Disclaimer: The recognizable characters and situations contained herein are not mine. This story is meant solely for entertainment purposes. No infringement is intended.

This piece was written for the LJ community New Wonderland, where dear Erin asked for a piece where one of the Queen's trusted staffers was helping Jack all along. This is my humble response to that challenge. I don't think we actually ever saw a Nine of Spades, but I'm sure he was there somewhere. In my head, he's played by Adam Baldwin. My head is a very interesting place sometimes.

This is my first fic for this fandom, so any and all feedback is welcome.

The dust starts to settle across the Wonderland hills, a blanket of soot and ash that should be washed away by the next rain. If only it were that easy to cleanse a blackened soul.

He starts walking after the impromptu celebration in the forest, just as aimless as he ever was. He doesn't feel the cool night begin to seep through the thin suit; then again, he's been frozen for years. It would be alarming if he didn't feel cold. He doesn't notice the reenergized colors coming from the sunset, or the way they catch the spring foliage beginning to peek its way through the muddy ground on which he walks. His life has been black, white and red for a very long time now; colorblind but for blood.

Finally, he comes to the remnants of the only place he supposes he could even fathom going at a time like this. What's left of the log cabin is rickety, unstable--just like Wonderland now, he realizes, with a deposed Queen and an addicted citizenry. The windows are broken, but there's just a wisp of familiar fabric curling around the pane, curling toward him and beckoning him inside.

He doesn't cross the threshold. Doesn't want to remember what happened the last time he was here. Doesn't want to remember who's buried in the back. Can't see the chain post that so inferiorly acknowledges the life he lost three last chances ago.

The leaves crunch behind him, and he knows it's not from the nighttime wind. He turns, acknowledging the new King with a curt nod. They are long past formality; their kind of duplicity does not require anything but unspoken yet frightening trust.

Jack laces his fingers and bows his head, and Nine of Spades figures he's saying a prayer. For whom or what or why, he's not sure; but somehow, Nine thinks it is not in gratitude or because Jack thinks Wonderland has finally (miraculously) been granted salvation. Lives were lost today, including that of Jack's father. People have been destroyed.

Nine wonders if for once the dead do not have it easier--their murders were painful but brief. This agony will continue far past the lives of daisies on headstones.

He cannot help but notice the lines that mar Jack's once endlessly youthful, hopeful face, or the way his shoulders sag under the pressure of the last few days--hell, perhaps the last few years. Inasmuch as he hadn't planned on ever returning to this place, Nine's sure Jack never figured he'd have to be all that he loathed--deceitful, controlling, manipulative--even if it was in pursuit of the greater good.

The greater good. What a laughable concept. And just who got to define that? Not anyone who'd ever had to fight to make it through a Wonderland night, of that he's certain.

Nine takes a step back to give Jack his space, and for the first time in a long time, looks at the house that could have been a home. He's glad night is quickly pulling its curtain over them, or he'd be besieged by ghosting laughter floating and echoing through sunlit trees. He knows he can't take the pain such a sound would cause, with a shattered heart beating in his chest; its shards have pierced through his skin a thousand times before--sometimes being the only (vicious) thing that reminds him he's alive.

Jack's voice startles him, longing and alone. "Does it get any easier?"

He doesn't know--but somehow still doesn't have to ask--what the new King is talking about. "No."

Jack sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. "I wish she could have seen it."

Now Nine knows exactly what he means, and doesn't want to go there. He turns away from the King, steps away from the house of a thousand broken dreams, and crosses his arms.

He reprimands himself immediately for the gesture. Weakness personified. Naiveté in physical form. As if he could protect himself by sheer will. If that were true, the only woman who ever made sense to him wouldn't be six feet under.

Jack's in his peripheral vision, but is careful not to look directly at him. It's slightly unnerving. "She and Alice would have been quite a pair."

Nine can't hold back a quarter-smile at this. It's foreign and altogether wrong on his face, in this place, especially when they're talking about the fallen--her. But the two girls favored each other, with their wide eyes, dark hair and "screw you" attitude. Even he can't deny it would have been a sight to see. "The judo expert and the gunsmith. I can only imagine."

The silence stretches between them, more comfortably now, and just as Nine begins to consider being relaxed by it, Jack speaks again. "I came to thank you."

The response is automatic. "There's no need to thank me, Majesty."

Jack claps a strong, brotherly hand on his shoulder and turns his now-former bodyguard toward him. "If I have to, I will make it a Royal Decree that you call me Jack, Benjamin."

Nine wants to remind him that "Benjamin" died the day Catherine did--the day the chambermaid was discovered to be a Resistance fighter inside the palace. The day she tried to steal the Stone.

Nine had only been part of the underground then, simply part of their research team, poring over the ancient texts smuggled out of the Great Library and trying desperately to find a way to shut down the Oyster Harvest permanently. There had been a knock at the door, and Nine had stepped over piles of cracked leather backing, frayed parchment, and reached one ink-stained hand toward the door handle while the other went for Catherine's favorite sawed-off shotgun, called Vera after her mother.

Time stopped when he saw a soaked Jack Heart standing on his porch, holding the dead body of Nine's fiancée.

They'd buried Catherine in her beloved garden of bluebells on a blisteringly golden afternoon--though Nine hadn't seen anything through darkly tainted devastation (and in truth, hadn't since)--and then the Crown Prince had shivered uncontrollably in front of a fledgling fire. Nine stared at the uneven stone hearth, seeing nothing, hearing nothing; Jack had been forced to repeat his explanations of how he'd been recruited into the Resistance when they set out for the Casino the next day. He'd been with Caterpillar when they'd made the realization that while the Stone controlled the Looking Glass, so, in a sense, did Carpenter--an Oyster himself.

An Oyster with a family in the Other World.

Jack had sent communication to Catherine--get the ring, meet at the Looking Glass. I'm going over.

March had discovered her first, hands in the Queen's most prized possessions. Nine still didn't know all the details about her death--would never want to know, of that he was certain--but they'd executed her and thrown her over the side of the Casino like trash. When she didn't show by nightfall, Jack went searching for her, and found her floating facedown in the lake. Nine was sure he'd probably had to fight water and air scarabs, not to mention the tides, but he'd pulled her from the water and brought her home one final time.

Maybe the reason he couldn't say you're welcome to Jack now was because he'd been unable to say thank you then.

There had been no discussion about what to do once the shovels were put away, once the embers in the furnace had reduced to nothing but ash. They had both returned to the Casino, albeit separately--Jack to stave off suspicion, and Nine to become the newest member of the Royal Guard. When Caterpillar sent word that it was time for Jack to go to the Other World, Nine escorted him to his mother's rooms while she and the King were taking in a floor show. He'd stood watch while Jack completed the mission Catherine had given her life for, and they'd hurried to the crossover, bathed only in slats of moonlight, punctuated by shallow, anxious breaths.

"I'm close to finding a way to contact you over there," Nine had said as Jack clutched the ring tightly. "I'll be able to warn you if they get on to you."

Jack had extended his hand, and for the first time since Catherine's death, Nine's expression had been anything other than blankly stalwart. "Thank you, friend."

He'd awkwardly shaken the Prince's hand, wished him Godspeed, and shoved him through the mirror.

The next months had been agony, forced to pretend murderers were innocent and simultaneously murder innocence. His hands had permanently ground themselves into fists, locked tightly by his side. He'd never wanted the Teas before, but could track down a strong liquor when he needed to--and most days, he did. It was only at the bottom of a scotch bottle that he was thankful he'd been dead since Catherine had been buried. If he hadn't already been soulless, being around this much evil would have sent him beyond recovery.

He'd had to sober up quickly when he heard the White Rabbit knew the ring--and Jack--were missing together. Nine had sounded the alarms, and Jack had returned to Wonderland, thinking his ring was safe on the other side.

And then the house of cards started to teeter, sending Nine right along with it. He'd kept himself professional, distant all these months, doing his job but careful not to rouse suspicion. And then in the span of three days, he'd had to convince the Ten of Clubs that the Queen needed the Duchess that instant in order to save Jack from the Honesty, overpower the guards in charge of the power grid for the Seeing Eye Room so Duchess could sneak Jack out of the building, and find the least ridiculous costume in the entirety of the Casino to hide the Prince until he found relative safety.

He used to think lying like this was a means to an end--a necessary evil. Now he feels like with every falsehood, he's sold a bit of himself; lost a bit of his soul. Any satisfaction or healing that could have come from the Queen's acknowledgment that there were defectors within five feet of her is only acid on the open wound of realization that she doesn't care about his status any more now than she did yesterday. She's probably in a holding cell, trying to bribe the next round of recruits with promises of riches and wishes beyond imagination.

Her fight is not over; will probably never be over. And therefore, his and Jack's can never be, either.

It makes him wonder whether any of it was worth it.

Catherine's dead. Alice is gone. They are alone. The whole of their world is in flux. It, unbelievably, can get worse from here.

Nine feels another squeeze on his shoulder and tenses at the contact, but pulls his attention back to the man in front of him. "Sorry."

Jack seems to know where his head is; seems to understand the myriad of thoughts he's just gone through, as though he's relived them himself a thousand times before. "What do you think you'll do now?"

For the first time since they started this partnership, Nine is completely honest with him. "I'm not sure."

Jack nods, looking out toward the lake and where the Casino once stood. "I suppose nobody is."

That Jack can doubt himself after all he's done angers Nine, but he doesn't have the voice or inclination to voice his frustration. Instead, he says, "Just do me a favor and destroy those scarabs as soon as you can. They're noisy as hell before daybreak."

Jack smiles, then starts to laugh. It clearly startles both of them, but is infectious enough--a natural emotion worth desiring--that they share it as if it were a rite of passage; of friendship. Jack claps his hand against Nine's shoulder again and says, "You sure you don't want to continue being on the Guard? I can get you a new uniform."

"You need to work on your negotiating skills, Jack."

Jack snaps his fingers at the slip, grinning wider. "Apparently not. I got you to call me by my given name, didn't I?"

Nine rolls his eyes, but the smile somehow--inexplicably, strangely (amazingly, wondrously)--remains. He looks back at the house, and sees the curtain has pulled itself back in; the land is once again still. He wishes the tranquility means that perhaps this place will no longer haunt his memories, but he knows it will find him wherever he goes, just as visions of the Other World and his own lost Oyster will follow Jack until the day he dies.

For all the time he spent thinking the Hearts had no idea of what their citizens were really going through, Nine is saddened to realize just how much Jack truly understands.

Nine turns on his heel and starts to walk away, Jack in step with him until they reach the road. There is a brief pause before the two men embrace each other--fleetingly, for they are still the closest of strangers.

There should be talk of coronations or perhaps Jack's plan to name a corner of the refurbished Great Library in Catherine's honor. Instead, they part in the darkness just as they did months before, continuing on the journey they started then--towards finding a better Wonderland--because they both realize they have yet to accomplish much at all.