Rules for Different Beasts
Post-movie, Cheshire/Alice. Just as Underland plays by its own rules, so do those who are bound to it. Prompt paragraph and request from Kytha.
Two years and a day go by before Kingsleigh finally comes home, her hair grown stiff and gnarled from the sea. In that time, she makes quite a name for herself. Every day holds a new adventure. It's not that she's forgotten about Underland -- it's that Alice's own world is thrilling too, with places as exotic as any of the realms beyond. There may not be Bandersnatches and Jabberwockies lurking about, but Alice has seen monkeys with golden fur whose tails are decorated with silver rings, men who pierce themselves with quills through their noses, snuff boxes carved out of the bones of horned whales. She has seen beetles as large as her hand. She has eaten things she cannot (and does not want to) identify.
All of these things are fascinating, but none of them fit. None of them feel as comfortable as Underland. England is an exotic country to Alice now; Underland is in her bones. Underland and its madness makes more sense to her than corsets and gentry laws.
The White Queen and Hatter surely miss her, but there are reasons why Alice can't return to them just yet. It's not just her father's memory to uphold. If Alice gives in to boredom and disappears down a rabbit hole forever, she would leave the rest of her family behind. She would follow in her father's footsteps, and be a mystery lost on the horizon, swallowed by an unfinished dream.
She doesn't want to do that. Not yet. Not without succeeding for them all.
So Alice adores her world: all the golden monkeys and exotic meals and even the risk of scurvy. She wants to devour it like Upelkuchen cake, stuffing herself full and not minding however it transforms her.
Lord Ascot loves that she loves it. He lets her linger in Africa, haggling with traders in piecemeal tongues while he does the same in English with their investors back home. He lets her stray in Spain. But even he cannot allow her to run free forever, and so Alice eventually gets dragged back to England, tied down by the need to meet with their investors once more.
Hamish, unfortunately, is waiting for her at the dock.
As the ship eases its way into the harbor and the sailors go about their business of mooring it safely, Hamish's wan figure is visible among the crates. His pale head pops up and down like a rabbit that keeps ending up in the wrong warren. There's no wife by his side; he hasn't yet managed to wed, or so she gathered from the earlier letters that he kept insisting on sending her. Part of her had been hoping that she'd return to England to hear good news -- that Hamish had already found his perfect mate in someone else.
The sailors toss ropes back and forth. Hamish comes to a halt, peering hopefully up at the deck. Alice rolls her eyes.
"You'd think he could fix more than one thought in his head at a time," she mutters, stalking to her quarters. Once he's out of sight, her heart manages to soften again. She's met Hamish's mother; she wouldn't put it past the old harpy to drill in the idea of marriage so deeply into Hamish's skull that it would never come out again, not without an awl and hammer.
Her sympathy vanishes as soon as she gets back on deck and finds Hamish hovering around the gangplank. She is tired, she is cold; the salt-spray has worked its way into her collar and has been chafing her skin for hours. As much as she dislikes the notion of changing into skirts and ruffles, she would sit through hours of tea if it meant a hot bath would be at the end.
She marches down the gangplank with her face turned away. Hamish doesn't get the hint.
"Alice!" His bewildered expression flashes by her as quickly as a cloud. "Er, Miss Kingsleigh, please wait, it's so good to see you, and -- "
"It's very nice to see you as well, Hamish," she rattles off, marching along with her eyes cast forward. "But I really must get cleaned up, or your father may disown me from the company. I can't possibly see investors like this."
"Yes, I see, but -- did you happen to get my letters?" Inwardly, Alice winces. To be honest, she hasn't read one in months; in Spain, she'd thrown them all overboard under the guise of a bout of seasickness. "You're just, well, you can be very difficult to get a hold of, and I was hoping -- "
By now, Alice has managed to dodge through enough of the crowd that she's left Hamish behind, trapped behind a fishing net that's dripping the daily catch all over the dock. "I'm afraid I must go, but I'll see you after business is wrapped up!" she calls out, not looking back. "I promise!"
- - - - -
Guilt catches up with her in the middle of her bath. She sits in the water until it degrades past room temperature and slides all the way into cold. Ridges swell in her fingers and toes as she tries not to think about Hamish, about all the letters she refused to read, about how much she wants to run back away even though she just got home. In a last-ditch attempt at distraction, she rolls around in the tub pretending to be a fish, before she sighs and extracts herself back into humanity.
Her dressing robe is agonizingly soft against skin that has alternated between silk and burlap over the last two years. She plucks at it, pacing across her bedroom.
It's not that she dislikes Hamish -- he's always been polite to her, and he can't help it if he bears a resemblance to an unshelled oyster -- but she doesn't like him either. Not the way that he wants. And certainly not the way that his mother wants, or even her mother, so Alice can't afford to give anyone even a grain of encouragement.
Two years of escaping England has helped Alice to think of Hamish as a human being, instead of just an awful obligation that her mother wanted her to smile at during parties. That's all he is to her, however. Human. Average. Ordinary.
She doesn't really mean to be cruel. But what else is she to do?
Padding across the carpet, she fidgets with her hair. The strands uncoil in heavy waves when they're wet; they hurt too much to brush while they're soaked, so she's stuck for a bit until they dry naturally. She's tried pressing them with a towel to encourage them to dry, but her patience hasn't improved that much, and they end up in frizzy tangles whenever she rubs too hard.
As she turns the comb back and forth on the dresser, a voice speaks into her left ear. "I thought you'd never finish up."
She freezes, but her body is already calming, recognizing the voice from years of dreams and memories. "Chessur," she whispers aloud, joy overcoming her jumpy nerves. Turning, she casts her eyes around the room, hoping to catch sight of a gleaming tail or a paw, or even just the hint of teeth. Nothing.
He speaks again, this time into her right ear. His words ripple like velvet. "Unless you were attempting to become a mermaid, in which case, I would feel obligated to protest the scales."
Feeling a smile tug at her face, Alice resists twisting in place again. She doesn't expect to see the Cat immediately, though a part of her is disappointed. Of all the inhabitants of Underland, only Absolem has appeared to her in this world, and even then it had been brief. Her adventures with Company trading routes have kept her distracted, but hearing Chessur sends a fresh pang of nostalgia through her body.
"You'll have to excuse me for keeping company waiting," she protests gamely. "I didn't even see I had company at all. For that matter, how can I even be certain you're really here, Chessur? I don't doubt your ability, but it might be my own ears playing tricks on me."
A purr vibrates through her bones. "You've already been away from Underland too long, dear Alice. Just because something's a trick doesn't mean it's not real."
The low, warm rasp of his voice curls, like his tongue, against her skin, tickling the nape of her neck. Alice doesn't think much of it until hands (hands) come around her back and wrap loosely round her waist.
"Does this make a difference?" the Cat purrs, lips brushing the curve of her ear, and Alice -- Alice, who has not feared the Jabberwocky, nor the White Queen's fascination with death, nor being discovered for a fraud in the Red Queen's court --
Alice feels, inexplicably and confoundingly, afraid.
She turns like a broken clock, each cog jerky, changing position in starts and stops. The mass of a body is warm behind her. She can feel the heat radiating from it. She has no idea what to expect -- what Chessur might wear in her bedroom, putting on a borrowed face, or if he's come up with one piecemeal like a tailor quilting together noses and eyes. He might be the Hatter again. He could be anyone.
What she sees, when she finishes turning, is Hamish.
The clothes are right -- cravat and waistcoat just as she had seen him earlier at the docks. His hair is an unflattering mess. But now that she's actually looking at him, really looking, Alice can see the dissonance. Hamish's limpid eyes regard her with a piercing awareness. His pupils flex, sliding into narrow slivers before they widen back into round. He smiles with a clarity that Hamish has never shown.
"A very difficult woman to get a hold of indeed," he rumbles, his words cutting off in a burble as she leans forward and throws her arms around him in a tight squeeze.
She releases him before he might feel threatened enough to vanish. "Not that I'm not delighted that you're here, Chessur," she whispers, "but what if someone sees you like this? Won't they get confused with two of him around?"
One of his fingers comes up and traces its nail down her cheek. "Two?"
Fear -- suddenly buried and just as suddenly unearthed -- comes roaring back in on the heels of comprehension. For months, Alice hasn't read the letters that had been sent. She has no idea what they might have said, what they might have tried to tell her.
She has no idea how long Hamish has been the Cat.
She pulls away, folding her arms to hide their trembling. "What happened to Hamish?"
Hamish -- no, the Cat, Alice corrects herself -- releases her from his touch, his eyelids drooping in smug satisfaction. "McTwisp and I have an arrangement," he explains. "He's overwhelmed with trying to get everything back in order, what with Mirana on the throne once more. You know how obsessed he is with punctuality." Lazily, Hamish's hand comes up, fussing with his vest, smoothing the back of his knuckles over his brow. "After long discussion, I volunteered to find someone appropriate. This man seemed to be perfect. He's over there with the Rabbit, while I'm over here with you. And no one," he continued, his lips curling in a feline's grin, "to know the better here, save you and I."
The logic is utterly Underland, through and through -- and Alice, for all her guilt and duty to her mother and avoidance of marriage, Alice finds herself vulnerable to it. Chessur's eyes know her. Chessur's hands, as they come up and toy with her drying bangs, are ones that do not think of her as a young English lady, who should be afraid of monsters instead of picking up a sword to slay them.
"Some people might consider it cruel, to trick the world like this," she responds weakly.
"Ah." He pauses, seeming to give serious thought to her statement before directing his piercing stare back upon her once more. "But I am a Cat, and you are an Alice, and we are not some people, now are we? Those are rules," he continues softly, bowing his head to touch her hair to his lips, "for different beasts."
She closes her eyes.
"If you want," his whisper comes, made invisible now by her own denial, "I can go."
The blackness prickles with spots of color. Chessur's offer is a tangible thing, thick and sultry as melting chocolate. It is not Mirana's hand extended this time, adorned with the blood of the Jabberwocky; it is not the Hatter, nervous and fussing and radiating emotion like a flame. But it is a language that Alice understands, because she speaks it too now. She will not forget.
"No," she decides. "Stay."
Chessur's fingers tickle her eyelashes until she opens them again, forced to see the overlap of her two worlds in the figure standing before her. If this is madness, then it is the same impossibility that she has always lived and loved by, and if it is convenience -- then it is the same convenience that allows her to believe in wonder, that put a Vorpal Blade in her hands and told her to be a hero.
"He still has a terrible lack of a chin," she remarks reflectively.
"Oh, that." The Cat flaps a hand dismissively. "I have plans concerning that."
She laughs suddenly, a carefree noise that holds no allegiance to any country save its own delight. When he picks up the brush, she turns around, allowing him to start working at her hair. "I'm sure that you do."