A\N: There's blink-and-you'll-miss-it femmeslash at the end, but it isn't the focus of this story.
It was a Sunday when Margaret went to go visit Alice in the hospital again. She took the baby with her -- the dear thing was much too young to be without her mother for any length of time, and she knew Alice enjoyed playing with her niece. Lowell was beginning to make noise about her being out of the house so much, but it couldn't be helped. Their mother had been feeling ill lately and wasn't up to making the journey herself, and while she and Alice had their differences, Margaret wasn't about to let her sister be alone in a place like that.
Alice had arrived just over a week ago on one of the trade ships, groggy and with bandages wrapped around her head. Apparently she had had a bad fall in her quarters, and had hit the looking-glass hard enough to break it. No one was sure how long she had been unconscious before she was found. Luckily they had only been a few days out of port, so the ship's doctor had patched her up as best he could and sent her to the hospital as soon as they arrived. Personally, Margaret was beginning to believe Alice had an odd predisposition for head wounds, although at least this one was rather less spectacular than the time she had fallen down the rabbit hole at Hamish's failed proposal.
She arrived at the hospital and was escorted to Alice's room. Alice was sitting on the bed looking at the window, and she turned and gave Margaret a large smile when she walked in, just as she had every other day. There was no longer any need for bandages -- the wound on her temple was closed, but would almost certainly scar, a pity on what was still such a pretty face -- but the doctors kept her under observation because, as they told Margaret, they were worried the blow might have had an affect on Alice's mind, given that it wasn't the first of its kind. Margaret thought the concern might not be entirely unwarranted.
She took her usually seat by the bed, and Alice immediately reached for the baby. Margaret passed her over, then arranged her hands neatly in her lap as Alice cooed and giggled. It was always strange to see her sister in this environment. The hospital room was clean, and simple, and bleak, and Alice was none of these things. But seeing the two of them together was almost enough to make her forget their surroundings, and she smiled at the sight of them.
"How are you feeling today, Alice?" she asked.
"Wonderful." Alice looked back at Margaret with that wide, joyous smile she had worn ever since her arrival, and it was a little odd. Not that Margaret would begrudge her sister any happiness, but it seemed to her suffering a major wound and being confined to a hospital bed wasn't much cause for joy. This was in addition to the fact that the the ship had been forced to set sail without her lest they fall behind schedule and there wouldn't be another for some time, something Margaret knew would normally be a cause of great frustration for Alice. However, she didn't seem to mind any of these things, neither her wounds nor the fact that she was once again trapped in a place she had tried very hard to leave behind. It was this more than anything that made Margaret fear for Alice's mind, although in all other aspects she seemed completely lucid.
"You never bring Charles to see me," Alice said, drawing Margaret from her ruminations.
"Oh, well Lowell keeps him busy you know, while we have him on holiday from school."
Alice's lips thinned. Strange how the only thing that seemed to bring her down from her usually euphoric mood was mention of Lowell, but they had never really gotten along as far as Margaret could tell. "I had hoped to see him. Mother as well."
"There's plenty of time for that."
Alice didn't reply or even appear to hear her, and that was another thing that worried Margaret. She would sometimes withdraw from a conversation entirely, or would answer a question in a way that made no sense. On Margaret's first visit, she had asked if the ship had gone all the way to China, and Alice had answered, "The ship went to China, but I ended up traveling rather farther than that," and then she had giggled, as if that wasn't just sensible but amusing. Margaret didn't know what to make of it. Then again, there wasn't much new about that.
It was well known -- so well known no one had much cause to mention it anymore -- that Alice Kingsleigh was very much her father's daughter. She had been since birth. No one who knew of his work would deny that Charles Kingsleigh was a genius, and no one who knew the man would deny that the genius had made him more than a little odd. While it was easy to appreciate him, no one could really understand him, not even, Margaret thought, their mother. No one until Alice. She had that same genius, and that same strangeness, that made their father such a success. It had taken some time to bloom, hidden behind youthful games and the expectations of society and even, eventually, grief, but Alice had finally grown into the woman Margaret suspected she was always meant to be.
Margaret was their mother's daughter. This was the rather less spectacular of the two options, and meant that where Alice was curious, Margaret was reserved. Where Alice was bold, Margaret deferred. And where Alice wanted always to stretch the bounds of her world as far as they could go, Margaret wanted little more than to be with her family and friends, the people she cared about. It probably seemed simple, but it had never felt simple to Margaret. It felt warm, and comfortable, and happy. Alice and Margaret might not understand each other, but Margaret still loved her sister dearly, just as their mother had loved their mad, wonderful father.
"I have more stories to tell him," Alice said. She had tucked the baby against her breast, and was rocking her gently.
"Let me guess. Stories of Wonderland?"
"Always." Alice flashed Margaret a quick smile, then looked back down at the baby.
"Well, perhaps he'll be old enough to remember them this time."
Alice laughed. "He'll remember the feel of them, I think. Maybe that will be enough." Charles had been barely four when Alice had last visited, and she had promptly sat him down and told him all of the stories she used to tell Margaret. Margaret had been rather too old for stories when Alice first dreamt them up, but she had listened and enjoyed them all the same. She had even asked for more, but Alice, who for a time had stubbornly insisted her adventures had really happened, had only said, "That's all there was, Margaret. I won't have any more stories until I go back."
Margaret had listened in on some of the stories, reveling in the pleasant sense of nostalgia. But then, much to her surprise, Alice had begun a new chapter of the tale, sending herself back to Wonderland as an adult, playing the role of the conquering hero. That was something she hadn't been expecting, but of course it had been many years since their childhoods, and Alice had certainly had enough time to expound on the stories since then.
"You really ought to write these stories down," Margaret said softly. "Most people could never hope to come up with such an extravagant world. I know there are other children who would enjoy it."
Alice regarded her almost solemnly, but the smile still lingered on her lips. "I think you're right, but I doubt I'll have the opportunity myself. Perhaps Charles will do it for me."
"Oh come now. It will give you something to do on the long voyages. I imagine being on a ship for that long has to bore even you."
"Sometimes," Alice admitted, then said, "I got it wrong the first time, you know. It's not called Wonderland at all, but Underland."
"Oh?" Margaret asked, humoring her.
Alice nodded. "I rather like Wonderland though. I learned that on the second visit, about Underland."
"With the Red Queen, and you fighting..." Margaret trailed off, her mind catching up to her mouth and making her realize what she had just said.
Alice looked at her in shock for a moment, then started laughing. "You were listening?" she asked, and laughed some more. Margaret went very red in the face and sat ever so much more rigidly in her chair, trying to appear composed. It was difficult to do with her younger sister going into conniptions and herself blushing like a schoolgirl.
"For goodness sake Alice, you're an adult now, act like one," Margaret said as primly as she could manage.
Alice struggled to compose herself. "I, I'm sorry Margaret -- oh," she said, as the baby suddenly started crying. Margaret quickly took her, murmuring comforting sounds. "I didn't mean to laugh," Alice said as she leaned back against the pillows. "I'm glad you listened. Maybe you can help Charles remember."
"Well," said Margaret, looking at Alice only a little crossly, "I doubt I would do half the job telling it as you do."
"I learned everyone's names too," Alice said cheerfully. "The Hatter and the Hare and the Dormouse, you remember, don't you?"
Margaret, who couldn't be sure that wasn't a ploy to allow Alice to laugh at her again, didn't deign to reply.
"It's really Tarrant," Alice continued regardless, "and Thackery, and Mallymkun, and Nivens, and --"
"Oh Alice, I'll never remember that. Those sound like nonsense words. Just tell Charles next time you see him."
Alice was silent for a long moment. When Margaret looked up at her, she saw that, for the first time since her arrival in the hospital, Alice didn't look happy. She looked sad, almost mournful, and it was so disconcerting that Margaret had to remind herself where she was.
"I don't think there will be a next time," she said softly.
"Do you know when it was? The second time I went there?" When Margaret just looked at her in confusion, Alice continued, "At Lord Ascot's estate. You remember how I ran off, and returned looking such a fright?"
"When you fell down the rabbit hole because Hamish asked you to marry him," Margaret said, "of course. That's not a spectacle one forgets in a lifetime."
Alice nodded. "That's when I went back to Underland."
"When you hit your head?" Margaret asked. "That's what gave you the idea?"
"It wasn't an idea."
"Or fine, the dream, whatever you want to call it."
"It wasn't a dream either. I thought they were when I was younger, but I was wrong."
"What do you call it then?" Margaret asked.
"A memory," Alice said. "It was all real, I just didn't know it --"
"Alice, for heaven's sake --"
"-- because so many things are fantastic as a child, I couldn't tell --"
"-- you are completely insufferable, where you come up with this --"
"It was real, Margaret!" and the force behind her voice silenced Margaret immediately. "I almost didn't believe it until it was too late, but Underland is real, and the people who live there are real, and deserve to be considered as such." Alice stared at her for a moment, her gaze hard. "Do you remember, when I was a child, the other rabbit hole I fell down?"
"Yes," Margaret said, because she was supposed to have been watching Alice when that happened, and had received quite a tongue lashing for it. She had remembered it that day as well, when Alice had returned to that ocean of people and turned Hamish away. In fact, she almost thought the rabbit hole was merely an excuse, because how often can that happen to one girl, except Alice had looked much too disheveled to have simply been wandering on the grounds.
What she hadn't remembered until just this instant was that it was after that fall that the stories started, and the dreams that eventually became nightmares. And Alice knew she remembered it too, Margaret could see it on her face.
"It was real, and it happened again," Alice said. "I went back, like I promised I would. I went through the looking-glass this time instead of down the rabbit hole, but I went back."
"Alice..." Margaret passed her hand over her face and tried to collect her thoughts. "Think about what you're saying. You were out in the middle of the sea, and you somehow traveled to a magical world where rabbits and dormice talk."
"Yes," Alice said simply.
"You're confused --"
"I'm not confused!"
"Yes," Margaret said gently, "you are. You've hit your head, and it gave you strange visions. That doesn't make it real."
"But it happens every time! And it's always the same. It's always been the same. That's not normal for dreams, I know it's not."
"All that means is blows to the head give you hallucinations. It's odd, but it's a sight more reasonable than a fairy tale world." Margaret sighed. "Perhaps you shouldn't become a writer after all. You'd have to send yourself into a coma to please the critics."
Alice leaned back against the pillows again, pouting, but also looking rather thoughtful. Margaret tucked the baby, who had begun fussing again, onto her shoulder and rubbed her back soothingly.
Alice lifted her right arm, and shook the sleeve of the loose shirt she was wearing down so that it pooled around her shoulder. Then she smiled.
"What are you doing?" Margaret asked.
"What I do every time I start to think the way you're thinking." Alice twisted her arm so that Margaret could see the three long healed but still stark scars on her upper arm.
"From the tree roots?"
"From the Bandersnatch."
"Alice..." Margaret strove for patience. "You scratched yourself when you fell. What other explanation could there be?"
Alice didn't answer that; she didn't much need to. Instead she said, "A tree root scratched me in three clean, perfectly even lines? That were half-healed by the time I made it back to the gazebo?"
"Perhaps they weren't deep cuts."
"They're deep scars."
Margaret sighed. "I'm not saying I understand it, but comparatively...what you're saying just doesn't make sense."
"There is no sense there," Alice said, and titled her head in thought. "I don't think I'll miss it." Then she sighed as well. "I didn't come back to fight, Margaret, and there's no use in yelling. You won't change my mind. I only came back to tell you what happened."
"What happened, then?" Margaret asked, squaring her jaw. "More grand adventures?"
"Oh, no more than anything that happens in Underland is an adventure compared to England. Really, it was almost tame. Though of course it was wonderful to see everyone again. I almost don't know how I stayed away for so long." She was smiling again, and staring into the distance as she reminisced. "Only one thing of note really happened, but it was the most important thing that could have happened." She looked at Margaret. "Mirana kissed me."
"The White Queen."
"The White Queen...kissed...?" This new knowledge tore through Margaret like a tidal wave, leaving her body numb and her mind dull. "That's what this is about? You're..." She couldn't even bring herself to say it.
"Of course it was only a kiss at first," Alice said, as cheerfully and easily as she might talk about the weather, "but it became much more than that."
Margaret looked at her sharply. "No."
"Yes." Alice tilted her head again, looking positively besotted. "I'm going back forever this time, to be her champion."
"You can't --"
"It only makes sense," Alice said, businesslike. "You never know when Red Queen will try to rise again."
"Alice," Margaret said, nervously fussing with the baby's blanket, "you've got to stop believing impossible things."
"If I stopped believing impossible things, I wouldn't be Alice anymore." She looked contemplative. "And it is the most important thing, isn't it? It's the reason people leave their families to 'become as one flesh.' I imagine Lowell is more your family than mother or I at this point."
"Don't you compare your delusions to what Lowell and I have," Margaret said sharply.
Alice made a face of disgust. "Believe me, I didn't mean to." She suddenly swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stood up. Margaret stood as well, clutching the baby to her chest, but the bed was between them, and she couldn't reach her sister. "I left Underland before for a reason. But just now I think I'm rather tired of reason and sense and logic."
"Would you listen to yourself?" she begged as Alice started walking slowly towards a looking-glass on the other side of the room. "The things you're talking about can't be."
"They already are," Alice said, "and I only came back to say goodbye."
"Alice, wait. You hit your head on a looking-glass --"
"I hit it on the bedpost, actually. The glass broke when I came out of it. The journey back here is always more difficult than the journey there. I don't know why."
Margaret wanted to scream, to grab her sister and shake her, to do something, but fear had locked her muscles into place. Alice had always seemed only half-anchored in this world, but watching her now, Margaret could almost see her willingly severing what tenuous connections her mind had to reality.
"You've gone mad," she said, trembling, as the baby started to cry. "Let me fetch the doctor, the doctor can help you --"
"How can he help me if I've gone mad?"
"Listen to me. You're having delusions. I'm sure they seem very real to you, but that doesn't make them real."
"I suppose it doesn't," Alice said, and she actually seemed to be considering Margaret's words. "But in that case, would it even matter?"
"What? Of course it --"
"If I'm right, and I'm going back to Underland, well, I don't have anything to worry about, do I? But if you're right, and I'm only mad after all...would I even be able to tell the difference? Thinking about it now, it seems that whether it's real or not, it's real to me, so what difference does a queen's court or a lunatic's asylum make?" She gave Margaret a dazzling smile. "Thank you. That actually makes me feel much better about the whole thing."
"Alice, wait --"
Alice placed one hand on the looking-glass and met Margaret's eyes. In them, Margaret could see the young woman she knew slipping away. "You'll give Mother and Charles my love, won't you?"
"Please don't do this," she begged, not even sure what she was asking her sister to stop, just knowing that, whatever happened next, she couldn't handle it alone.
"Goodbye Margaret," Alice said. And just like that, she was gone.