February 8th, 18–
Victor burst into the shop, breathing rather heavily. Marty, who had been engrossed in the latest edition of the Secundus Gears & Grind, looked up, startled. “Whoa! Where’s the fire, buddy?”
“I need to talk to you,” Victor said, nearly tripping as he scrambled up to the front counter. “Are you busy?”
“No – Doc’s helping the only customer we’ve got now,” Marty said, jerking his head to the side to indicate where the scientist was. “What’s up?”
“I – I--” Victor felt the smile nearly split his face. “She likes me, Marty! Alice likes me! There was this horribly embarrassing incident with my mother invading Richard’s store and I a-accidentally shouted that I loved her while trying to d-defend her and I was s-so horrified with myself I ran but she c-chased me and then she k-k-kissed me--”
“Take a breath, Victor,” Marty said, though he was grinning to beat the band himself. “So she does like you? That’s great! I told you, all you had to do was say something!”
“I know,” Victor said, getting his breath back. “She didn’t mean what she said before about romance, not really. She just – well, she should probably tell you, not me, it’s a rather personal matter on her part, but the important part is she’s willing to give us a chance. We have a date tomorrow night!”
“Yes! Except--” Victor’s smile faltered as he remembered just why he’d needed to talk to Marty. “Marty, I’ve n-never been on a d-date before!”
Marty stared at him a moment. “You’re joking,” he finally said.
“No, I’m serious! I’ve never gone out with a young lady at all!”
“But – Victor, you’re two years older than I am!” Marty pointed out. “How do you get to nineteen without ever having had a date?”
“Okay, you can stop right there.”
Victor gave him a bit of a look – only a bit of one, though. “Yes, well, they didn’t really e-encourage me in that regard. Mother took us out to b-balls and such, but – I was only i-introduced to girls for d-dancing purposes, and n-none of them cared to s-share more than one dance with me. And at h-home, the other v-village boys were courting all the available girls. Though, really, Mother probably wouldn’t h-have wanted me dating them anyway. Too ‘low-class’ for her standards. Honestly, I was shocked they actually w-wanted me to get m-married.”
“And even then, they kept you away from the girl as long as they could,” Marty nodded, frowning in disgust. “Yeah, thinking about it, that was a pretty stupid question.”
“It’s fine, I just need your help,” Victor pleaded. “I don’t know what to do! Or I know some, but not enough! What exactly does one do on a date? What should I wear? Should I bring anything?”
“Keep your pants on,” Marty said, patting him on the shoulder. “You’ve got me here. I’ll make sure it all goes well. Okay, so what exactly did you ask her to?”
“Dinner at eight o’clock,” Victor said. “I’m picking her up at her house. Oooh, should I have asked to call on her at home first? Isn’t that the correct way of doing things?”
“Depends on the town, I think. Maybe in Burtonsville you gotta do it like that, but here in Secundus people are pretty laid-back about going out for a first date. Same with back home in Hill Valley – Jennifer and I went out to eat for our first date, and nobody complained. Besides, going out to eat’s always a good idea – if the conversation starts dropping off, you can always focus on the food.” Marty leaned forward a bit, gesturing with one hand. “With a first date, you want to look nice, but not too formal. Wear one of your better suits, but don’t get too dressed up. Going for the full ballroom look just puts pressure on everybody.”
“I see,” Victor nodded. “Should I leave the goggles at home then?”
“Actually, you don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Marty said. “Lots of people keep them on all the time. I don’t think Alice is gonna care much. And you want to go to a nice restaurant, but nothing too fancy – no waiters in tails or anything like that.” He grinned. “Lucky for you, I know just the place.” He turned toward the telephonic radio and began adjusting frequencies. “Hey! Hey, Flint? Flint Lockwood?”
“Hello! This is Sam,” a female voice called back after a moment.
“Steve!” another, more mechanical voice added.
“And him. Who’s calling?”
“It’s Marty McFly, Sam,” Marty said. “Hey, does The Roofless still have some tickets for dinner tomorrow night? My friend here just got himself a date and needs someplace to go.”
“Oh yes, we’re free! Two then, I’m assuming?”
“Yup! For eight o’clock.”
“Great! I’ll send them over right away.”
“We’ll be here. Thanks a lot! Have a good day!” Marty switched off the radio and turned to Victor with a grin. “There, that’s dinner set.”
“Why do I need tickets?” Victor asked, puzzled.
“Oh, that’s a safety measure,” Marty explained. “The first one of those food machines Flint built kinda wrecked the island he used to live on because people put in too many orders. He and his fiancee have a system now: only three courses max per meal, and only a certain number of people can go eat there at any one time so the machine doesn’t get all overwhelmed and start spitting out giant food again.”
“Goodness,” was the only thing Victor could think to say.
“Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe – Flint’s really careful about how it all works,” Marty assured him. “And the food’s great. Trust me, it’s perfect for a first date.”
Victor took a deep breath and nodded. “Whatever you say. You’re the expert here.”
Marty chuckled. “Dunno about expert.”
“Yes, but you’re the only one I know with a steady girlfriend.”
“Yeah. . . .” Marty looked wistful for a moment. “God, I wish Jennifer could have come along. I’m hoping she gets over here one day – I’d love for you to meet her. She’s the best.”
“I’m sure she is,” Victor said with a small smile. “How did you start courting her?”
“Another one of those accidental meetings,” Marty replied, smiling. “Bumped into her one day at the market, and – it just – everything made sense. When you meet the right girl, it just hits you, like lightning.” He looked at Victor curiously. “You felt that with Alice, right?”
Victor thought for a moment, recalling his and Alice’s first meeting. The way he hadn’t been able to stop staring at those dangerous yet ever so captivating green eyes. “Yes, I think I did,” he said slowly.
“Exactly,” Marty said, looking slightly smug. “I knew there was something to those staring contests.”
“Yes, yes,” Victor said, rolling his eyes. “So, ah, how did you sweep Jennifer off her feet? Did you bring her anything for the first d-date?”
“Some red roses – though, um, I wouldn’t do that with Alice,” Marty hastily added. “She’s really not a fan.”
“I know,” Victor said. “She prefers lilies. I could buy her a few of those. . . .”
“Yeah, flowers in general are good,” Marty nodded. “Girls find ‘em romantic. Then you just keep complimenting her throughout the evening. Tell her – tell her destiny brought you together. Tell her she is the most beautiful girl you’ve ever seen in the world.” He smiled. “Girls like that stuff.”
“Should I be writing this down?” Victor asked, only half-joking. He reached up and tugged at his tie. “Oh, dear, I’m going to make a mess of this. . . .”
“Victor.” Marty put a hand on his shoulder again. “Relax, okay? You’ve talked to her before. You can do it again. It’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Dates are not half as scary as you’re making them out to be. Especially when you’re going out with someone you really love. Or even someone you actually know, in your case.”
“You’re never going to let go of the fact my parents engaged me to a woman sight unseen, are you?”
“Never,” Marty confirmed. “Anyway – anything else you want to know?”
“Everything else,” Victor said with a slight groan. “What do I do after dinner?”
“Anything you want to,” Marty shrugged. “Take her dancing?”
“I’m terrible at d-dancing. I always end up tripping over m-my own feet.”
“Then just take her on a walk. Walks are always nice. Or go to the theater. Visit one of the public labs. Do anything you want to, just make sure to get her back home by her curfew.”
“Yes, of course,” Victor nodded. “H-how do I treat her aunt and uncle? I mean, besides respectfully. Do I talk about anything in p-particular, or--”
“Compliment them on something about their home,” Marty said knowledgeably. “That’s what I did when I first met Mr. Parker. Made talking to him a lot easier. Let ‘em brag, and they’ll fall in love with you.”
Victor nodded, making sure he had all of this safely filed away in his brain. “Thank you so much. I-I’m sorry if I’m c-coming off a nervous wreck, but--”
“But you are a nervous wreck,” Marty completed, reaching over to pat Victor on the shoulder. “We’re all nervous wrecks on a first date, okay? Alice is just as wound up as you, I bet.”
“Alice? Wound up?”
“Yeah. Being really good at killing monsters doesn’t do much for your social life. She’s somebody I can understand never having a date.” Marty paused, thinking about that for a moment. “I, uh, didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“I know,” Victor said. He put a hand to his forehead. “I just want this to go well. I just – I thought for sure I would never have a chance at this, and now I do, and I’m – t-terrified.”
“You’ll be okay,” Marty stressed. “Just think – once you get past this, it’s all smooth sailing.”
“Is it really?”
“Hey, me and Jennifer have been together for four years with no problems. It really does get easier, trust me.”
“What’s going on up here?”
Doc came up to join them, wiping his hand on his coat. “I heard you two talking – what’s all the fuss about?”
“Victor’s got himself a date!” Marty proudly announced. “Turns out Alice likes him!”
“Really? Well, congratulations!” Doc shook his hand. “When’s the event?”
“Tomorrow at eight,” Victor reported. “Do you have any advice for me?”
“Oh, don’t look at me for relationship advice,” Doc said with a laugh. “I told you before – I haven’t dated in years, and I’ve only ever had two girlfriends. Science is my one abiding love.” He smirked at Victor. “I suspect I’m more confused on the subject than you are.”
“That’s not encouraging,” Victor told him, grimacing. “And you must know more than me, if you’ve had t-two girlfriends.”
“I doubt it – the first was only interested in me for my family fortune, and broke it off the same day my father disowned me,” Doc said, some bitterness creeping into his voice. “And the second both tried to get me to compromise my principles and was cheating on me throughout the relationship, so. . . .”
“Jeez, am I the only one here who has halfway decent parents and a halfway decent love life?” Marty said, looking between Doc and Victor. “I’m serious – you two seem to be in a contest over whose life can suck the most.”
“My life hasn’t really, as you put it, ‘sucked’ all that much,” Doc told his friend. “Yes, I’ve had some nasty events in my past, but it’s balanced out by all the amazing things I’ve done.” He grinned, and added, “And making you two as friends does make up for a lot.”
“I can’t say I led anything but a privileged life,” Victor said. “L-lonely, perhaps, but I’m certainly not suffering.” He smiled too. “But I agree with Doc’s statement as well.”
“Well, I’m glad I met you two too – it seems you need me to be the normal one,” Marty joked. “But back to Victor’s date – don’t worry so much. I know that’s like asking you to not breathe, but give it a go, okay?”
“You’re with someone who actually appreciates you, if nothing else,” Doc added. “You’re sure to have a much better time of it than I did.”
“Thank you,” Victor said, unable to keep from playing with his tie a little. “I do hope things go well.”
“Just remember – when in doubt, go for the compliment,” Marty said. “And keep her away from Snarks.”
Victor chuckled. “I believe I can do that.”
“Excuse me! I need a bit of help carrying all this up to the front!” a voice called from the back rows.
“All right, boys, back to work,” Doc said, clapping his hands. “I’ll be there in just a moment, sir!” He disappeared into the back again.
Victor hesitated a moment before following him. “Do you really think it’ll be a good date?”
“Victor, sometimes you just gotta trust in God and hope for the best,” Marty said. “Go help Doc and get your mind off it for now. You got plenty of time to get all your worrying done.”
Victor glanced out the window of the cab. “Is this it?”
“1026 Tenniel Street,” the cabdriver confirmed.
Victor looked again at the house, feeling his stomach trying to tie itself up in knots. The house itself was typical of most houses he’d seen, painted a cheery yellow with a dark grey roof. There were a few bushes out front, along with some currently empty flower beds. Victor imagined they were quite lovely in the summer, when things were blooming. A neatly-kept gravel path wound its way up to the door. All in all, the house looked rather inviting to guests.
But I’m not a guest – I’m a suitor, Victor thought, getting out of the cab clutching the lilies he’d bought earlier. Oh, God, I hope they like me. Please, please don’t let me make a bad first impression. He started pulling at his tie with his free hand, then realized what he was doing and straightened it out again. “Please wait here – I shouldn’t be long,” he told the driver.
“Makes no nevermind to me,” the man said with a nod. “Good luck in there.”
“Thank you.” Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Victor proceeded up the path and knocked on the front door.
There was a moment’s silence, then the door opened to reveal a young maid. “Good evening,” Victor said politely. “My name is Victor Van Dort. I’m here to call on Miss A-Miss Liddell.”
“Does sir have a calling card?” the maid asked innocently.
Victor felt his cheeks heat with embarrassment. Oh damn, he hadn’t even thought about that! Before, he’d always gone visiting with his parents, and his father carried the cards when they were necessary. And things were so much more informal here in Secundus that he’d never considered having any made. “I – I’m afraid I don’t,” he stammered.
“It’s all right, Isabelle!” a male voice said from inside. “We’re expecting him!”
The maid nodded and opened the door a little wider. “Please, come in,” she said, all politeness.
“Thank you.” Victor stepped over the threshold into the front parlor. It was nicely decorated, with little vases and other knick-knacks scattered about, and an expensive-looking rug on the floor. A forty-ish man with thick black hair and matching mustache and beard was waiting for him by the doorway. He extended a hand to Victor, smiling. “Charles Liddell,” he introduced himself. “It’s a pleasure to meet you at last, Master Van Dort.”
“Likewise, Mr. Liddell,” Victor said, shaking. He hoped his hands didn’t feel too clammy. “Do forgive me for not calling earlier, I just – well, w-we always seemed to m-meet at the hat shop. . . .”
“Think nothing of it,” Mr. Liddell said. “It took us a couple of weeks to get a proper introduction to most of her other friends as well. I have to say, it’s a pleasant surprise to have a gentleman calling on her in this capacity. Susan had tried to find her suitors before, but very few people seemed to want to even be introduced to our niece. And those that did. . . .” Mr. Liddell sighed and shook his head. “Let’s just say they were hardly proper matches for her.”
Victor felt an uncharacteristic burst of anger. Why were some people so close-minded? (A small voice reminded him of the incident with the knife and the Snark on his and Alice’s second meeting, but Victor thought not everyone could have met her in the act of killing a monster.) “Their loss, I say, if that’s not too forward,” he replied. “Your niece is a wonderful young lady.”
Mr. Liddell’s smile brightened. “I’m glad you think so. We’d despaired of her ever finding someone she loved.” He gestured toward the door. “Come, let’s wait in the hall. Alice and my wife Susan should be down very shortly.”
Victor nodded and followed him through the door. He felt like he should be making conversation, but his mind was coming up blank. Frantically, he racked it for topics for small talk. Remember what Marty said – let them brag, and they’ll fall in love with you. “Er – Alice m-mentioned once you were a solicitor. . . ?”
“Yes – I deal with a lot of the real estate matters in Secundus and the surrounding areas,” Mr. Liddell said. “It’s interesting work, especially in a city like this.”
“I’m sure it is,” Victor agreed. Curious, he added, “How many T-Touched do you get in your offices?”
“Not too many,” Mr. Liddell said. “Fortunately for us, they seem to behave themselves when it comes to looking for laboratory space. Though many of them desperately want to buy castles, and get upset if we tell them there’s just not enough to go around.”
“Castles?” Victor repeated, arching an eyebrow. “Do they all aspire to be Lady Heterodyne? Or Baron Frankenstein?”
“It seems to be important to their ‘look,’” Mr. Liddell said, rolling his eyes. “Apparently, the only way one can do ‘proper’ Mad Science – and doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron? – is to do it in the dungeons of a castle, with lightning flashing outside.”
“And with a chemistry set filled with colored liquids set up on one of the benches,” Victor put in, amused.
“And a Jacob’s ladder sparking in the corner,” Mr. Liddell nodded, smiling. “Sometimes I think the reason we’re not overrun with more Inventions than we already are is because too many Touched focus on the appearance on their laboratories and not on experimenting.”
Victor chuckled. “Considering it probably keeps us from having to deal with a fresh disaster every week, perhaps it’s a good thing.”
Any further conversation was cut off by the appearance of two female figures at the top of the stairs. “Oh! You must be Victor,” the one in front said, hurrying down. She looked to be about the same age as Mr. Liddell, with her blond hair done up in tight curls. She extended a gloved hand, beaming. “I’m Susan Liddell. It’s wonderful to meet you at last.”
“It’s v-very nice to meet you too, Mrs. Liddell,” Victor said, shaking politely. “Your niece has told me many good things about you.”
“Has she? I’m glad. Alice, dear, hurry down. You don’t want to keep Master Van Dort waiting.”
Victor turned to greet Alice as she came down the stairs – only for his breath to catch in his throat. Alice looked gorgeous. She was attired in a more formal gown than the sort he was used to seeing her in, done in a brilliant blue with short lacy sleeves and lace accents at the neck. The skirt reached to about her ankles, and was embroidered along the hem with rabbits and flowers. She’d traded her black buckled boots for white ones that buttoned up, and she was wearing a pair of striped blue and white wristlets (Victor would have called them gloves, except that they had no fingers). Her lips were redder than usual – lipstick? – and her dark auburn hair was swept up into an elegant ponytail, held in place with a blue hair ribbon. Goodness. And a creature like that wants to be seen with me. How lucky am I?
She smiled at him as she reached the landing. “Hello.”
“Hello,” Victor said, finally letting out the breath. “Goodness, Alice, you – you look beautiful.”
Alice blushed, looking unusually shy. “Thank you. You’re quite handsome yourself.”
Victor felt his own cheeks heat. Him? Handsome? He was wearing one of his better suits, yes, and he’d polished his goggles especially for the occasion, but – handsome? “T-thank you.” He remembered himself and held out the lilies. “I – ah – f-for you.”
Alice accepted them, running a finger over the white petals. “Thank you.”
Mrs. Liddell clapped her hands. “Oh, isn’t this just lovely?” she said. “I’m sure you two want to be off, so we won’t keep you. Isabelle, take the flowers and put them in some water, will you please?”
“Where are you dining?” Mr. Liddell asked as Alice gave her bouquet to the maid.
“The Roofless,” Victor replied. “Marty h-helped me get tickets.”
“Ah, Lockwood’s restaurant. We’ve been there – excellent place. Short meals, but good filling food.” He held out his hand again. “We’ll be expecting you back no later than midnight.”
Victor swallowed – there was a firmness to Mr. Liddell’s grip that hadn’t been there before. And his face was just a bit sterner. “Of c-course, sir,” he said, stiffening his spine slightly and trying to look the part of careful and courteous suitor.
It must have worked, because Mr. Liddell smiled again. “Well then, have a good time, you two.”
“Thank you, Uncle Charles,” Alice said, giving her uncle a hug. “I’ll be home by midnight, I promise.” She turned to Victor. “Shall we be off?”
“Yes,” Victor said, offering her his arm. She took it. “V-very nice meeting you both,” he said to Mr. and Mrs. Liddell, doing his best to smile. “Have a l-lovely evening.”
“You as well,” Mrs. Liddell said, grinning to beat the band. “Good night.”
Victor nodded, then led Alice out of the house. He let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding as they went up the front path. “Do you think I made a good impression?” he asked nervously.
Alice laughed. “Victor, you could have been a fire-breathing dragon, and I think Aunt Susan at least would have welcomed you warmly,” she said. “She’s been desperate for me to find a real gentleman caller for ages now. She doesn’t think it at all proper for a young Liddell lady to end up a spinster.” She sighed. “I’m just glad she never stumbled across the arranged marriage idea. That would have been intolerable to me.”
“I imagine she would have l-let you meet your – your i-intended beforehand though, at least,” Victor tried to joke, fiddling with his tie.
“Yes, I suppose I would have had that going for me,” Alice allowed. Then she smiled up at him. “But I prefer things turning out the way they have. Seriously, Victor, they quite liked you. I knew they would.”
Victor smiled, relieved. “I’m glad. I really w-wanted to leave a good first impression. I’ve never quite had the chance before.”
“Never?” Alice said in surprise.
“No.” Victor opened the cab door and gave Alice a hand in. “The Roofless, if you please,” he told the driver before getting in himself.
Alice regarded Victor curiously as they started off. “You’ve never been out with a girl before?”
“Not like this – being p-popular with girls is a very new development exclusive to Secundus,” he said, blushing fiercely. “At home, the m-most I ever did with a young lady was ask her for a d-dance at a ball. Once or twice I’ve managed a w-walk around the square. Going on a full-fledged d-date is just as new to me as it is to you.”
“I see.” Alice smiled and put her hand on his. Victor felt a curiously pleasant shiver go down his spine at the contact. “Well, we can learn about this together then.”
Victor smiled back at her. “There’s no one I’d rather be my companion in this.”
They spent the cab ride over engaged in simple small talk, telling each other about their day (Aunt Susan, it appeared, had filled a similar role for Alice as Marty had for Victor) and just enjoying each other’s company. Eventually, though, the cab slowed to a stop outside a large dark blue building. “Here you are,” the driver called from his seat. “The Roofless.”
Victor looked at the restaurant. It was larger than he thought it had been when he’d flown over it – or maybe that was a simple trick of perspective. Despite the dark color of the exterior, the entire place seemed to glow from the soft light spilling out of the open roof. There was a brilliant white sign above the entrance, proclaiming the name to all and sundry – and there were plenty of sundries to read it. The line stretching out of the front doors was the longest he’d ever seen for a restaurant, and he’d been to some very highly-regarded eateries. Still, a line like that was a good sign, right? “I hope you don’t mind a bit of a wait,” he said to Alice, indicating the people.
“Not at all – the hungrier we are for the food, the better it’ll taste,” Alice joked. “All the same, though, we’d better get in that line posthaste.”
“I agree.” They got out of the cab, took a moment to pay the driver, then hurried to the back of the line. Victor double-checked his pocket to make sure he had the tickets – now he could see why they were necessary. “I didn’t think it would be this busy,” he remarked, standing on tiptoe to try and estimate how many people were in front of them.
Alice shrugged. “Apparently it’s the most popular eatery in Secundus and the adjoining countryside. Probably because of the novelty value – how many places do you know of where your food literally rains down from the sky?”
“I’ve been wondering about that,” Victor admitted. “How exactly does that work? I’ve personally seen how high the machine is. Wouldn’t food falling from that height break all the plates?”
“That’s why all the plates are steel,” a voice in front of them said. Victor turned to see a young man with red hair and green eyes grinning awkwardly up at them. He was dressed rather unusually in a green tunic and fur vest, and his left leg below the knee was metal rather than flesh. Victor felt a wave of sympathy for the boy – he didn’t look much older than fifteen. Standing next to him was a girl about the same age, with bright blond hair and piercing blue eyes. She was also dressed in a fur vest, though her tunic was blue, and she wore a leather skirt with spikes on it underneath. “Sorry to butt in, but the owner is a friend of mine, so I know a lot of how it all works,” the young man continued.
“Oh, not at all,” Victor said. “I’m Victor Van Dort, and this is Miss Alice Liddell.”
“Hiccup Haddock, and this is Astrid Hofferson,” the young man said, holding out a hand to shake. “Van Dort. . .you’re not related to the Van Dort cannery people, are you? I think my island sometimes sends fish your way, when we’ve got some to spare.”
“My father’s the owner,” Victor said, quietly amazed his parents would deign to buy fish from a bunch of Vikings who owned dragons. Then again, if there was one thing his father cared about more than society, it was the fish business. Perhaps profit trumped prejudice in this case. “I’m working with Dr. Emmett Brown and his assistant in his shop now.”
“You and yours are the dragon riders, aren’t you?” Alice asked curiously. “I’ve seen you flying over town before.”
“That’s us,” Astrid confirmed. “We’re on the mainland for a few weeks to trade and buy a few supplies.” She gave Hiccup’s arm a light, playful punch. “He owed me a real date as well. Been trying to get him to take me out for a month.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault there’s no restaurants on Berk,” Hiccup protested as he rubbed his arm, though he was smiling. “Besides, your idea of a good date is usually two rounds in the old dragon training ring.”
“That is a good date! I’m just not opposed to something a little more romantic every once in a while.”
“Romantic is food raining from the sky?”
“Worked for Sam and Flint – you told me so yourself.”
“We’re on our first date here ourselves,” Victor said, chuckling softly at their behavior. They rather reminded him of himself and Alice. “I do hope the food is good.”
“Oh yeah, best in the world,” Hiccup said loyally. “You’re in for a great night.”
Despite its length, the line moved fairly quickly. After just a few minutes, Victor and Alice found themselves near the front. There was a young blonde woman with glasses and a rather short man with a hat that covered his eyes standing in the doorway, greeting people and showing them to their tables. “Hiccup! Astrid! Great to see you again!” the lady said as the couple in front of them approached the podium just inside the door. Victor recognized her voice as that of the “Sam” on the radio.
“Good to see you too, Sam,” Hiccup grinned. “How are you and Flint?”
“Oh, doing well,” Sam said, consulting a list. “We’ve got you a table right by the window, come on. . . .” She led them off, still chatting happily.
The man approached Victor and Alice, looking up at them (or, at least giving the impression that he was). “My name is Manny,” he introduced himself. “Your party, please?”
“Van Dort, two,” Victor said, presenting the tickets.
Manny examined them – how exactly he saw them was a mystery lost to the ages. After a moment, he nodded. “These are in order. Let me bring you to your table.” He picked up two menus from the podium and headed into the busy restaurant.
Victor and Alice trailed close behind. The inside of the restaurant was decorated in silver and blue, with long rows of tables and chairs. Victor noted with surprise that the main source of light appeared to be the tables themselves – they seemed to have special lamps embedded in them which made them glow. Glancing up, he saw the stars twinkling above them in the dark sky. He stared for a few moments, enthralled. It was an absolutely lovely view.
Perhaps a bit too lovely, he thought a moment later, as he banged his shins into the unoccupied table Manny had led them to. He hissed in pain, resisting the urge to say a rude word.
Alice looked at him in concern. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Victor said, although it was a bit of a lie. He could deal with the pain in his legs – he’d walked into plenty of things in his nineteen years. He just wished he hadn’t done so in front of Alice. He didn’t think mindlessly stumbling into the table made for a good start to the date. Ignoring the fading ache, he pulled Alice’s chair out for her.
Alice sat, still eying him a bit suspiciously. “Really, I’m fine,” he assured her, taking his own seat. “I just wish I h-hadn’t gotten distracted like that. It’s just such a pretty night. . . .” His gaze went skyward for a moment again, before he remembered that he should probably be keeping his eyes on Alice and not the stars. “N-not that you’re not p-pretty too! And I r-really shouldn’t be watching the s-sky like that I d-don’t mean to I’m just – I’ll be quiet,” he cut himself off, realizing he was starting to babble.
Manny was somehow giving him a soul-searching gaze under the brim of his hat. “First date?” he guessed, looking at Alice.
“Yes, and he’s more nervous that he ought to be,” Alice said, reaching out and taking his hand. “Calm down, silly. It is a lovely view.” She looked up at the night sky, then back down. “I don’t think we have to spend the entire time staring at each other.”
“I – yes,” Victor said, feeling foolish. How could Alice be so poised and calm? What was she doing, going out on a date with him? Why on earth did she like him the way she did? He didn’t like him most of the time. How on earth had he managed to attract the attention of the beautiful, sweet, somewhat dangerous Alice Liddell?
He noticed that Alice was frowning at him. Victor stiffened. Oh God, what had he done wrong this time? Had she spoken and he not heard? “Y-yes?” he dared to ask.
“You’ve got that lost puppy look again,” she informed him. (He had a lost puppy look?) “The same one I saw in the store yesterday, when your mother--” She stopped, her frown deepening. “Is something wrong? You seemed all right in the carriage.”
Manny quietly put the menus in front of them and slipped away, leaving them to whatever privacy they had in the busy restaurant. Victor looked down at the list of food in front of him, wondering what exactly he wanted to say. “I – I’m terrified I’m going to ruin this,” he finally admitted softly. “Being in the r-restaurant makes this all m-more – real, I suppose. I don’t want to be clumsy or say the wrong thing or. . . .”
Alice squeezed his hand. “This is my first time too, remember? Just because you walked into a table doesn’t mean the date’s an automatic failure.” She sighed. “I just hate seeing you look so – depressed. You’ve got the nicest smile.”
Victor found himself blushing (did he have to do that every time she paid him a compliment?). She liked his smile? Really? “I think yours is nicer,” he replied, looking up at her. “I’m sorry, I just. . .you know how my n-nerves tend to get the better of me.”
Alice smirked a little. “Yes, I do. With that in mind, I’m surprised you ever bothered to look twice at me.”
What? What was she saying? “How could I not?” he said, astonished. “Alice, from the moment I saw you, I just – Marty says that when you m-meet the right girl, it hits you like lightning. I swear, when my eyes first met yours, I felt that.”
Now it was Alice’s turn to blush. “Really? Most people get – intimidated. You seemed intimidated, frankly.”
“Maybe just a bit,” Victor allowed, then grinned. “But then again, we d-did have that staring contest on our second meeting. After you killed that snark.”
Alice smiled. “Yeah. I like our staring contests.”
Which was good, Victor reflected, because they seemed on the verge of another one, holding hands and smiling at each other across the table. Not that he minded in the slightest. He felt like he could look into those brilliant green eyes forever. Goodness, how did I end up so lucky?
“Hey folks! Got any ideas on what to order yet, or should I give you some more time?”
A little startled, Victor looked up to see a young man with wild brown hair standing by their table, grinning and fiddling with some sort of remote control that occasionally let off a little hiss of steam. “Oh! Er, hello,” Victor said, belatedly remembering that they’d come to the restaurant to actually eat. “We haven’t really looked at the m-menu yet. . . .”
“No problem, just coming over to check,” the man said. “It’s a busy one tonight, and I want to make sure everyone gets fed.”
“Mr. Lockwood? We’re ready to order,” a voice called nearby.
“Oops, duty calls! Just yell if you need me,” the man said, spinning so that his labcoat billowed out behind him. “On my way! Do-do-dodododo. . . .”
Victor watched him leave with a curious expression. “Mr. Lockwood?” he repeated softly. “Oh my – is that the owner? He looks rather young.”
“That’s Flint Lockwood, yes,” Alice confirmed, glancing behind her before picking up her menu. “Did you expect him to be older?”
“Well, a bit,” Victor admitted, looking over his own menu. A long list of foods marched down the length of the page, each with a price and a small description praising its value. “You’d expect that of a successful restauranteur, wouldn’t you?”
“Maybe,” Alice said. “I’ve taken to never assuming anything about anyone. You’re too likely to be proven wrong, especially here.”
“That’s very true,” Victor allowed, running his finger down the list. What sounded good tonight. . . . “Do you know what you’re having?”
“The spaghetti and meatballs sounds good,” Alice said, tapping its entry on the menu. “Having trouble deciding?”
“I’m just not sure what it is I want, precisely,” Victor admitted. “Only that it won’t be fish.”
“I seem to recall you saying you’d kill for a steak once,” Alice said, grinning mischievously. “Would you settle for merely ordering one?”
Victor chuckled. “I think I would,” he said. “With a baked potato and stewed carrots on the side, I think.” He glanced up in the sky and spotted the food-making machine. “I do wonder how it works.”
“I’m not sure, but it must be terribly complicated,” Alice commented, looking up too. “Not only does it have to make the food, it also has to cook it. And deliver it to earth in edible condition.” She shrugged. “But it does its job well. I’ve eaten here before, and the food is quite good.”
“So I’ve heard many times. I’m quite looking forward to it by now.”
Something chose that moment to bump into Victor’s chair. “Ow,” a mechanical voice said near his left leg. Victor looked down to see a brown monkey with golden eyes sitting there. Around its forehead was a multicolored band, which connected to an odd device hung around its neck that looked a bit like a small telephonic. It stared at him as it rubbed its head. “Er, hello there,” Victor said, wondering what a monkey was doing in a restaurant. “Where did you come from?”
“Steve!” the monkey “said,” climbing up the chair to sit on Victor’s shoulders.
Victor turned to try and look at it. “Um – Victor?” he tried, pointing at himself.
The monkey – Steve? – watched the motion carefully, then looked at Victor. Then it grinned and threw its paws in the air. “Steve!”
“You tried,” Alice said, holding a hand over her mouth to hide her giggles.
“He must belong to someone – no, I do not need to be groomed,” Victor said as the monkey began rooting through his hair.
“Steve! There you are!”
Mr. Lockwood returned and scooped the monkey off Victor’s shoulders. “Sorry about that, he likes to wander,” he said as Steve made himself comfortable on Mr. Lockwood’s neck.
“You let your monkey into your restaurant?” Victor said, smoothing his hair back down.
“Isn’t like he can get into the kitchen,” Mr. Lockwood pointed out with a smile. “Made up your minds yet?”
“Actually, yes,” Alice said. “I’ll have the spaghetti and meatballs, with a light salad – no dressing, please.”
“I’ll have the steak, well-done, with a baked potato and stewed carrots,” Victor nodded.
“Tasty,” Steve said, scratching the fur on his head.
“Right you are, Steve,” Mr. Lockwood said, tapping some buttons on his little remote. “Only the best for our guests. You can just give the menus to me or Steve, by the way.”
“You know, perhaps it’s rude of me, but I need to know – why do you have a menu?” Victor said as he and Alice handed them over. “Can’t your – food machine make any sort of food at all?”
“Yeah, but when we tried it without menus, people never made up their minds,” Mr. Lockwood said, punching in the last of the order. “I think it confuses them to come to a restaurant and not get a menu. Besides, it also helps prevent overordering. That’s a big problem.”
“I’ve – ah – heard,” Victor said awkwardly, remembering what Marty had mentioned the other day.
“Oh, someone told you about Swallow Falls?” Now it was Mr. Lockwood’s turn to look awkward. “I never meant for it to get that out of hand – just that everyone was so happy, and I finally felt I was doing something useful for my hometown. . . .” He smiled again. “But it’s okay now! We stopped the food from destroying the entire island and maybe the world, they paid for my ticket over here, and now Sam uses her weather monitor to make sure that we don’t have any issues with the FLDSMDFR Version 2.0!”
“The – what?”
“The FLDSMDFR!” Mr. Lockwood repeated obligingly. Victor marveled at his ability to perfectly pronounce a word that seemed to have no vowels.
“He means the machine that makes the food,” Alice provided, seeing her date was rather lost. “Most people tend to call it the ‘Foodster.’”
“Foodster?!” Mr. Lockwood looked almost insulted. “That’s hardly a proper name for my machine! What does it even mean, anyway?”
“What does – Flu-des-mud--” Victor attempted, trying vainly to get his tongue to wrap around the collection of consonants.
“FLDSMDFR,” Mr. Lockwood provided. “It’s short for Flint Lockwood’s Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator.”
“I see,” Victor said. “You have to admit, that’s a bit of a mouthful – um, no pun intended.”
“That’s why I shortened it to--”
“SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS!”
“Ah, there’s your order! Your steak should be along momentarily,” Flint said as the machine moved into position above them.
Victor watched as something came spiraling out of the hatch on the bottom of the – Replicator. As it got closer, he realized with amusement that it was a little tornado of spaghetti noodles, sauce, and meatballs. Alice held up her plate, collecting the noodles in a lump. Next came the salad leaves, drifting down gently onto her plate, and a short rain of carrot, cucumber, and tomato slices. A moment later, the Replicator announced, “STEAK,” and dropped a large hunk of meat right onto Victor’s plate. The table vibrated a little as it hit – Victor was suddenly very glad the plates were steel and not ceramic. A moment later, there was a little rain of carrots, and then finally the potato, which split open as it hit the plate and scattered bits of itself everywhere. “Whoops – sorry about that,” Mr. Lockwood said, grabbing a spare napkin from his labcoat pocket and cleaning up the mess. Steve snatched it from him once he was done and proceeded to eat the crumbs. “I’ll have to recalibrate the drop zone, I think.”
“It’s all right,” Victor said, too amused by the method of delivery to be even slightly upset. “Thank you very much.”
“Oh, you’re quite welcome! Call me back when you want dessert!” Mr. Lockwood sped away to another table, humming to himself again.
Alice chuckled. “So, having fun yet?”
“How could I not?” Victor said, picking up his knife and fork and trying the meat. It proved to be cooked to perfection. “A restaurant where food falls from the sky. . .it’s too wonderful. Does he really believe everyone can pronounce that acronym of his?” he added as Alice began tucking into her salad.
“Probably,” Alice said. “He’s like Lewis in that respect. Though, at least with Lewis one can pronounce ‘Pishalver’ and ‘Upelkuchen.’ I think the only one to ever get the ‘Foodster’s’ real name right is Mr. Lockwood’s fiancee.”
“Perhaps that’s proof that they’re meant for each other,” Victor said, moving on to a bit of baked potato. It too was perfectly prepared, with a still-warm pat of butter in the middle.
“It could be,” Alice allowed. “I wouldn’t know much about the subject. Romance is an unfamiliar subject for me.” Then she winced. “Of course, you already know all about that.”
Victor felt instantly horrible for bringing the subject up. “Oh, do forgive me--”
“No, it’s fine,” Alice said. “I’m facing my problems head-on, remember? We probably should talk about it.”
Victor wasn’t sure if this was appropriate first-date conversation. On the other hand, though, he did have a question. He picked at his carrots for a bit, wondering how to phrase it. “Y-you said before you had a bit of a – c-complex over loving someone,” he started cautiously. “But – am I r-really the only boy you’ve ever – s-shown interest in?”
“That depends if you count my childhood crush on Reginald Hargreaves,” Alice said with a little smile. More seriously, she continued, “But yes, I think you are. Not just because I’ve been – hesitant, let’s say, to actually fall in l-love. It’s because every man who’s attempted to court me has acted so – rude about it.”
Victor recalled what Mr. Liddell had told him before, about no one being a proper match for Alice before him. “If you don’t mind my asking, how so?” he said, quietly baffled by the idea that anyone would dare be rude to Alice.
“They acted as if they were doing me a favor by even deigning to look at me,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. “The poor mad girl who spent so much of her life in the asylum. Surely they were being great humanitarians by considering me to be their obedient little wife. Of course, I would naturally have to retire my blade and stop working in that horrid little hat shop. And I could never, ever tell anyone important I’d been in bedlam.”
Victor grimaced. “They sound wonderful,” he said, letting sarcasm drip off every word.
“They managed to annoy even Aunt Susan, who was desperate to find me a husband,” Alice nodded, practically attacking her salad. “I mentioned she was terrified of me ending up alone in the world, didn’t I? She means well, though – she just wants someone to look after me should – should the worst happen. I feel like I can look after myself, though. I’d fully prepared myself for the life of a spinster.” She paused, looking down at the leaves of lettuce. “I think I’d half-convinced myself it was better that way. Nobody could get hurt if I spent my years alone.”
“You made friends,” Victor pointed out softly.
“Not quite the same thing,” Alice said. “It’s someone living with me that worries me. Even now, I sometimes have to get up and check all the fireplaces and lamps and candles to make sure nothing’s going to try and claim Aunt Susan and Uncle Charles.” She sighed and ate her lettuce. “So yes, between me worrying about the consequences and not finding any boys to my liking, I was content to believe I would be an old maid.” She grinned a little. “I used to kid Richard, ‘You need to marry and produce children somehow. Then I can be mad Aunt Alice, who makes up stories and claims she’s an old maid because she’s waiting for a prince to renounce his throne so he can marry her.’”
Victor laughed. “I’m sorry to ruin that.”
“If anyone was going to ruin that, it may as well be you. Besides, I didn’t think it was ever going to come to pass. Except now that Richard’s getting quite enamored with Emily. . . .” Alice thoughtfully stabbed a meatball. “Do you have a kingdom you can renounce? I can still be mad Aunt Alice as long as I have the prince.”
“The only kingdom I’m a heir to is a kingdom of fish,” Victor said. “But I’ll gladly renounce it.”
“Your hatred of seafood absolutely fascinates me. It’s the last thing you’d expect from the son of a successful cannery owner.”
“I believe I mentioned I’ve been having fish as a main course at meals for nineteen years. Imagine eating so much of it for that long and tell me you wouldn’t be desperate for a change.” Victor decisively cut himself a fresh hunk of steak. “Of course, my father would lynch me for expressing such a sentiment.”
“Not your mother? Forgive me for saying so, but she seems the one more suited for that sort of business.”
Victor shook his head. “Usually she is, but Father’s the one who cares about the fish business. Mother often complains that she deserves better than a fish merchant’s life.”
Alice arched an eyebrow. “So why did she marry a fish merchant?”
“I don’t know. I – I suppose they must love each other. Maybe. Deep down.” Victor stared at his piece of steak for a moment. “It occurs to me I don’t know that m-much about my parents.”
“What surprises me is how someone as – opinionated as your mother could have produced you,” Alice confessed. “I can see the physical resemblance between you and your father, at least. But you and Mrs. Van Dort seem to have nothing in common.”
“I know,” Victor nodded. “Sometimes I wonder that myself.” He sighed before having some more potato.
Alice shook her head. “We shouldn’t be talking about this, not on our first date. We can discuss your parents any time. Let’s try and find more pleasant conversation.”
“Do I look like a lost puppy again?” Victor said, half-jokingly.
“Yes, actually,” Alice replied. “I don’t like seeing you like that – don’t apologize, you apologize for everything and you don’t need to,” she added as he opened his mouth.
Victor struggled for an answer that did not include the phrase “I’m sorry” for a moment. “It’s – how I was raised, more or less,” he settled on.
“I’m not surprised.” She looked him up and down for a moment. “And again I wonder how someone like you could love Secundus so much.”
Victor grinned. “Well, I do have a horrible habit of hiding penny dreadfuls under my mattress. . . .”
“You? Penny dreadfuls?” Alice giggled. “Your mother let you read those?”
“No, but it didn’t stop me,” Victor said proudly. “Not even after she caught me with one and threw it away. I – I just loved the stories. Adventure, action, derring-do. . .I suppose I’ve always wanted a bit of that in my life. And when my foot got caught in that ladder, suddenly I had it, and – I didn’t want to let go.”
Alice leaned on her hand, smiling at him. “You’re a man of hidden depths, aren’t you Master Van Dort?”
“Either that, or I’m just mad, as Cheshire has said,” Victor smirked, getting another laugh out of her.
They fell silent for a short time after that, just enjoying the food and each other’s company. Words seemed rather unnecessary to the warm camaraderie they shared. They eventually drifted back into conversation, though. Alice shared with him the news that Lewis had created fresh batches of Drink Me potion and Eat Me cake. “And the chess and card peoples are both rather eager to meet you – and Victoria and Emily besides,” she reported as they finished off their dinners. “Christopher’s had lady friends before, but none as serious as Victoria. And Richard. . .well, I always pegged him for an eternal bachelor, despite my teasing.”
“Just like you thought yourself a spinster?” Victor said.
“Exactly. Your tendency to make friends wherever you go has completely disrupted our social order,” Alice joked.
“My deepest apologies,” Victor joked back. “May I make it up to you by buying you dessert?”
“I’m not usually one for sweets, but I’ll admit to a fondness for white cake with strawberries,” Alice said with a sly smile.
“I’m a chocolate person myself,” Victor said with a grin. “But I’m sure the Replicator can handle both orders. Mr. Lockwood?”
After a moment’s wait, Mr. Lockwood arrived, and the requested pieces of cake (with glasses of milk) were delivered. The cake proved to be just as good as the rest of the food, moist with deliciously rich icing. “If you don’t mind me saying so, I can see why people would be tempted to overorder,” he confessed to Manny when the little man gave them their bill.
Manny smiled slightly under his mustache. “It is wonderful food,” he says. “But fighting gummy bears gremlins in the sky once was enough for me.”
“Gummy bears?!” Steve cried excitedly, leaping onto Manny’s cap.
“No, no! No gummy bears,” Mr. Lockwood said, rushing over and shaking a finger at the monkey. “We know how you get.” Steve copied the motion as he turned to the diners with a grin. “Have a good meal?”
“Oh, excellent,” Victor said. “Thank you so much, Mr. Lockwood.”
“Oh, come on, call me Flint,” Mr. Lockwood grinned. “No need to be so formal.”
“All right – thank you Flint.”
“You’re welcome! You two have a wonderful rest of the evening.”
“Gummy bears!” Steve yelled again, bouncing on Manny’s head.
“No! Excuse me, I have go calm him down,” Mr. Lockwood said, shaking his head as he picked up Steve. “I don’t care what Hiccup says, Toothless cannot get into more trouble than this guy. . . .”
“A good evening to you!” Victor called after him.
“And good luck with Steve!” Alice added with a small titter. “Though now I’m curious as to what happens when he gets around gummy bears. . . .”
“It’s not a sight for a weak stomach,” Manny said.
“We’ll pass, then,” Victor said, paying the bill. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome. Have a good evening.”
Victor and Alice smiled at each other. “We certainly will.”
They exited the restaurant hand in hand. The long line from before had disappeared, leaving the street clear. Victor looked up and down it. “Er – so now what?” he asked, a bit shyly.
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “Was there any place in particular you wanted to go? We don’t have to be back for a few hours yet.”
“I know, but I’m afraid I only planned as far ahead as the dinner,” Victor admitted sheepishly. “Did you have any ideas in mind?”
Alice thought for a moment, then grinned. “Actually, I believe I do. Come on.” She tugged gently on his hand, and they proceeded up the street.
The destination she had in mind proved to be Wonderland Park. “Isn’t it closed?” Victor said, checking his pocket watch. “It is almost ten o’clock at night. Rather late for a park to be open.”
“Perhaps to the general public, but Lewis will let me in,” Alice said with a smirk. “Besides, there’s something I really want to show you.” She gently rattled the front gate. “Lewis?”
“Who’s that at the gate at this time of night?” a sleepy voice asked.
“Hush, it’s just the Alice girl.”
“The one whose petals don’t curl properly?”
“My petals suit me fine, thank you,” Alice said, frowning in the general direction of the flowerbed.
“She always reminded me of a weed,” a grumpy voice (Victor thought it belonged to a rose) muttered.
“If you don’t be civil, once I’m inside I’ll pick you.”
“That’s fine talk, coming from you. What are you doing here when all good flowers should be asleep?”
“I want to show Victor something,” Alice said, putting her arm around him. Victor felt a pleasant tingle go up his spine at the touch.
“Victor? The birch boy?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Victor said, briefly rolling his eyes. “We are sorry for disturbing you.”
“Sure you are,” the grumpy rose said. “What are you two doing?”
“We’re on a date,” Alice said, gently squeezing Victor. He put a hand on her head, letting his fingers slide through her hair. Oh, she had the most beautiful auburn locks. . . .
“A date? I don’t see any dates. Why would you be on a date, anyway? I understand your type like to eat them, not stand on them.”
“No, it means we’re out together,” Alice clarified. “Goodness, haven’t you ever heard the term before?”
“Most people don’t stop and have a proper conversation,” a tiger lily near the gate said. “Though, would this ‘date’ business explain all those couples that pass by, holding hands and suchlike?”
“Probably,” Victor said, smiling as he looked down at Alice. “And it also explains the lack of proper conversation. Most people tend to be rather – distracted.”
“I’m a fan of distraction,” Alice said, grinning back up at him.
“So am I,” he whispered. God, she looked so beautiful, even in this dim light. . . . Before he really knew what was happening, he was leaning down toward her. Alice stretched up towards him as his eyes began to close –
“DISGUSTING! How can you all stand to do that in public?”
Victor made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. Their lips couldn’t have been more than an inch apart! “Do what?” he said, opening his eyes and frowning into the dark.
“Kiss?” Alice added, also frowning.
“Is that what you call it? I suppose it makes it easier to refer to in polite company!”
“What do you call it then?” Victor demanded. “What did you think I was about to do?”
“You were about to pollinate her!”
It hit both of them at the same time. Victor felt his entire face heat up in a bright pink blush that could probably be seen from the moon. “Oh! Oh, no, it’s nothing to do with – t-t-that at all!”
“It works differently with people!” Alice added, her own face a brilliant scarlet. “We have – different bits! I’m not about to go – sprouting buds, I suppose you’d call it. . . .”
“What is going on out here?”
The small figure of Lewis, wrapped in a robe and lit by a lantern, appeared by the gate. Victor had never been so glad to see him in his life. “H-hello, Lewis,” he said, trying to smile despite his color.
“You need to teach your flowers a bit more about how humans work,” Alice muttered, giving her whole body a little shake as if to throw off her own embarrassment. “I was rather hoping you could let us in for a bit. I wanted to show Victor the steamworks.”
“Ah! Of course, my dear lady!” Lewis reached into his robe and produced a large silver key. A few clicks of metal later, the gate was opened. “The steamworks are a special treat,” he said as they stepped inside. “Though I’m surprised you didn’t come at an earlier time to see them.”
“They’re on a date,” a daisy informed him. “Though we don’t see any fruits.”
Lewis froze. “A date?” he repeated, his voice oddly distant.
“Yes, I know – shocking, isn’t it?” Alice said with a small chuckle. “No one in a million years would have guessed me going on a date, would they?”
“I – perhaps – Master Van Dort asked you?”
“Yes,” Victor said, starting to feel a little concerned. Lewis seemed to be – less than happy about this news. But why would that be? “It’s a bit of an odd story, honestly – would you like to hear it?”
Lewis looked at him for a long moment. Then, suddenly, he was himself again. “Perhaps another time,” he said, smiling. “I wouldn’t want to delay you. Go, see the steamworks. But don’t you let any harm come to Alice!”
Victor chuckled. “I think it’s more she won’t let any harm come to me,” he pointed out.
“That too. Now go on, off with you.”
Alice gave Lewis a hug. “Thank you so much. You’re a wonderful friend.”
“Yes, I know,” Lewis said, hugging her back with her free hand. Victor thought he detected something just a bit melancholy in his tone. “Go and have fun.”
“We will. Come along, Victor.” Alice grabbed his hand and started pulling him down the darkened path.
“Thank you again,” Victor said as he was yanked past Lewis. The man nodded, then proceeded to stare at them as they headed into the park proper. Victor watched him recede into the distance. “Did – did Lewis seem a bit distant there, for a bit?” he said, finally turning around.
“A little, but I suspect that was shock over me actually proving to have a romantic side,” Alice said. “It’s well-known among our circle that I’m a stranger to love.”
Victor nodded. Yes, that made more sense than it didn’t. And perhaps the late hour had something to do with it as well. Victor knew he wouldn’t be at his best if he had to entertain guests, even briefly, at ten at night. He put Lewis’s reaction out of his mind – there would be time to consider it later.
The paths through Wonderland Park were even more twisty and confusing in the dark, but Alice walked them with her usual mastery. Victor held tight to her hand, worried that if he let go, he’d soon get lost. Although he’d gone nearly everywhere in the park by this time, it looked very different in the night. Here and there he recognized a familiar landmark in the moonlight – the crying statue in the Pool of Tears, the branching trees of the Tulgey Wood, the towering hedges of the Hedge Maze. “Where are we going?” he asked after a moment, noticing they seemed to be heading away from everything he recognized.
“Into the very heart of Wonderland Park,” Alice says. “Though it’s not in the center, nor up and a little to the left as it should be. Instead, it’s all the way back over here.” She gestured in front of them. “The steamworks. Or, as we sometimes refer to them, the Towers of Air, Water, and Gears.”
Victor looked up. Stretching far above them were three slightly crooked towers of stone, set with little windows. Large vents protruded from the top of the one closest, jetting steam into the air and suspending small boulders. The one next to it had a large faucet in the side, spewing water into a little river, while the third was decorated around the top with a large gear. The air was filled with the sounds of hissing steam, gushing water, and ticking machinery. Victor vaguely knew these towers were more or less responsible for keeping Wonderland Park in operation, being the home of the massive difference engines and suchlike responsible for the constant good weather, the force fields, the slight bending of the rules of time and space, and a million other things like that. But he’d never really ventured near them before. His interests had always lay more with biological matters, and any thoughts of examining the steamworks had been chased away by the sight of a new insect or flower to study. “They’re quite tall,” he commented, for lack of anything better to say.
“That they are,” Alice agreed. “Of course, they would have to be, being as they’re the whole reason we have a Wonderland Park.” She glanced at him. “It’s funny that I’ve never seen you around them before, though. Considering who you work for.”
“I’ve picked up some things from Doc, but I don’t think I’ll ever have quite the same fascination for mechanics as I do for insects.” He walked a few paces to the left, then to the right, examining the towers from all angles. “Though I admit to feeling quite curious about this place now. What do they look like inside?”
Alice grinned widely. “Come and see,” she said, leading him to a small door set into the base of the Tower of Air. “I think you’ll like this one best.”
As he stepped inside, Victor gasped. The interior of the tower was filled with steamstacks of varying heights and sizes, exhaling great puffs of whitish air into the atmosphere. Wooden platforms and ladders crawled up and around the sides, providing perches to look at everything. Much like Wonderland Park itself, the tower seemed larger on the inside than the out – though perhaps that was just because there was so much inside of it. It all just seemed to go on forever and ever, spiraling up into a blackness lit only by a few hanging lamps. “Oh. . . .”
Alice chuckled. “Feeling a bit overwhelmed?” she inquired.
“More than a bit,” Victor murmured. “My God. . .where does it end? Does it end?”
“It must end somewhere, but even I’m not sure where,” Alice said. “Sometimes I think Lewis isn’t either. But so long as it all works. . . .” She tugged on his arm. “The view’s even better from higher up. What say you put those climbing skills of yours to work?”
The pair proceeded to scramble up the nearby ladders, advancing toward the ceiling in a slow spiral. They finally stopped about halfway up the tower, panting a bit. “Perhaps it’s not larger but taller on the inside,” Victor commented, slumping into a seated position on the platform.
“I really wouldn’t be surprised,” Alice nodded. “Lewis loves that particular twisting of reality. It’s either got to be too large or too small for him to be happy.” She sat down next to Victor, dangling her legs over the side. “Not that I can complain, however. Many of my happiest childhood memories involve me being too large or too small.”
“It’s wonderful,” Victor agreed. “The things Lewis can do. . . .” He gazed out at the vast expanse of steamstacks, all puffing away contentedly below. “The things all Touched can do. I’ve seen so many wonders here.” He leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands. “And to think, I could have missed out on all of it.”
“Amazing how fate planned it so you’d end up right where Doc’s flying train was parked,” Alice nodded. After a moment’s hesitation, she added, “Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t come here?”
“Not really, but that’s more because I think I more or less know,” Victor said, glancing at her. “I would have stayed in Burtonsville the rest of my life, taken over my father’s fish cannery. . . .” He paused, not sure he should bring the next bit up on their first date.
“Been wed to Victoria?” Alice said, relieving him of the duty.
He nodded awkwardly. “Before coming here, I’d g-given up protesting the arranged m-marriage. Mother and Father just wouldn’t listen. I was bracing myself for the worst and desperately hoping she was – nice.”
“Which she is,” Alice said, fiddling with her skirt. “You two seem to get along fine. I think you would have been happy with her.”
“Perhaps,” Victor said, then turned to look at her. “But I don’t know if I would have been quite as happy as I am with you.”
Alice smirked at him. “Is the young lady who spent eight years of her life in bedlam and is still seeing a psychiatrist really that much of a catch to you?”
Victor took her hand in his. “Yes,” he said, completely serious. “There is absolutely no one to compare with you, Alice Liddell.”
Alice blushed such a deep pink, Victor thought it was a wonder the rest of her skin didn’t turn white. “You’re going sappy on me,” she protested weakly. “I thought we weren’t going to be ridiculous.”
“And I said I don’t think one can help being ridiculous,” Victor reminded her with a smile. “And is it really so ridiculous if I mean it? You’re amazing, Alice. I don’t think my time in Secundus would have been half as wonderful if I hadn’t met you.”
Alice was still blushing. “Has anyone ever told you you’re quite the charmer?”
“No, because I’m not.”
“Then obviously you’re not actually listening to what you’re saying.” Alice lightly squeezed his fingers. “If we’re going to go and be as silly as Richard and Emily and Christopher and Victoria, I may as well add that my life would have been a lot emptier without you in it. I suppose I would have been happy enough had you not ended up here, but. . . .” She grinned at him. “It’s a pleasure being with someone as – enthusiastic about this place as you are. And to think when we first met, I wasn’t sure you’d last three days in Secundus – forgive me for saying so.”
“It’s quite all right – I had my own doubts when I first arrived,” Victor assured her with a laugh. “What changed your mind?”
“Seeing you in Wonderland Park,” Alice said. “You seemed so – happy there. Like – like you’d finally come home after a long journey.” Her voice lowered. “It reminded me a bit of myself, honestly. Back when I was a child and seeing it all for the first time. Anyone who can bring those happy memories back is someone I want to know better.”
Victor felt rather touched. “I’m glad I do,” he said, releasing her hand so he could put his arm around her.
They sat in silence for a few moments, just watching the steam. Then Victor decided to go ahead and ask a question that had been on his mind for a few days. Perhaps Alice could give him an answer of sorts. “Alice?”
“Do – do you ever have weird dreams?”
“. . .Victor, you’re going to have to be much more specific.”
Victor blushed a little, embarrassed. “Well – dreams inspired by the city. Dreams that seem to mean something, but – you can’t quite grasp what.”
Alice looked thoughtful. “I think everyone has those sorts of dreams at one point or another.” She looked up at him. “What are you dreaming?”
“It’s – odd,” Victor said slowly. “It’s never quite the same dream, but it always proceeds along the same lines. I’m in the dark, and fluttering by just out of my reach is a glowing butterfly. Sometimes it’s multicolored, sometimes it’s just a brilliant white, but it’s always glowing, leaving little light trails in the sky. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and every part of me is crying out to touch it. But it always stays just too far away, and if I ever get anywhere near close enough – I wake up.”
Alice considered this for a long moment. “Sounds like you’re searching for something,” she said finally.
“Yes, but what? I’ve never had any dream like that before coming to Secundus. And it feels more important than just that, it feels – it feels like there’s something I’m supposed to know, something I’m supposed to do, and I’m not quite--” He made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. “If I could just catch that butterfly, I’m sure I’d understand everything!”
“So catch it,” Alice said, lightly poking him in the shoulder. “As my psychiatrist is fond of saying, it’s your unconscious. You’re supposed to have total control in your dreams.”
Victor looked at her. “Do you believe that?”
“That would imply I wanted to slaughter monsters for ages in my mind,” Alice replied, deadpan. “But I wouldn’t discount the idea entirely. I’ve had some luck in controlling my dreams from time to time. You should at least try it – you might be better at it than I am.”
“I doubt it – but I will try,” Victor said. “I really do want to figure out that dream.”
“Does it really bother you that much?”
Victor nodded, then shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s – it’s not a nightmare. It’s actually quite a lovely dream. The butterflies always look so beautiful. I’d love to see them in real life, frankly. It’s just my inability to catch one, to – to learn what I’m supposed to know, that’s bothering me.” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry, p-perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No, I like trying to untangle this mystery,” Alice said with a grin. “And if you really want to see them in this world, you could always ask Lewis. He’s one of the few Touched I know who will take ideas from others, and glowing butterflies sounds like something he’d be quite interested in. They do sound beautiful.”
Victor smiled. “Maybe I’ll talk to him, then,” he said. “Ask his opinion on the project. And if I could help at all. After seeing the amazing things all my other friends can do, I’ve been itching to do something of my own.”
“Like what?” Alice asked, intrigued.
“I was considering a clockwork butterfly, actually.”
“Really? One that flies?”
“If I could manage it. I’d just love to create my own wonder. Something to – well, probably not equal, I don’t think I could ever equal anything Doc or Richard or Lewis does – but perhaps come in a close second?” He looked into the wisps of steam drifting up in front of them. “I see all this fantastic science, and I just want to experience it for myself. To get a taste of the world they live in.”
Alice chuckled. “You really were born in the wrong town.”
Victor blushed, but smiled and nodded. “I know. I’m mad, aren’t I? Completely and utterly mad.”
“So Cheshire says,” Alice agreed. For some reason, she stood. “But you know what?” she said, balancing on the edge of their platform. “All the best people are.”
And then, without warning, she jumped.
Victor’s heart leapt into his throat. “ALICE!” He tried to scramble to his feet, narrowly avoiding falling off the ledge. “What are – you. . . .”
His voice died in his throat. Alice was floating in front of him, skirts billowing out around her and providing him with an unparalleled view of her blue-and-white-striped stockings. She grinned at his stunned expression. “Come on out – the air’s fine.”
“H-h-how are you d-doing that?” Victor stammered, his mind unable to quite comprehend the sight in front of him. And not just because of the impossibility of her floating – it was more the way she looked, held aloft like she was. With the steam curling around her, loose strands of hair floating in a soft breeze, skirts fluttering gently, she reminded him of an angel, descending to earth from heaven. All she needed was the wings. “I don’t--”
She laughed. “It’s the steam! I don’t know how Lewis has worked it so it doesn’t burn you, but it can support two full-grown men over one smokestack! Or steamstack, I suppose. It’s as close to flying as one can get without a craft!”
That idea appealed to him. He slowly got to his feet, looking down at the steam, then back up at her. “You’re – you’re sure it’ll support me?” he said slowly. “Only – you’ve got your dress, with – with the s-skirt, and I’ve only got my suit. . . .”
“It’ll lift you, don’t worry.” Alice floated a little closer to him, and extended a hand. “And no matter what, I won’t let you fall. I promise.”
That was enough reassurance for him. He took her hand and gripped it tightly. Then, taking a deep breath, he stepped off the platform and into the steam.
The air was warm, but not hot enough to burn as Alice had said. White wisps swirled around his body, dissipating as they slowly made their way up. He bobbed dangerously for a moment, gravity fighting inexorably against the upward force of the steam. Then he stabilized and found himself floating comfortably. “Oooh. . . .”
Alice grinned at him again. “I thought you’d like this. You’re always going on about how wonderful it is to fly.”
“You could have let me know in a rather less dramatic way,” Victor informed her, though he couldn’t really be angry. He was feeling far too buoyant for that. “But yes – this is amazing!” He looked down for a moment, marveling at the rows of steamstacks below them. “Er, but – how does one move?”
“It’s a bit like swimming,” Alice said, demonstrating with a few kicks of her feet and pulling them both farther away from the platform. “You just have to be careful to stay centered. Or you can let the little cross-breezes direct you as they will.”
Victor experimentally kicked, and felt himself drift closer to Alice. He reached out and put his other hand on her waist to steady himself a bit more. Then it occurred to him how they were standing – or, well, floating, rather. Could he – oh, why not? “May I have this dance?” he asked playfully, extending their joined hands out so they were in the proper position for waltzing.
Alice put her free hand as close to his shoulder as she could reach. “You may.”
It took a moment’s experimentation to get the movements right, but soon enough they were waltzing in the steam, spinning slowly above the machinery that kept Wonderland Park ticking. Alice was quite the lovely dancer, which hardly surprised him – her movements were always smooth and elegant. It was his own grace that amazed Victor. On the ground, he tended toward tripping and stumbling whenever he danced. Here in the air, though, without any danger of trodding on Alice’s foot. . . . He felt almost like a new man. She really does bring out the best in me, he thought, twirling her with expertise.
They eventually revolved to a stop over a particularly wide vent. Alice looked up at him, smiling brightly. “I am so glad your mouth decided to admit your l-love for me, even if your brain had made up its mind not to,” she whispered.
Victor laughed. “So am I. And I’m very glad you decided to give love – and me – a chance. I love you, Alice Liddell.”
“I l-love you, Victor Van Dort.” She scowled for a moment. “One day – one day I’ll get rid of that little stutter.”
“Trust me – the last person who would mind is me,” he told her, leaning down and brushing a bit of hair away from her face.
“True enough,” she allowed, tilting her head back up.
Time seemed to slow down as her eyes met his again. They stared at each other for a long moment, his hand lingering on her cheek. Then, slowly, Victor bent down and pressed his lips against hers.
Their first kiss had been a hurried affair, and he’d been too much in shock that it was happening at all to truly appreciate it. This time, though – this time, he had the presence of mind to properly savor the warmth in her mouth, the softness of her skin, the salty tang clinging to her lips. One hand slipped behind her to entangle itself in her hair, silky against his fingers. He felt her hand press against the back of his neck, holding his mouth to hers. Their bodies molded against each other as the kiss deepened, became more passionate, more needy.
Finally, they both had to come up for air. Victor took a long, shuddering breath, then held Alice close. She did the same, snuggling – snuggling! she snuggled! – into his chest. He leaned his head on top of hers, feeling another smile attempt to split his face. God – thank you so much for having Doc and Marty land that train of theirs in Burtonsville.