She remembers being safe. She remembers being kept within certain limits and acting a certain way. She remembers learning how to curtsy and the names of the kings of England in her grand backyard. She remembers wondering what way she should go to find a marvelous escape, an adventure underground: over the hill? Or here, or there? Or just behind that tree?
She remembers falling down, down, down the rabbit-hole and what she found there.
She remembers dismissing Wonderland and her heart being stolen away as a dream-turned-nightmare, because nobody else remembered dark creatures that took her heart away. So of course, she must have dreamed the whole thing, though it felt so very real.
She remembers telling her parents she loved them, very very much, when she came back, of being in hysterics and being force-escorted to the fainting couch until she started acting reasonably rational again.
She remembers being safe, while outside, in the dark parts of London the world was a very scary place indeed.
She remembers being safe before she met Axel.
She is sitting pristinely by the lakeside in the local park, doing nothing in particular and enjoying the quiet golden afternoon before her friends are scheduled to join her for a game of croquet. She is busy straightening her skirts to make them fold out just so when she hears footsteps, whistling accompanying them, coming from a man with bright red hair and swirling eyes, dressed in a stiffly formal black suit despite the heat.
She remembers once upon a dream and marching cards she met saying the words alongside the whistle: Painting the roses red, but many a tear we shed, because we know they'll cease to grow. In fact, they'll soon be dead. And yet we go ahead, painting the roses red, red, red, red, red, red, red, red.
"I'm sorry to intrude, sir," she says curiously, respectfully, "but wherever did you hear that song?"
He looks at her askance, a chuckle hums in his throat. "It's all across the streets, miss. They say a little girl your age heard it first, in a place called Wonderland."
Alice remembers the teasing she has suffered for her marvelous story, but she is still determined to figure out just who this strange man heard it from.
"I didn't think grown-ups would know about Wonderland," she ventures. "I haven't quite finished the book about it just yet, sir."
She blinks once, twice, notices how peculiar his eyes look: jester's makeup beneath swirling green eyes, something that seems faraway and unfamiliar. She then realizes that she has been impolite to stare at him so, and quickly jumps to her feet.
"Oh, I'm sorry! Forgive my manners," she says nervously and quickly, taking hold of her blue skirts and curtsying deeply, politely to him. "My name is Alice Pleasance Liddell. It's an honor to meet you."
He grins widely, another thing that seems familiar and yet new, and gives her a little halfhearted bow of his own, black coattails flapping in the wind.
"The name's Axel, Miss Liddell. A-X-E-L. Commit it to memory."
"But of course, Mr. Axel," Alice replies brightly to him. "If you forgive my asking, just how did you hear about Wonderland?"
"Hear about it?" he asks incredulously, eyes wide. "I've been there. Quaint little place."
"You have?" she exclaims, and it is all she could do not to hug him, she is so very happy. "I didn't know anyone else had ever been there. That's wonderful! I didn't think anyone would ever believe me; all the children just thought it was some wild story."
"They must lead very boring lives, then," Axel says lackadaisically, smile never fading, "to not believe in Wonderland."
"I suppose so," Alice says musingly, looking up at Axel for approval. He nods, and she continues. "Mum says people only stop believing in fantastical things because they think they need to…well, stop believing, that is…in order to become grown-up."
"I promise I'm not one of those dull adults," Mr. Axel says, his hand over his heart in an oath.
Alice has never been so happy to meet a grown-up in her life.
And, strangely enough, Axel has never been so happy to meet a little girl in his life.
They meet again about a week or so later, completely unscheduled and completely by chance. Alice sees him walking through the park, and abandons her friends to come say hello to him. Of course, this is hardly a proper thing to do, and she knows she will be teased mercilessly for talking to a man who is not in her family while she is unsupervised. She will have to hand out bribes, or exchange favors, in return for their silence.
But she can't help how fascinating Mr. Axel is, and he tells her wonderful stories while she rows a boat on the lake: stories of lands she hopes very much to see someday, a city called Agrabah in the center of the scorching Arabian desert; an abandoned port in the Caribbean rumored to be haunted; the firework-sky Emperor's City in China's Middle Kingdom, where dragons roam the streets alongside humans.
However, as curious and wonderful as it all is, there is one question that Alice must have Mr. Axel answer before she simply dies of curiosity.
"I'm all ears," Axel says when she asks if he would mind answering a question. "What is it?"
"Well, I wanted to know…why are you in London, Mr. Axel?"
The Organization has long known the truth about Wonderland. The truth is that it's nothing but the product of Alice's mind, a lovely little dream she had one golden afternoon.
And that's why they can't go back. The portals there don't work anymore, since Alice can only be asleep for so long, and even then, there's no guarantee Wonderland will be what she's dreaming of.
But they need the world, need the hearts there to be harvested.
And of course, as Axel had pointed out, wouldn't it be funny if the Queen of Hearts made a fine Heartless? Under her command, Wonderland could become a colony of sorts for the Organization, a dark place where all the hearts were stolen and it became quite a changed place indeed.
But they can't do any of it without Alice.
They sent Axel to make sure she stays asleep for a very long time.
And Axel knows exactly how to do it.
When the moment comes, he'll know.
It's almost a pity. This girl's a princess of heart. She commands respect throughout most of the universe.
But then again, Axel's never been one to respect his superiors.
She is still waiting for an answer, blue eyes wide, her heart beating almost frantically with wonder.
He simply tells her he's here on a secret mission for his government he's sworn to secrecy about, because it's really not too far from the truth. And it intrigues her all the more, and so she intends to keep close to him forever.
Because she thinks that forever will be long enough for him to share his secrets with her.
What she doesn't know is that forever isn't even close.
The third time they meet there are dark clouds gathering over the London skyline. The boats bob above the rough lake, newspapers fly above them like bird, and the heavy trees bend in the wind. There is no hope for rain, only bitter cold.
Axel, who is usually always warm, offers his arms to a shivering Alice. She sits on his lap as if he's an uncle or a grandfather instead of what he really is: a curious stranger. She's not entirely sure if it's good that she's comfortable with it or not.
Alice is beginning to realize that she is happy with keeping Mr. Axel a secret. In a way, it means that nobody else but her knows about him, like he's something she can keep all to herself, and she doesn't have to worry about the world ruining him.
But, if she is discovered with him, there is no chance of it being taken as anything less than a scandal.
To protect her reputation, and to protect his, she suggests that he meet her parents straightaway. To have a friend of his age approved by her parents will guarantee that their names will still run clean in London's society.
Axel nods no. He says that he is almost finished with his mission, and that he is expected back home.
Alice is downcast, feels disappointment creep through her.
Axel smiles weakly and says that this doesn't mean he won't forget her. He'll write to her whenever he can, maybe even meet her again someday. All he needs is her address, to make sure that the letters will get to her all right.
Alice nods and in painstakingly neat handwriting, she gives him the number and street of her cozy little cottage on the safer side of Westminster. She is expected home, and so she races home, petticoats swirling in the wind and her sky-blue cloak shivering over her arms.
It is now that Axel realizes that she would be comfortable with him in her home.
It is now that Axel realizes what he must do.
The fire is easy enough to start.
The Liddells, like any other upper-class family in Westminster, have many oil lamps and many books in their upper-story library. It is completely abandoned save for a black cat named Dinah keeps an oddly diligent watch.
Axel purrs at it when it awakes, and it doesn't so much as hiss again when he dodges its attack, sends it spiraling into the wall.
The oil burns through his nostrils, fills his lungs with toxin as he lets it run rivers throughout the room. He throws a can of kerosene on top of it for good measure, sends the entire leather-bound library into a fire-storm.
Smoke floats to the ceiling, the fire eats away at walls and wood and everything Alice needs to stay safe. Someplace below she is still sleeping, taking tea in dreamland with her make-believe friends while he races down the stairs, eyes singed back by flame, a Cheshire Cat smile on his lips.
"Wake up, Alice!" he calls, laughing mockingly. "Wake up!"
She awakes with a gasp, smoke burning her nostrils and her entire world falling to pieces before her. Mum and Dad, she has to find them, she has to save them.
The spiral staircase is crumbling underneath her feet, she singes her arms as she races down the hallway. Her blond limp hair bobbing, she hugs her stuffed bunny close to her chest and stops to cough away the smoke.
"Mum? Dad?" she asks the burning door.
"Alice!" comes her mother's faltering voice,
"Mum!" she exclaims, trying to reach for the doorknob. It only burns her and she coils back. "Father!"
"Get out, Alice!" her mother insists.
"Save yourself, Alice!" her father adds over choking cries.
The only way out is a window that has yet to be touched by fire, one that sends her careening through the air but instead of falling down, down, down a rabbit hole, she falls into Mr. Axel's arms.
"Uh-oh," he says, concerned as she breaks free. "I think they're dead."
"Mr. Axel!" she exclaims, and then wildly points an accusing finger. Somehow he did this, somehow all those tricks he had showed her with his fire led to this. "You! How could you possibly do such a thing to—?"
"Don't look at me," Axel says heartlessly. "Don't play stupid, Alice. It's your fault that they're dead."
She falters. "M-my fault?"
"You couldn't be bothered to save them," he says, sharp teeth in her face, breath like kerosene on her nose. "When someone tells you to save yourself, what it really means is that you need to help them. I can't believe you would be so heartless and actually leave them behind."
"I can assure you I am not heartless!" Alice says, trying to be strong. But it is a failing effort. She is a crumbling dam, and before she knows it a pool of tears is crawling down her face. She knows crying won't help, that crying won't bring her parents back, but she just can't stop.
"And I can assure you that's a lie," Axel smirks, eyes glimmering like poison.
She is too lost in her own failure to even acknowledge him anymore.
And he vanishes into darkness, leaving nothing behind but a mocking farewell: "Take care, little princess."
They get the report from a man who prefers to remain anonymous, who says a girl is in hysterics in front of what was her house.
When they find her in the snow in front of her burnt-down house she is screaming and crying and saying a man with bright red hair and absinthe-colored eyes and a Cheshire Cat's smile killed her parents, almost killed her.
Of course, nobody has seen such a man.
Of course, they all think the girl has gone irreversibly mad, and that she herself is the reason for the fire.
Because of course, if a little girl sees something nobody else sees, it means she's gone insane.
So of course, they do the proper thing.
They bind her tightly, carry her kicking over their shoulders.
And they send her screaming and crying to the Rutledge Asylum, in hopes that her madness will leave her someday.