The first thing Victor noticed upon opening his eyes was how whole he felt.
He stared at the ceiling, taking stock of himself as the softness of sleep drained away. Victor. Victor Van Dort. Victor Fitzwilliam Van Dort, son of Eleanor "Nell" Susan Butler Van Dort and William Gregory Van Dort. Birthday – June 9th, 1855. Current age – twenty years old. Born and bred in the tiny village of Burtonsville, notable only for his father's fish cannery. Moved into one of the town square mansions at the age of seven, and promptly got lost in the badly-oversized house. Dog lover whose best friend growing up was an excitable pup named Scraps, after his favorite sort of food. Emphatically not friendly with local bully Gordon Tannen. Favorite color – blue. Favorite instrument – the piano. Only thing he and his mother had ever really agreed on – him learning to play the piano. Favorite implements for drawing – a quill pen and fresh India ink (nothing else made such beautiful lines). Briefly engaged by parental arrangement to destitute viscount's daughter Victoria Everglot, almost-but-not-quite married the corpse bride Emily Cartwell (wow, did it feel good to give her a last name!). Had a secret library of penny dreadfuls, which he kept under his mattress and devoured regularly. Almost embarrassingly knowledgeable about butterflies and moths, with a childhood dream of visiting the Amazon or deepest Africa to hunt down new species no one had ever seen before. Saw the afterlife at the age of nineteen, in all its brilliant color and glory, and nobody and nothing was going to convince him that it was not real–
It was there. It was all there. Every last scrap of memory, of him, had returned. Victor sat up, laughing and hugging himself. "I'm back. I'm back! Alice, I'm–"
He blinked as he turned his head, only to find nothing there but a pillow. Where – did I oversleep? I did get to bed very late. . .and God knows I needed some rest after that fight, he admitted, grimacing as his shoulders and ribs ached briefly with phantom pain. Dear me, that was – that was brutal. His grin found its way back onto his face. But oh so worth it.
He bounced out of bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and hurrying to the wardrobe. Dressing was a comedy of errors, as it was hard for him to keep still long enough to actually put anything on. He danced into his trousers, misbuttoned his shirt twice and his waistcoat once, put his jacket on inside-out, and failed three times at tying his tie before giving up and letting it hang loose around his neck. So this is how Mr. Scrooge felt when he realized he hadn't missed Christmas after all! he thought with a chuckle. Thank God I don't need to shave today – I'd probably cut my nose clean off. Oh, but I don't care. I feel – I feel refreshed. Clean. Purified. Finally, finally free.
And I can't keep this to myself any longer. Where is Alice? He raked his fingers through his hair, then gave a cursory glance around the room for his shoes before dismissing them as unimportant. This was Houndsditch – the day appearances mattered here was the day his Mother became the Queen of England. On that rather terrifying image, he darted out into the hall –
And found Alice not five feet from their door, holding apart Harriet and Billy. The two orphans were snarling at each other, as if they were lion cubs arguing over a choice bone. Between them lay the object of contention – a doll-sized rowboat, with one oar snapped. "You should have been thrown down a well!" Harriet yelled.
"You should have been drowned in the Thames!" Billy replied.
"You're both acting like hooligans!" Alice snapped. "Quit it! I don't even care who broke whose toy boat at this point–"
"Victor, not–" she started, tossing a brief glance over her shoulder – then stopped. Slowly, she stood up straight and turned around, getting a better look at his disheveled clothes and bright grin. The orphans followed her gaze, distracted from their argument. "Victor?"
Victor beamed at her, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. "Alice," he repeated. "Alice Pleasance Liddell."
Her jaw dropped. "You grew up in Oxford, not far from the Isis," he continued, relishing the look on her face. "Your father was the Dean at Christ Church and had a love of photography and a hatred of taxidermy. Your mother believed in equal rights and helping the poor, and despised Punch and Judy and Proverbial Philosophy. Your sister Lizzie was ten years older than you because your parents never thought they'd have a second child. She liked reading and loathed all your father's undergraduates on principle. You didn't have many playmates when you were small, but sometimes Edith Gardner and her sister would visit for an afternoon. You tried giving Reginald Hargreaves flowers once – and when he laughed at you for it, you hit him right in the mouth. You love cats and rabbits, and you're willing to follow any furry creature into a dark hole just to see where it leads. Mr. Bunny was a seventh birthday present from Lizzie, and he was the one to lead you to Wonderland. Looking-Glass Land came exactly six months later – and the fire about a year after that." He swallowed. "I – I first met you when you came in to ask Dr. Bumby about the laundry during my family's initial consultation with him back in April. And I made a prat of myself because I couldn't stop staring at your eyes. We had a row my first evening here about the existence of the Land of the Dead, and we made up in the middle of the night over tea afterward. I got you a piece of chocolate cake for your birthday because I didn't feel it fair you had no one to celebrate with, and you gave me a drawing of the Ball & Socket piano in return on mine. I've drawn so many pictures of your Wonderland I could probably paper our room, and I still think you should write a book on it. We've walked all over Whitechapel together, and beyond too – the happiest day of my life here was when we went to Hyde Park and skipped stones and ate trotters and talked about our dreams and all the other places we wanted to see. And. . . ." He glanced down shyly. "And you danced with me once to an old music box tune. And I came so close to kissing you that I'm shocked you didn't realize I loved you then."
Alice gaped at him for what felt like a small eternity. Then her face lit up in the biggest, most beautiful smile he'd ever seen in his life. "You–"
"Remember," he confirmed. "Alice, I remember!"
Alice's response to this was to fling herself at him, arms wide. Victor caught her and spun her around, giddy with delight. The orphans were staring at both of them like they'd lost their minds, but he didn't care. He was himself again! He was Victor, and he was with Alice, and nothing in the world could dampen his mood. He looked down at his beloved. She was laughing brightly, eyes sparkling like the stars, an absolute vision worthy of the masters. . .before he even knew what he was doing, he'd swept her up into a kiss.
Her lips were deliciously soft against his – though, admittedly, he didn't have any basis for comparison. He'd fainted moments before Emily's lips had touched his, and his one attempt at kissing Victoria had been interrupted by the sudden arrival of the corpse bride on his fiancee's balcony. But still – the sweet taste of her mouth, the gentle touch of her fingers on his neck, the way the contact sent warmth tingling through every inch of his skin. . .this was the best first kiss he could have ever hoped for. The rest of the world faded away as he lost himself to joy.
"Snrrrrk. . . ."
And just like that, the world was back. An embarrassed blush crept up his face as he opened his eyes. Oh, right – others. Goodness, Victor, you're in public – what were you thinking, just grabbing her like that? Yes, she loves me, but probably she would have appreciated some warning beforehand! I hope she's not too upset with me. He pulled away, trying to not fiddle with her apron strings. "Oh, Alice, do–"
She didn't even let him finish, grabbing his head and pulling him back into the kiss. The embarrassment drained away in the face of her enthusiasm. He held her close, closing his eyes again. Let the children laugh. Let the whole world laugh.
He'd waited far too long for this.
For a good minute, it seemed like they could just spend eternity memorizing the taste of each other's mouths. Eventually, though, they broke apart. Alice grinned up at him, flushed with pleasure. "Why we delayed that moment the better part of three months is something I will never understand."
"Me either," Victor murmured, leaning his forehead against the top of her head. "Oh Alice. . .you can't imagine how good this feels."
"I could give it a try. I'm very good at imagining." She stroked his cheek. "As are you, given that you are back to yourself. Did they work as advertised?"
"They did," Victor confirmed. "And you were right – when the Ruin tried to drag me under, I was very glad to have the Jackbomb."
Alice winced. "I'm not surprised. You had a very noisy night, you know. There's nothing quite like waking up to your beloved screaming 'No' over and over again. I was on the verge of shaking you when you abruptly went still."
Victor bit his lip. "Sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you. It was just – it was a tough fight." The image of the dripping black heart filled his mind, and he shuddered. "He almost h-had me for a moment. . .but I remembered you in time. Remembered you saying I had to save myself. So–" He grinned as he recalled the fork plunging deep into the muscle. "I did."
"You did," Alice agreed with a nod. "And good for you. You'll have to tell me all about it later."
"Oh, I will, I will," Victor promised, bouncing on his heels. "Right now, though, I – I – I don't know what I want to do!" He looked left and right. "Should I get ready for lunch? Find my quill and sketchbook and try to replace some of my drawings? Or – oh!"
It was like a tree to the face – he knew exactly what he wanted to do. Grabbing Alice's hand, he pulled her up the hallway and into the front foyer. Harriet and Billy followed in their wake, always ready for new entertainment. Victor paid them no mind –
Because there it was. Not the great black beast of his childhood days, nor the grand but neglected Harryhausen of the Everglots, nor even the crooked converted coffin of the Ball & Socket – but still just what he was looking for. He almost tripped over the stool in his haste to sit down. Releasing his love, he cracked his knuckles, stretched his fingers, hovered his hands briefly over the keys. . . .
And then, haltingly at first, but gaining confidence every second, the old music box tune filled the air again. There had been a hundred different songs he could have played flitting through his head on his way to the piano, all beautiful and wonderful in their own ways, but – there really hadn't been any contest. This was the tune of one of the happiest moments of his life, with the woman he loved more than anyone. No other song could have properly celebrated the return of his talents. He closed his eyes, soaking in the music. Mmmmm. . .thank God I'm not too rusty. How on earth did I go for an entire month knowing I could do this but not remembering–
There was a happy squeal from behind him, a cry of "Victor!" from the front door, and then out of nowhere he was with Alice on the floor, tangled up in at least two pairs of arms. "What – oh, June!" he said, craning his head to see just who had tackled him. "And – Victoria?"
"You I expected this from, June – you, not so much," Alice said, looking between the two women.
Victoria blushed, ducking her head as she released them. "I'm sorry, I just – Christopher and I were walking up the block for our usual visit, and I heard the piano, and – my emotions rather ran away with me. I'm sorry."
"That about sums it up for me too," June said, fixing her braid. "Do forgive me, Alice. I only meant to – I just had to congratulate Victor! I didn't mean to knock you over."
Alice gave her a stern frown. . .then let her face soften into a smile, before wrapping the older woman in a hug. "Under the circumstances, I think you can be forgiven."
June froze for an instant. Then her face nearly split in two from the force of her grin as she returned the embrace. "Oh, thank you. . . ."
"Well, we are friends, aren't we?" Alice patted her back and released her. "Just don't expect one every day."
June giggled. "I'll try my best."
"Victoria!" An astonished Christopher appeared at the door. "Why didn't you ever tell me you could sprint like that?"
"I only just found out myself," Victoria laughed, allowing her husband to help her to her feet. "Oh, if my mother had seen that, she'd be appalled."
"Well, considering who your mother was willing to marry you to, I don't think her opinion counts for much," Victor said, pushing himself off the floor and offering Alice a hand up. Alice took it and levered both herself and June to their feet.
Victoria arched an eyebrow as she brushed off her dress. "One of the people she wanted me to marry was you, you know."
"Yes, but under extreme duress," Victor reminded her, snickering. "We were all very well aware that if it weren't for my parents' cannery riches, your parents wouldn't have let me within five hundred feet of you."
"You would have had to move in that case – I don't think it was even that far across the square," Victoria teased.
"Did I hear the piano?"
Dr. Wilson entered the room, a gaggle of children in his wake. "Victor, was that you?" he continued, amazed.
"Yup! He ran out of his room without his shoes, kissed Alice, then came here and played," Harriet reported.
"Hah! You owe me sixpence, Reggie!" Charlie cried, triumphant. "I told you he'd get up the nerve before Christmas!"
"What'd you have to go and kiss her without mistletoe for?" Reggie complained as he fished around in his pocket.
"It's been a good day," Victor replied, chuckling. "Even if I've been awake for less than a half-hour of it."
"Get up the nerve – you've only just kissed?" June said, staring at them.
"We told you all that you were rushing things by telling us to get married right away," Alice said, putting her hands on her hips with a smirk.
"Yes – speaking of which, you burst out laughing when I imitated Pastor Galswells trying to dismiss the dead from his church when we first talked about Emily," Victor told the stunned Dr. Wilson. "And you said I shouldn't be ashamed to have such a wonderful imagination. That if a romp through the Land of the Dead was what I needed to push me forward into marriage, so be it. You said that because of Alice, didn't you?"
"Exactly right," Dr. Wilson said, a wide smile spreading across his face. "So you've finally turned the corner."
"I've broken down the wall – in every sense," Victor reported, head held high. "It's – it's over. I'm finally better."
"Let's not put the cart before the horse," Dr. Wilson cautioned, holding up his hands. "I know you must feel like you could conquer the world right now, but you're still not very far out of an extremely traumatic situation. I'd like to continue our sessions for a little while yet."
"Oh, let him enjoy his victory," Alice told the doctor, shaking her head. "You didn't say anything like that after I finally defeated the Queen."
"You were incarcerated, Alice. I was under the impression you understood you weren't getting out of talking to me." He smiled again. "But it is an incredible accomplishment, Victor. And you should be proud of yourself."
"Thank you, sir." Victor slipped an arm around Alice. "Though Alice deserves some of the credit. I couldn't have done it without her." He looked down at her. "Thank you so much for pushing me onward. For telling me I was worth it. For just being there through all this nonsense."
"Considering how well you tolerated mine. . .well. Fair is fair," Alice replied, before pressing a quick kiss against his lips. "Now maybe we can start getting on with the rest of our lives."
"I certainly hope so." Victor looked around the group. He usually wasn't one for large crowds, but these were all friendly faces, and the joy surging through him. . .well, it just couldn't be contained. "Would – would you all like to hear me play something?"
"I'd love to!" June squealed, hands clasped before her.
"It would be nice to hear a full song from you," Victoria agreed.
"I would be honored," Dr. Wilson nodded.
"Sure!" "Why not?" "Are you gonna play something from the dead people?" came from the children.
"I might have a fiddle with one of Bonejangles's tunes," Victor said, thoughtful. "Now that I can remember them."
Alice touched his arm. "You're really all right playing in front of everybody?"
"I could play before the Queen right now and not break a sweat," Victor assured her. "Ours or yours."
She giggled. "Then we'd all be delighted."
Victor nodded, then took his place back at the piano as the others gathered around. He stretched his hands out again, then shot Alice a smile. "So – we've got Christmas sorted. Do you have anything special planned for New Year's?"
Alice grinned back at him. "Give me another month."
Victor laughed, then started on one of the light, energetic tunes he'd picked up from Bonejangles's pianist down Below. His heart soared as everyone began tapping their foot or snapping their fingers to the beat. For the first time in months, he felt well and truly hopeful about what lay ahead. It's been a long, painful road here, to be sure, he thought, then glanced at the smiling faces circling him. But I think the final destination was worth it. Welcome back, past.
Now let's head to the future.