At first Alice thinks it must have been the traffic that woke her, but even while nudging herself out of half-dreaming and toward full alertness she can tell that it’s no louder than usual. Hatter’s the one who still has trouble falling asleep to the sound of rattling truck-loads and sleepy, far-off horns -- though once he’s off, he’s off, and no external noises can budge him before dawn. Unlike Alice.
She raises herself on one elbow and reaches up at an awkward angle to tug the window down all the way. Her fingers are on the wood of the frame when the sound that woke her comes again: "Alice."
"One minute," she calls, pitching her voice low. And there’s a silence, but it’s a listening one.
Alice slips out of the bed and pushes her feet into her slippers. She’s pulling on a jacket when she stops, one arm poised at the mouth of a sleeve, and sits back down on the bed next to where one of Hatter’s hands dangles over the edge. She’s part of a couple now. She doesn’t forget that, not exactly, but she’s not used to involving any one else in her decisions, and it’s taking longer than she thought it would to get into the habit of it.
They’re a great big tangled ball of trust issues, she and her boyfriend. And Jack, well, Jack’s a part of that tangle too. It wouldn’t be fair on Hatter to leave him out of this, whatever it turns out to be.
"Hatter." She shakes his shoulder. "Hatter."
"Alice," he says; eyes still closed, barely awake, the smallest smile forms on his lips around her name. This is why he deserves to be told, Alice tells herself. This.
"We have to go downstairs. Come on. Quietly."
"Why?" He’s awake now, already kicking his legs toward the edge of the bed.
She can feel the grin on her face. "We’ve got a visitor."
"At this time of night?" he whines. "Alice, I retired from my comfortable life of morally dubious adventures specifically to avoid shifty encounters in the middle of the night."
It’s best to ignore him when he spouts garbage. Alice hauls him upright by his wrists.
When he’s standing he gives a whole-body shake and scrubs a hand over his face, waking himself up the rest of the way. Alice throws an old T-shirt at him and he scrambles into it as they creep out of the apartment and down to the street entrance.
At first Jack’s just a trenchcoated figure with his back to the glass doors, poorly lit by the glow from the street lights, but he turns around and lifts a hand in greeting as the two of them clatter gently down the steps.
"Oh, fantastic," Hatter mutters, not far enough under his breath.
Alice opens the door with one hand and slips the other around Hatter’s waist so that she can pinch him hard. "Jack," she says warmly.
Hatter manages to turn his squawk of protest at the pinch into some combination of nod, throat-clearing, and handshake; Jack accepts the hand, returns the nod, and then leans through the open doorway to kiss Alice’s cheek. He smells subtly different to the Jack Chase who had the gall to ask his instructor to dinner after one lesson, different even to the Jack Heart who wanted to place her on a throne. But there’s a note there that’s the same, and a flush of prickling warmth rises automatically to the skin of Alice's neck.
"Your Majesty," she says, trying to mock-curtsey in yoga pants. "How good of you to visit my humble abode. Come in, Jack, the door’s alarmed."
"And to what do we owe the honour of this late-night visit?" Hatter says.
Jack makes an apologetic face. "Quite honestly, I didn’t know it’d be this late. Now that the stone is permanently in the Looking Glass, the time-speed disparity seems to have righted itself, but the hours still jump around on us."
Their voices echo against the cold concrete, and they’re still in full view of the street; Alice stifles a yawn, tugs at Hatter’s shirt, and leads them up the stairs up to the apartment. There’s a small break in the rhythm of Jack’s feet as they pass through the living room, and he sends quick glances to the right and left.
"I know," Hatter says. "I can’t get used to it either."
Jack winces. "Can’t you move one of them, Alice?"
"My mother likes them where they are," Alice says, but she can’t help looking from one of the large framed mirrors to the other, her gaze skipping backwards into the shrinking distance that they create. Hatter’s tried to explain the problem that Wonderland folk have with standing between two mirrors, but none of it makes a lot of sense. It’s something that you don’t do, something to do with memories, and Alice can’t quite tell if it’s anything more than superstition. But these mirrors have hung in the hall ever since they moved in, and they’ve never caused her any trouble, so the danger doesn’t seem to apply in her world.
She leads them into the kitchen and flicks on the light. Hatter tilts his head in question towards the stairs leading to the bedrooms, but Alice shrugs. "There's not much point in trying for silence. If she comes down, she comes down. I’m sure I can think of something to say."
Hatter, already pulling down boxes from a shelf, gives a snort and affects a shabby version of her accent. "Dear Mom, don’t fret yourself, my boyfriend and frequently I have midnight visits from my ex."
Alice laughs. "Dear Mom, you remember how I was reading that article in Cosmo about threesomes..."
Hatter throws a box of loose oolong at her head and declares, "Tea." And, at Jack’s sharp look: "Tea. Made from leaves." He rolls his eyes as he takes the electric kettle over to the sink to fill.
"How’s he settling in here?" Jack asks.
"Still in the room, actually," Hatter says, but he’s tapping one foot in an idle drumbeat against the floor so he can’t be that angry. He’s probably just as interested as Jack in what her answer will be.
"He’s fine. Doing really well."
It’d be easier if she could pretend not to know what he means. She can’t imagine the effect that Wonderland’s oyster-squeezed tea had on its drinkers; she doesn’t know what it means to have your emotions delivered externally, on demand, as intense as you like. To dose yourself into whichever state of feeling you desire. She catches Hatter frowning with his fists clenched, trying to hold on to some natural state that he doesn’t trust not to dissipate at once, or pale with the knowledge that he can’t sip away his own annoyance, or pain, or anger.
Alice has stopped drinking alcohol for the sole reason that she doesn’t want it in the house; not yet. She won’t have him swap one liquid mood shifter for another.
Hatter is spooning tea, head bowed over the pot, feet rigid and flat on the floor.
Alice smiles a warning. "It’s good to see you, Jack," she says. "Really, it is. But I don’t think that’s any of your business."
Jack inclines his head. "You’re right. I’m sorry. But if you’ve found anything that helps with the withdrawal, Hatter, I’d be interested to know about it."
"Ah," says Hatter. He pours the water, sets the teapot on the table and takes a seat himself, running one hand through his wild hair. "Is that why you’re here, then? Troubles with the perfect new reign?"
"I never thought it would be easy," Jack says. "But yes. My mother’s methods were deplorable, but they worked well enough. The casino and the tea trade kept a lot of people...not always happy, but occupied. Fulfilled. I don’t have anything to fill the gap."
"Give it time," Alice says. She weighs the action for a bare second before laying one hand over Jack’s. "They’ll realise it was for the best."
"Ironically, there’s far more open dissent under my rule than my mother’s. That’s what I get for preferring that people’s heads stay on their shoulders."
"And what were you hoping we could do about it?" Hatter says.
"No, he’s right." Jack pulls his hand slowly out from under hers. "I came here to ask you back to Wonderland, just for a while. Both of you. I could do with the help."
"Help? I don’t think I can help much when it comes to political unrest, Jack."
"Alice Hamilton can’t." Jack pauses while Hatter pours the tea, and takes his time fitting his hand around the mug before meeting her eyes. "Alice of legend can."
The Looking Glass spits them out on an edge of the stacked city that Alice doesn’t recognise. They’re high up -- Hatter moves closer to her as soon as their feet are steady - and although part of the lake is visible down below, they’re at the wrong angle for her to see all the way across it to where the casino used to be. The wind that whips messily at her hair and the hem of her shirt is warmer than she remembers, the sky less gloomy.
"It’s quite a walk from here," Jack says.
Alice extends a leg and waggles the flat, sturdy boot on the end of it. "Nothing like a bit of advance notice to make sure a girl’s sensibly dressed for Wonderland."
"You did bring --"
"In the bag," she says.
Alice of legend wears a blue dress; that’s how the story goes. The idea of standing up on the new King’s behalf and pretending to be special isn’t one that Alice likes, but there’s a paradox of sorts at work here: because she was assumed to be a hero the first time she fell into Wonderland, she ended up with enough help and enough momentum to do something heroic, and now nobody will believe that she’s anything but. She likes to think she knows how to pick her battles, and this one’s not worth it.
If she can help Jack by wearing something recognisable and doing a bit of PR, then fine, she’ll help. But in the meantime she’s going to wear jeans.
"Look at that," Hatter says, tapping her forearm.
The tattoo was gone when she returned to her world -- for the best, really, else there’d have been a lot of ex-oysters dropped back into their lives wearing inexplicable green marks -- but there it is again. She didn’t feel anything. Looking at the curl of it now makes her itchy all over.
"This way," Jack says, pointing.
"The weaver's gate? That's been ruined for years," Hatter says.
"It's not ruined any more." Jack smiles. "I haven't simply been sitting on my hands, you know."
"Ah." Hatter jams his own hands in the pockets of his jeans, the way he always does when he doesn't want to admit something. He keeps looking at Jack, and Jack keeps looking back with that smile -- even Alice has to admit that at any second it'll cross the line into outright smugness -- and just as she's gearing up to slap them both for whatever absurd manifestation of jealousy they've decided to indulge in now, Hatter breaks into a grin.
"Good choice," he says.
"I thought so."
"Alice, you have to see this."
She smiles. "Will I like it?"
"Oh, God, no, you'll hate it," Hatter says. His cheerful grin doesn't fade. "Let's go."
The path they follow thankfully leads into the city, away from the sheer drop to the lake. The shadows are sharp, the breeze reduced to thin fingers of air that beckon from open doorways and between the buildings; it reminds Alice of a haunted house that she visited with her father, the flimsy thread-suspended ghosts pierced by rays of noonlight that snuck in through cracks in the old wood.
"What is it?" Hatter says.
She's slowed down, she realises. With every fall of her feet onto the gravel she expects to hear something, perhaps someone's voice calling her name. The closest clutch of shadows wavers until she could fool herself into thinking that a person is nearing that corner, that at any second they will step around it and materialise in the haunted space before her.
"Alice?" Jack's stopped as well.
This isn't fair. She's cried for her father and thrown away her map of the world, and his name in her mind is no longer a sore tooth but a quiet, knowable ache. But if his ghost is to be found anywhere, she supposes, it will be here.
"Nothing." She blinks hard to banish the light. "It's nothing."
Silence falls again as Jack leads them through a wide courtyard dotted with statues worn featureless by long exposure to the weather. Alice's ears relax into the quiet until she can hear a heavy humming sound, almost too low to be sensed normally; it's her bones that are doing most of the hearing. Soon her feet pick up on it too, a vibration that grows louder and stronger until they duck through a low archway and emerge at the edge of the weaver's gate.
"Oh, holy blowflies." Hatter stops dead, which is convenient, because Alice is in desperate need of a few deep breaths before she can continue herself.
Whatever she was expecting, this wasn't it. Between their chunk of city and the next is one of those dizzying gaps, this one much wider than the others, but what grabs at her eyes and holds them, even with that chasm demanding her attention, is the structure spanning the gap.
The weaver's gate is a bridge: a strange reclining cylinder of a thing, twice as tall as a person, that at first glance looks riddled with holes -- mostly holes, in fact. She's not surprised now when the first comparison that springs into her head involves her father; a cold weekend, rain shouldering up against the windows, and her father's hands holding a balloon while Alice dipped wool in flour-and-water paste and then wound it around, around, around. Two days later they popped the balloon and tugged it gently out, and what was left was something very like the gate: a lattice of stiff, delicate, multicoloured threads holding their shape around a hollow roundness.
The illusion of holes lasts until a cloud drifts sideways and sudden sunlight darts along the bridge's length, tiny prism rainbows flattening themselves into existence, and Alice realises that every gap is --
"Glass," she says. "It's all glass."
"It's stronger than glass," Jack says.
They almost have to shout to be heard over the vibrations, but Jack has barely stopped speaking when the noise comes to an abrupt stop, and a handful of people emerge from the gate carrying what look like cordless vacuum cleaners.
"Your majesty!" one shouts, and the group gives an uneven bow. "Only a few sections remain to be polished," the first speaker continues.
"It looks to be going well," Jack says.
"It looks bloody incredible," Hatter says. "Alice, the weaver's gate was one of the first places to be bombed during the war."
The name Alice sets up a minor twittering of surprise in the group of workers, and one or two of them even try bowing again, before being elbowed upright by their fellows.
"And one of the first to be rebuilt?" Alice looks at Jack. "That was clever."
"I wanted you to see it," Jack says. "Do you think you'll be all right to cross?"
"I'll be fine," she says. "I won't look down."
She does, of course; only twice, but both times she can see straight through the not-glass beneath her feet, all the way down to a vertiginous blur of grey that could be either stone or water. Most of the time she focuses on the parts of the cylinder that could arbitrarily be called the walls and ceiling, admiring the intricate criss-cross of coloured metal that tesselates the sky, the transparent panels polished to a high shine by the workers with their humming machines.
"Hating it yet?" Hatter asks.
She reaches out and slaps his arm. "I wouldn't say hate. But I'll appreciate it a lot more from the solid ground of the other side."
The building into which the gate delivers them is one of cluttered sandstone rooms full of cleaners calling instructions to one another, and the air is alive with dust.
"This was the craftsman's guild headquarters," Hatter explains. "Getting the guilds up and running again is a good move."
"It was Dodo's idea," Jack says. "One of his trainee librarians went digging in the archives and suddenly they were all talking about bylaws and committees. It's not much further from here," he adds.
They exit the headquarters by a side door and walk into a different kind of dust; this time it's the dust of a building site, marbled with the raw earthy smell of ripped-up lawn. The wooden skeletons of new structures dot the site, and on the other side Alice can finally see something she recognises: the tall, dark building that houses Wonderland's entrance to the Looking Glass.
"So this is where you've set up shop," Hatter says.
"I was hardly going to rebuild the casino." Jack shields his eyes, frowns, and eventually leads them around the boundary of the site. Nobody pays them much attention, though occasionally someone who's near enough to recognise Jack will nod or salute. Alice's jeans are mud-spattered to the ankles by the time they make it to the front of Jack's makeshift palace; she wouldn't care except that she's caught sight of the blonde head of hair at the top of the steps, and the Duchess makes her feel unglamorous enough without adding dirt to the mix.
"Finally, Jack," the Duchess says when they reach her. "I assume you took the scenic route."
"Don't tell me you were having trouble managing without me," Jack says.
The Duchess rolls her eyes and, to Alice's surprise, kisses him lightly on the cheek. "Your kingdom remains intact."
"Duchess," says Alice.
"Alice." The Duchess extends a hand; for a second Alice wonders if she's being mocked, but the woman's face is all business despite the blatant plunge of her purple dress and the gold glitter around her eyes. "Thank you for coming."
"You're welcome." They shake hands. Alice tries not to feel annoyed at the elegant painted lengths of the Duchess's fingernails; at least they'd be useless in a proper fight, she thinks.
Then she thinks: grow up, Alice.
"I see you're keeping the same old pets around," says Hatter.
Alice follows his gaze to the Duchess's feet and takes half a step back in alarm, biting down on the word Dinah. As she watches, the cat lashes its tail lazily against the silken folds of the Duchess's dress and its fur changes from tortoiseshell to a uniform grey. It makes a noise that Alice, for her own peace of mind, decides is probably a purr.
"The Cheshire Cat and I are colleagues," says the Duchess. "And old friends."
"Beg pardon, your grace, I was talking to the Cat," Hatter says, with such bland innocence that Alice narrowly escapes laughing.
"Why don't we find somewhere for you to drop your bags," Jack says, opening the door by the ornate knob.
"And have a shower," adds Alice.
The noise from the building site is cut off as the door swings closed behind them. Almost at once, the Duchess halts them with an upraised hand. "We’ve got a problem, Jack."
"What is it?"
The Duchess glides her eyes over Alice and Hatter. "Something that shouldn’t be public knowledge."
"They’re here to help," Jack says. "Whatever it is, you can say it in front of them."
"Very well." She gives a shrug that sets her curls slinking over her shoulders, and lowers her voice. "The Doctors have escaped."
"So," Hatter says. "Jack and the Duchess. Again."
"So it would seem." Alice gives her hair a final hard rub with the towel and moves on to the gaps between her toes.
There's a dull tap as Hatter rests his forehead against the window of their room, which looks out across the lake. As Alice watches he runs one hand through his freshly-washed hair, sending up a minute spray of water.
"I thought he didn't like her," he says.
"Have you seen her?"
Hatter turns around. He doesn't look complete, without his hat, though at least he's reapplied the thin smudge of eyeliner that gets him approving looks from the gaggle of hipster-goths who frequent the organic café down the road from Alice's dojo.
It looks like he might say something, but instead he comes and sits next to her on the edge of the bed, where -- Alice realises belatedly -- she's creating a damp patch on the green bedspread. Hatter swings his legs once or twice and then lies down, staring at the ceiling. Another damp patch immediately begins to form beneath his head.
"Me, I'm a city boy," he says. "Always have been, and nobody could say otherwise. But all it takes is five minutes in the presence of his new-minted majesty, and I feel fit for nothing more than pulling ploughs and -- I don't know, patting sheep. What do farmers do, exactly?"
"God knows," Alice says. She rubs her thumb against the closer of his knees in silent gratitude. "Zip me up?"
Hatter sits up. "I didn't think we'd see this dress again in a hurry."
"It's iconic. Who knew?" She angles her back towards him, and tugs the wet strands of her hair to one side of her neck. Hatter drops a kiss between her shoulderblades that makes Alice's arms shiver all the way down to the fingertips.
"I wouldn't care if she had legs up to the roof and could turn milk into coffee," he says quietly. "She still wouldn't have an inch on you."
He pulls the zipper up all the way, closing the blue fabric over the site of his kiss as though to preserve it, and it tingles there on her skin like a secret. Alice looks at her hands, almost embarrassed by the force of her own smile. She has to remind herself to turn around; to let him share in how happy he makes her.
"You hate coffee," she says, and kisses him hard enough that he flops back down onto the bed again, laughing, dragging her with him.
He drinks enough tea that she thinks he should taste of it, even though all she usually catches is a bitter, milkless warmth that she now associates with the colour of his lips. Sometimes peppermint, at night. And on days when accepting the transience of his emotions has been particularly hard, she finds on his tongue the thin spiced remains of chai.
Right now he smells like soap and doesn't taste of anything in particular; Alice would be happy to stay here for hours, creasing her dress and working her hands under his shirt, pretending that they're taking a short vacation in a very strange hotel. But they are, unfortunately, here for business rather than pleasure.
"We're meant to be downstairs right now," she says. "The Council. Jack said they'd wait for us."
Hatter kisses the very corner of her mouth and looks betrayed. "You realise that now I look like a farmer as well."
"We'll be rumpled together." She climbs off the bed and slips her feet into some clean shoes, and -- after a showy sigh of disappointment -- he follows.
The King's Council meets in a small room, nondescript apart from the stained glass that runs in a thick panel just below the high ceiling on two of the walls, creating coloured blobs of light on the scratched wooden surface of the table. Of the eight chairs, five are already filled: Jack, the Duchess, an unfamiliar young woman with brown hair, Dodo, and -- Alice blinks -- the short man she last saw juggling sales at the Teahouse. A hiccup of a snore rises from his bent head.
The Duchess follows Alice's gaze and sighs. "Someone kick Dormouse, he’s asleep again."
Hatter takes the seat next to him and elbows him awake. "What are you doing here?"
"Hmnff? Economic reform." Dormouse yawns. "We're trying metals."
"Coins?" Hatter says
"Well, nobody was going to accept paper," says Dodo.
The seat next to him is empty but Alice, who doesn't consider it unreasonable to carry a grudge against someone who tried to kill both Hatter and herself, takes the other remaining one instead.
"Sorry if we kept you waiting," she says to Jack.
"Not at all. Are any introductions necessary?"
"No, I don't think so." Alice glances around again. Dodo meets her eyes with an expression that's friendly enough, but the muscles in her arms still tighten with memory. Dormouse is already halfway back to sleep.
"Mary Ann," Jack says. It sounds like an admonishment.
"All right, all right," says the girl with brown hair. And just like that she’s -- foreground, somehow, or in focus, where before she was barely worth noticing and certainly not worth thinking much about. Alice’s mind floods jarringly with questions.
"Alice, this is Mary Ann. She worked for the White Rabbit when they existed."
"And now she works for me," the Duchess says.
"And what is it that you do?" At least three sarcastic suggestions twitch at the back of her throat, but she keeps her lips closed on them.
The Duchess smiles with a razor sweetness that makes the sarcasm elbow its way closer to the front of Alice's mouth. "Some of this, some of that."
"The same job she did for my mother," says Jack. "Intelligence. Mary Ann was about to give us a report on public opinion, before we move on to the Dee and Dum issue."
"No major changes." The girl shrugs. "The Mock Turtle --" she has to raise her voice over groans from every direction "-- have given up on the idea of a protest camp on the old casino site, mostly because nobody visits it. They're the only ones who still think there's a good chance of a return to the tea currency. People actively engaged in the rebuilding or in the guilds are showing the fastest acceptance of the new economy."
"What about Jack himself?" asks the Duchess.
Mary Ann wavers one hand. "Not bad. I think most of the negativity still stems from emotional withdrawal, but the most commonly voiced complaint is --"
"Lineage," says Dodo.
Mary Ann nods. "The King's mother took the rule of Wonderland from the Red Court by violent means. In other words, you ascended to a throne that remains usurped."
"I believe my mother was...thorough," Jack says. "None of the Red King's descendants were left alive."
"No, but arguments could be made for the claims of more distant family members. Nobody's stepped forward yet, but now that Wonderland knows that it can replace a monarch it doesn't like..."
"So my reign is dependent on my good behaviour."
Dodo laughs thinly. "Think of it as a special kind of democracy, your majesty."
"This is Wonderland," Hatter says. He's fidgeting with the brim of his hat, adjusting the angle over his ears. "What matters is the story they tell about you."
"The reinstitution of knighthood is helping," says Mary Ann. "It aligns the king with the traditions and values of the previous royal family."
"And Alice?" says Jack.
Alice looks at Mary Ann. Mary Ann looks at the Duchess, who clasps her hands on the table.
"I still don't like it," the Duchess says. "Jack, you have to build your own name, with your own actions. You can't just drag in a figurehead from another world whenever things go wrong."
"I wasn't proposing --" Jack snaps. "Look, this is the stabilisation period. I'll use anything I can to show the people of Wonderland that they should give me a chance to build before they throw me over."
Hatter has been fidgeting more and more. Now he pulls himself upright in his chair and leans forward. "And Alice'll help, she's already said, but I don't think that's a priority, do you? Were you planning to just let the Doctors run around Wonderland willy-nilly? Because I don't know about you lot, but I don't like the sound of that one little bit."
"I agree," says Alice, who still dreams of things crumbling beneath her feet.
"I do too," says Dormouse, and Alice jumps; she hadn't noticed him wake up.
"The problem is predicting them," Jack says. "They could be anywhere in Wonderland by now, and maybe they'll do the smart thing and lie low."
Dodo snorts. "Unlikely. Just wait for the first reports of havoc to start flooding in, then you'll know where to start."
"That's not the only option, Jack," says the Duchess. "You have a tracker."
Jack shakes his head. "He's even harder to predict."
"March?" says Hatter. "He's not, really. Give him something to do that's more interesting than killing you, and he'll usually do it."
"How very comforting," says Dodo.
"We'll take the Cheshire Cat along," the Duchess says. "That'll keep him from getting too out of hand."
"We?" Jack frowns. The Duchess does an excellent job of not taking the hint.
"It's the fastest solution," she says. "You know it is. With all the problems you've got already, you don't want to be the king who let two psychicpaths run around doing whatever they pleased."
"You mean psychopaths," Alice says.
"I know what I mean." The Duchess gives her a disdainful look. "What do you call someone who uses your own thoughts to harm you?"
Alice fights off all feelings of ploughs and sheep-patting and looks right back. "A liability."
The Duchess looks startled. Then she smiles, without a trace of superiority; it makes her look like a different person altogether. "I think I just won the deciding vote," she says. "Jack?"
Jack glances at Hatter. "You know March the best."
"That doesn't mean he'll be thrilled to have me along," Hatter says, but he's nodding.
"Fine." Jack nods back. "I'll have some bags packed and we'll leave after lunch. I'm sorry, Alice. This isn't the kind of help I had in mind when I asked you to visit."
"I don't think I'd have been much good at waving to crowds," Alice says. "This way I might at least get to kick someone in the head."
"Playing to your strengths, then," says Jack, and Alice grins.
March leads them across the lake, first, and walks up and down the shoreline until he's certain of the trail. They haven't walked far from the tied-up boats when Alice's curiosity gets the better of her and she hastens her stride to keep up with the Duchess.
"The prison you were keeping Mad March in," she says. "The dream."
"Did you do the same thing for Dee and Dum?"
"More or less. It's harder, of course, for one psychicpath to keep another contained. I'm not surprised they found a way out."
Alice looks ahead at the Cheshire Cat, which is ambling along at March's heels. She'd wondered what kind of prison cell could hold someone like the assassin, and why he'd be at all cooperative when he emerged from it, but Wonderland doesn't need metal bars or padlocks; she knows that firsthand. Either the Cat or the Doctors could have kept her eternally taking little-girl steps around her childhood home, searching for things that were lost. She isn't going to ask what kind of dream the Cat had found inside Mad March's head to keep him amused and immobile.
"Hey, assholes," he'd said, when they woke him. "I was enjoying that."
"We've got something you might enjoy more," Hatter said.
Alice is keeping her distance; she doesn't feel at all comfortable near March, even though they're supposedly on the same side now. He isn't talkative, but the sight of that blank white head turning impossible numbers of degrees gives her the jitters.
"I thought I'd destroyed that stupid thing," Hatter mutters. "I distinctly remember. It was the most satisfied I'd ever felt after punching someone in the face."
"We had some more of them lying around," Jack says. "We couldn't reattach his real head, even if we knew where it was, because..."
"Because my father is dead," Alice says, when the pause has gone on too long. "Right?"
The ghost-feeling is back, more vividly than she'd sensed it in the city. March is leading them at a steady pace through the greenery, and every twig that brushes against Alice's skin is a casual touch from dry fingers. Her imagination feeds into the trickery as well: the more she wonders why the wind in the foliage sounds like sadly whispering voices, the more wordlike the swish of leaves becomes. Alice concentrates on not reacting to things that probably aren't there, tuning her ears to the more humdrum noises of everyone's feet and the occasional call from invisible birds.
"Look, is it just me," Hatter says presently, "or has the everyday Wonderland weirdness that we all know and are mildly fond of gone double-strength all of a sudden?"
There's a universal loosening of shoulders, the release of a shared tension that Alice hadn't been aware of, wrapped up as she was in her personal struggle to shake off the strangeness.
"You can feel it too?" she says.
"It's the Doctors," Jack says. "At least we know we're on their trail. Keep your eyes open, they're fond of --" He stops and looks puzzled.
"What?" Alice asks.
"You know, the --" He frowns. "I've lost the word. It'll come to me."
A particularly thick bush is spilling out on the trail in front of Alice, and it takes her a few seconds to fight the branches back far enough that she can pass by. When she looks up, she's alone; the others must have been moving faster than she thought. She rubs at the scratches on her --
Oddly enough, she can't remember what they're called.
"Hey!" comes from behind her.
She turns and sees someone very familiar; she recognises him instantly, but for the life of her she couldn't put a name to him.
"Can you remember what anything's called?" he demands. "I'm rather hoping I haven't just gone mad all by myself."
"It's not just you," she assures him.
"Oh, good." He pauses. "Is that good?"
"Maybe we should keep walking." she suggests. "We might come across someone who knows what's going on."
He shrugs. "I can't think of anything else to do."
They do keep walking, following the -- the -- she quickly gives up groping after whatever it is, and instead does something that she's been avoiding: she tries to remember what she's called. She can't.
"This is ridiculous," she says. "I know I should know who I am! Who am I if I'm not me? How do I know if I'm even real?"
He looks as though he hadn't thought of that, and now he has and wishes he hadn't.
"Tell you what," he says. "If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you."
"Oh," she says, relieved. "I don't know how rational that is, but...thanks."
"You could try to guess what I am? You might be better at it."
They keep going, and she thinks until her -- well, her whatever -- is sore and confused with it, but she can't name him any more than she can name herself.
"Sorry," she says finally.
"If this keeps on, we'll be able to name ourselves whatever we want. I've always fancied calling myself something outlandish. Mind the -- thing."
He pulls the thing down so that she can step over it, and she nods her thanks. He's smiling back at her, and there's something, a tickling of thought that blurs and then settles into a shape that can be voiced.
"Messenger," she blurts, before it disappears. "Does that -- does that sound right?"
His face goes pale. Face. The thing on the front of the -- beneath the hat. It’s getting easier.
"I don’t know," he says. "I felt something. Maybe. Try another one."
Words drift in and out of being and she snatches at them as they appear. "Forerunner. Portent. No, they're wrong. But at least I know they're wrong."
"The path's clearer this way," he says. "Path! Come on, we can do this."
They hurry along, the names of things pouring into her mind -- mud, boots, trees, shade, rucksack, arms and wrists and hands and fingers and nails -- until the sunlight brightens, she steps out of the forest and into open grassy ground, and knows herself Alice.
She turns around, smiling.
"Harbinger," she says.
"Your harbinger." Hatter shakes his way clear of the last delicate branches and moves closer, wrapping one arm around her. "Ugh. I'm from Wonderland, and I still dub that too bloody weird even for Wonderland."
"Double-strength weird," Alice agrees. "Should we try and help the others?"
"They'll make it through if they keep walking. Are you in a hurry to run back in there?"
She shudders. "No. We'll wait."
They hear Mad March before they see him, his inexorable stride crushing twigs and dead leaves underfoot, and he emerges from the forest not long after.
"Fucking psychicpaths," he says, sounding as angry as his mechanics will allow. "Their idea of a fucking joke." He stomps to a halt a few yards away and stands there slowly turning his head from side to side, searching for the trail.
A few seconds later the Cheshire Cat shoots out of the forest, hair on end, and skids to a halt near Hatter's feet. It glances up at them and then sets about cleaning itself with instant composure.
"So this is the kind of havoc Dodo was talking about," Alice says.
Hatter nods. "It'll get worse, too, the longer they're loose. All the traps, all of your mind's symbols turning solid. It's how they like to play."
Jack and the Duchess take longer, but they too can be heard before they're seen, firing triumphant nouns back and forth as though in competition.
"Ambiguity!" Jack's saying as they walk out into full view.
"Oh, if we're going abstract, darling," the Duchess says. She sounds scathing, but Alice sees her slip one hand into Jack's and squeeze.
"Is everyone alright?" Jack asks.
"I'm thinking of getting my name tattooed somewhere on my person," Hatter says. "Otherwise, fit as several fiddles."
The sun is dipping close to the horizon. Mad March could probably continue all night, but Alice is relieved when Jack calls a halt for the evening. They eat cold food and flatten beds in the deep grass just on the boundary of the Kingdom of the Knights. The rebuilding efforts haven't reached the valley yet but Alice thinks it looks tamer than it used to, not quite so cluttered with decay. According to Jack, Charlie's in there somewhere with the first batch of squires that he's training for the new Knighthood -- not red, not white, but Knights of the Realm nonetheless. It would have been nice to see him on this visit, but there'll be others.
"One quest at a time, Alice," she tells herself, before drifting off to sleep.
"We could take her hostage."
They aren't the strangest words that Alice has ever woken up to, but that's only because Hatter has a tendency to recite nonsense poems in his sleep.
"Don't be stupid," says another voice, just as glum-sounding as the first. "What good would that do?"
A third voice has just started going on about the importance of pacifist techniques when Alice grudgingly accepts that this isn't a dream, sits up, rubs her eyes, and takes a good look at the people sitting nearby. It's a small group, seven or so, all dressed in an ugly shade of green, and all with slouched postures and despondent expressions.
"The first person who tries to take me hostage gets the side of my hand in their windpipe," Alice says. "This hand right here."
"Look, the oyster mark," says one of them. "It's definitely her."
The nearest one, a woman, peers at her accusingly. "Are you Alice of legend?"
Alice might be awake, but she isn't awake enough to remember if that's a role she's meant to be playing at the moment. "That's none of your business," she says. "Who are you?"
The tallest man in the group makes a shushing motion as several of them try to answer at once. "We are those that you hurt with your thoughtless actions, Alice of legend," he says. The gloom in his voice doubles. "We stand for the beauty of pure emotion."
"I see." Time for reinforcements, Alice decides. She leans to one side and then the other, and taps first Hatter and then the Duchess on the arm. "Hey. Wake up, we've got visitors."
Hatter rolls over with a mumbling sound. The Duchess groans into the jacket she's using as a pillow, blinks her eyes open, takes in the slouchers -- and groans some more.
"Just what we didn't need," she says, her voice dry with sleep. "Wake the King."
"The - oh." Alice catches the hint and is more polite than she'd normally be about shaking Jack awake. She even throws in a few uses of your majesty, for good measure, until the the group of strangers are standing and whispering furiously among themselves.
"Mock Turtle," the Duchess says, as soon as Jack's eyes are open.
"Here?" Jack stands with more dignity than Alice would be able to manage ten seconds after waking up. "What do you want?"
The tallest, who also appears to be the spokesperson, takes a deep breath and launches into his sentence with the determination of someone who suspects he won't be allowed to reach the end.
"We the organisation of the Mock Turtle are dedicated to the recognition of self-produced emotion as inferior and unreliable, demanding a return to freely available emotions as a basic right of every citizen of Wonderland, and deploring the new economy of metal-based trade that has been forced upon the population without the smallest attempt to conduct opinion polls --"
"What's going on?" Hatter has woken up as well.
"It looks like someone's decided to stage a protest march at our campsite," Alice says. "Do you know anything about the Mock Turtle?"
Hatter shakes his head. "They must be new."
"Mary Ann mentioned them yesterday," she says, remembering. "They're the ones who wish Jack was still kidnapping innocent people and draining their emotions."
Jack lets the speaker start to stumble over his arguments before he lifts a hand for silence. "Where's Mad March?"
March is apparently doing an eerie job of blending into the landscape for someone with a porcelain-white head. He appears from behind a tree, silent, shaking cramps out of his legs.
The members of the Mock Turtle take a collective look at Mad March and go very quiet.
"We have a petition," the spokesperson says meekly.
"I have knives," March says. "Wanna guess how many?"
"Bring your complaints to the palace," Jack tells them. "You have my word that I'll listen to them with what remains of my patience regarding your organisation. Right now, I suggest you think of somewhere else to be."
The protesters exchange glances and come to the safest conclusion. As one, they turn and trudge in what Alice guesses is the direction of the city. She swallows down the uncharitable wish that they might be eaten by a Jabberwock along the way.
Only an hour or so after they eat and set off again, March stops dead in a wide, undulating field of thin dry grass.
"Something wrong?" Jack says.
"Nowhere to go. The trail stops here." March takes a few more steps, one in each direction like an indecisive chess piece. "But it's strong."
"So they're nearby," says the Duchess. She looks around and starts walking towards the only close landmark, a crop of lichen-covered rocks. "We spread out, and --"
And just like that, she disappears.
Alice blinks. Hatter, who's closest, runs forward to look at the ground where the Duchess was standing. "I can't see --"
And he's gone as well.
"Bad idea," says March, sounding amused.
"Hatter!" Alice's feet are already starting towards the place where they vanished, but --
"Everyone stand still," Jack commands, and Alice comes to an unwilling halt. Jack goes on, "Cat, whatever this is, can you stabilise it?"
The Cheshire Cat shakes itself all over, stretches out its front legs, and glares at the grass. The air swirls in front of their eyes, making Alice feel giddy, and a dense area of fog forms. Slowly, so slowly, the fog dissipates in the sunlight; what's revealed when the last of it has shivered into nothing is two flat panels standing upright in the ground, facing one another, like the first two walls of a house half-built and abandoned.
Only they're not walls, Alice sees, when she takes a tentative step closer. They're mirrors, throwing the image of the dull grassland back and forth between them, and somewhere in the smallest, deepest level of reflection she can see people moving.
She sighs. Ghosts and identity and now this, like a bucket of inevitability thrown in her face. Of course it's mirrors.
"A trap," says Jack. He's gone white; she hasn't seen him this helpless before, and it scares her, but at least the things that scare her can often make her angry as well.
"Obviously it's a trap," Alice snaps. "That doesn't mean we're just going to sit here, does it? Someone has to go after them."
"You've got to be kidding, lady," March says. He sits down on a large rock, back as stiff as a pole, and doesn't say a word further.
Alice raises her eyebrows at the Cat. It hisses and bares far too many teeth at her in something that definitely isn't a grin.
"Fine, not you either," she says.
"The Doctors use dreams," Jack says. "That's what this is. People don't just vanish."
Perhaps Alice still dreams of platforms that crumble away, but she always wakes up in the end. She's never dreamed the terrible stretching pain that trembled in her arms and fingers as she dangled from a plank, chilled and panicked, knowing that the distance beneath would kill her.
Dum and Dee saying, Indubitably.
"It's a dream," she says. "But it's still real."
"Then what..." Jack trails off.
Then what? She hasn't got a clue. She still doesn't understand this damn folklore fear.
But if she doesn't understand it, it's not in her mind. That's something. It might not be enough to get her through, but it's something nonetheless.
Alice takes a breath and finds her centre --
"Try not to die, Alice," she whispers.
-- and steps between the mirrors.
It's not like falling through the Looking-Glass. It's like standing still while a broken projector tries to focus her environment around her: everything flickers a few times in black and white, and then settles. Alice holds herself steady until she's sure it isn't going to change, and then turns on the spot to take it all in.
Two mirrors, she can handle, but what she's standing in is a maze of them, none of regular shape or set at clean angles, each one picking up a different part of her. It's pretty, in an abstract, carnival sort of way.
The voice is coming from the largest of the mirror-pieces, a tilted diamond. The version of Alice reflected in this piece is different from the others: her hair is shorter, and she's wearing a red cable-knit sweater. The reflection lifts one hand in a sarcastic wave.
"Boo," she says.
Alice fights her face into calm. "I know that sweater," she says. "I lost it."
"Yes," says the other Alice. "You suspect you left it at Paul's apartment, but you won't look him up to ask for it back. You remember Paul." She tilts her head. "Or maybe you don't."
"I do remember," Alice says. "He was --"
"No, but that's what you told Mom." The reflection raises her eyebrows. "That's who I am, Alice. That's who you were, when you looked like me. The girl who left on the flimsiest excuse."
"All right." One of Alice's hands has formed a fist. She flattens it on her thigh. "But that was then."
"Was it?" The reflection moves closer to her side of the mirror, closer to Alice herself. "How many of your friends have met David? How many times have you told yourself that you couldn't possibly move out with him because Mom would be lonely living on her own?"
"No." Alice steps closer as well, aching for something solid to grapple with. "No, you're wrong. It's different."
"You'll kiss him in your apartment, but not where anyone might see. Because in your head you're still the Alice Hamilton who can't be seen to need anyone. In your head, you're still me."
But there's too much truth ringing in her ears for her conviction to remain unbroken; it cracks, deep in her chest and under her skin, and through the cracks slides the feeling from the forest with no names, the unbalanced fear that she might not be real. If the dream collapsed, who would walk out?
The Alice of memory smiles. It's not at all a nice smile, but it calls to the muscles of Alice's face in a way that's not unfamiliar; there are times when Alice Hamilton isn't at all a nice person.
"And he knows that. Do you think he doesn't? Do you think he's an idiot? He knows you've always got one foot on the other side of the door, ready to run."
Alice does, choosing a direction at random and refusing to look at any of the reflections that call and race alongside her through the maze. Her eyes are hot enough that she could be crying, but she won't put a hand up to her face to check.
"Coward," jeers her own voice, and --
"-- the hell alone."
Alice pulls to a halt so suddenly she almost careens into a sharp edge where two mirrors meet. That last one wasn't her voice -- it was Hatter's. She flicks her eyes from surface to surface until she finds a splinter of colour that's different from the rest, dirty yellows and browns, and takes careful steps towards it. A few more bends in the maze and she can hear Dee and Dum speaking; she presses herself against the flattest piece of mirror she can find and listens.
"-- hunting together, just like in the good old days," one of them says.
The other gives a nostalgic sigh. "Such promising young men, the Red King chose for his Messengers. His strong right arms."
"Very strong indeed."
"What was it -- one to come, and one to go?"
"And they did."
"That tragic accident."
There's a dissonance in Hatter's laugh. "That's right," he says. "Let's drag that up. Why not."
"What happened in the kaleidoscope?"
"Which innocent little piece of clockwork broke inside them?"
"Blood and thunder for the one --"
"Tea and nonsense for the other."
"And both so restless."
"Walking untrusted over the earth."
Curiosity, Alice tells herself harshly. Remember what it does. For someone who's selfish with her secrets, you're treading all over his.
She steps around the final corner and into full view. Hatter is leaning against a mirror, legs and arms crossed, hat tilted forward over his eyes.
"That's enough," she says. "Let him out."
"And why would we want to do that?"
"Because the King of Wonderland doesn't care about smugglers, but he does care about me. I don't know if you were hoping to cut a deal, or blackmail him, but whatever it is: I'm a better pawn."
"But we have you too," Dee says. "And you can't get out."
"I'm not from Wonderland," Alice says. "There are two mirrors like this in my house, and I couldn't care less."
"It's true," Hatter chimes in at once. "She makes me walk between them every day. It's -- ugh, horrible."
Alice musters every atom of calm confidence that's prepared her for fights against men twice her size, every scrap of assurance at her disposal, and fills her voice with them. "Are you really that sure I couldn't get out of here if I wanted?"
The Doctors exchange a glance. "And you say you won't," Dee says.
"If we let the Messenger go," finishes Dum.
"That's right." Alice looks from one to the other. "You have my word."
"This one is boring," Dum muses to his brother. "Never joins in the games."
"And we remember how nicely the oyster screams." Dee gives Alice an approving look that makes her want to scrub her face with hot water. "A deal."
A door-shaped piece of mirror wobbles and turns liquid. It might not be an exit. The Doctors can probably bluff just as well as Alice can, but she'll have to take the chance.
"Go," she says.
"No, Alice --"
"Yes, Hatter." She doesn't look at him. "Do you trust me?"
It's a short silence, made all the more horrible because Dum and Dee -- enjoying the show, for all she knows -- are quiet as well. Somewhere in her peripheral vision a hard-eyed version of herself is shouting, I told you so, I told you.
"Completely," Hatter says.
Alice closes her eyes. "Then step through that mirror. Do it now, and do it fast. And I love you."
"I -- what?"
"Stepping." His voice is half an octave too high, but it's swallowed in a sluggish rippling sound, and when Alice turns around he's gone. Dee and Dum have disappeared from view as well, though she can still feel the weight of their attention. She lets out her breath, which has been burning in her chest, and turns back to her mocking reflection.
"Where were we?"
Her reflection gives a helpful smile. "You were trying to persuade yourself that this time, you'll work out how to share your life with someone before they get sick of the distance and leave."
"Right," Alice says. She's only got one plan, and it's not a sophisticated one, but it's got to be better than standing here while her memory is shaped into poison darts and fired at her one by one.
Dum and Dee aren't in a building any more, they have no physical materials with which to furnish their dreams. Their traps are straightforward because their tools are limited. All they can use against you is what they find in your mind.
She really, really hopes that her inner symbolism is actually this crude.
"Two mirrors," she says. "Let's take one out of the equation, shall we?"
"Nothing lasts," the other Alice says. "Everyone leav--"
Alice braces herself, pivots, and smashes her foot squarely into her reflection's face. She has to avert her eyes from the resultant shattering, but when she looks back, there's no sign of damage. The multi-faceted maze of reflections is gone, however; she's standing on one side of a plain mirror, and the girl who looks back at her echoes her movements exactly.
"Not everyone," Alice says.
She hears her name as though through water, soft and blurred; it's coming from the other side of the remaining mirror. She knocks her fingers against it. Stronger than glass, she thinks, just like the weaver's gate. Escaping from this one won't be as easy as throwing her weight behind a kick, and besides, she doesn't want to destroy the last object that's effectively trapping her unless she knows that it wouldn't be an idiotic form of suicide.
"Hello?" she shouts.
"Clever little oyster."
"Gave us her word and everything."
Alice spins around. The space that she's in is barely space at all, a white blankness that fades unpleasantly into a suggestion of vacuum. Standing nearby, and reflected faithfully in the mirror, are Dee and Dum; between them, holding a folded scrap of fabric to a long cut on her cheek, is the Duchess. Almost immediately she dashes forward and, to Alice's astonishment, pulls Alice into a tight hug.
"Play along," she hisses, right next to Alice's ear. "Did you crack one of the mirrors?
Alice wraps her own arms around the Duchess's thin shoulders and does her best to look scared. It's not difficult. "Yes," she whispers back. "I kicked someone in the head."
"How original," the Duchess says. "But it seems to have worked. Now we're on the wrong side of the mirror that's left."
Alice tries to think of something useful. What she comes out with is: "Your hair is a disaster."
For a second the Duchess looks like she might slap her, but then she buries her bleeding face in Alice's shoulder and starts to laugh. Alice supposes that from the outside it might look like sobs.
"How touching," says Dee.
Dum makes a tutting sound. "There's no point in getting fond of oysters, milady. You'll only cry the harder after you eat them."
The Duchess flinches and pulls away from Alice, wiping her hands on her trousers. The motion leaves behind a slick layer of slime. Alice tries to ask her what the matter is but there's a blockage in the back of her throat, like a nut or a pea that went down the wrong way, and the itch of it goes from nothing to unbearable in no time at all. She coughs as hard as she can, doubling over with the effort, and finally spits a round object into her hand.
It's a pearl. Huge and lustrous and lying on the skin of her palm, which is taking on a slick, greyish cast. Alice wants to throw up -- no, she wants to -- she coughs in spasms, again and again, sucking at the air and forcing the gritty things further up her throat.
"Oh." The Duchess claps her hands over her mouth.
"Stop thinking -- oysters," Alice manages. "Please."
"Oysters, pink elephants," Dee says. "Always so difficult to get rid of."
"Hide the tattoo," the Duchess says desperately. "Alice. Tell me who you are. Jack says you teach people to fight."
Alice nods, even as another handful of salty pearls spills out from between her lips; she shoves her arms behind her back and lets them fall onto the ground. Her skin is moist and sickening, but her throat is empty again. "I live with my mother, Carol. I won my black belt when I was sixteen. I like -- I like the farmers' markets, third Sunday of every month, and I like the flourless chocolate cake that the organic café always sells out of by noon, and I like the blue graffiti on the overpass. Our apartment has two bedrooms and one bathroom and two mirrors that face each other, though to be honest I'm rethinking that as a decorating choice --"
"You can stop," the Duchess says. She sounds exhausted. "You don't look like shellfish any more."
"Alas," says Dum.
"Careful where your thoughts step," says Dee. "They could be in a minefield." He makes a gesture like something exploding. Alice yanks her mind away from bombs and focuses on the Duchess's dishevelled hair and bloodstained face; the present version of reality, no matter how absurd.
"Any bright ideas?" the Duchess says.
"I'm all out. You?"
The Duchess nods once. "When I tell you to, think about a hole. A hole in the mirror, just a small one. Got it?"
"March!" the Duchess yells.
Dum laughs. "Quick march, on the spot! Now there's a fun idea. How far can you march over snow? What about broken glass? What about a fire?"
Alice can feel herself starting to think about fire. "Hurry," she mutters, eyeing the tendrils of smoke now rising from near her feet.
"Now," the Duchess says, and Alice fills her mind with holes. Lace. Manholes. Shower grates. Open windows. Chimneys --
"Shit," Alice mutters, because that was enough to encourage the fire. Flames are groping at their legs -- she dances hers out of the way -- and it's growing hotter with every passing second.
Holes, holes. Swiss cheese. A hole in the mirror, just a small one, neat and round and large enough to let in the light. She stares as hard as she can and wills her mind to see it.
"Yes!" The Duchess grabs her arm. "There it is."
"A tiny little peephole," Dee says. "And what exactly is that -"
He's cut off by the arm that shoots through the mirror, the hole stretching to accommodate it -- or rather, he's cut off by the knife at the end of the arm. He stares down at the hilt emerging from his side, and as he stares the hand releases the knife and takes hold of his shirt. There's a pause, and then an unimaginable sound of screams and shattering as Dee is yanked back through the mirror, leaving a jagged gap.
Strong right arms, Alice thinks.
The screams continue for a while. Alice doesn't look through the gap until they're cut off, and even then she skates her gaze over all the blood until she finds the rigid figure of Jack, and Hatter's wide-eyed face. She feels the Duchess release her arm, and realises that the fire has disappeared.
Dum hasn't moved; his face starts to crease into an expression, but before Alice can see what it is, the Duchess is standing between them.
"Broken glass," the Duchess spits. "How far can you march?" And with a sudden motion, not smooth but strong, she lifts her foot and kicks Dum in the stomach hard enough that he stumbles backwards through the hole and sprawls on the dry grass.
This time Alice looks. She sees Mad March lay one shoe on the fallen man's neck, and that impassive hare's mask tilt downwards. The bloodied knife is still in his hand.
"Doctor Dum," the assassin says. "Word is, you think you know a little something about the King's Messengers."
A high-pitched rasp of a giggle emerges from the pressured throat. "One to fetch, and one to carry."
"Not quite," says March, and leans down.
Thousands of reflected blades flash once, twice, in the mirror shards.
There's a long, uneven exhalation from the Duchess, who is much closer than Alice realised. The remains of the mirror are shaking as though from an earthquake, so Alice hastily pushes the other woman through the hole and a few steps forward as the now-familiar harsh tinkle of falling glass sounds behind them.
"Alice." Hatter grabs her by both shoulders. "Are you hurt?"
"No," she says. "But I've changed my mind about inheriting my grandmother's pearl earrings."
His brow furrows and he runs a hand through her hair to cup the back of her neck, and Alice leans into the touch.
"Sorry about this," she adds. "I know how you feel about morally dubious adventures."
The laugh sputters out of him in short bursts. "Well. Yes. This one was certainly more exciting than I was expecting. And I, uh. I love you too. If that wasn't, um, obvious. Was it obvious?"
Alice lays her fingers over his mouth, presses down for a moment, and then lets them fall. His eyes are shining and she can't bring herself to speak.
"Right," he says. "Got it. No babbling."
Jack has a phone to his ear, calling for a scarab -- or something smaller, Alice hopes -- to come and pick them up. The Duchess is sitting on the ground scratching the Cheshire Cat absently behind the ears; the Cat is glaring around at anyone who looks like they might want to comment. Mad March is cleaning his knife. Nobody's looking their way, but anybody could.
"No babbling," Alice says, and grabs him by the collar and kisses him.
"Won't you stay longer?"
Alice looks up from her bag. She can't tell, from either her voice or her posture, if the Duchess is being sarcastic.
"The note I left for Mom only said we'd be away for the weekend. But we'll be back."
The Duchess smiles. The cut on her cheek still looks nasty, even though it's scabbed over. "We'll be sure to let you know about our next hiking trip."
"Back in his dream." The Duchess shrugs. "He's a good tool, but a dangerous one to have sitting around getting bored."
Fuck it, Alice thinks. Trust has to start somewhere. "Do you -- wish this one could have turned out differently?" she asks.
The Duchess does her the courtesy of considering the question. If Alice watches closely she can see the focused intelligence that she knows is there, flickering in the small muscles beside the woman's eyes. "It's like you said," she says. "Dee and Dum were a liability, even imprisoned."
Alice thinks about the Cheshire Cat and lets a few thoughts settle. "It's almost lucky that they escaped, then, isn't it?"
"Mmm." The Duchess looks away, and Alice could let it go, but she's sick of playing a part in other people's secret agendas.
"And you knew, didn’t you. That they’d end up dead. This was your solution."
No response from the Duchess, who is polishing the toe of one leather boot on the opposite trouser leg.
"Jack wouldn’t have wanted it," Alice goes on.
The Duchess looks her sharply in the eye. "No, Jack wouldn’t have done it," she says. "Do you think I don’t know him? After all those years?"
"All those lies," Alice says.
A smile, rueful and just this side of smug, flits onto the Duchess’s face; and stays. It looks uncannily like the smile Jack gives when things are going his way.
"You can’t tell that many lies without getting to know someone quite well," she says. "Jack is a good king who's going to become a great one. And yesterday he was the son of the usurper who almost destroyed Wonderland, but now he's the hero who led a quest to get rid of most dangerous psychicpaths in the kingdom, with Alice of legend by his side."
Alice pushes down her anger, takes a breath, and understands.
"What matters is the story they tell."
"That's a story with power," the Duchess says. "It'll give Jack the time he needs."
That could be what love is, Alice thinks. Re-imagining someone else's stories for them in a way that grinds down the rough patches and leaves only the gleam of forgiveness and good intention. She isn't going to ask Hatter about March, about the King's Messengers, about the weaver's gate and kaleidoscopes and Dee's hands dancing a miniature explosion. If she squints she can make out the painful skeleton of it, but it's up to Hatter when he decides to gift her with the flesh of the story. And when he does she'll tell it back to him, like the best kind of mirror, until it doesn't hurt so much.
Jack ducks out of his meeting with the Mock Turtle for long enough to see them back through the Looking Glass. When he hugs Alice in farewell it doesn't feel awkward at all.
"Once again I have a lot to thank you for, Alice."
"Actually, I hate to say it, but the Duchess did most of this one." Alice searches his face. "You're lucky to have her."
"I suspect we deserve each other," he says, but he doesn’t say it in the bitter way that would imply punishment. He says it like a man who’s had good news and isn’t sure that he won’t discover, at any moment, that it’s all been a big misunderstanding. The Cat presses itself against his legs and makes that probably-purring noise.
"Bring her to visit," Alice says. "But try to come at a more social hour of the day, next time."
Jack laughs. "I'll do my best."
"Alice," Hatter calls.
Try to remember to breathe, the Spade told her, but Alice is learning to enjoy the rush of glittering air against her face, the gleeful gravity of crossing the worlds; falling and falling while knowing herself safe.
The mirrors in Alice's apartment stay where they are. A reminder.
"It's good for you," she tells Hatter. "Exposure therapy."
"I don't make you climb tall buildings," he complains.
Alice smiles. "Maybe you should start."
"Oh, you say that now."
Alice laughs, but Hatter looks down into his mug of tea and is quiet. His fingertips, which had been beating time on the arm of his chair to the Bach concerto serving as after-dinner soundtrack, are still; Alice reaches over and tangles them in hers.
"What is it?"
"Happiness," he says, too casually. She glances sideways at his profile, the leap of his hair and the tannin curve of his mouth, and the quiet fear in his eyes. "I’m thinking maybe if I don’t move, it won’t move, see?"
Alice tightens her hand around his. He’s warm and he’s real, she’s real, and when she looks at their reflections in the window there are no unquiet shades of self with which to do battle. Just them.
"Trust me," she says. "It’s not going anywhere."