Chapter 11: Time To Put Your Blade – And Quill – To Work
"Well – I'd say that it's a very nice little village that's sprung up here."
"And I'd say 'sprung' is an odd word to use for a good month's worth of back-breaking labor," the Mayor Elder of the Mining Gnomes replied, full of good-natured grumpiness. "This is no temporary camp in the depths of Yur Mine. We made this to last."
"True enough," Alice agreed, looking around the wide upside-down bowl of the cavern. What had previously been a near-abandoned fiefdom filled with sorrow had blossomed into a bustling town. The crumbling houses lining the walls had been shored up, and the toxic water filtered until it was fresh and pure again. The Diamond Card Guard compound directly across from her perch had been converted into a pub for exhausted miners, ready for a pint and perhaps a game of darts before heading back to their beds. And the previously-silent ore depot was now a hive of activity, gnomes zipping in and out on carts and sorting piles of rock, seeking the precious multicolored opals that lurked deep within the stone's veins. "Whatever term you use, it's a vast improvement on what came before." She glanced down at the boards beneath her feet. "I remember sniping a Diamond on this very spot."
"So do I," the Mayor Elder nodded. "It was the first sign that you were taking your return here seriously."
"Getting stuck twice attempting polite conversation with a murderous Club rather quickly inures you to violence," Alice informed him, watching another party of dirt-streaked little men trundle off into the mine. "I have to ask – do any of you tire of creeping through dark tunnels day after day? Surely there must be the odd gnome who doesn't care if one rock is a different color than the rest."
"There's mushroom minding for those who don't fancy using a pick," the Mayor Elder said, taking a drag off his pipe. "Man's got to eat, you know. And a few lads have expressed interest in setting up as policemen."
The Elder nodded, sucking down another lungful of smoke. "Figure it's better we learn how to discipline ourselves, before some monarch thinks we need help again."
Alice winced and rocked on her heels. "Right. . .I need to visit her soon," she admitted, gazing at a hole in the earthen ceiling. The ghost of the ugly pink tentacle that had punched its way through filled it briefly, wriggling like a worm trying to avoid the early bird. "I've seen to just about every other domain in this world. I just have to stop by Looking-Glass Land and set my final mistake right."
"'Final' is a very tricky word," the Mayor Elder observed.
"Well, final in the sense of 'last one I can use as an excuse before confronting Her Majesty of Hearts.'"
The Elder chuckled. "That reminds me – I saw Humpty Dumpty the other day on a delivery to that Mysterious East. Said you'd given him a position of glory on the battlements."
"He has a wall all to himself," Alice grinned. "Mostly because even the infinite patience of the Origami Ants would be tested by his prattle. But so long as he keeps a wary eye out for wicked Wasps, we'll let him have his fun." She sighed. "I wish I could send him to talk to the Queen for me. He might confuse her enough to escape with his – you know, I never did figure out which bit of him counted as the head."
"I doubt she'd give two swings of her Executioner's axe, so long as she got to have an omelet afterward." The Elder exhaled and watched the thick black smoke drift away in lazy curls. "I don't blame you for wanting to put the moment off, though. As the saying goes, 'Sticks and stones will never hurt me, but words may break my bones.'"
Alice wondered briefly if she should tell him he'd gotten it flipped, but then decided his version actually made more sense. "The worst part of our confrontations is always having to speak to her. Victor may claim that words and I are friends, but. . . ." She flicked her wrist, and the Cards appeared, fanning out between her fingers. "I feel much more at ease with a good, solid weapon in my hand."
"Well then, their timing couldn't be better."
Alice started, then whirled around to see a gleaming grin atop a nearby chimney. "Whose timing?" she demanded, instantly on the alert. "More Ruin? I thought I'd finally whittled them down to just a few last Slithering."
"Of a sort," Cheshire replied, eyes flaring into being like glowing coals. "Oh, don't make that face – you're getting another reprieve from the Queen's company, after all."
"I know where I stand with her tentacles," Alice retorted, slipping the Cards into her apron pocket. "Right then – where are the miscreants?"
"Listen closely – you'll find them," Cheshire told her, ears popping into place to emphasize the point. "Hopefully before they find you. And a word of advice – don't rely on the more fantastical of your arsenal. Now it's time to put your blade to work."
Ears, eyes and grin winked out of existence. Alice grimaced. "Oh dear. . .if that means what I think it does. . . ." She shut her eyes tight and strained her ears. They filled with an auditory rainbow of sounds – the whirr of the mine machinery. . .the splash of the pool below. . .the chattering of the gnomes in their work. . .and just under it all, a soft, hesitant scraping that sounded exactly like someone easing open her bedroom window so they could climb through. "Damn it. . .my apologies, I must take my leave," she said, lids still glued shut.
A whiff of smoke in her face. "I hope they're not as troublesome as the Card Guards."
"They almost certainly will be – I only hope they go down just as easily. Good night, Mayor Elder." She took a deep breath, then opened her eyes just a fraction –
to see the silhouette of a weedy, rat-like man creeping up to her bedside. "Think the slut's asleep," he hissed.
"Good – open her throat and be done with it," a rough voice replied. "Then we grab what snotters we can and run for it. Don't care what Dickenson says – bobbies come by here too often for my tastes."
"Right you are, Amos." There was a schick of metal against cheap leather, then a worn, nicked blade glittered in the weak moonlight before plunging down –
CLANG! Only to meet the rather better-tended edge of the butcher knife Alice had smuggled underneath her pillow coming up. The man's weapon went flying as Alice leapt from her bed, blood already burning for a fight. "I knew one of you would be coming around!" she snarled, slashing the knife in a wide arc before her. Her would-be attacker jumped back to avoid it. "Did you think I wouldn't be prepared? You'll have the children over my dead body!"
"All right by me!" That was Amos, a heavy-set man on the other side of her mattress, ready with a club in his hand. "We'll teach you a lesson you'll never forget, dollymop!"
Alice snatched up her pillow and threw it in his face, sending him stumbling into the wall. "Not this time. You are in my classroom!" she declared, the walls around her warping into the Skool in agreement. "And I intend to be a most stern teacher!"
Amos's friend scrambled about on the floor, then came back up with knife in hand. "Bumby always said you was a wild one!" he declared with a nasty grin. One lanky arm shot out to grab her. "Bet you kick and scream in the AAARGGGH!"
Alice glowered at him as her knife lodged in a bicep. "I do," she informed him archly, pulling it free. "And everywhere else too." Her foot slammed into the attacker's groin – he wailed and fell to his knees. "Only two of you, and only after a month? Bumby must not have been as popular with you lot as I thought." She spun to take care of Amos –
Only for her world to suddenly go fluffy white. Alice staggered, then managed to tear her returned pillow away to see Amos leap over her bed, club already on its way to break her arm. She darted left – only to find herself sprawled across the floor as her feet tangled up with each other. She rolled over just in time for Amos to plant a heavy boot against her chest, shoving the breath from her lungs. "Lousy little bitch. . .get up, Peter, she didn't hit you that hard," he told his companion.
"Says you!" Peter replied, his voice even squeakier than before. "Trollop's got one hell of a kick on her!"
"You ain't no delicate bird! Up!" Amos pressed down with his foot, glaring. Alice's ribs wailed against the intrusion. "Still playin' hero, huh? Drag you out with the rest of 'em, but you're more trouble than you're worth and no mistake." His eyes raked over her prone form, lingering on chest and hips. "Especially without the proper paddin'. . .never did get why that crow thought you were a prize."
"Neither. . .did. . .I. . .if. . .it. . .helps," Alice wheezed out, dark spots dancing before her eyes. At least March's steel fists have the courtesy to make it quick. . .all right, Alice, it's now or never. . . . Sucking in what little air she could, she wrenched up her arm, stabbing her knife deep into Amos's leg.
Amos screamed and yanked it back, dancing away on his other foot. On the plus side, this allowed her to breathe again. On the minus side, it dragged her weapon from her fingers. "Fucking cunt!" His boot came down with a floor-shaking THUD! right where her hand had been. She rolled out of the way, forcing herself to her hands and knees. "I'm gonna rip all your hair out for that!"
"Grows back," she whispered, eyeing her blade still buried in the bastard's calf. Now how to get at it without losing most of her teeth –
"Alice! Leave her alone!"
A blue-striped blur zipped past her, and suddenly Amos was on the floor, Victor Van Dort atop him and slapping him in the face with – his sketchbook? Alice thought incredulously, even as she crawled over to yank her knife free from the distracted thug's flesh. And is that a quill in his hand? What's he doing with those in the middle of the night? Has he finally remembered – "YEOW!"
White-hot pain raced along her nerves, worse than a Menacing Ruin's fireball to the face. She jerked her head around to see Peter by her leg, blood dripping off his blade. "Amos can have him," he wheezed, pulling himself closer. "You're mine for what you did to Nebuchadnezzar!"
Alice's foot met his nose, sending him yelping backward again. "You'll be praying I stopped there when I'm through!"
A blue and gray rectangle sailed overhead, hitting the wall with a rather meager thump. This was followed by a startled scream as Amos flipped himself over, pinning Victor beneath his weight. "Well, if it ain't Bumby's little pet!" he said, grinning with mad delight. "Never knew what the crow saw in you either! Thought he would have split you in twain first time he planted himself in your back garden!" He backhanded the young man, then leaned in close. "Heard tales you took down Splatter. Let's see how hard you really are, hmm?"
One look at Victor's terrified face, and Alice could almost taste the Ragebox's spray. She lunged forward and jabbed her knife into the closest part of Amos she could reach –
which just happened to be his arse. Amos yowled like an alley cat whose tail had been pulled – then repeated the note at a much higher register as Victor took the opportunity to knee him hard in the groin. "Victor, get out of here!" Alice demanded, extracting her knife as the thug clutched at his private parts. "I can handle them!"
"I am not leaving you alone with these two back-alley ratbags!" Victor replied, wriggling out from under Amos. The man got a hand around his ankle – he kicked wildly to loosen it.
"Well I'm not seeing you – guck!"
An arm wrapped around her throat as Peter got his wits about him again. Moments later, a tongue lapped at the back of her ear. "Me, I know why Bumby liked you," he hissed. "And you are gonna be very sorry about what you did to me."
Alice elbowed him as hard as she could in the gut. "I would not recommend making me sorry about leaving you alive!"
Peter wheezed, but held on. "Let her go, you meater!" Victor yelled, diving for them –
only to be grabbed around the waist by Amos. "Show you ratbag, toff!" he snarled, slamming Victor back against the floor. Victor gasped, then countered with a punch to the jaw. Amos howled and seized him by the shoulders – Victor twisted free and aimed a kick at the man's leg. "Ah! That hide of yours is endin' up at the tanner's!"
Shit shit shit – Alice got a good, solid grip on her knife. Victor was doing well so far, but Amos was no one to be trifled with, and when he managed to get the upper hand. . .she gritted her teeth and, with a quick guess at where Peter's thigh was, stabbed down as hard as she could.
Unfortunately, she just managed to embed the blade in the floorboards. Peter snickered, tightening his hold. The bones in her neck creaked. Why is everyone determined to choke or smother me today? Oh well – have to try an old classic. Hopefully I don't get some horrid disease from this! Twisting her head around, she got her teeth into the crook of his elbow.
His shirt tasted like he hadn't washed it in a year, but it did the trick – with another yelp, Peter let her go. Alice scrambled to her feet, spun, and grabbed his hair in a tight grip, slamming him with all her might into the wall. With a final scream, he fell limp. At last! Now for –
Alice jerked back around to see Victor on his knees before Amos, whimpering. "I ain't gonna be one who falls to some flapdoodle!" the thug declared, clubbing her love across the shoulders. "Not Ol' Amos! Haw-haw toffs best learn their place!" He grabbed Victor's chin and forced it upward. "And I know just where yours is, cocksucker."
The world slowed to a crawl, all color bleeding off as pure anger replaced sense. Alice could feel the scream caught in her throat, ready to be released in a sonic blast of blood and fury. It was a terrible, terrible temptation. . .she was a force of nature in Hysteria, caring only for the slaughter – but surely she'd recognize Victor was not to be harmed. . .and if somehow Amos saw her in all her pale and crimson glory as Bumby had seemed to see her in her blue. . .she opened her mouth, ready to let the world drown in monochrome rage. . . .
. . .That was very much not her voice. Alice's jaw slammed shut as Amos suddenly stumbled backward, falling over and curling in on himself. The left side of his face was dripping with blood and other mysterious fluids, and it didn't take a genius to spot the source. Stabbed deep into the miscreant's left eye –
was a curled drawing quill.
Alice gaped, then turned her gaze back to Victor, slowly pulling himself up with her mattress. His eyes, catching hers, were filled with a swirl of terror, shock, and slowly-fading rage. "I – he – I just – w-when I heard that. . . ." He swallowed, rubbing his neck. "A-all I could think about w-was how many times he made me get d-down and – i-it all happened so fast. . .one moment he was snarling at me, the next s-screaming. . . ."
Alice just nodded, unable to find her tongue. Her head was spinning. Victor – sweet, gentle Victor, who always looked as fragile as porcelain, who barely even knew himself at the moment – had just half-blinded what had to be one of the most dangerous men in the East End. How did one react to that?
By making sure said dangerous man hasn't broken something inside of him, she decided, hurrying forward. Amos groaned as she passed him – she kicked him in the stomach. "It's all right," she whispered, wrapping her arms tight around Victor. "I'm just glad you're okay. . .you are okay? How badly did he hit you?"
"My shoulders hurt," Victor confessed. He shrugged them and hissed. "I d-don't think anything's broken, but – Alice, your leg!"
He stared in horror at the blood streaming down her calf. "Oh no – we have to get you to the doctor!"
"It's just a scratch! You need the doctor!" Alice insisted, ignoring the twinge of protest from her injured limb. "Look at how purple your face is – I'm surprised he didn't knock any teeth loose."
"It's just bruises – that other one tried to strangle you!" Victor said, examining her throat.
"I'm still breathing, and that's the important thing."
"Yeah, agree with that meself."
Both Victor and Alice started, then looked around to see Harry Hightopp enter the room, June and Dr. Wilson close in his wake. Behind them, the children crowded around the doorway, trying to get a peek at the carnage. "Evenin', Alice, Victor," Hightopp greeted them, touching his helmet. "Bumby's old friends finally showed their face, eh?"
"And their feet," Alice said, rubbing her aching chest. She'd been able to ignore the pain while fighting, but now. . . . That's going to be one hell of a bruise. At least I'm reasonably certain he didn't snap any ribs. A warped little hand tugged at her nightgown, and she looked down to see Drillhead offering her a bruised and worm-eaten apple. "I'm all right, just – a little banged up," she assured him and Hightopp at once.
"More than a little," Victor said, biting his lip at the pulsing line of red pouring down her leg and staining the floorboards beneath her. "Oh Alice. . . ."
"He didn't nick anything important," Alice assured him. "Now, seriously, are your shoulders all right?"
Victor shrugged again, grimacing. "I can still move them. That must be a good sign."
"I knew I should have come to help," June whimpered, wringing her hands.
"No, June, you did the right thing by getting Officer Hightopp first," Dr. Wilson said, patting her shoulder. "Though I find it interesting you were patrolling so close by, Constable."
"Me, Tarrant, and Parker have been makin' it a point to keep an eye on the place," Hightopp explained. "Kind of embarrassin' they managed to slip by us, actually." He nudged the unconscious Peter with his boot. "Still gettin' into scrapes you can't get out of, Paltry Pete? And, you, Amos, what the – bloody hell!"
Hightopp gawked at the drawing quill still buried in the shaking Amos's socket. "I never – did you do that, Alice?"
"Actually, that was Victor," Alice said, allowing herself a proud smile. Wonder what it says about me that such an act of violence makes me love him all the more. "That poor excuse for humanity threatened to – well – give him the Bumby treatment."
"Blooming twig," Amos grunted, though he made no attempt to move. "I'll get you but good. . . ."
"Splatter's tried three times, and ain't given him more than a few bruises," Hightopp informed Amos as he snapped a pair of handcuffs around the thug's wrists. "You're a bastard, yeah, nobody's disputin' that, but if Splatter can't touch him, I ain't rankin' your chances high." His boot suddenly connected with Amos's side. "Speaking of bastards, I thought you was just a barroom nobbler! What are you doing here?"
"Go light the Devil's candle, bobby," Amos spat, wheezing.
Hightopp kicked him again. "This is me being gentle, Amos. I can be a lot worse when it comes to babes."
"Uuuunnnnhhh. . . ."
All eyes turned to Paltry Pete as he slowly sat up. "That bitch," he groaned, blinking. "Amos, the dollymop's – FUCK!"
The sight of a policeman concentrated Pete's wits wonderfully, despite the repeated abuse to both his head and his family legacy. He jumped to his feet and made for the door, apparently heedless of the doctor, his assistant, and his patients all standing there waiting to grab him. He was definitely heedless of Victor's discarded sketchbook – his foot landed heavily on the marbled cover, and he was down again faster than you could "Jack Robinson." Dr. Wilson promptly sat on him. "Much obliged, Doctor," Hightopp said congenially, pulling out a spare set of cuffs.
"I may as well use my love of a good dinner to my advantage," Dr. Wilson replied with a self-deprecating smile. It vanished quickly as he looked down at Peter. "Am I correct in assuming you wished harm on my patients?"
Something inside Peter broke. "It was his fault!" he cried, flailing an arm at Amos before Hightopp got it into the cuff. "Razor Bill told us Houndsditch was too hot, 'specially with the bobbies and that reporter stalking around at all hours of the day, but Amos said we was too new to the trade to give up now–"
"Will you shut up?" Amos cried, trying and failing to get to his feet. Alice gave him another kick for good measure.
"And then last night, this bloke Dickenson shows up at the Flaming Stallion and tells us he knows the ickles are still up for sale, and that if we let him write about it, he'd show us how to get in. And I'm not so sure, but Amos says we need to get some stock and that all those stories about Alice and the Swell were probably made up – see where that got you! So we decide okay, we'll slip in tonight, kill the Liddell girl and just grab what we can – but Judy over there was awake! What kinda girl sleeps with a knife under her pillow?"
"A girl who knew trouble was coming and didn't want to be unarmed," Alice growled, vision going red again. "Oh, I owe Tailor such an apology. . .Dickenson was really willing to stoop that low to see his story come out on top, hmm? And here I'd thought he'd finally learned to mind his own business."
"We'll pick 'im up 'fore the night's out," Hightopp assured her. "Ain't gonna be writin' many articles where he's going, that's for sure. Though I bet Tailor will be here 'fore long – sharp fellow like that knows when a story's brewin'."
"I'll gladly give him the full scoop and a half," Alice said. "Maybe seeing it plastered all over the front page will keep Razor Bill and the others at bay."
"First things first – I'd like to examine both of you for injury," Dr. Wilson said, clambering back to his feet. "June, fetch some bandages for Alice's leg, and a cold cloth for Victor's face."
"Right, Dr. Wilson. Come on, children, go back to bed," June added, attempting to shoo the crowd from the door. "The excitement's over."
"But look at him!" Dennis said, pointing at Amos as he was hauled upright by Hightopp. "His eye's turned into a feather!"
"Alice, you left your knife in the floor," Elsie reported, pointing it out.
"Thank you," Alice said, pulling it out and placing it delicately on her pillow. "Now do as June says and go back upstairs. We'll tell you all about it in the morning."
"You and Victor are gonna be okay, right?" Charlie asked, voice weedy with worry.
Victor nodded, smiling painfully as he wrapped his arm around Alice. "Just fine. Come on, you don't want to be in Officer Hightopp's way."
The children reluctantly dispersed, mumbling about how they never got to stick around for the good stuff. Hightopp chuckled as he watched them go. "Boy, I remember being that age, thinkin' grown-ups got all the fun. . .here, I gotta ask you, Victor – how come you had a quill in your hand anyway?"
"I couldn't sleep, so I decided to try doodling in the dining room," Victor explained. His eyes dropped. "It – well – let's just say I still can't figure out how I drew all those pictures for you, Alice."
"If I can get my art skills back, so can you," Alice said. She glanced over his shoulder to spy Leader sitting on her bed. "Don't suppose you could lend him some of yours for a bit?"
"His way's still a mystery," Leader replied regretfully. Then she brightened. "But you can tell him he's definitely off Bumby's way. Ain't nobody gonna carve him up for spare parts."
Alice relayed the message, making Victor smile. "That's good to hear. He – he was giving me a bit of trouble during the fight, but nothing like before. Even when Amos called me – that, I didn't feel in danger of – going away." He rubbed the back of his head, then winced, moving his hand to his shoulder. "Ow. . .I think Thirteen's retired."
"Good," Alice said with a nod. "May he live happily the rest of his days knowing he'll never have to obey an order again." She tilted her head. "But that doesn't explain why you were drawing in the dining room."
"My room gets too depressing sometimes," Victor confessed, lightly massaging the side of his neck. "It doesn't even have a window. And whenever I look at the walls, I. . . ."
It was odd to think that someone who had just stuck a drawing quill into a man's eye could look that much like a kicked puppy. "Maybe we should swap rooms," she suggested. "I wouldn't mind the lack of a window that much, and if borrowing my art collection would cheer you up. . . ."
"Or perhaps you could just move his things in here and let poor June have her own bedroom?"
Alice blinked rapidly, then turned to stare at Dr. Wilson. "I – what?"
"Oh – Dr. Wilson, I could never intrude on a lady's privacy," Victor began, trying to look the essence of propriety.
"Well, you seem perfectly content to let Alice intrude on yours." Dr. Wilson pinched the bridge of his nose and held up a hand. "We know. We've known for a while you've been sharing a bed."
Alice gaped. "What – how?!" she demanded.
"Your coworker grew up with eleven older sisters, Alice," June said, coming back in with the bandages and cold cloth. "She is very well acquainted with situations that require someone to hide under the bed."
". . .you could have said," Alice grumbled, trying to ignore the color creeping up her cheeks. "Do you know how badly I needed the toilet that morning?"
"I didn't want to embarrass you! You had enough on your mind."
"But – y-you didn't tell Dr. Wilson, did you?" Victor said, flushed bright as a strawberry.
"No, of course not," June assured him, handing over the cloth. "That was Abigail. She saw you coming out of her room one morning in your nightclothes."
"Oh dear – probably after you had that nightmare, Alice," Victor said, covering his face. "I thought I'd convinced her I'd just stepped in to see how you were. . . ."
"You and the stick there are–" Paltry Pete started, goggling.
"It's just sleep, and no one asked your opinion," Alice snapped. "It really is just sleep, Dr. Wilson. We would never–"
"I know you wouldn't – if you were indulging, I would eat my finest hat," Dr. Wilson cut in. "Not to mention I was informed of the ruckus that occurred when Victor did sleep alone. This may be beyond the bounds of good taste, but under the circumstances, I think it better that you share a living space than not." He smiled a little. "But I do expect you to make things official before too long."
"Yeah, about time we saw a ring on that finger," Hightopp agreed.
"Victor and I will make things official when we're ready," Alice said, rolling her eyes. "God, you're all as bad as Nanny."
"I'm simply reminding you that you do have a reputation, tarnished as it may be," Dr. Wilson told her. "Now sit down so I can wrap that leg and listen to your lungs. Do you need any more assistance from us, Officer Hightopp?"
"Nah, I think I can handle 'em," Hightopp said, glancing between Amos's feathered eye socket and Peter's bow-legged stance. "Make a good example out of 'em to the others. Send 'em far enough up the river, and you shouldn't have to spend your nights nickin' the cutlery, Alice."
"That would be nice," Alice agreed, plopping on the bed and holding her leg out for Dr. Wilson. "Thank you for coming so quickly. We appreciate it."
"Hey – after Bumby and all the other shit you've been through, I ain't gonna be the one stoppin' you gettin' your happy endin'," Hightopp said warmly. Then he winked. "'Specially if it helps me make Sargent."
Alice and Victor both laughed – though Alice immediately regretted the action, clutching at her angry ribcage. "Well – ow – best of luck with the promotion then. I'm sure the Inspector will be happy with this find."
"One hopes." He tipped his head at June and Dr. Wilson. "Evenin'. Tarrant'll be round in the morning with the official report." Then, wrapping a meaty arm around each man's waist, he dragged Amos and Peter out the door. "Come on, you two. If you tell me where that Dickenson is hidin', might give you a clean cell."
Dr. Wilson waved goodbye, then knelt down and examined Alice's cut, squinting over his glasses. "Well, it doesn't look too bad," he said, taking the roll of bandages from June and wrapping them around her calf. "I think you might have done worse to yourself with that spoon in Rutledge."
"Comforting," Alice said, deadpan.
"Well, considering he had a knife, I should think so." He finished mummifying her leg and pulled the cloth tight before tucking it in on itself. "I'm more worried about your chest, what with the way you keep grabbing it. And Victor said something about you being strangled?"
"Pete got an arm around my neck once – and right before Victor came in, Amos decided to stand on my chest," Alice confessed. "It hurts, but I can breathe."
"Even so. . .Victor, could you go with June for a moment? I'm going to have to ask Alice to open her nightgown."
Victor turned pink again. "Oh, y-yes, all right."
"Must you?" Alice groaned, then winced as her ribs protested. "All right, perhaps you must. . .June, maybe you could take a look at Victor's shoulders while we're in here?"
"It would save me a bit of time," Dr. Wilson agreed.
"I'd be happy to – though I am going to have to get behind you, Victor," June warned him.
"I'm fine so long as I know you're there," Victor reassured her. "And I would like to know if anything's broken. . .see you in a minute, Alice."
"See you." Alice waited for them to leave, then unbuttoned the front of her nightdress just enough to wiggle out of the sleeves and yank up her camisole, revealing a boot-shaped bruise between her breasts. "Congratulations, Dr. Wilson, this is probably the most undressed any man's ever seen me while I'm awake enough to protest. Look fast – it's cold."
Dr. Wilson proceeded to do just that, lightly prodding the purpled areas with a finger. Alice hissed and pulled away. "Well, it's not pretty. . . ." He felt her sides with medical interest. "But nothing broken. Do you feel any sharp, stabbing pains while breathing?"
"More just a general ache."
"Then I think you'll be fine, though I wouldn't recommend going for a run anytime soon." He waved a hand, and Alice gratefully put her underthings back to rights. "You're very lucky you weren't hurt worse, you know."
"I do indeed," Alice said, buttoning up her gown. "If there'd been any more of them. . . ." She sighed, then grimaced. "Oof. . .but in the adds column, I bet you sixpence that Peter's going to name as many of his associates as he can in hopes of getting a lighter sentence. We might be able to see all of Bumby's foul friends rounded up in one go."
"Wouldn't that be nice," Dr. Wilson nodded. "But – perhaps you should keep the knife for now. Just in case. Until we can get a locksmith in for the windows and doors."
Alice smirked. "Encouraging an only-recently-recovered lunatic to avail herself of a deadly weapon. You're sure you retired willingly from Rutledge?"
"When one starts eyeing his stores of laudanum as a cure for his insomnia, one knows it's time to move on," Dr. Wilson declared. "I have no regrets. I may not be at the pinnacle of my field, but I think I've helped more than one person back to health. And I'm quite grateful I was allowed to intersect with your story in some small way. Victor's too."
"Well, trust me, we're grateful you're willing to be a lot more open-minded than some of your compatriots." Alice fixed a twisted cuff. "We're finished!"
"So are we," June said, coming back in with Victor at her heels. "His shoulders are black and blue all over, but I can't feel anything wrong beyond that."
"Another lucky escape," Dr. Wilson murmured. "Still, I wouldn't try lifting anything heavier than a small book for the next few days."
"I have no intentions of trying," Victor assured him, rubbing the back of his neck and letting out a little hiss of pain. "Really, all I want now is some ice and my bed."
"I think you mean our bed," Alice said, patting the mattress.
Victor smiled. "Yes, I suppose I do." His eyes flicked to Dr. Wilson. "You're really–"
"So long as you don't tell Tailor and get us all on the front page for breach of good taste," Dr. Wilson told him, chuckling. "I think we could all use some sleep, though God only knows how much we're going to get, if you'll pardon my saying so."
"If He knows, He's unlikely to say," Alice said. "But I suppose it's at least a good idea to lie down and pretend."
"I'll get you another cold cloth for your shoulders," June told Victor. "And a bowl to put them in afterward. . .and then I'd better see how the children are doing. If they're asleep, I'll eat Dr. Wilson's hat."
"I'll go see how they are," Dr. Wilson said. "Maybe they'll listen to me when I tell them they need to be quiet. . .I'll check up on you both again in the morning. Remember, no strenuous activities for a while."
"Of course not – though that rather undercuts your previous assertion that you believed us when we said we were only using the bed for sleep," Alice pointed out with a playful grin.
Dr. Wilson colored. "You know what I meant! Goodnight." He swept out of the room, mumbling to himself.
June tittered, then nodded at them. "Let me get that cloth. . .and then, tomorrow, we can move your things, Victor. Oh, it'll be nice to sleep in a proper bed again! Though I'll almost miss Elsie's snoring."
"Well, you know where to find it should you need it," Alice joked.
June giggled and disappeared again. Alice took a deep breath and let it out slowly, ignoring her ribs' protests. "We really are lucky, aren't we? Any other doctor and assistant would probably have banished us to opposite sides of the house after that little revelation."
"If they had, I wouldn't have stayed there," Victor told her, sitting down beside her. "I – I don't want to have to face him in my dreams alone anymore."
"I don't blame you. I think Wonderland would still be in a rather unpleasant state if I didn't get to wake up with you most mornings." Alice started to lean her head against his shoulder, then caught herself and put her arm around his waist instead. "I'm sorry you got hurt tonight."
"It's not your fault – I rushed in without thinking," Victor said, shaking his head. "I just – I heard all this awful thumping and banging, and then to come in and see that – that leech threatening to tear out your hair while you were on the floor gasping for breath. . . ." His jaw clenched. "People like that should be hung from the highest gallows."
"With any luck, they will be," Alice said, a surge of rage and nausea pouring up her throat as she remember Pete's breathless confession. "To see the children as stock. . .and Dickenson helping them! After all that talk about how we were in league with Bumby. . . ." She huffed, then whimpered. "Ow. . .at least we can be sure the Weekly is going to drop him like a hot potato."
"They'd better," Victor grumbled. "Maybe I can get my parents to make sure. They're already angry he called my amnesia fake."
"It would be a better use for them than letting them drag you down to the docks." Alice bit her lip, then put a hand over his. "I – I hate to ask this, but – do you remember those two? From before? Amos seemed to know you."
Victor shuddered, then hissed in pain again. "Aah. . .he – he might have come around once. I n-never actually paid much attention to B-Bumby's clients," he admitted softly. "I was for M-Master's use alone, after all."
Alice sandwiched his hand between hers. "Well, I think you very conclusively proved that no one is going to touch you in a way you don't want ever again tonight."
Victor nodded slowly. "When he said that. . .stabbing him suddenly seemed like the only thing I could do."
"I know the feeling," Alice murmured, thinking of all the times in Wonderland she'd encountered a Ragebox or succumbed to Hysteria and found herself surrounded by bodies a few minutes later. Probably a good thing I didn't fall to the urge to use the latter earlier. "But don't worry yourself too much about it. It was self-defense, Victor. No one thinks the less of you for it. Certainly no less than we think of you for punching Splatter or Bumby."
He smiled beneath his bruises, patting his face with the cloth. "Thank you. But I hope I can keep it to pillows from now on."
June returned, carrying a bowl with a fresh washcloth inside. "Here you are – I tried to wring as much water out of it while keeping it cool," she said, handing it to Victor.
"Thank you," Victor replied, wrapping the damp cloth around his neck. "Ah, yes, that's much better. . . ."
"Good. Anything I can get for you, Alice?"
"I'm fine," Alice assured her. "You get back upstairs and get some sleep. And thank you for getting Officer Hightopp."
"Thank you for defending us from those awful men," June replied. "You are truly the bravest person I know."
Alice ducked her head. "Sometimes I think you're all determined to embarrass me to death with compliments. . .but thank you."
"It's the truth! And I won't hear another word about how you're not worthy," June scolded, wagging a finger. "I'll see you in the morning – and you are to rest and let me bring you breakfast, all right?"
"If you insist." Alice watched her go. "How she didn't become a mother before now is beyond me. She's a natural."
"Maybe she was meant to find her way here all along," Victor commented. "These children need a mother more than any other."
"True. I am so glad she avoided being Dr. Bumby's next assistant."
"Me too." Victor wrapped his hand around hers. "And she's right, you know. You are easily the bravest person here."
"The residents of Wonderland – those who can stand to look at me, anyway – call me their savior," Alice told him, as Gryphon proudly preened her hair. "I'm just doing my best to live up to the name."
Victor gave her one of those heart-melting smiles. "Trust me, you are."
Alice returned it, then snuggled up as close as she could without hitting his shoulder. "Glad to hear it. I love you, Victor."
"I love you too, Alice."