When The Clock Strikes Twelve. . .
Victor returned to the ballroom after a quick trip to the toilets. The band was playing a lively quadrille, and the floor was full of dancers. Victor maneuvered around them as best he could, pausing a moment to nod and wave as he passed Marty and Jennifer, then Victoria and her new friend – Sir Christopher, he believed. Around him, the air was filled with laughter and happy exclamations. Everyone seemed to be having a lovely time.
I suppose I can say the same, Victor thought with a little smile, pausing at the edge of the dance floor to watch the couples walk about and occasionally trade partners. I may not have yet danced a reel, but Alice and I have been having some lovely conversation. It’s so wonderful to have someone around who loves butterflies just as much as I do. I don’t think we’ve really talked like that in some days. Not since Victoria joined the group.
Thinking about that, however, reminded him of what Marty had said before they’d actually gone to the dance. About Alice “liking” him. He sighed. As friendly as Alice was to him, he still couldn’t see it. They were just too different, weren’t they? He was shy and retiring, with very little combat experience to his name, and she was powerful and bold, with more skill with a blade than anyone else he’d ever seen. It wasn’t possible that someone like her would want to be shackled to someone like him for the rest of their lives.
He turned around and spotted her leaning against the wall, looking a bit grumpy. Perhaps her shoes were giving her some trouble – she’d complained earlier that she wasn’t used to wearing high heels. Or maybe she was just tired of being surrounded by crowds of people. Their walk in the woods earlier couldn’t have done that much to help relieve her of the stresses of civilization. Part of him was tempted now to go over and wrap his arms around her in a hug. Just to try and offer some comfort. He hated crowds too, after all. And maybe she’d return the hug, and their eyes would meet, and then. . .maybe their lips would. . . .
Victor blinked and shook his head. Goodness, what was he thinking? There was no way that Alice would ever really want to. . .but now that the image was in his head, it wouldn’t go away. For some time now he’d been wondering what it might be like to feel her lips against his own. They were just so soft and pink and inviting. . .and when they were pulled into a rare real smile, well. . . .
Everything about her was fascinating, he thought, eyes fixed on her. Her lithe body. . .her sweet face. . .her long, flowing hair, brown in this light, red in another. . .and those electric green eyes, the ones that were capable of holding him spellbound, oblivious to all the world. . . . He touched his chest, and remembered feeling her heart beat against her ribs, reminding him that the world was not so full of death. . .that he did not have to swim in the same sea of sorrow as his godfather. . . . She’d saved him then. If she hadn’t been there, he didn’t know when he would have managed to claw his way back to the land of the living.
If he would have been able to come back at all.
And it was so much more than just her pretty face he loved. She had a sharp tongue, and the wit to go with it. She had a brave heart, and the skill to keep it beating. She had an intelligent mind, and the education to properly show it. And she had a kind soul – even if she didn’t let most people see it. Except her friends.
Was it really so impossible for her to love him?
For a moment, the old doubts tried to return, tried to make themselves heard. But there seemed to be another voice in his ear, telling him that it was worth taking a chance, that time waited for no man, that it would be better to know for sure than to torture himself with the idea that she might or might not. He placed a hand to his temple. He felt so peculiar. . .like he’d been bewitched. . . . And yet, the voice wasn’t unpleasant, wasn’t unwelcome. It gave him a strength he never thought he’d have. The strength to – to maybe. . . .
No, he couldn’t ask her directly. At least, not yet. It would be a little too strange. But – perhaps – if he set the mood? If he – asked her to dance?
What are you doing, asking her to dance? a voice inside him cried. You don’t know how to dance! You told her so yourself! She doesn’t know how to dance! She told you so herself! What nonsense are you talking?
But the other voice whispered, She told you she’d had lessons. You’ve had the same. Something’s sure to have stuck. And even if she refuses, you can still talk. Still lead up to it, however roundaboutly you need to. Go to her, you foolish boy. Stop worrying for ten seconds and act!
That seemed to make up his mind for him. Almost before he knew what he was doing, Victor had crossed the remaining distance to Alice’s side. Alice straightened as she saw him coming. “Welcome back,” she said, tucking some hair behind her ear. “So, how are you enjoying the party?”
“Thank you – and well enough, I suppose,” Victor said, nodding a little. “How about you?”
Alice shrugged and sighed. “I know that Cat promised us a perfect night, but – frankly, I’m a bit bored now,” she confessed. “I’ve never been to a ball before. I don’t know what to do with myself anymore.”
Now seemed to be his chance. Victor looked away for a moment, swallowing and asking the bewitching voice to lend him some extra strength. “W-well,” he started, looking back at her, feeling a hot blush crawling up his neck, “we – w-we could – dance.”
Alice frowned at him and arched an eyebrow. “Dance?” Almost unconsciously, her hands started fiddling with her skirt. “I told you, I don’t really know how. I’ve only had two lessons, and those--” She stopped, a look of intense sadness passing over her face.
Victor was quite capable of filling in the blank. His old doubts and fears rushed back into him, telling him he was a ninny, that he shouldn’t have asked, that now he’d gone and upset her and that made him a very poor friend, never mind a suitor. “Oh,” he mumbled, looking at the floor. Why must I always make a mess of things?
There was a moment of silence, then a sigh. “But I suppose that didn’t stop Marty,” Alice suddenly said, making Victor look back up. There was a faintly distracted look on her face, as if she too was listening to a mysterious inner voice that had only just made itself known. “If you – if you really want to, I’ll give it a try.”
Victor brightened, hope rising anew in his heart. Maybe this could work out well for them after all. “Really? Well then. . . .” He offered his hand, as was only polite. Alice took it, and for a moment he was distracted by the feel of her skin against hers. So warm and soft. . .just like the time she’d anchored him, saved him. . . . He pulled himself out of those musings and led her up to the dance floor.
The band was winding down the quadrille as they took their place. Victor was glad – quadrilles could be difficult to even walk through if you weren’t sure of the steps. Too easy to bump into someone or trip. Speaking of which. . . . “It’s not really that hard,” he assured Alice, then smiled. “And no one will notice if you make a mistake. My own clumsiness will distract them, I’m sure.”
Alice gave him one of those glowing smiles. “This from the boy who climbs trees and walls like a squirrel,” she said, giving his hand a light squeeze. “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Victor found himself blushing, even as his heart melted a little. Why did she have to be so wonderful and sweet and encouraging? He wasn’t used to it, even after all this time on the road with friends. (Friends. . .he never thought he’d have friends again. Was that why he was so reluctant to speak up to Alice about his changing feeling for her? Because the very thought of losing a friend – and particularly of losing her – sent cold shivers up and down his spine?) “T-thank you,” he stammered. He listened to the band for a moment – ah, they were starting up a waltz. He was almost certain he could manage a simple box step. “Now, ah, if you’ll j-just put your hand here. . . .”
It took them a minute or so to get properly settled. Much as he loved her, Victor had to admit that Alice being nearly a foot shorter than he was could get irritating at times. If only she could levitate herself so they could stand face to face. . . . Still, they eventually got their hands and feet in the right positions. Victor started to lead her in the steps –
And stopped again as he looked down at her. A mad idea had just filled his head. One that he didn’t think it would be at all proper to act on. And yet. . .it seemed so lovely, so – right. . . . He was bewitched again, he was sure of it. That mysterious force was making him think and do things he would never do on his own. Or, well, maybe that was a bit too strong. . .perhaps he would have thought of these things on his own, but not done them. It was more like whatever the magic was, it was just giving him a pep talk, a push. . . .
For a moment, he remembered Marty’s whispered conversation with the Cheshire Cat. Then the memory vanished back into the recesses of his brain. It wasn’t important. What was important was if he was going to act on his idea or not. Did he dare?
Alice was looking up at him, confusion written all over her face. It seemed to Victor that not to do something would be weirder than doing something. And besides, tonight seemed to be a night for daring. Dropping her hand, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.
He felt Alice start at the contact and worried for a moment that he’d gone too far, done something stupid. Then she relaxed in his arms, putting her head against his chest. The thrill of her ear against his heart made his entire body tingle with joy. This moment, with them so close together, feeling so content and warm – this was right. Not even the worst of his doubts could convince him it wasn’t. Whatever else happened tonight, this moment was worth it all.
They swayed slowly to the music, letting their bodies move how they wanted. Figuring out the correct steps, keeping up with the other dancers whirling and twirling around them – they didn’t need that. This, right here, was just wonderful. The rest of the world just seemed to fade away to nothing. It was just them, their little section of the dance floor, and the music. Victor closed his eyes, just taking it all in. He felt so safe and calm and happy. . .he hadn’t felt like that in years. Not since. . .not since before his godfather had made himself known. For the first time in ages, he felt – normal.
He wondered if Alice felt the same – if being here with him made her feel like all the pain and horror in her past had gone away. He looked down at her. Apparently sensing his eyes on her, she looked up and smiled at him. Just the way she smiled told him she did indeed feel the same. He couldn’t help smiling back. How wonderful was it to feel normal. To feel the weight of the world slip off your shoulders, at least for a little while. Right now, they weren’t Victor Van Dort, the mad godson of death, who couldn’t go near a graveyard without losing his mind, who was cursed forever to see the ends of all things, and Alice Liddell, the daughter who’d lost everyone she’d ever loved, who had skill with a blade and a brave heart but no friends, who was rejected and isolated for being “mad” and “dangerous.” No, now they were just Victor and Alice, two good friends sharing a dance without a care in the world.
Two good friends. . .
His eyes met hers, and once again he was struck by just how piercing and bright those electric green orbs were. He swallowed. “Um – h-have I ever told you that you have b-beautiful eyes?” he whispered.
Alice turned pink. “You may have,” she said, voice just as soft as his. “But it’s nice to be reminded.” A moment of silence, then, on impulse, she added, “You’ve got nice eyes yourself. In fact, you’re quite handsome overall.”
Victor felt his own cheeks heat. Handsome? Him? He’d never really considered himself such. He’d hadn’t thought he was ugly, really – just – average. Perhaps a bit too feminine around the lips too. But the way she said it. . .he could believe it. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Allow me to say that you’re beautiful overall.”
Alice smiled sadly and shook her head. “You wouldn’t say that if you saw my burn scars,” she mumbled, looking away.
“I would so,” Victor replied, making her look back. “It’s more than j-just a pretty face, Alice. You’re beautiful inside as well. You’re so intelligent, and you make me laugh, and – and you’re so sweet, even if you don’t like to show it often. . .”
Alice was blushing harder now, cheeks a brilliant red. “You flatter me,” she said.
“I’m only telling you what I think,” Victor assured her.
She was silent for a moment, searching his face. Then she smiled, really smiled, again. “I should repay the compliments – you’re the sweetest, kindest, and quietly bravest man I’ve ever known.”
“Brave? Now you flatter me,” Victor said, feeling a weird mix of joy and embarrassment. “I’m not brave at all.”
“Oh? Then who was it that braved the forests around my house armed with only a fork. Who was it that has always been there for us in our hour of need? Who was it that, despite his own fears, despite worrying he might only be a burden, joined us on our quest to kill the most wretched monarch in the entire world?” Alice moved a little closer to him. “Bravery doesn’t always mean hacking things up with an axe, Victor. Bravery sometimes is just walking into danger to help a friend. Or even someone you barely know.”
His head had to look like a strawberry now, he was blushing so hard. “You – you r-really think that?” he whispered.
“May God strike me down if I’m lying,” Alice said. “I’m very glad you and Marty were near my cabin that night. I don’t like thinking of a life where I’d never met you.”
Victor’s heart pounded against his rib cage. Had she really just said that? Might she – did she – “Alice, I – I feel the same,” he whispered.
They stared at each other a long moment. The bewitching voice whispered in Victor’s ear that now was the perfect moment. Victor decided he agreed. Slowly, by inches, he leaned down toward Alice, his lips just beginning to purse –
And then the world exploded into a shower of glass and the baying of a hound.
The ballroom was in chaos. People were running and screaming, and with good reason. Standing in the remains of one of the great picture windows on the left side of the ballroom was one of the Queen’s most vicious hellbeasts. The creature snarled at the assembled dancers, foam dripping from its maw, eyes glowing a dull, unearthly red. A halo of sharp brown horns surrounded the outer edges of its face, and its paws bore claws to match. Whether it had fur or merely skin was almost impossible to tell – either way, the rest of it was jet black in color. It looked like a living portion of the deepest night had descended to interrupt the festivities.
Marty McFly wanted to smack it over the head, preferably with something heavy. His friends had been so close! He’d been watching them while he was dancing with Jennifer, and it looked like they were right on the verge of kissing and ending all this ‘I like you but for some reason I’m either too shy to tell you or too lacking in self-esteem to think that you might like me back’ crap! Everything had been going right according to his and the Cheshire Cat’s plan – and this freaking dog had to burst in and ruin everything!
Jennifer clung to his side as the beast scanned the room. “What the hell is that?” she whispered, forgetting her courtly manners for a bit.
“I dunno, but it’s a pain in the ass,” Marty grumbled. “And of course all our weapons are back at the inn. . . .” He grabbed the arm of a waiter running for safety by them. “Hey, this place have an armory?”
The startled man stared at Marty. “What – why?”
“Because somebody’s got to kill that thing? Why do you think?!”
The waiter looked back at the hellbeast, now crunching its way into the room through the shattered glass. “If you want to take on a Terror Dog, be my guest,” he said, and pulled free of Marty’s grip.
“Hey! I kind of need a weapon for that!” Marty yelled after him. “Asshole!”
“Marty, he’s just scared,” Jennifer said, poking him in the side.
“And with good reason,” Doc said, joining them. “Terror Dogs are some of the Queen’s worst monsters. They’re incredibly hard to kill.”
Marty suddenly grinned at him. “Even if you’ve got a magic watch you haven’t used a wish on yet?”
Doc blinked, then grinned back. “Ooh, good thinking,” he said, pulling out the item in question. “I wish that--”
Almost on cue, a shrieking woman ran into Doc, knocking them both to the ground. The watch flew out of Doc’s hand and bounced, rolling across the floor. “. . .I thought we had a guaranteed good time?” Marty said, scowling.
“Oh shit – Doc, tell me that it can’t break!” Jennifer said, wincing as the watch met the hard marble of the floor again.
“No, no, its enchantment includes protection from all damage – but I can’t use it unless I’m holding it, so grab it! Quick!”
Jennifer and Marty promptly scrambled toward it – only to have it kicked away by more people fleeing in terror. “Whoa! Hey, everybody, hold still for a minute!” Marty called, waving a hand. “We can fix this as long as everyone stops freaking out!”
Of course, nobody listened. Marty shook his head as he watched the crowds running in all directions, trying desperately to stay as far as they could from the Terror Dog. “You know, sometimes I wonder if I really want to learn what this fear thing is all about. Seems to make you do stupid stuff.”
“Wondering later, fetching now!” Jennifer said, tugging on his arm. “Look, it’s over there! Wait, someone just kicked it again. . . . Victoria! Victoria, have you seen the watch?”
Victoria, helping Sir Christopher tip over the buffet tables to create a barricade in one corner, looked up. “No, I’m sorry!”
“You got any weapons on you?” Marty asked Sir Christopher.
“Just a lot of broken china, if that counts,” Sir Christopher said, kicking the remains of a plate out of the way. “Brave lad, to want to fight that thing.”
“He doesn’t know fear,” Jennifer said, scanning the floor. “Come on, come on. . . . Oh! Victor! It’s by you! Grab it!”
Victor, who’d been backing away slowly with Alice, blinked then looked down at the ground. Sure enough, Doc’s watch was resting just by his foot. He leaned down and snatched it up before it could be kicked or knocked away again.
Then he looked up to see the Terror Dog looking straight at him.
He froze as the creature growled, eyes glowing malevolently. Then, with years of practice due to bullies in his youth giving him a needed extra boost, he took off, running for Doc (who’d finally regained his feet after untangling himself from the screaming woman). Alice stayed behind, yanking off her shoes and throwing them at the Dog. “Hey! Over here!” she yelled.
The Dog snarled at her as one high heel hit it in the cheek. Alice waved at it, then started running in another direction, hoping to get the beast to chase her. “Alice!” Victoria shrieked from her position in the corner. “What are you doing?!”
“You’re going to get yourself killed!”
“What?” Victor tripped over some of the shattered glass and tableware, then looked over. His face lost what little color it had. “Alice?! Are you mad?”
“Just get Doc that watch!” Alice yelled back, leaping over a chair in her way. The Terror Dog ran right into it, and snapped it in two with one bite of its powerful jaws.
Doc dashed to meet Victor as the young man got to his feet. “Give it here!”
“This would be so much more useful if just anyone could use it!” Victor said, shoving it into his hands.
“I know, but that’s the breaks.” Doc squeezed his hand tightly around the watch. “I wish that Terror Dog was dead and the body far from here!”
A brilliant flash of white light filled the room, blinding those who remained inside for a moment. When it cleared (and the spots vanished from everyone’s vision), the Terror Dog chasing Alice was conspicuously absent. Marty grinned. “Okay, that went a lot easier than most of the fights we’ve had.”
“I would have preferred it not coming along at all,” Alice said, pressing a hand to her chest as she tried to get her breath back. Victor hurried to her side to make sure she was all right.
The assembled people were still in an uproar, although terror was giving way to confusion as they realized the Terror Dog was no longer among them. “Is anyone hurt?” Sir Christopher called. “Did it bite anyone?”
“Can we help anybody?” Marty added, waving to get attention.
“Help?!” one man cried. “You probably brought it down on us!”
Marty blinked. “Uh, pretty sure we’re not in league with the Queen. . . .”
“No, you’re the opposite – which is even worse!” The man pointed at Doc Brown. “He and his friends are organizing a rebellion! They’ve been talking about it all night! The Queen must have known and sent that creature to kill us all!”
“Hey, you don’t know that!” Marty protested. “For all we know, that thing was just wandering the countryside and saw an easy snack!”
“A likely story! You see what happens to those who oppose the Queen’s reign?” the man called, turning to the crowd. “Our only hope of what little mercy she bestows is to kill the lot of them right now!”
The crowd cheered its agreement. “Oh shit,” Alice hissed.
“Not this again – we just lost an angry mob,” Marty complained as the other revelers began calling for their blood.
“Marty, I don’t think that’s going to help things,” Jennifer said, backing up.
“Do you think you can pull off another fancy speech?” Alice asked, she and Victor joining the pair.
“No – this lot will know I’m not the Queen’s daughter,” Jennifer replied. “I think our best bet might be to run.”
“If you say so, Jen,” Marty said. “Hey, Doc! Time to go back to the inn, I think!”
“I fully agree!” Doc said, ducking as a glass was thrown at his head. The crowd was arming themselves with the broken bits of tableware and window for lack of anything better. “I would say the evening’s over anyway. It’s already 11:50.”
“Is it?! Shit, we’d better get back to the inn right away!” Jennifer said, grabbing Marty’s arm and towing him along.
“What? Are you that scared of these guys?” Marty asked in bafflement, hurrying along after her. “They don’t even have good weapons yet.”
“It’s less them and more the fact that I realized something – we’re all wearing magical clothes. And the magic’s supposed to go away at midnight.”
“So – oh!” Marty blinked. “Oh. Yeah. Not good. Though being naked in front of these guys might serve as a decent distraction.”
“And that, my dear boyfriend, is why you’ve got to learn fear. I’m not having you flash the entire village!”
Victor, overhearing this as the crowd grew wilder, turned paler again for the second time that night. “Flash the--”
He suddenly streaked past them, a blur of terrified motion.“It’s not that bad!” Alice called, running after him. “Our underwear’s all the same!”
“Even so, we need our things anyway,” Doc said, following the younger members of the group. “I’m not leaving our supplies behind to be raided.”
“Allow me to help escort you back,” Sir Christopher said, he and Victoria jogging up to them. “They won’t dare to do much if I’m with you. And I would hate to leave poor Victoria in distress.”
“Much appreciated, Sir Lloyd,” Doc said with a nod. “All right, everyone, let’s go! After Victor!”
They raced out into the street, the crowd hot on their heels and throwing whatever they could get their hands on. The wild chase attracted much attention, as did the ringleader’s cries of how the sixsome had brought down pain and suffering on the town. Soon a lot of other people had joined in the chase, shrieking imprecations and declaring the sixsome damned. “Oh, shut up!” Marty yelled back at them, trailing behind the others with Jennifer. “We’re trying to help everybody by getting rid of Her Royal Bitchiness!”
The comment stopped some people short out of sheer shock. “How can you say such things and not be terrified she’s going to come down on your head?” someone yelled.
“Comes with not knowing what fear is!”
“Perhaps we should teach it to you!”
“That would actually be really nice! I’m on this stupid trip to try and figure it out!”
More people came to a stop. “You’re – trying to kill the Queen just to learn what it is to be afraid?” someone else said, blinking.
“He’s mad,” a woman said, shaking her head. “You can’t be alive and not know what fear is.”
“Trust me, he can,” Jennifer yelled, repressing laughter. “Keep talking, Marty, I think you’re confusing the hell out of them.”
“I noticed,” Marty smirked. “You keep running. Hey, you guys know I once stayed in a haunted castle with just a bread knife? Fought a whole bunch of spooks. Bastards barely made me break a sweat! Hey, why are people scared of ghosts anyway? Most of them only make funny faces at you.”
Now most of the crowd was still, staring at Marty like he was utterly insane. “Ghosts are dangerous!” someone argued. “They can frighten you to – wait.”
“If ghosts weren’t dangerous there wouldn’t be those men who fight them for a living!” another man said. “They even call themselves Ghostbusters!”
“Well, good for them! Maybe I should ask to join up!”
“Should we really be attacking someone who doesn’t know fear?” a man whispered to the ringleader, who seemed to be wondering what had happened to his lovely mob.
“Yes! What do you fear more – this whelp of a boy, or the Queen’s wrath?” the ringleader cried, rallying. “Don’t listen to him! He speaks only lies! All children of God know fear! He’s merely trying to trick us into giving up our rightful chase!”
“No on the lying thing – though I would if I thought it would help,” Marty admitted easily. “And yeah, I admit, part of the reason I’m so chatty is to try and get you guys to stop giving us so much grief. And guess what?”
“What?” the ringleader demanded.
Marty grinned and pointed to the empty stretch of road ahead of him, which his friends had long ago vacated. “It worked. Bye!”
With that, he turned and took off like a shot, laughing all the while. “Oh, that was even better than fighting all those haunted cats and dogs with the bread knife,” he said with a grin, as the ringleader yelled at his minions to go after him. “People are real idiots sometimes.”
He made it to the inn, fully expecting his friends to be packed and ready to go. Instead, he found his friends and Sir Christopher wrestling with the innkeeper and a few patrons. “The rumor spread a lot faster than we thought, unfortunately,” Doc said as he caught sight of the young man.
“Yeah, I got that,” Marty said, picking up a dropped club and knocking one of the assailants out. “So, want me to help take care of this, or just go upstairs and try to grab our stuff?”
“Take care of this – you and Alice are our best fighters,” Doc said, finally getting his knee into the groin of the man grappling with him, then using that distraction to hit the guy over the head. “I’ll get Victor, Jennifer, and Victoria and we’ll gather our things.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Marty said approvingly, using his club to whack a guy attempting to grab him from the side. “Hey, is Sir Christopher coming with us?”
“Hasn’t been decided yet, and I think we can wait on making the actual decision. It’s already 11:57.” Doc looked around the room. “All right, there’s Victoria – Great Scott, she’s not bad with a fireplace poker, is she?”
“She is,” Sir Christopher, wrestling with a man nearby, agreed. “A brave heart to go with that lovely face.”
“Guess she and Alice have more in common than you might think,” Marty smirked. “Speaking of which, though, I can’t find Victor.”
“What? Victor? Damn it, kid, where are you?”
Marty and Doc turned their heads up to the rafters, to find Victor sitting above the chandelier. “How the hell did you get up there?” Marty asked, baffled. “I mean, I know you’re a crazy good climber, but – really!”
“Human beings are actually much easier to climb than trees,” Victor replied with a little smile. “Anyway, I think I can get a clear shot at the stairs if the rest of you keep them occupied.”
“Wonderful! Jennifer, Victoria, and I will join you up there directly,” Doc said with a grin of his own.
“I look forward to seeing you.” With that, Victor began inching his way along the rafters toward the stairs. Doc and Marty rejoined the fight in earnest, keeping their assailants busy and their attention off the steps. It took a full minute of battle, but once Doc saw their long, skinny friend jump down and race up to the second floor, he grabbed Jennifer and Victoria and followed.
Their rooms, thankfully, were untouched. They raced around, gathering up their things – and then a loud BONG came from outside their window. “Midnight! Damn it!” Jennifer snarled, snatching up a dress and trying to change out of her Fae-made one.
“We’ve got until the last stroke of midnight,” Doc said from his doorway, turning around to give her a modicum of privacy. “And besides, there really are worse fates for all of us than ending up in our underwear in public.”
“I know, I know, but it’s still embarrassing. For all of us except Marty, of course,” Jennifer said as the second stroke sounded. “Then again, he’ll probably use it to his advantage and weird everyone out again and let us escape relatively unscathed.”
“I remind you, you’re the one who considers him your True Love,” Doc chuckled.
“Hey, I never said that was a bad thing.” BONG! “Get on, you stupid skirt – here, Victoria, put on this – hey, where’s your other shoe?”
“My what?” Victoria looked down at her feet. Only one glass shoe glittered down there, on her right foot – the left merely had a stocking. “Oh! I must have lost the other one either running here or in the fight,” she said, frowning. “Pity, I liked these. . .”
“Well, they were due to vanish anyway, so. . . .”
There was the sound of footsteps running up the stairs. Jennifer and Doc both poked their heads out to see Marty and Alice joining them. “We managed to chase the last of them out the door, and locked and barricaded every entrance in the front we could find, but we’re pretty sure they’re gonna be coming back in soon with reinforcements from the crowd,” Marty reported. “And I’m not stupid enough to think I can take ‘em all on by myself, fear or no fear.”
“Time for a prudent exit,” Alice agreed. “Besides, we need to change – we’re up to the fifth stroke already.” Another BONG sounded from outside. “Sixth – Jennifer, just throw me my cloak for now?”
Jennifer did so. “Where’s Sir Christopher?”
“Going to cover our escape – he says he’ll try to catch up with us later, but the police and the Count are probably going to want to talk to him, and who knows about his own monarch?” Alice looked at Victoria. “But rest assured, he’s already very sweet on your. Even if the Cheshire Cat didn’t come through for the rest of us in full, he certainly did so for you.”
“If only it hadn’t ended so madly,” Victoria said, voice full of sadness. “He’s so – I thought that m-maybe. . . .”
“No time for regrets now,” Alice told her, though not without sympathy. “As I said, he’ll try to catch up. Right now, we ought to make haste and get out of this town before we’re nearly lynched. Again.”
The girls finished their changing and preparations and met the boys out in the hall, also freshly changed and prepped. “We ready to go?” Jennifer asked as the tenth BONG of the night sounded.
“Let’s move,” Doc nodded, and together they raced back down the stairs.
The main room of the inn was empty of all except unconscious and semi-conscious people. The group looked around as the eleventh stroke sounded. “Sir Christopher?” Jennifer called.
“Over here! In the back!”
They followed his voice over to the room behind the bar – just as the final stroke BONGed through the air. There was a distinct tingly feeling in the air as whatever Fae-stuff they were still wearing or carrying dissolved. Victor let out a squeak as he saw Alice was just in her underthings and petticoat under her cloak. “Please don’t get distracted now,” she asked him. “I’ll put on a proper dress once we’re outside the limits.”
“Sorry,” Victor said, wrenching his eyes away.
Sir Christopher was standing by the back door, holding a sword he’d gotten off one of the unconscious combatants. “This is the safest route out of the city,” he said, pointing to the trail that led from the doorstep. “It goes around most of the crowded areas. You should be able to make the limits in two hours at the most.”
“Thank you very kindly, Sir Lloyd,” Doc said with a gracious nod. “Your help is appreciated, I assure you. Hopefully we’ll be able to see you again soon.”
“I hope so too,” Sir Christopher said, casting a bittersweet look at Victoria.
Victoria wrung her hands together. “Oh, Christopher. . . .”
“I’ll see you again,” he promised, taking her hands in his. “This isn’t goodbye forever, I promise.” He leaned down and pressed a quick kiss against her lips. “But if you want any chance of escaping that mob. . . .”
Right on cue, there was a pounding at the front door. The group looked back. “Right,” Doc nodded. “Thank you again. And good luck with them.”
“Do be careful, Christopher,” Victoria begged. “Come back to me in one piece.”
Sir Christopher grinned rakishly. “My dear lady, I faced down the Jabberwock. A few angry villagers are nothing at all. Especially when I have such a person to fight for.” He kissed her again, quickly and lightly. “Now go. I wish you all good luck and godspeed.”
“Thanks, bud,” Marty said. “We’ll see you whenever you catch up.”
With that, they left, rushing out the back door and out along the path. “It’s too bad we’re going to have to leave the horses behind,” Alice said, directing a frown back at the inn.
“We can get new ones the next town over,” Doc said. “It’s far too risky to go back and fetch them at this point.”
“I know, I know.” Alice shook her head. “And this was supposed to be our most relaxing stop. . . .”
“Yeah – I’d like to have a talk with that Cheshire Cat,” Marty said, frowning between Victor and Alice.
“I don’t think we’ll see him again – and a good thing too, since you’d probably be punished for ‘impertinence’ by being turned into a mouse,” Jennifer informed him. “I know that probably doesn’t scare you in the slightest, but it scares me, so – drop it?”
“Okay, I will,” Marty said, grabbing her hand. Softer, he added, “I just wish – one kiss, and it all could have been solved!”
“It still could!” she whispered back. “I mean, they had that dance together, and they came that close--”
“I suppose, but – well, if I know Victor, he’s already convinced himself that he’s not really worthy of her and that trying to kiss her was a mistake,” Marty muttered. “And who knows about Alice. Her brain’s probably already back into ‘blood guts murder’ mode.”
“Marty – although I hate to admit, you might be right,” Jennifer sighed, looking over at her friend. The softness she’d seen earlier on Alice’s face was gone, replaced by her usual look of cold determination. “But still – hold out some hope. They’ve got to suspect about each other now at least.”
“Yeah. Keep your fingers crossed, I guess.”
As per Sir Christopher’s estimate, they reached the city limits within two hours. They kept going for about a hour after that, putting some more space between them and the city which they’d so hoped would be a quiet, restful stop. Then they went ahead and made camp for the night (“or, technically, morning,” Doc pointed out). The scientist built a little fire while Jennifer, Victoria, Victor, and Marty sorted out their stuff properly and Alice disappeared behind a tree to put on a proper dress as promised. “We have too much crap,” Marty declared as she reappeared on the scene.
“Language, Marty,” Victor scolded lightly. “There are ladies present.”
“Actually, I was thinking pretty much the same thing,” Jennifer said. “But I think it’s all back in its rightful – hang on, what’s that?”
“What’s what?” Victoria asked, looking inside her pack.
And then let out a shocked gasp. “What – I thought that would have vanished!”
“What would have vanished?” Marty asked.
Victoria reached into her pack and withdrew – a glittering glass shoe. Everyone stared at it for a moment. “Shouldn’t that have vanished with the rest of our clothes?” Victor finally asked. “Is anyone else’s outfit still present?”
“No – we left most of the evidence back at the inn, but Alice’s dress disappearing says to me it’s gone,” Jennifer said, as Alice nodded.
Doc frowned thoughtfully at the shoe, rubbing his chin. “Didn’t you say something about losing the match?” he asked Victoria. “It could be that somehow disrupted the spell. Magic’s sensitive to things like that.”
“Why do you even have it with you in the first place?” Marty asked.
“Oh, I just threw it in with my things while I was changing,” Victoria admitted. “I – I guess I was hoping it would stay around. A souvenir of my grand night out.” She ran her fingers along the curves of the glass. “It’s not worth much without its pair, I suppose, but still. . . .”
“Maybe Sir Christopher can find it and bring it back to you,” Marty joked.
It got a little smile out of her. “Maybe.” Then the brief moment of happiness vanished. “Oh, I do hope he’s all right. . . .”
“He seems like the sort who can take care of himself,” Alice assured her. “And he also seems like the sort who won’t give up on finding you, judging by that kiss.”
Victoria blushed, putting her hand over her mouth. “He – I – we just – h-hit it off right away,” she murmured, looking away from the others. “An instant connection, you know? Like – like he was the one I was meant to be with.”
For a split second, Victor and Alice’s eyes flicked toward each other. Then the moment was gone and they turned their attention back to Victoria. “I’m glad you found it,” Alice said, and there was nothing but sincerity in her voice. “And I hope very much that you can keep it.”
“Me too,” Victoria whispered.
“So, you’re sure you want to stop here?”
Victoria nodded, looking up at the others as she clutched her pack tightly to herself. After two days of walking through the woods, the group had reached the small town of Picklepot. Fortunately, while word of the Queen’s attack on the Count Bonejangles’s ball had reached the town, the rumor that the Queen had sent her Terror Dog to specifically attack a small group of rebels – and who those rebels were – had not. The friends had taken advantage of this to quickly buy some new horses and stock up on supplies.
And Victoria was taking advantage of it to leave the group. “I don’t think I’m really cut out for the adventuring life,” she added with a weak laugh. “Running from an angry mob is not in my top five activities to do, I’m afraid.”
“Understandable,” Doc nodded. “And I take it you’d like to be fairly close to Sir Christopher?”
Victoria nodded back. “I don’t want to make it too difficult to find me. I’ll be fine here, don’t worry. Someone’s already offered to show me around – a Lord Bittern.”
“Nice name,” Marty commented with a smirk.
“It suits him – he’s rather arrogant and condescending,” Victoria admitted, rolling her eyes. “But I must rely on the kindness of strangers, and it was good of him to offer to help me.”
“Indeed,” Alice said. “Well then – take care of yourself. Here’s hoping your white knight rides up soon.”
“Yes,” Jennifer agreed. “Stay safe, Victoria.”
“I’ll do my best. I wish you all the best on your quest as well.”
“Thank you – we need every bit of it,” Doc said.
Victor reached down and briefly took her hand. “Be happy, Victoria,” he said, squeezing it.
“You as well, Victor,” she said. “And that applies to the rest of you as well,” she added, glancing at Alice in particular.
“Thanks a lot,” Marty smiled. “All right, guys – ready to see what comes next?”
“No time like the present,” Doc said with a nod. The five of them started the ride out, pausing only a moment to give Victoria a final wave, which she returned. “I hope it turns out well for her,” he added. “Sweet girl.”
“She is,” Alice admitted. “And I really do hope her white knight finds her, or she him.”
“Yeah, nothing like a happy ending to a good love story,” Marty said, smiling at Jennifer before looking pointedly at Victor.
Victor looked at him, then over at Alice. For a moment, he seemed to be considering something. Then he shook his head. “Yes, of course. I can only hope our quest ends the same,” he said, spurring his horse forward a bit.
Marty started to say something, but Jennifer touched his hand. “Don’t force it,” she counseled. “You tried meddling already, and it didn’t work. I think they’re going to have to admit it on their own.”
Marty let out a deep sigh, slumping forward. “I hope I still have all my teeth when they do.”
Jennifer bit back a giggle. “Hey – we’ve got enough love for this story,” she said, gently bumping his shoulder as they rode side by side.
Marty smiled at her. “Guess we do. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for them anyway.” He shook his head as he looked from Victor to Alice and back. “I really hope you’re right that they got enough of a push from the Cat. Otherwise they’re going to drive me bonkers before I ever get a chance to learn about fear.”