared elbow, "Smelling & Regurgitating wasn't in half the mess I thought it was."
"We clean up after ourselves, unlike ya," Hare retorted, though Alice could hear the worst of his rage had gone. "Blasted Dodos mucked the place up somethin' awful, though. . . ." His ears quivered as a tiny electric shock passed through them. "Here now – if ya got one of your Automatons in the wheel, we could get the place running twice as fast, couldn't we?"
"Yes! Yes we could!" Hatter cried, face lighting up. "And maybe if we recalibrated the punch pressure of your fists to 3.452880867083 square pounds per inch. . . ."
Alice snickered as the three devolved into incomprehensible babbling over mathematical concepts she only barely understood. Of course – if tea didn't heal over all the old hurts, science definitely would. Maybe they'd never be as close friends as they were before, but decent business partners? She and the rest of Wonderland could settle for that. She leaned back and admired her handiwork as they began sketching with the brilliant green tea directly on the table, throwing ideas back and forth and arguing over tenths of a percent. One domain down – who knows how many more to go.
"Yes, yes, this could actually work! Alice, pass the butter! Alice! Alice!"
Alice reached for the dish – then paused. Was it just her, or had Hatter's voice suddenly gotten a lot more – feminine? "Er – I think something may have slipped in your throat. . . ."
He didn't pay her the slightest bit of attention (as usual), instead continuing his chant. "Alice! Alice? Alice? Aliiiicccceeeee. . . ."
She blinked, and the tea table was gone, replaced by an old checkered quilt stretching out in front of her, and the head of Victor Van Dort snoozing solidly in her lap. Alice sat up straight, twisting her neck from side to side. Bloody hell, was her back stiff! How long was I sitting here? she wondered, massaging a kink from her shoulder. It seems lighter. . .hard to tell without a window, though. Am I imagining sunshine indoors on top of everything else?
"Alice! Oh dear, where could she be?"
. . .Or I might have stupidly fallen asleep in Victor's room and it's morning damn damn damn. . . .
Alice scrubbed the last remnants of sleep from her eyes, brain kicking into high gear. The door was still half-open from their late-night misadventure, and while she couldn't see June through the gap, she knew it was only a matter of time before her coworker thought to check her self-professed best friend's quarters. And if she caught the two of them in bed together. . .Alice glanced down. Perhaps this wasn't the most scandalous position to be seen in, but she'd already pushed her luck yesterday with her accidental confession in the kitchen. She did not want to stretch it to the breaking point. At least he's not clinging to me anymore, she thought, lifting Victor's head and depositing it onto the pillow. Imagine what would go through her head if he'd had his arms wrapped around me and his face buried in my lap!
Just as his head touched the fabric, however, Victor stirred into consciousness, opening his eyes blearily. "Wha. . .Al–"
Alice slapped her hand over his mouth. "Sorry," she whispered as he frowned at her in foggy puzzlement. "But I accidentally spent the night and now June's looking for me and while we both know nothing happened I don't want her to think something did!"
Victor squinted as his sleep-addled brain processed this – then the implications sunk in, and his eyes popped wide. "Yes, so you see, I need you to be a distraction for a moment while I–"
Too late – there were footsteps already on their way to the door. Alice, taking the only route left to her, darted under the bed. Dust bunnies snagged on her skirt and hair as June's feet appeared in her field of vision. "Victor? I'm sorry to disturb you, but I don't suppose you've seen Alice? She's not in her room, and I've already checked the entire upstairs and the kitchen."
"I only just woke up," Victor replied. The bed creaked dangerously as he changed position – Alice pressed herself tighter against the floor, worried a spring might pop out and impale her forehead. "Perhaps she had – um – an early c-call of nature?"
Hearing that drew Alice's attention to just how much she really did need to use the toilet. She gritted her teeth and did her best not to squirm. "I checked there too – there's a bit of a line," June reported, which did not do her bladder any favors. "Do you think she might be out getting breakfast? I've gone through the pantry, and all we really have is stale bread and tea."
"She might," Victor agreed. "I – well, she c-certainly doesn't seem the type to me to let the children go hungry."
"All right, I'll just head over to the market and–"
"Miss June?" Alice had never been so grateful to hear Dennis's voice in her life. "Ollie hid my smalls again."
". . .again? Er, excuse me, Victor, I – I'll be back later."
"Take your time," Victor assured her as the feet walked away. They both waited a few seconds, then he poked his head over the side of the mattress. "I think you're safe."
"And thanks to Ollie's peculiarities," Alice said, wriggling out into the light again. "Who would have thought?" She raked her fingers through her hair, sending the dust bunnies flying. "Though I do wish the excuse for my absence you two ended up settling on didn't involve me having to go shopping first thing in the morning."
"Sorry," Victor said, blushing at the bedspread. "I just wanted her gone as soon as possible." His eyes flicked up to her. "You really stayed all night?"
"Well, your arms were very insistent that I not go," Alice informed him, turning his head an even brighter pink. She arched her back to relieve some of the ache. "Ungh. . .it's not like I mind all that much. I just don't need people talking about me in a man's bed."
Victor's brow furrowed. "Or me in – no, wait, that's – no – damn it!" He hit the quilt with a frustrated huff. "I thought I had something from that, but – it slipped away."
"You tried, at least," Alice said, heartened he'd learned her lesson from last night so well. "Might work better on a full stomach though. Eggs sound good?"
"And – and bacon?"
"Everything's better with it, as the Duchess once said," Alice nodded. "I'll leave you to get dressed. I have to use my chamberpot before I soak my poor nightgown."
Victor's scrunched-up face suggested that either she'd given him a bit too much information or she'd sparked his own need for the toilet. "You, um, do that," he said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. "Though – Alice?"
Alice paused at the threshold. "Hmmm?"
"Thank you. For c-coming last night. And staying, even if you didn't really mean to. I – I c-can't be certain, but. . . ." A slow smile spread across his face. "Something in me's convinced that's the best night's sleep I've gotten in years."
Alice smiled back, stomach full of warm mush. "You know. . .I think it might have been mine too."