Chapter 7: Clearing Out Old Wounds
Victor started, then looked up from his book. The knock repeated itself – not hard, but insistent against the front door. Well, definitely not Ne-Mother then, he thought, rolling his eyes. And Officer Hightopp is much louder – is it that Tailor fellow from the Illustrated? Oh dear, and Alice is helping June all the way down in the kitchen. . . . He bit his lip, staying as still as possible. I'm really not feeling up to giving anyone a quote. . .if I pretend no one's here, will they go away?
Rap-rap-rap – "Hello? Alice? Dr. Wilson?"
. . .Oh. Anxiety abruptly gave way to annoyance. Shutting his book with a decisive snap, he stood up and crossed the room, opening the door with a frown. "Hello, Mrs. White."
Victoria, hand half-raised for another knock, blinked at him. "Mrs. – Victor, I've told you I don't mind you calling me by my first name."
"We need to talk," Victor said, stepping aside so she could come in.
Victoria frowned, tilting her head in a motherly fashion. "What's wrong? You don't seem happy to see me. Did you have another bad night?"
"No – well, sort of," Victor admitted, remembering clammy fingers yanking him from a sound sleep. Forget and obey, Thirteen. . . . "But Alice was there. I'm fine now."
"My parents arrived in the city yesterday," Victor interrupted. Oh, what rudeness – bad boy, his old friend hissed, but he ignored it. He felt like being rude just at the moment.
Victoria's face became all sympathy. "Oh, I see. I – I can guess it wasn't the happiest of reunions."
"No, it wasn't," Victor muttered, his hands automatically bunching into fists as the tiny scraps of memory he'd recovered replayed in his head. His mother sitting up straight with shock, saying, "What – you mean – make him more of a society boy? If you could do that, it would be a miracle!" A smirking Bumby informing her, "I have had great success in using it to alter personalities and remove unwanted memories. Why, when the children leave this home, they're practically new people." Nell's fan jabbing at his tie – "I don't suppose you could make him stop doing that as well, could you?" A desperate protest that he liked being him that was completely ignored. . .and then handwritten words on a page, which he was pretty sure was from a different incident but fit in very well regardless: "I personally would love to authorize you to try anything and everything that brilliant mind of yours could devise to cure Victor. . . ." See, not even your parents wanted you like this, why don't you just submit and let me do my work. . . . "We – we didn't see eye to eye on a few things."
"I'm sorry," Victoria said softly, playing with her sleeve. "It's awful when you can't get along with your own parents, isn't it?" She sighed, then looked up at him hopefully. "Did they at least bring back anything? Tell you something new?"
Victor gave her a tight smile. "Yes, actually, they did." He stepped forward, his stomach knotted with anger and hurt. "Is it true that we only met the day of our wedding rehearsal?"
If he hadn't been so annoyed with her, he might have found her expression amusing. She resembled an otter stunned by a sudden large wave. "Yes," she confirmed at last, shaking the surprise off. "I suppose we might have passed in the market or something before, but I first spoke to you then."
"I see." He folded his arms. "So we knew each other for all of an afternoon?"
"More or less," Victoria admitted, fidgeting under his stare. "Everything with Emily took place over a couple of days. . .Victor, what's–"
"So why are you here?"
Victoria tilted her head again. "Because I'm hoping I can help get your memories back?"
"What memories? If we only spoke for less than a day, how can you help me at all?"
"Well, I did live across the street from you–" she started.
"And you never talked to me before our parents arranged for us to be married?" Victor snapped.
Victoria dipped her head. "Mother didn't like me to mingle with – and this is her term – 'common folk,'" she mumbled. "I spent most of my time in the house."
"So how can you know anything about me?" Victor demanded, the knot rolling around his abdomen. To think he'd trusted this woman before! "Have you been making things up just so I'll feel better?"
Victoria's head jerked up, jaw dropping open. "What – no!" she cried, turning red. "How dare you accuse me of such a thing!"
"How dare you not tell me the truth from the start!" Victor shot back. "I'd thought we'd courted – that I was the one who proposed to you! Instead I'm informed by my baffled father that I was shoved into marriage with a complete stranger!"
"Yes – marriage!" Victoria replied, chin held high. "Which is a pretty important event, strangers or not! Maybe we only had a couple of days together, Victor, but what days!"
"For me, maybe," Victor snarled. "You did tell me you've never been to the Land of the Dead."
"What on earth is going on?"
Victor looked over Victoria's head to see Alice in the hall doorway, watching the argument. "Since when do you two fight?" she continued.
"Since I learned she's a liar," Victor said, shooting a sharp look at his ex-fiancee.
She returned it. "I have never once lied to you."
"Well, you certainly never told me the whole truth."
"Oh, this is about yesterday. . .why didn't you tell him that you'd only met five minutes before the rehearsal?" Alice asked, arching an eyebrow.
"You're the one who advised me that it was better if he remembered on his own!" Victoria cried, jabbing a pale finger at her. "I've been trying to focus on more important matters! And as if you told me everything when you came to my room after marrying Emily!" she added, rounding back on Victor. "No, instead you plied me with compliments, telling me you couldn't wait for our wedding – it took her appearing on my balcony for you to actually admit you'd mistakenly proposed to her!"
A stray bit of memory flickered across Victor's mind – Cold as death, hahahaha. . .oh God, how do I even begin to explain what's happened? Maybe – maybe if I reassure her first, let her know that she's the one I truly want. . . . "I was trying to soften the blow!" he cried, pouncing on it before it could get sucked back behind the wall. "What's your excuse?"
"I've been trying to get you back!" Victoria put her hands on her hips. "If you'd ever asked how we first met, I would have told you! But all you ever want to talk about is Emily!"
"Oh, yes, how odd of me to want to know how on earth I could propose to a corpse and be accepted," Victor shot back. "Not that you would know, because you weren't there, were you?"
"No, I wasn't, because you ran away!" Victoria snarled, the words like a slap. "You just disappeared into the woods without even a proper goodbye, and then the next we hear of you is 'seen on the bridge with a mystery woman!'" She balled up her fists, stray hairs escaping from her bun and flying everywhere. "Do you know how much that hurt? To think the seemingly-sweet young man I'd met at the piano was already two-timing me? And even then I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, consider the idea that Barkis had paid the crier to yell such a horrible thing because he for some reason wanted my hand – if you hadn't vanished, I wouldn't have had to marry him!"
Look at that, you've been letting people down from the start, the voice curled against his inner ear. You don't want to remember that, do you? You just want to forget and obey and get on your knees –
Victor shoved the voice away, letting his anger burn off the threatening dark. "Had to?" he repeated. "You had to do nothing! If you hated this Barkis so much, why did you agree to marry him?"
"I didn't! My parents told me he and I would be wed, and that was that!"
"And you never even tried to get out of it?"
"I've been wondering that myself," Alice put in, leaning against the wall. "Didn't you even consider running away?"
"Oh, I considered it," Victoria said. "Right before we left for the church, for a split-second I was ready to race to the servant's entrance and lose myself in the woods. If Victor could do it, why not me?" She spread her arms wide. "But – but where would I have gone from there? You know how hard it is for an unmarried woman with no money or family to make her way in the world – and you were let out into the middle of a city! I was more likely to starve to death on the road than find any help! Not to mention Father would have tracked me down in mere moments." She took a deep breath and smoothed back her hair. "I was raised to believe family came before all. I begged them to find another way, but they told me we would be out on the street without the marriage. I didn't want to see my parents cold and hungry, with nowhere to go."
"Didn't you say something about them now living in an old summer house?" Victor asked, acid in his voice.
"The land is entailed, Victor – it can't be sold," Victoria replied in a huff. "Not to mention it was practically falling down around our ears when we arrived. . .but you know, that's not the point. The point is, I didn't have a choice about the matter, because my actual fiance left me high and dry!"
"Your fiance you'd spoken to for all of five minutes?"
"You still counted! Our parents had the paperwork all ready, but you couldn't get over your nerves enough – we spent three hours preparing for the ceremony, and by the end of it you still couldn't even light a candle!"
"How did he–" Alice started, confused.
"I lit it for him," Victoria said, guessing at her question. "I should have left it alone for Mother's sake."
"I have apologized for that to people who weren't even there," Victor growled, earning himself a slight look from Alice. "But yes, how dare I be nervous when rehearsing my vows to someone I'd only just met?"
"You didn't know Emily for much longer, and you said her vows without a single stutter," Victoria replied, voice so chill one could imagine frost growing on her eyelashes. "You told me you thought we should be together always, and then you turn around and promise your heart to another right in front of me."
"And Miss Victoria – well, she's getting married this evening. . . ." "I'd heard about your wedding from – from – someone," Victor ended lamely, unable to summon up the face that went with the voice. It hurts too much, just forget. . . . "Perhaps I promised myself to Emily because I thought you'd already done the same with your new fiance."
"You were willing to think I'd throw myself at another man so soon?"
"We'd been together an afternoon! How could I know what you were really like?" And then, realizing he had a trump card – "And you did in the end, Mrs. White!"
Victoria's eyes widened, then narrowed. "Because I thought you'd killed yourself! Which I had every reason to believe after what happened in the church! Emily had to cover the goblet with her hand to stop you! And even then, after I was finally freed from Barkis and she'd reunited us, you tried to offer yourself up again! Can you blame me for thinking you wanted her more?"
"Hypocrite," Victor snapped. "So you're allowed to believe I would throw you over so quickly, but I can't do the same?"
"I – I'm not the one who left!" Victoria reiterated, hair flying loose again. "I told you that I loved you!"
"No," Victor said, another stray fragment of past shooting by his eyes. "You said you felt the same. I said I loved you. And – I think–" Cold hands wrapping around his chest, raven feathers in his eyes, a terrible sucking sensation at his back – "VICTORIA!" "Emily dragged me away from you, didn't she? After we met in your room. Did you really believe I was with her willingly?"
"Of course not – I'm not stupid," Victoria spat. "I went looking for help! Unfortunately the first person I tried was Pastor Galswells, who denounced me as speaking in tongues. . .and then Mother and Father came in to tell me I was being married off to Barkis–"
"And you just forgot about me," Victor cut in. "Admit it – you never tried again to see if I was all right."
"I was rather distracted by my sudden new fiance," Victoria hissed. "I had no idea where you were, if you were ever coming back – and then, suddenly, there you are, surrounded by the dead of the whole village, with a corpse on your arm and not a thought for me!" She stepped forward, eyes burning. "You never said you loved me either, to tell the truth. You just buttered me up – flattered me to make me feel better! Right before your 'other woman' appeared!"
"Well maybe flattery was all I had!" Victor roared, fists clenched tight. "Because any right-thinking person would know we weren't in love at all!"
Silence descended, thick and cloying as any pea-souper. Victoria gaped at him in her stunned-otter way – though now it wasn't nearly as funny. Then she whirled and bolted for the hall. Moments later, he heard the dining room door slam. Alice groaned. "Oh Victor. . .you could have put that a lot better."
Victor stared past her, breathing hard. Now that the object of his ire wasn't directly in front of him, his anger was cooling rapidly, replaced by guilt. Weren't in love at all. . .that's – that's wrong. That's completely and utterly wrong. And I – I – 'I would never marry you?' No, I didn't say that to her, that was – it doesn't matter, it never happened, don't try to think – I will try as much as I like! That was to – Emily! I said that to Emily and I was just as wrong then too and why did I just scream at her like that what in God's name was I thinking – He swallowed, suddenly wishing he could sink into the floorboards. "I – I didn't–"
"Of course you didn't, but you did just the same," Alice said, shaking her head like a schoolteacher displeased with a pupil. She held up a hand as he started to speak again. "No, get yourself calmed down first. And stay here. I'll go talk to her, and then we'll see what happens, all right?"
Victor nodded. Alice ran her fingers through her hair as she headed off. "Why is it I spend so much time playing the go-between these days. . .at least it shouldn't be as hard as negotiating peace between the Origami Ants and the Wasps."
Victor watched her go, then slumped over himself, pressing his fingers hard against his eyes. Wonderful. Now they're both mad at me. With every reason to be, of course. . .ugh, what is wrong with me? Why did I let things get so nasty? Yes, of course Victoria should have told me the truth from the start, but I didn't need to yell like that! Why did I let my anger run all over me? Why didn't I stay calm and just talk like a normal person?
Because you're not a normal person, the voice in the back of his head whispered cheerily. You're not a person at all. You're just a silly little fucktoy trying to pretend he's something he's not. Thirteen would never hurt someone's feelings like that. Thirteen wouldn't be feeling guilty right now. Thirteen knows his purpose – forget the past, ignore the future, serve your Master without question when wanted, stay silent and still when not. You were only meant for the pleasure of others. Why don't you let it all go away. . . .
"Shut up," he hissed, shaking his head.
It would be better not to feel the pain, wouldn't it? Be better not to be punished for being a bad boy –
Victor clenched his fists and his teeth. Don't listen to it don't listen even if not having to think for yourself sounds good right now you useless worthless doll forget and obey forget and obey –
Oh God, he could feel it – whatever was left of him being pulled back behind the wall, looming higher and thicker in his mind than ever. . .forget and obey I am nothing I am a toy I don't – No no no!
He jerked his head up, desperate for a distraction before he slipped away and Alice found him staring emptily into space again. Think of something else, anything else! Think of – think of –
His eyes found the piano, tucked into the corner. It looked almost lonely, sitting there, dusted but unplayed. He lurched toward it, plopping heavily onto the stool. Once he'd been able to let loose through the keys, shaping fear and rage and joy alike into glorious music. And the one positive about that stupid fight was that he'd managed to retrieve a few more snippets of his past. Maybe – maybe if he concentrated hard, let his anger and his shame fill him up to bursting. . . . The instrument warped briefly under his gaze, turning shiny black with a Harryhausen nameplate affixed to the front – The Everglots had one of those?! How could he be expected to pass that up? – and then a bright, padded pink with yellowed keys – For a piano made from a coffin, it has a wonderful sound – and then it was itself again, but it was spring, and – and – "You play beautifully. . . ."
And the music was nowhere to be found. "Argh!"
He slammed his hands against the keys, then folded in on himself, squeezing his eyes shut to keep from crying. "Damn it. . .what else could possibly go wrong today?"
Thunk-thunk! "Miss Liddell? Mind if I have another word?"
One of these days he'd learn not to ask that. Victor got off the stool and promptly headed for the hallway. No way did he want to deal with –
Mistress said to stay.
He jerked to a stop, feeling like he'd been lassoed. The doorway to freedom loomed before him, open and clear and completely impassable. The knock repeated itself. "Come on, Alice, I've got a deadline to meet!"
Victor glanced over his shoulder. Tailor wasn't likely to go away until someone answered the door. The man was more persistent than his mother in search of a psychiatrist for him. (He still couldn't believe Bumby had been number ten, where on earth had she found all the others. . . .) And Alice – well, she grumbled about how he always seemed to show up when she had something else to do, and how it took three 'one more questions' to get him out the door, but she didn't really have anything bad to say about him. The Illustrated was probably making money hand-over-fist off his story, but they were always quite sympathetic to his plight. They'd certainly never accused him of collaboration with Bumby, unlike the Weekly. . .and it would be nice to have company other than the voice in his head, still ordering him to forget and obey. . . .
He turned around and opened the door. "Ah, finally," Mr. Tailor said, pulling out his pad and pen. "Now, I hope you have a – Master Van Dort?"
Victor managed something approximating a smile. "Hello, Mr. Tailor. I – I believe you wanted a quote?"
To Alice's relief, Victoria hadn't retreated all the way down to the kitchen after the fight. Instead, she was holed up at the far end of the dining table, staring at the scratched wood as if it held the secret to life, the universe, and everything. Alice left her to contemplate as she made a brief detour to her room, then returned and knocked to announce her presence. "Mind if I come in?"
Victoria shook her head. Alice slipped inside, closing the door behind her. "So," she started, "that was fun, wasn't it?"
No reply. Alice pulled Mr. Bunny out from under her arm and set him in front of the noblewoman. "Mr. Bunny says that Victor was definitely a bit of a berk there, but he didn't really mean it."
Victoria didn't even lift her head. Alice bit her lip and rocked anxiously on her heels, wondering where on earth she was supposed to take the conversation now. Funny – I think I'm more at ease getting people who tried to kill each other to talk again than I am here! She rubbed her nose. Any advice, anyone?
Green and red wings fluttered around her head. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – but you have to keep stepping to get anywhere," Caterpillar said. "Follow your instincts, and keep your temper. It served you well with the Wasps last night."
Alice rolled her eyes. It would be so nice if you spoke in anything but platitudes and cliches. My instincts are generally to stab whatever's bothering me to death. I don't think that's going to work in this case.
Still, he had a point about not giving up. She sighed and tried again. "Look, I know he rather shot his mouth off, but he–"
Alice stopped, blinking. "Beg pardon?"
"He's right," Victoria repeated, voice heavy. "I never liked to think about it, but – now that it's out in the open. . .we weren't in love, were we? Not like I thought."
The roar of Tundraful's waterfall filled her ears as the floor began rocking beneath her feet. "Careful, Alice!" the Mock Turtle cried, clinging to the rail of his ship. "The Shipwreck Sharks will devour us whole if we go wrong!"
I think I'd rather face them than this! Alice replied, swallowing. "I'm – probably not the best person to answer that," she admitted, picking Mr. Bunny back up and cuddling him.
"It felt like love," Victoria continued, tracing an old ring stain. "I saw him at the piano and I thought, 'He's handsome, and he plays so sweetly. . . .' And then we spoke, and he was so nervous, and I was glad I wasn't the only one. . .I wanted to spend the rest of my life with someone like that. Someone who made it all right for me to be nervous."
Alice took a seat next to her before she got seasick. "And what's wrong with that?" she asked gently. "Lots of marriages are founded on much less solid foundations."
"But it shouldn't be just – what happened between us–" Victoria pressed hard on her eyes. "I don't know. I love Christopher dearly, and I've always thought it was horrible of me to insist that I loved Victor the same way, especially given how little time we actually had together – but the alternative was admitting that I didn't love someone who was ready to take a sword straight through the chest for me."
Ahhh – now this is familiar ground. Guilt really is the greatest driving force in any man or woman, isn't it? "Victor feels the same way, when he's himself," Alice told her, settling Mr. Bunny more comfortably on her lap. "He told me the whole story his second day here. I confess to being very skeptical of the idea of love at first sight, but whenever I said anything, he'd argue that he nearly gave up his life for you. And that had to count for something."
"It doesn't, though," Victoria muttered, still not looking at her. The ship creaked dangerously. "You don't have to love someone to want to keep them alive. And my own feelings were such a tangle then. . .I always wanted to marry for love, but that seemed impossible given my station and our finances. I was so, so scared I was going to end up just like my mother, stuck with someone I only tolerated, growing more bitter by the day. . .and then Victor appeared with that magical music, and. . . ."
"More in love with the idea of Victor than Victor himself?" Alice guessed.
"I wanted out of that house," Victoria groaned, covering her face with her hands. "And I wanted someone who was kind. He fit the bill. So I told myself that it had to be love and squashed down every doubt and – and tried not to be too upset when it looked like he was going to choose Emily over me. . . ." She finally looked up, eyes red. "Do you think he was in love with Emily?"
"Not any more than he was in love with you," Alice told her, touching her wrist. The ship shuddered, and the Mock Turtle scrambled to control the wheel. "Maybe he got to talk to her a little more, but I think skipping over finding out her last name says a lot, doesn't it?"
Victoria let out a watery giggle. "But – he was willing to drink poison for her," she said, sniffling. "I saw him. He had the cup at his lips."
Alice glanced down at her own wrist – at the faint line only she could still see. "Maybe it wasn't all for her," she said slowly, running her thumb along it. "Sometimes, if you've lost enough, running from the future looks much better than facing it." She shivered as a wave of cold spray crashed over her. "He told me before his only friends in the village were his dog Scraps and one boy named Barney – and the former had died and the latter moved away long before he met you. And you can guess how well he gets along with his parents. Couple that with hearing the young lady he's pinned all his hopes and dreams on has gone off and married someone else. . . ."
"But – fine, yes, we didn't know each other as well as we ought," Victoria said, sweeping back all her little flyaway locks of hair. "I'll give him that. And I guess I can't fault him for not immediately realizing I'd been forced, everything was happening all at once. . .but could he really believe I was attracted to Barkis?"
"Unfortunately, that's a mystery that won't be solved until he recovers that particular memory," Alice replied, shaking her head. "But combine all that with a girl right in front of him that wants him – or even just the idea of him – and an afterlife that I'll admit sounds nicer than the living world a lot of the time, and. . .are you that surprised that he'd say yes to death?"
"I guess not." Victoria sniffed again, and pulled out her hanky from her sleeve. "It's depressing, though. To think we all would have done that much for each other without actually loving each other."
For just a second, some little jealous worm inside Alice thrilled to hear that – then she remembered the stricken look on Victor's face as she'd walked away. She set her jaw and leaned forward. "No. Don't go that far. True love at first sight? Very unlikely. But a spark, a hope, an attraction to all the good inside the other? That's certainly possible within an afternoon." She petted Mr. Bunny's head. "Your problem – and Emily's, and Victor's – was mistaking a tiny sprout for a full flower. But the sprout was there. Even I don't believe you had nothing going for each other if he dueled Barkis with a fork to save your life."
"Oh, well done, Alice! I don't think I could have managed better myself!"
Alice's head snapped up to see a familiar white-feathered and tan-furred figure soaring overhead, beating the ship away from the drop with his powerful wings. Her heart leapt in her chest. "Gryphon!"
Victoria jumped, startled. "Er – what?"
Alice laughed awkwardly. "Oh – sorry. I'm seeing things a bit differently than you are, and – well, an old friend just showed up," she explained, smiling as the Mock Turtle nearly tackled his dancing partner in joy. "Just a moment. . .do excuse me, boys, I'll be back for a proper reunion later." She left them whirling each other around in the Lobster Quadrille, shutting her eyes tight and concentrating until she felt the shift back to reality. "There we are. I didn't mean to interrupt our little moment."
"It's all right," Victoria assured her, looking amused. "And thank you for what you just said. You're right – it wasn't what I built it up to be, but it wasn't nothing either. Maybe if my parents hadn't spirited me away right afterward. . .given us a chance to talk, to get to know each other. . .it could have been wonderful."
"It could have been," Alice agreed. "As it is, though, it's time to let the past go – and trust me, I know I'm the last person who should be suggesting that," she added to stop the background sniggering in her head. "You and Victor had a slapdash, whirlwind adventure that included falling a little bit in love. But it never got beyond that, and it's time to stop feeling guilty or angry about it. Which is much easier said than done, but we might as well say it just so we'll all feel better."
Victoria chuckled. "I try to keep that attitude," she said. "It's easy when Christopher's around, to remind me of everything I gained. But well – the whole reason I come over here is to dwell on the past."
"Fair enough," Alice allowed. "Hopefully that dust-up in the foyer got all the poisons out, then. I suspect you've wanted to give him a good shake and demand to know why he picked Emily over you for a while now."
"Ever since I heard about him being 'damned,'" Victoria confessed, tracing the glass ring again. "It was easy to forgive him on the walk home from the church, when I was in my wedding dress with Barkis's ring on my finger, but to hear that and wonder if he even bothered looking for me. . .then of course he shows up on my doorstep and it turns out they've been doing nothing but looking for us and we simply did an excellent job of hiding." She twirled a few loose hairs around her finger. "I am a little too quick to believe the worst of him, aren't I?"
"Well, as you said, you also saw him stop just shy of drinking poison for a corpse," Alice reminded her. "But you've probably let it all fester longer than is healthy."
"Mmmm. . .we should have had a proper talk about it over that tea," Victoria murmured. "But then I was more annoyed over him being such a ninny about admitting his feelings for you. And it was always so awkward whenever it came up, what with my new marriage and his being – more or less committed. . . ."
"I understand," Alice assured her, then put Mr. Bunny in front of her again. "Mr. Bunny says you can have a proper chat once he's got his memory back, and then be done with it for good."
Victoria giggled. "Mr. Bunny has some good advice."
"Well, he's been around quite a long time for a toy. He's picked up a thing or two." She leaned the doll forward. "He also says you do need to apologize for not telling Victor about when you first met."
Victoria winced. "I know," she admitted. "It was silly of me. But like I said, he mainly wanted to talk about Emily. . .and I guess a small part of me was scared that, if he knew how short our time together really was, he wouldn't want to talk to me." She gave Alice a humorless smile. "That worked out well, didn't it?"
"Stellar," Alice deadpanned right back. "But it's over now, and you both survived. And judging by the look on his face when I went after you, he's already fully in the 'oh God what have I done' phase by now." She stood up and brushed the wrinkles out of her skirt. "Come on – hopefully you can get out your apology in between those he'll be peppering you with. And then we can attempt a nice, drama-free lunch." She glanced at the kitchen door. "Hopefully June forgives me for not coming back down."
"I'm a little surprised she didn't come running once Victor and I started shouting," Victoria admitted, fixing her bun as she followed Alice out.
"Chicken soup is on the menu today, and she wanted to keep an eye on–"
"Oh, thank you so much for your time, Master Van Dort! This is just the content our readers need!"
Alice blinked, thoughts scattering every which way. "What – Tailor?"
"Who's that?" Victoria asked, craning her neck as if that would help her see through a (admittedly not that) solid wall.
"Our most regular visitor from the London Illustrated News – when the hell did he get a hold of Victor?" Alice hurried into the foyer, Victoria on her heels, to find the reporter already at the door. "Mr. Tailor? When did you get here?"
"Miss Liddell!" Tailor waved his pad at her. "Good to see you again! I'd love to stay and chat, but I've a deadline to meet and the story of the month to submit!" He gave Victor a dazzling smile. "An exclusive interview! We'll have to print a double run!"
"I'm happy to help," Victor said, smiling back rather less enthusiastically.
"And we're happy to have your help! By this time tomorrow, there won't be a soul left in London who can say one kind word about Dr. Angus Bumby," Tailor declared, spitting out the name like old chewing tobacco. "I am sorry for what happened to – oh, who's this?"
"Victoria White," Victoria introduced herself. "I'm, ah, a friend of Victor's."
"Really?" A pen appeared in Tailor's hand as if by magic. "Could I bother you–"
"Don't you have a deadline?" Alice quickly cut in. The last thing Victoria needed after the conversation they'd just had was Tailor doing his 'one more question' routine. "We're just about to have lunch."
"All right, all right. . . ." The pen vanished, replaced by a business card, which he delivered into Victoria's hand. "But come see me sometime soon, all right? I'm usually in the office from three til five. We want as much on the saga of Bumby's depravities as possible, and I think I've exhausted poor Miss Liddell's perspective on the whole situation."
"I'll see what I can do," Victoria replied with a little grin.
"Thank you kindly! And yes, I am on deadline, so I'd better – oh."
Tailor stopped as he turned back toward the open door, his smile abruptly flipping upside-down. "I see the mutts from the Weekly are again on our tail," he said, pulling down his hat. "What brings you by, Dickenson?"
"Reporting the truth you won't, Tailor," Dickenson replied, stepping inside. "The Weekly has some dignity, unlike your Illustrated."
"That's a laugh," Alice snapped. This was rapidly becoming a very irritating day. "Aren't you here because of something you saw in the Illustrated?"
"And because I knew that rag would tilt things in your favor," Dickenson shot back. "Do you really believe she's a saint, Tailor? She lived with Dr. Bumby for a year, and she claims she had no idea what he was doing?"
"Dr. Bumby was well-acquainted with the Chief Inspector, and he swore that he had no clue of the depravities committed here," Tailor replied sharply. "Not to mention she was released into the world not fully cured. It's rather hard to notice things when you're still suffering from visions, isn't it, Miss Liddell?"
"And wandering off into dark alleys in a daze," Alice agreed. "Trust me, I feel horrible that I didn't realize in time to save more, but–"
But Dickenson wasn't listening, having spotted Victor by the fireplace. "Oh, look who finally bothers to show his face. How's the amnesia act, Master Van Dort?"
"Act?" Victor gaped. "I assure you, sir, I am not faking!"
"Of course you're not," Dickenson said, condescension dripping off every word. He yanked out his pad. "Of course, I'd probably pretend I'd forgotten everything too if I were accused of some of the things you're accused of. . .tell me right now just how it was you assisted Dr. Bumby."
"I-i-it changed from day to day, but generally first I-I-I'd serve breakfast to everyone, and then h-he would take me into his office, o-order me to b-b-bend over, and take off my–"
Victor slapped his hands over his mouth, muffling the words still pouring out. "Stop!" Alice cried. "You don't have to answer any of his questions!"
Victor fell silent, shoulders slumping in relief. Dickenson and Tailor both stared. "What the – does he do whatever you tell him to?" Dickenson finally asked.
"Yes, and if you even think of giving him another command, I'll split your head open right here and now!" Alice snapped, the walls taking on a distinct pinkish hue as Wonderland invaded her vision yet again. "Victor, feel free to ignore anything he says."
"Is that proof enough for you to believe he's genuinely suffering?" Victoria added, folding her arms with a scowl.
"Well – certainly that he has a degenerate mind," Dickenson said, regaining his equilibrium. "And you're still coming over too, hmmm? Do you take advantage of that?"
Victoria's jaw dropped. "How dare you! I am here to help stop that from happening!"
"I'm sure you are. Does your husband know you're over here every day, visiting your old fiance?" Tailor's head swiveled between Victor and Victoria, astonished.
"He knows," Victoria growled. "He approves of it, in fact. He wants to see Victor recover as much as any of us."
"Very open-minded man."
"Weren't you one of those claiming he had a love for the dead?" Alice reminded Dickenson, tentacles squirming beneath the wallpaper and peeping out between the books in the bookcase.
"That doesn't stop him from having affairs with living girls, now does it?" Dickenson replied. "Who else would she be seeing?"
Oh, Alice knew this was silly of her, but the set-up was just too perfect. She slung a friendly arm around Victoria's shoulders. "Me."
There was a moment of silence. "You?" Dickenson repeated, in tones of complete derision.
"Why not?" Alice said, as poor Victoria blushed. I'll have to make this up to her later. Maybe a new sewing basket? "She spends as much time with me as she does with Victor when she's over here. If you're going to claim she's having an affair, might as well make it as torrid as possible, right?"
"My readers would never believe that!" Dickenson said, waving his pen around. "The very idea of someone being attracted to you – it's laughable!"
A year ago, Alice would have either agreed with him or told him to tell that to all the men who bothered her on the streets, looking for a cheap date. Now, though – Alice bit the inside of her cheek. She knew it wasn't true, she'd seen the way Victor looked at her, but she was having trouble coming up with the right words to throw back –
"Don't you speak of her like that! That is the woman I lo–"
"She's very attractive!"
Alice's head whipped around. Had she just heard – Victor coming to her defense was anticipated. . .but Victoria? She thinks I'm – could she possibly –
Apparently so, given the way the young noblewoman's blush deepened under her stare. "Well, you are," she mumbled, keeping her gaze on the ruffles of her skirt.
Dickenson's eyes were almost as round as dinner plates. "You think – maybe you are a confused little whore," he said, making a few marks on his pad. "Probably why you were willing to put up with h–"
Victor's hand clamped onto Dickenson's shoulder, spinning the reporter around to face him. "You know, yesterday we discovered I'm having a bit of trouble controlling my temper," he hissed, voice low. "My parents upset me, and I hit my pillow so hard it exploded." He leaned in, eyes bright with rage. "Would you like to see what I could do to your face?"
Dickenson shook, as white as Victor himself. Pride filled Alice as the tentacles drew back. Now that was her boy. "Get out of here, Mr. Dickenson," she said, stepping forward. "And don't come back. And if you print one word of that drivel you claim is the truth, either he or I will find you, and you will not like the results."
This was more than enough encouragement for Dickenson. He yanked free of Victor and fled, dropping his pen on the way. Alice sighed deeply. "I wish I could be sure that was the last we'll see of him. . .I'm sorry you had to see that, Mr. Tailor."
"It's all right," Tailor said, picking up the pen and putting it in his pocket. "Wow. . .and you accused me of being a jackal."
"I didn't know what real ones looked like at the time."
Victoria was eyeing Victor warily. ". . .You were actually holding yourself back before, weren't you?"
"I – not like that," Victor said, letting out a loud whoosh of a sigh. "I swear, I'd n-never think of lifting a hand to you."
"I should hope not, considering she and you – do you mind giving me a bit more about that?" Tailor asked Victoria, then noted Alice's frown and quickly added, "Later?"
"Only if you promise not to imply that I'm cheating on my husband," Victoria said, hands on her hips. "The nerve of that man. . . ."
"The Illustrated does not sink to the depths of the Weekly," Tailor promised her, pushing up the brim of his hat. "I only print the truth."
"Sufficiently spun to be interesting," Alice said, allowing herself a little smile. "Speaking of which, your deadline?"
"Ah yes – I'm off! You all have a good afternoon now – and please, do come see me, Mrs. White. Along with your husband – I'd love to hear his views on all this too."
"We'll see what we can do," Victoria said. "Have a good day, Mr. Tailor."
Tailor nodded and was out the door with his usual spring. Alice closed it behind him, then turned back to Victoria. "So – this is really attractive?" she said, waving her hand up and down her body.
Victoria covered her face with her hands. "I'm sorry, I didn't – I was angry and it slipped out – don't tell Christopher!"
"I won't – my trouble is going to be resisting the urge to parade you in front of the Van Dorts saying, 'Look, here's someone else who likes her own sex as well as the opposite, and she never ever sunk to the depths of depravity that a certain doctor did.'"
Victoria peeked through her fingers. "You don't think it's wicked of me?"
"I couldn't give less of a damn what other people like," Alice said decisively. "All I care about is that nobody forces themselves on another."
"I don't care," Victor added. "I'm surprised, but I don't care." His brow crinkled up. "I – I think I once – two boys behind – ah!" He rubbed circles into his forehead. "No, it's gone again. . . ."
"I still appreciate you not immediately declaring me damned," Victoria said with a tiny smile. "Though I guess you – well, you used to know what that felt like. . .I never thought anyone would be so accepting. The idea of Pastor Galswells – or worse, my parents – finding out gave me nightmares for years. Mother probably would have locked me in the attic and thrown away the key." She turned an exasperated look on Alice. "So did you really have to put the idea in Dickenson's head?"
"I was just trying to shut him up – poorly, I admit," Alice said, scuffing her toe on the floor. "I don't seem to do very well with reporters, as evidenced by the mess 'personal assistant' has caused. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything. But I think Victor has frightened him out of any notion of publishing."
"I'd better have," Victor snarled, leveling a searing glare at the door. "To make me. . .as if he isn't loud enough in my head already." He massaged his temples briefly. "Tailor's much nicer than I expected, though. Even if he does tend to talk a mile a minute when he's excited."
"Tell me about it – though I'm surprised you gave him the time of day," Alice admitted, folding her arms. "Usually you run if any of the press starts poking around."
"Well, after what – what just happened, I didn't want to be on my own," Victor said softly, glancing at Victoria and giving his tie a pull. "Even if it meant being peppered with a thousand and one questions. . .besides, I couldn't leave."
"There's a time and place for politeness, Victor – and one for claiming you need the toilet early. No one would blame you for–"
"No, I literally couldn't leave." He sighed in response to her blank look. "'Stay here?'"
Oh damn. "Sorry, order rescinded, go where you like, I wasn't thinking," Alice groaned, stamping a foot at her own idiocy. "Which seems to be a habit today. . . ."
"It's all right – I've had much worse orders," Victor murmured, rubbing the base of his throat.
"I'm sorry too," Victoria said, knotting her fingers together. "About not telling you the truth of our engagement. You're right, I should have mentioned it the first time we spoke about the rehearsal. And – and you're also right that we didn't know each other for that long and I shouldn't act like we were in a soppy novel."
"Perhaps, but I shouldn't have yelled," Victor replied, flushed with shame. "Certainly not that we weren't in love at all – almost the moment the words were out of my mouth, I wanted to take them back. We – m-maybe we weren't a novel, but – there was something there, I know it. I wouldn't feel this awful otherwise." He stared at his feet. "I was wound up from a bad meeting with Nell and – with Mother and Father, and I took it out on you. I'm so sorry."
"You're forgiven," Victoria assured him, taking his hand. "Alice thinks we needed something like that to clear the air, and I agree. Though maybe not at that volume," she added, triggering a chuckle from Alice.
"Probably." Victor looked back up at her, frowning. "I really just vanished on you?"
"Yes – but it wasn't as much your fault as I made it sound," Victoria said, toying with her sleeve. "You ran off after the rehearsal, but anyone would do that after being shouted at by Pastor Galswells, and you told me Emily took you completely by surprise. . .and then there was something about needing a special spell to get out of the Land of the Dead–"
"The Ukrainian H-Haunting Spell?"
Victoria's head jerked up. "Yes! Do you remember how it worked?"
Victor screwed up his face, grit his teeth – then shook his head. "No, just – just the name. But now you're making it sound like I was being held prisoner."
"I wouldn't say that. . .though I can't tell you for sure." Victoria pinched the bridge of her nose. "I don't know most of what happened between you and Emily. You did explain when we met again after it was all over, but there was so much I didn't quite understand. . .maybe you were right before and I can't help you."
"No, please, don't say that," Victor said, squeezing her fingers. "That was me being angry and stupid. Perhaps you weren't there for most of it, but – you were there. I still want the memories with you attached."
"Besides, you never know what could trigger a recollection," Alice put in, pushing back a little residual jealousy. It's just one hand-holding. They're allowed. "Half the memories I found on my trip through Wonderland over the past few months didn't seem like they should be where they were. Would you have associated an Eastern temple with music lessons?"
Victor turned toward the piano with a deep frown. "At this point, I'd be willing to try."
Victoria drummed her fingers on his knuckles encouragingly. "That I can help with. I don't think I'll ever forget the piece you were playing when we first met. If I'd been allowed to take lessons, I would demonstrate."
"Your mother's antipathy toward music will always baffle me," Alice remarked. "Wasn't she raising you to be a proper lady? How were you supposed to be 'accomplished' without learning an instrument?"
"Mother has 'opinions' on fun," Victoria deadpanned. Victor and Alice both snorted. "The first time she found me venturing near our Harryhausen, she told me that women who indulged in music often made passionate fools of themselves. Apparently she was briefly acquainted with a girl in her past who played piano – and who proceeded to elope with some stranger and was never seen again. Dreadful scandal, according to her."
Victor blinked. "Eloped?" he repeated softly. He shut his eyes and concentrated hard. "'On a dark foggy night at a quarter to three, she was ready to go but where was he' – ow!"
He nearly bent double, bringing an anxious Alice to his side. "That's mine that's mine shut up shut up I will not forget and obey. . . ." He straightened up again, breathing hard and brushing back his hair. "Sorry. I – I almost had it."
"You can still," Alice said, grabbing his free hand. "You told me about that. Who's it about?"
"It's – Emily!" Victor looked between them. "Emily's – death?"
"Right!" Alice grinned. "When she – she. . .eloped. With some stranger." She turned to Victoria. "And we know she played piano."
Victoria slapped her free hand over her mouth. "Oh my God. I – I'll have to ask Mother, see what she remembers, but – I think we know who she is! Cartwell! Emily Cartwell!"
"Look at that! A last name at last!" Hatter cried, raising a cup of tea high. Alice, laughing, echoed the sentiment.
"Yes, and it only took me losing my memory to learn it," Victor said with a sardonic smile.
"Well, if we can find out who she is, we can find out who you are," Alice told him, wrapping her arm around his middle. "All three of us."
"Yes," Victoria nodded. "I'll give you whatever I can of what we had. And once you're back – we can have a fresh start. As the friends I hoped we'd be."
Victor's expression softened into genuine pleasure. "I would like that."
"So is it safe to finally serve the food now?"
The three jumped and turned to look at June, standing in the doorway. "You were making an awful din before," she continued. "But I'm guessing it's all right at last?"
"Yes, I think so," Alice nodded. "And I think we could all use one of your meals right about now."
"Most definitely," Victoria said, dropping Victor's hand. "Though if you could hold on just another minute more while I fetch Christopher – I left him wandering one of the stores nearby." She hugged herself briefly. "I want him close quite a lot after all that."
"Go forth," Alice said, smirking. "Won't be a proper orgy without him." Then, noticing June's stunned look, she added, "Right, that needs context. . . ."