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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.”

Chapter Text

February 27th, 18–

Secundus, England

2:08 P.M.

Things weren’t quite working out the way Lewis had hoped.

The girl, who’d taken the name “Susie” (“Not Susan,” she’d said emphatically when he’d commented, “Susie.”), was much different than he’d thought she would be. Of course, he’d been expecting a full-on clone of Alice. Someone who was sarcastic, a bit brash, occasionally rude, occasionally almost nasty, but with a soft heart of gold. (One might argue that that didn’t make sense, but Lewis would simply point out that gold was fairly soft for a metal.) Susie, on the other hand. . .well, it was like she’d gotten all the negative bits and none of the positive ones. She was rude, arrogant, demanding, and prone to throwing fits if she didn’t get her way. Rather violent fits – Lewis had already had to replace a good portion of his glassware. She seemed to see him as a plaything, a subject of hers, rather than an equal and potential partner.

Still, Lewis wasn’t going to give up hope. Susie was still very new to the world, after all. Perhaps she was just going through a version of the “terrible twos” he’d heard the parents of toddlers talking about. (Generally while they were explaining to him why said toddler had tried to yank some of the talking flowers out of the ground, or had thrown a fit when they couldn’t bring “kitty” home with them.) Surely she’d calm down a little once she’d acclimatized herself more. And no matter what happened, she was his responsibility. He owed it to her to give her the nicest life possible. Maybe I could at least convince her to take out her frustrations on the Jabberspawn? Make life a little easier for Alice?

“Lewis!” Susie’s voice cut through the air of the lab. “The cards are refusing to let me play with them again!”

Lewis shook his head and got up from his seat. “Perhaps they don’t feel like being played with right now,” he said as he joined her by the fireside, where the cards were frowning up at the red-haired, red-eyed girl.

“They should feel it an honor to be played with by me,” Susie said, voice cold. “Perhaps I should name myself their queen. I rather like the title ‘Queen.’”

“They’ve got a queen – four of them,” Lewis said. “But if you want, we could name you queen of something else.”

“I want to be their queen. And the queen of the Chess people. I want them to be my loyal subjects and crush my enemies.”

“You haven’t any enemies.”

“That rose said some very cruel things to me the other day.”

“She says things like that to everyone. And that’s still only one.”

“Then get me some more! I want enemies to crush!”

Lewis couldn’t help an amused grin. For all her faults, Susie was sometimes fun to be around. Mad as the rest of them – and I love her simply for that, he thought. “Well, there are the Jabberspawn. . . .”


“You know, when I rushed out the door this morning, I didn’t see the point in Aunt Susan telling me to take the hairbrush.”

“Didn’t you?”

“Well, Richard doesn’t usually care about the state of my hair, and we’ve had a rush of orders lately, so I didn’t think I’d get the chance to brush it.”

“You still haven’t,” March pointed out, watching them as he nibbled on a scone.

“Haven’t, haven, shaven,” Dormy mumbled drowsily by his side.

Alice laughed. “No, I guess I haven’t,” she agreed. “Having fun back there, Victor?”

“Oh, yes,” Victor said cheerfully, running the brush through her dark locks again. “You have such beautiful hair. . . .”

“I think you like it a little more than is natural,” Alice teased. “Not that I’m complaining about having a personal grooming assistant.”

Victor blushed. “I can’t help it. I’ve always favored long hair on women.” He took a moment to run his fingers through the shining strands. “I’m glad you don’t wear yours up in a bun.”

“Doesn’t suit me,” Alice said. “I know, because Aunt Susan tried it one day. You seemed to like the ponytail, though.”

“It did suit your--”

The door suddenly burst open, causing Victor to drop the hairbrush on his foot. “Fire! Plague! Breakfast!” Dormy yelled, startled into temporary wakefulness. “The pancakes are on the attack!”

“It’s far worse than that!”

“Victoria?” Victor gasped, astonished. His friend was looking rather disheveled, hair flying out of her bun and skirts muddied. “Goodness, we haven’t seen you in days! What is it?”

“Yes, what has got you in this state?” Alice agreed, staring. “You look like me after a bad day.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know where else to turn! I had to go out the window to escape!”

“Go out the – your parents have been keeping you locked up?!”

“They said it was for my own good,” Victoria said, looking near tears. “And today they – they – I don’t know what I’m going to do!”

“Neither do we,” March said, frowning.

“Calm down, Victoria, what’s happened?” Victor said, pulling out his handkerchief in case it was needed.

“I’m engaged!”

There was a moment of confused silence. “I’m sorry, but what?” Victor asked, baffled.

“They’re marrying me off! Again! And this time, it’s not someone I can even hope to like!”

“Oh, they actually let you meet the fellow this time?” Alice said, just a bit sarcastically.

“I didn’t have a choice – he was there when Hildegarde brought me back the first time. And he is horrible! Arrogant, selfish, sharp-tongued, and all-around mean! But he can be charming when he wishes to be, and he convinced my parents that. . . .” Victoria shook her head wildly. “I don’t want to be Lady Bittern! I’m in love with Christopher!”

“Lady Bittern?” Victor repeated, a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Yes! Do you know the name?”

Victor put his face in his hand. “I met Lord Bittern on the street shortly before I came to the hat shop that day. I’m the one who told him where your parents were.”

“Victor! How could you?” Victoria demanded, wringing her hands.

“I didn’t know! I thought he merely wanted to make an acquaintance, not demand your hand in marriage!”

“Oh, I know it’s not your fault, it’s just--” Victoria put her face in her hands. “I’m so mixed up! I love Christopher, and I so desperately want to stay here, and yet I feel terrible for disobeying my parents – but I just can’t marry Lord Bittern!”

“Nobody can make you marry anybody,” Alice said, coming around the counter to try and comfort her friend. “Your parents can’t really force you into a wedding.”

“Oh yes they can. I told you I had to go out the window to come here. Once they find me, they’ll probably take me straight to the nearest church.” Victoria sniffled. “What a day. . . .”

“Victoria, I’m so sorry,” Victor said, going over and putting a hand on her shoulder. “There must be something we can do.”

“Distract them with scones and smuggle Miss Everglot out,” March said promptly.

“Throw them down a treacle well,” Dormy suggested with a yawn.

“I’d rather not drown my parents in molasses,” Victoria said, looking a little disturbed.

“Wouldn’t drown – they would just get stuck. Then you could marry Christopher at your leisure.”

“It’s a thought,” Alice said. “We distract them long enough for you to find him and get to the First Church of Steam. . . .”

Victoria shook her head. “Oh, I don’t know if I could do it. It probably sounds silly to you, but I’ve been dreaming about my wedding day since I was small. What amounts to an elopement without even a proper dress. . . . And don’t we need witnesses? And a ring?”

“I believe the Lady Heterodyne was once proposed to with a brass gas line connector,” Alice said. “Christopher probably has something similar in one of his pockets.”

Victoria let out a laugh that seemed to end as more of a sob. “Oh, if only things were that simple. . . .”

“Victoria!”

Victor nearly jumped out of his skin. All eyes turned toward the door, and the imposing figure of Maudeline Everglot. Finis Everglot was by her side, glaring at everyone with his small, toadlike eyes. “How dare you leave your room! And to come to a place like – like this, no less! How can you stand to associate with people such as these?”

“Why hello, would you like some pastry?” March said, obviously hoping to smooth things over quickly.

“I am touching nothing made by the likes of you,” Maudeline replied, barely even glancing at March.

“It’s very good pastry,” March said, undeterred. “You don’t know it was made by me.”

Finis glowered at him. “Rabbits are for shooting, not for lounging about in hat shops with pastry,” he snapped.

March bristled. “I am a hare, good sir,” he said, putting his nose in the air. “A quite different animal, I assure you.”

“I don’t think it makes any difference to my musket.”

“Father, please!” Victoria pleaded. “The March Hare’s only trying to be friendly.”

“Good Lord, you know its name? This place is addling your mind.”

“Quite,” Maudeline said. “All the more reason to get you home and married to Lord Bittern.”

“But Mother, Father, I do not love him!” Victoria said, wringing her hands. “You cannot make me do this!”

“Really, now, am I such a horrible choice?”

Another man walked out from behind Maudeline. Victor recognized him instantly as the man he’d met on the street before. Lord Bittern smirked at the group. “It’s certainly better than the son of a fishmonger, isn’t it?” he continued. “Were you really so eager to take up a deboning knife?”

“Victor is a kind and gentle man, and if he hadn’t fallen in love with someone else, I would have been glad to marry him,” Victoria said. “As it is, he has his own love, and I have mine.”

“What you have is a delusion,” Maudeline said coldly. “I don’t care how famous Sir Lloyd is. I am not having a Touched for a son-in-law.”

“Of course not,” Finis agreed. “The shame would be unbelievable.”

“Sir Christopher’s a hero! I do believe that his reputation would at least balance out his tendencies toward mad science, if not eliminate them entirely,” Alice said.

“We have got to get you out of this city before you end up as horribly warped as Master Van Dort,” Maudeline continued, ignoring Alice entirely. “To think we arranged a marriage with an Igor. . . .”

“It is a shame, isn’t it?” Lord Bittern agreed, voice oily. “A young man like that, throwing his life away over perverted science, tossing poor Victoria to the side like so much chattel. . .as I told you before, if I had a woman like your daughter on my arm, I would lavish her with riches befitting royalty.”

“It’s not perverted science!” Victoria said, frowning. “And Victor’s a perfectly nice young man.”

“Oh? You say this after he so cruelly rejected you?”

“He wasn’t cruel about it in the least!”

“Sir,” Victor started, not sure why he was trying to intervene but feeling he should do so for Victoria’s sake at least.

Lord Bittern gave him a look. “Oh, you again. Why am I not surprised to see the likes of you in a place like this?”

“Exactly! Can’t trust fishmongers’ sons,” Finis nodded.

“Not at – wait. Fishmongers?” Lord Bittern looked back up at Victor. “You’re Master Van Dort?”

“Yes, hello,” Victor said, letting just a bit of sarcasm edge his words.

“. . .Why’d you direct me to the Everglots?” Lord Bittern asked, sounding confused.

“I merely thought you wanted to make their acquaintance. I had no idea you wanted Victoria’s hand in marriage.” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t have done it had I known.”

“Think you can keep the poor girl dangling while you tamper in God’s domain, then?” Lord Bittern said, regaining his equilibrium. “How cruel of you, Master Van Dort, toying with Miss Everglot’s affections.”

“I’m not toying with anyone’s affections!” Victor said, starting to get truly angry. God, it was so easy to hate this man, with his smug smile and ugly words. The way he strutted around like he owned the place, the way he didn’t seem to give a damn about poor Victoria’s feelings. . . . Victor found himself wanting to wipe that smirk off Bittern’s face. Though he didn’t dare take a swing at him. . .but who needed to take a swing he could do something infinitely better infinitely classier and then he’d see they’d all see he’d SHOW THEM –

“OW!”

Victor almost dropped to his knees as the pain lanced through his head. “Victor?” Alice’s arms were around him in a moment, helping to support him. “Are you all right? What happened?”

“I – I’m not sure,” Victor admitted, rubbing his forehead. “I was – I felt so angry, and then. . . .” And then his thoughts had twisted in a rather peculiar way, before. . . . What had he been thinking? He couldn’t figure out where that line of thought had been trying to go. Besides getting Bittern to stop being an arse, of course. “I’m – I’m all right now.”

Alice kept a hold of him, frowning. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, fine.” Victor straightened, taking a deep breath as he steadied himself.

The others were watching him with varying degrees of concern and confusion. “Perhaps Master Van Dort has been exposing himself to too much mercury in this horrible place?” Bittern finally commented, arching an eyebrow.

“I highly doubt it, considering all the hats are made by machine,” Alice said, glaring at him.

“Hmph. The only proper way to make hats is by hand,” Maudeline proclaimed. “Now, Victoria, you will come home with us this instant, or I will--”

“Now what is all this racket?”

Richard appeared at the basement door, Emily close behind. “Here I am, trying to fix up a new remote-controlled hand with my dearly beloved’s help and I--” He paused, taking in the scene. “I suppose it’s too much to hope that these people are customers. Remember when we had those? I do, it was yesterday.”

“You mean ‘like it was yesterday,’” Bittern said, recovering nicely from the shock of seeing an absurdly tall, green-faced, mostly-mechanical man with an equally tall hat appear.

“I say what I mean, and we had customers yesterday,” Richard said, frowning at him. “Now who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter – we’re merely here to collect our daughter,” Maudeline said, looking at Richard like he personally offended her just by existing. Which was actually very probable, considering the sort of person she was. “Victoria, come along!”

“Will you please just listen to me?” Victoria pleaded.

“Oh, you’re the elder Everglots?” Richard looked between them and Victoria. “Christopher was right in saying you look nothing like her. Is she adopted?”

“No,” Maudeline said shortly. “And you’re friends with that man?”

“Lady Everglot, surely you’re not surprised?” Bittern said, all oily charm. “They all gather together here, like flies to – well, that is far too crude an analogy to use in front of ladies. But accurate.”

“Now see here, you continue on that way and you won’t get one blasted scone out of me,” the March Hare said, shaking a scolding finger at Bittern.

“I wouldn’t eat anything baked by a rabbit anyway.”

“I’m a HARE! Look, longer ears!”

“What you are, besides an abomination of science, makes no nevermind to--”

You.

The entire shop fell silent and turned to Emily, who was staring at Bittern with wide eyes. Victor suddenly felt his stomach twist into a knot. The look on her face. . .no, he couldn’t be. . . .

Bittern stared back at her, looking confused. Then his eyes widened. “. . .Emily?” he breathed.

Emily’s eyes narrowed. “You!

Victor turned to Bittern, feeling the beginnings of true hatred stirring in his heart. “Lord Bittern,” he whispered. “Lord Barkis Bittern?”

“You – know this woman?” Maudeline said, looking unbalanced.

“He’s my former fiancé,” Emily said, face twisting up in anger.

“I – you – I left you,” Lord Bittern – Barkis – breathed.

Emily nodded once. “For dead.”

Richard stared between them for a moment. “He’s the one?” he said, in the most dangerous voice Victor had ever heard.

“This woman is obviously delusional,” Barkis said, trying to get the situation back under control. “Yes, I knew her when she was – alive – but really, murdering her? That’s not like me at all.”

“It is! You tricked me into eloping with you just so you could rob me!” Emily said, stepping forward. “If Sally hadn’t seen my hand sticking out of the ground--”

“You must have me confused with someone else. Why would I murder my own fiancee?” He grinned smarmily at Victoria. “You don’t believe I’d do such a thing, do you my dear?”

Victoria backed up, glaring. “I’m more inclined to believe her word than yours.”

“The word of a Reanimated over a living man? I’m hurt.” He looked back at her parents. “Lord and Lady Everglot, surely you don’t put any stock in this nonsense?”

To Victor’s surprise and joy, the Everglots looked unsure. “She’s an abomination of science, I’ll grant you,” Finis said slowly. “But. . .I would assume she’d know who murdered her. . . .”

“You leech,” Alice growled. “Destroying a young lady’s hopes and killing her just for the sake of gold and jewels.”

“There’s no use trying to pretend, we all know what you are,” Richard added.

“None of you know a thing,” Barkis said, drawing himself up and glaring. “This – corpse doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I am no murderer. I am just an eager suitor for Miss Everglot’s hand. I heard about what was transpiring and thought she deserved better than a fish merchant’s son. Especially now that Master Van Dort has thrown her by the wayside.”

Victor frowned as something occurred to him. If Barkis was really the gold-digger Emily had made him out to be. . . . “So you came to Secundus for the express purpose of marrying Victoria?”

“Of course. I don’t know why her family ever thought of joining to yours in the first place.”

Ahh – here was his chance to expose Barkis for what he truly was. “Do excuse me for bringing this up, Lord and Lady Everglot, but the reason was monetary. They’re, quite unfortunately, broke.”

The way Barkis’s eyes widened in sudden horror said it all. “B-b-”

“Yes,” Victoria said, pressing their advantage. “It’s my marriage to you that will save us from the poorhouse.”

“The poorhouse?!” Barkis looked like he was about to have a heart attack. “But – they’re descended from grand dukes – you’re lying! Tell me that you’re lying!”

Now Maudeline and Finis were looking suspicious. “You don’t mean to say you don’t have any money?” Finis said, starting to sound rather horrified himself.

“Spent my family gold and jewels that quickly?” Emily added coldly, folding her arms.

“You stay out of this!”

“Given that she’s the one you murdered, I think she has every right to be a part of this,” Richard said, glaring daggers at Barkis.

“What about you? Do you think you have a right to be a part of this?”

“Well, considering I’m her new boyfriend. . . .”

“You’re what?” Barkis looked between them. “Emily, really, you could do better than – that.”

“Richard is a wonderful, caring, kind man who has more intelligence and soul than you’ll ever possess,” Emily snarled. “I can’t believe I ever fell in love with you. I was such a fool.”

“Answer the question, Bittern! Do you or do you not have a fortune of your own?” Finis snapped.

“Are you even a real lord?” Maudeline added.

“Of course I’m a real lord!” Barkis yelled. “My father was a count! I know it’s not as prestigious as being descended from a grand duke, but I’m still of noble blood!”

“Noble, rather poor blood,” Alice noted with a smirk. “And you can take that any way you wish.”

“Silence, girl! What would you know about this?”

“Enough to discern you’re a horrible person,” Alice replied coolly. “Who wouldn’t deserve Victoria even if you wanted her for more than just her nonexistent fortune.”

Barkis glared, then marched over and grabbed her arm. “If you know what’s good for you, girl, you’ll keep your mouth shut,” he said, raising one hand threateningly.

Victor immediately started to move forward, not sure what he was going to do but determined to get that bastard’s hands off Alice. Alice herself beat him to the punch, however, yanking out her knife and pressing it against his chest. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll realize you’ve bitten off more than you can chew,” she growled. “You haven’t a friend in this place, you know. Even the Everglots seem rather soured on you.”

“Well, I’m soured on them!” Barkis snapped. “What sort of grand duke has no money to speak of?”

“It’s hardly our fault,” Maudeline said, frowning severely. “And it’s impolite to talk about such things in society.”

“Ha! You just didn’t want me to know! I go along setting up this careful plan to marry your daughter, and first you’re in this godforsaken city, and then you don’t even have the decency to tell me you’re broke!”

“Much as I hate to say it, I agree with him ever so slightly on the last part,” Victoria said, arms folded. “If you’d told him we hadn’t any money beforehand, we wouldn’t be here having this ugly conversation.”

“On the other hand, he’d be off preying on some other innocent girl then, so maybe it’s for the best things turned out as they did,” Alice commented, pressing her knife a little harder into Barkis’s chest. “Going to let go of me anytime soon, dear sir?”

“Where I come from, a woman knows her place!”

“Her place is behind that counter, and yours is in a jail cell somewhere, at the very least,” Richard said, eyes narrowed. “I’d ask you to let go of her, but I’m afraid that would deny me the opportunity to hit you with some of my Kaboom Tea.”

“Your what?”

“Kaboom Tea. It’s highly explosive, hence the name. Very tasty too – at least you’ll be scalded by something you’ll enjoy. Care for a sample? I always keep some in my hat.”

“You even think about throwing anything at me, you disgrace to the race of men, and I’ll smash your shop assistant’s head in,” Barkis threatened.

“I rather think she’d stab you before that,” Richard said calmly. “Either that or Victor will leap on you and attempt to separate you from her.”

“I’m just barely resisting the urge now,” Victor said, fists clenched tightly. “Take. Your hands. Off her.”

“Will you really challenge me for this girl?” Barkis said, sneering at Victor.

“If I have to,” Victor said, stepping forward. “Granted, she can take care of herself, but I certainly wouldn’t mind fighting for her honor.”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t have to,” Alice said, poking Barkis with her knife again. “I’d hate for you to get hurt on my account.”

“Listen to the woman – I’d mop the floor with you,” Barkis said.

“You don’t know that for sure,” Victor said, figuring he had nothing to lose by bluffing. Hell, he probably could get in a good hit or two if it came to that. (Though he really was hoping it wouldn’t. Not because he didn’t want to hit Barkis, but because he thought the Everglots would be scared away from Secundus all the faster by witnessing a fistfight in a hat shop.)

“Nonsense! Look at you, all spindly arms and legs! Emily probably put up a better fight than you co--”

Barkis stopped dead, turning white as he realized what he’d just inadvertently admitted. Emily grinned smugly, crossing her arms. “And so the truth comes out. And that was a vicious insult to Victor, by the way, considering you snuck up behind me, you coward. I barely had time to scream.”

“How many other girls have you victimized, Lord Barkis?” Alice asked coldly.

Barkis’s response was to shove her backwards and make for the door. Victor lunged forward and grabbed his coat, but Barkis shrugged out of it and bolted for freedom. “You won’t get away!” Richard yelled, running to the door and opening his hat. A teacup filled with a green liquid came flying out and exploded on Barkis’s heels. The wayward lord just ran all the faster. “The police here take catching murderers very seriously! March, get the station on the telephonic, tell them Emily’s just found the bastard who killed her.”

“Right away!” March leapt over to the telephonic and began fiddling with the knobs.

Victor dropped Barkis’s coat on the floor and rushed to Alice’s side. “Are you all right?”

“Back’s a bit sore from where it hit the counter, but I’m really fine,” Alice said, putting an arm around him. “Keep his coat, the police might find a use for it. I hear they can do fantastic things with DNA these days.”

Maudeline shook her head, looking more miserable than usual. “Oh, Finis, what shall we do?”

“We need to get out of this mad city as soon as possible,” Finis snapped, eyes narrowed.

“Oh, don’t you blame Barkis on Secundus,” Alice said, pointing at him. “He would have tracked you down no matter where you went. In fact, I think the lot of us just saved your daughter’s life. Not that I expect a thank you for that or anything.”

“I’ll gladly say thank you,” Victoria said gratefully. “I owe you a debt.” Looking at her parents, she added, “Please, Mother, Father – I know I’ll never convince you this city isn’t half as bad as you make it out to be. But won’t you consider giving Sir Lloyd another chance? You know his intentions are noble.”

“Do we? How do we know that he isn’t planning on strapping you to a laboratory table to turn you into some horrible Frankensteinian creature?” Maudeline shot back.

“He’s not that sort of Touched at all,” Richard said. “Not evil, and not much of a biologist, either. He concentrates his efforts on thinking.” He laughed, suddenly. “He thinks about thinking! How delightfully recursive. Another reason to like him!”

“Not by our standards,” Maudeline said, nose in the air. “This city poisons one’s mind. If your parents had had any sense, Master Van Dort, they would have simply dragged you home the instant they found you, despite your objections.”

“I think Victor’s grateful they don’t have any sense, then,” Alice said, though Victor felt her grip on him tighten slightly. “And what does that say about you, then? Did anyone force you to stay?”

“That dratted Mr. Van Dort practically did,” Finis replied coldly. “As soon as we can find the funds for a train ticket, we’re leaving this place and never returning.” Shooting Victoria a look, he added, “And hopefully we can still find someone acceptable to marry you. The only thing worse than an addled daughter is an addled spinster daughter.”

“Insert argument about how she has someone willing to marry her here,” Alice groaned. “Talking to you is like talking to a brick wall.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Victoria, you’ll accompany us back to the hotel. And if we catch you sneaking out the window again. . . .”

“You’ll try to marry her to another murderer?” Emily said coolly.

Finis glared at her. “This doesn’t concern Lord Bittern, so it doesn’t concern you.” He shook his fat head. “This horrid city should just burn to the ground.”

Victor was very impressed with Alice for not immediately throwing her knife at his head. As it was, her grip on him tightened almost painfully. “You probably should just leave,” she said, voice like ice.

“Something we agree on, at last. Come along, Victoria,” Maudeline commanded, turning to go.

Victoria looked back at her friends. For a moment, she looked ready to keep arguing. Then she sighed and shook her head. “Yes Mother,” she said quietly. Looking around, though, she mouthed, “I’ll try to get back.”

The group nodded their acknowledgment. Victoria smiled weakly and fell into step behind her parents as they left the shop. “Just as I remember her, really,” Emily commented as they disappeared around the corner.

“Remember who?” March said. “The police will be here shortly, by the way. They’re eager to learn all they can about Barkis.”

“I’ll gladly tell them all I know,” Emily said. “And Victoria’s mother, Maudeline. She’s certainly gotten older, but her personality’s as horrible as it ever was. How someone like her ever produced Victoria. . . .”

“That adoption hypothesis we have looks more and more viable,” Richard said. “Alice, I do believe you’re close to crushing Victor.”

Alice released her boyfriend, looking embarrassed. “Sorry,” she said. “What he said--”

“I understand,” Victor said, ignoring the slight pain around his middle from where she’d been squeezing him. He put his arms around her. “I commend you for not deciding to show him just how good your aim is.”

Alice sighed. “He wasn’t worth the trouble, really. Not for that. Now, for rescuing poor Victoria. . . .”

“She can rescue herself, it looks like,” Richard said encouragingly. “She got out of there today, didn’t she?”

“I suspect she’ll be rather severely punished for that,” Emily said with a wince. “Though perhaps finding out about Barkis will distract them for the time being. Ugh, how they ever could – no, I can’t say that. I was taken in by his charms too.” Her face dropped, making her suddenly look ten years older. “Seeing him here, today – it was like being stabbed all over again. Especially when I heard he was trying to marry Victoria.”

Richard pulled her close. “He’s never touching you again,” he said, that dangerous note back in his voice. “Or Victoria. Or any other young lady, if I have my way about it. I should have gone after him and exploded him properly,” he continued, more to himself. “Or just done it in the shop. Holding back for the Everglots’ sake was pure foolishness. They’re never going to like any of us for any reason.”

“No, they’re not, are they?” Emily agreed, sighing. “I hate feeling so helpless. I want to help Victoria, help her find the happiness I never got when I was alive, but I don’t know--” She turned suddenly and hugged Richard hard. “He was going to kill her,” she whispered, barely audible. “The same bastard who got me nearly got her.”

“But he didn’t,” Victor quickly pointed out, hating seeing Emily like this. “We helped save her – you helped save her. And now you can help the police make sure he’ll never do what he did to you to anyone else.”

“And if the police don’t, I will,” Richard said, rubbing her back. “As for Victoria, we’ll figure something out. The next time she escapes, maybe we can hide her. I could easily build a secret room down in the lab. Stock it with tea things and a bed, and she could live there for weeks unnoticed!”

“Don’t know if that would work out they way you hope, but you’re right in that we’ll figure something out,” Alice said firmly. “I’ve grown to rather like having friends, and I don’t want one taken away to a life of misery.”

“Me either,” Victor agreed. “At least I’m sure this is the worst it’ll get for any of us.”


The next time I think I have a brilliant idea, I’m going to smack myself in the head with the nearest heavy object!

Lewis skittered across the floor, looking for a fresh source of cover. Behind him, he could hear Susie’s enraged roars. “WORM! FILTH! OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!” A tentacle scythed through the air nearby, sending books and equipment topping to the ground with a crash.

Lewis winced. He supposed he could understand a bit of Susie’s rage – finding out that you were originally created to be a clone of someone else probably played havoc with your sense of self. But she hadn’t even given him a chance to explain, a chance to tell her that he’d come to see her as her own person. A chance to tell her that he cared about her as Susie, not as Alice the Second. No, she’d just stormed in with his journal in hand and immediately started screaming about how she wasn’t some plaything for him to pretend with, that she was no Alice, she was THE QUEEN and she didn’t need him anymore. And now he was running for his life in his own laboratory.

It was his own fault, he knew. He should have never left that journal where Susie could find it. In fact, he should have been more careful with Susie in general. Something had obviously gone wrong in the tube if she was this dangerously unstable, and since he was the scientist. . . . I wish I could help you, he thought, even as he dodged another tentacle slamming into the floor scant inches from his foot. Calm you down, balance your mind, give you a reason to smile. . . .

“You will die for your insolence!” he heard her scream. “I am no mere girl! I AM THE QUEEN OF WONDERLAND! All will bow before me or perish! I will rework this entire land to my liking, and no one will stop me!”

Lewis felt the first flickerings of genuine anger in his heart. Threatening him was one thing – he felt he rather deserved all this. But threatening his Wonderland? That was going a bit far. “It’s not your Wonderland, Susie!” he yelled, despite the danger. “It already has queens!”

“Then I will slay them!” Susie snarled, flicking a tentacle at him. Lewis just barely dodged in time. “I deserve to rule this park!” She paused a moment, eyes glittering with madness and fury. “No,” she continued, a bit more quietly. “I deserve to rule the world.”

Damn. Damn damn damn. She was that megalomaniac? This was not going to end well. “The world?” he repeated, fixing his glasses as they threatened to slip away from him.

“Yes,” Susie replied, grinning – or, at the very least, she bared her teeth and lifted her lips. “Your dear Alice never had ambitions like that, did she? Pathetic, weak thing – I’ll be sure to destroy her. Sure to show her who is the superior being.”

Oh God. “Is that what this is all about?” Lewis demanded, finding a broken piece of glassware. “Proving you’re better than your donor?”

“No!” Another tentacle lashed at him. “It’s about proving myself better than every– OW!”

Lewis scrambled away as Susie yanked the shattered pipette from her limb. “I should make you watch as I destroy her!” she yelled, picking up a table and throwing it at him. Lewis dropped and rolled under it, but still managed to get hit in the head with one of the legs. “String you up so you can see all of Secundus fall to me! Everyone will bow before their new Queen! All shall love me and despair!”

Lewis shook his head, then realized that really didn’t help the dizziness. This was horrible. Susie was completely mad, and not in any of the good ways. No, this was the sort of madness that would hurt people, that would destroy everything he held dear. He had to stop her, right here and right now. I’m sorry, he thought, getting to his feet and running as the tentacles crashed down behind him. But I can’t let you do this. Maybe – maybe I can fix you and Reanimate you, and things will be better. . . .

He crashed against the opposite wall, but his hands found what he was looking for – the ax. The one he’d kept in the lab ever since he’d that unfortunate incident with the first Jabberspawn. His fingers closed around the handle, and he spun around, holding it up defensively. “You’re not doing it!” he said, voice shaking. “I won’t let you!”

“You dare threaten me?” Susie – no, the Queen – responded. “Off with your head!”

“Off with yours first!” He took off toward her at a run, ax poised for the killing swing, dodging and weaving and jumping wildly to avoid the obstacles. He had to stop her he had to stop her he had to –

He nearly did. He was just close enough to swing when one of her tentacles finally found its mark. The ax dropped from suddenly nerveless fingers, just inches away from her neck. Stupidly he looked down at the writhing limb protruding from his chest. No. . .no, I was so close. . . .

He forced himself to look back up, even as his strength faded and his vision darkened. The Queen grinned at him – a smile that promised everyone and everything he cared about would suffer. He closed his eyes, tears running down his cheeks. Please God, he thought with his final bit of strength. Whatever else happens – spare my friends. Don’t let them die for my mistake. Especially Victor. . .and. . .Alice. . . .

Moments later, he knew no more.

Chapter Text

March 8th, 18–

Secundus, England

3:29 P.M.

You are a fool, Lord Barkis Richard Bittern! A fool who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, nor when to keep out of sight!

Barkis took the corner as fast as he could, wishing his mind would stop berating him so he could focus all his efforts on running. He’d thought he had a chance of slipping out of Secundus undetected after two days of steady pursuit, but then he’d had to go and bungle things by succumbing to the urge for a coffee. But really, didn’t those policemen have anything better to do than sit around eating donuts? he thought bitterly, zig-zagging his way around an inconvenient fruit cart.

The worst part was, he knew his current predicament was all his fault. If he hadn’t lost his head in that bastard Fabri-Auto-that bastard thing’s hat shop, he might have been able to at least quietly extricate himself from the Everglots and slip away into the night. Nobody would have been able to truly prove anything about his role in Emily’s murder. But no, that idiot Van Dort and his psychopath of a girlfriend had gotten him all riled up, and before he knew it he was practically confessing to a crime he’d thought long in the past. This is more embarrassing than when you let Martha escape, he scolded himself. At least then you had the sense to immediately get out of the country. What took you so long to try and get out of Secundus? You knew these people wouldn’t stop looking for you!

Truthfully, though, he knew what was keeping him here. He wanted revenge. He wanted to do something absolutely horrible to that worthless blight on the earth Van Dort. If that idiot hadn’t gotten him so angry (him and that knife-wielding lunatic, who had let her out among – oh, wait, there were no normal people here, never mind), things wouldn’t have turned out so badly for him. Hell, if the boy had just spoken up about his association with the Everglots and had mentioned they were broke when they first met, he wouldn’t even be here! He would have immediately left to go seek out a new victim! It’s all your fault this happened to me! And I’m not going to rest until I’ve made your life thoroughly miserable!

Not that he could rest anyway, what with the police still hot on his heels. Why did they have to be so interested in arresting him for a murder that had happened – goodness, he didn’t even remember how long ago. Had Emily been the second or the third? No, no, Lucy had come before her. . .well, the point was, it had been ages, and she wasn’t even properly dead anymore! Surely her being up and about meant they couldn’t prosecute him? Then again, who knows what the legal system is like in a place like this, he thought with a shudder. I might find myself wishing I’d taken that hat-wearing mongrel’s suggestion and gotten myself blown up. He thought about the expression on Richard’s face when he’d seen him last. Then again, maybe not. Damn it, there must be somewhere to hide in this blasted city. . .

As if in answer to his prayers, the huge mass of greenery that was Wonderland Park loomed up before him. Barkis grinned. Perfect! He’d heard that the place was bigger on the inside than the outside – and that it contained multiple spots where a person could get lost. He couldn’t go in through the front gate, of course – but if he managed to get out of the sight of the policemen for just long enough to climb the fence, he could probably find a hole or something to burrow into for a bit. Then, once they’d finally lost interest, he could make a proper escape under the cover of darkness. And best of all, he thought with an evil smile, I’m almost positive the owner is a friend of Van Dort’s, so if I can do him an injury. . .won’t be as nice as revenging myself directly on that ninny, but it’ll have to do. He poured on the speed.

He slipped around the corner just ahead of the police, and immediately turned and hoisted himself up over the fence. He dropped down as lightly as possible and promptly hid in a nearby bush. Moments later, the policemen dashed past, going too fast to notice anything unusual in the bushes. Barkis still waited until they were out of sight to breathe a sigh of relief. “Well, that’s that settled, at least,” he muttered. “Now to find a place to hole up til evening. . . .”

He crept quietly through the undergrowth, searching for some comfortable spot. It wasn’t easy – there were quite a lot of creeping or thorny plants impeding his progress, and he constantly had to stop as he heard noises nearby. He didn’t think any of them came from people, but in this blasted place you couldn’t trust the animals not to talk. I will be so glad to return to a city where things act according to the laws of nature, he thought, kicking a nearby mound of dirt to relieve his feelings.

Moments later he was on the run from a nest of wasps he’d disturbed – wasps that apparently not only had stingers, but tiny swords, arrows, and sharp spear-like weapons as well. Haven’t I suffered enough?!

A house appeared before him as he crashed through the undergrowth. Heedless of who might be living in there, Barkis rushed through the door and slammed it shut behind him. A few wasps managed to slip in after him, but now that they were no longer part of a large and dangerous swarm, Barkis found it easy to swat and crush them. He stomped on their bodies afterwards purely out of spite. “What sort of idiot makes wasps that are even more dangerous than normal?” he grumbled, carefully pulling a few minuscule arrows out of his flesh.

He looked around. The door he’d run through opened up onto a large foyer, with bookshelves and a few comfy-looking chairs and sofas. There was a staircase at the far end, leading up to the second floor landing, and a number of doors leading who knew where. It seemed a pleasant enough home, though Barkis couldn’t work out why the front of the house apparently faced one of the back areas of the park. . . .

Oh, wait – don’t they call this place Looking-Glass House? The damn thing must be mirrored, and there’s another “front foyer” facing the path from the gate, he realized. This must be where that damnable Lewis Carroll lives. I’d like to have a very long and productive talk with him about his Inventions. . . . Later, though. No sense in getting the police back on me just yet. Right now, it’s time to find a room he doesn’t use often and – and. . .

And damn me, what is that smell?

Barkis made a face as he sniffed the air. It was a nasty stench – reminded him a bit of rotting meat. What on earth is he working on that requires him to have that about? he thought, making a circuit of the room. Perhaps it’s feeding time for some monstrosity I have yet to meet. Ugh. . .hopefully going upstairs will get me the farthest away–

One of the doors abruptly burst open, and something was on Barkis before he could get away. Barkis looked up as claw-like hands fastened on his body and screamed as a skull with three eye holes looked back at him. “What in God’s name are you?!” he yelled, trying to yank himself free of the thing’s grip.

The thing just growled at him and started dragging him away through the door through which it had come. Barkis continued trying to get away for a moment, then gave up the endeavor as useless. I’m going to die I’m going to die I’m going to be eaten by a I don’t even know what and it’s probably going to use my skin to replace its face dear Lord what did I do to deserve this?!

Well – if he was going to die, he was at least going to figure out what his murderer actually was. He looked again at the creature which held him so cruelly. Its body was oblong-shaped and curiously flat, with its arms and legs set at the corners. It wore a poorly-stitched white outfit with a black number seven embroidered on the left corner, and its skull-head was covered with a black cowl. Looking up at the face again, Barkis realized that it didn’t actually have three eyes. Rather, someone had carved the symbol for Clubs into the bone, using the eye sockets for two of the leaves and the nose holes for the stem. Looking down, he saw the same symbol carved into the creature’s clothes and flesh, leaving a hole one could look through. All in all, the thing resembled a – a –

A giant playing card? Barkis thought, now utterly baffled. I’m being dragged off to my doom by a living – well, that’s too strong; Reanimated – playing card? This was the arguably the strangest situation he’d ever been in. Though at least it gave him just a little hope – he wasn’t sure if the damn thing could eat now. Maybe, just maybe, he could still get out of this with his life. And, preferably, all his limbs.

As he was dragged along, the stench that he had noticed before became stronger. For a moment, he was baffled as to why. The card holding him, though clearly undead, didn’t really smell all that much. And then he looked around him again, and saw that, as they proceeded down the hallway, the walls were either covered with or replaced by –

Rotting flesh. Rotting, veiny, disgustingly pink flesh. And the same was happening to the ceiling and floors. Soon it was like he was being pulled down into some grotesque extension of someone’s body. Barkis shuddered and closed his eyes. Maybe getting out of this with all his limbs was too great a hope.

After far too much time squelching and squishing their way along disturbingly soft floors, they apparently reached where they were going. The card creature let out a howl that raised the hairs on the back of Barkis’s neck. Great, this is where it calls the rest of the pack – oh God, just what I wanted to do, die with a terrible pun in mind – and then I get ripped to pieces. . . .

“Now – who is this?”

Barkis’s eyes snapped open from the sheer surprise at hearing what appeared to be a female human voice in this horror. He instantly wished they hadn’t. The room to where he had been brought was the worst yet. Every surface was absolutely covered in that horrid pink flesh, and in this room, it was actually moving. The pillars writhed like worms, the walls appeared to have a heartbeat, and – were those crawling tongues on the floor?! On second thought, he really didn’t want to know.

Back at the far end of the room was the only thing that looked even partially inorganic – a massive red metal throne, set into the flesh and decorated with silvery-black card symbols. And in that throne was something even worse than any of the other horrors. It had a vaguely human shape – at least, the upper half did. It had human hands, at any rate, one clutching a heavy, dangerous-looking heart-topped scepter. And it wore a dress – a rather expensive-looking and elaborate one with red and purple stripes, and a white ruffled collar. (Though Barkis couldn’t help but notice that the black wrists of the sleeves and a ring just belong the collar were set with vicious spikes.) But the rest of it. . .Barkis wasn’t sure what was more horrific, the “feet” or the face. For the “feet” were nothing more than a gigantic mass of writhing pink tentacles, stretching out into the room and looking to merge with the walls and floor at points. It was like looking at an octopus or squid gone very, very wrong. But the face – it was a terrible white mask of a face, with a clear seam running down the middle. Two terrible pink eyes peered out at him from deep sockets, and the mouth was twisted into a permanently open smile. The red hair above it was pulled neatly back, and two horn-like tentacles served for a headdress. That was like looking at a harlequin gone very, very bad. Whoever or whatever this was, she was the ultimate expression of science gone haywire.

The card monster roared again. The – woman? Barkis couldn’t think of a better word for her – sighed. “Yes, I know you want to eat him, but let’s see if he can be useful first. If not. . .” She chuckled coldly. “Off with his head.” She leaned forward, and one slimy tentacle slithered toward him, lifting his chin. “What’s your name?”

Barkis struggled to reply, repulsed by the tentacle’s touch. “Answer the Queen of Hearts, or off with your head!” the woman-thing cried.

“B-Barkis,” he finally got out. He swallowed, and forced himself to turn on the charm. Much as he hated being in this creature’s presence, he still hated the thought of death worse. “Lord Barkis Bittern, Your Majesty.”

“Lord Bittern, hmm? Lord of what?”

“Not much,” Barkis admitted. “Of myself, I suppose.”

“Hmph. And what brings you down my way?”

“Because – I’d lost my own way?”

To his surprise and relief, the Queen laughed at his desperate little jest. “Ahh. I’m surprised you even thought you had a way here. All ways are my ways in Wonderland Park.”

“I wasn’t aware of that, begging your pardon,” Barkis said, pouring on the politeness. “I’m afraid I was on the run from the police at the time, and climbing over the fence into your land was my only way out.”

“Oh, the police,” the Queen said dismissively. “Nasty creatures. I’ll behead the lot once I’m in control of this city. My Card Guard will do quite nicely for keeping law and order, don’t you agree?”

Barkis glanced back at the thing still holding him. “Of course,” he said. It wasn’t really a lie – if they’d had creatures like this in charge of the police back in the day, he probably would have never dared to break the law. “But – and please, forgive my terrible impertinence for asking such a question – I thought – well – someone else owned this park. . . ?” Please don’t kill me please don’t kill me please don’t kill me. . . .

“You mean that despicable Lewis Carroll? He’s gone! Ousted! Off with his head-ed!” the Queen cried, raising her scepter and smashing it down. “He dared tried to keep me from my true destiny! And he’s just the first! All who stand in my way shall perish! I am the Queen of Hearts, and I shall rule everything! It is my royal right!”

Barkis nodded rapidly against her tentacle. “You can be assured I have no intention in standing in any of your ways.”

“Then you’re smarter than most,” the Queen said. Barkis got the feeling he should be honored – she didn’t seem the sort to give out praise lightly. “Smarter than many who live in the park, in fact. Most of the creatures here seem to resent my new rule. No matter. I’ll replace them with my chosen pets soon enough.” She waved her scepter. “And all shall bow before me! All shall love me and despair! And all shall cheer as I destroy that pretender to my throne Alice!”

“Alice?” Barkis couldn’t help repeating.

“The one he claimed was my inspiration! How insulting! That girl is pitiful – she must be, if he loved her! Weak! Worthless! A stain on this city! Even her last name shows just how much she matters – Little!”

Barkis blinked. “Little – Liddell, you mean?”

“I mean what I say, and I say what I mean,” the Queen replied, voice dangerous. “Do you do the same?”

“It’s just – I think I know the girl you’re speaking about,” Barkis said quickly, aware he was skirting the line between life and death.

“You do? How?”

“She and her boyfriend caused me no small amount of embarrassment and shame,” Barkis replied, feeling the anger surging up in him again. “She threatened me, can you believe that? She and that Van Dort boy are the whole reason I’m on the run from the police! For a crime that barely even matters!”

“Is that so? She dares to threaten someone under my rule? And she dares to have a paramour while I remain kingless?!” The Queen pounded her throne with her scepter again. “She will pay for her insolence! Her and this Van Dort!” She suddenly pointed at him. “And you will assist me in this matter!”

“I will?” Barkis said, more than a little surprised.

“Yes! You claim to despise them as much as I do, don’t you?”

Barkis thought about it for a moment. “Pretty damn close, I’d say – pardon my language, Your Majesty,” he nodded, frowning deeply. “I’d love a chance to exact my revenge.”

“Perfect! Then you and I--”

A loud pounding came from another part of the house. “Lewis! Open up! We think a dangerous criminal’s invaded your house!” a voice called.

“We know you’re in there, Barkis!” another voice added. “Come out peacefully and maybe we can get this over with without any fuss!”

The Queen looked in the direction of the voices. “Those who were chasing you?” she asked rather blandly.

“Yes,” Barkis said. “Um – I don’t suppose you--”

“But of course.” The Queen trust two tentacles into the ground. Moments later, Barkis heard an explosion, a pair of screams, and a wet crushing noise. The Queen turned back to face him with her permanent smile. “They’ll never trouble you again. In fact, I can guarantee that the police as a whole will never trouble you again. Nor will you have to endure any more embarrassment from the Liddell girl and her painfully deluded sweetheart. I’ll give you the latter to play with yourself, in fact – after I’m done with him, of course. And even a fiefdom of your own once I’ve conquered enough land. You needn’t be lord of just yourself anymore.” She leaned forward. “All you have to do to join is swear fealty to me and only me.”

Barkis stared at her for a moment. Then, slowly a smile curved his lips, and he pulled away enough from the Card Guard to bow down low. “It is a honor to serve you, my Queen,” he said.

Finally – things were going right.

Chapter Text

March 16th, 18–

Secundus, England

8:54 A.M.

Victor stood alone in the darkness, looking left and right. Blackness stretched out in all directions. Normally, this would have unnerved him at least a little – he hated absolute darkness – but he felt oddly calm. There was nothing to fear here, he knew that. And it was important that he be here. He was – waiting. For what, he wasn’t sure, but he sensed he’d know when he saw it. He rocked slightly on his heels, composing a new piece of music in his head as he stood patiently.

And then, out of nowhere, there was a flash of light. He turned to see a familiar glowing butterfly, fluttering mere inches away from him. He gasped with delight – they had never come so close before! Normally they were always just out of his reach. . . . He watched it for a moment, as it flitted through the air, leaving glowing streaks hanging in the blackness –

No. Not streaks, Victor realized. Words. And numbers. He leaned forward. It was – formulae. Recipes for chemical and biological concoctions. And notes about butterflies, notes he had written, he remembered scribbling them down. . .the rest of it was just beyond his grasp, but only just, and he had the feeling that all he needed was the slightest push to understand them –

More butterflies joined the first now, a whole rabble of them, all glowing and glittering against the perfect inky blackness surrounding them. Victor stared at them, amazed. It was all so beautiful, so – so wonderful. . .he had to catch one. This time, he had to catch one. He located the original among the rest, then carefully – oh so carefully – reached out his hands and cupped them around it. He felt its wings lightly brush his fingers, and –

And suddenly the entire WORLD glowed, bright as the heart of a star – and he felt the knowledge flow into his head, burning even brighter, filling him with its perfect light – he knew EVERYTHING he could do ANYTHING

And then he woke up.

Victor stared at the ceiling above him, wondering if it would be appropriate to start the day off by screaming in frustration. No, no, no! I was so close! I had it in my hands, and I finally understood – He searched his mind desperately, trying to find the knowledge that his dream had provided.

Nothing. He felt just the same as he had yesterday. No dazzling flashes of insight, no sudden epiphanies, nothing. He was just as he had always been. He groaned and sat up. “Not fair,” he mumbled to himself.

“What’s not fair?”

Victor looked up, startled. “Marty? What are you doing up?”

“It’s nine o’clock,” Marty said, lingering in the doorway of the sitting room. “Doc let you sleep in a little. Which means you shouldn’t be waking up this grumpy.”

Victor blushed. “I’m sorry, I – I just finally caught one of those butterflies,” he explained, getting to his feet.

“One of the glowy ones?”

“Yes. And right when I’d figured it all out – I woke up!” Victor threw his hands in the air. “It’s not right! It’s like my own mind is taunting me!”

“Yeah, that does sound frustrating,” Marty admitted. “But hey – now that you’ve finally caught one, maybe the dreams will stop?”

“But I don’t want them to stop!” Victor cried. Couldn’t Marty understand? He’d come within a hair’s breath of finally understanding it all! Of finally getting an answer to the question that had plagued him ever since the dreams had first started! It didn’t matter that he’d caught one – he hadn’t gotten a chance to study it, to learn from it, to – to have the secrets of the universe laid bare before him, his for the knowing, and then to use them, to twist them to his whim and –

OOOWWWW!

Marty dashed into the room as he clutched at his head. “Victor! Shit, again?”

Victor nodded, breathing hard. “S-sorry,” he whispered, trying to sit as still as possible as the pain slowly faded. “I didn’t--”

“Victor, you don’t have to apologize for a goddamn headache!” Marty sat beside him, frowning. “What’s got me and Doc worried is that you keep having them. Don’t you think it’s time to see the doctor?”

“T-they never last very long,” Victor protested weakly. “And they only c-come on when I’m feeling particularly f-frustrated. . . .”

“Which is happening a lot more often now,” Marty pointed out. “And judging by the way you scream every time one hits you, I’m guessing they hurt like hell.”

“That would be my hypothesis as well,” Doc agreed, appearing in the doorway. “I heard you downstairs in the shop, Victor. You really have to get these checked out.”

“I don’t t-think – I don’t w-want to be a bother,” Victor said, now embarrassed. “They may hurt, but I’m always f-fine a moment or two later!”

“Victor, it could be a sign of a serious neurological condition! You might be on the verge of a stroke, or something worse! I don’t want you suffering like this under my care!”

“Are you scared of going to the doctor?” Marty asked. “It’s okay if you are. But there’s plenty of non-Touched medical guys. You don’t have to be worried.”

“It’s not – all right, p-perhaps it is that, a bit,” Victor admitted, blushing. “I know I shouldn’t be s-scared, not after knowing so many kind Touched, but. . . .”

“But having one actively fiddle around with your health is something else?” Doc nodded. “Understandable. I’m not sure even I’d want to visit a Touched physician, just in case they got the urge to experiment while I was there. You have my word I’d take you to a Regular doctor.”

“I know. My main w-worry is what would happen if my p-parents got wind of it. If they could s-successfully claim this place is making me sick. . . .” He leaned over, staring at his shoes. “I don’t want to go back,” he mumbled. “I love it here, and – and by God, if only they understood that--”

“Don’t trigger another episode,” Doc said soothingly, patting his back. “One day, they’ll have to get the message. It’s been a month or so since they arrived, hasn’t it? I can’t imagine them wanting to stay much longer.”

“Maybe not, but if my mother thinks there’s the slightest chance of getting me to change my mind. . . .” He sighed. “And poor Victoria. . .she managed to wrangle a brief visit to the hat shop the other day, and she said that her father has just about enough for the ticket back, and that he and my father are arguing terribly. . .she keeps doing her best to delay them, but she told us that she fears it soon won’t be enough. . . .”

“Well, you can’t do anything about it right now,” Doc said. “You’ve got to look after your own health first. Come on, get dressed and we’ll have some breakfast. Maybe food will make you feel better.”


“Hey, Victor, I just had a thought.”

“Oh?”

“Why don’t you ask Lewis to actually make some glowing butterflies for you?” Marty said, playing with the register. “Maybe if you get a chance to catch one in real life, it’ll help.”

Victor considered that as he continued sorting through the nut bin. “I suppose I could,” he allowed. “But there seems to be something important about catching them in the dream. Though you’ve reminded me that we haven’t seen Lewis for a while. He’s closed up Wonderland Park too.”

“Oh, must be time to recalibrate all the weather and time systems he’s got working in there,” Marty said casually. “It’s delicate work – especially if he gets distracted by another project in the meantime. Didn’t he say the last time we saw him that he had something major going on?”

“Yes, he did,” Victor nodded. He suddenly grinned. “Maybe he’s adding something new to the park!”

“Yeah, maybe! He always has plans to expand it. And I remember him talking about adding an underwater town a while back, made out of bits of old ships, for fish people. . .Barrelbottom, I think?”

“It sounds amazing,” Victor said cheerfully. “I do hope that’s what he’s working on – I’d absolutely love to see it.”

“Yeah, me too.”

The door swung open, allowing in Doc carrying a couple of bags. “All right, boys, I’ve got lunch,” he announced. “We’ve got lasagna soup--”

“Lasagna what?” Victor repeated, looking up.

“It’s really good,” Marty assured him.

“Yes, I think you’ll enjoy it immensely. And I stopped by Wonka’s and picked up--”

BANG!

The bags nearly dropped from Doc’s hands. Victor jumped, upsetting the bin and scattering three-quarters’ nuts everywhere. “What on earth was that?!”

“Did Madblood or Wallace blow something up again?” Marty added, rubbing the place where the register drawer had hit him.

Doc set the bags down and turned back to the door. His jaw dropped. “Great Scott. . . .”

“What? What is it?” Marty and Victor hurried to join him at the door.

What they saw caused their jaws to drop as well. Sticking out of the middle of the street was a writhing red-pink tentacle. Victor had seen plenty of strange and baffling things during his short stay in Secundus, but this was new. “What – where did it--”

“There’s more of them!” Marty yelled! “Look at the sky!”

They did. Sure enough, more of the strange tentacles were extended up against the grey clouds blanketing the city. Some were waving aimlessly, others plunging down into other streets. Victor felt a sense of revulsion on seeing them. Something about them just screamed wrong.

“Who the hell is doing this?” Doc said, pushing open the door and heading outside for a better look. Marty and Victor joined him. All across the street, others were doing the same. The air was filled with chatter as people looked between the tentacle squirming in the road and the others extending from who knew where. “Does anyone know who’s responsible for this?” Doc called.

“Not a clue!” a young lady called back. Victor recognized her as one of the Berk dragon riders, the one he’d seen at the Roofless with her boyfriend. Astrid, if he remembered correctly.

“Whoever it is, they’re going to be in an awful lot of trouble for wrecking the road,” another person, this one a man Victor didn’t know, said. “The Mayor’s getting very annoyed about that after Foot caused so much trouble.”

“You think this is Madblood again?” a third voice asked.

“Nah, he never works in biology – strictly a tech guy,” Marty replied. “Maybe Narbon, she’s big into pink. . . .”

“Helen’s been working strictly with gerbils for a few months now,” a nattily-dressed black man said. “Granted, this might be a tentacled gerbil, but I haven’t seen--”

“ATTENTION CITIZENS OF SECUNDUS!”

All heads snapped up to the sky. “SURRENDER YOUR CITY AND YOUR LIVES TO ME IMMEDIATELY!” the voice continued. It was clearly female, but strangely distorted – now sounding like a full-grown woman, now sounding like a petulant child. What wasn’t distorted was the clear tones of cruelty and malice inherent in the words. “THIS IS NOW MY REALM, AND YOU ARE ALL MY SUBJECTS! DISSENTERS WILL BE BEHEADED!” The tentacle swung around in a wide arc to emphasize the point, causing people to duck. “SWEAR FEALTY NOW, AND BE SPARED! YOU WILL ALL BOW DOWN TO THE QUEEN OF HEARTS!

Everyone gaped as the tentacle slammed into the ground, then withdrew. For a long moment, there was a dead silence.

Marty was the first to recover. “Oh, no way,” he whispered, eyes narrowing and fists clenching. “No way in hell. This place is neutral ground!”

The street exploded into motion, as if triggered by that statement. Everyone started running in various directions – some back to their houses, others to the cross streets, where they disappeared. Doc turned to Marty. “Time to grab my rifle, I think.”

“Too bad you never actually built the Terminator, Doc,” Marty said. “I think that might come in handy right about now.”

“We technically don’t know how much of a threat this ‘Queen’ is,” Doc replied. “I think the rifle will be sufficient for now. Come on, Victor, it’s probably best not to linger out here.”

Victor stayed where he was. He couldn’t help himself – he felt like he’d been rooted to the spot, his eyes fixed on those awful tentacles. They were absolutely the most disgusting things he’d ever laid eyes on. Where on earth were they coming from? He tried to follow them with his eyes, making quick estimations in his head about distance and angle–

And then it hit him, and his blood ran ice cold. “No. . .oh NO!”

Before he could even think about what he was doing, he was racing down the street. “Victor!” he heard Doc call after him, voice shocked. “What in the name of Sir Isaac H. Newton do you think you’re doing?!”

“It’s Wonderland Park!” Victor yelled back, glancing over his shoulder. “They’re coming from Wonderland Park! I’ve got to help!”

Doc yelled something else, but Victor didn’t hear him. All his attention was focused on getting to the park as fast as he could. He wasn’t really sure what he was going to do when he got there, but he knew he couldn’t let his friends suffer there alone. He turned the corner, paused a moment to correct a near-stumble –

And came face to face with a leering skull.

He screamed and jumped backward, eyes wide. The thing standing in front of him – was that a Card – no, it couldn’t be. For one thing, Card Guards tended to have more flesh on them. He gaped in horror at the twisted monstrosity of a card person standing before him. “Oh God,” he whispered, “what did the Queen do to you?”

The warped card didn’t seem up for conversation. It screamed and clawed at him. Victor dodged it and tried to continue running, only to have to backpedal as a Jabberspawn came leaping out of a nearby window. It turned toward him, head vents steaming as it snapped its toothy jaws. No! I can’t die here, I can’t! he thought frantically. I’ve got to

BLAM!

The Jabberspawn fell to the ground, abruptly lacking a head. Victor spun to see a female figure, dressed as a maid, standing on a three-eyed, horned, fanged monster. “Yeah! Hunting season has opened!” the girl cried with what sounded like delight, reloading her gun. “Time to show these creatures what-for! Onward, Caliban! Before the Liddell girl gets all the good ones!”

“If this is all this Queen has to throw at us, throwing her over is going to be easy,” the monster commented, jogging down the street and knocking over the zombie card with one swipe of his claws. “Why, in the demonic pits where I was created--”

“Save the monologue for later, Caliban. There’s stuff to kill. Ooooh, and I’ve still got these bombs to try!”

Victor had about five seconds to stare after the young lady and her monster. Then he had to leap out of the way as a huge herd of giant gerbils came thundering past. Riding on the ones in the front were a blond woman Victor recognized as Helen Narbon, her scruffy-looking assistant David Davenport, and the black man from earlier. “Whee!” Helen cried, holding onto her hat with one hand and pointing with her umbrella with the other. “To arms, my good gentlemen! Artie, you’re sure you don’t want to join in in your natural form?”

“Helen, I’m a sixteenth of the size of these creatures, and naturally herbivorous,” the black man said, clinging desperately to the neck of his gerbil. “What help could I be as a gerbil?”

“You could annoy the enemy to death by constantly predicting what they’re going to say before they say it,” Davenport said, a pipe clenched between his teeth.

“You still hold a grudge over that?”

“Argue later! There’s a Queen to overthrow right now!” Helen snapped at them.

“You’re sure this isn’t your mother?”

“David Davenport, I promise that if you get killed again, I’ll bring you back.”

The gerbils thundered on, leaving Victor to gape after them. After a moment, however, he collected his wits and followed them. He was still determined to get to Wonderland Park, despite the danger. And that maid had gotten him wondering where Alice was, and how she was doing in all this madness. He knew she could take care of herself – and very effectively, at that – but that couldn’t stop him from worrying. Please, God, he thought as he ran, make sure all my friends get through this safely. I don’t – I can’t – please.

The streets of the city were soon thrown into utter chaos. Everywhere Victor looked, there were monsters – more of the zombified (he couldn’t bring himself to call them Reanimated) Card Guards, Jabberspawn, a new sort of Snark that had the face and teeth of an angler and the apparent ability to breathe air (just what they needed! Victor thought angrily, just barely dodging one as it tried to leap on him), gigantic literal Army Ants led by a terrifyingly toothy Centipede, strange ghost-like creatures that screamed so loudly you were knocked back by the sheer force of the sound – even the plant life wasn’t safe, as Victor discovered when he had to duck beneath a spray of thorns sent by an oversized rose that had grown outside a building. It was like every evil idea ever had by a scientist about the creatures of Wonderland Park had suddenly come to life.

Unfortunately for the monsters, everywhere they looked, there were angry Touched, Igors, Reanimated, Fabricated, Automatons – even some Regular citizens who joined the fight with conventional weaponry. The Queen’s announcement had boiled everyone’s blood – this was their city, and they surrendered it to no outside force. “NEUTRAL GROUND!” seemed to be the rallying cry of the day, as evil, good, and neutral alike teamed up to destroy the threat.

A loud pounding noise caught the young man’s attention as he raced on – he turned to see Madblood’s Foot leaping along the street, crushing whatever was in his path. “FOOT STOMP!”

“Yee-ha!” a young woman cried from the top. “Bring ‘em down, Foot!”

“Be careful with him!” Madblood cried as he arrived on the scene, leading what appeared to be an army of clockwork versions of himself. “And don’t let him wander off!”

“FOOT BE GOOD! FOOT LOVE ZETA!”

“We’ll be fine, Dr. Madblood!” the woman cried. “We’ve got this under control!”

“I hope so!” Madblood pulled out some sort of odd box and hit a button. Light streamed out of it, forming a blurry image of a dark-haired woman. “Are we ready to fight, Lovelace?”

“Ready sir!” the light-woman said, saluting.

“Then let’s go! Onward, my beautiful clockwork army! Show these renegades the might of the might Dr. Wolf Madblood!”

“You’re still on about the ‘Wolf’ thing?” Lovelace commented.

“Later, Lovelace! Lead my glorious Automatons in their song!”

Lovelace rolled her eyes and started whistling. The clockwork Madbloods began to march, chanting, “From the West to the East, from the greatest to the least, ev’ry creature, man and beast, bow beeefoooore him--”

“Excuse me! Pardon me! Coming through!”

A motorcycle zipped through the crowd of Madbloods, weaving this way and that as the driver tried to avoid running anyone over. “Pardon me!” he yelled again, and now Victor recognized the face of Wallace Park, grinning goofily as always. “All right up there, Gromit?” he added in a yell, looking up to the sky.

Victor followed his gaze and saw Gromit flying low overhead in a little red plane that looked remarkably like the sidecar to the motorcycle. The dog gave his master a thumbs up, then pulled down a set of flight goggles and leaned over the hidden controls. A fat-looking gun popped out of the front of the plane, and Gromit started firing something that looked like porridge on a contingent of zombie Cards, flatting them to the ground. Food as a weapon? Victor thought, surprised. I wouldn’t have

CORN!

A rather oversized ear of corn suddenly shot through the air over his head, smashing into a building and crushing one of the screaming monsters. “All right, Sam, how are we doing?” the voice of Flint Lockwood called. Victor saw the young man standing on top a large carriage near the end of the street, holding the remote to the FLDSMDFR and looking surprisingly serious.

“So far so good!” Sam said, consulting something on a flat screen. “No sign of any major food storm activity yet! But there was a small shower of marshmallows on the north side of town, so be careful!”

“Gummy bears?” Steve asked, climbing up onto Flint’s head.

“Only in case of emergency,” Flint said, fingers moving rapidly on the remote. “How are things up there, Manny?”

“Fine,” a voice cracked over a radio speaker. Victor looked up again, curious. Ah yes – another plane had joined Gromit’s. This one looked like someone had taken a rather tall motorized carriage, painted it blue, and given it large, rather ungainly wings. It seemed to fly well enough, though. “Though more tentacles seem to be coming this way.”

“Oh great. Sam, what do you think? Molasses?”

Sam never got a chance to reply, as a pink tentacle ripped through a nearby building. Victor gasped and reeled backward as it flailed. Oh, there was no way porridge or molasses could possibly fight that

“Gangway!” a voice called from above. Victor looked up yet again to see Astrid astride a blue beast that resembled a parrot as much as it did a lizard. A very large, spike-covered parrot. It roared and swung its tail at the tentacle – a shower of spines thudded into the tentacle’s flesh, prompting a scream from an unknown source. “Good job, Yellowspike!” Astrid said, swooping low over the ground before shooting back into the sky. “Hey guys, we’ve got a mess to clean up!”

“You mean a mess to make,” another female voice called as more dragons joined Yellowspike. Victor recognized the one in front carrying the new girl as the two-headed beast that had frightened Victoria that day at the shop (God, that felt so long ago now). “Who wants to take advantage of the chance to wreck this town?”

“Oh, definitely me,” the boy said from his perch on the other head. “Fart? Belch?”

The dragon made what Victor supposed was a happy noise. “Let’s cause some chaos!” the twins yelled, pumping their fists before descending on the tentacle. “Hey, bride of Grendel!”

“Get out of the way and let the real hero do his work!” another, fatter boy on a large red dragon said, swooping around them. “Hey, ugly! I’m gonna tear all your tentacles off! With my FACE!”

The tentacle lashed up, forcing both dragons to zip out of the way – and even then, it knocked the red one slightly off course. “Oooh, that’s definitely a +3 to agility,” another boy, this one absolutely huge compared to the others, commented from his perch on an equally rotund dragon. “Maybe even a +5.”

“You heard Fishlegs!” And now Victor recognized Hiccup, Astrid’s boyfriend, astride a large black dragon with catlike green eyes. One tailfin on the back was missing, replaced by a red artificial construct. “Get in, strike, and get out fast!”

“Yeah, yeah!” The boy on the red dragon zipped up the length of the tentacle, the dragon trailing fire out of its mouth that seemed to stick to the red flesh. There was another scream of pain. “Hey, think it tastes like chicken?”

“I’d say there’s a 75% chance that it’s poisonous, Snotlout,” Fishlegs said, looking disgusted.

“Victor!”

Victor spun around. “Doc – oh, Sir Christopher! I’m sorry--”

“Never mind that!” Sir Christopher said, waving an arm as he ran up to the young man. Victor had never seen him this agitated – he really looked like his employer now. “Have you seen Victoria? Or any of the Everglots?”

“No, I haven’t,” Victor said, just as a loud explosion sounded behind him. He turned to see the tentacle collapse, as the twins on the green dragon gave each other a high five. “I’d imagine they’d be h-hiding in the Cogwheel Hotel. Can you really see the Everglots going out in this mess?”

“That’s just the thing! I’ve been to the Cogwheel Hotel! It’s been destroyed!”

What?!” For the first time, Victor noticed that Sir Christopher’s sword was unsheathed – and that there was blood running down the blade. “What happened?!”

“Looks like a bunch of those Boojums – those screaming bastards, I thought it was a good name for them – got there and managed to tear the place apart,” Sir Christopher said, his face angry but his eyes frightened. “I managed to kill a good lot of them, and rescue who I could, but Victoria and her family were nowhere to be seen! I know Lord Everglot likes to hunt, but I’m certain this isn’t his sort of game! And if it is, you’ve been lying to us about how boring your hometown is.”

Victor fought off the urge to laugh, simply because it felt so inappropriate. “I’m certain that, if he’s ever shot anything like this with his vast collection of guns, he hasn’t told the rest of us,” he said. Then the mirth died. “But oh, Victoria. . .I can’t imagine how frightened she must be. . . .”

“I can’t either, but that’s only because I’ve seen it,” Sir Christopher said solemnly. “In the faces of all those visitors I rescued. I do hope she’s safe – if anything happened to her. . . .”

An arm suddenly thrust itself out of the ground near them. Victor and Sir Christopher jumped back as a zombie Card Guard forced its way through the cobbles of the street. It cracked its neck and limbs as it got its feet, then roared at them. “Oh, don’t bother,” Sir Christopher said, raising his sword. “I’ve beheaded probably a full pack of you lot by now--”

But he didn’t get a chance to behead this one. A steaming cup of tea suddenly flew over their heads to land square on the Card. It promptly exploded, sending green smoke into their faces. Once Victor had finished coughing and waving it out of his eyes, he saw the Card lying still in a puddle of green. “Was that Kaboom Tea?”

“It most certainly was,” a voice said behind them. Victor and Sir Christopher both turned to see Richard striding up to them, clutching a teapot-headed cane in a way that would be white-knuckled if he’d had flesh-and-blood hands. “Are you all right? I hope I didn’t hit you with the splash, but war calls for desperate measures.”

“Just some smoke,” Sir Christopher said. “Richard, have you seen Victoria?”

“No, I haven’t – I was just about to ask you if you’ve seen Emily,” Richard said, biting his lower lip. “She was just on my shop’s door when this Queen--” He said the word like it was the grossest thing to pass his lips in a fortnight “–did her little trick. And before I knew it, she was running in the other direction, pursed by a Jabberspawn and some screamy thing I’d never seen before. I put paid to them, but by the time I did, she vanished!” The anger in his face drained out for a moment, replaced by fright. “What if something’s happened to her? What if somebody’s taken her apart and used her in a stew? Or popped out her eyeballs and used her head for ninepins? Or torn her mother’s wedding dress?!”

“Do you really think Emily would care all that much about the last in this situation?” Victor said.

“It’s her mother’s wedding dress! And if it’s torn, that means the rest of her could be!” Richard looked around frantically. “I’ve got to find her!”

“What about Alice?” Victor demanded, that particular fright catching back up to him. “Have you seen her at all?”

“Yes, of course, she works for me. If you mean lately, no. She was out getting lunch when all this started. No doubt she’s run home to get herself properly equipped.” Richard grinned a very evil-looking grin. “This Queen won’t know what’s hit her once she starts killing monsters.”

“I don’t doubt,” Victor said. “How about Lewis, have you seen Lewis?”

“Lewis? No, he’s been busy with his project, remember? Though I imagine this will have gotten his attention. Don’t know if that happened in reality, of course. . . .”

“It must have,” Victor said, grabbing his tie and twisting it to help relieve the terror coursing through him. To his left, an Army Ant fell under a rain of porridge and “MASHED POTATOES!” “Richard, Christopher, the tentacles are coming from Wonderland Park!”

Richard and Sir Christopher’s jaws dropped in horror. “What?!” Sir Christopher demanded. “But – but Lewis would never do a thing like this. . . .”

“Maybe something’s happened to him,” Richard said, voice trembling.

Victor thought of his friend, cowering all alone while his precious park was shredded to bits all around him, and his resolve to get there doubled. “I’m going to find out! Follow me!” he cried, turning and running off again, swerving around some of the clockwork Madbloods fighting one of the angler Snarks as he did.

“Wait! Slow down! Victor!” Richard cried, giving chase. “We can’t help you if you go and leave us in the dust! Or the debris, as is more likely here!”

Victor barely listened. His mind was set – he was going to Wonderland Park, and he was going to help Lewis stop whatever had taken it over. He owed the man that much for giving him the most wonderful place in the world. Besides, some gut instinct told him Alice would most likely be there as well. She was a smart girl – she’d figure out where the monsters were coming from immediately, and go there to stop things at the source. I just hope we don’t come there too late!

He wove and twisted his way through the chaotic streets, trying his best to keep his mind on his goal. Around him, the fight continued. There some of the Berk dragon riders fought off another tentacle threatening some children. Here the Ghostbusters used their traps to imprison shrieking Boojums (passing by, Victor heard Dr. Venkman comment, “Scream all you want – I don’t give a crap so long as you don’t cover me in gunk.”) Around the corner, a young red-headed woman was being chased by some Snarks. Victor nearly made a detour to help her, but suddenly a beam of cold blue light hit the fish, freezing them in place. “It works!” a delighted voice cried, and Victor saw a young blond man with large goggles standing nearby, with a somewhat-familiar gun on a stand. Wracking his memory made him realize he’d seen the fellow the second day he’d been in Secundus – “Dr. Horrible,” wasn’t it? Good to see he got his freeze ray working, he thought vaguely.

The red-headed girl was staring at Dr. Horrible with an expression of shock. “B-Billy?”

“Penny! Are you all right?”

Victor decided Penny was in good hands and continued on his way. As he raced down the next street, a herd of multicolored ponies passed him, hooves thundering. “Come on, girls!” the one in the front, who looked like a purple unicorn, cried. “This is our home, and no one tries to take it over without answering to us!”

“Yeah!” a blue pegasus with a rainbow-colored mane added, flying above the others. “We’re gonna show them a world of hurt, aren’t we? We’re gonna clear out these intruders in ten seconds flat!”

“FOR THE HEEERD!” a pink pony yelled at the top of her lungs, bouncing along rather than running. Victor stared at her for a moment, then decided it wasn’t even worth wondering about and kept going. He wasn’t sure what good the little ponies would actually be, but any help would be appreciated in a time like this.

Case in point – as he crossed another street, he saw down the byway a man throwing what looked like lemons at some Mechanical Ladybirds that had been grown to an enormous size. “Don’t you drop stuff on me! Do you know who I am? I’m Cave Johnson! And I’m the guy who’s gonna burn your house down! With the LEMONS!”

Victor might have just dismissed him as normally insane if at that moment some of the lemons hadn’t exploded. As it was, he had to stop for a second and watch. A couple of the ladybirds went down, but the rest kept buzzing toward Mr. Johnson, large explosive acorns clutched in their legs –

And then there was an odd “vworp” sound, and everyone looked up to see a young woman appear on the top of a roof. “Chell!” Mr. Johnson yelled, throwing another lemon. “Get down here!”

The woman nodded, then backed up and took a running start toward the edge. Something catapulted her into the air as she reached the lip. Chell did a somersault, shooting at a white wall below her with a strange-looking gun that let off a loud whistle of steam as it fired. A strange blue hole appeared as the shot connected. She ground her way down a section of roof, then leaped for the hole while shooting at a different white wall a few feet away. An orange hole appeared on that one. Chell disappeared into the blue hole, then reemerged from the orange one, soaring directly above the ladybirds. She landed with what should have been a bone-breaking thud on the ground. But to Victor’s absolute shock, she stood easily and smirked at the amazed watchers. Then she turned and fired some of the strange energy from the gun at the ladybirds. Although no holes appeared on them (Does it only work on white walls?), the blasts did seem to disrupt their systems, and the ladybirds fell twitching to the ground, where they perished in the blasts from their own acorns. “Cave Johnson, we’re done here,” Mr. Johnson said cheerfully. “Good work, boots.”

Chell rolled her eyes as she looked down at the white boots covering her feet. Then she looked up as something came flying down from the roof, screaming “CATCH ME CATCH ME CATCH ME!” She raced toward it, holding out the gun. A few minutes later, she was sprawled on the ground, with a ball-shaped object now gripped by the pincers on the end of the device. “You caught me!” it cried, blinking a large blue optic. “Oh, but you fell over, nasty business – all right, lady? Funny I should make you fall over – you were just brilliant there, you know that? Absolutely amazing! Makes me wish I had legs! I bet I could do all sorts of fun stuff with them!”

Chell smiled as she got up and patted the ball fondly. Mr. Johnson jogged past them. “Come on, Chell, Wheatley, keep up! We’ve got lots more science to do!”

“Yes sir, Mr. Johnson!” the ball – Wheatley – cried. “Come on, love!” Chell nodded and ran after Mr. Johnson, Wheatley continuing to babble on. “We should have brought along one of the turrets! No, two! Oi, lady, Chell, I just had a brilliant idea – what if we joined two turrets together? Sort of a – what do they call them – Siamese twins! And maybe we could attach them to a Weighted Storage Cube – that would make them even tougher to beat. . . .”

The trio disappeared down the street. Victor stared after them a moment, then shook his head and continued on his own way. “And I really thought I’d seen everything in this city. . . .”

Finally, he arrived at his destination. The fence was still up around the park, but Victor didn’t know if that was a promising sign or not – was it keeping monsters in, or keeping rescuers out? The gate hanging open at the front probably negated any effort either way, honestly. Victor could see more vicious, thorny roses hissing by what remained of it. What happened to the old talking flowers? On second thought, I probably don’t want to know. At any rate, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go in by the front. . . .

He cautiously edged his way along the side of the fence, keeping an eye on things inside. What he could see broke his heart. Wonderland Park – beautiful, amazing Wonderland Park – had been utterly perverted. The trees had been twisted and gnarled, or uprooted altogether and left to rot on the ground. Rather vicious-looking fungi sprouted out of the ground, including mushrooms Victor was sure had teeth around their caps. The pleasant-smelling, pretty to look at flowers were gone, replaced by those hissing roses and withered, lifeless stems. The bread-and-butterflies and rocking-horseflies were gone as well – the air was now filled with the buzzing of mechanical ladybirds and what looked like bolts sporting dragonfly wings. Victor blinked, doing his best to hold back tears. “Oh Lewis,” he whispered. “What’s happened to you?”

Finally, he found a spot that looked relatively safe and climbed over. He promptly darted into the shadows of some nearby trees to avoid detection. “All right, Victor, think,” he told himself softly. “Obviously, this Queen’s taken over the park and incapacitated or – or--” No, he couldn’t bring himself to say it. Saying it would make it far too real. “She’s done something to Lewis,” he settled on. “What about the other residents of the park? March is probably safe, as is Dormy – Richard would have said something otherwise. The Cheshire Cat can turn invisible and teleport, he’s probably all right too. Probably long gone as well. Not that I blame him. But what about the White Rabbit? I’ve got to find him, make sure he’s okay.” He barely knew the Rabbit, granted – apart from occasionally seeing him at Richard’s tea parties or around the park. But Victor knew he was a friend of Alice’s – and, really, he couldn’t in good conscience leave anyone to suffer in this new hellhole of a park. “I need a plan. I--”

A tentacle suddenly sheared off the top of the tree he was hiding behind. I’ll figure out the specifics on my feet! Victor promptly decided, and started running again. He wasn’t the best at improvisation – but it was quickly becoming apparent that staying in one place for too long was a death sentence. Particularly when you were at the epicenter of things. And if there was one thing he was good at, it was running.

He darted and wove around the various trees and rocks in his path, avoiding flailing tentacles and growling sounds. He wondered how the attacks on the Queen and her minions were going outside. The Queen seemed to have quite a lot of monsters at her command – and that wasn’t counting the tentacles (Where are they coming from? Are they hers?). But Victor had seen the fury and determination on every face he’d passed. The citizens of Secundus were not going to bow down to any Queen who tried to take over their city by force. Secundus was their home, the place where they could be themselves without fear, and all of them stood by the pact of “neutral ground.” And they’d defend it to the death if need be. I strongly suspect the Queen didn’t realize what she was getting into, Victor thought as he crept around a suspicious-looking rock. Good. He finished his creeping, stood up, took a quick look behind him –

Then turned and came face to face with a zombie Card Guard.

The Card – a diamond – screamed and grabbed him in a painfully-tight grip. Victor cried out as the claws bit through his suit and into his flesh. He managed to kick the creature in what passed for a stomach (right underneath the diamond-shaped hole that had been sliced out of its flesh, Oh God) and pulled himself free. Unfortunately, he also lost his balance by doing so, and landed hard on the ground. The Card screamed again and prepared to lunge –

And then, out of nowhere, a grey blur appeared above Victor’s head, resolving quickly into the form of a thin grey cat in mid-leap. With a hiss, the Cheshire Cat landed on the Card’s head, swiping with his claws at the creature’s neck. The Card cried out and tried to pull him off, but the Cat bit his hands and started climbing all over him, clawing and biting everywhere he could reach. Victor watched in open-mouthed amazement (and with one tiny wince of almost-sympathy when the Cat bit down extra-hard between the creature’s legs).

Finally, the diamond was downed. The Cheshire Cat sat on his prey’s body and licked a paw. Victor got up and went over to him. “I – I thought for sure you w-would have left,” he whispered.

Cheshire looked up at him, yellow eyes gleaming. “Cats aren’t loyal like a dog is loyal, that’s true,” he nodded, his grin looking a bit strained. “But we’re not totally unfeeling creatures. We protect our own. Or, at least, I do.”

Victor smiled. “Thank you.”

Cheshire’s grin turned a little more genuine. “Besides, Alice would have my hide if I let you get hurt,” he continued, washing his other paw. “And I rather like it where it is.”

“I would have preferred it if it hadn’t gotten damaged on my account,” Victor said, noting with a wince some nasty-looking scratches on Cheshire’s side. He held out his hands. “Would you like to come with me? I’m looking for the White Rabbit.”

“You’ll be sure to find him if you only wander far enough,” Cheshire said, climbing into his outstretched arms and up to rest around his shoulders. “If only because that means you’re more likely to run into him as he panics. There are some areas where Rabbit shines like a star, but ‘having common sense’ is not one of them.”

Victor nodded, then laughed. “Oh, who am I to judge? I ran all the way here – to the absolute center of the disaster – just to try and see if all of you were all right.”

“Yes, you’re not one for sense either,” Cheshire agreed easily as they set off again. “On the other hand, you are one for loyalty and caring. I would have expected nothing less from you.” Victor felt quite touched.

They reached the Vale of Tears without further incident (though there was a close call with a pack of Boojums flying around). Victor felt his stomach turn. The once-beautiful Vale was now befouled with blood and black splashes of what looked like some sort of coal run-off. Alice’s statue had been smashed – the red-tinted water now leaped out of her lower legs, while pieces of her arms and face were scattered about. Victor touched the piece closest to him, tracing the stone tears trailing out of her left eye. “Cheshire, what happened?” he whispered.

“I’m afraid not even I can say fully,” Cheshire said, with a slight hiss in his voice. Victor could feel the cat’s thin fur prickling the back of his neck. “It’s not Lewis’s doing, though, I can assure you of that much. We haven’t seen him in days – not since this Queen marched out and declared her sovereignty over the rest of us. Some of us tried to escape to the outside world and send a warning, but she’d already planted those damnable roses. . .I’ve only just gotten one of their thorns out of my paw. And then more and more monsters started pouring from the doors of Looking-Glass House, and our attempts at escape were forgotten in favor of a fight for our lives.”

Victor reached back and placed a hand on Cheshire’s head. “I’m so sorry for you,” he whispered.

“Don’t be sorry for me – be sorry for the ones who didn’t make it. She’s got the real card and chess royalty locked up at the very least – they’d never agree to the Card Guards being used for her purposes. Of course, the Card Guards didn’t agree either. . . .” Victor shuddered. “And none of us want to consider what our esteemed creator might be going through. If he’s--”

“Please don’t say it,” Victor whispered. “I want to keep that hope alive, foolish as it may be.”

He felt Cheshire nod. “When you can keep nothing else alive, you may as well focus on hope.” His tail flicked against Victor’s arm. “It’s dangerous to linger here, though. Those new Snarks of hers--”

As if called, one came leaping out of the water, teeth chomping at the air as if it hoped to rend the very oxygen. Victor flung himself to the side, Cheshire jumping off him as he did. “Be wary!” the Cat called, taking a swipe at the Snark’s tail. “You can’t even trust the fungi!”

“I noticed!” Victor said.

“No you didn’t! One’s almost on top of you!”

Horrified, Victor looked up. Sure enough, he was underneath one of the fanged mushrooms. Which promptly started opening and closing like an umbrella, creating a strange suction that threatened to drag him into the maw of the beast. Victor gripped at what little grass was left, struggling mightily to get away. Behind him, he heard a yowl that suggested Cheshire’s fight with the Snark wasn’t going as well as the cat had hoped. Damn it, no! he thought, aiming a kick at the mushroom’s stem. All that got him was a scratch from one of its teeth. I can’t end my days eaten by a mushroom! Think, Victor, think! Ow, that cut really stings – does it have a poisonous bite? I can’t tell if this is a dangerous sort of mushroom – well, dangerous in the usual sense, of course. . .if only I were poisonous to it, like a monarch butterfly. . .No like a butterfly that secreted acid release a rabble of them on this thing and it wouldn’t trouble us anymore I bet I could use the same tricks a monarch uses – AAAAHHH!

Victor’s grip loosened on the ground as he tried to resist the urge to grab his head. Why did he have to get one of his headaches now?! Oh God the pain was horrible – it was actually sort of tempting to just let the mushroom eat him –

What looked like a croquet ball carved to resemble a curled hedgehog suddenly zipped over his head and smashed straight into the stem of the mushroom. Electricity arced over the surface of the fungi, making it scream. This assault was quickly followed by a spray of playing cards embedding themselves into the mushroom’s cap. The mushroom retaliated with a cloud of toxic green spores – Victor hurriedly covered his mouth and nose. This didn’t seem to discourage the attacker in the least, however – what looked like a pocket watch flew through the air next, landing right on the tip of the mushroom’s cap. It promptly exploded in a shower of familiar green tea. The mushroom screamed a final time, then went limp, down for the count. Victor took a moment to catch his breath, then got up and turned to look at his savior.

Alice stood behind him, hair flowing in a slight breeze, eyes narrowed with anger and determination. She was wearing her favorite blue dress and apron, but over that was a thick utility belt, with her Ice Wand, Vorpal Blade, and the meanest-looking pepper grinder Victor had ever seen dangling from it. Strapped across her back at angles, like a pair of peculiar wings, were a hobby horse and a croquet mallet. In her hands she held what looked like a angry, organic orange teapot with a fanged spout and a pressure gauge on the side. She was frightening and terrible and –

Beautiful, Victor caught himself thinking. Dolled up with her entire arsenal and I still think she’s the loveliest creature on Earth. Mother would have me sent to the madhouse.

Alice hurried up to him, trodding on the corpse of the Snark as she did so – Victor noted it looked like it had been beaten to death with a heavy object. He took another look at the hobby horse (really a hobby unicorn) and noted blood about the muzzle. “Are you all right?” she demanded, voice harsh but eyes quite worried.

“Much better now that you’re here,” Victor told her. “Are you all right? How’s Cheshire?”

“Very impressed with how well they make hobby horses these days,” Cheshire said, sitting beside the fish. He sniffed the Snark. “Ugh – the least this wicked monarch could have done was make these good to eat.”

“The least this Queen could have done was not exist at all,” Alice replied, before turning back to Victor. “What were you thinking, coming here without a weapon?! Are you mad?” She reached behind her and slid out the croquet mallet. “Here, take this. At least you’ll be able to hit things with it. God, when I saw you over here, I was wondering you wanted to commit suicide. Why aren’t you with Doc and Marty? I know Doc owns a gun – you’d at least be safe with them!”

Victor accepted the croquet mallet silently, suddenly feeling very foolish. “I – I just – I s-saw where the t-tentacles were coming f-from, and I – I h-had to get over here, h-had to s-see if. . . .”

Alice sighed deeply, then suddenly pulled him into a hug. “You have to think before you run,” she said softly. “You should have at least picked up some fallen chunk of wood, or even a goddamn rock. . .Victor, if I l-lose you. . . .”

“I’m sorry,” Victor whispered, holding her close. “I’m sorry I let my w-worry get the best of me. But when I realized Wonderland Park was the c-center of the mess. . . .” He pulled away to look at her. “Have you seen Lewis? Or the White Rabbit?”

“No sign of either – I’m hoping they’ve both gotten out,” Alice said, looking around. “Though I admittedly don’t have high hopes for Lewis having escaped. . . . She’s practically destroyed the park, you know. Everything that isn’t one of her monsters is withering and dying. And she’s not taking proper care of the machinery at all.” She looked with disgust at the puddles of coal gunk on the ground. “You know, given everything that’s happening, I half expect those to turn out to be monsters as well. Maybe gigantic leeches.”

Victor shuddered. “Let’s not consider the possibility. What she h-has brought against us is enough.” He looked Alice up and down. “Well, enough against anyone not as well-armed as you.”

It got a laugh out of her. “Always be prepared,” she said with a proud smile, turning around. Victor saw now that she wore a backpack over the harness for the croquet mallet and hobby horse. “I’ve got some jackbombs and clockwork bombs packed in here, and my cards and my jacks are in my apron pocket. You can see the rest of it.”

“What’s the difference between a jackbomb and a clockwork bomb?” Victor asked, puzzled.

“Clockwork bombs just explode. Jackbombs can set things on fire.” Alice pressed what Victor had thought was a rivet on her harness. The backpack popped open and a small gripper extended, holding what looked like a Jack-in-the-box. “Thank you.” She took the offered “toy” and cranked the handle, before throwing it in the direction of the mushroom. It played a bit of “Pop Goes The Weasel” before the Jack popped out.

And promptly started spewing fire from its mouth. Victor gaped as it spun round and round, setting everything nearby aflame. Then it exploded, leaving a field of fire. “Oh my. . . .”

“Good, aren’t they?” Alice said.

“Yes, though – I never expected you to use a f-fire-based weapon,” Victor admitted, looking at her.

Alice looked at the flames for a moment. “It’s not my favorite,” she confessed. “I prefer using the clockwork bombs whenever possible. But if I know the destructive power of fire, why limit myself in a fight?” She looked over at him, eyes hard. “Especially a fight like this. This is a war, plain and simple.”

“I noticed,” Victor said. “It looks like the entire city is fighting back against the Queen. People do take ‘neutral ground’ seriously, don’t they?”

“They do indeed. Which gives me hope we can take this bitch down quickly.”

“Much as I’m sure all this exposition is necessary,” Cheshire commented, padding over to them, “I think it would be prudent if we stopped standing around like easy snacks and got moving.”

“Right,” Alice said, picking up the Cat. “Let’s see if we can find Lewis and take out a few more of these monsters.” She looked hard at Victor. “You’re staying close to me, understand? And God help you if you drop that mallet.”

Victor gripped it hard with both hands. “U-understood perfectly.”

Alice looked at him for a long moment. Then, out of nowhere, she grabbed his tie and kissed him. “J-just in case the worst happens,” she whispered, eyes suddenly watery. “I l-love you, Victor. Don’t forget that.”

Victor smiled, feeling a little misty-eyed himself. “Never. But I think it would be best if we stopped the worst from happening, don’t you?”

Alice grinned. On anyone else, such a grin would look psychotic. On her – well, it still looked psychotic, but it was a psychotic Victor quite liked. “I agree. Let’s go show this Queen what we’re really made of.”

Chapter Text

March 16th, 18–

Secundus, England

1:12 P.M.

“Richard? Bonejangles? Dr. Finklestein?”

Emily ran down the street, searching desperately for a face she knew. Her feet slapped against the cobbles – she’d lost her heels running from one of those strange screaming ghosts. She found she really didn’t mourn the loss of the shoes – while beautiful, they’d made trying to escape the monsters a bit of a pain. Granted, so does the train on my dress, she thought, looking at the fabric she’d draped over her arm. But I’ll be damned if I let my mother’s wedding dress get more ruined than it already is. Either it all goes at once or not at all.

She shivered as she stopped to rest around a corner. What in God’s name was going on? The day had started out so normally – she’d been happily going to visit Richard, wondering if she dared bring up the idea that they make it so she wore her wedding dress for a better reason than nostalgia – and then, there were tentacles in the street and some woman claiming to be the new Queen of Secundus and she’d found herself running for her unlife from a Jabberspawn and a banshee. And once she’d lost them, she’d found that the entire city was infested with terrifying beasts! She couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Why would this Queen person send out monsters to destroy a city she wanted to take over?

You ask this when you’ve lived in this city ever since your resurrection, she scolded herself. Obviously the Queen’s Touched, or more conventionally insane. Those sort of people don’t think clearly when it comes to conquering cities. Otherwise she might have realized the citizens of Secundus would fight back with everything they’ve got.

That was the one heartening thing about all this – while she’d found monsters everywhere she looked, she’d also found people fighting them. The entire city had come alive to defend their freedom. The only problem was, she had yet to find Richard or any of her friends from the castle doing their bit. She was sure they were, but she’d feel so much calmer and safer with one of them by her side. Particularly Richard and his explosive tea, she said, blinking back sudden tears. Oh, please God, let my Richard be all right. . . .

“Hello? Anyone?”

Emily started, then turned back around the corner. “Victoria!”

“Emily!” The two girls ran and embraced each other. “Oh, am I glad to see you! It’s been h-horrible, Emily, just horrible!”

“I know, I know,” Emily said, rubbing circles on Victoria’s back with her skeleton hand. “Are you all right? Where’s your family?”

“I’ve lost track of them,” Victoria said, pulling back. The poor girl was a complete mess – her hair was escaping her usually-neat bun, hanging in limp strands around her face, and her dress was dirty and torn – one sleeve was hanging by mere threads, and her skirt was missing a ruffle from the bottom. “They were arguing with me about how I ought to pack my things even if we weren’t heading home that day, when suddenly there was the most terrible scream from downstairs, and – and before we knew it, we were being attacked by these horrible ghosts!”

“I saw them too! Grey skull faces over red robes?” Emily asked.

“Yes, them! They were chasing people and screaming at everything and somehow they were shaking apart the walls! We had to flee for our lives before we got crushed by a collapsing ceiling! And then we got caught up in a mob of people trying to escape, and I got pulled away first from my parents, then from Hildegarde! I tried to double back and find them once I got free of the crowd, but then what looked like a fish with legs and horrible teeth nearly took my feet off!” She pointed to the missing ruffle. “I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off ever since.”

“That’s pretty much what happened to me,” Emily nodded. “I was on my way to visit Richard when the insanity started. Have you seen him, by the by?”

“I’m afraid not,” Victoria shook her head. “You haven’t seen Christopher, have you?”

“I can’t says I have,” Emily sighed. “And I would definitely like to. Your sweetheart didn’t get such a prestigious knighthood from the Queen – the proper Queen, I mean – for nothing.”

“I know, but there’s so many monsters here – oh, I do hope he’s all right,” Victoria whispered, wringing her hands. “Why on earth does this Queen of Hearts want Secundus?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea, and I don’t think it really matters in the long run,” Emily said, looking around. “Come on, you stick with me. I’ll feel so much safer with – AAAHHH!”

Emily’s head snapped down so fast her loose eye nearly popped out. A pink tentacle, much like the ones she’d seen before during the Queen’s announcement, was wrapping around her bone leg. “Get off!” she shrieked, slapping at it wildly.

The tentacle took no notice of her attempts to dislodge it and instead yanked back sharply. Emily half-hoped her leg would break, but the knee annoyingly held. More tentacles appeared, curling up from a cross street. They snatched her around the waist and neck and started to tow her away. “No! No! Help!” Emily screamed, struggling to get away and only getting sucked further back down the street.

“Emily!” Victoria raced after her and grabbed her outstretched hand, pulling against the unshakeable grip of the tentacles. Before Emily could tell her to run, the tentacles enveloped her too. The two young women were pulled down the street and into a hole, still holding onto each other’s hands.

Moments later, the tentacles vanished, and the street was quiet – except for one tiny lime-green maggot, who promptly started inching his way out of there.


TOMATO SAUCE!

Flint Lockwood smirked as he drowned yet another surprised Snark. “You know, I kind of wonder how they taste,” he remarked to Sam, swiveling the FLDSMDFR Version 2.1 around to find a new target. “We’ve dumped enough condiments and sauces on them.”

“I don’t want to know,” Sam said, grimacing as she adjusted her glasses. “They look disgusting enough. I didn’t think Snarks could be worse than they already were.”

“Me either,” Flint said, making a face. “Hey, Manny, how are things up there?”

“They could be worse,” Manny remarked blandly. “I’m providing cover against the screaming banshee ghosts for Gromit. Incidentally, the next upgrade I want to this vehicle is a porridge gun.”

“I’ll talk to Wallace about it after we’ve told this Queen we’re not accepting any new monarchs,” Flint promised. “Keep yourself safe up there!”

“As long as I don’t have to deal with any gummy bears, I’ll be fine.”

“Gummy bears!” Steve cried, leaping around on their carriage “base.”

“No! It’s not dire enough to risk them yet!” Flint scolded the monkey. “Some days I want to track down the man who invented gummy candy and – and give him a stern lecture!”

Sam giggled. “You’re too cute, Flint.”

Flint found himself blushing. Why was it that, after two – coming up on three, wow – years of knowing each other, she could still make him blush? Then again, he could do the same to her, so it all balanced out. “I try to be,” he replied. “Even when someone’s trying to destroy the world.” He spotted a fresh pack of zombie Card Guards approaching, chasing after some unfortunate child. “Speaking of which, Sam, what do you think? Giant pancake?”

“Maybe, though I’m getting some unusual readings--”

A group of tentacles suddenly burst through the buildings next to them, cutting off Sam’s statement in a scream. Before Flint could react, one had wrapped itself around her waist. “Hey! Get off me!” Sam yelled, hitting it with her weather tracker.

Flint saw red. How dare this Queen threaten to hurt his Sam? His brain suddenly buzzing with ideas, he performed a quick recalibration of his machine and punched in a new code. “NACHOS!” the FLDSMDFR announced, shooting sharp triangles of crunchy bread covered in hot cheese at the tentacle.

Hot, somewhat acidic cheese, the tentacle quickly found out. There was a long-off scream as the nachos sliced messily through the flesh, freeing Sam. Flint quickly pulled her behind him. “Yeah, that’s what you get!” he yelled, Creativity coloring his tones as he worked to make more dangerous food. “You are not getting my city or my lady!”

The tentacles seemed to pause for a moment, as if studying him. Then one snapped out faster than he could have expected and slapped him hard across his head. Flint stumbled, dazed – then another one repeated the action on the other side, knocking him out.

The last thing he heard was Sam screaming as something damp and slightly slimy grabbed his waist and dragged him away.


“There! That’s the epicenter!”

“What the hell? Isn’t that Lewis Carroll’s house?” Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III commented as he and his fellow dragon riders did a slow circle over what Fishlegs had just declared to be the source of the infestation.

“Guy who owns this park? Yeah,” Astrid nodded, flying close to him on the right. “Never guessed him to go completely off the deep end.”

“Maybe one of his experiments turned on him,” Fishlegs commented atop Horrorcow, on Hiccup’s left. “You know, like the theory that that monster dragon we fought ate the guy who made the dragons in the first place.”

“I can believe it,” Hiccup said, reflecting on that particular battle with a wince. Thinking about it always seemed to give him phantom pains in his missing leg. “At any rate, I think we’re in a position to stop this bitch once and for all.”

“So what’s the plan, cousin?” Snotlout said, flying in front of him. “Firewyrm here wants to see some real action.” Firewyrm agreed with a loud roar.

“Yeah, can we get to some serious exploding now?” Ruffnut added as she and Tuffnut brought up the rear on Fart and Belch.

“I’d say so,” Hiccup said with a grin. “All right, everybody, we’re playing to our strengths! Ruffnut, Tuffnut, you keep this Queen off-balance. Fly around and explode stuff at random.”

“Born to do it!” Tuffnut yelled, as Belch snapped his jaws.

“Snotlout, you and Firewyrm keep up with setting those tentacles on fire,” Hiccup continued. “You’re doing a great job with that.”

“Of course I am,” Snotlout preened.

“Fishlegs, you’re with Ruff and Tuff – load up Horrorcow and try to add a little extra kick to their explosions.”

“Can do!” Fishlegs said with a little salute. “Horrorcow’s got a +10 to her range, after all!” Horrorcow burped.

“And a +2 to her breath,” Ruffnut said, waving her hand. “Fart doesn’t stink that much.”

“Good, maybe that’ll throw the Queen off guard too. Astrid, you and Yellowspike stick anything that looks like it’s going to hit someone.”

“Shouldn’t be too hard,” Astrid grinned at him. “What about you, what are you going to do?”

In response, Hiccup smiled down at his dragon. “What we do best, right Toothless?”

Toothless huffed and flicked his ears, smirking back up at him. “Damn straight. All right people, let’s move!”

Snoutlout, Ruffnut, Tuffnut, and Fishlegs immediately flew off to start on their assigned roles. Astrid lingered a moment, flying as close as she could and leaning over to kiss Hiccup’s cheek. “Stay safe,” she told him. “I don’t want this to end with you missing any more limbs.”

“Aw, come on, you don’t want me to look just like Gobber?” Hiccup teased.

“No, I just don’t want you to end up smelling like him,” Astrid teased back. Then her expression became serious. “But really – don’t get yourself hurt.”

Hiccup looked deep into her eyes. “You either.”

Astrid nodded, then flew off. Hiccup patted Toothless’s neck as he adjusted the prosthetic fin. “Ready to cause this Queen of Hearts a world of hurt?”

Toothless gave him a look which Hiccup interpreted as Always. “All right. Let’s do this, bud.” He and his best friend shot high into the sky.

Looking down, he saw his group of friends performing their tasks admirably – Ruff and Tuff exploding things with the help of Fishlegs, Snotlout drenching tentacles in fire, and Astrid swooping around, sending sharp spines into anything that threatened to hit any of the others. Hiccup shook his head. When had they become so willing to listen to him? When had he become a leader?

Don’t dwell on it, he told himself. You’ve got a job to do. He and Toothless turned around, hovered a moment, then shot down toward the mass of tentacles. Hiccup let out a little whoop as they rocketed down – he’d never get tired of this adrenaline rush. Nor of the delighted shriek that invariably accompanied it – “NIGHT FURY! GET DOWN!”

Toothless took his cue and shot his fire, pulling out of the dive and zipping them back up into the air. An explosion followed in their wake, along with an intense cry of pain. Hiccup grinned. “Think we got her good, bud!”

Toothless agreed with a bark, and they turned around for another pass. A second blast left the so-called Queen reeling. “Yeah! What do you think of that?!” Astrid yelled, flying low over the injured tentacles. Yellowspike shrieked something that Hiccup guessed was very rude in dragonese.

Unfortunately, the Queen was only too ready to show what she thought of that. A huge tentacle reared up, whipping in all directions. Yellowspike shot a fresh row of spines at it – but then had to weave crazily to avoid the errant limb’s flailing. “Careful!” Hiccup yelled, as he and Toothless pumped the sky to ready another shot.

“We’re Vikings!” Snotlout protested, as Firewyrm bit the tentacle. “Careful isn’t in our vocabulary!”

“Well, learn! I’m not bringing anyone home in a casket!”

“You won’t!” Astrid promised, swooping around another tentacle. “We’ve got this under–”

And then, out of nowhere, one pink monstrosity hit Yellowspike’s underbelly. The dragon screamed and tilted crazily, threatening to throw Astrid off. “ASTRID!” Hiccup yelled, eyes going wide.

Toothless saw the danger too, and immediately went into his dive. He hit the offending tentacle with a third blast, then evened out with Hiccup’s help and went to lend his assistance to the injured pair. Yellowspike seemed to be stabilizing, but Astrid was still hanging on rather precariously. “Easy, easy--”

“Look out! It’s one of the screamies!” Ruff yelled behind him.

“+100 to voice strength!” Fishlegs added.

Sure enough, one of those weird screaming ghost-creatures appeared on the scene, apparently seeing Astrid as a free meal. “Oh no you don’t!” Hiccup hissed. “Get him, Toothless!”

Toothless obligingly let loose a stream of flame as he circled around the pair again. The ghost thing caught fire almost immediately – but in a final defiance, it aimed its death howl straight at Astrid. The Viking girl did her best to hold on, but the force of the blast was too much. Her grip failed her, and she dropped.

Hiccup saw her fall in slow motion. Frantically he worked the pedal that controlled Toothless’s fake tail. Toothless responded with his usual swiftness, turning and diving so that Hiccup could reach out to her. Their hands were almost touching when –

Another, smaller tentacle burst out of the bunch and wrapped itself around Astrid’s waist. Astrid let out a half-terrified, half-frustrated yell as it whipped her about, out of Hiccup’s reach. Hiccup swore and prepared to turn again –

When a small red plane suddenly zoomed past him, and a brown furry hand grasped one of Astrid’s pale ones. Hiccup and Toothless stopped dead, surprised. “What – Gromit?”

It was indeed Wallace Park’s dog, eyes narrowed in determination behind his goggles as he pulled against the tentacle holding Astrid, flying in a small circle. Astrid held the dog’s hand tightly as she worked with her free arm to get her axe out of its holster on her back. For a moment, Hiccup let himself hope that everything would turn out all right.

The next moment saw another tentacle (where were they all coming from? Did the Queen have an infinite number of the damn things?) reach up and smash Gromit’s plane. Before Hiccup’s and Toothless’s horrified eyes, both Astrid and Gromit were sucked below the roiling, coiling mass of horrible pink.

Yellowspike’s screaming disguised their own.

And that of the bald, big-eared, big-mouthed man watching from far below.


“I didn’t know you knew how to play croquet!”

Victor couldn’t help shooting a glare at his smirking girlfriend. “I don’t!” he yelled. “This is swinging wildly!”

“Well, whatever it is, it is effective,” Alice said, bashing the Snark one last time over the head with her hobby unicorn. The fish finally gave up the ghost and fell over. Behind her, Cheshire clawed another Card Guard. Victor himself was facing off against some roses, avoiding thorns and sharp leaves while he hit the stems over and over. One had already fallen to his assault, while the other seemed on the verge of collapsing. Victor pulled back and swung with all his might, nearly breaking the flower in half. It let out a death shriek and slumped over, harmless. “I’m glad you can defend yourself when need be.”

“I don’t want to d-die any more than the next person,” Victor said, joining her as Cheshire finished off his Guard. “I’m just glad that none of these c-creatures seem to be poisonous.”

“I suspect we simply haven’t run into those that are yet,” Alice muttered, looking around. “But I’m certainly not complaining. Any good luck is welcome in situations like these.” She glanced down at his leg. “How are you doing?”

“It’s just a scratch, I’m f-fine,” Victor said. “How about you?”

“None of this blood is mine, I assure you.” Alice smiled at him. “I meant what I said, you know. You’re doing quite well.”

Victor felt a warmth deep inside. “Anything to protect this p-park – and you,” he said, risking a brief kiss. “Though I know you hardly need protecting. . . .”

“It’s the thought that counts.” Alice looked around at the field dotted with holes. “Well, at least we’ve established neither Rabbit nor Hare are in the burrows. They might be deeper underground, but I doubt it.” She looked at Cheshire, then winced. “You’ve got to stop letting yourself get all scratched up like that.”

“I don’t particularly allow it, girl, it just happens,” Cheshire snapped grumpily, ears down and tail flicking. “I don’t enjoy finding out how many ways one can skin a cat any more than you do.”

“Excuse me for being worried about you, puss.”

“Save the f-fighting for the monsters,” Victor said. “I’m sure more will pop up soon.” He turned in a slow circle, gripping the croquet mallet so hard he was sure the grain of the wood was permanently imprinting itself onto his palms. “God, w-what she’s done to this place. . . .”

“Why do I get the feeling you wouldn’t hate her quite so much if she hadn’t come from Wonderland Park?” Alice said, catching his elbow. “Not that I blame you – I hate her all the more for ruining the site of so many childhood memories.” She glared at the corpses of the flowers. “I’ve never liked roses much, but after today I think I’ll despise them.”

“Their manners have always left something to be desired,” Cheshire agreed. “But we’d best keep moving if we want to find Rabbit. Before he ends up in a stew for one of these monsters.”

“Yes, of course,” Victor agreed. “Where should we check next?”

“We’re closest to the hedge maze, but I’m not sure I--”

Something white suddenly came bounding along at top speed over a hill near them. Victor spun and raised his mallet, ready to strike if need be – then lowered it. “Rabbit!”

“There you are!” Alice said, running to meet him. “We’ve been looking for you all over! Have you seen--”

“No time, no time!” Rabbit screamed, racing past them. “He’s coming! If we’re late now, we’ll be late forever!”

“He?” Victor repeated.

“The Executioner!”

“The Executioner?” Alice repeated. “The Knave of Spades? Has the Queen really twisted him--”

As if summoned by Rabbit’s words, a large shape loomed over the hill. Victor’s jaw dropped. Chasing after Rabbit was – was the most monstrous Card Guard of them all. His body seemed to be a stitched up-mess of a number of other cards, all with a different suit displaying. One foot and hand were black, their mates red. The head appeared to be styled after what you saw on the Joker card, covered by a hat sporting two red and black-striped horns. What little of the face that could be seen under it was dull brown and skull-like. But the worst part was that the creature seemed to be infested with some of the Queen’s tentacles. They curled and wriggled out of his shoulders and back, one wrapping itself around his neck like a ruff. He even had two little ones extending out of the eye holes of the mask. And I thought the small undead ones were horrible, Victor thought, backing up a few steps. This one – this one’s definitely the evillest of them all.

The Executioner seemed to spot them down below, despite his lack of eyes (perhaps he could smell them, like Jabberspawn?). He let out a loud, deep cry and lifted the scythe he carried high. Alice immediately grabbed her teapot cannon. “I’m not afraid of you!” she roared. She charged the cannon to its maximum power, jerking back as it finally fired a pocket watch grenade filled with Kaboom Tea. Even before the missile had landed, she had changed cannon for pepper grinder and was pelting the monster with rapid-fired pepper corns.

The Executioner barely seemed to notice her assault, stomping over the ground like he was an Automaton clothed in iron. Alice stepped backward, eyes widening, as her grinder overheated. Quickly she pulled her cards and threw a few – they just stuck, unnoticed, in his flesh. A toss of some jacks produced much the same result. “Oh – I’m an idiot!” she said, turning to run after Rabbit. “Don Quixote had a better chance with his windmills! And with less risk of decapitation!”

“A prudent exit is no less so for being hasty!” Cheshire declared, racing ahead of them and just keeping pace with the terrified Rabbit.

Victor managed to tear his eyes away from the Executioner and follow after, panting. He heard the evil creature behind them laugh, then a strange sound like – like something sharp whistling through the air, and tearing through dirt. He risked a look back. The Executioner was following after them at a steady pace, now spinning his terrible scythe in his hands. Perhaps he’d been inspired by Alice’s windmill comment. “Go, go, go!” he urged his friends.

Not that they needed much urging. They’d all heard the sound, and if they didn’t know exactly what it was, they sure as hell knew the source. Everyone poured on more speed, regardless of weariness or injury. Victor tried desperately to think of a safe place they could hide. Not the forest – that scythe could probably chop down trees as easily as a farmer’s scythe cut wheat. Not the Pool of Tears – the Snarks would make quick work of them even if the Executioner couldn’t swim. Not Looking-Glass House – that was where all the trouble was coming from, if he understood Cheshire correctly. Could they possibly get underground? Were the mining gnomes that lived below being ravaged by the Queen too?

He was distracted by his thoughts by Alice suddenly spinning around and whipping off her backpack. “Alice?” he gasped.

“Trust me!” Alice said, wrenching the pack open and emptying its contents on the ground. “Better yet, help me get these wound up!”

Victor looked up at the approaching Executioner. “Do you think we’ll have time?” he said, hurrying over and grabbing a Jackbomb.

“I don’t care – this has to do something to him,” Alice growled, winding up Clockwork Bombs (which looked oddly like little versions of the White Rabbit) and dropping them on the ground in a line. “Just wind as many as you can, then run like the fires of Hell are at your heels!”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?!” Victor wound his Jackbomb, then picked up another –

Just as the twirling blade of the scythe knocked the various explosives aside. Moments later, the blunt end hit Alice, knocking her back with a cry. Victor felt his heart skip a beat. “Alice!”

The Executioner stopped his twirling and laughed again. Then he raised the scythe high and swung. Alice just barely evaded the sharp blade, looking a little dazed. The Executioner moved to the side a little and readied to swing again –

And the bombs went off in the various bits of land they’d been knocked into, distracting him. Victor grabbed Alice’s arm and thrust her behind him. His eyes took in with growing anger the developing bruise across her temple. Before he even knew what he was doing, he wound the Jackbomb he still held, then threw it with all his might at the Executioner’s face. “Hey!”

The Executioner turned to him just as the Jackbomb popped, and got a face full of flame for his trouble. He roared in anger and swatted the bomb away in a stream of fire. Victor took advantage of the distraction to grab his croquet mallet and a rock. He tossed the rock like a croquet ball, and hit it as hard as he could. It sailed up and landed with a soft “splat” in the monster’s leg. Victor searched for another rock, hoping to cripple it further.

Alice grabbed his arm. “Victor! What say we take advantage of the opportunity to escape with our lives?” she said, forcing him to look up at her.

Victor blinked. Then sense came rushing back in, reminding him that it would take a lot more than one Jackbomb and some rocks to take down this creature. The damn thing’s face wasn’t even burnt. He’d just been so angry when this thing had hurt his Alice. . . . “Right, sorry, let’s--”

One huge red hand reached down and seized him about the waist. Victor screamed as he was torn away from his girlfriend, and the ground in general. “AAHHH! NO! NO! ALICE! ALICE!”

“VICTOR! NO!”

The Executioner turned him around and glared at him with sightless eyes. Victor felt a gradually increasing pressure around his middle. He squirmed, wondering if the creature intended to see if he’d pop, or if he was just interested in crushing him. Either way was a horrible death. No no not now please God help

The Executioner suddenly went still except for the endlessly-writing tentacles. He turned his head, as if listening to some unseen call. Then, sparing one last one-handed swing for Alice (who was attempting to assault his foot with her Vorpal Blade – she just managed to leap out of the way, and fell over her own feet in doing so), he turned and started making his way toward the front of the park.

Toward Looking-Glass House, Victor realized with horror. “No! No, I don’t want to go there!” he cried, pounding ineffectively on the fingers imprisoning him. “Put me down!”

The Executioner just laughed, then transferred him to one of the tentacles extending from its shoulder. It wrapped around him from the feet up in a vise grip, offering no chance for escape. Victor sent one terrified look back, to see Alice getting slowly to her feet, looking lost and afraid.

Then there was nothing but suffocating, blinding pink.


Alice watched the Executioner stomp off through watery eyes. “No,” she whispered, reaching out a hand. This couldn’t be. Victor couldn’t be trapped by that – that thing. Any moment now he’d come running back to her saying how he’d managed to get away and they’d kiss and despite all the horror around them everything would be all right –

“Alice?” The Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit came up beside her, having finally noticed their humans’ absence. “If you want any chance at saving him, you can’t just stand there like a statue.”

“Let’s get out of the park, gather all our friends,” Rabbit agreed, shifting from foot to foot as if standing still physically hurt. “We’ll storm the house, kill the Queen. . . .”

And by then Victor could be dead, Alice thought, ignoring the rest. She blinked, feeling the tears trickle down her face. I’ll have lost him. Like I lost Mother and Father. Everyone I love dies violently – unnaturally. Why go on? I’ll just hurt others!

Cheshire nudged her leg hard. “No time for self-pity,” he scolded her. “Nothing was ever solved with tears. Evade these savage soldiers, and find your allies!”

Alice barely heard him. She just couldn’t take her eyes away from the receding form of the Executioner. And Victor, trapped in that pink tentacle, being taken from her, and – and –

NO.

The tears dried up as her eyes narrowed. No, it would not happen. The Queen would not have her beloved. She would not steal the best thing to happen to her in God knew how many years! She whipped around, causing Cheshire and Rabbit to start back. “You find the others,” she said, voice low and dangerous. “Gather everyone you can find at Looking-Glass House. We are taking her down.”

“All right, but – w-what will you be doing?” Rabbit stammered.

“I’ll be back shortly. There’s an errand I need to run.” With that, she turned and ran back toward the gates. Oh yes – she was going to show this Queen a thing or two. And all it would take was that little surprise back in her room. The one that she’d hesitated to bring, if only because she thought the collateral damage it would cause would be too great, even for this war.

It wasn’t too great now. Hold on, Victor. I’m coming for you.

Chapter Text

March 16th, 18–

Secundus, England

3:20 P.M.

“Holy shit. . . .”

“I don’t think there’s anything religiously significant about this particular pile of feces, Marty,” Doc said, holding tight to his gun as he looked at Looking-Glass House. And at the mass of tentacles extending from the windows and roof. “Great Scott. . . .”

“I don’t think there’s any great Scotts around either,” Rabbit said, pulling at his ears nervously. “Though we could use a few, don’t you think?”

“Probably,” Doc said. His gaze turned to the growing crowd of people gathering around the outside of the house. “Then again, considering you and Cheshire seem to have brought the entire population of Secundus here, perhaps we do have a couple lurking about.”

“Alice said to gather everyone we could find,” Rabbit pointed out. “And quite a lot of people wanted to see for themselves what was happening.”

“Fair enough – we were headed in this direction anyway ourselves,” Doc said, watching one tentacle lazily swipe the air. His stomach turned. “And – and you say Victor’s in there?”

“That’s where Alice said the Executioner was taking him,” Rabbit nodded. “I see no reason to doubt her.”

“Where the hell is Alice, anyway?” Marty said, looking around. “It’s her boyfriend in trouble – you think she’d be the first one here!”

“She said she had to run an errand. If you’d seen the expression on her face, you would have let her go as well.”

“Doc! Marty!”

The pair turned to see Sir Christopher and Richard jogging up to them. “Have you seen Victoria? Or Emily? Or Victor?” Christopher demanded, breathing hard. “Damn fool boy ran off before we could catch up, and then we got further delayed by the largest group of Card Guards yet!”

“Along with a few Red Chess Pieces,” Richard added. “We hadn’t realized she’d made them join up as well. I wonder if we’ll be seeing any Whites?”

“I think the only White Knight we’ll see is fortunately the one on our side,” Doc said, patting Sir Christopher’s shoulder. “I get this feeling the Queen prefers red troops. To answer your questions from before, no, we haven’t seen any of them.”

“Rabbit tells us Victor’s probably stuck in this hellhole, though,” Marty added, pointing at the house. “Got himself captured by some sort of monster Card Guard called the Executioner.”

“What?! How?” Sir Christopher demanded. “I was getting the impression that boy could outrun anything.”

“He made a grand exit, at any rate,” Rabbit said, a hint of pride in his voice. “He threw a Jackbomb right into the monster’s face for hurting Alice.”

“Really?” Sir Christopher shook his head, his expression half-exasperated, half-fond. “And he claims that he’s not brave. . . .”

“Brave or not, he’s in a lot of trouble,” Doc said. “We’ve got to figure out how to get him out of that house before the Executioner – or worse, the Queen – does anything to him.”

Richard eyed the edifice, twisting his teapot cane in his hands. “You don’t think Emily and Victoria could be in there?” he asked softly. “The Queen stealing away easy targets? People have said tentacles have tried to snatch them up and pull them away. . . .”

“Oh God, I hope not,” Sir Christopher said, looking ill. “What would the Queen want with them anyway?”

“Probably just to make examples of,” Doc said, then winced. “Sorry, that was thoughtless.”

“But unfortunately true,” Sir Christopher said with a grimace.

“What in God’s name is going on around here?”

An extremely tall woman with her hair done up in a bun that looked like it should snap and fall over angrily hurried past them, holding tightly to the tattered remains of her skirts. Beside her, an extremely short and fat man waddled along, trying to keep up. “I’ve never seen such a conglomeration of--”

“Lord and Lady Everglot!” Sir Christopher cried, looking almost relieved. “Oh, tell me you’ve seen your daughter!”

“Whoa, they’re Victoria’s parents?” Marty said, looking the woman up and down.

She’s not adopted,” the man – Lord Everglot – immediately said, rolling his tiny eyes. “If you people must know, she looks like an aunt of mine.”

“We haven’t! What have you done with her?” Lady Everglot said, glaring at Sir Christopher.

“What have I done with her?! I’m trying to save her, you miserable woman!” Sir Christopher yelled, finally losing his temper. “I’m scared to death something awful’s happened to her!”

“Something has,” said a gravelly voice Doc instantly recognized as Bonejangles. The large-jawed skeleton made his way up to them, carrying a small, bright green maggot. “This guy was around when it happened. Apparently looking for a free meal from Emily,” he added, doing his best to give the creature a frown.

“She’s given me a bit off the wrist before,” the maggot protested. “And it wasn’t a free meal, it was a place to hide! Everyone rushing around, all those feet pounding the streets – it isn’t safe for a poor little maggot!”

“What did you see?” Richard demanded, leaning down to do his best to look the creature in the eye.

“I’d just found Emily with this other girl – grey-brown hair in a bun, big blue eyes? Wearing a tatty old red gown?”

“That gown cost us quite a few pounds,” Lord Everglot snapped. Doc thought he saw a trace of worry in his eyes – though whether it was for his daughter or her dress, he couldn’t say.

“That’s Victoria,” Sir Christopher confirmed. “What happened?”

“Emily got grabbed by some of those tentacles that are all over the place,” the maggot said, lowering his eyes. “And that Victoria girl got dragged in with her. I think she was trying to rescue Emily.”

“Foolish girl! Risking herself for a Reanimated!” Lady Everglot cried. “Finis, what shall we do?”

“What can we do?” Lord Everglot replied – and now he did look frightened, instead of his customary annoyed. “Even I know my musket isn’t any good against something like this!”

“All too true, Lord Everglot,” Sir Christopher said, face rather white. “Oh Victoria. . .she must be so scared. . . .”

“And Emily too!” Richard said. “We’ve got to find them, save them, do something!”

“If you want to get yourself killed – if that’s the word we use with things like you – going in after them, be my guest,” Lord Everglot snapped. “Doesn’t this horrible city have a police force?”

“Yes, but from what I’ve heard, a lot of them have been incapacitated or even killed,” Doc said. “And the rest generally do let the local Touched population deal with threats like these. Granted, I’ve never seen one on this scale, and neither has anyone else I’ve talked to. . . .”

YOU!

Doc nearly jumped out of his skin as someone grabbed his elbow and wrenched him around. “Some cat who hasn’t had enough to eat told me I ought to come here because my son’s been taken away to die in some lunatic’s house filled with tentacles!” Nell Van Dort screamed at him. “This is all your fault! If you hadn’t kept him here, he’d be properly married in a proper town! Not food for tentacle monsters!”

Doc didn’t argue with her – she did have a point. “Mrs. Van Dort, believe me, I am so sorry your son is in danger,” he said. “And we’re going to do whatever we can to save him. And your daughter, and Emily,” he added to the Everglots.

“Me, I’m just glad you seem to give a crap,” was Marty’s response. “I was starting to think you only thought your son was good for marrying up.”

“Such language around women!” Lady Everglot gasped.

“Oh stuff it, the world’s going to hell! I think if there was ever a time to say ‘crap’ around women--”

“Marty, please, don’t antagonize them further,” Doc groaned.

“All right, who’s in charge here?”

Every head whipped around, eyes going wide and jaws dropping. Doc’s head was no different. “Lady Heterodyne!”

Lady Agatha Heterodyne stood in front of the crowd, holding one of her famous superweapons and frowning. Beside her was Baron Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, hair mussed and hand clutching his famous Lighting Cane. “What have one of you done this time?” Lady Heterodyne demanded, gesturing with her gun (a few people dropped to the ground, just to be on the safe side). “We come in to make a visit to the city, and we find tentacles all over the place?”

“It’s something about a Queen of Hearts, Lady,” a voice called. “She’s trying to take over!”

“And doing too good a job of it,” Baron Wulfenbach muttered, looking around. “I assume you’re all gathered here because this is the source of the ‘infection,’ as it were?”

“Certainly seems to be,” another voice said. This one Doc vaguely recognized as the Viking Fishlegs from Berk. “We did some aerial reconnaissance, and I’d say there’s a 98.9% chance this is where everything is coming from.”

“Aerial what now?” a third voice said, sounding badly confused.

“Flying over it before we tried attacking it, Snotlout.”

“Oh.”

“We’re hoping to do something to stop her, Your Baronship,” Richard said, politely tipping his hat. “Any ideas?”

“Well, it wouldn’t take us long to get one of our airship fleet over here and proceed to take care of the problem permanently from the air--”

“No, wait!” Hiccup Haddock III rushed out of the crowd, followed closely by Toothless. “We already tried that, and more importantly, my girlfriend’s in there!”

“So’s my dog!” wailed the voice of Wallace Park. Doc turned to see a sight he never thought he’d see in his life – Wallace crying. The shock of it struck him to the core. “Oh, poor Gromit. . . .”

“Flint! Has anyone seen Flint?!”

Samantha Lockwood came running up, Steve the monkey perched on her head. “He got taken by the tentacles too!” she cried, tears streaming down her face behind her glasses. “And if no one’s seen him, then--”

“Oh Odin and Thor, Flint too?!” Hiccup said, running a frantic hand through his hair. “Oooh, this could only be worse if they’d gotten you, buddy.” Toothless rumbled and nosed him.

“My daughter is in there!” Lady Everglot yelled, pointing at the house with one long, sharp finger. “You cannot do whatever it is you’re planning while she is!”

“I think the technical term is ‘nuke it from orbit,’” Richard said. “But – to my everlasting surprise – I agree with her! My Emily’s in there too! You can’t condemn her to death again! We only just found the guy who killed her the first time! Here’s hoping one of those Snarks ate him,” he added quietly.

“We appreciate everyone’s concern, and of course we want to get all hostages out safely,” Lady Heterodyne started, holding up her hands.

She took Victor.”

The crowd fell silent, all eyes turning to the figure marching slowly up to them. Alice Liddell looked angrier than anyone had ever seen her before, her eyes alight with cold, calculating rage. In her hands she held the biggest gun Doc had ever seen. “Whoa, what is that?” Marty whispered, staring.

“Looks like a blunderbuss,” Lord Everglot said, mouth hanging open. Doc could swear the lord was drooling just a little.

“Alice?” Richard said, arching an eyebrow. “What are you doing with that?”

Alice ignored him. “And I am not leaving him in there,” she continued, raising the gun toward the wall behind them all. “Out of my way.”

“Wait, wait, Alice!” Richard cried, waving his hands frantically and nearly upsetting his hat. “I only finished that about two months ago! We never even got a chance to test it properly!”

“We’re damn well testing it now! MOVE!

The crowd burst apart, people running in every direction except the one she planned to shoot in. Alice took aim and squeezed the trigger.

The world seemed to explode for a moment, filling with brilliant red fire and choking white smoke as what appeared to be a cannonball tore through brick and wood. As the air slowly cleared, Doc could see a huge, gaping hole in the side of the house. Alice herself was sprawled out on her backside, having been knocked back by the force of the blast. She sprang back to her feet, dropped the spent gun, and pulled out her Vorpal Blade. Before anyone could say a word, she’d disappeared into the hole.

There was a silence that felt longer than it lasted as the crowd looked after her. Someone finally commented. “She’s very brave.”

“More suicidal,” Marty muttered. “I wouldn’t go in there without backup.” He looked up at Doc, his blue eyes questioning.

Doc looked down at him and nodded once. He’d decided on his course of action almost the second he’d seen Alice enter the opening. Victor was his friend, his responsibility – and if he was in there. . . . Marty nodded back, and together they rushed inside. “Hey! Alice! Wait up!”

“Don’t you dare think you’re going in there without us!” Richard yelled. “Sir Christopher?”

Sir Christopher looked at Lord and Lady Everglot. “I swear, I will get your daughter out safely, or die trying,” he told them. Then, before they could respond, he turned to Richard. “Let us be off! Calloo! Callay!” he cried, and raced into the house, his friend at his side.

“Well, as long as we’re going on rescue missions. . . .” Hiccup swung himself up onto Toothless. “Think they could use a little extra firepower, bud?”

Toothless nodded and growled, flicking his ears. “Exactly. Let’s go!”

“Be careful, Hiccup!” Sam called after him as they galloped inside.

“Steve!” Steve added, bouncing up and down anxiously.

“The rest of you, stay out here!” Lady Heterodyne promptly called. “That’s enough heroics for one day!”

The rest of the crowd nodded, not that any of them looked eager to move anyway. Agatha nodded, then turned to Gil. “How long should we give them?” she asked quietly.

“Two hours, two and a half at the outside,” he replied, stroking the top of his Lightning Cane. “That’s how long it’ll take to set up the Atmospheric Electrical Generators anyway.”

“Right. You’ve got to figure out a way to keep those from melting, incidentally.”

“I know, I know. . . .”


“You have him?” A growl. “Show me the prisoner.”

The tentacle unwound, and Victor flopped onto the floor, gasping like a fish out of water. He squeezed his eyes shut, not really interested in what was around him. Did it really matter anyway? He was sure he was about to die. He recognized that voice, after all – it was the same one that had screamed, in essence, “surrender or die.” And since, even now, he had no intentions of surrendering. . . . Hopefully it won’t be too painful.

“Oh. So this is Victor?”

“Yes, my Queen.”

Victor’s eyes snapped open. “Barkis?” he wheezed, getting up on his elbows and looking around. A moment later, he wished he’d kept his eyes closed – the entire room was made up of pink flesh, pulsing gently to some unseen heartbeat. Not what he wanted to see before he died.

“Lord Bittern, if you please, Master Van Dort,” Barkis’s oily voice said. Victor finally saw him, standing by the side of an enormous and terrifying throne. He kept his eyes focused on the figure of the disgraced lord, not wanting to look at what sat upon the chair. “Well, well, we meet again. And your little Alice is not here to protect you.”

“What are you doing?” Victor demanded. “You’re – you’re helping--

“A mutually beneficial arrangement,” Barkis said with a smile. “She’s giving me a small fiefdom when all this is over. And the title of Grand Duke. And the pick of practically any women I want in this city. Not that I’m sure I’ll want any,” he added, making a face.

“I did find that Miss Everglot you mentioned,” the Queen said. A tentacle waved into Victor’s view – he did his best to ignore it. “And that Miss Cartwell, if you’d prefer her.”

“Frankly, I’d prefer to see them both dead, if it’s all the same to you,” Barkis replied, looking up at her with a servile smile. “By my own hand, if at all possible.”

“I certainly don’t mind. I think I’ll let them and the other prisoners wander a bit. Let them think they can make a difference before we crush them utterly. I think the screams sound better then.”

“You always have the best ideas,” Barkis said smarmily.

“Yes, I know. Now, for Victor here. . . .”

A tentacle suddenly wound itself around his waist. Victor cried out and tried to cling to the ground as he was lifted up. But the Queen’s grip was unrelenting, and he soon found himself face to face with the monarch. Or, well, face to mask, he quickly realized. Oh God, it’s hideous, he thought, shivering. But how much more horrible does she look like underneath?!

The Queen studied him with her piercing red eyes. “Well,” she said after the longest moment of Victor’s life, “I think I can see why Alice likes you. You are rather handsome.” A smaller tentacle reached out and caressed his cheek – Victor turned his head, making a face. “Too handsome for the likes of her.”

“My Queen?” Barkis said, sounding quite confused. “I thought – you’re not going to kill him?”

“No, I don’t think so,” the Queen said, turning Victor over to study him from different angles. Victor felt like a particularly interesting specimen under a microscope. I do hope none of my insects felt like this when I put them in the bell jar. “I’ve a much better idea.” She flipped him back upright. “One that involves some very painful mutations to put him into the proper shape. And frame of mind,” she added with a disturbingly girlish giggle.

“Oooooh,” Barkis said, and Victor could now see him smirking. “Interesting. . . .”

“And you may do the honors, Barkis, if there is any surgery needed,” she added, handing Victor back to the Executioner. “As it is, our guest may stay in comfort.” She waved a tentacle. “Take him to Lewis’s lab. He may appreciate the familiar surroundings – and it’ll make it easier when we start.”

“Lewis! What have you done to him?!” Victor demanded, as the Executioner growled his understanding.

“What he deserved,” the Queen replied, voice cold. “You should be grateful, Victor. I’m letting you live.”

“At what price?”

He somehow fancied that horrific painted-on smile grew. “Most men would kill to be a king.” She gestured idly with her hand. “Take him away.”


“YAAAAAAH!”

Astrid tackled the startled Snark and hacked at it with all her might. The fish died nearly instantly, but she kept up the attack, just needing to feel the familiar shock in her hands as blade met flesh with a “thunk.” Attacking and killing things gave her some much-needed grounding in this place. It was something she was good at – something she could depend on.

Which is a good thing, in this place, she thought, finally ceasing her assault. I can’t count how many times we’ve been attacked since we got sucked in there. Damn it, why didn’t I tell Yellowspike to stay higher, out of the way of those stupid tentacles?

She shook her head. What had happened, had happened. It didn’t do to waste time on regrets. She had to deal with the here and now. She looked behind her. “How you doing, Gromit?”

The brown dog gave her a thumbs up, though she could see a trace of frustration in his eyes. She figured she knew why too – the poor dog probably felt like a damsel in distress. From what she understood of the stories of Wallace and Gromit’s antics, Gromit was used to being on the “saving people” side of things. “I’m sorry, boy,” she said, patting his head as he padded closer. “It’s my fault you’re in this mess. I do appreciate you trying to get me out of there, though.”

Gromit nodded and patted her shoulder in return. Astrid grinned at him. “We’ll find something for you to whack these guys with soon enough. She can’t have changed everything into some sort of--” She looked at the walls. “Flesh,” she finished, with a grimace and shudder. “Ugh, and I thought that Queen Dragon was the most horrible thing I’d ever see. This Queen’s capable of making a Viking want to throw up.”

Gromit nodded again, looking quite sympathetic. Astrid shook her head again. “Well, whatever. We’ll get out of here.”

Gromit tilted his head, a question in his eyes. “No, not ‘or dying trying,’” Astrid said, hefting her axe. “Honorable death in battle is fine, but I can’t leave Toothless to be the only one to look after Hiccup. And what would your owner do without you?”

Gromit tilted his head in the other direction and nodded, slightly rolling his eyes. Astrid laughed. “Yeah – we gotta get ourselves out of here in one piece, if only for Wallace’s sake. Too bad he couldn’t--”

A shadow at the other end of the hall they were in suddenly caught her attention. She fell silent, immediately switching into “battle mode” as she studied the shape. It seemed less threatening than most of the things she’d seen in here – but looks could be deceiving. Anybody who’d met a Terrible Terror knew that intimately. Motioning to Gromit for silence (and then wondering why the hell she’d done that when Gromit gave her a significant eyebrow raise), she crept up to the corner, axe at the ready. The figure was definitely drawing closer now – did she run out on the offensive, or wait for it to come to her?

Offense, of course, she thought, grinning. I’m a Viking. She leapt out, axe raised high. “YAAAH!”

“HAI!”

Astrid’s jaw dropped. “Flint?!”

“Astrid!” Flint dropped his hands, sagging in relief. “Oh, am I ever glad to see you! Well, sort of – how the hell did you get trapped in this place?”

“Unlucky tentacle,” Astrid said, trying to wrap her head around the fact that one of her boyfriend’s human best friends had suddenly appeared before her. “You?”

“About the same,” Flint admitted. “One of them tried to take Sam, but after I attacked it with nachos, they must have decided I was the greater threat.” He grimaced. “Oh man, I hope she’s all right. And Steve. And Manny. And everybody!”

“I hear you,” Astrid said, grimacing. “I’m hoping nobody else got knocked out of the sky. I mean, I can’t see the Queen laying a tentacle on Toothless, but Horrorcow’s always looking like she’s gonna tip Fishlegs off anyway. . .” She looked around. “So, you’re in the same boat as me? Wandering around, avoiding monsters, and wondering why the hell you weren’t just killed?”

“All except the last one,” Flint said. “I’m trying very hard not to wonder that. Because, between you and me, I don’t like what my imagination comes up with.”

Astrid shuddered. “Me either.” She smiled and patted his arm. “Well, you can stick with us now.”

“Us?”

Gromit padded around the corner cautiously, looking worried. “Oh, Gromit!” Flint reached down and scratched his ears, which got a happy nose wrinkle. “You too, huh?”

“Got pulled in trying to stop me from being pulled in,” Astrid admitted, feeling just a touch embarrassed. She hated it when she had to be saved. She hated it even more when she failed to be saved. “There’s safety in numbers.”

“Especially when number one is you,” Flint agreed, looking at her axe. “Tell me – when Hiccup inevitably comes in looking for you, will he be saving you from the monsters or the monsters from you?”

Astrid laughed. “Let’s try and make it the latter, shall we?” she said with a vicious smile. “Come on, we’ll try to find you guys some weapons. Incidentally, what was with that pose you threw up when I startled you?”

“Uh – karate?”

“Ka-ra-what?”

“Eastern martial art. I took some classes from an immigrant from China. Was – never very good.”

“Just tell me you’re good at hitting things with a heavy object.”

“Who isn’t?”

“Good point. Let’s go.”


Elsewhere in the house, a school of Snarks roamed the halls, snapping at each other on occasion. Their thought processes could have been summed up like this: Hungry. Hungry. Hungry. They hadn’t found anyone to eat, and, while they were fairly stupid creatures overall, they had taken the lesson of what had happened to some other Snarks who had tried nibbling on the walls to heart. None of them wanted to be smashed into paste, so it was off to find alternate sources of nourishment.

Suddenly, one spotted a human shape approaching them in the gloom. It screamed, attracting the attention of its fellows. They all let out happy cries as they saw the potential source of meat. Sure, the human was skinny, and was missing a leg, but he was food, and that was all that mattered. They ran at him, jaws snapping wildly.

They might have, before doing this, taken into account the fact that the human appeared to be seated on something nearly invisible. Or the pair of green eyes seemingly floating in the darkness, which narrowed into slits as they came near. Or the smell of a strange gas lingering in the air. But, as has been stated, they were fairly stupid creatures, and slaves to their bellies. None of that mattered when there was a human to rip to shreds.

Or, at least, it didn’t matter until they were hit by the blast of green fire.

The Snarks screamed, thrashing and running, trying to escape fiery death. A few managed to counteract the flames with their own ice breath, but that provided little protection from the rows of sharp teeth that the darkness in front of them sprouted. Within moments, every Snark in the school lay dead, either roasted to a crisp or chewed to pieces.

Hiccup, slightly singed by the fire’s back draft, patted his dragon’s neck. “Good work, Toothless.”

Toothless rumbled happily, then picked up a Snark and bit it in half, looking thoughtful. After a moment, he made a face and horked the fish back up. “Ew,” Hiccup said, looking at the remains of the once-vicious creature. “Guessing they don’t taste good?”

Toothless hissed and grumbled, shaking his head with his tongue sticking out. “Sheesh, worse than eel?” A nod. “Wow. Guess we’ll have to try elsewhere for a snack, bud.”

Toothless shrugged, an action that involved his entire spine, then looked up at Hiccup, worry in his green eye. Hiccup stroked his ear. “We’ll find ‘em, Toothless,” he said. “If I know Astrid, all we have to do is follow the blood trail.”

Toothless barked in laughter and nodded. Rider and dragon set off again, ready to take on the next challenge.


“Okay, she was out of sight for what, ten seconds?”

“Closer to a minute,” Doc said, looking around in disgust at the flesh creeping along the walls. “But that’s still a rather short amount of time for her to have disappeared like this.”

“She must be really worried about Victor,” Richard said, eying a fleshy pustle on the ground. “Not that I blame her, I’m worried about him too.”

“We all are,” Doc said, shivering. “Damn, he must be so scared right now. . .I don’t even want to know what it looks like farther inside.”

“Me either,” Marty nodded, making a face. “What’s with this Queen and all the meat?”

“Maybe she’s trying to make Looking Glass House into an extension of her body,” Sir Christopher postulated. “She’s already probably modified those tentacles of hers. Which wouldn’t be hard, given the potions and such Lewis had – has lying around.”

There was a moment of silence. “Do – do you think we’re going to find him?” Marty finally dared to ask, biting his lower lip.

“We’ll probably find at least part of him,” Richard said, lowering his eyes. “But I think she got rid of any part that objected to her plans.”

“I just hope we don’t have to fight him,” Doc said, feeling his stomach turn at the very thought. “Or Victor. Or anyone else she’s captured.”

“You really think she might try and – turn ‘em?” Marty whispered.

“It would fit with what we’ve seen of her. I’m quite sure those Card Guards and the Chess soldiers Richard and Christopher saw didn’t join her service willingly.”

Marty shuddered. “Damn it, Doc, there’s no way I could – he’s our friend. . . .”

“And he’d make a pretty lousy soldier,” Richard said. “Don’t give me those looks, he would! Can you really see Victor fighting?”

“No, but a version of him like the Card Guards would be dangerous,” Doc said, checking his rifle. “And, frankly, you could say the same thing about Victoria and Emily.”

Now it was Richard’s turn to shudder. “Don’t. Implying it is bad enough.” He looked down the hall. “Well, we’re not doing any rescuing by standing around. Shall we go show this Queen she kidnapped what one might term the wrong group of people?”

“I am all for that,” Marty said.

“And if we can find Alice on the way, so much the better,” Doc said, as they began their cautious trek deeper into the house.

“Oh, finding Alice will be easy,” Sir Christopher deadpanned. “I’m sure the monsters will be begging us to save them from her soon enough. I’m more worried about Victoria and Emily. Those poor girls must be scared out of their minds.”


“The barricade’s not going to hold much longer!”

Victoria paced the room she and Emily had taken shelter in frantically. It looked like a guest bedroom of sorts. For the most horrible of guests, she added, grimacing at the veiny look of the walls. She was getting quite queasy, looking at all this flesh growing where it shouldn’t. “There must be something else we can add to it!” she said, scanning the room frantically.

“We’ve used all the furniture!” Emily pointed out, pointing at their makeshift wall. Piled there were armchairs, end tables, the bed, and an occasional table Victoria had found folded in the closet. It had been hard and sweaty work to move it all, but defending your space against no less than three Boojums and some sort of horrible mermaid-figure squid-thing with chains for tentacles and a healthy scream of her own had given the girls strength. “Unless you want to try ripping out the fireplace. . .”

Victoria was honestly wondering if they could. What else could they do? She couldn’t see any hope of escape – the only other door out was locked, and a thorough examination of the room had not turned up any keys. She’d hoped the horrors outside would lose interest and leave them at peace in this little realm of – perhaps not safety, but quiet. But apparently they were very intent on having her live flesh and Emily’s Reanimated organs for tea. They had to get out or hide or something, but how?

And then her eye fell on the fireplace poker.

The rather sharp, very sturdy fireplace poker.

She snatched it up and darted for the locked door. “What are you up to?” Emily asked, jumping as the barricade shuddered under another assault of howling.

“Breaking the lock! Try and keep them from getting in until I do!” Victoria lifted the poker high, then brought it down sharply right above the heavy iron lock. The slash in the wood the poker caused lifted her spirits, and she repeated the action. Oh Mother, you would have a fit if you saw me now, she thought giddily. Hair coming undone, dress a mess, and assaulting a door with a poker. What sort of lady am I? Another scream from outside rattled the walls. A live one, I hope!

It took a couple of stabs, but eventually Victoria was able to wedge the tip of the poker under the lock. She grimaced, pulling with all her might. It was stuck tight! She jabbed viciously at the wood around the lock a few more times, hoping to weaken it, then tried again. She felt the lock move slightly, but not enough. “Emily! Help!”

Emily rushed over and added her weight to the endeavor. Both girls strained for a long moment, pulling as hard as they could – and then, there was a loud chunk sound, and the lock broke free. Another stab disabled the mechanism entirely. “We’re free! Come on!” Victoria said, wrenching open the door and darting into the hall, poker in hand.

And almost straight into a Card Guard who had somehow gotten his hands on a sword.

She shrieked and backpedaled, bringing the poker up into a defensive position. The Guard brought his weapon down hard on it – Victoria felt her whole arm vibrate as metal struck metal. She kept a tight grip on the poker, though – it was the only weapon she had. “Back!” she cried, jabbing the Guard in the side.

The Guard let out a terrible cry and swung its sword wildly. Victoria backed out of the way again – only this time, she unfortunately stepped on what remained of her skirt. She cried out as she fell over and hit the floor hard. The Guard made a noise which she assumed was a laugh and lurched forward. Victoria glared up at it, not sure whether she was going to live or die but deciding she was not going to give the creature the satisfaction of hearing her scream either way. It grinned at her (not that it could do much else without facial muscles), pulled back its sword to stab –

There was a rush of white and blue in front of her, and a horrible noise that seemed half-scrape, half-crunch. Victoria gasped as she realized Emily had taken the blow meant for her. For a moment, she was quite worried for her friend – then Emily calmly reached up and removed the sword from her ribcage, turning it to point at the surprised Guard. “Get out,” she hissed.

The Guard, smarter than most, quickly turned tail and fled. Emily turned to face Victoria, offering a hand up. “Are you all right?”

“I may have a bruise in an – unfortunate place, but otherwise I’m fine,” she told her friend, accepting the hand. “Thank you.”

Emily grinned. “You’re welcome. And look – now we’re both armed,” she said, holding aloft her stolen sword.

“That we are,” Victoria said, grinning back and raising her poker in much the same manner. “Perhaps it’s time to show these beasts we’re not as helpless as we look.”


As it was, the vast majority of the monsters in the house were getting an education in not underestimating women as fighters. Alice was slicing through everything that attacked her with an almost frightening ease. And there were a lot of things attacking her – everything from Card Guards to Snarks to little leech-like creatures that went down with one swipe of her knife (or stomp of her foot). Alice was starting to suspect the Queen had some sort of grudge against her. Probably because she knows I’m the best monster-killer in the city, she thought. Though, really, Mell from Narbonics Labs comes very close – why not harass her as well? Of course, Lewis doesn’t know her very well. . .

The thought of her friend made her eyes tear up a bit. Deep in her gut, Alice knew that Lewis was dead. He would have never allowed the Queen to make the mess she had made of the park, much less of his house. The knowledge pained her deeply – he’d been one of the few people who’d known her parents. Losing him felt like losing another link to them. Not to mention he’d made the one place in the world where she felt like she could be truly happy. . . .

Grief must come later, she reminded herself. We’re on a mission here to not lose someone else. If she thinks she can take my Victor. . . She kicked open a door and looked inside. No sign of him. She sighed in deep frustration and carried on, trying again to resist tears. Losing Lewis hurt like hell, but the idea of losing Victor. . . . He’s got to be all right. He’s got to be. But damn it, Victor, where are you?


“OW!”

Victor gripped his head again, praying desperately for the pain to go away. It was a futile wish – although after a moment it lessened, the ache remained, much as it had almost since the moment he’d entered the room. Why? he begged God, looking up at the ceiling. Why torture me like this? Isn’t it enough to know that I’m in the clutches of a monster? Isn’t it enough to worry about what’s going on with my friends – my family? Is the constant headache really necessary?

There was no response. Victor sighed deeply and collapsed into a chair, looking again around the ruined lab. It was beyond depressing to see Lewis’s precious tools and glassware all ruined, but it was better than focusing on the variety of other things swirling around in his aching brain. Such as what his friends were doing. Were they all right? Had any of them been hurt – or worse, k-killed? Did they know he was in here? Well, obviously, Alice knew, but had she been able to escape and tell the others? Were they now mounting a rescue? Victor didn’t know if he wanted them to or not. On the one hand, he didn’t want to be trapped in this lab, awaiting the moment when the Queen and Barkis would come and – oh God he did not want to think about that. On the other – coming into the house would be the worst thing they could possibly do. Victor had attempted escape, only to find his way blocked very firmly by the Executioner’s blade. He was certain anyone trying to break in would get a similar reception. And the idea of any of his friends d-dying to save him. . .the idea of Alice dying to save him. . . . No, it can’t happen it won’t happen I won’t let it – ARGH!

Victor winced. “Stop it!” he cried, unable to help himself. “Please, stop it! It hurts! It hurts and I can’t think!”

That was actually the worst part. This constant ache, these jolts of pain, they were doing something to him. Doing something to his brain. He was finding it harder and harder to concentrate, because every thought he had seemed to take a wrong turn straight into blinding agony. And he didn’t understand why! It was more than being frightened, he knew that much. It was – something was happening in his head, something big, and it was pulling at him and twisting his brain and God what if the Queen had started the process already he didn’t want to be her King nothing scared him more –

He felt – he felt unbalanced, was the best way to describe it. Like he was standing with one foot on solid ground and the other in quicksand. And the quicksand was slowly but surely pulling him down, no matter how hard he tried to stay steady, no matter what he did to –

He let out a cry as a fresh spike of pain went through his head. Oh God, this was too much. He could practically feel his nerves fraying. He was terrified beyond belief and worried to death about his friends and loved ones and trying not to think about what the monster who had him in her clutches was actually going to do to him and – and something about it all kept reminding him of his recurring dream! What in the name of all that was holy did glowing butterflies have to do with –

Glowing. . .butterflies. . .

Bioluminescence.

Victor stared at the table beneath him, the pain vanishing in an instant as everything became clear. Of – of course. It was so simple, so easy! A mere chemical reaction he could figure out the formula and then it was just a matter of getting the butterfly’s own system to synthesize said chemicals and he could do that oh yes he could he knew butterflies inside and out and he could do whatever he wanted with them glowing was just the start and –

And – and what was he thinking?

Victor blinked a few times, trying to get a handle on his thoughts. For some reason he felt like they were running away from him, dashing off in a million different directions and giving birth to legions of other thoughts. Why was he suddenly so obsessed with –

And why stop with butterflies? He could do bees, he could do fireflies, he could do gnats, he could anything that crawled around on six legs. Or eight legs, why disregard the arachnids, spiders would be fascinating to tinker with as well – flying spiders! He was sure it could be done–

Who would want to do it? People probably would not appreciate flying spiders –

They never appreciated him anyway – well, Doc and Marty and Alice (sweet Alice) and the rest of his friends did, he had to admit that. But his parents and his peers and Burtonsville and the whole rest of the world hadn’t appreciated him, hadn’t cared about him. They’d completely ignored his genius his art his drive and –

Genius?! He wasn’t a genius! He was just an – an Igor, he –

He would show them, SHOW THEM ALL –

Victor rose slowly, bracing himself against the table, his legs shaking, his head pounding. The whole world seemed to be spinning around him, tilting and twisting crazily.

It’s like a whirlwind in your head. . . .

Somehow, he managed to direct his feet to the tiny washroom attached to the laboratory. He stumbled twice, but made it through the door.

The ideas come fast and furious, piling on top of each other. . . .

The washroom was dim, its lamp shattered into a million pieces, but there was just enough light coming in through its little window to see by. Victor, his entire body trembling now, jerkily turned on the sink taps and splashed his face with water in a desperate attempt to clear his head.

And it’s all you can do to keep up. . . .

It didn’t work. His mind was filled with visions of butterflies and moths, schematics and diagrams begging to be drawn, beakers and scalpels and Jacob’s ladders –

You get a little lost for a while. . . .

He looked at himself in the mirror above the sink. His face looked somehow paler than ever before. His black hair hung limp across his forehead, except where it was smashed down by his goggles, and the dark circles around his eyes were huge. And his eyes themselves – he’d swear they had an unnatural glow to them. He looked like he was going mad.

You must be, or else you wouldn’t have stayed here.

No. Not mad.

Tou-

Victor snapped his eyes shut. “No!” he said, his voice not nearly as strong or firm as he would have liked it to be. “No, it can’t be.” He opened his eyes and stared at his reflection. “I am not To--”

No. No, to say it like that would be to make it real. He took a deep breath to try and steady himself. “I do not have Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder,” he said. That was safer. Keep saying that. Make yourself believe it. “I do not have Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder. I do not have Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder! I do NOT have Atypical Scientific –

“Neural. . .Disorder?” Actually, it sounded a bit funny when you kept saying it over and over again. “I do not have Atypical – Scientific – Neural – Disorder,” he repeated, starting to giggle. “I do not have Atypical – hehe – Scientific – hehehe – Neural – hahaha – Disorder.” Now he was beginning to laugh in earnest. “I do not have – have – hahaha – I do n-not – hahaha – h-have--”

A tiny voice somewhere deep inside of him realized that there was something wrong about this sudden mirth. Then it vanished, along with all other traces of rationality, as Victor threw his head back and dissolved into laughter.

Hysterical, mad laughter.

Chapter Text

March 16th, 18–

Secundus, England

4:58 P.M.

“Damn it!”

Alice glared into the kitchen as it if had personally insulted her. Still no sign of Victor! Granted, she hadn’t been able to search the house as closely as she would have liked – having to fight monsters every five minutes prevented that – but she really thought she would have stumbled upon wherever he had been hidden by now. At the very least, I would have liked to have found the Executioner again, she thought, eyes narrowing almost to slits. I owe that bastard.

Well, as long as she was here and had a moment to herself, she might as well look for some supplies. All this running around and fighting made one hungry. She stepped cautiously into the room, blade at the ready. The kitchen was in clear disarray, with tables overturned and chairs broken, but at least the walls had been spared a flesh covering. Perhaps the Queen didn’t want to infect her food with her distinctive smell. Alice opened up the icebox, found nothing of interest except some rather moldy-looking vegetables, then tried the pantry. Most of the nonperishable food was missing too, but on one shelf there seemed to be something –

Alice’s face lit up in a mixture of shock and glee. The shelf contained a few small pieces of Eat Me cake and a couple of Drink Me bottles! I thought for sure she would have taken every piece of cake in the house to bulk up her Executioner! No matter – this is just what I need! She grabbed one of the bottles, slugged down its contents in a single gulp, and watched as the world grew to enormous size around her. She grinned and headed for the door. Stealth is now the name of the –

HIC!

Alice stumbled backward, startled at suddenly being full-sized again. She pressed a hand to her lips, baffled. Now why – Oh, damn, I should have thought more about why she’d leave such useful items behind, she thought, scowling. They must be from some defective batches. Damned if I know why Lewis decided to keep them. Then again, he really seemed to hate throwing anything away. . . She looked down at the empty bottle. How long did it keep me small for? A minute? Does it work the same with the cake? She returned to the pantry and took the tiniest nibble from a chunk of Eat Me to test. It did, shooting her head up to the ceiling within moments, then back down just as quickly. Alice sighed deeply. Now, what good does that do me?

She looked at the foodstuffs hard for a moment. Then, grabbing some parchment, she wrapped up the cakes and stuck them in an apron pocket, along with the remaining bottle of Drink Me. Might be more useful than I think. Even one minute of being giant or tiny might mean the difference between life or death. And it’s better not to let the Queen have them, defective or no. She exited the kitchen, pulling her cards out of the other pocket to fling them at a waiting Red Pawn. Back to the search. Please hold on a little longer, Victor. I’ll be there soon, I promise.


“Yah! Yah! Yah!”

“Why do you yell that every time you stab something?”

“Seems like the thing to do.”

Victoria supposed she couldn’t argue with that. She hit a leech thing squealing at her with her poker, causing it to pop. She grimaced and ducked as black goo went flying everywhere. “Ugh, why must everything be so disgusting in this house. . . .”

“I don’t know, but hopefully we won’t have to put up with it too much longer,” Emily said, stabbing the Snark on her side one last time. The fish fell over with a scream, mortally wounded. “We have to be near an exit now, don’t we?”

“I don’t know,” Victoria admitted, looking around the fleshy corridor. “I’ve lost all sense of direction. And isn’t this place supposed to be bigger on the inside?”

“I’m sticking with ‘we have to be near an exit now,’” Emily said stubbornly. “We’ve been through far too much not to be.” Her frown faded a little. “Of course, I’m starting to wonder if the outside is really any better than in here.”

“It has to be, unless she’s covered the sky with this horrible flesh,” Victoria said, eyeing the pulsing pink wall.

“Oh God, Victoria, don’t give her ideas!” Emily took her friend’s arm. “Let’s at least see what’s at the end of this hallway.”

What was at the end proved to be a fork – one corridor going left, one going right. The girls looked down each hall, frowning. “Which should we choose?” Victoria asked, holding her poker out in front of her. There were no enemies she could see, but doing so made her feel better.

“I don’t know,” Emily said, turning her head from right to left, then back again. “Either way is probably just as horrible.” She released Victoria’s arm. “How about you take a quick look down the left way, and I’ll go to the right. Once we’ve got an idea where each goes, we can meet back up and choose.”

Victoria bit her lip. “I d-don’t like the idea of leaving you,” she admitted, fiddling with her poker.

“Neither do I,” Emily said, using her free hand to twirl a lock of hair. “But it’s only for a minute or two. Down to the end of the halls, then straight back here. We’ll even be in sight of each other the whole way.”

Well, there was little that could go wrong with that plan, admittedly. Victoria nodded. “Right. Let’s go then.” The sooner they took a look, the sooner they could get back together. They split up and started walking, taking little glances back at each other as they did.

The sound of something moving beneath the floor registered in their ears a moment too late. As each spun around to warn the other, a forest of tentacles sprouted up between them, too thick and numerous for them to even see through. “Emily!”

“Victoria!” The girls ran back to the new wall. “Oh no! Let me see if I – that’s my sword! Give it back!”

Victoria, who had been on the verge of hitting a tentacle with her poker, clutched it to her chest. Another tentacle gave her a hard shove, pushing her back down the corridor. A yelp from Emily suggested the same had happened to her. “I t-think we have no choice but to keep going,” Victoria called to her, voice quavering.

“Me too,” Emily replied, her own voice shaky. “Oh, I’m so sorry. . . .”

“You couldn’t have known. Please be safe.”

“You too. Yes, yes, I’m on my way, you wretched things. . . .”

Victoria dodged another push from the tentacle, then started walking away from the wall, listening to Emily’s footsteps fade as she did the same. Both girls hesitated for a moment at the ends of their respective corridors, wishing that they had their friend by their side.

Then both girls glared at the ceiling as cruel laughter echoed throughout the house, and plunged on.


Astrid cleaved another Snark in two. “Ha! You think you’re horrible?” she mocked the corpse. “We have Terrible Terrors at home! They would eat you for breakfast!”

“Quite literally, I’m sure,” Flint agreed, poking it with the end of the candlestick they’d found to serve as his weapon. Gromit, standing beside him holding a table leg, sniffed the corpse and wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Can I say again just how glad I am that we found each other?”

“So long as you don’t distract me from my killing.” Astrid grinned viciously in the direction of a Red Bishop. This was what she liked – being able to lose herself in the bloodlust of a good fight to the death. Being able to hack up an enemy and feel absolutely certain he or she (or it) deserved every last bit of pain you’d inflicted on it. That was the one bad thing about having made peace with the dragons – you started feeling guilty about all the ones you had killed in the past. Granted, the dragons seemed very forgiving (both sides seemed to understand the other had just been trying to survive), but that didn’t lessen the ache as much as she’d like. So she appreciated the Queen sending out all these creatures that were either pure evil or obviously far too gone to save. It was very cathartic working out her frustrations on them. She screamed out a war cry and charged at the Bishop.

Only to stop short as a spurt of green flame set the thing on fire. Her eyes widened. Could it be – “Toothless?”

The black dragon’s head appeared around a corner, looking quite satisfied with himself. Hiccup appeared a moment later, slightly limping as always on his false leg. “Astrid! I had a feeling that was you,” he grinned.

“Hiccup!” Astrid slipped her axe onto her back before running forward and greeting him with a kiss. “I’m glad to see you – but what the hell are you and he doing here?” she added, giving him a little punch for good measure. “You should be outside, not stuck with us!”

“You got that backwards,” Hiccup said, rubbing his arm. “And we’re not stuck – a whole bunch of people blasted their way in. So we figured we ought to try and find out where you were before Lady Heterodyne and Baron Wulfenbach decided the best thing to do was flatten the place from the air.”

“The Heterodyne and Wulfenbach are here?” Flint said, looking astonished.

“Flint! Damn, it’s good to see you. And Gromit too – we found all of them in one go, bud,” Hiccup said, grinning at his dragon. Toothless made a happy noise and grinned back, showing his pink gums. “Man, I’m glad you’re all okay – and yeah, apparently they just arrived today. Great timing, huh?”

“They’re definitely the people I’d want backing me up in a crisis like this,” Flint said, Gromit nodding along.

“Yeah, but not flattening the house I’m currently in,” Astrid pointed out. “Did Toothless do his thing to get you in?” she added, smiling fondly at the dragon.

“Actually, no,” Hiccup admitted. “Wish I’d thought of that, though. First one in was Alice Liddell with the biggest gun I’d ever seen in my life.” He grinned at Astrid. “She. Was. Furious. This Queen doesn’t stand a chance.”

Gromit tilted his head, lifting his ears and furrowing his brow in a question. Hiccup, very well-versed in the ways of nonverbal communication, picked up on what sort of question immediately. “Apparently, the Queen kidnapped her boyfriend – remember that pale guy we saw with her last time we went to the Roofless, Astrid?”

“Victor!” Flint nodded. “Yeah, I stopped by their table. It was weird to see Alice all dressed up. She’s really sweet on him.” He frowned. “And the Queen took him?”

“Yup, according to Alice.”

“. . .You’re right, the Queen doesn’t stand a chance. I think we should try to escape before the explosions really start. And I know explosions.”

“I’d kind of like to see her take the bitch down – but you’re right, I’d prefer to live another day,” Astrid admitted as both Flint and Gromit gave her stern looks. “All right, Hiccup, where’s the way out?”

There was a groan down where Hiccup and Toothless had come. Boy and dragon looked back. “Well, behind that pack of Card Guards, for a start.”

Astrid smirked, pulling free her axe. “Oh, goodie.”


Razzum-frazzum tentacles just had to steal my sword from me. . .I earned that weapon fair and square. And I definitely don’t like wandering around here without it.

Truth be told, though, Emily hadn’t had much need for her lost sword lately. The hallways she’d been walking down were eerily quiet. Only once had she come across some enemies, and those had been those icky little leeches. A few stomps with her foot had taken care of them easily (though she suspected it would be harder to get the slime off her toes). She frowned thoughtfully as she turned another corner. I wonder where all the monsters went off–

GAH!

Emily ducked back around the corner, suppressing a scream. Standing not five feet away from her was the largest Card Guard she’d seen yet! Urged on by that terrible curiosity that plagues a person in peril, she took another peek. The creature actually seemed to be multiple Card Guards sewn together, topped by a joker’s head with tentacles coming out of the eye sockets. In its hands it held a huge scythe, which it was swinging from side to side idly. Well, that’s definitely the Queen’s top soldier, Emily thought, biting her lip. But why hasn’t he been chasing us? A creature like that could take anyone down with one swipe of that scythe! . . .Then again, the Queen could have just killed both of us when she dragged us in here, couldn’t she? She’s like a cat playing with a mouse – letting it run away and tire itself out before the final pounce. Emily shuddered. I hate being a mouse. No offense, Dormy.

She eyed the giant guard again, wondering if it was possible to get past him. It didn’t look like he could see – but Emily had dealt with Jabberspawn, and knew that wasn’t much of an impediment to a predator. And deep in her bones, she knew this thing was a predator. She’d have to be pretty clever to sneak by him. Maybe she could –

Wait. Was that a door behind the guard? Emily risked sticking her head out a little further. It was! Should I try to get to it? I assume he’s standing there because there’s something important inside. On the one hand, being in a room guarded by the Queen’s biggest monster might actually be the safest place in this house. After all, everything else in this place must be frightened of him – why would the halls be so empty otherwise? On the other hand – do I really want to confront whatever’s in that room if he’s needed to guard it? What if it’s the Queen herself? And me still without a weapon. . . .

Emily puzzled over the problem for a long couple of minutes. Finally, she shook her head. Even if it is the Queen in there, I’m going to try it. Maybe I can do something to her. And what’s the worst she can do? Kill me? She fought back a giggle. All right, I’ve got to do this just right. . . .

She sneaked around the corner, making sure to keep to the shadows and treading as lightly as possible. The guard didn’t seem to notice her, now too busy inspecting his scythe blade. Taking a deep and unnecessary breath, she darted across the hall to the other wall.

This motion the guard did notice – and just as she suspected, he moved forward a little to investigate. Emily took the opportunity to dash along the wall and to the door. It opened easily when she grabbed the doorknob – thank Heavens! – and she darted inside. As she slammed it behind her, she heard a grumpy snarl and the crash of what sounded like a blade being smashed into the floor just outside. She gulped, well aware of how close she had come to possible destruction. But would the bastard try to drag her out?

Fortunately, it seemed the guard didn’t actually care that much – nothing happened after the crash. Apparently she would be allowed to remain inside. Emily let herself sag against the door in relief. Whew! Now, where – am. . .I?

Emily stared. The room appeared to be a laboratory of some sort – Lewis’s, obviously. The Queen had done a number on the place – there was shattered glassware in the corners, books, papers, and journals torn and scattered about like confetti, and some broken tables and chairs. But someone had salvaged quite a bit from the wreckage – there were some petri dishes set up on one of the usable tables, and bits of a chemistry set hissing and bubbling away. Emily would have been inclined to wonder if Lewis was in fact still alive –

If it weren’t for the scribblings all over the wall.

Emily’s eyes followed the words as they traveled up and down along the wallpaper. Somebody had been writing quite rapidly, it looked like, about things she barely understood. This was something she was used to from Richard’s shop, admittedly – but Richard had never included such beautiful pictures interspersed among his equations. Flitting around all the formulae and other notes were sketches of butterflies and moths, some mid-flight, others at rest. Here and there were detailed drawings of wings and heads and legs. It was all rather pretty –

And rather familiar. Emily stepped forward, looking at a butterfly with wings fully spread above a sentence proclaiming something-or-other about “morphological instability.” She’d seen something quite like it before. In a sketchbook belonging to one Victor Van –

No, she told herself, shaking her head in disbelief. No, it couldn’t be!

But the resemblance was unmistakable. And the handwriting looked like his too. Rather more jagged than he usually wrote, with the letters bunching up and over each other, but it was still his typical long and skinny style. But why would he be writing on the walls like this? This was something a – a – It can’t be. . . .

“Emily!”

For a second, Emily would have sworn that she’d died again of shock. She spun around to find Victor standing behind her, grinning. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you!” he said, embracing her quickly. “Are the others here too? Have you come to rescue me? I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a moment, I’ve got something going here, but once I’m done--”

Emily just stared at him, unable to do anything else. It was clearly Victor in shape, but – the details were all wrong, so to speak. He was talking much faster than usual, and moving with a manic excitement she’d never seen in him before. And that smile – it was much different from his regular smiles. It threatened to split his face in two, and showed off rather more teeth than she thought he should have. (Of course, Victor smiling in a way that showed teeth was rare enough. . . .) And his eyes – there was a faint glaze to them, like Victor wasn’t really aware of the outside world. Like he was focused far more intently on something inside his own head. Emily knew that look too. But – it was impossible!

Wasn’t it?

Victor seemed to notice that she hadn’t replied to any of his ramblings. The smile faded slightly. “Emily?” he said, sounding a bit more like himself. “Are you all right?”

“I – Victor, are you all right?” Emily said weakly.

The grin came back full force. “Oh, I’m wonderful! Well, maybe not wonderful, there’s still the little matter of this Queen, but wonderful enough given the circumstances! It’s incredible, Emily, it feels like the whole world’s aglow and I have all these ideas and--” He leaned up close to her, eyes bright and wild. “I can do anything.

Emily decided the details on how Victor, of all people, could be suffering from Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder (and part of her still wouldn’t accept it – had the Queen done something to him? That seemed more logical than this) could wait. “Can – can you get us out of here?” she asked, twisting her hands together. “Only – Victoria’s in here too, and I’d really like to be able to find her and help her. . . .”

“Oh, yes, I just had an idea about that! A most fantastic idea! And you can help me test it!”

“Me?”

“Well, yes, I need a test subject and you’re the only one here, so. . . .” Victor bounced on his heels. “It’s a great idea, Emily! You’ll love it! I know you will!”

Emily had no idea what to say for a moment. This version of Victor – well, if she was honest with herself, he scared her. Just a little, but he did. It was like someone (or something) else had completely taken over his body. And the idea of being a newly Creative Touched’s test subject was – disconcerting. Yes, she’d volunteered for experiments with Richard and Dr. Finklestein, but that was different. She knew their style of madness – and knew they would never, ever hurt her. (Well, not intentionally.) And while she trusted Victor for the most part, she also knew that new Touched weren’t always the best about safety. . . .

And yet – she was tempted to say yes. Because if Victor really was Touched, then he was a certified genius. And a genius would be able to get them out of this mess, wouldn’t he? She really wanted to find Victoria and get them out of this horrible place. And – it was Victor still, wasn’t it? The madness hadn’t wiped her dear friend completely out, had it? Emily felt a sudden pang – oh, how was Alice going to take this? Something of Victor had to have survived, simply for her sake. Emily bit her lip as she wavered on a delicate balance, waiting for something to tip the scales one way or the other.

The smile lessened again. “It – it really is safe,” Victor said, touching her arm gently. “And I won’t make you do it. It would be amazing if you did, but – if you want to watch me test it on myself and take notes instead. . . .”

The scales smashed down on one side so hard they put a hole in the metaphorical desk they sat on. “I’ll do it,” Emily said immediately. She was not going to let Victor test anything on himself. She was the safer choice for test subject by a mile. After all, she was dead to begin with – what else could he do to her? And – and she really did want to trust him.

Victor’s face lit up. “You’re wonderful, Emily!” he said, hugging her again. “All right, it’s right over here, I just finished making it. . . .”

A few minutes later, the door opened just the slightest crack. The Executioner, glaring at a far wall and idly swinging his scythe again, didn’t notice.

Nor did he notice the rabble of brilliant blue butterflies that streamed out of the room and vanished back around the corner.


Victoria clutched her poker tightly to herself, fighting back tears. She hated being all alone in this wreck of a house. Things had seemed so much better with Emily by her side. True, she’d still been trapped in a horrific maze of flesh, stalked by monsters at every turn – but she’d had someone to share the load then, someone to help her fight. Someone to at least talk to. Now. . .now she felt lost and adrift, like she was caught in the tide and being pulled out to sea. Of course, Hildegarde would remind me that the sea leads to many places, she thought, looking behind her to make sure nothing was trying to sneak up on her. But I doubt this one leads to anywhere better.

“Well, hello, Miss Everglot.”

. . .Case in point. “Lord Barkis?” she said, turning around again. The disgraced noble stood in front of her, carrying a curved sword and looking very well for someone stuck in the Queen’s base of operations. Still, Victoria supposed she could spare a shred of sympathy for him if he was a fellow captive. “So she got you too?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Barkis said, running his thumb along his blade. “I met her before this whole mess started. Once you get past the tentacles, she’s actually quite the persuasive speaker.”

Victoria felt a coldness in her stomach. No, he couldn’t be – not even Lord Barkis Bittern could be that despicable. “You’re not--”

“She’s promised me quite a lot of things I like,” Barkis replied, smiling. “Land of my own, a new grand title, any woman I want in the world, the chance to revenge myself on Van Dort--” He lifted the sword. “Oh, and the chance to kill you personally. And rekill Emily, if that’s at all possible.”

And she’d considered feeling even a touch of sympathy for this man?! “You monster!” Victoria screamed, backing up and holding out her poker. “How could you?! She’s going to destroy this city!”

“The world, actually – but why should I care? The world’s never been exactly friendly to me,” Barkis replied, then eyed her weapon. “Are you really threatening me with a fireplace poker?”

“Yes,” Victoria said shortly, and proceeded to jab him in the side. Barkis yelped and jumped backward. “And if the world’s never been friendly to you, I say it’s because you’ve never been friendly to it. How many young ladies’ lives have you ruined, Lord Barkis?”

“I’m about to make it five,” Barkis snarled, and ran at her, swinging his sword. Victoria managed to deflect the blow with her poker, but just barely. The shock vibrated down her arm painfully. “Though if you’re talking strictly about the ones I killed, then you’re number four. The last one I tried to elope with got away. But I like to think the scandal ruined her reputation.”

“You’re awful,” Victoria said, trying to hit him with her poker again. He dodged out of the way and slashed at her with his sword, hitting her voluminous skirts and tearing a new rip in her dress. Better than in her skin. “You’re worse than the Queen. The Queen has the excuse of being inhuman. You – you’re just evil.”

“Yes, perhaps,” Barkis allowed. He suddenly lashed out with his foot, kicking her in the stomach and sending her sprawling onto the ground. He grinned and stood over her, raising his sword high. “But I’m going to win, aren’t I?” He lunged down –

Only for his blade to hit another, thrust suddenly between him and his target. “That’s still up for debate,” a voice growled.

“Christopher!” Victoria cried, her face lighting up.

Sir Christopher smiled down at her. “Am I glad to see you still in one piece!” Then his gaze turned back to Barkis, and his face went dark and thunderous. “No thanks to your would-be fiancé here.”

“And so the brave knight comes to rescue his princess – or his poverty-stricken lesser noble,” Barkis replied, backing up a step as Sir Christopher stepped out into the hallway properly. “Is she really worth that much to you?”

“She’s worth everything to me,” Sir Christopher said, sword raised. “Not that I would expect someone as soulless as you to understand that.”

“I may be soulless, but at least I’ll be alive when this is all over,” Barkis said, and tried to strike. Sir Christopher blocked him. “Can you say the same for yourself?”

“No, because I can’t see the future,” Sir Christopher said, slashing with his sword. Barkis parried and moved back. “But I would say probability is on my side.”

“How so?”

“I haven’t died yet, have I?” Sir Christopher countered another blow from Barkis. “And I strongly doubt I’m going to die at your hand.”

“Heh. You don’t know that for sure.” Barkis lunged again.

Sir Christopher dodged and stabbed forward, pinking Barkis’s arm. “No, but I’m 95% certain. And you don’t usually get that high a degree of certainty with anything. It also helps that I’d rather kill myself than be killed by you.”

“Oh, please do that and save me the trouble,” Barkis said, scoring a hit that clanged against Sir Christopher’s armor.

“Afraid I can’t. I promised to rescue Victoria or die trying – and committing suicide isn’t really ‘dying trying,’ is it?” Sir Christopher blocked yet another thrust. “I will say you’re a decent swordsman.”

“Thank you, I shall treasure the compliment,” Barkis said, sarcasm oozing off every word. “But I’m sure you think you’re a better one.”

“Well, yes, of course. I’ve spent more of my life training, and I have a long and illustrious career that mainly involves me killing dangerous things. It would be very hard for me to be a poor swordsman after all that.”

“So why not just kill me and get it over with?” Barkis challenged.

“Firstly, because I’ve never really liked killing other human beings, no matter how deranged or evil they are.”

“Softhearted,” Barkis sneered.

“Less than you might think,” Sir Christopher said with a pleasant smile. “My other reason is that I should leave such matters to the man standing behind you. You know, the one who’s girlfriend you actually killed.”

Barkis froze for a moment, then slowly looked up to see Richard’s face peering down at him. “Hello,” Richard said with a nasty smile. “Enjoying your little sword fight?”

Barkis spun, sword raised to slash at Richard. Richard, however, was faster, and grabbed his wrist. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t have any spare parts to repair myself at the moment.” He squeezed just a little, making Barkis yelp and drop the sword. “Now, I could blow you up with Kaboom Tea – I think everyone here would consider me quite justified. But I don’t like murder any more than Sir Christopher. Less, even, because my poor dear Emily had her life taken away from her by a scoundrel just interested in money. So I think we’ll just tie you up and drag you along and give you to Lady Heterodyne when all this is through. She’ll probably give you a nice job cleaning floors in her castle.”

“Cleaning floors in Castle Heterodyne?” Barkis cried, struggling in Richard’s iron grip. “That’s a death sentence!”

“No, it’s a job that carries a distinct risk of death, which is why they save it for the worst criminals,” Richard said, grinning even brighter. “And it’s nice and legal. And I bet the manual labor part of it will gall you even more than if we’d just had you killed! Don’t you just love justice?”

“It sounds wonderful to me,” Victoria said, regaining her feet. She rushed over to Sir Christopher and enveloped him in a hug. “I’m so glad to see you two!”

“Did you really think we’d just leave you in here?” Sir Christopher said, kissing her.

“I didn’t know if you knew I was in here at all! How did you find out?”

“Thank a little maggot that was in the right place at the wrong time,” Richard said, looking up from his captive with a frown. “Though he said you and Emily were pulled in together. Where is she?”

“We got separated,” Victoria said, feeling another pang. “Emily suggested we search different ends of a corridor, and the Queen put up a fence of tentacles to keep us apart. Oh, I’m so worried about her. . . .”

“Wasting her worry on a dead person,” Barkis mumbled. “Thank God I never had any intention of staying married to you for any length of time.”

“You know, I don’t have to deliver you to Lady Heterodyne all in one piece,” Richard said casually, squeezing Barkis’s wrist again. Then his expression turned again to concern. “Do you think that might have happened with us?”

“I sincerely hope not – we came in here with Doc and Marty,” Sir Christopher explained to Victoria. “They heard a noise in the other direction of the connecting hall here, so they went to investigate that while we went this way.”

“And it paid off!” Marty’s voice said. “Look who we found!”

The group turned to see Doc and Marty leading three other people, a dragon, and a dog down the hall. “Guess what, Barkis! We can set you on fire now if you misbehave!” Marty added with a shit-eating grin.

“Or Toothless could just chomp off a limb,” the young man sitting astride the dragon shrugged, smirking. The dragon followed suit. “Your choice.”

“And you dare accuse me of being bloodthirsty?” Barkis snapped.

“Did we? I don’t think that one came up,” Richard said, looking at Sir Christopher.

“No, I don’t believe it did either,” Sir Christopher shrugged. “But we may as well add it to the list. And in my line of work, Lord Bittern, one doesn’t get far if they show mercy to the wrong sort. We’re willing to spare your life even after discovering you’re apparently in cahoots with this Queen. I think that puts us well away from being bloodthirsty.”

“As for us,” the young blonde woman standing next to the dragon said, twirling an axe in her hands, “we’re Vikings. Occupational hazard.”

The man next to her, with some of the craziest hair Victoria had ever seen, grinned. “Isn’t this great? We’re all together! At least, I hope so.” The dog nodded, nose wrinkled in worry.

“I didn’t hear of anyone else being taken,” Doc said. “But we’re not all together yet, Flint. We still haven’t found Emily or Alice. And you think at this point we would have at least run into the latter.”

“I’m sure she’s around, if only to explain the lack of monsters in this corridor,” Richard said. “Besides the one I’m holding, of course.”

“Excuse me for wanting to live,” Barkis snarled.

“All of us would have rather died than join forces with this Queen,” Richard snapped back. “And was killing poor Emily just ‘wanting to live?’”

“Yes! Comfortably!”

“You are such a horrible person,” Victoria said, gesturing with her poker. “How my parents could have even considered marrying me off to you. . . .”

“Well, begging your pardon, but your parents aren’t particularly nice people themselves,” Richard said, tipping his hat with his free hand.

“Yeah, we met them just before Alice blasted her way in here,” Marty added. “Had a hard time believing they were your parents. Which I guess they’ve been getting a lot, because your dad said right away you weren’t adopted.”

Victoria couldn’t help the giggle that escaped her. “Well, considering everything, I suppose one has to wonder. . . .” Then she sighed. “And I know that, Richard, but I’d like to think they care enough about me not to want to see me dead.”

“Absolute minimum of caring about your children, but I suppose one must take what they can get,” Sir Christopher grumbled, looking grumpy. “All right, now – to find Alice or Emily first?”

“Emily,” Richard said promptly. “Alice can take care of herself, but Emily surely needs our help. I – I can’t imagine what – no, scratch that, I can--”

“She’s got to be all right,” Victoria cut him off, not wanting to hear what he could imagine. Her own imagination was working double time on that score – she didn’t need anyone giving it help. “She’s got to be. She’s a lot t-tougher than people give her credit for.”

“Yes, but there’s so many horrible things in here, and if the Queen’s made an example of her. . .”

“Don’t say it, don’t say it--”

The dog’s ears suddenly perked up, and he tugged on Doc’s sleeve, pointing down the hall. Doc turned to see a shifting shadow moving toward them. “Brace yourselves everyone – we’ve got company,” he said, raising his rifle and sighting down the scope. The others turned, quickly getting themselves into battle-ready positions.

The movement quickly proved to be – “Butterflies?” Marty said, arching an eyebrow. “How’d butterflies get in here?”

No answer was forthcoming. The group watched in puzzlement as a huge rabble of butterflies fluttered into the hall, forming a large cloud not too far from where they were standing. They were very pretty butterflies, too – dark blue, with long curled feelers. Quite out of place in the horrorland that Looking-Glass House had become. As the group stared, the butterflies drew closer and closer together, brushing and bumping up against each other. Then, there was a funny moment where the insects suddenly seemed to melt, running together in a mass of blues and blacks –

And then, out of nowhere, Emily stood before them, with a rather shell-shocked expression on her face. “Bloody hell, it worked.”

“Emily!” Richard practically threw Barkis at Doc, who managed to catch him without falling, and ran to embrace her tightly. “Oh, I was so worried about you! How are you, sugar lump? Are you hurt? You’ve lost your shoes! And how long have you been able to do that?!”

“I’m fine,” Emily said, smiling brightly as she threw her arms around Richard. “And I lost my shoes a while back. And. . .” Her smile faded. “That’s – that’s new.”

“I should say!” Victoria said, eyes wide. “Goodness, Emily, what happened to you?”

“When did you learn the trick of – metamorphosis, I think?” Sir Christopher said, looking at his fellow scientists.

“Don’t look at me, I deal solely in things made of metal,” Doc said, keeping a tight grip on the struggling Barkis. “Emily, you’ll have to enlighten us on what’s happened. What sort of experiment produced that effect?”

“I – I don’t know, it’s – I--” Emily bit her lip and looked at the others with wide, fearful eyes. “It’s – it’s Victor, he--”

“Oh, has the Queen started the fun without me?” Barkis asked, curious.

Everyone in the group felt their blood run cold. “What plans,” Doc started, eyes narrowing and grip tightening even further on the lord, “does your Queen have for Victor?”

Barkis stopped squirming and winced. “She – for some reason, she thinks he’s handsome, and she wants to – put him into the proper shape, let’s say. . . .”

The others let that sink in for a moment. “Alice is definitely going to kill her,” Flint finally said, slapping his candlestick against his hand.

“Not if we get to her first,” Marty growled. “Or maybe we’ll leave her the Queen and instead get Victor – where is he, Emily?”

“Back down that way, but I can’t be sure where exactly – it’s rather disorienting, traveling as butterflies,” Emily confessed, rubbing her head.

“We’ll find him – Gromit here can help sniff him out,” Doc said, hefting his rifle with his free hand. “And then we’ll free him from whatever the Queen’s done to him--”

“I THINK NOT!”

Everyone started as the voice boomed out all around them. “I HAVE BEEN SUFFICIENTLY AMUSED BY YOUR ANTICS,” the Queen’s voice continued. “TIME TO GET RID OF YOU BEFORE YOU CAUSE ANY REAL DAMAGE! EXECUTIONER! OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

“Oh good, the Executioner!” Richard said. “I’ve been wanting to have a chat with him!”

“Oh, he’s not really much for talking,” Barkis smirked. “But you can attempt conversation if you want. I’d find it highly amusing to see you mown down by him while you prattle on about tea.”

“Well then, if that’s the case, perhaps I’ll just introduce him to Kaboom Tea first thing.”

“Executioner?” Emily repeated, frowning deeply. “God, I hope he’s not like that monster that was guarding Victor.”

“What monster?” Doc said, instantly alert. “And how did you get past him?”

“Sheer luck both times. He’s this gigantic Card Guard with--”

There was a sudden wet sucking sound nearby. All heads turned to see a large, gaping wound tearing open in the wall. And through that wound was emerging – “Oh God, that!” Emily shrieked, pointing at the creature tearing its way into the hall. “That’s what was guarding Victor! That’s the Executioner?!”

“Holy shit,” Marty whispered, taking in the thing’s massive size, squirming tentacles, and very sharp scythe.

“Precisely,” Doc said weakly.

The Executioner pulled his foot free of the wound and stood in front of them, letting out a roar. “My God, Victor threw a Jackbomb into the face of that thing?” Sir Christopher said. “And I thought my battle against the Jabberwock was brave.”

“Toothless?” the young man astride the dragon said, looking down. “Want to give this guy a proper greeting?”

Toothless whuffed and nodded. The man slid off, and the dragon bounded to the front of the crowd. “Everyone back up,” Flint said, holding out his arms. “This could get nasty.”

Everyone obligingly pulled back to the other end of the hall. The Executioner looked curiously down at the black creature in front of him. “Grr?”

Toothless growled back, then took a deep breath. Victoria had just enough time to wonder what he was doing when he released a brilliant-green fireball straight at the Executioner. It hit the Executioner straight on, exploding into a brilliant burst of light. Beside her, Emily clapped. “Aha! That should – do. . . .”

Her voice trailed off. The Executioner – was perfectly fine. There was perhaps some light singing to his costume, but that was all. Toothless gaped in a way that would have been quite comical had they not been in mortal danger. “LEWIS’S FIREPROOFING COMPOUNDS WERE RATHER USEFUL, I’LL GIVE HIM THAT,” The Queen’s rather smug voice said. “NOW, EXECUTIONER, KILL THEM ALL!”

The Executioner laughed and started advancing, swinging his scythe. “RUN FOR IT!” Sir Christopher cried, seizing Victoria’s wrist and pulling her along with him. Victoria hurried to keep up, trying not to think of blades ripping through skin and bone while that creature behind them laughed and laughed. . . .

Barkis chortled and dug his heels into the floor as Doc tried to follow the others. “Oh no! I want to see him sever the useless heads from your bodies! I want to witness this final triumph!”

“You are a moron!” Doc yelled at him, trying to drag him along.

“No, you are! Did you really think that you could face up against this Queen? She’ll have this city sooner or later!” Barkis pulled free of Doc and ran to the Executioner, grinning. “Well, it’s good to see--”

SWUCK!

Again, the look on Barkis’s face might have been comical if they hadn’t been in such peril. The lord fell to the floor, wide-eyed, with his chest cut open and pouring blood. “IDIOT!” the Queen’s voice screeched as the Executioner looked down at his handiwork. “NOT HIM! HE WAS USEFUL!”

“That’s what you get when you say ‘kill them all’ to something that’s still in essence from Wonderland,” Doc muttered, turning and running after the others. “Good riddance, really.”

“Just what he deserved,” Richard agreed, looking back at the scene. “Of course, now I’m worried that the Queen will have the idiotic idea to try and bring him back. Which would be amusing in an ironic way, given what happened to Emily, but do we really want to deal with him again?”

“How about we deal with the thing that’s chasing us first?!” Marty snapped as they rounded a corner. “Shit, what the hell are we going to do? If dragon fire can’t stop that thing--”

“We’ll think of something!” Doc said, turning briefly to fire a shot. He had no illusions it would stop the Executioner, but maybe it would slow him down for half a second. “We’re Touched, aren’t we?”

“Not all of us, but I think we’ve got a nice representative sample,” Sir Christopher said, looking around. “Any of you do your best thinking on the run? Gromit?”

The dog shook his head, eyes wide and ears trailing behind him as he ran alongside Toothless and the Vikings. “Come on, Hiccup – we’ve done the stupid, let’s get with the crazy!” the blond-haired Viking girl said, poking the young dragon-rider in the side.

“That was the crazy! I’m not used to having problems that Toothless can’t solve anymore! And it’s not like any of us have any tools, or anything we can build with! Unless – Flint, please tell me--”

“Sorry – I woke up here without the remote,” Flint said, sighing. “Either she’s got it, or I dropped it when she knocked me silly. Really hoping it’s the latter, because giving control of the FLDSMDFR to this Queen is probably just asking to have the world destroyed by giant food.”

“On the other hand, that might be preferable to her taking over the world her way,” Richard commented. “At least being flattened by a giant pancake is a delicious death.”

“I don’t want to die at all!” Victoria cried. “I survived everything else this horrible house has thrown at me, haven’t I? I’ve fought off Snarks and screaming monsters and all sorts of other things with just a poker! I think that means I ought to live!”

“And I’ve already died!” Emily agreed. “I’m not eager to repeat the experience!”

There was a loud explosion in the wall to their left, bringing everyone up short. “Oh, what now?” Richard demanded, spinning to face the wall and raising a hand. The tip of his index finger popped open. “I’m warning you--”

There you people are!”

Alice climbed through the hole she’d blasted. “So nice to see you again,” she said, taking in the group. “I see you’ve found everyone but Victor.”

“I know where he is,” Emily said, playing with her skirt nervously. “You’re – you’re not going to like it--”

“Conversation later, running now,” the blonde woman said, tugging on Emily’s arm as she went ahead. “Maybe we can lose him--”

She yelped as a wall of tentacles burst out of the ceiling before her. “Oh, you bastards again?!”

“Don’t attack it, Astrid, it’ll just steal your weapon!” Emily warned, pulling the woman back before she could start swinging with her axe.

“Think those are fireproof, Hiccup?” Flint asked, as Gromit made a disgusted face at the writhing “fence.”

“The ones outside weren’t, but I can’t be sure – and having Toothless try something this close to everybody else--”

Gromit’s ears suddenly snapped straight up. He spun around and pointed behind them. “I don’t think we’re gonna get the chance to find out,” Marty said weakly, as the Executioner appeared behind them.

Alice snarled at the huge Card Guard. “Oh, you again. We have a score to settle,” she said, advancing to the front of the group.

“Alice, no! You can’t hurt it! We tried!” Victoria yelled, grabbing her arm.

“We’ll see about that,” Alice said, pulling something out of her pocket. “This should work just long enough – the rest of you, stay behind me!”

“Alice!”

“Trust me!”

The Executioner was advancing slowly now, scythe held ready to swipe. He seemed to smirk at Alice, as if daring her to try something. Alice glared back at him, before stuffing what looked like a few pieces of cake down her gullet. The Executioner chuckled (or, at least, growled in a semi-friendly manner), advanced another few steps –

And suddenly, Alice shot up, breaking through the ceiling as she grew to at least three times the size of the abruptly-less-than-giant Card Guard. The Executioner’s jaw fell open as he stared up at her, his scythe dropping from his hands. Alice smirked down at him. Then she lifted one foot and brought it down with a resounding BOOM.

There was a terrible crunching noise, and blood splattered the walls. When she lifted her boot, the crumpled form of the Executioner lay still on the floor. It was blindingly obvious he would not be getting up again. “Hooray!” Richard cried, throwing his hands up in glee. “Now, stomp your way over to that Queen and NO ONE TOLD YOU TO SHRINK!”

It was too late, though – Alice was suddenly back to normal size, holding a hand over her mouth as she burped. “Sorry,” she said. “The only batch I found was defective. Good for a minute and no more.” She glared at the Executioner’s mangled body. “And I’m not sorry I used it on him.”

“When it comes to it, neither are we,” Doc admitted. “Thank you. Now, we’d better--”

“MY EXECUTIONER! MY BEAUTIFUL EXECUTIONER! HOW DARE YOU?!

The forest of tentacles behind them thrashed into new life. Victoria shrieked as one wrapped itself around her body, pinning her arms to her side. Sir Christopher tried to hack at the offending appendage, only to have the same happen to him. “Christopher!” she cried, struggling in vain against the tentacle’s tight grip.

“Emily!” Richard yelled, as another wrapped itself around his girlfriend. He snatched her hand, only to have it snap off at the wrist. Moments later, he too was wrapped tightly in pink. “Put me down, you--”

“Aahh! Doc!” Marty cried, ducking under one tentacle only to be snagged and held upside-down by another. Doc tried to fire on the limb, only to have his rifle swatted out of his hands. Another tentacle grabbed him before he could even think of getting it back. “Oh shit. . .”

More tentacles snapped out with terrible speed, snatching up the others. Toothless almost managed to slip free, biting at the ones that came near – but then one managed to wrap tightly around his mouth, and he was immobilized just as well as the others. “I SEE NOW – IF YOU WANT SOMETHING DONE RIGHT, YOU’LL HAVE TO DO IT YOURSELF!” the Queen said, as the tentacles began pulling them back to wherever it was they’d come from.

“Oh God oh God oh God,” Emily whimpered, tears trickling down her face.

“Why the hell doesn’t she just squeeze us and get it over with?” Marty mumbled, still struggling.

“Don’t give her ideas!” Flint cried, eyes wide.

“No, I think this Queen has a theatrical bent,” Doc muttered, glaring at the mass of pink dragging them along. “She’ll want to see our faces when we die. Which gives us time to come up with a plan.”

“What plan? What can we do now?” Victoria demanded. “We’re going to die, and there’s n-no way around it! You know that, don’t you?”

“Nobody’s going to die,” Alice said, her voice cold and calm. “She’s taking me right where I want to be.”

“I’d like to know how you plan to use any of those weapons you’ve still got,” Victoria snapped, knowing it was rude and not caring. She felt she could be a little rude at the end of her life.

Alice just grinned. “You’ll see. Oh, you’ll see.”

Before long, the group had been dragged to the center of the house. Richard moaned as he looked at the flesh on the walls, dripping fluids and beating to the rhythm of some unseen heart. “Oh, this used to be such a nice place. . .”

“I think it’s even nicer now,” a cruel female voice said. Everyone was rotated so that they were facing a terrible throne, upon which sat a vaguely female figure. Masses of pink tentacles extended from where her legs should have been, either writhing free or joining up with the walls. The rest of her was humanoid, though a white, ever-grinning mask covered her face. She peered at them through it. “So, these are the warriors who thought they could take me down. Look at you all. How pathetic.”

“We killed quite a few of your monsters,” Marty snapped.

The Queen waved a hand. “Easily replaced. My destiny is clear. This city will be mine. And you all – well. Maybe not all of you will see it, but – I could always use spare parts. . . .”

“I’m surprised you’d even deign to touch us, Your Majesty,” Alice said, sarcasm dripping off every word.

The Queen’s eyes narrowed as she turned to Alice. “You,” she said, and disgust colored every syllable of the word.

“Me,” Alice nodded. “I haven’t the slightest idea what it is you have against me, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter in the long run.”

“No, it doesn’t, because there isn’t going to be a long run,” the Queen snarled. “I’m going to crush you.”

“I – think – not,” Alice grunted, working one arm free of the tentacle.

“No? What are you going to do with one arm?”

Alice smirked, holding up a little bottle. “This.” She downed the liquid inside.

Moments later, she suddenly disappeared. The Queen, startled, yanked back her tentacle. “What--”

Alice reappeared with a hiccup, smirking. “You really shouldn’t have left those last bottles of Drink Me around,” she noted, pulling her knife and promptly slashing the tentacle that had held her. Her eyes narrowed, and her face hardened. “Let’s play.”

The Queen glared back. “Let’s.

Chapter Text

March 16th, 18–

Secundus, England

5:21 P.M.

The world glowed.

Victor’s hand could barely keep up with his thoughts as he scribbled down yet another idea. He felt like he was on top of the world. Everything was just so perfect! Well, all right, not perfect, he was still the captive of a tentacle monster, but he knew his friends would deal with that. And once they came looking for him, he could show them all the amazing things he’d done! He grinned manically at the thought of their reunion. He couldn’t wait to show off for Doc and Christopher and Richard – though that reminded him, where was Emily? She should have been back by now. . .perhaps it was taking her longer than she’d thought to find Victoria? That was all right. He just wanted to make sure everything had worked as it should. But how could it not have? He was a genius, he could do anything

“AARRGH!”

Victor’s hand froze as the scream sliced through his thoughts. That scream – that was – that was Alice.

Someone had hurt Alice.

And then, the cold, cruel voice of the Queen rolled through the building, sounding deeply amused. “Hah! One for me! You’ll never beat me, Alice! Not in a million years! Shall we cut to the end and dispose of your head? Or shall I do one of your friends first?”

She had his friends. The Queen had his friends. The Queen was threatening to kill his friends. The Queen was threatening to kill Alice. Rage like had never known filled his soul. How dare she – how dare she –

Slowly, his free hand went up and slid his goggles over his eyes. Then he went back to his writing, abandoning his previous idea in favor of another. The old one wasn’t important anymore – wouldn’t suit his new purpose. He needed something better – something nastier. The world no longer glowed.

The world burned.


Alice hissed in pain as she glared up at the Queen. That had been stupid of her, leaving her left open like that. Now she had to fight with a gash in her side. Well, I’ve had worse, she thought, stabbing the next tentacle that tried to come at her. And it’ll be worth it in the end. “I think I’ll have your head instead, if you don’t mind,” she snarled, launching another croquet ball at the Queen’s face.

The Queen dodged, but not quite enough – the ball clipped her headdress, knocking it askew. She growled and slammed a tentacle deep into the floor. Alice, having seen this move a couple of times, knew what was coming and sprinted out of the way, throwing a clockwork bomb behind her. The tentacle that burst from the earth was thus met with an explosion rather than soft flesh. The Queen screamed. “Wretch!”

“Your insults need work!” Alice slammed another questing tentacle with the hobby unicorn, slit it open with her knife, then smashed it again for good measure. “How the hell did you change weapons so fast?” she heard Marty ask.

“Practice,” she said shortly, whipping out her cards and zipping a few at the Queen. The monarch was forced to use another tentacle to block them slitting her throat. Alice threw some jacks at it for good measure, and grinned as the Queen screamed in pain again. “And another for me,” she mumbled proudly.

Still, it wouldn’t do to get too cocky just yet. That was how she’d gotten hurt. She’d managed to take a lot of the Queen’s tentacles out of commission, yes, but more just kept coming. And she hadn’t gotten a scratch on any of the ones holding her friends captive. Of course, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to – the Queen had jerked those up to the ceiling once they’d started their fight, and she was worried that if she did get somebody free, they wouldn’t survive the drop. Though, really, it’s more likely she’d try to crush them after dropping them, she thought, arming a Jackbomb while dancing around yet another tentacle. Also unacceptable. Damn it, if I could just get one good shot at her face –

A tentacle behind her suddenly lashed out, whipping her into the wall. Alice yelped as she came into contact with the flesh covering – it softened the blow, admittedly, but the wet pulsing made her want to throw up. She heard the Queen laugh – then yelp herself as Alice’s dropped Jackbomb went off, setting the offending appendage on fire. Alice allowed herself a little grin as she got her feet and flung more cards at the limb. “I love a good Pyrrhic victory.”

“No victory of mine will be anything less than total!” the Queen declared. “You can’t dodge my attacks forever! You will tire, and then you will be mine!”

“I’ll tire, granted,” Alice said, slipping around a pillar. “But I promise you that you will be dead before I do. You’ve tried to take everything I love away from me, and I will not stand for it.”

“No, you will lay down for it!” Another tentacle tried to crush Alice, but the young woman rolled out of the way and smacked it with the croquet mallet for its trouble. The Queen shrieked as electricity raced up the limb, shocking her. “I see now – I’m being too easy on you! I didn’t know if this would even work, but no time like the present to see!” She hit something on her throne with her scepter.

Bright beams of red light suddenly flashed out from the decoration on top of the seat. One hit Alice’s arm, and she pulled it back with a cry. That had stung! She could even see a little burn mark where it had hit. “Great Scott!” she heard Doc gasp.

“You stole that from those notes Lewis took on my report on the Jabberwock!” Sir Christopher accused, glaring. “I recognize that! That’s a variation on the damn thing’s eye beam!”

“Dear Lewis was hoping to use it against the Jabberspawn,” the Queen said, a darkly playful trill in her voice. “I think I’ve put it to a better AAARRRGGHH!”

The Queen’s body jerked as the croquet ball hit her right in the stomach, sending shocks of electricity through her. “Yes, please have a conversation in the middle of our battle!” Alice mocked, grabbing her teapot cannon and charging it. “I’ll take any distraction I can get to bring you down!” She launched a pocket watch full of tea straight at the monarch’s head.

The Queen tried to bat it away, but only injured another tentacle in the process. “Enough of this!” she screamed, gesturing wildly with her scepter. “You have defied me for too long, Liddell girl!” One tentacle snapped out and managed to grab Alice around the waist. Alice stabbed it a couple of times, but it didn’t let go. “Forget my beautiful tentacles – I’ll kill you with my own two hands!”

That was pretty much the stupidest thing Alice had ever heard – why use your hands when you had what appeared to be an infinite number of much stronger tentacles? – but she didn’t think the Queen was going to win any awards for intelligence. Besides, this gave her the chance she’d been waiting for. She let the appendage bring her right up to the Queen without resistance. “What – now you’re going to stop fighting?” the Queen asked, eyes narrowed.

“No,” Alice said, and hit the Queen as hard as she could in the face with her fist.

The Queen’s head snapped to the side from the force of the blow, her mask breaking along its seam and flying off. The monarch screamed and whipped her face back around. “HOW DARE YOU?!”

Alice didn’t reply. She couldn’t. Her jaw was too busy hanging open to form words. The Queen – her hair was too bright, and her eyes completely the wrong color, but the rest of the face –

It was her own.

The Queen had her face.

“Uh, Alice, did some of your old psychoses escape your head and take physical form?” she heard Richard ask from a long way away.

“IMBECILE!” Alice found herself flung back to the floor while the Queen glared up at her friend. She let herself lay there for a moment, both to get her breath back and to try and process what she’d just seen. “HOW DARE YOU IMPLY THAT I AM NOTHING MORE THAN A PART OF THIS WORTHLESS BEING?! THAT I AM JUST A COPY OF HER? I AM MORE THAN THAT! LEWIS FOUND THAT OUT THE HARD WAY!”

“Lewis. . . ?” Alice started, then stopped, not even sure what she wanted to ask.

The Queen turned her megawatt snarl back on her. “He loved you,” she hissed. “He thought you were beautiful and amazing and all those other stupid words. He wanted you to be his. But then you decided you preferred that Van Dort boy, so he decided that if he couldn’t have the original. . . .”

This – this was insane. Lewis had been in love with her?! How had she never noticed that? Then again, she’d always thought of him as more of a beloved crazy uncle rather than a potential suitor. . . . And he’d created the Queen with the intent of making another her? This – this bitch was supposed to be Alice: The Sequel? That doesn’t say a lot good about me, does it?

“How the hell did you end up with tentacles if you were supposed to be Alice?” Marty asked, voicing the question that was on her mind.

“BECAUSE I’M BETTER! I AM MORE THAN ANYONE’S COPY! CERTAINLY MORE THAN HERS! I AM THE QUEEN OF HEARTS, RIGHTFUL RULER OF THE WORLD!”

All right – trying to puzzle out all this new information has to wait until I’ve dealt with my megalomanic “twin.” Alice sprang back to her feet. “I don’t think so, sister,” she snarled, pulling out her pepper grinder.

“DON’T YOU DARE CALL ME THAT!” A tentacle slammed down, but Alice was already on the move, peppering the Queen’s body as she ran. “You and your friends will die this day! Your broken bodies will be preserved forevermore as a testament to what happens to those who oppose my power!”

“Including Victor?” Alice said, feeling a spike of terror as she thought about him. Oh God, where was he? How was he? Emily had said she wouldn’t like what had happened to him –

The Queen smiled. “Oh no, not Victor. You see – when I want someone, I just take the original.”

For a moment, Alice went numb. Then every nerve in her body went white-hot with fury. “Don’t. You. Touch. Him,” she growled, trembling with the force of her rage.

“Make me,” the Queen smirked, leaning down.

WITH PLEASURE!


The laboratory door banged open, and Victor stepped out into the hallway. He looked right and left, his goggles catching what little light there was and temporarily turning his eyes into blank white discs. Odd – no Executioner. Victor had thought he would have to deal with the monster in some way. Oh well, it didn’t matter right now. He had bigger fish to fry. He touched the syringe carefully tucked away in his jacket pocket, then turned and started toward the Queen’s throne room.

A Boojum, floating in one of the connecting halls, eyed the young man, wondering what sort of meal he’d make. It was feeling very hungry, and this human, though thin, would help stave off the pangs for a while, at least. It was just making the decision to pop out and scream at him –

When it caught the expression on Victor’s face.

The Boojum promptly decided that what it really wanted was to be as far away from wherever that human was going as possible.


Alice felt like she’d moved into another dimension as she slashed open yet another tentacle. One where the only colors were black, white, and red. The world around her had faded into nothing more than a monochrome backdrop to her rage. The only thing that mattered was the monster sitting on the throne in front of her. Every particle of her body was on fire, burning with the heat of her anger. How dare the Queen try to take Victor away from her? How dare she try to destroy the man she loved? HOW DARE SHE?

She lunged again with her knife, spraying blood all around as the blade hit its mark. She’d lost most of her other weapons – a lucky strike by a tentacle had broken the harness, and the whole lot had been torn off shortly afterwards – but she didn’t care. She still had her Vorpal Blade. That was all she needed. She’d cut this Queen to pieces. She’d rip her apart with her bare hands if need be. No one, but no one, threatened her Victor. Especially not this pathetic attempt at cloning. You’re right – you’re not me, she thought, as she leaped over a tentacle trying to sweep her legs out from under her. You are a monster, and you don’t deserve to live.

A flash of red alerted her to the fact that the Queen was trying those focused light beams again. She hid from their attack behind a pillar, panting as she took the moment to rest. She was taking a beating, she knew that. After this fight was over, she’d probably be sore for days, at the very least. But it would be worth it. It would be worth it to save him. She returned to the fight, slashing and stabbing and cutting, buoyed by the endless energy desperate fear and love could bring.

Suddenly, two tentacles tried to smash her between them. Alice tried to dodge, tripped, then decided to go ahead and stay on the floor for a moment, since that seemed to be safer. The tentacles missed their chance to crush her, but one managed to whip down and pin her. Alice hacked at it as best she could with her knife as the Queen raised the other. “Any last words, sister?” the monarch said mockingly, grinning.

Alice glared up at her. This wasn’t going to kill her. Or hell, even if it did, she was going to Reanimate herself through sheer willpower and keep up the fight. She stabbed and kicked, all while keeping an eye on the tentacle ready to strike so she could move her head when –

BANG! “Let. Them. Go.

The Queen froze and looked up. Alice tilted her head to try and see what had happened. The doors of the throne room had been flung open, and standing in the doorway was – Victor? Alice wasn’t sure if she was relieved he was all right, or scared half to death that he wouldn’t be all right once the Queen had gotten over her shock. What on earth are you doing here? Did you run without thinking again?

“Why are you here?” the Queen demanded. “You should be back in the lab!”

Victor advanced into the room, eyes fixed on the Queen. Well, Alice thought they were, anyway – he had his goggles pulled down over them, making it impossible to see for sure. Below the blank green discs, his mouth was set into a thin grey line, and his entire body was held stiff and tall. Every pore of his body seemed to radiate rage. It was – it was disconcerting, if Alice was honest with herself. She’d never seen Victor like this before. “Victor?” she said quietly.

Victor’s head tilted down toward her a moment. Then he looked back at the Queen. “I got out,” he said, his voice cold. “I got out, and now I’m going to end you.”

“Are you.” The Queen sounded almost bored. “She couldn’t manage it.” She poked at Alice. “Your precious Liddell girl.”

“Hilarious,” Victor replied, just as deadpan as the Queen. “Release her now. Release all of them. Safely,” he added, glancing up at the group dangling near the ceiling.

“And why should I do that?”

“Because I’m going to murder you, and I don’t want them getting hurt.” The eeriest part, Alice decided, was just how – calm he sounded. His was a sort of tranquil fury, zeroed in tightly on one and only one target. One that didn’t mess about with shouting or flailing or any of that. Victor had one goal in mind, and he was going to see it through. But what could he do to this Queen that she hadn’t already tried? Was this some strange, elaborate form of committing suicide? What did you do to him, what did you do to him–

The Queen laughed. “You really think you can kill me? When my Executioner first brought you here, you seemed on the verge of soiling yourself.”

“That was then, this is now. Release. Them.

There was a long silence. Alice thought she could feel the world holding its breath, wondering what would happen. “All right,” the Queen suddenly said. “I suppose I can indulge my future king.” Alice felt the tentacle pinning her quickly wrap around her and pick her up. “And besides, I think everyone should get a very good view of what’s going to happen to you.” The tentacle placed her in one of the room’s back corners, next to her other friends. Couples and close friends immediately bunched together, making sure each other were all right. Doc and Sir Christopher each laid a hand on her shoulders, while Richard looked her over. Alice nodded vaguely at them, her attention fixed on the Queen and Victor. “Because I can always make my monarch out of your spare parts,” the Queen continued, readying a tentacle.

“That’s not going to happen,” Victor said, and – and there was something wrong with his voice, something that she couldn’t place right at the moment. . . . “You hurt my friends. You hurt the woman I love. There is only one punishment for that.”

“And there is only one punishment for those who defy me,” the Queen shot back, eyes narrowing. “Let’s see which of us is quicker.” She swept down with the tentacle, and Alice felt the scream filling her lungs even as she started to lunge forward –

But Victor spun out of the way, yanking something from his pocket as he did so. Alice saw a moment later it was a syringe. Quick as lightning, he slammed the needle into the tentacle and pressed the plunger. Then he darted backward, as if wanting to put as much space between it and him as possible. Alice couldn’t blame him. “Hah! That’s your grand plan? Inject me with something?” the Queen said, laughing loudly. “You fool! How could one of your little chemical concoctions make any difference to--”

And then she stopped. The expression on her face changed to one of puzzlement – and just a little pain. “What – what is--” A strange, slightly bulging line was forming on the tentacle, zipping its way up back to her main body. “What did you--”

Victor just looked at her. “What made you think it was chemicals?”

The Queen never got a chance to answer. She barely got a chance to scream. Out of nowhere, the line of skin erupted, and –

Once, when she’d been trapped in her head’s twisted version of Wonderland Park, Alice had had to fight long-limbed spiders with china doll faces on their backs, the porcelain trapped forever in screaming rage. She never thought she’d see anything more terrible in her life, real or imagined.

She’d been wrong. Nothing could be worse than these spiders, which looked almost normal but which tore and mangled flesh like little buzz saws. Nobody could do anything but stare as the Queen was, within minutes, practically eaten alive from the inside out. A sick, angry part of Alice snapped that it was all that the bitch deserved, but Alice shushed it. Monster or not, deserving or not (and the Queen was both), that was a horrible way to go.

A few of the spiders dropped off the now limp and mangled body. Some started chewing on the floor, but others started skittering toward the corner. Toothless immediately got in front of the humans and started inhaling, a green gas cloud forming in his mouth –

And then, out of nowhere, the spiders just – dropped dead. All of them. Right in the middle of their work. Toothless stopped, eyes wide with confusion. “The hell. . . ?” Marty whispered.

“They die after five minutes,” Victor said, his voice still terribly calm. He was standing with his back to them, surveying his work. “Their metabolisms are too unstable to keep them alive long. And they’re not actually getting any nourishment from what they do, which doesn’t help. Spiders survive on liquids, not solids. They were designed just to rip her to pieces, then die.”

“And give all of us n-nightmares,” Hiccup said, voicing the general opinion of the group.

“I’m sorry,” Victor replied, not turning around. “It was an unfortunate side effect. Better some nightmares than death.”

Flint shook his head, cautiously inching toward a few of the dead bodies. “Yikes, Victor,” he said, voice shaky. “Where the hell did you find those?”

There was a moment of ominous silence. “Find?” Victor whispered, his voice barely audible. And then, suddenly, he whipped around, and his face was ablaze with anger behind the goggles. “FIND?! I MADE THEM, YOU CRETINOUS EXCUSE FOR A SCIENTIST! I AM THEIR CREATOR! AND YOU WILL RECOGNIZE MY GENIUS!”

Alice’s jaw dropped. The wrongness was back in Victor’s voice, but this time she recognized it. And – and it was – it couldn’t be, Victor couldn’t be – She looked up to see the others gaping as well. Doc’s jaw in particular seemed ready to hit the ground. “He’s – he’s--” the scientist whispered weakly.

“THAT’S RIGHT! I AM THE EQUAL TO ANY OF YOU!” Victor roared. He was practically surrounded by an aura of fiery Creativity now, burning up with anger and madness. “I AM JUST AS SMART AS ANY OTHER SO-CALLED SCIENTIST IN THIS CITY! I AM CAPABLE OF WONDERS – OF MIRACLES! YOU JUST SAW THAT! I – I CAN DO ANYTHING! BUT YOU PEOPLE DON’T WANT TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT, DO YOU? YOU WANT ME TO STAY FOREVER IN THE ROLE OF IGOR! THE ROLE OF THE PUT-UPON ASSISTANT! I WILL MAKE YOU SEE WHAT I AM CAPABLE OF! YOU WILL MARVEL AT MY INVENTIONS! YOU WILL ACKNOWLEDGE THAT I AM A GENIUS, A GOD AMONG MEN!”

“Holy shit,” Marty said, for what had to be the fiftieth time that day. Alice couldn’t blame him, though. Seeing Victor like this – it defied all sense. He wasn’t the sort who was supposed to go ranting and screaming about those fools who had dismissed him. He was quiet and gentle and – and God, was there any of that left? Any of him left? Could his mind have actually survived going a bit Creative?

“I WILL SHOW YOU! I WILL SHOW EVERYONE! EVERYONE WHO’S EVER PUT ME DOWN, EVERYONE WHO’S EVER THROWN ME ASIDE, EVERYONE WHO’S EVER SAID I WASN’T GOOD ENOUGH! I WILL SHOW! THEM! ALL!” Victor flung his arms wide and laughed maniacally. Alice could swear she heard a roll of thunder accompany him. “YOU’LL SEE! YOU’LL ALL SEE WHO THE BEST SCIENTIST IN SECUNDUS IS!

Alice couldn’t stand it anymore. She bolted forward and grabbed him. “Victor! Victor, snap out of it! Look at me!”

Victor looked, and the sight of him peering at her through his goggles was somehow even scarier than the spiders. He grinned at her, a grin that split his face in two and showed far, far too many teeth. “Don’t try and stop me!” he told her, terrifyingly cheerful. “I’m going to prove to everyone just how far my genius goes!”

“Victor, you’re scaring me,” Alice begged, feeling the unshed tears she’d been holding back for so long finally start spilling out. “Please, please stop. . . .”

“When I’m right on the threshold of getting the respect I deserve? On the brink of creating science the world has never seen before? On the edge of my greatest triumph?!”

“Victor, I love you!”

Victor froze. Alice could feel the world holding its breath again. “You – you didn’t stutter,” he said after a moment, his voice quieter.

She shook her head. Sheer desperation to get her Victor back had killed that annoying little stammer. She was glad to see it go. “I love you,” she repeated, wrapping her arms around him and pressing her head into his chest. God, she could feel how stiff he was. And she could hear his heart pounding in his ribcage, like some frightened creature trying to break free. “Please calm down.”

There was another too-long silence. Then, slowly, his hands came up to embrace her. “A-Alice?” he said, and it was his voice again, quiet and nervous and rather tired. She looked up to see the grin gone, replaced with a look of vague confusion. “I – I d-don’t feel so well. . . .”

Unable to take the blank gaze of the goggles any longer, Alice reached up and lifted them off his eyes. Behind them, his face looked exhausted – like he’d gone without sleep for days. She kissed his cheek. “It’s all right. I’m here.”

“I – what happened? The – the Q-Queen took me, and I was i-in Lewis’s lab, and – and I h-had this awful headache, and I w-wanted it to go away, then – then everything w-went strange. . .” He looked around, as if trying to orient himself. “I had all these i-ideas, and everything w-was moving so fast, and – and I heard you s-scream, and I got so angry, and--”

His gaze fell on the Queen. His eyes widened. “And I. . .I. . . .”

Oh shit, this was not a good time for him to have a panic attack. Alice quickly grabbed his chin and made him look back at her. “Victor, it’s all right. You’ve just had a bit of a – um – breakthrough--”

Victor stared through her, horror bubbling up in his brown eyes. “I killed someone. Oh my God, I just killed someone!” His hands fastened on her clothes in a death grip. “And I wanted to do it! I wanted to see her scream and flail and – I felt nothing, I just – oh God and I just threatened all of you, I could have hurt any of you--” His pale face somehow whitened all the more. “EMILY! Dear Lord, what did I do to Emily?!”

His legs collapsed beneath him as he started screaming and sobbing. Alice let herself be dragged down with him, beyond horrified. This was worse than him ranting. She hugged him tight, trying against hope to calm him down. “Victor! Victor, it’s all right, she’s here! She’s fine!”

“That’s right!” Emily said, rushing forward. “I’m just fine! Victor, it worked! You may even have saved my – my life, I suppose! You just saved us all!”

But Victor was beyond hearing, babbling on to himself about “monster” and “murderer.” Alice looked to her friends desperately. “What do we do?”

“I--” Doc looked completely lost. “I don’t – never in a million years would I have--” He looked to Sir Christopher, who seemed as stuck for answers as him. Victoria clung to the latter, eyes wide with shock.

Victor suddenly let out a little “ow.” Alice looked back to see Richard backing away, his gun finger open and a needle poking out of it. “Just a sedative!” he said, holding up his hands. “Just a sedative. I figured he could use one.”

“Should have poisoned me,” Victor whimpered, tears streaming from his eyes. “Should have done to me what I did to the Queen, should have – oooh.” He suddenly sagged forward, blinking. “I – that was quick--”

“Fastest-acting one,” Richard said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Come on now, off to dreamland. . . .”

Victor seemed only too happy to follow the instruction. He slumped against Alice, eyes closing and body going limp. After a few moments, his breathing had shifted to the pattern of sleep. Alice held him tight, stroking his hair. “What do we do now?” she whispered.

“I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not going to be able to think of anything in this place,” Astrid said, her hand clenching Hiccup’s. Beside them, Gromit nodded, trembling a little.

“I concur,” Doc said, letting out a deep breath. “Let’s get out of here.”


“All right, folks, I’m sorry, but we’ve already let them go over the time we gave them--”

“No! Please Baron Wulfenbach, we don’t know for sure yet,” Susan Liddell begged. “If she’s still in there, if she’s still alive--”

“The tentacles have stopped waving about too,” Fishlegs agreed. “Do you really want Hiccup’s father coming to ‘talk’ to you because you killed his son?”

“The threat to Secundus, and possibly the entire world, is too great!” Baron Wulfenbach snapped. “We need to--”

“Look!” a voice called. “There’s something moving in there!”

All eyes turned back to the hole Alice had blasted into the wall. Sure enough, there was something jogging its way through the darkness – barely visible, but making plenty of noise. After a few moments, it was revealed as Toothless, carting on his back not only Hiccup and Astrid, but Flint and Gromit as well. “Hiccup!” Snotlout cried. “You scared the Hel out of us, cuz!”

“How many did you kill before the Queen said ‘Take her back,’ Astrid?” Ruff said with a grin that belied her deep relief at seeing her friend alive.

“Trust me, she made the walls run red in there,” Flint said, dismounting and giving Toothless a friendly pat.

“Flint!” Sam ran up in tears and embraced him. “Oh, Flint, I thought – you have got to stop doing that!”

“Hey, this time it wasn’t my idea!” Flint protested, hugging her back. “I am so glad to see you all right, Sam. I was worried that – that maybe--”

“I’m fine,” Sam said, and managed a laugh. “No peanut allergies to deal with, even.”

“Steve!” Steve cried happily, jumping on Flint’s head.

“I’m really glad to see you too,” Flint nodded, grinning up at the monkey. “Where’s Manny?”

“Right here,” Manny said, materializing from the crowd. “It is good to see you alive. We were starting to wonder. . . .”

“Takes a lot more than that to take us all down,” Hiccup said, accepting a hug from Fishlegs. “Oof, crushing me a bit there, Legs.”

“Gromit!” Wallace appeared and swept his dog up into a warm embrace, which Gromit gladly returned. “Oh, Gromit. . . .”

Gromit patted his back, sniffling a little. “That’s a great dog you have there,” Astrid said with a fond smile. “I wouldn’t have let anything happen to him.”

“Thank you so much,” Wallace said, putting Gromit down to shake her hand. “I don’t know what I would have done without him.” Gromit nodded his agreement.

The sound of debris shifting caught everyone’s attention again. A very tall figure appeared from the hole, leading a rather decayed one by the hand. “Watch your step – and your knee.”

“You know, if that had broken earlier, we might have been able to avoid some of this.”

“Richard!” “Emily!”

The couple was set upon by the March Hare, the Dormouse, Bonejangles, Jack, and Sally. “We were so worried about you!” Sally said, hugging Emily, then looking her all over. “You’ve lost your shoes!”

“Better than losing the rest of me,” Emily said, returning the hug. “How are you all doing?”

“Just fine,” Bonejangles said, patting her back in a brotherly fashion. “Jack and his crew took care of some of those nasties – and you’ve got a certain creepy crawly to thank for us knowing where you were.”

“Where have you been?” March demanded, bouncing up and down while wringing his paws. “The tea has gone cold and there’s no more biscuits and damn it Richard, I thought you were dead!” He flung himself on his friend, crying. Dormy attached himself to one of Richard’s legs. “You are a foolish man and don’t deserve any sugar.”

“A fool for love, maybe,” Richard said, patting March’s back. “I had to go in. But I am quite happy to see you and Dormy safe.” He squeezed his pal. “Don’t you ever leave my tea table again, you hear?”

“Not even to go to the toilet?” Dormy asked.

“We’ll use chamberpots.”

“Richard!” Emily said with a laugh. Then her expression turned serious as she turned back to the house. “Victoria? Are you all right?”

“We’re fine!” Victoria said. She and Sir Christopher appeared in the hole’s mouth next, hand in hand. “It’s just a bit hard to get over some of this wreckage.”

“Indeed,” Sir Christopher said, frowning at the debris. Then he looked over at his love with a smile. “You know, you could put down the poker, my dear.”

“I earned this poker,” Victoria said firmly. “And it makes quite a good walking stick.”

“Victoria!” Maudeline hurried forward, Finis wobbling behind. “Where are your corsets?!”

Victoria smiled, experience telling her this was her mother’s way of making sure she was all right. “Right where they should be. Oh, I’m glad to see you and Father alive. . .where’s Hildegarde?”

“Here, dear!” Hildegarde hobbled up, arms wide for a hug. “Oh Miss Victoria, we were all so scared for you. . .”

“I was scared for you too,” Victoria said, embracing her warmly. “I’m so happy to see you well! How did you get away?”

“This quiet young lady with a talking ball saved me from some of those odd ghosties, then I fell in with a group of talking ponies. Quite nice creatures, really.” She indicated a small herd of multicolored ponies standing some ways away. A few of them waved their hooves. “How did you get out of there in one piece, though? They told us that was the most dangerous place in all of Secundus!”

“I managed,” Victoria said, hefting her poker proudly. “Though if Christopher hadn’t come along at one moment, I might not have made it out.”

Maudeline and Finis turned to Sir Christopher with wide eyes. “You – you saved her life,” Finis said, sounding like he wanted to disbelieve it but knew the facts were against that.

“I told you – I would get your daughter out safely, or die trying,” Sir Christopher said, folding his arms. “I keep my promises, Lord Everglot. Especially to the people I love more than life.”

The elder Everglots were silent for a moment, looking first between Sir Christopher and Victoria, then at the gathered crowd (with a particularly long stare at Lady Heterodyne and Baron Wulfenbach), then at each other. They seemed to have a silent conversation with their eyes, which ended with a long sigh. “How much did you say you got a year again?” Finis finally asked, looking defeated.

Victoria’s heart gave a leap. “You – you mean--”

“It would actually do more harm to our reputation now to reject his proposal,” Maudeline explained, rolling her eyes. “So under the circumstances. . . .”

“Oh Mother!” Victoria flung her arms around Maudeline. “Thank you!”

“I’m much obliged, Lord and Lady Everglot,” Sir Christopher said with a bright smile.

“You’re welcome,” Finis grumbled.

“Yes,” Maudeline nodded stiffly. “Victoria, please, public displays of affection are so vulgar.”

There was another shift in the debris, then Alice climbed out of the hole, looking rather pale and shell-shocked. “Alice!” Susan cried, racing to meet her with Charles at her heels. “Oh, darling, are you all right?”

“Aunt Susan, Uncle Charles. . . .” Alice pulled them into a hug. “You’re all right. . . .”

“We’re fine, dear,” Charles said, kissing the top of her head. “We’re just glad to see you in one piece.”

“I know! Oh Alice, you look like one big bruise. . . .” Susan pulled away, frowning. “But dear – where’s Victor?”

Alice turned back toward the hole in response. Everyone followed her lead as the final few figures came stumbling out. Marty was in front, with Doc following him over the rubble. And in Doc’s arms – was the limp figure of one Victor Van Dort, eyes closed and head lolling.

The entire company held its breath. “Is – is he--” Tuffnut asked.

“No, just sedated,” Richard said, looking at the ground. “He’s – not well.”

“You there! Where are you going with my son?”

Nell Van Dort came rushing up through the body of people, dragging her husband along behind her. Doc jumped, pulling Victor closer to him in his surprise. “Mrs. Van Dort--” he started, voice a little shaky.

“What happened to him?” Nell demanded, then shook her head. “You did something else to him while he was in there, didn’t you? Put him down right now! William, get the carriage ready, we’re taking him home! No more of this ‘Secundus is good for me’ nonsense!”

“Yes, dear,” William said, looking rather stunned. “M-Mayhew. . . .”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Van Dort, but it’s imperative that your son stays with us,” Doc said, backing away.

 “Why? So you can continue to experiment on him?” Nell snarled, gesturing with her fan as Mayhew came to join his employers.

Something in Doc seemed to snap. “Because it’s inadvisable to start dragging him all over the countryside right now!” he yelled, causing both Nell and everyone around her to jump. “Mrs. Van Dort, your son has a very pronounced case of Atypical Scientific Neural Disorder!”

“What in God’s name does--” Nell started, glaring.

“In plain English, your son’s Touched!”

Nell’s face went white. All around the scene, people gaped in astonishment. “Victor?” Susan managed to say, mouth hanging open. “That – that shy little boy--”

Doc nodded, the anger draining out of his face. “He went Creative in there,” he said, voice low. “He – he just saved all our lives.”

“In the creepiest way possible,” Hiccup added, shuddering. “I’m not going to be able to look at spiders for ages.”

“Yes – judging by what he did to kill the Queen, he’s at least a Somewhat, and there’s a strong possibility he’s a Severely,” Sir Christopher added.

Lady Heterodyne and Baron Wulfenbach looked at each other, eyes wide. “A new Severely Touched? We should probably investigate,” Lady Heterodyne commented.

“Please,” Doc said, and suddenly he looked every inch his sixty-five years. “Please let me get him home. You can talk to him later, see how he is, but – I just want to bring him home.”

Lady Heterodyne looked at him a moment. Then she nodded, expression sympathetic. “All right. It looks like we’ve got a clean-up job to worry about here first anyway. You get him to bed. We’ll be by once he wakes up.”

Doc nodded, then started out of the park, Marty at his side. Everyone watched the three go. Then Lady Heterodyne sighed. “This is going to be a long night. All right, what was this about spiders?”

Chapter Text

March 19th, 18–

Secundus, England

4:02 P.M.

Marty McFly lifted his head as the door to Dr. E. L. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services opened. Richard, Emily, Sir Christopher, and Victoria entered, all looking quite concerned. March and Dormy trailed behind them, carrying tea things. “We thought we’d bring the tea party to you for a change!” March said, with a cheerfulness that was obviously, painfully forced. “So why don’t you just fetch Doc and Victor and we’ll –”

“He’s still locked in,” Marty cut him off, voice quiet.

“It’s been three days, hasn’t it?” Victoria asked.

“Two days, twenty hours, and twelve minutes,” Doc said, appearing out of the maze of shelves. “So close enough to three.”

“He can’t have been locked in there all that time,” Richard protested. “Nature must have called, and you can’t keep that on a different frequency forever.”

“My room has a chamberpot, for emergencies,” Doc replied. “If he has been coming out, he’s been doing it when he knows we’re asleep.”

“I don’t understand this,” Victoria said, wringing her hands. “Why has he locked himself away? Every paper in this city is calling him a hero! They’re all saying he saved the entire population of Secundus!”

“The Mayor wants to honor him!” Emily agreed. “Give Victor the key to the city! Doesn’t he know everyone in this city thinks he’s wonderful?”

“I don’t think he believes it,” Doc said, leaning heavily against the counter. “More accurately, I don’t think it’s penetrating the cloud of self-loathing in his head.”

“Look, there’s nothing a good cup of tea won’t solve,” March said firmly. The teapot on his tray got up and nodded its spout.

“It can’t if he won’t drink it,” Marty said, his voice strangled. “He’s not eating, guys. That we’re sure on.”

“Not eating? Victor?” Richard said in astonishment. “But surely – he’s got to--”

Marty shook his head. “We’ve checked all the food stores – nothing. And whenever we try to bring him something, he won’t touch it. Refuses to open the door for any reason. I’ve – I’ve actually begged for him to take something, but he just tells me to ‘please go away. . .’” He turned from the group, putting his face in his hands. “I g-gotta knock every t-time I pass the door, b-because I’m s-so scared he’s – he’s gonna e-end it faster. . . .”

Doc pulled his best friend into a hug. “I know, I know,” he mumbled, holding Marty close as the teenager cried. He looked up at the others, weariness written all over his face. “I don’t know what to do. I’m not a psychiatrist.”

“Can’t you force the door open?” Sir Christopher said.

Doc laughed bitterly. “I reinforced it after a little late-night tinkering nearly blew it off its hinges. If Victor wants us to stay out, we’re damn well staying out.”

“There’s got to be a way to get him out!” Richard said, jabbing at the ceiling with his finger. “Or for one of us to get in!”

“We’ve tried!” Marty said, looking back with red-rimmed eyes. “Don’t you think we’ve tried? We live with him! He won’t come out and he won’t let anyone in and every time we try to talk to him he just says he’s a monster and--” He buried his face back in Doc’s chest. “God damn it, I don’t want to just sit around while one of my best friends tries to kill himself!”

“He’s got a while to go if he intends to starve himself to death,” Sir Christopher said, folding his arms. “And we’re not going to let him get that far. Let me have another go with him. People have said I make good speeches.”

“Won’t work,” Doc said, shaking his head. “If he hasn’t opened up for any of us by now, I don’t think he’s going to.”

“Then maybe we should try getting someone else,” Richard said. “Having someone who isn’t us around who doesn’t think he’s a monster might do the trick.”

“You think having a stranger talk to him would work better than a friend?” Emily said, giving Richard a strange look.

“He might consider us too biased to give an objective opinion on his relative monstrosity. It could be he just needs outside confirmation that others don’t think he’s evil.”

“Technically, we’ve tried that too,” Doc said. “Lots of people have been coming over to see how he is, not just you lot.”

“Yeah, Flint, Astrid, Gromit, Cheshire, Rabbit – anybody whose keister he helped save,” Marty said, finally mastering his emotions. “He wouldn’t come out for anybody. Hell, he wouldn’t open up for Lady Heterodyne. Just told her through the door that he was sorry for causing any trouble and – and that he didn’t want to hurt anybody anymore.”

“What about his parents?” Victoria asked.

Silence. Victoria looked at the floor. “I see.”

“How dare they?” Emily said, eyes narrowing. “Their son saves an entire city and is hailed as a hero, and they don’t even try to visit him?”

“I’m actually glad we haven’t seen them,” Doc said. “I don’t think Nell Van Dort is the type to take the news that her son is a Touched very well.” His eyes looked into the middle distance for a moment. “I find myself very glad she doesn’t have a gun.”

“You know what’s weird, though? We still haven’t seen Alice yet either,” Marty said, frowning. “I thought she would have been the first one over here. Where the hell has she gone?”

“Oh, I can answer that question for you,” Richard said. “Nowhere – she’s stuck at her house. Her aunt and uncle put her on strict bed rest for the past two days on the advice of a doctor. Not that she liked that idea. They practically had to strap her down to keep her from rushing off. I went to see her the other day, and – well, she immediately asked me how Victor was. She looked like she was going to cry when I told her I wasn’t sure, I hadn’t been able to see him. . . .” He looked down at his hands. “She told me they would finally let her out today. I’m surprised she isn’t here already, but her aunt’s probably trying to make her keep resting. But she’ll be around. I’m sure of it.”

“Poor Alice,” Victoria whispered. “This must be so awful for her. I know if I was in her place, I’d probably have to be strapped down as well.”

“Me too,” Emily agreed. “Oh, but – would Victor even see her if she came?”

Doc started to shrug, then stopped. He looked closely at the couples before him for a moment. “Richard, Christopher,” he said slowly, “if you were in Victor’s place, and it was one of your girlfriends outside the door, would you open it?”

“Well, of course!” Christopher said, pulling Victoria closer. “She’s the woman I love!”

“Definitely!” Richard said, wrapping an arm tightly around Emily. “I don’t care how sad I was – I know Emily would make me feel better.”

Doc stared hard at them a moment more, then nodded, face stern. “Right. I think we need to get Alice over here right now.”


“Alice, are you sure you--”

“Aunt Susan, you’ve kept me in bed for two and a half days,” Alice said, pulling on her boot. “You’ve got to let me up sometime. And I’m not going to be delayed any longer. It sounds like something awful has happened to him.”

“We’re just worried about you,” Susan said, wringing her hands. “And of course we’re worried about Victor too, but – well, T-Touched do tend to bounce back very easily, and he didn’t have such a long fight with that Queen. . . .”

Some Touched bounce back easily,” Alice corrected her, doing up the buckles. “You didn’t see Victor after he finally came off that high of Creativity. He was crying harder than I’ve ever seen anyone cry in my life. Kept calling himself a monster, a murderer. . . .” She yanked harder on a strap than she’d meant to. “I’ve recovered from worse fights than with the Queen.”

“That’s not true and you know it,” Susan said, frowning. “You were a mess, Alice. And neither of us were going to let our niece join her parents this soon. You have to take it easy!”

“How can I take it easy when Richard says no one’s even seen Victor for a couple of days?” Alice shot back. “How can I rest knowing he might be hurt worse than we thought? I don’t know what exactly is wrong with him, but I intend to find out. I have to find out. I’m his girlfriend!”

“Alice, please, if you work yourself up--”

“Mrs. Liddell?”

The maid came into the room, looking rather concerned. “We have a visitor,” she said. “Dr. Emmett Brown. He’s rather insistent Miss Liddell come with him right away.”

“What?”

“Oh, good,” Alice said, standing up. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”

“Alice--”

“He wouldn’t be here without good reason, Aunt Susan. Plus he can be my crutch if need be.” She promptly exited her room, heading down the staircase to see Doc and her uncle standing in the entrance hall. “Hello, Doc – your arrival’s just in time.”

“I’m still trying to understand why he needs you so urgently,” Charles said, frowning at Doc. “Surely someone else can take care of any monsters running around.”

“It has nothing to do with monsters and everything to do with Victor’s well-being,” Doc said, looking rather exhausted. “He needs Alice right now, I’m sure of it.”

“But why?” Susan said, hurrying into the room after her niece. “He must know Alice was rather badly hurt in her fight! Somebody would have told him!”

“We didn’t know about her being on bed rest, and nobody’s been able to see him,” Doc explained. “Victor locked himself in my bedroom once he woke up and refuses to come out or let anyone in. And he’s been refusing to eat anything on top of it.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Actually, thinking about it, I’m glad no one told him of Alice’s condition. He might have done something decidedly more drastic if he thought he was responsible for Alice getting hurt. As it is, I think he can still be talked out of it.”

Alice’s blood ran cold. “He’s – he’s not--”

“We don’t know for sure, but he’s not doing well at all,” Doc said, sighing. “The fact that he’s not eating is proof enough of that. And he won’t open that door for anyone. Not me, not Marty, not the Lady Heterodyne herself.”

“But you think he’ll open it for Alice?” Charles said, arching an eyebrow.

“I do. I noticed something before I came here – a lot of the Touched I know have one person in their lives that’s extremely important to them. Someone they’d do anything for. Someone who – who helps anchor them to reality. Typically a spouse or other loved one of that nature, but hell, even close friendship will do – look at myself and Marty. I know he tempers some of my crazier behavior. And when you look at Richard and Christopher now, as compared to before – both of them have spent their entire lives obsessed with inventing. I was half certain neither of them had any interest in the opposite sex at all. And now. . . . Both of them ran straight into the lion’s den for those two girls. I’m not saying they wouldn’t have tried to save anyone else, but – damn it, you can feel how much they love them. And I think it’s reasonable to hypothesize that it’ll work out the same way for Victor and Alice. I don’t think any of us would have been able to calm him down during his breakthrough like her. That boy practically worships the ground your niece walks on, Mr. and Mrs. Liddell, and I doubt that’s changed now that he’s Touched. If anyone can reach him, it’s her. Please,” he finished, looking Charles right in the eye. “It might be the difference between life and death.”

There was a moment of silence. “Alice, get your coat on,” Charles finally said.

“Already done,” Alice said, pulling her arm through the sleeve. She hugged her aunt and uncle. “I promise I won’t do anything too strenuous.”

“You do whatever you need to,” Susan said, looking a little teary-eyed. “I hope to God he’s all right. I wanted. . .well, I hoped. . .”

“Me too,” Alice said, knowing exactly what Susan was hinting at. “Don’t give up hope just yet. You’ll get me in bridal white before long, I’m sure.” She moved over to Doc. “I’ll be back – well, I’ll just be back.”

“Go,” Charles said. “And tell him – we care for him too, all right?”

Alice smiled a little. “Of course.” She looked up at Doc. “Get me to him.”


The flat was surprisingly full when they arrived – Doc had told her Richard, Emily, March, Dormy, Sir Christopher, and Victoria were there, but upon entering the living room, they also found Hiccup, Astrid, Flint, Sam, Wallace, and Gromit. “Great Scott, did you all just pop out of the ether while I was away?” Doc asked, staring at the crowd.

“We just wanted to see how he was doing,” Hiccup said, looking awkward. “Marty filled us in on all the details. . . .”

“I’m honestly surprised everyone fits in here,” Alice commented, looking around the overstuffed living space. “How are you all?”

“Better than him, apparently,” Astrid said, looking toward the little hall that led to Doc’s bedroom. “Never heard of a Touched trying to – well, plenty of them do it by accident, but–”

“He does know we all want to say ‘Thank you,’ right?” Wallace asked, wringing his hands. “He’s acting like we all want to see him – um–”

“I think that’s the way he feels right now,” Doc said. “You weren’t there to see his breakdown. He wasn’t in a good frame of mind at all.” He looked at Alice. “I hate to say it, but – it may be all up to you.”

Alice nodded, mouth set in a firm line. “I’m used to that. Let’s see if I can get inside that room.”

Doc nodded back and led her to his bedroom, leaving the others to stare worriedly after them. Alice looked at the door for a long moment. Just an ordinary oak door, nothing really special. And yet, behind it. . . . She took a deep breath and knocked.

There was a moment of silence. Then, so soft she wasn’t sure she’d heard it at first, Victor’s voice said, “Please go away Marty.”

Alice felt a sharp pain in her heart. Victor sounded – broken. Lost. Like – like he’d finally given up. Don’t do this to me, Victor. Don’t you dare. “It’s Alice,” she called through the wood. “Can you let me in?”

Another pause. “Alice?”

Alice nodded automatically. “Yes. Please, Victor, I want to talk to you. Open the door.”

The pause that followed stretched Alice’s nerves to the breaking point. What if he said no? What if he didn’t say anything? What if when they finally got into that room, they found–

There was the sudden click of a lock being turned, and then footsteps hurrying away from the door. Alice looked down at the doorknob, then up at Doc. The older man managed a half-smile and clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Good luck in there,” he said, before withdrawing.

Alice nodded after him, then looked back at the doorknob. Well, she’d won this first battle. Time to see if she could win the war. She grabbed the knob and turned.


Why had he unlocked the door? Why was he going to let her in here? He had to go back, he had to lock it again, he had to –

It was too late. The door was opening. Victor didn’t look up, focusing instead on a patch of floor right in front of his feet. He didn’t want to see her face. He didn’t want to see the look of horror that was sure to be upon it. The look of loathing. He couldn’t stand it seeing it on her. He couldn’t stand seeing it on anyone, but especially not her. Why had he unlocked that door?

Footsteps entered the room, then there was the soft click of the door closing behind her. Victor kept his eyes riveted to the floor. He didn’t want to see her – but he did, oh God he did, she was the only thing that made sense in the world anymore – but he didn’t deserve her anymore, not after what he’d done –

He heard a sharp intake of breath. Unable to help himself anymore, he lifted his head to see her staring at the wallpaper.

Or, rather, at the angry slashes of ink on the wallpaper. Victor winced as her eyes traveled along the messy black lines and smudges. The areas where the madness had gotten hold of him, made him start writing down ideas, terrible wonderful horrible amazing ideas – and then where he’d desperately scratched them out, leaving black smears of ink and the occasional rip in the paper. Because he didn’t want to have ideas. He didn’t want to feel his mind going faster and faster, the knowledge piling up and spilling out into thoughts about bioluminescence and clockwork parts and flight patterns and the realization that nothing was beyond his grasp he really could show them all

He squeezed his eyes shut, gasping for breath. His mind was too full, he could feel it, and it was trying to push him out to make room for it all. He was losing control, losing himself to the whirlwind in his mind, looking into the abyss and feeling the abyss look back – one push, one little push was all it would take, and he’d go toppling, spinning, and everything that was Victor Van Dort would be ripped to pieces in the face of SCIENCE –

“Victor.”

His eyes snapped open at the shock of feeling skin against his cheek. Alice was standing over him, one hand pressed against his face. Her green eyes looked – worried? But that wasn’t right, there should be hate there, there should be disgust, there should be – not worry, never worry, you don’t worry about monsters

She stroked his cheek. “You look awful,” she said bluntly, but there was a faint tremor in her voice. Like she was trying to keep from crying.

Victor swallowed. “I f-feel awful,” he admitted. Then he shook his head. “You – you s-should go, Alice. I s-shouldn’t have let you in, I’m not w-worth your time--”

“Don’t you dare say that,” Alice said, grabbing his head and making him look her full in the face. “Don’t you dare say that, do you hear me Victor Van Dort? Don’t you dare give up on yourself!”

Victor tried to pull back, but she was holding onto him too tightly. “I – I – I--”

“Don’t you dare!” Alice repeated, and now she was crying. “Damn it, Victor, do you know how many people you have out there who love you? Who are worried to death about you? Who want to see you alive and well? How can you try and – and starve yourself when--”

“They want the old me back!” Victor cried, staring up at her. “They want the Victor Van Dort who – who didn’t kill people, who didn’t conduct experiments on his friends, who didn’t scream at them just because they didn’t recognize one of my Inventions but they’ll recognize the others they’ll see I’ll show them what I can really do – NO!”

He grabbed at his head, finally wrenching himself free of Alice’s grip. “No I don’t want to I don’t want to but I do I’ve got all these ideas and I know exactly how to bring them to life but I don’t want to I don’t I do I want to show them want them to see the real me this isn’t the real me I’m losing myself Alice it hurts it hurts--

He curled up into a ball, tears running down his face. His head felt like it was being split in two – he could feel the whirlwind pulling at him, the abyss beckoning – “Don’t do don’t do,” he argued with himself, hearing the Creativity slip in and out of his voice. “I’m a genius I’m a monster--

“You’re not a monster.”

Alice’s arms wrapped around him, and he felt her breath on the back of his neck. “You are not a monster,” she repeated in a whisper. “You are a brilliant man who saved all our lives. And you can get through this. You’re too strong to fall victim to your own brain.”

He was? But – “I k-killed someone,” he whispered. “I hurt Emily--”

“No, you didn’t,” Alice said, rubbing her cheek against his hair. “Emily’s fine. She even said what you did probably helped her. And as for the Queen. . .you killed a monster, Victor. Plain and simple. You killed someone that would have destroyed all of us. I was prepared to kill her myself.”

“But – the spiders--”

“Frightening, yes,” Alice admitted, and Victor felt his heartbeat speed up. This was it, this was the moment where she rejected him and he finally lost it all – “But Victor – you did everything you could to make sure no one else would get hurt. How many Touched in the middle of going a bit Creative can claim that?” Her lips pressed against his neck. “You’re not evil, Victor. You could never be evil.”

His entire body was trembling. His mind was a storm, a raging sea – but her words, her touches, were like sudden calm spots. Rocks he could hold onto. How was she doing it? “You don’t know that,” he said, but he couldn’t put any force behind the assertion.

“I do,” Alice said. “I’ve faced evil – you’re not it.” One hand brushed his hair. “I love you, Victor. Don’t leave me.”

Victor managed to turn around in her arms, to meet those bright green eyes again. “I don’t want to,” he whispered. “But my head – I’m being pulled apart, Alice, I’m drowning – there’s all this science in my head, and there’s no more room for me--

“There’s always room for you,” Alice said, her grip tightening. “The science won’t get done if you’re not there.”

“I – you – help me,” he said, pulling her closer. “Help me, you make it quiet, please help me. . . .”

And then his lips were on hers, and his world was reduced down to tastes and touches as they kissed again and again. And he could feel her love for him flowing through him, and his love for her joining it, and the abyss didn’t stand a chance. It wrapped around him, anchoring him, pulling him away from the darkness and back into the light. And the whirlwind calmed, and his mind expanded, and suddenly there was more room than he could have ever imagined in his head. Plenty of room for him and for her and for the science and the butterflies – plenty of room.

After what felt like ages, they broke apart. He took a deep breath, like he’d finally broken the surface after hours underwater. Then he opened his eyes and looked at her. Her eyes were puffy and red, but she was smiling. “I love you,” he said, pressing his forehead against hers.

“I love you too,” she whispered. One hand gently rubbed his temple. “How is it up there now?”

“So much better,” he told her, smiling. “You were right – there was room. I just had to make it.” The smile faded. “I’m sorry I put you through that. I just – when I woke up, there was s-so much going on in my mind, I – I p-panicked. L-locking the door was my way of t-trying to run. But I couldn’t g-get away. . .” He put his hand on top of hers. “How do you do that?” he wondered. “It was like the m-moment you touched me, things started to get better. . . .”

“Doc thinks all Touched have an anchor of sorts,” Alice said. “I guess I’m yours.” She blinked fresh tears away. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner – my aunt and uncle forced me to stay in bed the past few days, because of that fight I had--”

“It’s all right,” he said quietly, kissing her again. “You’re here now. And I’m glad you’re all right.” He paused. “I’m glad I’m all right.”

“Me too.” She gently squeezed him. “Ready to go say hello to the others again?”

Victor closed his eyes, soaking in the feeling of her warm arms around him. Those wonderful arms that helped keep him grounded. “In a minute.”


The sound of a door opening made everyone’s heads jerk up. A few moments later, Alice reentered the sitting room – leading Victor by the hand. The young man stared around at the sea of faces, looking embarrassed, relieved, and mildly shocked all at once. Finally, he spoke. “H-hello.”

“Hey,” Marty said, looking him up and down. “You – you all right?”

“I – I’m getting there.” Victor looked down at his hand, linked with Alice’s. “I’m m-much better than I was, that’s for certain.”

“I would say you finally exiting that room is proof of that,” Doc said, coming up to him. “How do you feel?”

“. . .Anchored,” Victor decided, which got something resembling a smile out of the older man. “It’s – you were right, describing it l-like a whirlwind. I was g-getting thrown in all directions, and I d-didn’t know what to do. . .I’m s-sorry for locking you out of your own bedroom,” he added, feeling his cheeks heat.

“Don’t worry about it,” Doc said. “I’d rather sleep on the couch a few days and know you were all right rather than the alternative.”

“But you’re okay, right?” Marty persisted, joining Doc. “You’re not gonna go crazy again and lock yourself into anyplace else?”

“No,” Victor assured him, feeling a stab of guilt as he saw Marty’s red, puffy eyes. “No, I’m not. I’m so sorry to have worried you – I just – I c-couldn’t get over what I’d done to the Queen, and to Emily, and my head felt so full that I – I d-don’t even know how to describe it now. But I’m better. I really am.”

Marty nodded – then flung his arms around him. “Yeah, well, you’d better be, you asshole,” he said, but there was no real anger in his voice. “I’m not going through this crap again.”

Doc hugged Victor as well. “I don’t think we need to worry about that anymore,” he said with a grateful smile at Alice. “But you do know that you’ve got more than just her on your side, right?”

“I do now,” Victor said, releasing Alice’s hand to hug his friends. “Thank you so much. For everything.” He felt another stab of guilt. “I, ah, w-wrote all over your wallpaper, Doc. I’ll r-replace it.”

“Don’t worry about that either,” Doc told him, squeezing him a little tighter. “Ruined wallpaper is a small price to pay to see you well. Besides, I’m kind of interested to see what you came up with.”

“I scribbled it all out,” Victor admitted. “But I – I might remember some of it.”

“We can discuss all that later,” March said, pushing a plate forward as Victor was finally released by his friends. “We brought tea for everyone! Would you like a tart?”

“I – well--” Politeness went up against ravenous hunger, and immediately lost. “Oh God yes!”

The sight of Victor descending on the plate and cramming food in his mouth seemed to break some sort of unspoken tension, sending a ripple of laughter through the room. “Damn it, Victor, remember to chew!” Marty snickered. “Oh, sorry for all the swearing, ladies--”

“I don’t care at all,” Victoria said, hiding a giggle of her own. “Really, though, Victor, don’t eat it so fast, you’ll give yourself a stomachache.”

“What shocks me is that you genuinely went without eating for three days,” Richard commented, watching him wolf down tarts.

“It shocks me too,” Victor said, finally getting control of himself and wiping his face off with a napkin. “But I suppose that’s what you do when – you’re not w-well.” His eyes traveled to the figure sitting beside Richard. “Speaking of which – are you really all right, Emily?”

“Perfectly fine,” Emily assured him with a smile, holding out her arm for inspection. “See? Solid as anything right now. I can control being butterflies or not quite easily.” She frowned a little. “Though I have to ask – how on earth did you even do that to me?”

“I – I--” Victor blinked, his face a mask of confusion. “I haven’t the slightest idea.”

There was a round of chuckles from the other Touched in the room. “Typical side effect of going Creative,” Doc assured him. “You come up with things that even you can’t explain later.”

“Though the clean-up crew was kind enough to copy down all your notes,” Richard said, producing a sheaf of paper. “Maybe you can figure it out from them!”

Victor looked at the notes for a long while. Then he shook his head, closing his eyes. “No. I – no. Please – t-take them away. Or better yet, burn them.”

“Destroy them? Whatever for?” Sir Christopher said, leaning forward.

Victor opened his eyes, looking slightly haunted. “I don’t ever want to remember how I came up with those spiders.”

A shiver passed through the room. “Okay, yeah, fair enough,” Hiccup said. “I’m grateful for you saving our lives, don’t get me wrong, but – those were creepy.”

Victor nodded, looking down at the tray. “I’m sorry for scaring everyone. I just – I heard her hurt Alice, and I just got so angry--

“Another side effect of becoming a Touched,” Sir Christopher said. “Everyone loses control of their emotions for a while. Even I got enraged with some poor soul and threatened them with dissolution. Of course, then I got promptly distracted by how difficult that would be, and that led to another idea, and. . . .” He smiled a bit. “You’re not as dangerous as you think you are. I hope not, anyway, because you seemed to think you were pretty darn dangerous.”

“How dangerous do you all think I am?” Victor couldn’t help replying.

“Well, Lady Heterodyne was going around interviewing people about you while you were – ill,” Emily said, playing with her dress. “When I told her you actually offered to let me skip being the test subject, she was honestly shocked. That’s apparently very rare among new Touched – typically they just grab someone and tell them they’re going along with it, no questions asked.”

“Not to mention deliberately designing a deadly weapon so it wouldn’t hurt anyone other than the person you wanted it to hurt,” Doc said. “You had a lot less faith in yourself than any of us ever had in you.”

Victor blushed and looked away, simultaneously pleased and embarrassed by their statements. “W-well, I – I’ve never really been e-encouraged to like myself all that much. . . .” He frowned, that bringing up a new thought. “Doc? Marty? H-have my parents--”

Neither of his friends said a word. They couldn’t even meet his eyes. Victor turned his gaze back to the table. “I – I see.” He blinked suddenly watery eyes. “I probably should have guessed.”

“I made a few inquiries on the telephonic while Doc was out,” Sir Christopher said, trying to sound hopeful. “They’re still in the city. They – they haven’t completely given up on you yet, I don’t think.”

“Haven’t they?” Victor shook his head. “They’re not going to w-want a Touched for a son, I k-know that. They. . .they’ll. . . .” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

Alice put her arm around him. “Don’t worry too much about them,” she said quietly. “You have more than enough friends here to take their place. My own aunt and uncle are ready to welcome you into the family already.” She pressed her head against his shoulder. “Besides, you told me Nell never gives up. She’s probably just looking for the best psychiatrist to make you not a Touched anymore.”

“Oh God,” Victor groaned. “If she is, that’ll be a fun talk.” He looked at Victoria. “You must know all about that – how are you even here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be on a train back to Burtonsville? What just happened with the Queen must have been the last straw for your parents.”

Victoria beamed. “Not anymore – they gave up.”

“They what?”

“They gave up! After Christopher helped save my life in Looking-Glass House, my parents decided it would be more scandalous to say no to his offer than to say yes! They’re letting us get married! They’ve gone home, yes, but they’re letting me stay here! Christopher’s kindly paying for my room and board,” she added, snuggling up to her boyfriend.

“Anything for my future wife,” Christopher said, kissing the side of her head.

“Really? Oh, congratulations! That’s wonderful!” Victor said, feeling a surge of happiness.

Victoria nodded, smiling up at him. “So you see – there is a little hope. Maybe even Mrs. Van Dort can be persuaded to come around.”

“I’d settle for her being civil for five minutes,” Marty said.

“So would I,” Victor admitted. “What else has happened since I woke up?”

“You want to hear everything or just the most important things?” Richard said. “Because if we listed everything, we’d be here just as long as you were locked in there.”

“Just the important things,” Victor said with a chuckle. “Especially whatever pertains to Wonderland Park. And--” He paused, not sure if he really wanted to know the answer to this one. “D-did they ever find--”

“Lewis’s body?” Alice said, voice quiet. Victor nodded. “No, we didn’t. We’re – we’re sure he’s dead--”

“God rest his soul,” Sir Christopher added solemnly.

“Yes, of course, but his body’s disappeared,” Alice continued. “We don’t know what she did with it, but I doubt it was give it a proper burial.”

Victor felt a tiny surge of rage. “How dare she leave him to rot,” he growled. “What did he ever do to her?”

“Created her,” Richard said simply. “For a reason she didn’t like.”

“What?”

“I guess you were too angry to take note of what she looked like under the mask,” Alice said.

“I – was rather distracted,” Victor agreed, wincing as his memory went back to that horrible house, his fury burning hot in his veins as he looked up at the Queen and –

Wait. Now that he wasn’t distracted, he could recall that. . .that – “She looked like you!” he gasped, staring at Alice with wide eyes. “The hair and eye colors were wrong, but – she looked like you! Why in God’s name–”

“She was supposed to be a copy of me,” Alice explained, a pained look on her face. “Apparently – apparently Lewis was in love with me, and w-when we fell in love with each other, he had the brilliant idea to–” She bit down on her lower lip. “I had no idea, he’s always been like family, not. . . .”

Victor felt his stomach turn. Lewis had been in love with Alice? He thought back to their first date, to the unreadable expression on his friend’s face when they’d turned up at his gate. . . . “Oh God,” he whispered. “I – this is--”

“You end that sentence with ‘my fault’ and I’ll hit you with my hobby horse,” Alice cut him off, giving him a severe frown. “It’s not your fault. Neither of us knew. And God knows Lewis didn’t intend for the Queen to become what she did.”

“We found his notes – what was left of them,” Richard nodded. “He was pretty clear on the fact that what he wanted was a girl with plenty of Alice-like qualities, not a meglomaniacal tentacle monster. And he was pretty clear on the fact that he didn’t hate you, so get that out of your mind.”

Victor looked down, nodding. He couldn’t stop himself from feeling guilty, but the others didn’t need to hear that. He’d do his best to believe them. And besides, he did not want to descend into those black depths of madness again. Whether he’d truly hated him or not, Lewis wouldn’t have wanted that, he was sure. “Right. H-how’s the park?”

“Still rather wrecked, but we’re all working hard on clean-up duty,” Flint reported. “Some of the Queen’s favorite monsters are still running around, but most of the regular flora and fauna has started to reassert itself already.”

“Indeed – Rabbit, the Elder Gnome, and myself led the charge to eradicate the roses from the front gate,” March said proudly. “With the loan of Alice’s teapot cannon, of course.”

“Glad to give it,” Alice smiled. “And the proper Card and Chess Royalty are back in charge – they’re directing the restoration of Looking-Glass House.”

“How’s that coming?” Victor asked.

“It’s going easier than expected – the flesh grew over the walls, so – um – you can just peel it off, more or less.”

Victor shuddered at the mental image. “I’m glad, but I’m disgusted as well,” he admitted. “Do I want to know what they’re going to do with it? You know what, no, I don’t, don’t answer.”

“None of us want to know,” Victoria said, making a face. “I’m just glad it’ll be out of there sooner rather than later.”

“Same here,” Astrid nodded. “They’ve already gotten rid of the Queen’s body. I think they buried it in a big pit far away from the city. Same with the Executioner.” She grinned. “You missed Alice smashing the bastard with her foot. I think he pissed himself right before she did it.”

“I’m just glad to hear he’s dead and not hurting anyone else,” Victor said – then had a sudden nasty thought. “Oh God – did they catch Barkis?! He was working with the Queen! I saw him in her throne room!”

“That’s – that’s a tricky bit,” Sir Christopher said, looking uncomfortable. “We found him too, when he tried to attack Victoria. We’d intended to deliver him to Lady Heterodyne for punishment. But then fate intervened in the form of the Executioner.”

“The idiot got himself killed by running toward the guard right after the Queen told him to kill everyone,” Richard said with a nasty smirk. “I wasn’t sorry to see him go.”

“None of us were,” Sir Christopher nodded. “The trouble is – his body’s gone missing too. We don’t know if someone in the clean-up crew stole it or what.”

“You don’t think someone would try to bring him back?” Victor said, raising an eyebrow.

“Who knows? I really don’t think so – if anything, he’d probably be used for spare parts – but I’d feel a bit more comfortable if we actually had him in the flesh to bury properly.”

Victor nodded understandingly, and sighed. “Me too, but – we can’t really worry about that now, can we? There’s so much more we have to do. . . .”

“Indeed,” Doc agreed, patting his shoulder. “Though right now the only thing you have to do is get your head on straight and get yourself back in good condition. I know you probably want to dive straight into helping everyone in the park, but we want to make sure you’re all right first.”

Victor nodded, feeling a burst of shame. “I’m s-sorry for putting everyone through this,” he mumbled, looking at his shoes.

“Hey, it could have been a lot worse,” Hiccup commented, making him look up. The young Viking reached down and tapped his metal leg. “At least you came out of it with all your limbs intact.”

“And without nearly getting yourself minced up into dog food,” Wallace added, as Gromit nodded along.

“And you didn’t try to throw yourself away,” Flint agreed.

Victor blinked. “Throw myself – how does one do that?”

“Climb into a garbage can and wallow in self-pity until your dad knocks you out of it,” Flint replied, looking a little embarrassed. Sam patted his hand.

“And you don’t have to go out and face life as a newly Touched alone,” Doc added, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You’ve got friends here willing and able to help you through anything and everything.”

“And someone who loves you and didn’t go through all that hell just to see your own brain take you down,” Alice nodded, poking him in the shoulder.

Victor smiled, feeling his eyes getting a little watery again. “Thank you. All of you.”

“Hey, thank you,” Sam said. “If you hadn’t done what you did--” She looked at Flint, who put his arm around her “– who knows what would have happened to all of us?”

“You’re one of the bravest young men I’ve ever known,” Sir Christopher added. “Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”

“You’re a hero, Victor,” Emily nodded. “And we know you’ll be one of the best mad scientists this city has ever seen.”

Victor rubbed the back of his head. “You’re n-not just saying that because I yelled at all of you?”

“Well, that was a pretty impressive rant,” Marty said, grinning. “Might have scared Lady Heterodyne if she’d been there.”

“Oh, never!” Victor hid his face in his hands, embarrassed. “Did I apologize yet for calling you all names? Especially you, Flint?”

“It happens,” Flint said carelessly, waving a hand. “Standard Touched breakdown. We’re not holding it against you.”

“Of course not!” Wallace said with a grin. “I’m actually quite eager to see what you come up with in the future!”

There was a pause as Victor considered this. What he would come up with? Again he felt the tug of the whirlwind in his mind, starting to spin again, and felt a brief moment of panic –

But no. This was different. This time – he had it under control. He could feel it. His mind was churning, but it was churning pleasantly, and – and he had that feeling again. The one he’d had when he’d been riding that high in Lewis’s lab. The one where the entire world seemed to be glowing.

Glowing. . . .

Slowly, Victor lifted his head and smiled. A smile that stretched rather farther than it should across his face. A smile that showed more teeth than he usually did. A smile that was bright and mad – but also, this time, genuinely happy. “You know. . .I did have some ideas. . . .”

Chapter Text

July 7th, 18–

Secundus, England

10:04 A.M.

“Dearly beloved. . .we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in marriage.”

Victor smiled brightly at his bride, who smiled back. This was it! After a whirlwind of planning, of getting everything together in a little less than a month, this was it.

“Marriage is more than just a contract – a few words on a piece of paper. Marriage is one of the greatest expressions of love. It is a lifetime commitment between two people who never wish to be apart.”

God, he didn’t think Alice could look any lovelier than she did now. Victor drank her in with his eyes – her white gown with the blue embroidered flowers and butterflies circling the skirt; her fragrant bouquet of lilies, tulips, daffodils, and bluebells; her crown of orange blossoms with the shimmery veil; and of course her soft pink lips and brilliant green eyes, accented beautifully with just a hint of makeup. She was the image of the perfect bride. Victor felt rather plain and ordinary in his simple charcoal suit and white vest. At least he had the hat Richard had made him when he first arrived – that had to count for something in the “handsome groom” department.

“These two young lovers have already proven their devotion to each other through good times and bad. They have enjoyed beautiful days and weathered dark nights at each other’s side. They are stronger together than they could ever be apart.”

Victor nodded – oh, that was definitely true enough. Life without Alice. . .it wasn’t something he liked to think about. Just considering the fact they’d almost never met was bad enough. But worse were the nightmares he had occasionally, the ones where she had – where the Queen had –

He quickly banished such thoughts. They weren’t appropriate for a day like today. Reminded him too much of the abyss lurking in the back of his mind. God, please, he thought, concealing a shiver, don’t do anything like that again. Don’t take her away from me. At least, not until we’re about a hundred. That’s the earliest I’ll be able to let her go.

“We are all here, family and friend alike, to celebrate the love these two share for each other, and to celebrate the commitment they are making today.”

Victor smiled again, managing to tear his eyes away from Alice long enough to look at the wedding party. Marty and Doc were behind him, acting as his two best men (he couldn’t bring himself to pick just one of them), while Richard and Christopher stood proudly at attention next to them – Richard in his best suit, Christopher in his shiniest armor. All of them were grinning to beat the band. Though Victor noticed Richard looked a little distant – he suspected his friend was mentally hatting everyone in the audience who wasn’t wearing one (and maybe even those who were). In a line behind Alice were her aunt Susan as the matron of honor, Victoria, Emily, and the Cheshire Cat. Alice hadn’t had another truly close female friend to round out her bridesmaids, and considering how Cheshire had pretty much saved Victor’s life when he first entered Wonderland Park during the Queen’s brief reign, they’d both decided the least they could do was offer him a part in the wedding. Besides, he’d also been the first one to pick up on the fact that they were going to end up together. It was only fitting. All of them were smiling just as brightly as his groomsmen. Susan was admittedly crying, but they were very clearly tears of joy. Even Cheshire’s usually somewhat sardonic grin looked perfectly genuine. Victor felt a warmth deep inside him spread through his body. Marrying the woman he loved, and surrounded by the best friends a person could ask for – what else could he ever want?

“If there is anyone here who objects to this union, let them speak now, or forever hold their peace.”

Now Victor’s gaze went to the faces gazing at them from the pews. The wedding wasn’t particularly big, but it was bigger than Victor had ever imagined his wedding to be. And much more varied – Bonejangles shared a pew with March Hare and Dormy, Toothless was curled up in the seats next to Hiccup and Astrid, and Flint’s monkey Steve was giving Gromit a good groom. Everyone looked just as happy as he felt – both Flint and Bonejangles gave him a thumbs up as his eyes passed over them, making him chuckle.

Unwillingly, though, his gaze was drawn to a few empty seats in the front of the church. His parents hadn’t even opened their wedding invitation – just sent it straight back without a word. Victor wasn’t even sure why he’d invited them in the first place. It wasn’t like they were even speaking to each other any more. Not after what his mother had said once he’d finally gotten the courage to talk to them. A brief burst of anger flared up in his heart. Fixed indeed. . . . No, it was probably for the best that they weren’t here, no matter how much the rejection hurt.

And then there was the seat that should have been Lewis’s. The anger was replaced by deep sadness. Would Lewis even have wanted to come to this wedding? He’d been reassured multiple times by numerous people that his old friend had not actually hated him. But it was still hard to believe sometimes. Not for the first time, Victor wished Doc had a working time machine – just so he could go back and say an apology poor past Lewis would never understand.

He felt Alice’s hand on his arm, and looked back to see her giving him a tender smile. “He’s watching from wherever he ended up,” she whispered. “And I’m sure he’s perfectly happy seeing us together. Don’t make this a day about regrets.”

Victor smiled back, feeling comforted. She was right – today wasn’t a day to mourn. Today was a day for celebration. “Thanks.”

Father Gale smiled at the silence from the pews. “Good. Now then, I believe Master Van Dort has some rather unique vows. . .Victor, if you would?”

Victor nodded, looking at Alice as he raised his right hand. “With this hand, I will lift your sorrows.” It felt a little weird to be using his hometown’s special vows here in Secundus, but Alice liked them, and they were the ones he was used to. He’d spent hours practicing them, wanting to make sure he got them just right for her. He picked up a goblet and a bottle of sacramental wine. “Your cup will never empty, for I will be your wine,” he continued, emphasizing the line by pouring a little of the wine into the goblet. Cup was then exchanged for a tapered candle. “With this candle, I will light your way in darkness.”

And now, the most important part. He reached into his vest pocket and extracted the ring. Holding it very carefully – he’d discovered how slippery the damn thing could be after dropping it during rehearsal the other day – he took her hand and slipped it onto her finger. “With this ring, I ask you to be mine.”

“Miss Liddell?” Father Gale said.

Alice grinned at Victor, raising her hand. “With this hand, I will lift your sorrows,” she said. She took the cup and added some more wine. “Your cup will never empty, for I will be your wine.” Cup was changed for a candle, which she held aloft. “With this candle, I will light your way in darkness.” She set down the candle and took his hand. “With this ring – I’ll always be thine.” (Victor overheard Victoria whisper, “Oh, I wish I’d thought of that! It’s so much nicer than just ‘I do.’”)

Father Gale beamed at the couple. “Then, by the power invested in me, I pronounce you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

Victor quite eagerly did so, to a chorus of applause and cheers. He didn’t think Alice’s lips had ever felt this good pressed against his own. “This is easily the happiest day of my life,” he told her once he finally released her.

“Mine too – so far,” Alice said, smirking. “I expect you to start making a few contenders for the title very soon.”

Victor laughed. “Your wish is my command.”

They retired to the church’s back office to take care of the fiddly legal things, such as signing the marriage license. Victor watched as Alice put her name down. “That’s it,” he said suddenly, feeling a bit odd.

“What’s it?” Alice asked, handing the pen to her aunt so she could sign as a witness.

“That’s the last time you’ll ever be Alice Liddell. It’s Alice Van Dort now.” He shook his head. “It’s just – a little strange, thinking of you with my last name.”

“A little,” Alice agreed, contemplating it a moment. “But we’ll get used to it. I wouldn’t have given up my old last name for anyone else.”

“I know,” Victor said, drawing her close. “I – I hope your parents would have approved of me.”

“They would have loved you,” Susan assured him, smiling. “You’re just the sort of man they would have hoped Alice would marry.”

“You kept them from having to see their daughter again prematurely,” Cheshire said, hopping onto the desk to put a paw print on the certificate. “I’m sure they are quite happy to have you as a son-in-law for that alone.”

Victor smiled at them. “Thanks, both of you.”

Finally, the last “i” was dotted and the last “t” crossed on the paperwork. Victor and Alice celebrated with another kiss, then made their way out of the church through the crowd of friends and relations waiting for them. “Thank you all for coming!” Victor said, grinning and waving at them all. “We’ll see you all at the reception in half a hour, all right?”

“What will you be doing?” Astrid called.

In response, Victor turned, put two fingers to his mouth, and whistled. Moments later, a large, butterfly-shaped shadow appeared above them. There were a few gusts of wind that threatened to destroy hairstyles and blow away hats, then the biggest blue butterfly anyone had ever seen landed in front of them. “Ready to take us on a tour of the city, Ferdinand?” Victor said, patting the butterfly’s feelers.

Ferdinand ran his proboscis over his creator’s face, fluttering his wings eagerly. Victor laughed. “Yes, I thought so. We’ll meet up with all of you at Mr. and Mrs. Liddell’s house!”

“Oh, do the bouquet throw before you go!” Emily cried as Victor and Alice prepared to mount. “I can’t wait to see who’s getting married next!”

“We know who’s getting married next!” Alice replied, laughing. “For goodness sake, Emily, we were with you when you and Richard booked the church!”

“Well then, after me, then!” Emily giggled, as Richard put a loving arm around her. “Come on, please!”

“All right, all right!” Alice turned around, hefting her flowers a couple of times to prepare. “All married women, you’d better clear the area!”

Susan, Victoria, and Sam Lockwood quickly got out of the way, retreating into the arms of their respective husbands. The unmarried ladies left bunched up eagerly in front of the crowd. “One – two – three!” Alice cried, and launched her bouquet. There was a brief friendly scuffle as the girls tried to jump for it, and then –

“What the--”

“I don’t think that’s allowed. Is it?”

“Alice, you overshot!”

“What?” Alice turned, frowning. Beside her, Victor peered with equal puzzlement at the women. “Who got it?”

The crowd of girls separated, revealing – of all people – Doc Brown holding the flowers. The scientist was staring at them like he’d never seen them before. “I – I don’t know – they were in the air, then--” he stammered, sounding rather like Victor. He finally lifted his head. “I don’t even have a girlfriend!”

“Better find one, Doc,” Marty joked, gently nudging his friend in the side.

Victor couldn’t help a laugh. “Yes – can’t break with tradition, after all,” he nodded, earning himself a look from his friend. “And now, the sky calls.” He waved again. “We’ll see you all later!”

“Goodbye!” “Have a good flight!” “Watch out for the air over Narbonics, they’ve got a weird thermal going!” “We’ll see you at the reception!” “Safe flying!” “Steve!”

Victor and Alice waved one last time, then got themselves settled on Ferdinand’s back. “All right, Ferdy – up and away!” Victor said, patting the butterfly’s head.

Ferdinand wiggled his feelers, then flapped his wings, launching them into the air. They slowly drifted up into the sky, then lazily turned and started their meandering way over the city. Victor looked around as they flew. There were the lightning rods decorating many of the stained and scorched roofs. There was Flint’s FLDSMDFR floating on the breeze, quiet for now but ready to release food later for many hungry people. There was Professor Madblood, finishing work on yet another rocket – he gave them a wave as they passed. And, far below, there was the hustle and bustle of the city, with motorized carriages making their way along the streets and pickle people ambling along the cobblestone sidewalks.

Victor smiled at it all. Alice wrapped her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. “So – happy Doc Brown kidnapped you all those months ago?”

Victor turned a little and kissed her. “You have no idea.”

 

The End