Chapter 4: Familiar Faces
All right, let's see. . .the Village of the Doomed and the Skool are back in place, so that's settled for now. The Wonderland Woods need to be regrown, but they were mostly just an extension of the Vale, so I doubt it'll be too difficult. Unless I run into the Voracious Centipede again. . .but that's for later in the week. Tonight, I'd best get myself down to the Deluded Depths, see how Barrelbottom's faring. And if my "favorite" theatrical duo has returned to life. . .well, Carpenter did shield me from the Train, so I'll give them a second chance. But if I catch them eating their fellow sentients again, there will be a reckon–
Alice started, the map she'd been studying vanishing into the ether. The knock repeated itself from the other side of the door. Right, supposed to be cleaning. . .is that Tailor again? He's usually more enthusiastic, though. . . . "Just a moment!" she called, wiping down the knob with her rag before giving it a quick twist and pull. "Quite lit–"
Her tongue froze, the lame attempt at a joke killed by shock. Before her stood one tall, gray-haired, and moustachioed stranger – and two people she'd never expected to see again. "Dr. Wilson? Mrs. White?"
Dr. Heironymous "Harry" Q. Wilson offered up a friendly smile from underneath his long nose. "Hello, Alice. It's good to see you again."
"I – suppose – why are you here?" Alice asked, hoping she didn't sound as terrified as she felt. Oh God oh God I can't go back I can't – "I'm not hallucinating any more – well, not much, it's all under control – I know I had a bad turn recently, I'll be the first to admit it, but I really don't need to–"
"Alice, I'm not here on behalf of Rutledge," Dr. Wilson cut in, holding up a hand. "I actually retired not long after you quit the premises."
"Really? No one told me," Alice said, relaxing a fraction. "What, was every other patient too boring after me?"
To her amusement, the doctor blushed slightly. "More just too many of them and not enough hours in the day – and I'm certainly not as young as I once was," he said, rubbing his prodigious belly. "I'd planned to spend my later years in quiet study – but then two days ago Officer Hightopp appeared at my door with a very interesting journal. . . ."
The realization hit her like a Snark bite. "You're taking over the Home?"
"If you'll have me," Dr. Wilson replied. "I wasn't keen on getting back into practice until Officer Hightopp showed me just what sort of person I'd condemned you to when I released you from Rutledge. To have such a man looking after children. . .I felt I had some wrongs to right."
"You and I are of a mind, then," Alice said, stepping back so the psychiatrist and his guests could come inside. "God knows I've been feeling guilty enough about not seeing Bumby for what he truly was before."
"He fooled a great many people, including myself," Dr. Wilson told her. "Not to mention you were struggling with your own illness at the time. He wrote to me about your latest relapse, actually. Called you one of the most stubborn and willful patients he'd ever had the displeasure of treating." He smirked. "I wrote back that he was lucky you hadn't thrown a teapot at his head yet."
"I considered it," Alice grumbled. "Wouldn't have been half of what he deserved."
"No," Dr. Wilson agreed, turning serious. "And I'm sorry that I sent you into his care. Nurse Witless recommended him, and he was being praised as a miracle-worker on the street. . .I truly believed he was the best candidate to further your recovery."
"As did I – like you said, he fooled both of us," Alice nodded. "But thank you for the apology. It does mean a lot. And I'm glad to see you instead of a stranger."
"I think Officer Hightopp thought a familiar face might do you good," Dr. Wilson said, nodding back.
"Even one I associate with straitjackets and shackles?" Alice deadpanned. "Still, you're the only doctor I could even think of trusting at the moment. Rest assured, though, I will be watching your progress with the children very closely. And no experimenting with the medications either," she added, poking him with her rag. "That concoction you forced down my throat in Rutledge tasted vile, and I'm not sure it even did anything."
"Oh, I doubt the children here will require any extreme methods," Dr. Wilson assured her, smiling nervously.
"They'd better not. I see you with any leeches, I'll make you swallow the lot."
"Not the best thing to say in front of Victor's former fiancee," Rabbit hissed at her, thumping one foot anxiously. "Especially when you're keeping her waiting! Time, Alice, mind the Time!"
Alice colored. "Er – I didn't really mean that," she said hastily, turning to Mrs. White (who, contrary to her name, was looking slightly green). "It's been a trying time. . .what brings you here?" she added, curiosity overwhelming her. "You are genuinely the last person I ever expected to see at the Home."
"Well, the Home seemed to keep coming to me," Mrs. White replied, twisting her hands together under a weak smile. "After you fainted in the market, Christopher–" she nodded at the tall fellow, who inclined his head politely "–and I took you back to our suite. Do you remember any of that? Alan – our manservant – said you weren't yourself when you came to. . . ."
Alice grimaced. "I remember meeting you in the street just fine. . .but after I collapsed, I was down in a dungeon, then running around card castles in the sky. I'm sorry if I frightened him."
"He was more confused than anything else – so that's what 'Cardbridge' was," Mrs. White murmured. "We were wondering. . .though you did give him a shock by climbing up the side of our hotel."
"I did – how did I – oh, never mind," Alice groaned, slapping her hand over her eyes. "I'll just be glad I survived that in one piece. Did I break anything of yours in the bargain? I'll pay for it, I promise. Just might take a bit of saving up."
"No, no, it's fine," Mrs. White assured her. "No damage. And even if there had been, I'm happy enough seeing you're all right."
"We were looking all over for you after you escaped," Mr. White put in. "Victor was in quite the state."
"Victor? You ran into him as well?"
"He was at the police station – after Christopher discovered no doctor in the city wanted to treat you, I went there hoping to find some help," Mrs. White reported, tone sour. "You and he just missed each other."
"Of course we did," Alice grumbled. "He must have been furious."
"I walked in on him ranting and raving to every officer in the room," Mrs. White admitted, tightening her bun. "I'd never seen him so – passionate before. Not even against Barkis. And then, after we got back to the suite, the way he slumped when Alan told us you were gone. . .you're very lucky to have him, Alice."
"I know," Alice said quietly, touching her chest just above her heart. "Or I was. . .I assume you've seen the papers recently?"
"'Liddell Hero Saves Children, Van Dort Heir From Disgusting Doctor?'" Mr. White said. "Yes, we're familiar with the story. We were on our way out of the city when I happened to pick up the Illustrated, and that turned us right around. Which worked out well today, given we happened to pass Dr. Wilson here not having any luck with a cab."
"It made us both sick," Mrs. White said, voice shaking. "And I know the paper printed the polite version! To think someone could–" She twisted her hands into her waistband ribbon. "I actually bumped into Dr. Bumby – quite literally, in fact – just last week, and while he struck me as rather self-important and lacking in manners, I never thought. . . ."
"Well, as Dr. Wilson said, he fooled everyone, from the highest to the low," Alice said, the pride from being called a hero mixing with the usual shame at her own blindness. "It took me a year to realize he was the man who killed my family."
"We saw that too. . .I am so sorry for you," Mrs. White told her, fingers against her lips. "And for Victor. . .the paper referred to him as Dr. Bumby's 'personal assistant,' with giant quotes."
"Hightopp must have borrowed my euphemism. . .it was much more 'personal' and less 'assistant,' I can tell you that much," Alice said, shuddering.
"So I guessed. . .and he really doesn't remember anything?" Mrs. White swallowed. "Even – even me?"
Alice shook her head – then, having a thought, grabbed the other woman's hand. "Not as much as he ought to – but actually seeing you might jar a few things loose," she said, giving her a tug. "Come on and I'll reintroduce you."
Mrs. White nodded and hurried along beside her as they went to Victor's room, keeping up quite well despite her overlong skirts. Alice knocked twice on the door. "Victor? I have someone here who'd like to talk to you."
"Who?" Victor asked, voice tinged with anxiety.
Alice opened the door and gently pushed Mrs. White in front of her. "Let's see if you can tell me."
There was silence for a long moment as the pair stared at each other – Victor all puzzlement, Mrs. White all worry. Finally, the young man's brow furrowed. "Vic-Victoria?"
Mrs. White nodded, hope blossoming in her eyes. "Hello, Victor."
"Hello." Victor squinted at her. "Victoria – Victoria. . . ." His head drooped. "I'm s-sorry, the last name isn't coming. . . ."
Mrs. White's face fell. "Oh, Victor, you must know!" she begged, hands clasped before her. "We were nearly married! You must know who I am!"
Victor massaged his temples. "I'm t-trying. . .but it's all so f-fractured, and–"
He stopped abruptly, blinking. "Wait. . .did – did I – did I set your mother on fire once?"
Mrs. White laughed despite herself, and even Alice couldn't hold back a giggle at the sheer incredulity in his tone. "At our wedding rehearsal. Don't worry, you didn't hurt her." Her face turned serious again. "But surely there's more. What about when I surprised you at the piano? You sent the bench flying."
Victor sighed and shook his head. "No. . .it's just a – a candle burning on a skirt, and – and a little sprig of white flowers passed from you to me. . .what were they? It's been bothering me for days."
"Winter jasmine." Mrs. White slumped against the doorframe. "You upset the vase talking to me. . .oh Victor. . . ."
"I'm sorry," Victor murmured, eyes back on the floor. "I am trying."
"We know," Alice assured him, coming around Mrs. White to pat his shoulder. "It's not your fault."
"Of course not," Mrs. White nodded. "It's just – the paper said that Dr. Bumby had 'scrubbed his mind clean,' but I thought it was like our town crier – exaggerating to get people to pay attention to you."
"Sadly not, in this case – Tailor was a most diligent reporter," Alice sighed. "He came back the very next day for a follow-up too, though all I could tell him was 'Victor's having nightmares, what a surprise.' If he's in the area and he spots your carriage, expect to get ambushed the moment you step out the door." She shrugged. "He's a decent sort, I suppose – just very dedicated to getting his story."
"I'm – I'm not sure what I'd say," Mrs. White confessed, blinking. "Even with the corpse bride, I only got really involved at the very end."
"Corpse bride. . .you knew Emily?" Victor asked suddenly, looking back up.
"We were only just acquainted. . .you remember her?" Mrs. White asked, picking at her ribbon.
"A dark bridge, a full moon, a skeletal arm, a – a flock of butterflies. . . ." Victor rubbed his forehead. "That's about it. I was hoping you could fill in the gaps."
Mrs. White frowned, determination pouring off her. "Well, I may not know all the details, but I'll help however I can." Her face softened. "Oh Victor – to see that – that fiend take everything from you. . .you never deserved this."
"I'd be hard pressed to think of someone who does."
The trio jumped, and turned to see Mr. White now standing behind his wife, regarding the scene with sad eyes. "Well, except for the man who did this to him – turnabout is fair play, after all. Hopefully he's getting worse wherever he's ended up." He offered the freshly-puzzled Victor a smile. "Christopher White? Victoria's husband?"
Victor stared hard at him, then shook his head. "Ah well, we only met twice. But I figured it was worth a try." Mr. White sighed, running his fingers through his tangled locks. "I've seen some rotten things happen to good men during my time in the service – including both a fellow's arms get sliced clean off – but this. . .you know, the article claimed Dr. Bumby called him by a number!"
"Thirteen," Alice confirmed softly, rocking on her heels. Victor shivered and looked away. "He did the same with the children – they had to wear theirs around their necks. As if they were cows or pigs up for market!" Her fingers twisted in her skirt. "Sometimes I wonder what mine would have been."
"Judging from what we've learned, I think he would have forgone numerals in favor of your sister's name," Dr. Wilson admitted, coming up behind Mr. White. "Dangerously obsessed with his 'lost love,' in my opinion."
Alice scowled. "That he was. Damn it, if I hadn't been so distracted by Wonderland. . . ."
"Your Wonderland seems to be the primary reason he didn't succeed in destroying your mind," Dr. Wilson countered, making Rabbit, Cheshire, and Hatter puff up with pride in the corner of her eye. "You are not the only one who missed what now seems to be the obvious. I was invited to that dinner where he honored everyone with a speech on 'the ills of childhood today' – I declined in favor of a rare quiet night at home. If I'd gone, maybe. . . ." He shook his head. "But we can't dwell upon that. I'm here now, and I'll try to amend Dr. Bumby's – deficiencies." He made his way to the front of the group, giving Victor a kindly smile. "Hello, Victor. I'm Dr. Hieronymous Wilson."
Victor went tense, fingers latching onto the side of the bed in a death grip. "Doctor?" he repeated, eyes wide and guarded.
Ah yes. . .and he has a beard and glasses too, damn. "It's all right," Alice said quickly, sitting beside him. "He was my doctor too, in the past. The only one who ever seemed to give a damn about me."
"We also met before," Dr. Wilson added, his smile faltering slightly. "Your parents called me in to cure your delusion of a corpse bride. They threw me out after I said you didn't need curing. It was an odd hallucination, I admit, but–"
"But considering it really happened, not that odd at all," Mrs. White cut in, glaring. "Oh, if I never see Pastor Galswells again it'll be too soon. . .I'd love to see his face when he dies and discovers himself as one of those 'devils.'"
Alice snickered at Dr. Wilson's gobsmacked expression. "I was rather stunned myself when I heard. But yes, apparently Emily was as real as you or me."
"But – the dead – it's popular to believe in ghosts and such, but actual corpses getting up and walking–"
"I will sign whatever papers you want testifying the dead rose," Mrs. White said, arms folded tight across her chest. "My parents as well. I may not be able to collaborate everything Victor told you before, but I saw his near-wedding first-hand. I know what happened, and it's not poor Victor having a breakdown."
"Then – then why were his parents so insistent he'd lost his mind?" Dr. Wilson asked, scrambling for solid ground.
"They weren't there," Alice said, glancing at Victor. "They'd gone off to look for him, lost their driver, and came back the next day. And by that time Galswells had already started his 'demons' talk."
Victor regarded the group with growing curiosity. "I – I brought the dead back to life? As in – plural? Not just Emily?"
"Not exactly – they were still dead, but otherwise they were just the same as you and me," Mrs. White told him. She squeezed her hands together. "Think hard, please?"
Victor screwed up his face. "I – the driver, there's s-something there. . .May-Mayhew? He – he s-showed up all blue, and I was – was – ouch!"
His entire body jerked as if he'd been clobbered by the Hobby Horse. "No, stop it!" he cried, fingers digging into his temples. "Stop it stop it I'm – I'm sorry, Master, forget and obey and – no! No, they're my memories, give them – give them back. . . ."
His voice faded as his shoulders slumped. "It's gone," he mumbled. "He – he was just too loud. . . ."
"You got something," Alice said firmly. "You remember the name, right?"
Victor nodded. "Mayhew," he repeated. "But I was so close to having a face to go with it. . . ."
The Whites and Dr. Wilson were openly staring. "What – what was that?" Mrs. White finally whispered, hands over her mouth.
"What Dr. Wilson is up against," Alice said, turning her gaze to the astonished psychiatrist. "A wall stretching across Victor's mind, keeping everything he is away from him – and Dr. Bumby screaming at him every time he tries to remove a brick."
"I see. . .a disturbing case," Dr. Wilson murmured. He stood up as straight as he could. "But not, I think, impossible. Though I confess, my standards for such have changed quite a lot after you dragged yourself from catatonia ten years into bedlam."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Alice retorted, smirking. "At least he's up and walking around, right?"
"Mmm. . .and memory loss is fairly common among those suffering from disorders of the brain. Not usually to this level, of course, but you learn to adapt and absorb whatever knowledge you can in an asylum." He leaned closer. "Would you like to tell me about it, Victor?"
Victor's gaze was still a little suspicious. "Alone?"
"Alice can stay with you, if it would make you more comfortable."
"Would you mind us sitting in?" Mrs. White asked, picking at her ribbon again. "Just in case we can be of use?"
"It's not really proper procedure, but if Victor's all right with it–"
"Yes," Victor said promptly. "The more people, the better."
"Alice? I've almost got the – oh, hello! I'm sorry, I didn't realize we had visitors."
"One of them is your new employer," Alice reported, standing up so she could see June better behind the crowd. "Dr. Wilson, Mr. and Mrs. White, this is my coworker, June Thatcher. Dr. Bumby hired her shortly before his demise."
"I was meant as Alice's replacement," June explained, dropping a curtsy as everyone turned. "A pleasure to meet you all – I was down in the kitchen, getting lunch ready. The joint's almost ready to serve – there should be enough for everyone. If you're all staying?"
"You should," Alice said, smiling. "She's amazing, trust me."
"Why not?" Mr. White said with a jovial grin. "It'll give us all a little time to get to know each other better."
"And give me a chance to meet the children," Dr. Wilson agreed. "I think we'll all handle what's coming better on a full stomach."
"Hear hear," Alice agreed. "What did you need my help with, June?"
"So – where were you when we were looking for a new cook?"
June giggled as she cleared the plates. "Scouring the paper for work, as always. Where was your ad?"
"Stopped in its tracks by Mother," Mrs. White replied, rolling her eyes. "She claimed it was 'too common' when I asked, but I think she was really afraid the Van Dorts would see it and figure out where we were. Never mind that we'd already put one out locally for our manservant. . . ." She glanced over at Victor. "My family and yours – don't get along."
"It doesn't sound like it," Victor agreed, taking one last swallow of milk. "Though what did we do to force them into hiding?"
Mrs. White fidgeted. "Um – nearly married a dead woman?"
". . .Oh." Victor rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Yes, that – that makes sense."
Dr. Wilson patted his belly. "That was the best meal I've had in a fortnight," he said, smiling at June. "Bachelorhood has not done much for my culinary skills, I'm afraid. . .I wish I'd known you'd needed work. I would have hired you on straightaway."
"Thank you, sir, but I think I ended up just where I needed to be just when I needed to be there," June said brightly. "After all, poor Alice couldn't have run this place by herself!"
"Hardly – and it's nice to have another source of intelligent conversation around," Alice said, stacking her glass and cutlery neatly on her dish before handing it to June. "Everything happens for a reason, I suppose."
The children were squirming in their seats, casting curious and anxious looks at their new doctor. "Can we go?" Abigail asked, tugging on a braid.
"You're excused," Alice told them.
Almost as one they shot from the table, heading for the upstairs. Dr. Wilson watched them with a frown. "Is this normal for them?"
"Well, they're never ones to linger over their food. . .but no," Alice confirmed with a sigh. "They're just nervous about having you around after Dr. Bumby. Don't worry – once they get used to you, they'll let their full bratty glory shine through. Keep an eye out for mouse droppings in your shoes."
"I've had worse at Rutledge's. I shan't let a few small children scare me." The doctor levered himself up from the table. "As it stands, I trust you can keep an eye on them for the moment, June?"
"Of course, Dr. Wilson," June nodded, arms piled high with dishes.
"Thank you – shall we go up to my office then?" Dr. Wilson asked, turning to Victor.
Victor bit his lip. "I – do we have to? I don't – I h-had a bad moment yesterday, and I'd r-really rather not be anywhere near w-where he used to work."
"Bad moment?" Mr. White echoed.
Victor shuddered and closed his eyes. "I – I tried to make tea."
"We caught him over the stove with the kettle – tea time was not just tea with Dr. Bumby," Alice explained in response to the Whites' puzzled looks. "We're not going to let that happen again, Victor."
"Certainly not," Dr. Wilson agreed. "We can do this wherever you feel most comfortable, Victor. Your room, perhaps?"
"I'd prefer Alice's," Victor admitted.
"I have no objections – though we'll have to steal some chairs," Alice said, looking around. "I doubt you'll all fit on my bed."
"Allow me," Mr. White said, standing and scooping up both his own chair and the one next to it. In response to his wife's look, he added, "I've carried much heavier much farther, and in much worse conditions. Where do we go?"
"I'm right next to Victor," Alice said, grabbing her chair. "Just this way."
It took a little fiddling, especially with Mr. White, but they managed to get through the dining room door, across the hall, and past her own door without any major traffic snarls. Alice helped Mr. White arrange the chairs in a semi-circle while Victor sat on the bed and Mrs. White and Dr. Wilson admired the artwork. "I'm glad to see you've kept up your sketching – and inspired the children, no less," Dr. Wilson commented. "Moved on to ink from pencil then?"
"Actually, those are Victor's," Alice corrected him. "Most of the others are mine – Elsie's responsible for that one of the Hatter, but usually the children keep theirs in their room. I know, I was much better in Rutledge," she added, holding up a hand as he raised an eyebrow. "And I should be again now that my unconscious isn't trying to get my attention by taking away my skills."
Dr. Wilson shook his head. "Your brain is a marvel, Alice. You should donate it to science once you've passed."
"Well, so long as I don't need it in the Land of the Dead, they're welcome to it."
"There were plenty of skeletons roaming around for Victor's wedding. . .though I can't speak for what was inside their skulls," Mrs. White admitted, tracing her way through the picture of the hedge maze with a finger. "Goodness, you have quite the imagination. . .I certainly never dreamed of decapitating people, even in my darkest moments," she added, glancing at a sketch of Card Guards being messily dismembered.
"Be grateful – having to fight your way through your mind to regain your sanity is not fun," Alice told her.
"I don't know," Victor said, frowning at the picture of Alice engaged in battle with an Army Ant. "I wouldn't mind being able to just stab M-Bumby when he yells at me and be done with it."
"Yes, but would you also like to have exploding acorns and poisonous vomit launched at you while you got to him? Not to mention all the Ruins he'd have at his side. . . ."
"We're going to have to talk about your latest adventure in Wonderland too later," Dr. Wilson declared. "Stories like these make me wonder if I should have published my casebook after your release."
"If you do, I want royalties," Alice said, then frowned. "Actually, that reminds me – I'm going to need your help tracking down that idiot Radcliffe. He's vanished somewhere into the countryside, and if I ever want to see any of my inheritance. . .not to mention I still have to tell the Van Dorts what's happened." She squeezed the bridge of her nose. "Too much to do and too little time to do it in – if I could get Rabbit to lend me the Deadtime watch again, I'd be all set."
"You don't have to do it all alone," Dr. Wilson assured her, as Rabbit clutched his watch possessively to his chest. "I'll write to the Van Dorts, if you like. They probably won't be happy to hear from me, but that's their business."
A soft gasp drew their attention back to Mrs. White. "Oh my. . .this is beautiful," she whispered, gazing up at the drawing of Alice suspended in a jet of steam.
"Victor's," Alice said proudly, watching her ink-self's vaporous wings flutter. "It's my favorite."
Victor smiled shakily. "I'm glad you like it so much. I wish I remembered drawing it for you." He tilted his head at it. "I was quite good, wasn't I?"
"And you'll be quite good again," Alice told him, sitting beside him. "Remember – Christmas or bust."
"Christmas?" Dr. Wilson repeated. "Ten years in Rutledge yourself, and you decide he's going to be cured in about two months?"
Alice nodded, lips set in a hard line. Dr. Wilson sighed. "All right, if that's my time-line, we'd best get started. . . .if you could all be seated?" he continued, taking on a more professional tone.
Mrs. White reluctantly left off examining the artwork and took the leftmost chair for herself. Mr. White sat down beside her, leaving Dr. Wilson right in front of Victor. "Now then," he started, leaning forward with hands clasped on his knees, "obviously we know why we're here, but I'd like to hear what you have to say about it. Some of my colleagues may scoff, but I've found getting the patient's perspective to be quite beneficial."
Victor twisted the end of his tie in his fingers. "I'm – I d-don't know what to say," he admitted.
"Well, how would you describe what Dr. Bumby did to you?"
Victor stared at the blue silk. ". . .it hurt," he finally whispered. "M-most of it is a blur, but – I remember it hurt. I couldn't see, I couldn't move, I just – I just had to l-listen to him tear me down, b-bit by bit. . .until I was willing to do anything to m-make the pain stop."
Alice squeezed his arm. "Victor. . . ."
"Go on," Dr. Wilson encouraged.
"And then he took my mind and – and played with it," Victor spat, disgusted. "Ripped me out and left n-nothing but an empty shell. A doll he could pose and – p-prod and shove in a corner when he was bored. He told me I had to forget, I had to obey, I – I am nothing but a toy, I don't deserve a name, I am only good for–"
This time Alice's fingernails bit into his sleeve. "VICTOR!"
Victor jumped, then clamped his hands over his face. "Damn it! I'm – I'm sorry!"
The Whites stared. "So – that's a bad moment, hm?" Mr. White guessed.
"Yes," Alice said, running her thumb over Victor's arm. "And the reason we can't let him help with the chores, or make tea at four o'clock, or give him direct orders. He's too liable to slip away and let Thirteen come back out. You already heard him once before."
"I thought my ears were playing tricks on me," Mrs. White confessed. "To hear him go so – blank. . . ."
"I don't want to," Victor choked. "I f-fight, I swear I do, but – he's so loud. . .and I'm s-scared I'll f-find myself back in the dark if I don't – I c-can't go back there, I'll lose myself forever. . . ."
Dr. Wilson's face remained calm, but Alice could see sweat beading on his forehead. "Is this a daily occurrence?" he asked, taking his handkerchief and wiping it away.
"Yes – but let's be fair, it's not even been a week yet," Alice pointed out. "I think he's doing quite well, given the circumstances. Better than what Charlie supposed, certainly – he was convinced Dr. Bumby had murdered Victor and done some sort of spell to make the body move on its own," she explained. "We had to let him take Victor's pulse to convince him he wasn't one of the walking dead."
"Feel that way sometimes," Victor muttered through his fingers.
"I think having a few of the dead about would actually help," Mrs. White said, knotting her fingers in her lap. "They're a bit wild, but friendly once you get to know them. And fun, from what I hear."
"I won't deny we could all use some fun," Alice nodded. "And they'd have to help your memory, Victor."
"Oh yes," Mrs. White nodded. "Like that 'Bonejangles' Hildegarde met, or – oh, what was the name of the one who presided over the wedding?" She snapped her fingers. "Elder. . . ."
All eyes went back to Victor. "Gut – Gut – Gutknecht!" he cried, looking up with a bright smile. "Elder Gutknecht! He's the one who – ow!"
He squeezed his forehead, cheer vanishing in a frustrated groan. "And it's gone again. . .oh, I am so sick of this. . . ."
"We all are, Victor," Alice said, giving his arm a comforting rub.
"Not as much as I am."
"Seems you are on track to recovering your mind, though," Dr. Wilson said, trying to keep the mood up.
"We have a system in place," Alice said with a proud squaring of her shoulders.
"Yes – she tells me as little as possible and makes me sift through whatever's left of my brain to figure out my own life," Victor grumbled, leaning on his hand. "Never mind that I apparently told her nearly everything before."
"You know why I'm doing that," Alice told him, poking his shoulder. "So you have your memories back, not my memory of a memory."
"Yes, well, you're not the one who gets shouted at every time you try." He massaged his temples. "And often picks up a headache to boot." He glanced at Dr. Wilson. "Do you really think you can help me?"
"Yes," Dr. Wilson replied. "I've seen worse, Victor. At least you're capable of taking care of yourself."
"Whoever that is." Victor sighed, slumping over his knees. "It just feels so – hopeless sometimes. I've been unmade – broken into a million pieces. And even if we find them all, I – I worry I won't be able to put myself back together."
"You will," Alice told him, going back to rubbing his arm. "I've done it. Maybe I've never been as shattered as you, but I've certainly been broken. Thought I could never be whole again. But I found the pieces. Reassembled myself – twice over. Perhaps they don't fit together as well as they used to, but I'm still me. I'm still here." She touched his cheek, turning his face toward hers. "You're only lost if you believe you are."
Victor twiddled the end of his tie. "It's hard to believe anything else some days."
"Victor, you've traveled down to the Land of the Dead and back again – twice, in fact," Mrs. White put in. "You climbed up to my balcony and snuck into my room despite my parents being out for your blood. You fought a madman armed with a sword wielding a barbecue fork and did very well for yourself right up until the end. You and Emily – you saved my life."
"Not to mention, you've been living here in Whitechapel for – what, half a year?" Mr. White put in. "And managed to survive some of the worst on these streets. Does the name Jack Splatter mean anything to you?"
Victor frowned. "T-tall man in a fur coat? Beady eyes, flattened nose? Generally unpleasant?"
Alice blinked. "You remember him of all people?"
"Mas-Bumby brought him to the office one day," Victor explained, hands twisting and untwisting in his lap. "He was – um – g-going to loan me out to him."
Silence. "Excuse me, I need to go kill him," Alice finally said, standing. "Shouldn't take long, I'll be back in time for tea–"
"No, no, he didn't do anything!" Victor cried hastily, grabbing her skirt. "He n-nearly punched me, but he s-said I wasn't any fun as T-Th-Thirteen, and when B-Bumby offered me up for – he said he d-didn't like men like that! Bumby was the only one who – who–" He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. "Please don't leave."
"Dare I ask?" Dr. Wilson wondered, looking between Victor, Alice, and the Whites.
"Splatter's a local pimp," Alice said, sitting back down. Victor leaned his head on her shoulder. "He and Victor ended up having a bit of a feud."
"Bit of a feud?" Mr. White echoed, an incredulous smile on his face. "According to Officer Hightopp and Victor himself, he once knocked the man flat!"
Victor goggled. "I – what? Alice you're going to have to tell me about that one – even if I remember it, I won't believe it," he declared.
"Oh no – you said that was a favorite memory despite all the trouble it caused, so we'll work on getting it back properly," Alice retorted, unable to help her grin. "But you see? You're much stronger than you give yourself credit for."
"You're one of the kindest and bravest men I know," Mrs. White agreed. "Not to mention you seem to have a knack for doing the impossible. You'll get through this."
That finally brought a smile to Victor's face. "Thank you," he said quietly, looking around the circle. "I never knew – I can't wait to remember you all properly."
"Neither can we," Alice said, taking his hand. "I'm quite looking forward to getting the man I love back in full."
A delighted squeal made her jerk her head up, wondering if June had entered the room. Then she caught sight of Mrs. White beaming with her hands clasped at her chin. "Sorry," the other woman said, turning pink as her husband turned a chuckle into a cough. "Victor told me all about you while we were having tea after your trip to 'Cardbridge,' and – I told him he ought to say how he felt!"
"He never got the chance, sadly – fortunate for everyone I managed to figure it out on my own in Queensland," Alice said, shaking her head. "About the only bright spot in this whole mess, and we can't even properly enjoy it yet." She leaned up against Victor. "But one day soon."
He nodded, wrapping his arm around her. "One day."
"You with a paramour," Dr. Wilson commented, smiling. "I never thought I'd see the day."
"Neither did I, but – things change when you have one non-horrible member of the opposite sex in your life," Alice replied with a shrug.
"Indeed. . .you've come a long way, Alice," Dr. Wilson said in the tones of a proud father. "Now, Victor – sit up straight, please, I can't see your face."
Victor snapped upright so fast that Alice toppled into his lap. "Don't do that!" she cried, pushing herself back up.
"I didn't think he'd respond like that!" Dr. Wilson eyed Victor's stiff back. "You don't have to sit up that straight."
Victor let his shoulders slump with a sigh. "Sorry, I – I'm a l-little too quick to take direction."
"I told you – nothing that sounds like a direct order!" Alice scolded Dr. Wilson. "I learned that the hard way when I told him to stay somewhere and he nearly called me 'Mistress.'"
"I – I said 'please,'" Dr. Wilson pointed out, though his tone was suitably abashed.
"And thank you for that – p-probably kept me from calling you – 'M-Master,'" Victor said, grimacing in disgust.
That made Dr. Wilson wince. "I'm sorry. Telling people what to do – it's part of the job when you're in my line of work."
"I know, and I won't pretend I haven't slipped up either," Alice said, softening. "Just think before you talk. Questions and suggestions – or at least stick an 'if you want' somewhere in there. Trust me, you don't want to see him as fully Thirteen."
Alice's voice went hard as flint. "You don't."
Dr. Wilson frowned at her, but didn't push the issue. "Well, we'll start with something else, then – can you tell me everything you do remember, Victor?"
"About. . . ?"
"Anything. Your life before, your time as Thirteen – whatever comes to mind."
Victor tangled his hands together in his lap. "There's not much of before. . .and talking about – y-you've seen how easily I – slip."
"Hmm – how about writing it down, then?" Dr. Wilson suggested. "That way we can go over the list later at our leisure. And it should help solidify those memories you have recovered."
Victor pursed his lips thoughtfully. "If you really think it would help. . . ."
"I think it's a good idea," Alice said. "Whenever you start to doubt yourself, you'll have written proof that it is possible to get past that wall."
That made him smile. "Right. Should I start now?"
"No time like the present," Dr. Wilson nodded. "I do need to consult with at least a few of the children today – and we've probably monopolized enough of Mr. and Mrs. White's time."
"I think it's more fair to say we've monopolized yours," Mrs. White replied with a soft chuckle. "We don't have anything pressing to return to, but I'm sure you don't want us underfoot all afternoon."
"And I suppose I have to finish cleaning the foyer at some point," Alice said, smirking. "But you're welcome to come by anytime. I'll teach you how to be just as cryptic to poor Victor."
"Anything we can do to help," Mrs. White nodded. "Just say the word." She held out a hand to Victor. "It was nice to see you again. Even if the circumstances are – well, this."
"It was nice to see you too," Victor said politely, shaking. "I'm sorry I don't remember you properly. I want to, though. I – I want more than just winter jasmine."
"So do I," Mrs. White said. "We'll help you get there."
"Of course," Mr. White agreed. "I signed up for my very own penny dreadful drama marrying you, didn't I, Victoria?"
"I told you about the walking dead before we got married," Mrs. White responded, poking his arm. "You were sufficiently warned."
"Oh, darling, I wasn't complaining." He stood and gave her his hand. "I guess we'll be off then."
"I'll see you to the door, at least," Alice said, getting up, then pausing. "Unless – you still want me around, Victor?"
"Well, yes, but I can't keep you next to me all the time," Victor said, chuckling weakly. "I'll be all right on my own for a bit." He swallowed. "So long as someone makes sure I don't head for the kitchen at four."
"Somebody will be around, I promise," Alice said, taking his hand and giving it a quick squeeze. "If not me, then June. We won't let you try anything – untoward."
"Thank you." Victor returned the squeeze, nodded at Dr. Wilson and the Whites, then headed out the door. Alice watched him go, tempted briefly to follow despite his assurances. They'd just dragged up some rather painful emotions, after all, and he was so fragile. . . .
"But not actually made of porcelain, no matter how white he is," Caterpillar interrupted her thoughts, fluttering past. "Protection does not mean smothering, Alice. You can't be his crutch every moment of the day. Let him be and he just might surprise you."
They're not usually nice surprises, Alice replied, but conceded the point. She'd left Victor on his own before – she could do so again. And if Dr. Wilson was going to start on the children now, she wanted to be there to see. And to make sure he didn't do anything stupid. "All right – let's see if Tailor's found himself a new angle for his favorite story."