Disclaimer: I own nothing. It's all SyFy and Lewis Carroll.
Author Notes: Sequel to my fic 'The Grit and The Pearl', which can be found here at my profile. Enjoy
The casino chips had been waiting for her in the court room. A stack of them, their colours bright and proud. When clicked together correctly, their message was clear.
The Queen's supporters called on her for help. To restore the rightful ruler to her throne. And for Jack to be punished until he knew his place.
It wasn't possible that these could have gotten through to her without the Suits and Clubs knowing. Unless Jack wanted her to receive them. To see how she would react. A test. How like his mother.
Duchess swept the chips aside and opened the court. It wasn't until three hours later that she looked at them again. They were so cold to the touch.
She marched to where she knew Jack would be – finishing a ministers meeting with a few minutes spare before he set out to see Caterpillar. Where the meeting was, nobody knew. Certainly not Duchess.
"These arrived today," she held out the stacked chips.
Jack raised an eyebrow. "You don't want them?"
Duchess clenched her perfect teeth. "No."
When Jack didn't take them, Duchess let them fall. They made an almost artistic splatter of colour across the tabletop. They looked like a statement.
"I thought the security here was better," Duchess' words were pointed. She could play this game too.
Jack was measuring her in the silence. Heat thrummed under her pale skin. How things stayed the same. Duchess stared implacably back.
The King will take a White Queen
Duchess was unable to forget Charlie's words. They had taken sharp root, gnawing into her more and more. Charlie was not forthcoming on details. He smiled a maddening mysterious smile, looking quite handsome, and rolled his eyes back as he talked about spirits.
"A union, Your Grace, diamonds and pearls, the colours. All of our great houses. The time is coming, they say. Oh, it is."
A song burst out of him, causing several doors to open. Duchess felt quite speechless with frustration. She was surrounded by riddles, she was mocked by them.
Duchess owned only one diamond necklace. A singular beautiful piece that had been a gift. Charlie's prophecies turned her thoughts to it. A White Queen. One morning, she slid it around her neck and wore it like the first step into cold waters. It glimmered in the hollow of her throat and trembled with every breath.
The messages kept arriving from the Queen's supporters. There were more casino chips, cards with odder spidery borders, words directly from the mouths of birds and roses, and subtler leaves of paper shuffled in with the notes the courtiers presented her with each day. Duchess pointedly gave them all to Jack.
One day, after Jack had called her in to talk about the latest court and what the baron had really been saying, Jack paused and got to his feet. He checked the timepiece he had brought back from the Other Side in the manner of someone for whom time was always limited and filled beyond reason. It set him apart.
"We'll discuss this over dinner."
Dinner, with Jack. A clearly working meal. To save time. Something fluttered in Duchess' ribcage, waiting to escape. She followed him silently.
They ended up on either side of the table. Duchess found herself close to the sugar-heart biscuits that she had loved as a child. It felt almost like a plan.
Conversation was clipped. Court and the barons and Charlie. Duchess' mind fixed there and her lips gave it casual voice.
"Charlie tells me he can hear the future."
Jack laughed. "Yes, the spirits talk to him."
"You believe him?"
"He does know things in his own peculiar way," Jack shook his head. "And where he chooses to live, if there was anywhere to meet spirits…"
It felt almost companionable. Duchess' smile stayed in the corner of her mouth. It was too much to hope, but it felt like Contentment. She was wearing her diamond necklace again.
Jack's words were sudden. "Thank you."
He almost smiled; his lips a ghost of an expression. Duchess knew what she had seen. She knew Jack. No answer was an answer in itself.
When she departed, her hands sliding into her coat pockets, her fingers unexpectedly discovered a sugared heart-shaped biscuit.
Jack called her name from outside. He had a croquet mallet over his shoulder and his shirt sleeves rolled up. He'd lost his jacket somewhere. He looked younger, healthy and perfect.
"Dusting off the antiques?" she asked with an arched eyebrow.
"Three hoops and getting to the stake makes a winner?"
"I always beat you."
"Grandfather's technique never did rub off on me," Jack acknowledged, hefting the mallet nostalgically. "Wonderland needs another game."
Another part of the world being rebuilt. Duchess nodded, she could foresee it fanning and dousing all kinds of flames, likely just as Jack did himself. He didn't invite her to play. But she watched from beside the flamingo lake as he directed Clubs and Diamonds in laying everything out.
She remembered the clouds of purple butterflies that chattered and commentated as they passed, her father teaching her the game so she would be able to play with the Hearts, her mother flapping a white lace fan in the heat. Jack had always appreciated her game play. So had the Queen.
Jack kept his resistance's secrets, including the location of the Great Library and the hospitals. He was friends with Caterpillar, highly thought of and trusted. His resistance kept their silence too, blending into the crowds of Wonderland without detection. Duchess wasn't allowed to know these things.
But one day in court, there was an undertone. One of the lords spoke about gaining more knowledge, a lady mentioned expanding her horizons, of taking advantage of all of their resources. There was talk about the Queen's supporters getting a foothold and access. They looked at Duchess as though she was their doorway in. She unwrapped their words.
Jack was gazing out at Wonderland when she found him afterwards and the look he favoured her with wasn't too hard.
"There's been a development."
"How fascinating. Can this wait?"
"No," Duchess was short, her words tumbling out crisply before he could cut into her. "The court thinks the Queen's supporters are getting control of the deck again. They think it's because of me."
"They're not the only ones."
There was no accusation in his tone. Duchess inclined her head and ventured closer.
"They want the Great Library."
"They want all that beautiful knowledge."
Jack took her offered notes. Duchess watched him read, saw the anger form on his brow and tighten his mouth. The urge to smooth it away with her fingertips was dizzyingly strong.
"Or they think my mother's friends will get to it first," Jack mused aloud. "I've been getting reports….the Library needs to be locked down."
Duchess caught his arm as he almost passed her. It was the first contact she'd made since his father's funeral. It stole her breath.
"They'll follow you and they'll find the Library."
"Or you could be sending me into a trap."
That stung, even though his tone was conversational, not cruel. She let go as Ace of Clubs appeared at the door. Her armour closed tightly around her. Jack would not have an untroubled journey; it was too good an opportunity for his opposition. She knew what she would have done.
The hours tick-tocked slowly. She was expectant and jittery under her skin. She sat with the flamingos a while, listening to the gossip and rumours. It always paid to have contacts.
Jack returned with many scrapes and a bleeding cut over his eye and his suit in ruins. Duchess grasped him as he almost fell to the floor, Ace of Clubs assisting her.
"The Library is safe," Jack got out.
Jack pressed fingers against his head wound. "Hmm, it could have been much worse."
Duchess helped him to his chambers and left him stripping away what remained of his suit. She had food sent up and waited in the throne room. She wouldn't leave without knowing what had happened, how she could help. And Jack wouldn't retire for the night yet either.
When Jack returned, he was in iron-smooth black trousers and a fitted red shirt. His black tie was loose around his neck and his cut was patched up. There were dark circles under his eyes that no one else got to see. He was exhausted.
He poured himself a drink, another for Duchess.
"Do you know what happened?" he asked, curtly.
His mood pricked at her skin. There was a swell of anger under his expression. It was going to be one of those evenings. Duchess sat back. A dam against the tide.
"They followed you," she guessed into the quiet. "To find the Library."
"We double-backed, of course, several times before we even got close. That was when they decided to strike."
Duchess' 'I told you so' stayed silent. But Jack heard it, just the same.
"So you were right, congratulations." He took a vicious drink from his glass. "You win and so does my mother."
"You're still here," Duchess pointed out, smarting from his words. "She's not."
Jack slammed his glass down, amber liquid sloshing out onto the table top. The loss of control was startling. Jack was always so contained, so cut-off. Duchess pressed her lips together. A comparison to Jack's mother was not a kind one, and entirely undeserved. The room's silence was taut and stretched thin. So dangerous. As though to speak would be a disaster. Perhaps it would. Duchess got to her feet. Jack's voice stopped her.
"There's a room here for you, should you require it."
Duchess paused. It wasn't quite an order, but a suggestion due to the late hour. Perfectly acceptable, but drastically new territory. Perhaps even a hidden apology. There was a waver hidden under Jack's casual words, like he was interested in her answer. It felt so precarious. She curtseyed impeccably.
The room was not large. There was a generous bed and a connecting bathroom. A large expectant wardrobe. It was decorated in white and gold. There were silent white roses on the dresser.
When Duchess touched their smooth petals and breathed in their scent, she caught a hint of Jack's cologne.
Court was strained. Everyone had heard of the King's escapades, how the Queen's supporters had come after him.
"We're moving on," Duchess reminded them all decisively, with a warning eyebrow.
The Library was protected. Jack had done what he'd gone there for, ensuring its secret was kept. He had done the same for the hospitals he frequently visited. Caterpillar was spearheading the cloaking movement.
Duchess saw the tight roll of Jack's shoulders. They always got so knotted when he was tense. He found it harder to be still like that. She could work the pain out of them. She didn't offer. He knew of her talents.
He touched her arm as she left. A casual discreet touch to go with his brief goodbye. It felt unbearably fragile.
For a moment, her smile trembled.
There were sugared-heart biscuits waiting with her morning coffee. There was always a white rose in her room that kept its secrets. She wore her diamond necklace like a talisman. She listened to Charlie's rambling songs. She talked to the flamingos and watched them fly. She played croquet. Her wardrobe was full. She still stood against the tide.
She caught Jack looking at her sometimes. Or rather, he occasionally allowed her to see his lingering smile, purposefully directed at her. It felt like a whole still of warm Promise, that she was allowed to drink. Another step into cold waters. His hand was a fleeting whisper against hers.