Of Duty and Heartache
Rating: G
Summary: Jack tells the Duchess of his plans to ask Alice to become his queen.
Author's Notes: Oddly enough, my first fic for 'Alice' isn't Alice/Hatter. I've always been fascinated by the Duchess and Jack and their relationship. Unfortunately, getting in their heads was a bit tough, and figuring out how they would speak even more so. Oh well, live and let live!
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters. I just wanted to play with them before putting them back in the toy box.

The Duchess, her true name long lost to the annals of history and a queen who had wanted only pawns on her chess board, sat with a stillness that belied the emotions churning below the surface. The king, crowned just that morning in a mockery of a coronation, more circumstance than pomp, had called her aside with a tired face and weary eyes.

He was so different from the boy he had been in their youth, back when the only factors separating boy from girl was the length of one's hair and whether they wore a skirt or slacks. They, along with the other children of the Cards and Royals, had played in the palace garden and the small thatch of woods beyond. Looking back, long after logic replaced imagination, it was absurd to believe that a Jabberwock roamed the small thicket. To a young girl, though, the tightening of fear in a younger Duchess' heart had been very real, as was the flutter in her heart as a normally care free young prince had solemnly vowed to protect her.

'It is my duty to protect my people,' he had said, before the rare glimpse of a future king was replaced by the wide toothy grin more prevalent on the young boy back then. 'And I like you, so it just would not do if you became Jabberwock chow.'

Years later, after they had been separated, him to be groomed for kinghood and her to be molded to be the queen's pawn, that vow had stuck with her just beneath the thick fog of control and Emotion abuse. It was no real surprise to her, then, that the man she was engaged to had been involved with the Resistance. Unlike the queen and king, who both favored the quick fix of the positive emotion high for them and their people, the prince had always felt a sense of duty to his people. For him, their wellbeing came first, and everything else second, including the affairs of his own heart.

"I have decided to ask Alice to be Queen of Wonderland," the king informed her, spine straight and eyes steady on her own.

Had the Duchess not had years of experience, she would have applauded that the only betrayal to what she felt was a thick swallow and widening eyes. As it was, she cursed her own weakness. "Of course. Nothing has changed, after all."

"Circumstances were the only things to have changed, Duchess. Nothing else." The way his voice gentled and his eyes softened, the Duchess wished for nothing more than to throw propriety to the Jabberwocky, and the king along with it. She wanted to scream at him, to pound her fists against his chest, to curse his sweet words even as he eviscerated her.

All she was able to allow was a brief puff of air to escape, the closest to a snort she dared. Graceful legs carried the Duchess from sitting in the chair to facing away from him in front of the large window. "With all due respect, your majesty, I know the way she and the Hatter fancy each other. Are you so certain that she would choose the crown over that?"

Even as she spoke, scorn thinly veiled, the Duchess knew of no one in all of Wonderland who would deny the crown, especially for the owner of a mere tea house. As a whole, Wonderlanders were self serving, all striving for personal gain and status. Of the stories she had heard, Oysters were even more so.

Clearing her throat, she turned to face the king. "Should she choose to accept, the next in line could very well be a Hatter." The words tumbled from her lips before she could even think. "A Diamond is bad enough, but a Hatter?"

Under the queen's rule, she would have been beheaded for uttering the known secret of King Winston's inability to have children and the true parentage of the man who was now king.

The king merely looked at her for a long moment, a slight furrow between his brows, before he responded. "She saved all of Wonderland, Duchess, and would make a fair ruler."

Her throat slowly worked passed the lump that had been steadily rising from the pit of her stomach. In the end, she could think of only one more question, the one she feared the answer to. "Do you love her?"

"I care a great deal for her," was the king's careful reply as he straightened his immaculate lapels. "She has shown strength and courage, and risked everything for a land that would have otherwise killed her with no hesitation."

"Jackā€¦ do you love her?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, imploring the man behind the crown, desperate to see a glimpse of the same man who had hugged her after the former queen's downfall.

Jack's eyes lowered as he stepped closer, his words carefully chosen. "I have learned one thing during my time beyond The Glass. There is a vast difference between loving someone and being in love with someone." Stopping before her, so close she could smell his light cologne, he met her eyes again. "I love Alice, this is true. I fancied myself to be in love with her for a time. However, I have come to learn that I am not."

Her breath caught in her lungs at the confession she read. The Duchess leaned forward, so close to him that if she breathed hard enough they would be in a mockery of a hug. "Then why?"

"She has earned the right to rule Wonderland, more so than I. I must make her this offer, or I am no better than my mother. And should she choose to associate with the Hatter more than is proper, I will not stop her. I would not dream of standing in her way of happiness." Then his hands were on her shoulders, pulling her close as his body relaxed. This wasn't the king talking to her, she suddenly realized, but Jack. Her own arms were limp at her side as she found herself wishing that this Oyster woman would deny what no one else would.

"I am truly sorry," he murmured gently into her hair. Then he spoke one more word before leaving, and her heart shattered. It was supposed to have been lost, forgotten by man and time, yet her name passed through his lips with a familiarity that shook her.

AN2: Ever notice how King Winston was never referred to as Jack's father? It was always 'your mother' this and 'you mother' that. Even Winston said this, never laying any parental claim. While it could merely be an oversight, which I doubt, I began to think that perhaps the queen had once set her eyes on someone else for a short time.