Chapter 5: A Noble Woman
To her surprise, while there was a fellow wielding a notepad and pen waiting for them in the foyer, it wasn't the overly-excitable young man she'd come to expect. June was there as well, wearing a faintly puzzled, somewhat suspicious look. "Is Tailor ill today?" Alice asked, tilting her head.
The man frowned at her. "I'm not with the Illustrated, Miss Liddell," he said, his sonorous voice booming off the walls. "I'm Harold Dickenson, from London Weekly. I was hoping for a moment of your time."
"I told him you were busy, but he insisted on waiting," June said, folding her arms.
"Ah, so the other papers are starting to sniff around," Alice commented. "Suppose it was inevitable. Well, I gave Tailor his story, so I guess I must be fair and give you yours. Let me just show these people out and we can have a chat, all right?"
Dickenson looked hard at the Whites and Dr. Wilson. "And they are?"
"Dr. Hieronymous Wilson," Dr. Wilson introduced himself, offering a hand. "I'm staying, actually – I'm the new proprietor of the Home."
Dickenson ignored the hand in favor of making notes. "You worked at Rutledge before, didn't you? On Miss Liddell's case? Are you here to treat her again?"
"Considering she's been running the Home very well for the past couple of days, I don't think that's necessary," Dr. Wilson said, dropping his arm with a frown. "I'm here to take care of the children. And Master Van Dort."
"Right, yes – for his necrophilia?"
"He doesn't have that!" Mrs. White snapped, bristling.
"How do you know?"
"I was his fiancee before!"
Dickenson looked up at her. "And you've come by to see him again?"
"I'm allowed, aren't I?" Mrs. White replied, face hard. "Especially in the company of my husband?" Mr. White put his arm around her.
"Hmmm." Dickenson put pen back to paper. "Is it true he's faking amnesia?"
"Faking?!" Alice's fists clenched. "He's suffering tremendously from it!"
"He was assisting Dr. Bumby with his activities, though, wasn't he?" Dickenson pressed. "That's how the Illustrated put it."
"'Personal assistant' was an attempt to save poor Victor's dignity," Alice responded, glaring. "He's as much a victim as anyone else here."
"I can assure you, as a professional, there is absolutely no faking involved," Dr. Wilson said coldly. "Master Van Dort genuinely remembers almost nothing about his life or who he is."
"Including the fact that he almost married a corpse? Angela, I believe the name was?"
"Emily," Mrs. White corrected. "And only bits and pieces – if that's the story you're after, you're almost a year late."
"I'm after whatever story I can get," Dickenson replied, scratching away. He looked up at Alice. "Rumor has it you murdered Dr. Bumby."
"Rumor is the grist mill of the East End," Alice replied, refusing to let him see her sweat. "It grinds the truth up very fine. I told the police what happened. They'll back me up."
"For how much of Dr. Bumby's money?"
Alice's jaw clenched. "You're not making yourself very welcome here, you know," she growled. Hatter raised his cane threateningly beside her, and Cheshire arched his back with a hiss.
"Not everyone thinks as highly of you as the Illustrated," Dickenson replied, rolling his eyes. "Dr. Wilson, do you really believe it's safe to let a known long-term mental patient wander around as if she's like the rest of us? She's been causing destruction wherever she goes lately. Food stolen, tea shops smashed up, children screamed at in the street. And this Master Van Dort. . .I've heard a thing or two about him and Bumby engaging in – sordid activities," he finished with a glance at Mrs. White.
"Victor did nothing sordid with anyone," Mrs. White snarled. "Dr. Bumby destroyed his mind and forced him into – unpleasant situations."
"Some of the 'ladies' I've spoken to are quite certain he has a number of unnatural urges–"
"They're just angry he never gave them the time of day – or a few pennies," Alice cut in, Rabbit flexing his claws. "You seem to already have your story, Mr. Dickenson. I'm not sure why I should speak to you at all."
"I'm just trying to protect the public, Miss Liddell," Dickenson replied. "Reporting the facts the Illustrated and the Times won't."
"Reporting whatever's juiciest on the streets is more like it."
"Please, Mr. Dickenson," June said, stepping forward. "I know there's a lot about this that looks – untoward, but Victor really is ill. He has moments where you'd swear he was a wind-up doll."
"Or a Caribbean zombi," Mr. White put in, shuddering.
"And Alice has been nothing but kindness itself to me. I don't know about what she's done in her past, but she took me in when I had nowhere to go."
Dickenson looked her up and down. "Someone who looks like the result of a bet gone bad?"
Mrs. White gasped, as did an astonished Hatter. Alice swooped forward, shoving Dickenson toward the door. "Get out! And tell whoever else lowers themselves to work at the Weekly that they'll have no news from us!" The Insane Children swarmed around her, giggling and stabbing at his legs with their crayons. "I refuse to talk to anyone who's only going to warp my words into whatever sells best!"
Dickenson started, then glared. "As if the Illustrated doesn't? You mark my words, Liddell – I'm going to get to the bottom of whatever's actually going on in this place!"
"Good luck – because if I see you around here again, your latest story is going to be on what it's like to be kicked in Nebuchadnezzar by a girl half your height."
Dickenson turned red and rushed out the door. Alice slammed it behind him. "And here I thought Tailor was typical of his breed. . .I'm sorry, June."
June snorted. "It's fine. I've heard worse. Honestly, that was almost funny."
"Wonder what he'd make of me," Hatter commented, studying his own green skin.
Nothing good, I'm sure. "Really? I thought it would rank up there."
June shook her head. "Back in my home village, I once ran into a man hunting in the woods who took one look at me and said that he couldn't believe such 'pollution' lived near his home and that I 'ought to go back where I came from.' I was genuinely afraid for a moment that he might shoot me and be done with it."
Mrs. White's face now lived up to her name. "He – he wasn't a rather squat man with a terrible frown, was he? Wielding a wide-mouthed musket?"
"Oh, you know him too?"
Mrs. White nodded slowly, grimacing. "Allow me to apologize on behalf of my father."
"Your fa–" June's ample jaw dropped. "Are – are you the younger Lady Everglot?!"
"Not anymore, and frankly I'm glad – you're from Burtonsville?"
"More or less – we lived outside the main wall," June admitted, scuffing the floor with her shoe. "As you might imagine, we weren't popular with many of the villagers. . .Mother and I heard about that 'corpse bride' incident. We thought your crier had finally taken leave of his senses."
"No, it really happened," Mrs. White said, shaking her head. "This is – unbelievable."
"I should say," Alice said, looking between June and Mrs. White in amazement. "Next thing you know, someone's going to tell you that you're secretly adopted and actually Victor's sister, Mrs. White."
"Perish the thought," Mrs. White shuddered. "The last thing we need is more awkwardness between us."
"At least this means I can help with getting Victor's memory back too," June said, looking on the bright side as usual. "Since I know the village and all. . .speaking of which, how is he?"
"All right for now – though this is going to be an interesting case," Dr. Wilson declared, rubbing his face with his handkerchief before tucking it away in his front pocket. "Rather more than the simple amnesia the police implied."
"I should say," Mr. White agreed, running his fingers through his tangled locks. "Those little moments of his – your Charlie has the right idea. He does sound like a walking corpse."
"Oh dear, it happened again?" June shot Dr. Wilson a pleading look. "You are going to stop that, aren't you?"
"As soon as I can," Dr. Wilson promised. "Hopefully without having to resort to shock apparatus."
"No 'hopefully' about it," Alice told him, waving a stern finger in his face. "I see anything like that chair in Rutledge, I'm smashing it to pieces. That bloody hurts."
Mrs. White worried her sleeve. "It's horrible. I never thought he could – after everything we went through together. . . ."
"If it helps, even I'm vague in his head," Alice said, rocking on her heels. "He's giving it his all, I promise."
"Oh, I don't doubt that. I just – don't like that we're strangers all over again." Her eyes found the piano tucked sadly against the wall. "He does at least still play, right?"
Alice winced as Victor's broken eyes loomed up before her. "Ah – no, he doesn't, actually. Bumby made him forget that too."
". . .I should have slapped the man when I saw him," Mrs. White grumbled. "But surely sitting down and trying would help. He was so talented – something has to remain."
"I think it hurts him too much to try just yet," Alice admitted. "And I've been too busy to even think of going near it."
"It probably needs a good clean then," June said, pulling a dust cloth from her apron and attacking the keyboard. A wave of discordant plungkarugh followed in her wake. "And a good tuning! I've never heard one so poor!"
"Sounds like something's stuck in it," Mr. White observed.
"Probably one of the children has decided to use it as a toy bin," Alice sighed. "Open it up and see, will you? Maybe it's where Ollie hides all the underwear."
"Where who does what?" Mrs. White asked, blinking, as June heaved open the top of the instrument.
"Oh, didn't I mention? One of the boys around here has a habit of stealing other people's underthings."
". . .I could write a book on this place and haven't even been here a day yet," Dr. Wilson muttered into his hand. "I think we'll make his the next session."
"Please do – the rest of us would like to stop having to lock certain drawers."
"Aha! There's the culprit!" With a twang, June pulled the obstruction free. "Hmmm. . . ." She held it up for all to see. "Who owns this, do you know?"
"Everyone's supposed to own things equaAAAH!"
June – and indeed everyone else – jumped. "Alice?" she said, staring at her coworker as if she'd grown a second head. "What – it's just a rabbit."
Alice couldn't reply, eyes locked on the toy. Just a rabbit? Oh no – what was clutched in June's hand was far more than any mere rabbit. That was one of her dearest friends, imagination and memory given form, a gift she'd thought lost forever. "Mr. Bunny. . . ."
"That's your rabbit, isn't it?" Dr. Wilson noted, glancing between her and the toy. "Well, I'm glad to see Radcliffe did indeed get it back to you. Nurse Darling was quite worried."
"No, he didn't," Alice whispered, moving forward to tenderly take the worn doll into her arms. Oh God, he was just as soft as she remembered. . . . "He refused to let me have it, no matter how much I screamed or begged. Said it was 'inflammatory' or some such nonsense. . .I don't – how on earth did it end up here in the pian–"
Who else would have hidden something there?
For a moment, she went still as a statue, clutching Mr. Bunny tightly against her chest. Then, despite every mental admonition to stay strong and look sane, she began to sob. June and Mrs. White rushed to her side. "Alice?"
"Oh dear, what's wrong?"
"I – I want him back!" Alice managed to choke out, tears spilling over her cheeks and soaking poor Mr. Bunny's head. Cheshire quickly jumped onto a nearby table, eyeing the floor near her feet as if he expected it to flood any second. "I love him so much and he g-gave up everything trying to help me and. . .he c-can't even remember f-finding this doll, I'd bet my life. . .oh Victor. . . ."
"Shhh, shhhh," Mrs. White soothed, rubbing her back. Alice didn't even try to pull away, far too upset to care. "It's all right. Come on, if you'll take me to the kitchen I'll make you some tea, all right? You and Mr. Bunny."
A watery laugh escaped her lips. "You sound like my sister."
"That's a good thing, I hope?"
"I need that q-quite a lot right now, yes." She wiped her eyes and patted down Mr. Bunny's ears with her apron. "Sorry to steal your wife again."
"Oh no, please, take whatever time you need – we're in no rush," Mr. White assured her.
"Thank you." Alice indicated Mrs. White to follow her with a jerk of her head. "Excuse us."
The kitchen was still full of the smells of lunch when they arrived – Alice took a deep whiff, as if doing so could conjure up a second helping of the beef they'd enjoyed. "I don't know how she does it," she admitted as she retrieved the kettle from its cupboard. "I've done joints before, and they never turned out so well. Of course, I didn't learn much about cookery growing up, and Bumby was just as likely to order in a completed dinner as he was to send me to the market. . .do you want me to–"
"No, no, you sit," Mrs. White said, taking the kettle and waving her to the table. "I can handle this. I made tea dozens of times growing up."
Alice obligingly took a seat, playing with Mr. Bunny's ears. "A lord and a lady couldn't hire someone to make tea for them?"
"Didn't Victor mention the main reason our marriage was arranged was because my family was penniless?" Mrs. White replied, filling the kettle (and not looking very pleased with the color of the water). "Mother and Father did their best to keep up appearances as long as they could, but for most of my life, we simply couldn't afford a proper cook. My nurse Hildegarde made most of the meals, and I helped her once I was old enough. Mother didn't like it, but it was either I learn or we go hungry. I'm nowhere near Miss Thatcher in skill, but I know my way around a kitchen."
"I see." A sudden horrible thought hit Alice. "They didn't make you cook your own wedding breakfast to that wretched Barkis, did they?"
Mrs. White winced as she lit the stove. "No, Hildegarde took care of all that – not that she liked it any better. It wasn't like there was much to serve – tiny chickens, shallow bowls of soup, an inch of wine in each glass, and what had to be the smallest wedding cake ever baked. And the only reason we could get that was because we'd already sold off everything in my trousseau except my – underthings – and the wedding dress." She sighed, deep and frustrated. "I don't know why they tried so hard. Everyone who lived in the village knew we were in trouble. And if Barkis had gotten the slightest inkling we weren't rich anymore, he probably would have left me alone."
"Yes – but then, he also would have escaped to make some other girl's life hell," Alice pointed out. "At least this way he got what he deserved. The teapot and teabags are in the leftmost cupboard."
"Thank you. And yes, that's true enough," Mrs. White agreed as she fetched the needed items. Her voice went dark. "If you'd seen his face as the other dead pulled him into their world. . .I can only hope that Dr. Bumby had a similar greeting waiting for him Below."
"If my sister was anywhere nearby when he died, I can guarantee you he did."
Mrs. White glanced back, fiddling with a teabag. "Yes. . .that was in the Illustrated too," she murmured. "He really–"
Alice nodded, staring into Mr. Bunny's single eye. "I – I saw him in the hallway the night it happened," she mumbled. "Unfortunately, I was half-asleep and didn't realize it was him. I thought it was a centaur instead. So I ran crying back into my dreams, and he. . . ." She slumped over herself, fighting back fresh tears. "Why didn't I recognize him the minute I left Rutledge? Why didn't I realize earlier who he was? If Lizzie knows I was here, living with him for a full year. . .she probably hates me."
"Don't say that, Miss Liddell," Mrs. White said, eyes soft and sad. "Do you really think your own family could hate you?"
"I did for ten years in Rutledge," Alice muttered, twisting one of Mr. Bunny's ears around her finger. "It's an easy habit to fall back into. And sharing blood is no guarantee you'll like someone. Or did you somehow avoid meeting Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort?"
Mrs. White's jaw clenched. "Good point," she said, shoving the teapot under the sink and twisting the hot water tap a bit harder than necessary. "I still can't believe. . .well, maybe I can," she admitted as she swished out the ceramic. "My own parents were almost ready to commit me when I first started talking about corpse brides. If Barkis hadn't stepped in as Victor's replacement, I may have ended up locked in the attic."
"Is there anyone in Burtonsville besides June who has decent parents?"
Mrs. White shrugged. "I wasn't allowed out much, so I couldn't say. My mother and father were an arranged marriage too, and I think sometimes they decided that if they couldn't be happy with their own choice, no one around them could be happy either." She sighed as she dumped out the freshly-rinsed and warmed pot. "Not to mention I know very well I was supposed to be a boy."
"Ah, the aristocracy," Alice said lightly. "Makes me glad we were never more than upper-middle-class. And that Papa didn't give a toss about having an 'heir.'"
"If I'd been allowed to speak my mind to Mrs. Van Dort, I would have told her to be happy with what she had," Mrs. White agreed. "All the nobility I ever met was terribly snobbish at best, and downright cruel at worst – though 'Lord' Barkis's title is questionable. Before Mother announced I'd be marrying Victor, I was sure I was going to spend the rest of my life stuck with someone just like Father."
"And instead you just missed out on someone who raises the dead," Alice replied, leaning back in her chair. "He still talks about you, you know. Or, well, he did. . . ." She gave Mr. Bunny a squeeze. "You left quite the impression on him for half an afternoon's worth of conversation and just over a day's worth of general company."
"Well, he left an equal one on me," Mrs. White said, expression nostalgic. "Perhaps we didn't spent a lot of time together, but. . .when I saw just how sweet and shy he was, I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with him."
A faint green haze filled the edges of the room, followed by the blooming of a couple of thorn-throwing roses. "I suppose I'm obligated to say too bad it didn't end up that way," Alice said, daring them with a glare to actually try anything. No need to be mean, Alice – remember what her last name is?
"Well, I do regret not realizing Pastor Galswells was being dramatic when he declared Victor a damned soul. . .but I can't regret marrying Christopher," Mrs. White said, fixing her bun again. The roses shrank away, to Alice's relief. "He's a wonderful, wonderful man. Life without him – I can't even imagine it anymore." The kettle whistled for her attention – she snuffed the flame beneath it and tipped the boiling water into the teapot, then plopped in the teabags. "I can believe I would have been happy with Victor, but I know I'm happy with him."
The last of the green fog drifted off. "I'm glad for you," Alice said sincerely. "At least there's one happy couple around here. How did you two meet, anyway? Victor never said."
Mrs. White tittered awkwardly. "Actually. . .it was when I ran away from our summer home and encountered him on the road on my way back to Burtonsville. He was originally going to be my chaperone back to Victor."
Alice smirked. "That must be a fun story for parties. 'My current husband is the man I ran into while attempting to rejoin my original intended.'"
"It is a rather unusual way to meet the man you love," Mrs. White agreed. "But it worked for us. My parents accepted him as a potential suitor, so we had plenty of time to talk and get to know each other. . .and then, after Pastor Galswells gave us the completely wrong impression, he was so kind to me in my grief. . .I couldn't see myself with anyone else after that. He understood me – what else could you ask for?"
"Nothing," Alice nodded, stroking Mr. Bunny. "That's just how it is with me and Victor. Right from the start, he saw me as just a fellow person, not an interesting curiosity. His first reaction to hearing about my commitment in Rutledge was to be horrified it happened when I was so young. And he's never held it against me, never said it was my fault. Even when I'm grouchy for no reason, or making a complete idiot of myself because I'm lost in my own head, he forgives me. He's the only one who's never, ever given up on me." She bit her lip, squeezing her toy tightly against her middle. "I worried once too that he might kill himself, after a bad run-in with Splatter. Would you believe he told me that I was someone worth living for?"
Alice blinked at the intensity in Mrs. White's tone. The woman leaned across the table, face serious. "Miss Liddell, if you'd been at that tea we shared right after you escaped – I never thought Victor capable of long speeches, but the way he described you and your Wonderland. . .I believed he sounded like a man in love when he made his confession in my bedroom, but that – anyone who had ears would have realized he adored you beyond all measure."
Why were her blushing days never content to stay in the past? "I have ears, and eyes, and all my other senses too," she retorted, ducking her head to hide the heavy pink across her cheeks. "And I never noticed. Or, well, I did, but I kept telling myself that it was nothing. That I shouldn't look too much into it. That there was no way he'd ever want someone like me."
"Oh, for – you too?!"
Alice jerked her head up. "Do excuse me, but – you know, he said almost the exact same thing to me!" Mrs. White declared, hands on hips. "That you would never look at him that way, that you were too good for him. I told him he ought to tell you, and now–" She waved her hands beside her face for a moment, then shook her head and turned to check on the tea. "Never mind. At least that display in your room proves you're past such silliness."
He'd seriously thought he wasn't good enough for someone who'd been in bedlam most of her life? Alice was on the verge of running back up the stairs and demanding why he'd ever entertained a ridiculous notion when Leader tugged on her skirt and shook her head. She sighed and slumped back in her chair. "Yes – but now I've got to deal with the fact that the man I love doesn't remember why he loves me. He can't joke with me about the stranger bits of Wonderland, I can't start a story and watch as he captures it in ink, he can't make the piano sing more beautifully than I've ever heard. . .what use is gaining a paramour if I've lost my best friend?"
Mrs. White found what passed for the house china and selected two of the cleanest mugs. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "For all of this." She shook her head again. "I should have pressed harder for him to take that loan. . . ."
"He was going on about how much he loathed being at the Home, and I thought, we had enough money to lend him a few months' rent on a flat. . .he refused to accept, though." Her eyes flicked over to Alice. "Said he wouldn't leave until he knew you were safe."
Alice pressed her hand over her eyes. "Damn. . .now I really wish I'd been at that tea. I would have told him to take the money and run. Was I truly worth all that trouble?"
"He thought so," Mrs. White told her. "And don't forget, you're talking about a man who almost drank a cupful of poison for some poor dead bride, and battled an experienced murderer armed with only a fork for me. He has a touch of the dramatic when it comes to love."
Alice snorted. "I'll give you that." She leaned on her hand as Mrs. White checked the tea again, then poured. "He also seems to keep getting mixed up with women who get involved somehow with unrepentant arseholes, if you'll pardon my language."
"As if I haven't called Barkis the same in my head," Mrs. White replied. "Do you have any sugar?" Alice pointed her toward the right cupboard. "Thank you. Though your Bumby's much worse." She swallowed. "At least – I don't think Barkis ever went after anyone under marrying age."
"I suppose we'll never know for sure," Alice muttered, petting Mr. Bunny's head. "I still can't believe. . .June keeps telling me not to blame myself, but it's hard. Both Victor and Abigail looked ready to bolt the first time they saw Dr. Wilson. And while the children here now might be safe, what about all those who slipped through my hands?"
"Well – that Officer Hightopp seemed to like you," Mrs. White said, poking around the tiny icebox before extracting the cream jug. "Surely he could help you locate some."
"Yes, I'll count myself fortunate I have him and his friend Tarrant on my side," Alice allowed. "I've no doubt they'll do their best to bring a few lost souls home. But – we'll never be able to find every one. If most of them are even still alive." She slumped in her chair as Hatter leaned over her with a concerned look. "I don't know. Between that and Victor, it – it just makes me feel like I've let the whole world down."
Mrs. White found a tray and arranged all the tea things on it. "You haven't," she said gently. "I don't know the whole story, but – the children here don't seem to hold anything against you. Dr. Wilson and June give you a good character. And Victor. . .I know he'd never take up with someone he didn't feel was good at heart." She sat down across from Alice, handing over her mug. "I know what it's like to wish you'd done something differently. But things do get better. Even after the darkest night, dawn comes."
"That's only a comfort if you think you'll like what the light reveals."
Mrs. White gave her a look. "I wish you'd accept that people like you," she said, dropping a spoonful of sugar into her tea, followed by a dash of cream. "People other than Victor, I mean. Dr. Wilson, June, the children. . .even I like you."
"Even after I fainted in front of you and scared the life out of your manservant?"
"I'm not going to hold a disease of the mind against you. Not after what Victor told me – and not after seeing just how tender-hearted you are in person." She leaned a little closer. "I know we have a sort of second-hand history, but I'm going to be over here rather a lot, trying to help you put his mind back together. I'd like for us to be friends."
Alice smiled slowly as a row of glowing bleeding hearts poked their heads out of the cracks in the floor. "I'd like that too. I haven't had much in the way of pleasant female company for a while. Even in my head, the Duchess – well, she's all right now, but she once tried to eat me. And the Queen of Hearts has tried repeatedly to skewer me with her tentacles."
". . .Your imagination is even grimmer than those pictures suggested, isn't it?"
"Wait until I tell you about the Bitch Babies," Alice grinned. "But yes, it would be nice to have a noble-born woman on my side for a change." She held out a hand. "Friends then, Mrs. White – or Victoria?"
"Victoria is just fine," Victoria confirmed, shaking. "Friends."
The room seemed to grow a little warmer with the word, the bleeding-hearts pulsing happily. I'm a sap inside, aren't I? Alice thought, adding cream and sugar to her own cup. But it's better than some of the alternatives. She blew gently on the tea, dispersing the little wisps of steam, then raised it to her lips and –
Alice jumped, splattering tea all over the table. "What the – June?!"
"Oh dear, what's happened now?" Victoria asked, staring at the ceiling.
"Only one way to find out." Alice dropped her cup and dashed to the stairs, the flowers withering in her wake. She took them two at a time, then shot through the dining room and threw open the door –
To see Victor leaning against his door, Dr. Wilson behind him, shaking like a leaf with his arm pressed across his eyes – and his trouser fly undone.
Hysteria clawed at her brain, demanding blood for this tableau – fortunately for everyone involved, one look at Dr. Wilson's pale complexion and utterly horrified eyes made her realize he hadn't meant this sin. Still – "You didn't try to deliberately turn him into Thirteen, did you?" she demanded, the walls around them dripping green bile as tentacles slithered in her peripheral vision.
"No!" Dr. Wilson cried, holding up his hands. "He came out of his room, looking frustrated, then turned back for some reason, and I just–"
"I-I was l-looking for some ink," Victor cut in, voice strained. "My well's r-run dry. . .and I was p-planning to ask June where another o-one was, but t-then I thought I ought to check my n-nightstand again first. . .and j-just as I did Dr. Wilson c-came up behind me and – a-all he did was t-touch my shoulder and a-ask me what I needed, but Master – Bumby! Bumby, damn it!" Victor choked back a sob. "He – he d-did that sometimes, and I just. . . ."
"And that's when I came by and the sight of him – I'm sorry if I frightened you," June said, making Alice jump again. Her coworker was in the doorway opposite, hands clenched before her almost in supplication. Poor Mr. White was hovering over her shoulder, completely out of his element. "But the worst he's done before this is–"
"N-no, I'm g-glad you screamed, I don't k-know what I would have – I'm sorry," Victor choked out, face buried in his sleeve. "I'm so sorry. . . ."
And before Alice could say a word, he'd vanished back inside his room, slamming the door behind him in a very final way. Dr. Wilson dabbed at his face again, looking quite ill. "Best to give him some space, I think. And – I'm sorry. For even hinting I wanted to see that."
Alice nodded. "Still want to come by and help, Victoria?" she asked, turning to the woman behind her.
"Of course," Victoria replied, face alight with fury. "I only wish I could have pushed Bumby off that platform myself."
Alice allowed herself a cold smile as the tentacles writhed. "I know exactly how you feel."
bad boy forget obey Master bad boy not a person just a doll just a fucktoy
"Shut up," Victor whispered, squeezing his knees against his chest. "Just shut up and leave me alone."
The voice ignored him, as it always did. It was a snarling, hissing constant in his mind – sometimes louder, sometimes softer, but never truly gone. bad boy worthless useless only good for fucking
He tried to live with it – pushed it to the back of his thoughts, did his best to ignore it. Most of the time it worked. But then June would unthinkingly order him to hand her something, or the clock would chime four while he wasn't paying enough attention, or – or Dr. Wilson would touch him and ask him what he needed and the voice would surge up over all his defenses and present yourself Master wants you it's all you were meant for forget obey
He gritted his teeth, the shame and humiliation as fresh as they'd been a few hours ago. He'd locked himself away in his room after the incident, not even coming out for supper. He simply couldn't face all those horrified eyes. He could only imagine how disgusted Victoria and her husband were with him. After struggling so hard to be the man she once knew, to slip up like that. . .Victoria probably felt like she'd dodged a bullet, avoiding marriage to him. And the shame he'd surely inflicted on Alice! He was supposed to getting better, not worse! Supposed to be fighting off moments like those! Supposed to forget everything you are nothing you are a slave you are mine
"No!" Victor smacked the side of his head against the pillow. "I'm not! I'm not!"
The voice laughed cruelly at him. Victor whimpered and curled up tighter. It wouldn't be half as bad if he had a distraction – something to do besides lie here like a turtle hiding in its shell. But Mas-Bumby had stolen his piano and his quill from him, and when he'd tried writing down the few bits and pieces of memory he had, the first one that had popped into his head was a moment from his training. . .the mantras were still burned into his eyes, as if he was reading them fresh on the page: I don't deserve a name. I am a worthless toy. I exist only to serve my Master –
"No!" he hissed between his teeth, shaking them away. "No, that's not true! My name is Victor Van Dort, I am a human being, and I exist for – for myself! Go away!"
mindless useless fucktoy cocksucker – something about that last hurt more than the others – bad boy Thirteen forget obey–
Knock knock. "Victor? Can I come in?"
The litany stopped for a moment. "Y-yes," Victor called, never happier to hear that voice. "Door's open."
A creak announced Alice's arrival in his room. With an effort, he lifted his head enough to see her standing by his bed, a terribly worn rabbit doll under one arm. Huh. I wonder where she got – it doesn't matter you don't matter you don't deserve her you don't deserve anything you need to forget you need to obey
Victor whimpered, resisting the urge to tuck his head into his arms. "It's bad tonight, isn't it?" Alice whispered, running her fingers along his damp cheek. "I thought you might need some company." She sat down beside him, smiling despite her sad eyes. "Here – someone would like to say hello to you." She put the rabbit up against his nose. "Mr. Bunny is pleased to renew your acquaintance."
Victor squinted at the toy. The poor thing looked like it had been through a war or two. Its white fur was worn down right to the cloth, and here and there it'd been patched with gray squares. One eye was missing, with just a couple of stray threads left in its wake, and one ear was beginning to come loose. A doll who had been well-loved or well-abused – or maybe both. "Hello, Mr. Bunny." Strange. . .he could swear there was something familiar about it. . . .
BAD BOY THIRTEEN
The words drove through his skull like a sledgehammer. He winced and turned away from the toy. "I'm s-sorry, I–"
"It's all right," Alice assured him, putting Mr. Bunny to the side. "I understand." She climbed under the covers with him and pressed his head against her chest. One hand found its way into his hair. "I'm here now, though. You're safe."
Safe. . .Victor wanted to believe that, but the voice was still there, snarling bad boy stop that toys don't feel pleasure. . .and yet the petting felt so good, little soothing waves against the pain in his head. . .bad boy no one cares about toys Master is angry you must forget you must obey
"Victor." A hand tilted his chin upward, and suddenly his world was the most beautiful pair of green eyes he'd ever seen. "It's okay." She swallowed. "Mistress is here now. You're safe."
must obey – must. . .obey. . .Mistress? The voice stopped, confused. obey – obey Mistress – no, Master–
No, Victor replied, as the petting resumed. Mistress. I want to obey Mistress.
you obey Master! the voice shouted, but it was already fading away. Victor nuzzled into Mistress's fingers, sighing in relief. He'd almost forgotten he had two owners. . . . A faint pang of guilt twisted his heart – he knew Mistress didn't actually enjoy using her title – but he couldn't linger on that for long. This was the only thing that broke the voice's control over him. And besides, it was hard to feel bad when she was still stroking his hair. . .every pass of her hand washing away a little more of the pain and sadness and fear, leaving him warm and wanted and relaxed. . .obey Mistress love Mistress and Mistress loves me. . . .
Mistress smiled as his arms gradually released their death grip on his legs. "Better?"
"Yes," he said, stretching himself out from head to toe. Goodness, he'd made himself stiff. . . . He slipped his arms around her. "Thank you for coming." He glanced at the doll, peeping at him from beside his pillow. "You and Mr. Bunny."
Mistress chuckled. "Mr. Bunny says it was no trouble at all. Not like I was going to get any sleep on my own anyway." She nuzzled his forehead. "Just relax. I've got you. You're safe."
"Mmm-hmm. . . ." Victor snuggled into her, smiling. The voice yelled at him– bad boy – but it was almost – not quite, but almost – too faint to be heard now. He let his eyes close, sure at last that he could rest without fear. "I love you," he mumbled into Mistress's – Alice's – shoulder.
And right before sleep claimed him, he heard the words that convinced him every moment of fighting was worth it: "I love you too."