Author's Note: Finally, the chapter I've been waiting to write for so long now! This one's a game changer, and I'm excited to publish it. Enjoy, and do let me know what you thought! Thank you, and happy reading.
"Lay me down
Let the only sound
Be the overflow
Pockets full of stones"
-Florence + The Machine, What the Water Gave Me
There was something about her, when they were like this. The way she could be, her being: she was, is, will forevermore be. A soft curled hand spinning circles like straw to splendor on his chest. A strand of hair, tickling its way into everywhere. A smooth curved back, the most perfect back in the world, and its clever sway, its widening and narrowing and widening again. Most appealing. The slope of her nose, the circle of her mouth, the salmon pink of her cheeks. The slight crinkles near her sleeping eyes, the sound of breathing escaping her puffed cheeks. Silent sighs and supple secrets, suppose they were about him? Suppose she should like him very much? Suppose this were mad? Was he mad? What was madness, after all, but a word of being: he was, is, will forevermore be. In being there was comfort; in the meantime, there was she, and that was better in the end. Sometimes those secret places scared and scarred-sometimes, with she, there was air, and he needed air, or so he'd supposed and speculated from time to time; he was good at speculation, he supposed, maybe too good; perhaps it was a sign of too much space and too many seconds to sit through. Solo, single, solitude, separation, seclusion, segregation, sequester-sometimes he liked to play this game. Sanity? Oh no, not with that bunch. Monophobia, if it began differently. A stupid saint, a shameless sinner: a secret savior, a serving sidekick. He liked strawberries and scones and shared secrets and sssssssssssshhhhh.
Her finger stops his lips. Was he speaking, he's not sure; too many things might have been said and they shouldn't have been. Been. Being: was, is, will forevermore be. He focuses back on her. Elegant curves, easy smiles, exhausted face, embodying everything, an escape from vast something. Even without effort. But that was okay. He rests his cheek on the top of her head and holds her closer; maybe he'll keep her forever, how nice that would be: was, is, will forevermore be.
Lyss was walking alone in town, two packages-one containing a newly purchased dress, and the other containing a repaired weapon of hers-swinging gently back and forth with her every stride. The day was considerably warmer than usual, a sure sign that the season was shifting into summer, and so she decided to take a repose at a small cafe just near the center of the hub, overlooking a rather large statue of the Queen. Lyss sighed and purposefully sat herself facing away from the sculpture, and ordered an iced mint tea. The wait for her drink was nearly unbearable in the heat of the sun, and she found herself wishing that she'd dressed a bit lighter.
She was just about to attempt to subtly fan herself with a menu when she heard both a dim drumming and the sound of many marching feet. Lyss dropped the menu and craned her head around, trying to see from where the sounds were coming. It seemed to originate from everywhere, and Lyss noticed that several other patrons of the cafe were exchanging worried and concerned looks. The waiter who had taken her order stepped out of the small indoor space, her drink balanced carefully in his hand, but when he heard the drums, he froze, and immediately reversed directions and went back inside.
Several customers stood up and crowded around the outside of the cafe, throwing shifty glances at the statue as they did. Confused, Lyss stood and joined them, and she felt herself grow anxious as she waited for the source of the sound to make itself known.
Finally, the courtyard flooded from all four sides with an endless stream of soldiers, each wearing a black or red suit of armor with either a large heart, spade, diamond, or club embossed on the front. They filled the alleyways, their numbers seeming to never end, and the frontmost soldiers cleared a space around the statue and stood guard facing it, alternating between black and red uniforms, preventing any of the citizens from approaching it.
The Queen then approached the statue, a man with a heavy, wicked blade at her side, the Flowers dutifully following her. The strange group seemed to glide as they made their way through the crowd of soldiers, and Lyss found herself transfixed by them-whether it was out of admiration or terror, she was unsure. Lyss was roughly shoved by the group of frantic citizens, and she clung tightly to her packages. Several people were blocking her view of what was going on, but a few shifts of her position allowed her to generally see what was happening.
The Queen had gathered her strange group in the front of the statue, and seemed to be making some sort of announcement. The drone of agitated citizens prevented her from hearing anything clearly, but Lyss could see a certain air of self-satisfaction on the faces of the courtesans. A collective gasp rose from the crowd, and it grew more agitated; people shifted around and a few even tried to find a way to leave. The guards turned around and faced the crowd, and all activity immediately stopped.
The voice of the Queen rang over the crowd, and a wailing, earsplitting cry followed. It took Lyss a moment to realize that the name that had been called belonged to her waiter, and before she knew what was happening, two guards had stepped into the crowd and were dragging the man to the statue platform. They forcibly made him kneel on the ground, and he screamed all the while, horrible things like "I didn't do it!" and "They made me!", but no one payed him any mind, and several of the ladies on that platform with him were cheerfully smiling, fanning themselves pleasantly, and then the man in black lifted his sword and brought it down softly on the nape of the man's neck, measuring his next move carefully, and Lyss knew what would happening, but she could not look away, and so she stared on as the man lifted the sword once more and this time brought it down hard, slicing the flesh open, and the man gave a strangled scream, and then he began bleeding, but he was not yet dead, and so he endured another blow, and another, and another, and then finally the Queen became fed up and snatched the weapon from the man in black and delivered the final blow that removed his head from his body, his blood blending in to the color of her gown.
No one in the crowd said anything as the courtesans left and the soldiers marched away, leaving the body of the man behind to stain the foot of the statue red, his lifeless head frozen in an expression of terror as it rolled gently from side to side.
"And she-she just took it from him and she did it herself. Killed him in cold blood. It was horrible. Hare, how can she just do something like that?"
"Because that is the kind of ruler she's become. Sentence first and verdict after." He paused to stir his tea. "It wasn't always like this, though. Only started happening about thirty years ago, around the time Alice died. Used to be that no one lost their head, even if the Queen threatened it." This made Lyss all the more confused as to the wake of the dead girl, but she supposed that they continued to mourn her open casket either because it was still a touchy subject or because it was Wonderland, and that was how things worked.
"Do you know how she died?" Lyss ventured to ask.
The Hare scratched behind his ears, "You know, I don't think Hatter's ever told me. And I never thought to ask."
"Wait," Lyss said, "Do you mean to suggest that the Hatter was there?"
The Hare merely nodded and looked away. Lyss suspected that if he'd been covered in only flesh and his fur was nonexistent, he would have had a profuse blush blooming on his face.
Finally, the Hare softly spoke, "I find it best to not bring the subject up, and I've never asked him about it."
"Is that what made him..." Lyss made a vague circling sort of gesture about her head.
"Oh, no, he was mad far before that." The Hare took a sip of his tea, "It certainly hasn't helped any, though."
Lyss nodded and swirled her tea around, the strange, foreign liquid no longer volcanic in its temperature. Gingerly, she took a cautionary sip, found herself content with the warmth, and eagerly had some more, lest she should ever again be in a situation in which she could not get her tea. It was an unusual beverage, rather phantasmagoric, a very deep crimson red that shimmered into a golden yellow, which in turn shifted to an aquamarine blue. The beverage never stayed one color for long, though the color seemed to have no correlation to taste; it remained a consistent flavour.
"What is this?" she finally thought to ask the Hare.
Without even glancing at her, he replied, "I'm not sure. It's been in my cabinets for ages. How is it?"
Lyss blanched and nearly smacked the Hare on the back of his furry head. She'd already drunk half of the serving. "You're serving me something you've no idea the contents?"
The Hare shrugged, "Does it taste bad?"
Lyss stood abruptly, "I'm afraid I have to go now, Hare."
He gave her a knowing smile, "Don't hurry back, now." She turned and put her hands on her hips, overacting her admonishment.
"Are you saying I'm not welcome back?" she gently teased.
"Of course not, dear. Only that I suspect I won't be seeing you for a while."
Lyss went home and changed into her new gown, a deep blue colour that matched her eyes. She went out for a brisk walk, perhaps to break in the fabric, and then night fell, and she'd somehow found herself at the Hatter's house again, and this time she'd been left alone to do some exploring. He was busy, distracted-Lyss suspected he might be more temperamental than usual tonight. And so she wandered around the house, ducking in and out of all the strange rooms, wondering how it was that such a house had come to be.
Lyss came to the door that led to his library, and decided that she could easily spend a quiet evening in there. She tiptoed softly into the room, though this was unnecessary due to plush carpet that quieted her footfalls, and looked around. The bookcases reached to the ceiling of the room, and each wall was lined with them. Even the back of the door was filled with shelves of books, so that when the door was closed, it was difficult to discern how one might go about leaving. It was not an especially large room, but it was so overfull of information and books and things that Lyss wondered if perhaps she had misjudged her opinion of the Hatter's brain resembling his workshop; certainly, the room she was now in felt more representative of that strange chaos.
There was a small table nestled in the corner where two of the shelves met, and an equally small and oddly patterned chair rested next to it. Lyss walked over and sat herself down, noticing that feathers and apples and strange squiggles resembling snakes appeared to be part of the chair's decor. She sighed and leaned toward the table, propping an elbow up on the weathered wood, and was met with something massive and solid and distinctly not table. Startled, she turned her head to the table and saw a battered, black-leather bound text sitting square in the middle of the table.
She was quite certain that it hadn't been there when she sat down.
Lyss did a quick scan of the shelves surrounding her, wondering if perhaps the book had fallen and she'd not noticed, but strangely, there was no peculiar dark shadow of a space that it could have come from; everything was in order.
It is therefore understandable that her curiosity soon piqued.
Tentatively, so as not to damage the book any further than it already had been, Lyss opened the cover and flipped to the first page. It was filled not with stately text, but rather with the inky black splotchings of a hand rushed, frantic to get everything down. The script was yet elegant, though smeared in many places to the point of illegibility, and Lyss bent over the book, hoping that proximity would improve readability.
The writing was vastly inconsistent. Chunks of English were interspersed with French and some other rune-like language Lyss had never seen. And so you see, what you really must do is passes par la porte et peut-être, si on n'a pas des autres modes, passes-toi à travers les miroirs and then it devolved into a spiral pattern of runes. They circled the page like a textual labyrinth, undecipherable, though Lyss still traced them with her index finger, as if hoping she could just absorb their meaning via touch.
She flipped through a few pages, and stopped when she saw carefully detailed etchings. An outline of a right gloved hand filled the left side, and some sort of mechanical diagram was inscribed on the right. It was rectangular and entirely solid, and looking closer, Lyss realized that it was a door of some sorts. Certainly, it was no regular door, for it led to nowhere; a scrawl on the margin of the page clearly stated that it "only works when touching".
She turned the page. Another drawing, this one of a mirror with a gloved hand reaching through it. Bits of text: "take advantage of their knowledge", "can't build it all on my own", "et aussi pour cherchez la femme", "down with Time", "c'est le lama François"...
And then the creak of an opening door made her snap her head up, and she was met with a wild Hatter.
"Hatter, what is this?" and he crossed the small room and thudded the book shut.
"Nothing," he emphasized.
"But it's clearly something. It's-your gloves are in there. With drawings of doors and mirrors and-"
She fell silent.
The Hatter spoke next, "It's how things go from A to B. How I got everything to be-" and he gestured about the room at this, and then raised his hands to his head and tugged at his hair. Small streaks of red had tinged it, but as the seconds ticked on, the hair slowly faded and bleached itself entirely white.
He grabbed the book off the table and stormed out of the room, mumbling under his breath. Lyss followed him, racing to keep up with his long strides. Snatches of what he was saying floated back to her ears; she heard "have need of hiding it" several times, and "pas ma choix".
"I didn't know you spoke French," she said, still running to catch him, trying to keep some sort of semblance of normalcy in the dervish of panic.
The Hatter did not seem to hear her, or pretended not to. He stopped suddenly at an open window and peered outward, and Lyss halted just behind him. His focus was intense and scrutinizing, and though she looked also, she could not tell what it was that he was discerning. All she could see was the Pool of Tears and the surrounding forest, illuminated by the moonlight.
"Hatter, please, what is going on?"
He turned to look at her, and to her relief he seemed to have gained some lucidity. In response, he only gestured towards the window, inviting her to get a closer look. She walked forward and put her hands on the sill, but all she noticed was the ever-present whirlpool spinning in the center of the lake and a pervading sense that, despite their relative closeness, she and the Hatter were miles away from each other.
An idea occurred to her, "Hatter, I need your gloves."
He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, "Why?"
"Do you think I'm Alice?" she asked, brow furrowed. Slowly, he nodded, almost imperceptibly. "Then I have to do something."
They fell silent for a few moments, the Hatter looking confused, and Lyss trying to find the right words to explain herself.
"You told me to raise hell," she began, "And I think I may need to open a few pesky doors to achieve that. There's one at the bottom of the lake, isn't there?"
He nodded his head, paused, and turned to look out the window. "You're going to be gone for a very long time, won't you?" he whispered. Lyss bit at her bottom lip and glanced down.
"I'm not sure," and even though she said it honestly, it felt like a lie. She looked up at the Hatter, their eyes meeting, and was struck by the melancholic look on his face.
On a whim, Lyss moved herself closer to the Hatter and grabbed his orange lapels, stood on her tiptoes, and softly kissed him. He gave a small start of surprise, and then kissed her back, his hands gently cradling the back of her head.
There were many classic tropes their kiss could have taken. It may have been raining, the steady drizzle gradually increasing its strength and velocity as the kiss progressed. A sudden, life-altering realization may have occurred, or it may have happened in slow motion, dragging on for endless seconds until our protagonists managed to wrench themselves breathlessly apart. The room temperature may have risen, cheeks may have flushed, passion may have overburdened the couple. Battles may have ceased, and wars won; illnesses cured and hostility made mundane. Lyss might have been swept off her feet, threading her fingers through the Hatter's stark white hair, pressed flush against his body as she tried to be as close as possible one last time.
In truth, none of these happened, despite thorough documentation that such kisses have happened to multitudes of other couples in other long-winded sagas. They did not touch beyond Lyss' hands fisting his coat lapels, the Hatter's hands cradling her head, and, of course, their lips. There was no rain, and, though it may have seemed longer to the kissers, it only lasted the span of a few urgent seconds. Room temperature stayed constant, and when they separated, there was still the horrible knowledge of a war yet won. It was not the first time either person had kissed someone, and, though there was plenty of stomach fluttering, they were not swept up in a wave of their own fervency.
They parted silently-no words of poetic ardor were exchanged-and nothing visibly noticeable changed except for a blush that spread on Lyss' cheeks.
In short, their kiss was not everything. But still, it was something: reassuring and sorrowful and perfect in its own right.
"It seems I'll be expecting uninvited company soon."
Lyss tilted her head towards him, waiting for him to elaborate, but he said no more.
"Leave out the back door," he said calmly. "They won't see you that way."
"Take the book with you. And my hat. Keep them safe." His voice was suddenly unexpectedly urgent, and he looked at her with pleading eyes. She consented, and he gave her the hat, dropping the book into it. To Lyss' surprise, it disappeared entirely, and the hat felt no heavier than it had moments ago.
He sighed, "If you must leave, I have to ask you to make it soon. Go."
"Please, Alice." His voice broke just slightly, and Lyss couldn't bring herself to correct him.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. He smiled. "I'll be back before you know it," she promised.
He turned her around and gently led her towards the door. "I only hope to be here when you return." He opened the door and she stepped through the threshold, letting the frame separate them. "If you hear any marching, hide."
And with that, he closed the door and Lyss was left alone. Armed with his gloves and his hat, she set off towards the lake, all too conscious of the increasing ache in her heart as she walked away.
She reached the edge of the lake, and when she did, Lyss turned in a slow circle, determining which direction the Queen's palace was. It was easy enough to locate, as the turrets were visible over the line of trees, and Lyss faced it as head-on as she could manage. From the depths of her pockets, she took out that gun acquired so long ago, now repaired, and aimed it at the castle. Carefully, she cocked the weapon, checking first to ensure that it was loaded, and then she gently squeezed the trigger. The bullet burst from the barrel and blasted forward. Though she would never know if it hit its intended target, she felt a deep satisfaction at her actions.
"Consider that a warning, Your Majesty," and she tucked the gun into the Hatter's hat for safekeeping, and as with the book, it simply fell into the unknown. Empowered, she turned back to the lake, immediately filled with a rush of dread at what she knew she had to do. Lyss stared at the water, watching the subtle ebb and flow as it softly made its way to the center of the lake. The very edge of the waterline caressed her boot, staining them a dark brown.
She stood on her tiptoes; she could see the whirlpool.
She was certain that it was there she'd find a door.
Carefully, she slipped the Hatter's pristine white gloves onto her own hands and placed his hat on her own head, and knelt down, leveling herself with the water. She dug about in the sandy shore for a few moments, searching for stones. When she had collected enough, she began placing them wherever she found space on her body: pebbles shoved into her boots, several put on the Hatter's hat so she wouldn't have to worry about holding on to it, others crammed into the small pockets of her skirts and in the soft fabric of her sleeves.
The way she saw it, this was the only way she'd make it to the bottom of the lake. From the surface, there was no way to tell how deep it might be, and weighing herself down was her only option.
She stood and faced the water, letting out a shaky breath as she did so. Her hands were trembling, and she felt absolutely terrified. She could die. She could literally drown in a pool of her own tears.
She slowly walked into the water, letting it envelope her in its mystery. It reached her ankles, and then her knees, and eventually her waist.
It was freezing cold. Lyss began shivering, though she couldn't tell if it was from the water temperature or from her own fear.
But she kept walking forward.
As the water reached her neck, she took several long, deep breaths, hoping to over-oxygenate her blood, trying to give herself as many seconds as she could get. She didn't feel particularly ready to go forward, but with one last breath, she ducked her head under the slight waves of the lake, and rushed forward as quickly as she could. Her boots kicked up the sandy bottom, and she felt a strange sensation of both lightness and heaviness as she swam forward, for once grateful to her father for insisting that she do all those sports. It was like running, but more elegant and graceful, slower.
She soon felt her loss of breath.
Don't breathe in. Don't breathe don't breathe don't breathe don't breathe. She repeated this mantra over and over in her head, willing herself to push just that bit farther, though how far, she couldn't tell. It was dark, and she thought that maybe she could see the bottom of the swirling water, but she couldn't be sure. She just moved forward, pushing and pushing. Her lungs began aching, a slow burn that began at the bottom of her ribs and pushed itself into her throat, begging her to breathe. Black spots appeared at the edges of her vision, and blinking wouldn't make them go away. Her head felt like it was floating off of her body, and she found herself wondering if she could make it back to the surface-if she could just go and take that breath and then sink down again and try one more time.
Even as she thought it, she knew she couldn't do it. She was too weighed down; she had to keep going. Even if she couldn't see. Even if she was on fire at the bottom of the lake.
She shook her head, trying to clear it, and then her body betrayed her and inhaled, sucking in salt water without caring that it would be of no service. Her vision cleared just for a moment, and she swore she thought she saw something thick and dark and wooden resting a few feet in front of her, but she couldn't tell, and her lungs were watery fire, and everything went black again, and her head did not feel like a head, and she was sinking and she felt her body give up as the weight of the rocks pulled her down to the sandy floor of the lake.
She would have screamed if she'd had anything left to scream with.
Lyss' body hit the bottom, her hands reaching out as if to swim one stroke further. As her arms sank with the rest of her, her hands brushed up against that strange object she thought she'd seen just some seconds ago, and she felt an odd windy sensation, and suddenly she was no longer dying on the bottom of the lake, but coughing up salt water and breathing in clean air and everything hurt but she was alive, and she coughed up more water and breathed more air, and her lungs stopped burning, though they still ached, and she was alive.
Her vision returned in speckles of warm light. She felt the presence of someone standing over her, and she turned to look, only to be met with a puff of putrid smoke. Lyss coughed more, this time from the suffocation of the whatever-it-was that was circling smoke rings around her head, and she heard,