I would like to formally claim the title of "Slower-Than-Dirt" and just make it official, already. I have nothing else to say.

Margaret was absolutely glowing as she took in their surroundings, while her husband did his best to stare at the ground and the ground alone, as though it would ground him, doubting this logic the entire time. He was standing sentry beside the door, holding it open as Margaret had instructed ("Don't want it to get lazy and just close on us, however then would mother get through?" for she was certain her mother would follow them, no matter how she had protested before Lowell had fallen) and doing his best to just not think, and be done with it (twasn't working, confound it all).

"I wonder," Margaret said wistfully. "If we should eat the cake now or wait until later. From what I can remember, Alice spent most of her time in Wonderland tiny, and that was normal, I think. Or was it that it was normal around the animals, which were already rather small, and she got bigger again when she'd found people...oh, it's been so long since I heard her stories, I'm so fuzzy on the details that might be important now."

"Importance is only imported on such things that deserve import, whether such things are important or imported or appropriated, so I highly doubt anything of importance is important."

Lowell jumped, then cursed under his breath. He still wasn't used to that dissembodied voice, no matter how many times the cat joined the conversation without actually joining them physically.

As though reading his thoughts, Chess' head smoked to life, blocking his gaze with it's upside-down grin, and floated uncomfortably close to Lowell's face (the feline was ever so large, while the man himself was ever so small at the moment; he'd never been so terribly afraid to be gobbled up). "You humans . . . you do so groom your fur in such appetizingly bizarre manners. It's hideously unattractive."

Oh, was he beginning to hate the beast.

But retort was saved by the telltale sounds of Helen finally arriving (and Lowell was very glad to be blocking his wife's view of the event, as Helen was much too old for this sort of thing, and the whole falling-landing-falling-landing debacle looked dreadfully painful for the matron, even if she stood and dusted herself off with as much dignity as was expected of her). Margaret rushed up beside her husband to call out.

"Mother! Over here."

It took Helen several seconds, glancing about the room in confusion, before she finally looked down and spotted her daughter and son-in-law. Lowell held his breath, but was pleased when bug-eyes where the only sign that Helen found any of this out of the ordinary as she spoke to her inches-tall child. "Margaret. I hope your trip down was much more pleasant than mine."

"Lowell protected me," she replied easily, giving his arm a squeeze (did the air always smell like roses down here? It seemed much sunnier than it had a moment ago). "Here, you'll need to drink this to fit through the door."

She pushed the large vial through to her mother, who picked up the tiny thing and eyed it warily. Sighing, she drank, Lowell turned away to give them some privacy (privacy he had not given his own wife while she had jimmied her dress about her and he had make-shift tailored his own clothing, but that was another matter entirely), and then the door was allowed to swing shut (with a disgruntled "thank you, sir") once the three companions and their smoky feline guide were through.

"Shouldn't we knock?" Alice commented lightly as Stayne threw the large double doors to the Castle Crims open and let them collide with the walls without a care, shaking the whole entrance whole with a loud BANG!

Stayne rolled his good eye. "Abandoned."

"Doesn't mean we ought to be rude." Alice shot back.

"Rude to who?" Stayne replied. "The people who aren't here? Or the murderer who used to live here? Because I can see why you'd be worried about what they'd think."

"Are we going to have to listen to you two flirt the entire time we're here?" Hamish snapped (for he was cold, wet, annoyed, ashamed, jealous, tired, confused, having a crisis, and unable to contain himself any longer).

Alice and Stayne both shut their mouths rather quickly, Stayne looking to Alice in that way he does that Hamish can't stand because he knows he's looked at her like that before, still does, and the Hatter practically has no other expression when Alice is anywhere around or is even so much as mentioned.

Speaking of the Hatter, he appeared to be mumbling to himself. "I'm contemplating things that begin with the letter S. Suffocation. Strangulation."

Backing away as nonchalantly as possible, Hamish sped up after Stayne, who had resumed leading the way with his quick pace and long strides that rather left everyone else jogging after him.

"Guest bedrooms are this way," he informed them without looking back. "I assumed no one would want to sleep in the Queen's room, no matter how many comforts it offers."

"And you, Knave?" Hatter finally spoke up, though his voice was still low and rather menacing to Hamish's ears. "Will you be takin' yer old room?"

Staybe did glance back at that. "I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you."

Alice opened her mouth, watching the exchange closely, but then frowned and shot Hamish a sad little look that he clearly interpretted to mean she was doing her best to surpress her curiousity, fearful of giving her amnesia away. What did she know of this subject? What didn't she? She couldn't ask. Couldn't even venture a comment lest she let herself slip.

So it was, instead, Hamish who asked (with a great amount of forced curiousity), "You lived here, then?"

Stayne didn't answer, but Hatta did. "Aye, being the Red Queen's favorite little toy."

"Can I just get the whole story here?" Hamish insisted, glancing between the two men. "I've gathered the two of you were on opposite sides in some war here that resulted in the . . . loss of Mr. Hightopp's family but his Queen winning? And now Mr. Stayne's . . . what? Reformed?"

Both men snorted.

"Once a murderer-"

"I'm surviving." Stayne cut Tarrant off, though he didn't sound too concerned about his comment.

"Seems like more than that," Alice said quietly. "After all, you dove into the ocean to save me, and staying with me has gotten you attacked by Jabberwocky and in a ship wreck. Doesn't seem like my company is very conductive to surviving."

Hamish groaned loudly, and didn't care that it made every one of them stare at him because at least then Stayne and Alice weren't staring longingly at eachother and making him want to both cry and vomit simultaneously. The young lord would gag himself before he'd be the cause of those two having another moment (Tarrant, old boy, he thought fiercely, do step up your game again, I think the dramatic sea rescue is starting to wear off).

"Aren't you supposed to be in exile?" Hatta offered suddenly, looking rather confused.

Stayne smiled. "Oh, you remembered."

Smirking, he turned a corner and began leading them up a spiral stone staircase.

But the Hatter was persistant, despite being the last in their little lineup and Stayne being the head, meaning he had to yell over them up to his rival, his voice bouncing around irratably in the small (but elegantly carpeted) space. "You were chained to the Big Head for life, you were. How did you manage to escape that? And where-"

Hatter trailed off, pausing on his step. Hamish stopped as well, watching his perplexed face morph this way and that in an array of fear, confusion, and revulsion.

"Hatta?" Alice called, obviously stationary behind Hamish.

"If you're hear, and you're free," Tarrant raised his gaze up to the hallway at the top of the stairs where Stayne stood waiting. "Where's the Red Queen?"

The flowers, despite having been told off several times, were still grumbling at them as they passed. Exceedingly tall (for Chess had been entirely unhelpful on the subject as to whether they should resume their regular statures or not for this leg of the journey, and even though Lowell insisted they'd be faster with their longer gaits, Margaret was terrified of stepping on the rude plantlife, despite how deplorable and insulting they were being), the petalled ladies loomed over them judgingly, shooting comments to their cat-leader as though human beings did not posses the ability to hear.

"Really, Chessur, what bussiness have ya bringing such things down to Underland?"

"They most certainly aren't Alice."

"Certainly not."

"Ain't got no bussiness being down here if they ain't bein Alice."

"My dear ladies," Chess purred, continueing forward as he floated upside, turned completely around to speak to them. "Alice, being rather subjective on the point of being Alice herself at times, gathers herself from others, so are not the others that contribute to the being of Alice also Alices of a sort? For though Alice was not Alice, she was still most certainly Alice, and has become Alice again, so I must escort these pieces of Alice to the thing herself so as to keep Alice Alice for the time we will being needing her, you see?"

"Oh, yes."

"Yes, of course."

"You always were such a thinker, Chess."

"Such a smart one, he is. Though this lot-"

And thus, despite their seemingly agreeable moment, they resumed their banter as to Lowell, Margaret, and Helen's unworthiness and (to Lowell's great insult) their ugliness, to which Helen ignored and Margaret tried to pretend it didn't bother ("they were just like this in Alice's stories") and failed to keep her hurt feelings off her face.

She had been unabashedly excited about how beautiful their surroundings were when they'd set out, darting about, spinning in happy little circles, admiring all the giant mushrooms (fungus! She was impressed by fungus!) and rocking-horseflies (nonsense, all of it, nonsense). The flowers seemed to about drain the pep out of her. Thankfully, they were leaving those wretches behind.

Soon enough, they reached a fork in the road.

"A choice, dear humans." Chess perched himself atop the sign. "East through Quest to the White Queen's castle, or South through the Tulgey woods and a bit of Snud."

"Well, which is faster?" Lowell asked.

Chess grinned wider. "That depends entirely on how fast you go and where you wish to end up, now, doesn't it?"

"We obviously want to end up at the castle." Helen reminded the pussy. "Which way would you recommend to get there in the most speedy and safe manner?"

The cat's head twisted slowly till he was staring at them on his side. "Quest is faster, I suppose, but I much prefer to take the woods."

Margaret turned her head curiously, almost mimicking Chess. "Why?"

"Why indeed?" The cat replied vaguely, fading from existance completely, leaving them to make the decision for themselves.