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The Technicolor Phase

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"Eddie?"

No response. Emily sighs and wraps her arms around herself, trying to hold in what little warmth she has left. "I really should have brought a coat," she mumbles, shivering. "Or at least a shawl. We must have chosen the coldest night of the year to run away."

Of course, when she'd pulled Mother's carefully-preserved gown from its place of honor in her wardrobe, she hadn't been thinking of the chill of winter nights, or the fact that a forest is no place for a long train that you were hoping to keep clean. No, her mind had been solely on her beloved – on impressing him, even stunning him with the force of her beauty. She smiles as his face swims before her eyes – the strong chin, the proud mouth, the sloping nose, the sharp eyebrows, the platinum blond hair curled and styled just so. Perhaps not classically handsome, but interesting, oh so very interesting. You didn't get "interesting" much in Burtonsville, she'd found. People didn't seem to care for it. Oh, the other villagers were nice enough, minded their manners, but – they lived almost like automatons, doing the same things day after day after day. It was practically enough to make one consider a trip to Bethlehem Hospital.

Eddie, though – Eddie is the definition of interesting. A much warmer shiver works its way down her spine as she recalls seeing him for the first time, loitering by the founder's statue in the square under a shabby top hat and cloak. No one else had been paying him any mind, so she'd marched up to him, determined to be the first friendly face he saw. Their eyes had met, and she'd gotten out, "Good afternoon, sir–"

And then she'd happened to glance up, and her remaining words had turned to a squeal of delight as, for the first time in eighteen years, she saw a blue sky above her.

She'd known the sky was blue before that moment, of course. She'd been assured it was by her father and her governess, and she wasn't about to doubt them. And it wasn't her first color either – said governess, dear Miss Daniels, had given her the richness of red, and her best friend for three years, Sally Finklestein, had handed her the cheeriness of yellow. But to be able to actually see the sky in all its glory – to know that this town, despite its best efforts, truly wasn't all gray – oh, just that would have made her first meeting with Eddie one of the happiest of her life.

But of course, Eddie had made it even sweeter. "My lady," he'd said, recovering from his start. "You seem quite enthusiastic about something."

Emily had blushed. "My apologies, sir," she'd replied. "Just – you happen to have given me blue."

Eddie's smile had sent butterflies swarming in her stomach. "How delightful. And you needn't apologize, my dear – I like enthusiasm." He'd bowed, doffing his hat. "Edward Barkis."

"Emily Cartwell," Emily had responded, just barely remembering to curtsy back. "What color have I given you, if I may ask?"

"I'm afraid I don't know," Eddie had said, looking around. "Nothing pops out in the square." And then he'd grinned at her, like a pirate ready to snatch her away to a life of adventure. "Perhaps we should go – elsewhere?"

And so it had begun – propriety abandoned from their very first day together. The following month had been a whirlwind of secret meetings – long walks in the forest over the bridge, embraces just outside the village wall, kisses stolen in back alleys. Emily's body was constantly thrumming with the excitement of it all. Eddie was such a regal man, so sure of himself and what he wanted. It made her feel like she was being courted by a king in disguise, rather than the son of a shoemaker who'd fallen on hard times. And he paid so much attention to her, seemed genuinely interested in who she was and what she wanted. Her other suitors had only seen Emily Cartwell, daughter of Jonathan Cartwell, one of the wealthier men in the village. Eddie saw Emily Cartwell, who loved music, was an accomplished dancer, and wanted to visit Belgium one day. It was utterly delightful to actually be listened to for a change.

And, of course, there was the blue. Even when she wasn't with Eddie, she saw him everywhere – in the splashing of the little river that wound through the forest; in the tiny bell-like flowers she collected to decorate her hair and dresses, in the brilliant glow of the moonlight at night. Even her own eyes – once just a plain black to her vision – had new life now because of him. It was that more than anything else that convinced Emily that what she had with Eddie was true love. How could anyone ordinary have sparked such a change in her perception? Miss Daniels had long ago moved onto other children, and Sally gone with her parents off to America, but Eddie? Eddie had to be here for the long haul. Only the man she was meant to spend her life with could have given her this gorgeous new shade.

But Father simply hadn't understood. When Emily had tried to finally introduce him to Eddie (after being told by her maid that "you tell him, or I do"), he'd been cold and indifferent during all of tea – and then, afterward, told Emily that there was "something sneaky about him. That charm of his isn't real. I forbid you to go any further in this romance, Emily – he'll only break your heart. I'll introduce you to someone more proper at the next party."

Emily had been furious and had told Father that she was not some ornament he could auction off to the highest bidder. His response had been to lock her in her room without supper – which was the worst punishment he could have chosen, as Emily had plenty of experience climbing down from her balcony and sneaking out the back garden. Not even fifteen minutes had passed before she was back with Eddie, hiding behind the coffee shop and having a good cry about how unreasonable her father was being.

And Eddie had leaned in and whispered, "His approval would be welcome, but it is not necessary to our marrying. Will you come away with me, Emily? Trade having your wedding in a church for a lifetime of happiness?"

She hadn't even had to think about the "yes" – it had popped out largely of its own accord. Eddie had kissed her so hard her toes curled. "Excellent! Tonight, then – before he can make any arrangements against us. Gather your things – clothes, jewelry, the like – and see if you can get perhaps a satchel's worth of gold. Yes, I know, my dear," he'd said to her wrinkled nose, "but I have little to my name, and your father won't miss that much. Perhaps, in a few years, when I've made my own business and he's not so angry, we can pay him back."

"All right," Emily had agreed – it was logical, even if it did make her stomach churn to steal from her own father. "Where and when should we meet?"

"The old twisted oak in the forest – you know, the one just off the path," he'd said. "And about – three o'clock? Maybe a little earlier – I'll try to get there at quarter to and wait for you."

"Fine," Emily had nodded. "I'll see you then, my love."

He'd squeezed her hands and given her one of his smoldering looks. "I look forward to it, my sweet."

She'd been quite weak at the knees after that, but she'd somehow made it back to her house. Waiting for Father to go to bed had been torture, made only worse by the growing rumbling of her stomach. By the time he'd knocked on her door and said good night, she'd decided that a satchel of gold wasn't enough punishment for him. So when she'd climbed down from her balcony and snuck back in through the servant's entrance, she'd made sure to take the family jewels too. Those were safely packed away in her suitcase, along with a couple of day dresses, a spare pair of shoes, and her cleanest set of underthings. And then she'd seen Mother's wedding dress, hanging in its bag, and – even if she was eloping, running off to get married by some justice of the peace, she deserved that much, didn't she? Eddie surely wouldn't mind – in fact, with any luck, he'd be spellbound by how lovely she looked in it. So she'd taken it out and put it on, mindful of the delicate net of the sleeves and collar. The gown had fit like a glove, and she'd amused herself briefly by twirling in front of her mirror, admiring it from all angles. Then she'd fitted on the veil, slipped on her pumps, done one last check of her things, then disappeared into the blue-tinted night.

And now here she is, freezing her arse off hoping that three o'clock was sooner rather than later. She'd left about two-thirty, and it had taken longer than she'd expected to get through the forest with her train, but it seemed somehow she'd still beaten her beloved to their spot. She sighs again. "Please, Edward – before I become an icicle!"

"Well, that would be a rather shameful state of affairs, wouldn't it?"

Emily's heart leaps as Eddie appears from the shadows, as debonair as when they'd first met. Even more so, honestly, with the night's deep blue clinging to him. Finally! "Eddie!" she cries, surging forward to embrace him.

schlick.

The pain is white-hot, traveling along her ribs and down her spine like lightning going to ground. She stumbles back, fingers clamped around the knife suddenly stuck in her side. Miss Daniels's red leaks all around it, dripping down her fingers and staining her mother's precious gown. And Eddie – just watches, all cool interest. "How fascinating," he says, and this time his smile is nothing but cruel. "It's always looked like chocolate before."

Rage keeps her upright despite the agony. "You monst–"

Twhack! The swing of a cudgel, and the whole world goes black. An eternity passes before she can get her eyes open again, and when she does –

Firstly, she's alone, sprawled out under the oak tree.

Secondly, her suitcase is gone, vanished to parts unknown.

Thirdly, the sky above has an oddly earthy cast to it, and lacks a moon.

Fourthly, she raises an arm – and her skin is blue.

She sits up with a jolt, eyes wide and jaw agape. Her entire body – every inch of her flesh – is now a cold and unfeeling blue. Even her hair, once the herald of Sally's yellow, has changed shade. She stares, her brain skipping and juttering as she tries to make sense of it all.

And then she notices she's no longer drawing breath.

He's killed her. Edward Barkis has killed her. Edward Barkis has killed her and stolen her suitcase and proven her father right. And now she's dead, in her mother's ruined wedding dress, with a body that is nothing but blue from head to toe. She'll give Hell this – it knows just how to punish her for her folly.

Not that it stops her from sobbing her eyes out.

Chapter Text

"You're sure she's all right?"

Nanny ruffles Lizzie's hair as her charge gazes anxiously at the nursery door. "She'll be fine," she assures her, pouring water into a set of tiny teacups. "That Dr. Pearson might throw around words like 'delicate frame' and 'fragile constitution,' but your Ma's a tough old bird. She'll pull through fine." She lifts a cup in a toast. "And at the end of all this, you'll have a new brother or sister! That'll be fun, won't it?"

"Yes," Lizzie says in as neutral a voice as possible.

Nanny eyes her. "You don't sound happy. You can't be jealous of the baby before it even gets here."

"I'm not!" Lizzie protests, twiddling the edge of her pinafore. "It's just. . ." Oh, how to put it into words? When Mama and Papa had told her about the upcoming "blessed event," she'd been as excited as they were. Most of the children she knew from school had siblings – in fact, she was considered a bit "weird" for being an only child. (And for other reasons, but Lizzie had accepted a couple of years ago that nobody liked a girl who enjoyed books with long words. Didn't understand it, but accepted it.) She'd watched, full of envy, as they were scooped up after lessons by older brothers, or ran off after younger sisters in play. She loved her parents, of course, and Nanny too, but it would be nice to have someone closer to her own age around the house. Someone to play dress-up with, or read books to, or help sneak out of the house so they could watch the stars at night. So the announcement that Mama had a baby growing in her was thrilling.

But then. . .then Mama had started getting tired all the time. There were days where she never got out of bed. And Papa had started fussing and fretting, and Dr. Pearson had started coming over a lot, and Lizzie – well, Lizzie had been worried. Was still worried. Papa and Nanny had tried to assure her that nothing was wrong with Mama, that it was just part of being "in a certain condition," but she wasn't quite buying it. Surely having a baby inside you didn't leave everyone exhausted like this – otherwise, why would anyone want one? And all that moaning and groaning coming from down the hall now wasn't encouraging either. If a baby was a "gift from Heaven," as Reverend Dodgson had put it, why did Mama sound like she was in pain? Was God really mean enough to make having a baby hurt? It was enough to make her think twice about all her games of House.

And with those thoughts had come another, possibly even worse – what if the baby didn't like her? What if they didn't get along? Lizzie had seen plenty of that too, watching the other children – brothers hitting each other over the heads with their hoop sticks, sisters tearing at each other's clothes, older and younger screaming at each other. Being related to someone was no guarantee you'd like them. And Lizzie knows that you can't take a baby back to the store, like a dolly that turned out to be less fun than you thought. Once you have one, you're stuck with it for life. She doesn't relish the idea of being trapped forever with someone who might yank her hair, or steal her toys, or even just ignore her. And – well, what if Mama and Papa do like the baby better? What happens to her then? They can't get rid of her, but what if they start ignoring her too? Make their own little family and leave her out? She'd rather be dumped on someone's doorstep if that happened. It's all rather much for a ten-year-old.

"Just?" Nanny prompts.

"Just everything!" Lizzie says, throwing up her hands. "Mama's hurting and Papa's scared and you're worried too and – and I don't know what's going to happen!"

"Oh, Lizzie. . ." Nanny scoots around the play table to wrap a thick arm around her. "I know, girlie. It's a lot to take in. And I won't lie – we're all a bit nervous about your Ma. Having a baby ain't no picnic anyway, and according to that doctor, she ain't even really built for it. But she pulled through with you, and I'm sure she can pull through again."

"But what if – what if the baby hates me?" Lizzie finally gets out, through a bout of sniffles. "What then?"

"Well, you deal. Me and my sister weren't exactly close when we were younger. Seemed like there was nothing I could do that wouldn't get on her nerves, and vice-versa. But we survived. And it ain't like that for everyone." Nanny pulls a hanky out of her dress and wipes Lizzie's eyes. "I promise you though – even if you and your new sibling don't like each other, nobody here is gonna stop liking you. Your parents think the world of you. Having a new baby ain't gonna change that."

Lizzie is comforted for exactly three seconds. Then an ear-piercing "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!" rips through the house. Lizzie leaps to her feet, bumping the table and sending water sloshing everywhere. "Mama!"

"Hang on, hang on!" Nanny says, grabbing her before she can run off. "Don't you panic yet! I think that was the end of it! Bloody well hope so, anyway. . ."

Lizzie stares at the nursery door, barely daring to breathe. That had been the worst noise she'd ever heard come from Mama's throat. Could she really be all right after that? Could it all really be –

"WAAAAAAHHHH! WAAAAAAHHH!"

Well, that is definitely not Mama. Nanny's face lights up. "And there he is! Or she is. Our little newcomer!" She pulls Lizzie into her lap. "Don't look so pale – deep breath, all right? There we go. Everything's fine now, you'll see. They'll come fetch us in a moment."

A moment turns out to be a lot longer than expected. Lizzie fidgets, mussing her hair and wrinkling her clothes, eyes locked on the nursery door. Mama's last scream is still ringing in her ears, and oh her stomach is all knots. . . It's all right, she tells herself. It's all right. Everyone's all right. It's just a new brother or sister. It'll be fun.

Finally, the midwife (Lizzie isn't sure what that is, but apparently you need one to have a baby) appears at the door. "They're all settled now," she reports with a tired grin. "Your mother and father and new sister. You can go in whenever you like."

"Ta," Nanny replies, standing up and putting Lizzie on her feet. "All right, girlie, off we go."

It takes all of Lizzie's self-control not to yank her hand out of Nanny's and race down the hall. Finally, they reach her mother's bedroom, and – Goodness, is that what all the fuss was about?

Guilt hits her like a bucket of cold water over her head the minute she thinks it, but – well, it's true. The baby is a tiny thing, barely bigger than her dolls. How could something so small cause such a ruckus? Her parents seem happy with it, though, judging by their smiles. "Lizzie," Mama greets her, voice tired but warm. "Come meet your sister."

Lizzie slips her hand from Nanny's and approaches the bed cautiously. Up close, the baby looks even more like a dolly – although a very squirmy one. Poor Mama has to keep a tight hold of her to keep her from escaping. She hasn't got any hair, but Papa's green eyes shine from the tiny face. "Good afternoon," she whispers.

The baby gurgles in response, flexing her little fists. Well, at least she didn't start crying again the moment she saw Lizzie. . . A sister. She has a sister. Good morning – my name is Elizabeth Liddell, and this is my sister. . .my sister. . . "What's her name?" she asks, looking between her parents.

Mama and Papa glance at each other. "Ah – we haven't actually decided yet," Papa confesses, rubbing the back of his head. "We're a bit torn. . .perhaps you can help, actually," he suddenly decides. "We're thinking Alice or Matilda – which do you like better?"

They're letting her name her sister? They must still love her. Lizzie gives the baby a careful once-over. Both names are nice, but. . . "Alice," she says, looking up again. "I like Al "

And, right there, she stops. Because she's just noticed the flowers sitting on Mama's side table. The latest of many that Papa has been bringing her to cheer her up about being in bed all the time. Narcissus cyclamineus – daffodils, he'd told Lizzie the first time she saw their trumpeted heads sticking out of the garden. They're yellow. You'll see it one day.

Today is that day. She gapes, awestruck. They're brilliant against the gray wall, almost glowing in the sunlight streaming through the window. She simply cannot take her eyes off them. "Lizzie?" Papa asks, puzzled. "What is it?"

"They're yellow," she whispers, pointing at the flowers. "I – I can see yellow!"

"You – but how " Papa suddenly looks between her and Alice. "Oh my. . ."

"Look at that!" Mama says, beaming. "That's your first, isn't it, Lizzie? Oh, I'm so glad. Not everyone gets a color from family."

"No," Papa confirms. "Seems like you two are some of the lucky ones."

Lizzie nods, grinning so wide she nearly splits her face. She looks from the beautiful flowers down to her equally-beautiful sister. Her sister, who's already given her one of the best gifts possible. It'll be fun, she thinks.

And this time, she really believes it.

Chapter Text

"Victor Fitzwilliam Van Dort! No running in the house!"

Victor ignores Miss Horrocks, nimbly avoiding her grasp. Normally he'd stop in an instant upon hearing that tone of voice, but right now he's simply too excited. Mother and Father have to know! He dodges her hands again and skids into the dining room, where his parents are preparing for their grown-up supper. "Mother! Father! I have a color!"

Mother and Father stare at him from either end of the grand table. "A color?" Mother repeats, snapping open her fan. "How can you have a color? You're only four."

"And a half," Victor says, since that's important.

"Yes, well, you spend all your time in the nursery, the library, or the back garden," Mother presses on, undeterred. "You don't see anyone except us, Mayhew, Miss Horrocks, and Barry, and the servants can't possibly count as important. Who on earth could give you a color?"

Victor beams. "Scraps!"

Mother has a tiny mouth, but she makes up for it by frowning with her whole face. "Scraps? Your dog?"

The danger signs are obvious, but Victor nods anyway. Maybe this will finally make Mother like Scraps better! "Yup! He's brown! Well, bits of him. I figured it out today!"

Father clucks his tongue, shaking his head. "Victor, don't lie," he gently scolds. "You can't get a color from an animal. That's not how it works."

"I should say not," Mother agrees, squaring her shoulders as she fans herself. "The commonness of it all! Can you imagine passing some mutt on the street and suddenly seeing a color? I'd rather my vision stay gray forever."

Victor looks between them. This – isn't going how he expected. "But – b-but I did," he insists. "I can see it. He's got brown ears and three brown spots on his back–"

"And a brown tail, we know," Father finishes up. "Just like Mayhew told you when you asked him, right? Knowing it's there and seeing it are two different things, Victor. It's all right, Nell," he adds in the direction of Mother, who's looking sour. "Lots of children must think they can see color before that first special person comes into their life."

This doesn't seem to make Mother any happier. It certainly does nothing for Victor's mood. Sure, Mayhew had told him what the color was – but he'd seen it. Seen it right from the moment Father had brought Scraps home. His ears and tail and spots had all stood out, subtly, against the shadows that littered their gloomy home. Victor simply hadn't been able to figure out why until today, when they'd they'd been racing around the back garden together and the sun had peeped out from behind the clouds. The moment it had hit Scraps's fur, Victor had known that was no funny shade of black. That was a true-blue (well, true-brown) color. "He's brown," he says, folding his arms and doing his best to imitate Mother's frown.

"We're not saying he isn't," Father says, holding up a hand. "But Victor, he's a dog. You can't get your first color from a dog."

"What happens if the neighbors find out about this?" Mother adds, lip curled. "If that crier gets a hold of it, it'll be all over the town. What if the Everglots hear about it? We'll be laughingstocks! They'll never let us into society if they think our son is odd! I won't have it, William!"

"Now, now, Nell," Father says, crossing over to her end of the table with a napkin. "Don't have a fit, dear. He's four. And a half," he adds as Victor's nose crinkles. "Nobody's going to think him odd just because he wants his puppy to be special." He pats the sweat off her forehead. "Like I said, I'm sure all children go through this phase. All we have to do is nip it in the bud, and everything's fine."

Victor does not want to be nipped in the bud. This has gone all wrong. Mother and Father were supposed to be happy for him! They were supposed to be as excited as he was! There was supposed to be hugs and kisses and maybe cake! But instead they're calling him a liar and odd. Why is it that, whenever he gets the least bit excited about something, someone is always there to shush him? "He's. Brown," he snaps, stamping his foot for emphasis.

Father's eyes turn sharp. "Victor – do you want to be sent to bed without supper?"

That takes the fight out of him. He drops his head, staring at the floor while his shoulders slump. "No," he mumbles.

"Then let's hear no more about it." Father comes over and pats his head. "It's all right, son. You'll get your first color soon enough."

"And from someone worthy of the honor," Mother agrees, rolling her eyes. "Horrocks, go get him washed up and back to the nursery. And do something with his hair, won't you?"

"Of course, Mrs. Van Dort." Miss Horrocks clamps her hands onto Victor's shoulders and steers him out of the room. "Well, I hope you're happy," she adds once they're out the door. "You've upset your poor mother. How many times have I told you not to make up stories?" She tches. "Really, a color from a dog. What goes on in your head sometimes. . . ."

Victor stays silent, letting Miss Horrocks herd him toward the washroom. There's no point in saying anything now. Once again, all the grown-ups want him to do is be quiet and stay out of the way. Nobody cares what he thinks, or how he feels. So why tell anybody? Why try to defend himself? He'd only end up in bed with a rumbly tummy.

"Arf! Arf!"

Scraps bounds round the corner, nails clicking on the floor. Miss Horrocks huffs. "And there he is now – upstairs with you," she orders, pointing behind them.

Scraps cocks his head, tongue lolling out of his mouth. Victor goes ahead and scratches him behind the ears, since he's on his way to wash his hands anyway. "Upstairs, boy," he confirms. "Mother will be angry otherwise."

Scraps barks again and trots away. Victor watches him go. Brown ears and brown tail and three brown spots on his back. Splotches of color against a dull, sad world. Splotches that no one else will even acknowledge exists. He sighs and continues on to the washroom. The next time I get a color, I'm just gonna keep it to myself.

Chapter Text

"Victoria Elizabeth Everglot! Drop those weeds this instant!"

Victoria blinks, and looks up at the imposing figure of her mother. "Weeds?" she repeats, holding her hands in front of her as if she's reciting lessons. "I – I don't have any weeds."

Mother stabs a long finger at the stems dangling from her fingers. "And what do you call those?"

Victoria glances down, then back up. "Flowers?"

Mother's frown deepens – not that it has far to go. Victoria doesn't think that she's seen Mother smile once in all her five years. Perhaps she's forgotten how. "Those are weeds," she insists, voice heavy with disgust. "Just because we can no longer afford a professional gardener is no reason for you to take on the role." She turns her scowl on poor Hildegarde, hovering nearby. "This is not what I meant when I told you to give her some fresh air."

"My apologies, milady," Hildegarde says, offering up a trembling curtsy.

Victoria studies the little flowers clutched in her fist. She hates to contradict her mother – her parents have impressed upon her that a proper lady is more often seen than heard, and that children are always to obey their parents. But surely she's mistaken here. And she also knows Maudeline Everglot hates to be wrong. "Mother. . .if they're weeds – why are they such a pretty color?"

"Apologies are all well and good, but if anyone saw a scion of the Grand Duke of Everglot poking around in the – wait." Mother turns back to Victoria, arching an eyebrow. "What do you mean, color?"

Victoria holds the blooms out for inspection. "They're yellow, aren't they?"

Mother's eyes go wide. "You – first off, Victoria, do as you're told and put those down. You look as if you're some beggar's child on the street." Victoria, chastened, lets the flowers drop. "Now, how on earth can you see yellow already? No one's born with a color, and I doubt you have met anyone truly important to your life at five years old."

Victoria glances at her nurse. "What about Hildegarde?"

Mother's lip curls. "You are assuredly joking. Victoria, she is one of the help. One does not mingle socially with those who work for them. It's unbecoming in a lady."

Hildegarde turns away, face suddenly old even beyond her years. Victoria pouts. Why does Mother have to be so mean all the time? "But she takes care of me," she persists, standing up as straight and tall as she can in her petticoats. Arguing with Mother might get her confined to her room for the rest of the day, but this is important. "She brings me tea and does my lessons and tucks me in at night."

"She is paid to do that, Victoria," Mother retorts. "It doesn't imply any special feeling between you."

Victoria is very tempted to stamp her foot, but refrains. She doesn't want to give Emil an excuse to smack her with the paddle again. "She's nice and sweet and I think she's important," she says instead, doing her best to match Mother's frown.

"What you 'think' is of no consequence." Mother looks back to Hildegarde. "Hildegarde, did you tell her what color those awful weeds are?"

"I did," Hildegarde replies. Then she turns, straightening her bent spine as best she's able and meeting Mother's hard stare head-on. "But there was no way she could tell me what color a carrot is when I first met her, on account of her being a babe at the time."

Mother's rather prodigious jaw drops. "I beg your pardon?"

"The day I came into your service is the day I saw orange for the first time, milady," Hildegarde continues, folding her hands in front of her. "From that little girl you'd had just a week before. It's more than pay that keeps me here."

Victoria smiles, vindicated. Mother gawks for a moment, utterly lost for words. Then she pinches the bridge of her long nose. "Her first color, and it's from one of the servants," she mutters. "If this ever gets out. . .you are to tell no one of this, Victoria," she says, rounding on her daughter with steely eyes. "Do you understand? Pretend you can't see yellow when you're in public. It's unseemly."

Victoria would like to protest, but she's probably in enough hot water for arguing. Besides, it's not the first time Mother has asked her to lie about something when it comes to their family. Just usually it has to do with why Father is selling off his hunting trophies, or why they had to let their cook go. And she's never actually had to tell any of these lies (which are somehow different from "normal" lies), as she isn't allowed out in public anyway. Something about "commoners" being out there. Victoria thinks it must be a terrible disease, though no one ever looks sick when she peeks out the drawing room window into the square. Perhaps everyone with it has to stay at home, like her. At any rate, it's not worth making a fuss over and getting herself into more trouble. "Of course, Mother," she says with an obedient nod.

"Good." Mother glares at Hildegarde. "Get her scrubbed and into a fresh dress – tea's in an hour and she can't come to table like that. And then, after we have supped, you can come out here and pull every single dandelion up by the roots."

"As you wish, milady," Hildegarde replies.

Mother huffs, then – demands made – sweeps away in her long dress back into the house. Victoria leans her head against Hildegarde's side, guilt crashing over her like waves against the beach. "I'm sorry," she whispers. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble."

Hildegarde smooths back her hair. "It's not your fault, dearie. Lady Everglot simply – has strong opinions on how the world should work. I'm used to it." She smiles. "And trust me, I'd much rather be here, pulling dandelions all afternoon, rather than somewhere else with no idea what a carrot actually looks like. And worse, no idea that I missed out meeting such a wonderful little girl."

The storm inside Victoria calms. She wraps her arms around Hildegarde's skinny legs. "I'm glad I met you too. Even if Mother doesn't approve."

"Oh, your mother never approves of anything," Hildegarde says, getting a giggle out of her. "But she's right that you can't go to tea with dirt and grass stains all over your frock."

"No," Victoria agrees, holding up her skirt hem for a better look at the black and gray splotches. "And we probably shouldn't change it for the yellow one."

"I think the pink one would be better for today's tea, yes," Hildegarde confirms, steering her inside. "But for what it's worth, I'll see about saving you a dandelion or two. Perhaps Lady Everglot doesn't like them, but I think they're pretty too."

"Thank you." And then Victoria clamps her mouth shut, lest she say something that, if her parents ever hear, will make it so she can't sit down for a week: I wish you were my mother.

Chapter Text

"Green – lovely, Jane, lovely. What about you, Alice? What color do you hope is your first?"

Alice beams back at Miss McGee. She's been waiting for this moment ever since her teacher announced today's lesson was on colors. "I already have two!"

Miss McGee blinks rapidly. "Two?" she repeats.

Alice nods, practically bouncing in her seat. "Blue and red! Like the sky and roses! I've seen them for ages!"

Astonished whispers ripple through her fellow pupils in the little schoolhouse. "She's lying!" Carol cries, pointing an accusing finger. "I don't even have one color! She can't have two!"

Alice sticks out her tongue at her. "I can so!"

"You can not!" Alice whips her head back around to see Miss McGee glaring at her with folded arms and narrowed eyes. "Miss Liddell, that is the most ridiculous fib I have ever heard come out of your mouth!"

Alice straightens, indignant. Her schoolmates she can understand not believing her, but the teacher? "It's not a fib!" she snaps, mimicking Miss McGee's pose. "I can see them both! Water's blue! Blood's red! Bluebirds are blue! Robins are red! Lizzie's eyes are blue, and Mama's hair is red!"

"Just because your father likes to tell you what things look like is no reason to go around saying that you can see–"

"Your dress is blue!"

Miss McGee jerks back. Her head snaps down to look at her frock (which is a rather worn-out and ugly shade of blue in Alice's opinion), then slowly raises up to gape at Alice. "How?" she demands, looming over Alice's desk. "How can you see two colors at the tender age of six?"

Alice looks her dead in the eye, refusing to be intimidated. "Lizzie and Dinah."

"Lizzie – you mean your sister?"

Alice nods. "She got yellow from me when I was a baby."

Miss McGee's face softens slightly with understanding. "I see. Well, gaining a color from a sibling may be uncommon, but it's not unheard of." Her brow furrows. "But who's Dinah?"

"Their cat," Edith blurts, the traitor. "How can you get a color from a cat?"

"She's lying! I told you!" Carol crows.

"I am not!" Alice scrambles up onto her seat so everyone can see her. "I really did get red from Dinah! She scratched me and I saw the blood! Ask my Papa! He'll tell you!"

"Alice Pleasance Liddell, sit down this instant!" Miss McGee demands, slamming her hand against the desk. "This is behavior unbecoming of a young lady!"

"They're the ones saying I'm lying!" Alice protests.

"And you are the one insisting it is possible to get a color from an animal! Your sister giving you blue I can believe, but that–" Miss McGee scowls and yanks her down into her chair by her arm. "You will spend the recess copying lines, and then I will accompany you home to report your atrocious actions to your parents."

Alice glares at her. "Your face is all red."

That gets a ruler snapped across her knuckles. Alice falls silent, seething through the stinging pain. How can her teacher, her whole class, be so unfair? So she got a color from a cat – so what? Dinah is the family cat – her cat. They play together every day, and Alice knows she can tell her anything. Dinah's been there when nobody else has. Papa told her that the colors come from anyone important – why does "anyone" have to be human? Probably nobody else here really loves their pets, she decides sourly as lessons continue. Or their sisters.

The school day drags on, a haze of numbers scratched on slate and doggerel recited from worn books. Finally, Miss McGee announces it's time to go home. Alice slowly packs up her things under the teacher's watchful eye. "Now then," Miss McGee says, standing by her desk. "We'll wait until your sister arrives, and then–"

"Alice!"

Alice starts. "Mama!"

"Mrs. Liddell!" Miss McGee is equally as astonished. "I didn't expect to see you."

"Oh, Lizzie's out with Mary Gardner today, and I figured I could use a bit of fresh air," Mama says, smiling. Her good humor lessens, however, as she notices Alice cradling her injured hand. "Alice, what happened?"

"Miss McGee hit me with a ruler," Alice whines, making sure her voice is as watery as possible. The pain faded a while ago, but Mama doesn't need to know that.

"She forced my hand," Miss McGee jumps in. "We had a lesson today about how one gets colors, and what everyone was hoping for when they got older, and your daughter had the audacity to claim she has two already! Blue from her sister, which I can believe, and red from your cat. Now, far be it from me to tell you how to raise your child, Mrs. Liddell, but you encourage her imagination entirely too much, and–"

"She's telling the truth."

Miss McGee stops, mouth open. "Ah – what?"

"Alice did get red from Dinah," Mama says, and now her face is all ice. "I'm shocked she remembers, but she did. Back when she was two, she ran crying to Arthur after Dinah scratched her, saying that something strange was leaking out of her. It was only when I came in and she said it was like my hair that we realized she could see what color her blood was. Arthur researched it that very night and found it was possible to get a color from a pet. Rare, I'll grant you, very much so, but – if you're close enough to an animal. . ." She glares at the stunned Miss McGee, eyes thunderous. "So I'll thank you not to accuse my daughter of lying. And if you ever hit her again, I will make sure you are out of a job. Do we understand each other?"

Miss McGee nods weakly. "Good. Come along, Alice – I'll take you to the bakery and buy you some cake."

"Thank you, Mama." Alice stands up and follows Mama out the door, radiating smugness. Victory is sweet – literally, in this case. "Can I have strawberry?"

Chapter Text

"We all end up the remaaains of the daaaaay! Yeah!"

Applause fills the Ball & Socket as the last notes of the song die away. Bonejangles drinks it in gleefully. Years of playing places like this, singing his heart out both Upstairs and Down, alone or with his Boys, and he's never tired of this moment. And Ma actually suggested I ought to look into applying to that cannery the Van Dorts were setting up before I cacked it! he thinks, flexing his jaw. Nah – even if I'd made it that long, I could have never given this up for fish guts. Got music in my bones. He runs a finger down his rib cage, grinning at the xylophone sound that follows. Literally, these days.

The clapping gradually dies down, the patrons of the pub returning to their typical carousing. Chauncey, his second-in-command among the Bone Boys, nudges his spine. "Drink?"

"Thought you'd never ask." Bonejangles leads the way to the bar. "Oi, Paul! Round of the usuals!"

"Coming right up!" Paul whistles to his cockroach army, who skitter all over the worn wood collecting glasses and bottles. A few minutes later, a tray scurries over to them, bearing all their favorites. Bonejangles snags his carrot and whiskey from the crowd and throws it down, orange liquid splattering all over him. "Ah – careful, careful!" Paul scolds, craning what's left of his neck to take in the mess.

"Sorry, Paul – hard to keep it from going everywhere when you don't have any bits to keep it in." Bonejangles looks over at Chauncey as Paul huffs and scurries off with his roaches to get some napkins. "So – think we can chalk that one up as a winner, huh?"

"Definitely," Chauncey agrees, pouring his own drink down his spine. "It'll make a good replacement for 'Guts McGee.' Noticed a few folks looking bored during that one."

"Me too – Generals didn't even stop their pool game," Bonejangles says, glancing over at the two old military men. "Has been a regular for a few months – we'll retire it for now, maybe bring it back around Halloween." He snaps his fingers. "Good thing I already got a new idea, huh?"

"You've always got a new idea," Chauncey replies fondly, tapping his knuckles on the bar. A few cockroaches swarm up and carry his glass away. "Gimme more of the same, just on the rocks this time!" he calls after them. "All right then, what's the plan, BJ?"

"Thinkin' a comedy number," Bonejangles says, swirling what's left of his drink in his glass. "About all those little creepy-crawlies we get inside us. Already got a title too – 'What The Maggot Said.'"

"Ah, about time someone finally recognized my genius!"

Bonejangles swivels his head, coming eye-socket to eye with a familiar green creature poking out of an equally-familiar bride's head. "I can help you with the lyrics!" he continues, wriggling excitedly. "I've a cousin who's a bookworm!"

"Oh, shush, you," Emily says, crouching to retrieve her loose eye from the floor. She pulls the maggot from her socket and sets him on the bar. "I'm sure Bonejangles can handle writing his latest song all on his own." She squeezes her eye back into place, then gives him a smile and a nod. "After all, he did an excellent job with the last one."

"Glad you approve," Bonejangles says, tipping his hat. "Seein' as it's your story and all. How are things, Em?"

"No different than usual," Emily says, climbing onto the stool next to him. "Playing the piano, talking to Ms. Plum and Black Widow." She jerks her head toward the maggot. "Making sure he doesn't decide to eat my entire brain."

Maggot huffs. "Not my fault yours is so tasty."

Emily ignores this, tracing the whorls in the bar top. "And – you know. Waiting."

Bonejangles nods. "Yeah." He pats her shoulder. "Think of it this way, Emily – least you're not actually stuck under that tree."

"I know," Emily agrees, wrinkling what's left of her nose. It reminds him of Nettie – the way she always screwed up her face in disgust every time she was told to do her chores. Shit, just how long has it been since he's seen his sisters? At least a few years. . .Claire and Nora and April have gotta be married by now. Maybe even Hester and Nettie too. And Junebug walking and talking. . .damn it all, now he's depressed. Stupid horse getting spooked by lightning. Stupid dirt road with nobody on it for three whole days. Stupid him thinkin' it was okay to ride through a storm in the first place. "I think I'd go mad if I had to stay there, day and night, never allowed to get away." Emily picks at her skirt, taking in the torn and bedraggled hem. "Nothing to do but remember it all, over and over again."

Well, if there's anything that can get him out of his mood, it's seeing her in one. Bonejangles shakes off the old regrets in favor of knocking his shoulder blade against hers. "They'll get that bastard one day, Emily. He can't run forever."

"I hope so." Emily stares at the ceiling. "I just – I can't bear the idea of anyone else ending up like me. Nobody deserves this rotten fate." Her shoulders slump. "The only thing I wanted was somebody to love me. . ."

Bonejangles pulls her into a sideways embrace. "He'll show up one day too," he assures her. Maggot nods along loyally. "One day, some boy Upstairs is gonna hear your story, and he won't be able to get you out of his head. He'll just have to pay his respects to the corpse bride, and bam! You and true love will be gettin' on like a house on fire."

Emily glances dubiously at him out of the corner of her eye. "You really believe that?" She waves a hand up and down her body, encompassing the blue skin, the growing hole in her ribs, her almost-skeletal leg and arm, the rips and tears in her mother's dress. "That someone could love – this?"

"Hey hey – don't be that way," Bonejangles says, squeezing her. "We're all in the same boat down here. And sure, I believe that. 'Cause you're a gem, Emily. Full of more life than most girls I met Upstairs. You're a sweetheart and any man would be lucky to have ya."

That gets a smirk. "Except you?"

"Hey, I love ya!" Bonejangles protests, hand on his ribs. "Just – different."

She giggles. "Fair enough. I've always seen you as the older brother I never got in life too." She sighs, dropping her gaze back to the earth. "Just. . .how long am I going to have to wait?"

"I dunno, Em," Bonejangles admits. "I ain't got a clue how love or magic works." He picks up his drink and holds it in front of her. "But I know that, if I can get orange from a cute little lady after I've already died, nothing's impossible."

Emily smiles into the glass. "And if I can get pink from a wonderful musician after I've died, I guess you're right." She tilts her head. "Though I've never understood the appeal of carrot juice and whiskey."

"Gotta like carrots, I guess," Bonejangles says, knocking the rest of his drink back. More carefully this time, though – her dress has already gone through enough. "And whiskey."

"I think I'll stick with wine," Emily replies, signaling Paul. "Though maybe my husband will like your strange concoctions. Would be nice if we could all go out drinking together."

"I'm up for it." Bonejangles pushes back his hat. "When you and he get together, you bring him here first thing. We'll set up a nice reception for ya." He grins as Paul skitters over. "And I'll make sure that song you like so much finally has a real happy ending."

Emily grins back. "I'd appreciate it. A Cabernet for me, Paul, and another orange hangover for BJ here. Now, what about this new song?"

Chapter Text

"I haven't seen you here before."

The man idly examining Papa's collection of books barely gives Alice a glance. "I haven't been invited before," he replies. "Dean Liddell assures me it was just an oversight. . .you must be the younger daughter."

"Alice," Alice nods, looking up at him with folded arms. Neat suit, slicked-back hair, not even giving her the time of day. . . "You must be an undergraduate."

"Mr. Angus Bumby," the man says, finally turning around to face her properly. "Soon to be Doc–"

He stops dead as their eyes meet. Alice is confused for a second as to why – and then gasps as she takes in the rest of his face. All her life, the people around her have been painted in varying shades of gray. Sure, people would wear blue ties or red dresses sometimes, but the actual people had never had any color to them at all. It was frustrating sometimes, but she knew it was just the way of the world. It would all be revealed to her someday.

She just didn't expect that day to be today. She backs up a step, looking Mr. Bumby all over. He's – well, she has no clue how to describe it, having never seen it before. The closest she can come is "white, but not." "Huh?"

Mr. Bumby squints at her through his glasses. "What. . .this is. . .what color are your eyes?"

"Green," Alice reports. She can't see for herself, not yet, but Papa says they are, and she trusts him. "What color is your skin?"

"My – skin?" Mr. Bumby looks down at himself, blinking. "I'm – white."

Alice shakes her head. "No you're not. I've got white. You're a little off that."

"I – well – we call it white," Mr. Bumby rallies.

Alice raises an eyebrow. "I asked what it is, not what you call it. Is this like how the White Knight's song is 'Haddock's Eyes,' 'The Aged Aged Man,' 'Ways and Means,' and 'A-sitting on a Gate' all at the same time?"

". . .what?"

"Alice, are you confusing your father's students again?"

Alice looks up as Nanny comes to loom over her. "It's not my fault if he can't figure out the difference between what things are and what they're called," she says. She looks Nanny over top to bottom. "You're different too. . .what color is your skin?"

"My skin?" Nanny holds one of her massive hands up in front of her face. "Why – huh. You know, they call people like us 'white,' but it really ain't that if you couldn't see it before today, is it?" She wrinkles her forehead. "Guess it's kinda – beige?"

"I am not 'beige,'" Mr. Bumby says, frowning. "I am a loyal member of Her Majesty's kingdom, and I am white."

Nanny shrugs. "Suit yourself. . .here now, Alice, you got a color from him?"

Alice shrugs. "I don't understand it myself," Mr. Bumby admits, scratching his head. "When it happened with Dean Liddell, I almost expected it, given his importance to the school and my education. But with his children?" He rubs his pointed beard, eyeing Alice like she's an interesting dissection. "How on earth could you be important to me?"

"Well, you'll have to figure it out later," Nanny declares, taking Alice by the hand. "Tea's about to start, and Dean Liddell means it when he says these are for the adults only."

Alice pouts. "I think I'm old enough."

"Your pa doesn't agree, and he's the one whose say counts." Nanny tousles her hair. "Come on, the maid just delivered our share of the vittles to your room. We'll sit and have a chat with your dollies and the cats. Won't be much down here to interest a little girl, will there, Mister. . . ?"

"Angus Bumby," Mr. Bumby provides, before offering Alice a condescending smile. "And no, of course not. I rather think all of the conversation will go completely over your head."

Alice glares at him. "I bet you couldn't pass the Queen's Examination. You couldn't even get one of the Cheshire Cat's riddles."

Mr. Bumby draws himself up, hitting her with a look as sharp as steel. "You little–"

"Now now, Mr. Bumby, Dean Liddell won't let you have a cup if you start yelling at his girl," Nanny says, tugging Alice out of the room. "Not worth it, all right?"

Bumby doesn't look like he quite agrees, but turns back to the books anyway (possibly to search for green ones). "Oof. . .you ought not to wind up those boys," Nanny says as she and Alice head upstairs. "You're going to get yourself in trouble and no mistake."

"He thinks I'm stupid," Alice grouses. "All 'cause I'm small."

"Yes, he doesn't have the best manners himself, does he?" Nanny admits, glancing back as the other undergraduates and Papa file into the room. "But then, none of them do, really. . .yet, he's important to you. How does that work?"

"I don't know," Alice says, looking at her arm. Beige looks back at her. She bites her lip. It's not a pretty color – rather dull, honestly – but – it's still a color. Something new to look for when she goes out and about. And it is nice to see a bit better just what it is she really looks like. "I guess I do have to say 'thank you,'" she adds reluctantly. "Mama would say that's manners."

"After tea," Nanny says. She shakes her head as they enter the nursery. "Wonder what your father and Lizzie are going to make of this. . ."

Tea, as usual, doesn't go quite according to plan – while Alice's dolls are well-behaved as always, Dinah goes to sleep under the table, and Kitty leaps about and spills her teacup all over poor Snowdrop, painting her beige too until they can get her into the sink. But she cleans up quickly, and they manage to get through the rest of the pot and the biscuits without accident. "Don't think that'll cause a stain," Nanny says, examining the little spot on the rug. "I'll have Annie come up with a bit of vinegar later, though, just to be on the safe side. . .shall we see if the grown-ups are done yet?"

Alice nods, and once the dolls are safely back in their usual places and the kittens curled up for a nap beside their mother, they head back downstairs. Sure enough, the undergraduates are filing out, thanking Papa for another lovely tea. Alice waves and catches Mr. Bumby's eye. "Thank you for the color," she says, putting on her best 'posh' voice.

Mr. Bumby smiles. "Oh, thank you," he says, and there's something different in his tone. Something that reminds her of the Queen of Hearts when she's trying to be nice (and not succeeding very well). "I know now how you're important to me."

"Oh?" Alice says, suddenly wishing she had a croquet flamingo to hold. Just in case.

Mr. Bumby nods. "You're going to be my sister-in-law."

Alice's eyes nearly pop right out of her head. Sister-in-law?! But – but Lizzie hates all of Papa's students on principle! Can Mr. Bumby be that different? Surely she wouldn't like somebody who thinks I'm stupid! She glances up at the equally-astonished Nanny, then looks left and right, searching for her sister and the truth.

She finds Lizzie in the library doorway, staring at Bumby – but definitely not with love in her eyes. In fact, if Alice had to describe Lizzie's expression, she thinks she'd have to do like the Jabberwocky poem and smush a few words together. Frightnoyed, perhaps, or uncomfraid. Alice turns back to Bumby. "I don't–"

Bumby cuts her off with a pat to the head (and ugh, his hands are clammy, yuck). "You'll see soon enough," he assures her, before winking at Lizzie and breezing out the door. Alice rubs her hair, then looks over again at Lizzie, who is now making a full-on one-word disgusted face. "Sister-in-law? Really?" she mutters.

Alice thinks that maybe she won't tell Lizzie about beige just yet.

Chapter Text

BANG BANG BANG – "Lizzie?!"

Lizzie jolts awake, knee coming up automatically before realizing that the awful weight atop her is gone. Her mind whirrs in place, trying to process everything all at once. What's happened? The last thing she recalls, she was gasping for breath, trying to claw off a pair of clammy hands. . .

"Lizzie! Are you in there?"

"Ma-Mama?" Her voice is croaky, dragging itself unwillingly out of her throat. She rubs her neck, then forces herself to sit upright. Her nightgown is still bunched up all around her waist, her underthings torn down to about her ankles. And the exposed flesh is littered with big, ugly bruises.

Big, ugly, purple bruises.

"She's here, Arthur!"

"Oh dear – Lizzie?" The doorknob rattles. "Lizzie, why on earth is the door locked?"

"I – he–" She chokes on the words, before dissolving into sobs. She can't help it. The – the bastard may be gone, but he's left his mark. Left traces of himself all over her. She's filthy with him. Filthy with that awful, disgusting purple! She scratches at the bruises, not caring if she makes herself bleed, not caring if she tears all her skin off – she wants him gone she wants him gone she wants him –

Shouldn't this hurt?

She pauses, confusion overtaking her anger and grief. Her nails are dug deep into her leg, leaving nasty scratches across the violated flesh – but they don't hurt. Neither do the bruises. Neither does her – maidenhood. Nothing hurts. And – and now that she's noticed that, she can see too that her skin – it's darker now. A different shade of gray. She holds her hand up before her eyes, squinting at it. How could that be? Is it a side effect of being choked? But she seems to be fine n-she seems to be – she seems. . .

She's not breathing.

The realization hits her like a locomotive. She slaps a hand against her chest, eyes wide. No rise and fall, no beat-beat-beat against her palm – both heart and lungs are still. Which – which can only mean –

THUD! The door rattles in its frame. "Damn it – I'm going to have to see if I can find the spare," Papa's voice says from the other side. But if she's dead, how can – unless – oh no, no no no – "There's no way I can break this lock."

"Wait!" Lizzie cries. She yanks her nightclothes back into place and scrambles off the bed, tripping her way to the door. A moment's wrestling, and she's gotten it open, revealing her parents waiting for her outside. Her parents, who are not only the wrong shade of gray, but distinctly crispy-looking, skin charred and flaking. A glance at the hall reveals it's not in much better shape, the walls (where they still stand) stained black with soot and ash. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what Bumby did after he had his way with her. "That beast," she hisses out, clinging to the doorframe.

"What? Lizzie, what do you – oh my God, your neck!" Mama leans over her, a hand on each shoulder as she studies it. "What happened?"

Lizzie can't bring herself to look her in the eye. "He – Bumby," she manages to spit out. "I t-told him I was no t-toy, and he – he took w-what he wanted anyway."

Mama presses a hand over her mouth, eyes about ready to pop out of her head. "Oh no. . .he – that's why she didn't say anything before, Arthur," she whispers, looking up at Papa. "She was – look at her, she's not burned at all. . ."

"The fire must not have reached her bedroom," Papa says, voice dripping sadness. "The locked door probably provided a bit of a break. . .he locked you in, didn't he?"

Lizzie nods. "He didn't – I t-tried to scream, but–" She wraps her arms around herself, shuddering from scalp to toe. "This is why I have purple. This is how Bumby was important to me."

Mama pulls her into a hug. "Oh darling. . .why?" she adds to the world at large. "Why do we get colors from the people who hurt us as much as the people we want to be with?"

"I don't know," Papa replies, an undercurrent of anger in his tone. "It's just how it works. Anyone important – they never said 'important' meant 'good.'"

"Wait – you got one from him too, Alice?"

"Mmmm-hmmm! I can see what our skin looks like now! Nanny says it's probably beige."

"Beige. . .well, if anyone's going to give you that one, it might as well be him. But that is peculiar – all four of us from one man? What on earth is he going to do?"

Lizzie stiffens. Four colors from one man. . . "Alice! Mama, where's Alice?" she demands, gripping her mother's forearms.

"We haven't seen her," Mama tells her. "We haven't searched the whole house yet, but she's definitely not in her room."

"Her window's open, though," Papa adds, clasping his hands together. "We're – it's a long shot, but we're hoping. . ."

For the briefest of instants, something very close to joy flares up in Lizzie's heart. Alice – alive! Her little sister, alive! Hurt, almost certainly – traumatized, mostly definitely – but alive!

Just like Bumby.

The good feelings plummet through her feet, replaced by her old friend horror. Bumby has no sense when it comes to women, but he's no fool either – he wouldn't have set the fire without making damn sure he could get out of the house. Which means he's alive. And if Alice is alive too. . . "Nanny says it's probably beige." . . .that means he can still be important to her.

"We're about to check the downstairs," Papa continues, rocking on his heels. "Did you want to come with us?"

Lizzie nods, then shakes her head. "I – in a moment," she says, running her hand up and down her thigh. "I can't – I've got to – c-change."

Mama's eyes well up with tears. How strange that she can be dead and still be able to cry! Then again, it's pretty damn strange that they're still in their house after dying – are they ghosts? But Lizzie feels much too solid for that. . . "Of course, dear," she says, straightening up. "We'll meet you in the library?"

"I'll be there shortly," Lizzie promises. She ducks back into her room, closing the door as her parents proceed toward the scorched wreckage of the stairs. As she makes her way to her wardrobe, she catches sight of herself in her mirror. Her nightgown is torn and rumpled. Her hair, tangled and frizzed. Her eyes, wide and haunted. And her neck – is striped with more purple. A parting gift from the man she loathes. The man who was important to her in the worst possible way. The man who might still have a role to play in Alice's life.

Maybe she will tear off all her skin. Not like it matters anymore.

Chapter Text

"Do you have everything?"

"I believe so," Alice replies, folding up the final shift and tucking it into her suitcase. "After all, my 'everything' isn't very much. If not for Nurse Witless, I'd be forced to face the world in my asylum gown."

Dr. Wilson sticks his hands in his pockets and clears his throat. It's his private code that he's embarrassed, Alice has learned. "I'm sorry. The superintendent is – fickle about the expenses he'll approve. And most of our patients. . . ."

"Don't ever leave," Alice finishes for him. "I understand." She runs a hand down her new black skirt. She's not sure where Witless got it, and she doesn't plan to ask questions. "The important thing is that I'm not walking out that door naked. I'd have to be escorted right back in again if that were the case."

Dr. Wilson smiles, before taking a look around the cell. "Ten years. . .it's going to be very odd, not having you here anymore."

"It'll be odd not being here." Alice glances from the barred window, to the saggy, creaky bed, to the stained tile floor. "I don't think I'll miss it, though. If only because I barely knew I was here in the first place."

"Yes – how are the visions?" Dr. Wilson asks, taking off his glasses and wiping them with his handkerchief.

Right on cue, a glowing, bloodstained grin appears by the foot of the bed. "They come and go," Alice says, glaring at it until it deigns to vanish again. "Creatures lurking in the corners, foliage breaking through the walls. . .most of the time I can tell where I am, at least, and what's supposed to be there." She tries a smile – it doesn't come out very well. "At the very least, I don't think I'm liable to start flinging teapots at people again."

Wilson's returning smile is equally weak. "I was surprised you had the strength to smash it against the door."

"You'd be further surprised at the reserves you can call on when you think you're fighting for your life against a former friend with flying syringes at his disposal." She taps her foot. "I'm glad I didn't hit you."

"So am I."

"Though I was tempted to try again when you said you weren't giving me back my rabbit."

Wilson sighs. "We've discussed this. I don't believe it's beneficial to your current state of mind. There's sentimental value, and then there's clinging to the reminder of a terrible tragedy. Dr. Bumby agrees with me. I understand it's one of the last possessions you have from your family home, but. . .it's been years now, Alice. Time to put away childish things."

A voice that sounds rather like the Queen's hisses that she should take off his head for such treachery, but Alice demurs. The loss of her rabbit is a terrible wound in her soul, but attacking Wilson will lose her much more. "Well, I hope you at least didn't just chuck it away."

"No, of course not. I can promise you that it's in safe hands."

"Good." Alice runs her fingers through her hair to steady herself. Oh, how glad she is that she didn't have to be shaved again before leaving this terrible place! It's hard enough to face the outside world – she doesn't think she could manage it bald. "How far is it from here to the Houndsditch Home?"

"Just about an hour's ride – you should be there in time for tea." Wilson strokes his beard. "You should have a good position under Dr. Bumby. By all accounts, he's an exceptional doctor and philanthropist. Does amazing work with the children under his care. And when Witless introduced us, he expressed quite an interest in your case. If anyone can chase off the last of the demons haunting your mind, I believe it's him."

"I hope so," Alice mutters. "I've had quite enough of seeing things that aren't there." She's also had quite enough of doctors and their dubious treatments, but there's no point in saying that in front of Wilson. It won't change her circumstances. Besides, maybe this "Bumby" will be able to succeed where Rutledge couldn't. She bites her lip, brow furrowed as she ponders. Bumby. . .there's something familiar about that name. . .

"I'm sure you have," Wilson says, breaking up her thoughts. He offers her a hand. "I wish you all the best out there."

"Thank you," Alice says, accepting it. "I'm sorry you had to put up with me for ten years."

Wilson's smile is almost fatherly. It makes her heart ache for Papa. "You're leaving now. Flying the nest."

"Only to the next tree over," Alice points out, remembering Witless's gleeful recounting of the Home and its "wayward children" residents. She half-expects to arrive there and find the Tweedles running the place.

"Still. You'll be out in society again. Small steps."

Alice nods, turning toward the window again. Beyond the bars, the real world looms, dull and gray with early November chill. What will it be like out there, among ordinary people again? Both Nurse Darling and Witless have warned her that the Illustrated London News has been spreading her story far and wide. Which Alice will its readers see? The sad little orphan who lost everything in a midnight blaze? Or the raging lunatic who throws tea sets at people and talks to creatures only she can see? Given her antics in here, almost certainly the latter. . . She sighs. If only they could see the third Alice – the one who walked the length and breadth of a broken world, who fought and cleansed and killed so many foes, who ended the reign of a brutal and monstrous Queen. Who won, despite everything being against her.

But that Alice only exists inside Wonderland. And, despite all its best efforts, her childhood playland hasn't broken through into the real world yet. She's just going to have to keep calm, carry on, and hope that, one day, she can be as confident outside her head as she is in it. "Small steps," she agrees, looking back at Wilson. "And the first ones should be through those asylum gates."

"Indeed," Wilson agrees. "I'll walk you to the door."

"Thank you." Alice closes up her suitcase, clicking shut the locks –

Then pauses. Right – there was one other thing she needed to ask. "Dr. Wilson?"

"Mmm?"

"What color is this?"

Wilson blinks. "What, your suitcase?" She nods. "It's brown. Why?"

"Brown. . ." Alice runs her finger along the edge. "It's just – I didn't come to the asylum with that. I had blue, and red, and beige." Lizzie and Dinah and – "I am not 'beige.' I am a loyal member of Her Majesty's kingdom, and I am white." She remembers the know-it-all arrogance, remembers her and Lizzie's annoyance every time he showed up, but her broken brain won't give her a face or a name. . .one of her tutors? She never paid much attention to what they called themselves. . . "And then, when I was running around the Wonderland Woods – well, I could tell something was different, but I didn't have the word for it. I just wanted to know what it was before I left." She shrugs. "Rather pathetic of me to get a color inside a madhouse, hmm?"

Wilson's silent for a moment. "I wouldn't say that," he finally replies. "If only because, the day you were first admitted – was the day I finally saw green."

Alice blinks. Wait – he's the reason – but there's not a hint of mendacity anywhere on his face. And it makes sense, too. This is the man who has covered her with leeches, and let her smell freedom in the back garden. He's torn her rabbit from her grasp, and listened to her stories with an attentive and interested ear. He's sentenced her to burning torture from the electroshock machine, and saved her from the burrowing horrors of the trepanning drill. His questions have been intrusive, his prodding ill-conceived, his practices mere shades away from quackery – and he did it all in the hope that one day, she could walk away from this hellhole. If that's not important, then there's something very wrong with the world. This time, when she smiles, it looks right. "Well then – you're welcome."

"You're welcome." Wilson opens the cell door. "Let's go."

Chapter Text

"But – I've never even spoken to her!"

"Well, at least we have that in our favor!"

Victor really feels that, by nineteen, he should be used to his mother and her inability to talk to him without insulting something about him. But the words still sting like a slap to the face. She's glad that I've never spoken to my intended? Well, at least that explains why Miss Everglot hasn't come to visit in the month that I've known about this. I knew it wasn't natural for there to be no courting between us, even if the marriage is arranged. He sighs under the cover of Mayhew's coughing, and Mother's subsequent demands that it stop. As if being forced into wedding a stranger because my parents are that desperate for status wasn't bad enough. Now I'm almost certain Miss Everglot is going to hate me on principle.

Mayhew finally stops nearly choking to death on his pipe (Victor so wishes he'd quit), and – after the requisite wriggling and tugging to get Mother through the carriage door – they proceed into the Everglot mansion. Victor lingers a few steps behind his parents, hoping to avoid the disdainful gazes of the Lord and Lady of the manor. As he expected, it's an awkward meeting – Father makes a couple of stupid jokes, earning himself a whack from Mother's fan; Lord Everglot forces a smile at his wife's command that looks more like he's trying to pass a stone. No sign of their daughter, though, Victor notes, as Lady Everglot announces they'll be having their tea in the west drawing room. Surely she should be present too? They can't have the rehearsal with just him. . .maybe she's waiting for them down the hall. Victor sighs and rolls his eyes as he reluctantly follows his simpering Mother. So much for us being every bit as good as them. . .oh, how am I going to make it through this? I can't even remember what it is I'm supposed to say. With this – cup, I will pour your – with this hand, I will push – ugh. I'm going to look an absolute idiot. If only I could run out the door right now and go back home to my sketchbook and my –

Is that a Harryhausen?!

Victor stops dead as his fingers brush ivory keys, accidentally releasing a note. He looks down. It is indeed one of the Harryhausen line – jet-black and perfectly polished, with a silver nameplate screwed to the front and a little vase of winter jasmine balanced atop it. Its very presence screams old money – not even his beloved Johnson & Selick back home is so innately elegant. And it's just sitting out here in the front hall! Why? Is it to impress visitors? Or did they close up their music room to save on heating? Surely something so wonderful can't be merely for show. . . He lifts his head, intending to ask the Everglots where they got it and which of them played –

Only to see the oblivious parents vanish into what he supposes is the west drawing room. Well then. He runs his hand along the keys again, then – succumbing to temptation – plays a practice scale. The piano responds beautifully, perfectly in-tune. A surge of joy fills him. He's dreamed of playing an instrument as fine as this. And he's got that new composition too, swirling around his head, just begging for –

No, no, Victor! he scolds himself, shaking his head. What are you thinking? You can't just sit down at someone's piano without permission! You're late for your own rehearsal! Any moment now Mother is going to come barging down the hall and drag you away by your ear!

But – the hallway remains silent and empty. Not even that butler's come back to see what's what. Apparently everyone's just forgotten he exists. Hmph. Fine by him, honestly – the longer he can put off reciting his vows (whatever they are – with this candle, I will light the darkness around you?), the better. A bit of music will do wonders to settle his nerves. He slips onto the bench as his fingers pick out the beginning of the tune he's been working on. It's a bittersweet little song, full of hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, a yearning for everything to be all right despite all evidence to the contrary. Everything that's been swirling around his head ever since Mother announced that they'd finalized his engagement with Miss Everglot. He closes his eyes as it all pours out of him, losing himself to the music, relishing this last little moment of freedom. If only I could marry the piano, he thinks with an internal chuckle. Oh, I do hope Miss Everglot likes music. Or at least doesn't mind if I go off on my own for an hour every day and – "Oh!"

The song dies in a hail of discordant notes as a mysterious figure appears at his elbow. Victor leaps from the bench, knocking it over in his surprise. The tiny vase atop the keyboard spins and wobbles dangerously, threatening to send the sprig of jasmine flying – he lunges forward and just manages to catch it. Well, that was brilliant. At least it's not Mother. . . "Do forgive me," he starts, looking up into the eyes of an unfamiliar young lady –

And, just like that, her dress flares up with new life.

Victor gasps – so does the woman. For a moment, all either of them can do is stare. Then the woman steps a little closer, a bright smile spreading across her heart-shaped face. "You play beautifully," she whispers, hands clasped before her. "I – I have to ask – your tie?"

Victor straightens and looks down at himself, vase and jasmine clutched loosely in his hand. Tucked neatly into his waistcoat is – well, he sees light gray. But Mother assured him it was – "Blue," he tells her. The waistcoat, though. . .it's not quite as bright as the lady's dress, but it still almost glows in this dark cavern of an entrance hall. And that's supposed to be – "Is – is y-your dress red?"

The woman nods confirmation. "Oh my. . .I haven't had a color since Hildegarde," she says, delighted. She drops a curtsy, as is only proper. "I'm Victoria. Victoria Everglot."

"V-Victor," Victor introduces himself, eyes wide. "Victor Van Dort." This is his bride? The mysterious Miss Everglot? But – she looks nothing like the Lord and Lady! No giant, pointed chin, or hair piled almost to the ceiling; no stubby, wide-set legs, or a mouth that stretches across the whole of her face. Just a simple bun, wide eyes, a pert nose, bow lips. And her demeanor. . .no arrogance or disgust here upon facing the son of a fish merchant. Instead, she almost radiates sweetness and understanding. There's a softness about her that just doesn't exist in her parents. She must be adopted. There's no other way to explain it. "Um – i-is this your piano?"

Miss Everglot shakes her head. "Mother won't let me near it," she says softly. "Music is – improper for a young lady. Too passionate, she says."

That's the most ridiculous thing Victor has heard since – well, about five minutes ago, when his parents were bragging that this wedding would surely net them tea with the Queen – but he refrains from saying so. He glances around the room instead. Still no one running in to see what all the noise was about – and no one escorting Miss Everglot either! Goodness, if either of their mothers find them, they'll have a fit. His free hand climbs up to his tie, tugging it in an attempt to soothe his nerves. "I-if I may ask, Miss E-Everglot, w-where is your c-chaperone?"

"Hildegarde was needed to serve the tea." Miss Everglot's eyes skim her skirt ruffles before raising back to his, full of anxious hope. "And p-perhaps, under the circumstances, you – you could call me Victoria."

"Victoria. . ." Victor's nervous twitches calm as he smiles. He knows it's not a guarantee, of course. One friendly look at the piano doesn't mean a lot in the long run. And with his stomach still doing flip-flops in anticipation of the rehearsal. . . Anything and everything could still go wrong.

But right here and now, with Victoria smiling at him, clearly glad to see him, and her dress a beacon of brilliant, beautiful red in a cold, gray world. . .well. He can believe this marriage business might not turn out too badly after all.

Chapter Text

"A Lord Barkis, sir."

Lord Everglot takes the card from Emil with a curious hum. Victor doesn't blame him – Lord Barkis? Who's Lord Barkis? Mother never mentioned any "Lord Barkis" during her many, many monologues about the wedding and the people she hoped to see there. He glances at Victoria, but she seems just as puzzled as her father. So he's not a guest from the Everglot side either. . .did he hear about the wedding and decide to just invite himself? Surely that's a serious breach of etiquette. . .and why would he show up the day of the rehearsal?

Emil patters back to the door, opening it just wide enough for the newcomer to slip in. Lord Barkis proves to be an older man, maybe a little over twice Victor's age, white hair carefully slicked back into curled points like ram horns. His chin is the most massive Victor's ever seen, bigger than even Lady Everglot's impressive facial architecture, resting comfortably on a proud barrel chest. His legs look absurdly thin by comparison, ready to snap and send the whole torso plunging into the floor. "I haven't a head for dates," he remarks, idly examining his fingernails as he stands by Lord Everglot's chair. "Apparently I'm a day early for the ceremony."

Well, that explains that bit at least. Victor looks back at Victoria – she shrugs. Lady Everglot plucks the card from Lord Everglot's hand and examines it. Victor can just hear her husband's whisper of "Is he from your side of the family?"

"I can't recall," Lady Everglot replies, and her tone is – intrigued, if Victor reads it right. His twisted stomach somehow finds room for another knot as a seat is summoned for the new guest. They can't possibly be – not with a man who walked into their lives a mere minute ago! But then again. . .he's kept them waiting here for three hours (minus a ten-minute break for biscuits and tea that hadn't done him any good – how could he be expected to eat under circumstances like these?) because he can't stop making a mess of things. He doesn't like it any more than they do – it's embarrassing not to be able to remember a simple four-line rhyme! But it's also so hard to concentrate with Galswells looming over him like an underfed vulture, glowering at every little mistake. . .and his parents whispering to each other behind him, wondering why it's taking him so long. . .and the Everglots glaring at him, eyes boring into his back. . .only Victoria has been anywhere near patient with him, and he's sure even her reserves must be running out. It's gotten to the point where he's ready to throw himself on the mercy of the Lord and Lady and beg for the wedding to be moved back a day so he has more time to practice.

But that's not an option now, not with Lord Barkis sitting so casually next to Lord Everglot, as if he belongs in this manor as much as they do. Not with Lady Everglot still shooting him little glances, lips pursed as she tries to remember if he's a relative – and if he is, how distant. Nobility is supposed to marry cousins and the like all the time, aren't they? And Victor knows, right in his gut, that the Everglots would prefer a modest nest egg with "Lord" in front of it over a massive fortune built on canned fish. But – but surely they won't be so crass as to break an engagement with only one day to go! The scandal would be terrific! And – and besides, Victoria already gave him red, they can't go and undo that. . .

Barkis notices him staring and waves a bored hand. "Do carry on."

Right. Yes. Rehearsal. Victor jerks his head back around as Pastor Gaslwells growls, "Let's try it again, Master Van Dort," through gritted teeth. And he thought the pressure was on before. . .if he doesn't get this just right, prove himself the perfect groom. . .well, the Everglots are already on second thoughts. . .

He spots movement out of the corner of his eye, and realizes Victoria has kindly lit his candle for him (and this whole ordeal wouldn't be half as difficult if the accursed wick would just stay lit). He gives her a tiny, grateful nod before turning his full attention back to the pastor. "Yes, sir," he says, raising hand and candle, tone as respectful as possible. "Certainly."

Galswells glares at him through narrowed eyes, not impressed in the slightest. "Right."

"Right," Victor agrees, attempting a smile.

Galswells doesn't stop glaring – and it's only then that Victor realizes that the pastor's gaze is directed specifically at his right hand and damn it I'm holding the candle in the wrong one! "Oh – right!" he cries, trying to pass it over as quickly as possible. But the melting wax is slippery in his fingers, and his right hand is quicker than his left, and before he knows it the candle is flipping through the air –

And then, by some miracle, he manages to catch it – in the correct hand, no less. It takes every ounce of his self control not to dissolve into relieved laughter. He settles for a quick breath to steady himself before launching back into the vows. "With this – this. . ."

His voice trails off. There's something – strange about the candle flame. Beyond it staying lit through its little tumble, that is. The tiny fire flickers at the end of the wick, glowing bright against the dull grays of the Everglots' drawing room – but it's not white, like it was before. It's a minuscule spot of color – just shy of unnoticeable, but still there. But what – and who? Pastor Galswells he's known all his life, he's already seen what he got from Victoria, everyone knows you don't get a color from your parents, and he would have noticed before if the elder Everglots or Emil had gifted him with anything. Meaning the only other possibility is –

"Hand!" Galswells snaps impatiently, yanking Victor from his thoughts. Victor huffs, frustrated with himself. Damn it, he has to concentrate! He can't keep mucking this up! He can worry about why he's got a color from Lord Barkis later! He turns to Victoria and offers her his hand, trying to focus on her hopeful face and pretty red dress. "With this hand, I. . ." But his treacherous eyes slide past her, to where Lord Barkis is watching with an amused sneer. Why is this man important to him? Does he really want to find out? "Will. . ."

bump! He winces as his thighs smack into the table (again). Galswells slams his holy staff against the floor. "Three steps! Three!" he roars as Victor jumps back. "Can you not count?! Do you not wish to be married, Master Van Dort?"

"No! No!" Victor cries hastily, waving a hand.

Victoria's eyes widen with hurt. "You do not?"

Oh for – how can he mess things up so royally with a single word?! "No!" he repeats, spinning toward her. "I meant, I do not not wish to be married." Did that even make any sense? Probably not. . .he attempts a reassuring smile, hoping she'll listen to his face over his mouth. "That is, I want v-very much to–" whap! "–ow!"

"Pay attention!" Galswells snaps, seemingly oblivious to the fact that pastors shouldn't hit their parishioners over the head with their holy staffs. Voice dripping sarcasm, he adds, "Did you even remember to bring the ring?"

For a panicked second, Victor genuinely can't remember – then he feels the slight weight in his inner jacket pocket. "The ring! Yes, of c-course," he says, pulling it out with a trembling hand. The candlelight catches it as he holds it up, making it sparkle –

And it has a color too! Not quite as bright as the candle flame, but definitely there! And he knows the ring is gold – yellow! That's what he's gotten! A fairly pretty color, too. . .but again, why has Lord Barkis given him –

ping! The ring slips out of his fingers, taking advantage of his distraction to prove him a fool at least once more. Victor desperately drops to a knee to grab it, but it falls just out of his reach, bouncing down the makeshift aisle before rolling under – of all places – Lady Everglot's skirt. Victor flings himself after it, doing his best to ignore Galswells's dramatic shout of "Dropping the ring! This boy doesn't want to get married!" and Lady Everglot's shocked gasp. No no no no – he does want to get married, he does, he didn't mean this, he has to get it back –

Fortunately, the ring hasn't rolled far beneath the Lady's dress. Victor snags it and pulls away from her as quick as he can, holding it up with a proud smile. "Got it!"

Nobody returns it. Victor can't blame them. But the important thing is that he's got the ring back. And now he's going to march up to that altar, say his vows correctly, and everything's going to be just –

Is that smoke, tickling his nose?

Oh no.

He turns around to see his candle, lying forgotten on Lady Everglot's skirt – and the yellow flame, now a proper little blaze, eating away at it. Before he can even apologize, Lord Everglot shoves him aside, shouting, "Out of the way, you ninny!" And then the room explodes into a cacophony of panicked noise – his mother, babbling on about how she hopes the fire won't leave a stain – Lady Everglot, yelling at her to "Stop fanning it, you fool!" – Lord Everglot, grunting and thumping as he attempts to stomp the fire out – his father, crying out for the fire department and the need for a bucket – Pastor Galswells, sighing in utter exasperation while snapping his book closed – Emil, sniffing in disgust as he patters around, deliberately bumping Victor's shoulder – only Victoria is silent, gawking at the whole scene in shock –

And then, an arm extends into the middle of the chaos, and drowns the little fire in a cupful of sacramental wine. All eyes turn to Lord Barkis, who suavely flips the goblet over his shoulder (to be caught by Emil on a tray – how does the butler always know just where to be?) and brushes a bit of lint from his shoulder, before giving Victor a smug smile. Victor's stomach drops to the floor.

Maybe yellow and red mean he's just played matchmaker after all.

Chapter Text

"With this ring–" He drops to one knee, smoothly slipping the little loop of gold over the wooden "finger" "–I ask you to be mine!"

The relief crashes over him in a wave, leaving him awash in confidence and pleasure. Victor beams to himself. Finally! Who knew that four little sentences could give one such trouble. . .of course, now I have to figure out how to get them out in front of Pastor Galswells. He pictures Victoria's smiling face by the piano, wrapped in that lovely red dress. Just remember, Victor – you're saying them to her. To the woman who's already proved herself to be much better than you deserve. To the woman who's chased away some of the gray in your life. All the glowering in the world from Galswells or our parents doesn't – change. . .

Is someone watching him?

Victor blinks and looks around. Given that it's late January, with snow from the last little squall still on the ground, he'd expected the woods to be empty, of both human and animal life. But it appears one species hasn't gotten the news that winter is the time to hide away and wait for warmer weather – all around him, the trees are absolutely full to bursting with ravens. They return his stare with their beady little eyes, eyeing him up like a choice piece of carrion. One quorks, and another fluffs its wings, but the rest remain eerily still. The hairs on the back of Victor's neck tingle. There's a strange sense of – anticipation in the air, as if the whole forest is holding its breath, waiting for – something. Suddenly deeply aware of how cold he is and the late hour (his mother is going to give him hell for disappearing like this), he reaches for his ring.

Only to feel the root suddenly lock around his wrist.

He screams as it yanks him down, dragging his arm into the earth. The breath is released, and the ravens burst into motion, taking flight in a chorus of squawks and croaks. Terror concentrates his mind wonderfully past the noise, however, and he pulls his arm back, struggling desperately to free it from his captor. The root (not a root, can't be a root, not unless he's about to be somehow eaten by a tree) refuses to relinquish its grip, drawing him back down with incredible force. For a moment, they wrestle, locked in the strangest game of tug-of-war Victor's ever played.

SNAP! And then, abruptly, he's free, flying backward to land with a hard bump on his hindquarters. He sits up, a touch dazed – what happened? Did he win? Is the rest of the tree going to come after him now?

And then he catches sight of the root, still wrapped around his arm.

Or, rather, the skeletal hand still wrapped around his arm.

He screams and shakes it wildly – the hand finally releases him, tumbling to the earth in a clatter of bones. Victor stares at it, mind racing a mile a minute. A hand! Not a root at all! An actual human hand! There's someone buried under this tree! Who on earth could it be? And how in God's name could they grab him?!

A soft rumble jerks his head back around, just in time to see the earth before him shake and split, leaves and sticks tumbling away down the fresh hole. Moments later, an arm – this one still fleshed – emerges, latching onto the edge with fingers like claws. It's followed by a head, then a body, slowly rising up. . .and then it's complete, staring down at him as it stands in the snow. Victor stares back. Before him is – well, it was once a bride. The fine white dress is in tatters – goodness, her shoulders are completely exposed! – and the body underneath it hasn't fared much better. Her right leg is nothing but bone, judging from the knee poking through the slit in her skirt, as is the half of her left arm that's still attached. Her ribs shine in the moonlight, visible through a giant hole in her side. And her face – well, that's covered by a thick layer of cobweb, like a funeral veil. Victor braces himself as she reaches up and tears it away –

And the whole world changes.

Victor's breath catches. The forest is suddenly suffused in color – which one, he doesn't know, but the black trees and white snow and gray leaves are all tinted with it. Like it's pouring down from the very sky itself. And the bride – she's a brighter version of whatever he's gotten, standing out like a beacon against the backdrop of the dark forest. Her eyes widen as she takes him in – then a smile curves her lips. "I do."

She does? She does what? Victor decides he doesn't want to find out. He scrambles away as she reaches out to him, managing to get his feet after a few seconds of frantic activity. Her skeletal hand skritches across the forest floor toward him – she reaches down and picks it up, snapping it back into place at the elbow. Victor takes advantage of the brief distraction to bolt for the path, sprinting as if all the devils of Hell are after him. Which they very well might be, he thinks, glancing back to see the white robed figure pursuing him, her long train whispering over the leaves and twigs. Oh God, a dead woman, I'm being chased by a dead woman

Out of nowhere, his feet meet air instead of earth. He tumbles out of control, rolling down a slope into the old graveyard, coming to rest with a solid thunk against a headstone. He hisses and winces, rubbing his head – ouch, that's going to leave a bruise –

And then he sees his tie, having come loose from his vest in all the excitement.

His blue tie.

He gawks at it, eyes wide. Blue. That's the color that's suddenly all around. Blue. Blue in the night sky, blue on the trees, blue on the snow – blue on the dead woman's skin. Blue. He's gotten blue.

From a corpse.

"Darling?"

He tears his gaze away, looking up to see the bride cresting the top of the hill. He pulls himself upright with the help of the stone, shaking as he tries to process. This doesn't make sense. Nothing makes sense anymore. Dead people don't grab your arm when you're near them. Dead people don't claw their way out of the ground once they're interred. Dead people don't give living ones colors. He's – he must have fainted, or – or something. The stress of the rehearsal got to him, and – and this is all a dream. Some mad, wild dream. . .

But it's too cold, and his head hurts too much, and he can still feel her bony fingers on his wrist. Victor takes off again, pushing through the pain, hoping against hope that he can somehow make it back to reality. That he can outrun the monster, outrun the confusion.

Outrun the blue.

Chapter Text

"And that's the story of our corpse BRIIIIIIIIIIDEEEEEE!"

Bonejangles spins and falls into the arms of his waiting audience as they pick up the chorus, beaming at the delightful chaos all around. What a party! What a sound! Even the most staid and dignified corpses (not that there's many of those in the Ball & Socket) are snapping their fingers and tapping their toes. But then again, every last one of them has been waiting and hoping for this moment for – has to be twenty years, at least. And now that it's finally come around, they're all eager to celebrate. Bonejangles jumps free of the tangle of limbs around him and dances his way back to the stage, scatting all the way. And here's me startin' to think that I was never gonna get to sing those last coupla lines! Shoulda known it would all work out for the best. Now we just gotta set the happy couple up somewhere! Though knowing Ms. Plum, she's probably already got a suite above the Ball & Socket all reserved.

The song finishes, punctuated with a final loud "YEAH!" from Bonejangles's nonexistent lips. The crowd promptly breaks up into smaller gossipy groups, everyone talking over everyone else about the big news. Bonejangles cranes his neck, looking for Emily and her new beau. He's quite proud of his song – poured his heart and soul into it – but it's still no substitute for a personal congrat-u-well-done. And he should probably apologize for snatching up the bloke and flinging him around midway through. Sorry, bud – but when the music grabs ya, you just gotta – huh?

He blinks as he finally spots Emily, climbing the stairs to the pub door. Not only does she look a little concerned, lover-boy is nowhere to be seen. Bonejangles spins his head, tipping his eye back into the other socket. Nope, he isn't at the bar, or the pool table, or hanging with any of the other corpses. . . Trouble in paradise already? They've only been married, what, ten minutes? Pushing his hat forward, he slips off the stage and weaves his way around the generals, the kitchen staff, and the matronly ladies all gushing about recent events. "Hey! Emily!"

Emily, halfway out the door, turns and looks back. "Bonejangles! Come out here for a moment?" she asks, waving him through.

Well, he ain't one to refuse a lady's request. Bonejangles takes the stairs two at a time, and they both head outside. Emily closes the door behind them, shutting out the commotion. "It's going to be a madhouse in there for days, isn't it?" she asks with a grin.

"Ages," Bonejangles agrees. He tilts his head to one side, his eyeball rolling back over. "What's up, Ems? Shouldn't you and hubby be in the middle of that whole scene?"

"I thought we would, but – right as you were finishing up, I spotted him making a break for it up the stairs," Emily explains, looking up and down the street. "He looked – frazzled, to say the least. Poor man, I think it was all a little much for him."

"Ah." Bonejangles rubs the back of his skull. "Yeah, guess we did come on kinda strong. Just – everybody was so thrilled, ya know? Wanted to give him a proper welcome. And it ain't like any of us have seen a breather down here before." He laughs. "Probably shoulda given him a bit of space after he tried yanking Bonesaparte's sword outta him and got the whole Frenchie in the bargain. Jumpy sort, ain't he?"

"Oh yes – he took off running when I rose up in front of him, and didn't stop until we hit the bridge," Emily says, twisting her ring. "I don't think that little makeshift ceremony he made up for me went quite how he expected." She sighs dreamily, pressing her hands to her stomach. "Oh, but Bonejangles – you should have heard him. He said his vows with such – such power, such passion! Like he knew for sure I'd hear. And when our eyes met. . .oh, I felt it right down in my guts! Whatever's left of them," she qualifies, glancing down at her rotted flesh. "He might be a tad overwhelmed right now, but – oh, he's the one, BJ. He has to be."

Damn it, he can feel himself misting up, just a little. She just sounds so happy, in a way she's never managed before. Oh, she's smiled and laughed and danced with the best of them down here, but there was always that lingering sadness behind her eyes before. Now her expression is nothing but clear and honest joy. Bonejangles claps her on the shoulder. "I'm thrilled for you, Emily. We all are."

"I guessed!" Emily throws her arms around him, her skeletal arm clicking against his ribs. "You are the best friend a girl could have. And I'm sure my husband will feel the same way once he gets to know you." She bounces in place. "Ooooh, I wonder what color you'll get from him!"

"What – me? Emily, you're the one married to the guy."

"Yes, but he'll have to be important to you too." She giggles. "Perhaps you'll get pink, just like you gave me! I've always wanted to show you what it looks like."

"Maybe," Bonejangles agrees, before tilting his hat at a playful angle. "Though I hope that, if I do, I don't feel the urge to whack old lover-boy over the head with a branch, like you did."

Emily ducks her head, smiling in an embarrassed way. "To be fair, we met right after Eddie sent me here. I was – nervous, about the ways in which you might be important to me."

"Yeah, I know," Bonejangles says, tone softening. "Not like it hurt, either. I'm glad I talked you into not smacking me again, though." He pushes his hat back. "Hey, while we're on the subject, what did you get from him? Didn't get a chance to ask before you threw him on the floor."

"I didn't throw him – he just slipped out of my arms," Emily replies, looking like the pink she was just going on about should be touching her cheeks. "I didn't realize he was that out of it. . .behind the bar – what color light is that?"

"Oh, good old Chauncey gave me that one – purple," Bonejangles tells her.

"Purple. . ." Emily claps her hands, grinning at the earthy "sky." "I'll treasure it forever. We can do our whole house that shade! Well, that and whatever he got from me."

Bonejangles laughs. "Hey, your choice – you're the lady of the house, Missus – er. . .hey, what is your last name now?"

Emily drops her gaze again, hands twisting together. "Um. . .well. . ."

Bonejangles's eye nearly falls out – he claps a hand over it just in time. "Wha – you don't know?"

"I didn't get a chance to ask!" Emily says, throwing up her arms. "Like I said, he ran the moment I popped up! And then when we got here, first he was unconscious, and then you were singing. . . I was intending to take him aside once you'd finished, but by that point. . ." She sighs. "I'll ask once I find him. If I can find him."

"Ain't a big village," Bonejangles reassures her. "He's gotta be around here somewhere." He winks. "Besides, bloke like him is gonna stand out a bit."

Emily snorts. "True."

"Arf! Arf!"

Bonejangles spins his head to see one of the local dogs running up to them, tail wagging. "Scraps!" Emily crouches down to greet the pup. "Hi boy! Come on – Auntie Emily has something important to tell you!"

Scraps barks again and eagerly bounds up to her – only to freeze as he gets near her skirt. His skeletal snout lowers to the ground, snuffling the hem (as best he can without a proper nose attached, anyway). Then, suddenly, he's a blur of motion, whirling in circles and yapping all the while. Emily's jaw drops. "What – oh my. Really?!"

"Er – little help for those of us who ain't lucky enough to understand dogs?" Bonejangles asks, looking between the two.

Emily beams up at him. "Victor! Victor Van Dort! That's my new husband! He's Scraps's former owner! He recognized the scent!" She scoops the overexcited Scraps into her arms, cooing. "How wonderful! Seeing you should be just the thing he needs to calm down – oh!" She whirls back toward Bonejangles. "BJ – can you get a box and ribbon? This'll be perfect for a wedding present!"

Bonejangles grins. "Sure thing, Emily. Back in a tick." He heads back inside, leaving her to chatter on to Scraps about taking him to "Castoff Cliff! It's the most romantic spot in the whole village. . ." Well, isn't that something. Let's just hope Victor's as good to Emily as he apparently was to his dog. . .Van Dort, huh? Heh – guess I'm ending up with an in at the cannery after all, Ma. "Hey, Ms. Plum! You got a box I can borrow?"

Chapter Text

"Ooh!" thunk

Victoria starts, looking up from her quilt. What on earth had that been? Sounded like something falling over. . . Her eyes dart all around her room, but nothing appears to be out of place. Perhaps in the hallway then? But surely then the crash would have been much louder. . .and what do they even have to knock over out there anymore? More likely it was just something in the street outside, a dog or a cat going through someone's trash. . .putting it out of her mind, she goes back to her sewing.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap

All right, that was definitely not a dog or cat. Victoria's head jerks up, eyes immediately flicking toward her door. Has someone finally come to give her some news? But – no, her parents never knock, they just come and go as they please. . .Hildegarde and Emil always announce themselves. . .and Lord Barkis, if he has any manners at all, would do the same. And, thinking about it, the sound had come from behind her, not in front. . .but who on earth could be tapping at her – Victor!

It's indeed her wayward fiance, standing on her balcony and peering in through the glass doors with desperate eyes. Victoria sticks her needle through her latest stitch and drops the quilt on the sofa, hurrying over to let him in. He looks a fright – hair disheveled, clothes stained and torn, the dark circles around his eyes bigger than ever with exhaustion. What on earth has happened to him? Lord Barkis and the crier of course were going on about him. . .but that can't be right. Why would a man in the middle of a last-minute tryst come back to his original intended looking like this?

But why would a man who has nothing to hide not present himself at the front door? a nasty little voice whispers in the back of her mind. The town crier may thrive on gossip, but he's never been known to out-and-out lie. . .

Perhaps not, but there's a first time for everything, Victoria answers herself. And in the state he's in, I doubt my parents would let him in the normal way. Something's clearly wrong, yes, but there's only one way to find out what. She fiddles with the sticky handle for a second, then gets the door open.

Victor slips inside, closing it behind him before slumping against the glass. He sucks down a few heavy breaths before looking at her gratefully. "Victoria. . ."

Would he sound so genuinely pleased to see her if he had a secret girlfriend? Victoria thinks not. She lets her relief bubble forth onto her face. "Victor – I'm so happy to see you!" She grabs his hand, and has to stifle a squeal of surprise. Goodness, he's freezing! Has he really been out in the snowy forest all this time? Silly man – what possessed him to go out there to practice his vows? "Come by the fire," she urges, tugging him over.

Victor allows her to pull him across the room, almost collapsing onto her ottoman. "Where have you been?" Victoria asks, sitting across from him. A small part of her is horrified – sitting with her fiance, unchaperoned, in her bedroom! It breaks just about every rule of propriety there is! But, after Lord Barkis's little announcement earlier, there's so much she needs to know – and as long as her parents never, ever find out, she thinks she can get away with it. "Are you all right?"

"I – I–" Victor drops his gaze to the side, sighing. "Oh dear. . ."

Not a good sign, her darker self mutters – but Victoria refuses to believe the worst of him yet. Especially when he looks back at her with such a warm, caring gaze. Succumbing to temptation, she reaches out and touches his hand again. "You're as cold as death," she tells him, rubbing his fingers in an attempt to warm them. "What's happened to you?" Her eyes fall on his shoulder, the top ripped half-off to expose the shirt beneath. "Your coat!"

Victor brushes at it, as if the tear is just a bit of stubborn dirt, then bites his lip. "Victoria – I confess," he begins, all adorably shy awkwardness. "This m-morning, I was t-terrified of marriage."

Victoria nods minutely – she was too. Oh, she'd dreamed of her wedding day, just like any young lady – held ceremonies with her dolls, dressed up in bits of old lace, drawn pictures of various imaginary grooms. But she'd been afraid too – afraid of her wedding being dull and unhappy, afraid of her husband being coarse and cruel, afraid of being trapped in the same sort of loveless match her parents have suffered all these years. And when Mother had told her a month ago that her marriage was to be arranged with some nouveau riche stranger, she'd been certain all her worst fears were about to come true.

But then this morning she'd heard the piano, followed the sweet melody down, and discovered Victor on the bench, with his embarrassed bumbling and shy little smiles and beautiful blue tie – and all her worries had melted away. No one who made the piano sing like he did, who was so soft-spoken and gentle, who'd given her such a beautiful color, could be a bad husband. Even that wreck of a rehearsal hadn't managed to change her mind. Perhaps Victor Van Dort is a bundle of nerves, and not always the best at thinking before he speaks, and worryingly forgetful about not leaving lit candles lying on his mother-in-law-to-be's skirt, but – he's important to her. And she refuses to believe it's because he's going to break her heart.

Of course, that refusal depends quite a lot on his next words. Victor takes a steadying breath and continues. "But then, on m-meeting you, I felt that I should be with you always," he says, confidence and smile growing with every word. "And that our wedding could not come soon enough."

Victoria's face stretches in a delighted grin. She knew it. They really are two peas in a pod. Her parents could not have chosen better for her match. "Victor," she whispers, heart full to bursting, "I feel the same."

Victor beams back at her, face bright and warm as the sun. With a tiny, pleasant jolt, Victoria realizes he's closer than before – without even thinking about it, she'd started leaning toward him. And he – he's leaning toward her. . .expression softening, that lovely mouth getting closer and closer. . .her eyes close practically of their own accord, as she anticipates the feel of his lips against hers. . .

And then, out of nowhere, Victor gasps.

Victoria jerks back, blinking in surprise. Victor's eyes are locked on something over her shoulder, wide with sudden terror – oh no, have her parents managed to sneak in somehow?! Though, honestly, Hildegarde's the more likely option – she starts to turn, to beg her maid to keep this a secret –

Only for Victor to stop her with his hands cupped around her chin. "Victoria, I see – I se – I seem to find myself married," he stammers out, causing the bottom to drop out of her stomach. "And you should know it's unexpected."

Now what on earth does that mean? Victoria doesn't have long to ponder the question, however, as her balcony doors suddenly burst open in a howl of wind. Victor jerks back, releasing her, and Victoria takes the opportunity to whirl around. A female figure stands at the threshold, her long veil blowing over her face, her dress white – and her skin blue? Victoria leaps from her seat for a better look, vaguely aware of Victor doing the same. Yes – this mysterious bride's flesh is painted blue from head to toe! Where she still has it – Victoria's jaw drops as she registers that one of the woman's arms is nothing but bone. But – but how could that possibly –

The woman straightens as the wind calms, throwing back her veil to reveal – not a skull, as Victoria had feared, but a surprisingly beautiful (no, Victoria, we mustn't think that about girls!) blue face. "Darling, I just wanted to meet–" she begins, then stops as her eyes lock with Victoria's.

And then – her lips aren't gray anymore.

Victoria gasps, as does the – the – the dead woman. A dead woman, standing in her room, in the remains of a wedding dress. A dead woman who just gave her a color. Victoria opens and closes her mouth, trying to make sense of it all. How could she just give her a color? How is she up and walking in the first place?!

The dead woman seems similarly baffled, gaze flicking from Victoria to the fire and back. "I – you – w-who are you?" she manages to get out, digging her hands into the folds of her rotted (yet still quite lovely – no, Victoria) skirt.

"Victoria Everglot," Victoria gets out. At least introductions are something she knows. Something solid to hang onto now that the world has gone all crooked. "Y-you?"

"Emily Cart – Emily Van Dort," the woman corrects herself, giggling.

I seem to find myself married – "Van Dort?" Victoria repeats, now completely out of her depth.

Emily nods, smiling with those bright, beautiful (no, curse you, not beautiful, we don't think beautiful about girls!) lips as she holds out her skeletal hand. The ring from the rehearsal gleams in the firelight. "He just said his vows tonight!"

Victoria turns back to Victor, who is now strangling his tie as he looks between them. "But – we – I'm his fiancee!" she cries, for lack of anything better.

Emily's jaw drops. "What?"

"T-this isn't h-how I wanted – I t-thought if I found my p-parents, we could all explain–" Victor babbles, shaking his head. "Victoria, l-look, you can see she's d-dead–"

"And your wife!" Victoria cuts him off, furious. Why hadn't he led with that little tidbit of information when he came into her room?! "How–"

But Emily doesn't give her the chance to finish, sweeping between them with eyes narrowed and jaw set. "Hopscotch," she growls, and how she makes the word menacing Victoria doesn't know, but it sends a chill up her spine – or maybe that's the wind, suddenly picking up again as Emily drags Victor into her arms, blowing the two of them back onto the balcony as ravens suddenly swoop down out of nowhere to engulf them – "No! No! Victoria!" Victor cries, reaching out to her – she darts forward, arm outstretched, hoping to catch his hand and be pulled to wherever it is they're going –

But she's too late. They vanish into the cloud of black feathers – then the ravens break apart again and fly away, leaving no trace of corpse bride or living groom. Victoria runs to the edge of the balcony and looks down, but they're not there either. They're just – gone. She leans heavily against the railing, mind awhirl. Victor is married. Victor is married to a dead woman. Victor is married to a dead woman who gave her a color. When did the world stop making sense?

Rap-rap-rap – "Miss Victoria?"

Victoria turns to see Hildegarde at the door, wringing her hands. "Miss Victoria, I heard an awful banging about just now," she says, peering anxiously at her charge. "Is everything all right?"

"It's – I–" Victoria steps forward, wondering just what it is she's going to say –

And then she catches sight of her own reflection, just barely visible in the balcony door. Of her cheeks and lips, vibrant with new color. She stares at them a moment. "Victor – Victor has a wife," she finally says, as if in a dream. "A dead wife."

Poor Hildegarde stares at her, baffled. "What?"

"He married her today, apparently. I just met her now. Her name's Emily." Victoria reaches out, tracing the outline of her mouth – so different and yet so similar to Emily's brilliant, amazing, beautiful smile. "And now – now I can see pink."

Chapter Text

"I – think you dropped this."

Emily closes her eyes, turning away from the hesitant voice at her shoulder as she continues tapping out her sad melody. She doesn't want to – she can't do this right now. Not after what just happened. Her wounds are still too fresh, her heart still too broken. She simply can't turn around and face him – can't even say a word. They said everything they needed to in Elder Gutknecht's tower, anyway. If Victor has any sense at all, he'll leave. Just turn around and – and go back to that other woman.

Sense doesn't seem to be Victor's strong point, though. There's a slight rustle as he sets down – she sneaks a glance – her bouquet on the remains of the coffin's padding, then a heavy sigh. "I'm sorry," he says softly, voice thick with guilt. "I'm sorry I lied to you about – wanting to see my parents. I'm sorry I didn't tell you about Victoria right away. It's just this whole day hasn't gone quite – well. . . ." He sighs again, and a little bump under her music suggests he's plopped down on the other end of the bench. "According to plan."

Emily grits her teeth. His day hasn't gone according to plan. Ha – what about her day? When she'd first seen him in the forest, felt that tingle deep in her bones, she'd been certain this was going to be the happiest day of her afterlife. The culmination of all her hopes and wishes, the fulfillment of her vow. Even when he'd run from her, she'd been hopeful – after all, meeting a living corpse and being taken to the Underworld would give anyone a turn. But he was her true love! Once he calmed down, everything would be fine.

But no. Instead, she'd been forced to chase her new husband all across both the Living world and the Dead one – she wouldn't even know his name if she wasn't acquainted with his dog. She'd fallen for his sweet lie about wanting her to meet his parents, only to be abandoned in the forest while he invaded the bedroom of a living girl. One who'd declared herself to be his fiancee. And then, when she'd furiously dragged him back Downstairs and demanded to know what was going on –

"Why can't you understand this was a mistake?! I didn't know you were even there! I thought – I thought your hand was just a bunch of roots, all right?! I was using it as a-a prop! To practice! I would never have done it if I'd known I was proposing to a corpse!"

Her fingers jab at the keys, anger and sorrow intermixing. An accident. This had all been a bloody accident. That's what hurts the worst. She'd thought that everyone Upstairs knew her story as well as everyone Down. That of course Burtonsville knew what had happened to her, and that the tale of the unfortunate bride who'd gone to her grave without ever reaching the altar still circulated among the residents. That she'd gotten the attention of some romantic young man who found the whole thing such a tragedy that he had to hike into the woods and give her restless soul the ring it so craved.

Instead, she learns that she was forgotten. That perhaps her father never even looked for her – just assumed she'd run off with Eddie and that was the end of it. That the rest of the village hadn't given tuppence about her disappearance. That her "romantic young man" was already engaged and just looking for somewhere to practice his lines. That if he'd known she was there –

Music not her own cuts into her dark thoughts. Glancing over, she finds Victor with his hand on the other end of the keyboard, mimicking her sad tune. She glares at his fingers, and he pulls them away, chastened. Satisfied, she continues her dirge. She only has a little time before the pub comes back to life (so to speak) and she has to find another place to mourn the loss of her dream. She can't waste it playing dueling pianos with him.

Victor, however, doesn't seem to understand this. He tries again, both hands on the keys now, attempting to pervert her song into something lighter. Emily resists him, pushing back with her grief, fleshed fingers and bone singing out her fury and tears. For a moment, silence follows, and she thinks she's won –

And then he's playing again, something sweet and gentle and begging for forgiveness, and her self-control snaps. "You are engaged!"

Victor jerks back as she rounds on him, clearly not having expected this response. Idiot man – how did he think she'd feel? "You said I was a mistake!" she cries. "That I am nothing to you! You can't just–"

"That's n-not true!" Victor cuts in, waving his hands. "Yes, p-proposing to you was an a-accident, I admit, but – Emily, I c-can see blue because of you! I was meant to find you!"

"For what purpose?" Emily snaps back. "To break my heart all over again? To show me that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot be loved? To bring me to that Victoria and – and. . ."

The tears are flowing down her face before she can stop them. She turns away, struggling to get a hold of herself. Behind her, she hears Victor swallow. "Oh, Emily. . .I didn't. . .t-that was just me being an absolute idiot, I didn't mean to–"

"You were supposed to fix me."

She can feel the puzzlement radiating off of him. "Fix?"

"Make it so I didn't – I wasn't supposed to get a color from her," Emily says, twisting the top of her skirt in her hands as she remembers meeting Victoria's eyes, and suddenly realizing the fire behind her had three colors in it, not two. And then being baffled because Victor giving her purple she could understand, he was her true love, but this. . . "I wasn't supposed to think she was pretty." Big blue eyes in a pale heart-shaped face, full warm cheeks and a deliciously pink bow mouth – Emily had forgotten how nice living girls could look, had tried her best to squash that part of her down. . . "I wasn't supposed to – to wonder if – if she'd come along practicing. . ." A fantasy initially born of her anger at Victor – another bride would have told her the truth first thing, surely! But then it had softened, and she'd dreamed of what a single Victoria might have done. . .if perhaps she would have been – more willing to. . . She presses the heel of her hand against her loose eye, glad Maggot isn't there to make a comment. Oh God, if Victor didn't hate her already for being a big corpsey road-block on the way to his wedding, he surely hates her now. . .

She's only just aware of his hand landing on her shoulder. "Emily. . .I. . ." He stops, swallows, then leans close to her ear. "E-every so often, when I have c-c-certain dreams. . .it's a m-man."

She jerks her head around, eyes wide. Victor looks back at her, and – there's not a hint of a lie in his face. None of those nervous fidgets from when he was convincing her they needed to meet his parents. Even still, she can hardly believe it – he's like her? He knows this pain? "I wasn't supposed to get a color from a dead woman I accidentally proposed to," he continues, voice a little stronger. "But I did. I wasn't supposed to think she was sweet, after I finally decided to stop running and talk to her. But I did. I wasn't supposed to wonder if, maybe, things were a little different. . ." His hand slides down her arm, fingers interlocking with hers. "What I said in the tower – it was wrong. I was frustrated, and panicking, and – j-just generally not my best. I am so sorry to have caused you all this pain. I like you – I really do. And I want to make this right."

Damn him, how can he make her fall in love all over again? She's too soft in the heart, and not just from rot. She shifts so they're facing each other, cupping his face with her free hand. To her quiet relief, he tolerates the touch of the bone without even a grimace. "I like you too," she whispers. "But I don't know what we can do–"

DINGDINGDINGDINGDING – "New arrival! New arrival!"

Poor Victor nearly falls off the bench in his surprise – Emily snags his arm, pulling him back upright as the pub flares up with light and sound. Corpses pour in from all sides, eager to greet the newcomer. Emily cranes her head for a look, wondering for a split second if Victoria has somehow found a way down here – then Ms. Plum shoves her way through the crowd to say hello, and she sees that the new arrival is in fact a man, hunchbacked in an orange (orange! How funny to finally see it years after she got yellow and red, years after she died) coat. Well, the usual welcoming committee is taking care of him – she'll say hello later. There are more important things on her mind now. She turns back to Victor, intending to finish her previous sentence –

Only to find him staring at the fellow, eyes wide. "Victor?" she asks tentatively. Oh, if that's Mr. Van Dort after all of this, she'll eat her bloody veil.

"Mayhew!" Victor jumps from his seat, grinning. "Just a moment, Emily – that's our driver!" He hurries forward, weaving around the other well-wishers. "Mayhew, it's so nice to see – oh!"

Victor jerks backward as Mayhew turns to face him, revealing blue skin. Emily has to hide a very inappropriate giggle at his expression. Silly boy, hadn't he realized the most likely reason for Mayhew to be here? "I'm so sorry," he says, tone heartfelt.

"Thanks – though, actually, I feel great," Mayhew tells him with a smile, sucking in a deep if unneeded breath. He scoops up a pint delivered by Paul's cockroaches before looking Victor up and down. "You look well too. Crier was saying you'd eloped with a corpse. . ."

"Er – not really eloped," Victor says, glancing apologetically back at Emily. She shrugs, melancholy – it's the truth. "It's complicated – how are things Upstairs? Everyone must be worried sick."

"Well, they're all still wondering where you slipped off to," Mayhew confirms. "Your parents are all in a tizzy." Then his eyes drift to the floor. "And, uh, Miss Victoria. . ."

"Yes? How is she?" Victor presses, leaning against the bar.

"Well, uh – she's getting married this evening."

Emily's loose eye nearly pops out from the shock. Victor doesn't look like he's faring much better. "What?! Married to who?"

"Some newcomer, Lord somebody-or-other." He offers Victor a weak, reluctant grin. "With you gone, guess they didn't want to waste the cake."

A tiny, mean part of Emily is thrilled to hear this news – if Victoria's left him, that means Victor can stay with her! But the rest of her sympathizes too much with the look of stunned heartbreak on his face to be glad. "But - h-how could she. . ."

"Women!" One of the regular drunks appears on the scene, pint in hand as he slings his other arm around Mayhew. "Can't live with 'em, can't live. . ."

The rest of his sentence dissolves into hiccups and clattering as he collapses to the floor. Mayhew glances at the scattered bones, then gives Victor another encouraging look. "Time to pick up the pieces and move on, I suppose."

"I just. . .I really thought. . ." Victor turns back to Emily. "She g-gave me red. . ."

Emily's stomach twists. Oh, she knows that feeling all too well. "'Important' doesn't have to mean in a nice way," she tells him, getting up and taking his hand. "I got blue from my murderer."

"I know, but. . .she seemed so happy to see me before. . ." He trails off, staring at the floor. "It's my own fault, isn't it? I two-timed both of you. This is what I deserve." He sighs. "And maybe she really does like Lord Barkis better. He didn't–"

"Barkis?!"

Heads pop up all around the Ball & Socket – even the skull on the floor turns to look at them. Victor blinks, taken aback. "Er – yes. Lord Barkis Bittern?"

As fast as her rage came, it vanishes, leaving only embarrassment. "Oh." Now it's Emily's turn to look at the floor. "Sorry. Just—the man who killed me was a Barkis. Edward Barkis."

Victor's brow furrows. "That's. . .curious. . ." He turns his gaze toward the ceiling, then frowns back down at her. "Was he a – tallish fellow, strong chest, big chin?"

The rage pokes its head back in, like Maggot wiggling into her ear. "Yes. Kept his hair on the longer side too – he liked to style it into points."

Victor's jaw tightens. "And the Everglots had no idea who he was. . .I think we need to see Elder Gutknecht. Right now."

"So do I," Emily agrees, staring at Mayhew's orange coat. The coat she can only see properly because of Victor's fiancee. Maybe Victoria is important to her only in the sense of introducing her to Victor and then getting out of the way. . .but whatever's left of her guts agrees with her husband. If Edward Barkis and Lord Barkis Bittern are that alike. . . "Come on."

Chapter Text

I should have run away.

Victoria stares straight ahead, only peripherally aware of the double line of relatives and important village figures seated before her. Beside her, Barkis sneers at the meager food on offer for their reception. As if he didn't know what he was getting into when he slithered his way into Victor's place as her groom. Her parents do whatever they can to hide the fact that they're one bill away from entering the poorhouse, but stepping into their manor makes it rather obvious, at least in Victoria's opinion. After all, they're a noble family with no tapestries, no hunting trophies, no knick-knacks, threadbare rugs and curtains, just one fire burning in the middle of winter, and only two servants at hand. The Everglot portrait gallery upstairs is the last bastion of old money elegance, and even that was only spared because they couldn't find an interested buyer. Mr. Van Dort could have been gentler with his words earlier, but they were true – they are a bit shabby, really. If Lord Bittern wanted a lady that matched him in wealth, he should have looked elsewhere.

Lady. She's Lady Bittern now. Victoria's stomach turns, preventing her from even looking at her plate. Her brief dream of happiness – of true love and companionship – has ended, and all of her worst nightmares have come true. Her new husband is loud, arrogant, demanding, a good twice her age – and not much to look at, either, if she allows herself a moment to be shallow. It was all bad enough when he was a surprise guest, just someone she'd have to put up with socially, but as her partner. . . Why didn't I run? she asks herself. Why didn't I take off the moment Mother and Father told me I was to marry him? All I needed to do was sprint out the servant's door while we were all preparing, and I could have just vanished into the woods. If Victor can do it, I could have too!

But Victor hadn't had the threat of a furious father chasing after him, sole remaining gun in hand, the terror of being penniless nipping at his heels. Victor hadn't had a heavy wedding dress weighing him down, and a much-too-tight corset strangling his ribs. Victor hadn't had a lifetime of being confined almost solely to the house and back garden giving him very little sense of direction (she assumes, anyway). And Victor hadn't had familial guilt hanging over him, reminding him that his family would be thrown out into the streets if he didn't sacrifice his freedom. Victoria will admit that she doesn't like her parents much, but she still doesn't want that fate for them. Her duty as a daughter is to marry well, regardless of personal feeling. And with Victor spirited away to parts unknown. . .

Oh, Victor. Is he all right? What has become of him? She bites her lip, remembering the terror in his eyes, the livid fury on Emily's face, as they'd disappeared into the swirling mass of ravens. He'd certainly been in for something when they returned to wherever it is that Emily came from. And while Victoria can't blame Emily for being angry – Victor seriously didn't think to tell her that he was already engaged?! – she also doesn't know the woman very well. Just that she has blue skin, and a skeletal arm, and big blue eyes, and a bubbly giggle, and lovely (stop that, you're a married woman now) pink lips. Is she the kind of person who would just shout a bit? Or has she hurt him – possibly even killed him? It would be the easiest way to prevent him from leaving her ever again. . . How can Victor even be married to a dead woman anyway?! Victoria supposes there's nothing explicit in the contract about both parties needing to be alive, but she'd always just assumed they did. Otherwise, how could a widow or widower ever remarry? Then again, Emily isn't Victor's previous wife, she's just – ugh. Pastor Galswells could have humored her while he was dragging her back to her parents, instead of just going on about how she was "speaking in tongues" of "unholy alliances." Was he afraid that she'd go out seeking a corpse groom? She takes the tiniest glance at Barkis. On the other hand, a dead man would be better than her current prospect. In fact, given her choice, she'd rather be in Victor's position and married to Emily. Pink-lipped Emily with the pretty smile. . .No, Victoria, don't go down that road again, you know it's wrong. . .

The ringing of a knife against a glass distracts her from that line of thought. Barkis stands up, frowning severely down the rows of guests. "Quiet down now, everyone!"

A chair scrapes slightly as snoozing Mr. Ticker (Alyosius, the more respectable backroom manager of the clock shop – heaven forbid her parents invite Arnold, who actually sells everything) jerks awake, but other than that the entrance hall is already library-silent. Victoria supposes Barkis just likes hearing himself talk. "Mmm-hmmm. Thank you," he says, then strikes a pose. "Elegant. Cultured. Radiant," he proclaims, smirking all the while. "Victoria has found a husband with all these qualities, and more."

It takes every last ounce of Victoria's self-control not to roll her eyes right out of her head. Is he going to be like this for the entire speech? Hopefully it'll be over soon. . .her gaze travels up the nearby stairs, toward the room that will now be her and Barkis's shared "honeymoon suite." Actually, maybe she hopes it'll go on for a while. "Serendipity brought us together," Barkis continues, oblivious to the disinterest of everyone around him. "And no force on Earth could tear us apart!"

And then, right on cue, the fire in the fireplace flares up – what?

Victoria blinks rapidly as the whole room is suffused in a color she's never seen before. What the – when did this – Barkis! She thought she'd felt a tad funny when they'd locked eyes for the first time during the rehearsal! But she hadn't paid it any mind then, putting it down to a fresh bout of nerves over having someone else around to watch her and poor Victor struggle. Obviously the west drawing room doesn't contain anything in this particular shade. Irrational fury spikes up within her – if only her parents had kept something that is – whatever color this is – there! If she'd had proper warning that he was important, perhaps she could have prepared herself better for the news she was going to be his wife. . .

Barkis looks right and left wildly, clearly as startled as she. The rest of the company are frozen in their seats, eyes darting back and forth in fear. So apparently this is an unpleasant color for the rest of them too. . .Victoria's just working out how to politely ask Mrs. Carter what it is (and how she can avoid ever seeing it again), when a voice behind her chases the question out of her mind. "Hello, Eddie."

Victoria whirls, leaping out of her chair. "Emily!"

It is indeed the corpse bride, standing straight and tall before the fireplace – and oh dear, if she'd thought Emily had glared at Victor before, it's nothing compared to the look she's leveling at Barkis. Victor's by her side, sporting a matching frown, but thankfully, blessedly, still breathing. They're flanked on either side by more dead – on Emily's right, a large-jawed skeleton in a bowler hat and a plump blue-skinned woman in chef whites; on Victor's left, two more skeletons dressed as generals – the taller with a cannon hole blown through him, the shorter with a sword sticking from his chest. All of them are glaring at Barkis too, murder in their eyes – or eye sockets, as the case may be. A skeletal dog rounds out the group, growling at Barkis from Victor's feet. Well – at least now my parents know I'm not mad, Victoria thinks dazedly. Unless I've managed to faint at my own reception and this is all a dream.

A scream from Mrs. Vanderschmear proves it's the former. The guests go wild, upsetting chairs and tables as they scramble to get away. Victoria doesn't blame them – she was thrown enough by having a single dead woman in her room. Only her parents and Mrs. Carter remain where they are, stuck to their seats in shock still. Barkis gapes, jaw about ready to hit the floor. "Emily?" he whispers.

"Emily?" Mrs. Carter repeats, fiddling with her glasses. Victoria's impressed by her composure – Mrs. Vanderschmear's already out the door, with Mr. Carson and Mr. Ticker hot on her heels. "Emily Cartwell, is that you? Dear, we'd heard you'd run off!"

"I didn't get very far," Emily replies, eyes still on Barkis. "Fancy seeing you here again, Edward. Did the money from my father's gold and my mother's jewels finally run out?"

Something snaps into place in Victoria's mind, and suddenly the whole puzzle is clear before her. Barkis didn't know what he was getting into when he agreed to marry her. He's no lord – he's a slick-faced conman who heard her family name and simply assumed there was still a fortune to go with it. He wasn't looking to make a good match – his only desire was to get his hands on as much of their nonexistent wealth as he could. And – and he's acquainted with Emily, a dead former bride, and oh God "important" can mean the man who kills you can't it –

"I haven't the slightest what you're talking about," Barkis claims, but he's a rather poor liar under the circumstances. Victoria can practically hear the sweat dripping off him. "I'm Lord Barkis Bittern, not–"

"Edward Barkis?" Emily cuts in, advancing a step. Barkis backs up against the table, bumping it and spilling his wine. "Whose father made and sold shoes? You've certainly gone up in the world, haven't you, Eddie?"

"Shoes?!" That's her father, clambering up onto his chair for a better look at Barkis. "You told us you would lavish our daughter with riches befitting royalty! Who is this woman, and why is she–" He looks at the skeletons and loses his train of thought.

"She's obviously delusional!" Barkis claims, pale with fright.

"She's not even a woman!" Mr. Grouter screams, cowering behind the front door. "Can't you see she's dead?!"

Emily winces, and Victor turns his frown on Mr. Grouter. "Just because she's dead doesn't mean she stops being a woman!" he snaps. Then his eyes find Victoria's, and soften with guilt and sadness. "Victoria, I am s-so, so sorry. . .we w-wanted to come up earlier, I s-swear, but the spell we n-needed to use only works at n-night, and by the time we found out about–" he waves his hand to encompass the table "–t-this, it was already sunrise!"

"Yes – I would have dug my way out through my own grave if I could have," Emily adds, turning to her with an equally distressed face. "I never meant to steal your dreams. Or to leave you in his power."

Neither looks anything but sincere. Victoria finds herself with the urge to embrace them both. "You – you can start making it up to me by telling me what color the fire is now," she says instead, mindful of how weird it would look to start hugging corpses and ex-fiances at her wedding breakfast. And the question is gnawing at her mind.

"Green," speaks up the large-jawed skeleton in a raspy voice. He tips his hat to her. "Name's Bonejangles. So Eddie here is trying to sink his claws into you too?"

"I'm not Eddie! There – there has been a terrible mistake!" Barkis insists, clinging to his lie – and the tablecloth – like a drowning man to a rope. "I have no dealings with the walking dead, unlike Master Van Dort there! My God, when the town crier started going on about how you'd eloped with a corpse, I'd thought the man had taken leave of his senses!"

"It was – it was an accident," Emily says softly. Victor takes her skeletal hand – Victoria marvels at how comfortable he is touching the bone. Quite a far cry from the terrified man struggling to escape her grasp on the balcony. "We'll be putting that right later."

"And the rest of them?!" Mother demands, leaning as far right on her chair as she can without falling into Father. "What do they want?"

"Just him," the taller general says, gesturing toward Barkis. "He's a scoundrel and a deserter!"

"You deserve a full court martial!" the smaller general agrees, folding his arms over his chest. "And a hanging!"

"I – I – how dare you malign me in front of my new wife?" Barkis tries, jabbing a finger at Victoria. "Of the famed Everglot name and fortune?"

Oh, how can she pass up a line like that? Victoria squares her shoulders, a smirk playing around her lips. Perhaps she can yet twist green into something more pleasant. "I think it's our lack of fortune that's more famous."

Barkis whips around, dragging the tablecloth with him. "What?"

"Did no one tell you? My parents haven't got any money," Victoria continues with vindictive glee. She spots Mother and Father wincing out of the corner of her eye – too bad for them. They're the ones who forced her to marry this lout. "Not any more. In fact, it's my marriage to you that will save them from the poorhouse."

"The – the poorhouse?!" Barkis shrieks, so loudly that his perfectly-combed hair falls out of place. Without warning, he lunges at her, grabbing her arms and shaking her hard. "You're lying! Tell me it isn't true! Tell me that you're lying!"

"Take your hands off her!" Victor demands, stepping forward with fire in his eyes. His face is oddly beautiful in its fury – maybe because it's for her.

Victoria, however, does not need his help, giving Barkis an arch look as she shoves him away. "Did things not go according to your plan, Lord Barkis?" she asks, nose in the air. "Well – perhaps in disappointment, we are perfectly matched."

The dead cook sniggers, and Bonejangles gives her a thumbs-up. "This is madness – Emil! Fetch me musket!" Father shouts.

"Fetch your own musket!" Emil replies, cowering behind the door with Mr. Grouter. "I'm on break!"

"We'll handle things from here, sir," the tall general assures Father, reaching for Barkis. "He's had this a long time coming."

Barkis's eyes dart left and right like a hunted animal's. "I – this – no!" he suddenly roars. "I will not be beaten like this! If I cannot have the Everglot fortune–"

It all happens faster than a blink. Barkis lunges at the shorter general, yanking the sword from his ribs – Victor darts in front of Victoria, obviously intending to protect her, only to yelp when he finds himself in Barkis's grasp – the dog snaps at Barkis's ankle, and is kicked away as the cook gasps – and then Barkis has one arm wrapped firmly around Victor's middle, pinning him to his chest, and the sword at Victor's throat. "Then canned wealth will do just fine!"

"Victor!" The word comes out in concert with Emily, both of them with hands clasped over their mouths. Heedless of her own safety, not even sure what she's going to do, Victoria rushes for Barkis. "Leave him alone!"

The sword whips down to point at her stomach. "My dear, I do apologize," Barkis says with a mad grin from around Victor's shoulder. "But I'm afraid I shall have to cut our marriage short!" He thrusts forward as Victoria scrambles backward, tripping over her dress hem in a frantic attempt to escape the blade –

CRUNCH! And then Emily stands before her, and the sword lands neatly (too neatly, oh poor Emily) in her rib cage. Barkis, startled, yelps and releases it – Victor, seeing his chance, kicks him as hard as he can in the – well, Victoria assumes it's the leg, but judging by Barkis's high-pitched scream, perhaps he got him in a slightly different spot. Wherever it is, it drops Barkis to his knees in pain. Victor sprints toward Victoria – she welcomes him with open arms, no longer caring if it's improper to embrace him. Emily covers them, drawing the sword and pointing it at Barkis. "Get. Out," she hisses, as the other dead surround them.

"No!" Barkis struggles to his feet, feeling around on the table for a fresh weapon. "I will not be defeated by the likes of–"

WHACK! And just like that, Barkis's face goes blank, and he collapses in a heap. Victoria gawks as Mrs. Carter stands over the downed lord, walker held up like a club. "Well, he wasn't paying any attention to me now, was he?" she says in response to everyone's stares. She frowns at Mr. Grouter and Emil. "Now, could one of you make yourselves useful and fetch the constable?"

Mr. Grouter and Emil are only too happy to take the excuse to leave. Bonejangles bursts out laughing. "No wonder Alfie's so head over heels for ya! This is gonna be a heck of a story to share."

"It is," Emily nods, handing the sword back to the smaller general. "I didn't expect – are you all right?" she asks, turning back to Victor and Victoria, a hand on both their shoulders.

"Yes," Victor says, touching his throat. "Victoria?"

Victoria looks around the room. Her wedding breakfast is all over the floor, her parents are practically hiding under the table in terror, Barkis is lying insensible in front of the fireplace, Mrs. Carter is asking Bonejangles about her husband, Emily is at her side, and Victor is in her arms. "Fine," she says, smiling.

As first memories for a color go, this isn't too bad a one for green.

Chapter Text

"I never thought I'd get the chance to do that."

Emily descends the steps of the gaol, Victor and Victoria on either side. How they all fit through the door is beyond her – the building is even tinier than she remembers from her living days. But then again, Burtonsville has never had much in the way of crime. Eddie – Barkis – whoever he truly is – is probably the first person to sit in its lone cell in ages. She grins briefly as she recalls the dark, terrified glare he gave her through the bars. If he's feeling even a fraction of the rage and fear that marked her final moments as a breather right now, she'll consider it justice done. "That poor constable looked about ready to faint throughout the whole thing," she adds, sending a sympathetic glance back.

"Well, it's not every day that he's summoned to catch a murderer," Victor points out. "Or that he's able to take a statement from the victim herself."

"True," Emily allows. "I guess I should just be grateful I didn't cause a village-wide panic."

"I thought for sure Pastor Galswells would come rushing down at any moment, bellowing about demons," Victoria admits, pressing a lock of hair back into place. "Or that one of the other guests might come back with a weapon. It's a good thing Mrs. Carter was able to keep such a level head, isn't it?"

"Very." Emily's stomach twists as she looks at her supposed "rival." "I'm sorry. Again. If I'd have known–"

"It's not your fault," Victoria cuts in, putting a hand on her wrist. She flinches slightly from the chill, but keeps it there. Emily pretends it doesn't give her a little thrill. "And it's not entirely yours either," she adds before Victor can speak. "Yes, of course you should have told her about me right away, but it was my parents who made me marry Barkis. You couldn't have expected to be replaced that easily. Nor known who he was before." She sighs. "I should have put up more of a fight. Fled before any of this happened."

"No," Victor says, shaking his head. "I know why you did it. I don't think any less of you for it. And you're completely right that I should have–" His hand creeps to his tie. "I-if I'd known a better way to tell s-someone 'I thought you were a t-twig–'"

Emily smiles weakly. "I don't think there is one, Victor." She just manages to hold back the "darling." Painful as it is, she can't call him that anymore. She's stopped Barkis from ruining another life. Now it's time to put things fully right. She takes Victoria's hand in hers. "Victoria – Elder Gutknecht, the wisest man in our village Below, spoke to us before we came Upstairs. He says we're not actually married."

Victoria's eyes widen. "Really? I tried to ask Pastor Galswells about it, but he was no help at all."

Emily shakes her head. "Putting aside the fact that it was all an accident anyway, the vows are only binding until 'death do you part.' Since I'm dead already. . ." She looks at Victor, grimacing as she remembers Maggot perched on the edge of the Elder's book, cheerfully stating that there was a way for them to be properly wed. "We could only be 'legal' if Victor – joined me. And that – I could never ask him, even if you weren't in the picture." She gives Victoria's fingers a squeeze before dropping them and stepping back. "So – he's yours. If you want him."

"You don't have to," Victor says immediately. "I know – I don't blame you if–"

Victoria stops him with a hand on his chest. "You stepped right in front of me when Barkis started waving that sword around," she says. "That means a lot." She smiles, warmer than any Emily's ever seen. "And we can't forget – without you, I wouldn't be able to see blue."

Victor smiles back, wrapping his hand around hers. This seems like the perfect moment to bow out. Emily turns, steadying herself for the long journey back into the woods. She's done her duty – reunited the lovebirds. Victor and Victoria can start on their lives together, and she. . .well, she's not sure what she'll do. Going back to waiting for another almost-certainly-accidental husband has lost its allure. But she doesn't feel quite ready to move on yet either. . .she looks up at the moon, bright and full in the winter sky. Maybe she can just stay here for a little while and enjoy the moonlight. Who knows when she'll next see it again, after all.

"Emily?"

She turns to see Victor and Victoria watching her with concerned eyes. "Are you – will you be all right?" Victor asks, stepping toward her.

Emily tries another smile. She isn't sure how convincing it is. "I'll be fine. I finally got my murder avenged. I can be sure that he's never going to hurt another girl." And that is a deep weight off her soul. She'd always wondered what had become of Eddie, if any other innocent bride had fallen victim to his charms. Now. . .well. If her account isn't enough to send him to the hangman's noose, Emily isn't sure what will. And she knows her friends will be only too happy to "greet" him once he ends up Downstairs. And even if he somehow manages to avoid death, he should be in a cell for the rest of his life. That's quite good enough for her. All she needs now is that little voice in her head that keeps screaming about bringing Victor down to the Ball & Socket and seeing the purple lights in their full glory for the first time to shut up. So he gave her purple – so what? "Important" does not need to mean "husband" – it can just mean the man who convinced her to stop waiting for one.

Victoria looks between them, then gently draws her hand back. "Victor," she says softly. "You don't have to take me either if you don't want."

Emily's loose eye quivers – did she just say what she thought she said?! Victor's jaw drops. "What – I – of course I want you!" he gasps, grabbing her hands. "I meant what I said in your bedroom, I swear! I k-know I was an absolute d-disgrace during the rehearsal, but that had n-nothing to do with you."

"Yes, but – you seem so at ease with her," Victoria says, looking back at Emily. "So – confident. And. . .I have pink now, Victor. Because of her. What about you?"

"Blue," Victor tells her, before turning back to Emily. "I never asked. . ."

"Purple," she tells him, then points at Victoria. "And orange from you. But – you know important doesn't have to mean – I got blue from Eddie. And you got green from him, didn't you?"

Victoria nods, grimacing. "I know. But even so. . .Emily, my happiness shouldn't come at the expense of yours."

"It's not," Emily insists, shoving away the voice whining that she didn't drag Mother's wedding dress out of the wardrobe to let it rot to nothing underground. This is what comes of letting Maggot play conscience, she decides. Trying for humor, she adds, "Are you suggesting we form a harem? I'd like to know how that would work."

She expects Victoria to bluster that of course that's not what she meant, or to giggle as she realizes Emily's not serious. She does not expect Victoria to go very thoughtful for a moment, then say, slowly and carefully, "Well. . .if – if we consider Victor a widower. . ."

If her heart hadn't stopped already, it would do so right here and now. Emily gawks at Victoria. This cannot be going in the direction she thinks it might be. It just can't. Victor's similarly stunned, staring between the girls. "Victoria?" he asks, voice soft – and hopeful? Is he –

"It's obvious you like her," Victoria continues. "And she stepped in front of a sword for me too, and I – she's–" She drops her head, voice trickling down to a whisper. "She's very pretty. . ."

No way. No way. She – she was lucky enough that Victor understood, there's no possible way – Emily steps a little closer, trembling in her heels. "You're – quite pretty yourself."

Victoria blushes. One hand slips out of Victor's and extends to her. "I'd like to get to know you better, at least," she breathes. A shaky smile curls her lips. "After all, we have at least two things in common."

Victor offers her a hand as well, eyes bright. "I'm all for it if you are."

As if in a dream, Emily reaches out and takes them. It's amazing just how well her fingers intertwine with both Victor's long digits and Victoria's delicate ones. Like they were all made for each other. Tears fill her eyes as butterflies take flight in her stomach. Maybe – maybe purple means husband after all. And maybe – just maybe – orange means. . . She succumbs to her emotions and pulls them close, throwing her arms around their shoulders. They start, but return the hug without hesitation. "Let's ask the Elder."

Chapter Text

"You oozing sore of depravity!"

Bumby starts at the sound of her voice, turning to regard her with a brief but intense look of surprise. "Children, wearing their names around their necks, as if they're breeding livestock!" Alice continues, choking on the wicked words but forcing them out all the same. God, she is such a fool! Surrounded by those little paper placards, barely even noticing them after her initial query – "to protect the children's privacy, should I need to speak of them in public" her foot! Even those despicable Tweedle twins at Rutledge had deigned to call her by name! How could she have been so blind, so stupid? How could she have missed their true nature for so long? Or the true nature of the bastard standing before her? How could she not have remembered him?

Bumby, to his immensely small credit, chooses not to continue with the silver-tongued lies from his office at Houndsditch. "A declaration of their pedigree," he says instead, smirking from his position beside the Moorgate train tracks. "You could use one. They're proud to display their provenance, ahahahaha!"

Oh, how badly she wants to punch him. . .but she forces herself to refrain. She's not likely to win if it comes to fisticuffs, unfortunately. Her skills with Vorpal Blade, Pepper Grinder, Hobby Horse, and Teapot Cannon in Wonderland may be unparalleled, but a scrap here in the real world? No, she'll have to rely on words over fists if she wants to come out intact. "You brute," she hisses, blinking back the threatening tears. They pour out into her voice instead, rendering her hoarse. "They can't remember who they are or where they're from. How many minds have you twisted into forgetfulness?"

"Not enough!" Bumby snaps back, as if he's some penny dreadful villain. If only he were fictional. "Yours would have been a triumph." The smirk returns. "Still, you're an insane wreck. My work is done."

Alice shakes her head, shattering the frozen flesh the Dollmaker had forced her into with the strength of her renewed will. His work may be done, but hers is far from complete. The Infernal Train's wheels scream as she lands finally on its backside, among the jagged spires of twisted black Gothic steel and glimmering red glass. This wretched locomotive has torn its way across all of Wonderland – all of her mind – and now it's taking its final trip. Last stop – ruin, or redemption. Alice races toward the nearest car, skirts fluttering in the smoky breeze. Her poor, beautiful Wonderland is little more than crumbling islands of ash and Ruin now. But it is still a little more, and that is worth saving.

As Hatter's presence in the carriage proves. Apparently being crushed under steel girders and a giant teapot was not enough to keep him down. Though she supposes longevity is easier to accomplish when you have sacrificed most of your flesh for gears and springs and other things more easily replaced. He's perched on a surprisingly plush-looking seat (the Dollmaker clearly did not skimp on his favorite toy), glaring out the window with his cane in his hands. "Hatter!" she cries as she reaches him. He helped her once (even if it amounted to very little) – perhaps he could be persuaded to do so again? "I must stop this Infernal Train, and the evil force that drives it!"

The glare is turned on her, zipping down the prodigious length of his nose to smack her straight in the heart. "Everything's a nail, is it, Miss Hammerhead?" he snaps, tone as accusing as it is nasal. "First it was your search, freighted with fear and fragmented memories. Now it's the train! Never time for tea. While your brain's on holiday, we're ruined!"

Alice opens her mouth to reply, but he shushes her with an upraised palm. "Now, we're all mad here, and that's a good excuse for going to Hell in a teapot, but not for forgetting what your senses saw," he continues, jabbing her in the chest with a wooden finger. His expression softens, saddens. "Forgetting is just forgetting – except when it's not. Then they call it something else. I'd like to forget what you did. I've tried. But I can't."

Alice wants to tell him that "denial" is the word he's looking for – to apologize for letting her head get so out of order that he's died twice over now, not to mention been torn to pieces by his own best friends. But – as Rabbit would say – there is no time. If she doesn't take care of the Train and its engineer for good this time. . . "You've used me, and abused me," she admits to Bumby, clenching her fists so tight her nails bite into her palms. "But you will not destroy me!"

"No?" Bumby replies mildly. "The damage is done. The old Alice and her Wonderland retreat are demolished." He chuckles softly. "You can't even recognize what's happened. And you're powerless to change it or move against me." He advances a threatening step, squaring his shoulders as if ready for a brawl. "I've made certain of that."

Fair is fair – the old Alice and her Wonderland are gone, burned away in a fateful fire. But he seems not to recognize that a new Alice stands in her place – and that she, despite all his best efforts, is still here. And so is Caterpillar, hovering over his seat in the next car down, regarding her sternly as she approaches. "Come to receive your punishment, then?"

Alice shades her face against the breeze from his new wings, their brilliant red patterns standing out like bloodstains against their black and gray surroundings. "I know I'm guilty of something, but – punishment never suits the victims of the crime," she replies, stomach knotting as she thinks of all the children paraded in and out of Houndsditch's doors. The hopeful looks turned to glassy stares, the numbers hung and personalities removed. All for people with attitudes fouler than that of the Jabberwock or Queen of Hearts. How would they choose to punish her, she wonders? Would anything she's endured in Wonderland be enough?

"Abuse is a crime the strong visit upon the weak," Caterpillar declares as he flies above her. His wings glower at her, judging her for her own weakness. "And you're right – abusers are insufficiently punished for the damage they do." He settles down again, exhaling a heavy smoke ring that forms the shapes of children, who become Dollgirls, who become Ruins. "Those who witness abuse without seeking retribution for the harmed pay a penalty. Your own pain mitigates your failure to act earlier. But you may not yet have paid enough for witnessing the pain of others."

Yes, Alice doubts she has. But that is for later, when she returns to Houndsditch and has to face those few who are left. Right now, there is justice to mete out to this smug, smirking pile of shit. Powerless to move against him? Ha! "You corrupted my memories – but you failed to make me forget!"

Bumby huffs, rolling his eyes behind his glasses. "I could've made you into a tasty bit," he grumbles. "Clients out the door waiting for a piece from a raving delusional beauty, with no memory of the past, or no sense of the future." Alice hides a shudder as she pictures it, phantom hands stroking her flesh. Just the thought of it makes her want to vomit. "But you wouldn't forget," Bumby continues, voice dropping into a growl. "You insisted on holding onto your fantasies. You're mad! Like your sister."

Hysteria nips at the edges of her vision, red and white and screaming – how dare he?! "Don't speak of her!" she roars. "You didn't know her!"

"But she gave me a color, didn't she?" Bumby presses, and his grin is a truly horrible sight to behold. "Red, the glory of lovers. I knew she was the one for me the moment our eyes met." The smile is replaced by a look of loathing as intense as any Alice has ever seen – and in Rutledge, she saw plenty. "But she persisted in being a tease! Pretended to despise me! Despite knowing we were important to each other!" He sighs and takes out his pocket watch. Alice's eyes lock onto the familiar key dangling from the chain – Bumby's little trophy, the key he used to unlock and infect her mind. What kind of sister is she that she didn't recognize it right away? "She got what she wanted. . .in the end."

No, she didn't, because what Lizzie wanted was to visit Paris and Berlin and New York. To work in a library, maybe even write something herself. To marry a man who actually saw her as a person, and not some prize to be won. Not to be murdered by some twisted soul who thought an exchange of purple and red meant that she no longer had any choice in the matter of who she loved. If Lizzie was meant to be his because she gave him red, what did he make of getting a color from Papa? Or Mama? Or Alice herself? Were they all to be his playthings – puppets he could make dance on strings? Alice doesn't bother to hide her shudder this time as she looks upon Bumby – upon his beige skin, wrapped in its dark coat and top hat. She knows, unlike him, that the colors simply mark those important to you, and that "important" is in no way synonymous with "good." That it's not the color's fault his role in her life was to ruin it so. But it still feels like yet another layer of taint he's forced upon her. Something that, unlike the Ruin, she can't just scrub away. No matter what happens today – no matter if she does bring him to justice – he's always going to be a part of her. She'll always think of him whenever she looks upon beige. Perhaps that is the punishment Caterpillar spoke of before. It seems fitting.

But then she enters the next car of the train, and finds herself with much greater worries – namely, the fact that the Queen of Hearts too has found a seat on this terrible contraption. Has Her Majesty changed sides? Decided to seek mercy from the creature tearing down Wonderland around their ears? Or, like Hatter and Caterpillar, is she here to scold her one last time? Remind her of what will happen if she fails? So long as it doesn't involve another plunge into Rutledge. . . "What is this train's destination?" Alice demands of the Queen, hoping maybe she knows something she doesn't.

The Queen shoots her a reprimanding frown, eyes as red as flame. "Madness and destruction," she declares, voice echoing like the Biblical legion. "You shouldn't ask questions you know the answer to, it's not polite." She leans in, pointed teeth gleaming in the dim light. "And that noise wasn't Lizzie talking in her sleep."

Long-forgotten memories whisk across Alice's brain – the strange sounds coming from her sister's room, the mysterious shadow creeping in front of her nightlight, the terrified drop into Wonderland as the monster closed her door. Coldness fills her stomach. "Got what she wanted" – oh, Lizzie had gotten nothing she'd wanted. "Oh, no. . .poor-poor Lizzie. . ."

The Queen nods severely. "And there are no centaurs in Oxford." A tentacle unfurls from under her dress, snaking toward the end of the car. "Make your survival mean something, or we are all doomed!"

BANG! The doors burst open, smashed to smithereens by the Queen's appendage. Alice nods and takes off toward the engine at a run, bursting into butterflies periodically to cover more ground. She will make her survival mean something – for Lizzie, for Mama and Papa, for Charlie and all the other lost souls of Houndsditch, for herself. This, right here, under this blood-red sky, is the end of the line. She will take down the Dollmaker or die trying. She vaults up a set of stairs on a cushion of feathers, her boots clacking against thick glass floors revealing an ocean of Ruin below. The Train's terrible payload, waiting to destroy her. But she's not corrupted yet. She is still capable of making amends. Still capable of saving at least a single life. She flies into the boiler room, fist clenched around the reassuring weight of the Vorpal Blade, ready to face the armies of Hell itself –

And, with a terrible laugh, the roof is wrenched off, and there is the Dollmaker, a horrible naga of Ruin with his face half-melted and his hands flying about on strings. He bows before her, smirking through the black ooze coating the lower half of his face. "Hide in your shell!"

No, she will not. Not now. Not ever again. "I'll see you charged," she hisses, slicing the hand that comes to snatch her up. "In prison, some halfwit bruiser will make you his sweetheart – and then you'll hang!"

"Indeed?" the Dollmaker asks, wiggling his fingers at her in an obscene parody of the prostitutes that litter Whitechapel's streets. "A hysterical woman, former lunatic, roaring outrageous accusations against a respectable social architect and scientist?" His fingernail scrapes the floor, sending a biting wind her way – she butterflies through it and counters with a blast from the Teapot Cannon. "My God, Alice who would believe you? I scarcely believe it myself."

"You monstrous creature," Alice snaps back. A few Insidious Ruins bubble up through cracks in the glass, toddling toward her – she dispatches them with a few whacks of her Hobby Horse. He can throw whatever he likes at her – she will not fail! "Such evil will be punished!"

"By whom?" the Dollmaker demands, slamming his fist down atop her – she only barely manages to get out of the way. "By what? Psychotic, silly bitch – your madness will be punished!" A dismissive wave knocks her onto her hindquarters as he turns his attention back to his watch. "Now leave – I'm expecting your replacement."

And that, more than anything, is what drives Alice over the edge. He doesn't even see her as a credible threat. He thinks that, even after all this, he can just order her to walk away and she will – to let him do this all over again to some other innocent soul. That he may be important to her – shaped her life in the worst way possible – but she's not important to him. Without even thinking, she marches over to him and snatches the key – Lizzie's key – from the watch chain, snapping it free with a strength she never thought she had. And then she whirls around, ready to go and – and –

And damn him, he's right. If she leaves now – he wins. Even if she finds a constable, one who won't just immediately truck her off back to the cells, who will indulge her and follow her to Bumby – he won't see the Dollmaker. He'll see an overburdened philanthropist sighing over one of his rare failures. He'll see a man with with letters after his name and the ear of wealthy patrons. A man with a reputation. And he won't see the savior of Wonderland, the woman who's fought through so much to catch even a glimpse of sanity. He'll see a girl whom nobody quite believes should have ever been let out of the madhouse desperately waving a key in front of his face and begging him to believe that this impeccable character had destroyed her sister and parents. A girl who everyone knows sees things and can't be trusted on her own. A girl that no one in their right mind would pay any attention to. She'll be dragged away, back into the hell of bloodletting and electric shocks and straitjackets. And the Infernal Train will roar on, picking up new passengers, tearing them down into fuel, leaving stations full of shattered lives in its wake. . .

She turns again – and the Dollmaker freezes, eyes wide as he takes in her face. She walks forward, and he springs back to life, sending one hand prancing after her like a spidery pony, intent on trampling her. She brings it to its knuckles with the Pepper Grinder, and smashes it to pieces with her Hobby Horse. The other hand flings itself at her, intending to squash her flat – she repels it with the Teapot Cannon, dices it up with her Vorpal Blade. Eyes desperate, his jaw gapes open, revealing a long slimy tongue studded with doll faces. Globs of Ruin rain down upon her as she advances – she dodges, dashes, bursts, breaks, clubs, and slices –

And then, as he's teetering on the edge before her, she reaches out with her free hand and pushes.

His scream as he flies off the edge of the train is brief, cut short by his body disappearing under its wheels. Alice watches with grim satisfaction, Lizzie's key warm in her fist as the cars roll ceaselessly over it, reducing it to red and black mush. It's over. Done with. It's not exactly what she wanted. But she has her revenge – and she can call it justice.

She turns and walks out of the station, leaving whatever remains of Bumby's battered corpse behind. There is a still a long way to go, she knows. Still enemies to fight, puzzles to solve, obstacles to overcome. Prices to pay, wrongs to right, punishments to accept. And the small matter of what the law will think if it ever finds out what she's done.

But for now. . .she climbs the steps, and finds blue sky hanging above her head. Red-capped mushrooms shading the cobbles. Brown trees breaking through the nearby buildings.

And not a bit of beige in sight.

Chapter Text

After almost twelve years dead, Lizzie feels she is past all surprises.

Granted, she'll allow that that might be because she doesn't lead a particularly interesting afterlife. Her days (if one can still call them that, with no sun or moon to mark their passing) are spent either in her room or on her favorite park bench, reading. Their library was gutted by the fire, of course, but just over a decade has been long enough for Papa to restock a good portion of it. And naturally the books squirreled away in her own room survived. The flames never even reached her corner of the house. How ironic that, if Bumby hadn't made sure she was his first victim, she likely would have escaped the fire unscathed! But then again, Lizzie decided the universe has a sick sense of humor long ago. Why else would it dump her in an afterlife close enough to the living world that she still has trouble going anywhere near a man, yet far away enough that it's almost impossible to get news of her sister? Honestly, there are days where the Land of the Dead feels more like a taunt than anything else. You didn't want to die just yet? Unfinished business Above? Well here – have this twisted funhouse mirror reflection of life Upstairs. You'll get to wait in queues and shriek at skeletons and actively miss sunshine and real food and whoever you left behind, all while watching yourself slowly rot away. Have fun!

However, after twelve years, Lizzie can admit that most of the sting is gone. The funhouse has become the norm. She waits patiently in line at the local penny shop to be served by its marsh-mummified proprietor when she's in the mood for sweets. She nods to the skeletons who pass her by in the park, drained of the urge to scream. She can admire the beauty in the earthy eternal twilight of the sky, and swallow down the decaying mush of what used to be cake and cookies. She doesn't even care so much about the whole "rotting" business – there's potions around to keep it from getting too bad, and, frankly, it was a relief to get the bastard's purple off her skin. The only pain left to her is worrying about Alice, and – well, she's done her best to make her peace with it. Reminds herself constantly that Alice is smart, and resourceful, and determined. That she never gives up in the face of a challenge. That – that even if the stories she's heard are true – that Alice is in an asylum, that people think Alice caused the fire, that Bumby of all people has qualified as a psychiatrist – her little sister will endure. She just so hopes Alice is enduring far, far away from Bumby. . .but there's no way to know for sure without Alice arriving Downstairs and telling her herself. And that, Lizzie hopes, won't be until she's rotted right down to the bone. She'll worry, always, but she tries not to let it consume her. And she still has Mama, and Papa, and her books, and whatever passes for fresh air around here. She can wait.

"'Scuse me – that seat taken?"

The voice is rough, American (or at least a good imitation of same), and – annoyingly – male. Lizzie looks up to find a skeleton in a bowler hat standing over her. He's not one she's seen before – she definitely would have remembered that jaw, pointed at the other end of the bench. Some tourist then – perhaps taking advantage of no longer needing to sleep or eat to travel the world. She'd wanted to do that one day. . . She considers briefly saying "yes" – she's not in the mood for company, she was here first, it's her right. . .but what if he doesn't leave, what if he insists, what if he gets angry. . . "It's a free country," she settles on, before turning back to her book. That's neither an invitation nor a denial, and if he chooses to sit, why, she can just get up and –

The bench is brown.

Lizzie shrieks in surprise, her book flying into the dirt as she jerks back from the wood beneath her. What the – every day for twelve years, this bench has been gray. Every single day. She'd gotten used to it – accepted that she was never going to see what it really looked like. And now. . .admittedly she's guessing about the color, but it's the remains of a coffin. Which are made out of wood, which generally, if she remembers her natural sciences lessons correctly, is almost always some shade of brown. . .and the dirt's not gray either, she realizes, and she knows earth is brown, her teachers were always certain on that fact. . .she whips her head around to see the skeleton gawking, apparently as shocked as she. "What – how–"

"Uh – okay then," the skeleton says, scratching his skull. "I didn't think – I mean, Emily was one thing, but–" He shakes his head. "Ya mind me askin' what color your dress is?"

"Yellow," Lizzie says, glancing down at the sunny stripes – which seem all the brighter now against the bench. "And I've – I've got brown – how can I have brown?" she demands, turning back to him with baffled eyes. "How can I have a new color? You're dead! I'm dead!"

"Don't mean you can't still meet someone important to ya," the skeleton replies, taking the seat next to her. He offers a hand. "Name's Bonejangles."

She takes it hesitantly. "Lizzie." His grip is firm, but – not aggressive. Good. She still drops her arm as quickly as is polite. "Lizzie Liddell. And – I – how, though? We're dead – shouldn't that mean people stop being important to us? How could you possibly be important to me here? Or vice-versa?"

"Search me, but it happens," Bonejangles says, tipping his hat forward slightly. "Not long after I landed here, I ran across this poor little girl cryin' her eyes out under an oak tree. I asked her what had her so down, she looked up – and outta nowhere, I can see orange, and she's got pink. Poor Ems was so freaked she tried to clock me with a branch." He grinned, jutting out his lower teeth. "Managed to talk 'er down, though. And after we tried the whole 'conversation' thing again. . .well, we ended up likin' each other. Brought her over to the Ball & Socket, helped her explain what had happened. . .by the end of the week, we were thick as thieves." He points toward the sky. "So yeah – whatever's up there dishin' out the colors don't give a damn if you got a heartbeat or not. You meet somebody important, it's gonna let you know."

"I see," Lizzie murmurs, glancing back at the bench. Her entire world feels like it's been flipped upside-down. Here she was, figuring she'd just have to deal with having only yellow and green and – ugh, purple – for the rest of her existence, and now. . . She picks up her book, brushing off the dirt and watching the brown rain down over her shoes. "Has it happened to anyone else you know?" she asks, curiosity taking over. If it really isn't a one-off thing, maybe she'll force herself to talk to more people, look them in the eye – or eye sockets. The older folk around here keep saying how colorful everything is, and it would be nice to see it all properly.

"Sure – Ms. Plum, another friend of mine, snagged green off this bloke called Mayhew when he arrived," Bonejangles obliges. "And he got blue, if I remember right. . ." He snaps his fingers. "Oh, and here's a wild one for you – Emily got purple from a livin' bloke!"

This poor book of hers is never going to be clean again if she keeps dropping it like this. Lizzie gawks at Bonejangles, jaw about ready to unhinge itself. "Living?" she repeats. "But – that's–" For twelve years, everyone she knows has been insistent that the dead cannot return to the Land of the Living. That it takes powerful, rare magic to push someone between the realms. That even the briefest of visits was beyond her grasp. And now here's Bonejangles saying that this "Emily" managed it and got a color out of it? "How?"

"Oh, now that's a story," Bonejangles says, pushing his hat back. "You gotta few minutes?"

"For this? Yes," Lizzie nods, folding her hands in her lap so she doesn't pick off any of her skin in anxious fidgets. "It might be how you're important to me."

"Really? Okay then, starts with how I found her crying under that oak tree. . ."

Bonejangles launches into the tale, and – it is indeed a story. An eloping bride murdered by her intended, then vowing to wait for her true love to come and set her free. . .a young man, practicing his lines for his upcoming wedding, accidentally saying them atop her grave. . .a plot twist straight out of a penny dreadful involving the murderer seeking his next victim in the man's actual intended wife. . .a deeply satisfying ending involving this bastard Edward Barkis Bittern being dragged to justice in front of the constable, and a deeply confusing epilogue where – "Really? All three of them? Together?"

"Yeah," Bonejangles nods. "All married. I mean, sure, there's nothin' actually official on Emily's side – the whole 'dead' thing – but she calls herself Mrs. Van Dort and none of us ain't gonna tell her different. They write a lot of letters, and some sort of spell the Elder did lets her go Upstairs or them come Down once a month. Happiest I've ever seen her."

"I can bet." Lizzie twists the loose skin of her wrist, pondering. A spell that can bring the living Downstairs, or send the dead Up. . .on a regular basis no less. . .that is powerful, rare magic. Which means. . .this is probably monstrously presumptuous of her, she only met this "Bonejangles" five minutes ago, but – she looks again at the bench. She met him for a reason too. "Do you think Elder Gutknecht could – could arrange for me and my parents to go Upstairs too? At least once?"

Bonejangles cocks his head, eye rolling from one socket to the other. "Maybe. He's a nice guy. But it would have to be for somethin' really important."

"It is," Lizzie assures him. "You must have already guessed I didn't die by natural means. . ."

And then it's her turn to launch into a story, giving him the short and sanitized version of her and her parents' deaths, explaining how her sister survived the blaze only to be condemned to Rutledge Asylum, describing the horror of learning her murderer had somehow qualified as a doctor. . . "And then, late last year, a new arrival said he'd heard she was being released – and that's the last news we've had of her for months. We don't know if she's found someone to take her in, or is starving poor and alone in London. Or, worse yet, if – if Bumby has somehow wormed his way into her case. . ." She bites her lip, forcing herself not to think of it. Forcing herself not to remember that she and Alice, even with ten years between them, looked rather alike. "We just need to know. Tell her the truth of what happened. Figure out how she can stop that – that rat bastard before he destroys any more lives."

It's funny how a skeleton can somehow manage to look as if he's gone pale. "Wow," Bonejangles breathes, the air whistling through his ribs. "Yeah, that's – I'd say that's important." He leans forward, single eye intense. "Listen – me and my boys, we're playin' a gig here tonight. The Hip Joint. You grab your parents, give 'em the news, and meet us there. Once we're done, we'll see about gettin' you three to Burtonsville."

"Sounds like a plan," Lizzie nods, limbs vibrating with excitement. Her sister! She's finally going to see her sister! "Oh, thank you so much for this."

"Not a problem, Liz – er, Miss Liddell," he corrects himself, teeth clacking together in embarrassment.

Under any other circumstances, Lizzie would be annoyed at the familiarity, however accidental and quickly corrected. How dare some man call her by her name after less than an hour's acquaintance? But in this particular case. . . "It's all right," she assures him, going ahead and committing her own error by touching his hand. "After twelve years. . .for giving me hope, you've earned it."

He smiles – a real smile, not just the one plastered on his skull. "Happy to help, trust me."

Lizzie can't help returning it. She knows first impressions can't always be trusted – she learned that lesson well with the other undergraduates. And there's a part of her that's still suspicious of ulterior motives. But he's already so much nicer, more genuine, than Bumby ever was. And he might be the key to seeing Alice again. Perhaps even to seeing Bumby in jail, just like that wretched Barkis. Maybe you're important to me because you're the first man I've liked in twelve years, she thinks, amused.

(Three months later, after time has proven Bonejangles, aka Sam Thatcher, to be as nice and genuine as he seems, with a great sense of humor and an amazing singing voice to boot, she'll realize that it's rather more than just "like." And then she will feel vindicated in thinking the universe has a sick sense of humor.

After all, it takes a twisted mind indeed to bring her together with the man she loves only after they've both died.)

Chapter Text

"Oh, this has been an absolutely brilliant night out on the town! Victor – Victor, did you see? Lady Kingsleigh was in the box right next to ours!"

"Of course, Mother," Victor nods. He hadn't seen at all, actually – he'd been concentrating on the bittersweet romance between the Flying Dutchman and his bride on the stage. But he also knows very well the first rule to surviving a night out with Nell Van Dort – never, ever let her know you aren't paying as much attention to the comings and goings of the elite as she is. His mother lives to see and be seen, and he's not about to spoil her fun. If only to spare himself another lecture about how he's not doing near enough to improve his social standing.

"And Lord Vandermeer on the other side, two down!" Mother continues on, fanning herself vigorously. "He's almost royalty, he is! Such faces he pulled, though – you could tell his gout was bothering him." She fixes a stern eye on Father, as if it isn't the least bit strange that she spent her night at the Royal Opera House watching a man in pain instead of the opera they'd paid good money to see. "William, you have to promise me you won't pull faces if you ever get gout."

"I won't, dear," Father promises on cue. He looks around as they step back into the lobby. "Quite the crowd tonight, eh? This Wagner fellow pulls in the people. Should hire him to do some advertising for us."

Mother promptly smacks his shoulder with her fan. "Shush! I'm not having you go on about fish here! Not when we're in the same room as the Vandermeers and the Kingsleighs – ooh! Do you think we could catch Lady Kingsleigh before she leaves?" she gasps, her train of thought leaping tracks. "She has a daughter about your age, Victoria – if we get her card, you could call on her sometime!"

Victoria puts on her politest smile – the one she wears when she wishes she was anywhere else, with anyone else. Victor's quite familiar with it after a few too many visits to and from both their parents. "I'm actually already acquainted with Adelaide Kingsleigh. My parents and I attended her coming out party."

"Even better!" Mother declares, clapping her hands. "You can renew the friendship and introduce her to Victor! A garden party would be just the thing for that! Bit of croquet, lawn tennis, and of course a full cream tea." She pokes Victor in the side with her fan. "You two have to start socializing a bit more. You can't stay in your shell forever, Victor! And I know the Everglots fell out of practice with their, ah, situation, Victoria, but you've got plenty of money now to throw a proper shindig! And me to help besides!"

Victoria's smile stays fixed in place, but her eye twitches slightly. "I know, Mrs. Van Dort. But Victor and I – why, we only just moved into the new house this spring. We're still adjusting. Besides, it might look – gauche for two newlyweds to start throwing large parties so soon."

"Nonsense! The sooner you make a name for yourselves, the better," Mother declares, head held high. "The village may think you're strange, but the rest of the world doesn't know about–" she dropped her voice, eyes flicking left and right "–her. You play your cards right, and you could be having tea with the Queen one day!"

Goodness, does she always have to say "her" in that tone? Victor understands the need for discretion when it comes to Emily, but still. . . He plasters on his own "I'm willing to say anything to make you stop talking" smile. "We'll consider it, Mother." He promptly turns and starts forward, hoping to use the excuse of clearing a path through the crowd to avoid further awkward conversation. "Right now, though, we really should – oh!"

His foot tangles with another, and in a flurry of flailing limbs, he hits the floor, sprawled out across – oh no! "Miss!" he cries, scrambling off the unfortunate young lady and stumbling his way back to his feet. "I am s-so, so sorry! I didn't r-realize. . ." He slaps the dust from his suit before extending a hand to her. "A-are you all r-right?"

The woman brushes herself off, doing a quick check of her limbs. She's not really dressed for the opera, Victor notes – she's wearing sturdy boots, a frock of plain blue cotton covered with an apron, and her hair is hanging loose about her face. Perhaps she's one of the staff? A maid or errand-girl? Not that that makes me nearly cracking her head open on the floor any better. . . "I've taken worse tumbles," she replies, accepting his hand up. "At least you bothered to–"

Their eyes meet, and the sentence screeches to a halt as her jaw drops open. Victor's own follows suit. Her eyes. . .they have a color! She's given him a new color! He's no idea what it is, but it's bright and sharp – and very pretty, he must admit. "Oh," he whispers. "I – o-okay then?"

"Victor?" Victoria comes up by his side, glancing between them. "Victor, what's – oh!"

She steps back, a startled hand at her mouth as the girl's gaze shifts to hers. Victor stares. "What – you too?" he blurts.

She nods, looking down at herself. "I'm not sure – oh. Oh my." She pulls up her skirt a little to get a better look. "You said this dress was red, correct? So that's what it looks like. . ."

"Yes," Victor confirms, unable to help a little smile. "I'm glad you finally get to see it on yourself. Um, f-forgive me my forwardness, but – what color are your eyes?" he adds, turning back to the mystery woman.

"Green," she replies, frowning at the wallpaper. "Which, according to those twisty vines parading up the wall over there, is something I can finally see too. . .and those lamps are yellow, right?" Victor nods. "Thought so. . .two colors at once! That can't happen often."

"No, it can't," Victor agrees. Of all the things he expected tonight. . . "I'm Victor. Victor Van Dort." He puts an arm around Victoria, who manages to tear her eyes away from her dress long enough to curtsy. "This is my wife, Victoria."

"Alice Liddell," the woman replies, with a curtsy of her own.

"Liddell?" Victor's brow furrows as he wracks his brain. She's not from Burtonsville, that much is obvious, but he's sure he's heard that – aha! "You're the one from that horrible fire! And the one who. . ." He grimaces, remembering the terrible headline from the Illustrated London News that even the crier wouldn't repeat.

"Exposed the late Dr. Bumby?" Miss Liddell fills in for him. "Yes, that's me. I've never been more thankful to find the diary of a dead man." She smirks. "Though, admittedly, I have no basis for comparison, as I hadn't done it before then."

"I'm sure the children were very thankful too," Victoria says, wringing her hands together. "I thought you were still at the Houndsditch Home?"

"No, a Dr. Wilson's running it now," Miss Liddell explains. "With a new assistant. I still drop by to help when I can, but–" A man bumps her shoulder, nearly sending her back to the floor. "Ooof! For–" She glares after him, rubbing her side. "Perhaps this isn't the best place to give you my life story."

Victor glances over his shoulder at his watching parents – his father curious, his mother impatient. "No, I would say not," he agrees, turning back. "Perhaps we can meet tomorrow? When you're free?"

"I usually have a break around eleven in the morning," Miss Liddell says, rocking on her heels. "There's a coffee shop one street away from here that the actors frequent – Joseph's Beans. Tucked between a costumer and a stationery shop. Would that do?"

"It sounds perfect," Victoria says, looking at Victor.

"We'd be delighted to see you there," Victor nods. "Joseph's Beans at eleven then."

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance," Victoria adds, pulling her dress train away from a threatening foot.

"Likewise," Miss Liddell replies. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find a mirror so I can finally see just what my eyes actually look like."

Victor laughs. "They're very pretty, trust me," he says before he can think better of it.

"Ah, but that's only one opinion," Miss Liddell counters with another smirk, making him blush. "Good to know, though, I suppose." She curtsies again, then heads off into the crowd, deftly avoiding another collision. "See you tomorrow!"

"Have a good night!" Victor calls as she disappears into the sea of bodies.

In a flash, his frowning mother takes her place. "So? Who was that?" she demands, fanning herself with exaggerated care.

"Alice Liddell," Victor tells her. "We're meeting her tomorrow at a coffee shop near here."

"Liddell? From that dreadful fire? And that awful business with Dr. Bumby?" The frown becomes a full-fledged scowl. "Why on earth did you agree to meet with her? For what purpose?"

Victor examines at the wallpaper and its vines. The whole lobby feels so much more welcoming now that he can see the pattern properly. A little thrill races up his spine as he thinks of the forest back home, waiting for him in full summer bloom. "Because – well – she's the reason I can see green now."

"And red for me," Victoria adds, giving her dress another appreciative glance.

The fan freezes. "What – she's – both of you?" Mother whispers, eyes wide. They nod. "But – oh, Victor, Victoria! You can't! First that – that Emily person, now–"

"Mother, you know well enough that you can't control who's important to you," Victor cuts her off, steel in his voice. He's had enough of that tone for one night – time to draw a line in the sand. "Or how."

"She seems nice," Victoria backs him up, spine straight and eyes sharp. "And they've proven the fire wasn't her fault, and she was the one who exposed Dr. Bumby. How can you fault her for being someone who wanted to see justice done?"

"It's just – ten years in an asylum–" Mother tries, then huffs as she's forced to surrender to the weight of their stares. "Fine, on your own heads be it. Just don't let anyone see you going there." She bustles off, Father at her heels. "Why can't our son ever get colors from people of importance?"

Victor snorts and shakes his head. "Really? As if I didn't get a color from you," he whispers to Victoria.

"Maybe she's just annoyed I'm outnumbered by a corpse, a former madwoman, and a dog," Victoria replies with a smile. She looks off across the thinning crowd. "But that was a surprise. Someone important to both of us here? And it's the last Liddell girl, no less?"

Victor shrugs. "Like I told Mother – you can't control it." He takes Victoria's arm and starts off after his parents. "I do wonder how she's important."

"We'll find out tomorrow, I guess." Victoria leans close to him with a playful grin. "Pretty eyes, hmm?"

There go his cheeks again. "I – ah – I didn't mean–"

"Oh, it's fine," Victoria assures him. "I think she's rather pretty myself. Certainly has a good sense of humor."

"Really? Victor gives her a gentle nudge. "You keep going on like that, you'll make poor Emily jealous."

Victoria flutters her lashes. "You don't think there's room for just one more?"

Victor chuckles. "I don't think Miss Liddell's going to be up for that, Victoria."

(Some time later, once Alice is officially moved in, Victoria will sit across from him on their bed and smile smugly until he hits her with a pillow.)

Chapter Text

Is this really a good idea?

Alice taps her foot as she looks up at the sign above the coffee shop door. JOSEPH'S BEANS it declares to the world, in fancy letters that loop and twine around each other almost to the point of illegibility. Quite ostentatious, she thinks, for a little hole-in-the-wall shop with three tables to its name. And it's only all the more so now that she can see it's gold lettering against a green background.

Yellow and green. Alice bites her lip. She's – still not sure how to feel about them. On their own, they're perfectly nice – it's pleasant to see properly the glow of a lamp in the darkness, and the sight of her own eyes in the mirror. Even better to add a few new shades to Wonderland. But. . .after Bumby, she hadn't been expecting any new colors. Hoped that she wouldn't get any, in fact. People important to her tended to die, after all – one way or another. She was done with all that. She'd avenged her family, saved the remaining Houndsditch children, avoided the noose, and found a way to live with her lingering madness. She would have been perfectly happy to spend the rest of her life stocking props and sewing buttons in the back room of the opera house, exchanging the occasional private word with Cheshire or Rabbit or the like, and keeping her head down around actual people. Let the seething chaotic mass of humanity pass her on by. She'd gained red, blue, beige, and brown – she could live with just that. She'd built a whole world around those four shades, hadn't she? Everything was finally in order – why shake things up?

I should have known the universe would take that as a challenge, she thinks, rocking on her heels. She thinks she's fine? Has everything she needs? Well, let's walk – or, rather, crash – the proverbial tall, dark stranger – and his less-proverbial shorter, brunette wife – into her life, and dump yellow and green onto her palette! That'll cause a bit of excitement! She sighs, glancing in the dirt-smudged front window at two shapes she suspects are the couple she's come to meet. But what sort of excitement? Are they like Lizzie – kind and welcoming and everything I've missed since my family perished? Like Dr. Wilson – a bit rude, sometimes demanding, but with their hearts in the right place and enough manners to prevent me hating them? Or like Bumby – presentable facades over cores so vile I'll have to bloody my hands all over again?

"You'll never know if you don't go in."

Alice twists her head to find Cheshire at her side, grinning up at her. "Discretion is the better part of valor, but not when it becomes dithering," he continues, tail swishing. "Curiosity may kill the cat, but satisfaction brings it back. Take it from someone who was very satisfied indeed to find himself in one whole piece once the Queen's reign ended."

Alice's lips quirk upward. "You can't fault me for being nervous," she murmurs to him out of the corner of her mouth. Best not to be seen acknowledging one of her hallucinations too loudly. At least the visions don't come nearly as frequently or as violently as they once did. She doubts she'd be allowed in the shop if she was still the sort to throw things at the patrons.

"No fault," Cheshire assures her. "Just an observation. You are a woman of action, Alice. Act."

With that, he vanishes, ears first, smile last. Alice nods, taking a deep, steadying breath. You slew the Jabberwock, she reminds herself. You dethroned the Queen of Hearts. You destroyed the Dollmaker and derailed his Infernal Train. You murdered Angus Bumby and got away with it. You can face coffee with these people. With as much confidence as she can muster, she crosses the street, pushes open the door, and steps inside.

Her guess from before was correct – the Van Dorts are indeed there, seated at the table in front of the window. They smile as she approaches them, and Mr. Van Dort stands to pull out her seat. "Hello – nice to see you again, Miss Liddell," he greets her.

"Nice to see you as well," Alice replies, taking the chair. "Though I have to tell you, you're wearing the wrong color."

Mr. Van Dort blinks. "What?"

"I got yellow from you," Alice explains, pointing at his tie. She turns the finger on Mrs. Van Dort's dress. "And green from her. You two have got it backwards."

"Oh." The Van Dorts share a chuckle. "I didn't think of that when I dressed this morning," Mr. Van Dort continues, pulling the tie free of his waistcoat to look at it. "But then again, I got green from you, so I think it still works."

"On my part, I don't like wearing green," Mrs. Van Dort admits. "It tends to make me look ill." She fidgets with her hands in her lap. "And – I don't have the most pleasant memories associated with getting that color."

"Fair enough." Alice scoots her chair in, crossing her ankles. "So. . .did you order?"

"No, we were waiting for you," Mr. Van Dort says, glancing toward the counter. "I'm going up right now – what would you like?"

Alice feels in her pocket. "I should have enough for a hot chocolate. . ."

"Oh, no, let me pay," Mr. Van Dort says, holding up a hand. "We're the ones pulling you away from your work. It's no trouble."

Alice has her pride, but it does not extend to refusing a free drink. Her pay never amounts to much, and the pennies she saves here will help keep a roof over her head for another week. And the Van Dorts certainly look like they can afford it. "Well, thank you," she says – then, because it's probably polite, adds, "I just hate to stretch your budget."

Mr. Van Dort's eyes widen in brief surprise – then crinkle up with humor. "You don't buy a lot of canned fish, do you?" he asks, as his wife hides a smile. "Trust me, one hot chocolate is not an issue with my family. Black tea for you, right, Victoria?" Mrs. Van Dort nods. "Back in a moment, then."

He heads off to the counter, Alice staring after him. Canned fish? What does that have to do with anything? Granted, he's right, she doesn't buy a lot of it, but that's because the Whitechapel market doesn't sell much of it. I guess his family must be in the business. . .come to think of it, Van Dort does sound familiar. Where have I

"SCANDAL IN COUNTRYSIDE! SON OF PROMINENT BUSINESSMAN ACCUSED OF MARRYING A CORPSE!"

Oh. Oh God. It's them.

Alice goes stiff, her blood abruptly chill in her veins. Yes, she should recognize the Van Dort name. From an article in the Illustrated, back in early February. One she'd dismissed as absolute poppycock meant to get more people to buy the paper. Something about an arranged marriage between the Van Dort Fish family and the fallen Viscounts Everglot – interrupted by a dead bride rising from her grave and claiming the groom for her own. And now she's sitting at a table with two of the people involved, one of whom could be a damned necrophiliac

"Oh dear. Judging by that expression, you know the tabloid version of what happened."

Alice snaps back to the present to see Mrs. Van Dort regarding her with concern. "Both our parents were furious the papers managed to pick it up," she continues, twisting her hands together. "We were too, when we saw some of the stories. . .I don't know what you read, but I can guarantee you that it probably isn't what you think."

"I would hope not," Alice informs her, jiggling a leg, fighting the temptation to just get up and run before she gets embroiled in something else unpleasant. "The Illustrated London News was on about your husband performing a seance in the woods and binding himself in 'spiritual marriage' to a corpse looking for revenge on her murderer. It sounded like nonsense to me, and I know nonsense." She fixes Mrs. Van Dort with a firm frown. "What really happened then?"

"Oh, good, that's far from the worst – no seances," Mrs. Van Dort says, waving a hand.

"No," Mr. Van Dort confirms, reappearing with their drinks. He slides Alice's hot chocolate in front of her with a sheepish smile. "I – w-well, I woke Emily up by accident."

Alice arches an eyebrow. "You expect me to believe the dead can get up and walk around?" she demands, folding her arms. "I can believe six impossible things before breakfast, but it's nearly lunchtime."

Mr. Van Dort laughs softly. "I know it's a stretch if you weren't there. . .but let me show you something." He gives Mrs. Van Dort her drink, then slips into his seat. One hand dips into his trouser pocket, and comes out with a box of matches. He takes one out, snaps it neatly in two, then folds the halves in one hand and squeezes. Alice watches closely, wondering what on earth he's doing –

And then, suddenly, there's yellow leaking out from between his fingers. He opens his hand, revealing a tiny ball of soft, glowing, impossible light resting on his palm. Alice's jaw drops open. "What – I – you–" She pokes the ball with a finger. It bounces slightly, radiating warmth. If it wasn't for Mr. Van Dort's proud little grin, she'd think she was seeing things again. "How?"

"It's a spell – Glowing Orb," Mr. Van Dort explains, face almost as bright as his ball. "Elder Gutknecht – he's a friend of ours Below – taught it to me when he. . .well." He rubs the back of his head with his free hand. "You'll need to hear the actual story of the corpse bride first."

He launches into a tale that is simultaneously less and more ludicrous than what she read in the paper. No seances, as Mrs. Van Dort said – although there did seem to have been some sort of spiritual wedding, if you interpret "practicing your vows over a murdered woman's grave, only for her to burst out of the ground and whisk you off to the Underworld" as such. Apparently the corpse bride had been one Emily Cartwell, tricked into eloping by the vile Edward Barkis, who'd murdered her for her gold and jewels and left her to rot. She'd vowed to wait Below until her true love came to set her free, and apparently Mr. Van Dort fit the bill. After he'd disappeared with her into the Land of the Dead, Mrs. Van Dort had been forced to marry a newcomer to town to save her penniless family from ruin – a mysterious Lord Barkis Bittern. "Barkis again? That seems – a bit much to be coincidence," Alice notes, frowning. "Same man?"

"Same man," Mr. Van Dort confirms. "Emily and I got the news from my parents' deceased driver, and we thought it worth investigating too. Why he decided to use the same name twice is beyond me. . ."

"Perhaps he thought varying whether it was first or last was enough," Mrs. Van Dort shrugs, rolling her eyes. "At any rate, Victor and Emily appeared right in the middle of my wedding breakfast and confronted him. He tried to deny it, but the moment I revealed my family was broke. . ." She squeezes her hands together. "He attacked Victor, intending to kidnap him for ransom, and nearly stabbed me with a stolen sword when I tried to help. Only Emily stepping in front of me at the last minute saved me."

"Both of us," Mr. Van Dort says, taking one of her hands in his. "He was startled enough that I was able to kick him and get free." He chuckles again. "And then Mrs. Carter, one of the wedding guests, managed to knock him out with her walker. After that, it was just a matter of summoning the constable to take Barkis in."

"And he didn't have a fit about the dead woman standing in front of him?" Alice has to ask.

"He was awfully pale, but he took her statement," Mrs. Van Dort tells her. "I think it helped that neither she nor her friends showed any sign of being a danger to anyone. My parents quietly had the marriage annulled the next day, and Barkis was found guilty of murder and hung a week later."

"Good," Alice growls, the roar of a train in her ears. "I'm glad Emily was able to find her vengeance." She shifts in her chair, wondering how to put this next bit. "Do – do you still see her then?"

"Regularly," Mr. Van Dort nods. "After everything was settled that night with Barkis, we – came to an arrangement. Saying my vows to her may have been a mistake, but. . .I'd grown to like her quite a bit in the short time we'd had together. Not to mention we'd all gotten colors from each other."

Alice blinks. "From the dead?"

"According to Elder Gutknecht, you can still meet someone important to you in the afterlife," Mrs. Van Dort explains. "Although even he'd never heard of a case before where one party was alive. . .but Victor didn't have blue before Emily, and I didn't have pink. And she didn't have purple or orange until us. To part permanently. . .it didn't seem right."

"We talked to the Elder, and he wove together a few rather complicated spells that tied us all together," Mr. Van Dort continues. "It allows Emily to visit us Upstairs, or us visit her Down, once a month. In between, we can send letters to each other." His smile takes on a nervous edge. "There's nothing official between us, obviously, but – we do consider her my other wife."

Alice knows she should probably label that strange, but – she's the type of person who considers rabbits in waistcoats and top hats, mushrooms you can bounce on, and card soldiers that can take your head off in one blow to be perfectly normal. Who is she to judge? The Van Dorts are hurting no one with their little arrangement – quite the contrary. They've given one sad young woman her greatest dream back.

Greatest dream. . .Alice leans across the table, trembling with desperate excitement. "I'm glad you all came out so well after that mess," she says, trying to keep her voice calm. "I – you know my story. Part of it anyway. Houndsditch, Bumby. . .the fire." The Van Dorts nod, faces serious. "And – I don't know if I have any right to ask this, but. . .do – do you think you could – if Elder Gutknecht can send Emily Upstairs, can he – just once, once is all I need–"

"We can certainly find out," Mr. Van Dort says, tone warm. "I don't think he'll object, given your history. And it would be easy enough to send your family up with Emily, I think. Once he finds them."

"Though – Emily can only appear in our house during her visits," Mrs. Van Dort says, patting her bun. "You'd have to come stay with us."

"Only for a fortnight or so," Mr. Van Dort quickly adds, tugging at his tie. "I-Is that all right? We don't want to pull you away from your w-work, or your home. . ."

Damn it all, she's going to cry. Alice does her best to blink back the tears. "Home is a ratty old flat I'm barely making the rent on," she tells him. "And the Royal Opera House staff have made it clear that they wouldn't care a jot if I vanished one day. There's plenty of people who would snap up my job in a heartbeat – and, conversely, plenty of other positions, and rooms, I could grab once I came back. I'd be happy to stay with you. As long as it takes."

Mrs. Van Dort smiles. "We're happy to have you. As long as it takes."

Mr. Van Dort nods, then tilts his head. "Speaking of your story. . .do you mind telling it to us?" he asks, still playing with his tie. "I mean. . .we've r-read about in the paper, but. . .we just told you how the press can get everything turned around."

"Mmmmm. If you've gotten your information from the Illustrated, you've seen the most accurate picture – they like me over there," Alice says, recalling the excitable Mr. Tailor and his enthusiastic headlines. "But given I just made you regale me with the most important event of your life, I suppose I should do the same." She takes a sip of her hot (well, lukewarm now) chocolate. "I'll try not to take up too much of your time, Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort."

"Oh, call us Victor and Victoria," Mrs. Van Dort encourages. "We're all meant to know each other, right?"

Alice looks between their friendly smiles, and feels a little warm glow, akin to the ball of light from earlier. Important like Lizzie indeed. She hasn't felt this good since the first time she fell down into Wonderland. "Right," she agrees. "So you can call me Alice." She takes a deep breath. "It all actually starts a couple of months before the famous fire. . ."

Chapter Text

"So – this is Burtonsville?"

"Yup," Bonejangles confirms, giving her a hand out of the carriage. "I know – kind of a hole-in-the-wall place, huh?"

"When compared to Oxford, anyway," Lizzie admits, looking around as her feet hit the cobbles. A rectangle of crooked little shops and houses meets her eyes, populated by corpses going about their day-to-day business. "I don't think your town square is even half the size of the quad at Christ Church."

"It's still very nice, though," Mama says as she and Papa disembark, followed by the Bone Boys. "Quite cozy."

"And I like the statue," Papa adds, pointing out the skeletal remains of a horse atop a pedestal at the center of the square with a chuckle.

"Oh, that ain't a statue," Chauncey says, as the horse turns to regard them with eyeless sockets. "That's Bone Beauty."

"Yeah, he stands up there and does poses for treats," Bonejangles nods. As if to put the proof to his words, Bone Beauty rears up, waggling his fossilized hooves in the air. "Dunno if he's the actual founder's horse or not, but we like him just the same." He claps his hands together. "Okay – Elder Gutknecht's over toward the east end of town, not too far off the Moor of the Mortified. Bit of a walk, but–"

"Bonejangles!"

Bonejangles stops short, eye rolling right to left as his head swivels back toward the pedestal. "Emily!" he cries brightly, waving. Lizzie peers over his shoulder to see a young woman in the remains of a bridal gown, a satchel slung across her shoulders, waving back. "Hang on, just a sec, I gotta introduce ya. Come on over, Ems! Got some people you oughta meet."

Emily hurries over, all smiles. "It's great to see you again!" she chirps, pulling Bonejangles into a hug. "I thought you were going to be gone for much longer!" She embraces the Bone Boys, then turns to the Liddells. "Who are your guests?"

"Arthur, Lorina, and Lizzie Liddell," Bonejangles says, nodding at each family member in turn. "We picked 'em up in Oxford. Got a relative Upstairs that might be in serious trouble."

"My sister," Lizzie puts in, hoping she doesn't sound too impatient. Happy as she is to finally meet the famous Emily, she's rather more eager to see if Elder Gutknecht really can reunite her with Alice. "Bonejangles told us your story. So you're – sort of married to a living man?"

"And his wife – it's complicated," Emily giggles, holding out a hand. "Emily Van Dort, at your service."

Lizzie accepts it, preparing to shake and say that they'll see her for the full story later – then their eyes meet for the first time, and she drops it again, gasping as the world is abruptly turned on its head. "Wha – what?!"

"Lizzie?" Mama puts a steadying hand on her shoulder. "What's the matter?"

"I – we–" Lizzie stares at her hands, then at the equally-astonished Emily, then at Mama and Papa. The new shade is unmistakable, but. . . "We – we really are all blue?!"

Mama laughs despite herself, and Papa has to bite back a smile. Even Bonejangles struggles to hide a few chuckles, the traitor. "Yes, well, we did tell you dear. . .another color, though!" Lorina shakes her head. "I truly thought the whole business was over with once you were dead."

"This keeps going on, I'm going to get more dead than I got alive!" Lizzie agrees, rubbing her eyes. "I was half-certain people were just pulling my leg. . ." She turns back to Emily, watching her scan the square. "What did you get?"

"I'm not sure yet. . .oh, wait!" She points to a shop on the opposite side, selling what looks like coffin enhancements. "Can anyone tell me what color that shop is?"

"Green," Papa informs her. "I got that from Lorina myself."

"Green. . .I like it," Emily says, smiling. She looks back at Lizzie. "So it looks like we were–"

Abruptly, she stops, eyes going wide. "Hold on. Your last name – Liddell? From Oxford?"

"That's us," Lizzie says, blinking. "Are you familiar with the university, then?"

"No, it's – that sister you mentioned. Is her name Alice?"

If Lizzie's heart hadn't stopped beating long ago, it would have skipped one just now. "Yes – you know her?" she asks, advancing an anxious step. Oh no – are they too late? Is Alice already a new arrival here? They have no idea where she went after leaving Rutledge, after all. . .

Emily shakes her head, rummaging in her satchel. "No, but I'm going to. Victor and Victoria met her recently. I got the letter just this morning. Just a moment. . ." She extracts a few sheets of paper and smooths them out as best she can with a skeletal hand. "'Dearest Emily – At last, tomorrow we leave for home! Mother has finally run out of plays and parties she can drag us to, and Father has been hinting he would like to go back and check on his cannery. It's not a moment too soon – Victoria and I are quite fed up with the noise and fuss of the city. How anyone can live here for longer than the Season is beyond me.'

"'However, as it turns out, we're not going back alone. We're bringing a guest with us – Alice Liddell. I don't know if the name is familiar to you, given when and where you died, but Up here she's fairly famous. Her entire family was killed in a terrible fire, and she had to spend ten years in Rutledge Asylum before she recovered from the trauma.'" Lizzie winces, twisting the skin of her wrist. "And then, when she was released from that dreadful place, she fell into the care of a Dr. Bumby–'"

"What?!" Oh no, no no no, Lizzie can already see all her worst nightmares coming true –

"It's all right!" Emily assures her, holding up a hand. "'–whose crimes I cannot bring myself to list in full here. Just know that he was a villain worse than Barkis, and that I am glad that he found his final reward in front of that train. He tried to force poor Alice to forget her entire life, but she broke free of his hold and, after his death, exposed him to the entire world. I'll have to have her tell you the story – she's much better with words than I am.'"

Lizzie's jaw almost unhinges from the shock. All those years worrying and wondering, and now. . . "He's dead?"

"Here's hopin' he got the same welcome good old Barkis did when he showed up Down here," Bonejangles says, jaw tight. "So how did Victor and Victoria run into her?"

"Funny you should say that. . . 'We met a few nights ago, at the Royal Opera House – Alice was working there as a general errand girl, and I literally walked right into her,'" Emily reads with a grin. "'My apologies were cut short when she suddenly gave me green, and Victoria red – she got yellow and green from us respectively. We promptly made plans to meet the next day, and exchanged our stories. As you might imagine, Alice was quite keen on learning if there was a way for her to see her family again after hearing about you and our arrangement. We told her that we're pretty sure that you could bring them up with you on one your visits, and she agreed to come stay with us until such time as this could be done. We've sent a letter to Elder Gutknecht explaining the situation and asking for his assistance – I figure, between the two of you, you should be able to contact the Liddells and bring them to Burtonsville in time. I know this is rather short notice, but it is for a good cause. . .and we like her, Emily,'" she continues, voice softening. "'We're sure you'll like her too. She's intelligent, kind, loves animals, and has a delightfully biting sense of humor. After only a few days, it feels like we've all known each other for years. And she's suffered so much – we would love to bring some happiness back into her life. So please, do your best. Let us know when Bonejangles comes back from his tour, and send our love to Scraps. We're looking forward to seeing you again soon. All our love, Victor and Victoria.'"

Lizzie squeezes her hands together, slowly shaking her head. "I don't – this is incredible," she whispers.

"Tell me about it," Bonejangles says, knocking back his hat. "Run all this way expectin' the worst, and turns out she's with two of the best people I know! Load off our shoulders, that's for damn sure."

Emily bounces in place, smiling as bright as the sun. "I was just on my way to the Elder to see if he knew any quick ways to find you! My day to go Upstairs is only about a week away, after all. Now. . ." She offers her arm to Lizzie. "Let's find out just how we're going to work this."

Lizzie takes it, matching Emily's grin with her own. "Lead the way." Oh, her head is spinning with all this new information. . .but it's a good dizziness. One that sends little thrills up and down her spine. Bumby is dead. Alice is alive. Her sister is safe and sound with a wonderful couple from Upstairs. And, barring any severe misadventure, she's going to see her again in seven days. She glances from Bonejangles, to Emily, to her own brightly-hued hand.

Brown and blue are definitely her new favorite colors.

Chapter Text

"Is it time yet?"

"Almost, almost," Victor reassures her from his seat on the couch. "They've got to wait until the sun has fully set. Otherwise the magic won't work. It'll only be a couple minutes more."

"You're going to drive yourself to distraction pacing like that," Victoria adds, patting the cushion beside her. "Please sit down – you're making me giddy."

"Patience is one of the cardinal virtues," Caterpillar adds, flying by Alice's head. "Your fondness for wrath must be tempered by something."

"I can't help it," Alice says to both of them, plopping herself in the indicated spot. "I haven't been this excited for anything in years." She taps her foot anxiously against the floorboards. "I swear, if you set the White Rabbit across from me in a race right now, I could outpace him before he had time to check his watch."

Victor chuckles, happily oblivious to Rabbit's scowl over the arm of the couch. "That would be a feat, wouldn't it?" He glances at the fireplace, then twists his hands together, smile fading. "Do – do you think your family will like us?" he asks, voice rather more hesitant now. "I mean – t-there's no getting around that Victoria and Emily and I are rather – u-unusual."

"Perhaps, but my parents didn't exactly fit the mold of ideal Victorian couple either," Alice responds. "Mama and Papa were always encouraging Lizzie and me to be ourselves and broaden our minds. One of Papa's colleagues said once that it was a real shame that Lizzie seemed to prefer books to boys – Papa promptly told him, 'Better my daughter has a mind of her own, rather than having to rely on a man to give her one.' And Mama never thought twice about letting me climb trees or play in the mud – well, unless I was in white," she adds with a giggle.

Victor and Victoria laugh along softly. "They sound the polar opposite of my parents," Victoria says, shaking her head. "If I'd been caught traipsing  in the mud, I wouldn't have been able to sit for a fortnight. And while Mother taught me to read, she refused to let me have anything other than etiquette manuals and guides for proper housekeeping." She sits up straighter, imitating the Lady's scowl. "'Novels are too passionate for any woman of noble blood.'"

"Is there anything pleasant your mother doesn't consider too passionate?" Alice has to ask.

"Embroidery is about it," Victoria admits. "And even then, she had Hildegarde teach me everything past the basics. Mother's only real hobby was complaining about our neighbors."

"I'm sure my parents gave her plenty to complain about," Victor says, rubbing the back of his head. "My mother didn't approve of me being bookish either. I mean, she didn't mind me not being underfoot, but I needed to measure up to all those noble boys pursuing sports. I was pushed into cricket, football, and rugby lessons before I was twelve."

A montage of all the times she's seen a distracted Victor walk into walls, trip over furniture, and fumble small items zips through Alice's mind like a flipbook. She grimaces. "And how did those go?"

"Three broken windows, one lost cricket bat, two balls stolen by an overeager Scraps, one chef beaned in the middle of preparing lunch, one tutor's nose bloodied by a bad throw, and five destroyed vases later, she finally let me play in the garden on my own again," Victor deadpans, ticking them all off on his fingers. "I'm no longer allowed to attempt anything more difficult than croquet, and even then Mother and Father tense when I pick up a mallet."

Alice snorts. "Oh dear. . .I wonder if Emily's parents were more like mine or yours?"

"Judging by what she's said of her father, somewhere in the middle," Victoria says, folding her hands in her lap. "She can tell you better than I could. . .I hope you like her," she adds. "She's very eager to meet you."

"I'm eager to meet her," Alice responds. "She sounds nice from the letters. Very enthusiastic for a dead woman."

"Oh yes," Victor agrees, expression dreamy. "One of my favorite things about her. . ." He sighs. "I so wish we could see each other a bit more often than just once a month. Exchanging notes is nice, but – it's just not the same."

"Well, we're assured of all being together eventually," Victoria replies, patting his hand. "And perhaps, after tonight, we can have another talk with Elder Gutknecht. See if there's a way for him to allow for more visits." She smiles at Alice. "After all, the number of our visitors has just increased."

As if on cue, the fireplace suddenly flares up, crackly red and yellow flames flashing an eerie green. Alice snaps up straight, eyes fixed on the grate. She and fire have an extremely bad history, but if this one spits out her long-lost family. . .well, it won't quite make up for the blaze that took them away from her in the first place, but it'll be a start. She holds her breath as smoke pours off the logs, forming an almost-solid wall of gray above the carpet. Figures appear inside of it, a party of five. Alice leaps to her feet as the smoke fades away, wisping off to parts unknown – and then –

All right, she'll be honest – she'd thought her hosts were having a little joke when they'd said the residents of the Land of the Dead were blue. Why and how would death change one's skin so drastically? In Wonderland it made sense, with the Drowned Sailors condemned to the coldest, darkest parts of the Deluded Depths, but here in the real world? Surely it was all a gag.

But no – four of the corpses before her are shaded the color of the summer sky, and the only reason the fifth isn't is because he hasn't got any flesh left. The ravages of time haven't treated any of them kindly – they're a mess of skeletal hands and legs and necks, missing noses and broken bones, skin flaking off and hair falling out. But Alice's heart still sings to see them, as three of them are undoubtedly – "Mama! Papa! Lizzie!"

"Alice!" Lizzie surges forward, capturing her in a hug – Mama and Papa quickly follow. "Oh, Alice. . .we missed you so. . ."

"I missed you," Alice chokes out, tears spilling down her cheeks despite her best efforts. At least this time they aren't in mourning. "I never thought. . ."

"Neither did we," Mama whispers, arm tight around her back. "Darling, we were so worried about you. Ten years in bedlam! How could they have ever put you in an asylum?"

"And then to fall into Bumby's power," Lizzie says, drawing back to look Alice in the face. "It will forever be a mystery to me how he qualified. . .and to be in charge of children no less?" Her eyes narrow. "Did that bastard hurt you? Touch you?"

"No – but it was a near thing," Alice admits, Ruin oozing from the ceiling as she remembers the fanged visage of the Dollmaker towering over her. "He saw my pain, and he used it to – to try and make me forget you. T-turn me into little more than a – a doll." She shudders, the old familiar guilt burning her insides like a Jabberwock's eye blast straight to the chest. "Oh, Lizzie – I'm so sorry. I should have recognized him the minute he walked into my cell at Rutledge, but – I'd shoved away all memory of his time as your least favorite undergraduate. All memory of just who it was who gave me beige. It all hurt so much, and I just. . ." She bites her lip, and tastes a hint of blood. "I saw him the night of the fire, I heard what he did to you, and I–"

"You were eight," Lizzie cuts in, pressing a cool finger against her lips. "What could you have done? If you'd tried to save me, he would have killed you too." She takes Alice by the shoulders, grip gentle but firm. "I don't blame you for any of this. I'm just glad you're safe now. That you're still you."

"We only ever wanted you to end up in a better place," Papa confirms. "I'm just sorry you had to take the long way around to get there."

Alice manages a smile, the Ruin slithering away and leaving the wallpaper clean. "Better the long way than no way. And now, at least, he can never hurt anyone ever again."

"And aren't we all glad," one of the other corpses says, stepping forward. A woman in the tattered remains of a wedding dress – this must be the famous Emily. "I can't believe anyone could be so – so evil. Even Eddie, awful bastard that he was, left me my innocence." She lifts watery eyes to Alice's. "I am so very sorry you had – to. . ."

The words trail off as she blinks. "What. . .ah. . ." She wipes her eyes, then peers over Alice's shoulder. "That shelf over there. . .um. . ."

"Brown," Lizzie provides, chuckling. "Another one, huh?"

"Is it really so surprising?" Alice adds, smile much more genuine now. "You're one of the people who helped reunite me with my parents. How could you not be important to me?" She offers a hand. "Emily Van Dort, I presume. Alice Liddell. It's wonderful to meet you at last."

Emily accepts the handshake, smiling back. She's got a very pretty smile, Alice has to say. Especially for a dead woman with her teeth peeking through her cheek. "You're right. And it's wonderful to meet you too. Victor and Victoria have been full of compliments in their letters."

"They claim to be mere amateurs at the social graces, but I find them quite skilled at flattery," Alice nods, shooting her friends a grin. They blush in concert. "But then again, I've been in an asylum since the age of nine, so what do I know?" She glances at the skeleton lingering by the mantelpiece as Emily giggles. "I assume you're Bonejangles?"

"Right in one," he replies in a gravelly voice, tipping his hat. "Ran into your sister while on a little tour with my Bone Boys in Oxford. Traded yellow and brown with her, which is how I got the story. Good to meet you at last." He nods at Emily. "So she grabbed brown from you – what about vice-versa?"

Alice does a scan of the room, peering past the trees and dominoes breaking in from the Vale. "Er – I don't know," she admits at last, frowning. "Must be a color that isn't in here."

"Well, let's go and find out!" Emily says, waving at the door. "We can give your family a tour of the place!"

"Splendid idea," Papa agrees. "I'd love to see where you've been living. And to learn more about the owners." He nods at Victor and Victoria. "Emily explained your situation to us. It's – odd, but I suppose as long as everyone's happy. . ."

The tension goes right out of Victor's shoulders. Alice doesn't blame him – despite her comments from earlier, she was worried that a man sort-of married to two women, one of whom is dead, would have been a little too open-minded for her permissive parents. "We are," he confirms, standing. "I mean, the villagers are a bit suspicious of us, and Pastor Galswells has banned us from his church, but – we're fine keeping to ourselves for the most part anyway. Better to have Emily than a bunch of fake friends." He helps his wife up, then makes his way to the door. "So, um, this is the main study, and the hall's just out here. . ."

They proceed around the house, Victor and Victoria showing off each room in between trading news and stories. Bonejangles, Emily, Mama, Papa, and Lizzie regale them with amusing anecdotes of their time in the Land of the Dead, while Alice offers up a few tales of her own from the asylum and Houndsditch, to everyone's general horror. "Scoundrels!" Papa declares about the twin orderlies David and Columbus as she tells them about the incident with the spoon. "Not as bad as Bumby, true, but. . .who allowed them to be anywhere near lost souls in pain?"

"The superintendent – who happens to be their uncle," Alice replies, shaking her head. "Only Dr. Wilson and Nurse Darling were worth anything in that wretched place, and even they didn't object to putting me in electric chairs and feeding me foul-tasting concoctions."

"Mr. Bunny wasn't spoiled permanently, was he?" Lizzie asks, twisting her hands together.

"No, but – he's taken a beating," Alice admits softly, as poor old Rabbit winces by her side. "Somewhere along the line he lost an eye, and he's had to be patched a couple of times. Not to mention he was forced to suffer Radcliffe's company all the time I was in the Houndsditch Home – Dr. Wilson gave him to him, not me, when I left Rutledge. Some nonsense about not letting me drown in the past." She smiles at her hosts. "But I've got him back now. When Victor and Victoria heard the story, they made it a point to track down Radcliffe and visit him on the pretense of hiring him as their solicitor. They still won't tell me how much they paid the man to retrieve Mr. Bunny."

"Money is no object when it comes to my family," Victor says as they enter the dining room. "And it was a small way to put things right while we were waiting for tonight."

"You two really–" Papa starts, then stops as he spots the photograph hanging above the table's head. "What the – is that from the library?" he asks, going over and running his fingers over the frame. "Goodness me, how did it survive? The room was almost naught but ashes when we woke up Downstairs!"

"I don't know – it was sent to me anonymously while I was living with Bumby," Alice says, following him. "I'm shocked he let me keep it. Perhaps he thought the occasional bit of kindness would help keep me off his trail."

"Or maybe he just wanted some way to ogle me from beyond the grave," Lizzie mutters. She glances at the Van Dorts. "And you let her hang it up here? As a temporary visitor?"

"Well, of course," Victor says. "We took all her things from the flat. We didn't want her to have to leave anything behind, even if she was only staying with us a short time. And we knew how important her connection with you was."

"We're not very close to our own parents," Victoria adds, rubbing her hands against each other. "Her picture seemed a better fit than any of our family portraits."

"Yes, you should be very grateful you don't have to deal with Mr. and Mrs. Van Dort, or Lord and Lady Everglot," Alice says, turning to face the table. "I don't think you'd get along with either – aha!" She points at the display of fake fruit that makes up the centerpiece. "There we are! It's purple I've got! Unless those aren't grapes."

"They are," Emily confirms, bouncing. "How nice! Purple's what I got from Victor. Isn't it pretty?"

"Well, it certainly makes the grapes look better."

Mama chuckles. "Good. We're very happy for you, my dear," she says, affectionately ruffling Alice's hair. "It seems you've found yourself a whole new family."

"Yes," Papa agrees, extending his hand to Victor. "Thank you for taking in my little girl. For making her so welcome while she's here."

"It's been our pleasure," Victor replies, smiling as they shake hands. "She's a wonderful young woman. Her stay here has truly brightened the house."

"Yes," Victoria confirms. She glances at Alice. "In fact. . .Alice, if you'd like to extend your stay for a while, Victor and I wouldn't mind in the slightest. It wouldn't be any trouble."

"Really? Hmmm – free room and board, delicious meals, excellent company, and the chance to stay in regular contact with my family," Alice says, rocking on her heels as she pretends to think it over. She grins at Victor, Victoria, and Emily in turn. "And three new colors after I thought I was done. Mrs. Van Dort, I might just be here forever."

Chapter Text

All right, Emily. Don't be so nervous. It's nothing, really. You'll just go to bed, close your eyes, then open them again in Wonderland! . . .I hope.

Emily sighs as she twists up the end of her train, kicking her heel against the worn wood of her coffin. Oh, she wishes she could just kill her nerves (as if they could get any deader) and get on with things – but she can't help it. She's on the verge of entering someone else's very mind. She hadn't thought that was even possible before! Of course, she also hadn't thought marrying both a living man and a living woman was possible before too, and been pleasantly surprised on that front. And Elder Gutknecht had assured them all when he wove the spells that the bond that he'd already fixed between her, Victor, and Victoria would make things easier. But even still! This is a big feat of magic. There's a lot that can go wrong. Especially when one takes into account the vast divide that still stretches between her and her living friends. . .

"Should we fetch a glass of warm milk?"

Emily glances up to see Black Widow dangling from the ceiling on a thin thread of silk, swaying gently to and fro. Maggot's wrapped around her, mouth turned down in a concerned pout. "Just that we thought you'd already be asleep by now," Widow continues, descending gracefully until her legs touch the coffin's lid. "You were so excited earlier."

"It's all turned to worry," Emily admits, running her fingers through her knotted hair. One of these days, I really have to let Victor take a comb to this. It – it might not all come out. Maybe. "And thank you for the offer, but – you know it wouldn't actually help." She spreads her skeletal fingers before her face, watching her ring catch the lamplight. "I'd need a stomach that could actually digest things."

"The Elder said you being dead shouldn't matter," Maggot points out, crawling toward her.

"I know, and I want to believe him, but. . ." She sniffs, eyes going watery. "What if it is too much? Two barriers to break in one night. . .And I don't have to sleep the same way they do. I have to think about it. What if it takes me too long and I miss out on my chance to see them? Or what if – what if we do all have to be holding hands, no matter what other magic holds us together?"

"Elder Gutknecht seemed quite sure it would be fine," Black Widow says, blinking four of her eight eyes. "Do you think he'd give you false hope like that?"

"Not intentionally. . ." Emily sighs deeply. "Maybe it's more that I want to be Upstairs, holding their hands. Lying in bed with them, wrapped up in a blanket. . ." Her gaze shifts to her other hand, blue fingers clutching her skirt. "Warm and – soft. . ."

Black Widow and Maggot share a look. "We wish we could help, dear," Widow says, scuttling over to her shoulder. "We really do."

"I know," Emily whispers. "And it means a lot that you keep letting me go on about it." She strokes the back of Widow's abdomen with a finger. "I'm happy, I really am. Being Victor and Victoria's wife. . .it's more than I ever dreamed. And I don't want to give up my friends, or the freedom I have down here. But. . ." Her shoulders slump. "It would have been so nice if we'd all been alive at the same time. Met under nicer circumstances. If I could attend the dinners and balls, instead of just hearing about them second-hand. Have long conversations whenever we wanted, instead of just one night a month. Help with all the joys and sorrows, instead of congratulating them or comforting them after the fact." She touches her mouth. "Actually – actually feel it when they kiss me."

"We could have talked them into drinking the Wine of Ages," Maggot reminds her. "Least you'd all be in the same boat then."

Emily shoots her best glare at him. "I was not about to do that to the people I love. I want them to have the life I never got. To make the most of their time Upstairs. And I'm grateful I can be part of it, in some little way." She leans heavily on her bony arm. "I just can't stop myself wishing it was in a big way."

"Well, if this works, you could see them every night," Black Widow reminds her. "That would definitely be a bigger way, wouldn't it?"

Emily smiles. "That's true. So long as Alice stays with them – and I don't think she's in any hurry to leave."

"Right, the new Little Miss Living," Maggot says, tapping his tail with a scowl.

"Don't start," Emily scolds. "She's their friend – and mine too. You just don't like her because she called you 'a nosy little bug who puts the creepy into creepy-crawly.'"

Maggot glares while Widow hides a giggle. "I'm just saying – she's up there, with her beating heart and breathing lungs, getting awfully close to your husband and wife. . ."

"How dare an orphan who's lost everything want a new family," Emily replies blandly. "She can get as close to them as she likes. I miss her too when I'm down here, you know. She's so kind, and her stories are an absolute delight." She grins, running her finger along the whorls in the dark brown wood beneath her. Certainly not as flashy as orange, but pleasant in its own way. "And I've never met anyone with such a biting sense of humor."

"You've said," Widow nods, clambering back onto the coffin lid. "And if you don't hurry to meet her, you might be on the other end of it."

"Ah – didn't think of that," Emily admits. "Now that's a good reason to give all this a try." She swings her legs up, then settles herself against the pink padding, crossing her arms in accordance with some strange instinct. (Never even properly laid to rest and still she does that whenever she gives sleep a try. Maybe the memory of being buried sinks into the bones of everyone in the Land of the Dead, regardless of how they got there.) "Good night then."

"Good night," Widow says, herding a still-grumpy Maggot away. "And good luck."

"Thank you." Emily shuts her eyes as the pair head off. Now. . .how did I always fall asleep when I was alive? I remember – I always had to wiggle a bit to find just the right position on the bed. . .and dig the back of my head into the pillow. . .then I'd lie as still as possible, listening to all the little sounds outside my window. . .the tinkle of the crier's bell, the rustle of the trees in the wind, the soft buzz of insects in summer and the pat-pat-pat of rain in winter. . .my limbs getting heavier all the while as the bed got softer and –

"AAAAAAHHHHH!"

"Vanished" was not supposed to be the next word in that sentence, Emily knows that much! Her eyes snap open as she tumbles head over heels through space. The alleyway where she makes her home is gone, replaced by a strange tunnel full of shifting colors –

And kitchen cabinets, gaping open and spilling plates and glasses into the void. Emily blinks as a serving tray tumbles past her head. "The rabbit hole is rather – chaotic, even at the best of times," echoes across her memory – Alice's warning to them the night before. "But nothing should actually hurt you there. Just try to avoid crashing into anything."

A fireplace poker whistles by, shattering a glass as it does. "Easier said than done, Alice," Emily gripes, waving her hand in front of her face to keep the shards out of it. "At least this proves I made it. . .and here's me thinking Bonejangles's room at the Ball & Socket is the messiest place I've ever seen. Chaotic indeed. . ." 

With an effort (and the help of her train as a counterbalance), she manages to flip herself over, taking a look at the bottom of the hole. There's a circle of bright blue there, growing larger by the second. Sky, she assumes. . .the Vale of Tears? That's where Alice had suggested they all land. . . Though at this point I'll take any place free of the threat of my skull accidentally getting caved in, she thinks, glancing up and eyeing a stove plummeting down just a few feet above her. Alice goes through this every time she comes here? No wonder everyone thinks she's tough as nails. Maybe I'll get used to it eventually too. . .

The blue envelops her, swirling rainbow fog and disassembled kitchen left behind. For a moment, she falls in peace, plunging through layers of thin cloud. Then, with no warning, a golden glow surrounds her, growing brighter and brighter until she can't see anything else. She screws up her eyes, only for the light to flash blinding white straight through her lids, accompanied by what sounds like a thunderclap –

Splooosh! "Aaaah!"

And then the light vanishes, replaced by a very watery darkness. Emily jerks her head up, flailing like a hooked fish in an attempt to get her bearings. "Gah! Wet! Cold! Wet! Cold!" she shrieks, rolling over in a desperate search for dry land.

Wait. Wait just a moment.

Wet?

Cold?

Emily freezes, breath catching in her throat. She's – she's wet. And she's cold. She hasn't been either of those things since she died. And – and that stuck breath – she's breathing. Just – naturally. Without even thinking about it. Just like she doesn't have to think about the scent of roses on the breeze, or the taste of salty water on her tongue, or the feel of the smooth, cool ring against her finger. . . She levers herself up to a sitting position, shaking out her hair and blinking clear her eyes. Then, slowly, carefully, she lifts her left hand in front of her face.

There's skin there. Real skin – not blue, but cream. Real flesh, real muscle, real veins. . .all the way down her arm, right up to her shoulder. She picks up her right leg. No loose knee, no sagging ankle flesh – just a leg. Like it was before. Shaking, she turns her gaze to her reflection. Familiar blue eyes stare back at her, from a face she hasn't seen in years. Blonde hair. Full cheeks. Little pointed nose. She touches it gingerly, afraid it'll fade away under her fingertips. Flesh, warm and solid (and still very damp), greets her probing. She gapes into the water, brain whirling as she tries to make sense of it all. I'm – alive. I'm alive. I'm alive.

"Er, excuse me?"

She looks up – and there's Victor on the riverbank, wearing an expression of polite confusion. "Do pardon me, but are you all right? Just you. . .seem. . .to. . ."

His voice trails off as he gets a proper look at her face. His large eyes somehow get even wider as politeness morphs into shock. "Emily?" he finally squeaks, dumbfounded.

And just like that, she can't hold it in anymore. "Victor!"

She flings herself on him, laughing giddily as the tears pour from her eyes. Victor staggers, back hitting a tree as he tries to keep upright. "Victor! Oh, Victor!"

"Emily? How–" But he doesn't get any farther, her lips cutting him off with the urgency of the decades-long dead. He's warm and soft and delicious, better than Eddie ever was, and oh God how did she go this long without knowing how he tastes? She kisses him again, hot and hungry, relishing in his steaming breath, in her stuttering heart. Oh, nothing's been so wonderful for years.

His arms wrap around her, and he gasps as she finally lets him up for air. "Oh," he whispers. "Oh my. . .Emily!" He cups her face with his hands, face bright with baffled delight. "How?"

"I don't know!" Emily squeals, smile so wide it's about to split her face straight in half. "It just – I went to sleep, and fell down the rabbit hole, and then there was this big flash and suddenly I'm in the water and I'm alive!" She squeezes him tight. "Where are the others?"

"Just past the bleeding hearts – Victoria! Alice!" Victor calls, laughing as she tickles his neck with more kisses. She can't help herself – it all feels so good! "Over here! I've found her!"

The nearby flowers part, heart-shaped buds swelling as Victoria and Alice push their way through. "Oh, good!" Victoria starts, smiling – only to stop dead as she catches sight of Emily. "What – what the–"

Emily releases Victor in favor of half-tackling Victoria, kissing her face all over. "I know! Darling, my darling, look at me! Look at me!"

"I'm trying!" Victoria laughs, returning the kisses with lips as soft as satin. "Oh, Emily, this is wonderful!"

"So this is what you looked like when you were alive?" Alice asks, observing the scene with an amused grin.

"Yes!" Emily turns to crush Alice against her too, kiss-bruised lips already seeking out the next pair – then she remembers herself just in time and steps back, hands on Alice's shoulders. Oh wow, it even feels good to blush! "Sorry, sorry. . .I'm excited," she says, bouncing on her heels.

"No, really?" Alice chuckles and pulls her in for the hug. "Well – this was quite unexpected, but I'm happy for you."

Victor looks between them, one eyebrow raised. "Do you think this has something to do with you looking different, Alice?"

"Mm?" Emily pulls away for a better look at her friend. Her face is a bit different – hair longer and lighter, cheeks less gaunt, lips a touch pinker. "Oh! Sorry, Alice, I didn't – you look very nice."

"It's fine – I can understand you were a bit distracted," Alice says with a smirk. "And thank you. This is the way I've always wanted to look – only life circumstances forbid." She smooths out her dress – a sunny blue, covered with a white apron. Emily bites back her question about the red stains. "And you know, Victor, I think you're onto something. If Wonderland lets me be my ideal self here, why wouldn't it do the same for all of you?"

"We don't look any different, though," Victoria points out, indicating herself and Victor.

"Do you want to?"

Victoria bites her lip thoughtfully. "Well – no, not really. Mother and Father might accuse me of having the face of an otter, but – I've always been quite satisfied with my looks, for the most part."

"I've occasionally daydreamed about being more like the popular boys. . .but honestly, this is what feels comfortable," Victor admits, sweeping a hand up and down his lanky frame. "I wouldn't like to look in the mirror and see a stranger."

"I think you're perfectly handsome just the way you are," Emily agrees, wrapping him in a hug. "And I was talking with Widow and Maggot about how nice it would have been to be alive at the same time as all of you before I went to sleep. . ." She admires her hand again for a moment, then sighs. "Too bad it's only a dream."

"Maybe – but it's all our dream, right now," Victoria says, touching her back. "And it can keep being our dream. Every night if you want."

Emily grins, relishing the contact. "I think I do."

"I think I do too," Alice says, smiling. "Wonderland's a big place, after all. And I want to show you every inch of it." She picks up the end of Emily's skirt, rubbing it between her fingers. "Though we should probably start with a place for you to dry off. . .if we humor the Duchess by listening to a few morals, she should let us use her fire."

"Lead the way," Emily says, bouncing again. And to think I was scared to try this before! This is the most delightful thing that's happened to me since – since ever! She grins at Alice's brown hair, streaming out behind her in the soft breeze as they set off. I am going to cherish that shade for the rest of my afterlife. The rest of my regular life! Who cares if it's only for a few hours a night? I can still bask in the sunshine, and eat fresh food, and kiss without worrying I taste like rot, and – She titters, blushing again. Well, we'll probably have to work up to that one. Patience, Emily, patience. You can't just rush in and expect the three of them to –

Three?

She blinks, stopping. She'd – she'd just sort of automatically included Alice in all of those imaginings. Thought about what she might feel like, taste like, just as enthusiastically as she'd wondered about Victor and Victoria. And she'd been so ready to just dive in and kiss her before. . .she looks again at Alice, taking in the flowing hair, the strong arms, the long legs. Perhaps she's not a traditional beauty – certainly not in the same way as Victoria – but. . .

"Emily?" Victor touches her arm. "Everything all right?"

Emily shakes her head, yanking her eyes away from their fearless leader. "Yes," she assures him, hurrying to catch up with Victoria and Alice. "Just – thinking about all I want to do now that I'm alive." And how I want to do it all with all three of you. . .oh dear. Doesn't this complicate matters.

Chapter Text

Ya know. . .the afterlife is pretty freaking good. Even if I'm not currently in it right now.

Bonejangles (or, as he's known to certain people these days, Sam) leans back against the couch, watching Liz across the room. She's hunched over the chessboard opposite her sister, giving the pieces still on it a good hard glare. Which is understandable, as her reds are looking pretty sparse. It's a rare sight for Bonejangles – whenever he and Liz go a round Downstairs, she invariably kicks his bony behind. But it seems Alice is more than a match for his girl.

He grins a little brighter, teeth catching the golden lamplight – his girl. A good month since they went ahead and made it official, and thinking that still gives him a little glow. For ages, he was sure he wasn't ever gonna settle down with someone. He'd had some fun, both Upstairs and Down – a little casual flirting, some stolen kisses, the occasional quickie in a tavern or inn. But none of those ladies had been looking for forever, and he hadn't either. His love was his music – the beat of a new song in his head, the snap of fingers keeping time, the thrill of belting it all out in front of an eager crowd. What lady, however nice, could compare to that?

And then he'd stumbled across Liz. Liz, who was genteel and smart as a whip, but didn't think him stupid just 'cause he'd grown up out in the sticks. Liz, who comforted and cooed to dead-before-their-time baby birds, then turned around and cut down with a razor-sharp tongue some arsehole who thought since he'd died he could get away with anything. Liz, who loved a quiet night in with a book as much as having a few drinks at the Ball & Socket. Liz, who seemed to dance to the same internal tune he did, and who backed it up with the brightest, happiest color he'd gotten since Emily's orange. Damn shame we couldn't have met up while we were both breathin', he thinks, adjusting his hat. But considerin' I'm technically thirteen years older than her, maybe that wouldn't have worked out so great. Important bit is that we're together now. And if I'm lucky, we'll be together 'til it's time for us to move on.

"You look rather deep in thought."

Bonejangles looks up to see Victor leaning over him, arms folded on the back of the couch. "Just remindin' myself what a jackpot I scored," he says, jerking his head toward Liz as she finally moves a pawn. "Heck of a gal, you know. Sunshine of my afterlife." He winks, eye rolling from one socket to the other. "'Specially now that I know what that looks like."

Victor chuckles softly. "She is," he agrees. "I think it's a Liddell family trait." His gaze goes to Alice, picking over her pieces. "Alice is quite something herself."

"Got that impression when I met her, yeah," Bonejangles nods. "And you should hear Emily go on about her these days. She's over the moon about that sleep-spell thing the Elder set up for ya. Apparently this 'Wonderland' is the best place ever."

"Oh, it is!" Victor cries, face bright. "Alice's imagination is beyond compare! There's Hatter's Domain and the tea factories, and the Village of the Doomed with the opal mines, the Deluded Depths full of strange and unusual fish, the Wonderland Woods populated by intelligent insects, Looking-Glass Land and the living chess people, and – oh, I don't even know how to put Cardbridge into words!" He lets out a deep, beaming sigh. "It's all amazing and beautiful and – oh, I wish you and Lizzie could come along. You'd love it."

"Maybe we can try hitching a ride on one of Emily's naps," Bonejangles muses, scratching his skull. "Works well enough to get us Up here. . .in the meantime, we don't mind hearing about it second-hand." He watches as Alice captures Liz's pawn. "Glad you got something to look forward to each night, though. From what I hear from Ems, your folks have started makin' noises about Alice again."

Victor's face goes dark. "That implies they ever stopped," he grumbles, slumping down. "Mother's gotten very vocal about us 'fostering some mad orphan off the streets.' As if Alice were our child, not our friend! And as if that was something to be ashamed of! Shouldn't she be proud we saved someone from the horrors of Whitechapel?"

"Ain't like Alice don't have a pedigree either – maybe no title, but bein' the daughter of a famous university dean gotta count for something," Bonejangles agrees, grinding his teeth. "Not to mention savin' all those kids from Bumby. . .good luck your ma and pop don't ever wanna meet us. They wouldn't last five minutes in the same room as Liz."

"I know," Victor mutters. "Not to mention the Everglots and their attitude. 'We've debased ourselves enough by letting our daughter marry the son of fish merchants – let's not even get into the matter of the dead woman. Must you keep taking in strays on top of that?'" He huffs, rolling his eyes heavenward. "Fortunately for us, they prefer sending coldly polite notes to actually visiting."

Bonejangles shakes his head as Lizzie snatches Alice's sole remaining white knight. "How is it you and Victoria ended up so nice with folks like that?"

"Well, both of us were raised more by the servants than our parents. . ." Victor smiles as Alice has her bishop "zap" Lizzie's, to her sister's frustrated amusement. "But more than once, I've wondered if I could somehow take the Liddell family name. Arthur and Lorina might be willing, right? Adoption isn't until 'death do you part.'"

Bonejangles laughs. "Eh – you could always do like you did with Ems. Sort-of-kind-of marry Alice and take her name 'stead of you givin' her yours!"

Victor's entire head goes strawberry pink (thanks for that one, Ms. Plum). "Ah – uh – t-that – that probably isn't–" he babbles, tangling his tie around his fingers. "I mean – it's n-not done, I don't – not that I – she's – she's wonderful and I would – but–"

Bonejangles blinks. All right, he knows from experience that Victor turns into a stuttery mess when you tease him. (That's why he makes sure to do it at least once per visit.) But this seems – different. Something about how dark he's going around the ears, and the weirdly guilty look in his eyes, and the way he'd said she's "wonderful," in the same tone he always uses for Victoria and Emily –

His eye almost falls out of its socket as it clicks. "Wait, really? You wanna–"

"Shhh!" Victor ducks his head down next to Bonejangles's skull. "I haven't – I only realized t-the other day! Just – she's been w-with us for a few months now, and we've s-spent a lot of time together, and – and. . ." He sighs, a smile spreading across his face despite himself. "And she's amazing. So smart, and kind, and pretty. . .I feel as much at home with her as I do with Victoria and Emily. She doesn't think any less of me for being clumsy, or sometimes putting my foot in my mouth. She calls my music 'delightful,' and she praises my drawings of Wonderland to the skies. She told me that if she does write that book we keep insisting on, I'm the only one she'd want to illustrate it. And we have such fun conversations, and – really, my only 'complaint' is that she prefers cats to dogs."

Bonejangles snorts. "Yeah, I hear ya. Whole family loves the furry little terrors." He rolls his eye to the right, turning serious again. "Look, I know all about fallin' in love when you were least expectin' it. But you've already got this thing goin' on–"

"I know," Victor cuts in, shaking his head. "Like I said, I only just realized, and – I just n-need a bit of time to – process. Before I tell Victor and Emily. And Alice." He cringes, gritting his teeth. "Especially Alice. I'm – worried about how she might react."

"Trust me, I can relate," Bonejangles says, nonexistent stomach twisting as he recalls all his half-starts at telling Liz his true feelings. "But Liz didn't chuck anything at me when I fessed up, so you're probably safe there." He tilts his head. "Don't think she feels the same way about you?"

"Well, I know she likes me – all of us," Victor murmurs, as Lizzie manages to snatch up Alice's rook. "But. . .I don't know. She's never seemed to want anything romantic. . .and my marital situation is complicated enough as it is. . .I don't know," he repeats, letting his head droop. "I'm happy enough to let things go on like this, I suppose. There's just this – this little part of me that so hopes. . ."

Bonjangles swings his top half around to clap Victor on the shoulder. "Hey – you, Victoria, and Emily make it work with three. Guess there's no reason why it can't be four. If she's up for it."

"And isn't that the rub," Victor nods. "I'll keep thinking about it. See – see what Victoria and Emily want first." He gives Bonejangles the puppy-dog eyes. "Don't tell Lizzie? At least, not until we've had a chance to talk to Alice?"

"Lips sealed," Bonejangles promises, zipping his finger across his teeth. "If I had 'em, anyway. Just don't wait too long for that talk."

"Right."

"Checkmate!"

Alice proudly waves her hand over the board, clutching Liz's king. "That's three to one, Lizzie! Even if we do best out of five, I'm clearly the champion."

"Yes, well, allow me the option of salvaging my dignity, at least," Liz grumbles, gathering up her captured pieces and setting them back on the board.

"Oh, Alice never misses an opportunity to eviscerate someone's dignity," Victor says, going over and patting Alice's shoulder. "Exhibit A – every comment about how 'the wall doesn't move, Victor' whenever I miss the door."

"That's less about your dignity and more to get you in the habit of looking where you're going," Alice tells him, glancing up at him with fond exasperation. "You have a tendency to head off into your own little world inside your head whenever you should be doing something else."

"Sounds like someone else I know," Liz says blandly.

"How do you think I recognized it in him?"

Emily appears in the doorway, waving a wooden spoon. "Dinner's ready, everyone!"

"Ah – looks like your dignity will have to wait until after the evening meal," Alice informs her sister, standing up. She turns to Victor with a smile. "Mr. Van Dort, might I trouble you to escort me to the dining room?"

Victor bows and offers her his arm. "I would be delighted, Miss Liddell."

Alice giggles and takes it, and the two follow Emily as she heads down the hall. Bonejangles spins his ribs back around and levers himself off the couch. "Ready to grab some grub, Liz?" he asks, offering her his hand.

"Yes, even if I won't really be able to taste it." Liz interlocks their fingers, and they fall into step behind their friends. "What were you and Victor talking about?"

"Oh, Alice and her Wonderland stuff," Bonejangles says smoothly – hey, it is the truth! "And how annoying Victor's parents are."

"Ah, yes, that seems to be a never-ending fount of irritation," Liz nods. "Perhaps I should talk Mama and Papa into giving him and his brides the chance to become Liddells."

Bonejangles laughs, hoping it doesn't sound too awkward. "Yeah, Victor's all for it himself. He, uh, really likes your family. 'Specially your sister."

"I know." Liz looks ahead of them at Victor and Alice, expression thoughtful. "She – really likes him too."

The way she says that makes Bonejangles wish he had an eyebrow to raise. He turns his attention to the pair in front. They are walking awfully close together. . .and Alice keeps giving Victor little soft smiley glances. Sort of like. . .well. Sort of like the ones Liz gives him whenever they're out and about together. He rolls his eye back to the other socket, scratching the back of his skull. "Huh."

All righty then – looks like Victor has one less thing to worry about.

Chapter Text

"There, perfect! Now try the F Major scale."

Victoria pauses before the door to the music room, her trip to her embroidery hoop arrested by the sounds within. Ah – must be just after three, she thinks with a little smile. I'd almost forgotten Alice has her lesson today. . .I hope she's progressing faster than I am. I swear, my fingers seem to make a game of finding the absolute worst note to put in any chord. She presses her hand against her mouth to hold in a titter. Not to mention how distracting my tutors can be. . .

Judging by the ease with which she plays the scale, though, it seems Alice is not hampered by a similar lack of skill or attention. Of course, she does have an advantage – the Liddells, unlike her own parents, were not against music lessons for small girls – but Victoria is quite sure that being stuck in an asylum for ten years more than balances that out. Unable to help herself, she pushes the door open as softly as she can and pokes her head inside. Her husband and their perpetual house guest are seated side by side on the bench in front of Victor's pride and joy, Victor watching admiringly as Alice picks out each delicate note. "Beautiful," he praises as she hits the final F. "All right, let's finish off the warm-up. What do you think of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' today?"

"I'm more familiar with 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat,'" Alice responds, glancing over at him with a smirk.

"Ha ha – you know very well it's the same tune, within Wonderland or without," Victor retorts, gently poking her in the side.

"Not the way Hatter sings it."

Victoria bites back a giggle, not wanting to interrupt. Typical Alice. . .oh, am I glad we ran into you that night at the opera! It would have been nicer if it hadn't been literally in Victor's case, of course, but – I never thought I'd have a friend like you! Or a friend at all, really. She twiddles her fingers as she remembers all the lonely days in her bare playroom, with only one doll to call a companion. Hildegarde had been kindness itself, but she'd been needed all over the house – and being so much older, she'd always been a bit more of a parent than a friend. The few noble girls she'd met, during increasingly rare outings, had already had established social groups – and none of them had been interested in opening up a place for shy, retiring Victoria. The boys had been even more aloof, barely even looking her way due to her being such an unsuitable prospect. And Victor and Emily. . .oh, they're lovely, she adores them so, but they had more or less fallen straight in from acquaintances to lovers. For all her happiness at being their mutual wife, there had still been a gap in her life.

A gap which Alice and her brilliant red has slipped into perfectly. Oh, there had been that touch of difficulty when they'd first met – having to explain the Emily situation in a way that didn't make them look – twisted. And no human being can live with another without arguing sometimes. But for the most part, Alice's presence in the house has been everything Victoria had dreamed of, growing up. Long talks in the garden over tea, discussing everything from the latest fashions (Alice is not in favor of bustles – "Why are women so intent on having a bottom so large one could sit on it? Are they planning to rent themselves out for rides?") to the state of children's literature today (Victoria still thinks Alice should write a book on Wonderland – "You have the perfect counterpoint to all of Mr. Carroll's moralizing, you know. I would have loved to read a nonsensical adventure through a world like yours as a girl!"). Little shared glances, over the latest invitation to a ball her parents have sent for propriety's sake alone, to Nell's continuous monologuing over how her latest acquisition will catapult her and William into the upper reaches of society for sure, to Victor walking into yet another piece of furniture because he was working on a song. Laughter over shared jokes, tears over shared losses. And, of course, nowadays, all their incredible, amazing adventures in Wonderland, exploring the domains on offer and building little worlds of their own. It's no wonder she gave me such a bold color – she herself is as bright and strong, Victoria thinks with a fond smile. Mother and Father and the Van Dorts can hint that it's time for her go to all she likes – their opinions aren't worth tuppence in this house. If she wants to stay for the rest of her life, Victor and I will gladly shelter her.

A sour note followed by a huff breaks through her thoughts. "Oh for – why is it I continually fumble that one note?" Alice complains, glaring at her hands as if they have minds of their own.

"It just takes time," Victor assures her. "I made plenty of mistakes when I was first learning. And even now, I sometimes slip up. You just have to keep trying, until your fingers know the notes better than you do." He plays a snippet of the tune on his side of the keyboard. "Practice practice practice, as they all say."

"'They' say a lot of things," Alice shoots back. "And even if 'they're' right, my fingers are determined to learn the wrong thing."

"Well, my fingers know better than yours, so – here." Victor places his hands atop Alice's, guiding them through the notes. "C C G G A A G – F F E E D D C."

"Right, I know that," Alice nods. "So why do I keep pressing D again?"

"Well, the next line does end with D. . .G G F F E E D," Victor recites as he puppets Alice's unruly digits. "Maybe your mind is just skipping ahead."

"Hmph. I wish it would stay in one place," Alice grumbles, pressing G again to underline her words. "At least for the duration of the lesson."

Victor takes her hand in his, rubbing his thumb against hers. "Hey – I like the way your mind moves."

"You are a member of an exceedingly rare breed," Alice informs him, through a smile that rather contradicts her tone.

"Am I? There seems to be three of us in this very house."

"Not quite accurate – Emily's more often in the Land of the Dead than here."

"Perhaps, but I think my point holds."

"As does mine – three people is still rare," Alice says, grinning. "Goodness, not even Nanny approves of Wonderland anymore. She worries that I won't ever be able to cope with the real world if I keep it around."

"You seemed to be coping just fine when we first met you," Victor points out. He leans toward her, making a motion suggesting he'd like to run his fingers through her lengthening hair. "And, if I may be so bold, you're thriving here."

Alice smiles. "Amazing what a difference having a real bed, and fresh food, and people who–"

She stops suddenly, as if abruptly conscious of how little distance there really is between her and Victor. Green eyes meet black as her fingers curl around his hand. "People who – who care about you makes," she continues in a softer voice.

Victor opens his mouth, then shuts it again, apparently unsure how to reply. Victoria doesn't blame him – her own jaw is hanging open in astonishment. The way they're looking at each other – hands still linked, faces not more than a foot apart. . .the silence between them is electric, full of potentials and what-ifs. Victoria would not be surprised if they just went ahead and kissed each other.

And – she wouldn't be jealous either.

The realization rocks her like a hit from Alice's Hobby Horse. She genuinely would not be jealous if Victor and Alice acted on this crackling moment of hidden desire. Not a jot. Because – well, she's well acquainted with the fact that Victor has more than enough room in his heart for multiple partners. It's the basis of their entire marriage. It would be strange to be angry now, when she already shares him with Emily. Emily, whom she loves with a fiery passion that would make her mother lock her away in the attic for the rest of her life. She herself has room for two in her heart! And – and now – looking at Victor and Alice together, thrilling in anticipation for what might happen. . .wondering what it would be like to be in Victor's place, those lovely soft fingers in her hand, those lips so near to hers. . .she knows.

She has room for three.

And then Victor looks away, blushing, and the moment is over. "I – w-well – we're h-happy to have you," he says, dropping Alice's hand to rub the back of his head. "Which I know w-we say a lot, b-but. . . ."

"I never mind a repeat," Alice assures him, rather pink herself. She scoots a couple of inches away along the bench and sets her eyes firmly on the keyboard. "Which is good, as that's the essence of this lesson, isn't it?" She taps out the tune, carefully and deliberately. "C C G G A A G – F F E E D D C."

"Exactly," Victor nods, schooling his features back into a teacher's smile. Only someone such as Victoria could spot the longing still lurking in his eyes. "I told you you could do it. Now just go over it a couple times more. Since you've gotten it right once, you're more likely to get it right again."

"Fingers crossed," Alice says, before favoring him with another little grin. "Your fingers, anyway – I need mine."

Victor's chuckle is the perfect mask for Victoria shutting the door. She slips away, down the hall and around the corner. Well, she thinks, one hand pressed against her heart. That wasn't a revelation I expected to have today. Especially after thinking about how nice it was to have a friend! She fixes a few hairs that have come loose from her bun, smiling despite herself. Ah well – perhaps one day I'll make friends with another lady and not end up falling in love with her. It's bound to happen eventually, right? She smooths out her skirts, worrying her lip briefly. The real question now is – how does she feel about all of us? There's no mistaking the way she looked at Victor, but – she's never hinted at wanting romance with me or Emily before. She seemed rather indifferent to the whole business, honestly.

On the other hand. . .she did say "people." And Alice has always been one to say what she means. And mean what she says, as Hatter would reverse it. Victoria presses briefly at the corner of her eyes, then continues on to the sewing room. I'll write Emily before we have our tea. See what she thinks of all this. And then have a talk with Victor tonight, before we retire. I can guess his feelings just from what I saw, but – best to hear it from him, isn't it? We've all got to be on the same page, after all. She grins in hopeful anticipation. And if we are. . .we need to make sure that bed of ours is wide enough for another.

Chapter Text

All right. There must be a way to bring this up without ruining what we've already got.

Alice paces up and down her room, worrying her lip with her teeth as she ponders. Cheshire lounges on the bed behind her, watching her with an annoyingly unconcerned air. "How do I do it, Cat?" she asks him, against her better judgment. "How do I say what I need to say?"

"The generally accepted method is to move your lips and tongue while forcing air through your throat," Cheshire replies, flicking an ear.

Alice glares at him, coming to a stop. "You know what I mean, blasted creature."

"I still see nothing wrong with my answer. Other than to add that you should be standing before them when you do it." He rolls onto his back, pawing at the air. "For four months, your rainbow has been expanded. Why is it only now that you worry?"

"Because. . .because now things are more complicated," Alice says, sinking onto the bed beside him. "Everything was fine when they were important to me just because they could reunite me with my family. When we were all simply good friends. Now that I know it's – more than that. . ." She knots up her fingers. "These past few months have been some of the happiest of my life. I don't. . .I don't want them to end."

"Everything ends – unless it doesn't," Cheshire comments, tail idly thumping against the bedclothes.

Alice huffs. "Very helpful, Cat."

"An end is never guaranteed. My end should have been at the Queen's tentacle, yet here I am."

"Because I brought you back. I don't know if I could so easily resurrect my relationship with my hosts." Alice taps an anxious foot against the grass-covered floorboards. "Meeting Victor and Victoria and Emily. . .escaping Whitechapel for Burtonsville. . .discovering magic and the Land of the Dead. . .they're quite simply the best things that ever happened to me. To put all of it in jeopardy because – because. . .I. . ."

Cheshire flips himself back over, placing a paw on her knee. "Their definition of two is already three," he reminds her, tone finally serious. "Do you truly think they could not be persuaded to expand it to four?"

"I don't know," Alice whispers. "My heart aches for it to be so, but my head. . ." She flops over, arms outstretched. "It's generally accepted that people don't fall in love with mad women."

"It's also generally accepted that people don't fall in love with the dead either."

"Most of the dead aren't Emily." Alice presses her hands against her face. "She's so – bubbly, and enthusiastic, and musical. How am I supposed to measure up? Even as a rotting corpse, she's better wife material than I am."

"And this is an issue how?" Cheshire inquires, one furry brow lifting. "The last I checked, Victor had already filled his allowance of one living bride."

"Yes – with the sweetest, gentlest, most domestic woman on the planet. How do I stand against her? How could I interest her? Or Emily? They've – they've already got everything they need with each other. As does Victor. They're a perfect little group of three, and I'm. . ." She waves a hand in the air, before letting it fall back to the mattress. "I'm the house guest they took pity on."

Cheshire climbs onto her belly, closing his mouth over his permanent grin – as close to frowning as he can come. "Are those your words? Or do they belong to" His voice lowers, darkens to a familiar growl. "Someone else?"

"The Jabberwock is as much a part of my mind as the rest of you, so they would be mine anyway," Alice retorts, then sighs. "Can you blame me for being afraid, Cat? I've lost so much already, and only just found it again. To lose them, and my family through them. . ." She stares at the mushrooms growing up the walls, the tree branches poking through the ceiling. "My grip on sanity has never been particularly strong. If I got myself thrown out of the house with an ill-conceived declaration of – affection. . .well, my mind might be happy in Wonderland, but I doubt my body would appreciate a trip back to the madhouse."

"If it did come to that, I doubt Wonderland would remain wonderful enough for you to enjoy," Cheshire replies. His smile comes back, beaming bright. "In fact, is that not a point in your scheme's favor? With their addition, our world has never been brighter. With disaster looming, would we be so cheerful?"

"Hatter was having a very nice tea party indeed before the fire," Alice replies. She rubs her eyes. "Look – I know I'm probably making too much of it. Victor, Victoria, and Emily are all exceedingly kind – it's unlikely I'll be tossed out on my ear, no matter what I say. But you've seen the sort of big, dramatic mess I make when I'm struggling with something. Not once, but twice."

"And we've forced you to clean them up, not once, but twice," Cheshire shoots back. "So I feel justified in saying that, whatever comes, you will endure. You have conquered far worse." His tail swishes as he pokes her chest. "You are a woman of the mind, Alice. . .but perhaps, right here and now, it's time to follow your heart."

With that, he vanishes in a flash of mottled light – just in time for someone to knock on her door. "Alice?" Victoria's voice calls. "Are you all right?"

Oh for – mangy thing, you heard the footsteps, didn't you? "I'm fine," Alice calls, sitting up. "Just – dealing with the usual."

The door cracks open, revealing Victoria's concerned face. "Are you sure? I thought I heard pacing before."

Alice can feel Cheshire staring at her from the back of her skull, encouraging her to just get on with it. She runs her fingers through her hair. "There is something on my mind," she confesses slowly. "You'll have to excuse me if I'm a bit – well – Victorish when it comes to actually speaking of it, though. It's – hard for me to put into words."

Victoria smiles, coming inside. "We deal with Victor well enough." More seriously, she adds, "And you can tell me anything, you know. Any of us."

"I know." Alice glances at the grass beneath Victoria's feet – the grass only she can see. It's much prettier these days for having some color to it. Just like the rest of her life. And she knows the color doesn't leave once the person has stopped being important to you (she's reminded of that every time she sees someone with a skin tone darker than parchment – which isn't often in Burtonsville, to be fair). But – she doesn't want green, or yellow, or purple, to become a reminder of heartbreak and loss. For Wonderland to be tainted once more by bad memories. For her fragile happiness to shatter like the heart of a Dollgirl.

On the other hand, she doesn't want to listen to Cheshire gripe about her dithering when she should be moving, avoiding difficulty when she should be conquering it. And oh dear God, if he got Caterpillar involved. . .she steadies herself with a deep breath. Courage, Alice. It's hardly going up against the Jabberwock without the Eyestaff. Though it may hurt as much in the end. . . "You – you enjoy having me here, don't you?"

Victoria frowns, surprised. "Why – of course!" she insists, coming closer. "We're very happy to have you with us. Has Nell been making you feel uncomfortable again? Victor's tried to talk to her, but she doesn't listen at the best of times. . ."

"No, no – whatever his parents, or yours, have to say about me, I've heard much worse in Whitechapel," Alice assures her, waving a hand. "It's just – I've come to a realization lately, and. . ." She stands up, rocking to and fro. "I like what we have now. Your hospitality has been beyond compare, and I thank you. But I find myself wanting – more."

Victoria tilts her head, pursing her lips. "More?" she echoes.

This is it, Alice. The tipping point. Now or never. "Yes," she nods, not quite meeting Victoria's gaze. "You see. . .you know how you and Emily – how you love each other? The same as you love Victor? I – I'm like that too." Victoria's eyes widen. "Well, sort of. I've never – before here, I wasn't even interested in men, let alone women. And now. . .it's – it's more you that I want, than ladies in general. You and Emily. And Victor, not men. And even then, I'm not really – the bed is still yours, so to speak? I don't – I just want – I want the kissing, and the cuddling, and – and I'm very happy with how things are going right now!" she adds hastily. "Please don't get me wrong on that! And I know your marriage is already very u-unusual, and I don't want to rock the boat if–"

Oh dear, talk about Victorish – she's gone into a full-on, no-holds-barred panic ramble. Alice squeezes the top of her skirt, forcing herself to reign in her tongue. "I love you," she gets out at last. "I love all three of you."

The silence presses down on them for the longest ten seconds of Alice's life. Then Victoria's face absolutely lights up. "Oh – I told him so!"

Alice blinks, thrown. "What? Told who?"

"Told Victor that he ought to say something! That I was sure you felt the same way!" Victoria clasps her hands before her, grinning to beat the band. "Oh, he's going to be thrilled – and Emily too! She didn't want to say anything until he did, and – well, I wasn't sure I wanted to be the one to break the ice either. . ."

Cheshire's smile appears hanging in the air by her side, and Alice can practically feel the smugness radiating off of it. She doesn't even care though, her own relief and joy drowning out everything else. "So you–"

"I realized at your piano lesson the other day," Victoria says, taking her hands. "I peeked in, and when I saw the way you looked at Victor – I felt it all the way down in the pit of my stomach."

"I did too," Alice replies, thinking of that crackling moment – of how close she'd come to just announcing her feelings through a kiss. "Just like when we made that apple pie together, and I brushed the flour off your nose. . .or when Emily landed on me while we were jumping around the Deluded Depths, and her leg rubbed up against mine. . .I was just – so – scared to actually say anything. . ."

"It's fine – we all needed a moment too," Victoria assures her, tugging her closer. Alice realizes suddenly she's within breathing distance of her mouth. Her very pretty little mouth. . . "I was just about to talk them into speaking to you tonight. Telling you all together."

Oh, she's so close, so warm. . .and all of Wonderland is cheering for her, urging her on. . . "I'm glad to have spoilt your plans," Alice whispers, before giving into temptation and capturing Victoria's mouth with her own.

Her lips are as soft as her imaginings, to Alice's mild but delighted surprise. Perhaps not quite as sweet, but Victoria is, in the end, made of meat, not sugar. But she doesn't honestly give a damn about the little imperfections, or her own clumsy technique. It's an exhilarating first kiss all the same – and made all the better by the promise of more kisses to come.

"Oh!"

Victoria breaks away from her, and Alice opens her eyes again to see Victor standing in the doorway, watching them with wide eyes. He glances between their flushed faces, then ducks his own reddening head. "I – s-sorry, I didn't mean to–" he starts, rubbing the back of his hair as he peeks up at them with shy hopefulness.

Alice pulls a hand free of Victoria's, waving him over with her own Cheshire smile. "Get over here – you can still be my first kiss with a man. And then we need to write a quick note to Emily telling her to meet us in Wonderland right away." She grins at Victoria, who matches it beautifully. "Because I'm not waiting a minute longer than I must to tell you all how I feel now."

Chapter Text

"Ooooh, isn't he just darling!"

"He is," Victoria agrees, cradling their new son against her chest. Even after two years of marriage, Victor hasn't ever seen her this disheveled – hair flopping out of its loose braid across the pillow, eyes ringed with dark circles, traces of sweat and tears still visible on her cheeks. And yet, she's practically glowing, smile bright with motherly love for the tiny baby in her arms. "A little angel."

"Until he starts crying, anyway," Alice says, ever the realist. She scoots a little further up the bed for a closer look. "A handsome specimen of humanity, though. Well worth him taking seven hours to enter the world?"

"Yes – particularly after Dr. Johnson informed me that was quick for a first birth," Victoria replies. "He's helped women who have lingered in labor for over a whole day."

Victor winces, remembering the soft cries that had come through the door whenever he'd ventured up to the bedroom. "I'm glad you didn't. For both your sake and ours."

"Oh, I know – if I'd had to go back to the Land of the Dead while you were still sequestered in here, I would have thrown a fit!" Emily admits, tugging on her tangled blue locks. "They could have at least let Alice in to sit by your side! I know births aren't really appropriate for husbands or the dead, but. . ."

"If I'd had my way, all of you would have been in here – husbands, dead, and otherwise," Victoria huffs. "But Dr. Johnson and the midwife were insistent that I not get 'overexcited' by your presence, and I – I was in no condition to argue."

"Well, we're here now, at least." Emily waggles her skeletal fingers at the infant, beaming. "Hello, Chester!"

Chester peers up at her with deep blue eyes, the same shade as his mother's. Dr. Johnson had informed them that there was a chance they'd darken to brown before the month was out, but Victor hopes they stay exactly how they are. His son's already inherited his dreadfully pale skin, and his black hair if the wisps upon his head are anything to go by. Poor Victoria, who did most of the work in bringing him to life, ought to have something of herself showing though. He reaches out, stroking Chester's cheek with a delicate finger – Chester turns toward him, lips pursed as if to suck the digit. "Hello, Chester," he repeats softly. "Goodness, I – I never really thought I'd say that."

"Never thought you'd meet anyone named Chester?" Alice teases, gently nudging his side.

"Never thought I'd get to name anyone Chester," Victor responds, before smirking. "Although, given you were the one to suggest it. . ."

"You could have overruled it," Alice reminds him, returning the smirk. "I liked 'Vincent' well enough."

"No, it's fine," Victor assures her. "I thought it was sweet that you would want to honor the cat that helped push you toward us."

"Well, given that he's also been one of my staunchest allies in Wonderland, and helped me survive both the Queen and the Dollmaker – getting himself beheaded once, no less – I thought I owed him," Alice says, swinging a leg. She grins, as cheeky as the feline they're discussing. "And the look on his face when I told him – it is literally the only time I've ever seen him lost for words."

Victoria and Emily giggle. "Oh, I wish we'd been there when you broke the news," Emily says. "I'm sure it was fantastic."

"My mistake for not waiting until we were all asleep." Alice squints at Chester, then looks around the room. "Still nothing! This doesn't make sense!"

"What doesn't?" Victor asks, blinking.

"I must have made eye contact with this infant at least five times by now," Alice explains with a frown. "I still haven't gotten a new color."

"What?" Emily takes her own look. "Oh – I – I don't feel anything either." She bites her lip. "But you're right, Alice – that doesn't make sense! How can he not be important to us?"

"It can't be that – Dr. Johnson assured me he was healthy," Victoria says, grip tightening just a fraction on Chester's blanket. "That everything had gone well. And even if he – even if the w-worst was. . .you should still. . ."

Victor puts a steadying hand on her back. "It's all right," he soothes, brushing a stray lock of hair off her forehead. "I think I know exactly why they haven't gotten any colors."

"Why's that, then?" Alice asks, as Emily twists a fold in her skirt.

Victor gives them both his warmest smile. "Because Victoria and I haven't either. Everyone knows the one exception to the rule is your own parents."

Alice's brow furrows – then her eyebrows shoot up as it clicks. "Oh! Oh." She rubs the back of her head as her cheeks flush. "I didn't think. . .I mean, Victoria was the one who was actually pregnant. . ."

"If women who adopt babies count as the child's mother, so should you and Emily count for Chester," Victoria says, relaxing into relief. "Don't we all hold equal places in each other's hearts, after all?"

Emily presses a hand to her mouth, tears welling up in her eyes. "That's – that's right. I – oh, I thought for sure after what Eddie did, I would never be anyone's mother. Even an honorary one."

"I never believed I'd actually be anyone's father," Victor says, stretching across the bed to take her fleshed hand in his. "I was half-certain I would never get married, before Mother and Father sprung the Everglot match on me. I – I just couldn't believe anyone would ever want me."

"I felt the same," Victoria agrees, voice soft and sad. "I dreamed all my childhood of my wedding day, hoping for someone who loved me, but – as I got older, I thought it would only ever be a dream. That I'd end up in a marriage just like Mother and Father's. No love, just – tolerance."

"Tolerance was more than I ever hoped for," Alice says, wrapping her arm around Victor's waist and laying her hand on the bedspread over Victoria's knee. "After Rutledge, I was convinced that anything resembling a truly normal life was beyond my grasp. Marriage especially. What man would want someone who'd been in a madhouse? What woman, for that matter?" She glances at Chester, then smiles around the circle. "And now look at me. Look at us."

Emily nods, releasing Victor's hand in favor of hers, and slipping her other arm around Victoria. "I know. It's everything I've ever wanted. A life. A family."

"Me too," Victor nods, swallowing back the lump in his throat as he puts his now-free arm around Alice.

"Me three," Victoria agrees, leaning into his and Emily's touch. "Though, um, Alice – we should probably admit it's not really a normal life."

Alice snickers. "Well, honestly, I've never really liked 'normal,' so. . ." She turns her attention back to Chester, watching as he blinks at the ceiling. "So – thanks to all of us, he's starting out with a nice, solid set of grays. I wonder what his first true color will be?"

"We'll find out soon enough," Victor says, before pulling them all in for a quick kiss. "I just hope he ends up as happy as we are."