The Cheshire Cat is watching her.
Wind blows through her hair and peppers her clothes with stolen leaf-kisses and torn off plasters from last week’s stumble. Still the Cheshire Cat watches her.
Its moonlight eyes gleam like smoothened silk in the silhouetted embrace of the woods, teeth illuminated like crashing ocean waves. An orchid flower is falling from its tree somewhere, autumn calling its name near a bird’s nest, both waiting to be found and pressed into paper. She’ll find it soon, taking care not to crush the fragile petals, until she can add it to her collection where it can be crystallized to eternity.
Her breath catches when their eyes meet, just as the breeze quietens and finds another place to roam.
With an ever enigmatic smile, the Cat reappears closer, inches away from touching, and Yuzu steps back.
Into ice, into air, the looking glass swallows her whole and the widened smile of an indulgent midnight blue Cat is the last thing she sees before everything fades away.)
Karin shakes her awake, until she is not small and soft and sleeping beside other woodland creatures that doze on the grassy side of the hill. Yuzu remembers that she is the March Hare. A sister, and her leveret ears on the top of her head remain unchanged, flopping over her eyes until the Mad Hatter laughs and pushes them back, fingers tickling soft fur.
“You missed him and he came by!” Karin tells her excitedly, animated, speaking so fast that only clouds above could understand. Baby birds too, if they caught the air waves in time.
“Wait,” Yuzu says, hands trying to hold on to her sister’s wrists, to see if Karin can calm down. “One second.” It seems to work to a degree, Karin stills. The Mad Hatter lets out a heavy sigh and finishes with a mischievous grin. She brushes back a strand of hair that falls over Karin’s ear, and that helps too, the shape of a smile dancing on her fingertips. Yuzu can’t quite suppress a yawn, as she asks. “Can you say it again? Slower this time?”
Her sister’s shoulders rise and fall and the expression on her sister’s face is a mixture of exasperation, impatience, exuberance and affection. Almost as if she has to catch her breath, when really all she is doing is retelling the story so often spoken in her mind before she has been sought out, and starts the story at the middle.
“There was a visitor that came by. He seemed so lost; I just had to help. You should have seen him—” Karin’s head falls on Yuzu’s shoulder, and her hand threads through her sister’s ebony hair. Quieter, she adds, “You would have liked him, I’m sure.”
“Does he have a name?” Yuzu asks, curious to know more.
Karin shakes her head. “He was gone before I could ask.” The answer is said simply, and Karin slumps, suddenly tired, substituting Yuzu’s shoulder as a pillow. Yuzu wonders if Karin has tried another magic trick and change her appearance just to impress her guest. Even if, immediately afterwards, when the magic is waived away, all Karin can do is sleep for days on end. “I didn’t mean to give him my hat, but, I wanted to look for you. I looked like you.”
The nonlinearity makes Yuzu smile, her own head lays on Karin’s, eyelids still heavy under the warmth of the sun. “You found me.” She murmurs sleepily, wondering where Ichigo is.
The difference between the March Hare and the hares that do not shape shift and the hares that do not talk, is that she sleeps under the lax sun and not in a nest, swept under willow trees where the foliage acts as a sunscreen and Karin scours the corners until she finds her, the river nearby humming a jazzy tune. Ichigo joins them when he can, smaller still when he changes into a mouse, while in actuality, he towers over his siblings. It makes Karin laughs, and offers her half-made hats as improper beds.
The scent of sea salt and wet sand invade her senses as the Gryphon huffs and puffs with his arms tightly wound across his chest and the Mock Turtle merely beams, face tilted upwards, oblivious to his companion’s antics. Yuzu tries to suppress a smile, but can’t quite succeed. In the end, her solution is to simply not to look at Zennosuke in the eye, her hare ears obscuring the periphery. Yuzu turns to face the absent-minded teacher. Ishida Souken is teaching her how to sift ocean foam from the water and weave it into lace.
“The key,” the wizened Mock Turtle emphasizes again and again, the difficult lesson that is always unlearned, in his opinion, “is to know when there is someone else there as well.”
His glaring brings out a mermaid, peeking through the waves, light eyes visible and lime green hair curling, a cheeky grin not quite enough to save her from the mischief. Yuzu can feel her muffled laughter rolling through the waves, before the mermaid submerges herself and is lost to the shifting ocean floor.
“That one,” the Mock Turtle states with a reproving sigh, “always that one.”
“Better to have their laughter than their ire.” Zennosuke mutters. Badly drawn circles are being washed away to the splendour of the sun.
Above, seagulls caw, and it spurs Professor Mock Turtle to wax a soliloquy about one of his fashion designs that fell apart when the rain fell down. It’s supposed to be a tragic tale about a certain someone left unnamed, but Zennosuke’s constant interruptions and grumpy facial expressions make Yuzu giggle into the palm of her hands. Ishida Souken continues with his anecdote regardless.
Inside the mirror is maze, a labyrinth that rearranges itself at will without warning.
Yuzu slips and slides as the ice beneath her feet propel her forward and she swerves into other doors, other mirrors, half-curious to know whether this time she has escaped. But the words are still written backwards, rippling on the waterfall mists, carrying the messages in bottles. There’s a fog that comes and goes, and Yuzu guesses that this is how she can tell time passes. Everything else stays the same when unmoved.
She sits on rocks and on the roots of trees when she finds them, legs aching because the mirrors and feathers that surround her won’t let her stand still. Her shoes have been stolen, taken by nymphs who untied her laces when she was looking the other way and tripping over herself. Her new dress is fraying, unravelling at the seams, caught by the thorns in the tulgey wood.
When there is a moment to be brave and explore the mirror world on her own terms, Yuzu climbs up the spiralling trees, grasping onto breaking branches, to see what lies below and hear the hunting parties cries at the sighting of a Snark.
The view from above registers for only a second before she is cast out to fall through the sky.)
When Momo is messenger to no one, neither to the White Queen-To-Be or the Red King-To-Be, Yuzu often finds her sunbathing in a field of dandelions, listening to them roar. Sometimes Aizen and Hanatarou will be there, sometimes not, but both will have packed Momo a complimentary basket of carrots. Grass stains decorate her white sundress, as the White Rabbit lies on the ground and lets her long hair spread across the floor. It is the best way to hear the opera, and feel the music pressed against the curve of her shoulders and the flat of her feet. When she runs, she wears glass slippers, but by herself, Momo likes to feel the earth beneath her feet.
It doesn’t stop her from beaming when Yuzu joins her and shakes one of her floppy white rabbit ears to let her know that she is not alone, eyes opening wide, but not enough to cause her to sit up.
“Join me.” Momo says, batting Yuzu’s hand away, and she does. Lazily, she pulls her friend’s ears in a light-hearted manner.
The flowers hum and peal away into the breeze.
“Where do think they’re going?” The White Rabbit asks, gesturing with limp arms. “Who do you think they’ll sing to next?”
“Who knows?” Yuzu asks the air itself. She pushes her fringe out of her eyes. “I’ve always thought that they’ve just caught the latest trail from you.”
Momo turns to look at her through the corner of her eyes, eyes sparkling. “I’d like that. Maybe they’re singing to the person who watches my back.”
“Not the Cheshire Cat, but someone else. Something else.” The White Rabbit huffs, pouting. “It’s a feeling—that someone is there. I can’t explain it, because I can never be too sure myself.”
“Have you ever looked back?” Yuzu asks softly, palms flat across her stomach, rising, falling.
“More than I can count,” she sounds sad, like it’s already too late. Her ears are drooping like under watered plants that Hanatarou forgets at the most accidental moments, and not even Momo’s good humour can coax a smile out from his dismayed face, “I’ve stopped. Waited and looked back. I try calling out, but. It doesn’t matter what I do,” Momo sighs, and the distance between them is smaller now, wrapped in this unhappy helplessness, “there’s no one there.”
If love wills it, the Caterpillar will become a Butterfly to become a Moth. If that is what Nanao and Lisa desire, then that is what shall be. That is what Kyouraku Shunsui likes to say, although his objects of love never can bring themselves to believe him, though they turn particularly icy whenever someone else is being chased. They will waltz and dance and flit their translucent wings, the hookah blowing smoke and working to magnify their silhouettes, and replicate shadow puppetry on the misty curtain where obscure figures can vaguely be seen in the everbright smoke.
Karin is moping and neither Ichigo nor Yuzu can cheer her up. Every so often, she’ll touch her head tentatively, missing the hat, the hat air, and the ribbon that spun so easily around her wrist from time to time. She leans against them, resting her shoulders in one direction and legs in the other, so she touches both siblings. “My hat.” She says, voice muffled and pressed against Ichigo’s shoulders. “My hat.”
“Quit complaining and make a new one.” Ichigo whispers, trying to keep his voice low, so that the three moths don’t hear them. Perhaps they don’t care. “You’ve made other hats.”
“Not the same.” Karin insists, then quietens as Lisa’s voice booms in the fog, made to let other woodland creatures scuttle behind leaves and trees rustle in their absence. “He was supposed to come back.”
As if she is commentating on the scene below, the shrewder shifter replies to the lovelorn Moth, “Pity we can’t always get what we want.”
Sometimes the looking glass maze offers her a window to see what lies outside.
She sees Renji gazing through her, expression unreadable as his damaged top hat sits idly on his hand. Other times it’s the Cheshire Cat, quizzical and curious, mouth eternally curved to a grin, piercing straight through her. Those times she turns away, and walks from the satisfied smirk that isn’t easy to forget. She’s sees a boy once, blue eyed and sad, folded in on himself when he’s certain there’s no one else there. Yuzu touched the glass and wished she could pass, ask what’s wrong but everything she said went unheard.
There are people who waiting for something that aren’t exit doors, sighing above puddles and looking longingly through the ripples. There’s no one there.
The mermaids, one tells her, tattoo imprinted on his face, giddy smile faintly glowing as he reminisces, explaining it to her with fervour, they come back, tell you what’s happening. But always for a price.)
The White King-To-Be is designing wedding dresses and groom outfits because he does not know what else to do—and in nervousness and anticipation, this is what he does. Yuzu doesn’t know much about the White Queen-To-Be, but she’s heard that she is very beautiful. She hopes they fall madly in love, and that she’ll cause Uryuu smile openly the way he does at finished products that are his magnum opus, kept between needlework and thimbles, locked away in his sewing kit. Yuzu likes those smiles best, hidden behind daisies and snowdrops and roses that bloom so prettily.
In the meantime, Yuzu is trying to persuade the garden leporids not to dig up the flowerbeds that he so clearly adores. The attempt is not working; partly because she’s trying to talk to rabbits, and partly because the shifters are too mischievous to let her even try to boss them around. The best she can do is try to chase them, and look at the scurrying rabbits hopelessly with a weary sigh. But they always sneak up behind her, and try to pounce Uryuu’s shoes, if not outright kidnapping the latest outfit that he has in his hands.
“Well,” the White King-To-Be says, summoning a blanket to spare him from grass stains and smoothens the crumpled edges while he sits on top, trying to sound marginally positive, but not quite achieving the optimistic note, “do you think she likes fluffy creatures and pretty dresses?”
Karin throws her half-drank teacup on the grass, and the shatter is loud enough as a response to instil silence. Yuzu glances pointedly to the side and tries to gain more time by sipping the taste of honey, she’ll find the words after a moment. She can quell her sister’s temperamental mood swings, but midday shapes her sister’s personality into something more manic. Renji tries first, first by kissing Karin’s temple, then casually squeezing her shoulder. Karin simmers down, but it’s not enough.
“Karin!” Yuzu sharply says, and the Mad Hatter zips her mouth shut instantly, miming the action then drawing Renji’s arms around her. Instead, Yuzu turns to face Hisana and Rukia, sympathetic. “I’m sorry.”
Hisana’s eyes are red-rimmed; Rukia’s eyes are fixed solely on her sister. “It’s not your fault.”
“Doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it.” Renji states, determined. Out of the corner of her eye, Yuzu catches Karin tightening her hold on him as she sits on his lap, leaning against him. Karin nods, murmuring in agreement.
The question is, what?
“Got it!” Karin claps her hands and leaps onto the ground. Still holding his hand, she spins and kicks the broken teacup beneath her foot, not caring if her shoelaces catch shards. “We play.”
The clock tower strikes nine times in the afternoon and Renji twirls his newly made top hat onto her sister’s head. Time and the Mad Hatter, best friends and laughing in delight.
“We ruin it for them.” Renji decides, and together they beam. Karin continues. “A wonderful piece of discord and flair. We’ll clash and perform an unharmony to be spoken of for years to come.”
“You’d tumble down the house of cards.” Hisana speaks, soft and unsure. Startled like a doe. “For me?”
Yuzu plucks two cubes from the glass sugar bowl and throws them up in the air like dice. She’ll stand by her sister come moonrise and sunfall, even if her sister’s decisions lead her somewhere unexpected. “As long as the White Kingdom doesn’t exile us too, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
Karin smiles delightedly, plan half-cooked and ready for sprinkles. “Ishida always did you like you best.”
She shrugs, not one to deny the simple truth laid bare. Loyalty to friends above loyalty to the Kingdom, and to be fair, their tea parties occur at Time’s Grandfather Clock Tower or the wilderness, so they should be safe. All the same, this won’t affect her visits in the White Kingdom. Who knows, maybe this might make him chuckle. The most she’ll get is an unimpressed stare, and they never last long. Warmth spreads through her as Yuzu beams, unable to help herself. “He’s a dear friend.”
The Bandersnatch hunts with Jubjub bird in the same fashion that dolphin’s dance their quadrilles with sharks.
The Bandersnatch likes to weave tales, crooning the detailed manner, discovering details that were once pushed down and forgotten. He speaks in a sweet honey tone, while the Jubjub bird circles above in bee-buzzing circles, swooping indulgently and unevenly and without a second’s thought. Those far from the two hunters and safe from danger try to hide laughter at the bird and the beast’s grumbled conversations, but only because they aren’t aware that they are the next target.
She’s heard them call her name once and recite her history when she was trapped between gyres and gimbles in the wabe. The gimbles scratched and encircled her ankles, holding her tight while the gyres settled her in place, grabbing her while the scenery reformed and mountains grew as wide as the clouds could yawn. Bones bruised, clothes cut, there is nothing else to do but hear the wingbeat above, and the tales told. The Bandersnatch breathes and murmurs the story of how she grew an orange tree in the middle of nowhere and hoped that one day its fruit would roll away to the lagoon below. Before there was even a library, but a room full of books.
Yuzu thinks of daisies, how easily they fly away when the wind blew them away, rearranging like the mirror does, without anyone’s consideration. If it could only change now.
Then she blinks, and Yuzu stands alone and freed from vines on a shapeless shore, still trapped in a world comprised to looking glass doors.)
Nobody means to hide from Humpty Dumpty, but it doesn’t stop the instant scurrying away when they see the mad scientist approach nonetheless. Yuzu finds dusty bookshelves to climb and scrambles to the top so that she can peer below and see him interact with his bird daughter Nemu. Kurotsuchi Mayuri may think he’s alone, but there’s an audience of birds that stand above like gossipers and vultures, shying away whenever the painted man looked up and glared at the candlelight ceiling.
“Um,” Rin murmurs, trying to find the book about gardening that Yuzu is trying to find. “Would this be it?”
“Quiet!” Hiyosu hisses, standing on another bookshelf, and crouching. He extends his eyes and gazes at the scene below, critical of how Humpty Dumpty lifts his eyebrow and mocks his daughter. The birds are runaways, lost their wings and forgotten how to fly, and look for the answer between the fine print of books. “I’m trying to listen.”
“Sorry,” Yuzu whispers, talking to Rin and shaking her head.
“Oh well.” Rin looks down and locks of hair fall on his face. “Maybe the next one.” The book flies away from his hands and rejoins the rest of the flock.
Akon looks at both of them, cross, and says nothing at all.
It’s far more effective and Yuzu feels duly chastened.
However, it doesn’t stop Rin from miming would you be interested in this one? and Yuzu miming no, I don’t think so during their interlude of silence.
They all turn their heads as they watch Humpty Dumpty leave, pointy hat askew and the Eaglet is quick to stand close to the Dodo; Rin offers a tentative pat on the shoulder, and the flock of the birds shuffle awkwardly about for minute before resuming their bookish habits.
Ichigo likes to lift her up into the air and spin her around—if only he’s certain no one is there, Tatsuki included. Arms spread wide, fingers splayed out, Yuzu laughs before she tells him to put her down, and embrace him. She doesn’t care how much shorter she is than him, her big brother is too tall for his own good, but that won’t make her love him any less.
But she does adore pulling his Dormouse ears, and he’ll tweak her Hare ear in return; grinning like the silly big brother that he really is instead of the frowny person that Tatsuki rolls her eyes at. There’s a reason that Ichigo lets her stand on his toes, just to be fractionally closer to eye-level, so long as she doesn’t become too heavy to carry. He’ll stop placing her up against the fire flown stars.
“As if that’ll happen.” Tatsuki looks at her sideways, completely sceptical of the idea. She stands still while Yuzu takes her measurement and tries to design a new outfit—bright and clear and abstract to feel. “Then again, you are looking a little chubby.”
“Shut it,” Ichigo scowls, arms folding over his waistcoat, appearing only to catch Tatsuki’s last words. “Don’t listen to her, Yuzu. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“See?” Tatsuki mouths, turned away from Ichigo; Yuzu pretends not to notice this, and looks down. It’s no reason not to smile however, and Tatsuki catches that too. “You two,” Tatsuki says, hands on hips, “are hopeless.”
The mermaids are trying to steal her heart.
They reach out from the other side, spindly arms long enough to reach out and pluck the beating muscle from her chest, to vain to try and pull her through to icy water. Here is where they find blue hearts, and fools charmed by their voices lose themselves when they stand too close and let themselves be captivated. Yuzu shies away whenever she sees their reflection, though she tries to look past the mermaids to see what lies beyond. She glimpses a left behind hat once.
This is the price paid for information on the other side.
It’s not one that Yuzu is willing to give.)
“Get out, Kisuke.” Kuukaku says grumpily, and unsuccessfully tries to throw her hand of cards at him. The ace of spades nearly succeeds. If not for the Cat disappearing before it reaches his face.
The Cat watches her when it thinks she doesn’t notice. Or maybe, maybe Yuzu thinks, it watches because it knows that she knows. And it’s simply waiting because the sight of seeing someone not quite squirming away and avoiding eye-sight, but curiously gazing back is the exact sort of entertainment that the Cat requires. Nobody knows what the Cat truly thinks, whatever shade it decides to be.
“Careful,” Kuukaku says, eyes narrowed at the Cat that nips her fingers and she merely flicks its nose in response. “This one likes you.”
The Duchess is like the Duke, both prefer to pick their own battles, and use their armour for themselves. Kenpachi sees no point in lending a shield or even a sword to someone about to fight, unless he himself is the opponent and duelling for first blood, but the Duchess is a little kinder, and offers advice for those who need it.
The Cat’s grin widens, as it ripples into a darker form.
“The girl can take care of herself,” Kenpachi states, bored with the conversation and the game. He stands up and leaves, and Kuukaku pats the black Cat on the head.
“I can,” Yuzu confirms it with a nod, and meets the Duchess’ eyes. She is thankful for the warning and smiles gratefully. “When I need to be.” But most of the time, as the Cat shimmers to bubblegum pink and tries to nudge her shoulders; she has no need of bravery when pleasantry accompanies her like the glitterdust that floats so prettily in the morgen’s and sylph’s healing springs in the middle of their forest. “Besides,” Yuzu grins as two familiar faces come to mind, irrepressible as the brightest sphere in the sky, “wherever I go, there’s often a Tea Party not too far behind.”
The problem with Snap-dragonflies is that they don’t precisely talk. They prefer to hum and buzz, whisper mumbled secrets in their own language to the Rocking-Horseflies, who then might translate if it’s to their fancy at that moment. Try as she might, Yuzu cannot catch the words they say, and tries to gesture to them awkwardly to move into an overall picture, transmit a visual message instead of being lost to no translation.
“Please?” She asks, and waits for them to react.
She doesn’t expect them to form a picture of her big brother.
“You’re looking for Ichigo?” Surprise washes over her like she’s been doused in saltwater from head to toe. “Why?” But there’s usually only one reason why. “Well, do you promise not to overdo it? Tatsuki nearly had a fit last time she learnt of the rainbow cake.” To say nothing of her distress, Karin’s fury, and Tatsuki’s unconventional wake up call that has been used ever since.
The Snap-dragonflies break formation, disintegrating like spores carried on the wind.
She shakes her head, drawing a line that she will not cross. “I’m sorry, I won’t help you.” Despite this, Yuzu cannot help but feel that one mischievous Rocking-Horsefly has decided to follow her when she turns her back and reconvenes with her big brother. But it’s a small feeling, a low rumble at the back of her neck, and there’s not even a slightest wingbeat that her leveret ears catch that proves it.
There’s a Jabberwock beneath the trees with torn off leaves. It sleeps, it snores, it churns out smoke.
Brambles catch her hands, pin up her dress so that if she tears her captors and tries to free herself, twisting for even a fraction more, the prickled bough will break, shake and wake the beast. The Bandersnatch likes to call the sleeping beast Jabberwocky, though never to its face. The Jabberwock breathes fire and wreaks havoc wherever it goes.
Her arms ache as she waits for the briars to relinquish their hold, and let the scenery wash away like the tide and shallow breaths.
When the mirror reassembles itself once more, Yuzu is sitting in front of a mirror. She peers through to see what she might find.
“Ichigo!” She shouts and hollers as loud as she can. The flat of her palm beats emphatically on the looking glass, trying to garner his attention. She pushes against the glass, trying to slip through, like water, like air, but there’s a barrier between them. Her brother looks, blinks, smiles-and-frowns, instantly in front of her. His mouth moves and she hears nothing but static, noise that exists beyond her grasp. “Don’t go.” Yuzu pleads, she’ll find a way to get out.
She wonders how long she can stay. How long the mirror will let her before everything fades away.
Ichigo’s hand presses against the glass and for one moment, their fingers touch. The glass ripples, before it returns to concrete. Ichigo’s hand slams onto the glass and Yuzu flinches, reverberations shivering up her skin.
Karin is there too, happy and sad and hands in her hair, shouting at things that Yuzu can’t see.
Somewhere in the looking glass maze, something has shattered.)
“You really think I can grow furniture?” Yuzu grins at Hanatarou, who is just as giddy as she is. A new project: exciting, blue, old, cakes and crumble. Food as furniture. Flowers in the backdrop.
“Yeah.” He nods, just as enthusiastic. “We’ll plant seeds and watch them grow.”
She can imagine it now, sprinkled in stardust and soft and springy, freshly baked and trampoline-bouncy. Karin would tie them up in shoelaces and tie the shoelaces to balloons, just to see how high they would float—and land on the Red Kingdom’s court.
“Here as well?” Aizen decides to join them, drinks in hand. “I doubt it’ll fit our rabbit heart theme.”
“Still,” Hanatarou muses with a handful of dirt, “I hope she won’t mind a temporary change.”
“She won’t.” Momo laughs, appearing next to them, arms already around her gardener’s neck in a hug. The White Rabbit kisses the dimple on his cheek, enjoying how he blushes bright red, and then gives a friendly smile to Yuzu. “but only if I’m invited to the Tea Party when the decorations are finished.”
The looking glass breaks and Yuzu steps through cat’s teeth, pulled out by her siblings. There’s nothing more than daisies with their petals picked out, stolen by the wind. A breeze she can’t feel. But there’s far more broken clay plates and tea pots than Yuzu cares to count. And will most likely remake.
Her siblings hold onto her in a way that she cannot let go, legs too weak, her head spinning. Everything is dizzy, all the more reason to cling on tightly.
“I kind of, lost my way.” Yuzu tries to explain, resting her head on Ichigo’s shoulder. She feels the rumble of his laughter, wry amusement to Karin’s muttered unbelievable. “Couldn’t find the exit.”
“Never mind that, we found you.” Karin says, hat found and tilted lopsided on her head. Stealing the ribbon, she wraps it around her wrist.
“And you found your hat.” Yuzu adds, smiling when she sees a pinkish hue darken her sister’s cheeks.
“It was returned.” Ichigo teases, sharing a meaningful looking. “And he has a name.”
“Oh, really?” Yuzu thinks of the unknown boy in the other side with sad eyes. He disappeared in sunlight and wishbone thoughts. “What is it?”
“Toushirou.” Karin states with a roll of her eyes, determinedly pointed to the side, nearly petty. “His name is Toushirou.”
“And when will I meet him?” Yawning her last question, the March Hare shuts her eyes.
“After we sleep, and not before then.”
Her drowsiness doesn’t stop her hearing Karin’s words, the last thing before everything disappears. Her siblings carry her, small and soft, a hare besides a dormouse inside a hat once more. Home.