Chapter 8: Twas Brillig
"It could be–"
"Never in a million years."
Dr. Wilson pulled off his glasses and wiped them with a rag, scowling at her from behind his desk. "You know, it's not even your decision to make."
"Perhaps, but do you honestly believe Victor will disagree with me?"
"He needs to be given the option! For God's sake, Alice, it might be the best way of curing him!"
"I have my doubts."
Alice turned to see Victor standing in the doorway, regarding the scene with polite puzzlement. "Dr. Wilson has what he thinks is a brilliant idea for your treatment," she informed him, jerking her head at the doctor. "I disagree."
"I am merely asking for someone to hear me out," Dr. Wilson said, replacing his glasses and folding his hands neatly on the desk. "There is no point in having me here and not trying everything at our disposal."
"Fine, then tell him. See how he reacts."
"We're not talking leeches, are we?" Victor asked, with a faintly suspicious look at the psychiatrist. "Or electric shocks?"
"Nothing as severe as that," Dr. Wilson assured him. "I would like to try hypnotizing you, Victor."
Victor froze, eyes as wide as dinner plates. "Don't. You. Dare," he said, backing up a couple of steps.
"Oh, look at that enthusiasm," Alice said, pouring on the sarcasm. "Shall I strap him to the couch for you, or will you be doing that yourself?"
Dr. Wilson slapped the desk with his hand. "It's a perfectly logical course of action! Dr. Bumby introduced the disease into Victor's mind through hypnosis. The same method should serve equally well as cure."
"Or you could cause him to regress entirely," Alice growled. "Using the cockersnipe's favorite methods is likely to just make all his old suggestions stronger! We have been struggling against that bloody wall for the better part of a month – I refuse to see all our progress erased!"
"The idea is to override Bumby's suggestions – replace them with ones more suited to Victor's well-being!"
"Like what? Do whatever you say without question?" Victor snapped, though Alice could see he was trembling. "It's bad enough you nearly g-got me to take off my t-trousers that one time–"
"That was an accident, Victor, and I am sorry for it. But it is my duty as a psychiatrist to try any and all possible methods of treatment to see what works!" Dr. Wilson declared with another smack against the wood.
"We know what works," Alice retorted. "What do you think I'm doing when I sit with him in my room? Discussing the weather?"
"I won't deny you've had some success with your method, but even you must admit it is almost painfully slow! And considering you were the one who declared he needed to be cured by Christmas. . . ."
"I don't care," Victor said, pressing his back against the doorframe. "I'm not losing myself again. I'm not doing it. You can't make me."
Dr. Wilson's eyes narrowed as his glasses glinted in the light. "Technically, I can."
"And if you try, this pen will go right through your throat," Alice hissed, slamming a hand down on the aforementioned writing implement. "You saw what I did with a spoon in Rutledge – can you imagine how dangerous I would be with something sharp?"
Dr. Wilson drew back, then let out a long, frustrated sigh, massaging his forehead. "I wouldn't actually – I am simply trying to help."
"Well, you're not doing a very good job of it." Alice looked back at Victor. "What do you think?"
"I think I'm going back to my room to read more of my butterfly encyclopedia," Victor replied, eyeing Wilson like he expected the man to get up and tackle him. "That I trust to help. I'll see you at dinner, Alice – though I may take mine privately tonight."
"Victor–" But he was already gone, hurrying off before any order could be given. Dr. Wilson leaned back in his chair. "Fine. If he won't consent, I'll cross it off the list. Though I wish you two would have at least tried to listen to my reasoning."
"Excuse us for finding Bumby's preferred technique for destroying minds distasteful," Alice sniffed. "I'm going to go straighten up the foyer. And when we next meet, I don't want to hear another word about hypnosis!"
"Fine, fine. . .whatever happened to a man being master of his own house?" Dr. Wilson muttered.
"We tried that arrangement before with Bumby," Alice snapped, spinning on her heel and stalking out the door. "I didn't care for it."
To her surprise, June was waiting for her by the stairs. "What have you been up to?" she asked, worrying her lip with her teeth. "Victor just stormed by grumbling about how doctors are all the same and you can't trust any of them, and you look ready to go a few rounds with one of your Jabberspawn."
"Nasty argument with Dr. Wilson," Alice grumbled, as one of the aforementioned beasts growled at her from the landing below. I'll slaughter you later, you stupid thing. "I'll tell you about it at tea. . .what brings you upstairs? I thought you were teaching Abigail and Elsie how to make a boiled dinner."
"And Charlie," June said with a little smile. "He was curious – but there's someone at the door asking for you. An older woman with glasses, name of–" June gave the hem of her apron a tug. "Witless? That's how she pronounced it, I swear."
Alice groaned. "Oh, this day simply keeps getting better. . .what's that drunkard doing here? Usually she confines her attempts to deprive me of my hard-earned money to when I'm wandering the streets."
"She claimed she was a friend of yours," June said, pulling at her apron again. "That you knew each other for years."
"Technically true – she was a night nurse at Rutledge. Not much good at it, either. They kicked us out at about the same time. Ever since then, she's made it her business to keep me from having any savings at all." Alice sighed and pushed past June, giving the Jabberspawn a subtle kick on the way down. "I'll go send her away. You'd best get back to the children before they either scald themselves or set the stove on fire."
"I turned everything off and hurried them into the dining room when I heard the knock," June protested, following her.
"Yes, but did they stay there? They have some sense, but not that much of it. . . ."
They had not – fortunately, they hadn't gone near the dinner either, instead raiding the cupboard for the latest box of chocolate biscuits. Alice left June giving the trio a small scolding (and with a mumbled, "See? Next time take them with you.") before heading to the foyer.
Witless was by the fireplace when she arrived, squinting at the blank space just above it. "Weren't there a portrait of your old doctor there before?" she asked in greeting.
"We threw it out," Alice replied shortly, hands on her hips. "This is brazen of you, coming to see me here."
"Brazen? To visit an old friend during a troubling time?" Witless put on her soppiest look. "My child, a nurse always has a moment for her old patients. Especially such a true friend like yourself."
Alice pinched the bridge of her nose. "Witless, why do you persist with this charade? You and I both know your only true friend is Blue Ruin, preferably by the gallon."
Witless scowled. "You were never one for manners. Would you rather I just came up to you and held out my hand like any old beggar?"
The hand shot out. "Well then, my throat's rather dry and my purse rather empty. Fill us both up, why don't you, there's a good girl."
Alice smirked. "Oh, Nurse Witless, you know quite well I'm a very bad girl indeed," she purred, leaning close to the old woman's considerable length of nose. "And just because I said I'd prefer honesty doesn't mean I'm any more amenable to giving you a handout."
"But Alice – you've never let me down before!" Witless's eyes gleamed. "We wouldn't want that Van Dort fellow you're so keen on to think you'd deny charity to a helpless old lady."
Alice, however, was far past the point of being intimidated by gleams. "Victor would listen to me over you any day – particularly now. Have you read the Illustrated lately?"
"I've been – busy," Witless said, employing her usual word for "too drunk to even pick up a newspaper." "Though I've heard a thing or two on the street – same troubles you had before, hmm? Days he can't even remember his own name?"
"Exaggerations – though not by much," Alice sighed. "He knows his name, but not much else."
"Oh dear dear dear. What a shame," Witless tched, oozing false sympathy. "Perhaps you should let me speak to him. I picked up a thing or two about medicine at Rutledge."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "From emptying bedpans?"
"A nurse hears things, picks up a thought or two," Witless replied. She smiled. "At any rate, I could certainly give him oh so many memories of you. . . ."
Alice's hand shot out and grabbed the front of Witless's dress almost of its own accord. "You come near him and I'll be wearing your guts for garters," she growled. "Victor has suffered quite enough without your particular brand of therapy lousing things up even more for him." She released the startled old woman. "Besides, even without his memories, he can spot a conwoman a mile away." At least, I hope he can. Not that I'm giving him the chance.
"Conwoman! I make you an offer from the very bottom of my heart–" Witless protested, indignant.
"Is that why it smells like something you dig out of the privy?" Alice interrupted. "Give it up, Witless. I'm not the Alice you thought you knew. That scared little girl met her final end when she fainted on your rooftop. My purse is closed to you forevermore. And nothing you say or do will convince me to pry it open."
Witless glared at her, then summoned up a few fake sniffles, wringing her hands. "That's gratitude for you. I find you some proper clothes, make sure you have a carriage out of the asylum, introduce you to Dr. Bumby–"
"And I'm supposed to thank you for that?" Alice cut her off, crossing her arms tightly against her chest. "Although, maybe I should. Without your help, my sister's murderer might still be roaming the streets."
Witless froze. "Your–"
"You heard me. It's been all over the Illustrated for a fortnight. If you'd managed to drag yourself out of the gutter long enough to attempt reading, you would have seen the depths of his depravity. My sister, stalked and harassed. . .my family, sacrificed to the flames of twisted revenge. . .minds destroyed to serve vile appetites. . .children banished to the far corners of perdition all for the sake of a few pounds . . ." Alice's stomach turned. "Dr. Bumby was many things, but 'caring philanthropist' was never one of them." She leaned down over the old nurse, eyes narrowed. "Dr. Wilson runs the Home now. He told me I wasn't the only girl you ever sent Bumby's way. Did you ever bother to check up on any of them afterward? Or was I only of interest because I was old enough to earn pay?"
Witless's mouth opened and closed like a goldfish. "He – and I – it was just – he said he took care of – I didn't know," she whispered, voice thin and reedy. "He really – those little lambs–"
Huh. She sounds genuinely shook. Of course, even a rotten lush like her is probably not far enough gone as to consider Bumby's business acceptable. Alice relaxed, sighing. "I'm afraid so. I suppose I can't really fault you for–"
"And you let it happen right under your nose?!"
Alice jerked back as Witless thrust a horny finger into her chest. "You wretched, horrible creature!" Witless screamed. "You live here with him, and you let him – I knew you were a mess, but this is filth beyond filth!"
"I – I admit, I was f-foolish enough to ignore some of the signs," Alice stammered, backing up another step. A tide of molten rock began oozing from the fireplace, painting the floor a steaming, glossy black. "But he did his – his actual selling off on the block–"
"And everything else here?" Witless snarled. "All those babes, torn up before being fed to the lions. . .you got this from your nanny, that uppity whore! Only give tuppence about yourself, and damn everybody else!"
"Nanny had nothing to do with this!" Alice shot back as the heat crawled up the walls, transforming them into high rocky cliffs. "And that description could fit you well enough too!"
"Oh, I know I'm damned," Witless replied, a few tears dripping down the wrinkles in her cheeks. "I gave him little Kitty, and she was like my own granddaughter. She just needed a firm hand in her life, and Bumby told me. . . ." She swallowed, then gritted her teeth. "But if I'm falling to the fiery lake, so are you! You were here! You saw what he was doing! You knew about your sister!"
"I – I didn't! I didn't remember before–"
"What was it you said in bedlam? 'All died on my account, I couldn't save you!' You saw him creeping through, didn't you? You saw him set that fire! And you didn't do nothing! You were in dreamland, taking tea with your friends – you couldn't be bothered!"
Alice shook her head hard, trying to knock out the hated voice. No, no, you're dead, you're dead – "I was eight, I was scared, I thought I was having a nightmare, I didn't know it was him–"
"Poppycock!" Witless declared, her skin turning a sallow green. "I should have told the bobbies straight out what you done! You misbegotten, unnatural child – you probably wanted them all dead, didn't you? Wanted the inheritance all to yourself!"
"Never!" Alice screamed. "I never wanted my family dead! And I never wanted any of this to happen to the children either!"
Mechanical wings burst from Witless's back, spreading toward the sky in tattered glory. "Then you should have stopped it!" she roared, eyes a bulbous yellow behind her glasses. "You should have told us all what he was earlier! But no, you just wanted your money, didn't you? Didn't care where you got it from! Didn't care who suffered for it! So long as you got yours!"
"That's – that's not–"
"And when that Van Dort boy came along – a rich husband must have sounded good, didn't it? Someone you could trick into taking care of you the rest of your days? But he wasn't going to look twice at a girl who yells and goes off her head and won't do as she's told! So you and Dr. Bumby–"
"I never," Alice snarled, clenching her fists even as Witless's form grew, towering high above her. "I would never hurt Victor like that."
"You left him with the rotter, didn't you? Didn't even think to see how he was doing? You really think he'll love you after he gets himself back? After he knows for sure you abandoned him just like the children?"
Traitorous tears trickled down Alice's face. "He – he loved me before. . . ." Or did he just think he did, like with Victoria and Emily. . .latched on to the first bit of kindness he got, no matter how poor. . . .
The JabberWitless snorted. "Sure he did. You mucked up that poor boy's brains. Once he gets them back, he'll be out of here like a shot. And you – you should be in gaol for all you did! All those lost souls you threw away! You should have the noose round your neck!"
"That is quite enough!"
Alice started, then turned to see Victor in the doorway behind her. "I don't know what all this is about, but you do not speak to her like that!" he continued, striding through the lava. "Are you from the Weekly too? How many lies has Dickenson been spreading?"
"Don't know any Dickenson – but if he's been telling people she's no good, I'm all for him," JabberWitless growled, glaring at Alice like she was dog muck on the street. "Should have left you to sell your backside out in front of the Flaming Stallion. If you have any sense, you'll end it 'fore you hurt anybody else."
And with that, the monster turned and crunched her way through the door. Victor slammed it behind her. "What an awful woman. If I see her here again. . .who was she, Alice? What made her say such things?"
"That news – I don't know why, Alice, but something about it doesn't feel right to me. . .don't you think that's a little strange? . . .I don't exactly approve of the way Dr. Bumby handles the children. . .why make them wear numbers? That just seems so – dehumanizing. . .plus there's that look he gives them sometimes. . ." And I – I told him – "he's helping these children find new families that love them, and that's the important thing. . . ." And I knew he was in danger, but I still stayed in Wonderland. . . . "The truth," Alice whispered, heart like a stone in her chest.
Victor's expression softened into confusion. "What? Alice, you can't–"
"I have to be alone," she said, racing past him. Imps followed at her heels, jabbing her with their pitchforks. She let them. It was the least she deserved. "I'm sorry. I'll be taking my dinner privately too."
She didn't let him finish, dashing into her room and locking the door behind her with a heavy click. Then she let herself sink onto her knees, sobbing in earnest. The lava burbled and swelled up around her, threatening to devour her whole. I wish it would, she thought as the Imps continued stabbing every inch of flesh they could reach. I wish I could make Wonderland fully real for just a moment – just long enough to die properly, instead of exploding into butterflies. It would be better that way.
Everyone would be better that way.
"Well – it's certainly an improvement over the last time I saw it."
Alice turned in a circle, admiring the handiwork of the Insane Children on Fort Resistence. Though there was nothing currently for them to resist, the newly-revived little ones had been loathe to give up their sanctuary – a sentiment Alice could understand completely. So instead they'd thrown themselves into its repair, shoring up broken walls with blocks and pencils, spreading blankets over the holes in the roof, and scavenging furniture from the crumbling dollhouses without. It all still looked dangerously haphazard, with toys and books and pencil leads lying everywhere, but now there was a slight homey glow to it as well. Maybe even this part of my mind can be restored to something like full glory.
If, of course, I can wrangle my helpers, she added, looking around. Insane Children were were still children, after all – and these children had grown incredibly good at hiding during the Dollmaker's reign. Almost the moment she'd stepped inside for her visit, they'd melted into the shadows. She could feel eyes upon her, and hear the occasional giggle (quickly shushed), but she couldn't trace either sensation to its source.
Yet, she thought with a sly little grin, creeping among the blocks. She owed this lot more than a little playtime, and she was prepared to deliver in spades. "Come out, come out, wherever you are. . . ."
There was another burst of laughter, then shuffling on the platforms above. Alice jumped, then jumped again, latching onto the edge of a plank of green wood and hauling herself up. Little feet pattered away invisibly as she stood up. "You can run, but you can't hide! Despite all evidence to the contrary."
A red-headed shape appeared in the corner of her eye, crawling down the slope opposite. Alice burst into butterflies and dashed after it. The Child squealed and hastily drew a platform in the air with her crayon, leaping onto it before Alice could catch her. Moments later, she was on the ground, disappearing into another nook. Alice grinned and used the same platform as a stepping stone to the rainbow-hued floor. "I see you! The big bad Alice is gonna get–"
Creaaaak. . . .
Alice blinked, pausing in her pursuit. What had that been? One of the children sneaking to a new hiding spot? No, there was something distinctly more ominous about that noise. . . . She glanced behind her, fingers curling around the Vorpal Blade. She couldn't see anything wrong – no Ruins or Dollgirls come to spoil the fun. So where –
Creaaaak. . .and now Alice could see something on the wall before her. She whipped her head back around to discover it was a shadow. A shadow with very similar proportions to her own – except the head was large and blobby, as if covered by a bag, and the hands drawn back behind her, tied in place with the apron ribbon, and the feet hanging. . .limp. . .above. . .the. . . .
She stared, coldness creeping into her flesh as the shadow swayed gently before her, dangling on a thin line of darkness jutting out from under the bag. The creaking continued, and now she could identify it – almost, but not quite, the same rough noise made by a rope swing around a tree branch. The same difference between roasting lamb and roasting human. . .oh God, she's right above me.I merely have to lift my head and I'll be staring at her feet. . . .
But she hadn't the power. She just kept staring at the shadow. It was shockingly black in this dim light – an endless void against the blue of the wall, tempting her to step in and fall down, down, down. . . . She lifted her foot, the buckles of her boot star-bright against the deep gloom. Such a temptation – to drop, forever and ever and ever, until she popped out in Australia or New Zealand, far far away from her guilt –
And then the body vanished, and the line of the rope lashed out, looping around itself and dropping over her neck before she could even blink. She clawed at it as it squeezed her throat, cutting off her air and making her bones scream with pain. . .and then the floor fell away from beneath her feet, leaving her kicking as she scrambled for somewhere solid to stand. . .one hand wobbled uselessly by her side for the Vorpal Blade while the other wedged itself between rope and flesh, trying to give her just enough breath to scream – run Children run run run –
Some unseen hand snagged her hair and ripped her head back, far enough to see a judge's podium constructed of blocks and old doors towering above her. Sitting in the seat was a face she'd hoped never to see again, yellow-eyed and buck-toothed, steam hissing from its back. "Guilty!" roared the Jabberwock, claws tearing into the fragile wood. "Guilty of not believing the evidence of her own eyes! Guilty of always putting herself before others! Guilty of letting her family burn! Guilty of letting the children suffer! Guilty of letting her supposed love's mind be destroyed! GUILTY ON ALL CHARGES!"
Alice tried to protest, but she neither had the breath nor the strength. Another rope looped around her feet and yanked down, stretching her neck to its absolute limit – either something would snap soon, or her head would come off entirely – her hand slipped, and the noose tightened, squeezing so hard she thought her eyes would pop – she couldn't breathe, she couldn't breathe, she couldn't breathe –
And then strong arms yanked her backwards, breaking the ropes like cobwebs. Alice gasped and coughed, trying to clear her throat. "V-Vi-Victor?"
"Alice. . . ." Victor pulled her into his lap. She clung to him as she got her breath and her bearings. Right – Houndsditch. Night. No Dollhouse. No noose. No Jabberwock. "What happened? I – I heard something like – like a m-muffled scream, and when I came in here, you were f-face-down in the pillow, as – as if you wanted to s-smother yourself."
Alice looked up into those wide, worried eyes and felt another fresh surge of guilt. Always giving him more to worry about, always making his life worse. . . . "I should have," she muttered, pulling away from him and retreating to the far corner of her mattress. "You should have left me to it."
Victor stared. "I – I couldn't. I couldn't let you hurt yourself."
"Why not? I hurt everyone else, don't I? Turnabout is fair play." Alice glared at her wrists. "I had the right idea with that blasted spoon. A few jagged cuts and everyone's problem goes away. . . ."
His hand touched her shoulder – she shrugged it off. "Alice, I – I don't understand. Please tell me what's wrong."
"What's wrong is that I'm here, of sound mind – relatively sound mind and body," Alice corrected herself as Ruin began oozing down the walls. "And those around me are not. Every life I've touched has worsened somehow. They should have thrown me in Rutledge's deepest basement and then melted down the key."
"That's not true!"
"Oh yes it is. When even the slime think I'm lower than they are, it has to be."
Understanding dawned on that pale face. "This is because of that awful woman from this afternoon, isn't it?"
"Who else? Pris Witless is crude, cruel, incompetent, and only friends with the bottle. And yet she recognizes Dr. Bumby's horrors – and my role in them." Alice bent her head toward her knees. "Children, taken under my very nose. Their minds wiped clean, no trace of them remaining. Their very souls shattered and crushed. And I let it all happen." She rubbed her neck, remembering the feel of the noose. "Why they didn't throw me in a cell when I came in with that journal is beyond me."
"Because it wasn't like that," Victor insisted, scooting a little closer. "What was it Mr. Tailor said a few days ago? You were sick too. You couldn't see beyond your illness."
Alice huffed. "Rotten excuse. I should have tried harder. I should have marshaled my mind. Should have paid attention to all the warning signs you saw."
Victor blinked. "I–"
"I left you here, you know that?" Alice interrupted, not wanting him to waste his breath. "I left you at least twice because Wonderland was calling and I couldn't figure out how to say no. The second time after promising to stay put." She gritted her teeth. "I left you with him. You said he was creepy, you said you didn't like him, you said you'd caught him staring at your arse, and I didn't listen. I never listened." She sniffled. "You don't love me. You were just settling for what you thought was your last resort."
"That's not true!" Victor repeated, rather more passionately.
"How would you know? You don't remember anything!"
Victor jerked back as if she'd hauled off and punched him right in the nose. Alice winced as the Jabberwock's chuckle reverberated around the room. "Well, if by some accident he loved you before, he doesn't now. When will you learn to keep that mouth of yours shut?" "Sorry," she muttered. "If you want to–"
"I remember being trapped in the deepest, most i-impenetrable darkness I have ever known," Victor interrupted, jaw set. "I remember begging someone, anyone for mercy. I remember thinking I was going to die in that black, torn apart and devoured by something too horrific to even imagine. . . ." He took her hand. "And then I remember your voice, telling me Mistress was here. . .and the most beautiful green eyes I'd ever seen in my life. I remember you guiding me out of the dark, showing me the lamps, telling me the – the bastard who took my mind and my innocence was dead. . .and I remember you holding me close as I cried. Telling me it was all right. And I remember – actually sort of believing that. Because I knew your touch. And it – it made me feel safe. It made me feel loved." He squeezed her fingers, eyes wet. "I knew you in the station because I love you. I stopped following Bumby's orders because I love you. I punched him in the face because I love you! What else can I do to prove it?"
The Jabberwock recoiled, hissing. Alice threw herself into his arms. "Nothing," she told him, letting herself cry in earnest. "Nothing, Victor. I'm sorry. Oh God, I'm sorry. I love you too, and – I – it hurts so much to see you like this, and I keep thinking, if I'd been here–"
"I don't blame you," Victor whispered, holding her tight. "I've told you that. And that the children don't hate you. That it wasn't your fault Bumby managed to trick you. Everyone's told you that – June, Victoria, even Dr. Wilson. Why don't you believe us?"
"Even I pointed out that your own suffering mitigated your failure to act earlier," Caterpillar put in, fluttering past the Jabberwock's nose with barely a care. The dragon growled and took a snap at him, but he cartwheeled out of the way. "And I know you know what the word means, otherwise I wouldn't be able to use it. You had to help yourself before you helped anyone else. Particularly with Bumby's corruption polluting your own mind."
"I know," Alice murmured. "While the Infernal Train was running loose, I wasn't any good to anyone. But. . . ." She sighed. "I told Victoria that blaming myself for everything has become a habit. And when Witless showed up and started screaming at me. . . ."
"Screaming the truth," the Jabberwock rallied, steam hissing from his back. "Or have you forgotten Farley? Harriet? James? Caroline?"
Alice winced as the faces floated before her, hard and accusing. "No, and I never will."
"Never will what?"
"Not you, one of the monsters in my head," Alice told Victor, waving a hand. "Raising the good point that quite a few innocent lives slipped through my fingers. God, Victor, why didn't I listen to you when you started getting suspicious. . . ."
"I don't know – but I also don't think I knew exactly what he was doing until I found that journal," Victor added, rubbing the back of his head. "It's still mostly a blur, but I remember being horrified beyond belief. . .and then he – he came in, and I – if I'd just run a little faster, got down those stairs–"
"Victor, you did the best you could," Alice interrupted, looking up at him. "Nobody can blame you for that. Yes, I'm aware of the hypocrisy," she added as he gave her a pointed look. "But you, by contrast, actually made an effort. I–"
"Fed, cleaned, and clothed everyone?" Victor cut in, still frowning at her. "I may not remember you on the job, but it's an easy guess to make just from what you do now. And I've seen how hard you and June work! I can't imagine how busy you must have been on your own."
"Yes, much too busy to notice a little thing like the very children you served slowly losing what little remained of their minds," the Jabberwock hissed, wings creaking.
"As her own was torn from her?" Gryphon abruptly put in, popping up from the other side of the bed with a growl. "For someone who claims to know everything, you seem to ignore all the facts you don't like!"
"And you ignore all evidence that she failed those under her care!"
"Her care? Was she running the Home? Was she doing the accounts and making the deals?" Gryphon rejoined, feathers fluffing with rage. "Our savior is not perfect, but she is still our savior! Her suffering was real, and you, who was born from it, don't get to ignore it!"
The Jabberwock grumbled, but had no immediate response. "All right, I was busy," Alice allowed. "And still sick in the head. But–" She glanced up at Caterpillar, fluttering over Victor's hair. "I allowed others to tell me what was and wasn't real. I allowed myself to be blinded to pain other than my own. That wasn't right."
"But everyone trusted Dr. Bumby, didn't they?" Victor pointed out. "Dr. Wilson didn't see anything wrong with the man. Neither did the Chief Inspector of the police, according to the papers. Why is he allowed to fool everyone but you?"
"He killed my family! He destroyed my sister! I should have known him earlier!"
"And yet you didn't," the Jabberwock growled. "Because you were too taken up with dimwitted daydreaming and your own selfish pain."
"By that logic, she should have known him first-thing – he nearly killed her as well, remember?" Gryphon responded. "And none of us are the same as we were twelve years ago. Why should he be?" He grinned at the Mock Turtle through his beak. "Remember when I had those ridiculous almost-rabbit ears? And you the legs of a frog?"
"Even the Duchess wasn't keen on those," Mock agreed, chuckling as the usual stream of tears dripped off his muzzle.
It had been a long time since I had mock turtle soup! I wasn't sure what went in it! And those ears were courtesy of a book of heraldry, Mr. Gryphon. Your new form is technically less regal. "I know people change over the years, but – he didn't look that different from his undergraduate self," she added aloud for Victor's sake. "I – I can't stop thinking about how I could have saved everyone. Or at least everyone after I arrived at the Home. If only my head had been clearer, my mind sharper. . . ."
"You still exposed him when you did remember," Victor said, taking her hands and squeezing them. "You still saved all the lives here. Including mine."
"You did half the work there," Alice said, freeing a hand to poke him gently in the chest. "I wouldn't have had a leg to stand on without that journal. People don't generally listen to recently-released madwomen about anything."
"And why should they?" the Jabberwock snarled. "Your babbling could send anyone into beldam."
Victor's brow furrowed. "So – why are you upset that you didn't know him if it might not have made a difference anyway?"
Both Alice and the Jabberwock were lost for words for a moment. "I still should have known him," Alice finally said, aware of how lame it sounded but not having anything better to hand. "It might have made a difference."
"The purpose of most journeys, Alice, is to go forward," Caterpillar put in, alighting on Victor's shoulder. "All your steps right now are in a circle. That helps no one, least of all yourself."
Victor, for his part, shook his head in frustration. "I don't know what else to say to you. We've been over this before. Are you – are you frightened of being happy?"
The question brought her up short. Frightened of being happy? That was an angle she hadn't considered before. Normally her thoughts were more along the lines of what the Jabberwock was snarling right now – "You don't deserve to be happy! The world would be better if you were rotting in the ground!" But. . . . "Maybe I am," she admitted. "Pain's an old familiar friend by now. And I know from experience just how fast joy can turn to misery. If I stay sad all the time, don't hope for anything better. . .less can touch me. It's hard to foul a mood that's already in the gutter."
". . .And sometimes it's easier not to feel at all."
Alice blinked as Victor gazed past her into the Jabberwock's furnace. "I – m-most of the time, when I think of Victoria and Emily, there's a friendly warmth. But – there's one memory. . .I can't – i-it's hard to get the shape of it, something about a – a tree, but it's made of g-gaping, burning sorrow," he admitted softly. "Like I'd lost everything that made my life or death worth anything. I – I don't think I took losing them well."
"You didn't," Alice confirmed with a shake of her head. "Not quite as bad as I took losing my family, but – 'gaping, burning sorrow' sums up my thoughts on the fire quite well." She massaged the flesh above her heart. "When I left Rutledge, I was determined not to care about anyone too much. Spare myself the pain of losing them again. I built wall upon wall to keep myself safe. The children maybe put a few chips in them, but nothing significant. And then you came along – and suddenly all those walls were crumbling, and I remembered what it was like to laugh and smile. . .for the first time in ages, I thought maybe happiness could be mine again." She sighed. "And then I arrived at the Dollhouse, and saw you in Moorgate, and realized what I'd ignored."
"So you confess that you could have done more! That you were blind, and did not care!" the Jabberwock screeched in triumph. "That you deserve–"
The Jabberwock gaped at her, jaw an almost perfect O of shock. Then, slowly, his head slid off his neck and thumped onto the bedclothes. "I could have done more," Alice told his fading eyes. "I could have pushed myself harder. I could have let myself care earlier. But you don't actually want me to improve, do you? You want to drag me right down into the muck with you, to wallow in it forever. To become the very person you accuse me of being – selfishly obsessed with her own pain. I may never be free of feeling guilty, but I am sick of listening to you!"
"Now that's the Alice I know!" Gryphon cried, slapping his claw over the Jabberwock's bloodstained noggin. "I couldn't have done better myself! I know, I've tried."
Victor blinked at her. "I so wish I could see what you see," he confessed, scratching his head. "It would make moments like this so much easier."
"I just killed one of the monsters in my head – for the second time, too," Alice told him, watching as the Jabberwock's body faded down to bones, then to dust. "I thought he was gone for good after the first time, but. . .I guess so long as I can feel guilt, there'll always be a ghost of him around, waiting to become flesh once again."
Victor massaged her hand in his. "I'm sorry. That must be awful, to live with something like that."
"It is – but you know, maybe it's not as bad as I thought," Alice said, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. "Knowing that he can come back if I let him – well, there's an impetus not to let my guilt swallow me whole again. I may be able to kill him each time, but who wants all that fuss?" She released the lock, letting it spring into a temporary curl. "There's always going to be people who think the worst of me – Witless, Dickenson, those awful Monroe twins. . .why add myself to the pile?"
Victor reached out and cradled the side of her face. "There's a lot of people who think the best of you too."
"I know," Alice assured him, copying the motion on his other cheek. "I'll try to listen to you all more. Try to remember what I told Victoria – the past is the past, and you can't do anything about it." She took a deep breath. "I was eight and half-asleep when I saw him in our house. I didn't know who he was – I thought Lizzie and I were both having nightmares. My parents told me to save myself – they didn't want me to die. I probably should have been more attentive to the questionable parts of Bumby's behavior, but I wasn't quite cured yet, and being corrupted myself. And, as you said, it wasn't like I was completely ignoring the children either." She swallowed. "And even though I feel horrible for leaving you behind when I went into Wonderland – if I hadn't, both of us might have been lost to the dark. I could have done better – but I also could have done much worse."
"Your form is not correct, but the words are true," Caterpillar told her, releasing a tiny ring of smoke into the air. "Perfection is an unattainable goal, Alice. We simply want you to keep doing better."
This from someone who set himself up as a god?
Caterpillar's eyes shifted left and right, and he took off in a flurry of wings. "I. . .my stint as the your Oracle had consequences even I could not foresee."
Alice giggled. Right. But I'll give you the point. "Horrible things happened, and my hands aren't entirely clean. But if I stay feeling miserable all my life, I'm never going to properly atone for them. And I don't want that accursed Jabberwock to win the day after being slaughtered twice. Don't they say that the best revenge is a life well-lived?"
"I'm not the best person to ask," Victor said with a small smile. "But I'm all in favor of you not being miserable for the rest of your days."
"Good. Motion passes." Alice leaned her head against his shoulder. "I'm sorry for worrying and upsetting you so. I didn't expect this to be such a bad day."
"It's all right," Victor said, wrapping her up tight in his arms. "I've had more than my fair share, haven't I?"
"Less lately. Thirteen hasn't poked his head out for three days."
"Perhaps, but – I still struggle a bit whenever four o'clock rolls around," Victor confessed. "And whenever anyone gives me an order, I just – he's simply so loud. . . ." He bit his lip. "Maybe – m-maybe Dr. Wilson has a point about h-hy-hypnotizing me."
Alice jerked her head up. "I bet your pardon?"
"Well – part of what brought that monster back was you feeling bad about m-me being like this, r-right?" Victor said, attempting to smile. "If – if h-hyp-hypnotizing me could f-fix me faster–"
"I want you to get better, Victor," Alice cut in, pulling back so she could look him straight in the eye. "But I would feel worse if I knew you'd taken on more suffering in the attempt. It's written all over your face – you're terrified of the idea."
Victor lowered his gaze. "I just want to help you. You do so much for me, and – I want to pay it back."
"Well, saving me from death by pillow certainly counts." Alice smirked. "You're developing quite a feud with these fluffy white things, aren't you?"
Victor chuckled. "Don't worry, I won't pop yours." Then his face turned serious again. "Do you want me to stay, though? Like – like you do with me when I have a nightmare?"
"If you could," Alice nodded. "Though my bed's probably not half as comfortable as yours."
"So long as you're still here, I don't mind," Victor told her, lying down and pulling her along. "I'm sure that goes for the company in your head too."
"I hope," Alice said, cuddling up next to him as Gryphon nuzzled her shoulder. She fished around for a moment and found Mr. Bunny, caught in a tangle of sheets. "Poor thing, I do abuse you so. . .I certainly need to get back to the Dollhouse," she added, clutching the toy to her chest. "I must have scared the wits out of the poor Children there with everything that happened."
"They'll forgive you."
"I hope so." She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her eyes closing in time. "I wish I could apologize to the ones I lost. . . ."
And then Wonderland had her again, transporting her back to the Fort, where the Insane Children were scrambling to check every nook and cranny for her. "Hey!" Leader cried, spotting her mid-dash across the floor. "You were the seeker, not the hider!"
"I know, I'm sorry," Alice said as the Children swarmed her. "I just – had a bad turn."
"That was a full bad spin," Drillhead replied, cranking the handle shoved into his head for emphasis.
"The – the Jabberwock's not going to burn us and eat us up, is he?" Caged whispered through the mass of iron bolted into her face.
"No, he's dead again, I promise," Alice assured her. "He and I had some final words to exchange, but he should be gone for good now."
There was a general sigh of relief. "Good. You were supposed to be off that way," Leader scolded.
"Sometimes the path takes unwanted turns," Alice replied. "But fortunately I have people who can steer me right."
"Or left," Leader said, stretching her stitches in a brighter grin. "And that's what he'll do now – find ones who are left and make them right!"
Alice tilted her head, then shrugged. "If you say so. Right now, I'm in the mood for a bit of fun. Who's interested in a few rounds of Duck Duck Goose?"
"Hey, you ever gonna wake up?"
Alice's eyes fluttered open to see Abigail about an inch from her nose, poking her in the side insistently. "You missed breakfast," the little girl informed her. "Victor said you had a bad dream and that we should let you sleep, but I don't think he meant all day."
"I don't think he did either," Alice said, sitting up and rubbing the bleariness out of her eyes. "What time is it now?"
"Almost ten-thirty," Abigail reported. "That musta been some dream."
Alice moved her hand down to her neck, remembering the intense cold of the rope. "It was."
"Was Wonderland trying to kill you again?" Abigail asked, leaning on the bed. "I thought you stopped it doing that."
"Yes, well, it doesn't always listen to me, as you well know," Alice said, giving Mr. Bunny a good-morning squeeze. "I eventually got the bastard, though. And with any luck, he will not be coming back."
"Good," Abigail nodded. "I don't want you to die. June's nice, but you tell better stories."
Alice snorted – then bit her lip, studying the child's rather pinched face. Abigail had always been one of her biggest critics. . . . "So you'd really miss me if I were gone?"
Abigail blinked. "Why wouldn't we?"
"Well. . .I wasn't always the most attentive to you. . .and my temper wasn't always the best. . . ."
"Rather have you than Dr. Bumby," Abigail replied. "You don't want me to forget my mummy and daddy."
"Of course not." Alice sighed. "I should have told him to leave you alone."
Abigail patted her hand. "You didn't stop him falling in front of that train," she said seriously. "That's good." She glanced left and right, then leaned in close. "Did you push him?"
Alice hesitated, then nodded. Abigail clapped her hands together, grinning. "I knew it! Did he scream?"
"Didn't have time," Alice said, remembering with a wicked smile the look of frozen shock on Bumby's face seconds before the train came barreling into him. Then it faded into a stern frown. "But you can't tell anyone, all right? Murder is not supposed to be the solution to your ills. I would have happily let the police deal with him if I'd been at all sure he wasn't going to buy his way out."
"Yeah – I guess you're going to Hell now, aren't you?" Abigail mused, pursing her lips. "That's not fair. Bumby was a meanie who hurt lots of people. He shouldn't count."
"Well, according to Victor, we all end up in the Land of the Dead, murderers and murdered alike," Alice said. "It's quite possible my only punishment will be having to make sure I don't end up within ten feet of him in the afterlife."
"That should be easy," Abigail replied. "Don't think anybody crushed by a train's gonna move much."
Alice pictured Bumby lying helpless as a mangled pile of flesh and viscera on the Downstairs Underground tracks for all eternity. It was a very nice image. "I think you're right."
Victor appeared in the doorway, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. "Oh good, you are awake," he said, grinning. "Can you get dressed and come to the foyer, please? There's someone there who wants to talk to you."
"Oh please – tell Tailor or whoever it is that it's much too early," Alice protested, resisting the urge to throw Mr. Bunny at his overly-cheerful head.
"No, it's Officer Hightopp," Victor explained. "And. . . ." His happiness abated somewhat. "Well, I'm afraid she d-doesn't remember her name, but she says she was called F-Five for a while. . . ."
Alice's heart skipped a beat. "They found one of the children?"
Abigail tugged on a braid. "Five. . .Harriet was a Five, wasn't she? And Jennifer."
Alice nodded, throwing back the covers. They rescued someone. Oh God, they actually rescued someone. . . . "Give me five minutes," she said. "I'll be right in. Abigail, tell June that we'll need some biscuits or–"
"Oh, June already knows," Victor cut in, smiling again. "We actually went up this morning to talk to Officer Hightopp after breakfast."
Alice paused with her feet halfway to the floor. "You – left the Home?"
"He went with you to the lock-up before," Abigail pointed out.
"Yes, but that was with me, and that was about a fortnight ago! You haven't ventured past the courtyard on the corner since!"
Victor fidgeted, twining his hands together in all sorts of knots. "I – you were so miserable last night, I wanted to do something for you. And what you said right before you fell asleep. . .I thought, I – I know the way to Bow Street, and Officer Hightopp's nice, and if I t-take June with me it s-should be all right. . .she took the frying pan with her," he added, smiling again. "You'd be surprised how many people found it intimidating."
"A good two-and-a-half pounds of solid iron? I'd find that worrying too if I were a cutpurse," Alice told him, smirking. "But you two made it there with no problems?"
"None," Victor confirmed. "And halfway through our conversation Officer Tarrant came in with the little girl, and we all knew she had to come back here immediately."
"Of course," Alice nodded, finally standing. "Like I said, just five minutes to get presentable." She ran her fingers through her hair, then offered him a warm smile. "And Victor? I am so proud of you."
Victor ducked his head with a pleased blush. "Thank you. I'm – pretty proud of me too. Barely panicked at all on the way."
"Like anybody was gonna bug the nobbler who put Jack Splatter on his arse," Abigail said, grinning.
"We do need to get that memory back," Alice giggled. "Now, could both of you give me a moment's privacy, please?"
Little girl and tall man obligingly left her to it. Alice yanked on her black and white dress and brushed the tangles out of her hair, agonizing all the while on what she was going to say to her lost charge. It'll have been a year since she last saw me, and I don't even know if she'll remember me. . .how do I even begin?
"At the beginning," Caterpillar said, fluttering to her shoulder. "And when you come to the end, stop."
Yes, but what is the beginning?
"You'll know once you see her. Just remember – be brave, be strong, be true."
I'll do my best. Especially on that last bit. She sucked in a long breath, then marched into the foyer.
Hightopp was sitting on one of the tables, a little girl by his side. Alice grimaced – the child looked much like how she'd always pictured Want from Mr. Dicken's famous Carol. Her flesh was starved and pinched at every bone, her skin sallow and aged beyond her years, her hair limp and coated in grime. But despite all that, her hazel eyes were shockingly bright. "Hullo."
"Morning, Alice," Hightopp greeted her, touching the brim of his hat. "Victor told me that you were worrying more than usual 'bout those nippers Bumby tossed out onto the street. Well, here's one less to keep your sleep from you." He scratched his head. "Don't suppose you could tell us her name?"
Alice peered hard at the careworn little face. It was still familiar, even after nearly a year's absence in the worst circumstances. "Harriet," she said. "It's definitely Harriet."
"Harriet," the girl echoed in a reedy voice. Her thin, cracked lips split in a smile. "Yeah. I – I think that's right."
"Better than Five, innit?" Hightopp said, gently nudging her. Harriet nodded. "Tarrant found her in a back alley, hiding behind some garbage cans."
"Ran away," Harriet elaborated, eyes filling with tears. "I – they were too rough, and – I don't care what Dr. Bumby said, I w-wasn't gonna stay! Can't be all I was meant for!"
Alice's heart cracked open all over again. "No, it wasn't," she agreed, with a brief look at Victor, who was watching from by the fireplace with a pained expression. "It never was. You should have never been there in the first place, Harriet. If I only I'd–" She stepped forward, hands clasped before her in supplication. "I'm so sorry. I didn't realize what Dr. Bumby was doing in time, and you – you paid the price."
Harriet tilted her head, confused. "What did you have to do with it?"
. . .right, Dr. Bumby made his charges forget everything. . . . "I live here too," Alice explained. "I came about a month and a half before you – left. Alice Liddell? It's all right if you don't remember."
Harriet squinted at her, gaze probing. ". . .you – cooked?"
"Sometimes. And cleaned, and told everyone stories, and – and also attended Dr. Bumby's therapy," she admitted, rocking on her heels. "Your fate could have been my own. . .I wish I'd known what a bastard he was earlier. I wish I'd treated you and yours better."
Harriet squinted harder – then blinked. "I – before he made me–" She stopped, looking down at her hands. "I – kinda remember you saying you hoped I got parents just like the ones you used to have."
"If only," Alice murmured. "I'm so sorry you didn't get the family you deserve."
"Me too." Harriet sighed, then perked up a little. "But Officer Hightopp says I can stay here? With you? And Victor?"
"And everyone else too," Alice confirmed. "You never, ever have to go back to those horrible people again."
"Good," Harriet said with a decisive nod, swinging her feet. "I like you. You're nice."
Alice stared. Had she just said – "You – you think so?" Harriet nodded again. "You – don't hate me, then? Don't blame me?"
"No. . . ." Harriet said, a little puzzled. "I don't know much, but I know you didn't drag me off to them." She kicked her feet again. "Can we be friends?"
Behind her, gallons of fresh water poured over one of her many many stone effigies, while at the same time bright sunshine carpeted the rising grass of the Vale. Alice nodded, leaning down and opening her arms to envelop the little girl in a hug. "I'd like nothing better."
"If this doesn't keep that bug-eyed blithering blunderhead dead, I don't know what will!" Gryphon cried cheerfully, bounding from domino to domino in the roaring river winding its way across the floor. "This calls for a song! Mock, let's try 'Salmon Come Up,' it's been ages since we did that one!"
Victor came over as the two sang and cavorted, laying a hand on Alice's shoulder. "Better?" he murmured.
"Much," Alice replied, as Harriet gave them both a grin and Mock turned a clumsy cartwheel. "This is exactly what I needed." She nodded firmly. "And if I ever see Pris Witless again, I'm turning that oversized snout of hers inside-out."
"Er – perhaps you shouldn't say that right in front of the policeman?" Victor pointed out, gaze flicking to Hightopp.
"Oh, that old lushard? Alice be doin' us a favor," Hightopp chuckled. "Anyway, how 'bout I get Dr. Wilson and we'll get little Harriet here all settled in proper-like?"
"Sounds good," Alice agreed, hoisting Harriet into her arms so she could stand up straight. "Come along, little one. The rest of your life awaits."