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Secundus

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January 13th, 18–

Burtonsville, England

3:24 P.M.

It is a world that is both rather like and unlike our own, dear reader. A world where steam power is – currently – king. A world where scientists create marvels that makes one wonder if they are not truly wizards. A world where people live, die, and occasionally live again. Come, let us visit this amazing, wonderful, terrifying world. . . .

Burtonsville. A tiny little village founded by settler Timothy Burton not too far from the sea. Their main source of support is the fishing industry, which employs many of the men who live there. It is a quiet, peaceful little town. A visitor would most likely conclude that nothing interesting ever happened there.

They’d be absolutely correct. When it comes to dull, Burtonsville not only wrote the book, they provided all the illustrations and a full how-to guide in the back. The town is uniformly grey at all times of the year, winter and summer. The citizens are even less colorful. Oh yes, they tend to come in interesting shapes – most are either rather taller or rather shorter than average – but they move through their lives like they were made of clockwork. The same thing happens to everyone day in and day out. The people are a quiet sort, not prone to long conversation or showing emotion. (With the notable exception of the town crier, a man who has long forgotten the meaning of the term “indoor voice.”) Everyone is – not exactly kind to one another, but reasonably tolerant. People may despise each other, but no one ever takes any steps to show it. Most everyone dies either of old age or illness. There’s only been one shocking murder in the town’s history, and even that technically took place in the woods bordering it on one side. And the family it affected moved away long ago. There is nothing now, nothing but dull people leading even duller lives.

So, dear reader, you may ask, why have I taken you to see this awful little place? Well, you can put one fear to rest – our story does not take place in Burtonsville. But every story needs a main character, and ours happens to live here – at the moment. Why, here he comes now. . . .


Goodness, why do these boys have to be so persistent?!

Victor Van Dort tore through the underbrush between the trees, trying not to snag his pants on the twisty, thorny plants rising up from the ground. Behind him, he could hear the jeers of three of his peers – Gordon, Michael, and Bram. “Do you really think you can get away from us, Van Dort?”

I can certainly try, Victor thought, keeping up his pace as best he could. Why oh why did I have to come across them while they were in a playful mood?

Well, there was no time for self-recrimination at the moment. He had to get away before the trio’s favorite activity – namely, “Torment The Son Of The Cannery Owner” – got a chance to start. The last time they’d caught him, he had gone home with a black eye. And Mother had given him a lecture about “getting involved with those ruffians” on top of it, completely ignoring his protests that he never intended to get involved with them, never wanted to get involved with them. Of course, Mother never really listened to anyone –

Something caught his foot, and he stumbled, nearly falling to the ground. He caught his balance at the last second by grabbing a tree branch. Oh dear, why did the ground have to be so littered with little grabby plants? Of course, the plants hindered the other boys too, but Victor was starting to think that little advantage wasn’t worth it. If only he could find a clear place to run for a bit. If he could lose them for just a moment, he could scramble up a tree and hide until the coast was truly clear.

He spotted a place where the brush appeared to be thinning to his left. Nervously hopeful, he darted toward it, risking a quick glance back to assess his situation. He could still hear the boys, but he couldn’t see them. Good – that gave him a little time. He pushed on, deciding on the next part of his plan. The trees were thinning too now – obviously he was heading toward a clearing. He’d go there, stop for just a moment to catch his breath, try and double back on himself a bit, then find a nice solid tree and –

And. . . .

What on earth. . . ?

Victor came to an abrupt halt as he burst into the clearing. He wobbled for a moment as his body got used to the idea of not racing forward, then was still, eyes wide with shock. What was in front of him – how could it be there? There wasn’t a rail line for miles around! Everyone in Burtonsville either walked or traveled by carriage anyplace they needed to go. This was ridiculous! There was absolutely no reason for there to be a large steam locomotive in the woods!

The large steam locomotive in front of him obviously thought otherwise. Victor approached it cautiously, wondering if he was hallucinating. He couldn’t think of any reason why he’d be hallucinating, but it still seemed more probable than just running into a train in the woods.

It was a very nice train, at least, real or imagined. It was painted jet black, with red lines here and there for accent. There was a cowcatcher attached to the front of the locomotive, and – actually, Victor wasn’t sure what exactly it was that was attached to the bar. It certainly wasn’t a passenger car. It was shaped a bit like a large bullet resting on a bed. There were no doors or windows, just a little hatch in the side and what looked like two big vents on the back. As the shock cleared from his brain and he began to take in the locomotive more properly, he realized that it was a most unusual train indeed. He was fairly certain that most trains didn’t have this many fins on them. Or two horseshoe magnets on the side, with a strange wheel covered in fins between them. Or coils of wire looped everywhere. Or some odd light in the rough shape of a Y mounted in front of the smokestack. Victor reached out and lightly pressed his fingertips to the front of the train. Extremely solid (and very cold) iron greeted his touch. He hurriedly pulled his hand away and backed up a step. “Oh my,” he whispered.

There was the sound of feet crashing through the underbrush behind him and slightly to his left. “Hah! We found you, Van – bloody hell!”

The three boys goggled at the train in front of them. “Where in blazes did this come from?” Gordon said, automatically looking down to see if some track had magically appeared under the train’s wheels.

“I don’t know,” Victor whispered, moving around to the other side. There were more gadgets he didn’t understand mounted there, and a wide window showing the inside of the cab. Victor took a peek, unable to contain his curiosity. From what he could see, there were a couple of leather-covered benches on the sides, and a most peculiar instrument panel in the front. Something that looked like a typewriter was situated among all the levers and pulls and things one used to operate your average steam train. Victor frowned – who on earth would be typing at the controls of a locomotive?

“Trains don’t magically drop out of the sky!” Gordon insisted, shaking his head as if he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

“This is a Touched’s doing,” Bram said, spitting out the word as if it were poison. “One of those lunatics has found his way into our town!”

“We would have noticed if a Touched had come to Burtonsville,” Michael argued. “You can’t miss them. Wild hair, wild eyes, and always in a smelly, dirty lab coat!”

“Well, wherever he is, he’s too close for my comfort,” Bram declared, folding his arms.

“Hey, Van Dort, think your father would like to buy one of these?” Gordon called, going for the familiar ground of making fun of the boy of the town’s richest citizen.

“I don’t think Father would know what to do with it,” Victor answered absently, still examining the train. He couldn’t quite articulate why it had caught his attention like this. Something about it just – pulled at him. Made him think of adventure, of excitement. It called to that part of him he’d hidden deep inside – the part that had caused him to start sneaking penny dreadfuls to read behind his mother’s back. The part of him that had always craved something just a little more colorful.

“Never stopped him before,” Bram jeered.

“It’s also not ostentatious enough for Mother.” Victor rounded the back, taking in the strange vents. What were they for?

“Hmm. Suppose not.” Gordon’s own curiosity seemed to have been sparked as well. He moved closer to the train, reaching out gingerly to touch the side.

“Be careful!” Michael hissed, his and Bram’s eyes going wide. “That’s a damned Invention, you know that! It might take your hand off!”

“Be quiet, I know what I’m doing.” Gordon walked toward the cab, trailing his fingers along the iron. “Hey – maybe if we can figure out what’s important on this, we can smash it.”

“And get a Touched mad at us? Never,” Bram said, looking at Gordon as if the older boy had lost his mind. “You don’t know if that thing’s booby-trapped!”

“Oh, why would it be--”

There was a click as one of Gordon’s fingers suddenly depressed a little plate on the side of the cab. The boys and Victor jumped backward as the door suddenly split in two and opened outward – the top half raising to the sky, the other half unfolding to the ground and revealing a set of red steps. The group stared at the now-open cab. “What did I tell you?” Bram said, breathing a little quicker. “You’re lucky you didn’t lose a finger.”

“Shut up,” Gordon said, eyeing the interior of the train with a mixture of fear and curiosity. “I wonder what the mad old bastard has inside.”

“You ain’t going in there,” Michael said. “It’s probably really dangerous.” He paused and thought. “Let’s have Van Dort do it.”

What?!”

Before Victor could get away, the boys had grabbed him and were dragging him bodily up to the train. Victor squirmed ineffectually in their grip. “No! Please!”

“Relax, Van Dort,” Gordon said, flashing him a rather yellow-toothed smile. “There’s only, what, a fifty percent chance something will kill you?”

“And considering who you are, it would probably be a mercy kill,” Bram added nastily. “Damn nouveau riche.”

With that, the trio picked him up and tossed him inside. Victor landed with a loud “bump” on the floor. He immediately froze, face screwed up tight as he waited for something to zap him or slice him or stick him with some sort of needle.

Nothing happened. After a few long moments, Victor dared to relax a little and open his eyes. The inside of the cab greeted him, all bright brass and red leather. He was lying right in front of the mysterious typewriter-like device he’d seen through the window. Very slowly, he got to his feet, rubbing his side. The console was all levers and pipes and gears and other components he couldn’t name if he tried. The typewriter keys were set up in front of this odd panel with dates on it. A bit of further inspection revealed the names of the months and the numbers were all on rotating wheels. Victor guessed the keys controlled them, but he still couldn’t make head or tails out of what it meant. Turning toward the back, he saw the benches, and what looked like a pair of cabinets. For a moment, he was tempted to poke through them, but etiquette prevailed. He certainly couldn’t go looking through someone’s private things. Especially not a Touched’s private things. It was bad enough he was in the cab at all.

“Touch something!” Michael dared him.

“I can’t! We should leave!” Victor said, making for the stairs.

Gordon moved forward threateningly. “Listen, Van Dort, unless you want--”

The sound of nearing footsteps suddenly caught everyone’s attention. “Well, Marty, I think we can declare this a successful field test!” a voice said, far too close for comfort.

“It’s the looney!” Bram said, voice rising to a squeak.

“Let’s go!” Gordon said, dashing for the woods. The other two boys followed close behind.

“Wait!” Victor called, running after them. “They’re going to see – oh!”

He toppled over and down the steps, wincing as he landed. What did I trip on? he thought, glancing backward.

A rope ladder extended out behind him – his left foot had gotten caught in one of the rungs. Victor shook it free and got back to his feet. All his instincts were screaming at him to run, but he knew he couldn’t just leave the train open like this. What if the Touched coming back somehow figured out he had been in the cab? Touched were known for their bad tempers, and Victor did not want one of them coming after him for revenge. He stumbled over to the side of the train and desperately began feeling around for the plate Gordon had touched.

Luck was with him – he found it quickly, and the doors obligingly folded back up. Victor noticed the rope ladder was dangling from the side and hesitated – should he open it back up and stuff it inside? Or just hope the inventor didn’t notice and make a run for it?

Before he could make any sort of decision, though, he spotted two vague shapes making their way into the clearing. Panicking, he darted around and hid on the opposite side of the train. Oh God! Please don’t notice me please don’t notice me

The two people – both Touched? Or was one playing Igor? – entered the clearing. Victor could hear them moving about. “Kind of a dull place you picked to visit, Doc,” a young man’s voice said.

“Well, it was the furthest place away that I could find on the map,” “Doc” replied. “Though you have a point – I’ve never seen a town that looked that grey.”

They had been to Burtonsville? But why had no one recognized them for what they were? Victor would have tried to sneak a glimpse at them if he wasn’t paralyzed with fear. All he really wanted was for them to get in the train so he could try and sneak away before they saw him.

There was a dull tap, then the sound of the doors opening up again. “Still, a fruitful day!” this Doc continued, as their footsteps made their way into the cab. “Now that we have conquered gravity, the space-time continuum can’t be far behind!”

Conquered gravity? The space-time continuum? Victor had no idea what that meant, and didn’t really care. Now was his chance to get out of here. He looked around, trying to determine the best path back to Burtonsville.

Then he realized it was behind him – that is, on the other side of the train. He sighed softly. That would be the case, wouldn’t it? But he didn’t want to risk getting lost in the woods, either. It would be dark sooner rather than later, and he had no desire to spend the night out here. He cautiously peeked around the side of the train.

The doors were shut. Victor could still see the ladder hanging out the side – apparently the scientist hadn’t noticed it. He nodded, then began to tiptoe around the front of the train. He risked a look in through the windows as he rounded the cowcatcher. A rather older man, with wild white hair under a bowler cap, was standing at the controls, apparently readying the train for travel. Victor was surprised to see that the hair was really the only thing unusual about the man – his clothes seemed perfectly normal, at least from this angle. Maybe Touched didn’t wear lab coats all the time. Or this man wasn’t a Touched at all, but a perfectly normal scientist. Victor’s eyes traveled the length of the train. No – definitely Touched.

Fortunately, the man – Doc? – was also completely focused on his work. And there was no sign of his friend – Marty, was it? Well, it didn’t matter. Soon they’d be out of his life, and he’d think back on this incident as perhaps no more than an interesting story to tell his grandchildren. Victor broke into a jog, not noticing his foot landing again among the rungs of the ladder –

There was a sudden loud noise akin to – Victor wasn’t sure. It sounded like something was powering up. Startled – oh, God, had they noticed him? Did he have a ray gun pointed at his back? – he fell over, rolling over once or twice in his typical clumsy way. Something grabbed at his ankle and pulled tight, making him yelp from fear and a little pain. What had him? Was he caught in a trap? Was he about to be brought into the train and dissected?! (Okay, perhaps that last bit was a tad melodramatic, he hadn’t noticed anything that could be used for that unpleasant activity when he’d been inside. But one never knew. . . .)

Fortunately, the truth proved to be more mundane – he’d simply tangled his foot again in the rope ladder. Grumbling to himself, Victor set about trying to get it free. He wanted to be far away from here when they left. How were they going to leave, anyhow? One would think one would notice a large steam locomotive barreling through the woods.

The sound of grinding metal caught his attention. Looking up, he saw – no, he couldn’t be seeing that. He blinked a few times, but the image stayed. The wheels were – were folding under the train! And there was a peculiar red light emanating from the bottom of the locomotive now, along with blue lights flashing along the sides. Victor gaped as the train slowly began to rise into the air, chugging as it did. Oh – so that’s what the man had meant when he had said “conquered gravity.” Victor was impressed, honestly. It was truly amazing to watch the train lift into the air, the headlamps shining brightly, the wheels turning beneath it, the ladder rising as well–

The ladder?!

Victor quickly tried to yank his foot free from the rope, but it was already too late. With a yelp, he found himself dangling upside-down as his leg was dragged inexorably upward. He grabbed at the grass below him out of sheer panic, only to feel the blades rip free as the ground receded. “Oh! No! NO! HELP!”

But there was no one on the ground to hear him. And Victor very much doubted if the people in the train’s cab could hear him, given all the noise the locomotive was making. Victor watched helplessly as he rose above the tops of the trees, looking down upon a landscape that was now far too small for his liking.

And far too inverted – he was getting an awful headache like this. Now rather grateful for his long arms, he reached and grabbed his pants leg, using the leverage to haul himself up to a rough sitting position. From there, it was a simple matter to grab one of the rungs and pull himself more firmly onto the ladder. His ankle was starting to hurt, gripped as tightly as it was by the twisted bit of rope, but Victor didn’t dare try and free it. He was too scared he’d fall. Plummeting from the rope ladder of a flying steam train wasn’t the way he wanted to die.

The train continued ascending. Victor took a moment to let the blood drain from his head, then looked around, shivering in the cold air. He could see the woods below him, the barren branches of the black trees making strange tangled patterns. He could also see Burtonsville to his right – goodness, the town looked even tinier from up here. There was the bridge over the little river, the church where Pastor Galswells resided, the town square with its statue of the founder, the Everglots’ mansion, and his own even bigger residence. Victor found himself marveling over the size of his parents’ house. How on earth had it been constructed? How had his father afforded to have it constructed? He thought he had been more or less used to its size, having lived there ever since he was seven, but seeing it from this angle. . . .

Burtonsville suddenly began to travel farther to the right. Victor felt a breeze stir the ladder as the train started to fly horizontally. He stared up at the wheels churning above his head for a moment, then looked back at his town as it was regulated to the horizon. Cold fear gripped his heart. He was trapped good and proper – there was no letting go of the ladder now, not without falling to his doom (and possibly pulling his leg off in the process). Trapped beneath a flying steam train going who knows where. Victor was unaccustomed to travel even under normal circumstances. He’d lived in Burtonsville all his nineteen years. His family had only moved once, and that was simply to transfer their things from their modest house on the outskirts of town to the gigantic mansion on the town square once business had really taken off. He’d been to London a couple of times, yes, but then he’d had his parents with him, and had stayed far away from any Touched. God knew where this fellow lived. He could be on his way to Transylvania. Or perhaps Mechanicsburg – a flying steam train seemed to be appropriate for a town that boasted a living castle. Or even somewhere in America. He’d heard that the untamed towns of the American West were ripe with Touched. Victor imagined traveling for days over the Atlantic Ocean and shivered.

Try and make the best of it, a little voice inside of him said. Yes, the situation looks dismal, but there’s nothing you can do about it presently. Besides, you’ve always wanted to fly, haven’t you?

This was true enough. However, Victor’s thoughts about flight had always been more centered around the flight of butterflies, not steam trains. And it was rapidly becoming apparent that flying under a steam train wasn’t going to be much fun. Especially as it picked up speed. Victor squeezed his eyes shut against the rapidly-building wind as they began to water. The ladder swayed dangerously in the wind, flapping behind the door it was stuck in. (Though, thankfully, it never rose high enough for there to be any threat from the wheels – Victor supposed his body weight was enough to keep it down. Which surprised him, considering how thin he was.) He shivered and tightened his chilled fingers on the rope. Please – wherever he lives, let it not be far!


Victor had no idea how long the trip took. Time paradoxically had little meaning when you were clinging for dear life to a flimsy rope ladder underneath a flying steam train. But, eventually, the train slowed down enough for the wind to diminish back to a breeze. Trying to ignore how cold and achy he was, Victor slowly opened his eyes.

There was a city below him, with cobblestoned streets and buildings stretching up to the sky. Victor blinked a few times as they flew closer. The city looked like London. But there was something about it, something just a bit off –

Something exploded nearby, nearly scaring the young man out of his skin. Jerking his head around, he saw what looked like the remains of some sort of rocket, and a man angrily cursing. “Blast it! And the moon just waiting to be conquered!”

Victor stared for a moment, then noticed something else hanging in the air nearby. It was some sort of machine, with two kite-like wings attached to it, and a cord extending toward the ground. Victor followed it to see what looked like a restaurant below. As they passed, the machine said, in a distinctly deep-toned but still very mechanical voice, “FRIED CHICKEN.” There was the sound of moisture being sucked into somewhere, then a hatch on the bottom opened and pieces of fried chicken fell out, hurtling to the ground.

Electricity crackled from some unseen source, hurtling up into the sky and just missing the train as Victor tried to process that. “Hey, watch it!” Victor heard Marty’s voice yell above him. “Sheesh, you think they’d notice the train. . . .”

Victor looked around again. The buildings were primarily of sturdy-looking brick, but quite a few bore scorch marks or strange stains upon them. Quite a few had lightning rods mounted on their roofs – Victor had to swing his ladder to one side slightly to avoid one. One building had multicolored smoke coming from a window. And as he looked down, Victor could see strange machines zipping along the streets, and – it was hard to tell from this distance, but it looked like a pair of pickle people ambling along. “Oh my God,” he whispered, everything clicking into place. “Secundus. . . .”

How had he not guessed before? Everyone knew about Secundus! It was the Touched Capital of the World! It had been founded by a Touched! (Well, “founded” might be too strong. What Dr. Zemeckis had done was, in fact, create a large duplication device and duplicated London many miles away from the original city, in the hopes of confusing people and eventually taking over England. The plan had failed, mostly because no one had fallen for the deception. Over time, it had evolved into its own distinct city. No one even used the “London” part of its name anymore.) It was full to bursting with Creative scientists of all stripes! Of course someone with a flying steam train would live here!

In fact, they seemed to have come to his home. The train ground to a halt above a simple two-story brownstone, then began to lower. Victor stumbled and fell over as his feet touched the ground again. He crabwalked out of the way of the descending train as the wheels unfolded themselves, dragging the ladder with him. There was the sound of something powering down as the train landed. Then, before Victor could react, the doors opened. “Aah, it’s good to be – Great Scott, was this hanging outside the entire trip?”

The older man Victor had seen at the controls appeared on the steps, tracing the length of the rope ladder with his eyes and frowning. “I could have sworn I’d rolled it up for storage earl--” he started, then stopped as he saw Victor at the other end.

The two men stared at each other a moment. Then Victor managed a weak, half-hearted smile. “H-hello.”


“You hung on all the way back?”

Victor looked over at the young man sitting across from him. His blue eyes were wide, mouth hanging open slightly. Victor nodded. “I d-didn’t have m-much of a choice,” he whispered, pulling the blanket they had given him tighter around himself. “Plus m-my ankle. . . .”

“He wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t held on, Marty,” the older man – who had introduced himself as Dr. Emmett Brown – said as he came back in from the kitchen. He held a tray that contained three cups, a teapot, cream and sugar, and a plate of chocolate biscuits. He set it down on the sitting room’s table. “How do you take your tea, Victor?”

“Cream and sugar, please,” Victor said, watching as the scientist prepared the requested cup. His head was still spinning. After Dr. Brown and his assistant Marty McFly had discovered him entangled in the ladder, they’d helped him get loose and brought him inside to their midsized flat. Dr. Brown had given him the blanket before disappearing into the kitchen to make tea, while Marty had made the introductions and made sure he was comfortable on the couch. It was honestly rather confusing – weren’t Touched supposed to chain you up in their dungeons or something like that? Not that this building seemed to have a dungeon – it appeared to be a perfectly normal flat from what he’d seen so far. Of course, after having spent some time hanging below a flying steam train in the icy wind, he was surely not thinking or seeing clearly. . . .

Dr. Brown pressed the cup into his hands. “Drink this,” he said firmly, looking at Victor with obvious concern. “It’ll do you good to get something hot into you.”

Victor looked down at the teacup. Part of him said that he shouldn’t drink it – who knew what could be in it? The other part said that he was very cold and tired and that tea would do him good. After a moment, Victor decided that being possibly mutated wasn’t any worse than what had already happened to him and allowed himself a sip. It tasted fine.

“How did you get your foot stuck in the ladder anyway?” Marty asked, leaning forward.

“It was a-an accident,” Victor said quickly, teacup rattling in his grip. “I didn’t m-mean – I s-stumbled across your t-train by accident, then some o-other boys c-came along and m-made me go inside. . .I k-knocked the ladder out w-when I heard you c-coming, and then w-when I was t-trying to get back home, I tripped, f-fell on it, and t-twisted my ankle up into i-it.”

“There now, relax,” Dr. Brown said soothingly, picking up a biscuit and offering it to him. “We believe you. I doubt anybody would want to get stuck in that on purpose.”

“Yeah, especially when it means getting dragged cross-country,” Marty agreed. “I told you to lock the door, Doc.”

“How was I supposed to know some random kid would figure out how to open it? That plate’s nearly invisible!”

“Even still, Doc! What if they’d decided to take it out for a joyride?”

“Oh, they n-never would have d-done that,” Victor spoke up, nibbling on his biscuit. “They w-were much too a-afraid. That’s, er, w-why they s-shoved me in t-there.”

Dr. Brown and Marty looked at him. “Nice fellas,” Marty said after a moment, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, t-they’re not so b-bad,” Victor lied, before taking another sip of tea.

“Forcing you to be their guinea pig just in case my train was something truly dangerous? I’d say they are,” Dr. Brown argued. Then he smiled. “Never mind that now, though – you’re safe here, I promise.”

Am I? Victor looked around the sitting room again. It seemed a perfectly normal room – on the small side, but that was only to be expected. What little he’d seen of the rest of the flat had looked normal too. He looked back at Dr. Brown and Marty, who were watching him with faintly puzzled expressions. “Do forgive me,” he said softly, putting down his teacup. “I’m just – I never – I never t-thought Touched could be so – h-hospitable.”

Marty snorted. “What, were you expecting us to drag you down to a dungeon and chain you to the wall?”

Victor blushed and looked at his feet. “A little.”

Dr. Brown shook his head with a sigh. “That’s the problem with society – they judge a group as a whole by a few bad apples. Just one Touched has to try and take over the world, and suddenly we’re all maniacs who want to conquer all we see.” He gave Victor a reassuring smile. “I’ll admit to being a moderate sufferer of Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder--”

“What now?” Victor blurted without meaning to.

“That’s the official name for what makes a Touched a Touched,” Dr. Brown explained, chuckling. “I just meant I’m Somewhat Touched. But I’m not evil, Victor. Most of us aren’t.”

“Yeah, do you think I’d be working for a guy who was evil?” Marty asked.

Victor hesitated. The polite answer was “No,” the honest answer was, “Well, I don’t know you very well yet.” “You don’t seem the type,” he hedged.

“He’s only just met us, Marty,” Dr. Brown said. “He can’t make a judgement like that right away.”

“I dunno – giving him tea and cookies seems to suggest we’re not bad guys.”

“We could have poisoned them. Not that we did,” Dr. Brown hurriedly added.

Victor found himself smiling. “I trust you that far,” he admitted. “I’m s-sure I’d be dead already i-if you had.”

“Exactly,” Marty said with a grin of his own. “And we’ll bring you back to Burtonsville in one piece, promise.” There was a pause. “Your home is Burtonsville, right?”

“Yes,” Victor confirmed, finishing off his biscuit. “My father owns the local cannery. H-have you heard of Van Dort Fish?”

Dr. Brown and Marty frowned thoughtfully. “Think I have,” Marty said. “Saw it at the grocery store one day. We don’t eat a lot of fish around here.” He looked Victor up and down. “Gotta say, that’s an awful nice suit for a guy whose father works in a cannery.”

“Not works, owns,” Victor corrected gently. “He’s a-actually the richest man in t-town. We live in a h-huge house right on the square. Perhaps you s-saw it – it has large statues of f-fish outside of it.”

That place?” Marty said, sounding awed. “Sheesh, I’ve never seen a bigger house! And you lived there?!” Victor nodded. “Your dad must be rolling in dough. How much do you guys have?”

“Marty, we’re not here to grill him on his financial situation,” Dr. Brown said, sipping his own tea. “We’re here to get him warmed up before taking him back. I’m surprised you didn’t get frostbite from that wind,” he added to Victor.

“I’m g-grateful I didn’t.” Victor picked up another biscuit, wrestling with another question. It seemed intrusive, but he was just so curious. . . . Inquisitiveness won out. “W-where did you get a flying steam train?”

“Oh, the train’s a decommissioned locomotive I acquired from the local railway,” Dr. Brown said, grinning in a less-than-sane manner. The effect wasn’t frightening, though – rather, it was almost comedic. “Took me some time to repurpose it for my needs and get it back into running order. The flight, however, is a new development. You encountered us on our first test run of my hover conversion system!”

“Hover conversion?” Victor repeated, leaning forward.

“Yes! I only discovered it recently. It works on the principles of electromagentism,” Dr. Brown said, a strange note creeping into his voice. “The device I’ve created sets up a specialized flow of magnetic energy that constantly adjusts to the polarity of the earth’s natural magnetic field, thereby forcing the object away from the earth. Like how two similarly charged magnets repel each other. The strength can be adjusted for the size and weight of the object – obviously, it took me a while to calibrate it properly for the train. Then it’s just a matter of finding a proper power source to push your vehicle and keeping an eye on the magnetic fluxes. This is all a gross simplification of course, the proper explanation is far more complicated and gets into things like atom theory and--”

“Doc, I don’t think he even gets the ‘gross simplification,’” Marty pointed out with a little laugh.

“No, no, I sort of do,” Victor said, thinking it over. Something about the new tone of Dr. Brown’s voice seemed to make his thoughts and ideas infectious. “It – it rides on a cushion of this magnetic energy?”

“More or less,” Dr. Brown said with a nod. “With adjustments made for height differentials. Getting it to float a few inches above the ground is far easier than getting it to float thirty feet above the ground, let me tell you.” He clapped his hands. “But! As our trip today shows, we’ve got it working! Now I can return to work on my most ambitious project yet!”

“And what’s that?” Victor asked, interested.

Dr. Brown leaned forward, grinning widely. “Time travel.”

“Time travel?”

“Yeah, he’s serious,” Marty said, snagging a cookie. “He’s told me all about it. He got the idea back when he was thirty-something, been working on it ever since.”

“Thirty-five,” Dr. Brown clarified. “I was standing on my toilet hanging a clock; the porcelain was wet; I slipped, hit my head on the sink – and when I came to, I had a revelation! A vision! A picture in my head!” He flung his arms wide. “The flux capacitor!”

“That glowing Y-shaped thing on the front of the train,” Marty added for Victor’s benefit. “According to Doc, it opens up holes in the space-time continuum. Or it will, once we get it working.”

“That’s – that’s incredible,” Victor said, utterly awed, tea and biscuit forgotten in his hands. “So – is that typewriter-like device related to that?”

“Oh, you saw that! Yes, that’s the main temporal location display,” Dr. Brown said proudly. “The top readout is the Destination Time, the middle is Present Time, and the bottom is Last Time Departed. You use the keys to set the time you want to go to. It’s a fairly simple arrangement.”

Victor nodded, completely swept away by his host’s enthusiasm. “So, ah, what’s stopping you? One would think if you could travel anywhere in time. . . .”

Here Dr. Brown looked a bit embarrassed. “Well, everything works, more or less,” he said, fiddling with his fingers. “The trouble is the amount of power needed and the speed required. It takes, at minimum, one-point-twenty-one gigawatts of electricity to open a proper portal through space-time. That’s the amount in a good-sized bolt of lightning. The other thing is that you have to be going very fast to take advantage of the portal – it doesn’t stay open very long. The minimum speed on that is eighty-eight miles per hour. You can see how such requirements could be a problem.”

Victor nodded again, boggled by the size of the numbers. “Goodness. Especially with a train. . . .”

“It’s the only vehicle I know of even slightly close to capable of meeting the speed requirement,” Dr. Brown explained. “I did some research on the subject back when Marty and I were living in Hill Valley.”

“Yeah, we asked one of the engineers,” Marty said with a smirk. “Guy thought we were nuts when we asked if you could get one of those things up to ninety.”

“Yes, but he also admitted that he thought it could be done,” Dr. Brown told him, holding up a finger.

“Only if you followed about five million rules,” Marty retorted. “Straight stretch of track, no hills, no cars, have to get the fire hotter than those of Hell. . . .”

“Aha, that’s why I invented the hover conversion system, remember? I thought that by eliminating the need for tracks entirely, and also eliminating the problem of friction, we’d be set! Now we just need to get her up to speed. We’ll have to take a reading on that at the first opportunity, see what the current maximum speed is. Damn, I should have – actually, no, I shouldn’t have done that today,” he corrected himself, shooting an apologetic look at Victor. “I’m sorry, when I get onto this subject, I tend to become – excitable.”

“I noticed,” Victor said, smiling. Oh – so that odd tone to his voice must have been Creativity, he realized. They did say that a Touched’s voice changes when he lets the madness take over. . .but what ideas! “But it sounds wonderful, I have to say.”

“Really? You like it?” Marty looked surprised – and just a little impressed. “The way you were acting before, I thought you would have ducked for cover once Doc started talking like that.”

Victor paused, thinking about that for a moment. Actually, Marty was right – that would have been the natural thing to do for him. He was naturally shy and nervous, had been ever since birth. Being around a Touched should terrify him.

But it didn’t. He’d felt uneasy when he’d first come in, but that had faded away quickly as they’d fed him and talked to him, acting just like normal people. And when Dr. Brown had started detailing his inventions – it was hard not to get swept away by the sheer enthusiasm, the sheer joy in his voice. It had made him feel – more alive, somehow. A bit like he felt when he was reading his secret stash of penny dreadfuls, imagining himself having the fantastic adventures they described. It was actually rather nice. “Well – the things he was d-discussing were so – interesting--”

Dr. Brown grinned. “Aha. Have a bent for this sort of work yourself, perhaps?”

Victor couldn’t help it – he laughed. “Oh, hardly. Though I am a b-bit interested in science – entomology. I – um – I study butterflies,” he said quickly, looking back down as a blush heated his cheeks.

“Oh? Never been one for the biological side of science myself,” Dr. Brown said. “I used to get a little squeamish around blood. My interest has always lay in the mechanical side of things. I mean, I’d like to think that, in a way, I’m a student of all sciences, but my passions have always lain with physics and inventing, with a little chemistry thrown in.”

Victor looked up, astonished. “What – you don’t think it’s unmanly?” he blurted.

Dr. Brown blinked. “Why would I think – your studying butterflies, you mean? What’s unmanly about that?”

“M-Mother always said it was,” Victor said, pulling at his tie. “She told me young men shouldn’t w-waste their time c-chasing insects.”

“Don’t all kids do that?” Marty asked. “I know I did. Well, until I ran into that wasps’ nest one time. . . .”

“She didn’t a-approve of me doing it as a c-child either.” Victor gave his tie a twist. “Then again, she never approves of anything.”

Dr. Brown and Marty looked concerned again. “You don’t sound happy,” Marty noted, leaning forward.

Victor shook his head. “It’s j-just me being silly,” he said, trying to smile and not quite succeeding. “Mother and I just – we h-have different interests. She wants to be noble one day, or at l-least allowed to mingle with them. I – I’d b-be perfectly happy chasing butterflies the r-rest of my life.”

“What about your dad?”

“Father – cares more about what Mother thinks. That and the cannery. He’s always t-telling me how I’m to t-take it over one day, and I really don’t--” Victor stopped himself, feeling embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be telling you all this. . . .”

“No, it’s fine,” Dr. Brown told him, patting him on the shoulder. “This all reminds me a bit of how I met Marty. Somehow, we both found ourselves telling each other all about our lives.”

“Yeah, I guess I’m just a natural Igor,” Marty said with a laugh. “First Touched I meet, and I end up becoming his best friend.”

Victor looked between them. This was so strange. His entire world view had been turned upside-down in a matter of hours. This morning, he’d been living in a perfectly ordinary town, convinced that Touched were evil monsters and that their assistants were little more than slavering minions. Now, he’d been accidentally abducted by a flying steam train, and found that at least one of these “madmen” and his “Igor” were actually quite nice people. And already he liked his new perspective more than the old. “P-perhaps I’m the same,” he joked. “Maybe I should s-stay here with you two.”

Marty laughed. Dr. Brown, however, suddenly looked rather serious. “Would you like to?”

“What?”

“What?” Marty repeated, looking at his friend in surprise.

“God knows we could use another pair of hands around the lab,” Dr. Brown said, speaking to both Marty and Victor. “And I honestly think he has what it takes. Anyone else who’d had to spend two hours dangling from my train would have been out of here like a shot the first chance they go. You actually stayed and talked. And judging by how much you got into my little rant there. . . .”

Victor was astonished. “But – I barely know you!”

“Doesn’t matter to Doc,” Marty said, looking intrigued himself. “He offered me my job second day we knew each other. And you seem like an okay guy to me.”

“It would be fifteen shillings a week, plus a room here and all your meals,” Doc said, leaning back and underlining his words with a biscuit. “In return, you’d help Marty and me out with my various projects.” He grinned, the Creativity leaking back into his voice. “Just think, Victor – you could be one of the co-inventors of time travel!”

Victor couldn’t do much more than stare. “I – it’s a very generous offer--” he babbled.

“Nobody’s gonna force you to stay,” Marty reassured him. “You say no, Doc’ll take you home right now. We don’t exactly make a habit of kidnapping people.”

“Quite right,” Doc said, returning to normal. “It’s your decision, Victor. But if you’d like to stay. . . .”

Victor looked at them for a moment. Stay here? In the Mad Scientist Capital of the World? Assisting a Touched? It was – it was insane, it was ludicrous, it was –

exciting.

He’d always quietly craved a bit of excitement. Something to break up the monotony of the days. And what was he going back to in Burtonsville? Almost nobody there paid him much attention. And the ones that did usually wanted to berate and torment him. His parents – Victor loved his parents, but he couldn’t deny they were rather distant. Father was more concerned with his cannery, while Mother was always going on about moving into the upper circles of society. Neither of them paid him any mind unless he’d gotten into trouble, Mother especially. And then she’d yell and tell him to stop being such an embarrassment. He’d gotten used to it over the years, but it still hurt a little.

Oh God – and then there were the Everglots.

Victor felt a bit of a chill crawl up his spine as he remembered the news his mother had dropped on him not two weeks ago – that he was arranged to marry the daughter of Lord and Lady Everglot. It had all been set up before Christmas, apparently, with the wedding itself set for the end of January. Victor had been stunned – how could his parents expect him to get married? He was a mess around young ladies; they had to know that from all the failed balls and parties he’d attended! Not to mention he’d never even met the young woman in question. He still hadn’t – all the parents involved seem to think it best to keep the two betrothed apart. He didn’t know a thing about her. All he could do was look at her parents and guess. And Lord and Lady Everglot were such horridly mean people, that he’d really started to dread the upcoming wedding.

His eyes refocused on Dr. Brown and Marty, waiting for his answer. It occurred to him that, in such a short time, they’d shown him more kindness than he’d known in a long while. And the idea of being known as someone who’d helped with such a fantastic invention did tickle his fancy. And Doc was right about him staying and talking rather than running. Maybe – maybe, in some odd way, he belonged here. Slowly, he smiled. “Yes,” he said. “I’d like that very much.”

Chapter Text

January 14th, 18–

Secundus, England

8:41 A.M.

The smell of bacon wafting through the flat stirred Victor’s consciousness. He blinked open his eyes, looking around in disorientation for a moment as his groggy brain tried to process why he was sleeping on a couch in a sitting room instead of in his bed at home. Then the events of the other day caught back up to him. Well, he thought, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. Welcome to your new life, Master Van Dort.

He followed the smell of the bacon into the little combined kitchen and dining area. He hadn’t seen much of it the other day – most of his time had been spent in the sitting room, talking with his new employers and getting the couch made up into a suitable bed. Now, though, he could see that it was very far from an ordinary kitchen. There were the usual appliances you found in a kitchen – an icebox, an oven with a stove top, some counters, some cupboards, and a sink. But the icebox was humming in a rather peculiar manner, the oven looked like it had been rebuilt at least once, and the counters were laden with all sorts of strange machinery. Some of which was moving at the moment. Victor wandered closer to see two pans sitting on the stove – one with eggs, one with the bacon he’d smelled earlier. There was also strange box with a slot on it – as Victor watched, toast popped up out of the slot.

“Ah, you’re up,” a voice said behind him. Victor turned to see Dr. Brown there, smiling. “Ready for breakfast?”

Victor nodded, looking again at the food cooking before. “This is – quite the machine you’ve set up,” he said.

“Took me a while to get the timings right,” Dr. Brown commented, picking up the piece of toast and taking a bite. “And the toast still ends up burnt more often than not.”

“I’ve never seen an electric toaster before,” Victor confessed, examining it in amazement. “We did all our toasting the old way, with forks over the fireplace.”

“Well, these are still prototypical,” Dr. Brown said, inserting another piece of toast into the machine. “I’m sure once someone solves the ‘catches on fire occasionally’ problem for good, everyone will want one.”

Victor hurriedly moved away from the device. “Do you use a lot of electricity here?”

“Oh, yes. I’m a big proponent of electricity as the way of the future,” Dr. Brown grinned. “We’ve got our own generator downstairs. Needs regular maintenance, sometimes breaks down, but it works well enough.” He indicated the icebox. “I’m particularly proud of what I was able to do with this. It’s a full electricity-run refrigeration unit. A far more streamlined version of what I had back in my old lab. That one was steam-run, and it was only really good for producing ice cubes. This one can actually keep food cold.” He opened the door, cold air misting out and condensing on the floor. “Care for some milk? Juice? Or I could put on a pot of coffee.”

“Milk will be fine,” Victor said, peeking inside. The interior of the icebox was divided into sections by various shelves. Liquids were on the top, and various types of cold food lined the others. He stuck a hand in – it was quite chilly. “And it does this without the help of ice?”

“Under normal conditions – we try to have ice on-hand if the generator breaks down,” Doc said, pulling out the milk. “Go on, sit down – Marty should be in shortly.”

Victor obeyed, taking a seat at the little table as Dr. Brown prepared plates. As he began actually dishing out the food, Marty stumbled in, looking groggy. “Hello, unconscious one,” Dr. Brown said with a smirk. “Is the analytical engine up and running?”

“Half power,” Marty muttered, sitting down and taking a big gulp of milk. He wiped his mouth, then noticed Victor. “Hey. How’d you sleep?”

“Fine,” Victor said. Which wasn’t quite accurate, but he didn’t think they needed to hear that he’d stared at the ceiling for at least a hour before finally drifting off. Besides, that would have happened whether he had stayed or not. Chronic insomnia was one of the things he hated most about his mind. “How about yourself?”

“Okay,” Marty yawned. “I just hate getting up in the morning.”

“He’d sleep until noon if I let him,” Dr. Brown reported, sitting down to his own breakfast. “I know because I did once. Sometimes I wonder if he’s really awake when he gets up, or if he’s simply moving on autopilot.”

“I’m awake, I’m awake,” Marty said, spearing some bacon on his fork. “Just need some time to get going.”

“Well, we’ve got a busy day today,” Dr. Brown said. “In addition to our normal activities, we need to get Victor settled here.” He glanced the young man up and down. “You’ll need clothes for a start. Will the couch do as a bed for now? I know it’s probably a bit cramped because of your height--”

“It’s fine,” Victor assured him. “I don’t w-want you to go to too much t-trouble on my account. But I will have to write my p-parents and let them know I’m all right. Otherwise t-they’ll worry terribly.”

“Of course,” Dr. Brown said. “You can write them right after breakfast if you want. I’ve got paper handy.”

“I’ll take you out to get your stuff,” Marty offered, looking more awake now that he’d gotten some food inside of him. “There’s a clothing shop a couple of blocks down the street I know. We should be able to get something for you.” He eyed Victor for a moment. “How tall are you?”

“Six feet and three inches,” Victor said, finishing off his eggs.

Marty whistled slightly. “He’s got two inches on you, Doc. And almost a foot on me,” he added, sounding a bit sulkily.

“Don’t start about your height,” Dr. Brown said firmly. “You’re fine the way you are.”

“Be better if I’d actually went through that growth spurt everybody tells me about.” Marty had some more bacon. “Your family tall, Victor?”

“Well, on my father’s side,” Victor said. “Mother’s family tends to be shorter.” He smiled. “According to them, I’m a Van Dort through and through – too tall and too skinny for my own good.”

“I didn’t want to say anything,” Marty smirked.

“Oh, stop it you two,” Dr. Brown said, looking between them. “Anyway, I’ll give you some money, and you two can go out and get whatever you think you need. Then when you get back I can show Victor around the shop.”

“The shop?” Victor repeated, a little surprised.

“Yes – my lab doubles as a money-making venture,” Dr. Brown said, gesturing with his coffee cup. “E.L. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services. Mostly I do repair work, but occasionally someone asks for a specific invention. It works well for me – I’m doing something I love, and it leaves me plenty of time for my own work.”

“Oh.” Victor poked at his last piece of bacon for a moment. “D-do you get a lot of – Touched customers?” he asked, wondering if that was polite.

“A few,” Dr. Brown said. “Most of us prefer building our own, of course. But I’ve made some friends who are willing to let me take a look at their things.”

“Not too close a look, mind,” Marty joked, earning himself a playful glare from Dr. Brown.

Victor shook his head, chuckling. “Of course not. I was just wondering, since you’re nothing like I expected you to be. . . .”

“Trust me, if there’s something Touched are not, it’s predictable,” Dr. Brown grinned. “Yes, some of us are dangerous, but if they come into my shop, they should be fine to talk to. Now come on, let’s finish our breakfasts.”

They cleaned off their plates and put them in the sink to soak a bit. Victor was led to the tiny room Dr. Brown had converted to an office. He heard the contents of the room before he saw them – what looked like dozens of clocks, scattered all around. Some hung on the walls, others sat on shelves, still others were propped up on the floor. The study was alive with the sound of constant ticking. “Er – are they to help with your time travel experiments?” he guessed, staring around at them.

Dr. Brown let out a short, somewhat embarrassed laugh. “Well, some of them. I’ve just always had an affinity for time pieces, especially after that incident with the toilet that led to my conception of the flux capacitor.” He grinned. “I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve managed to get them all precisely in sync.”

All of them?” Victor said, astonished.

“Yup! You should hear it when they strike the hour. It’s music to the ears.”

Victor tried to imagine it. It seemed more like a good way to go deaf to him. “It’s very impressive, I’m sure,” he said, half-truthfully and half-to be polite.

“It is. Anyway--” Dr. Brown slid open one of the drawers of his desk. “Here’s some paper, and an envelope. Just give it to me when you’re done and I’ll make sure it’s posted.”

“Thank you.” Victor sat down as Dr. Brown went to attend to the dishes. He looked at the blank sheet of paper for a moment, thinking about what he wanted to say. Then he picked up the pen sitting in the inkwell and began to write. Dear Mother and Father, I know this will come as something of a shock to you both. . . .

He wrote quickly, assuring his parents of his safety and explaining his situation and his decision to stay with Dr. Brown and Marty. They probably won’t believe it’s from me, he thought as he signed the letter. I hardly believe it’s from me. Who would have thought not twenty-four hours ago that today I would have agreed to stay in Secundus as the assistant to a Touched? Still, it seems all right so far. We’ll see how it goes.

He let the ink set for a few minutes to dry, then folded up the letter and stuffed it in the envelope. He found Dr. Brown and gave him the completed missive – the scientist promised to mail it before the day was out. He in return gave Victor some money and sent him and Marty out onto the streets to buy essentials.

Secundus from ground level was just as strange as Secundus from the air. The instant he descended the steps, Victor was hit by the sheer busyness of the city. There were people everywhere, thronging along the streets. Most of them looked normal enough, but interspersed here and there were people who looked like they’d been sewn together, or some who were sporting more than the usual number of limbs or heads. There were also some Automatons roaming about, zipping along on wheels or crawling around on many-jointed legs. Victor thought he saw the pickle people again at the end of the street. “Goodness,” he breathed.

“Wild, huh?” Marty said, coming to stand behind him. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I don’t see how,” Victor admitted, as a man with what looked to be a clockwork-driven leg passed by them on a bicycle.

“It’s easier than you think – you got used to me and Doc quick, right?” Victor had to nod to that. “Right. Come on, let’s get you some decent threads.”


“Come on, Victor, I want to see how it looks!”

Victor looked down at his new outfit doubtfully. “You’re sure this is standard dress for this city?”

“That’s pretty tame compared to what some people wear. Come on!”

Reluctantly, Victor exited the dressing room. Marty grinned and gave him a thumbs up. “You look good!”

Did he? Victor looked down at himself again. The black suit itself wasn’t too different from the ones he was used to. The lemon yellow vest and emerald green tie weren’t too strange either, although they were certainly brighter than anything in Burtonsville. And there was absolutely nothing peculiar about the shoes. But the long coat he was wearing over it all. . .it was a perfectly acceptable black, but it seemed to come pre-ripped for some reason, the tattered flaps brushing up against his legs. There was something similar going on with the gloves – they’d be fine if someone hadn’t cut off the tips of the fingers. And – “I still don’t quite understand why you say I ought to wear these,” he said, reaching up and pulling the black and green goggles off his forehead. “What purpose do they serve?”

“Trust me, you live here for a while, you’re gonna want a good pair of goggles,” Marty said, indicating the brass-colored pair hanging from his belt. Then he grinned. “Besides, you look cool with them.”

“I look. . . .”

Marty had the grace to look a little embarrassed. “It means something looks good,” he explained. “We’ve kind of got our own slang around here.”

“So I see,” Victor muttered, feeling utterly lost. Why had he agreed to the job as Dr. Brown’s second assistant again? He knew absolutely nothing about mad science! Goodness, he knew little enough about regular science! Except entomology, but what use would that be here? Whoever heard of a Touched entomologist? He’d probably be fired in less than a week. Perhaps it would be easier to save everyone the trouble and ask Dr. Brown to take him home now. . . .

But even as he thought that, something deep inside him rebelled against the notion. Even with all his nervousness about working around and with a Touched, and fitting in here in Secundus, he didn’t really want to go home. Burtonsville was so – so dull when compared with the wonder that was Secundus. And going home met dealing with his parents, and the Everglots, and the distinct possibility – no, the almost certainty – of an arranged marriage. . . .

“You okay over there?” Marty asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. The teenager was watching him with a rather concerned expression. “You look worried. More worried than usual, I mean.”

Victor smiled. That was something else – already, Dr. Brown and Marty were the closest things he’d had to friends ever since Scraps had died. That was definitely not something he’d get back in Burtonsville. “Just reflecting on all that’s happened in the last day,” he admitted. “Just an attack of nerves on my part. So – how much is all this?”

Marty grinned again. “Shouldn’t be more than about twenty, twenty-five bucks – shillings -- or is it pounds?” he corrected himself with a slight wince. “Jesus, I’ve been there for almost a year, you’d think I remember. . . .”

Victor felt his curiosity rise up again. “Where exactly is it you come from?” he asked. “You’ve mentioned a place called Hill Valley a number of times, and I’ve gathered from your accents that you and Dr. Brown are American, but which state?”

“California,” Marty provided. “We’re one of the newer towns out there. I think we only got official cityhood about – twenty years ago?” He shrugged. “Before I was born, anyway.”

Victor nodded. “Do you ever miss it there? I imagine England is a rather large change.”

“Well, I’m not liking all the rain, no,” Marty confessed, bringing a smile to Victor’s lips. “Yeah, I do a little. Mostly my family and my girlfriend.”

Victor blinked. “Your family?” he blurted, then blushed. “I’m s-sorry, I just – I assumed you were Dr. Brown’s ward.”

“Easy mistake when you’ve known somebody for a day,” Marty said, unoffended. “And I am, sort of. He’s in charge of me while we’re over here, anyway. But I’m not an orphan – I’ve got my parents and a brother and sister back home. I write ‘em every month.”

“I see.” Victor frowned thoughtfully. “So – and f-feel free to t-tell me I’m out of line – why did you come here with Dr. Brown?”

“Oh, you know, I wanted to get out and live a little.”

“Live a little?”

Marty nudged him, smiling. “Come on, Victor, you’re from a small town. You know what they’re like. All the houses the same, everybody watching everybody else, and the same thing happening day after day--”

“After day,” Victor finished with a sigh. “Oh, yes, I understand that.”

“I thought you would. Going with Doc meant an adventure. And my family knows and likes him, so. . . .”

“So – it’s a bit like you’re studying abroad,” Victor said.

“Yeah, kinda. Mom and Dad know I’m in good hands.”

“They trust Dr. Brown that much?”

“Took them a while to come around when I first started visiting him, but now they do,” Marty confirmed. “Doc’s pretty stable for a Touched. He goes off on the science rants, sure, and he’s talked about showing them all once or twice, but he’s never mentioned wanting to kill someone. And he’s really worried about time travel breaking the universe – he’s trying to find out all he can so we can take the right precautions and stuff. He doesn’t want anybody disappearing from the time line, or the galaxy exploding.”

Victor shook his head. “This is all so different than what I was taught,” he said, fiddling with the goggles in his hands. “Everyone at home said that Touched were monsters. And that people like you were – forgive me – idiots. And that’s the kindest things they said. Pastor Galswells once gave a sermon condemning all Touched as under Satan’s influence.”

“Gee, he sounds like a nice guy,” Marty deadpanned. “I can’t imagine why you don’t want to go back and listen to him more.” Victor desperately tried to hide his snickers. “Though you’ve got me wondering now – aren’t your parents going to miss you?”

Victor felt his amusement die. “I – I suppose they will,” he said softly, thinking about the scene that had to be happening at home. His mother marching around, declaring him a ninny, his father trying to calm her without directly contradicting anything she said. . . .

“You suppose?”

“Well – I don’t think it’ll be me they miss as much as what I can do for them,” Victor admitted slowly, reaching up to fiddle with his new tie.

“Do for them? You’re their child, you think they’d miss you just for you!” Marty shook his head. “What exactly does ‘what you can do for them’ mean, anyhow?”

“They’ve a-arranged a m-m-m-marriage for me,” Victor finally got out. He hadn’t realized how much that word worried him before now.

“One of those?” Marty made a face. “You’re lucky you ended up on Doc’s train. Who with?”

“The daughter of Lord and Lady Everglot. They’re the most important people in our village – descendants of a Grand Duke,” Victor explained.

“Huh. Don’t those sort of marriages usually go the other way?” Marty said, thinking it over. “The son of an aristocrat marries some commoner’s daughter because he’s got no more money?”

“Well, that is partially why I was e-en-engaged to her,” Victor said with a shrug. “The Everglots have fallen on hard times. It’s not publicly known, but Mother got it out of them. We’re fantastically rich compared to them, but we have no title, so people still look down on us. Mother and Father think that me m-m-marrying a lord’s daughter will help fix that.”

“Uh – I don’t know much about it, but I’m pretty sure becoming a noble doesn’t work like that.”

“Oh, we all know that I wouldn’t be a lord if I m-m-married her. It’s the fact that we’d be connected with such a noble family. Mother’s of the opinion it would get her on the path to having tea with the Queen one day.”

“Your mom really cares a lot about all that society stuff, doesn’t she?”

“Oh yes,” Victor said, noticing he’d untucked his tie in his nervousness and attempting to straighten it out. “She was born in the lower classes, but she’s certain she’s destined to be a part of the ‘upper crust.’ She’s always saying that, no matter our origins, we’re every bit as good as people such as the Everglots. Of course, she’s also constantly copying everything she can about aristocratic families. Father goes along with her whole-heartedly.”

“And you?”

Victor paused, and resumed fiddling with his tie. “I’m shy,” he said softly. “And I don’t care about parties and high tea and all the rest of it. I’m happy enough to just spend my time reading or watching the butterflies.”

“Sounds like you don’t fit in with your parents at all.”

Victor shrugged. “We – get along all right. I’m sure they care.”

Marty looked dubious, but changed the subject, much to Victor’s relief. “So, you’re getting the stuff you have on?”

“Yes, I think I am.”

“Good. Let’s grab a few more shirts and pants and stuff.”

They searched through the racks and shelves for a bit, locating a couple more basic outfits. Victor paid the young lady at the counter, and they headed back out onto the streets. “Anything else you want to get while we’re out here?” Marty asked, looking around. “Essentials?”

“Well – if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to get a new sketchbook and quill pen,” Victor admitted, swinging his clothing bag absently. “Drawing’s one of my favorite activities.”

“We should be able to do that,” Marty smiled. “Anything else?”

Victor chuckled a bit. “I don’t think you have the funds or room to buy me a piano,” he said.

“You’re a musician? So am I!”

“Really? What instrument?”

“Guitar. I like to experiment with new sounds,” he said, miming playing a guitar for a moment. “Guessing you’re into Mozart and Bach?”

“Yes, though I do some original composing myself,” Victor said, intrigued. He’d never really gotten the chance to talk to a fellow musician before. “What sort of music do you like then?”

“The lighter stuff you can dance to,” Marty replied. “I’m working on my own sound too. Something totally new.”

“Are you? I’d love to hear some sometime.”

“When we get back to the shop I’ll give you a sample,” Marty promised.

Whatever Victor had planned to say next was abruptly cut off by something black flying overhead, letting out a reptilian cry. He jerked his head up to see – Good Lord, was that a dragon?!

Marty looked up too, and grinned. “Oh, hey! The Berk Dragon Riders are in town!”

“The – you know them?” Victor said, staring at his companion.

“A little,” Marty said. “They visit regularly to get supplies and stuff. Doc’s helped out their chief’s kid a couple of times with inventions. They’re a little clan of Vikings who live in the middle of nowhere.”

“Vikings?”

“Yeah, seriously. They follow almost all of the old Viking ways. Fortunately for everybody they stop short at pillaging people.” More dragons flew overhead, in a variety of shapes and colors. “That’s the rest of the crew. Hiccup, Astrid, Fishlegs, Ruffnut and Tuffnut, and Snotlout. Yes, those are their actual names,” Marty added as Victor gaped at him disbelievingly. “I asked once – something about weird names scaring away trolls and gnomes.”

“Oh my,” Victor mumbled. “And they have pet dragons?”

“Yup! Thanks to Hiccup – they were fighting them for the longest time, but then Hiccup found out that they were all being controlled by this one big nasty dragon. Doc thinks they were a biology experiment that eventually went really wrong for the biologist. That happens a lot, honestly. I mean, Narbonic Labs has been torn down twice by giant gerbils.”

Victor stood silently for a moment, trying his best to process all of this. “I’m never going to get used to this place,” he finally declared.

“Yes you are,” Marty said firmly. “You just gotta take it a day at a time.”

“But I don’t know anything about Touched, or Creativity, or Inventions and experiments and--”

“Relax! You think Doc and I won’t teach you? Think of it as on-the-job training.” Marty gave him a friendly pat on the back. “Look, anything in particular you want to know?”

“Everything,” Victor admitted honestly.

“I think that would make your head explode.”

Victor smiled despite himself. “Well – can you at least tell me how many Touched live here?”

“Eh, it’s hard to pin down,” Marty admitted. “Some people visit for a while, some people use the place as a summer home – Lady Heterodyne comes down here sometimes. Baron Wulfenbach too.”

“Lady Heterodyne?! Isn’t she--”

“Yeah, the one with the sentient castle. I think she set up a summer yurt here.”

“A summer – yurt?”

“Yeah. From what I heard, her castle wanted to be one. I really don’t know myself.” Marty shrugged. “As for the rest, there’s Touched-run places all over the city. There’s Narbonic Labs, run by Helen Narbon the gerbil lady, there’s The Roofless, that’s owned by Flint Lockwood and his fiancée, there’s Wonderland Park, Lewis Carroll takes care of that--”

Victor, intent upon the list, suddenly found himself walking straight into someone. “Oof! Oh, I’m sorry!” he said immediately, stumbling backwards.

“It’s fine,” the person – a young lady, Victor noticed with an extra wince of guilt – said, straightening her skirt.

“–And there’s Richard Dodgson’s hat shop. Hi Alice.”

“Hello Marty,” the young lady said, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “How are you?”

“All right. How are you?”

“Doing well.” The young lady’s eyes came to rest on Victor again. Victor shifted his weight awkwardly. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Victor Van Dort,” Marty introduced Victor. “He’s Doc’s new assistant. Victor, this is Alice Liddell. She works at the hat shop I just told you about.”

Victor looked at Alice. She was a pretty girl – about the same height as Marty, with long, rather dark auburn hair stretching to her shoulders. She was dressed a bit unusually, in his opinion (not that anyone around here seemed to dress how he expected – Marty had been right, almost everyone had goggles on their person at the very least) – a bright blue dress that only went to about her knees, revealing knee-high black buckled boots and just a hint of black and white striped stockings. Over the dress was a white apron with two pockets, each marked with a strange black symbol. There was also a brown belt with goggles dangling from it (hers were gold-colored with yellow-tinted lenses), and – what looked like a sheath for a knife. Over it all was a red coat that looked like it had seen better days.

But what really caught his attention were her eyes. They were a brilliant green, and seemed capable of staring straight into your soul. There was something almost dangerous about those eyes – something that made you not want to challenge her in any way, lest you come away from the encounter with something missing. And yet, there was something alluring about them too, promising one more pleasant excitement if you got on her good side. . . .

Victor realized he was starting to stare and hurriedly bowed. “A p-pleasure to meet you,” he said, trying and failing to keep the stutter from his voice.

Alice curtsied appropriately, smirking a little. “Very nice to meet you as well, Master Van Dort. How long have you been working for Dr. Brown?”

“Well – t-today’s my first real day.”

“Oh. How long have you lived in the city then?”

“. . .Again, today’s my f-first real day. . . .”

“We sort of accidentally kidnapped him,” Marty said with a joking grin as Alice blinked in puzzlement. “We finally got the train flying, and we took it down to his hometown. He found it and got his foot tangled in the rope ladder Doc installed. Ended up dangling from it the entire way back – we didn’t realize he was there until we landed.”

“Really?” Alice looked at Victor again. She seemed almost impressed. “And you chose to stay with them?”

Victor nodded, resisting the urge to play with his tie some more. “T-They made me a very k-kind job offer. And there’s very l-little I have to concern me back home.”

“I’m taking him around, getting him clothes and stuff,” Marty said. “Think I should get him a hat too?”

“I’m sure Richard would like the business,” Alice said with another smirk. “It’s been a bit slow as of late.”

“You work for him?” Victor said, knowing the minute the words left his mouth how asinine they must sound. Why oh why did he fall to pieces in front of women? No wonder his mother hadn’t wanted him to talk to his arranged fiancee.

“As a clerk,” Alice nodded. “His shop is just down the street if you’d like to come in.”

“Might as well get you a hat,” Marty said, glancing up at Victor. “And he’s the best guy around.”

“All right,” Victor agreed. “Please lead on, Miss Liddell.”

“Thank you.” Alice continued her walk down the street, the two boys falling into step behind her. “Do you know everyone who lives around here?” Victor added to Marty in a quiet voice.

“Practically everybody Touched,” Marty confessed. “Most of them have had to come to Doc to get something fixed. That’s a good way to tell if one of them is a jerk or not, by the way – if he just seems embarrassed, he’s okay; if he’s acting like it’s a major blow to his ego, he’s probably got a stick up his ass.”

“Marty! There’s a lady right in front of us!” Victor said, shocked.

“Alice? She doesn’t care about swearing, trust me,” Marty grinned at him.

“Still, it’s quite rude.”

“Wait until you see her angry,” Marty said, jerking his head at Alice. “Then you’ll see rude.”

The hat shop was right on the street corner. A large and colorful sign shaped like a top hat declared it “The Mad Hatter Haberdashery.” The shop itself was red, with two large windows in the front and a door made of clear glass. Stacked in the windows were a variety of men and women’s hats, all in different colors and with different accessories. It was like looking at a rainbow people could wear on their heads. Victor lingered for a moment to admire them, then noticed the others had gone inside without him and hurried to catch up.

The inside of the shop was even odder than the outside. Three of the walls appeared to be made up of various cogs, gears, and wheels, all fused together into a brassy mess. The fourth was plain white – or, at least, it had been before someone had started scribbling on it. Scattered all over were notes done in tiny handwriting. There were more hats on shelves attached to the walls, and a couple on hat racks in the corners. There was a tiny counter near the back, painted a rather odd shade of green – Alice went toward that, taking off her coat as she went. And to one side of the shop were a couple of arm chairs that had the backs half cut off, and a number of odd-looking machines. Victor tried for a moment to figure out what they did, then gave up. “Very nice shop,” he said, for lack of anything better.

“Thank you.” Alice hung her coat on a little hook in the wall. “Shall I fetch Richard then?”

“Yeah,” Marty said, picking up a rather fancy yellow lady’s hat, with a large peacock feather and a little gear stuck into the brim and examining it. “Victor, try not to stare too much.”

“I beg your pardon?” Victor asked.

“Richard looks a bit unusual,” Alice said, proceeding to a door set into the white wall. She opened it and stuck her head in. “Richard?”

There was a sudden crash! from the other side of the door. “You’re late for tea!” a voice yelled petulantly.

“March, really. I’m never even invited to these tea parties of yours.”

“Your hair wants cutting still,” a second, somewhat more nasally voice said.

“And your nose wants shrinking. Come here, you’ve got a customer.”

“A customer?” There was the scraping sound of a chair being pushed back, then footsteps on stairs. Alice cleared the doorway as a figure emerged. “Aha! Welcome to the shop!”

Victor couldn’t help it – he stared. The man standing there was, to put it as kindly as possible, odd. For one thing, he was quite tall – tall enough for Victor to have to look up to meet his eyes. For another, he seemed to be wearing a strait-waistcoat as a shirt! It had all the buckles and straps common to those jackets, and a length of fabric dangled from each sleeve. He was also wearing a top hat that had to add at least an extra foot to his height, checked white and black with strange symbols marked all over it with black or red ink. He carried a crooked cane in one hand, which was topped with a silver teapot decoration. And his face – his face appeared to be at least half-nose, but that was fairly easy to deal with. What wasn’t so easy to deal with was the fact that the man’s face was green. “Hello,” he said after a moment.

“He’s new to Secundus,” Marty said, putting back the hat he’d been looking at. “Doc just hired him on. We’re getting him clothes.”

“Doc’s taken on a new assistant? He always seemed perfectly content with just you,” the man – Victor guessed he was Richard Dodgson – commented.

“They kidnapped him,” Alice said, a bit of a laugh in her voice. “By accident. And Master Van Dort chose to stay here rather than go back.”

“Did he? How horrible is it where you live?”

Alice rolled her eyes as Victor blinked. “Do forgive him, he has absolutely no tact,” she told Victor, taking a seat behind the counter.

“It’s a simple question, and he ought to be able to answer it,” Mr. Dodgson protested, turning toward her.

Victor’s jaw dropped. Mr. Dodgson had gears sticking out of him! Two at the backs of his knees, two at his elbows – along with bits of stick – and a big one in the center of his back! “What are--” he started, then caught himself. This was Secundus – was it really all that surprising that a man would make himself into an Automaton? “I’m t-terribly sorry, t-that was rude--”

Mr. Dodgson gave him an appraising look. “You really are new here, aren’t you?” he said calmly, leaning on his cane.

Victor blushed and looked down at his feet, twisting his tie in his hands. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, voice soft. “We haven’t a-anything like this in Burtonsville. The p-people there w-wouldn’t tolerate it.”

“Sounds boring. Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Victor blinked, looking up again. “I b-beg your pardon?”

“You’ve done nothing to offend me.”

Victor was honestly surprised at that answer – he would have thought for sure asking “what” Mr. Dodgson was would have qualified. “I – er – I meant, what did you mean by that?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. That’s why I’m asking you.”

“I haven’t the slightest idea either.”

“Good, then we’re in agreement. Now then, a hat!” Mr. Dodgson clapped his hands together, producing an oddly wooden sound. He looked Victor up and down a few times. “I know your type. You don’t wear a hat often. Only for special occasions. And you’d favor a top hat for those. Black.” He frowned as Victor marveled at his perception. “You’re almost a tintype, you know.”

“They’re all like that over in Burtonsville,” Marty spoke up. “Doc and I took a walk around the place while we were parked. The entire place is nothing but grey, grey, grey.”

“It’s a bit more than that,” Victor protested, feeling he should defend the integrity of his hometown.

“Okay, there’s black and white too,” Marty smirked.

Victor wanted to say something else, but found that he really couldn’t. The place was grey, even he couldn’t deny that. Wasn’t that part of the reason he was staying here? “I’m sure there’s color somewhere,” he finally said, shrugging.

“Maybe it all bled into the ground during a rainstorm, and no one bothered to dig it up for all the mud,” Mr. Dodgson said, moving closer and examining the top of Victor’s head. “Take off the goggles, please?” Victor did so. Mr. Dodgson leaned down and examined Victor’s forehead. “We need to get you some color,” he declared. “The vest and tie are a step in the right direction. The trouble is that pale skin of yours washes everything else out. But I don’t want to put pure black upon that black hair, no one could tell where your head ends and the hat begins.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his pale grey eyes fixed upon the top of Victor’s head. “Maybe a very dark grey, just enough not to be black, and a bright blue hat band. . . .”

“Whatever you think is best,” Victor said, feeling a bit uncomfortable with all the staring. He felt like he was a particularly interesting hat stand to this fellow.

“Don’t let him bully you,” Alice said from her position from behind the counter. “He likes to make personal remarks.”

“I’m not bullying anyone,” Mr. Dodgson said, shaking his cane at her. “I am making observations appropriate to my business. If – I never did get your name,” he said suddenly, looking discombobulated.

“Victor Van Dort,” Victor provided.

“Van Dort? Like the fish people?”

“Yes. My father owns the cannery.”

“Why doesn’t he ever can snarks?” a different voice said from the region of the door. It sounded like the one that had yelled at Alice for being late to tea. “Those would be lovely on toast.”

“I’ve never heard--” Victor started as the turned toward the voice. Then he stopped, mostly because it appeared the owner of the voice was a large bipedal brown hare wearing a jacket, with straw tangled in his fur. “Of a snark,” he managed after a moment.

“Then you’re poorly informed,” the hare told him. “Even Dormy knows what snarks are, and he sleeps all day.”

“Dormy?”

“The Dormouse,” Alice provided, looking amused. “And this is the March Hare. We call him March for short.”

“A p-pleasure,” Victor said, feeling once again out of his depth. How Marty ever expects me to get used to all this. . .then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of surviving the first day.

The March Hare looked him up and down. “You’re too thin,” he declared, and disappeared through the door again.

“Yes – if I put my hat on you, I suspect it would slip down your ears and cover you from head to foot,” Mr. Dodgson agreed, pulling up one sleeve. Victor saw that the man’s arms were wooden sticks with metal joints. He held up his hand and shook a tape measure out of his glove. “Though, that might be useful in some cases,” he continued, Creativity leaking into his voice as he used the tape measure to measure Victor’s head. “A hat you could live in! With a tea room, and a proper laboratory, and a bed that folds out from the brim. . . .” He dropped the tape measure onto Victor’s shoulders and hurried over to the white wall, picking up a pen and inkwell and scribbling notes onto a spare patch of white. “Yes, yes, this really could work. . . .”

“He’ll be back to you in a moment,” Alice said, unconcerned, as Victor watched Mr. Dodgson write. “He does this all the time.”

Victor was about to reply when two brown paws forced a plate piled high with tea cakes into his hands. Startled, he stumbled backwards, falling into one of the chairs. Somehow, he avoided spilling the cakes. The March Hare leaned over him. “Haven’t broken, have you?” he asked, looking the young man up and down.

“N-no,” Victor said, feeling quite intimidated.

“You look like you will. You look like you’d smash to pieces at any moment. Are you made out of porcelain?”

“No, I’m c-completely flesh and b-blood.”

“No bones?” the March Hare said, looking surprised.

“Of course I have bones!”

“Aha! Then you’re not completely flesh and blood, are you?”

“They like to be literal as well,” Alice said, looking like she was enjoying the scene. “He just moved here, March. You need to be careful with him.”

“I am being careful! That’s what the cakes are for!”

Victor nearly said “I beg your pardon” again, but quickly realized that wouldn’t get him anywhere. “I don’t understand.”

“You are too thin,” the March Hare repeated, gesturing at Victor’s face with a paw. “So we must fill you up with something. I thought you’d prefer tea cakes to water or air or mercury.”

“. . .Yes, I would,” Victor said slowly. Worried that the March Hare would get upset if he didn’t at least make the effort, he picked up one of the little cakes and took a bite.

To his surprise, the cake was actually quite good. Victor made a pleased noise. “Mmm!”

“Yeah, that’s one thing you have to give them,” Marty said, leaning against the other chair. “These guys know how to set a good tea table.”

“One does not stop time at six o’clock and have tea for ages without learning a few things,” the March Hare said proudly. “We shall have him looking like a normal human being in no time.”

Mr. Dodgson finally completed his scribbling and went over to where Victor was seated. He remeasured the young man’s head, then held the measuring tape up perpendicularly to it. “There we are,” he said, apparently satisfied with whatever reading he’d gotten. “We’ll have you properly outfitted in just a moment.” He hurried over to his machines and began to fiddle with them, pulling out swatches of fabric and filling some sort of reservoir beneath one. Then he pulled a lever.

A great blast of steam came out of one end of the first machine. It began to rock gently as mechanical arms manipulated a large piece of slate gray felt, stitching it here and there and generally shaping it into a hat. The hat was then brought over to the next machine, which immersed it in some sort of liquid and manipulated it some more, making it properly stiff. The third machine cut a length of blue ribbon and sewed it into a hatband, then blasted the hat with hot air to dry it. Within ten minutes, the entire process was done. Mr. Dodgson picked up the completed article, examined it, then plopped it on Victor’s head. The top of his hat opened, and an accordion-style mechanical arm popped out holding a mirror. “There! What do you think?”

Victor shook off the sudden appearance of an extra limb from the top of someone’s head and looked at himself. He wasn’t usually one for hats, but this one complimented his face very well. Mr. Dodgson had been right – the grey looked better against his hair than black would have. And the blue of the band reminded him of one of his favorite types of butterflies at home. He smiled up at the taller man. “It’s wonderful.” Mr. Dodgson beamed.

“You haven’t filled out at all,” the March Hare commented, examining Victor’s sides.

“Well, I doubt a few tea cakes will help,” Victor admitted. “Though they are delicious.”

“A few?” Marty said, raising an eyebrow. “Victor, you’ve practically eaten the whole plate!”

Victor looked down. Sure enough, only a lonely few cakes were left on the plate. “Oh! I didn’t even realize,” he said, turning pink with embarrassment. “I just started eating them, and--”

“Don’t blush, it clashes with your hatband,” Mr. Dodgson scolded.

“And we just had breakfast, too. . . .” Marty looked half-amused, half-worried. “How much is it gonna cost us to feed you?”

“I really don’t eat that much,” Victor said, handing the plate back to the March Hare. “I just have a terrible sweet tooth.”

“How terrible is it?” the March Hare asked. “Does it go on raids or order people’s heads chopped off?”

“Well, I will admit to biting the heads off of a fair amount of chocolate rabbits in my time,” Victor admitted with a shy smile.

“Pah, chocolate rabbits. Horrible conversationalists,” the March Hare said dimissively. “Especially after you eat their ears.” Victor giggled.

“Sweet tooth, huh?” Marty grinned, almost evilly. “You ever try Wonka chocolate?”

“Er, no. I’ve heard of it, but Mother would never let me buy any due to Mr. Wonka being a Touched.”

“Oh, I have got to get you to taste some.” Marty glanced over at Mr. Dodgson. “How much for the hat?”

“Ten shillings will be fine, we’re all friends,” Mr. Dodgson said. He patted Victor on the shoulder. “You’ll have to come to one of our tea parties.”

He gets an invite and I don’t?” Alice said, although from the smile on her face she didn’t take any real offense.

You will show up invited or not,” the March Hare said in a rare show of logic. “We may as well not invite you.”

“Because it gives you the excuse to throw things at me?”

“Come off it, you throw things right back.”

“They’re gonna be at this for a while,” Marty said, offering Victor a hand up. “Come on, I’ll take you to the candy shop. You’ll be thanking me later.”

“All right.” Victor waved goodbye to everyone with a smile. “It was very nice to meet you all.”

“Very nice to meet you,” Mr. Dodgson said, tipping his hat. “Good luck with Doc, and tell him hello.”

“I will.”

Alice nodded in Victor’s direction. “Have a good day, Master Van Dort.”

“You as well, Miss Liddell.” Victor looked at her for a minute longer as Marty pulled him out the door. Those green eyes of hers still fascinated him, even if he couldn’t quite pin down why. Maybe – maybe later, I should get another hat made. . . .

Chapter Text

January 14th, 18–

Secundus, England

12:52 P.M.

Dr. Brown looked up as his two wayward assistants entered the shop. “Ah, there you are! Where have you been?”

“Getting clothes, a hat, a sketchbook, and stopping at the candy shop on Mulberry Street,” Marty said with a laugh. “I had some trouble getting Victor out of the last one.”

Victor bounced a little on his heels, grinning. “I am sorry we took so long, but – goodness, I had no idea anything could taste that good!”

Dr. Brown snorted. “Oh, I see. Your first taste of Wonka chocolate?”

“Mother was so wrong about it,” Victor said, continuing to bounce. “Scrum-diddly-umptious is the least one can say about it.”

Dr. Brown noted his energy with a slight frown. “Er – how much did you have?”

“That’s the thing, Doc,” Marty said, trying to hide his chuckles. “For somebody so skinny, he sure can pack it away.”

“I’m sorry,” Victor said, trying to calm himself down. “Perhaps I have had too much sugar. It’s just the March Hare gave me these wonderful tea cakes first, telling me I was too skinny--”

“Oh, that would explain a lot,” Dr. Brown said with a laugh of his own. “Well, fortunately I can help you burn off some of that energy. Let me show you around E.L. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services.”

Victor looked around the shop underneath Dr. Brown and Marty’s flat. It was essentially one long room, with a couple of water closets tucked into the far corner. Most of the shop was filled with shelving and tables, all groaning under the weight of gears, levers, springs, cogs, nuts, bolts, screws, wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and a thousand other mechanical parts and tools. Inventions in various stages of completion were scattered among the debris. One table closer to the front door housed a chemistry set, with a full set of beakers and tubing and coils of glass and colored liquids dripping through it all. There were also yet more clocks on the walls, all in dead sync with each other. Next to the group was the front counter, with more parts piled on it around the cash register. “You certainly make a lot of use out of the space,” he commented.

“As much as I can,” Dr. Brown replied, just a hint of Creativity in his tones. “Come along, I’ll show you what I’m working on currently.”

“What’s in the chemistry set?” Victor asked curiously as they passed it.

“Oh, just some colored water at the moment,” Dr. Brown said with a wave. “I’m not doing anything with chemicals at this time. I just like the look of the thing.”

“We’re big on special effects here,” Marty told Victor. “You gotta know you’re walking into a Touched’s lab, after all.”

“Does Mr. Dodgson have one then?”

“Richard? Yeah, I think he does. Even if he never uses it. He’s a mechanist through and through.”

“People expect you to have one,” Dr. Brown said in response to Victor’s unspoken question. “As Marty implied, Regulars have certain expectations from our labs. Far be it from us to break with tradition. Besides, you never know when inspiration will strike.”

“I see,” Victor said slowly. “There’s still so much I don’t know about all this.”

“We’ll explain it as you go. Now!” Dr. Brown stopped by a what looked like a large metal canister with a lot of tubes sticking out of it. “I call this the Suck-o-Matic Vacuum Cleaner. It works on the principles of suction to remove dirt, dust, and grime. And, the best part is, it’s powered by the very dust it picks up!” He grinned and flicked a tiny lever on the side.

Dust promptly came pouring out of a leak in one of the tubes and into Dr. Brown’s face. He waved it away, coughing. “Yes, well, it still needs work,” he allowed, as Victor bit back a tiny grin. “But the theory’s sound!”

“I have no doubt,” Victor said. And he didn’t. Anyone who could get a steam train to fly was obviously capable of getting a vacuum cleaner to work.

Dr. Brown walked over to something else set up against the wall. “Now this works,” he said, glancing at the machine a bit challengingly. “The Static-O-Matic Electric Hair Chair. After the customer sits down, this machine here charges the chair with two hundred thousand volts of static electricity. This causes the customer’s hair to stand on end. Result? The hair becomes easier to cut! Though you have to be careful if the customer wants some sort of hair lotion,” he added. “Sometimes the machine sparks a little, and – well, I had to put out one fire on a test dummy already. Had to happen during a public demonstration, too.”

Victor looked the chair and the attached static electricity generator up and down. “It can’t damage your hair, can it?” he asked. “Besides possibly setting it on fire, I mean.”

“That only happens if your hair’s all greasy,” Dr. Brown said. “And no, it’s perfectly harmless. I use it – does my hair look damaged?”

Victor looked at the mane of white hair that dominated the top of his employer’s head. It seemed healthy enough, but Victor would be the first to admit he had no idea how to verify such a fact. “No. . . .”

“I use it too – it’s honestly safe,” Marty reassured him with a little smile. “Hey, Doc, show him the old mind reader! I bet he’d get a kick out of that.”

“You worked on mind-reading?” Victor said as Dr. Brown searched through some older-looking machines at the back of the store.

“On and off,” Dr. Brown said. “Time travel’s my first passion, but this has had my attention for some time now too.”

“He tried using it on me when we first met,” Marty told Victor. “I was riding through town when my horse took a stumble and threw a shoe. I knocked on Doc’s door to ask for some help, and he yanks it open, tells me not to say a word, then pulls me inside and sticks this thing to my forehead and tells me he’s gonna read my thoughts.”

“Did it work?” Victor asked.

“No,” Marty said honestly.

“Calibration issues I haven’t yet worked out,” Dr. Brown admitted. “I think it has something to do with lining up the various sections of the mind properly, and since everyone’s mind is different. . . .” He located what he was looking for and held up an odd-looking helmet made up of a padded cap secured with a chin strap, covered with a vaguely pyramidal, vaguely cone-shaped conglomeration of metal. A thick wire trailed out of one end, leading to a cabinet-shaped thing on wheels, with little switches and dials mounted on it. There was another wire leading out of it, leading to a little suction cup resting on top of the cabinet. “The Deep-Thinking, Mind-Reading Helmet,” Dr. Brown declared. “Once it works, it’ll revolutionize modern human communications. Or hell, modern species communication – if I can calibrate it for humans, I can calibrate it for animals, right? Might have been useful to know what all those horses were thinking. . . .”

“Horses?” Victor frowned as something registered in his mind. “And – why would you go to Dr. Brown for help with a thrown horseshoe, Marty?”

Dr. Brown looked slightly embarrassed. “Well – a man does not live by science alone, however much he’d like to,” he said, putting down the helmet. “I need to eat. And back in Hill Valley, not many people were interested in scientific services. So I – went into another line of work.”

“Doc was the town blacksmith,” Marty translated.

“Blacksmith?! But you’re--” Victor stopped, realizing that was just as rude as when he’d started to ask Mr. Dodgson “what” he was. (Well, perhaps not quite that rude, but certainly up there.)

“Yes, yes, I know, getting on in years,” Dr. Brown said, rolling his eyes as if this was something he heard a lot. “All right, I’m sixty-five. But there’s plenty of life left in these bones. And I was very good at my smithing job.”

“He was,” Marty agreed. “I mean, I’m not saying everybody didn’t say he was crazy. But they knew he was a good blacksmith too. ‘Course, he was the only blacksmith. . . .”

“I provided a valuable service to the community,” Dr. Brown said, giving Marty a playful poke in the shoulder.

“I’m sure they’re missing you back home,” Victor said encouragingly.

The smiles disappeared from Dr. Brown and Marty’s faces as they looked at each other. “Er – not so much, I don’t think,” Marty said, awkwardly rubbing the back of his head.

“There was an – incident,” Dr. Brown said in response to Victor’s puzzled look. “It was a complete accident, no one was really hurt. . . .”

“Yeah, it just – look, I didn’t really tell you the whole truth back in the clothing store,” Marty confessed. “There was this – thing, Doc blew stuff up, I was involved. . .we were planning to come here anyway, but after all the fires were out, it was decided that maybe we should leave a lot sooner and make it an extended vacation.”

Fires?”

“Small ones,” Dr. Brown said quickly. “Really, my home suffered the most damage. And I’m not blowing up things every moment of the day, either,” he hastened to add, seeing Victor’s newly nervous look. “These sorts of incidents are few and far between.”

“Doc’s stable,” Marty said. “Shit happens. You just gotta deal with it.”

There was the sound of the door opening near the front of the store, distracting everyone from the conversation. “Hello?”

“Hello,” Dr. Brown said, letting whatever last vestiges of madness there was drain from his voice as he switched into “professional” mode and strode up to the front counter. “How can I help you?”

“Just need someone to help me tweak this,” the young man standing there said, blinking rapidly. He was a skinny sort of fellow, with close-cut blond hair and slightly squinty blue eyes. He wore a white lab smock that buttoned over the shoulder with white pants, boots, and gloves. On his forehead were a particularly thick pair of brass goggles. He was holding what looked like a ray gun of some sort, silver with a thick barrel. “I’d do it myself, but I just can’t--” he waved a hand around in a vaguely irritated fashion.

“I’ll give it a try,” Dr. Brown said with a smile, holding out his hands for the device. “What is it, first off?”

“Freeze ray,” the young man replied with a little smile of his own. “Stops time. You’re into that too, right? Time-related stuff, I mean.”

“More into traveling through time than stopping it, but yes, it’s an interest of mine,” Dr. Brown nodded. “So what’s the problem?”

“It keeps losing power way too quickly,” the young man complained. “I’ll turn it on, and after about a minute it’ll just shut back off again. I’ve been through it twice, and I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it!” He slapped the counter. “I need this to work! If it does, maybe then I can. . . .” He seemed to drift away for a moment, then came back to himself. “Right, yes, freeze ray, not working.”

“Right,” Dr. Brown nodded, examining the gun. “Nothing obviously wrong from the outside. We’ll have to open her up. Do you want to do it yourself, or is it all right if I do it?”

“I’ll do it,” the young man said, taking the gun back and laying it on the counter. “Can I borrow a screwdriver?”

Dr. Brown found the requested tool and handed it over. The young man unscrewed a few things, then carefully pulled the top half of the gun off. Inside was lots of tubing, glass containers, and many, many gears. Victor couldn’t tell at all how it all fit together. “I thought at first it might be something to do with the analytical assembly down here, but that seemed to check out. . . .”

Dr. Brown leaned over the gun, scanning it with practiced eyes and carefully feeling every part. As his fingers brushed one of the glass containers, he frowned suddenly. “Marty, bring me the magnifying glass over there.”

Marty went over to a nearby box and fetched a large magnifying glass, with smaller lenses attached to it with little arms. Dr. Brown took it, flipped a couple of the smaller lenses into place in front of the main lens, and took a long look. “Ahh, here’s your problem,” he announced, showing the young man. “Your aetheric conduit is leaking. See, there’s a hairline crack. Easy to miss unless you know exactly where to look.”

“Oh, damn it,” the young man said, glaring at the part. “And I can’t just glue it shut without disturbing the energy transfer rate. Gonna have to replace the whole part.”

“Unfortunately,” Dr. Brown agreed. “I’d go with a metal conduit this time, it’ll probably stand up to wear better. I think I have one around here, actually – though I don’t know if it’s this size.”

“I’ll make my own,” the young man said with a wave. “I am a genius. And I can use the shape of this one for a mold or something.”

“That’s the spirit,” Dr. Brown said with a grin. “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

“Yeah,” the young man said, smiling himself. “So, ah, how much do I owe you?”

“Well, it was a fast job, and you’re fixing it yourself – five shillings and fifty pence sound all right?”

“I can afford that,” the young man nodded, reaching into his pocket. “I guess it would be more evil to just run off without paying, but that just seems so petty,” he added conversationally as he gave the money to Doc.

“Evil?” Victor blurted, blinking.

“Yeah,” the young man said. “I mean--” he suddenly posed with his arms folded, lowering his voice a bit. “I’m Dr. Horrible. I’ve got a Ph.D. in Horribleness. MWAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Victor drew back a bit. Obviously this young man was mentally unstable. (Well, of course, a little voice in his head said sarcastically. The man invents something to freeze time, and you think he isn’t a little Touched?) “That was – rather creepy,” he said slowly.

“Really?” Whatever menace Dr. Horrible had possessed vanished as the bright, hopeful grin appeared on his face. “Great! I’ve been working with a vocal coach, you know. Strengthening the ‘aahs.’” He patted his chest to demonstrate.

“It’s working,” Marty said, with that eerie calmness that marked him as a definite Igor.

Dr. Horrible smiled even brighter at that. “Good to hear. It annoys me how so many people neglect the laugh. I mean, the laugh’s part of who you are! You can’t get anywhere as a Touched without being a good laugher!” He screwed his gun back together. “Anyway, I’d better get home and get this fixed. Peace out – but not really. . . .” He looked confused for a moment, then shook his head and went out the door.

Victor stared after him. “He has a chemistry set at home too, doesn’t he,” he said after a while. He didn’t even bother forming it as a question.

“I think every Touched does,” Dr. Brown said, smiling at Victor’s dumbfounded expression. “And in case you were wondering, I don’t really have the laugh myself. Though I think I can pull off a decent ‘mwahahaha’ if the situation truly demands it.”

“Does going a bit Creative automatically make one prone to theatrics?” Victor asked, guessing that Dr. Brown wouldn’t think it too forward.

He guessed correctly. “Perhaps. I wouldn’t rule it out. I’m no behavioral specialist, of course.”

“I’ve seen a lot of them in action – I’d say definitely yes,” Marty smirked.

“But – why would he want to be seen as evil? Why would anyone want to be seen as evil?!” Victor put his head in his hands. “I’m getting badly confused.”

“I think it has to do with the popular images of Touched,” Dr. Brown said with a sigh, leaning on the counter. “What you have to understand, Victor, is that there’s actually three stages of affliction when it comes to Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder – mild, moderate, and severe.”

“We call ‘em Slightly Touched, Somewhat Touched, and Severely Touched,” Marty added.

“Correct. The majority of Touched who go Creative are in the first two categories,” Dr. Brown continued. “They’re not usually a danger to themselves and those around them. Mild cases can even pass for normal a good majority of the time. However, because of this, these cases don’t stick out. So the cases everyone hears about are the minority cases – the Severely Touched. Now, I’m not saying every one of those is bad either. Lady Agatha Heterodyne is a Severely Touched, and no one would say she’s been anything but good for her section of Europe. But it’s the vast majority of those who end up cackling and vowing to rule the world and kidnapping people for their experiments. And since they’re the most visible of the Touched, Regulars expect all of us to act like that. It’s probably reached the stage of the vicious cycle, actually – new Touched only know the evil madman they’ve all heard about, and think that’s what they have to become. I was lucky – even though I was exposed to the stereotype, I didn’t feel obligated to follow it.” He looked very serious for a moment. “I hate to think of the kind of person I’d be if I had.”

Victor looked around at the shop for a moment, then back at Dr. Brown. “It’s hard to imagine you as the unpleasant sort of Touched,” he admitted.

Dr. Brown smiled, looking slightly reassured. “I’m glad to hear that. I’m hoping to make a name for myself as one of the more stable Touched. Maybe it’ll help more newly Creative people realize there’s nothing saying they have to be evil.”

“Where are you on the scale?” Victor asked, tilting his head.

“Well, the levels of Touched can be hard to precisely quantify,” Dr. Brown said, standing up straight again. “Even mild cases of A.S.N.D. can exhibit behaviors more common to severe sufferers. I’m usually classified as a moderate case – Somewhat Touched. That’s the most common case you’ll find in Secundus, incidentally. Mild cases are more common, of course, but they also fit into regular society better, so there’s less inclination to move to a city specially designed for them.”

“So – is everyone here a Touched, then?” Victor said, frowning. “Or the assistant of one?”

“Oh Galileo no!” Dr. Brown said, laughing. “Most of the people who live here are Regulars, just like anywhere else. Touched make up a rather small segment of the population. Helen Narbon’s been studying the Touched mind for a while now. She says that it’s likely sixty percent of those with the disorder never even go active.”

“Really?!”

“Yeah, Doc and I both read the paper she wrote about it,” Marty said. “Something’s gotta make a Touched go Creative. If they never get stressed out enough, they never go mad.”

“Precisely,” Dr. Brown said. “And when you add in that a good half of those who go Creative end up accidentally killing themselves with their first Inventions, or by attracting the attentions of an angry mob, it’s almost a wonder we’re not extinct.”

Victor was amazed. “So – perfectly ordinary people can actually be mad scientists if – if someone makes them go mad?” he said, trying to fix that idea in his mind. Everything he’d heard in Burtonsville had led him to believe that you could tell a Touched from the moment you met them. That such people had never been normal at all. Then again, he was rapidly learning everything else he’d heard about these people was wrong, so why not this?

“Exactly,” Dr. Brown nodded. “I might have been a perfectly normal scientist if--” He paused suddenly, and bit his lip. “No, I can’t actually say that with a straight face,” he admitted, forcing back some giggles. “I was one of those who was always a bit – off-kilter, I suppose. You’d have to go back and stop me from ever getting interested in science at all to get me to have any chance at a truly normal life.”

“How did you become a Touched?” Victor asked, getting quite curious. “F-forgive me if I’m being to forward, but I really don’t know much about you and Marty.”

“It’s fine,” Dr. Brown told him. “You should be expected to know the people you’re going to work with. I first got into science at the age of eleven, when I first discovered the budding genre of science fiction. I devoured works like Kepler’s Somnium and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Still do – my favorite author these days is Jules Verne. Oh, sometimes I regret being born when I was. If I’d had Jules Verne to guide me as a child. . . .” He looked wistful for a moment. “Well, all that combined with the stories in the newspaper about the fabulous inventions being created every day started my interest in science and mechanics. I played around with it, built a few inventions that didn’t quite work, and started considering how to develop my own lab when I grew up. At that time, I was already known as a fairly intelligent young man. I was doing courses at Harvard at the age of fourteen.” Victor whistled. “Yes, I know. It wasn’t until I was 17, however, that I – well, got a bit Creative.” He sighed. “Classic case, really – my latest invention malfunctioned in the classroom, and all my classmates started laughing at me. This had happened before, but something about that particular batch of laughter. . . .” Creativity began leaking into his voice again. “I’m not exactly sure when I went active as a Touched. I remember yelling at everyone, vowing to show them all, then storming off with my mind churning full of ideas. . .then I found an unused laboratory, and suddenly everything I’d ever thought about doing, even in jest, seemed completely feasible. . . .” He trailed off for a moment, staring at the nearby wall.

“Dr. Brown?” Victor asked, getting worried. “It’s – it’s all right if you don’t care to continue--”

“I’m just trying to figure out how,” Dr. Brown admitted. “It’s nearly impossible to describe. The world just – opens up, and you think you can do anything, but you’re also feeling a bit lost at first. . . . .” He shook his head, coming back to himself. “I still don’t really recall what I did in the lab. Nobody else is sure either, mainly because whatever I was working on blew up. Fortunately this happened after almost everyone had gone home for the day, so the only one hurt was me. Two professors who had stayed on campus heard the explosion and came to find the lab wrecked and me unconscious within. Took me two days to wake up.”

“Goodness,” Victor whispered. “W-what did your parents think?”

Dr. Brown winced. “Mother was worried for me, but Elias, my father. . .I don’t think there’s a person alive today who hated the Touched more than he did. The instant he found out that my going Creative was behind my accident, he disowned me and threw me out of the house. Fortunately my friend Holly and her family provided a roof over my head and much-needed support as I struggled through the early days. It’s hard when you first go Creative. You struggle to keep your impulses in check, your mind whole. I managed it, though. Went back to college – Harvard surprisingly let me stay on to finish my last year. I had to do a mail-order course from Transylvania Polytechnic to get my doctorate, however. Most of my time after that was spent in doing odd jobs around the East coast, moving on whenever people started becoming too distrusting of me. I eventually worked my way west as the country expanded, learned the blacksmithing trade, and settled in Hill Valley. Since I was performing such a valuable service for the community, the people there tolerated my eccentricities, and I lived there until last year, when – the extended vacation started.”

“Yeah, my life story’s not nearly as interesting,” Marty said, leaning on the counter himself. “My family’s Irish – my grandmother and grandfather, Seamus and Maggie, came over after Dr. Leprechaun’s Rainbow Miner took out Ballybowhill. They worked their way west like Doc – they were actually one of the first families to settle in Hill Valley when it first started. Then they had my dad, George, he met my mom, Lorraine, and they had my brother Dave, my sister Linda, and me. I was fourteen when I met Doc, and after we got over him trying to read my mind, we ended up becoming friends.” He smirked. “I think it helps that he offered me that job shortly after he met me. Twenty bucks a week just for cleaning up the place and helping him with his work.”

“Oh, and I only get fifteen shillings?” Victor joked.

“I think that's comparable. And it started out as ten dollars,” Dr. Brown said, giving Marty a half-glare. “He’s put in the work to get the raise. If you do well, you’ll eventually get twenty shillings -- or even a guinea.”

“Yeah,” Marty nodded. “Anyway, I met my girlfriend Jennifer shortly afterward – her father owned a ranch outside of town, and we met at the market. Great girl.” Marty smiled dreamily into space. “I really wish she could have come along with us. We’ve been dating for almost four years.”

“You knew her father didn’t want her without any family in a place like this,” Dr. Brown said. “And there was absolutely no way he was letting us take her without a chaperone. Especially considering we’d all have to share living quarters.”

“Yeah, yeah, still. . .writing letters just doesn’t seem enough a lot of the time. Hopefully she and her dad can make it over here one day. But yeah, I started playing Igor to Doc, dating Jennifer, working on my music. And then we ended up over here after the incident. Though I’m not complaining all that much. Secundus is great.” He grinned and leaned toward Victor. “So, that’s us – how about you? We know your family’s the fish people, and that you’ve apparently got more money than God, and that they were gonna force you to marry somebody – well, I knew that bit,” he corrected as Dr. Brown blinked in surprise. “Got anything else you want to tell us?”

Victor felt a bit nervous about trying to sum up his entire life so far. But, fair was fair – he’d asked them to do so. “W-well, I’ve lived my entire life until now in Burtonsville,” he began. “So have my parents. Father’s family has worked with fish for generations now – he inherited the business from his father. The cannery was an idea they were working on right before Father took over for good. Once he had it built, their business just – exploded I suppose is the best word. They were never exactly poor, but Father made us rich. We moved into the mansion you saw when I was seven. Mother was absolutely thrilled when we had that built. She saw it as proof that she really was just as good as all the society and noble women she knew about. But there was nothing particularly unusual about my childhood. Well, beyond being the richest boy in town.” He grimaced as old memories made themselves known again. “Not many people liked me because of that.”

“I know how that is,” Dr. Brown said, a surprising source of sympathy. “My family was independently wealthy – I’m fairly certain at least one branch of the Von Brauns is noble back in Germany. People didn’t like to associate with us because of that. They acted like we were too good for anyone else. Which was absurd, my father worked as a veterinarian for Newton’s sake.”

“I think our money being inherited would have helped our standings,” Victor admitted. “We were looked down upon for being nouveau riche. And I don’t think anyone cared for Mother’s more – forceful personality. But, r-really, I was happy enough. I had my dog, my sketchbook, my piano, and my butterflies. That was more than enough.”

“Until your parents decided to marry you off to some lord’s daughter so they can be all hoity-toity,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “What’s this Miss Everglot like, anyhow?”

Victor paused a moment, then lowered his eyes in embarrassment. “I – ah – don’t know.”

“Don’t know? How can you not know?”

“I – I h-haven’t met her yet.”

There was a moment of silence following this. “How long have you know about the engagement?” Dr. Brown finally asked, frowning.

“Mother said everything was settled by Christmas. . . .”

Marty did the math in his head. “That was about three weeks ago! And they never bothered to introduce you?”

Victor shook his head. “I’ve never even s-spoken to the girl in question,” he confessed. “I don’t even k-know what she l-looks like. I’ve seen her parents around, and they’re – aristocratic.”

“I get the feeling that’s code for ‘jerks,’” Marty said suspiciously.

“I don’t understand this – I was under the impression that arranged marriages usually involved the people to be wed meeting at least once before the wedding,” Dr. Brown said, looking both confused and annoyed. “Even royal couples do that.”

“I think M-Mother considers it an asset I haven’t s-spoken to her,” Victor said, trying to make it sound like a joke. “I’m t-terrible around y-young ladies, and she’s a-always saying not to e-embarrass her. . . .”

It obviously failed, as both Dr. Brown and Marty stared at him like he’d grown a second head. “I – do your parents actually like you?” Marty finally said, mouth hanging open slightly.

“Marty!” Dr. Brown said, turning to frown severely at his assistant. “What a thing to say!”

“Yeah, but – he said before he thought his parents would miss him more for what he could do for them than for himself! And after hearing that--”

“Still, kid, that’s hardly--”

“I don’t think they do.”

Both men broke off their arguing to stare at Victor. He stared at his shoes, twisting his tie in his hands and wishing he hadn’t said anything. He’d never admitted that suspicion to anyone before. He’d never wanted to. Saying it out loud made it too – too real. Too painful. But Marty saying it first, more or less, had provided an outlet for the words. “They m-must care, I know they must, b-but – I k-knew my nannies better than t-them, growing up. And M-Mother’s always going on about h-how silly I am, and she and Father both say I h-have to do better if our name is t-to improve. . . .”

The sudden touch of a hand on his shoulder made him jump. He looked up to see Dr. Brown standing next to him, looking unusually serious. “Is that part of why you decided to stay?” he asked gently.

Victor nodded slowly, both hating himself for saying such awful things about his parents and feeling relieved that he was finally getting this off his chest. “That and – I w-wanted an adventure,” he said, trying to mitigate the possible message of, “I don’t like my parents very much.” “Burtonsville is so – quiet. I’ve always l-longed for a bit more c-color.” He blushed and sought out a patch of floor to look at. “I u-used to sneak penny d-dreadfuls at night to g-get a taste of something new. M-Mother hated them, but I c-couldn’t help myself. They were just so interesting. . . .”

“Penny dreadfuls?” Marty laughed. “Victor, if that’s your biggest sin, you’re eligible for sainthood. I read ‘em all the time!”

“Yes, but I doubt your parents declared them l-lower class trash.”

“No, but that’s not something you have to worry about anymore, is it? Not so long as you stick with us.”

“Whatever your foibles, you’re welcome here,” Dr. Brown nodded, gently squeezing his shoulder.

Victor smiled, suddenly feeling a thousand times better. “Thank you, sir. It means a lot to me.”

“You’re welcome. And come on, call me Doc.”

“All right – Doc.”

“Hey, what was your favorite with those?” Marty asked. “I liked ‘The Adventures of Dr. Wright and His Amazing Hominculi.’ Though I never got why he decided to call them ‘the Sims.’”

“Oh, that was a funny series,” Victor agreed, smiling. “But I always preferred the horror stories. I first started reading with ‘Varney the Vampire.’ A truly chilling tale.”

“Yeah, especially when the writers tried to be funny. ‘The String of Pearls,’ now that was spooky.”

“I remember that one,” Victor nodded. “The last bit gave me nightmares.”

“Ugh, I know. Who the hell would do that?”

“Actually, I’ve heard of a real life account of a pie shop like Mrs. Lovett’s,” Doc said, making a bit of a face.

The two younger boys stared at him. “Thanks, Doc, I’m not going to be able to eat a meat pie for a week,” Marty said, sticking out his tongue.

“Who could do such a terrible thing?” Victor said, horrified.

“I don’t know. Sometimes I genuinely believe some people are just born without morals and never manage to pick them up. And yet, it’s always the Touched people are afraid of,” he added in a much lower voice.

Victor decided it was his turn to pat Doc on the shoulder. “Not all of us,” he reminded his new friend. “On that note, do you have any other inventions to show me?”

Doc grinned, perking up immediately. “Oh, yes! In fact, there’s one I could use your help on. If it works, we can have pancakes for breakfast, instead of just eggs and bacon and toast.”

“Lead the way, then!” Victor happily followed behind Doc and Marty as they rushed back toward the rear of the store. Oh yes – he’d made the right decision in staying.

Chapter Text

 

January 17th, 18–

 

Secundus, England

 

7:52 A.M.

The butterfly was fluttering before him, just out of reach. It was beautiful, more beautiful than any he’d seen before. All the colors of the rainbow seemed to be within its wings, and it left glowing trails in the air as it flew. Mesmerized, he leaned forward, reaching out a hand to try and touch it. His fingertips almost brushed its back wing when –

Thud. “Ooof!”

Victor blinked open his eyes to be greeted with a faceful of carpet. He rolled over and looked up at the couch, rubbing his slightly sore nose. Must have fallen out of it just now, he thought, sitting up. Too bad – what a lovely dream.

He untangled his legs from the blanket, then stood up and folded it neatly before placing it on top of his pillow. He was already quite used to sleeping on the sitting room couch. It was a bit too short for him, but that wasn’t something he minded. So long as he wore a pair of socks to bed to keep his feet from getting cold, it suited him just fine. He stretched and popped a kink out of his back. Ahh, much better. Now he was ready to face the morning and –

What was that on the window?

Frowning, Victor investigated, heedless of the fact he was in his pajamas. The two windows on the sitting room’s outer wall were covered in a whitish, bubbly substance. Soap suds, he realized. They’re being washed. That’s all right then.

There was an odd sound from outside – like something stretching, then snapping back – and suddenly the suds were partially whisked away. Startled, Victor drew back. The sound repeated itself, and the rest of the suds disappeared. Who on earth

His question was somewhat answered a moment later, as the cleaner bounced up to check on his work. Victor found himself looking at the upside-down face of – a dog. A large brown dog, specifically, with a bulbous snout, dark floppy ears, and wearing a what looked to be some sort of pilot’s cap with goggles. The two stared at each other for a moment. Then the dog gave him a little wave. Victor absently waved back. The dog then jumped down again – Victor could see now he was also wearing a stretchy cord around his middle – and vanished. Victor stared at the empty window for a moment, then quickly gathered his clothes and went into the little bathroom to wash up and dress for the day.

No one was in the kitchen or study. Victor knew Marty was most likely still asleep, but Doc had to be up. He went out onto the stairs and descended to the shop level. He spotted Doc through one of the windows, fiddling with something at the front counter. “There’s a dog washing our windows,” he announced as he came inside.

“That’s Gromit,” Doc informed him – Victor could now see he was fixing a spring on one of his many clocks. “He’s one of the many Fabricated creatures around here. His owner Wallace is just outside.”

Victor turned and looked. Through the large windows at the front he could see a bald man with large ears and a big grin standing on the sidewalk. He was holding a bucket full of suds. Behind him was parked a motorized bicycle with a sidecar. “Do they do all the windows around here?” Victor asked, wondering if anyone else had had the experience of waking up to find a dog looking in on you.

“They do whatever Wallace most feels like at the moment, really,” Doc said, replacing the bad spring. “Window washing, pest control, baking. . . . They always put one hundred percent into whatever they’re doing, though.”

“Oh. I assume Mr. Wallace is a Touched, then?”

“Yup – moderate case,” Doc confirmed, fixing the new spring into place and testing the mechanism. “Gromit was one of his first Inventions. They’re a nearly inseparable team now.”

“Rather like you and Marty,” Victor said.

“Precisely,” Doc said, smiling as the clock resumed normal operation. “Although I didn’t build Marty from the ground up.”

“All set, lad? All right, I’ll get our pay.” Wallace came in through the door, grinning brightly. “We’re finished now, Dr. Brown – oh, you have company,” he added, noticing Victor. “Sorry to interrupt, we’re just getting our money for the windows.”

“He’s not a customer, Wallace, he’s my new assistant,” Doc said. “Victor, this is Wallace Park. Wallace, this is Victor Van Dort.”

“Pleasure to meet you, lad,” Wallace said, taking Victor’s hand and shaking it firmly.

“It’s very nice to meet you too, sir,” Victor said with a nod.

“Gromit gave him a bit of a scare when he woke up,” Doc said, chuckling.

“Not quite a s-scare,” Victor said, embarrassed. “More just a surprise. You don’t expect to see a large dog hanging outside your window washing it when you first wake up.”

“He’s new here,” Doc added.

“Oh! What do you think of the city so far?” Wallace asked.

“Very interesting,” Victor said. “And busy.”

“Oh yes, seems like new people are moving in all the time,” Wallace agreed. “Not that I mind, of course. More paying customers. Er, speaking of which, it’ll be the usual rate for the windows.”

“Here you are,” Doc said, handing over the money as the dog Victor had seen before entered the shop. “Hello Gromit.”

“Gromit, we’ve got a newcomer to Secundus,” Wallace said as Gromit waved hello to Doc. “This is Victor. Victor, this is my dog Gromit.”

“Very nice to meet you,” Victor said, extending a hand.

Gromit shook it with a hand-like paw and nodded. Victor frowned slightly. “Don’t you speak?” he asked.

Gromit shook his head as Wallace blushed slightly. “Bit of an oversight on my part,” Wallace confessed. “He can’t even bark like a normal dog. Still, he seems to get along. Isn’t that right, pal?” he added, patting Gromit on the head.

Gromit nodded, looking unconcerned about his lack of speech. For a dog without even a visible mouth, he had an extremely expressive face, Victor noted. He didn’t even need to talk to let you know what he was thinking. “I’ve always loved dogs,” he said conversationally. “I had a dog as a child – Scraps. He was perfectly mundane, but he was still one of my best friends. I do miss him sometimes.”

Gromit gave Victor’s hand a pat, looking sympathetic. Victor smiled at him. “Thank you.”

Wallace pulled out his pocket watch and consulted it. “Oh dear, we’re running a bit behind – we’re due to do the clock today,” he said. “We’d better be off. See you again next month, Dr. Brown?”

“We’ll be here,” Doc confirmed. “Have a good day – and good luck with the clock.”

“Thanks. Come on, lad.” Wallace headed out the door. Gromit gave Victor and Doc a wave, then dropped to four legs to follow. The pair got on their motorized bicycle – Wallace on the bike itself, Gromit in the sidecar – and zoomed away.

“What’s the clock?” Victor asked as Doc replaced his own clock on the wall.

“Oh, it’s a remnant of the days when this was intended to be a copy of London,” Doc said, shining the face of the clock. “It’s a copy of Big Ben. Or, it was. Someone modified it into a cuckoo clock some years ago.”

“Whatever for?”

“Who knows? Most Touched don’t need a reason beyond ‘Because I can.’” He checked the clock against the others, then nodded and turned around. “Come on, let’s go wake Marty and have breakfast. I’m in the mood for pancakes.”

“Do you really think we’ve got it working right?”

“Won’t know until we try!”


The automated pancake machine only functioned partially – the batter jet worked perfectly, but the flipping arm’s timing was all off. After two pancakes came out half-cooked and one came out burnt, Doc finally admitted temporary defeat and flipped the pancakes himself. Breakfast passed quickly, and the three men spent their morning adjusting the timing on the flipping arm in between serving customers. Finally, the machine seemed to be working correctly, and the trio celebrated with chicken sandwiches for lunch. “I think we need a bit of a break, Doc,” Marty said as he finished off his food. “You mind if I go out for a couple of hours?”

“Not at all – it’s a slow day,” Doc said, patting his mouth dry of milk. “I’m going to be working some more on the equations for the power converter in the train. Do you want to go with Marty, Victor?”

“I’d like that,” Victor said, setting aside his plate. “I would enjoy seeing more of the city. If Marty will have me.”

“Sure,” Marty grinned. “Any place in particular you want to go?”

“Well, you mentioned a park a couple of days ago. . . .”

“Oh, Wonderland Park! Yeah, we can go check that place out! I haven’t been in a while.”

“Ah, Lewis Carroll’s Botanical and Biological Wonderland,” Doc said. “It’s a lovely place. You’ll definitely like it there, Victor.”

“Should I bring my sketchbook?” Victor asked eagerly.

“Oh yeah,” Marty said with a decisive nod. “There’s always plenty to see there.”

With that sort of promise, Victor could hardly wait to get going. After the lunch dishes were settled, he grabbed his sketchbook, an inkwell, and a quill, and hurried down to wait at the bottom of the stairs. Marty joined him after taking care of some business, and they set off down the streets.

It was a fairly long walk to Wonderland Park – not that Victor minded. He’d grown to enjoy watching the crowds on the streets, seeing all the different varieties of people that lived here. Occasionally someone would rumble by in a motorized carriage of some sort. Today’s treat came in the form of a long vehicle bedecked with lamps, with an odd symbol painted on the side – a ghostly shape in a red circle with a slash through it. “Who on earth is that?” Victor asked as the carriage roared through the streets, making an awful racket.

“Those are the Ghostbusters,” Marty said. “They’re ‘professional paranormal detectors and eliminators.’ Basically, they hunt down ghosts and catch them.”

“Actual ghosts?”

“Nobody’s quite sure about that,” Marty admitted. “Dr. Stantz and Dr. Spengler are positive they’re seeing genuine dead people. And they’re definitely catching something – enough people have seen them in action. The thing, a lot of the places they visit are the homes of Touched or people who live really near Touched, so there’s always the chance it’s just somebody’s experiment gone wrong. Or right, depending on what they’re doing.”

“Do they ever come into the shop?”

“Dr. Spengler does occasionally, to see if Doc can offer a second opinion on some of the equipment. He’s the guy who does most of the actual building. He and Dr. Stantz are Slightly Touched, while Dr. Venkman and Mr. Zeddmore are normal. Good combination, I guess.”

“Keeps things even,” Victor agreed. “Though I would think someone who builds equipment to contain ghosts would be more than Slightly Touched.”

“Well, I think Dr. Spengler’s near the Somewhat range – like Doc said, it’s hard to tell sometimes.” They turned another corner. “There it is, Victor. Wonderland Park.”

Victor stared. In front of him, just down the street, was the largest park he’d ever seen in his life. Despite the chilly winter air, it was still full of greenery – long blades of grass, flowers in full bloom, trees gently swaying in a soft breeze. It was like a bit of spring had somehow slipped under January’s notice. The park was surrounded by an iron fence, with the bars twisted into strange and whimsical shapes. There was a large archway for the entrance, with MR. LEWIS CARROLL’S BOTANICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WONDERLAND written above it. The entire place called to him, begged him to run forward and sample its delights. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered.

“Wait until you get inside,” Marty said with a knowing smirk.

They made their way down the street and to the park’s front gate. As they went inside, Victor instantly noticed it was warmer. “Yeah, Lewis has got some sort of personalized weather system going here,” Marty said. “No matter the weather outside the fence, it’s always spring in here. Almost always sunny too.”

“It’s wonderful,” Victor declared. He looked admiringly at a nearby rose. “What gorgeous flowers.”

“Why, thank you!”

Victor nearly jumped out of his skin. Talking animals he’d at least heard of – but talking plants? “Er--”

“Oh dear, look at that,” another flower, this one a lily, said. “You nearly made him lose his petals.”

“I don’t think he’s a flower,” a daisy said. “He looks like he’s a birch. And they’re always losing their bark.”

“I – I’m not a plant at all,” Victor managed to get out, gaping. “I’m a human being.”

“You still look like a birch.”

“How on earth do I look like a birch tree?”

“You’re so pale! But with black bits here and there, like up there.” The daisy gestured with a leaf.

“Those are my eyes! Oh, Good Lord, I’m arguing with a daisy. . . .”

“Everyone argues with the daisies.” A young-looking man appeared, smiling brightly. “They’re naturally prone to teasing, I’m afraid. Just threaten to make them into a chain and they’ll leave you alone.”

Victor studied the newcomer for a moment. He was a fairly short fellow, about the same height as Marty (maybe even an inch or two less). He was slender (though not as much as Victor) and had a soft-featured face. His blond hair was slicked carefully back just so, and his blue-green eyes peered out at the world from behind large, black-framed glasses. He wore a dark red suit with a black and white spotted bow tie, and was also currently wearing what looked like a pair of gardening gloves. “Mr. Carroll, I presume?” Victor guessed.

“Indeed,” Mr. Carroll nodded, holding out a hand, heedless of the earth caking the glove. “I haven’t seen you about before.”

“I’m new to the city,” Victor said, shaking hands. “I’m working with Marty and Dr. Brown. Victor Van Dort.”

“Charmed,” Mr. Carroll said, nodding to Marty. “New to the city, hmm? Do you like it so far?”

“I certainly like this place,” Victor said, wiping his hand off on his pants as he looked around the park. “You have a beautiful park here.”

“He called me gorgeous,” the rose said cheerfully.

“He called us gorgeous,” the lily corrected her. “Don’t mind her, she’s terribly vain,” she added to Victor.

“You’re all amazing,” Victor said honestly. “I’ve never met flowers that can talk before.”

“Daresay they’ve had nothing to say to you,” a second rose said. “Your face has very little sense in it.”

“It has enough sense to know we’re pretty,” the first rose argued.

“Yes, but that’s just the sense God gave everyone.”

“Quiet – if you insult him, he’ll pick us,” the lily warned.

“I couldn’t,” Victor said. “This is incredible. . . .”

“It took me years to perfect them,” Mr. Carroll said, Creativity clear in his voice. “And they were just the start. Go, explore more of the garden! There’s wonders everywhere you look!”

Victor was about to ask a bit more when he saw what looked like a yellow butterfly perched on the petals of a pansy. He immediately fell quiet, studying the insect intently. It was a rather odd-looking specimen – the yellow patterns on the wings looked like spread butter. And – was it him, or did it smell like freshly-baked bread?

The butterfly crawled closer, heedless of its audience. Victor realized with a start that the insect’s body was actually a crust of bread. The wings were bread too, and they were spread with butter! And the head was a sugar cube. “What – how--” he breathed.

“Oh, you like my bread-and-butterfly? Took me some time to make those too,” Mr. Carroll said happily.

“I love butterflies in general,” Victor said softly, extending a hand. The bread-and-butterfly fluttered its wings nervously, then crawled onto the offered appendage. “But this is truly--” he couldn’t even come up with the words to properly describe this. It was beyond fantastic, beyond amazing. It – it sort of invoked that pleasant feeling the dream had given him, of anything being possible. “Wondrous,” he finally said.

“Well, it is a wonderland,” Mr. Carroll laughed, as the bread-and-butterfly took flight again. “I’ve made lots and lots of new insects for this little park of mine.”

Victor hardly dared to breathe. “Really?” he asked, eyes shining brightly. “How many?”

“Oh, I don’t know – enough,” Mr. Carroll said carelessly. “They’re all over the place. Snapdragonflies, true-dragonflies, rocking-horseflies, talking gnats, elephant bees. . . .”

It was all too much. It was like he’d died and gone to Heaven. Victor turned and raced down the path, looking eagerly around. Oh, he didn’t know if he’d have a clear page in his notebook left by the time they were ready to go!

Marty and Mr. Carroll watched him disappear from sight. “I’m not going to find him for at least a hour, am I?” Marty asked, shaking his head in amusement.

“No, probably not,” Mr. Carroll said. He clapped Marty on the shoulder. “But at least it’ll be fun to look.”


This is the loveliest park I have ever been to and I don’t think I want to leave.

Victor happily started yet another sketch of the rocking-horsefly he’d found rocking on a leaf. He had no idea how long he’d spent wandering through the masses of flowers, shrubs, and trees that made up Wonderland Park, finding and drawing various insects. Neither did he care. He was the happiest he’d been in ages. Now if only I could find a piano lurking in the shadows of the trees, I’d be set.

He detailed the face and mane of the rocking-horsefly, still honestly amazed that such a thing could exist. The insects here were all so fantastical, it was hard to believe they were really real. A good half of them looked like toys, and another third like random objects assembled into insect-like shapes. But somehow they all lived and breathed just like regular creatures. He’d found more bread-and-butterflies swarming around an abandoned tea set, extending thin white proboscises to sip at the sweet liquid sitting in the cups. The rocking-horse flies flitted from leaf to leaf, neighing softly, their tails swishing. Mechanical ladybirds buzzed around him, carrying acorns for some unknown purpose. There had even been a talking gnat, who was very gloomy despite his constant mention of puns one could make. Victor had really not been sure what to make of him.

It didn’t matter, though. He’d drawn them all multiple times, luring some closer by various means to get a better chance at sketching the tiny details of their bodies. Mr. Carroll is truly a genius, he decided as he finished his current drawing. Mad, of course, but still a genius. I’ll have to talk to him again later, see if I can learn a bit more about how he made all these creatures. I’m sure he has some wonderful stories about it all.

He got up and brushed the back of his pants off before moving on. Wonderland Park was made up of a variety of different landscapes – here was a garden of talking flowers, there was something that qualified as a small forest, over in the opposite direction was a hedge maze. It was amazing how Mr. Carroll had managed to fit all of this into the space provided. In fact, Victor was starting to get the sneaking suspicion Wonderland Park was somehow bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. He had no idea how this could be, but he knew enough about Touched even now to suspect it as a real possibility. Not that he minded in the least – all it really meant was more places to explore for insects.

The path he was currently on took him over a hill and into a grassy vale. A river cut through the area, meandering along a crooked path. A small cliff at the upper edge of the valley turned the river into a miniature waterfall before it widened temporarily into a large blue pool, surrounded by flowers that seemed to have an inner glow. By the left edge of the pond was a large statue of a girl with her face in her hands, looking supremely miserable. Victor thought it was a very odd decoration to have in such an innately cheerful place. On the right edge of the pond, with her back to him, was a young lady, sitting by the water. Something about her red hair looked familiar – Victor edged to the side, making sure to keep a respectful distance away.

As soon as he saw her face, he recognized her properly. It was Alice Liddell from the hat shop. She was reading a book on the little beach, half-leaning on one knee, apparently completely unaware that she was no longer alone. Victor debated approaching her. She’d seemed pleasant enough when they’d first met. But what if she didn’t care to be interrupted? Marty had already hinted she had a terrible temper. And he remembered the danger in her eyes, the kind that promised terrible vengeance to those who’d wronged her. And what if her chaperone came back and –

Wait, did she even have a chaperone? The first time he’d met her on the street, she’d been walking alone. At the time, he’d been too stunned by Secundus itself to really notice, but now that he thought about it, that was quite unusual. Victor frowned. Was it really proper for a young lady to go out by herself, without someone to act as a guide and protector? Then again, perhaps the rules were different in Secundus. He really didn’t know.

He looked at her again. He had to admit, she made a very pretty figure sitting there. She was wearing a purple dress today, very simple in style – no flounces, no bustle, no lace. Just straight clean lines that suited her quite well. The leather belt she’d had on before was buckled again around her waist. She had her boots on, as well as a pair of lacy black fingerless gloves. Her hair was swept back from her face and over her shoulders, a strand or two escaping and hanging down straight in front of her. And her face was – well, very nice to look at. Especially her lips, curved in a slight smile. He found himself fiddling with his quill. Did he dare? Was it right?

The artist in him simply couldn’t turn down the picture. He quietly sat down a few feet away from her, turned to a fresh page, and began to draw. He didn’t do people often – he honestly felt more at home with insects and nature scenes. But he felt he got a good start on Alice, capturing the casual way she sat on the bank. He sketched as quickly as he could, glancing up at her every so often to compare his drawing to reality. As he filled in the details, though, his focus narrowed slowly to just the picture itself. A line here, a bit of shading there, a wavy curve over there. . . .

“I think the forehead should be wider.”

Victor nearly upset the inkwell over the sketch. His head snapped up to see Alice leaning over him, smirking as she looked down upon his artistic efforts. Oh, God, when had she noticed him? “M-Miss Liddell! I – d-do forgive me--” he babbled, hurriedly setting down his pen.

“It’s a lovely drawing otherwise,” Alice said, ignoring his stammering. “You’re quite talented.”

Victor was pleased by the praise, but still deeply embarrassed at being caught. “Please excuse me – I’m s-sorry for not a-asking your permission,” he told her, feeling his cheeks heat.

“Oh, I draw random people off the street all the time,” Alice said. “I can hardly get angry at you for doing the same.”

“You draw?”

Alice nodded, looking him in the face for the first time. “I’ve got a sketchbook of my own at home. Though I prefer pencil – easier to fix if you make a mistake.”

“I’ve a-always drawn with ink,” Victor said, seizing upon the topic of conversation. “I j-just try to m-make any mistakes l-look natural.”

“I would imagine that’s an easy job – mistakes look like they come naturally to you.”

Victor jumped again, looking around for the source of the new voice. “H-hello?”

“Just one ‘h’ will do, I’m sure.”

“Teasing again, Cheshire?” Alice asked, standing up straight and folding her arms. “Where are you, you mangy puss?”

“Right where I’m supposed to be.” Victor suddenly felt a presence to his left. He looked over to see a pair of yellow cat eyes and a large, sharp-toothed grin next to him. Just two eyes and a grin – no face or body to go with them. “I was thinking you didn’t notice anything larger than two inches,” the mouth continued. The voice that issued from it was low and calm, with just a hint of wicked playfulness behind it. “I’ve never seen anyone stalk a bread-and-butterfly so long.”

“Y-you’ve been f-following me?” Victor asked, trying to process all that was happening.

“I have a natural tendency toward curiosity, due to my species,” the mouth replied, the eyes glimmering with amusement. “And, though I have seen many things in this park, I’ve never seen anyone quite so thin and pale as yourself. If you were any skinnier, you would disappear from the side.”

“As if you have room to talk,” Alice scolded, apparently finding talking to a pair of eyes and a mouth to be perfectly natural. “Why don’t you actually show yourself instead of being so mysterious?”

“Nature’s grip on my personality again,” the mouth said. “But, as I’m sure you shall insist. . . .” A body faded into sight around the mouth and eyes. The speaker was revealed to be a most unusual-looking cat. He appeared to be little more than skin stretched over a skeleton, with an unusually large head and paws. His extremely thin fur was a bluish-grey, and covered in strange black patterns and symbols. His tail was long, with a small lion-like tuft at the end. His face was extremely round – all the better to accommodate the wide grin – with big, slightly tattered ears. A large golden hoop dangled from one – for what reason, Victor couldn’t say. He regarded Victor with that unique look of comingled interest and boredom only cats can pull off. “You mustn’t stare so – you risk your eyes getting stuck like that.”

Victor blinked, forcing his brain back into gear. He’d dealt with a human-like animal just this morning. Conversing with this one shouldn’t be so hard. “Er – are you – one of M-Mr. Carroll’s creations?” he asked, a bit timidly. The cat’s claws and teeth did look very sharp.

“I consider myself to be a bit more than just a Touched’s Fabricated creature,” the cat replied. “But yes, he is responsible for bringing me into the world.”

“I d-didn’t mean offense--”

“People rarely do. And did I say I took offense to your words?”

“I – I assumed that--”

“You shouldn’t assume anything of a cat. We have a talent for not doing as you expect.” He vanished again, then reappeared on Victor’s opposite side. “Especially when our creators kindly built in certain talents.”

“You’re acting like you want to give him a heart attack,” Alice scolded the cat again. “He’s brand new here. Only been here – three days now, is it?”

“Four,” Victor said quietly, eyeing the cat.

“He didn’t seem nearly half as nervous watching the insects,” the cat said, studying him in turn. “They’re much stranger than I am, to be sure.”

“I’m n-never nervous around insects,” Victor said, trying to inject a bit more confidence into his voice. It was ridiculous of him to be intimidated by a cat. It was just – that permanent grin was more than a little unnerving. “T-they’re a passion of mine.”

“An entomologist, then?”

“N-no, they’re just a h-hobby. . . .” Victor swallowed. “I’m s-sorry, I never got your n-name.”

“You do apologize a lot, don’t you?” Victor nearly said “I’m sorry” again, but quickly bit it back. “I am known as the Cheshire Cat.”

“We generally call him just Cheshire for short,” Alice added, reaching over to pet the cat behind his ears.

Victor nodded. “Well, it’s v-very nice to meet you.”

“I don’t know if I would call it nice to meet you, but it certainly is interesting,” Cheshire said, putting his paws on Victor’s knee and looking at the drawing.

Victor wasn’t sure how to reply to that. Fortunately, he was saved from the trouble by something leaping out of the water and spitting green liquid at him. “Look out!” Alice said, grabbing his arm and pulling him to the side.

“Ah! What – what is--” Victor asked.

“Snark spit,” Alice said, pointing to the spot on the grass where the green liquid had landed. To Victor’s shock, it was sizzling softly. “It’s mildly corrosive – it can’t eat all the way through your flesh, but it stings horribly.” She glared at the water, reaching for her belt. “I still don’t know why Lewis designed them that way. Or why he designed them at all, frankly. They’re nothing but trouble.”

“What are they?” Victor asked, looking toward the water himself. “I g-gather they’re aquatic--”

“They’re fish,” Alice said, in tones of great disgust. “Bloody annoying fish with frog-like legs, sharp teeth, and a long sticky tongue they like to use to yank you into the water so they can nibble on you. They’re the only things worse than those ladybirds.”

“I thought the ladybirds were quite nice,” Victor said, baffled.

“You haven’t been around them when you’re only three inches tall,” Alice said darkly. “They drop acorns on you. And Lewis being Lewis, he’s made the acorns explosive. It’s a wonder there’s any oak trees growing here.” Her hand tightened on something. “Come on, you wretch, give me something to aim at. . . .”

The snark leapt from the water again, a long pink tongue darting from its mouth. Alice sidestepped it and, almost quicker than Victor could see, pulled a knife and threw it. The blade flipped end over end before hitting home in the snark’s belly, instantly gutting it. The snark let out a brief cry before falling dead into the water. Alice folded her arms and looked on in satisfaction. “Much better.”

Victor gaped. Had that – had she – Oh God, he thought, suddenly rather frightened. The girls he was used to at home were all quiet, demure creatures. He couldn’t picture any of them wielding a knife. Especially not with such deadly accuracy. Suddenly Marty’s comment seemed more like a hidden warning. “You – you--”

Alice smirked at him. “Yes?”

Victor felt his courage fail him. “N-nothing,” he whispered, looking away.

“You’d best fetch that,” the Cheshire Cat said, nodding toward the now bloody pond. “It wouldn’t do to let it rust.”

“Certainly not,” Alice agreed, lifting up her skirts and wading into the water. She retrieved the knife from the snark’s belly and washed it clean, pulling out a handkerchief to dry it as she returned to land. “Hopefully the rest of the snarks will be content with that and not bother us,” she added.

The Cheshire Cat nodded, then looked at Victor. “Cats are expected to be rude and ungrateful, but I’m told humans are taught differently. I believe a thank you is in order for at least saving you from a nasty burn.”

“Yes, t-th-thank you,” Victor said hurriedly, not wanting to upset either Alice or the Cat. “T-that was v-v-very kind of you.” He pulled his sketchbook back onto his lap, wondering how best to make his excuses to leave.

Alice looked at him, her expression changing from one of vague annoyance to genuine regret. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said, sheathing her knife and crouching down next to him. “I just can’t stand snarks.”

Victor forced himself to look up at her. Her eyes, which had looked so dangerous before, suddenly seemed immeasurably sad. “I’m s-sorry,” he said, feeling a wave of guilt come over him. “It’s just – y-young ladies at home are – I mean – n-none of them would k-know how to use a b-blade – and am I c-correct in assuming y-you have no c-chaperone?”

A little of the danger came back as Alice smirked. “Do I look like I need one?”

Victor’s gaze went to the knife at her waist. “No.”

“If you’re worried about your conversation, I suppose I could be persuaded to serve as a guard,” the Cheshire Cat said, sounding deeply amused. “I’ve nothing better to do than watch over a thoroughly mad girl and an overly nervous boy.”

“Cheshire,” Alice said, her tone abruptly very dark.

Victor was about to say that he didn’t mind that personal remark, it was all too obviously true, when the other thing the Cat had said registered. “Mad?” he repeated, looking between the Cat and Alice. “Are you Touched, then?”

Alice looked at him for a moment, then lowered her eyes as she sat down properly. “No, it was a more traditional form of madness,” she mumbled.

This was encouraging. Victor felt again the urge to leave. But then he looked at her dismal form – the way her shoulders slumped, the way her hair hung in her face, the way her eyes stared at the ground – and felt a burst of sympathy. He knew how it felt to feel so low. “Oh,” he said, fiddling with his tie. “I – I have n-no idea of the etiquette of t-this, so m-may I ask what happened?”

“My parents died,” Alice said, her voice hollow. “Our house caught fire in the middle of the night one winter. I was the only one to get outside. I was only a few months shy of my eighth birthday at the time, and my mind simply – couldn’t handle what happened. So I shut myself down like a malfunctioning Automaton. The doctors called it severe catatonia. They treated me at the hospital, then when they couldn’t wake me, sent me to Rutledge Asylum.” She lifted her head and stared at Victor with hard eyes. “I’m better now,” she continued, new conviction in her voice. “I’ve been out of the asylum for two years. Yes, I do still see a doctor for – checkups, but I’m not hallucinating nor babbling nonsense or any of that. Despite what some flea-bitten tomcats may say,” she added, turning to glare at the Cheshire Cat.

“Now, Alice, you know I only meant it in the best possible way,” the Cheshire Cat replied, supremely unruffled. “You’ve stated yourself that you’re mad.”

“Not around anyone who doesn’t understand that I’m not talking about proper crazy nor being Touched! You can’t say those sorts of things in front of someone who’s only been in town four days!”

“Temper, temper!”

“Oh, hush. I have the right to be upset.” Alice looked back at Victor, a challenging look in her eyes. Victor got the idea she was daring him to say something in her head.

Well, he really ought to say something. But how to put it so she didn’t get angry with him? “I – I’m terribly sorry about your parents,” he finally said, hoping she would accept it as genuine sympathy it was. He got the feeling she disliked being pitied.

Alice looked surprised, which puzzled him. Surely she should be used to hearing such sentiments. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

There was a moment’s awkward silence, which Victor struggled to fill. It was even harder than normal to think of things to say with the Cheshire Cat grinning at him. “H-how long have you l-lived in Secundus?” he finally settled on. That seemed like a safe enough topic.

“Two years – I moved here after they released me from Rutledge,” Alice provided, looking glad to be on safer ground. “I live with my aunt and uncle – Uncle Charles works as a solicitor here.”

“Oh. D-do you like it?”

Alice grinned. It wasn’t the same as her usual smirks – this one looked truly pleasant. “Oh, very much so. I used to come here all the time as a child. Mum and Dad would bring me to this park and let me explore to my heart’s content. It became my favorite place in the world.” She looked reflectively at the water – the blood had washed away at last, leaving it clear once more. “It still is, really.”

“I can understand that,” Victor said, smiling a little himself. “It’s so beautiful here. And the creatures you find – well, the Cheshire Cat mentioned my interest in the insects,” he said, glancing over at the feline.

“There’s a lot more to see than just insects,” Alice assured him. “Lewis makes all sorts of wonderful things. He’s one of those Touched who doesn’t specialize. Whatever his fancy of the day is, that’s what he’s going to build.”

“I thought most Touched didn’t specialize,” Victor commented, looking out on the water. “That doing a little bit of everything was part of what made them Touched.”

“In my experience, it depends on the scientist,” Alice said. “I’ve known a few in my time here. Lewis really does do a bit of everything. Richard, meanwhile, is almost entirely devoted to mechanics. Machines for hat-making, for tea parties, for anything one could think of. He expresses almost no interest in biology or chemistry at all.” She glanced at him. “I think your employer is the same way. At least, I’ve never heard of Dr. Brown dabbling in biological matters. I don’t know about chemistry.”

Victor thought about that for a moment. “He’s expressed interest in mind-reading, but I don’t know if that’s precisely biology,” he admitted. “He has a chemistry set as well, and he’s indicated he’s used it, but it’s mostly machines for him.” He paused, then asked, “Does Mr. Dodgson have a chemistry set?”

“Yes,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. “He only uses it for making tea occasionally. It’s for the look of the thing, he says.”

“Looks can be very important,” the Cheshire Cat commented, stretching himself out on the grass, tail swishing from side to side. “One should always look before they leap, to give an oft-quoted example.”

“Ignore him, he enjoys confusing people,” Alice said, as Victor glanced over at the cat in puzzlement. “And making personal remarks, much like Richard.”

“Someone has to,” was the Cheshire Cat’s opinion. “I’m just glad you’ve gotten him to stop stuttering.”

Ironically, Victor felt himself try to start again at that. He took a moment and concentrated so that the words would flow out smoothly. “It’s just something that happens when I’m nervous. I don’t mean to.”

“It’s a wonder you can speak clearly at all then, living here,” the Cheshire Cat retorted. “Why would anyone of your obvious nervous disposition choose to come to Secundus? I understand that humans can be contrary, but this seems beyond even madness.”

“I didn’t exactly choose – I got my foot caught in the ladder to Dr. Brown’s flying train,” Victor explained. “They brought me here without realizing it.”

“And why are you still here, exactly?”

“I have to echo his question – why did you stay?” Alice asked, tilting her head.

“W-well, Doc offered me a job,” Victor said, playing with his tie. “And he and Marty were so kind to me when they discovered me there, and I – I’ve always w-wanted to have a b-bit of an adventure. . . .”

The Cheshire Cat arched an eyebrow as he lifted his head. Then his smile seemed to widen – it was rather hard to tell for certain, since it already stretched across half of his face. “Alice,” he said, sounding amused, “you were worried he would think badly of you being mad?”

“Cheshire!”

Victor, however, saw the humor behind the statement. “You think I’m mad?” he asked with a smile of his own.

“You must be,” the Cheshire Cat replied. “Or else you wouldn’t have stayed here.”

“It was ‘come here’ when you used that line on me,” Alice noted, though a slight smile was curving her lips too now.

“Yes, but he didn’t have much of a choice in coming, now did he?” The Cheshire Cat stretched, the bones of his spine popping. “I can use logic when it suits my purposes.”

“I don’t care if I’m mad,” Victor said, looking around. “I’m glad I decided to stay. I would have never seen this place if I’d remained in Burtonsville.” His gaze fell on the pond and its statue again. “Though I admit, I don’t see why your friend erected such a depressing statue on such a lovely spot.”

“It’s not a statue,” Alice said with a smirk. “Look closer.”

Victor glanced back at her, then leaned forward and studied the statue. After a moment, he saw what she meant – the figure was actually a fountain of sorts. Two trails of tears poured from the girl’s eyes into the pond. “Oh, I see!”

“It’s the Pool of Tears,” Alice nodded. “The water’s even salty. It’s actually quite nice to swim in when the snarks have been cleared away. Like a bit of the seaside in the middle of the city.”

Victor continued to study the fountain. “You know – and do forgive me if I’m being forward – it looks a bit like you,” he commented.

Alice blushed at that. “Well, I may have inspired this idea,” she confessed. “Lewis asked me to test a growth potion of his, and I became upset at something and cried so hard I actually left a puddle big enough to wade in. He was inspired and built the statue soon after.”

Victor chuckled. “Ah.” He leaned back slightly. “Do the other places in the park have names?”

“They have things which people call them, which is close enough for your purposes,” the Cheshire Cat said, rolling onto his back for a moment.

“There’s the Garden of Living Flowers by the entrance, and the Tulgey Wood – I believe you were just there,” Alice said, pointing out the various directions each lay in. “There’s also the Fungiferous Forest, though you need to take some of his shrinking potion to properly explore it. That way is the Hedge Maze, and the rabbit burrows – that’s where the White Rabbit and the March Hare live.”

Victor wasn’t surprised to learn the March Hare was one of Mr. Carroll’s creations. “I thought the March Hare lived with Mr. Dodgson.”

“Well, he does practically,” Alice admitted. “They and the Dormouse are nearly inseparable. But he has a residence here, should he choose to use it. Underneath them is also the village of Dementia, where the mining gnomes live. And then back nearer the front is Looking-Glass House, where Lewis lives. Everything runs backwards there, and the chess sets and card decks are all alive. He’s even created a tiny world out of a chessboard for them.” She smirked. “Lewis seems to have an obsession with making things either very small or very big.”

“There are worse obsessions to have,” Victor commented, smiling as another butterfly – this one a bright blue that reminded him of the ones they had at home – fluttered past.

“Yes, I suppose there are,” Alice agreed, leaning back to watch the butterfly herself.

And accidentally placing her hand on his.

The contact was like a shock of lightning through him. Victor was honestly unused to being touched unless someone was dragging him around. And he was extremely unused to being touched by young ladies. His eyes snapped onto Alice’s hand, resting on his. Her healthy pink skin was a distinct contrast to his own dead white. And her skin was so – so soft, her flesh so warm against his. . . .

Alice noticed the touch as well, looking down at their hands. “Oh! I’m sorry,” she said, pulling away. “I didn’t mean--”

“I know,” Victor said, raising his head. She raised hers at the same time, and their eyes locked. Once again Victor was struck by just how green her eyes were. Almost everyone in Burtonsville either had brown eyes, like himself, or blue eyes. Other shades were a rarity. And Alice’s eyes were just so full of emotion, of life. . . .

He realized he’d been staring, then realized Alice was staring right back. “I-is something the m-matter?” he said, hearing the Cheshire Cat give a little “huff” at the return of his stutter.

“You have such – peculiar eyes,” Alice said after a moment, her cheeks turning slightly pinker. “They look almost like you have no iris at all, just pupil. N-not that I mean they’re not nice, I – um –”

“Your eyes are unusual too,” Victor blurted, feeling himself blush. She thought his eyes were nice? “Er, not that they’re not beautiful as well--” Oh, God, why had he just called them beautiful?! Not that that wasn’t the truth, of course, Alice was very pretty and a little scary but also rather fun to talk to and what was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he keep his thoughts straight for five seconds all of a sudden?

Alice was still staring, and she’d turned even pinker. “Beautiful?” she repeated in a whisper. Something about it sent a sudden, strangely pleasant chill up his spine. . . .

“Oh, there you are!”

The spell was broken by the familiar voice. Both Victor and Alice managed to wrench their eyes away from each other and turn their heads to see Marty standing behind them. The young man was slightly disheveled, and looked both amused and annoyed. “I’ve been trying to find you for a hour and a half!” he continued, walking a bit closer.

Goodness, he’d been exploring for that long? Victor gave Marty a sheepish smile. “I’m terribly sorry, I rather lost track of the time.”

“Eh, that’s easy to do in here,” Marty allowed with a little wave. “Hey Alice. Hello Cheshire.”

“Hello Marty,” Alice said, picking at one of her gloves. “Nice to see you again.”

“Your timing could use some work,” the Cheshire Cat said, padding over and twining around Marty’s legs. “You interrupted a staring contest I was just starting to get interested in.”

“Huh?”

Victor felt his cheeks heat all over again. “Nothing,” he said, just a little too quickly. “Alice and I were just t-talking. She was telling me about the park.”

“Oh yeah, Alice would know this place inside and out,” Marty said with a nod. “Been coming here ever since you were a kid, right?”

Alice nodded. “I was telling him how I inspired the Pool of Tears,” she said, looking back at the pond. “Along with some other things.”

“She’s quite the conversationalist,” Victor said, hoping to banish the lingering traces of awkwardness. Glancing at the feline still prowling about, he added, “So is the Cheshire Cat.”

“They say flattery will get you nowhere,” the Cheshire Cat told him, then winked. “But it never hurts, either.”

“You’ll have to save the best tongue-twisters, Cheshire,” Marty said, consulting his watch again. “We really ought to be getting back. Doc’s probably come up with a new invention by now.”

“Oh, yes,” Victor said, feeling a pang. He’d hoped to explore so much more. Especially now that Alice had told him a bit more about the place. He got up reluctantly. “We’d best be off, then.”

Marty picked up on the disappointment in his face. “Don’t worry, we can come back tomorrow or the next day,” he said. “Doc’s pretty easy about giving us lots of free time. You’ll get to see it all.”

Victor smiled. “I’m glad.” He turned back to Alice, who got to her feet. “It was good to see you again, Miss Liddell.”

“It was quite pleasant seeing you too, Master Van Dort,” she said, then bent down. “Don’t forget your inkwell.”

“Oh, thank you,” Victor said, accepting it from her. Their fingers brushed as the little pot was passed over – Victor felt another jolt, but managed to keep from showing it this time. “I’ll – I’ll see you in the future?”

“I’m sure you will,” Alice said, with another one of her genuine smiles. “Dr. Brown and Richard are quite good friends, and you’ve still got an invitation to attend one of March’s tea parties.”

“And if you come here often enough, you’re sure to encounter her,” the Cheshire Cat added, smiling in a way that almost seemed lecherous.

Victor swallowed. “Good. Well then, good day.”

“Good day.”

“Have a good one Alice, Cheshire,” Marty nodded. “Come on, Victor, the path’s back this way.” He set off back the way he’d come. Victor lingered a moment to give Alice a final nod, then followed.

Once they were alone, Marty gave Victor a smirk. “Staring contest, huh?”

Victor really wished he could stop blushing. “She’d j-just put her h-hand on mine,” he said defensively. “It wasn’t – it really--” He didn’t even know what to say.

“You like her, though, right? As a friend?”

“She seems nice enough,” Victor said. “Though a bit scary at times.”

“Scary? What did she do, break out the Vorpal Blade in front of you?”

“That thing has a name??”

“Yeah. Apparently it’s the sharpest knife on earth – can cut through almost anything,” Marty said. “She’s very proud of it. What did she do with it?”

“Killed a fish,” Victor admitted. “A snark.”

“Oh, those things? Trust me, it deserved it,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “I’ve had to swim with them – they gang up on you and don’t let go.”

“You seem very casual about her owning a weapon,” Victor noted. “Is that common for young ladies around here?”

“No, but Alice is way different than most normal girls,” Marty said. Victor had to nod at that. “Doc and I have known her for a while. She’s pretty nice once you get to know her. Temper like a volcano, but you really have to piss her off to get her violent. Normally she just cuts you down with her tongue. Never get into an insult contest with her, she’s always gonna win.”

“I’ll remember that,” Victor said with a smile. “And yes, I noticed. She seemed genuinely upset that she’d frightened me.”

“Yeah, that would have to do with – uh--” Marty suddenly stopped, eyes darting back and forth. “I really shouldn’t say--”

Victor, however, already had a guess at what he meant. “Her time in the asylum, you mean?”

Marty’s eyes went wide with shock. “She told you about that already? Took three visits for me and Doc to get the story.”

“The Cheshire Cat forced her, in a way,” Victor explained. “He mentioned she was mad, and I thought it meant she was Touched.”

Marty shook his head. “No – she’s more like an Igor, like me. Just likes to hang around all the mad scientists. And yeah, that’s exactly what I meant. A lot of people are afraid of her because she spent eight years locked up. I’ll admit she can be creepy sometimes, but I’ve never seen her hurt anyone or anything that didn’t deserve it.”

Victor thought about that for a moment. “The snark did try to spit acid at me first,” he said.

“Yeah, you see? You don’t have to be afraid of her unless you get her mad.”

“Yes, but I sometimes think I have a talent for that,” Victor mumbled. “My mother always seemed angry at me for some reason.”

Marty opened his mouth to say something, then paused and seemingly changed his mind about what he was going to say. “Is Alice anything like your mom?”

Victor snorted. “Oh no. My mother would probably hate her on sight.”

“Then I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Victor snickered, despite himself. “How do you know her and her friends?” he asked as they reached the entrance again.

“Doc needed a hat for a special occasion, so we went to Richard’s shop,” Marty said. “They got to talking, and it turns out Richard’s got as big a thing for clocks and time as Doc does. They tend to bounce ideas off each other, and he’s got an open invitation to drop by the tea parties he and March are always having.” He laughed. “You gotta see one of those.”

“Well, I do have my own invitation,” Victor said, smiling. “Perhaps we could attend one day this week?”

“I don’t see why not. Let’s go talk to Doc about it.”

Chapter Text

January 20th, 18–

Secundus, England

5:48 P.M.

Mr. Dodgson was upstairs when they arrived at the hat shop. His face split into a wide grin as he saw the three. “Doc! How are you?” he said, going over to shake hands with the older man.

“Just fine, Richard,” Doc replied, beaming. “How have you been doing?”

“Oh, business could be better, but I came up with this fantastic idea for a hat that doubles as a house. Hello, Marty. And Master Van Dort, how nice to see you too.”

“Hello, Mr. Dodgson,” Victor said, shaking hands. It was rather odd to feel what was obviously wood and metal under the glove, but he did his best to ignore it. “It’s nice to see you again as well.”

“What brings you by?” Mr. Dodgson said, looking back at Doc. “Need a new hat? I’ve been thinking that you could really do well with a fedora--”

“Actually, we’re here to take tea,” Doc said, quickly cutting him off.

“Ah, Master Van Dort taking advantage of his invitation,” Mr. Dodgson said, grinning at the young man. “Well, the tea table is always open! Come, we’re just about ready.”

He led the way through the door in the back, down a flight of stairs, and through a small hallway that opened up into an enormous room. The walls here were just like the one at the back of the shop – white and covered with Mr. Dodgson’s small handwriting. The floor was a black and white checkerboard, the ceiling a mass of iron beams. Machinery was scattered all over in various states of completion, and various clocks decorated the walls. Some ran normally, while others moved to a rhythm all their own, hands twisting and turning with no apparent rhyme or reason. It reminded Victor a bit of E.L. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services – no wonder Doc and Mr. Dodgson got along so well.

In the middle of the room was the tea table itself – an absurdly long, dark wooden table with lion’s feet and elaborate carvings along the side. It was piled high with a variety of cakes, biscuits, sandwiches, fruit, and other finger foods – anything one could possibly wish to eat at a tea party. There were also multiple teapots, ranging from a simple round yellow and white striped porcelain teapot to a large silver teapot on a multi-legged stand. Victor thought he saw a teapot shaped like a top hat mixed in with all the various cake stands and sugar bowls, which was only appropriate. The chairs around the table were a mix – no two seemed to be alike. A couple of them were already filled – Mr. Lewis Carroll sat in a purple wingback chair, the Cheshire Cat perched himself on a brown stool, Alice Liddell sat in a dining chair with a green-cushioned seat, a large white rabbit with a black waistcoat, a top hat, and a watch muttered nervously to himself while in a plush orange armchair (Victor guessed him to be the White Rabbit Alice had mentioned a few days before), and the March Hare was seated at the head of the table on a blue ottoman. He greeted the newcomers with launched sugar cubes. “You are late!”

Startled, Victor checked his watch. “I thought we were early,” he commented. “Doesn’t tea start at six?”

“You are late for yesterday’s tea, then,” the March Hare said stubbornly.

“Late, late, why is everyone and everything always late,” the rabbit muttered, nose twitching. “Time shall be so angry with us all. . . .”

“Sit down, sit down,” Mr. Dodgson said, gesturing to the free chairs with his cane. “Plenty of room.”

“So long as they want you here,” Alice said, giving the boys a smirk. “Otherwise there’s no room at all.”

“It’s our tea table, and we’ll decide how much room there is,” the March Hare declared. “As it is, I do believe we can seat our three guests. Come, pick chairs, before the tea grows cold.”

The boys hurried to do as they were told. Victor picked a comfy-looking blue armchair next to Alice, only to discover that it was already occupied by what appeared to be a large dormouse. The animal was curled up on the seat, fast asleep. “Er--”

“You can move Dormy, he won’t mind,” Alice said. “He probably won’t even notice. March and Richard have tried to fit him into some of the larger teapots before, and he’s never woken up.”

“You have to pinch his whiskers many times before he even stirs,” Mr. Carroll said, frowning down at the Dormouse. “It’s my fault, really – I’d forgotten dormice were nocturnal when I made him.”

Victor carefully slipped his hands under the sleeping Dormouse’s body and lifted him. The Dormouse murmured something in his sleep, but didn’t stir. As Victor carefully transferred him to the yellow-spotted chair next to the armchair, he noticed that the Dormouse’s tail was partially metal. “What happened to his tail?” he asked automatically.

Mr. Dodgson, sitting down on a green-cushioned chair with box-like legs, suddenly looked a bit awkward. “Dormy had a bit of an accident with one of my early hat-making devices,” he said, fiddling with the top of his cane. “I had to replace what got cut off.”

“Poor Dormy,” the March Hare added. “He just had to flip his tail to the left at that moment. He’s lucky he only lost three inches.”

Victor felt a wave of sympathy for the poor animal slumbering away, and gently petted him. “Poor Dormouse,” he agreed.

“Those sorts of things don’t happen often,” Mr. Dodgson continued, looking worried his guests would think he was some sort of careless idiot. “I’m generally much more careful in the lab. Wouldn’t do to have to rebuild one’s best friends.”

Victor nodded as he sank into his seat. “Of course not. Or one’s customers,” he said in what he hoped was an appropriately joking manner.

“Exactly! Now then, shall we start our tea?”

“We should have started ten seconds ago!” the rabbit cried, ears quivering as he checked his watch yet again. “Twelve now! No, thirteen!”

“Rabbit, must you always be so obsessed with the time?” Alice asked, leaning across the table.

“If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be Rabbit,” the Cheshire Cat commented, licking a paw. “Just a rabbit.”

“Sometimes I think I would prefer just being a rabbit,” the White Rabbit shot back. “Then at least I wouldn’t always be so aware of how late I am.”

“It’s sad, really,” Alice remarked to Victor in a whisper. “The White Rabbit is the fastest runner out of all the Fabricated animals Lewis has made. Yet he’s so constantly worried about the time that he always delays himself looking at his watch. It’s a vicious cycle.”

“Well, if Rabbit says we ought to start our tea, then we ought to start our tea,” the March Hare declared. “Help yourselves, everyone, there’s plenty for all. Unless we run out.”

Everyone began loading up their plates and filling their cups. Victor was tempted to grab some of the tarts with bright red jam closest to him first, but forced himself to look down the table a bit to one of the trays of sandwiches. “May I ask what fillings those are?” he asked the March Hare.

“You may, no one’s stopping you,” the March Hare replied, buttering a scone.

Oh, that was right – Alice had told them they tended to be overly literal. “In that case, what are they?” Victor quickly followed up.

“Well,” the March Hare said, picking up the tray. “These are just bread and butter, these here are watercress, and these – oh, you would like these! Fish paste and lettuce!” He promptly tried to pile some on Victor’s plate. “I’m not sure what kind of fish, but you can tell us once you’ve had a taste, correct?”

Victor held up his hands against the incoming sandwiches. “Wait, please! I d-don’t want any fish!”

The assembled guests stopped and stared at him for a moment. “Don’t want any fish?” Mr. Carroll repeated. “What’s wrong with fish?”

“I just – I d-don’t care much for it,” Victor said. He knew he was probably being a bit rude, but he really didn’t want any of those sandwiches.

“But your family’s the fish people!” Marty protested, one eyebrow raised. “Your dad owns that cannery!”

“Yes. That’s – that’s actually sort of the problem.”

“I don’t get it.”

“My father’s owned that c-cannery since I was small,” Victor explained, feeling very awkward. “I’ve grown up around f-fish all my life. As in s-smelling it, seeing it, and most importantly, t-tasting it. You see, Father would o-often bring home some of w-whatever fish they’d gotten that day, and if w-we weren’t having company, we’d often have it for the main course. . . .”

Understanding dawned first in Doc’s eyes. “You’ve been eating fish almost every day for nineteen years, then?”

Victor nodded, glad to see that someone got it. “Any kind and every kind. I’ve had practically anything you can catch from saltwater and freshwater.” He paused, looked at the assembled company, and decided to risk it. “If I m-may be blunt – sometimes I felt like I’d kill for a steak.”

A ripple of laughter went through the room. “Well, I suppose that’s normal enough if you’ve been overexposed to something,” Doc agreed.

“No fish paste, then,” the March Hare said, putting the sandwiches back. “Have you anything against watercress?”

“Nothing at all,” Victor said, happily taking a couple of those. “I know I was being rude there, but--”

“Don’t worry, they can be much worse,” Alice said, taking a few sandwiches for herself.

“I am the epitome of the perfect host!” the March Hare began, then started staring at the spoon clutched in his paw. “Spoon.”

Victor somehow managed to choke down his laughter, turning it into a cough. “How have you all been, then?” he asked, picking up one of the teapots and pouring himself a cup.

“Just fine,” Mr. Carroll said, before biting into a scone. “Though I had to break up a fight between the Spades and the Diamonds before coming here. The Diamonds think the Spades are below them, you see, since the Spades do much of the gardening work for me.”

“I – assume you’re not talking about gemstones and shovels,” Victor said, a bit lost.

“Oh, no, no, I’m talking about the cards! The suits!”

“Oh! Yes, Alice mentioned you’d made living cards,” Victor recalled. “You have them work for you?”

“Yes, doing odd jobs to earn their keep,” Mr. Carroll confirmed. “The Spades do much of the gardening, as I said. The Clubs work as soldiers of a sort – you wouldn’t believe the undesirables that try to sneak in. I won’t begrudge anyone a warm place to stay the night, if that’s all they want, but so many of them want to steal something! The times I’ve caught people trying to dig up some of my flowers. . . .” Mr. Carroll’s eyes narrowed, and he took a vicious bite out of his scone. “Let them invent their own wonders,” he grumbled, voice dark and Creative.

“Don’t get upset, Lewis,” Mr. Dodgson said, adding a lump of sugar to his tea. He pulled a little vial out of his sleeve and added a silvery liquid to the cup as well. “This isn’t the sort of tea party we want people upset at.”

“Quite right,” Mr. Carroll nodded, perking up again. “So yes, Clubs are soldiers. Diamonds are courtiers – they act as my personal assistants around the house. And Hearts take care of Wonderland on a wider basis – they help me with my inventions, figure out the best places to place new plants and animals. . . .” He chuckles. “They joke that they’re the royal family of the realm. That Wonderland is more or less their kingdom.”

“You think they’d consider you their king,” Victor commented, adding sugar to his own tea.

“Oh, I think I’m a little higher up on the ranking to them,” Mr. Carroll said, a wicked gleam in his eye.

“Only to them,” the Cheshire Cat said, lapping at his cup of tea and earning himself a look from Mr. Carroll. “Don’t take it personally, cats don’t believe in gods in general.”

“That’s because you have such a high opinion of yourselves that you can’t imagine anything being better than you,” the White Rabbit claimed, nibbling on some carrot sticks that had been provided.

“Something like that, yes.”

“You have the oddest friends,” Victor remarked quietly to Alice.

“Says the young man who decided to stay in Secundus and work for a Touched after knowing him, what, five minutes?” Alice retorted with one of her trademark smirks.

“It was ten, at the least,” Victor replied with his own smirk.

“How have you been doing?” Mr. Dodgson asked, sipping his tea. “Has Master Van Dort been earning his keep?”

“Very much so,” Doc assured them, sampling a cupcake. “He’s a very eager worker.”

“Yeah – with his help, we finally got the pancake maker working,” Marty said, making Victor blush a little. “He’s actually got a bit of a knack for this stuff.”

“I don’t know why, mechanics has never been a particular interest of mine,” Victor said, trying one of the watercress sandwiches. It proved to be very tasty. “Though I am finding it rather fun now.”

“Ye-es,” Mr. Carroll said, regarding him thoughtfully. “You’re an entomologist, aren’t you? That excitement you displayed over my insects proves it.”

“It’s just a hobby with me,” Victor said, feeling a bit shy all of a sudden. How could he talk science with these people? Three of them were certified geniuses, and the others had been living with their Inventions (or else were their Inventions) for some time. His own small forays into the world of insect studying must seem absolutely trivial to them. “S-stemmed from a boyhood love of b-butterflies.”

“Why butterflies?” the White Rabbit asked.

“Excuse me? Er, I mean, what do you mean by that?” he hastily corrected himself as the White Rabbit started to speak again.

“You should say what you mean first off,” Mr. Dodgson said, draining his cup. “And don’t try to confuse me with this ‘mean what you say’ business. I know it isn’t the same thing at all.” Suddenly standing, he added, “All right, I want a clean cup! Everyone move down!”

“What?” Victor said, looking around in utter bafflement as everyone stood up.

“Just go with it,” Marty said, picking up the slumbering Dormouse.

“Clean cup, move down!” the March Hare added, glaring at him.

Still absolutely baffled, Victor slowly got to his feet and moved into the yellow chair the Dormouse had recently vacated. Everyone else moved down one as well. “I mean, what is so special about butterflies?” the White Rabbit said, settling himself into his new seat. “They’re lazy little creatures. Never care about the time at all.”

Victor frowned at that, slightly annoyed. “I’ve always found them to be beautiful,” he said, absently lifting his new cup to his lips. “And I admire their ability to fly. I’ve always wanted to do that. . . .”

“Well, you have now, haven’t you?” the Cheshire Cat commented. “One cannot claim dangling from a steam train that’s miles up in the air as anything but some sort of flight.”

“It’s not the same as butterfly flight, though,” Victor said, biting his lower lip for a moment as he remembered his ride. Goodness, had it only been a week ago? It felt like months, with all that had happened. “Flying via rope ladder under a steam train is rather less pleasant.”

“You should have yelled or something,” Marty said. “We would have let you up.”

“I was far too frightened,” Victor said, sipping the tea. He made a face as he realized the Dormouse’s tea hadn’t been sweetened at all. (Who on earth had poured the Dormouse tea anyway? The dear animal wasn’t even awake to enjoy it.) Hurriedly adding sugar to his new cup, he continued, “And my ankle was still caught in the rope. I’m a-actually fortunate in that I w-was able to avoid making the trip upside-down.”

“I don’t think you could have made the trip like that,” Mr. Dodgson said thoughtfully, adding more of the silver liquid to his new teacup. “More likely your leg would have been ripped off and you would have plummeted to the ground.”

Victor suddenly found himself rather off his food. “Y-yes, that’s true,” he said softly, putting down his cup.

“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about legs being ripped off while people are eating?” Marty suggested, looking a little ill.

“What should we talk about then?”

“I move that someone should tell a story,” the March Hare said. “Someone wake Dormy – perhaps he’ll finally finish his tale of the three little girls in the well.”

“It’s been years,” Alice said. “I doubt he remembers the ending now. If there ever was one in the first place.

“You never know until you ask.” The March Hare jumped onto the table and made his way over to the Dormouse, upsetting various plates and sending food all over the place. “Wake up, Dormy!” he cried, pouring hot tea on the Dormouse’s nose.

The Dormouse stirred, then opened his eyes with a yawn. “I heard everything you said,” he declared, then looked up at Victor. “Who’s this then?”

“This is Master Van Dort,” the March Hare said with a sweeping gesture. “He’s new to the city.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Victor said, doing his best to be polite.

The Dormouse nodded with another yawn. “You’re very pale,” he commented. “Are you a ghost?”

“No, flesh and blood – and bone,” Victor added, giving the March Hare a sideways glance. “I’m just naturally like this, I’m afraid.”

“Just like you’re naturally always asleep,” Mr. Dodgson said.

“I did hear everything you said,” the Dormouse insisted, blinking his eyes blearily.

“Of course you did,” Alice said ingratiatingly.

“Tell us a story, Dormy!” the March Hare said, finally returning to his seat. “And do be quick about it, or you’ll be asleep again before it’s over.”

“Once upon a time, there were three girls named Lacie, Elsie, and Tillie,” the Dormouse began. “And they lived in a well.”

“Why did they live in a well?” Victor couldn’t help asking.

“Because they were well in,” the Dormouse replied, as it that made all the sense in the world. And quite possibly it did, to him. “And they lived on treacle.”

“Treacle?”

“It’s a treacle well, you see,” Mr. Carroll provided. “I’ve been trying to make one for Wonderland. I’ve gotten the well part settled properly, but I can’t actually get any out. The bucket keeps getting stuck.”

“If you already know the story, why – yawn – are you asking me to tell it?” the Dormouse asked, a little sulkily.

“Because you only get as far as the little girls learning to draw everything that begins with an M, and then you fall asleep,” Alice said. “We’re hoping at some point to hear what happens to them afterward.”

“They drew everything that began with an M,” the Dormouse nodded, rubbing his eyes. “The moon, and mouse-traps, and memory, and – yaaawn – muchness. . .and. . . .”

“M-marmalade?”

The Dormouse, who had appeared to be on the point of dozing off again, sat up, blinking in surprise. “What?”

“Not what, marmalade,” the March Hare said, looking in surprise at Victor. “What doesn’t start with an M.”

Victor fiddled with his tie, feeling a bit uncomfortable at the staring. “I – I’m s-sorry if it wasn’t permissible to join in--”

“Monkeys,” Alice said, saving him from further embarrassment.

“Mandolins,” Marty added, smiling.

“May,” Doc suggested.

“March!” the March Hare said promptly, waving his cup.

“Multitudes,” the White Rabbit suggested.

“Marriage,” Mr. Carroll said, taking a tart.

“Melancholy,” the Cheshire Cat said, his tail flicking from side to side.

“Madness,” Mr. Dodgson smirked.

“Yes, all of those things and more,” the Dormouse said, temporarily energized by the interest in his tale. “They drew and drew, and the paper filled the well until they were at the top and could climb out. And now they were well out.” His eyelids began to droop again. “So they chose to draw things starting with the letter W.”

“Why W?” Marty asked.

“Because it’s the opposite of what they were doing at the bottom of the well.”

“M upside-down,” Victor murmured, with a little smile. “So they drew things like – waistcoats?”

“And whales, and – yawn – wimples,” the Dormouse nodded, leaning back in his chair. “And windows, and. . .wishes. . . .”

And just like that, he was out again. There was a very soft round of applause. “About time we learned what happened to those girls,” Mr. Dodgson commented. “Thank you very much for the help, Victor.”

“You’re quite welcome,” Victor said, then registered that he wasn’t being called “Master Van Dort” anymore. He blinked, startled. Had he just – he looked back at Mr. Dodgson. Mr. Dodgson just smiled and nodded. Victor smiled back. “Very welcome – Richard.”

Richard grinned, then got to his feet again. “Clean cup! Move down!”

This time Victor was prepared, and helped move Dormy to the next seat down. He was much more forgiving of this move than the last as well – the plate at what had once been Marty’s seat happened to be piled high with sweets of all sorts. Victor picked up one of the tarts. “Is this strawberry or raspberry?” he asked, curious. He planned to eat it either way, he just wanted to be sure of the taste he would be receiving.

“Neither – it’s squimberry,” March said, grabbing more carrots for himself.

“Squimberry?”

“One of mine,” Mr. Carroll said proudly. “Bright red berries just as big as a marble. Go ahead and try it.”

Victor, his curiosity piqued, bit into the tart. The flavor that spread across his tongue in response was incredible – like all the best parts of strawberries, blueberries, and apples, with just a touch of extra sweetness. Paired with the deliciously light tart, it was almost more than his tastebuds could handle. He had no idea how he kept himself from just shoving the rest of the tart into his mouth. “Oooohhh. . . .”

“Good, isn’t it?” Mr. Carroll grinned.

“It’s – I don’t even know how to describe it.” Victor polished it off as quick as he could while still being at least nominally polite. “You should work with Mr. Wonka.”

“Oh, I’ve sent him a sample,” Mr. Carroll said, rolling his eyes and leaning one elbow on the table. “He says it’s wonderful, but he refuses to accept outside influences. Silly man.”

“He’s just worried about more spies,” Doc said, taking a scone and slathering it with jam. “You know they nearly ruined him before.”

“Yes, but now that he’s gotten that workforce from darkest Africa or South America or wherever he located them, he should be fine! No one’s actually been inside the factory for years!”

“The average man considers paranoia a mental illness,” Cheshire said, taking some of the cold meat from its tray. “The wise man considers it a survival trait.”

“And his being a Touched can’t help,” Doc agreed. “I think some of us understand the more anti-social tendencies of that mind.”

Victor looked between the three Touched at the table, then back at Doc with one eyebrow lifted. “Yes, I know I’m saying this at a tea party, but it’s true. We’re not exactly known for our social skills.”

“That’s true enough,” Victor allowed. “Is that another thing that most often happens to Severely Touched?”

“Oh yes,” Doc said, taking a big bite out of his scone. “The more Creative you are, the worse you are at socializing with Regulars, or so the common trend seems to go.”

“More information courtesy of Mistress Narbon,” Mr. Carroll – Lewis – noted. “She’s making her career out of studying the Touched mind. It’s slightly disconcerting at times. You read her reports, and you keep wondering if she snuck into your house in the middle of the night and did experiments on you.”

“I wouldn’t put it past her if she was really determined,” Doc noted, apparently unaware he was threatening to give Victor nightmares. “Though that sort of behavior is really more suited to Doctor Narbon.”

“May she remain dead for some years hence,” Richard said quickly, taking a few nervous gulps of tea.

“Do I want to know?” Victor asked, half-sure he really didn’t.

“Doctor Narbon is basically every horror story you’ve ever heard about a Touched given life,” Doc said seriously. “The woman is very seriously disturbed. Nothing is too extreme for her when it comes to her experiments. And no matter how many times angry villagers tear her apart, she always seems to come back.”

“Mistress Narbon is her daughter,” Lewis said, swirling his tea in his cup. “Though the younger Helen Narbon is nowhere near as bad as her mother. She proclaims to be evil herself, but her experiments never seem to cause the havoc Doctor Narbon’s do.”

“Doctor Narbon’s been missing for a few years now, and trust us, we’re all glad of the quiet,” Doc continued. “The older Helen Narbon is not someone you would want within five miles of you. Not to mention she’d probably ignore the number one rule of Secundus.”

“I was u-unfamiliar with the fact Secundus had rules at all,” Victor said, a little surprised.

“We have laws, but people bend them all the time,” Marty commented. “Except for the one big one. Secundus is neutral ground.”

“Neutral ground? What exactly does that mean?”

“There’s no getting around the fact that some Touched will fight,” Doc explained, gesturing with his half-eaten scone for emphasis. “Little personal squabbles aren’t covered by that. The rule is for those morons who decide that they want to take over Secundus. It’s happened before – some Touched, or sometimes even a Regular, will get an overinflated ego and decide that the city would work better if they conquered it.”

“None of the rest of us will stand for it,” Richard said, banging on the table for emphasis. “We like having a place we can call our own. You let any one person take over like that, and soon we’ll start being exiled from our own city!”

“Hear hear!” March cried, raising his cup in a toast.

“So – what do you do if someone does try such an act?” Victor asked slowly.

“Most of them back down the instant they see every Touched and Igor in the city going for their weapons,” Alice said with a dangerous smirk.

“Yes – it may be hard for Touched to collaborate sometimes, but when it comes to keeping our city safe and free, there’s no stopping us,” Doc said, with a slightly unbalanced smile of his own.

Victor thought about that for a moment. “But – but surely the city must have some form of government,” he said, sipping his tea (this one was adequately sweetened, he was pleased to discover).

“Yes, but it’s a democratically elected mayor,” Doc said. “Some Touched make candidates of their own, admittedly, but popular vote is what decides who makes the laws. It seems to work.”

“It works well enough,” Richard said. “I’d rather have a pompous mayor complaining about the steam coming from my roof than some idiot with a giant monster smashing the roof in and ruining all my hats.” He eyed the bottom of his teacup. “Clean cup, move down!”

Victor reluctantly surrendered his seat to Alice. “Why do you keep having us change seats?” he couldn’t help asking.

“Well, it’s the only way to manage everything getting used up,” Richard claimed, flavoring his latest cup of tea with the silver liquid.

“But what happens when you come back around to the beginning?”

“Never gotten that far yet,” March said cheerfully. “Something always comes up.”

“Of course it does,” Rabbit said despondently. “Otherwise you might be early to your party for a change. Time does hate people being early.”

“Well, of course he does,” Richard said. “Being early generally means you have to wait, and thus you have to waste him, and he does hate that.” He took a sip of tea, frowned, then added more silver. Another sip yielded a smile. “Ahh, much better.”

“What is that you’re using?” Victor asked, unable to quell his curiosity any longer.

“Mercury,” Richard replied with a grin. “Helps keep everything inside running smoothly. I also like a bit of arsenic or belladonna if I can get it. Gives it a real kick.”

“I’ll, ah, take your word for it,” Victor said slowly.

“Yes, yes, I know, you’re all organic, inside and out,” Richard said. “It’s a shame, really. You miss out on so many interesting flavors.”

“I’m quite content with the likes of Wonka chocolate and squimberry, thank you,” Victor replied with a tiny smile.

“As long as you’re happy,” Richard nodded. “And since I can tell you’re quite eager to know, yes, this was intentional.”

“I – what?”

Richard waved a hand up and down his body. “This. All clockwork and gears and wood and metal and mercury and oil. I meant to do it to myself. My old body wasn’t up to the task of running a hatting business. The mercury was playing havoc with my organs. So I thought it easier to replace them.” He chuckled. “Of course, it wasn’t until I’d replaced nearly everything that I came up with the idea of using machines to do the actual hat-making work.”

Victor was astonished at how casual Richard was being about the idea of replacing his own body with wood and clockwork mechanisms. Then again, he is Touched. . . . “I – er – ‘I’m very sorry’ somehow d-doesn’t seem quite right to say,” he admitted awkwardly.

“Don’t be sorry – it’s hardly your fault hatting can make one sick. And I knew what I was doing. Or at least I thought I knew. It worked, and that’s the main thing. Now, do you have any idea why a raven is like a writing desk?”

“I – I think you’ve already asked me that.”

“No, I asked you why a raven is like a writing desk before. Now I’m asking if you have any idea why.”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Why are you afraid of not having the answer?” March asked. “Do you believe we’ll descend upon you and rip you to pieces for not knowing?”

“Perhaps he’s afraid that not having the answer will force him to look it up and make him late,” Rabbit suggested.

“It is my opinion that our dear Master Van Dort thinks he is secretly afraid of everything,” Cheshire said with a lazy smile.

“Oh, come on,” Marty said disbelievingly. “The guy hangs onto the bottom of our train all the way into Secundus and then decides to live with us rather than run screaming back home? That’s gotta qualify as brave.” Victor felt a small swell of embarrassed pride – he couldn’t recall anyone calling him brave before.

“You didn’t listen. I said Master Van Dort thinks he is secretly afraid of everything. It is my opinion that Victor is in fact as mad as any of us and mistook his discomfort around those oppressively normal as fear.”

Victor opened his mouth to protest – though he wasn’t sure why, being thought of as mad appeared to be helping his social life immensely – then paused. “I can think of nothing to say in reply that doesn’t sound like an insult to myself,” he confessed.

“Then don’t and take it as the compliment it is,” Cheshire said, idly pawing at one of the forks.

“He’s right,” Lewis agreed, with a slightly crooked smile. “You need to be a little mad to see the world properly. Nothing wrong with it in small doses. Or large doses, come to think of it.”

“That depends on what kind of madness it is, and whether or not you can master it,” Alice said, looking down at her plate with sudden somberness.

Lewis looked stricken. “Oh, dear Alice, I didn’t mean – you know I didn’t – see, Dr. Brown was right, lack of social skills,” he babbled.

“No, it’s all right,” Alice said, fiddling with a piece of bread. “I know you didn’t mean the madness of the asylum.” She glanced over at Victor, looking a bit nervous. “I really am better. I may be a bit off, but – not like that, anymore.”

“I believe you,” Victor said, not wanting her to be ill at ease.

“You do? Most people don’t. According to them, being in Rutledge is something you never really recover from.” Alice picked up her butter knife and looked at her reflection in it. “Perhaps they’re right.”

Victor debated with what he wanted to say next. Finally, he went ahead and took the plunge. “Perhaps t-they should be w-wondering why the asylum admitted a s-seven year old.”

Alice looked up from her knife, blinking. “What do you mean?”

“I – do f-forgive me if this is r-rude or forward, but – why would R-Rutledge, or any other a-asylum, admit a child into bedlam?”

Alice frowned in a way that said she had never thought of that particular question before. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Perhaps they didn’t know what to do with me – I was catatonic. And Rutledge did have other children. Maybe going mad as a child isn’t as uncommon as you might think.”

“I still don’t think it’s right,” Victor said, poking at the sandwich on his latest plate.

“They were very nice to me in there – from what little I recall of the real world,” Alice said, tapping one foot beneath her seat. “Dr. Wilson was always there to watch over me, and so was Nurse Darling.” She abruptly scowled. “The only complaint I had there was with the superintendent’s two nephews.”

“Really? That was your only complaint?” Rabbit asked, sounding baffled. “Not being in there in the first place?”

“I think being in there in the first place falls under a different category when it comes to complaining,” Alice replied.

“What about the superintendent’s two nephews?” Victor asked, sure he wasn’t going to like the story but wanting to hear it anyway.

“They worked as orderlies there, and they seemed to take all their pleasure from teasing and tormenting the patients,” Alice said, eyes hard. “They tried to provoke a response out of me dozens of times, I’ve heard. Threatening me with leather straps and the like.”

“That’s horrible!”

“Oh, she paid them back,” Cheshire said, teeth gleaming. “The one time they did get a response, they quickly regretted it.”

“They were spooning my gruel all over my toy bunny,” Alice explained, looking just a touch embarrassed. “I took offense and attacked them with the spoon. Caused a permanent scar to the older one’s cheek.”

“With a spoon?” Victor wasn’t sure if he was frightened or impressed.

Alice lowered her eyes slightly. “You’d be surprised at how effective they can be at causing harm,” she said softly, rubbing her wrists.

Victor almost asked, then decided he knew enough. He watched her for a moment. She seemed an entirely different person every time she talked about the asylum. Someone who was infinitely sadder, and who looked like she felt quite alone in the world. “You have my deepest sympathies,” he said slowly. “It’s – it’s terrible, what h-happened to you.”

“I know,” Alice said, giving him a tiny smile. “Thank you.”

“I think we’ve spent enough time on this particularly depressing subject,” Richard declared, holding up a point-making finger. “I vote that we all take a clean cup in hopes it will improve the conversation.”

Victor had a sudden idea as they all rose to change places again. “Wait a moment – why don’t we try the other way? Just for a change?”

“Oh, that sounds amusing! All right then, clockwise everyone!” Everyone shifted back a place, most of them looking a bit puzzled. “Now then – hey, wait a moment!”

Both Marty and Alice burst into laughter. “Did you just pull a fast one on him?” Marty asked between snickers.

“If that means the same as playing a trick,” Victor said, cheerfully sitting back down in front of the plate of sweets.

“You are most definitely one of us,” Alice giggled.

Richard sulked a bit, slumped in his chair. “I don’t see what’s so funny about it,” he muttered. “Now I have to use a dirty cup.”

“It won’t kill you,” Doc told him, sounding like a father scolding his son. “Besides, none of us can use your teacups after you’re through with them. Not without risking mercury poisoning anyway.”

“You pull these sorts of tricks on me all the time,” Alice agreed, still chuckling. “Turn about is fair play.”

You didn’t have anything to do with this. Did you?” Richard added, eyeing her suspiciously.

“Have you been planning with Victor behind our backs?” March added, picking up a roll and readying it for launch.

“I think she would have been too distracted with having staring contests with him,” Cheshire commented, looking deeply amused by everything.

“Staring contests?” Rabbit repeated, tilting his head and looking at the two of them. “How is that any way to pass the time?”

“Ignore him,” Alice said, giving Cheshire a bit of a look. The cat ignored her, as any cat would do. “And no, we haven’t been secretly planning how to trick you into going in the opposite direction. I didn’t have the slightest thing to do with his little prank.”

“I am sorry I upset you,” Victor said, feeling a stab of guilt. This was why he usually didn’t try to joke around with others – he was so afraid of offending them. “I j-just thought it would be funny.”

“And let you eat all those tarts and cupcakes I picked out,” Marty said with a smirk.

“A very nice bonus, to be sure,” Victor admitted, blushing and fiddling just a bit with his tie. “And I t-thought it m-might cheer Alice up as well.”

Richard finally sat up straight again. “That at least is a noble cause,” he allowed. “After such gloomy talk.”

“It helped a lot,” Alice assured him, smiling one of her genuine smiles.

Victor found himself blushing harder. “I’m glad. I like seeing you smile. Er, I l-like seeing anyone smile, but you have a p-particularly nice one--” Oh, damn, he was starting to fall apart again. He quickly filled his mouth with cupcake to stop it from speaking.

Alice looked simultaneously pleased and embarrassed. “Well – thank you,” she said, quickly picking up her cup of tea. “Yours is quite pleasant too, if we’re giving those sorts of compliments.”

Victor swallowed his bit of cake. “Oh. Ah – thank you.”

“You guys are really hitting it off, aren’t you?” Marty noted with a little grin. “When I first met you, Alice, I was half-certain you didn’t like anybody.”

“It very much depends on the person,” Alice said, sipping her tea. “It’s very hard not to like someone who, upon hearing you were committed after your parents died, immediately expresses his sympathy for their death.”

Victor nearly choked on his second bite of cupcake. “Wait – people don’t say that?” he demanded, shocked.

“Some people do,” Alice said. “But the vast majority act as if I’m going to cut them open and eat their livers with fava beans and a nice glass of wine.”

Victor couldn’t help his eyes flicking to the Vorpal Blade. Alice noticed the motion and looked down at it. “Yes, I suppose that doesn’t help,” she admitted with a sigh. “But I swear to you, I’ve never raised it against another human.”

“We can vouch for her,” Lewis said, frowning at Victor. “Alice is merely excellent at killing monsters, not people.”

“And we’ve had hours of fun designing her weapons,” Richard said with a particularly Creative grin.

“There’s more than just the Vorpal Blade?” Victor said.

“Oh yes! There’s the Cards, the Jacks, the Jackbomb, the Ice Wand, the Croquet Mallet. . . .” Richard listed off on his fingers.

“The Vorpal Blade is the only one I carry with me regularly,” Alice said, looking embarrassed again. “I only take the others if I’m expecting trouble.”

“Or if you want to play a particularly dangerous game of Solitaire,” Cheshire added, lapping up more tea.

“I’ve given that up, I kept cutting my fingers on the edges of the cards,” Alice admitted. “They are excellent for building card houses, though.”

Victor looked at her for a long moment. “You are just so different from the young women back home,” he said, picking up a tart. Then he smiled. “I think I like it.”

“Really?” Alice said, sounding a bit disbelieving. “Weapons and all?”

“Weapons and all,” Victor said, amazed at himself. He was learning all sorts of odd things about his personality these days. Such as the fact that he apparently adapted very well to living with mad people. “You’re so much more – vital than most of them. It’s – it’s refreshing.”

“You mean I don’t spend my days talking about clothes and doing samplers, I’m assuming,” Alice said, smirking. “That would be a change of pace.”

“Most of them actually talked about dancing, but perhaps that’s because I really only ever talked to them at parties,” Victor confessed. “I d-don’t think I’ve spoken this openly with a girl – with anyone, really,” he amended, looking around, “in years.”

“We’re glad to provide such excellent conversation,” March said, throwing his roll at the Dormouse. It bounced off without Dormy noticing.

“I think you’re right, Cheshire,” Marty said. “He belongs here with the rest of us crazies.”

“Of course I’m right. I’m a cat.”

“You’re a pompous old tom who takes delight in confusing people,” Alice said, though in loving tones.

“That also comes with being one of my species, I believe,” Cheshire replied, unoffended.

“I think it’s time for a fresh cup of tea and some riddles,” Richard announced, getting up. “Everyone should move down two places to make up for the one we lost – and if you really must have that plate, Victor, I suppose you may take it--”

There was the sound of a door opening from upstairs. “Hello?” an unfamiliar voice called.

“Customer!” Richard dashed out of the room and up the stairs.

Victor watched him go, then looked at the others. “Do we wait, or is this where the tea parties usually end?”

“Fork!” March declared.

“No, that’s a spoon,” Alice said. “And yes, we do generally stop here. Though you can finish your food first.” Jokingly, she added, “It’ll save your employer the bother of feeding you later.”

“No it won’t,” Doc said good-naturedly. “This young man has some sort of black hole for a stomach.” March suddenly looked nervous and scooted his chair away from Victor. “Metaphorically speaking, March.”

“You’re all welcome to share the cupcakes,” Victor said, pushing the pastry-laden plate closer to the middle. “But if no one minds, I’ll be taking a few of the squimberry tarts home.”

“Take all you want – we can always make more,” Lewis said, snagging a cupcake. “It’s a joy to see them so liked.” He paused, as if just thinking of something. “And if no one has done so yet, allow me to be the first to truly welcome you to Secundus.”

Victor smiled at him. “Thank you, Lewis,” he said. “I’m truly glad to be here.”

Chapter Text

January 30th, 18–

Secundus, England

10:24 A.M.

Marty looked up from his latest song as the front door of the shop opened. “Hey, folks,” he said as two people, a man and a woman, stepped inside. “How can I help you today?”

The female half of the pair glared at him. She was a rather short and heavyset woman, looking like she was in her early forties. Her clothes were on the simple side, but looked expensively tailored, and she wore a white fox fur around her neck. Her dark brown hair was twisted into a sort of three-sectioned bun, on which a small cap with a curly feather sticking out the top rested. Her face was jowly, with small eyes and a small nose and a small mouth. Said mouth was currently curled into something like a sneer. “We’re not here to buy anything,” she snapped. “Not that I’d buy anything from your sort anyway.”

Marty instantly bristled. Oh, great – one of those Regulars that thought Touched were somehow below them. He hated dealing with these jerks. “So why are you here?” he asked, forcing himself to keep his tone polite.

“Trust us, we don’t want to be here. If I had my way--”

“Don’t get all aflutter, dear,” the man said soothingly. He looked rather older than his wife (at least, Marty assumed she was his wife), like he was somewhere in his fifties. He was as thin as Victor, though not nearly as tall – though perhaps that was partially because he was all hunched over. His orange-brown suit also looked expensive, as did the tall, thin top hat on top of his almost completely bald head. His face had a bit of a pinched look, with a long nose and a large, slightly-droopy mustache over a small chin. He peered at Marty through a pair of gold-framed pince-nez glasses. “We’re looking for our son,” he explained to Marty. “Someone’s kidnapped him.”

“Oh, jeez,” Marty said, deciding to forgive the woman a little for her rudeness. Having your kid in danger would probably make anyone shirty. “What’s he look like?”

“I can’t believe this would happen!” the woman said, before her husband could reply. “Everything was going so well, too! Things were all arranged, we just had to wait for the rehearsal, and suddenly he up and disappears!”

“Nell, it’ll be all right,” the man said, reaching out to pat her shoulder. She glared at the hand, and he withdrew it, settling it back onto the cane he held. “We’ll rescue him and make sure nothing’s happened to his brain--”

“It’s a bit late for that!”

“Guys, I know a lot of people around here,” Marty said, trying to get their attention again. “If I could just have a description--”

“What’s going on?” Doc said, appearing from the rows of parts. “I thought I heard shouting.”

“Somebody’s taken their kid,” Marty said, gesturing to the pair. “They’re searching around for him.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Doc said, wiping his hands on a rag.

“I’m sure you are,” the woman – Nell – said acidly, snapping open a fan and waving it in front of her face. “Sorry you didn’t get a chance at him first.”

Doc, who had more patience with these people than Marty (probably from a lifetime of dealing with them), let the comment pass. “We can help you get him back,” he offered. “We’re quite familiar with most of the Touched who live in the city--”

“Oh no!” Nell said, looking deeply suspicious. “I don’t want you anywhere near my son! We just want to know if you’ve seen him. We can do the rest.”

“Quite right,” the man agreed. “Now, then, he’s nineteen years old, and--”

“Doc?”

All heads turned as Victor emerged from the inner recesses of the shop, jacket and tie missing, with his sleeves rolled up and his hands stained with grease. “I’m sorry, but I tried adjusting the gears you showed me, and the difference engine is still freezing up,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to take apart more of the machine.”

“VICTOR FITZWILLIAM VAN DORT!!”

Victor nearly jumped out of his skin – not that Marty blamed him, he’d almost done the same. “Mother?!” he gasped, turning to face the couple.

Marty’s head snapped back around, his mouth dropping open. These two were Victor’s parents?! He looked between them for a moment. They did share the same affliction of pasty white skin. And, actually, the man and Victor shared a lot of the same body structure and facial features – Marty supposed he hadn’t really noticed because Victor’s mother tended to draw all the attention to herself. “Holy shit,” he whispered.

“Victor, what are you doing here?” Nell demanded, waving her fan around like it was a deadly weapon. “And why aren’t you properly dressed? Anyone could come along and see you like that!”

“Yes, where is your tie and jacket?” Victor’s father added, frowning at his son’s casual attire.

“I – I – I’ve been w-working on a m-machine,” Victor babbled, hands reaching up to try and grab a tie that wasn’t there. “It’s t-terribly greasy w-work, I d-didn’t want to r-ruin my clothes--”

“And what are you doing working on difference engines?” Nell added, looking like the last two words had left a foul taste in her mouth.

“I-it’s for c-calculations f-for the t-train. . . .”

“What train? Oh, don’t bother, I don’t really want to know,” Nell cut Victor off. She turned on Doc. “So you’re the one who took him! Thought you’d use him for your little experiments, hmm? Cut him up for spare parts?”

“What gives you the right to come and take our son?” Victor’s father added, leaning on his cane and staring hard at Doc through his glasses.

“We didn’t realize we’d taken him! I was testing out the new hover conversion system for my train, and we happened to stop very close to your town,” Doc started to explain.

“How can you not realize you’ve taken someone?” Victor’s father asked, looking very puzzled.

“Yes, exactly, William,” Nell said, glowering at Doc. “He’s lying. They all lie.”

“No, he’s n-not!” Victor spoke up. “I s-stumbled across the t-train while some o-of the boys f-from home were c-chasing me! I g-got my foot c-caught in the r-rope ladder attached to it, and t-they took off b-before I could f-free myself!”

“He somehow hung on all the way back here,” Marty added. “Your kid’s got guts, ma’am.”

Our Victor?” Nell scoffed. “Nonsense. I know a made-up story when I hear one. You’re coming straight home with us, young man!”

“But – I – d-didn’t you g-get my l-letters?” Victor asked, wringing his hands together. “I’ve b-been writing to you o-once a week. . . .”

“We thought the first one was someone’s prank,” William said, adjusting his glasses slightly. “But when you still hadn’t come home when the second one arrived, well. . . .”

“We would have been up here sooner if it hadn’t taken so much time to arrange for the trip,” Nell said. “We spent a lot of money we didn’t need to coming up here to bring you back! Why do you always do these things, Victor? Honestly, I don’t know what’s wrong with you sometimes.”

Victor looked down at the ground. “Y-you didn’t need to come,” he said softly. “I’m h-happy here.”

“Happy?! How could you be happy surrounded by madmen?”

“We’re here now, Victor,” William said gently. “We’re going to take you home. You can admit the letters were faked.”

“But they w-weren’t!” Victor said, lifting his face again. “I r-really did write them! I r-really did want t-to stay!”

“Of course you don’t!” Nell said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“But I d-do!”

Nell stared at him for a moment. Then she turned another megawatt glare on Doc. “All right, then, what did you do to him?” she demanded, snapping her fan shut and poking the scientist in the chest with it. “Out with it!”

“I did nothing to him!” Doc said, starting to look angry.

“Nonsense! You’ve – you’ve put him under mind control or something!”

“I’ve done no such thing! Your son chose to stay with us of his own free will! Took us by surprise, to be perfectly honest. We thought he’d been chomping at the bit to get home, if I may use the vernacular.”

“I’m sure he was until you did whatever you did to him! William, search him, make sure they haven’t attached anything to him.”

Victor allowed his father to pat him down, apparently in the hope this would stop the talk of mind control devices. “Nothing I can feel, dear,” William admitted, looking a bit confused.

“Then they must be drugging him. Victor, how could you eat their food?”

“There is nothing in the food,” Doc snapped. “I’m primarily a mechanist, not a chemist. And I’m not one of those Touched who abducts random people for spare parts, either.”

“So why did you take Victor?”

“We didn’t mean to!” Marty yelled, wishing the woman would finally get that through her thick skull. “It was an accident! We were gonna bring him right back, but then we kinda hit it off, Doc offered him a job, and he accepted!”

“A job? You wanted to hire him?” Nell said, looking from Marty to Doc and back with an absolutely baffled expression.

“He’s been an excellent assistant,” Doc said, giving Victor a smile. “Not much technical training, of course, but he learns fast, and he has a knack for working with the smaller parts.”

“He’s clumsy and he’s afraid of everything!”

“I’ll give you that he runs into stuff,” Marty began,“but--”

“You see? Why would you want to hire someone like that? No, you took him to perform experiments on him. That’s what all you people do.”

“It’s n-not like that, M-Mother,” Victor protested, spreading his hands. “A l-lot of w-what we’ve h-heard about Touched is w-wrong.”

“What?” Nell laughed derisively. “You’re just saying that because these two have scrambled your brains.”

“Look, sir,” William said, pulling out his wallet. “None of us want any trouble. I’m sure we can settle this easily if you’ll just tell me how much you think he’s worth. . . .”

Doc stared at him – that bug-eyed stare that usually made Marty laugh. There was nothing funny about it this time, though. “Great Scott, are you seriously suggesting your son is some sort commodity that can be bought?”

“It’s just that I’ve found a few pounds in the right places can solve plenty of problems--”

“William, no,” Nell said, smacking him with her fan. “We’ve wasted enough money on this trip. And I’m certainly not giving any to this sort.”

“Mother, Father, r-really, I’m fine,” Victor said pleadingly. “I h-haven’t been mind c-controlled or h-hurt or anything. Doc – D-Dr. Brown and M-Marty have been n-nothing but k-kind to me.”

“All right, fine, let’s play along with this delusion for a moment,” Nell said haughtily, flipping her fan back open. “Why would you stay knowing that you’re going to be married at the end of the month? To the descendant of a grand duke, no less?”

“Because he’s scared to death of marrying someone he’s never met?” Marty suggested, making sure to pile on the sarcasm.

“Stay out of this, madboy,” Nell said without looking at him.

“I’m actually just the other assistant.”

“Oh, an Igor,” Nell said, making the word sound like some sort of swear. “Wonderful.”

“I – M-Mother, I told you I w-was nervous about that,” Victor said, fidgeting. “That I d-didn’t think it was r-right. Shouldn’t V-Victoria Everglot be marrying a l-lord or something?”

“We’re every bit as good as the Everglots,” Nell said, putting her nose in the air. “It’s positively criminal that we haven’t taken our proper place in society yet. But without a connection to a proper name. . . .” She sighed, heavily put upon. “I deserve better than a fish merchant’s life,” she added softly, giving William a brief stink-eye.

William seemed to take it in stride. “We all do, dear,” he agreed. “I can’t imagine Victor doesn’t want to better his connections.” He glanced at Doc and Marty. “Though he’s choosing the entirely wrong class of people to do it with.”

“These are m-my friends, Father,” Victor said, eyes narrowing just slightly. “And they’re n-not the wrong sort at all.”

“They’re a Touched and his Igor! How could they be anything but the wrong sort?” Nell demanded.

“They’re nice p-people, Mother! If you’d just t-talk to them for t-ten minutes--”

“I don’t need to spend my time talking to mad people,” Nell cut him off. “I have better things to do than listen to some lunatic rave on about science. Now you see here, it took us quite a lot of time to drag everyone up here.”

“Everyone?” Victor repeated, growing anger giving way to puzzlement. “Is Mayhew here?”

“Of course Mayhew’s here, how do you think we’re getting around?” Nell asked, in a tone that suggested she didn’t think Victor had a brain at all. “I’m talking about the Everglots!”

Whatever color Victor might have had in his face fled. “The E-E-Everglots are here?” he croaked out.

“Yes! It took a lot of convincing, but we thought that it might be best if they joined us,” Nell said, fanning herself imperiously. “We’ve had to promise them extra money for coming. I hope you’re happy.”

“I – why--”

“So you can see what you are giving up! You have a chance for an excellent match here, Victor, and you are ruining it!”

“You’ve hooked a winner, Victor,” William said pleadingly. “Come back home and reel her in.”

“I-I-I’ve never even spoken to her!” Victor said, gripping the front of his shirt tightly.

Nell sighed dramatically. “That was a point in our favor,” she said. “But considering the circumstances, perhaps it is best if you meet. We’ve set things up so you can get acquainted tomorrow. Took us forever to find a coffee shop that didn’t stink of Touched, I might add.”

“You’ll a-actually let us meet?”

“If that’s what it takes for you to stop this nonsense,” Nell said, rolling her eyes. “Now put on a clean suit and come back to the hotel with us. I see no reason for you to stay here.”

Victor looked at them, then at Doc and Marty. “I – I’d rather stay,” he said after a moment, voice soft.

“You’d what?”

“My assistant told you he’d rather stay,” Doc said, jaw set. “And we would be very happy to have him continue living with us. Not to mention he is currently in the middle of working on a job. So, if you do not mind. . . .”

Nell stared at them for a moment, then let out a frustrated sigh. “Oh, I don’t have the energy to argue this with you,” she said. “Fine. Stay here. Ruin your reputation. But this is not over, Victor.”

“I’m sure it’s not, Mother,” Victor said, looking at the floor again. “I’m sorry.”

“If you were really sorry, you would have come home straight away. We’ll continue talking about this tomorrow. We’ll come fetch you at one o’clock.” Nell turned, briefly met Marty’s eyes, let out a “hmph!” of disapproval, and headed for the door. “Come along, William!”

“Coming, dear.” William took a moment to shake his head at Victor sadly, then followed his wife outside.

There was silence for a moment after the two had left. Then Marty turned to his friend, who was still staring at the floor. “Okay, there’s about five million things I could say, but let’s start with the easiest one – Fitzwilliam?”

Victor winced. “It wasn’t m-my idea,” he said, finally looking up again. “Mother picked it. She wanted Fitzgerald, but in the Van Dorts, it’s tradition to give a first son his father’s name as his middle. Fitzwilliam--” he said the name with utter distaste “–was her idea of a compromise. She thinks it sounds aristocratic.”

“Probably it is, those people usually have weird names,” Marty said. “So, basically, she’s been picking on you ever since you were born?”

Victor winced again. “S-she’s just loud,” he claimed, with an expression that said he didn’t believe a single word coming out of his mouth. “She’s u-used to getting her o-own way, and--”

“Victor, she treated you like you were something she scraped off her shoes!” Marty interrupted, gesturing wildly with his right hand.

“She was j-just angry. . . . I’m more concerned with how she treated you two,” he added, looking between them. “I’m very sorry about that. I think I told you how badly Touched are regarded in my hometown.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Doc said, waving a hand. “I’ve heard worse, believe me. Your mother is hardly the only one to think Touched are a stain on society, if not the earth as a whole.” He gently put a hand on Victor’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“I – oh, I don’t know,” Victor said, putting his face in his hand (apparently forgetting it was covered in grease at the moment). “I never expected them to actually come after me. And to bring the Everglots.”

“At least she realized it might be nice for you to meet your own fiancee,” Marty said, leaning over the counter. “If you want to go to that, I mean.”

“Pardon?”

“Well, you don’t have to. Unless you’re scared of your mother yelling at you some more. Which, considering, is probably a legit fear.”

“We’re not going to let anyone make you do anything you don’t want to do,” Doc added, with a firm nod. “You shouldn’t be bullied into things.”

Victor looked over at him. “But – they’re my parents--”

“That doesn’t mean squat,” Doc said, rather heatedly. “Being related by blood doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like someone. Trust me, my father proved that to me in the worst way possible.”

Victor’s eyes went wide as he considered the implications of that statement. “He – he didn’t try to--” he started.

“Never explicitly, but I’m damn sure he considered the idea,” Doc said, his voice dark and slightly Creative. “I didn’t want to tell you this, but I happened to have been disowned at gunpoint.”

Victor’s jaw dropped. Marty didn’t blame him – when he’d wrangled that tidbit out of Doc, he’d been absolutely stunned too. He couldn’t imagine anybody’s father pointing a gun at their chest and threatening to shoot them if they didn’t leave. “Oh! I’m – I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Doc said, letting out a deep sigh. “I suppose I have my mother to thank for him not actually going through with it. She was frightened of my sudden – difference, but she knew it didn’t warrant me being killed.” He suddenly looked every bit his sixty-five years. “I suppose I’m actually one of the lucky ones. There’s plenty of small towns both in America and over here that simply kill recently Creative Touched, no questions asked.”

“That’s simply horrible,” Victor whispered. “Why would they do that?”

“Well, there’s no getting around that a lot of Touched who have first gone a bit Creative cause a lot of collateral damage,” Doc admitted, moving to lean on the counter. “Other than that, you can blame popular opinion. People are so used to thinking of Touched as monsters that. . . .” He shook his head. “Normally good people can do some extremely vicious and evil things. Just look at some of recorded history.”

Victor reached out to touch Doc’s shoulder, then remembered the state of his hand and changed his mind. “It’s such a terrible situation,” he said.

“Made worse by the fact that some Touched really are monsters,” Doc said, running his hands through his hair. “Like Doctor Narbon – that’s one Touched you would be completely justified in killing. And as I’ve stated before, they’re the ones that everyone knows about. Thanks to them, everyone is automatically willing to believe the worst of us.”

“And then you’ve got people like Dr. Horrible, who – you know, go around calling themselves stuff like ‘Dr. Horrible,’” Marty added.

Doc shook his head. “I really would like to see a change in this dynamic, but sometimes, I have to wonder if it’s all futile,” he muttered. “It might take a complete overhaul of society to get us to a point where Touched aren’t automatically considered evil almost all of the time, and where Touched don’t automatically consider themselves to be evil much of the time.”

“You changed my mind,” Victor said quietly. “Fairly quickly, too.”

Doc smiled. “That we did,” he allowed. “But most people aren’t as open-minded as you are.”

“Some people have to be.”

“I certainly hope so.” Doc stood up straight again. “But it’s not our job as of yet to try and fix society’s woes. Let’s focus on the somewhat smaller problem of dealing with your parents attempting to drag you back to Burtonsville.”

“I can probably convince them that I genuinely am happy here,” Victor said hopefully. “Given enough time.”

“Like what, until the new millennium?” Marty asked sarcastically.

“Marty,” Doc said, leveling a look at the young man.

“They’re just upset at the moment,” Victor said, voice pleading. “If I go to the meeting tomorrow, they’ll be a bit calmer and perhaps we can talk more civilly. And – and I really should meet Miss Everglot. Just so I know what I might be getting into.”

“Don’t marry her if you don’t want to, Victor,” Marty said. “Just because she’s the daughter of some lord doesn’t mean you gotta marry her. Even if your mom thinks differently.”

“Everything’s already been arranged,” Victor pointed out, though he didn’t look any happier about it than Marty felt. “I may not h-have a choice. It was probably silly of me to think running away would solve anything,” he added with a sigh. “So I may as well meet the young lady. P-perhaps I’ll get lucky and she’ll be nice.”

“I guess I’ll keep my fingers crossed,” Marty said with a slight nod. “Just – just know we’ve got your back, okay? We’re not gonna let anybody mess with you.”

“Precisely,” Doc agreed. “You’re one of us, Victor. And nothing will ever change that.”

Victor finally smiled. “Thank you. It means a lot to me.”

“You’re welcome.” Doc clapped him on the shoulder. “Now, how about you wash that hand print off your face and we finish our work on the difference engine?”


Victor decided to meet his parents outside the shop the next day, in order to avoid causing another scene. He tugged at his coat lapels, fidgeting as he waited for the carriage. He’d made sure he looked proper today – he’d chosen his plainest suit, waistcoat, and tie, and he’d foregone wearing his fingerless gloves and goggles. He’d gone ahead and worn the overcoat, however – there was a distinct chill to the air today, and even a tattered coat his mother was sure to remark coolly upon was better than none at all.

He frowned as he thought about how his parents had treated Doc and Marty. Just because they were a little different was no reason to be so rude! Of course, Mother’s like that to almost everyone. Oh dear, how am I going to convince her and Father that I’m not brainwashed and that I really do wish to stay?

The sound of hooves on cobblestones caught his attention. He looked down the street to see the familiar shape of the Van Dort carriage weaving its way through traffic. It was hard to miss, what with the large figure of a fish mounted on the top and the way the carriage driver coughed almost every five seconds. Victor smiled and waved as the carriage came closer. “Hello, Mayhew!”

Mayhew waved back with a smile of his own. The man had been the Van Dort’s driver for as long as Victor could remember. He and Victor had formed something of a bond over the years, most likely due to the fact that, apart from whoever Victor’s current nanny had been, he was the one in the household who paid the most attention to the boy. “Hello, Victor!” He pulled up beside him, and paused to cough. “So, this is where you disappeared to.”

“Yes,” Victor said, feeling suddenly nervous. He’d never asked Mayhew’s opinion on the Touched – he hadn’t thought it necessary, with how normal Burtonsville was. Was his old friend like his parents in this respect?

“You like it here?” Victor nodded as firmly as he could. Mayhew started to speak, then coughed again. “Never thought you would like a place like this. You were always such a nervous little boy.”

“I never thought I would either,” Victor admitted with a chuckle. “It’s odd how things change, isn’t it?”

“Victor!” The door was flung open, revealing the annoyed face of his mother. “Get inside at once! We’re going to be late!”

Victor hurried to obey, hitting his shin against the step as he scrambled inside. The pain was preferable to his mother’s anger, however. He had a feeling this was not going to be a particularly good day, and he didn’t care to make things worse. He dropped into his seat facing his parents. Nell looked quite grumpy, while William wore the bland expression he usually did. Victor smiled at them. “Hello again.”

“Hello,” Nell said coldly. “Have they stopped altering your brain yet?”

Well, there went any chances of this being a pleasant conversation. Victor sighed as William tapped on the carriage roof to signal Mayhew to start driving. “They h-haven’t done anything to me, Mother,” he said. “They’re n-not that kind of p-people.”

“They’re a Touched and an Igor,” Nell snapped. “Of course they’re that kind of people. They can’t help it. It’s in their blood.”

“They’re dangerous, Victor,” William added, clutching his cane tightly. “I don’t understand why you would want to associate with that sort of people.”

“Doc and Marty aren’t dangerous,” Victor protested, starting to feel rather annoyed. “They’ve s-shown me nothing but k-kindness since they first m-met me. And Doc’s Inventions n-never hurt anyone.”

“So far as you know,” William said, rather darkly for him. “Touched are all alike. Even if they say they want to help you, all they truly want to do is take over the world.”

“Exactly!” Nell agreed. “They should all be locked away with the rest of the mad people, and the key thrown away. Not to mention this ‘Doc and Marty’ seem to be completely common. Tell me, what does Dr. Brown do, exactly?”

“He runs the shop,” Victor said, bristling. “And he does q-quite well at it too, Mother. It’s h-honest trade.”

“With a Touched running it? What’s his family background?”

Victor abruptly realized he had a trump card. “He’s related to nobility,” he said proudly. “His family came from Germany as the Von Brauns – they changed their name to Brown to fit in better in America. Apparently those remaining in Germany hold the title of Baron.”

Nell looked briefly impressed despite herself. “Really?” Then her eyes narrowed. “Are the rest of them Touched as well?”

Victor frowned. “Er – he’s never said. I know for sure his father isn’t.” Please don’t make me explain further on that.

“Hmph – I bet at least one is,” Nell muttered, waving her fan. “The entire family’s probably tainted. And what about that Marty fellow?”

“His family farms,” Victor was forced to admit. “Though he’s told me his father has expressed an interest in writing books.”

“What kind of books?”

“. . .Science fiction,” Victor said in a low voice.

“Hah! Completely beneath our notice,” Nell said contemptuously. “You could do far better in selecting your friends, Victor.”

I don’t think so, Victor thought, but held his tongue. It was useless to argue with his mother. She just would never listen. Better to let her wear herself out talking while he planned another way to convince his parents that Secundus was where he wanted to be.

The trip to the coffee shop his parents had selected was, unfortunately, brief. Victor gulped as they pulled up outside the cheery little store. Inside he would meet the woman to whom he had become engaged without sharing a single word. What would she be like? What could she be like, with the Everglots as her parents? Was this really worth it? Should he just try to bolt – run back to the shop and pretend none of this had ever happened?

No, he scolded himself. Enough running. You live in Secundus now. You work for a Touched. You rode to this mad city underneath a flying steam train and chose to stay instead of slink back home. You can face up to meeting your f-f-fiancee.

He exited the carriage first, as he knew it would take a moment to get his mother out through the door. For some reason, Nell refused to really acknowledge the weight she’d gained over the years. Normally this wasn’t a problem – they had the services of an excellent tailor to quickly alter any dress she grew out of – but it was always an issue whenever they traveled. Nell, basically, was now just a smidge too big to fit through the door. Getting in and out of the carriage on her part, therefore, generally required at least a moment’s pulling or pushing. He took the time to study the coffee shop a bit more. It was a small place situated right on the corner of the street, the exterior painted a bright yellow. The sign above the door proclaimed it to be “Her Majesty’s Bean” (a pun, or just an odd name? Victor wasn’t sure). There were two large windows on either side of the door, but they were frosted glass – it was impossible to see anyone within clearly. Victor fiddled with his tie, as was his wont when he was nervous. Be brave, be brave, it’s just a young lady and her parents (her incredibly scary parents). . . .

Nell popped out after a moment, and the three of them entered the coffee shop. Victor spotted Lady Maudeline Everglot right away – she was hard to miss, being a tall woman with an even taller hairdo. She was sitting at a table in the back with three other people. Victor took a deep breath to steady himself. As long as he didn’t drop hot beverages on anyone, the meeting could be called something of a success.

Nell saw Lady Everglot shortly after Victor. “Ah! There they are. Come along, you two.” She bustled her way to the back of the shop, followed by Victor and William. “Lady Everglot, how nice to see you,” she said, voice dripping with insincere charm.

Lady Everglot scowled at her, as she did everybody. She was a harsh-looking woman, her face pointed and pinched under her enormous, vaguely heart-shaped hair. She intimidated almost everyone who crossed her path – certainly she intimidated Victor. Victor had heard rumors that she had never smiled once in her life. He could certainly believe them. “Good afternoon to you too,” she said, coldly polite. “I see you have located your son.”

“Yes – this is Victor,” Nell said, pulling Victor to stand beside her. “Victor, this is Lord, Lady, and Miss Everglot, and their servant Hildegarde.”

Victor let his eyes roam over the group. To Lady Everglot’s right sat a hunched-over little old lady wearing a maid’s uniform. She looked very worn, as if she’d been almost used up by life. But her eyes were infinitely more kind that Lady Everglot’s, which encouraged him a bit. To Lady Everglot’s left was an extremely short, very round man with beady eyes and a pronounced scowl – Lord Finis Everglot. He looked at Victor with open distaste. Victor attempted a smile and let his eyes move to Lord Everglot’s left.

And blinked rapidly, shocked. What – this is Miss Everglot?

It seemed to be, given that she was sitting with the family, but otherwise Victor would have never believed it. Miss Victoria Everglot looked nothing like either of her parents. She was actually a rather pretty young woman, her light brown hair done up neatly into a bun above a rounded heart-shaped face. Her eyes were large, her nose small, her lips pleasingly plump. She was wearing a quite lovely dress with alternate stripes of light and dark red, with flounces at the hem. She seemed quite nervous too, eyes focused on the table. She noticed him watching her and looked up, giving him a slightly trembly but sincere smile. Victor smiled back, a wave of relief washing over him. This afternoon probably could be salvaged. “H-how do you do?” he said politely.

“How do you do,” Lord Everglot replied in his deep voice, sounding rather annoyed.

“Won’t you sit down?” Lady Everglot said, in a tone that made it clear it was more of a command than a request.

“Pleasure to see you all again,” William said, stealing a couple of spare chairs from an empty table so everyone would have a seat. Victor found himself sitting across from Miss Everglot, with his mother on his left and his father on his right. “We are sorry you had to come all this way.”

“Hmph,” was Lord Everglot’s only reply.

“Oh, I do like that dress,” Nell simpered at Lady Everglot. “You have such taste.”

“Thank you,” Lady Everglot said, perhaps just a shade warmer than before. Apparently the woman was not immune to a compliment. “How do you find the city?”

“Ugh – I’ll be glad to go home,” Nell said, becoming a bit more casual in her speech. “Horrible place. Those mechanical carriages nearly gave me a heart attack. I’m surprised you can stand them,” she added to Victor. “You think you’d be terrified of them. He’s scared of most things, I’m afraid. When he was a boy, he used to wet his combinations regularly, didn’t he William?”

Victor wished, as he so often did in these situations, that the earth would open and swallow him up. As that didn’t happen, he settled for staring at the ceiling in awkward silence. The Everglots didn’t seem any more impressed with him or his family with this announcement. “Children are often like that,” Lady Everglot said disdainfully.

A waitress came up to them, smiling warmly. “Hello, and how may I help you today?” she asked, pencil and pad at the ready.

“Would anyone like anything to eat or drink?” William asked. “It’s no trouble.”

“I’ll have a coffee – black,” Lord Everglot said brusquely.

“Perhaps a cup of tea – cream and sugar,” Miss Everglot said softly. She sounded shy, though Victor doubted she was as shy as he was. Still, it was nice to know they apparently had things in common.

“Some tea for me too – plenty of cream, but no sugar,” Nell added.

“A chocolate muffin, please?” Victor requested. Having something to put in his mouth might help stop him from saying stupid things.

“Coffee, two teas, muffin,” the waitress repeated. “Anything else?” The others shook their heads. “Then I’ll be back shortly.” She departed the way she had came.

William clapped his hands. “Onto business,” he said. “Now that we’ve found Victor, things can proceed again. Though we will have to reschedule the wedding.”

“Oh, when does Valentine’s Day fall this year?” Nell asked, looking excited. “That would be romantic, wouldn’t it?”

Romance? Since when do you care about romance when it comes to marrying me off? Victor thought, picking idly at the tablecloth. Not to mention I still haven’t agreed to come back with you yet.

“I’m sure we can arrange something during that week,” Lady Everglot said, voice back to its usual coldness. “Though I do hope you know what an imposition it will be to resend the invitations.”

“We are sorry,” Nell said immediately, fanning herself. “We certainly never expected anything like this to happen.”

“Oh, yes,” William agreed. “Who would have thought any Touched would land his flying steam train in our town?” He laughed nervously.

“Mind you, I can see our Victor getting his foot caught in the ladder,” Nell admitted. “He’s a bit of a daydreamer, doesn’t always look where he’s going.”

Victor wondered if his mother really thought a list of his faults would somehow recommend him to the Everglots. If so, she was going to be spectacularly disappointed. “Really,” Lady Everglot said blandly. She turned to Victor. “Your mother did tell us before that you are a classically trained pianist.”

Victor nodded. “I s-started lessons w-when I was s-six,” he said. “My t-tutor said I was q-quite talented.” He felt his fingers twitch as he talked about it. That was the one real downside of living with Doc and Marty – he hadn’t gotten a chance to play in weeks. He really had to figure out where to find a piano so he could start playing again, before he got hopelessly rusty.

“Hmmm.”

Victor felt the burden of continuing the conversation fall on him. He fidgeted again. “D-does any of y-your family play?” he asked, eyes flicking to Miss Everglot.

“No,” Lady Everglot said sharply. “I don’t hold with young women learning music. It’s far too passionate.”

“I think a young gentleman should be trained in the art of hunting,” Lord Everglot added, looking quite disdainful. “I find a good shooting party much preferable to those musical soirees people keep holding.”

“Oh, with all due respect, Lord Everglot, you don’t want to give Victor a gun,” William said with another laugh. “He’d shoot himself before anything else.”

“So I’ve gathered,” Lord Everglot said, his expression suggesting that Victor’s lack of prowess in the killing department made his qualifications for manhood questionable.

The waitress came back then, carrying three cups and a plate. “Your coffee, milord, your tea miss, your tea ma’am, and your muffin sir,” she said, distributing everything. “Please just call if you need a refill or anything else.”

“Thank you,” William said. The waitress smiled at him and departed.

There was a momentary pause in the conversation as everyone who had something sampled their food. Victor found the chocolate muffin quite good, though it didn’t stand up to anything at the March Hare’s tea table. I wonder what they would all make of that, he thought, hiding a chuckle. Mother would have a fit, I’m sure. And Father wouldn’t know where to turn. The Everglots would surely get up and leave the first chance they got. He glanced at Miss Everglot again, who was daintily sipping her tea. She’d probably faint upon meeting Richard. Unless she’s secretly like me and finds the company of people like that pleasant. I wish we could get a chance to talk.

“So,” Nell said as cups and muffin were set down, “for the honeymoon, I think that--”

There was a loud BANG! from outside. Startled, Victor nearly broke his plate. All heads whipped around to see what looked like a huge mechanical foot stomping down the street, steam hissing from the ankle. “What in the world is that?” Lady Everglot demanded.

“Looks like one of Professor Madblood’s,” Victor said without thinking.

“Madblood?” Miss Everglot said, looking surprised.

“How would you know?” Lord Everglot asked, scowling deeper.

Victor found himself gripping his tie again. “I h-have been here s-some weeks,” he said. “I’ve b-become a bit f-familiar with who l-lives here.”

The foot continued stomping, people scrambling to get out of its way. One stomp nearly took out the Van Dort’s carriage – Mayhew had to scramble to keep the horses from panicking. Another actually did take out the other carriage parked in front of the shop. The driver and two horses promptly fled the scene. “Our taxi!” Lady Everglot cried.

A small man with a black goatee, glasses, and a labcoat appeared, his expression quite peeved. “Foot, what are you doing here? I told you to go down Market Street! This is Marshall Street!”

“FOOT SORRY,” the foot replied in a mechanical voice, gears grinding as it spoke. “FOOT NOT READ SIGN RIGHT.”

“That – that monstrosity nearly crushed our carriage!” Nell yelled, looking horrified. “How can people--” Seized with fury, she sprang to her feet and ran outside, waving her fan like a weapon. “You there! How dare you threaten our carriage like this! And Mayhew, stop that blasted coughing!”

“I didn’t mean to! I told Foot to go down Market Street!”

Lord Everglot seemed to think Nell had the right idea. He waddled out as fast as he could, gesturing angrily. “Madman! If I had my way, your kind would be shot on sight!”

“Can’t you come up with any original threats?” Madblood retorted. “I’ve been threatened with shooting far too often.”

“You mock me? The descendant of a grand duke?”

“Your kind makes life harder for all of us!” Nell yelled. “You and your worthless inventions!”

“The only reason Foot is just a foot is because I ran out of money to build the complete giant robot! You’d be cowering for sure if I could just get some more funding!”

“Oh dear, this won’t end well,” William said, wincing as the three continued to yell at each other. “Would you excuse me?” He got up, calling out, “Don’t get all aflutter dear, you don’t know what he may have on him. . . .”

Lady Everglot sighed, looking much put-upon. “That man sometimes. . .Hildegarde, please stay here and make sure nothing improper happens,” she said, shooting Victor a look.

“Yes, milady,” Hildegarde said, in a voice that cracked.

Lady Everglot nodded and left her seat, heading for the door as well. “Finis! Return to the table at once!”

Victor abruptly realized that he had been left almost completely alone at the table with Miss Everglot. He felt his pulse speed up. Oh, God, what was he going to do? He had no idea what to say, but surely avoiding all conversation was rude. . . . He smiled nervously at the young lady. “Hello.” It was an asinine thing to say, but it was something he was sure he could get out without making a complete idiot of himself.

Miss Everglot smiled back, looking almost just as nervous. “Hello.”

There was silence for a moment as Victor struggled with topics. “I’m s-sorry you h-had to come all t-the way up here,” he said finally.

“Oh, it’s all right,” Miss Everglot said, voice soft. “It’s a very--” Her gaze went briefly to the scene outside, where Madblood, Nell, and Lord Everglot were all ranting at each other, watched by Foot and a growing crowd. “–interesting city.” She paused, glancing at the table, then looked up at him again. “You must have been very frightened when you came here.”

Victor was surprised – she sounded genuinely concerned. She really is nothing like her parents, is she? It’s to her benefit. “Not as m-much as you m-might think,” he confessed. “Doc-tor Brown and Marty h-have been v-very kind to me.”

Miss Everglot looked surprised again. “Isn’t Dr. Brown the one who kidnapped you?”

“Not on p-purpose,” Victor explained. “He d-didn’t even realize I was t-there until we landed. And he d-did everything he c-could to make me c-comfortable afterward.

“But – your mother and father said he was a – Touched,” Miss Everglot said, her gaze briefly going to the floor as she said the word.

“Yes,” Victor nodded. “But that d-doesn’t automatically m-make him evil. I’ve l-learned that in my t-time here.”

Miss Everglot seemed a bit uncertain. “I suppose you would know more than I would,” she allowed. “I’ve just heard so many horrible stories. . . .”

“Please believe me – they’re not true of all Touched,” Victor said, his tone pleading. “They’re – they’re just people, like you and me.” Trying to add a bit of levity to the proceedings, he added, “D-do I look like the t-type of person who w-would willingly stay with s-someone who was e-experimenting on me?”

It got a smile. “No, I don’t think so,” she said.

Hildegarde reached over and touched Victor’s hand. “You seem so nervous, Master Van Dort,” she said sympathetically.

Victor gave her a weak smile. “N-nervous is my n-natural state of being, I’m afraid.” Glancing at Miss Everglot, he added, “E-especially around young l-ladies.”

Miss Everglot nodded a bit, shifting in her seat. “And under our particular circumstances, it’s to be expected,” she agreed. She looked up at Victor, then down at the table, idly drawing patterns with her finger. “When I was a child, I dreamt of my wedding day. I always hoped to marry someone I was deeply in love with. Someone to spend the rest of my life with.” She sighed and looked up with a melancholy sort of smile. “Silly, isn’t it?”

Victor felt immediately bad for her. He’d been so worried about his own part in this, he hadn’t even considered she was being forced into this marriage as well. Both of them, condemned to marry someone they’d never even met. What had been going through their parents’ heads? “Not at all,” he told her gently. “This arranged marriage must have u-upset you.”

“A little,” Miss Everglot confessed, looking ashamed. Then she smiled at Victor. “But you do seem quite nice. I – I think we could get along fine. Unless there’s some problem. . . .”

Well, there was the small problem of him not wanting to leave Secundus. But Victor didn’t want to say that until he’d found a more polite way of expressing it. Something that indicated it had nothing to do with Miss Everglot. Because she truly did seem like a lovely girl. It was just – she wasn’t enough to get him to leave.

Why is that? an inner voice suddenly asked him. Why isn’t she enough to convince you to go home? She’s pretty, she’s sweet-natured, her temperament matches yours, and for Mother’s sake we may as well add that she’s the daughter of a lord. Being married to her certainly wouldn’t be the hell you imagined – it looks to be a quite pleasant experience, in fact. So what’s wrong?

Victor frowned slightly and studied Miss Everglot a bit more. She really was nice – everything a man should want in a wife. But there was – something missing. Something he hadn’t realized until now he needed. The trouble was, he wasn’t sure he could put it into words. He looked at her face – the pink lips, the faint flush of color in the cheeks, the blue eyes –

Blue eyes. . . .

I’d be so much happier with a pair of green eyes.

The realization was like a lightning bolt going straight through him. Victor sat up straighter, still looking at Miss Everglot but not really seeing her. He – he wanted green eyes, and red hair, and skill with a knife. He wanted someone who wasn’t afraid to go up against monsters, who relished the company of those not quite sane, who could be dangerous but also gentle. He wanted someone who loved cats and rabbits, who had the same passion for art he did, who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. He wanted – Alice, he thought slowly. Dear Lord, I’m falling in love with Alice. When did that happen? I mean, we’ve been friends for a couple of weeks now, but I didn’t realize. . .it explains why whenever I try to compliment her, I end up falling all over my words (and sometimes myself). Maybe – maybe when she touched me that first time in Wonderland Park. . . . Or maybe when I first met her, and saw those eyes. . . .

Something of his thoughts must have shown on his face, as Miss Everglot suddenly sighed. “There’s someone else, isn’t there,” she said, not even bothering to make it a question.

“I – I only just realized it this moment,” Victor confessed, feeling a fresh stab of guilt to his insides. Oh God, their first meeting and he goes ahead and – upsets her, if not full-on breaks her heart. And this after spending weeks convinced she was some sort of harpy. “I’m sorry,” he continued, wanting to reach over and take her hand, but resisting the impulse. “It’s nothing to do with you, I swear. You’re lovely, Miss Everglot. Under other circumstances, I – I d-do think things w-would have w-worked out nicely.” He meant that, too. If he’d never come to Secundus, never had a taste of this life, never met Alice, he was practically certain he could have been happy with her. She would have made a good wife for him. But now. . .he couldn’t help his heart. And he couldn’t help feeling like he belonged here now, not back in Burtonsville. “If there’s anything I can do to m-make this up to you, I will. You d-don’t deserve to h-have to hear this.”

“Better now than later,” Miss Everglot said philosophically, though she still looked rather sad. “I don’t want you marrying me if you’re in love with someone else.” She glanced outside. “I’m just worried about my parents. Our marriage was going to – to save us from the poorhouse.”

“I’ll c-convince Father t-to give you a loan,” Victor impulsively promised. “For m-making you come up h-here all for n-nothing. It’s the l-least I can do.

“That would be very kind of you.” She looked at the table for a moment, then back up at him, frowning. “You – really do like it here?”

“It’s amazing,” Victor said, smiling. “I could do without Professor Madblood building g-giant Automaton feet to stomp all over the p-place, but most of it. . . .”

“I’m assuming – she lives here too?”

“She’s a rather good friend of mine,” Victor said, pulling at his tie. “I hadn’t guessed until now that I – I was w-wondering why you d-didn’t make me want to come home, you seemed so perfect – I’m not t-trying to flatter you, I really m-mean that – and then. . . .” He waved a hand, trying to sum up the shock that had gripped him at that point.

Miss Everglot turned pink at the “perfect” comment, then nodded. “I see. She – she must be really something if I’m perfect,” she added with a slight giggle.

“Oh, she’s really something, all right,” Victor nodded. You’d probably be scared to death of her if you met her under the wrong circumstances. Or even the right, given she carries that Vorpal Blade everywhere. “I am sorry. You really are a nice girl.”

“You’re a nice boy,” Miss Everglot replied. “I won’t deny I’m sad, but it is better to know now. And I do prefer the idea of marrying for love rather than for money or status.” She paused, then smiled, looking just a bit more cheerful. “Would you still like to be friends, Master Van Dort? Victor?”

Victor smiled back. “I would like that very much, Miss Everglot. Victoria.”

The parents finally returned to their places, Nell and Lord Everglot still looking rather steamed. “Bloody Touched,” Lord Everglot said viciously. “Should be hanged, the lot of them. Making mechanical idiocies like that.”

“Horrible man,” Nell agreed. “We’ll be well-rid of this place.” Giving Victor a bit of a look, she added, “Isn’t that right, Victor?”

Victor yanked on his tie. “Mother, I t-told you before, I l-like it here,” he said slowly. “I d-don’t want to g-go back.”

Lord and Lady Everglot both stared at Victor as if he’d suddenly grown a second head. “What nonsense is this?” Lady Everglot asked. “Surely you’d want to leave such a terrible place as soon as possible.”

“We think they’ve been giving him something to addle his brains,” Nell said, looking like she wanted to hit Victor with his fan.

“Who has?” Victoria asked, looking more curious than anything else.

“Dr. Brown and his assistant Marty, and no they have not,” Victor said, summoning up all the courage he could muster. He didn’t want to keep stuttering and stammering while trying to say something important. “Mother, they’re not the monsters you keep trying to m-make them out to be.” Damn, almost. . . .

“You’re giving the impression that you like these mad people,” Lord Everglot said, starting to look suspicious.

“I told you, his brain’s been addled.”

“M-Mother, he gave me a job! Why would he a-addle my brains if he needs m-me to work?”

“Job?!” Lord Everglot shot to his feet – which had the unintended and rather humorous effect of lessening his height enough that his eyes were level with the table’s edge. He scrambled back onto his seat. “You said he was kidnapped, not that he was hired!”

“He was kidnapped!” Nell yelled back, seeing the situation spinning out of control. “This job’s just a delusion of his!”

“You walked in on me the other d-day repairing a difference engine!” Victor said.

“All you were doing was walking about improperly dressed with your hands covered in grease!”

“Improperly dressed?” Lady Everglot repeated, looking more horrified by the second.

“You work for Dr. Brown?” Victoria said, obviously having a bit of trouble keeping up with the growing chaos.

“He offered me a job a-after we landed,” Victor said. “We’d b-been talking, and he n-noticed I had a bit of an i-interest in his inventions. . . .”

“An Igor! You tried to engage our daughter to an Igor?!” Lady Everglot yelled. “The scandal!”

“He’s not an Igor, he’s under some sort of mind control!” Nell yelled, desperately trying to salvage the unsalvageable. “William, shake him a few times, perhaps it’ll clear his head!”

William did as he was asked, much to Victor’s discomfort. “Come on, now, Victor, you know Touched are bad!” he said, sounding almost frightened.

“W-would it make you feel better to h-hear me say I know some Touched are b-bad?” Victor said, holding a hand to his head as he tried to clear it.

“Not some! All!” Nell snapped.

“This is disgraceful, Van Dort!” Lord Everglot snapped, holding up a point-making finger. “Trying to fob off your mad son on us! We will not stand for our daughter to be married to an Igor! She may not be the prettiest young lady of the aristocracy, I will admit that, but she can certainly do better than some fish merchant’s son who slaves away serving a lunatic!”

“He’s not an Igor! We wouldn’t raise such a person!” Nell said, waving her arms like a windmill. “William, do something!”

“Victor just needs some time away from the city,” William said, trying to smile – it came out looking more like a rictus of terror. “He’s just under some bad influences, that’s all. . . .”

“Don’t even try to excuse this,” Lord Everglot said. “Your son is not fit to be seen with our family. The wedding is off.”

“No! It can’t be!”

“It most certainly can, Mrs. Van Dort,” Lady Everglot said, standing. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have to hire a new taxi and arrange for our trip home. Come Hildegarde, Victoria, Finis.”

“You have train fare home then?” William said, with uncharacteristic nastiness.

That stopped Lord Everglot at least. “We’ll – think of something,” he said, although he looked distinctly fidgety.

“Or you could allow us to pay your hotel bill while we try to convince Victor of the error of his ways,” William said, returning to his usual geniality. “I certainly don’t mind.”

“You don’t have any other offers for her hand, do you?” Nell added, waving her fan nervously next to her face.

The Everglots looked at each other. “No,” Lord Everglot admitted reluctantly. “All right, Van Dort, we’ll stay for now. But you’d better convince your son to regain his senses quickly. Don’t think we won’t be looking for a more suitable prospect.”

“Of course,” William said with another forced smile. “We won’t keep you any more today.”

“Good. Good afternoon.” The elder Everglots walked out the door, followed by Hildegarde. Victoria hesitated a moment to give Victor a wave, which he returned. Poor girl. I do hope they find someone she likes.

Once the Everglots were out of earshot, Nell rounded on Victor. “HOW COULD YOU?! Now they think you’re – you’re tainted! Our reputations may never recover from this blow! You’ve thrown away an excellent match, all for the sake of a Touched! Do you even have a brain in that head of yours?”

“Nell, people are staring,” William noted, looking nervously around at the other customers.

“Oh, for – and look at this! The only shop in town that doesn’t cater to those lunatics, and your little pronouncement--”

“Mother, please!” Victor said. “I’m sorry you f-feel this way, b-but--”

“You see what this Dr. Brown has done? He’s turned you against your own family! Victor, I’m hurt, I really am!”

“Ma’am?” The waitress appeared by their sides, looking upset. “The manager says if you keep causing a scene, you’re going to have to leave.”

I’m causing a – oh, never mind, we’ll go,” Nell said, apparently deciding it wasn’t worth it to vent her rage on a lowly waitress. “William, pay the girl and let’s be off. I suppose you will want to go back to your job,” she added viciously to Victor.

“Mother, if you’d j-just let me e-explain – or come a-and visit, you’d s-see--” Victor started.

“Visit a Touched? Have tea with one of those madmen? I don’t care to end up mutated, Victor.” She snapped her fan closed. “Go ahead, go back to them. Allow them to turn your head to mush. We’ll be back with a psychiatrist later. We’ll fix you if it’s the last thing we do.”

“All right, Mother,” Victor said, giving up the argument. He watched them as they headed outside to the carriage, then sighed deeply. Oh dear. . .this is going to be a fun few days.

Chapter Text

February 2nd, 18–

Secundus, England

11:30 A.M.

“Okay, Victor, they’re gone!”

Victor emerged from his hiding place behind the cabinet of the Deep-Thinking, Mind-Reading Helmet. “I’m sorry for b-being such a coward,” he said. “It’s just – when I saw them dragging that man along--”

“No worries, Victor,” Marty assured him. “I totally understand. Your mom just does not give up, does she?”

“No, she doesn’t,” Victor said, shaking his head. “When she’s put her mind to a project, she generally sees it through to the bitter end. It’s just unfortunate that her current project appears to be getting me home by any means possible.”

Marty patted him on the arm. “Don’t worry, buddy. You’ve got me and Doc on your side. Nobody’s forcing you to go anywhere.”

“Thank you. I do appreciate you handling them. I didn’t hear much of the conversation – what happened?”

“Oh, she came in demanding to know where you were, telling me she’d found someone to ‘deprogram’ you,” Marty said, rolling his eyes. “I told you you’d gone out for an early lunch. She said she’d wait, but I told her she had to buy something if she wanted to stay, which really annoyed her. And then the poor guy she’d found said he had an appointment with a patient, and that he really couldn’t afford to stay, even after your dad offered him some money. Does he try to bribe everyone?”

“I’m starting to wonder,” Victor muttered. “I’m not quite sure why they think any normal psychiatrist could help me if I’m under Touched mind control. Wouldn’t one have to go to another Touched to stop such a thing?”

“Yeah, but I doubt your mom’s gonna think of that. I get the feeling she thinks of people like Doc as less than human,” Marty said, looking disgusted.

“I’m terribly sorry for her attitude,” Victor said, looking ashamed. “It’s – it’s just how she is.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen.” Marty regarded Victor curiously for a second. “I gotta ask – how the hell did she and your dad produce you?”

Victor shrugged. “I wouldn’t know. I don’t think I’m that different from my father.”

“Eh. He’s quiet like you are, but I think that’s where the similarities end. He definitely ain’t as polite, I’ll tell you that much.” Marty peered at the back of the store. “Is Doc over there?”

Clang! “Ow!”

“Yes,” Victor deadpanned, as Marty snorted. “What are you working on?” he called over to his friend.

“Oh, I’m just trying to get this spring back into this grandfather clock. Come on, you. . .there, finally!” He emerged from the rows after another minute, sighing. “Damn thing just wouldn’t go back in. All right, who wants what for lunch?”

The sound of hooves on the cobbles outside forestalled the boys’ answer. Everyone turned to see a large white horse riding up fast, making L-shapes around the usual traffic of the street. The man on top was dressed all in white armor, with a helmet shaped like a horse’s head. He stopped the horse in front of the shop and promptly fell off, landing with loud clatter on the sidewalk. Victor winced in sympathy. He wasn’t much of a horseman either.

Doc, however, was grinning brightly. “Christopher!” He dashed outside as the man got back to his feet. “Good to see you again, Chris! How are you? Need a hand with the helmet?”

“If you don’t mind,” the man replied, working to unhook it.

Victor looked at Marty questioningly. The teenager laughed. “That’s Sir Christopher Lloyd,” he explained. “Her Majesty’s White Knight?”

“Oh!” Victor looked at the newcomer with new respect. Most everyone had heard of The White Knight – the man was said to be the Queen’s greatest soldier, and a slayer of monsters second to none. Such were his feats of valor that most people were willing to do what was almost impossible in other circumstances – ignore that the man was a Touched. “You’re friends with him?”

“Yeah, he and Doc like to bounce ideas off each other,” Marty said, coming out from behind the counter. “Come with me, I’ll introduce you. You’ll probably like him. Though I warn you, you’re probably gonna be surprised at what he looks like.”

“Beg pardon?”

“You gotta see it to believe it. Come on.” Marty led Victor out to the sidewalk, where Doc was helping Sir Lloyd off with his helmet. “Hey, Sir Christopher! Long time no see!”

“Marty! Hello!” The helmet came off, and Sir Christopher turned to face the two young men. “It’s good to see you again. How are things?”

“The usual – completely crazy,” Marty smirked. “We’ve got a new assistant around here, actually.” He gestured to Victor. “May I introduce Victor Van Dort. Victor, this is Sir Christopher Lloyd.”

“H-how do you do,” Victor said, astonished. Sir Christopher looked almost exactly like Doc! His face was a bit younger-looking, his hair was curly and grey, and he had a large droopy mustache, but other than that, they might have been twins. Curiouser and curiouser. . . .

“Pleasure to meet you,” Sir Christopher said, extending a hand. Victor shook it. “Van Dort. . .the name sounds a bit familiar, but I can’t place why.”

“The fish people,” Marty prompted. “Victor’s father owns the cannery.”

“Ah, yes, that’s it! Did your father send you out here to get some experience in the world?”

Victor had to bite back a loud chuckle. “N-not exactly.”

“It was an accidental kidnapping in fact,” Doc explained. “I finally got the train to fly, Chris! The hover conversion works like a dream! Now it’s just a matter of getting enough energy to break the time barrier.”

“It actually flew? Oh, Emmett! I wish I could have seen it,” Sir Christopher said wistfully. “The maiden voyage is always something special.”

“Yeah, especially when one of the locals of the village you land next to gets his foot caught in the ladder and gets dragged back with you,” Marty said with a laugh. “That’s what happened to Victor.”

“Goodness.” Sir Christopher suddenly leaned forward, peering hard at the top of Victor’s head. “You must have had your hair fastened on quite tight.”

Victor blinked a few times, trying to process this. “Only in the u-usual manner,” he said slowly, running a hand through the raven-black strands.

“Really? Perhaps my theories on hair falling out need adjusting,” Sir. Christopher said reflectively. “But you must be an incredibly brave boy, to hold on without complaint all that distance. Your parents must be quite proud of you.”

Victor felt his developing smile vanish. “It’s – more complicated than that,” he said.

“They’ve frankly been a pain in our asses,” Marty said.

“It’s a long and complicated story, Chris,” Doc said as Sir Christopher regarded the group in confusion. “I’ll tell you all about it later. How have you been?”

“Oh, wonderful! Had to take care of some Jabberspawn back in the Queen’s gardens. Fortunately no full-grown Jabberwocks about. Those creatures always put up a tremendous fight. And I think I’ve finally convinced one of the royal cooks to try my pudding!”

“Seriously?” Marty said, arching an eyebrow. “The same pudding that has gunpowder and blotting paper and sealing wax?”

“The very same! I think it will turn out splendidly,” Sir Christopher said proudly. “As long as all the ingredients are in the right proportions, of course.”

“Of course,” Victor said, deciding not to argue about the edibility of any of said ingredients. He’d learned very quickly, over the course of working for Doc and making friends with Richard and Lewis, that a Touched’s mind worked very differently from that of a Regular person’s. A Regular wouldn’t even begin to think up half the things the Touched mind considered on a daily basis. Doc had described it as a whirlwind in your head, made up of millions and millions of ideas. A Touched simply couldn’t stop inventing – it would be like asking a Regular to stop breathing. Inspiration came from everywhere, and it was all a Touched could do to keep up. And while most of the ideas seemed nonsensical to others, something about the way a Touched viewed and manipulated the world made them viable. It was this talent for making the impossible possible that had enabled things like shrink rays and reanimation and electrical generators to be invented. Therefore, Victor knew that it was entirely possible that Sir Christopher’s peculiar pudding could be the best-tasting thing on earth. Not particularly likely, but possible.

“Yeah, otherwise you’re gonna blow the roof off the royal kitchen, and the Queen’s gonna yell at you again,” Marty agreed.

“I have only caused one explosion while working for Her Majesty,” Sir Christopher protested. “And that wasn’t even really my fault. Besides, the custard was still perfectly edible afterwards.”

Victor wondered if he wanted to know the context or if it was like the incident that had sent Doc and Marty fleeing from Hill Valley for Secundus. He still hadn’t gotten any more details out of them, apart from the fact it had involved ten spoons, a dog collar, a wheel of cheese, the mayor’s hat, and something called a “Presto Log,” which Doc had reluctantly explained was an invention of his for his forge back home – chemically treated wood that would ignite faster and burn hotter and longer. Victor had guessed that was the cause of the fires somehow, but he couldn’t see his way to fitting any of the other elements together. Though it was fun, trying to come up with various scenarios with all those implements that would lead to total chaos. (His favorite so far was the theory that the mayor’s hat had come to life and had been terrorizing the town, forcing Doc and Marty to distract it with cheese while they used the Presto Log to power a cannon that shot spoons. He couldn’t figure out how to involve the dog collar, though.)

“Even if it had to be scraped off the walls,” Marty said, pulling Victor back out of his thoughts.

“One day, young man, that teasing tongue of yours will get you into trouble,” Sir Christopher said, shaking a finger at Marty. His smile indicated he was only playing, however. “Now then, let me just see to Archimedes, and then you can show me what you’ve been working on in the shop. And perhaps a tour of the train?” he added hopefully.

“Of course!” Doc said. “I’d be only too happy to. We could even take her up for a bit if you like.”

“That would be capital,” Sir Christopher declared. He turned back to his horse. “Let’s get you something to eat, old friend,” he remarked, patting the horse on the nose.

Archimedes whickered and shook his head a bit. Victor looked over the animal with fresh amazement. Archimedes was a fine white stallion, with white armor to match his owner. But it was hard to see underneath all the bags and other things piled onto and around the saddle. There was a set of fire irons, a bag that clanked and tinkled like it was full of candlesticks, a deal box hanging upside-down with the lid open, a watchman’s rattle, various clumps of carrots (one of which Sir Christopher removed and began feeding to Archimedes), a mousetrap, and – “Is that a beehive?” Victor blurted, unable to help himself.

“Oh, you noticed it!” Sir Christopher gave the beehive a pat, which Victor thought was extraordinarily dangerous. Then again the White Knight was wearing what appeared to be heavily armored gloves, so perhaps he didn’t have to worry about being stung. “It’s one of the best beehives there is. Plenty of combs for honey, space for the bees to live, all sorts of comforts for the little fellows.” His face fell slightly. “But the bees simply won’t come near it. It’s the same with this mousetrap. Best in the world, but I’ve never been able to catch a mouse with it.” He looked thoughtfully at the two devices. “Maybe the mice keep the bees away. Or the bees keep the mice away. One or the other.”

“I don’t believe you often get mice on the backs of horses,” Victor admitted, a bit shyly.

“Yes, but if I did, Archimedes here would be protected,” Sir Christopher said, giving his horse another friendly pat. “It’s the whole reason he wears those anklets.”

Victor looked down at the rings of spikes that encircled each leg. “What are those for, then?”

“They guard against the bites of sharks.”

Victor couldn’t help a hand going to his tie. “If someone’s made sharks that go about on land. . . .”

“Not yet, but you can’t be too careful,” Sir Christopher said. “You must be prepared for anything, that’s my motto.”

Victor thought about the sort of people Sir Christopher interacted with, and the places he had to go. “Good motto.”

“I thought so.” Sir Christopher finished feeding Archimedes his carrots. “Now then, what do you have to show me this time, Emmett?”

“Well, we finally got the pancake maker working, thanks to Victor’s help,” Doc started, leading Sir Christopher inside. “And I think I’ve made a breakthrough with the Suck-O-Matic as of yesterday. . . .”

The group wandered around the shop for a bit, Doc showing off inventions as Sir Christopher tried them out, made comments, and expounded on his own ideas. Victor soon discovered that Sir Christopher’s similarities to Doc extended to personality as well as to looks. He was wonderfully enthusiastic about everything he did, although his scope tended to be rather wider than Doc’s when it came to Inventions. He also seemed continually ready with a compliment or a kind word. Victor quite liked him, and was pleased to hear he’d be staying in town for a while. He also learned that Sir Christopher was also good friends with Richard and Lewis, which hardly came as a surprise. The man seemed quite Wonderlandian, with a literal streak in his thinking that made it chancy to use metaphors around him.

Sir Christopher and Doc were discussing how to get the Deep-Thinking, Mind-Reading Helmet to actually allow people to read each other’s minds when they heard the door open at the front of the shop. “I’ll get it,” Victor offered, knowing the older men would want to continue their conversation. He brushed the dust off his jacket as he headed for the counter. “Good morning, how can I – Victoria??”

Victoria Everglot blushed and smiled at him. Beside her, Hildegarde eyed the rows of parts and inventions with more than a little nervousness. “Oh, so this is the right place. I wasn’t sure, but it was the only Dr. Brown anyone knew of. . . .”

“Victoria, what are you doing here?” Victor asked, completely confused. “N-not that I’m n-not happy to see you again, o-of course, but – I c-can’t imagine you have your p-parents’ permission to be here.”

Victoria blushed harder, looking suddenly nervous. “I don’t,” she confessed. “They just think I’m out for a walk with Hildegarde. I didn’t tell them that I was wondering about your Dr. Brown. . . .” She looked around the shop. “This is where he works, then?”

“Yes,” Victor nodded, following her gaze. “S-sorry it’s a bit of a mess, but. . . .” He shrugged.

“Oh, no, it’s fine,” Victoria said hastily. “I understand Touched don’t – think like that.” She frowned. “I’m sorry, that sounded like an insult.”

Victor laughed. “Actually, Doc would be the first to admit he doesn’t do well with cleaning,” he admitted. “W-would you like to meet him? He’s in the back.”

“I don’t know about this, dearie,” Hildegarde said, wringing her frail hands. “Your parents will be so upset with you if they learned you were here.”

“I know, but – well, what you said to me at the coffee shop really – stuck with me,” Victoria said, looking back at Victor. “And you certainly don’t act like you’re under some sort of mind control. Shouldn’t you be walking around talking in a monotone if that was the case?”

“I believe that’s how it usually works, yes,” Victor nodded, relieved to find at least one person from Burtonsville believed him on that count. “You needn’t worry, Miss Hildegarde. Doc is a very pleasant man. And I’m certainly not in any position to tell the Everglots anything about this.”

“Oh, I know a nice young man like you wouldn’t betray Miss Victoria’s confidence,” Hildegarde told him. “I’m worried they’ll somehow just know. I shouldn’t like to see my mistress get in trouble.”

“We won’t stay long,” Victoria promised. “I would like to meet Dr. Brown, but only if it’s no trouble.”

“I can’t see how it would be.” Victor turned to call for his friend, only to see him, Marty, and Sir Christopher approaching. “Oh, here they all come now.”

“Who is it, Victor?” Doc asked as he reached the front. “Do you need something repaired, miss?”

“No, she simply w-wanted to be introduced to y-you,” Victor said, trying his best to look calm. Secretly, though, he was horribly nervous. How would Victoria take actually meeting a Touched face to face? He was reasonably certain she wasn’t going to be rude about it, but he was scared something would happen to scare her and make her think badly of his friend. “Dr. B-Brown, Marty, Sir Christopher, this is Miss V-Victoria Everglot. Victoria, my employer Dr. Emmett B-Brown, my coworker M-Martin McFly, and our guest Sir C-Christopher Lloyd, the W-White Knight.”

“Oh, so you’re Miss Everglot,” Marty said, stepping up and holding out a hand. “Nice to meet you. Victor told us about the coffee shop stuff. Uh – sorry about how it went.”

“Thank you,” Victoria said, giving him a tiny, shy smile as she shook his hand. “It’s nice to meet you too.”

“Very good to meet you,” Doc said, also shaking hands. “Though I’m surprised to see you here. Victor mentioned that your parents were – very vehemently against your family having anything to do with Touched.”

“They, um, don’t know I’m here,” Victoria told him, turning pink again. “Victor just said such nice things about you at the meeting, I felt I had to meet you.”

“Did he?” Doc gave Victor a smile. “Is it your new life’s mission to try and change opinions about the Touched, kid?”

“Only for the residents of Burtonsville,” Victor said, smiling back awkwardly. “I’m glad someone at that meeting listened.”

Sir Christopher stepped up, standing straight and tall before bowing low. “My lady,” he said, taking Victoria’s hand and kissing it. “Truly a pleasure to meet you.”

Victoria looked at him in shock for a moment, then turned an even deeper pink as she smiled and looked away. “Thank you. It’s truly a honor to meet you, Sir Lloyd. I’ve heard quite a bit about your deeds.”

“Have you now? They’re nothing, really,” Sir Christopher said modestly. “Just me playing around with a sword.”

“I’d say they’re more than that,” Marty said with a chuckle.

“Oh, yes!” Victoria agreed. “The poem they wrote of your slaying the Jabberwock – it still sends chills down my spine.”

“Well, I’ll allow the Jabberwock was a good fight,” Sir Christopher nodded. “A glorious victory, even. But I do prefer somewhat tamer pursuits, if given my choice.”

“Like what?” Victoria asked, then lowered her eyes. “I don’t mean to pry, of course. . . .”

“Oh, you’re not prying at all! That sort of statement invites that sort of question,” Sir Christopher said. “I like Inventing most of all. My mind is always churning and bubbling with new Inventions.” He leaned forward slightly, eyes bright. “Why, just the other day I thought up a new way to keep the Menai bridge from rusting.”

“How?” Victor asked, feeling quite curious.

“Boil it in wine! The tannic acids should interact with the steel to prevent the erosion and decayed caused by regular interaction with water!”

“Yeah, but where are you going to get that much wine?” Marty asked.

“Exactly why I’m trying to get Her Majesty to add a vineyard to the royal gardens.”

“What an odd idea,” Victoria said, although she looked rather intrigued by it nonetheless. “Are all your ideas like that?”

“Most of them,” Sir Christopher said proudly. “I thought I had a wonderful idea for a new kind of umbrella – instead of opening down, it opens up and collects the rain in a bowl above you. Then when you get home, you simply pour the water out – or, if you’re clever, you save it for some other purpose.” He frowns. “But I can’t get anyone to manufacture it. I can’t imagine why.”

“Well – if it opens up, it – it doesn’t sound like it shields you from the rain at all,” Victoria pointed out hesitantly.

“What? Oh, no, no, I was thinking of a flat surface where just the sides – I’ve never explained that to anyone else,” Sir Christopher abruptly realized, beginning to look embarrassed. “By the Jabberwock’s tail, they must have all thought the same thing and never said anything! Why don’t they?”

“Maybe they’re afraid you’ll yell at them,” Victor said. “Everyone I’ve met thinks Touched all have bad tempers.”

“What? Do they all think we’re cloned from the same source? That’s only true of Helen Narbon.”

“Well, per – what?”

“The speciality of the Narbon line of Touched women is biology – specifically, biological replication,” Doc said. “A Narbon may never marry, but she always has a daughter. Mistress Narbon is actually the second Helen Narbon – her mother, Doctor Narbon, is the first. Fortunately for all of us, the idea that clones will develop different personalities no matter how hard you try to replicate everything held true. Mistress Narbon may cause her fair share of destruction, and declare herself to be ‘evil,’ but she’s not nearly as bad as Doctor Narbon. And I don’t think the elder Helen had that much of an interest in gerbils.”

“Goodness,” Victor whispered. “I never knew that.” A sudden flash of insight hit him. “Is that why she’s so interested in studying the Touched mind?”

“Pretty much,” Doc nodded. “Her mother used her as proof that being Touched was indeed genetic. Helen’s decided to take over that work and expand upon it.”

“Genetic?” Victoria repeated, sounding slightly confused. “I’ve heard about that, but – I’m sorry, Mother didn’t feel it proper that girls know much about math and science. Apparently too much of it rots the brain.”

“Rots the brain? Mistress Narbon and Lady Heterodyne would be quite surprised to hear that,” Sir Christopher commented. “And they’re only the top two.”

“Not to mention all the women these days who go into fields of scientific study,” Doc added, scowling at nothing. “Why are some people so close-minded?” Then, realizing he’d just insulted Victoria’s parents, he quickly added, “Not that – er--”

“It’s just how things are done in Burtonsville,” Victoria said, allowing his comment to pass by. “Young ladies are only expected to know how to keep a proper house. My mother tutored me, but what I learned mostly was sewing, needlepoint, penmanship, decorating – things like that. And a bit of cooking from Hildegarde,” she added, glancing affectionately back at the maid.

“Practical skills, yes, but what about academic advancement?” Sir Christopher said. “Our society needs all the brains it can find!”

“I know some history, and a bit about art – Mother doesn’t approve of ladies learning music, but she thought painting would be all right. I’m terrible with a brush, however.”

“She doesn’t think girls should learn music? Back where I come from, it’s guys who get teased if they learn an instrument,” Marty said. “I got a lot of grief from my friends when I first took up guitar. They shut up fast when I turned out to be good, yeah, but still. . . .”

“Mother says it’s too passionate,” Victoria said, twisting her hands again. “I think Father would agree with your friends, however. He thinks young men should learn shooting. He said as much to Victor at our meeting.”

“Well, I know my way around a gun, I grew up out in the untamed American West,” Marty shrugged. “I prefer the guitar, though.” His gaze shifted to Victor, growing curious. “How about you, Victor? What kind of education did you get? I mean, I’m guessing they would teach the guys more.”

“I went to the parish day school,” Victor said. “Taught by Pastor Galswells. We learned reading, writing, arithmetic, and some history and geography. And quite a lot about religion, of course. Pastor Galswells was a – very passionate teacher.” He unconsciously rubbed his knuckles, remembering how many times they’d been rapped with a ruler for getting a question wrong. “And Mother hired some tutors for me for languages.”

“Why?”

Parce qu'elle pense qu'il serait chic d'avoir un fils qui parlait français,” Victor said, then chuckled at Marty’s lost expression. “She said that all the proper society people speak French, and if someone in society is doing it. . . . I also know a passable amount of Spanish.” Curious, he turned to look at Victoria. “Do you speak French?”

Oui, mais pas beaucoup,” Victoria said with a smile. “Mother didn’t think it terribly important, but she took the time to teach me enough to speak reasonably well.”

“Better than me – I just know some Spanish from hearing the Mexicans passing by in Hill Valley,” Marty said. “And I don’t think a lot of what I learned can be repeated in polite company.”

“I’m fluent in German, but that’s because of my heritage,” Doc said. “Never thought about learning any other languages.”

“I know French and Spanish myself,” Sir Christopher said. “A proper gentlemanly knight knows all the courtly languages. Even if he doesn’t use them often.”

Victoria shuffled her feet under her skirt. “I feel so undereducated around all of you,” she admitted shyly. Here you are creating such amazing things, and I--” She looked at the floor with a soft sigh. “I’m so perfectly Regular.”

“Don’t be like that, milady,” Sir Christopher said, patting her arm gently. “It’s not your fault if your education was lacking in some areas. You seem like an intelligent young woman to me.” Glancing at Doc, he added, “My colleague here always says, ‘If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.’”

“Precisely,” Doc agreed. “Nothing’s out of reach if you’re willing to put in the effort.”

“And you’re not alone,” Victor said. “How many Regulars could possibly keep up with a Touched? Even I feel lost at times.”

“You do? I’m sorry, I just tend to lapse into technical talk,” Doc apologized.

“No, it’s nothing. I just know I’ll never be as smart as you,” Victor said.

Doc frowned. “Don’t talk like that. From what I’ve seen, your intelligence is quite high. He’s helped me fix a number of things around here,” he said to Sir Christopher, Victoria, and Hildegarde. “He’s got a real knack for working with nanomechanics.”

“Nano-what?” Victoria asked, tilting her head.

“Extremely small parts,” Marty translated. “I’m guessing it has something to do with how long his fingers are. He can squeeze ‘em into the cracks better.”

“Perhaps,” Victor said, examining his hands critically. “I don’t know why I seem to have a talent for such things. I just do.” He grinned. “It’s such fun, though, watching a machine come to life, and knowing it was your doing. . . .”

Victoria was watching him curiously. “You – you act as if you’ve lived here all your life,” she noted.

Victor felt his cheeks heat up again. “I – I’m – well, actually, I’m not s-sorry, but – it doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“No, actually – it just helps explain better why you want to stay here so much,” Victoria said. “You act as if you belong.”

“Yes, that’s more or less the theory another of our friends has offered up in response to Victor’s quick adaptation to the city,” Doc nodded. “I suppose that technically makes you an Igor, kid.”

“I don’t mind,” Victor said. “I just wish other people didn’t mind as well.” He shot Victoria an apologetic look. “Begging your pardon.”

“Oh, no, it’s fine,” Victoria said. “I know they were quite rude to you and your family at our last meeting. They were just – upset.”

Marty looked suspicious. “You sound like him defending his parents,” he said, jerking his head toward Victor. “It’s too bad you two didn’t hit it off like that – sounds like you have a lot in common.”

“Mother and Father aren’t so bad,” Victoria said, frowning at Marty. “They’re just – strict.”

“I don’t think the comment on your appearance was called for,” Victor said.

That set her to blushing again. “I – I’m used to it,” she said, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “Father often says I look like an otter.”

“An otter?” Sir Christopher peered closely at Victoria. “You think he would notice that his daughter is not covered with soft brown fur, nor does she have a tail and paws. Do you eat molluscs by cracking them open with rocks, perhaps?”

Victoria giggled, though she tried to hold it back, resulting in an odd sort of half-snort, half-squeak. “No,” she said. “I don’t think he means it quite like that.”

“He should learn to say what he means,” was Sir Christopher’s opinion. “I think you look quite lovely, my dear. And even if you did look like an otter, there are far worse things to look like. Otters are quite adorable creatures.”

Victoria turned an even darker shade of pink. “I – thank you,” she said, looking somewhat stunned. “You – you’re rather handsome yourself.”

“Am I? Thank you,” Sir Christopher said, kissing her hand again. Victoria smiled brightly.

Hildegarde was regarding the clocks on the far wall nervously. “Miss Victoria, we shouldn’t linger,” she warned. “Your parents are expecting you back for lunch at 12:30 promptly.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Victoria said, her face falling. “We should leave, then. But it was very nice meeting all of you,” she added, looking at each man in turn – though, Victor noticed, her eyes lingered briefly on Sir Christopher. “I’m very glad to see that Victor was right when it comes to Touched, rather than Pastor Galswells.”

“We’re glad of that fact too,” Marty said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t want to work for Satan’s spawn.”

“Will we see you again?” Victor asked.

“If I can find a way to slip away,” Victoria said. “Mother and Father do try to keep a close eye on me, but I’m generally allowed a bit of freedom for a daily walk, as long as I have Hildegarde with me. I would like to visit again if I’m able.”

“We would find that very pleasant, Miss Everglot,” Doc said.

“Yes, quite pleasant indeed,” Sir Christopher said, with a slight bow. “It’s a shame you must go so soon. Emmett here was just on the verge of demonstrating his hover-converted locomotive to me.”

“His--”

“The flying train I flew here underneath,” Victor translated.

“Hey, yeah, you never got a proper trip in the thing, did you?” Marty suddenly realized. “We’ve been walking everywhere since we got here. You gotta come up and get the experience that doesn’t include hanging onto a rope ladder for dear life.”

“I’d quite like that, yes,” Victor snickered.

Sir Christopher paused a moment, then extended a hand to Victoria. “You’re sure you can’t stay a few minutes more?” he beseeched. “It’ll just be once around the block. Your parents need never know if you hurry home straightaway.”

Victoria looked torn, her eyes flicking to the doorway and back. “I – well – it’s safe?” she said, stalling.

“Perfectly safe,” Doc assured her. “I run a diagnostic check on it daily. Primarily because it’s normally parked on our roof, and you don’t want a systems failure above your home and business.”

“. . .I’ll refrain from asking what would happen if there was a system failure.” Victoria wrung her hands. “I – it does sound exciting. . . .”

“Life is for excitement!” Sir Christopher proclaimed, throwing one arm out in a grandiose gesture. “Either people are living a life full of excitement and danger, or--”

There was a pause that went on just a bit too long. “Or. . . ?” Marty prompted.

“Or they’re not, of course.”

Victoria looked at him, then once more at the door. Then she turned back, having come to a decision. “All right, but I really can’t be long.”

Hildegarde looked astonished. “Miss Victoria! Are you sure about this?” she asked, grabbing her charge’s arm.

“Yes, I am. It’s probably absolutely mad of me, but--” She looked at Victor, then at Sir Christopher again. “Perhaps madness isn’t so bad.”

“A quite intelligent friend of mine once proclaimed that all the best people are mad,” Sir Christopher grinned. “I’m quite inclined to agree with him. Then again, I’m mad myself, so I can hardly be considered an unbiased opinion.”

“I like it anyway,” Victoria said.

“Me too,” Victor said, cheered to see another person from his hometown swayed. Perhaps there was hope of convincing his parents yet. “Shall we be off, then?”

“We shall! Come along, everyone!” Doc led the way out the door and up the steps. Victor, trailing behind Marty, noticed Sir Christopher’s insistence on walking next to Victoria and Hildegarde. The White Knight had a bit of a funny look on his face – a sort of nervous half-smile. Victoria had much of the same. Victor observed them for a moment. I wonder. . . .

The train was sitting where it had been for the past few weeks, silent and still. Doc activated the hidden switch that opened the door and hopped inside to make things ready. “You’ll want to sit down and buckle up for the initial liftoff,” he told the others as they filed inside. “It can be a bit bumpy otherwise.”

Victoria looked around in wonderment as she and Hildegarde boarded. “It’s so – pretty,” she commented, taking in the red velvet seats and polished levers.

“My opinion is, if you’re going to build a flying machine into a steam train, why not do it with some style?” Doc said cheerfully. “Now, get settled, everyone. Time’s awasting.”

The group quickly seated themselves – Victor and Marty on one side, Sir Christopher, Victoria, and Hildegarde on the other. Once Doc saw they were all secured and ready to go, he grinned wildly. “All right, folks, hang on,” he said, yanking a lever.

Victor heard the sound of the hover conversion system powering up, all hissing steam and grinding gears. There was a slight groan as the train went from resting on its wheels to floating on a cloud of powerful magnetic energy. Doc adjusted some of the instruments, and a chugging noise started up from below them. Slowly, the train moved forward, gaining altitude as it did. “How fast can she go?” Christopher asked as they flew over the nearby rooftops.

“I’ve had her up to sixty-five so far,” Doc said with an almost manic grin, the Creativity clear in his voice. “If I can just find a way to push the power up a little farther, we could hit eighty-eight. And then, it’s just a matter of finding 1.21 gigawatts for the flux capacitor.”

“I beg your pardon – flux what?” Victoria asked.

“Doc’s ultimate plan is to convert the train into a time machine,” Victor explained to her. “The flux capacitor is the heart of the entire project.”

“Indeed,” Doc nodded. “Once I work out all the gremlins, all of history shall be open to me! It’ll be fantastic. Speaking of which. . . .” He slowed the train down a little bit. “You’re all free to get up and move about the cabin now, if you want to have a look around.”

Victor was the first to unbuckle himself. He hopped out of his seat and promptly went toward the nearest window. Below them, the street unfolded in a panorama of browns, greens, golds, and brass. He marveled at the sight. “Oh, this is incredible. . . .”

“Awesome, right?” Marty said, standing next to him.

“That does sound like the right word,” Victor agreed. “I’ve always wanted to fly, and this. . . . Much better from inside,” he added, to general chuckling.

Victoria timidly got up and moved to the window as well, Sir Christopher following in her wake. She gasped as she saw the view below them. “Oh. . .I never – I’ve seen airships before, but I never imagined what it must look like,” she whispered, awed.

“You guys in Burtonsville are missing out on a lot,” Marty commented.

“We are indeed,” Victor agreed with a sigh.

“Oh yes,” Victoria nodded, pressing her face closer against the glass. “This is wonderful. All my life I’ve been told all Touched are horrible abominations, and now. . .I don’t mean any offense,” she quickly clarified, glancing over at Doc briefly. “I’m just repeating what my parents and Pastor Galswells always said.”

“None taken – Victor informed us early on how your village feels about Touched,” Doc said with a little wave. “I’ve dealt with much worse, I assure you.”

Hildegarde finally got the courage to take a look outside herself. She smiled as she saw the city stretched out below their feet. “Why, it looks just like a picture,” she remarked. “Look at that lovely park!”

“Wonderland Park – you have to go, it truly lives up to its name,” Victor said immediately.

“I doubt Mother and Father will let me,” Victoria said sadly. “I’m starting to think we’re missing out on so many wonderful things, staying locked up in our hotel suite. . . .”

“You are,” Marty said. “I’d take every chance to sneak out you get.”

Victoria giggled again, this time freely. “Well, as I said, I do get a daily – OH!”

She jerked back as something green with two long snakelike heads flew by the window, spinning as it did. The muffled sounds of squabbling reached their ears. “Oh, jeez, it’s the Thorston twins again,” Marty said. “Hey, guys, watch where you’re flying!”

Sir Christopher put a supportive arm around Victoria’s back. “Are you all right, milady?” he asked, scanning her pale face.

“Fine,” Victoria said, getting her breath back. “That – that just came out of nowhere. . .what was it?”

“Dragon,” Doc said, returning to the controls and turning the train so they were heading back to the shop. “The people of Berk ride them. The one you saw was a two-headed Hideous Zippleback, ridden by a pair of siblings – twins. Said twins happen to get no greater pleasure from anything besides fighting with each other, so there’s a lot of near-crashes when they’re on their dragon.”

“Oh.” Victoria eyed the window. “I – think I’m ready to go back to earth now.”

“I anticipated your request – we’ll be back on terra firma shortly.”

Sir Christopher glared in the general direction that the Thorston twins had flown, then looked back at Victoria. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes,” Victoria said, looking up at him. Their eyes met, and she blushed. “It’s – rather hard to be afraid with you around.”

Now Sir Christopher blushed. “Er – I’m glad to hear that.”

They stared at each other for a moment, then seemed to realize they were staring and quickly looked away, Sir Christopher withdrawing his arm. Marty nudged Victor as the two tried to regain their equilibrium. “Staring contest,” he whispered.

Victor decided to let the joke about himself and Alice pass – after all, it was only the truth, as he’d recently realized. He nodded and smiled at the pair, who were sneaking little glances at each other and half-smiling again. This had worked out quicker and better than he could have hoped.

After all, the Everglots could surely have no objections to a knight.

Chapter Text

February 4th, 18–

Secundus, England

3:13 P.M.

Victor pushed open the door just in time to hear Doc say, “All right, we’ll be over right away. Over and out.” The scientist looked up from the telephonic radio as his two assistants came inside. “Good, you’re back. Get ready to go out again – we’ve got a on-site job.”

“Where?” Marty asked, setting down the bag containing new guitar strings and a pick. He and Victor had just gone out to purchase a few things they needed – Victor himself was carrying a bag with a new quill pen and some more inkwells.

“Dr. Finklestein. His generator is on the fritz again, to put it crudely.”

Marty grimaced. “Ugh. I hate going to his place.”

“Now, Marty, they’re all perfectly nice people over there,” Doc said. “You know that.”

“I know, but it seems every time we go over to his place, he ends up opening his skull and poking at his own brain. That’s nasty, Doc.”

“I’ll admit it’s not the most pleasant sight,” Doc allowed with a little shudder. “But it’s something we just have to put up with.”

“Who is Dr. Finklestein?” Victor asked, trying his best to suppress the mental images that the phrase “opening his skull and poking at his own brain” brought up. He didn’t succeed very well.

“One of the best Reanimators here,” Doc said, packing up his tool kit as they spoke. “He’s a Severely Touched specializing in difficult Reanimations and human biological Fabrications.”

“The kind that are basically a bunch of stitched-up corpses,” Marty elaborated. “He’s not really all that friendly, but a lot of his ‘family’ is. And he’s really good at what he does.”

“Er – could you d-define really good?”

“He’s succeeded in reanimating fully skeletal corpses,” Doc said. “Only two to date, but still. If you have a corpse that’s suffering from severe rot that you want brought back to life, he’s the man to bring it to.”

“Goodness,” Victor murmured.

“It’s just another part of Touched science,” Doc said, grabbing some spare parts off the shelves. “And he hasn’t created any explicitly evil creations to date. His Fabricated daughter Sally is a sweetheart, in fact. The nastiest among them would have to be Jack, his second skeletal reanimation, and even he is essentially good-hearted. He just takes great pleasure in scaring people.”

“Yeah, he absolutely loves Halloween,” Marty said with a grin. “Every October, he organizes a big festival with a bunch of his Reanimated and Fabricated friends. It’s a blast.”

“Indeed – people have started calling him ‘The Pumpkin King’ because of it,” Doc added with a smile of his own.

“I see,” Victor said. He shook his head. “Is it ever possible to get to the point where you are so used to Secundus that nothing about it or its residents amazes you anymore?”

“Probably not,” Marty said. “There’s always something new happening. Or exploding.” Victor chuckled. “So, what’s wrong with Dr. Finklestein’s stuff?”

“The electrical focuser he uses for his reanimation work isn’t functioning,” Doc said. “He surmises, probably correctly, that something’s gone wrong in the generator he uses.” Spotting Victor about to open his mouth, he added, “He really can’t fix it himself – his scientific focus is almost completely on biology. And I’m one of the most skilled electrical engineers in this city, and the only one with a repair business, so. . . .”

Victor swallowed back his question and blushed. “I’m sorry – I still think of Touched as jacks-of-all-trades.”

“Some are, but most of us have our specialized fields,” Doc said. “I’m a mechanist through and through. I was never much good with biological matters.” He gave Victor a half-smile, half-grimace. “I used to get queasy at the sight of blood. Annoyed my father to no end.”

“My sympathies.” Victor’s eyes flicked to the door. “Er, speaking of fathers. . . .”

“You’re safe, they haven’t come by,” Doc assured him. “I think they’re taking the day off. Either that or they’ve run out of psychiatrists to bother and are attempting to come up with a new plan to ‘reverse your brainwashing.’”

Victor sighed deeply. “I just wish they’d finally understand that I like it here,” he said, leaning on the counter. “I know people’s minds can be changed regarding this place – you saw what happened with Victoria. I don’t even care if they decide they hate Secundus and everything it stands for, and will for the rest of eternity, so long as they realize I don’t and I’d simply like to be left alone!”

“I think there’s some hope of your dad getting the message,” Marty said. “Your mom, though? Not in a million years.”

Victor made a face and nodded knowingly. “I know. But I have to have the hope, otherwise I’d go mad.”

“And we already have our quota of mad people in this establishment,” Doc said, lightening the mood a bit. “Now, go get your purchases stored and meet me on the roof. It’ll take too long to walk to Finklestein’s castle, so we might as well get some use out of the train.”

“Right, Doc. Come on, Victor.”

“We’ll see you momentarily,” Victor nodded as they headed for the upstairs flat.

The boys set their purchases in their rooms (well, Marty did – Victor set his in the little section of the sitting room they’d screened off to be his ‘room’) and then headed outside and up to the roof. The door of the train was open, with Doc at the controls, readying for takeoff. Marty and Victor promptly climbed inside and sat down on the benches. “All set?”

“Ready when you are,” Marty said, as he and Victor fastened their seatbelts.

“Excellent. We have liftoff!” Doc pulled the lever, and the train sprang to life with a groan. Victor shivered with anticipation for the moment when he could get up and look out the window again. Doc must have noticed, as he added, “Just give me a moment to get us to the right altitude, kid. Then you can stare out the window all you want.”

Victor blushed just a little. “I can’t help myself. Knowing that I’m up in the air, actually flying. . .it’s the most fantastic feeling in the world.”

“If you really wanted the full experience, maybe we should have Doc open the door and you could look out there,” Marty said.

“Admittedly a bit tempting, but I think I’d rather not,” Victor said. “I’d be much too nervous about falling out. Having to cling onto the ladder was enough of that sort of experience for me.” Marty admitted the point with a couple of nods.

The trip to Dr. Finklestein’s castle took about a quarter of a hour – Doc didn’t like taking the train up to any great speed above the city, and the castle itself was located near the outskirts. Victor didn’t mind a bit – he spent most of the trip glued to the window, watching the town pass below them. Here and there he saw landmarks he recognized – the Narbonic Labs building, the open-air restaurant with the funny machine floating over it that he’d seen when he’d first arrived (Doc and Marty had informed him it was called The Roofless), and of course, Cuckoo Ben. It was one of the best ways to view the world, in his opinion. And to think I might have missed out on all of this. If I ever see those three boys again, I may have to thank them for chasing me toward that clearing.

As they continued onward, Victor saw a large, rather derelict-looking castle with many crumbling turrets looming up before them. “Is that where we’re going?” he asked.

“Yup – that’s Finklestein’s,” Marty confirmed. “The guy likes to keep to the classics.”

“I should say,” Victor said. “It looks like something straight out of a cheap horror novel.”

“Which I’m sure a good middle-class rich boy like yourself never read any of,” Marty teased.

“Actually, no, I didn’t,” Victor said, causing Marty to blink in surprise. “I was far too busy with the penny dreadfuls.”

The teen snorted. “Oh. Well, that’s different. Those publications were only for the best, you know.”

“Indeed,” Victor agreed, trying his best to sound stuck up. “You wouldn’t expect mere commoners to read those.”

“Of course not,” Marty said, before ruining his impression of an upperclassman with a laugh. “Seriously, I still have no idea how your society-obsessed parents ever had you.”

“Well, admittedly, Mother hired a number of nannies to look after me when I was young,” Victor said. “I didn’t have much interaction with my parents at all. Perhaps that’s how I turned out so different.”

“Sounds right – but a number?”

“Ah – they kept quitting.”

“Ooooh,” Marty said understandingly. “Still, that kinda sucks for you.”

“I survived,” Victor said philosophically. “My childhood was quite privileged when compared to my peers. Of course, I’m sure that’s why they all hated me.” He held up his hands, as if comparing invisible weights. “It all balances out, one way or another.”

“Yeah, you can only hope,” Marty replied with a slight sigh.

“Might want to continue your conversation seated, boys,” Doc said, pulling something in the controls. “We’re just about ready to bring her in.”

Marty and Victor obediently sat down and buckled up again. Doc carefully brought the train down to rest in front of the castle’s massive front doors. He pulled the cord for the whistle once, grinning as he did. “Just letting them know we’re here,” he said as the boys got back up.

“Bullshit, you just love playing with it,” Marty said with a smirk.

“Oh hush.” Doc opened the door, and they disembarked.

The doors creaked open as they approached, and a young woman stepped halfway outside. It was immediately obvious she was a Fabricated – her skin was pale, with a bluish tint, and crisscrossed with stitching and scars, and her long red hair had a yarn-like quality to it. She gave one the impression she was a rag doll brought to life – even her dress was made from stitched-together patches. She seemed friendly enough, though, waving and smiling as the men approached. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “The doctor is in a terrible mood.”

“He’s never not in a terrible mood,” Marty mumbled, earning himself a bit of a look from Doc.

“We’re happy to stop by,” Doc said. He waved his free hand at Victor. “This is my new assistant, Master Victor Van Dort. Victor, this is Sally Finklestein.”

“Very nice to meet you,” Victor said, extending a hand.

“A pleasure,” Sally said, shaking. Her skin was soft (except for where the stitching crossed one palm) and cool. “Well, come right this way. Dr. Finklestein’s waiting for you by the generator.”

“Lead on, Sally,” Doc said, adjusting his grip on his bag.

The inside of the castle was appropriately gloomy and spooky. The only light came from an iron chandelier on the ceiling, and what late-afternoon sunlight that could filter in through the chinks in the stonework. Cobwebs stretched across the ceiling and claimed each corner. A large curving staircase made its way up the left wall. The rest of the entrance room appeared to be empty, though Victor thought he saw a shape in the gloom to the right –

“AAARRUGH!”

“AAAAHHHH!”

Victor nearly jumped out of his skin as a very tall, very thin skeleton leapt down from nowhere right in front of him, its mouth twisted into a terrifying snarl. As it was, he lost his balance and hit the ground hard on his backside. He crabwalked backward for a moment, breathing heavily, eyes fixed on the horrible sight before him.

Which suddenly laughed and smiled, looking five times friendlier than before. “Gotcha! Oh, it’s good to know I haven’t lost my touch,” it proclaimed, examining its bony hands.

Sally looked simultaneously annoyed and amused. “Very nice, Jack, but I think you scared him a bit too much,” she said, looking at Victor still cowering on the floor.

“Life’s no fun without a good scare,” the skeleton – Jack – proclaimed. He extended a thin hand to Victor. “You have a very nice scream.”

Victor stared at the hand, then back up at Jack, not moving any muscles he absolutely didn’t have to. Jack’s smile faded slightly. “I really don’t bite.”

“Yeah, I think you’re gonna have a bit of a hard time convincing him of that now,” Marty said, reaching down and sliding his arms under Victor’s. The young gentleman let his friend haul him back to his feet, wincing as his backside twinged. “Victor, meet Jack Skellington.”

Victor took another look at Jack. The skeleton was one of the few people (well, Reanimated in this case) that was taller than him. Like Victor, he had a thin build – though, really, it wasn’t like he could have anything else – with long-fingered hands and small feet. His skull was quite unusual, however – it seemed more like a round ball of bone-colored clay stuck onto the neck. There were two dark eye sockets carved into it, a little bump with small holes for a nose, and a wide mouth with cracks that almost looked like stitching all around it, and filled with rather sharp teeth for a human. He was wearing a black suit with white stripes, with a white shirt and an oversized bowtie that matched his suit – with a little closer inspection, Victor realized it was supposed to resemble a bat. “H-hello,” he stammered, resisting poorly the urge to twist his own tie.

Jack grinned at him. “Hello! I overheard your conversation at the door – so you work for Dr. Brown? How long now?”

“Think it’s coming up close to a month,” Marty answered for Victor. “Same amount of time he’s been here, incidentally. He only heard about you today.”

“Oh! Well, that explains that magnificent display of fright,” Jack said, patting Victor on the head. “Come here for adventure in the big city, I take it?”

“It’s far more complicated than that, Jack,” Doc said.

“Why does your mouth move?” Victor blurted.

Jack gave him a funny look. “Er – because I’m talking?”

“No, I m-meant – move like a – l-like someone with l-lips and muscles would,” Victor clarified. “Your s-skull seems a bit – f-flexible?”

“Oh, that,” Jack said. “Improvements by Dr. Finklestein.” He briefly pulled his mouth down into a scary frown. “They’re very useful.” He released his mouth back to its natural position, then reached under where his chin would be if his head was shaped more normally. “I can even pop it off, if I like!” He proceeded to do just that, then held his head in his hand closer to Victor. “See? I can do my own Shakespeare! ‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio,’” the head started.

“We’d love to stay and watch, but we have a generator to fix for your creator,” Doc cut him off.

“Ah, yes, best not to keep the good doctor waiting,” Jack said, replacing his head. “I think I’ll come with you – I’m curious about this young man’s history.” He nodded at Victor.

“Well, there’s not much to tell until early January,” Victor said. “That’s when I came here.”

“And your life was turned upside-down forever,” Doc added with a small smile. “All right, off to lab. Unless there’s something in this room that needs fixing as well,” he added as a joke, looking at the ancient stonework.

“Oh, there’s nothing here except a table and the piano,” Sally said dismissively.

Victor froze in his tracks. “The piano?” he repeated in a near whisper.

Sally gave him a funny look. “Er, yes. Right over there – oh, perhaps you can’t see it.” She moved toward the shape Victor had spotted earlier, drew a pack of matches from somewhere in her dress, and lit a candle. The glow illuminated what looked like an open coffin set up on four curved legs. As Sally lit a second candle, however, Victor saw that part of the pink padding had been removed and replaced with yellowing piano keys. His heart leapt at the sight. “Lovely, isn’t it?” Sally said cheerfully.

“It’s beautiful,” Victor said. He meant it, too – no matter how macabre it was, it was still a piano, and that’s all that mattered. “Oh, I – Doc, can I stay here for a bit? Please?” he asked, turning to his employer and clasping his hands in front of him. “I know we have a job here, but – but I haven’t played in so long. . . .”

The sheer desperation in his voice must have had an effect on Doc. He smiled and shook his head slightly. “All right. Go ahead, kid. I’ll holler if I need you.”

“Thank you!” Victor promptly sat himself down on the bench as the others departed. He ran his fingers over the keys, then performed a few basic finger exercises to warm up. Then, slowly, he started to play – nothing fancy, just a nameless composition he’d had in his head for a while. The music flowed out of his fingers as naturally as it had before he’d come to Secundus. He sighed happily, closing his eyes. It really had been too long since he’d done this.

He continued to play, letting the melody go where it would, letting his mind lose itself in the sweet tune. For a few beautiful, precious minutes, it was just him and his music, with nothing else in the world.

Then, out of nowhere, a second tune joined his.

Startled, Victor’s eyes snapped open, his hands stopping in a confused jumble of notes. Now that his mind wasn’t completely focused on his playing, he realized there was someone sitting next to him on the bench. He turned to see a lady on his left, hands resting on the keys, looking slightly embarrassed but also quite hopeful. “Pardon my enthusiasm,” she said. “You were just playing such a lovely tune.”

Victor didn’t reply for a moment, too busy taking the sight of the woman in. The young lady sitting next to him was a rather rotted Reanimated – she still had most of her flesh, but one arm and one leg had rotted away to the bone. She also had prominent holes in her cheek and her ribcage. The flesh she still possessed was dark blue, as was her long hair. She had wide blue eyes (the color of which almost matched her skin), a tiny nose (or, at least, what was left of one), and a surprisingly pink mouth. It was obvious she had once been very beautiful – in her own, somewhat creepy way, she still was. Her clothes were unusual – a sleeveless white dress, with the top and bottom of the bodice lined with pearls that had seen better days. The skirt was long and trailed out behind her in a train. Her hands had tattered white gloves with no fingers on them, and her head was topped with a tiara of long-dead flowers and an extremely long veil protruding from the back. Her appearance put him in mind of a bride. How strange. . . . “T-thank you,” he finally said, realizing that to make no response at all would be extremely impolite.

The Reanimated woman smiled at him and scooted just a bit closer. “You’re quite handsome,” she said. “What’s your name?”

“V-Victor,” Victor replied, blinking. “Master Victor Van D-Dort. Er, m-may I ask your n-name?”

“It’s Emily,” the Reanimated woman provided. “Emily Cartwell.” She glanced at his hands, still on the piano. “You play beautifully.”

“Thank you,” Victor said, his head starting to spin. Was it just him, or was Emily flirting with him? “You – ah – p-play?”

Miss Cartwell nodded, picking out a quick scale with her skeletal hand. “Jack built this piano for me. He’s such a dear.”

Victor wanted to protest that, having been nearly scared to death by the skeleton not ten minutes earlier, but decided to keep his mouth shut. Instead he looked at the piano keys, trying to figure out what to say. What did one talk about with one of the Reanimated? How did you carry on a conversation without causing offense? “I – er – um--”

Miss Cartwell giggled. “You’re shy, aren’t you?”

“V-very,” Victor nodded. “Do forgive me f-for not m-making conversation.”

“It’s all right.” Miss Cartwell leaned forward a bit. “What brings you to the castle?”

“Ah – j-job – I work for D-Dr. Brown.”

“Oh! He’s taken on a new assistant?” Miss Cartwell looked him up and down, then smiled in what could only be a flirtatious way. “He has wonderful taste.”

“Um--”

Miss Cartwell brushed a few strands of hair back. “Handsome, artistic – and I’m sure you’re intelligent too. Victor,” she added in a breathier voice.

All right, he had to put a stop to this, if only for the sake of his rattled nerves. “I-I’m sorry but, y-you really shouldn’t be f-f-flirting with me,” he stammered.

Miss Cartwell looked surprised for a moment, then narrowed her eyes. “And why not?”

Victor thought for a moment how to let her down gently, then decided the unvarnished truth might be better in this instance. It certainly would explain things more clearly – he hoped. “B-because my parents are t-trying to arrange a f-f-fiancee for me, and I r-recently realized I’m falling in l-l-love with a friend of mine.”

Miss Cartwell’s expression changed to one of deep sadness. “Oh,” she murmured, looking back at the keyboard.

Victor felt guilty. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s n-nothing to do with you. You just s-surprised me.”

“Is it?” Miss Cartwell asked, looking at him out of the corner of her eye. “You can say you’d never waste your heart on a Reanimated. I can take it.”

“No, it really has nothing to do with that, I – I--” He sighed and directed his own gaze to the keys. “Do f-forgive me if I caused offense. I’ve n-never met a Reanimated before.”

That made Miss Cartwell look up again. “No? But you said you worked for Dr. Brown.”

“Only for about a month,” Victor said. “And that’s also how long I’ve been in Secundus. I got stuck beneath their flying train when they landed in my village for the test flight. I ended up choosing to stay r-rather than go back.”

“Oh, I see.” Miss Cartwell looked down again. “I’m sorry if I came on rather strong,” she said after a moment.

“It’s all right,” Victor said, wanting to make her feel better. “It’s – it’s rather flattering, to be honest. I d-don’t think I’ve ever had a g-girl flirt with me before.” Trying to make a joke, he added, “You don’t do that with every man w-who walks in, do you?”

Miss Cartwell looked like she would blush if she were able. “Not every man,” she mumbled. “Just the ones who – catch my attention.”

Victor blinked. “What – why?” he blurted, unable to help himself.

Miss Cartwell looked up at him, an expression of deep pain on her face. “If you must know, I’m trying to find a husband.”

“A husband?” Victor repeated. He looked at her dress again. “I – perhaps this is too f-forward, but – d-did you die a bride?”

Miss Cartwell sighed and lowered her eyes. “I didn’t get quite that far,” she said softly.

Victor felt guilty again. “If it pains you too much to speak of it,” he began, “I w-won’t--”

“No, I should explain,” Miss Cartwell said. “Just to make sure you understand.” She took a deep breath. “I used to live in a small town far away from here. You’ve probably never heard of it. I lived comfortably with my father – not precisely rich, but far enough from poor. My mother died shortly after having me, so it was just the two of us. I was happy enough, but – well, I was like a lot of young girls,” she said wistfully, a small smile on her face. “Dreaming of my wedding day. That was my biggest ambition – to be a bride. I was courted a bit by the boys in town when I came of age, but I never met anyone who made me feel like I was truly in love. Until--” her face darkened “–he came along.”

“He?”

“Barkis. If that was his real name. I’ve never been sure. He wandered into town, a handsome and poor stranger. We met by accident in the square one day, and he acted such a gentleman that. . . .” She shook her head. “It was easy for me to think I was in love with him. He courted me quietly for a while, telling me what a treasure I was, how lucky we were to have found each other, and I just grew more and more enamored with him. When I introduced him to my father, though, they didn’t get along at all. I think Daddy realized he wasn’t what he seemed. He said it would be best if we stopped courting so I could find a husband worthy of me. I was so angry that when Barkis suggested we elope, I agreed to it immediately.”

Victor had a nasty premonition about how this story ended and why Miss Cartwell was talking to him as a Reanimated rather than a living girl. “I take it things didn’t go a-according to plan,” he said gently.

Miss Cartwell laughed bitterly. “That’s an understatement. Barkis told me to gather up the family jewelry and a satchel of gold to finance our expedition, then to meet him under the old oak tree by the old cemetery in the early morning so we could steal away under cover of darkness. I did as he asked, gathering as much money and jewelry as I could find in the house. I was so excited that I decided to wear my mother’s wedding dress as well.” She ran her fleshed hand along the folds in the fabric of her skirt. “I was thinking, that way we could go directly to the church and be wed.” A deep sigh escaped her. “I waited until Daddy was asleep, stole out of the house, and made my way to the oak tree. Barkis wasn’t there when I arrived, but I’d gotten there early, so I wasn’t worried. I waited, watching the shadows, trying to see where he was through the fog – and then he was in front of me, holding what looked like a cudgel--”

She stopped there, eyes closed against the memory. Victor didn’t think he’d ever felt so much sympathy for a person. “And – t-that was--” he started, trying to figure out the gentlest, least rude way to say it.

“Yes,” Miss Cartwell whispered. “After that, everything went black. I naturally don’t remember a thing until I woke up on Dr. Finklestein’s slab. I spent the first hour alternating between screaming and crying. To close your eyes as a living girl, waiting for her dreams to come true, and to wake up like this. . . .” She looked resentfully at her skeletal hand. “Sally was very kind to me, telling me that it did no good to dwell on the past, that I had a second chance. But it’s very hard not to dwell on the past when you’re certain the man you loved killed you so he could steal your money.”

Victor nodded understandingly. “I’m so sorry for you,” he said, wondering if it would be appropriate to reach out and touch her hand. “That is an absolutely awful way to die. I – I’m surprised you s-still want a husband.”

Miss Cartwell straightened up a bit, a determined glint in her eye. “Well, once I’d recovered from the shock and come to grips with my new life, I decided I wasn’t going to let Barkis take my dream away from me. I vowed that I would wait for my real true love to come and propose. Since then, I’ve been here, watching the visitors to the castle. If I like what I see, I approach them and try to strike up a conversation.”

“Or sometimes join them on the piano,” Victor said, nodding at the instrument in front of them.

Miss Cartwell gave him a smile for that. “No, you’re the first to get that honor.” Her face fell again into depression. “It hasn’t worked yet, though. Most men, upon seeing me, scream. Some have thrown epithets at me, asking me how dare I ask any Regular man to be my husband. Only a few have let me down gently.”

“I hope I’m a-among the latter group,” Victor said, pulling at his tie.

“Yes, you are,” Miss Cartwell assured him. “Again, I’m sorry for coming on so strong. You just seemed – so nice. And I haven’t yet met a man who played my instrument. And so well, too.”

Victor blushed at the compliment. “Thank you. And it’s all right. I’m sorry I’m n-not – not capable of offering you my h-heart, I suppose. I would like to help you somehow.”

“Really?”

“Well, yes. Who wouldn’t, after hearing such a story?”

Miss Cartwell eyed him for a moment. “You’re sure you’ve been here just a month?”

Victor laughed. “Yes, but popular opinion among my friends is that I was born in completely the wrong place and should have been here all my life. I seem to take very well to madness and science.”

Miss Cartwell laughed too. “Well, good. And thank you very much for offering, though I’m not sure how you could help.” She tilted her head and frowned at him. “I’m – not entirely sure I understand the situation you’re in when it comes to girlfriends.”

“My parents want me to m-m-marry the daughter of a lord,” Victor explained. “I’ve only recently met her, and while she’s very nice, I didn’t – f-feel anything. In fact, it was meeting her that l-led me to realize I was d-developing feelings for my friend.” He paused, then added, “And then you decide I l-look like h-h-husband material. Before I came here, no young l-lady wanted to be seen twice with me.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Miss Cartwell said. “You do seem sweet.”

“Thank you. You’re very nice yourself.” He frowned. “I find it odd anyone living around here would find talking to a Reanimated worthy of a scream.”

“Maybe it was my trying to flirt with them,” Miss Cartwell said sadly. She began picking out a few sad notes on the piano. “You’d be surprised at how many Regulars even in Secundus don’t think Reanimateds can feel love. Just because we’re – not conventionally alive.” She sighed again.

Victor didn’t like seeing her upset. From what she’d told him, Miss Cartwell had had her fair share of pain. He wanted to cheer her up somehow. He thought for a moment, then looked at the piano. Slowly, he added his own contribution to her sad tune.

Miss Cartwell stopped, looking at him in surprise. Victor stopped too, glancing at her half-apologetically, half-hopefully. Then he started in on a variation of his previous composition, one that was a bit more light-hearted in tone. Miss Cartwell watched him for a moment, then dove in with her own tune. She gave him a daring smirk as she did, as if in challenge. Victor returned it and set to work proving himself.

They played their duet for a couple of minutes – Victor leading, Miss Cartwell following, then Miss Cartwell leading and Victor following. The Reanimated bride was a very talented player and had little trouble weaving a melody that complimented his own. They might have gone on longer had a shout not come down the stairs: “Victor!”

Victor stopped, leaving Miss Cartwell to quickly wrap up the music. “Yes, Marty?”

“We need those long fingers of yours. Come on up.”

“Right away!” Victor turned to Miss Cartwell. “I’m sorry, my job calls.”

“That’s fine,” Miss Cartwell said with a smile. “Thank you for playing with me.”

“Thank you – you’re quite talented yourself,” Victor told her, getting up. He started for the stairs, then hesitated. “Miss Cartwell – I can’t be quite what you want me to be,” he said slowly. “But – would you consider me for a friend? It sounds like you need more of those.”

Miss Cartwell smiled brighter. “That would be wonderful. And you can call me Emily, I don’t mind.”

“And you can call me Victor,” Victor nodded, smiling back. Goodness, it was funny how the world worked sometimes. Two women expecting him to be their husband, he (however gently) rejects them both, and somehow he still comes out of it with new friends. Now if only I could summon up the courage to tell Alice how I feel about her. . . . “You’ll have to excuse me for now – unless you want to come see us work.”

“Actually, I would,” Emily admitted, getting to her feet. “Dr. Finklestein’s been ranting about the generator for almost a day now. I’d like to see what all the fuss is about.” Victor chuckled and offered her a hand, and they walked up the stairs together.

It didn’t take long to find the generator, and thus Doc, Marty, and the other residents of the castle. Much of the upstairs was taken up with a huge room open to the sky. The room was filled with various bits of equipment, most of which Victor didn’t know the purpose of. The central piece was a huge cone-shaped device on a mechanical arm, set up above a thick metal slab with restraints. There were a couple of other slabs set up near the far wall. Also over there was the requisite chemistry set, along with a small Tesla coil and a Jacob’s ladder sparking away. “You need to get one of those, Doc,” Victor pointed out as he approached his friend and employer.

“What? Oh, a Jacob’s ladder? I have a broken one somewhere in the shop that I just never got around to fixing,” Doc said. He and Marty were kneeling down in front of a large boxy thing filled with wires, gears, and glass tubes. Crowded around them were Jack and Sally, another skeleton – this one a bit more normally proportioned, with a large lower jaw and wearing nothing but a bowler hat – and a rather odd-looking man in a wheelchair. Victor couldn’t help staring at him for a moment – the man appeared to have some sort of snout instead of a normal face, like a werewolf without hair. And the top of his skull was a metal cap. As the young man watched, he suddenly pulled it up away from his forehead, exposing a pinkish brain, which he proceeded to scratch. Victor felt bile rising in his throat and hurriedly tamped it down.

The bowler hat-wearing skeleton gave him a contemplative look. “This Victor?” he asked Marty, who was closest to him.

“That’s him,” Marty confirmed, then looked up. “Oh, hi Emily. Didn’t expect to see you around.”

“Victor and I just had a nice talk,” Emily said. Noticing Victor’s curious look, she said, “We met the first time they came to repair something for Dr. Finklestein.”

“Yeah, too bad he has a girlfriend,” the bowler hat-wearing skeleton commented.

“Bonejangles,” Emily said, frowning at him.

“What? It’s an innocent observation.”

Emily shook her head. “Victor, this is my friend Bonejangles,” she introduced him. “Bonejangles, Victor Van Dort.”

“Pleasure to meet you, kid,” Bonejangles said, tipping his hand and offering a hand. “Dr. Brown and Marty have been telling us all about you while they’ve been fussing around with this thing.”

“Good things, I hope,” Victor said, shaking. The feel of the bone was a little odd, but after spending so much time around the mostly mechanical Richard, Victor didn’t notice it like he might have before.

“Well, they say you fit in very well around Touched – you can tell us whether that’s good or not,” Bonejangles said, winking his single eye somehow.

Victor chuckled. “In my opinion, it is. Speaking of which, what exactly do you need me to do, Doc?”

“There’s a wire neither Marty nor myself can reach way in the back,” Doc said. “And the back panel is welded shut so firmly it’ll take more time than we’d like to open it up. You might be able to get it.”

“I’ll certainly try.” Victor knelt down in between his friends. “What does it look like?”

“It’s orange and rather corroded,” Doc said, indicating a gap in the machinery Victor could peer through. “See it?”

Victor looked, squinting. “Oh yes, just back there. . .and you need me to pull it out?”

“If you can – it rather desperately needs to be replaced.” Doc glanced up at Dr. Finklestein, who had fortunately replaced his brain cap. “How hard have you been working this lately?”

“No harder than usual,” Dr. Finklestein said grumpily. “It should be working. I have a very important project I’d like to complete.”

“Well, as soon as we get that wire replaced, you should be back in business,” Doc said. “Victor?”

“Let me see. . . .” Victor got down on his side and stretched out his arm as far as he could reach. His fingers reached toward the wire, but couldn’t quite make contact. Victor scooted forward slightly and tried again.

Then blinked. “There seems to be a bit of water back here,” he reported.

“Water?” Dr. Finklestein said, sounding confused.

“Yes – I seemed to have just touched a little puddle.”

“Hmm.” Doc got up and went around to the back of the generator. “Aha! Here’s your problem, Doctor – there’s a gap in the welding here. It rained a couple of nights ago, and since your lab is open to the sky. . . .”

“Oh, drat,” Dr. Finklestein said, looking quite put out. “I was certain I’d sealed that blasted thing all the way around.”

“Not to worry,” Doc said reassuringly. “I’ll fix it as soon as we get the that wire replaced.”

The job proceeded fairly smoothly from then on – Doc gave Victor a towel to wipe up the water inside the generator, then Victor pulled the corroded wire out for Doc to replace. After a quarter of a hour and a successful test, they were done. Dr. Finklestein paid them, and Jack, Sally, Emily, and Bonejangles walked with them back to the front door. “You will come and see me again, right?” Emily asked Victor hopefully.

“Well, of course,” Victor said. “You can come and see us too whenever you like.”

Emily frowned and fiddled with the folds of her skirt. “Well. . .I don’t really like going outside,” she admitted. “I’m afraid that people will – well, run away in terror.”

“What’s so wrong with that?” Jack asked, sounding honestly confused.

“She’s not going to be scaring them intentionally,” Bonejangles said, in a very “Jack you dope” voice. “I think you should get out, though,” he added to Emily. “I go out, and people don’t bother me.”

“Yes, but the only place you really go is the Ball & Socket Pub,” Emily pointed out. “That’s all Reanimated. I’d be mingling with Regulars.”

“Not all of them are close-minded,” Victor said encouragingly. “Look at me – one month here, and already I feel completely at home. And just the other day, we managed to convince my would-be fiancee to take a ride with us on the train.”

“And we have experience in telling the annoying Regulars to get lost,” Marty added. “Plenty of it.”

Emily smiled, amused. “I see. Well – maybe. It would be nice to go somewhere outside the castle and its cemetery.”

“Yeah – get out and live a little! Er, as much as we can,” Bonejangles amended.

“I’ve had nothing but good experiences in the outside world,” Jack agreed.

“What about that time the police shot you down with a cannon?” Emily pointed out.

“I fully admit that was due to me being a little – overenthusiastic,” Jack said, scratching his skull in an embarrassed way.

“Jack got tired of doing Halloween each year and decided to try and do a Christmas celebration instead,” Sally said, in the tones of the long-suffering girlfriend. “It – didn’t go well.”

“I’ve apologized fifteen times for that debacle,” Jack said, looking a bit sulky. “I really did mean well.”

“I know you did, Jack,” Sally said, patting his arm.

“Never a dull moment in this town, eh?” Marty murmured to Victor, who tried to disguise his giggles. “I’m actually kind of sorry I missed that. It sounds like one hell of a Christmas.”

“I should say.” Victor got himself under control and smiled at Emily. “If you like, I can take you to the shop of a friend of mine. I’m certain he and his colleagues would have no problem with your being reanimated.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. Given that he’s mostly mechanical parts himself at this point. . . .”

Emily considered it for a moment. “All right,” she said. “It would be nice to get out.”

“That’s our girl,” Bonejangles said, giving her a friendly clap on the shoulder.

“Doc, I don’t suppose I could prevail on you for a ride to and from the castle?” Victor asked.

“Not a problem, kid – this is way too far to let you walk on your own. How about we come around 11:30, and then you all can have lunch at Richard’s shop?”

“Sounds good – though, um, do you eat?” Victor asked Emily, feeling slightly embarrassed.

“I don’t have to, but I can if I want to,” Emily replied. “Though my sense of taste is rather decayed.”

“Well, the March Hare’s cooking is always intensely flavorful, so I think you’ll be all right,” Victor grinned. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

“Tomorrow,” Emily agreed. “Goodbye, Victor.”

“Goodbye Emily. It was good to meet you – good to meet all of you,” he added, shaking hands with the others. “Have a good day.”

“You as well,” Sally said.

Doc and Marty made their goodbyes, then the three men made their way back to the train. Marty looked at Victor with a curious expression. “So, ah, did she try to put the moves on you?” he asked as they reentered the cab.

“Put the – oh, er, yes,” Victor said, feeling his face go hot. “She joined me on the piano and then started f-flirting. Once I told her about my situation, she stopped.” He fiddled with his tie for a moment. “Did she do the same with you? Bonejangles’s comment from before seemed to indicate she had.”

“Yeah, first time we came up,” Marty said. “I told her I was flattered, but I had a girl waiting for me back home.” He rolled his eyes. “Bonejangles said that that didn’t mean I couldn’t have a girl over here too – Emily told him off before I could, though. Said that she wasn’t going to deprive anyone else of their wedding day just because she’d missed hers.”

Victor felt another wave of sympathy wash over him. “It’s truly terrible, what happened to her,” he said softly. “When she told me about it. . . .”

“I know,” Marty agreed. “And the worst part is, we’ll probably never know if the bastard was caught or not. Emily has no idea how to track him down.”

Doc shook his head as he went to the controls. “It’s amazing what some people will do in pursuit of money,” he said. “I really hope he was caught – though I don’t know if I’d prefer it to be by the police or an angry father.”

“I’m totally okay with an angry father beating the shit out of him,” Marty said.

“I can’t say I’m opposed to the idea either,” Victor muttered, feeling uncharacteristically angry for a moment. Then he took a deep breath and let the feeling pass. “Well, I hope she likes visiting Richard’s shop tomorrow. I can’t think of a more accepting group of people.”

“She should be okay as long as she can keep up with the way they think,” Marty said with a little laugh. Then he gave Victor a smarmy grin. “So this makes three, right?”

Victor glared at him. “Emily and Victoria are just my friends!”

“I know, I know, but they both started out in the ‘want something more’ category, right? You said Victoria had no objections to marrying you, and Emily obviously thought you were good enough to flirt with. . . . You’re gonna have to start beating the girls off with a stick soon.”

Oh, for – he’d just stopped blushing. Victor shook his head. “I don’t understand it. At home, I was n-never well liked among the f-fairer sex. Most of them didn’t c-care to be seen with me.”

“It’s probably the goggles,” Marty said, gently nudging his side. “The gals really love a good set of eye protection.”

“More realistically, it’s probably because you’re mingling with different classes of people here,” Doc said as he brought the train up. “You’ve said most of your hometown was quite class conscious, and that your family was disliked for being nouveau riche. Now you’re away from the worst of your family’s reputation, and interacting with girls who don’t seem to care about it anyway.”

“That’s true enough,” Victor admitted. “Though you think Victoria would care. Her parents must have impressed upon her that she has a noble lineage. I know they were never too happy about marrying her off to me.”

“Just be happy she doesn’t,” was Marty’s advice. “In fact, be happy that she’s nothing like her parents at all.”

“Oh, trust me, I am – as horrible as that sounds,” he added, feeling a brief stab of guilt. “It still amazes me that I’ve gone from having no women interested in me to two approaching me in situations related to matrimony.” He paused, then looked at his hands. “Not to mention how I feel about Alice. . . .”

“When are you gonna tell her?” Marty asked, tone surprisingly gentle.

“I – I don’t know. I suppose I’ll s-see her tomorrow, and then I – but I don’t know. . . .” Victor reached up and started twisting his tie. “What if she doesn’t feel the same? What if she rejects me? What if--”

“Victor, you’re gonna make yourself sick if you keep worrying about it like that,” Marty said, putting a hand over his. “So she might say no. That’s life, bud. It sucks, and it’ll hurt, and you’ll probably mope around for a while, but you’ll get over it. I’ve had girls reject me, and I’ve survived.”

“The only two real girlfriends I’ve had both dumped me in the cruellest manner possible, and I survived as well,” Doc added.

“. . .I’m sorry, this is not p-particularly encouraging.”

“We’re just letting you know it’s not the end of the world if she doesn’t love you back,” Marty said. “It’ll feel bad for a while, but you’ll live. And it’ll be worth it for the chance she does love you back.” He grinned, looking a bit smarmy again. “Didn’t Cheshire already mention ‘staring contests?’”

“That doesn’t mean anything for sure,” Victor said.

“Seems like a pretty good sign to me, though.” Marty patted Victor on the shoulder. “Just ask her, bud. Better than worrying about it for ages, right?”

“But worrying’s one thing I’m very good at,” Victor replied, only half-joking.

“Well, make asking girls how they feel about you another,” Marty said, now poking him in the shoulder. “Trust me, no matter how it ends, it’ll all work out.”

“I certainly hope you’re right,” Victor murmured, pulling at his tie again. Times like this I wish Doc had finished his time machine already. Oh please, let tomorrow go well, no matter the answer.

And – if it’s not too much trouble – please make the answer yes.

Chapter Text

February 5th, 18–

Secundus, England

11:46 A.M.

“Oh, this is so amazing!”

Victor laughed a little as Emily pressed her face against the window, watching the city move beneath them. “I know. I’m so grateful I came into the employ of a man who could introduce me to the wonders of flight.”

“Hey, I’m not the only one with a flying machine,” Doc said modestly, though he looked quite pleased by Victor’s statement. “Perhaps the only one with a flying steam locomotive, yes, but there’s plenty of people with planes and airships these days. Just look at Baron Wulfenbach and his airship city. Largest flying fleet in all of Europe.”

“Yes, but I doubt I could get a ride from Baron Wulfenbach,” Victor pointed out.

Emily continued to peer down at the world. “Where’s the shop you mentioned before?”

“It should be on this street,” Doc said, consulting the map he’d secured of the airspace above Secundus. “Should just drop you on the corner here, and you can walk to it? See a little of the city from ground level?”

“Sounds all right to me,” Victor said. “Emily?”

“I suppose,” Emily nodded. “Though, how do you mean, drop off?”

“Well, it might be better not to try and park, even briefly – it looks like a high-traffic day, and the locomotive takes up a lot of space. I do have a ladder here,” Doc said, holding up the rope ladder Victor knew all too well. “Do you think you could climb down it?” His eyes flicked to the long train on Emily’s dress. “Victor and I could help you, if necessary.”

“I think I’ll make it, but – best let Victor go first,” Emily said, studying the dress train herself.

“Right. Just a moment, let me get properly positioned. . . .”

Doc maneuvered the locomotive over the corner, then lowered the ladder to the ground. Victor scrambled down it with ease, then waited as Emily carefully lowered herself over the edge and began slowly to climb down. He took her dress’s train as it came into reach, earning himself a grateful smile. After a couple of minutes, she made it down to earth. “Thank you,” she said to Victor.

“You’re welcome.” Victor waved up to Doc, who was bringing in the ladder. “We’ll see you in a hour and a half?”

“Sounds good. Enjoy your visit!” Doc gave them both a parting wave before closing up the doors and chugging away.

Emily smiled after him. “He’s such a nice man.”

“I know,” Victor said, leading her down the sidewalk. “I couldn’t have asked to find a better person to bring me here.” He carefully sidestepped a large slug crawling down the street. “What do you think of the city so far?”

“Busy,” Emily said, looking around. The roads were filled with carriages and various motorized transports, and the sidewalks had the usual crowds of people on them. “It was never like this back home.”

“I know what you mean – my hometown was very quiet as well.” Victor glanced down and behind her. “Er, how are you getting on with–?”

“I’m used to it getting dirty and stepped on,” Emily said with a little sigh. “It’s not exactly in the best condition anymore anyway.” She touched the top of the bodice reflectively. “Mother would be disappointed, I’m sure.”

“Then – why don’t you--” Victor said, hoping he wouldn’t cause offense. It just seemed odd for anyone, even a Reanimated, to constantly walk around in a wedding dress.

“I just can’t,” Emily said, hugging herself. “It’s all I have left of home, of my old life. It’s – well, it’s me. I’m the Corpse Bride.” She looked down at the dress as they moved through the crowd. “The only other person I’d ever let wear it is Sally, if and when she finally marries Jack. I let her try it on once, and she did look beautiful in it. I – oh! I’m sorry!”

“Oh, that’s all – right. . . .”

Victor’s jaw dropped as he saw the person Emily had accidentally bumped into. “Victoria?!”

“Victor! This is a surprise.”

“You two know each other?” Emily asked, looking between them.

“This is the young lady who was going to be my fiancee,” Victor explained. “Miss Emily Cartwell, may I introduce Miss Victoria Everglot.”

“Everglot?” Emily repeated, starting to hold out a hand to shake but then apparently losing her nerve. “You’re – not related to Lord Finis Everglot, are you?”

Victoria’s eyes widened. “That’s my father! How do you know him?”

“I don’t exactly know him, just of him. He’s your father?”

Victor was suddenly wondering how far the coincidences could pile up. She’d never said the name of her hometown, after all. “Wait – excuse me for interrupting, but you know of the Everglots? Emily – you didn’t live in Burtonsville, did you?”

“. . .Your hometown?”

“Yes! Did you know any Van Dorts? My family’s lived there for a few generations.”

“Van Dort. . .your last name did sound familiar. . . .” Emily thought hard. “Gregory Van Dort? Owned a fish shop?”

“My grandfather,” Victor said. “Oh, goodness, this is nearly unbelievable.”

“I should say,” Victoria said, looking amused. “How did you know of my father?”

“Just that he was taking over the lord’s duties when I – um – died.”

“That was some years ago, and – wait. What did you say your last name was?”

“Cartwell. Why, do you recognize it?”

“Vaguely. Father used to know someone named Cartwell. But he said the man moved away after his daughter disa– oh. Ooh,” Victoria said, the unpleasant truth hitting her like a ton of bricks.

“Yes,” Victor nodded. “I heard that story too, though without the names. The daughter of a rich man who vanished into the woods one day with her lover. Only real scandal Burtonsville’s ever seen.”

“How nice to be so fondly remembered,” Emily said sarcastically.

“What – what happened to you?” Victoria asked, then quickly added, “If it’s not too forward.”

“The simplest way to put it is that my lover chose to murder me and steal my money rather than elope with me,” Emily sighed. “Dr. Finklestein resurrected me some time later. I don’t know why he was anywhere near Burtonsville, but apparently Sally spotted my hand sticking out of the ground where I was buried, and. . . .”

“Oh, that’s horrible – er, your getting murdered, not your getting R-Reanimated,” Victoria hastily corrected herself. “What a terrible man to do that to you.”

“I hope he had a lovely time spending my dowry,” Emily muttered darkly. She shook her head, as if to clear the nasty thoughts from it. “This is so odd, that we’d all hail from the same town.”

“I know.” Victoria looked between Emily and Victor for a moment, looking thoughtfully. “How long have you two known each other?” she said, glancing briefly but significantly at Victor.

Victor quickly picked up on the unspoken question. “Since just yesterday,” he said, answering both at the same time. “We met while Dr. Brown was fixing Dr. Finklestein’s generator. We got to talking, and I felt bad for her, so I offered to take her out and show her a bit of the city.”

“Oh.” Victoria looked back at Emily. “You do seem to make friends easily, Victor,” she commented with a small smile.

“I don’t know how – most people back home didn’t like me at all,” Victor said.

“Why not?” Emily asked. “You’re a nice fellow – isn’t he?” she added to Victoria.

“Very nice,” Victoria agreed. “Perhaps the upper classes wouldn’t want to be seen with you, on account of your family being nouveau riche, but I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t have friends – I’m sorry, I can’t think of any way to put it except ‘on your own level.’ You do understand I don’t mean--”

“I do,” Victor assured her. “But being nouveau riche is a problem for them too. They think we’re trying to put on airs. Which I suppose we are,” he admitted with a slight eye roll. “Mother’s always trying to copy the noble classes.”

“I thought your family sold fish?” Emily said, looking a little lost.

“Father revolutionized our business – we’re in charge of a cannery now,” Victor explained. “It’s made us very rich, but – well, no one wants to speak to us now.”

“That’s hardly fair to you.”

“I’m used to it. Being thought well of by numerous people – that’s strange,” he said, laughing weakly to try and play it off as a joke.

Victoria and Emily didn’t see the humor. “You know, if someone had told me a month ago that someone’s life could improve by moving to live among a bunch of mad scientists, I wouldn’t have believed them,” Victoria said after a moment. “Of course, I’m discovering a lot of things I previously wouldn’t have believed are very believable.”

Victor chuckled. “I think that’s typical of coming here. I didn’t expect to see you today – out for another walk?”

Victoria blushed. “Yes. I thought I might go visit you and your friends again.”

Victor nodded, then frowned as he realized something. “Where’s Hildegarde?”

Victoria blushed harder. “Having tea in the shop on the other corner,” she confessed. “She’s – she’s getting older, and it’s hard for her to walk, so--” She giggled nervously. “At least I'm sure of you two not telling my parents.”

“No chaperone,” Emily said, in a mock-disapproving tone. “Miss Everglot, how scandalous.”

“Well, anything does seem to go in this city,” Victoria replied, fussing with her skirt. “I’m sure my parents would be far more displeased to know I actually enjoyed the company of a Touched and his assistants the other day.”

“Not to mention the ride in the flying steam train,” Victor added with a chuckle. “Would you like to disappoint them more by accompanying us to the hat shop? I was going to introduce Emily to some other friends of mine. If you don’t mind, of course,” he added to Emily.

“The more the merrier,” Emily said kindly. “And I’d like to hear some more of how Burtonsville’s changed since I’ve lived there. May I ask who your mother is, Miss Everglot?”

“Maudeline Watson,” Victoria said. “The daughter of Count Watson. Have you heard of her as well?”

“Maudeline Watson? Actually, I met her – her family met mine at a ball once. We didn’t have much to say to each other, I’m afraid. She and her mother disapproved of my knowing the piano,” Emily said.

“Mother’s always said music is too passionate for young ladies,” Victoria agreed, frowning. “I’ve never understood why we have a grand piano in the house, then. No one in the family plays. Though – I’ve always wanted to at least try,” she added, glancing at the ground shyly.

“A piano no one’s ever played?” Victor said, unable to quite keep the stricken note from his voice. He just couldn’t stop thinking of the poor instrument, rotting away in the music room, collecting dust and never knowing the feel of properly trained fingers. “I don’t understand that either.”

I’ve always heard that young ladies should know music,” Emily said, looking quietly puzzled. “Piano or harp.” Glancing at Victor, she added in an embarrassed voice, “It’s young men that should stay away from music.”

“Mother must never have heard that saying,” Victor commented. “Once I showed an interest, she rushed to get a tutor for me. I think she thought having a son who played piano would help her socially.”

“I don’t know if Father’s ever actually heard it, but he would certainly agree with it,” Victoria commented. “His opinion is that properly manly activities include shooting and hunting. I honestly think he hates music.”

“Hates music? Your mother and he are well-matched, then,” Emily said. “Um, no offense intended.”

“None taken, Miss Cartwell,” Victoria said. “They are indeed in that matter.” She shook her head. “If I may say so, it’s a bit odd, talking to someone who knew my parents when they were younger and yet--” She hesitated, taking in Emily’s boney arm and leg. “–doesn’t look much older than I am,” she finished gamely.

“How do you think I feel?” Emily said. “All the people I knew as a girl have all grown old. I probably wouldn’t recognize any of them anymore. I don’t even know if I would recognize the town.”

“I don’t know about the latter,” Victor said thoughtfully. “People may change, but the town itself barely does. Though my parents did build a new house on the town square – right across from the Everglots, in fact.”

“I saw it being constructed,” Victoria nodded. “It’s odd, really, how we could have lived so close to one another all those years and never properly met. Then again, Mother tended to keep me indoors for lessons and sewing.”

“I was either at school, chasing butterflies in the fields or woods nearby, or in my room drawing,” Victor said. “Still, I agree – you think we would have at least seen each other.”

“When did you first meet?” Emily asked, looking quite curious. “Victor told me that you two were to be engaged.”

“Actually, it was just a few days ago, on the 31st of January,” Victor confessed. “Technically, we were supposed to be wed on the 27th, but then I came here and elected to stay rather than go back. . . .”

“Our parents arranged everything over the holidays,” Victoria added. “When I asked about meeting Victor, Mother said that I’d meet him at the rehearsal.”

Emily stared for a moment. “What if you two had hated each other on sight?” she said slowly.

“I don’t think that mattered much to them,” Victor mumbled.

Emily scowled at that. “That’s not right. They should at least make sure the engaged couple likes each other. I swore early on I’d only marry for love.” She paused, and looked down at herself. “Perhaps I’m a walking advertisement for that being a foolish idea these days, but even so.”

“I don’t think it’s a foolish idea at all,” Victoria said. “I’ve always wanted to marry for love. I never liked the idea of my marriage being arranged. Your trouble was being tricked by a horrible man.”

“And being silly enough to agree to elope,” Emily said with a sigh. “What really worries me is if he’s done this to anyone else. I don’t know if I was the first, the last, or the only with him. I’d strongly prefer it to be one of the latter.”

“He’ll be facing justice if he hasn’t already,” Victoria said firmly. “I can’t believe someone could go around murdering girls for their dowries and not get caught.”

“I wonder what would happen if he made the mistake of going after a Touched girl,” Victor found himself musing. “Or the daughter of a Touched.”

“Something terrifically unpleasant, I’m sure,” Emily said, trying and failing not to smirk.

“Yes,” Victoria agreed, looking a bit more unsettled. “Er – so about this hat shop. . . .”

“It’s a very nice place – the man who runs it is a Touched, but he’s fairly stable,” Victor assured both girls. “And he makes excellent hats. He and his clerk are quite good friends of mine.”

“I hate to ask, but there’s no danger?” Victoria said awkwardly.

“Oh, no!” Victor said, grinning up at the sign as they reached Mad Hatter Haberdashery. “Everyone here is quite friendly, in fact,” he added as he opened the door.

WHUCK!

Victor stared for a moment at the Vorpal Blade now quivering in the middle of a dartboard set up on the back wall of the store, and the figure of Alice standing some feet away with her back to them, radiating anger. “Unless I tempt fate by making a statement like that,” he weakly modified.

Alice spun around. “What – Victor! Hello,” she said, looking suddenly unbalanced. “I – um – it’s been a rather annoying day, and – er – who are your friends?” she asked, trying to rally.

Victor glanced back at Victoria and Emily, both almost hiding behind him, eyes wide. “This is Miss Victoria Everglot and Miss Emily Cartwell,” he said, really wishing he could somehow rewind time and warn Alice that they were coming. Or suggest doing this meeting on a different day. “Victoria, Emily, may I present Miss Alice Liddell.”

“Hello,” Alice said, giving them a somewhat shaky smile.

“Hello,” Victoria said hesitantly.

“Hello,” Emily echoed, her eyes on the blade still stuck in the dartboard. “Um – you have very good aim.”

Alice winced. “Thank you. I didn’t mean to greet you like this,” she said, going and retrieving the knife. “As I said, it’s been a rather annoying day. I tend to do this to – relieve the tension.”

“What happened?” Victor asked, as Alice sheathed the Vorpal Blade.

“Oh, some idiot decided to try and lay his hands on a rather private part of my anatomy,” Alice grumbled, rolling her eyes. “He must have been new in town. All the other boys either avoid me outright or seem to understand I don’t care to be flirted with.”

Victor felt his heart fall right down into his shoes. “Oh,” he said quietly.

“You didn’t--” Emily started, then paused, obviously not sure if she should continue.

“The knife? No, that’s for whatever monsters might be roaming around. A glare was all it took,” Alice assured her. “And of course my Ice Wand would be malfunctioning as well.”

“Ice Wand?” Victoria repeated.

“Richard designed it for me – it shoots supercooled air and can freeze almost anything,” Alice said, rather proudly. “He and Christopher are working on fixing it right now.”

Victoria turned pink. “C-Christopher? As in – Sir Lloyd?”

Alice tilted her head slightly. “Yes, that’s him. He and Richard are quite good friends. Are you acquainted?”

“We met through Victor,” Victoria said, suddenly very interested in the folds of her dress. “He was at Dr. Brown’s shop when I – chose to visit. We – got along quite well.”

Alice studied her for a moment, then smiled almost wickedly. “Oooh. That’s nice – he is quite pleasant company, isn’t he?” she said, her tone ever-so-slightly teasing. “He’s just downstairs, you know. Would you like me to call him up?”

“Oh, um, I – I wouldn’t want to interrupt his work,” Victoria babbled, wringing her hands. “Not that I wouldn’t like to see him again, you understand, but--”

“Maybe we could go downstairs and see him,” Emily said, having picked up on the same thing Alice had. “Just to say hello. I’m sure Victor would want to introduce me to this Richard anyway.”

“Is it all right to say hello?” Victor asked, as Victoria continued to wring her hands. “I’d hate to cause them to make a mistake.”

“It should be fine,” Alice said, still smiling in Victoria’s general direction. “Come on – the tea room and lab is just this way.” She opened the back door and headed down the stairs. Victoria hesitated a moment, then hurried after Alice. Victor and Emily, sharing smiles, followed.

The basement room looked a bit different this time – the tea table was still there, place settings all perfect, just without food. But now Victor saw there were a number of benches in the background (had they always been there, or did Richard move them in and out depending on whether they were entertaining?), covered with parts and half-finished inventions. Richard and Sir Christopher were at one a few feet away, leaning over something – Victor couldn’t see what. “Richard?” Alice asked, stepping forward.

“Alice!” Richard’s head snapped up, and he grinned. “It’s almost done, just a minor fluctuation in the ice matrix. But I have to show you – oh, hello,” he said, noticing the others for the first time. “We have company? Are we supposed to have a tea party? You think March of all people wouldn’t forget such an event.”

“No, just visitors who wanted to say hello,” Alice said. “This is Miss Victoria Everglot and Miss Emily Cartwell, friends of Victor’s.” With a little smirk, she added, “Miss Everglot is acquainted with Christopher.”

“Barely,” Victoria said with a nervous giggle. She took in Richard’s unusual appearance with surprising calm, Victor noted. Perhaps it had something to do with being the daughter of a lord. “It’s – it’s very nice to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you as well,” Richard said, tipping his oversized top hat. He nudged his companion in the side. “Christopher, say hello to your guest. It won’t do to be rude.”

You should talk,” Alice said, staring at him in disbelief. “Your very first comment to me was ‘Your hair needs cutting.’”

“Well, it did! I was merely making a statement of fact – I didn’t know at the time it was a personal remark.”

“As long as you don’t tell the poor Reanimated girl that she needs more flesh on her, I’ll let it slide,” Alice said, arms folded.

“A deficient amount of flesh is not her fault,” Richard said, folding his own arms. “You could control how long your hair grew.”

Alice adopted a long-suffering expression. “Oh, why oh why do I put up with you. . . .”

As they playfully bickered, Sir Christopher wiped his hands off on a rag and turned around. He looked surprised for a moment, then smiled warmly. “Miss Everglot,” he said, bowing. “How lovely to see you again.”

“It’s very nice to see you as well,” Victoria said, smiling back. “How are you?”

“Oh, just fine,” Sir Christopher replied, patting the workbench. “I’ve been keeping busy with thinking and Inventing and fixing Alice’s weaponry.” Victoria’s smile faltered briefly at that. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been all right. Getting to know the city a little more. I’m amazed at how busy it is. Burtonsville is such a quiet little town.”

“I know,” Emily agreed, waving her skeletal hand. “Even living with Dr. Finklestein on the outskirts doesn’t--” There was a sudden loud snap. “Oh, for – not again!”

Emily’s hand and forearm dropped to the ground. Victor gaped for a moment at the stump, then the loose limb. “Goodness, bits fall off?!” he blurted without thinking.

“Mostly just this hand,” Emily said, as the hand flipped itself over and began crawling closer to her. “I keep telling Dr. Finklestein it’s loose, but he never bothers to fix it.”

“How can you move it when it’s not attached to you?” Victoria said, looking similarly shocked.

“I’m not sure. I asked him once, and he went on about something called ‘morphic resonances’ and ‘telepathic control’ and it all went completely over my head,” Emily admitted.

Richard stared for a moment, then scooped the hand up and examined it. It wiggled in his grip. “A detachable limb,” he murmured, Creativity creeping into his voice. “Oh, that could have all kinds of uses! It would certainly eliminate many trips to and from the toolbox! I’m sure I could duplicate the effect with radio waves or the like. . . . How does it reattach?” he asked, looking up at Emily with an eager, almost child-like expression.

“Ah – well, it just seems to snap back on,” Emily said, offering him her skeletal stump.

“Wonderful!” Richard happily snapped it back into place. “Magnets could do nicely for that!”

Emily looked at him for a moment. Then, seeing he was apparently sincere, she snickered. “You really think – you must be the only man I’ve ever met who finds my detachable limbs something to be excited about,” she told him.

“Really? But it’s such a useful idea!” He looked at his own arm, the wooden wrist and metal elbow gear poking out of the strait-waistcoat. “Though it’s probably different for someone who’s all organic,” he allowed, a bit of sanity returning to his expression. “You probably didn’t like having it fall off when you were alive, did you?”

“It didn’t fall off when I was alive,” Emily informed him, looking even more amused. “Only after I woke up again. And it’s a bit of a pain when you’re playing piano and your hand decides it wants to do a solo on its own.”

“But that sounds even more fantastic! If I built you a spare hand, you could play your own duets! Or three-quarters of a duet, to be more precise. I wonder how that would sound?”

“Probably rather odd,” Victor said, trying to picture the scene in his mind.

“Odd is good!”

Emily shook her head. “You really think this is something wonderful, don’t you,” she murmured.

“Yes. Why do you sound so surprised?”

“Most men, if they see a bit of me drop off, run away screaming.”

“Well then, most men are idiots,” was Richard’s opinion. “I don’t see why a limb falling off in these circumstances is any cause for alarm.” In warmer tones, he added, “Especially when its attached to such a lovely young lady.”

Emily looked like she would blush all over if she had the ability – in fact, Victor would almost swear her cheeks turned a darker blue. “Lovely? Really?”

“Yes! There’s some rot, yes, but that’s not your fault. Your hair is a beautiful shade of blue.”

Emily smiled, lowering her eyes slightly. “Thank you,” she said, voice soft. “You’re – you’re rather handsome yourself.”

Victor had never seen Richard surprised enough to be struck dumb before. It was an amusing experience. “Ah – eh – heheheh,” he said with a rather goofy-looking grin, leaning on the tea table and accidentally jamming his elbow into a large teacup.

Alice sighed and looked up at the heavens. “Oh, it’s enough to make you sick,” she murmured in a friendly way. She glanced at Victor. “Do you make matches for every girl who crosses your path?”

Victor felt a blush rising on his cheeks. “I – ah – it just h-happened to w-work out that way,” he said, his hands automatically going up to his tie. “I had no idea--” He looked over at Emily and Richard, who were now making eyes at each other.

“Really.” Alice moved closer, a daring smirk on her face. “Who do you want to set me up with, then?”

Now his stomach was doing jumping jacks. “I – I--”

“It can’t be Marty, he must have told you he already has a girlfriend.” Alice frowned. “Do you even know any other boys?”

“Um – L-Lewis?”

“Lewis has known me since I was small – he probably thinks of me as a surrogate daughter,” Alice said. “So, who else could it be?”

“Ah – I--” Say it don’t say it tell her don’t bother she might say yes she just said she doesn’t like to be flirted with oh God oh God

SIR?

“GAAAH!”

Victor jumped, performing a complicated maneuver that landed him both on his feet and facing the opposite direction without even thinking about it. Standing behind him – in the roughest sense of the word, as it was balanced on two wheels – was a large Automaton. It was made of dark brass, and looked rather unbalanced – the torso with its huge arms was connected to the large wheels by a thin metal pole, and the head of the robot was little more than a tiny dome with vents for steam sticking out. He pressed a hand to his chest, breathing hard as he tried to calm his frazzled nerves. “Warn. . .people. . .before you. . .do that!”

MY APOLOGIES, SIR,” the Automaton said, rocking on its wheels.

Alice stared, then grinned. “Richard! You got him working!”

“Indeed I did!” Finally getting the teacup off his elbow, Richard walked over to his creation and presented it with a flourish. “Everyone, meet Roderick.”

“Roderick?” Victoria repeated, eyes wide.

“Yes! He’s my personal Automaton servant,” Richard said, patting Roderick on the shoulder. “A finer piece of work you would never see.”

MAY I BE OF ANY ASSISTANCE?” Roderick said, giving the impression he was looking around the group despite his lack of eyes.

“He could help us test the Ice Wand,” Sir Christopher said.

“He could, but I don’t want him to,” Richard said, giving Sir Christopher a frown. “I just got him working this morning, Chris. I don’t want ice in his gears this soon.”

“Well, we need to test it on something.”

“Test it on some tea?” Victoria suggested a bit timidly, looking at the teapots and teacups on the table.

“Tea? But what would we do with it afterwards?” Richard said, looking mildly scandalized.

“Tea-flavored ice lolly?” Alice said.

“I could try and take it back home to Doc,” Victor suggested, quietly glad of the subject change. “He says he loves iced tea.”

“What he calls iced tea is some odd concoction with little cubes of ice in it,” Richard said, sounding very suspicious of the drink. Then he brightened. “Perhaps frozen tea will show him back on the right path.” He turned and whistled.

A few moments later, a green teapot on three legs came scampering up, tooting steam and blinking at everyone with one red eye. “I don’t remember seeing that pot at the table,” Victor murmured.

“Oh, he’s fairly new as well,” Richard said, placing a cup in front of the teapot. “He’s a variation on Burnie’s design.” He tapped the large silver teapot on the table, which promptly rose up on four spindly legs of its own and “looked” down at its new brethren. “I find it easier to have the teapot come to me than to go to the teapot.”

“Perhaps if you deigned to stay in one seat for five minutes,” Alice teased him.

“Blasphemy!”

“‘Deigned to stay in one seat?’” Emily repeated, looking confused.

“All proper tea parties have the participants move around so things get used up evenly,” Richard told her as the little green teapot poured a cup of tea, then scuttled over to her. It nosed her boney leg with its spout.

“What happens when you come around to the beginning again?”

“I don’t know, we’ve never gotten that far. But I’ll let you know what occurs when we do.” He picked up the cup of tea and placed it back on the table. “Christopher – the Ice Wand.”

Sir Christopher picked up the object he and Richard had been tinkering with. Victor saw now that it was, in essence, a large bluish crystal mounted on a carved wooden handle. Sir Christopher handed it to Richard, who aimed the crystal at the tea and pressed forward on some hidden switch. “Now, if we’ve done everything correctly. . . .”

A gush of white, icy mist erupted from the end of the wand, enveloping the teacup. Within a minute, the tea inside was frozen solid, and the teacup itself was sporting a very healthy layer of frost. Richard beamed. “Operational order has been restored!”

“Excellent,” Alice said, looking relieved. “That’s one of my most useful weapons.”

“I have to say, I’ve never heard of a young lady carrying weapons before,” Victoria said, looking rather unsettled. “The ladies back home would find it – uncouth, to say the least.”

“Somehow I doubt they have to deal with Snarks, Jabberspawn, and whatever other beasties the local Touched might think up,” Alice pointed out, tone rather deadpan.

“Jabberspawn? I thought Lewis took care of all of those!” Sir Christopher said, frowning.

“No, somehow one or two always escape,” Alice grumbled. “And they’re becoming quite frumious to boot.”

“Dare I ask what a Jabberspawn is?” Emily said.

“A smaller relative of the famous Jabberwock,” Sir Christopher provided. “Horrible things – composed mostly of a long tail, two large legs, and a huge mouth full of sharp teeth. And some bits to hold it all together, of course. They don’t have eyes, but they have an excellent sense of smell and the ability to jump long distances. And a painful electrical attack.”

“Oh my – and you fight these monsters?” Victoria said, looking at Alice with a mixture of fear, awe, and new respect.

“Only when they come out from wherever they’re hiding,” Alice said modestly – or in an attempt not to frighten Victoria too badly. “Someone has to, and Sir Christopher isn’t always here.”

“Women fighting. . . .” Victoria shook her head. “My mother would have a fit.”

“I have to say, I think there’s some use in being able to fight,” Emily said, rubbing her exposed ribs.

Alice looked at her sympathetically. “Murdered?” she asked gently.

“By the man who convinced me to elope with him,” Emily said grimly.

There were shocked gasps from Alice, Sir Christopher, and Richard. “What?”

“Who could do such a thing?”

“Why would he ask you to elope with him if he just planned to murder you?”

“Well, if he hadn’t, he couldn’t have asked me to bring along the family jewels and as much gold as I could carry,” Emily said, glaring at nothing in particular. “And told me to wait in the woods away from any witnesses.”

“Bastard,” Richard said angrily. “And I say that not knowing the status of his birth.”

“He claimed to be a lord, but I think what you called him fits him much better,” Emily agreed.

“Some people,” Alice growled, looking like she wanted to unsheathe her knife.

“Indeed,” Sir Christopher agreed. “What happened to you is utterly horrible. I wish I could do something.”

“Me too,” Richard agreed, icing another teacup just to relieve his feelings.

The green teapot butted up against Emily’s leg, tooting. Emily smiled and gently picked it up. “Not running away screaming from me or telling me I’m worth less than the dirt I was buried under is more than enough,” she said, handing it to Richard.

“People do that? After living here?” He looked at Victor contemplatively. “Perhaps it would be acceptable in someone who’s only been here a while--”

“Except that he didn’t do that either,” Emily said, also looking at Victor. “Nearly jumped out of his skin when I surprised him, yes, but afterward. . . .” A sudden puzzled frown crossed her face. “But actually – why didn’t you scream, Miss Everglot? Have you met Reanimated before?”

“No, just heard of them,” Victoria replied. “I was – startled, but when Victor introduced you, I got distracted by the fact you knew of my father, and after that it just. . . .” Victoria paused, and thought that over, a slow look of shock growing on her face. “And – maybe it was even more impolite than I realized for my parents to call Victor an Igor.”

“Perhaps everyone in Burtonsville is one secretly,” Victor joked, hoping to ease the revelation’s effect on her mind. “And our parents are just better at hiding it.” More seriously, he added, “It’s really nothing bad. Marty’s a definite Igor, and he’s a truly nice fellow. And completely sane, even while helping Doc with his Inventions.”

“Igors are very useful,” Sir Christopher added. “You’ve got to have someone around to help you with the Inventing, and remind you to eat and sleep and so forth.”

“Have you an assistant like that?” Victoria asked, with an unreadable expression.

Sir Christopher blushed faintly. “Er, no, not really,” he said. He twiddled his fingers. “But I would like one,” he added, with a hopeful smile.

Victoria smiled back. “I see.”

“Do you need another assistant?” Emily asked Richard, fiddling with her fingers. “Or – just someone to – tend to the place?”

“Well, March does a lot of that – b-but I wouldn’t mind having you help,” he hurriedly added, pushing back his hat as it threatened to fall into his eyes. “You seem nice and – and I could make you a hat! To go with your veil!”

Emily reached up and touched her veil, looking a little nervous. “To go with? The veil was my mother’s,” she said slowly.

“Not to attach, just to sit on the top of your head,” Richard assured her. “I have some light blue fabric that compliments both your dress and your skin nicely, and with a gay yellow hat band and some flowers – you seem the type who likes roses. White and red, but white would be best with the hat. Or maybe a dark blue!”

“To match my hair?” Emily suggested, starting to get into the thought processes.

“A bit darker, I think. A bit of contrast always livens up a good hat. You can’t let everything be the same, otherwise it all gets dull and boring and we can’t have that.” He straightened up and gestured to himself, gears clicking. “I would never dare to wear a green hat, for example. It would end up that no one could tell where my skin ended and the hat began.”

“That would be – yes, I see what you mean,” Emily nodded, making a face.

“I’m glad you do. So many people don’t.” He smiled at her. “But you’re special.”

Emily ducked her head, looking slightly shy. “So are you.”

Alice patted Victor on the back. “See what you’ve done?” she mock-scolded him. “He’s going to be all twitterpated now. I won’t be able to be in the same room as him. Or Sir Christopher, to think of it.”

Sir Christopher frowned at her. “Come now, Alice.”

“Don’t deny it. I’ve seen the way you two look at each other. And only on your second meeting, no less. And you two are on your first,” she added to Richard and Emily.

“Excuse me for liking a man who doesn’t react with horror to my being Reanimated,” Emily said, folding her arms and frowning at Alice.

“I excuse you gladly,” Alice replied. “I’ve nothing against any of you liking each other. I just ask you to excuse me if I happen to roll my eyes at you calling each other pet names or things like that.”

“Don’t you have any romance in your soul?” Emily asked.

For an instant, Victor fancied Alice’s eyes flicked towards him. Then, slowly, she shook her head. “I don’t need romance,” she said softly.

Victor felt like someone was squeezing his heart inside his – no, her – fist. She didn’t need romance. Which meant – He bit his lip for a moment, seeking to calm the sudden rush of emotion inside of him. He should have known this was useless. Even if she did care for such things, a free spirit like her would never want to be tied down to him. Frankly, he was surprised they were even friends. How could he have hoped for something more?

It’s not all bad, he told himself firmly. At least you didn’t have to make a fool of yourself asking her. She’ll never even have to know she rejected you. And Marty told you that this is temporary. It – it feels horrible, yes, but you’ll survive. And you’ll have her as a friend still, which might not have happened if you’d said something. It – it’s all worked out for the best, really.

His heart didn’t want to listen, crying out deep inside for him to speak up anyway, say something so wonderful she changed her mind, kiss her and let his lips speak for him. . . . He ignored it and put a smile on his face instead. “Why don’t we all have some lunch?” he said. “Then we can all get to know each other better.”

“Capital idea!” Sir Christopher declared. “I’m not as good a cook as March, I’m not afraid to admit it, but I can make some lovely sandwiches.”

“And there’s plenty of tea,” Richard declared, his two sentient pots tooting their agreement. “Er – you do drink tea, don’t you?” he added, glancing at Emily.

She smiled at him. “You do, don’t you?”

He grinned. “Oh, yes. Have you ever tried it with mercury?”

“Er, no, I haven’t had the pleasure.”

“Oh, you should. That slight metallic tang just heightens every other flavor. Arsenic is good too. And belladonna.”

“Actually, the last I have tried,” Emily laughed. “Just not in tea. Jack and Bonejangles mix it up into their drinks. It’s surprisingly sweet – although perhaps that’s just me.”

“No, no, I find it sweet too!” Richard said excitedly, his hat starting to fall into his eyes again. “It’s a pity the normally living can’t try it. It would make an excellent topper for most desserts.”

“Apart from all the death,” Alice joked. “I think I’ll stick with watercress and lettuce for my sandwich plant life.”

“Yes, me too,” Victor said, moving over to Sir Christopher and smiling just a bit too brightly. “What do you have a-available for those of us who cannot eat deadly things?” No matter how much we may want to at the moment.

Sir Christopher began listing off the various sorts of sandwiches he could make. Victor only listened with half an ear, unable to stop himself from glancing back at Alice. Unbidden, an image of them sitting together, her hand on top of his, his eyes locked with hers, rose in his brain. Everyone kept teasing them about their “staring contests.” Could it really be that Alice felt noth–

No, he scolded himself. She knows her own mind. She just said straight out that she doesn’t need romance. You must stop thinking of her like that at once. Marty and Doc both told you that you’d survive the disappointment. Be satisfied with what you have. He turned back around, devoting his full attention to the knight before him.

Which meant he missed Victoria and Emily, who had been watching him with puzzled expressions, share a sudden shocked look.


Lunch went well enough, in Victor’s opinion. Victoria and Emily got along very well with Sir Christopher, Richard, and Alice – particularly the former two. Victor was quite happy for them, but he couldn’t deny that it stung a little to see them being so happy when his own heart felt like it had been torn in two. He hid it as well as he could, though, and made light conversation as they had their sandwiches and some leftover tea cakes. Nobody appeared to notice a thing, least of all Alice.

Lunch ended with a demonstration of a few of Roderick’s duties around the shop and Sir Christopher expounding on an idea for a deal box with a lid that automatically snapped up so you could carry it upside-down and not get your sandwiches wet. They visited for a bit more, watching Richard make a hat for a customer, before saying their goodbyes and heading out into the street. “I should be getting back to Hildegarde,” Victoria said, looking embarrassed. “The poor dear’s probably been wondering where on earth I’ve gotten off to. I hope she doesn’t think too poorly of me for this adventure.”

“She seems an open-minded woman,” Victor said. “I think she’ll understand.”

“I hope so.” Victoria fiddled with her fingers. “Do – do you think my parents will be pleased if I tell that – that I’m becoming quite good fri– acquaintances with a knight?”

“I think they certainly won’t be angry,” Emily said with an encouraging, slightly playful grin.

“I agree,” Victor nodded, smiling as well. “In fact, I think they’ll be quite pleased.”

Victoria looked positively joyful for a moment. “I hope so. I certainly hope so. Sir Lloyd is such a wonderful man, and I’d so like to see him again.” Then her smile faded, and she looked up at Victor. “Not to – Victor, you could have told her,” she said softly.

Victor didn’t need any explanation for what she meant. Well, no, he needed one bit of explanation. “You noticed?” he said, cheeks turning crimson from embarrassment.

“We just saw the way you looked at her,” Emily said gently, putting a hand on his arm. “She’s the friend, isn’t she? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because there was no point in saying anything,” Victor reminded her. “You heard what she said. She doesn’t care for r-romance. And even if she did, she--” He stopped, and shook his head. “She doesn’t want what I want. That’s a-all there is to it. I’m not a-about to risk our friendship over something I know will end badly.”

“Are you sure?” Emily pressed.

“She obviously likes you,” Victoria added.

“As a friend – nothing more,” Victor said firmly. “I can live with that.” He adjusted his tie. “I’d rather not d-discuss it more, if you please.”

Victoria and Emily frowned at each other, but dropped the subject. “All right. Thank you for a lovely afternoon, all the same,” Victoria said. “I hope to meet you again, Victor.”

“I hope to see you again as well,” Victor nodded. “Have a good evening.”

“Thank you. And it was very good to meet you, Miss Cartwell,” Victoria added, extending a hand for Emily to shake. “I hope to see you again too.”

“The same here, Miss Everglot,” Emily said, shaking. “I think I’ll be coming into town a little more often now, so we should meet again.”

Victoria grinned. “Good. Have a wonderful evening.”

“You as well.” Emily and Victor watched her make her way back through the crowds. “We should go meet with Dr. Brown so he can take me back,” Emily added. “It has to be near the time he said before.”

“Almost exactly, actually,” Victor said, consulting his pocket watch. “We’d best hurry.” As they walked back to the street corner, he continued, “Did you have a good day out?”

“A fabulous one,” Emily told him, sighing dreamily. “Thank you so much for taking me to that hat shop.”

Victor grinned. At least his friends had good luck with love. “I’m quite happy for you. I had no idea you and Richard would get along so well.”

“Neither did I. He’s intelligent, and caring, and yes, he’s mad, but I think I like that. Oh, I’m going to have to figure out a regular way to come to the city more often.”

“I wish you all the best of luck with that. I’d like to see you more often.”

“And I you.” Emily put an arm around him and squeezed, surprising him briefly. “I’m very glad that generator broke. Meeting you seems to be leading to all sorts of nice things.”

“I’m glad, I really am,” Victor said, patting the boney hand.

Doc was waiting for them on the corner, hovering slightly above the ground. “Quick, get in,” he urged them, holding out a hand to help Emily into the cab. “Did you have a good time?”

“It was great! Richard’s wonderful,” Emily began, then paused and looked back at Victor, her expression apologetic. “Although Victor. . . .”

“Victor what?” Doc said, turning a concerned frown toward his assistant.

“It’s nothing,” Victor assured him. “I’m fine.” He gave them both his best smile, ignoring again the way his heart ached. “I’m just fine.”

Chapter Text

February 8th, 18–

Secundus, England

2:13 P.M.

“And so, that’s how I – oh, hello, Victor!”

“Hello Richard,” Victor said, smiling at the hatter and the corpse bride standing beside him. “Hello Emily. How are you?”

“Fine,” Emily said. “Richard’s been telling me about how he made his body. You were saying?”

“I presume you mean before I greeted Victor, as I wasn’t saying anything just now.”

“Yes, silly,” Emily said, tapping a skeletal finger against his overlarge nose.

“Oh, I’m silly now! Maybe I won’t finish my story.”

Alice shook her head as she watched them. “Thank you for coming in,” she said to Victor. “It’s been impossible to have any good conversation here today. Not only are they here, so are Victoria and Christopher. The minute one suggests a topic, one couple or the other will put a romantic spin on things.”

“Romance is nice,” Richard declared. “I would say I would have liked to have found it before, but really, I’m perfectly happy having found it now.”

“You’re so sweet,” Emily said with a smile, leaning up against him and making him blush a darker green.

Victor allowed himself a moment’s envious staring. How he longed for Alice to cuddle up to him like that. Well, maybe not just like that – Alice was Alice, and he doubted she’d go about cuddling the exact same way as Emily. Did she even like cuddling? Oh, well, it was a moot question anyway. It didn’t do to dwell on what might have been. “Where are Victoria and Sir Christopher?” he asked, pulling himself free of the grip of the green-eyed monster.

“Downstairs – our White Knight felt it important to give her a chess lesson,” Alice said. “Either that or he’s preparing her to meet the White and Red royalty of Looking Glass House; she mentioned an interest in seeing Wonderland Park.”

“Have you met the chess people yet?” Emily asked Victor, looking quite curious.

“No, not yet,” Victor said. “I’ve been to Wonderland Park quite a few times now, but my interests have revolved around studying the various insects. I’ve been meaning to go and say hello to them and the card suits, though.”

“Lewis needs to brew up some more Drink Me first,” Richard reported. “Apparently there was some trouble with the last batch.”

“Trouble?” Victor repeated.

“Drink Me – or, as he insists on calling it, Pishalver – don’t ask me,” he added upon seeing Victor’s arched eyebrow. “I told him it’s not a proper name for a drink, but he insists. Anyway, under normal conditions, it exudes a special field that shrinks your clothes along with you. The latest bottles, however – he’s not sure if he added something or subtracted it, but. . . .” Hatter mimed something lowering to the ground. “Down went the person, but up stayed the clothes.”

Victor found himself imagining Alice as “the person” and gave himself a mental smack. Shame on you! You’re better than that! “I hope his test subject was all right?” he said, trying not to blush.

“Oh, Lewis was fine, just rather naked in his own shirt and trousers,” Richard laughed. “A little Eat Me – Upelkuchen, he calls it, which is worse than Pishalver – set him to rights. And he even managed to get his trousers on to spare all of his the indecency of seeing him without any clothes. Didn’t spare us the indecency of seeing him half-dressed, of course, but one can’t have everything. It would leave nothing left for the rest of us for a start.”

“And we can’t have that,” Emily agreed. Holding up her skeletal arm, she added, “I’ve already lost more than I should.”

“Indeed,” Richard nodded, stroking it.

“You really aren’t going to finish your story, are you?” Alice teased. “You’re going to get too involved in hugging and kissing each other.”

“Hugging and kissing are perfectly acceptable ways to spend time,” Richard said, putting his overlarge nose in the air. “But I suppose I should finish my narrative.” He paused. “Er, where was I again?”

Before anyone could respond, the door opened again. “Now, William, you promised me a new hat on account of all the trouble we’re going to.”

Victor felt his stomach abruptly try to crawl into his throat. Oh God no! It was bad enough when they met Doc and Marty! Please just leave please just leave please–

“Customers!” Richard sprang to attention with a wide, slightly Creative grin. “How may I help you?”

There was silence. Slowly, Victor turned around to see his parents gawking at Richard, looking rather like the fish they sold. Richard frowned at them, apparently concerned. “Can’t you speak? I thought I heard one of you talking just now. I know sign language, at any rate.”

Nell found her voice after a moment. “And just what are you?” she said coldly. Victor winced, already knowing this was going to be one of the worst moments of his life.

“You’ll have to be more specific. I’m quite a number of things.”

“We can see that,” William murmured, looking at the gears protruding from Richard’s elbows and knees.

Nell whapped him with her fan. “I can see you’re a Fabricated,” she snapped. “I’m wondering what you’re doing in this shop. What sort of man hires one of you stitched-together things to help in his business?”

Richard frowned. “Well, first off, you should say what you mean, and not just mean what you say,” he scolded. “Secondly, I’m not stitched together. I’m primarily welded and screwed together. Thirdly, the sort of man who would hire me is myself – I own the shop.”

“You own – who gives a Fabricated his own store?” William demanded.

“Nobody gave it to me. I had to purchase it like anyone else.”

“And they let you?”

“Yes. Otherwise we wouldn’t be standing here having this argument.”

Nell shook her head, making a clucking nose with her tongue. “It’s absolutely disgraceful, isn’t it William?” she commented. “The way they let creatures like this into--” Her eyes fell on Victor, standing frozen by the counter. “Now what are you doing here?!”

“I--” Victor croaked, wondering what he could say to help minimize the damage.

“Standing by my counter,” Richard answered for him, a deep frown on his face. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“Of course I do! He shouldn’t be here, mingling with the likes of you!” Nell said, stabbing at the air with her fan.

Richard crossed his arms. “I’ll have you know that Victor is a rather good friend of mine,” he said, voice icy. “What gives you the right to dictate his activities?”

“I’m his mother!”

The look of shock on Richard’s face might have been amusing if Victor hadn’t been so nervous about the outcome of all this. He jerked his head between Victor and Nell a few times. “You?” he finally said.

“Yes, me! That’s my son, who apparently is in even worse condition than we thought!” Nell rounded on Victor. “What are you doing here, consorting with piles of moving parts – oh, Lord, and there’s one of those walking worm-feasts here too?!” she added, spotting Emily.

Emily looked like she’d been slapped, while Richard just scowled. “The terms are Fabricated and Reanimated, M-Mother,” Victor said, starting to get angry. “There’s n-no need to be so n-nasty.”

“I think there’s every need,” Nell said, shaking her head. “What happened to you, Victor? You used to do as you were told. You never did it very well, but you did it. Now you’ve run off to gallivant around with – with madboys and Igors and their Inventions! What did that horrible Dr. Brown do to your head?”

“N-nothing! Mother, p-please, not all T-Touched are evil. I’ve b-been living here almost a month now--”

“While having your brains scrambled!”

“Dr. Brown only scrambles eggs, not brains,” Richard spoke up. “He’s a mechanist, not a biologist. Besides, who would want scrambled brains? I can’t imagine they’d taste very good.”

“Stay out of this,” Nell snapped at him.

“Victor, we’re only looking out for your well-being,” William said, leaning on his cane. “It’s not healthy for you to stay here. Sooner or later you’re going to run afoul of someone who wants to use you for spare parts.”

“Doc and Marty wouldn’t let that h-happen to me,” Victor said loyally.

“Neither would I, when it came down to it,” Alice spoke up. “And really, the town isn’t that dangerous.”

“What do you know?” Nell said. “You’re a resident. You’re just as crazy as any of them. Who are you, anyway?”

“Alice Liddell, ma’am,” Alice said, with what Victor would swear was a sarcastic curtsy. “I’m the clerk here at the shop.”

“Clerk? You mean you’re a working woman?” Nell seemed more disgusted by this than by Richard and Emily. “What sort of social classes are you associating with, Victor? We’re better than people in mere trade!”

“How?” Richard asked, sounding honestly confused.

“What do you mean, how?”

“I mean how! You sell fish, don’t you?”

“That has nothing to do with breeding,” Nell said haughtily.

“Or ambition,” William agreed. “I have nothing against a honest day’s work, but your kind never seems to care about advancing beyond your position.”

“According to you, we don’t have a position,” Emily pointed out, eyes narrowed.

“We must have a position,” Richard argued. “However would they judge us otherwise?”

We’re destined to have tea with the Queen and mingle with the elite,” Nell said, nose in the air. Shooting a glare at Victor, she added, “Not to spend our time wallowing around in the filth of this city.”

“That was truly amazing, Sir Chris – oh! Oh, um, h-hello, Mr. and Mrs. V-Van Dort.”

Victor didn’t know if this was worst or best thing to happen right now. On the one hand, his parents seeing Victoria emerge from the basement room with Sir Christopher could lead to bad things for his friend with her parents. On the other – good lord, the expression on his mother’s face. She genuinely seemed to have been struck dumb, as it was his father who spoke first. “Miss Everglot?! What – what are you doing here?”

“I was j-just playing chess with Sir Chr – Sir Lloyd,” Victoria said, nervously twisting her hands together.

“I was giving her lessons,” Sir Christopher added with a smile. “She’s a very fast learner. Seems a pity her parents saw fit to give her so little academic knowledge. Ah well, we’ll have that fixed soon enough. Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, was it? May I assume you’re related to our Victor?”

Your Victor?” Nell finally got out, voice weak.

“Oh, he isn’t mine alone, per say,” Sir Christopher allowed. “It’s not as if I fathered him, or bought him legally. But he’s certainly one of the group, which is an acceptable meaning for ‘our,’ I believe.”

“The group. There’s a group.”

“Well, yes,” Sir Christopher said slowly, his smile fading. “You seem upset; is something wrong?”

“Just that my son seems to consider your type to be acceptable company,” Nell said between clenched teeth.

“Mother! That is Sir Christopher Lloyd! Her Majesty’s White Knight!” Victor said, gesturing wildly. “You surely can’t object to my spending time in his company!”

“I wouldn’t, if I didn’t see the company he was spending time with!” Nell jabbed at Sir Christopher’s chest with her fan. “Shame on you! Don’t you know you’re above these – these degenerates?!”

Sir Christopher glowered. “Madam, these people are some of my dearest friends,” he said, voice coldly polite. “I don’t consider myself above them at all.”

“You should.”

William looked at Victoria. “You’re just here to see him, right?” he asked, nodding at Sir Christopher. “Not any of these other people?”

“Mr. Van Dort--”

“It’s bad enough she’s seeing him,” Nell interrupted, fanning herself. “She’s supposed to be getting married to our son.”

“Victoria told me that any possibility of the union had been more or less dissolved,” Sir Christopher said, honestly confused.

“We’re paying for them to stay here on the condition they don’t give up on Victor entirely,” Nell replied. “Though apparently he’s trying to sabotage all our efforts. Really, I don’t know where we went wrong with him,” she continued, obviously glad of any opportunity to complain. “I don’t even know why he seems to like it here – besides brainwashing, of course, but why bother with him? He can’t be a very good assistant. Everything scares him – the dark, strange people, oddly-shaped trees. . .when he was little, he used to wet his combinations regularly. Sometimes I think it’s a wonder that he doesn’t--”

“MOTHER, I AM NOT FIVE ANYMORE!”

Everyone started at the sudden exclamation – Nell, in particular, looked ready to jump out of her skin. Victor couldn’t blame them – he’d surprised himself a little there. But hearing her go on like that, humiliating him yet again after insulting all of his friends. . .well, something inside of him had just snapped. He could feel the rage flowing through his mind, bubbling and seething and making his entire body feel hot and uncomfortable. “And I am not frightened of everything!” he added, fists clenched at his sides. “I was never frightened of everything! I admit that I have a n-nervous personality, but I h-haven’t been afraid of the dark for years! And I can’t recall ever being afraid of trees. And as for your rude comments about my friends, I find them very hurtful! All of these people have been nothing but kind to me. I never got that at home. Not from anyone.”

Nell stared at him for a moment. Then she seemed to recover some sort of equilibrium. “That is because you never tried! Not with the right classes. All you ever did was stutter and stumble over yourself. There was a reason we thought it best you and Miss Everglot not meet before the ceremony.”

“And that worked out so well, didn’t it?” Alice said, glaring.

You stay out of this,” Nell snapped. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you personally, but I’m sure there must be something.”

“Mother!” Victor said. “May we stop with the personal remarks?”

“Oh no, let her bluster,” Alice said. “She’s only embarrassing herself, you know.”

“Outrageous!” Nell cried. “Have you no manners?! Your parents ought to have taught you better!”

Alice stiffened at that. “I’m afraid they never got the chance,” she said after a moment, in a carefully neutral voice. “They died when I was young.”

“You’re an orphan? That’s why you’re working trade?” Nell paused, then huffed. “I suppose it’s better than the other option.”

Victor felt the rage bubble up again. “How d-dare you?!” he spluttered.

“Oh, Victor, I didn’t imply that she’d be any better at it,” Nell said snootily.

“Don’t bother, Victor, I don’t give tuppence what she thinks,” Alice said, though Victor noticed she was still rather tense. “As long as she doesn’t say anything bad about my parents.”

“I have no interest in your lineage whatsoever,” Nell replied, nose high. “None of us do – isn’t that right, William?”

“None at all,” William agreed. “Victor, really, you can make better friends than this.”

“Miss Everglot is part of the group you’ve just maligned,” Victor said, teeth clenched.

“Miss Everglot, I’m sure, is just a little confused,” William said gently. “And she is associating with perhaps the only Touched worth knowing.”

“I’m associating with the others as well,” Victoria said, looking as put out as the rest of them by now.

Nell shook her head and spread her arms dramatically. “What is this world coming to, William? Our son and the daughter of a lord and lady, condescending to spend time with a Fabricated--”

“I think technically I’m an Automaton, because of all the metal bits,” Richard interrupted, though whether it was because he was literal or because he wanted to get Nell’s goat, Victor couldn’t tell. “I think you have to be all organic to be a Fabricated.”

“A whatever-he-is, a Reanimated, a Touched – granted, a Touched of high social caliber,” she allowed, nodding at Sir Christopher in what was intended to be a magnanimous way. “And an orphan in trade.”

“Oh, how horrible,” Alice deadpanned. “A young lady with no parents actually working for a living. Not all of us were born into or married money. Begging your pardon, Victoria.”

“It’s fine – I know what you mean,” Victoria nodded.

“It’s where you choose to work is the thing,” Nell said. “What normal person wants to spend time around Touched?”

“Whoever said I was normal?” Alice grinned her best evil grin.

“Right! You’re just as mad as the rest of them, aren’t you! You should be locked up and the key thrown away, before you hurt someone!”

The smile seemed to freeze on Alice’s face. Victor felt his blood boil. “Mother, that’s enough!” he shouted, stepping forward. “These people are my friends, and I will not let you degenerate them!”

“How can you consider such people friends?” William asked, sounding truly confused.

“Because they’ve been kind and caring and – and everything the people back home in Burtonsville aren’t more often than not! Everyone I’ve met here has shown me how wonderful the world can truly be. I’m not going to let you ruin that. I. Like. It. Here.

“Victor Fitzwilliam Van Dort, how dare you speak this way to your own parents,” Nell hissed, eyes narrowed.

“How dare you speak this way to my friends! Particularly Alice! She is a truly amazing young lady. Meeting her has made my life so much better, I can’t even--” Victor waved a hand, wishing he could somehow pull the words he needed right out of thin air.

“How could someone like that improve your life?” Nell demanded, jabbing her fan at Alice, who had finally dropped the smile for an all-purpose glower. “Look at her! She’s obviously nothing more than--”

“I WILL NOT LET YOU INSULT THE WOMAN I LOVE!”

The entire shop went quiet. Victor felt his rage vanish, the heat of anger snuffed out by sudden icy shock. Oh God. Oh God, I said that out loud. What possessed me to say that out loud?! Alice is going to hate me, Alice is going to hate me. . . .

There was a long, uncomfortable moment of intense silence. Victor could feel everyone staring at him. Finally, Nell sniffed, “You are impossible, Victor.” She turned on her heel and headed for the door. “Come along, William. Let’s find a respectable hat shop.”

“Coming, dear,” William said, voice soft and stunned. He stared at Victor a moment more, then followed his wife outside.

The silence returned as they left. Slowly, Victor forced himself to turn around and face Alice. She was looking at him with wide eyes and an expression that suggested all intelligent thought in her head had stopped for a moment. “Alice, I – I--” he stammered, feeling a wave of guilt worse than any he’d felt before. Informing Victoria and Emily that he didn’t love them romantically had been at least private affairs. Here he’d announced his feelings so loudly he wouldn’t have been surprised if people passing two streets down had heard him. And about a young lady that had said quite clearly that she didn’t need romance. She probably despised him for humiliating her. He despised himself already. And he could still feel the others in the shop staring at him, and – and –

And suddenly, the only thing he could think of doing was running. Just bolt for the exit and do this another day. He couldn’t handle this right now. “I’m sorry,” he got out, before turning and dashing out the door. He knew that this was stupid, that he should go back and face the music like a man, but it was too much emotional torque in too short a time span. Stupid, stupid! he berated himself. What was I thinking, yelling that? I’ve embarrassed myself, I’ve embarrassed Alice, God knows what our other friends think of me –

“Victor!” He heard footsteps racing behind him. “Wait!”

Oh God, she was going to chase him? For a moment, Victor seriously considered speeding up. Then he remembered seeing firsthand how fast Alice could be when she’d killed that snark. He really didn’t want that sort of thing directed at him. He made himself stop and face her. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to say that, I value your friendship and I know you don’t care for romance--” he babbled as she caught up.

Alice put a hand on his mouth, silencing him. “Was it true?” she asked, green eyes intense. “Did you – I’m fairly certain you did, but assuming never gets one anywhere, so let’s be absolutely sure – did you mean what you said just now?”

Looking into those eyes, Victor couldn’t find it in himself to lie. “Yes,” he said softly. “I – I l-love you. I f-figured it out when I met Victoria, but I’d g-guess I’d been in l-love with you for a little while before that. I was g-going to tell you t-the day you met her and Emily, b-but you said you didn’t n-need romance, and I d-didn’t see the point of r-ruining things with a m-misguided confession.”

“You – you really do--” Alice’s voice was shaking now. “Oh Victor. . . .”

“I understand it’s h-hopeless,” Victor rushed to assure her. “I just – I don’t want to lose you as a friend, I like you, and I genuinely enjoy all our time together. Please d-don’t hate me.”

“Hate you, how could I--” Alice stopped, looking shockingly vulnerable, even with the knife strapped to her side. “Victor, I – I – I--”

She suddenly made a noise between a growl and a groan and grabbed her hair. “My psychiatrist is going to have my head,” she said, sounding upset. “One bloody word and I can’t say it. When it’s most important, I can’t say it!”

“You needn’t say anything, Alice,” Victor told her gently. “You already said your piece the other day--”

“No, I need to say this,” Alice interrupted him, looking back up. “Victor, I – I--” She stopped again and looked at him for a moment. “To hell with words,” she suddenly declared.

“Alice, what do--” Victor started, then stopped as Alice grabbed his tie –

And pulled him down into a kiss.

Everything seemed to stop for a moment. The people around them, the sounds of the world, the thoughts in his head – all vanished as his lips met hers, warm and soft. It only lasted for five seconds, but to Victor it felt like a lifetime. He blinked slowly as she released him, not moving from his hunched-over position. “Alice,” he finally said, “d-did you just say you didn’t need r-romance – because you thought I didn’t--”

“Partially,” Alice said with a deep sigh, looking at the ground. “But part of it is that I’ve got a bit of a complex about saying ‘I – I – I you-know-what you’ to someone.”

“I’m sorry?”

“There’s this little piece of me that’s certain it’s a death sentence.”

Victor felt a light bulb turn on in his head. “Does this have to do with your parents?”

Alice nodded. “Being the only survivor of the fire did some horrible things to my head. For the longest time I thought it was all my fault, that if I’d only done something, woken up sooner. . . .” She sighed again and shook her head. “It didn’t help that my climbing out of my catatonia meant going on a mental trip through a ruined Wonderland Park and watching a number of dear friends die thanks to monsters. I had to fight a Jabberwock in my head before I started feeling anywhere near better.” Her hand went to the sheath at her waist. “That’s sort of the reason I took up the blade. I wanted to match my skills in my hallucination so – so I could keep everyone safe in this world.”

Victor felt the urge to pull Alice close. Unsure whether or not that would be appreciated, he settled for putting a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right. I’m better now, really. And I know those other deaths were all in my head, just my mind attempting to make things right in a – rather gruesome manner, but – it still hurts a little. I still have the occasional nightmare of that world.” She reached up and put her hand over his. “And, obviously, I have trouble getting close to people sometimes. Richard and Cheshire and the others – I knew them from before. It was easier to reestablish our friendships. But it took me almost a month to start really warming up to Doc and Marty.”

“What about Victoria and Emily?” Victor asked.

“I don’t know where I stand with them quite yet,” Alice admitted. “They seem like nice girls, and I’m not one to judge Emily for being Reanimated, but – I guess I’m still a bit uneasy. Richard and Christopher liking them helps quite a lot, but I don’t think I’ll be really and truly comfortable until they’ve been together for a while.”

“Fair enough,” Victor said with a nod. He hesitated, not knowing if he wanted to bring this up. “And. . .myself?”

Alice looked up at him. “Allow me to put it this way – I hadn’t ever had a staring contest with a man the second time I met him before you,” she said, smiling.

Victor blushed, but laughed. “Oh. I – I never really thought – I didn’t realize my own feelings until Victoria--”

“You said,” Alice nodded. “I realized mine that same day, actually. I bumped into Marty while walking, and he mentioned you were meeting the girl your parents wanted you to marry, and I was surprised to find myself feeling a bit jealous. And then I realized, I’d only feel jealous if I – I--” She stopped, rolled her eyes. “No, I’m going to say this. If I – l-l-loved you.”

Victor gave her shoulder a squeeze. “So, we might have avoided some of this embarrassment if one of us had spoken up earlier?”

“If I hadn’t idiotically led you to believe I was incapable of loving someone like that, yes,” Alice said, eyes narrowed in annoyance at herself. “I’m sorry, I was just so annoyed with that other fellow, and then--”

“You don’t need to apologize,” Victor assured her. “I understand.” He frowned and looked down with a sigh. “I’m sorry so much of your life seems--”

“Horrible?” Alice filled in. “I’m sorry too, but there’s little one can do to change the past. And before you ask, no, no one’s come up with a working time machine yet. Your Dr. Brown is the only one who’s come up with a theory that doesn’t involve needing to destroy the entire universe so far.”

“Really?”

“Yes. This sort of thing is difficult even for Touched, it appears.”

They were silent for a moment, collecting their thoughts. Finally, Victor forced himself to speak again. “So – ah – w-where exactly d-does this put us?” He was happy that she loved him back, there was no doubt about that. But was she willing to try a relationship? Did she need time? He wasn’t going to force her into anything. Frankly, it was enough that she returned his feelings.

Alice looked up at him, mouth set in a firm, determined line. “My doctor’s always encouraging me to face my feelings head-on,” she said. “And frankly, I – I’d like to see what it’s like to be someone’s – girlfriend.” She blushed, then tried to frown again. “You just have to promise we’re not going to get as ridiculous as Christopher and Victoria or Richard and Emily.”

Victor couldn’t help a laugh. “I think being ridiculous comes with having someone to love,” he admitted, feeling suddenly as light as a feather. “I will attempt to keep it to a minimum.”

“Good,” Alice said, unable to keep from smiling herself.

Victor nodded, then decided to go ahead and be bold for once. “Well then – would – would you like to have d-dinner tomorrow night?”

Alice grinned in earnest now. “I’d like that very much. About eight o’clock?”

“Sounds right. I’ll – er – pick you up at home?” It occurred to Victor that he actually had no idea where exactly Alice lived. He knew it was with her aunt and uncle, but somehow the matter of her address had never come up before. Then again, we’ve always met either in Wonderland Park or Richard’s hat shop, so I guess I never needed to know before now. . . .

“All right,” Alice agreed. “It’s 1026 Tenniel Road – near the Baudelaire Orphanage for Unfortunate Children.”

“1026 Tenniel Road,” Victor repeated, fixing it in his mind. “I – I l-look forward to meeting your aunt and uncle.”

“They’re looking forward to meeting you, I’m sure,” Alice said. “I’ve mentioned you enough to them.” She chuckled. “Aunt Susan is going to be over the moon about me actually having a date. I don’t think either of them will really believe it at first.” She smirked. “But then, I do enjoy proving people wrong.”

Victor chuckled, then glanced up and down the street. “Er – well – I s-suppose I should g-go and settle our plans,” he said after a moment. “It w-would be a bit awkward to return to the s-shop, I think.”

“Probably,” Alice said, taking his hand and squeezing it. “Don’t worry, I’m sure everyone there will understand.”

“I hope so,” Victor said, reaching up with his free hand and fiddling with his tie. “And d-do tell them I’m sorry again about my parents.”

Alice looked up at him with an expression that seemed right smack dab between sorrow and rage. “I don’t think you have anything to be sorry about, but I’ll pass on the message.” She gave his hand another squeeze. “So – until tomorrow night?”

“Yes,” Victor nodded. “Have a wonderful day, Alice.”

Alice smiled at him – Victor privately thought she’d never looked so lovely. “I will. You do the same, Victor.” She went on tiptoe and pecked him on the cheek before turning and making her way back to the hat shop.

Victor watched her go, feeling deliciously buoyant all over again. She loved him! Alice Liddell loved him! And she was willing to allow him to court her! He had a date tomorrow night!

. . .He had a date tomorrow night.

Victor found himself beginning to hyperventilate as panic threatened to overwhelm joy. He’d never been on a date before. What exactly did one do? Should he bring flowers? Chocolates? No, wait, Alice didn’t like sweets. How formal was his dress supposed to be? Where were they supposed to go for dinner? Was anything supposed to happen afterward? What about her aunt and uncle, what did he say to them to prevent himself from looking like an utter ninny? Oh, God, why didn’t they make a pamphlet for these situations?

Wait a minute. He didn’t have a pamphlet – but he had something, or rather someone, infinitely better. He turned and raced in the direction of Dr. E. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services, hoping desperately Marty was free to talk.

Chapter Text

February 8th, 18–

Secundus, England

3:27 P.M.

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!”

“Terrific!”

“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?”

“My parents--”

“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.

“Right-o.”

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!”

“Pollina--”

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. . . .”

“You sure?”

“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?”

“Hmmm?”

“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.

 

Chapter Text

February 14th, 18–

Secundus, England

5:46 P.M.

It was, quite simply, not fair.

Lewis Charles Carroll brooded over his cup of tea. Why now? he thought. Why when I had just decided that I would let Alice know how I truly felt about her? Why when I was going to tell her that it’s been ages since I considered her a child, and that I was hoping that she would consent one day to be my bride? Perhaps it would have never worked out – God knows there’s an age difference, even if my various elixirs and experiments in time distortion have made it so it doesn’t show all that much. But that Miss Victoria has taken such a liking to Christopher, that I thought maybe. . .why oh why did Master Van Dort have to ask her out?!

He glared into the dark brown liquid. How could Victor do this to him?! Hadn’t he been a wonderful friend? Hadn’t he let him traipse all over his beautiful park, meet all his Fabricated creatures? Hadn’t he given him tea and squimberry tarts and all sorts of other good things? And this was how Victor chose to repay him – by stealing the woman he loved out from under his very nose? Perhaps he should do something to the boy, punish him – a little too much Pishalver in his milk, and he’d shrink away to nothing. Or “accidentally” send him into the path of a Jabberspawn or Bandersnatch. Or use him as a new experiment, see what he could make out of the parts –

And lose one of the dearest friends he had. Not to mention making Alice so angry at him that she’d probably never speak to him again. If she didn’t come after him with the Vorpal Blade for killing the man she loved. (Or worse, descend back into that horrible all-too-normal insanity and have to be locked up again. . . .)

Lewis sighed as the brief burst of hatred died. He knew this was all his own fault – bad timing. If he’d said something before. . .but no, Alice probably wouldn’t have wanted him anyway. He was an old friend of hers from her childhood – either her parents’ memory would have haunted them always, or she would have seen him as simply too old, despite the lack of age in his face. And besides, he’d seen the way she looked at Victor. Those green eyes hadn’t lit up quite like that since – since before Henry and Lorina had died, God rest their souls. Victor made Alice happy. And Alice made Victor happy, judging by the way he smiled more brightly whenever she was around. They were in love, there was no doubt about it. And if one listened to Cheshire, they’d been in love since long before they realized it themselves. Lewis couldn’t stand to break such a pair up. He wanted them to be happy. He loved Alice, and he liked Victor. The boy was such a wonderful person, always so kind and polite – and so enthusiastic about Inventions! Lewis had sometimes wondered if he could rent the young man from Dr. Brown for a day or two – the things they could do together –! No, they deserved to be happy.

But why does it have to come at my expense? he thought, letting just a little bitterness creep back into his mental voice. I wish them all the best, but – still, I wish she’d looked at me like that. Just once. He sipped at his tea. It’s just a shame there’s only one of her, but two of –

It was like a bolt from the blue. Lewis froze as the idea tumbled into his mind, raw and naked and unfinished but filled with potential. Another Alice. Make another Alice. He could do that – he made organic creatures all the time. Making a human would necessarily entail more work, but he was almost certain he could pull it off. All you really needed to clone a person was a bit of their essential essence, and she’d donated a few locks of her hair for previous experiments. . . .

He slammed the teacup down, heedless of the liquid sloshing all over his hand and the table. Yes, yes! He could certainly make another Alice! One exactly like the original! Well, maybe not exactly, that would probably unnerve the original Alice a little too much – but close enough! He’d accelerate her growth so he wouldn’t have to raise her and thus be stuck in the role of “father” – it was okay to romance one’s creator, but never one’s father. He’d be careful and considerate and polite as she adjusted to the world, presenting himself as the perfect suitor. And if all went well, she’d fall in love with him and everyone would be happy. Perhaps he and Alice 2 and Victor and Alice 1 could go on double dates, even! (And if she didn’t fall in love with him, at least he’d have his answer as to whether Alice could. Though he hoped it wouldn’t result in her asking him for a Victor 2. That would probably make things just a little too awkward.)

He grinned at nothing, then leapt up and ran to the laboratory, leaving his mess of a tea behind. There was no time for hot drinks now. He had to get his thoughts down on paper, get the formulae and equations just right. And then – he had work to do.

February 19th, 18–

Secundus, England

12:51 P.M.

It was amazing how much brighter the world was when one was in love.

Victor walked the streets of Secundus with a smile, humming softly to himself. He couldn’t recall a time when he’d felt happier. Doc and Marty were doing well in their shop – Doc had even recently had an idea for a lightning generator that could provide the necessary 1.21 gigawatts of electricity for the time machine. Emily and Richard were continuing to be adorably ridiculous in the hat shop. Victoria was preparing to introduce Sir Christopher to her parents, feeling it was time she stopped sneaking around. After all, they could hardly disapprove of a knight as a potential husband. (And there was the small matter of his parents knowing about her friendship with him – even if her parents avoided them like the plague, Victoria had said she’d prefer to out herself rather than be outed.) And Alice – dear, wonderful, Alice – was his girlfriend. He, Victor Van Dort, had an actual girlfriend. For once in his life, everything was going right.

“Oof!” Well, except for accidentally walking into people because you were daydreaming about your wonderful girlfriend. “Do forgive me,” he said, stepping backward. “I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”

“That is obvious,” the man he’d bumped into said, dusting his pant leg. “However, perhaps you can make it up to me by providing me with some information.”

“If I can,” Victor agreed readily. He studied the newcomer for a moment – he was a tallish man, with a broad, bulging chest and the biggest chin Victor had ever seen (it dwarfed even Pastor Galswells’s). His hair, curled into two “horns” behind him, was white, but other than that he didn’t seem particularly old. He seemed to have a bit of a permanent sneer to his face, making Victor feel uneasy. “What is it you’d like to know?”

The man gazed at him from small, beady eyes. “I’ve heard the Everglots are staying in this city. I wouldn’t suppose you’d know the family, except by reputation, but perhaps you could tell me exactly where they’ve made their lodgings?”

Victor decided he didn’t like this man. He sounded like a snob. “Do you mind if I ask why you want to know?” he replied coolly, wondering if he dared inform the man that he happened to know the Everglots quite well. He got the feeling the fellow would make some amusing faces in his surprise. (At that thought, Victor decided he’d been spending far too much time around Richard, March, and Dormy.)

“I was hoping to make their acquaintance, for our mutual benefit,” the man replied smoothly. “I’m Lord Bittern.” He presented a simple card for Victor’s perusal. “Why they’re in this God-forsaken city is beyond me, but. . . .” He shrugged.

Victor took the card and stuck it in his pocket unread. “I see,” he said. “I believe they’re staying in the Cogwheel Hotel, on Bumby Road. You really can’t miss it, the entire top of the hotel is shaped like the name.”

“Ah. Thank you for your time.” Lord Bittern promptly strolled away, looking smug about something. Victor rolled his eyes. He didn’t know what the man’s business with the Everglots was, but doubtless the elder lord and lady would like him. He seemed just their type. I just hope Victoria doesn’t have to spend too much time in his company. I know I wouldn’t like to.

He put Lord Bittern out of his mind and continued on his way to Mad Hatter Haberdashery. As per usual, he found Emily and Richard by the front counter as he entered the shop, chatting. Richard had a navy blue hat, which he was holding above Emily’s head. “I’m not certain,” he said, looking between it and Emily. “I think it may be just a bit too close to your hair.”

“I think it looks lovely,” Emily said, glancing up admiringly before noticing Victor. “Oh, hello Victor! What do you think of the hat Richard’s made me?”

“Do you think it goes with the rest of her?” Richard added. “I wanted to keep to the theme of blue, but I worry I might have gone a little too far.”

Victor studied the hat for a moment. “I think it looks nice,” he said eventually. “Though you could go a shade lighter or darker if you’re worried about it being too close to her hair color.”

“Perhaps I will,” Richard said. Grinning at Emily, he added, “It’s not like I would worry about making you too many hats.”

Emily giggled. “You’re going to spoil me,” she said.

“You’re already rotting, I don’t see how I could do any more damage,” Richard pointed out with a smirk.

“Rotted – Dr. Finklestein has made very sure the rest of my flesh will remain on my bones.”

“Ah, good! Now we don’t have to worry about bits of you falling into your teacup.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, I do have this one eye that regularly pops out. . . .”

Victor suddenly felt a pair of arms slide around him from behind. “Hello there.”

“Hello,” Victor said, turning to see Alice smiling up at him. “How are you doing?”

“Just fine,” Alice said, stretching up on tiptoe to kiss him. Victor met her halfway. “How are you?”

“Oh, lovely. It’s been a fantastic day. Doc thinks we may be able to test out the time travel capabilities of the train soon!”

“Really?” Richard said, eyes lighting up. “Frabjuous! I look forward to the first test run!”

“So do I,” Alice agreed. “Do you think you’ll have the honor of World’s First Time Traveler?”

“I think I’ll have to be content with Third,” Victor replied with a smile. “Doc and Marty will be First and Second, of course. They’ve been working on it longer – they deserve it.”

“Third’s not bad,” Richard said. “You’re still far in front of the World’s Four Hundredth and Sixty-Second Time Traveler.”

“That’s a good way to look at it,” Victor laughed. “Really, though, I’m just happy to be part of the experiment at all.” He looked down at Alice again. “I’m just happy to be here at all.”

“I’m happy you’re here too,” Alice agreed, pressing her head against his chest.

“Now who’s being ridiculous?” Richard said, smirking.

“So being ridiculous is fun,” Alice said, not moving from her spot. Victor took advantage of the opportunity to comb his fingers through her hair. “Must you be so smug about it?”

“Yes. Yes I must.”

Whatever response Alice might have made was cut off by the door opening and the sound of sniffling. Victor looked up to see Sir Christopher leading a crying Victoria inside. “There there, now, perhaps we can try again later,” Sir Christopher said soothingly.

Victoria shook her head, hands pressed against her face. “Oh, Christopher, they won’t change their minds! I’m fortunate they didn’t decide to lock me in our suite at the hotel! I can’t be certain they won’t when I go back!”

“Victoria!” Victor and the others rushed to her side. “Goodness, what happened?”

Victoria looked up, her eyes red. “M-Mother and Father don’t approve of Sir Christopher,” she said, voice cracking. “It doesn’t matter to them that he’s a knight with a good income – only that he’s a Touched. They said I should b-be ashamed to be seen with him! And that he – he wasn’t good enough for us!”

“Her Majesty’s White Knight? Not good enough for you?” Alice repeated, looking stunned. “Bloody hell, Victoria, who is?”

“I don’t know! Christopher was ever so polite and kind, but. . . .” She wiped ineffectually at her eyes. Sir Christopher offered her his handkerchief. “Thank you. Mother and Father said I wasn’t to associate with him a-anymore. That he ought to stay away from me.”

“Well, her father’s precise words were, ‘And if I ever see you within ten feet of my daughter, sir, you’ll be facing my musket!’” Sir Christopher relayed with a sigh. “Lady Everglot sat and glowered.”

“Why aren’t you facing his musket now?” Richard asked. “If they were so adamant about you not being around her, how is it you two can come and visit us?”

“Oh, I was so upset I ran out of the room,” Victoria admitted. “I heard Mother calling me back, but I couldn’t go and face them, not after that.” She wiped her eyes with the hanky, finally getting herself under control. “I’m going to be in a lot of trouble when I go back.”

Would they really lock you in the hotel suite?” Victor asked, fiddling with his tie.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Victoria said with a sigh. “I’ve been locked in my room at home for bad behavior before. Associating with a Touched – and asking them to like him – must qualify.” She looked around. “I don’t even know what they might do to me should they find out I come here, and have all of you as friends.”

“I’m so sorry for you,” Emily said, lightly touching her arm. “We were all so hopeful.”

“I know.” Victoria sighed again, more deeply. “I’m worried this will be the incident that convinces them to leave. Father’s been grumbling about having to stay in the city this long already. He might decide your father paying our hotel bill is no longer worth it, Victor. And I just know that if I go back to Burtonsville, there’s no chance of me ever seeing any of you again. And. . . .” She twisted the handkerchief in her hands for a moment. “It was so lonely growing up there. . . .”

“I know,” Victor said gently. “Goodness, Victoria, how I know.”

Victoria nodded, then laughed mirthlessly. “To think that I once wondered how anyone could want to stay in this city. Now my greatest fear is leaving it.”

“It’s not a given they’ll leave,” Alice tried to reassure her. “They’ve been content until now to stay here at the Van Dorts’ behest.”

“Yes, but that was before they knew their daughter had fallen for a mad scientist,” Victoria said, looking miserable. “They may think this place is ‘doing’ something to me.” Another humorless laugh. “Perhaps they’ll claim that whatever mind control Doc has put Victor under has been passed on to me.”

“Oh nonsense,” Sir Christopher said, squeezing her shoulders. “I’m sure they know I can come up with my own mind control methods.”

“I don’t know,” Alice said, studying him. “You look so much like Doc they may just think you’re him in disguise. Or he’s you in disguise.”

“That would only work if he’d finally gotten his time machine to function.”

“I wish he had,” Victoria sniffled. “Then I could ask him to let me go back and stop myself from doing this.”

“I don’t think he’d let you anyhow,” Victor said. “He’s rather fanatical that his time machine not ‘break history,’ as Marty puts it.”

“Would he have been willing to spirit us away to another time period for a bit so we could work out a better plan?” Sir Christopher asked.

“I don’t think that would have been a problem, no.” Victor put his hand on Victoria’s shoulder. “Whatever happens, I promise you that I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

“That goes for the rest of us as well,” Alice added as the others nodded. “We’ll figure out a way to set things right, don’t you worry.”

Victoria smiled her first real smile since she’d come. “Thank you. I’m so lucky to have all of you as friends.” Then her brief happiness faded. “But I’m not sure what you can do. I don’t know how anyone could convince my parents Christopher is a good match for marriage.”

“Does your mother like hats?” Richard asked. “A good bribe might just be the thing.”

Victoria shook her head. “She never wears hats. Her hair’s long enough that, when she piles it on her head, it practically rivals your hat.”

“It does, I’ve seen it,” Victor nodded. “I’ve never understood how she gets it to stay up like that.”

“I’ve lived in the same house with her all my life, and neither do I,” Victoria admitted. “Then again, I’ve never come across her in the act of fixing it up, so. . . .”

“Glue?” Richard suggested.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

March appeared at the edge of the crowd, holding a large tea tray with cups for everyone and a plate piled with squimberry tarts. “I heard all the commotion and saw Miss Victoria was in distress,” he said. “It seems a good time for tea, even if it’s too early for a proper tea party.”

“Oh, thank you, March, I could use a cup,” Victoria said gratefully. “And one of those delicious tarts as well.”

“You should take one of those back to your parents,” Emily suggested as March poured everyone tea. “If they’re not impressed by squimberries, they can’t be impressed by anything.

“I’ve met the Everglots – they might just be immune to the charms of March’s cooking,” Victor said.

“I’m not sure – if I didn’t tell Father the identity of the cook, he might enjoy the tarts,” Victoria says. “He does take a great deal of pride in his food. Our cook was the last servant to go. Mother, though. . . .” She accepted her teacup and took a sip. “I haven’t the slightest idea what I’m going to do.”

“Do you think your parents will pack up and leave right away once you get back?” Alice inquired, nibbling on a tart.

“No, they couldn’t do that. They’d need at least a day or two to study the train tables and find the necessary fares. Probably longer, since we really are terribly broke.”

“Good, then we have some time to plan in. Hopefully we can come up with something.” Then, with a sneaky smile, Alice added, “And if not, Victor knows where you live, and I have some talent in sneaking around. . . .”

Victoria couldn’t help a giggle. “Much as I appreciate the thought, I do believe kidnapping me back will simply lead to more problems in the long run. Do we really want my parents doing what Victor’s are?”

Victor winced. “Oh, don’t remind me. Mother’s run out of people she can drag to the shop to ‘reverse the conditioning,’ so now she’s attempting rather massive amounts of guilt. How I’m dishonoring the family name, how I’ve ruined our chances to ever be seen in respectable society, how the Van Dort line will now live in infamy. . . .”

“You’re not letting it get to you, are you?” Alice asked suspiciously.

“I won’t deny it does a little – even after all this, I do want to make her happy,” Victor confessed. “But mostly it’s just getting on my nerves. I can’t think of any way to explain to her that no, my brains have not been altered, and yes, I am truly happy here. And I don’t want to repeat what she’s said about you.” He took a big bite out of a squimberry tart, letting the flavor soothe his frustrations. “I must admit, in a darker moment I wondered if finding someone to put her under mind control might do the trick.”

“I don’t think she’d sit still or be quiet long enough for any to be administered,” Richard said bluntly, sipping his tea. “You’d be better off with a good pair of earplugs. Or perhaps a device to give her laryngitis.”

“I think I can get my hands on the earplugs easier.” Victor shook his head. “You know, Richard, you and Emily should consider yourselves very lucky. Neither of you have anyone on your back for choosing to live here, or for falling in love with someone ‘inappropriate.’”

“Oh, I’m sure we could find people,” Richard said playfully. “There’s still plenty of folks around who don’t care for Reanimateds falling in love.”

“I know,” Emily said, sighing as if recalling old pains. “But I’d prefer not to seek them out, if you don’t mind.”

“But think of what fun it would be! They’re start railing on about how Reanimateds shouldn’t be with humans – and I’d roll up my sleeves and ask, ‘what do you mean, human?’”

Alice laughed. “I’d pay good money to see someone attempt to tell you your relationship is wrong. They’d get so confused by the fact Emily’s Reanimated and you’re part-Automaton that I don’t think they’d know where to begin.”

“Even so, I don’t want to tempt fate,” Emily said, putting a loving arm around Richard. “Not after all this time waiting.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s right,” Richard allowed.

There was a sudden knock at the door. “Miss Victoria?” a familiar voice called.

Victoria winced, and then immediately looked guilty. “Oh, Hildegarde,” she said as her maid came inside. “I know why you’re here, and I know I should go back, but forgive me if I’m – less than enthusiastic.”

“I know, dearie, I know,” Hildegarde said gently, patting her charge’s free hand. “I don’t blame you in the least. I’ve always thought Sir Lloyd was a perfect gentleman myself. I wish the lord and lady felt the same.”

“Thank you, dear lady,” Sir Christopher said with a bow. “So do I. But they don’t, and I’m not entirely sure there’s anything we can do about it.”

“There’s always something,” Alice said stubbornly. “None of us are the type to give up on a problem, especially not one as important as this. Victor, you should tell Doc and Marty about this too, they might have some ideas.”

“Of course I will,” Victor nodded. “And with all of us working together, we should be able to come up with something.”

Victoria smiled, her eyes watery again. “I don’t know what I did to deserve such a group of friends,” she whispered, looking like she wanted to hug all of them at once.

“Be a generally decent person who didn’t declare everyone who lived here to either be completely beyond redemption or a monster?” Richard suggested. “That’s how Victor did it, more or less.”

“Though how you and he got that way when both of your respective sets of parents are so judgmental is beyond me,” Sir Christopher added. “Then again, my forays into biology have never included child development, so. . . .”

“I think we can attribute my rather different personality to the fact that my parents didn’t have much of a hand in raising me,” Victor said. “Was it the same with you, Victoria?”

Victoria nodded. “Hildegarde here took care of most of the duties. When I was four, I was half-convinced she was my mother, and Mother a governess. Mother had a fit when she found out.”

“I never made that mistake, though I can imagine how badly my mother would have reacted if I had,” Victor nodded with a wince. “But she left me to governesses as well most of the time.”

“You know, normally I’d be inclined to ask why you used a plural there,” Alice said, in her most deadpan voice. “Having met your mother, however, I think I can guess why you had multiple governesses.”

“It’s a wonder you turned out as well as you did, isn’t it?” Richard said, peering at the top of Victor’s head. “One would think your brain would be all twisted up on itself.”

“My childhood really wasn’t that bad,” Victor protested.

“Neither was mine,” Victoria added. “Hildegarde took very good care of me. And while I admit I lacked for playmates, I always found ways to fill the hours. I can’t say I was miserable.” She looked around the shop with a sigh. “Of course, I also can’t say that I’m not happier here than I ever was back home. Hildegarde, what am I going to do?”

“We’ll talk to your parents,” Hildegarde said, patting her arm. “Perhaps we can’t make them like Sir Lloyd, but surely we can calm them down a bit. Prevent your father from coming after the poor man with his musket.”

“I would appreciate that, yes,” Sir Christopher nodded. “We’ll figure out something, Victoria. I may not be as rich as the Van Dorts, but I do have a healthy income from the Queen herself. That must count for something in their eyes.”

“One would hope, anyway,” Victoria said quietly. She finished her tea. “I should go back now. I’m dreading it, but the longer I stay away, the worse it’ll be.”

“You have our support,” Emily said, putting an arm around her. “No matter what happens.”

“We’ll fix this somehow,” Alice nodded. “You can be sure of that.”

Victoria smiled again. “Thank you. Thank you all. I really do hope this will all work out for the best.”

“Us too,” Victor nodded. “Hopefully we’ll see you again soon – and all the best of luck with your parents.”

“Thank you – I think I’ll need it.” Victoria said the rest of her goodbyes, then departed with Hildegarde, wringing her hands nervously.

“I wouldn’t want to be in that room when she gets back,” March commented, nibbling on a tart. “Her parents are going to be very loud and obnoxious about all of this, aren’t they?”

“Probably,” Sir Christopher sighed, sounding tired. “They certainly were while I was there. It’s most peculiar too – she doesn’t look a thing like either of them. Usually children look like at least one parent.”

“Perhaps she’s adopted,” Richard said. “That would explain all the personality differences too, wouldn’t it? Beyond being raised by the maid-of-all-work?”

“I wouldn’t rule it out as a working hypothesis,” Sir Christopher nodded.

“Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me either,” Victor said. “And I don’t envy her her situation either.”

“Why should you? You’re in one much like it,” March pointed out, gesturing with a tart. “It’s ridiculous to envy people for things one has. Not that it stops people.”

Victor half-smiled. “That’s true enough, on both counts.” He groaned softly and rubbed his forehead for a moment. Poor Victoria. Perhaps that fellow I sent to see the Everglots will be there when she arrives. They wouldn’t dare yell at her in front of company, I’m sure. “Emily, Richard, you really should be glad no one objects to your romance.”

“Oh, we are,” Richard said seriously. “I never knew having parents could be this much trouble. My parents were kind and gentle people.”

“So was my father,” Emily said, looking just a little sad. “I wish I could see him again, let him know how sorry I am things turned out this way. . . .”

“Well, maybe we can find him!” Richard said, grinning enthusiastically. “I’m sure he’d be thrilled to see his little girl again! Or, rather, his big girl, as you’re very much not little. Unless you’d like to take some Drink Me before we meet him. Though I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Emily looked a bit more dubious. “I – you really think he’d be happy to see me like this?” she said, motioning to the skeletal parts of her anatomy.

“It’s better than you cold and stiff in your coffin, not moving at all, isn’t it?”

Emily grimaced a bit and nodded. “I would think he would have to agree with you there. I just hope. . .no, I’ll stop there. That seems the nicest place to end.”

“I agree,” Alice says. “Hope is always a nice place to end. So why don’t we hope you find your father and have a happy reunion, and hope that Victoria doesn’t get into too much trouble with her parents, and hope we can find a way to convince the Everglots of the rightness of her choice before they decide to leave?”

“For my part, I’d be happy enough to hope that nothing else is going wrong with any of our other friends,” Victor commented, rubbing the back of his head. “We’ve got problems enough at the moment.”


All right, where on earth had he gone wrong?

Lewis stared at the body currently resting in the vitalization chamber, barely cognizant of the steam hissing or the clockwork ticking around him. It was – mostly Alice. The same face, to be sure. Almost the same hair – he’d made hers redder, to help differentiate them. But it flowed around her head the same way. The same neck. The same basic body shape – from the legs up. But from the legs down. . . . “A mutation?” he mused aloud. “Did I introduce something foreign? But I was so careful. . . .”

Tentacles. The lower half of his new Alice’s body was a mass of writhing pink tentacles. Like an octopus’s, only without the suckers. It was absolutely baffling. How had she ended up with them? He was certain his efforts at cloning had all been human-based (but he kept all his samples on the same shelf, and in his excitement, perhaps he had grabbed the wrong jar once – that’s all it would take). . . .

He looked back up at New Alice’s face. The soft pink lips, the red hair feathered about her shoulders, the dark eyelashes against her cheeks. Just like he’d imagined her. But those tentacles–!

Well, what about them? he thought, frowning. That’s just how she turned out. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t deserve any more of a chance to live. She may not be as close to Alice as I wanted, but maybe it’s better that she’s more her own person. Creature. Whichever. This might be just what I need to get over my crush on what is very clearly Victor’s young lady. He leaned over the glass, pressing a hand to it over her face. “No matter what, I will always be there for you,” he promised her softly. “And if we fall madly in love and have little squid babies, so much the better.” He flicked the awakening switch.

There was a soft crackle of electricity, a brief smell of chlorine, and then the glass lid unlatched. Lewis opened it and waited as the girl opened her eyes. Funny – they were just as red as her hair. Lewis decided he liked them anyway. “Hello.”

“Hello,” the girl replied. Her voice was different too, somehow more mature than Alice’s. (Wasn’t that a contradiction?) She tilted her head, studying him. “Who are you?”

Lewis bowed, smiling. “Lewis Carroll at your service, my lady.”